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By Claire Seeber
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Claire Seeber
All rights reserved.
It was the kind of summer day so hot you feared another's clammy touch — a sticky August afternoon that made me long for cool, cool, sliding rain, and I was quietly cursing Maxine as I tried to rid the bag of all the sand, the eternal grains that tumbled softly from folds of muslins and stained-forever bibs. She'd brought home half the beach from her trip to the seaside last week, and everything had gone all gritty, trickling into Louis's lovingly prepared food that he'd just refused to eat. I was starting to feel flustered as I tried to escape the soft, pale powder, but it was in my mouth and eyes now and I pulled a face and spat it out, and felt my good mood begin to fade.
I took a deep breath and then one more. It was stupid to get upset, I told myself, I was just tired, and Louis didn't even know, he didn't care; he'd nodded off above his mango mush now anyway, so resolutely I shut the bag. An exhausted-looking woman in horrid green tie-dye removed her screaming daughter from the postcard racks opposite our table, pulled the toddler past us, Picasso prints falling like confetti in their wake. The child slumped hard to spite her mother, an awkward deadweight dragging her small heels, livid squawking face clashing with her yellow Miffy vest. Middle-aged art lovers looked on unamused and unafraid to show it (they didn't want domestic dramas disturbing their special day out, no thanks. Not when they'd caught the early train up to town, a copy of The Times tucked neatly under their arm; not when they'd splashed out on Chardonnay and smoked-salmon sandwiches for lunch). I tried to catch the mother's harassed eye to smile my sympathy, smile this brand-new maternal solidarity that — apparently — now included me. That still astonished me, every time it happened. But she'd already gone. I sneaked a quick look at the for-once-actually- sleeping Louis — and for a moment, just for a tiny precious moment, couldn't help but bask in the rare glow of my child being quiet and well-behaved.
In front of a great poster depicting Religious Revelry a young couple ran into each other's arms, hugging happily before a naked Adam and Eve. Friends or lovers, I wondered idly — until the boy, quite beautiful beneath his frizzy hair, slid his hand inside the plump girl's silk waistband. She sighed with visible pleasure and wrapped herself around him, twisting her body like the serpent round the apple tree.
And I thought about last night, about the early hours of today, and I smiled again, smiled to myself this time, and felt quite strangely shy, remembering Mickey's steady hand on me this morning for the first time in months. I looked about for my husband. Perhaps this was it; perhaps things would be the way they were before. I took a slow deep breath and tucked my hair behind my ears. Perhaps now, I thought, and this was what I truly prayed for, perhaps soon I'd stop feeling like some kind of pretender. I glanced back at the baby; I felt my heart contract. My confidence with him was slowly growing every day.
I contemplated the rather bad drawing I'd just done of Louis blinking up at all the lights and then glanced quickly at Mickey's plate. And then, since he still wasn't back from wherever he'd wandered off to now — the toilet, I thought he'd said this time — I shoved my sketchbook away in favour of his leftover cake. With a sort of frenzied guilty pleasure I was trying to scoff the chocolate bit, the bit with all the icing on, when I felt an unexpected hand upon my tired shoulder.
God, she made me jump! Her skin was so cold it felt weird, like it almost burnt me through my thin cotton top. I jumped at this stranger's familiar touch — like, really jumped I mean, jogging my cup, sending the coffee splashing, scalding, down my white skirt. But she was unperturbed; she didn't seem to see the impact she had on me at all.
'Your baby,' she gestured to the pushchair, to my sleeping son. I smiled politely, but actually I was thinking about my skirt, the fact I had to wear it for the rest of the day, the fact that it was now ruined.
'He's beautiful. It is a boy, no?' She'd removed her hand now, bending towards Louis. Normally I would have been flattered, ready to proudly stand and coo together, but for some reason this time I couldn't. She was too near me, near us, and something about her ice- blue stare unnerved me. I tried to move my chair away imperceptibly, but now she'd got between me and the baby. I didn't want to cause offence but she was starting to give me the creeps. I mean, she was perfectly respectable-looking. Rake-thin, I noticed straight off — like you do when you have pounds of baby weight to shift. Youngish, expensive summer dress; a racehorse stance. Attractive enough, I supposed, in a blonde, shiny sort of way. And yet, and yet — I couldn't explain it. There was just something about her I didn't like.
My reflexes were slow; nappy brain was taking its fuzzy-headed toll.
'Yes. Yes he is — a boy. Louis.'
'Hi, Louis. You're so bonny.' She had a faint accent I couldn't place, and this last word seemed wrong somehow. It clattered clumsily to the ground, incongruous from someone so obviously not British. She stroked my baby's little moon cheek and his eyelashes fluttered. I felt myself go tense, my hands clenching instinctively. He made little sucking motions in his sleep, his mouth all soft and sweet. Oh look, I nearly crowed, his Touché Turtle face. My heart did a funny flip.
'Sorry,' I said, and I tried not to sound rude, 'do I know you?'
'I don't think so,' she replied, 'though it's quite strange, now you say it. Your face does look — kind of familiar.' She smiled, moved down to Louis again.
'Please,' I said, too fast, 'don't wake him.' Inside I was shouting, Don't touch my son! But out loud I just said, 'It takes ages to get him off to sleep.' Later I hated myself; thought I was stupid to have been embarrassed because I felt protective, the reserve of the British. But right now I did nothing except gape at her.
'Though people, they always say that, don't they? It is one quite annoying thing, I find.'
'You know — "You look just like someone else — my sister, my old friend."' With a dazzling smile, head on one side, she mimicked 'people'.
'Oh, I see. I don't know really.' I stood up, flustered. 'We must get going actually.' I was dropping nappies, muslin, wipes, scooping them up, pushing away from this confident stranger who made my skin prickle. Willing Mickey to hurry up.
She moved away, then turned back again.
'Excuse me.' With a little smirk, she pointed to my top. I looked down; it was rucked up above my bra from where I'd fed Louis earlier.
'Oh,' I said foolishly. A burning flush crept up my chest, across my face. Hastily I pulled my T-shirt down, tucked myself in. She swung a large bag over her spiky shoulder.
'Enjoy the exhibition,' she called as she went.
'Thanks,' I said to her departing back, but I wasn't thankful. I was simply humiliated. 'Silly cow,' I muttered. Right on cue the baby woke with a high-pitched squeal of indignation.
'I quite agree, darling,' I crooned to him. Kissed him, patted him, walked him up and down to calm him. Finally, just as I was starting to wonder where on earth he'd got to, Mickey sauntered slowly round a corner, pushing his thick hair back from his dark deep eyes, and there it was. The familiar rush of lust, of anxious desire. I was like a maddened moth, a crazy, mad old moth banging against the light. When had I lost myself?
Mickey apologised half-heartedly, took the baby from me for a cuddle, holding him with ease against his lithe frame. Bumped into someone he knew from work, he said, forgot the time. I felt a sudden twinge of schoolgirl satisfaction as two chi-chi Italian women raised eyebrows over my handsome husband, and I smiled at him, and leant up for a kiss. But he didn't seem to notice as he hummed to the baby — I thought I recognised the tune from the show we'd been to see last night — so I feigned interest in my skirt instead.
'Look at it,' I groaned, 'it's ruined now.' I smeared the stains round uselessly with a baby-wipe.
'I told you not to wear white, you daft eejit,' he said, but his attention was still a little off.
'It wasn't my fault actually. This weird woman made me jump.'
He wasn't listening, I could tell.
'Anyway, it's the only decent thing that fits right now.' I tried not to sound moany. Mickey jiggled the baby on his knee. Thank God at least he seemed interested in Louis today. He glanced at the stain that I was still fussing at.
'You're just making it worse.' He nodded towards the gallery. 'Let's get on now, shall we?'
'Are you grumpy cos I ate your cake?' I joked as I packed up.
'I couldn't care less about the cake.'
'Are you sure?'
'Sure I am. Forget the fecking cake.'
Did he look bored? Don't say it, I thought. Remember this morning. But somehow it spun out anyway.
'You think I'm fat, don't you? I am losing the baby weight, you know.' I pushed the cake crumbs behind the menu card. 'It's coming off now.' I wrinkled my brow at him. 'Do you think I'm fat?'
'Jessica — for God's sake! I'm not even going to dignify that with a response.'
I looked at him; I smiled hopefully. He took the bait; he smiled back. All right then. You're beautiful.' Then he went and spoilt it. 'It doesn't matter about the weight.'
How quickly it could escalate from nothing if we let it. For a split second I hesitated. Then I raised a hand and tentatively stroked his cheek. Mickey caught my hand in his; he turned it over pensively. He looked back at me; he could be so inscrutable. Then slowly, very slowly, he kissed the palm. I felt my own pulse quicken. Carefully he twisted my wedding ring around so the fat diamonds sat at the front again.
'You should have a new diamond for the baby. One of those — what do they call them? Eternity rings, is it?'
'You've got me so much stuff already. You don't need to buy me any more.'
'Well, I might just want to, might I not?'
I heard the bite in his tone and acquiesced. 'You might. You're always so generous. But the main thing is,' I smiled at him, 'the best thing is, you're here. It's been so long since we've done something all together, all three of us, hasn't it? Something special, I mean.'
He put Louis back in the pushchair. 'Too long.'
'And I've been dying to see this exhibition, haven't you?' Why was his approval always so paramount? More so than anyone's had ever been.
'I have to say, I don't like Hopper's style very much.'
'Oh.' Quietly I absorbed this. He did Louis's straps up; I watched his long fingers at their work. 'Don't you really?'
'Like Hopper. Or are you winding me up?'
'No. I really don't.'
Sometimes, you know, I longed for the free and empty days. For my freedom from this hold that he had over me.
'Pedestrian crap. More your thing, you know.'
For the days before the old Jess had slipped away. I chucked the used wipes in the bin. But he caught my eye and he relented; leant in to kiss my forehead.
'I didn't mean it nastily. I'm just tired, Jessica. Working too hard to keep you in those diamonds, hey?'
I didn't want all the presents; they made me rather nervous. I was happy just with him. And it was true; he did look exhausted, dark shadows staining his pale skin, his sharp cheekbones more prominent than usual.
'I'm sorry. Ignore me. I just need some sleep.'
You and me both, I thought glumly as Mickey kissed the top of my head, walking off before I could respond. He said something else I couldn't quite catch — took Louis with him, I saw with some relief. Lately he hadn't seemed quite so besotted with his son, which had taken me by surprise. Perhaps slowly our roles were reversing; as my love for Louis grew, did Mickey become a little disinterested in him? Maybe he felt a little less needed, that was what worried me now. It was another reason this day together was so long overdue.
'What, Mickey?' I called. 'What did you say?' But then some small beardy bloke got in between us, tripping over the pushchair that was trailing bags. I caught the man's arm to steady him, apologised like it was my fault, and then Mickey was gone already, pushing the baby proudly. He stalked away like the cock of the walk, so upright as he led the way into the gallery.
I untangled myself from Beardy and I followed them. They were already out of view. I looked at the pictures, but I didn't really see them. They all seemed to be out of focus, like we were under water or something. I had this nervous feeling in my tummy, like when you've drunk too much coffee. Then I remembered that woman. Something about her niggled me, but I couldn't think what.
Something had woken me with a start that morning, and for a minute I didn't know where I was. Dragged from a death-like sleep, that unique new-parent sleep. And I'd drunk too much the night before; not used to alcohol these days, so my head was feeling groggy. I suppose it was about five, cos the planes were coming in to land. I listened for the baby, but for once he was quiet, and so I just lay there for a while. I thought about last night; drinking champagne with Mickey at the Royal Opera House, like we'd done on our first real date last year. Last night I'd worn the new dress Mickey had bought me for my birthday, deep pink and deep cut and terribly sophisticated, darling. During the second act he'd surprised me — leant over in the box, regardless of his clients, and whispered I was beautiful. He'd lifted my hair to kiss my neck and I'd bit down on my lip; bit down my dormant desire. But truly the best bit in all this heat hadn't actually been that kiss, nor the swaggering singers or the multicoloured costumes of this last-minute treat. Nor was it the tragic love story I'd lost myself in on a rare and longed-for night off from all the baby talk. It wasn't even Mickey's hard-won approval. No, it had been the air-conditioning in the Royal Opera House. Oh, the sheer relief of that coolness licking round my melting limbs for a few hours.
Mickey rolled over, muttering something inaudible, then went back to sleep. I stopped thinking about Madame Butterfly (Mickey said he'd prefer Wagner any time — but his corporate clients lapped up the champagne, which was all that really counted; and I'd loved it, almost crying when the poor heroine died for her son's sake, though I didn't let Mickey see). I started worrying pointlessly about other things, like you do in the small hours when there's absolutely sweet Fanny Adams you can do about any of them, as my Nana would have said. I remember worrying about why I was awake when I had the rare chance to be asleep, but that just made me more restless; even more alert. Then I worried about going to the gallery that day and Mickey getting annoyed because I didn't like some picture or other that he revered. I thought, I must remember not to ask any silly questions. For some reason that cringe-worthy time at Greg's dinner party when Mickey had got so cross with me drifted through my head; I'd flippantly called my husband a Brit, and God, how deep those touchy Northern Irish roots were dug; how quickly he was riled. I'd tried to make a joke of it, but that only served to make things worse; I'd looked hopefully at Greg for some support that never came, though later my hostess caught my eye knowingly across the candles and the coq au vin. With no reprieve, I'd kicked myself under that dining table, and still Mickey had refused to speak on the journey home because apparently I'd made him look stupid in his own rage.
Eventually I shoved the mortifying scene from my mind, and then I just lay there listening to the planes, imagining all those tiny passengers suspended high above the ground, above a toy-town London, and how sad they must be to be nearly back. The bit I always used to dread, coming home again. Until Mickey. Until Louis came ...
I was just dipping back into that half-world between sleep and consciousness when Mickey rolled back towards me and cupped my breast, a sore breast swollen with milk, blue-veined as a road map. I tensed. Everything was so different now. I held my breath; his other hand stroked down my hip bone slowly. However much I prayed that he'd go on, I still wanted him to stop. I lived in fear that he'd discover how much I'd changed in the past six months. Mickey opened his eyes lazily and, in the half-light, looked into mine, his all slit with sleep still. He put his hand up to my cheek and stroked his thumb across my mouth.
'All right, big eyes?' he whispered. I nodded, shy; felt the kick of lust that I'd suppressed when Louis arrived.
'God, you're sweet, Jessica,' he groaned, tucking a curl behind my ear. Then he gathered up my hair in the nape of my neck and, pulling me to him, kissed me gently. I was about to mutter that I hadn't cleaned my teeth yet, but before I could speak he drew me against him and kissed me harder now, like he hadn't in a long time, and finally I let go. The dawn heat slid down me like melted chocolate, and I forgot my fear, my anxiety, my very different body. I just felt the utter longing I always felt for him. I dissolved into him; I let myself enjoy it.
And afterwards he fell back to sleep and finally light began to bleed around the heavy curtains I hated so, and in the end I thought, sod it, I might as well get up and have a cup of tea; an hour to myself before the baby wakes up. And then of course the baby woke up.
Excerpted from Lullaby by Claire Seeber. Copyright © 2007 Claire Seeber. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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