There was a time when I blamed Dylan. For quite a while actually; a month or so, certainly. It’s easier than you would think to decide that everything is some one else’s fault. And it was particularly satisfying to pass the mantle of blame to Dylan, because my husband did everything with an enviable ease. Almost all situations he met with a stoic presentation of calm. At first I found this trait appealing, but I grew to hate it like a kitten that’s initially such a delight and then pisses all over your favourite rug.
I grew so adept at the blame game that I believed I was able to pinpoint the very sentence that sent our lives hurtling at full pelt towards Shitsville. Dylan said, ‘I think I’ll take Mickey up on his offer.’ As he spoke, his eyes were trained on the crossword on his lap, and in that moment it occurred to me how self-indulgent crosswords are. They require so much time and isolation; if you’re in a room with a person but that person is also doing a crossword, you’re barely with them at all.
‘You really want to go fishing on Saturday?’ I asked. I can recall the effort I made to keep my tone even. I didn’t want him to hear an admonishment but an opportunity.
‘Not especially, but Mick has been having a bad time of late.’ Mickey was Dylan’s best mate – not really a friend, if assessed by the normal requirements of the role; more of a relic from childhood. A thin, wiry man with greasy hair never quite covered by a tweed cap, Mickey was harmless really, or at least the only harm he ever did was to himself. He was always entering or leaving another toxic relation ship, or losing what little money he had in an illadvised business ‘opportunity’. He had a skittish energy that made it draining to be around him for extended periods, and a propensity to cry with little to no warning. One Christmas he had nowhere to go and we let him join our family celebration. He started weeping as the pudding was lit, and when we cleared the kitchen later in the evening, my mother asked, ‘Is he one of those crack heads, Ally?’ Mickey was the kind of person I would have let drift from my life a long time ago. Dylan didn’t let things drift; it was one of the reasons I loved him. I’d like to think that at any other time I would have respected his commitment and his willingness to give his free time to someone so intent on wasting their own, but the Saturday in question was the Saturday, the first in a month of Saturdays that we would all be together – no work, no parties or play dates. Nothing but us. It was on the calendar next to the fridge: ‘Family Day’ in red biro.
I wanted to say, ‘Do you know who else is having a bad time? The woman you snore contentedly next to every night, the one who caught your thirteen year old daughter studying a wet-T-shirt competition on YouTube and who is ignoring the mould she found in the cupboard under the stairs – even though Google told her it might well be toxic – and who supports this family with a job she blagged her way into and could be unceremoniously sacked from at any moment.’ I didn’t say that. I didn’t say any of that. What I said was, ‘If that’s what you want to do, babe.’ And even though I didn’t mean a word of it, I can only assume that’s what he heard, because a few minutes later he put down his crossword and went down to the shed to seek out his waterproof trousers.
Dylan and the kids had got me a gadget that measures your sleep. When I opened it on my birthday, our youngest, Chloe, shouted, ‘We knew you’d love it, coz you’re always too tired!’ The device lived on my wrist and would dutifully tell me how much sleep I’d had each night and, through the magic of technology, the quality of said sleep. The morning after Dylan abandoned our family day, after Chloe had forced me from slumber, screaming my name, I took a moment to look at it. I had had three hours and twenty-four minutes of ‘good quality sleep’. I wasn’t even sure I believed that. I shoved it into the bedside drawer.
‘What?’ I called out. Chloe burst into the room. I made a mental note to advise her later that ‘what?’ is not an invitation. Her usually pale face was a vibrant pink; she was breathing heavily and, seeing her distress, my motherly instinct kicked in. I scrambled out of bed and pulled my dressing gown on. Chloe began shaking her head. I grabbed hold of her shoulders in order to gain her attention. ‘What’s wrong, darling?’
‘I need a mask,’ she cried, and started sobbing. I let my hands fall.
‘For fuck’s sake,’ I muttered. Chloe stopped crying and her eyebrows shot up towards her hairline. ‘I mean, why?’ I said. I pressed my fingers against my temples. ‘Why do you need a mask? Now?’ Chloe began to hop from foot to foot. I noticed her pyjama bottoms only reached the middle of her shins.
‘It’s a cooompetition!’ she wailed.
‘Dylan,’ I hissed. My husband sat up slowly and rubbed his palm over his face a couple of times.
‘What’s going on, sweetheart?’ Chloe leapt into the space I had vacated and nestled her head against her father’s chest. He gently ran his fingers through her hair as she out lined her crisis. Her class was studying the Egyptians and each child was supposed to make an Egyptian burial mask. The winner would get a big book about the pyramids, and she wanted the book, and also Ms Khavari was really, really mean and she would definitely be made to miss playtime for her indiscretion.
‘It’s OK,’ whispered Dylan. ‘We’ll fix it.’ Chloe sighed happily.
‘How?’ I enquired sharply. ‘How exactly will we fix it?’ Dylan untangled himself from Chloe and shrugged.
‘I’ll buy her one on the way to school.’ Dylan gave Our daughter a quick kiss before lying back down and pulling the duvet up to his neck. I resisted the urge to drag it from his body.
‘Where, pray tell, do you plan to find an Egyptian burial mask at eight in the morning? The petrol station?’ Dylan grunted in response. ‘It’s fine! I’ll sort it.’ I retied my dressing gown and searched its pockets for a hair band. Finding nothing, I resorted to pulling my fine auburn hair into a knot. As soon as I had done so, I felt it unravel. ‘I’ll sort it like I sort everything.’ Chloe and Dylan glanced at each other. I hated it when they did that and they did it often, it made me feel like an outsider in my own home.
On the way to the kitchen I thumped on the door of our eldest, Ruby.
‘I don’t have to be awake for twenty minutes!’ she screamed.
‘Good morning! I love you!’ I called back.
Ruby wandered into the kitchen after me, and rested her chin on her hands as she watched me pull the contents from a packet of cornflakes and cut a ragged oval from the box.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
‘I’m making an Egyptian burial mask,’ I answered, as I stabbed eyeholes into the cardboard.
‘I thought it might be a fun way to start the day.’ Ruby didn’t respond. ‘It’s for your sister,’ I added.
‘Bet you wouldn’t make a burial mask for me,’ she said, before yawning without covering her mouth. I looked at her; her face was impassive. At some point between dinner the previous evening and that moment, she had acquired a streak of blue in her hair. I thought, I carried you around inside me; I fed you from my own breasts, wilfully destroying them in the process, and this is what I get?
I had hated pregnancy, every single second of it. The physical strain was bad but the emotional toll was worse. When I got a positive test I cried, not happy tears but from the shock of the sudden realization that my life as I knew it was about to be stolen from me. I was waiting by the door when Dylan got in from work that evening, and as soon as he saw my face he knew. He picked me up and spun me around in circles, and then he wouldn’t stop apologizing, stroking my still-flat stomach protectively.
‘It’s fine,’ I told him. ‘Nothing’s changed.’ But I was wrong.
‘I would make you a burial mask. Do you want a burial mask?’ Ruby took my effort and held it up to her face. She could only look through one of the eyeholes at a time.
‘No, thank you,’ she said, and placed it on the counter. ‘Can I have some coffee?’ she asked, as she dragged a bowl from the cupboard and poured the abandoned cereal into it. Flakes littered the counter top in the process. She left them there as she carried the bowl to the fridge.
‘No. Why is your hair blue?’ Ruby left the fridge door open as she poured milk on to her breakfast.
‘It’s not blue, it has a blue highlight. Megan does it.’ Ruby returned to the counter to eat. I retraced her steps to close the fridge door before cleaning up the cereal and cardboard.
‘Who’s Megan?’ I asked. ‘Is she in your year at school?’ I used to know everything. I knew how long she slept, when and what she ate, and she’d give me a running commentary of every thought that crossed her mind. Now whatever was on her mind was hidden behind a curtain of sneers and eye rolls.
Ruby carefully finished her mouthful before saying, ‘She’s not a kid. She’s a guru.’ Panic broke through my exhaustion and I felt my breathing become shallow.
‘Sweetie, what have you been watching? Is it some sort of religious sect?’ Ruby crossed her eyes. I could only assume this was a reaction to my lack of education.
‘It’s nothing to do with sex. She’s a beauty guru on You Tube.’ She said this last word forcefully, as if challenging me to reveal my complete ignorance by asking her what this was. Of course, I knew what YouTube was. I was a marketing manager. She should really be asking me about YouTube, and I would direct her to a series of videos on motherless children and perhaps spark the merest flicker of gratitude within her.
Dylan walked in with Chloe on his back. He was wearing black tracksuit bottoms and a grey T-shirt, ready for his daily run after dropping Chloe at school. As he helped her to the floor, I watched the muscles in his shoulders move against the thin material of his top. He still had a great body, but then he hadn’t birthed two children, and had time to himself to use for exercise.
‘Did you do my mask?’ Chloe asked me giddily. I handed her my cornflake-box creation. ‘Thank you?’ she said slowly.
Oh, I’m sorry, I thought, do my artistic efforts not meet your exacting standards? I pulled open the drawer that holds all the unclassifiable items in the kitchen, pulled out a few felt tips and handed them to her.
‘Decorate it in the car,’ I said. She considered my suggestion and, clearly having no other options, gave me a quick hug before throwing both the pen and the mask on the kitchen table and asking her dad for something to eat.
‘You wanna lift or you walking?’ Dylan asked Ruby, as he fed bread into the toaster.
‘Thanks, Dad, but I think I’ll walk.’ Just like that – no faces, no character assassination.
‘I’m going for a shower,’ I said to no one in particular.
‘All right, babe,’ Dylan said, with his eyes trained on the toaster. ‘We’ll probably be gone by the time you get out.’
‘Have a good day,’ I said. I waited for him to look up, to smile, maybe to kiss me. His toast popped up and I left the room.
I always have the shower as hot as I can take it. I enjoy dancing the line between pleasure and pain. As I smooshed shampoo into my scalp, I focused on erasing the irritation that had grown within me. I pictured it flowing down the drain with the suds. I clenched my teeth as I heard the faint thud of the front door being slammed, and knew it hadn’t been successful.
The morning might not have unfolded precisely like that. The blue streak was definitely there around that time, and it may have been the morning of the Victorian costume and not the death mask, but there was no kiss – that much I know is true.