In the failed blue, the park is a child’s drawing of dusk. Strung-out shadows. Bats, swallows – something you can’t identify – flit between the branches. Plastic bags in the trees, the streetlights glowing through them like lanterns. Your running shorts aren’t long enough – the coarse hairs stand up on your legs and you shiver in your sweat. ‘I’m freezing my balls off out here.’
‘Sorry – it’s being a dick.’ Jay raps his knuckles on the water fountain. A slow trickle patters into his bottle.
The benches are all empty now, the harsh colours of the children’s playground muted. Just weeks ago, you sat there with your brother while your goddaughter tackled the climbing frame, the playground a riot of squeals and shouts and kicking against the wood – all the serious noise of childhood. As you watched Casey swing from the monkey bars – her grasping concentration as her feet flapped like sparrows, her look of pride in your direction when she reached the end – your brother told you he was dying.
You rub at your breastbone. Across the green, a hose has been abandoned, drowning the carefully planted beds, but there’s no sign of the groundskeeper. A crisp packet drifts across the path. You stamp on it, stuff it in the overflowing bin at the edge of the railings, then back away from where the reek of wet rot and urinals drifts up the stairs from the public toilets.
Jay reaches over to thumb the backs of your knuckles, and you relent into half a smile. He jiggles the lever on the water fountain. ‘Sorry.’
‘It’s fine.’ Truth be told, you’re glad of the break. Your chest is tight, there’s a pull down your left ankle, and you’ve spent the past kilometre trying to breathe less audibly, to not envy Jay’s practised stride, the way sweat suits him like a stylistic choice. You pull at each of your elbows in turn to stretch your shoulder muscles, try to look the part. You shiver again.
‘Jog on the spot if you’re cold.’
He grins. ‘I’m proud of you, you know that? You’re doing well.’ He nods to the water fountain, its trickle slowed to a quick drip. ‘Nearly done.’
The woman appears so suddenly it’s as if she has stepped out of the air, conjured herself from this space between light and dark. She’s tall and slight, as though life has pared her back. Her hair is hidden under a baseball cap with the peak torn off, and she’s wearing too many clothes for summer. Her supermarket trolley is piled high with shopping bags and rugs and bursting black bin liners, and she has the same wet rot smell as the toilet block behind you.
Jay concentrates on the water fountain.
‘Watch my stuff.’ No please or thank you. She pushes the trolley, so the metal front bumps against your hip, then darts down the steps into the toilets.
Still focused on the water dripping into his bottle, Jay says, ‘You shouldn’t have encouraged her.’
‘What is it about you?’
It’s a question Jay has been asking ever since he met you, sometimes bemused and affectionate, sometimes taut with exasperation. But you still don’t have an answer – why people talk to you on buses, in queues. Why people will spill, unprompted, their whole life stories. Your brother always said you must look trustworthy, although you don’t know what that means, exactly. Perhaps you just blend into the background, an unassuming confessional.
‘Done.’ Jay holds up his water bottle, looks at the shopping trolley. ‘Reckon there’s actually anything worth nicking?’
‘Even if there was –’
‘I don’t mean – I’m not a thief. Obviously. I didn’t mean me. I meant – anybody –’
‘We can’t just leave.’
‘We said we’d watch it.’
‘We didn’t, technically.’ But he leans against the railings and takes a swig of water.
Across the park, the hosepipe has dried up. The groundskeeper emerges from the trees, coils it over his arm, and walks away out of sight, the last drips trailing him like breadcrumbs that vanish into the soil. From somewhere outside the wrought iron railing, a siren calls its high sad warning down the street. Inside, there’s nothing but trees, the grass blueing, the subdued chatter of birds.
The woman’s trolley gleams, bright metal hiding the dark mass of stuff inside it, though looking closer, you can see rust creeping along the handlebar, a rough white mark where the name of the supermarket has been scratched away. The coin slot has been forced open, the one pound gone. The smell is overpowering: unwashed clothes, mould, and that flat gagging smell like the time your sister found a dead mouse in the cupboard under the stairs. The trolley is piled so high with bags, you wonder how she gets to the ones at the bottom, or whether they just fester there, crushed by the rotation of what’s on top. Carriers protrude through the bars like thighs over the edges of bus seats. Scraps of black plastic flutter or hang loose, and a stained canvas holdall balances like the crumbling figurehead of a ship. In the middle of it all, a heap of tatty clothes swells and spreads. It fidgets in the lamplight.
He checks his watch. ‘This is going to throw our timings right off.’
‘Shit.’ He takes an involuntary step back. ‘Think she’s got a dog or something in there? A cat maybe?’
‘Let’s get out of here.’
On tiptoe to keep your distance, you peer in. Your calf muscles pull, and for the first time, you understand what Jay means when he talks about the satisfying ache, the body working for itself.
‘Don’t get too close.’
‘Can’t see anything. Could be rats.’
The pile of clothes wriggles, shifts. The sleeve of an old coat rustles the plastic bags. Out of the corner of your eye, you see Jay flinch, then try to hide it. You stretch out a tentative hand.
‘Don’t!’ Jay takes another step away from the trolley. ‘God knows what you could catch.’
A snuffle like a small dog escapes the coat, then a short high whimper. It tugs at something inside you, like a piece of music you used to know but can’t remember the name of. You say, ‘That’s not rats.’
At arm’s length, with the tip of your thumb and forefinger, you pull back the coat.
‘What is it?’
‘I’m not coming any closer than –’
‘A fucking baby.’
She stares up at you, blue eyes deep as wells in the evening light. Without the coat, she’s naked, and her legs kick at the cold air. Her body is plump and pale, but her arms are thin, wrinkled red, her face yellow. Her fingers curl and uncurl, squeak against the plastic bags as she grabs for cover.
She screws up her whole face in a yawn that ends with another high whimper. She teeters on the brink of tears.
You wrap the old coat back around her, then pick her up, hand splayed across the back of her neck for support. There’s something soothing about the weight of a baby’s head. You held your goddaughter when she was less than twenty-four hours old. Your body had been stiff with terror that you would move and somehow break her – but by the time your sister’s third was born, you had come to love the dense heat of a baby, the soft solid form.
You hold the woman’s baby against your chest, rock her with your body as she burbles into your shoulder. There’s that musty, wet-rot smell again – the coat, probably – but underneath it, the smell of milk and warm skin and baby sick, and you bury your face in the soft globe of her head.
You catch Jay looking, struggling to arrange his face.
He kicks at a stone. ‘Never mind.’
There’s shock in his expression, you’re sure of it. Shock at how easily you’ve picked up someone else’s baby, at how comfortably you hold her against you. Shock, too, perhaps, at how it feels for him. You try to remember whether Jay has ever seen you rock a baby. You try to read what he’s thinking, wonder if you spot some kind of desire flashing across his face, some hunger, maybe, before he tidies it carefully away.
He wants children – you know that. You asked him, once, at the bowling alley on your second date, then bit your lip in case it scared him off. But he grinned and tested the feel of the bowling ball, muscles and veins in his forearms tight with the weight. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Someday.’ Then he turned to the head of the lane and sent the ball hurtling towards the pins. Whenever you replay this in your mind, you always give him a perfect strike.
You hold the baby more self-consciously, now, angle your body so he can see. You make soft hushing noises, small in the huge expanse of the park – intimate, pulling the whole evening into this one quiet corner of you, Jay and the baby.
Jay looks at his feet, shuffles, breaks the moment. ‘Sure you want to wrap it in that thing?’
You snuggle her closer into your body. ‘She was cold.’
‘Want a go?’
His arms have started to goose-pimple, and he rubs them warm. ‘I’m good.’ He bounces on the balls of his feet.
Moments like this, you think of your brother after you first introduced him to Jay: the two of you walking home from the pub, pavements dark and spectacular with rain, your brother punching your flabby upper arm, telling you Jay must be settling.
‘I just meant –’ Your brother dug his hands into his pockets, watched the passing cars. ‘Look, well done, is all. Even I can see he’s a ten. You’re great, too – obviously, you’re my brother, course you’re great. He’s just not what I expected. I like him though. He’s – yeah, great.’
Then he asked about work, and never mentioned the disparity again. But you thought about it often. When the bedsheets pulled taut across Jay’s stomach. In the mornings, his reflection in the bathroom mirror as he leaned in to sculpt the line of his stubble, your chest pale and blotchy, dripping from the shower. The way a barista might do a double take when taking his order, might linger too long handing him his change. How a woman in the supermarket once stopped as he reached for the oranges, her eyes travelling boldly along the broad stretch of his arm, the arch of his neck. How these same people’s gazes blew past you like litter along a gutter.
You turn away from him to watch for the woman coming up out of the toilets. Everything is quiet. The bats – you’re pretty sure, now, that they are bats – continue to shoot overhead. The baby’s wriggling slows, and her breathing relaxes into sleep.
After a few minutes, Jay says, ‘You reckon she’s alright?’
‘She’s fine – aren’t you, gorgeous?’
‘No, her.’ He nods in the direction of the toilet block.
‘Oh. Want to go check?’
He looks at his watch again. ‘Give her a couple more minutes. Before we run off with the baby.’
You laugh too loudly, or for a fraction of a second too long. Your laugh falls to the ground and lies there, a wounded thing, conspicuous between the two of you.
‘Best chance we’ll get.’ You try to make it light, a throwaway comment.
‘You’re not serious.’
You breathe in the warm scent at the back of the baby’s neck. ‘Course not.’
But now it’s been said out loud, the idea hovers there, a steep cliff, with you peering over the edge, unable to step back, terrified to jump. Words like adoption and surrogacy flutter around your head – multisyllabic and Latinate, complex processes you wouldn’t even know how to set in motion. How much easier for a baby to come to you like this – her small animal weight, changeling child as in a fairy story. As in a dream.
There’s a long pause before Jay says, ‘What kind of mum leaves her baby with strangers?’
You want to say, A mum with no other options. Instead, you say, ‘A bad one.’
‘What kind of way is that to raise a child?’
You take a single step away from the toilet block. Under the guise of rocking the baby, you take another, test the distance. The shadows wrap themselves around you like permission as the path pulls away, towards the river, towards the town. It would be so easy to walk home, to stroll from the park, through the grid of lamplit streets, the baby still held firmly against you. To watch as Jay unlocks the green front door, then steps aside to let the two of you in. You would lay her in a makeshift cot – one of the big wooden drawers from your grandma’s old sideboard, stuffed with pillows and spare blankets – then stand over her for hours as she hiffled and rolled in sleep, the light from the landing dribbling like syrup through the open door, turning her face to gold. Tomorrow, you would go online and order nappies, babygrows, a changing mat, formula, a pram, a carry cot, dummies, baby wipes, a whole jungle of plastic toys.
Jay says, ‘I think we’ve got a responsibility. We can’t leave it with her.’
You picture the woman coming up out of the toilet block to find you gone, the trolley idle at the edge of the path. She checks the folds of old clothes for her child, she digs deeper, more frantic, pulls things out and strews them across the grass, the whole park wild with her in sympathy.
The baby hiffles into your neck. Carefully, with just the right amount of hesitation, you say, ‘I’ve always thought the back room would make a good nursery.’
Jay looks at you. He looks for so long you have to turn away, back towards the toilet block, with no sign of the woman. He says your name and you start to mumble Rock-a-bye Baby, breathily and out of tune. You close your eyes and let the song falter from you.
‘We have to report it to the authorities.’
You open your eyes. ‘Don’t be dramatic.’
‘It’s naked in a supermarket trolley.’
‘And then what?’
‘Then they’ll see it’s properly looked after.’ As he says this, Jay looks at the baby, as if taking her in for the first time, as if he’s cataloguing her basic human needs – though you can tell he’s really just avoiding looking at you, at your own need.
‘She needs love, not a council spreadsheet.’
‘She needs warmth and food and a roof over her head.’
‘You can’t take her away.’
Jay looks you full in the face. ‘From who?’
You whisper it, to Jay, to the baby, to the night: ‘You can’t take her away.’ The hush of your voice is an island in the darkening park. The baby’s fingers curl at the edge of your shirt as you shiver around her. The bats keep thrumming from tree to tree.
That day with your brother, you watched your goddaughter pretend to drive the wooden train, stoke the engine, punch imaginary travellers’ tickets. Whenever she waved – that umbilical glance back to the bench – you waved back as though from a station platform, two people at once, the one playing the game and the one left behind on the sidelines.
Your brother said, ‘The doctor reckons months.’
You didn’t know how to arrange your face, so you left it slack. ‘They said that before…’
‘They’re sure this time.’
You stared at the lid of your coffee cup, picked at a bit of loose plastic. It was an irresponsible luxury, you knew that – bad for the environment, a wasteful role model for Casey. Secretly, though, you enjoyed the careless ritual of it all. You looked at your brother, worrying splinters from the wooden stirrer with his fingernails. ‘I’m sorry.’
Casey bounded up, breathless, all sparkle and flush and grin. She shoved her jumper into your lap, then ran back to the playground, bare arms flapping.
‘Does her mum know?’
‘Not yet.’ He looked at the gravel under the bench instead of at his daughter. ‘I’m waiting for the right moment.’
‘Will they clear her? To take Casey?’
‘Depends if she’s clean. How long for. They do house checks, too, I think.’
‘Could be the push she needs.’
‘Or the opposite.’
You looked at him more closely, at the purple sheen in the corners of his eyes. For the first time, you wondered whether it was just a hallmark of single parenthood, or something more.
Only now, too late, do you realise you should have told him you would take care of Casey, and you can’t imagine why you didn’t.
You carry the coffin down the aisle with your sister’s husband and four of your brother’s friends. You hadn’t expected such strain, the way it digs into your shoulder, the drag of it down your spine. You feel it where you’ve been running with Jay, in the burn of your calves and thighs, as though what you carry is every moment of your brother’s life, packed in along with his body.
It had surprised you, when your brother had said he wanted to have the funeral in a church, just as it had surprised you when he’d had Casey christened. Outside the occasional school nativity play, none of you had been raised religious. As a teenager, when you’d asked your brother whether he believed in God, he’d said, ‘Sure – if he gives me a Ferrari.’
But now you’re here, it suits him – the smells of old stone and new-polished wood, the ceremony with its patterns of call and response. The way the altar gives you a focus point for your grief.
Your part over, you stumble into the front pew. Jay takes your hand, and you focus all your attention on where his fingers interlock with yours, winding your griefs together. Everything feels heightened, sharp but imprecise – an underwater scene filmed on high-definition cameras. You’re acutely aware of everyone else in the church: your sister and her husband next to Jay, their two oldest between them, the baby in a carry-basket at their feet; beyond them, next to Casey, is Casey’s mother, pinched and grey, in a black suit slightly too big for her; and behind you, the rest of them, mumbling through the hymns, full to the creaking back door. You struggle to breathe against the volume.
The wake is held in your brother’s house. Little sandwiches and cakes on tinfoil-covered trays. The terrier weaving between feet, hunting for scraps. A mass of dark-clothed bodies, their chatter rising as they mingle, then dropping, suddenly, to maintain a respectful level of misery.
You find Casey in the conservatory, neither inside nor outside the house, sitting on the wide ledge with her feet hanging out of the open window, to brush the tangle of weeds underneath. You pass her a paper plate of bitesize millionaire shortbreads, then sit beside her, your back to the jungle garden, each of you looking in opposite directions. The light through the glass roof is a bright cold white, and the people gathered under it look washed-out, two-dimensional. As far as you can tell, they’re all work colleagues – you think you recognise your brother’s boss from the time you bumped into him with Casey at soft play – sympathetic but distant. You wonder if this is why she chose this room, where she would be surrounded by people who wouldn’t interfere.
You watch her peel the layer of chocolate from the top of a millionaire shortbread, her fingers sticky with caramel. ‘How are you doing?’
She shrugs. She places the chocolate layer on the plate, then starts to scrape at the shortbread with her bottom teeth. She nibbles away a bit, pulls back to check her handiwork, then carries on. The cake slides around in her fingers, the caramel softening in her hands.
‘You know how I used to eat them? Start with the chocolate, then lick off all the caramel, and eat the shortbread last.’
‘Daddy too.’ She pulls back as the shortbread crumbles into her palm and down her front.
‘I wanted to save the middle bit till last.’ Looking down herself at the mess, she makes a small noise somewhere between a hiccough and a sob.
‘Here.’ You wipe her fingers with a tissue, then sweep the crumbs into your hand and toss them out the window. ‘Maybe just eat the next one normally?’
She pushes the plate away and leans against you, her face pressed into your armpit. ‘Huggle?’
‘Like you need to ask.’ You have to shift sideways, one leg half on the ledge, your shoulder against the window frame, but you fold your arms around her, let her snuggle into you. Her breathing is slow and loud, the kind of breath to measure time by, till the rhythm of her lungs becomes the rhythm of your own life. For a brief wild moment, you let yourself imagine what it would be like to have this all the time – for Casey’s huffing breath to measure out every morning, every evening – to stand at the foot of her bed each night as it deepened, as it carried her out into her dreams like the rocking of a small boat.
A few sparrows come to peck at the crumbs in the clearing by the weeds. They hop in and back, wary. Then Casey kicks her feet and they all flutter back to the trees. Your back starts to twinge and you have pins and needles in your foot, but you just shift to huggle her closer, and watch through the window as the first sparrow makes its return. ‘I saw you saying goodbye to your mum earlier.’
Casey nods against your shoulder. ‘She’s not very well.’
‘She has to go and live in a place where they can look after her and make her better, but children aren’t allowed.’
You both watch as a crow barrels in and sends the sparrows scattering. ‘How do you feel about that?’
‘Ok.’ Casey kicks her feet again, but the crow just flaps its wings and caws. ‘I can speak to her some days, if she’s feeling well enough. Daddy says one day, if she gets better, I might be able to live with her in a house.’
‘Would you like that?’
‘I don’t know.’
You wait, shoulders pulling, watch as the crow is joined by another two. The possibility of Casey hangs in the air by the open window, like Casey herself, both inside and outside of the house. You imagine you and her and Jay, eating spaghetti in your kitchen. The scene has a warm soft light, the way photographers talk about golden hour – everything more intense and precious in the last of the sun – and when you picture Casey swinging her legs under your kitchen table, she’s also precious, also on the edge of slipping away. It should be the easiest thing to hold her there, to bring the picture to life. Just breath and noise. You’re sure she’d say yes – you know she loves you third in all the world, sometimes even second only to your brother. But you don’t know how to make it come about. ‘Casey…’
‘Casey, there you are!’
Your sister barrels towards you across the conservatory, all black chiffon and heels. Before you know it, she’s wrapped you in a steely hug, so you’re pulled off the window ledge and away from Casey. You hug her back, awkwardly, your body still half bent, so your elbows and shoulders are at the wrong height. When she pulls away, her cheeks are runnelled with tears.
‘Sorry.’ She wipes them briskly with the back of her hand. ‘How are you feeling?’ Then without waiting for an answer, she says, ‘Casey, we’re almost ready to go.’
Casey jumps down from the window to hug you fiercely around your legs.
‘I was thinking –’
Your sister says, ‘I’ve finally managed to get the baby off to sleep. We want to get at least half way home before he wakes up.’ She speaks with that harassed pride, every sentence poised to let you know how tough motherhood can be. ‘Go up to your room and get the rest of your stuff, ok?’
Casey hugs your legs again, then lets go. She says goodbye in the smallest voice you’ve ever heard her use, then weaves away between the black-suited bodies. You feel her separation like a chill breeze.
Your sister watches her as far as the kitchen, then turns back to you. ‘Poor girl. I think my lot might be the best thing for her.’
‘New town, new friends. A bit of distance from all this.’ She gestures at the conservatory, the jungle garden, the thinning crowd of mourners. She gestures as if her sweeping arm could encompass all the sorrows of the universe.
‘Won’t you be too busy?’ You say it slyly, then wish you could pull it back.
‘When you’ve got three, what’s another one? It’s not like there’s anyone else. Did you see the state of her mother?’
‘I heard she’s recovering.’
‘As if. Casey’ll be off to university before that woman’s straightened herself out.’
The conservatory is quiet now. Most of your brother’s colleagues have drifted home, none of them wanting to be left alone in a house of grieving family.
You say, ‘You know, I’m her godparent too.’
‘Sure, but it’s not like you can take her.’
‘Right.’ You start to collect up discarded paper plates.
Your sister watches you awkwardly, worries at an unused napkin with her thumb. ‘It’s just Jay, you know? Well, not Jay exactly. But your lifestyle – maybe that’s the wrong word for it.’
The crow is cawing again outside the window. It cuts right through to your temple.
‘Oh, you know what I mean. The poor girl’s got enough problems, hasn’t she? Besides,’ she rattles on, ‘she needs a mother figure.’
You stand in front of her with the pile of plates, food debris squashed between the layers. There’s a pull, still, in your back, and a hollow ache between your ribs. You want to draw your sister out, to make her say something that will fill the space – but her face is tense and tear-marked, and you can’t find the words.
Jay appears as your sister is wrestling her middle child into the car seat. His hand, when he takes yours, is still damp from washing up cups, and you grip it tightly. Casey is already strapped into the back. When she turns to wave, she sits her teddy on top of the headrest so you can wave goodbye to him, too.
Jay rubs your thumb with his. ‘You’ll still see her, you know. It’s not another planet.’
Your sister’s oldest puts his own teddy up next to Casey’s, and they both laugh as the terrier perks up from the boot space to snuffle at its belly.
A week from now, you will visit your sister. Her raucous brood will run through the living room, tumble across the plush carpets, chattering at a hundred miles an hour, and Casey will already be one of the family.
With her children strapped in and her husband waiting at the wheel, your sister gives you one last squeeze, and whispers, ‘Don’t be a stranger.’ Jay has to let go of your hand as she holds out hers for him to shake. For a moment, she hovers, on the brink of speaking. Then her husband sounds the car horn – ‘Idiot, he’ll wake the baby!’ – and in a hurry of hushed bickers, they’re gone, the people carrier pulling off the drive and you waving as they speed away down the street.
Back inside, Jay helps you clear the rest of the plates. Neither of you talk as you bag up the half-eaten sandwiches, the dry scones with a single bite taken out of them, the plastic cups tucked neatly into bookshelves. In the sitting room, you find a lost jacket. In the gap between sofa cushions, a set of keys.
You move with your black bin liner into the conservatory. The window is still open, and a breeze rustles the napkins from the table. It’s colder now, devoid of people. A sacred quiet. In the garden, a flurry of noise as if the party has moved outside. Chirps and calls, a light cacophonous joy. All the birds in the neighbourhood have fluttered to the clearing under the open window, where they flap and peck and squabble for the crumbs that Casey left behind.
Katie Hale is the author of a novel, My Name is Monster, and two poetry pamphlets. She is a former MacDowell Fellow, and winner of the Palette Poetry Prize, Munster Chapbook Prize, and Prole Laureate Competition. Her short fiction has been longlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award. Katie also runs Dove Cottage Young Poets for Wordsworth Grasmere, and is a Core Team Member of the Writing Squad. In 2022, she won the Northern Writers’ Award for Fiction for her second novel – and her debut poetry collection, White Ghosts, comes out with Nine Arches in March 2023.