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 up, 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.’          

‘I think Joey’s awake.’

‘He’s not.’

‘He’s crying.’

‘OK. Go back to sleep.’

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. It was being barefoot that stopped him from kicking the giant activity cube into kingdom come. He 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. Colin settled for black coffee, padded to the sitting room and pressed the door shut. The last thing he needed now was for Deirdre to wake up. He turned on the radio and soon was 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.

‘What?’ he said.

‘Can you heat up a bottle?’

Colin silently invoked Jesus Christ, pushed aside 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 at Deirdre’s bedside.

‘It’s Joey’s birthday,’ she said.

‘We should do something.’

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 share it all with Colin. 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?’ He hadn’t always complained so much. Not even when she’d insisted on getting married before Joey showed.

Deirdre heard Joey whimpering and took the bottle to the nursery, actually a cramped box room. She and Colin had hung Old-MacDonald-had-a-farm wallpaper 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 came in.

She lifted Joey from the cot and told him he was Mummy’s best boy. That she’d give him a bath. That she’d make him smell nice. She laid Joey on the changing table and took off his nappy.

‘Don’t wriggle,’ she said and went to fill up the bathing bowl.

In the bathroom she caught her bloodless reflection in the mirror and shuddered. She pinched her cheeks and checked her tongue. And just when she’d managed to scrape her greasy hair into a knot, a thud distracted her and a cry shrilled through the air. She dashed back and felt the cat’s spiked fur against her leg as it bolted past. Joey was on the floor. She cleared the debris that had also fallen off the table and felt his body. Then, one by one, his limbs. Nothing seemed broken. Next she gently 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 her way through a parade of umbrellas. A woman coming from the opposite direction waved and swung her buggy towards her. Deirdre groaned. It was Liz Miller from the mother-and-baby group. The type who could get her children to eat, sleep and excrete in unison. The type who could get on your nerves.

‘It’s been ages. How are you?’ she said. ‘And how’s the baby?’

‘Growing.’ 

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

Deirdre felt her stomach curdle and her legs give way. Liz Miller should mind her own business. Now she’d go around saying Deirdre Barnes was a bad mother. Liz looked up.

‘Deirdre?’

‘He fell, but he’s fine now.’

‘Why don’t you let -’

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

*

The moment Colin put his key into the lock that evening he was unsettled. Firstly, Deirdre dashed to open the door. Secondly, she was wearing a dress and even a trace of lipstick.

‘You look nice.’

‘Thanks. Mum’ll be here soon.’

‘Why?’

‘Close your eyes.’ 

He let her lead him to the sitting room but kept his eyes half open.

‘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, was now a gaudy and sickly concoction. A sky blue banner with Happy Birthday emblazoned in gold hung across the radiator. Clusters of balloons – red, yellow, purple, orange, lime green, shaped as stars, as hearts, as God knows what – bobbed from their anchors. Colin glared at the table where his gaze shifted from one overfilled plate to another – sandwiches, sausages, crisps, biscuits, jelly, jam tarts, marshmallows. 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.’

‘I didn’t mean this!’

Colin held back. Shouting never got him anywhere. He turned to leave and clipped a stack of presents on the floor. He looked down, stepped back and took aim. The boxes scattered through the air and landed like unlucky dice.

‘What’s wrong with you? It’s your son’s birthday,’ said Deirdre.

Colin slumped onto 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? Because I’ve had enough of this.’      

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

‘Don’t walk away.’

‘Joey’s awake.’

‘Is he? I’ll go then.’

She scrambled to block his way but Colin pushed passed her and ran upstairs. He came springing back with Joey covered in a blanket 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, his outstretched arm trembling between them.

She stepped back and struggled to control her desolate sobbing.

 ‘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 crouched at her feet.

‘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 to Heaven for strength, and let her tears fall.

‘You should go back to the counsellor,’ he said.

‘I should have taken better care of him.’

‘It wasn’t your fault.’

‘What if it happens again?’

‘I don’t think it will.’

Deidre wiped her swollen face with her sleeves and fumbled for Colin’s hand. She gripped it with her icy fingers.

‘When you’re well again, you could have another baby,’ he said.

‘I want a baby,’ she said. ‘But you never -’

‘Not with me, Deirdre. It can’t be with me.’

Colin saw any hope she had left drain away like rainwater draining into the gutter. He stood up and she stood with him.

‘I’ll get better, I promise,’ she said, leaning into his chest, arms around his back holding him tight. ‘Please, Colin.’

He disentangled himself and took each of her hands forming a barrier between them.

‘I need to move on too,’ he said.

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

‘Sorry I’m late.’

Deirdre’s mother spoke 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 writes short stories and flash fiction about the ways in which life affects ordinary people. Her fiction has appeared in Sick Lit Magazine, Penny Shorts, Train Flash Fiction, The Drabble, Firefly Magazine, Storgy and Scribble. Her story, Doll, was long-listed in the 2016 Storgy short story competition. She lives and works in London.