It was a beautiful baby blue that made the walls look like an icing covered birthday cake. Ella enjoyed making shapes with her brush, a beach scene with a starfish, then a palm tree on a desert island, before sweeping the scenes away with a big roller. With each stroke, she felt a little more of her old self returning. She painted for hours, until her overalls were splattered, and the yellow bandana holding her hair in place was barely recognisable. By the time the walls were covered, an orange light from the late evening sun filled the room. Over the cot, she hung the mobile Dan had chosen. A fighter plane with a cartoon smile and red markings on the tail, it was a typically masculine toy, and now it was up, she could see it was too scary for a baby. She pushed it, so that it spun in circles over the empty cot, casting shadows against the walls. For an instant the smiling face looked like a shark, gripping something bloody its jaws. She wanted to take it down, but perhaps it was just her imagination playing tricks on her. Dan had said this would happen, that she would start to feel creative again, once they moved to Whitstable. He was right about that, at least. Since they arrived yesterday, her body felt porous, colours were more vivid. Time seemed to have begun to slide backwards. Yet Dan was being so negative. Couldn’t he see that she was trying? Didn’t the room look beautiful? She watched as the colours of the sunset began to fade from the sky. Soon it would be dark. The shapes in the room were becoming harder to make out, and Ella still had plenty to do. Frankie would need a feed, and there was all of their stuff to unpack. The mess on the floor could wait until later.
The main living space was at the end of a long hall, with doors that opened on to another bedroom and an airless bathroom. There room had large bay windows, and a kitchen along the back wall. Their furniture was planted haphazardly amongst piles of cardboard boxes. Ella switched on a light. The place felt chilly, it smelled of damp plaster and faintly of the sea. Opening a box at random, she took out a heavy mid-century jug. It had been a gift from her mother. She placed it on a shelf by the window, careful to face the cracked side away from her. Finally, the woman had stopped calling, but sometimes she heard the buzz of Dan’s phone coming from somewhere in the room, and she suspected it was her.
Next, she found a glass bowl containing a collection of pebbles and shells. Picking out two blue-grey smooth pellets, she held them in the palm of her hand. They had discovered them on the beach at Whitstable on their first visit. Days when she would wash away Dan’s kisses with white wine and the salty, sweet liquid from fat juicy oysters. Later, she would cling to him like a sail in the wind, hold her breath and lie still as a rock in the crook of his arm while he slept. Ella could taste salt on her lips now, and when she put her hand to her face, she felt her cheeks were wet. Gently, she arranged the objects from the bowl on the windowsill; two pebbles chasing a shell over the white gloss surface, floating in empty space. She thought that she would drink some wine, celebrate her work.
Taking a bottle from the fridge, she cut the foil with an opener and plunged in the screw. As the clear liquid poured into a tumbler, Ella saw a bloody fingerprint on the glass. The cut was clean and bright, on her right index finger. She drank in gulps and ate a piece of cheese that she sliced using a weaning knife with a plastic handle from IKEA. They had walked around that shop for hours. Him stacking the trolley with flat pack furniture, barking questions about safety regulations at staff, perspiring through his T-shirt. She walked behind, touching cushions and running her fingers over textiles, imagining a blue room with a wooden cot beneath the window, sunset walks on a stony beach. After a while, Frankie had cried out in his pram. Putting him on her hip, she hummed quietly in his ear through the aisles, and thought that this was the happiest she’d ever been.
By the time Ella put down her second glass, her head felt foggy. She went to a wicker Moses basket on the table, and gently pulled the soft body swaddled in blankets towards her. She freed an arm from her overalls, unclasped her maternity bra and released her left breast. She missed their swollen plumpness, not because she had ever wanted to be a bigger size, but because their deflation was a sign he wasn’t feeding. Holding the head towards her, she recalled the advice from the midwife and the illustrations on the Internet. She cupped her breast, squeezed and rolled her fingers toward the nipple. Nothing. She cupped and squeezed again. Still, no milk came. Ella carried on until her flesh was sore and bruised. Then, there it was. A tiny drop, followed by a thin stream of white liquid. Smiling now, she gazed down into her arms and leant against the window frame. ‘Come on Frankie, drink. Grow big and strong for mummy’. She moved gently to-and-fro, singing softly and swaying her hips. ‘My baby lies over the ocean, my baby lies over the sea, my baby lies over the ocean, bring back my baby to me.’ Up above, the sky turned from indigo to black, blinking with stars.
They hadn’t been ready for a baby. Freelance work as a website designer had just started to pick up when she got the result, two blue bars in a pub toilet. Where would they live? She worried that a baby would weigh Dan down. ‘A child will be the end of fun, Dan’ she said. There would be no more lazy mornings in bed, brunches that went on until dinner. ‘If it’s what you want, we’ll find a way to make it work’ he had replied, looking into the bottom of his empty pint glass.
But at the three-month scan, everything changed. ‘We’re out of the danger zone. Now we can tell people. I’m going to be a Dad!’ He beamed his dazzling smile at her, squeezing her hand inside both of his. From then on, Dan obsessed over her health and wellbeing. At first it was flattering, but at times his intensity nauseated her. He monitored her diet, began to scan labels in the supermarket and read up about developmental stages in the womb. She listened to his advice without question, but in fact Ella had never felt healthier. It was as if her presence in the world grew with the baby. When a major client complained about her work and tried to underpay her, she threatened legal action. They relented and paid in full. She decided to increase her hourly rate to £40. They needed every penny they could get, after all. Increasingly, she cared very little what others thought of her, even finding that she didn’t need Dan in the way she once had. Sometimes she wondered if this fearlessness was Dan being passed on to her through the little part of him growing inside her. As the pregnancy progressed, she became radiant, her hair grew thick and lustrous. Dan treated her like a precious stone. He touched her constantly, as if she and the child might slip from his grasp.
It was late February when it happened. The last Friday in London before they were due to move to Whitstable, to a maisonette with a garden and sea views that Dan had chosen with meticulous care. Frankie was six months old, strong and smiling, with a grip like a wrestler. Dan went out, to say his last goodbyes to some work colleagues. But he left early, pushing away the offer of another round of drinks. Dan was a changed man they said, laughing and patting him on the back. In the hallway he stumbled over the tidily stacked IKEA items, waiting to be collected by the movers on Monday. Ella had been dozing on the sofa with Frankie in her arms. She woke at the noise, but the scowl on her face was playful, and she let him kiss her and put his arm around her on the sofa. Dan took his chance to bring up the game.
‘Darling, he’s too young for rugby. He won’t have a clue what’s going on. And it’s bloody cold and miserable out there’ Ella told him, as Dan opened a can of beer on his knee.
‘But I want to show him off to the lads. Come on babe. The game tomorrow will be my last chance before we move away.’ He was in a persuasive, bullish mood, but Ella would not give in. She lifted the baby’s head on to her shoulder and pushed off the sofa. ‘Dan, promise me you won’t. We’re going to bed.’ He blew her a kiss as he picked up the TV remote control.
That night as Ella and her baby slept, a heavy rain fell, turning the streets to ice. Frankie was what her mother and friends called a ‘good’ baby, from the age of three months he slept soundly through the night until 7am. Ella woke later than usual the next morning. With eyes half open, she reached for Frankie in the cot beside her bed. But the blankets were cold, and her baby was gone.
A police car arrived, its cheery neon and white a bright mark against the filthy day. She would not go to the hospital, she told the pale young faces in black uniforms. Better to wait here until Dan came home with Frankie. They were very sorry, they said, but he was not coming home. Was there someone they could call? Her mother, perhaps? She did not want to see her mother, but there had to be someone, so she came. A brown coat and black bag with a handkerchief. Crushed up little pills and hot, sweet tea. She heard the sound of rain beating against the window, of a cup being smashed against the wall. Then came blackness. When Ella opened her eyes, Dan was standing at the foot of their bed. Head bowed, with his neck in a brace and dark hair obscuring his handsome features, he looked to Ella like a big broken bird.
Ella agreed to go to the funeral, but only if afterwards Dan and her mother promised to leave her alone. As they lowered the coffin, she did not look, but gazed up at the dark blue winter sky. Soon it would be Spring, and there was a warmth in the breeze which blew in her hair.
Afterwards, once they were home alone, Ella treated Dan as if he were invisible. If he cried or tried to reach out to her, she tore at his flesh, threw things, laughed in his face. Then she would stroke him affectionately, telling him everything would be OK. Dan thought that being near the sea would do her good, that by moving to Whitstable, alone together, they would work through their grief. In truth, her anger assuaged his guilt. He began to revel in the beatings. He watched as she placed Frankie’s belongings into plastic containers and piled them in the hall with the rest of the boxes, carrying their baby’s toy stuffed Panda on her hip.
In the new flat, she moved from room to room touching the walls, picking at crumbling paintwork with her fingernails. The movers worked quietly, and Dan thanked them in whispers, watching Ella from the corner of his eye. When they left, the couple sat down in the living room which overlooked a square, rough garden. Dan made a cup of tea, pressing her fingers around the handle. As if she were the careless one, thought Ella. Dan looked thin, his face was lined, his clothes hung loosely from his broad shoulders. It struck Ella as odd that such a pathetic figure could be capable of absolute destruction. ‘You are silly Dan, aren’t you?’ ‘Am I?’ The kindness in her voice caught him off guard. ‘Yes. You’re stupid. Not bad. Just a man. Poor Dan.’ Ella lay on the sofa, turning her back to him. Dan started to think the move could be a mistake. As quietly as possible, he got up to go and shut the door on what would have been the little boys’ bedroom, with its view of the sea and chalk white walls. When he turned around, Ella was standing in front of him in the hallway, smiling and holding the bear. She pushed passed Dan into the room as he whispered, ‘Ella, no. Please.’
Ella slept easily on a pile of blankets and set to work early the next morning. Throwing down a dustsheet weighted with a plank of wood from the street outside, she prepared the brushes and rollers, and assembled the cot using the instructions in the box. Tying her hair with a bandana, her overalls dipped off one shoulder in a way she knew Dan would find adorable. Everything was just as she had imagined it when they made the purchases in IKEA. She opened the paint tin and watched the pale blue liquid puddle and spread across the black surface of the roller tray. It was a warm blue, the soft colour of the sky at the beginning of a perfect summers’ day. For the first time in weeks, Ella felt at peace.
White sunlight filled the room where he had spent the night on the sofa. Dan no longer really slept. Now when he closed his eyes, he only saw the red rear car lights, windscreen wipers beating, the rain blurring his view, and last of all, his son’s sleeping face. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. If Ella needed to hold the damn bear for comfort, so be it. He had no right to complain. He got up, still wearing the same clothes he had on yesterday, and walked down the hall to the small bedroom. When Ella turned around, she was smiling, ‘Isn’t it beautiful? I just love this colour.’ Dan longed to hold her in his arms, just once more. ‘Yes, darling. It’s perfect’ he said, but his voice was weak. Ella twisted her mouth at him and returned to painting the wall. He looked over the half-painted walls, and then at the other side of the room, he saw the cot by the window. Inside was a black and white bear, dressed like a baby boy. Dan let out a sob, an ugly sound like an animal in fear. Moving to the cot, he gripped the sides with his large hands and looked down. ‘I’m sorry Ella. I am. I know it’s my fault. But this has to stop. I want him back too. He was my son too.’ Soon he was inaudible, the wailing grew louder and louder. Clear mucous hung from his nose and tears dripped down his face on to the carefully arranged bed linen. The sound was irritating Ella. His presence was becoming a drain, like her mother with her sad, searching eyes. Ella walked over behind Dan, intending to move him away from the cot. If only he would get out of the way, she and Frankie could be happy together. Seeing the plank of wood on the floor, she picked it up, and raised it behind her head before bringing it down with all of her strength, hitting him once on the back of the neck, then three, four times on the head.
‘Please, be quiet Dan. You’ll wake the baby’.
Jessica started writing fiction after completing an MA in Psychoanalytic Studies, and realising academia wasn’t for her. She is interested in the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, to survive. Never happier than with a good book in one hand, a glass of something refreshing in the other, and her son playing happily close by. She lives in London.
Social Media Links
Links to Other Published Work
Unlike many other Arts & Entertainment Magazines, STORGY is not Arts Council funded or subsidised by external grants or contributions. The content we provide takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce, and relies on the talented authors we publish and the dedication of a devoted team of staff writers. If you enjoy reading our Magazine, help to secure our future and enable us to continue publishing the words of our writers. Please make a donation or subscribe to STORGY Magazine with a monthly fee of your choice. Your support, as always, continues to inspire.