The Housewarming - S.E. Lynes
When I think about that morning, it is beat by beat, like a heart – my own heart, my daughter’s, at the time so enmeshed it seemed she was part of me: my body, my tissue, my bones. She is part of me. She will always be part of me.
When I think about that morning, I watch myself, over and over, as if from above. I watch myself like you watch your children in a school play or a sports match, silently willing them to succeed, to shine, to not get hurt. I watch myself bleeding on the sidelines of slowly unfolding disaster, alive with the pain I know is coming but she, the me of that moment, does not.
I do this every minute of every hour of every day. And I have done this for almost a year.
I watch myself: there I am, making my way down the stairs with an armful of laundry. I can’t see over the top. I take it slowly, both feet on one step before I lower myself to the next. Another step down, another. I am always so careful these days. I used to be carefree, but now I see danger everywhere: an electric socket is a hazard, a glass left too near the edge of a tabletop risky, a staircase perilous.
Another step. I call her name. Abi.
‘Mummy’s coming,’ I say.
I say, ‘Mummy’s just going to pop a wash on and then we’ll go and feed the ducks.’
I say, ‘You’ve been such a good girl, waiting nicely like that.’
I’ve always chatted away to her – from the moment she was born. At two, she loves the sound of me prattling on.
‘Mummy,’ she would say. She would hold my face in her tiny hands.
‘My love you.’
‘I love you too, little monkey.’
I would push the end of her nose, make a honking sound. She would throw back her head, helpless with giggles.
‘Again,’ she would say. ‘Again, Mummy.’
Never again. Or maybe, maybe one day… She might still be out there, after all. There’s a chance, isn’t there? The tiniest chance? In faces of other little girls I search for her every day, but even now, her features fade from me, her smell, her warmth, the sharp arc of her paper-thin nails on my cheeks, the weight of her on my hip, the strange swing of us both when I leant forward to stir the spaghetti sauce, the anticipation on her face, waiting while I blew on the end of the spoon, her little body fraught with anticipation, knowing that in seconds she would be allowed to taste the sauce, to tell me if it was good.
I watch myself: face full of dirty linen. I can’t see my own feet.
‘Abi?’ I say, as yet no presentiment of disaster. ‘What’s the matter? Aren’t you speaking, missy?’
The curved bar of her pushchair. The mesh back. Her head is not there. Her soft curling ringlets, thickening now from baby to child hair, are not there.
She is not there.
Ava, don’t be a lunatic, she’s leaning forward.
No, she isn’t. She’s not there. She’s not in the buggy.
Abi is not there.
Second by second, beat by beat. A clock. The metronome that sits on my piano top, keeping time. The washing drops from my arms. I stumble, fall down the last few steps.
‘Abi?’ I call out, righting myself, rubbing at the pain in my hands. ‘Abi?’
Another second. The prickling rise of the hairs on my arms.
I can see the house opposite.
I can see the house opposite.
The house opposite—
The front door is open. Oh God, I have left the front door open.
‘Oh my God. Abi!’
I am on the street, scanning right, left, right again. I am calling her name, my ribcage tightening around my lungs. ‘Abi? Abi? Abi!’
My heart fattens in my chest. I left Abi in the hallway and I popped upstairs.
‘Wait there, darling,’ I said. ‘Won’t be a tick.’
I did not, can’t have, closed the front door. Abi was fastened into her buggy. She doesn’t know how to undo the clasp. She didn’t know. Yesterday she didn’t know how to undo the clasp. She wasn’t making any noise so I… I…
A few paces. She is nowhere on the pavement, in either direction. I have no idea which way to head. One way precludes the other, and what if she’s still inside…
I dash back into the house, hearing the watery tremble of her name as it falls from my mouth. The house is held in an electric stasis. I make myself stand