This is the ninth and final short story offering in my series of literary/women’s fiction stories. I’m ending on one of my absolute favourites. This story was written in the public library, when I had one baby asleep at the side of me in the pram, and I was killing time, waiting for my then four year old to finish at toddler group.
The National Association of Writers’ Groups were running their annual competition set, and one was for a short piece of fiction based on a colour. I pushed my luck and decided on white (in the hope that no-one would decide that black and white aren’t actually colours).
I attended the annual presentation ceremony, having been invited as a short-listed contestant. I was dumbfounded to win my category, and be presented with a trophy and certificate by the dearly departed romance writer, Denise Robertson. The story was produced in a book entitled Blue Sky Thinking, published by NAWG.
I was told by the judge afterwards that this story won because it had the capacity to make her cry. It has the same effect on me, even now. My baby remained asleep next to me all the while, as I wrote this story, bless her. Even now, the thought of her lying there and the content of this story combine to bring tears to my eyes.
I hope you like this one.
The Reason for Everything
What will I call you? She’s set the challenge for me and I have to find an answer. The names we’ve chosen blur together in a mish-mash of curled paper, stuck on the white wardrobe door with rolled-up pieces of tape. All the names. I don’t know what to pick, but she’s left the final choice to me. I wish she would help me.
Through the glare, it startles me how the insidious sunlight leaps off the pages and smacks me in the eyes. Everything is set to thwart me. So, I look to you to make my job easier. It’s okay for you. You lay there, warm and beautiful in your new-white fluffy towel, with all the innocence of a yet untouched life in your gurgle. But I have to tell her today. I must be able to say that I’ve made a decision when we go to meet her.
The snow is falling, finally. It threatened to all yesterday, while we were out together, dealing with our life and death business, and now it sugar coats the ground with its grains of sparkle. It coats deeper and deeper until no-one would ever know there was real life underneath; that anger and pain run as undercurrents below, and that decisions have to be made. It just looks beautiful and unsullied, nature’s way of reminding me of you, as if I needed reminding. Right at this moment I wish I was like you. You have no idea how lucky you are to be able to lie there and have nothing to bother you; just to be able to lie still and examine the ceiling with your eyes, as the sunlight reflects off the snow and makes your room glow with stunning white innocence.
I don’t know how to clothe you. You’ll have to forgive me. I’ll get better, quicker at it, over time, I promise. I’ll be a hands-on father. I suppose, well, the baby grow is easy. Everyone else’s babies seem to wear them, so there will be nothing out of the ordinary in that, whatever else may be different in your life. I remember passers-by telling your mum and me, as we stood gawking naively at the rows of tiny trousers, puffball dresses and miniscule socks on Mothercare’s shelves, that white was the safest bet. It wouldn’t matter whether you were a boy or a girl then, just as long as you were fine. Oh, and you are fine – the tiny image of your mum, laid there staring up in your white cocoon. Yes, we said nothing could go wrong if we got white.
The snow is coming down harder, thicker. It would be so easy to fetch your car seat and take you to your mum like that. But the pram is there in the hallway. I just want to push it through the snow – be the first one to make my mark on it. Like starting a new life, right from the beginning. That’s what we’re doing now, isn’t it? Maybe the snow will clear my mind for a while. There will be something comforting to feel surrounded by something so virginal and unblemished, as we go together to your mum.
I mustn’t forget her Friday flowers. You lay there, and your feet can take care of them for me. Do you know that I’ve bought flowers for your mum every week from the moment we married? Don’t ever tell her, but at first I think it was a novelty, holding the bunch behind my back as I met her in the foyer of her office block, and seeing her large eyes widen with feigned surprise, but also – always – with genuine happiness. Then, I suppose, it felt like a duty. She would look for them when I came in from work on a Friday, and she lay on the sofa with her feet elevated on its arm, and her belly ballooning rounder with every week. And I couldn’t refuse her. I’ve never refused her anything. Now, because of you, my little one, I now know just how much I love her, and I want, really want, to take them to her.
The snow does its job well. It pulls its cotton-wool blanket over all the dirt and rubbish and, for as long as our journey lasts, we are surrounded by… What is it? Contentment? A feeling that nothing can intrude on the way we are, right now.
But then we reach our destination, and everything in the foyer breaks through my mood – from the heavy oak chair where I sit and wait, to the earth-coloured, swirly carpet. And I look at you, in your fleecy white blankets and your white baby grow, and try so hard not to let the oppression get to me. Because I have you, and you are the reason for everything.
The woman behind the desk has her eyes fixed on the pram. It’s the first time I’ve seen her eyes so clearly. Her face usually droops in full Bassett hound insipidness, and I’ve only ever seen the marine blue caked on her eyelids as she glides her folders surreptitiously from the right to the left of the reception desk. They make me feel uncomfortable, those tiny, voracious, black dots of eyes. Can you feel them, too? They are outraged at the soggy, white trail, fallen from the pram wheels, and which give a glittering but temporary reprieve to slivers of the earthy carpet. But most of all, those eyes – they seem to be horrified by you. Am I not allowed to bring a baby here, then? No-one told me. And still she stares, and she peers at you with an odd face I can’t quite describe when she tells me that we can go right in.
So, at last, you get to see your mum. I hold you in my arms, so you can see her clearly as we approach. Isn’t she beautiful? She’s still beautiful, even with her face ghostly pale, laid in crisp white satin and cocooned in her snow-white shroud. I want to take her hand – there – but it is icy cold. If I hold it long enough, will it warm to my touch, like it did once before? Your hot little fist brushes my cheek, as your mum’s hand slips through my fingers, still cold, and her shroud surrounds her in silence.
Please, please don’t cry. What can I do? She doesn’t move, although I’m sure she will, once she hears you, and I wait and wait for her. But she lays there like marble – beautiful, cold, unresponsive to the cracks in my emotion as I have no choice but to comfort you. For this isolated moment, while we are together in this tiny, pale room, a set of tiny daggers rip into my spine as I wish you weren’t here. Without you, she would have held my snow-chilled hand in her constant, warm one. And she would have looked at me with colour in her cheeks as I lay flowers in her arms; pale lilies every week for years, just like the ones in her wedding bouquet which she loved so much.
I told you I could refuse her nothing; that I would move heaven and earth to make her happy. All she ever wanted was to hold you in her arms. She spoke of nothing else for months. So, I slide the tiny photograph into the crook of her elbow, next to the flowers, for her to take on her journey. She will hold you forever, in her shroud and in her heart. Her darling. Her image.
And now I can complete my task. She will know, before I am never allowed to look upon her again, that I have made my decision. You are called Lily, my beautiful bundle of life, wrapped in your fluffy white cocoon and protected from the cold. And you will present an image to me every day of the woman I love, and who I have to leave, alone in her shroud of silence. We will return to the snow, and the contentment of its unreality, for now. And we must start a new life, now that you are the reason for everything.