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Morning rolls to a boil. The first bubbles, a bird balancing in a tilted tree, a car breathing past, a plastic door closing behind work-booted feet, spaced farther apart, bursting against brick walls. The kitchen window is high open – the cold helps keep you awake. Your clever fingers still smell like fake tan, harsh and hutchy. You peel off your acrylics one by one and line them up along the kitchen countertop before sweeping them into the bin, flashing sticky palms the colour of sushi rice.
Morning is muted. The rashed sky blues quietly. Someone spreads a foam mat over cut grass and stretches out like a cat. The hurry toward work, toward school, is not scheduled for another hour or so; a handful of in-betweens drip homewards, shambling through the shifting light.
You sip camomile tea, occasionally pressing the warm bottom of the chipped Playboy mug into your aching thigh. Always the left one. Glance toward the two bleary plastic tubs waiting on the countertop: ham sandwiches already beginning to slacken in their bunched wrappings, twiglets, easy-peel oranges – the pockmarked texture reminds you to add cellulite blaster to the shopping list – KitKats, raisins in little red boxes. Not just food; good intentions, motherly instincts. Everything matching except the children themselves. One silent and skittish, the other steady and certain – two inches taller.
Your fishnets are drying on the towel rack in the downstairs loo, your bright slips and knicks still soaking in a basin of grey, filmy water. You should put the radiators on for half an hour so it’s a little easier on the boys when they wake up. Your forehead puckers. Your boys will be good men. When they’re old enough to understand, they will understand. You’ll explain it to them and they’ll nod and smile and assure you that you did all the right things.
Alex and Sim – short for Simon – even though Ash had wanted more obviously Asian names. Twin, heritage names: Afif, Azfer. Twin names, twin lunchboxes, twin boys.
“I don’t want to risk spitting on someone every time I shout at them,” you’d joked. You’d held your faces as close together as they could be without your noses meeting, your arms easy on Ash’s wide, warm shoulders. Your reflection hung double inside his eyes.
Absences. Promises. Secrets. Cloistered in Toni’s cluttered sitting room, starched nets mystifying the view out, Ash’s slender fingers easing up your t-shirt so he could put his hands flat on your bare bump. Ten short white nails. One plain gold band.
“Take it off. Just for now. Just so we can pretend for a bit.”
He studied it for a moment, stretching and relaxing his lean digits. You saw your reflection then too – warped and gilded in the polished metal.
“It’s too tight,” he’d sighed eventually, “I can’t get it off.”
Footsteps descending the stairs, velvet as heartbeats. A pause as he strains his short, pyjama-d leg over the baulked stair-gate. Instinctive, your eyebrows haul your expression upwards. You pull Ash’s bobbled t-shirt down over the tops of your thighs and stand up, your knackered muscles resisting, bitter.
His kitten face swims toward you through the chill air, half-blind. His pyjama trousers are too short for him. Bare feet on bare tiles – goose pimples mottling the inches of exposed skin just above his ankles, sharp as turns on a chess piece. He shudders. You bundle him up into a hug, rubbing his shoulders, the tops of his arms; ask him what he wants for breakfast. He recoils from the chemical smell of your touch, his face curdling.
“Toast and jam?”
“Toast and spread,” he answers, backing out of the room.
Sim is the younger, the smaller, the trickier. Struggled to latch on and had to be started off on a bottle by someone else. Milk leaking from the sides of his mouth like the tears that seldom came; souring, drying, flaking. Smirching his marbled cheeks. Afterwards, the midwife sat on the end of your bed, on top of your feet, and told you that it’s usually the other way round.
“If you’re lucky, the second one just slips out.” She made a crude triangle of her hands. “You’re that much wider.”
You hadn’t the strength to wriggle your toes. She mistook your discomfort for exhaustion and patted your arm, an encouraging expression abstracting her oversized features.
You didn’t say anything when she flipped through your cards – all baby blue balloons and bouncing bunny rabbits since you’d told people you were having boys – not really reading the printed messages. She must have known better than to enquire after daddy. Either he’s there, or he’s not. And he wasn’t.
You jumble toast onto the countertop, spread it evenly with imitation Flora, which doesn’t puddle like butter but hesitates, congeals, cut the bread into strips, then dainty canapé squares. On a different sort of morning, the smell, the process of spreading and slicing, might remind you to eat, but it doesn’t today.
Alex requires more encouragement than his brother, who follows you upstairs, pressing his fingertips into the backs of your legs to make you go quicker, darts past you into the bathroom and pulls the door shut behind him. You grip your eldest son’s slack body and shake him to life. His eyelids stammer. Morning registers on his face like regret.
“Up, up, up,” you say, whistling the curtains apart and flooding the room with bright, splashy light. “Teeth, uniform, out.” Did your speech have more in it before the boys were born? You think of your own mother, misted wine glass in one hand, skinny cig in the other, both elbows resting on the dining table you can no longer squeeze your stomach under:
“Tell him to cut the crap.”
Alex swings himself out of bed, yawning. There’s a vague shadow spreading across his brother’s sheets. You begin removing the duvet cover, fumble poppers apart, rub the bundle across the crinkled surface of the plastic mattress protector in an attempt to get most of the moisture up.
“Come on. Get going. We’ve all got to get going.”
When Sim slides in, you try hard not to look at him, merely walk into the bathroom and gather up the heap of damp pyjamas waiting for you on the tiled floor.
You and your boys know the way off by heart, have learnt it by rote, by repetition: a railinged carwash. A rank of dark blue pines shielding a stark oblong of flats from view. Cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac of bright brown new builds with bright white window frames, their bright red garage doors opening to reveal bright red estate cars. And then a mown field the colour of pâté or bulrushes, which you cross together, minding the dog shit.
As you near the school, the traffic slugs and the air grows fumy. Your unrested eyes smart. You zip up your jacket to hide the fact you haven’t got a bra on. The women gathered at the fence remind you of standing stones until they shift on their heels, turning to talk to one another. Dogs on leads. Women wearing bright, bumped headscarves and jeans to one side, rustling columns of rippling black to the other. Freshly made-up white women in crumpled suit jackets calling to one another from car windows. A lone father trying to kiss his keening daughters goodbye. Ash’s wife and Ash’s mother seeing his son, Sayhan, to school. The seed you can’t dislodge from your tooth. The grit trapped in your eye, scratching your eyeball. Your small children reaching for their rucksacks. The backs of blobbing heads. The stares of near strangers.
You just about manage a cigarette on the way back, striping the dim morning with smoke as you shuffle home, your knees hurting now, creaking like an old woman’s.
It arrives on time: you saw him first. You were each other’s before you were anyone else’s. At your mother’s house, Toni’s, spread out over the backseats of his brother’s silver Mondeo. Afterwards the air would be paunchy and hot, full of breath. He’d wrap you up in himself and make you feel small and important. Afterwards, he always smelt like pepper and onions. Once you drove to the coast and threw stones at the sea. He wrote your names in the mousse bordering the jetty with the pointed end of a twig. Rain swept those names into the estuary while you kissed in the car. He chased you up the jetty, holding the grimy stick out in front of him. Breathless. Rain beating on the broken sunroof, bouncing off the windscreen and onto the road home. You let the cigarette fall from your fingers. Sayhan will be seven this year. Your boys are nearly six. You will not exchange invitations edged with rockets or footballers. You will not wrap gifts for one another’s children. You have spoken only once, when the twins were babies, when she and Ash’s mother came to your house and offered you money, enough money to leave.
You wring out your smalls and slop them over the radiator. Consider phoning Toni but she’s working tonight so will probably be asleep. You think she works too much, still insists she loves it. Snark and simper; she’s beginning to toughen though. She doesn’t laugh as much as she used to. Saves her moves for podium. Stays long in to the morning and sinks cocktails with the doormen.
“What’s the right price?” you’d asked her once.
“Depends on what?”
Her mouth twisted while she exaggerated her eyeliner but she didn’t respond. Once she’d finished, she looked at you in the mirror, staunch, firm.
“On everything. Seriously.” She ran her hands through her long orange hair, teasing it over her bare shoulders, making you think of yolk spilling down the sides of a boiled egg. “On whether I’m tired or keyed up. On whether he’s fit. On how expensive his shoes look, what he smells like, what his mates smell like.” She slicked her lips with gloss and pouted at herself, inspected her teeth. “On what time it is, whether I’ve had a drink, how much I’ve spent on clothes that week. If I’ve done it with him before and I don’t mind doing it again. On which song is playing. On how keen he looks. On whether or not he’s getting married the next day. I can go on, you know.” The hot bulbs around the glass fizzed. You started dotting your eyelashes with glue, sat in silence, waiting for the glue to get tacky. “I’d charge at least fifty for a hand job though. Anything under fifty feels a bit…” She gazed at the costume rail until she found the right word. “Grimy.”
You switch on the television. Rihanna insists she doesn’t care what people think of her. A sixteen year old explains that she wasn’t kidnapped, she’d wanted to go. A forecaster in an evening dress predicts rain. You lean back into the sofa and put your hands over your eyes. An advert for follow-on milk simpers ‘nothing lasts forever’. The space inside your head turns from red to darkest, swallowing grey. A bird balancing in a tilted tree, cars breathing past, a pushchair being unfolded. Its rubber wheels bounce on the pavement, chatter, roll. Someone, somewhere swings herself round a metal pole for the first time.
Ash knocks. You rise like steam.
When you’re together, you don’t need to imagine he works away, drives a lorry or drills for oil. Your muscles untighten. Your memories untangle. You lean you head against his chest and he strokes your hair. Warmth steeps through his sweatshirt and into you. You start skidding toward sleep. When you wake up, you’ll say it.
“You need to fuck off. This isn’t fair. I’ve had enough. The boys deserve a proper father. It’s me or it’s her.”
When you wake up. But until you wake up, you sleep.
About Catherine Ford
Catherine moved from Bristol to Worcester earlier this year. Her work was shortlisted for the Telegraph short story prize in 2012, and appeared in 2013's Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual. She's currently working on a novel.