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“How long has it been going on? All three months? Every night? She was meant to be looking after Sonia. Was she in the room when you fucked?”
I’d yelled this at Trish a week ago. It was the one thing I clearly remembered. The last question wasn’t rhetorical, but I didn’t get an answer.
I paced the bedroom floor. I stopped, closed my eyes, and tried to push the ache down out of my head. I got a whiff of stale egg and brandy on my breath. I found a psychological insulation within Advocaat’s saccharine cream. Would I keep it all down? How many bottles: five, maybe seven?
I started walking again, empty paracetamol packs crunching under my bare feet. I looked in the full-length mirror. My eyelids half stuck together. Mascara had dried and crusted in random blotches and lines across my face. My white T-shirt stained with a week’s worth of cigarette ash and eggnog, but my blue shorts were spotless.
To the left of the mirror, my bed covers lay slumped under the window.
I turned to Trish’s bedroom cupboard drawers that ran along the wall. She loved mid-century modern design. I put my hand on the veneered surface, steadying myself. The drawers were still open after she’d looted them last week, grabbing fistfuls of clothes as I shouted behind her. I picked up a half full baggie of MDMA that I couldn’t remember leaving there.
“Now that you’ve had some time to think, we can talk.”
Trish was going to be here soon.
I knocked back the entire baggie. Microdosing wasn’t what the day called for. The day called for a mouthful. I slammed one of the drawers shut and walked out the room, down the hallway to the bathroom. I needed humidity; it helped me think. I turned on the shower, not bothering to remove my T-shirt and shorts.
What was I going to say to her? Had she had time to think? Why was I the only one doing the thinking?
The week had passed like a coma; repetitious flash frames of “we’ve been seeing each other,” “it just developed,” “I’m so sorry,” and of me red-faced and raw.
I’d managed to cancel all my installations for the week, hadn’t I?
I half recalled listening to a customer howl down the phone that they couldn’t wait another second for their bifold doors, while I finger-licked the bottom of a baggie. Had I called one of them a prick? That would show up on the online reviews.
15 years didn’t just end. Whatever happened to sticking around for the kids?
I turned the temperature on the shower up, the water adding weight to my clothes.
Would a more loving partner have pieced the clues together? Should I have known? It seemed so obvious now.
The memory of Trish sliding out of bed and soft-walking down the corridor made me open my eyes into the oncoming shower water. Her footsteps had been like brushed drum strokes against the restored flooring. “Are we getting value for money,” I had asked. “I’m learning,” she had replied, her eyes sticky with the unslept night. “One of us has to,” she had added.
“You don’t love her,” I had said when she told me. I had been dazed by the news, transported to a world where everything looked the same but felt alien and cold.
The timeframe was too short for love. Three months. Love wasn’t a microwave oven. But Trish had looked blankly back at me, her hair perfectly straightened, as if she groomed herself to tell me. But I thought I saw a flash of pain in her eyes that gave me life. “You can’t love someone who you’ve never seen the sun with,” I added. This was the passion of vampires. Wasn’t this just displacement of emotion or something?
My eyes still open to the oncoming shower water, I felt the MDMA kicking in, the warm serotonin blanket.
It was a post-pregnancy blip. A kind of confusion brought about by the battlezone of those early months. We loved Sonia, her gummy wide-mouthed smile; an uncontrolled and flaming joy. But her demands stripped us. She woke, during the night, with the consistency of the undead in a zombie film. And her cries would go on and on and on. We’d stalk the house, tapping and shushing her. She left us doubting everything. Sleep is the most important thing. And Marilyn had given it back to us. She’d allowed us to be ourselves again, admittedly for a shitload of money.
Trish loved what Marilyn had done for us. She didn’t love Marilyn. This was displacement. That must be a theory, right? It must have happened to others. Maybe it was normal.
My eyes felt like they might be peeling from the scorching water. I closed them and wondered whether I had made myself blind. I stepped away from the shower’s stream for a second, trying to recapture the memory I’d buried under a week of liquor and pills.
“It’s just how I feel. I can’t change that.”
I remember Trish saying that now like with the sharpness of a slap.
I felt my heart beat faster.
I started laughing. Marilyn used to turn up with full make-up and blow-dried hair. “Sonia can only see black-and-white,” I had said grinning, and calling her Monroe. I stood convulsing in the shower, experiencing an out of body sensation, observing myself in hysterics.
I stepped back into the shower and turned it all the way to cold. The sudden temperature change sent a jolt through me.
“Feelings are the essence of change. And by the way, this isn’t a feeling, it’s a whim. A fad. A nocturnal glimmer.” I could say that to Trish.
What would she say back?
“Sonia’s made me feel differently. I want different things now.”
Where had that come from? Had she said it already, was that a memory? No, there was no image to pair it with.
But wasn’t that basically what she was saying? After 15 years, she’d had enough – had she become bored? Maybe it was the pull of Marilyn, early 40s, experienced. But what did Trish actually know about her, away from Sonia? Outside of that room with the cot, nappy changer, and dimmable light. Nothing, she knew nothing.
I gasped in the shower, replaying the line I’d put on Trish’s lips. “Sonia’s made me feel differently.” I tried to force the cold tap into freezing but it wouldn’t go further.
I can’t remember if anything else was said after I asked her if they’d been fucking in the same room as Sonia. I think I repeated the question. I threw a few things. Maybe I threw a lot of things. The kitchen looked like a war had taken place within its walls. I wasn’t sure whether this happened with Trish, or after she had left.
“Marilyn prefers glass baby bottles. It’s about microplastics.” That was the point I should have called Marilyn an uber and said don’t come back. That was the point of no-return.
Trish had delivered this news to me like she was asking me to pick up some milk from the newsagents. I’d spent days on internet comparison sites, chewing content, deep investigative work into BPA-free linings and organic materials. I’d shrugged and thought Marilyn was the professional.
What the fuck were microplastics anyway?
Sonia was from me too, my egg. I shouldn’t have accepted every decision about her bottles, her nappies, and wipes as a fait accompli.
I turned the shower off and stood there dripping.
I hadn’t missed the clues; they’d hidden them from me. I’d missed the real message: you’re harming Sonia, we’re better off without you. Marilyn replacing the bottles I’d bought with hers wasn’t a clue; it was a push out.
I shuddered. There was no towel. I let the cold dig into me. I let it find my bones.
“She’s not yours.”
That’s what Trish wanted to say. I felt it hiss in the air. And she’d taken Sonia, no discussion. It was just assumed.
I took a deep breath, ran my hand through my wet hair.
I felt weightless and faint.
“Not mine,” I whispered to the shower, repeating what I had said. Not mine, not mine, not mine.
But she was. She was mine. We’d incubated her in my womb for 18 hours before transferring her to Trish. I insisted. Thank god I’d insisted. Not that it should matter. Sonia wasn’t a possession.
And the things I did counted. The BPA-free bottles, the crib, the toys, the clothes, the painstakingly selected vitamins, the plans. It all counted. Trish shouldn’t have assumed she could walk out with Sonia. That was the point. That shouldn’t have happened.
“We can work something out.”
She’d say that. Weekends. Weekdays every month. Evenings twice a week.
I walked out of the shower and saw Sonia’s baby-bouncer sitting beneath the bathroom sink. Trish had forgotten that. I sank to my knees.
I looked out the bathroom window into the bathroom of the adjacent house. The window was open, and the toilet seat was up. I saw the window being slid down slowly.
I’d fight this. I’d stop working if I had to or do something different. She wasn’t the only one that could change. I could go down to two or three days a week, get someone to help me with the business. I’d downsize.
I’d convince the court that I should be the primary caregiver.
Were we going to court?
I’d go. Right now.
The doorbell rang. A slightly off-kilter C-scale, played in a Christmas jingle. I’d installed it. I thought it was nice to have some cheer all year round. Trish didn’t like it.
Trish was early.
I wrapped a dressing gown around me and walked down the stairs.
My hand lifelessly trailed the banister.
“I won’t let you take her,” I started shouting halfway down. Surprising myself with how loud I was.
Trish had forced this with her lies. I wasn’t going to accept what she and Marilyn wanted anymore.
I crossed the hallway.
“I’ll take you to court. I’ll fight you every step of the way.”
I’d got the courtroom drama in my head now. The wigs, the gowns, the oak furnishings. It’d probably be settled in some off-white office, with powdered coffee and two ash-eyed lawyers who wore their indifference like deodorant.
“The judge will side with me; you think fitness instructor is a career. That’s bullshit. Your whole life is bullshit. You’re a fucking liar, and no one would allow Sonia to be brought up by such a scheming set of pricks.”
I opened the door.
Trish was closing the gate. I watched as she started walking away from the house. Sonia strapped to her chest in the ergobaby (a holder I had bought) her head bobbing. She smiled seeing me, a wide mouthed toothless beam. “I mean it, I’ll go to court,” I screamed. Trish slowly turned around, her skin pale, her eyes puffy and red like boxers’ gloves. Maybe she felt the same sleepless agony I did.
“I’m sorry, I really am. But this is happening, we’ll work it out.” Her voice calm, her body expressionless like someone nonchalantly tossing a Molotov cocktail and watching it explode with a calculated indifference. “Have you taken anything?” she asked staring at me. “You don’t want to go to court.” The threat unravelling our years together, I felt myself emptying. I stumbled, my vision fading at the edges. “I’ll call an ambulance,” I heard Trish say.
About Tim Oke
Tim Oke lives in London and is a writer of short stories and plays. He has had one of his play’s performed at the Edinburgh fringe, and been published in anthologies and magazines. Currently, he is working on a short story collection.