by Eva Rivers

Colin darts from behind the desk to remind the blonde of the silence rule. He has to get to her quickly before she makes any noise. He’s not even half way when she looks up. Her red lips, much too red for a Reading Room, are moist and parted. She stands, pushes aside the tumbling piles of books on the table and faces him. She’s panting and her firm breasts press against a flimsy blouse of ruby rosebuds on creamy swirls. No matter how quickly Colin shifts the chairs that stand in his way more inexplicably appear, larger and heavier than before. Slowly, she unbuttons her blouse. She’s pouting and swaying and still the chairs get in his way. Colin…Colin…that velvet voice, those perfect breasts…Colin…and her nipples…Colin.

‘Colin, can you hear the baby crying?’

‘No. Go back to sleep.’

‘I think Joey’s awake.’

‘He’s not.’

‘He’s crying.’

It was approaching five and Colin was worn out. Slivers of daylight slit through the under lit sky. It was the same every morning and the only way to get any peace was to get up. Bloody Joey he thought and then regretted it.

The kitchen floor was cold and greasy, the worst combination when you’re barefoot. He kicked aside the giant activity cube and banged the kettle into action. The cat slinked over and together they searched the fridge for milk. There wasn’t any, unless you counted the bottles of prepared formula. He went to the front door and, clutching two pints, pressed the door shut. The last thing he needed now was Deirdre to get up. With his milky tea he padded to the sitting room and turned on the radio. He began masturbating to the soothing tone of the shipping forecast but by Fisher, German Bight, west or northwest gale eight to force ten, he’d fallen asleep.

Deirdre’s call from the top of the stairs had it’s own gale force ten quality.

‘Can you heat up a bottle?’

Colin silently invoked Jesus Christ, pushed passed the clotheshorse with its bibs and baby grows and never a clean shirt and went back to the kitchen.

‘I’m late,’ he said placing a warm bottle and a mug of tea at Deirdre’s bedside.

‘It’s Joey’s birthday,’ she said.

‘We should do something nice.’

Colin left for the City Library to the sound of Deirdre humming a lullaby.

If anyone had bothered to ask Deirdre what she did all day she would have counted off on her cuticle-chewed fingers all sorts of nursery activities. There was a time she’d tell Colin everything. Until, that is, he began responding with, ‘What, that took the whole day?’ or ‘Couldn’t you have got dressed?’ or ‘Why are these toys all over the floor?’

The nursery, actually the cramped box room, had become her refuge. They’d hung the Old-MacDonald-had-a-farm wallpaper together, just in time for Joey’s birth. A month later Colin said Old Mac looked weird and that if he didn’t have ulterior motives, then the designer certainly had. Now Colin rarely went in. Deirdre heard Joey whimpering and began her routine.

‘Don’t wriggle,’ she said putting him on the changing mat.

In the bathroom she looked at her bloodless reflection and shuddered. She was twisting her hair, this way and that, when a thud startled her. A cry shrilled through the air. Deirdre dashed back and felt the cat’s spiked fur against her leg as it bolted past. Joey was on the floor, a tub of cream beside him. She felt his body and then, one by one, his limbs. Nothing seemed broken. She moved her fingers over his soft skull and found an angry swelling. Her head throbbed with the sound of Joey’s crimson-faced wailing. She wrapped him in a blanket that smelled faintly of silky hair and sour milk, crouched in a corner and put the bottle to his mouth. Soon she was thinking about Colin’s suggestion.

A fine rain drifted over the High Street as Deirdre snaked the pram through a parade of umbrellas. Ahead Liz Miller from the mother-and-baby group waved and swung her buggy across the road. Deirdre’s shoulders sagged. Liz was the type who could get her children to eat, sleep and excrete in unison.

‘It’s been ages. How are you?’ she said enveloping Deirdre in a single arm. ‘And how’s the baby?’

‘Growing.’

‘Can I see?’ she said nose-diving into the hooded pram.

A sudden, hot sweat overcame Deirdre. She wished Liz Miller would mind her own business. Liz looked up.

‘Deirdre?’

‘He fell, but he’s fine now.’

‘Why don’t I -’

‘I must go,’ said Deirdre and she sped away wishing she’d left Joey with her mother.

That evening Colin put his key into the lock as usual and was mildly unsettled. Firstly, Deirdre dashed to open the door. Secondly, she was wearing a dress and on her lips, a trace of red.

‘You look nice.’

‘Thanks. Mum’ll be here soon.’

‘Why?’

‘Close your eyes.’

‘What’s this?’ he said breaking through a web of streamers that hung in his way.

The room, the colour of putty since before they’d moved in, now looked like a splintered rainbow. A sky blue banner with Happy Birthday emblazoned in gold letters hung across the radiator. Clusters of balloons – pink, yellow, purple, orange, lime green, shaped as stars, as hearts, as God knows what – bobbed from their anchors. He glared at the table where his gaze shifted from one overfilled plate to another – sandwiches, sausages, crisps, biscuits, jelly, jam tarts. And the centrepiece, a birthday cake with a single candle and Happy Birthday Joey iced in Deirdre’s unsteady hand.

‘What the fuck is this?’

‘It’s for Joey.’

‘I know who it’s bloody for.’

‘You said we should do something nice.’

‘I meant us, going out. Like we used to.’

Colin held back. He turned to leave and clipped a stack of presents by the table. He looked down, stepped back and took aim. They streamed through the air, their excessive ribbons trailing behind.

‘What are you doing? It’s your son’s birthday,’ said Deirdre.

Colin slumped into the sofa and gripped his head in the vice of triangles formed by his long arms. He wanted to howl. Neither spoke until Deirdre could no longer help herself.

‘Do you want a sandwich?’

‘When are we going to have a normal life?’

This wasn’t the sort of question to which Deirdre could reply. She didn’t know how and turned to leave.

‘Don’t walk away.’

‘Joey’s awake.’

‘Is he? I’ll go.’

She scrambled to block his way but Colin pushed passed her and ran upstairs. He came springing back with Joey blanketed and cradled casually in one arm.

‘Here he is. Safe and sound.’

Deirdre held out her arms. Colin dropped the blanket, took Joey by the leg and smashed him against the table’s edge. The louder Deirdre screamed, the harder he struck the table, again and again, each swipe more forceful than the last.

‘Can’t you see it’s a doll,’ he shouted. ‘An ugly, flat-faced, fucking doll.’

He threw the doll to the floor where it lay almost decapitated, a few tufts of wool on its otherwise bald head, its crimson lips set in a maniacal grin. Deirdre lunged towards it.

‘Leave it!’ he said.

She stepped back and caved in to a frenzy of sobs.

‘Joey’s gone. Do you understand?’

‘Stop it.’

‘He’s dead, Deirdre.’

She slapped her palms against her ears and squeezed her eyes to watery slits. Colin yanked her hands away.

‘He’s dead.’

‘Stop it.’

He grabbed the doll with its dangling head and thrust it in her face.

‘You think this is Joey? You’re buying clothes and toys and cooking beef and bloody carrots for a stuffed doll.’

‘Leave me alone.’

‘Joey is dead.’

‘I wish you were dead.’

‘So do I.’

In that moment Colin foresaw his soul-destroying future and understood he could no longer wait for anything to be resolved. He began breathing slowly and deliberately. He needed to recalibrate. He sat Deirdre on the sofa and knelt beside her.

‘We buried Joey. You put his bear into the coffin so he wouldn’t be alone.’

Colin felt his fragile wife tighten from within as if her entrails were coiling around her spine.

‘Maybe it’s time to move on.’

‘I don’t want to move on. I want Joey.’

‘Deirdre, you need help.’

She looked upwards, as if appealing for strength, and let her tears drop.

‘Why don’t see the counsellor again?’

‘I should have taken better care of him.’

‘It wasn’t your fault.’

Deirdre wiped her swollen face with her sleeves and fumbled for Colin’s hand.

‘You need to get well again,’ he said. ‘In time you could have another baby.’

‘I want another baby,’ she said and leaned forward to kiss him.

‘No, Deirdre. Not with me.’

In her eyes he saw the momentary collision of shock and understanding. She gripped his hand with her icy fingers.

‘I need to move on too,’ he said.

Colin’s resolve was unequivocal and Deidre’s feeble attempt to protest was crushed.

‘Sorry I’m late.’

Deirdre’s mother shouted from the hall but neither Deirdre nor Colin replied.

‘The bus took forever, and just…’

She went to the empty kitchen then backtracked to the sitting room.

‘Just as I was…what on earth?…Colin, what’s going on?’

‘We’re having a party.’

Eva Rivers lives and works in London. Her short stories have been published online and in print. Her story Doll was long-listed in the 2016 Storgy short story competition.