As you pass by this field, this cottage, its unkempt sceac, its thistled front yard, its dirt floor, where the bachelor Leo lies deep in his sleep, you know you had no choice. This pram, this lane, you have been here before. Or maybe it is just an old story, grown familiar through the retelling. Maybe it’s all a dream.
You steer a steady course, the wheels either side of the lane’s rutted centre. Passing by the beech where the buzzard roosts, you walk faster, wheel faster. Into potholes, over bumps, a wheel-ya weila waile. There was an old woman who lived in the woods… You hum it without knowing, because it is your song.
Off in the distance, you imagine you hear another rhythm, insistent and steady as a heart: weila weila, weila weila. But no, it’s too early. No trains run at night. Your imagination is running away with you. You force yourself to slow down, act natural. Act natural in your nightie, with your dressing gown, hastily tied, now fallen apart, at four in the morning. Ha.
Those many limbs reaching towards you from the ditch, they’re shadows, they can’t hurt you. They can’t hurt because they’re shadows, and because you are beyond hurt. When one of them steps out into the lane, dark and shapeless, you stop as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
All right there, Molly? There’s the wheeze on the voice, a whiff of Sweet Afton.
All right, Leo.
And what, if I might ask, has you out wandering this time of night?
I could ask you the same question, you tell him smartly. You move to go around him, to drive your pram past before he thinks to look inside. His boot blocks your
wheel. On purpose?
Sometimes the sleep evades me, he says, as if to himself.
Tell me about it, you say.
Awake again, you found yourself. Which sounds open-eyed, fresh. Awake! Not the thing it is, the murky weight of your clogging sinuses, blocking your nose, the ache at the back of your eyes. Eyes which you are keeping pressed shut, because a flicker could ruin it, and then you would not sleep at all. You open not your eyes, but your mouth, a mean little slot, enough to fit a narrow straw. There. You will be able to breathe this way. Deepening, belly breaths (but don’t think about them). At last.
Birdsong? What birds, from what dark realm? Because it is 2 am, you remember. Last feed. You got through it, because then you would sleep, both of you. You would sleep. Only then you didn’t sleep. You were awake. Again. In three weeks or was it months, you haven’t slept. Across the room, he is awake, mewling and whimpering, some upset, some badness.
When they brought him to you, all swaddled in blue, he was perfect, the hint of blond curl, the steady blue gaze. But then, he didn’t settle, didn’t feed. He didn’t seem to warm to you. Maybe colic, said the midwife, but you were already beyond caring, a week with no sleep. When you looked into his eyes, steady and sure, you saw terrible futures, terrible things. A dream, you told yourself next day. A terrible dream.
You turn away from his sound. Your eyes remain closed. A sliver of moon will ruin it. Or, catastrophe, a reckless glance at the glowing red segments that are time, arranged in configurations that can lead only to despair.
You wonder about it, though, the time. You can’t bear the not knowing if there’s any sleep to be had. You risk it. Across the desert of twisted white sheet the curtain edges confirm your worst fear. Dawn, the tasks of the day stretched relentless and long, punctuated only with feeding and crying. A brain fog, a blur. Not a life. Not again, you tell yourself. The red segments spell out only 3 am.
Not again, you repeat to the bathroom mirror. You’re a shadow, grey skinned, hollowed out, swollen breasts upon a stick. You’re no longer sure which is you, which your reflection.
You had no choice. Your story had already been written.
You manoeuvre neatly past the foot. But Leo swings around, surprisingly sprightly, causing you to speculate again about his age. He looks inside. As he lifts his head, he turns not to you, but to the sound you thought you had imagined. Weila waile, weila waile. A heart beating faster.
Where is he, Molly? Where did you leave him?
You are humming again. You have no choice. It is your song, your story. You know where it will end.
The goods trains, you remember. They run through the night. You did not mean to say it aloud. It is for the best. That is why you are able to push on past him, looking over your shoulder and telling him it is all for the best. But he is not there any more. He’s vanished. Gone flying off in the direction of the railway line, hoping to get there before the train.