It was the blood that woke Edie up that morning. The blood, and the agonising pain that she hadn’t missed in the last three months. It was her first period since the miscarriage, and being the first it was also the heaviest and most painful. She thought about waking Charlie up, but he was snoring contentedly, and anyway, what would she say? There was nothing to talk about, not really.
She shivered her way to the bathroom, being careful to tiptoe around the paint pots and loose floorboards. The new house was meant to be a fresh start for them, but so far it had drained what was left of her energy. She wouldn’t have minded, except it was barely twenty years old. A house that young should be able to able to look after itself.
The light in the bathroom was greyish, dawn threatening its way through the blinds. Edie peed and cleaned the blood up, trying to be clinical about it, as if it was one of her class who had wet themselves. The wrongness of it made her dizzy. It should have been her fifth month of pregnancy. They should still be in the 1930s semi on Williamson Road, finishing converting the spare bedroom into a nursery. Instead she was here, lying naked and exhausted on the tiles of an unfamiliar bathroom.
When Charlie came down to breakfast, she was sitting at the table in the kitchen, staring out at the garden. A couple of years ago, it would have been her ideal: fairy lights, gazebo, plenty of space for barbeques in summertime. Now it just seemed…empty. Not the kind of place a child could play.
“We can look into adoption.” Charlie rested his hand on her shoulder, and she forced a smile. He was doing his best. She knew that. It just didn’t affect him the way it affected her.
“It won’t seem so bad once I’m back at work.” If she kept saying it, eventually it would come true.
“Are you sure you should even go back? Being around all those kids…”
“What else would I do? I’m getting sick of sitting around here all the time.” A year ago if you’d told Edie Bronson that she’d be keen to get back to the sixty hour weeks and cleaning up various bodily fluids that came with teaching first year, she’d have laughed in your face. Now she felt like another month of recovery would drive her mad.
“Your choice, love.” Charlie took a bite of his toast and looked at the kitchen cabinets thoughtfully. “Do you think we should nip to Wicks at the weekend?”
“You should be off. It’s nearly half eight.” Not for the first time, Edie was taken aback by how normal everything was. Had it always been like this? It seemed surreal to her that until they had started trying, days had been spent like this, drinking coffee, talking about home improvements, killing time.
Left alone, Edie spent her morning stripping wallpaper. They’d moved around a lot when she was child, after Stewart. Decorating was therapeutic. It was how her parents had buried their grief, and now it was how she was burying hers. It reminded her of that Larkin poem she had learnt at A-Level. They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you…she ripped a strip of wallpaper and flung it on to the pile.
A child had scribbled on the wall in green crayon. She wondered if the baby would have been artistic as a child. She never had been, but Charlie was. He’d shown her some pictures he’d kept from school, he’d been talented when he was little, but gave up somewhere around secondary school. Edie traced the scribbles with her index finger, pretending they had been scrawled on by her own child. Funny, she would have been mad as hell, but now it never got the chance to happen, she wished more than anything that she had a little brat to deface the modern decor and keep her awake at night.
They had Sheppard’s Pie for supper, her mother’s recipe. Charlie had spent the day recording, which always put him in a good mood. Edie tried not to, but she resented him. Some days it felt as though she’d never smile again, and here he was, chatting away as if nothing had ever happened.
She had an early night, falling asleep in front of the TV in their bedroom. Her dreams that night were more vivid than usual, a side-effect of her pills that her doctor had warned her about. She dreamt of her childhood, of the holiday in Cornwall when she was seven. It was one of the rare times her father’s business was doing well, and they’d rented the holiday cottage for the whole month. Her parents were working on their marriage, which meant she and Stewart had as much time as they wanted to run around, exploring the beach and cave and the meadow at the back of the cottage.
They had been racing on the rocks. That was all. Harmless enough, especially when you compared it to all the tree climbing and tomb-stoning they did that summer. She was way out in front – she had always been the fastest, bravest twin – giggling madly with her hair flying around wildly in the breeze, hands out to stay balanced. She didn’t even turn around until she heard him scream.
Later, the doctors said it would have been quick. Certainly by the time he was bought into hospital he was brain dead. He would barely have known anything about it. It’s like that with head trauma.
Edie woke to the sound of a child’s laughter. “Charlie, could you turn the TV off please?”
“It’s not on love,” he mumbled sleepily.
Edie propped herself up, unnerved. Weird. It hadn’t felt like part of her dream. It wasn’t Stewart’s laugh, or her own. Maybe it came from next door?
That would make sense. She snuggled back down, luxuriating in the cool side of the pillow, hoping she wouldn’t have any more dreams.
She slept more deeply than she’d intended to, and Charlie hadn’t woken her, so it was almost midday by the time she got out of bed. She couldn’t remember the last time she had stayed in bed so long. It was a cold afternoon, and she piled on a second jumper as she worked. There were no more drawings to find, no more sinister laughing to hear. She played the radio and took a break at about three o’clock to make a ham salad sandwich and a cup of coffee.
At half three, a portly lady with a scarf half-covering the rollers in her hair stood on the doorstep, beaming through the peephole. She reminded Edie of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood dressed up in Grandma’s clothes.
“Hello dear, I’m Julie from next door. Can I come in?”
Edie did her best to smile, “Yes, of course. I’m afraid you’ll have to take us as you find us, though, we’re redecorating.”
“Of course you are, lovey, I must say, the Lamberts were like children to me, but they were common as muck. No taste whatsoever. If I’d bought the place, I’d have it gutted…” Julie’s eyes lingered on the bookcase, the tastefully small television, the print they had picked up last summer in Monmarte and hung over the mantelpiece, and she smiled approvingly.
“Oh, it’s just a lick of paint, really. Tea?”
Julie’s lips curled, “I’d rather have something stronger, if you have it.”
Edie fought the temptation to say she never drank before five, and poured out two glasses of Pinot Grigio, from the bottle she always kept in the fridge, to be polite.
“People can be such snobs about wine,” Julie said, “but personally I quite like a cheap plonk.”
It was a funny thing, but Edie noticed that the more wine she drunk, the less insufferable Julie became. By the end of her second glass, Edie had told her new neighbour all about the miscarriage, and Charlie’s job, and how after talking it through with the relationships counsellor they had decided to move out here, to the Sussex countryside.
“Normally we could never afford anywhere this nice,” Edie confided, “but the asking price was much lower than we expected, and Charlie’s parents were absolute stars about helping out.”
Julie pursed her lips, “Yes, well. Bradley and Siobhan were desperate to get rid of the place after all the…unpleasantness.”
Edie sipped her wine, “What unpleasantness?”
“Oh, with the child. Dreadful business, really. So sad,” Julie’s face showed no glimmer of emotion, “their poor little boy died of meningitis. Very tragic.”
“That’s terrible,” Edie thought of the scribbling on the wall, and felt miserable, “how old was he?”
“Seven or eight,” Julie finished the dregs of her wine, “Bradley and Siobhan emigrated not long after that. Went off to open a bar in Costa Del Croydon or somewhere. Can’t blame them, really.”
Edie nodded, thinking how much worse it would have been to have had her baby, to see it learn to walk, to start school, then to watch it die. In some ways she was lucky to have been spared all that.
“Anyway, I better be off. Norman will be wanting his tea.”
Edie rolled her eyes as she closed the front door behind the old biddy. She finished stripping wall paper that afternoon, and realised Charlie had left the white ceiling paint in the loft. He was always doing things like that, his head too in the clouds to get anything done.
She pulled the attic hatch open, making a mental note to make his life hell if she so much as glimpsed a spider.
They hadn’t unloaded their crap very tidily, so their DIY tools were mixed up with Christmas decorations and old family heirlooms. She was about to give up when she heard a gentle scratching noise that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Mice, she thought. Or rats. Or owls.
A city girl to the core, Edie had never been a fan of wildlife, and even less so when it was living in her house. She grabbed her old cricket bat and crawled towards the noise, not entirely sure what she would do when she got to the source of the noise.
As she got closer, the scratching got louder. It’s more afraid of you then you are of it, she told herself, not quite believing. Crouching down, using a box of good china as a barricade, Edie found the source of the noise: it was a wooden fire engine.
Edie watched it for a moment, half-fascinated, half-terrified. The toy whirled round in a circle, scratching against the floorboards. Tentatively, she leaned down and picked it up, still expecting to find a mouse in the driver’s seat.
Somehow, finding it empty was even scarier. Too unnerved to stay in the loft a second longer, she fled downstairs to the kitchen and put the kettle on, deciding that the only way to settle her nerves was by drinking a nice, rational cup of tea.
By the time Charlie got home that evening, she had managed to convince herself it was the drink, and she decided not to mention it. That night, she lay awake by herself, her hand resting on the space below her bellow button, thinking how she was empty but longed to be full.
She woke up early the next morning, having snatched less than a few hours of sleep. The shower was one of the few things she really liked about the house, and she took her time, indulging in the gloriously hot water. Next door, she could just about hear the murmur of Julie and her husband having an argument. The words washed over her like steam.
Edie wrapped herself in a towel and dried her face, trying to remember the last time she had bothered with make-up. Looking up, she felt her heart stand still in her ribcage. Smeared in the mist in the bathroom mirror was the word Mummy in thin, childlike writing.
She screamed, and Charlie came running into the bathroom, slipper in hand.
“Is it a spider?”
Wordlessly, she pointed to the mirror.
Edie followed his gaze. The steam had been wiped off the mirror.
“It said…I thought…” Words failed her, “it said mummy.” Exhausted, she fell into his arms, sobbing.
He stroked her hair, clearly confused, “You’re tired.”
She looked up at him. She was tired. But more than that, she was going mad. What else could explain it? They had breakfast, Charlie trying to reassure her that it was fine. She was traumatised. These things happen.
Left alone, she took a double dose of the little pills her doctor had put her on, and cried. Next door were still arguing, and she thought she could hear a baby cry underneath it all, but that didn’t make sense. Julie was too old to be a mother, and she’d never seen any sign grandchildren come to visit. At least, not since the night when she’d heard a child laughing.
She buried her face in her hands, and breathed deeply. She wasn’t crazy. She was Edie Bronson, a sensible primary school teacher who liked sixties pop and poetry. It was stress, that was all.
“Mummy, mummy, mummy, mummy.”
There was no way it was coming from next door. It was in the room with her, taunting her, reminding her of her own insanity.
“I’m not your mummy!” She yelled.
The room fell unnaturally silent, like a child throwing a tantrum.
Unable to take anymore, she pulled her old Ugg boots on, and went next door. Julie opened up within seconds, as if she had expected her.
“Edie dear,” she said, blinking up at her, “whatever is the matter?”
Edie blinked back tears, “I’m sorry to disturb you.”
“Nonsense, I was just feeling quite sorry for myself, Norman’s off visiting his daughter in Clacton, so I’m just sitting in here watching television by myself.”
“I’m just watching television by myself.” Julie repeated, a little louder.
“No – I mean – Norman’s not there?”
“No, he’s been gone since Saturday. Are you feeling unwell, dear? You look a bit peaky, if you don’t mind me saying so.” She said it in a tone that clearly meant: if you throw up on me, I will scratch your eyes out.
“I’m fine.” Edie tried to smile, “I was just…you’ll think I’m being really morbid. But the little boy, the one who lived in the house before we moved in, what was his name again?”
“Jack,” Julie blinked, “Jack Holloway.”
“Thank you.” Edie turned on her heels and walked away without explaining anything.
Back her hall, the new paintwork was gone. Photos of an unfamiliar family, a young couple and their son, a little boy maybe seven or eight years old, beamed down at her from silver frames.
“Look what you’ve done!” A woman screamed from the living room, making Edie jump.
“It was an accident,” a man said, his voice hushed.
“Nobody will believe that.”
Edie rushed into the living room, her hands shaking. “Jack?” she called, “Jack, it’s okay. Mummy’s home.”
The little boy waiting there looked very much how she had imagined her son might look, with her sandy hair and Charlie’s kind brown eyes. He might not understand at first, but later on he would.
“I’m sorry I shouted at you, darling boy,” she said, and opened her arms wide. He ran over and hugged her, making her shudder, “of course I’m your mummy.”
“Where did you go?” Jack asked.
“I just had to pop out quickly.”
“I don’t like it when I’m alone.” Edie wondered how much of life Jack remembered, and promised herself that she’d help him forget as much as she could. She cupped his face in her hand and smiled.
“Mummy promises she’ll never leave you like that ever again.”
Kitty Cermak is an English teacher and writer living just outside of London. Her first novel, Once, is available in paperbook on Amazon.com.