‘Are you going into work?’ Helen asked as she fed James in her corner of the couch.
‘It’s only a bit of snow,’ he said.
‘I know.’ She looked down at the baby who sucked and pulled. She winced at the pain as her uterus contracted. ‘But they’re saying to not travel.’
‘I need to pick the car up. I’m going into the office after that too.’ He was gone.
Helen washed the breakfast pots and watched their square, white lawn shine brighter as the sun rose. She could hear James behind her in his bouncy chair, grabbing at the dangling toys. The snow on the lawn was faultless. She wanted to make snow angels, to stamp all over it, to dig down deep and make bodies for snowmen.
She submerged her hands in the warm dishwater and played with the softness of her fingers. She wanted to talk to someone. To anyone. Not about reflux, milk, naps. Not about that. James started to whimper, bored of his toys.
She thought of Sarah from the baby group. She was about her age. She lived close by. They’d go and find Sarah’s house. An Antarctic adventure. James would love it.
Helen took great pleasure in dressing to go out in the snow. She cocooned both James and her in that synthetic warmth that reminded her of her own childhood. She sang soft little words to him as she slotted him into the sling.
She stepped out the front door and stood motionless on the doorstep, slowly breathing in shards of cold air. The front garden was magical, dipped in winter wonderland glitter, the top layer of snow gleaming. James, wide-eyed, attempted to twist his head to see everything. Everything that glittered.
Helen thought about Sarah as she looked down the Christmas card street, slates heavy with snow, tree branches thick with royal icing. They had chatted at the breastfeeding group. Surface stuff. Feeding, burping, sleeping. Every Tuesday at eleven, the mums, a new one almost every week, arrived at the cavernous community hall. Each of them had tired-empty eyes and dull pains in their backs. They surrounded themselves with a litany of phrases. Don’t worry. Just a phase. Yes, he does that too. I’m the same. Tepid tea and jammy dodgers. Then, bang on three p.m., they started the rigmarole of getting themselves, and then the babies, ready for the journey home. They battled with car seats and swung them from their forearms. Rock-a-bye-baby. They juggled wriggling, crying babies, trying to pin down chubby arms and legs beneath straps. They set out back into the world, renewed and fresh, safe in the knowledge that Lisa, Caroline, Jen, someone else, at least, was going through the same thing.
Helen had not, as of yet, mentioned her husband to the other mums.
She trudged through the snow in the estate, her love like a soft toy between her breasts.
An elderly man was clearing snow from his path. She interrupted his scrape and sweep and asked if he knew a girl called Sarah. A woman, really.
‘With the wee baby? Yeah, just round the corner. Number 36.’
‘Should you be out in this? With a baby and all?’
Helen looked down at James. He had bright eyes and rosy cheeks.
‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘We needed to get out.’
‘Well, mind you don’t slip and hurt it.’
‘Him,’ Helen said. ‘It’s a him.’
She knocked on Sarah’s door. Rosie, a whole three weeks younger than James, an antsy, restless sort of thing, was crying somewhere inside. She heard a door slam upstairs.
The front door inched opened and Sarah peered through the gap, eyes coloured with salt tears.
‘Oh, Sarah,’ Helen whispered.
Sarah opened the door fully and shook her head. ‘It’s fine.’
They both gave a half smile.
‘Come in,’ Sarah pulled the door open and a blast of dry radiator heat wrapped around Helen.
The two women sat awkwardly on the sofa. The shrapnel of small babies lives dotted around the carpet and the arms of the chairs.
Every few minutes they picked up their babies and jiggled them, tickled them, stroked their small hands. They cradled them in the crook of their arms, cups of tea forgotten on the side. What would keep their attention if the babies weren’t here?
‘So – are you okay?’ Helen asked.
Sarah placed her daughter on her knee and looked at her. Rosie stretched her arms out, her small, compact body safe between her mother’s hands. Then Sarah threw her up in the air and she was like a fairground ride that rose and fell, spinning round and round.
‘My husband. David. It’s not great. Rosie isn’t sleeping well and he wants to leave her to cry all night. I can’t do that. I can’t – ‘
Her voice began to break but then changed into a high-pitched song, music to the fairground ride, a storybook tale, all to please Rosie. ‘He doesn’t help at all around the house. Does he, Rosie darling? Uh uh. I keep asking him to change her nappy, but he just says he’ll do it next time, doesn’t he sweetheart? Last weekend, his mother said I shouldn’t be putting Rosie in so many layers. And –‘
The word ‘and’ stretched and sang, ‘ – and he agreed. His mother was so smug. Nothing I do is right, Helen. Nothing.’
The last few words cracked to reveal tears.
Helen reached out for her knee but it was awkward. ‘It’s not easy, Sarah. I know it’s not.’
She settled Rosie on her knee.
‘Sometimes – sometimes it’s actually easier when he’s not here, you know? I can make decisions myself, I don’t feel guilty about how often I feed her. Or what I put her in.’
‘Obviously, I’m not saying I wish he would leave,’ she gave a small laugh. ‘It would be too hard.’
‘Yeah.’ James and Rosie filled the space that followed with their own language, gurgles and growls.
Last night, Helen waited in the silent house for her husband to come home. She sat on the bottom stair and thought about the excuses that he gave her. Like garage flowers. Cheap carnations. He missed the train. The meeting ran over. He had to stay for a drink with a client. He had waited forever for Paul to give him a lift. Each time she replayed something he had said she added a ‘sorry’. Apologies were not natural to him.
At around midnight, the door opened and he fell out of the snow and into the house like a drunk. Another small excuse (she wasn’t worth the long, complicated ones) already chosen. He had been asked to drop a client off on the way home. His eyes glowed. He looked so healthy. She missed glowing like that.
Helen opened her mouth.
Sarah wasn’t watching her and, instead, spoke first. ‘Does your husband help?’
Helen paused and looked at James. She touched his button nose on the tip, ‘Yes, he does. Sometimes,’ she conceded. He did help. When he was there. He changed nappies. He played with him. He loved James, she knew that. If she took James, if she left, what would happen? How often would he want to see James? How many nights alone would she have to bear? How many times a week would she have to leave her son? She tried to swallow the deep, hollow feeling of nausea. She had to keep swallowing.
After the tea was too cold to drink and the mugs were left with one more red brown circle on the inside, Helen and James began their preparations for the short trek home.
She knelt down in the hallway and lay James on the floor to put his snowsuit on. She turned around to see Sarah staring at the front door in a daze. Rosie was on her hip.
‘We’ll get there. All of us. It’ll be okay,’ Sarah said, her words like the beat of the raindrops that were forecast by the end of the week.
They walked home, breaking a new path through Antarctic snow, thick enough to burrow deep down in and find somewhere warm.