Family Snapshots by Dave Wakely
Published in Issue 1 | Illustration by Susannah Lohr
You share impatience and a corner of the maternity ward. The disease wouldn’t wait, and nor would he. Ripped untimely, although the knife spared you both, you are sleepwalking now into motherhood. Your hands are washed a hundred times a day.
Caesar’s legacy spared me too, from choosing between the wife I knew and the child I didn’t. But one plus one has equalled one plus one plus one. Ejected as much as born, separated more than coming together.
It shouldn’t be just the boy that we are growing here, but tonight we each sleep under solitary sheets. Not closer together, but further apart.
I tap the incubator glass in hope of a response through the haze of wires and tubes that cloud the view. It should be you, not me, teasing his tiny fist or tickling a toe through the membrane of the rubberised glove.
Our first will be our last, they’ve told us. No second chances. We must invest in this one.
When his miniature eyes finally blink open, it should be you they see. Not me.
Your greeting is fiery. ‘Are you trying to kill him?’ I shake icy flakes from the pushchair’s frosted hood before they melt.
I wrap his blanket round and lift him in a brief embrace, pull your home-knitted bonnet over the tips of his ears to spare him the pain of thawing.
His mittened hand points over my shoulder to the mat behind the door, its bold letters showing through the snow stamped from my soles.
‘Welcome,’ he says, over and over, the pronunciation endearingly awry.
On the cricket ground’s unforgiving concrete benches, I already know he won’t share my passions. The umpire’s bloodline ends with me.
‘Five whole days and no result?’ he asks, his nine-year- old logic sharpened by boredom.
Not his choice of sport, although he’s been raised on handling fast bowling. He bats away spun questions, striking towards boundaries. Or maybe to escape them.
As the fielders take their positions for the next over, I unravel the cable of the ear-piece and tune his pocket radio to a more exciting channel.
Twelve years now he stands beyond the womb. If making the child has broken the mould, there is something of the cast about him.
You repel each other like opposing magnets. Robbed of the chance earlier, you used to complain, but surely you feel him kicking now.
I suck on my pipe like a referee’s whistle, but there is rarely a truce.
Nineteen now, his ragged hair is a motley red. A student’s prerogative, although you question the curriculum.
Taller than me for a third of his lifetime, his pierced ear glints against your passion-flowers in the garden’s sun-trap spotlight. Borders blooming and fruiting as you intend, your tongue still snips away. Woe betide the family tree should grow unwelcome branches.
In sunlit snapshots, we perform his visits in duos. See how he divides his time, and ours.
You capture him resting a hand on my shoulder, stooping discreetly so we’re both in shot. His lens arrests our smiles, our hands touching loosely as they trail along the seat. My images seem to focus on the inches of empty bench that always open between him and you.
Our trio performances resist rehearsal, our harmonies drifting into discord.
I watch you dispense dinner, garnishing it with outward charm while a visiting Canadian boy gifts us grace and gratitude. You wait impatiently for girls to visit, pouncing on every female name he mentions.
‘Just a friend, Mum,’ he says, the same way he described this boy, and the previous.
I distract our guest with conversation while your fist pounds the base of a mould, a cold terrine slithering free. He seems politely bemused by our cricket match sparring, the questions spun to bounce at head height, the lengthy battle without result.
Our son eats lightly, mostly watching the game. Occasionally he steps to the crease, despatches a loose ball to long cover. Reluctant to concede as much as a single point. I season the gathering with complimentary gestures, handing out condiments while you bid to tempt him with creature comforts. He is twenty-three. His real hunger is for adventure.
I relish his visits. You yearn for him to come home.
His house is untidy, now that he is allowed. You have stayed behind, preferring to rule even an empty roost. I arrive alone and always find him likewise, though a pin-board gallery of strangers’ photographs adorns his hallway. There are women among them, but they are not the ones being kissed.
He’s nearly forty now. Too old to wrap in blankets or pull bonnets over ear-lobes, although the urge remains. ‘Don’t you ever want to live with anyone else?’ I ask.
‘I’m not recruiting at the moment,’ he says, my question deflected safely to the outfield. He runs his fingertips through his greying crop. My genes at play, his scalp being slowly revealed while his thoughts stay firmly sealed. So far, but no further. Some boundaries are not to be crossed.
He cooks lunch, shows your flair with pan and flame, while I imagine how you’d tut at his apron strings, dangling untied behind him. As I say goodbye in the hallway later, I scan the photographs behind him, trying not to catch anyone’s eye.
You fuss around me, my head propped on four pillows, while nurses clatter to and fro. Eaten away from inside, I am finally as thin as him. He sits beside me, his fingers brushing mine.
You talk for him, over him, his news summarised as if your agency adds weight to his words. As you scuttle off to fetch tea, I take his fingers more firmly.
He checks his phone and brings me the cricket score. ‘Forty-seven not out,’ he tells me.
‘Like yourself,’ I say, closing my fingers round his for a moment. A slip fielder, reluctant to fumble. Loving is not the same as understanding, but we have managed at least one.
‘Stay a while when she has to leave,’ I say. ‘We can talk.’
You return with unwanted biscuits, forget that it is years since he has taken sugar.
Outside the window at the end of the ward, the smokers’ area is decorated with buddleia. Butterflies make brief visits, a fluttering of colourful wings.
As we sip our tea, discussing how he will manage – with her, without me – a voice drifts over us from beyond the wall. A young man is declaiming into his mobile phone.
‘Listen, listen! I love you.’
A moment’s pause while a distant partner replies unheard. ‘Yeah, and I love you.’
He says it like love is a contest. Like something that you have to win.