Sleep Shallow

I stir from shallow sleep, the faint memory of a dream of a voice still on my mind. I haven’t really known any other sort of sleep since the birth, in truth. Mothers sleep like soldiers who’ve seen combat; a combination of the lingering trauma of giving birth, and the alertness of knowing you might be in the thick of it again at any moment. You still sleep with your ears open, even when you don’t need to any more.

A year on and I still don’t sleep right.

Jon sleeps the sleep of the untouched and innocent next to me. His weight and the low rhythmic roar of his breath reassures me, though. It’s hard to resent his ability to go on as normal, so I try not to.

The light on the monitor woke me. Lying in bed, frozen in place; trying not to make any noise, trying to hear. Eyes open watching the monitor. Not even breathing as the house breathes around me.

The light on the monitor flickers again, and the sound set so low I can barely hear.

Blocking out all other sounds I can hear Lily snoring quietly in the next room. Jon can never quite make it out, but I can; I can picture the rise and fall of her chest, her legs wriggling.

She’s stirring, and I can tell close to waking up. I would have slept through if not for the light and that would have been fine, but it’s right in my eyeline, beads through my closed eyelids. Jon’s been trying to make me move the monitor for weeks, but I keep refusing.

I need these moments in the dark.

Lily murmurs, and she moans quietly, and then she mutters baby babble in that way that sounds like people chattering and also like ducks and that freaks out all new parents.

Then she calls out in the dark, not quite “mamma”. Louder again, not quite “mamma”, and I shift in place in the bed, wondering if she’ll calm herself.

She doesn’t; she goes from murmuring to crying to screaming in under a minute.


Every parent has to learn to sit and be okay with hearing their child in distress. But if I ever had the knack, I’ve lost it again. I sit in the dark and listen to her call for me; she probably only needs a hug or a nappy change or a feed and she’ll settle. She’s almost at the age where they’ll cry for attention and you have to decide whether giving them it is more harm than good, but has she made it there yet?

I don’t know, so I go to her. Jon sleeping oblivious behind me.

I stand outside her door, listening a second to my screaming, wailing daughter, gathering myself in the dark.

The crying stops the second I step into the room. She settles.

Moonlight streams in through the window; one of us forgot to close the curtains again. I have to step around half-packed boxes of toys and books on the way to pull them closed. On my way out of the room I linger near the cot bed, hand resting on the soft wood of the headboard. The side is half off and hanging over the mattress. Jon must have tried to dismantle it again at some point, and faltered. Not for the first time.

After a few minutes, I quietly leave the room and go back to bed. My sleep is shallow.

All The Things We Ignored

Jessie has just finished pointing out another person to me, and explaining who they were to Millie, and how they screwed her over.

“So anyway, she can fuck off.” she says, and I’m suddenly aware of how muted and low everyone else here is talking, and how few other people I know at the service.

“That over there, that’s Dave. You know, her old boss at Gamez Market? Surprised he’s here.”
“She was there for nearly ten years, Jess.” I offer.
“Yes, yes she was. And they treated her brilliantly. Do you remember why she left?”
“Another… she started at the school?”
“Yup. Took a pay cut, did you know that?”
“I didn’t, but didn’t she want to work with kids?”
“She’s… she was allergic to kids. They did her head in. No, that prick bullied her out of the job. Had a mate on the staff who went for the supervisor job that she managed to get, and the two of them made her life a misery after as punishment.”

I didn’t know any of these stories. It’s a worry. I thought I was Millie’s best friend when most of this happened.

I mention that.

“She always seemed so cheerful, and so on top of things?”

“Yes, well. At school she was desperate for you to like her; everyone, really, not just you. And then afterwards, well…”
“What?”
“Well, you were a needy fucker, weren’t you? Always ending the world over some girl or other. Would you have noticed, if she’d said anything?”

I remember that Millie was always a good listener.

“Her mum looks devastated.” I say weakly a few minutes later. Jessie grunts. “Oh come on, you can’t begrudge her mum, today of all days.”
“Okay, she’s probably gutted.” Jessie concedes. “But she should be ashamed of herself.”
I look at her, an awkward grin on my face, amazed at her nerve.
“She should.” she says. “She was bloody horrible to Millie when we were kids, and she hasn’t improved. Why do you think Millie was such a pleaser?”
“I just thought she was nice.”
Eyes rolling hard away from me, Jessie says “You’re a damn fool. She wasn’t nice, she was fucking terrified. She was terrified you’d leave like her dad did. Like she was terrified of saying anything to set her mum off.”

“But…”

Jessie has tears in her eyes, and pushes a snort away with her sleeve. A few people are pretending not to notice us.

“Millie could be a dick, you know. When we shared that flat, remember? She’d always, always be playing her music too loud, and wouldn’t stop. She had… god, awful taste in everything. All of that shitty… some bloke, sounds like folk music, like it’s about something, but actually he’s just whining about a girl. There’s a line in one of them, though. It’s been stuck in my head for days. He says: We should learn to regret all the things we ignored.”

She goes quiet for a second. Then she says “You know when she left Mark – every time she left Mark – she had to come and stay with me? Her mum wouldn’t let her in, told her she had to go home to her husband, sort it out.”

“There… was more than one time?”
“Three. Three times. Did she not put that on Facebook?” she sneers at me. Very specifically, it feels like, at me.
“Come on, how was I supposed to know?” I say. Some of the people who’d been pretending not to notice us tut and shush me.

Men are louder. Women can say a lot, they can describe or dismantle whole worlds, and you’ll barely hear them. They can attack you, make you stand up for yourself, and your voice is all the people around will hear. Like you’re angry. The big bad man. It isn’t very fair.

We sit in silence for a bit. My ears feel hot, and I know that under my beard, my cheeks are pink.

The vicar thanks us all for being here, asks us to stand for the first hymn. We stand, but neither Jessie or I are singing.

“Did you visit her?” Jessie whispers.
“You told me she didn’t want visitors.” I try to whisper back. This feels all wrong, disrespectful. It all feels disrespectful.
“Not at the hospital, you prick. Did you visit her, after the wedding, at all?”

“I…”
I try to remember, fake singing as I try.
“No. I don’t think I did. We… we’re just all so busy these days, you know?”
“That’s bullshit, though, isn’t it? You didn’t visit because you were angry with her for getting married.”
“That’s not…”
“You told me on the day, you idiot. Just after you did your reading. How you’d always believed the two of you would end up together. How much it hurt you being there.”
“That’s not fair.” I blurt, the instant after the hymn abruptly ends. Everyone nearby shifts uncomfortably on their feet and a murmur of disapproval goes around the church, like the wind in autumn leaves.

The vicar doesn’t hear and continues with the service, introducing the first reading, gearing up for the eulogy.

I try to lower my voice. “It hurt, losing her to him, Jessie. I loved her.”
“She loved you too. But what did she ever do to make you think she fancied you?”
“I…”
“Look at this cunt.” she murmurs, as Millie’s brother, shoulders dropped, walks toward the vicar shuffling paper. “Everything she told him and he’s still out drinking every other night with Mark.”

She watches the man like a hawk for a few seconds, preemptively angry about what he might say. She relaxes a little when he starts to stumble through a classic poem, rather than a speech.

She looks at me. Leans in and speaks, low and sure, into my ear.
“She told you, Nick. She tried to tell you over and over how unhappy she was, how small she felt. How sick to her stomach. I saw the messages. She didn’t put on a show, and most of the time you either took it as an opportunity to message back whining about your own shit, or didn’t reply at all.”
I’m staring straight ahead and have sudden terrible clarity. I don’t care if anybody can hear us now, but they’re all stuck in their own funeral.
“Not just you. A few of us. A few of the people here. Everyone down there on the front row. She did what she was supposed to, in the last few years; when it got too much, she asked people for help. But because she didn’t scream and wail, or because we were petulant pricks like you, we didn’t help her.”

The reading finishes, and the vicar asks us all to find a prayer in the photocopied booklet we were handed as we walked in. There’s a shuffle of noise as everyone sorts themselves out.

“So she helped herself. We didn’t hear her, so she helped herself. And then a few months of freedom later it turned out that the poorly stomach she’d had for years, that everyone told her was just her being weak and nervy and stressy and she needed to be more resilient… Well, it turned out we shouldn’t have ignored that, either.”

She’s silent throughout the prayer. I try not to look at her, not to steal glances at her face, but I fail. I’m braced for what she’ll say next.

Instead, the prayer finishes, and everyone is shifting position again, and the vicar starts talking. As he does, Jessie speaks quickly and quietly to me.

“We let her down. We spoke over her, told her she was wrong, everything was fine, and she needed us and we were worse than shit. And now they’re acting like her dying was something that was done to them, not something they did. It isn’t right.”

Now someone is saying Jessie’s name, and I realise that the vicar is calling her forward, saying she’s going to say a few words to the assembled mourners. She puts herself together, gets up from the pew, rearranges her clothes, turns to me.

“I’m going to tell them so.” she says, and walks away from me, toward the pulpit.

I watch her go, but I don’t want to hear what she says next. I’m desperate not to hear it. My body tenses up, muscles telling me they’re ready for me to get up, get out of here. How can it hurt, now, to stay a little ignorant?

If I’m here when she starts talking, I’ll have to stay here forever.

Evergreen

I’m wheeling Evergreen to the next stop on his daily tour of the grounds. He looks up at me; I smile back. He sighs, and his head drops.

“A parent isn’t supposed to outlive their children.” he says. “It’s unjust and unkind.”

The first time I heard someone say that, it set me back a week. We grow up understanding that an old or sick thing dies and a fresh and new thing is born, and that’s how it works.

A parent burying their child derails us; turns the world on its head. We’re struggling to get ahead of it before we even start thinking about undersized coffins.

The first time it was a shock.

Evergreen says it, word for word, at least three times a week.

Evergreen isn’t his real name. It’s just what we all call him, on account of his longevity. The staff here are the only family he has now. He stopped talking to the other old folks a few years ago. “They keep dying on me.” he said.

Evergreen is my nest egg.
A lot of us do it, and anyone who tells you they never even considered it is lying. The old guy or girl with no-one else to survive them that you put a bit of extra time into. Not enough to be a creep, you know? Just enough that they think about you near the end.

I put the work in. I look after him. I’m not a bad person.

His parents died. His wife died, then his kids. They had had kids of their own, and in a run of bad luck that should be fascinating all of the grandchildren were gone early, too.

Miserable.

I pray to God I die before anyone who cares about me. I’ll probably die before there even is anyone who cares about me.

Evergreen isn’t helping. Nest eggs are supposed to be a couple-year commitment. I started pushing him around ten years ago, and he was old as hell already. Now he’s old as fuck, and I’m still pushing.

I’m sure the other nurses laugh at me. It pricks at me.

I’m going to have to kill him eventually, aren’t I?

a noodle in a haystack