This is the seventh of my nine story series of literary/women’s fiction series. This story has a funny little history. It’s the fastest written story I’ve ever produced, the first draft written in just over half an hour in a complete frenzy.
For some reason, I’d been thinking of things I did when I was a small child: I was a bit of a nightmare. When I was two, I followed my dad round the garden, “helping” him plant his new flowers. He’d laid them all out, nicely spaced, on the grass next to the border, and planted each one. We had a long border, and it wasn’t until Dad got three quarters of the way down that he realised I’d been systematically following him and pulling them back out of the ground as he’d planted them and laying them back on the grass. Then there was the time when I tried to throw my mum out of the window. I was about four, and she was standing on steps, hanging out of the bedroom window upstairs, cleaning the outside of the pane. I grabbed her by the ankles and pushed, saying, “Wheeeee!” She very nearly fell clean out. Then there was the time I did what the little one in this story does…! Anyway, thinking about this memory sparked this story, and it was published in a mainstream women’s magazine in the UK and also in Australia. Being a pain in the backside eventually rewarded me for being naughty!
This is the story, exactly as it was published about five years ago.
You Do Love Me, Don’t You?
Kieran waves at me through the window. As a matter of instinct I wave back, but my mind is a platter of ironing and unfolded washing, teatime food and the little secret I harbour deep inside my head, about how Kieran makes me feel.
“You just can’t face growing up, Kate, can you?” Dad had said when I last saw him, a couple of months ago. “You’ve got to realise that everyone has responsibilities and yours are to your family now.”
My family. Gary spends all his time at work, out of the way, probably, so I don’t start another row. I close the dustbin lid and stare distastefully at my dirty hands. I never have enjoyed getting dirty. The time Kieran had that tummy bug wrenched my stomach. And Gary came in and took over. Wonderful Gary, Superdad, again.
I return to the back door and get ready to kick off my shoes at the doorway, so I can continue with my ironing. And I won’t have to think about caring for Kieran. He’ll be occupying himself.
I go to open the door – except it doesn’t move. I rattle the handle, but the door just doesn’t budge.
Kieran points his chubby finger to the door. I’d left the key in the lock, I know, but I was only gone for a moment.
“Have you touched the key, Kieran?” I call through the window. It’s open a fraction, enough to let the steam out. I know Kieran can hear me as he’s pushing his car up and down the furrows in the doormat.
“Kieran, can you let Mummy in, please?” He must understand, but he just looks at me and smiles.
“Let me in, Kieran.” My voice must be more urgent now, and he reaches with his baby hand and hangs onto the key. He fiddles with it, and I can hear it jingle against the metal hoop on the key-ring.
“Twist the key, Kieran.”
But he leaves me there, my little boy who’s three at the weekend, who I hadn’t realised could reach the key and move it, because I wallowed in self-pity and didn’t want to see. And I am left outside, while Kieran pushes his car away from the door mat, into the centre of the kitchen.
“Nee-nah, nee-nah.” The car races round the ironing board. But the lead from the iron is coiled in front of him and his imaginary police force. All I can do is play voyeur as my little boy heads straight for the wire.
A flash of an image from the mother and toddler group impinges on my thoughts. Normally, I don’t really mix with the women there. Comparing babies’ weights, eating patterns and the best type of pushchair seems to be the main focus of their lives. I have struggled to fit in. My pushchair was third-hand, and Kieran has always had problems gaining weight since he came out of the special care unit. Nights spent asleep are still scarce, and I sometimes don’t notice that Gary has actually gone to work in the mornings until I talk and he doesn’t answer.
But I remember a couple of months ago, one mother had been absent from the usual twittering conversation. Someone had enquired where she was.
“Oh, haven’t you heard?” The group leader seemed genuinely delighted that someone had noticed. “She’s been at the Children’s Ward for the last few days. Little Nicky pulled a boiling pan over onto himself. He was burned very badly, but the pan handle imbedded itself into his head as well.”
As she ranted on, triumphant, I just remember feeling sick at that moment, wondering how I would have felt if it had happened to Kieran. Would I have felt anything at all?
Kieran’s playing around the cord on the iron – round and round it he goes. I see his shoulders knock against the cord, and his right leg sticking its toes into the hoop of flex.
And, at that second, I know exactly how I would have felt if I’d been that poor, talked-about mother. I feel as if the world’s closing in around me, and all I can see is my boy, my baby, who could pull that burning metal plate on the iron onto his tiny head with one scuff of his foot across the kitchen floor.
“Kieran.” He looks over to me, frowning. Has he ever heard me talk gently and encouragingly to him? Maybe he hasn’t, and the thought of it makes me choke with pins and needles that come up in my throat and force themselves out of my eyes, all wet and blinking now. “Sit very still, darling. Mummy’s coming.”
I stretch my hand through the open window. Right now, I’m grateful for the single pane of glass and the old arm mechanism. I flick it up off its peg, and my fingers tremble.
Kieran giggles. He begins to shuffle away from the cord to investigate my clanks and grunts. My hair is dangling across my face, but through it I glimpse a reflection of myself in the window. Still the same blonde hair, the same grey eyes, and the same look of fear that I had when they told me that Kieran had only a few years to live.
“There’s a heart defect. There’s a possibility he might not live until he’s six. Not unless there’s a donor.” I’d not heard what else the consultant had to say. My brain just wouldn’t – didn’t want to – take it in. I just remember screaming, and pulling on Gary’s shirt.
“Tell them to get one, then. Find one; they’ve got to find one!”
He couldn’t speak to me. He just held me, and rocked me, like a baby. And my brain switched off the part which allowed me to love my new-born, telling me there was no point in feeling anything, just in case. Dad said it to me once, when he’d brought home a puppy and Mum had told him to take it back.
“Don’t get attached, love. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be here for long.”
Kieran’s leg is completely entangled. I fight my way through the window and onto the draining board. My eyes are fixed on the iron, wavering on its stand. With one thrust forward, Kieran pulls the iron downwards. It’s like watching a film in slow motion, seeing that iron fall from its platform as he looks upwards towards the noise. That’s the second, right then, when, no matter how long my boy is here, I know I want to love him and protect him as I should always have done, and so I try to ask for forgiveness. My body falls between the iron and my son, and it rolls off my back and onto the floor.
I cling onto Kieran like a life buoy in an unrelenting sea, and he stares as my streaming wet face and touches the tears.
“Why are you crying, Mummy? Did the iron hurt?” I can’t speak. I just hold him and I stroke his mass of straw-like blonde hair. And then he asks me – that same question he asks Gary, when he cuddles him at bedtime. “You love me, don’t you?” His words gurgle in my ear, as his little face looks with puzzled eyes at my tears.
I whisper back, right into his hot, pink ear. “Yes.” There’s no need for more.
Gary comes in from work. His eyes scan my face, trying to judge what kind of a day I’ve had, and whether he dare risk asking. Kieran flies out from the living room. But he doesn’t run to Gary – for the first time ever, he doesn’t choose his dad. And I’m elated as I hold him on my knee in the hallway.
I don’t tell Gary about the iron. But as he looks down at our boy, already in his pyjamas, he raises his eyebrows and smiles.
“You’ve already been in the bath, then, kiddo?”
“Yep, Mummy and me played with all the toys. My toes went all squashy.”
Gary looks at me.
“So I don’t miss out,” I say, as I stroke Kieran’s damp hair, and I hold in my heart the hope that, just maybe, someone may be able to donate a heart to this small image of me, and I won’t lose the one part of myself that I love more than I believed I could love anyone.
I cry, silently at the years of inertia, the fear of getting too close and being hurt.
“I want Mummy to put me to bed.” Those strange words bombard me and stir me into movement. As I carry him up the stairs, and his arms and legs koala all round me, I realise that this will be the night that I’m not afraid of saying goodnight to him. I’m sure, finally, that he won’t be gone when I wake tomorrow. And we’ll deal with tomorrow together.