Day In, Day Out
The third step squeaked on the staircase but the plush, caramel carpet muffled the sounds of her footsteps. Their old floorboards had always been too hard and noisy. An armful of blankets obstructed Maggie’s view and she stumbled on a toy at the top of the stairs. A short expletive passed her glossed lips before she caught her footing. The blankets slipped an inch but stayed snug in her arms till she stowed them neatly in the hall closet.
Walls of cottage white spread through the second storey, interrupted only by high gloss doorways to bedrooms, the bathroom, and nursery. Easterly windows invited in warm streams of sunlight that showed flecks of dust in the air, though the flecks were not permitted to rest on any surface in the house. One door was just ajar and deep blue carpet extended inside. Maggie’s braclet-encircled wrist pushed on the edge of the door and revealed a room furnished to precision for a little boy.
A smiling, brown teddy bear was embroidered on the cushion seat that was attached to the lid of a wooden toybox painted shiny white. The arm of a doll protruded from one side of the toybox, leaving the lid askew. Their plastic changing table was fully stocked and organised to the last baby wipe. A few piles of different sized nappies to the side of it were redundant as, of course, babies grow quickly. Dark oak cot railings enclosed a mattress and pale blue sheets with a fluffy brown toy dog in the corner. Mirrors on the built-in wardrobe doors reflected the spotless room. Across from the doorway sat an open window framed in white lace curtains that rolled smoothly against themselves in the light breeze. The same dark oak formed a rocking chair in the corner that held a small, navy blue cushion. A painted mural on the ceiling completed the room. Billowing white clouds were set remarkably life-like against a boundless sky blue ceiling.
Smiling wistfully, Maggie straightened an imagined crease in the cot sheets and popped the doll’s arm noiselessly back into the toybox. Jude would always have a clean room, she thought. Everyone else’s kids left mess throughout their rooms. Jude would be different. She sat in the rocking chair, musing over long nights she’d spent feeding and settling her baby in that chair, and days spent in hazy newborn cuddles as she stared into the ceiling, mesmerised by the clouds and convinced she could catch them moving above her. Her fleeting moment of relaxation and remembrance was interrupted by the kitchen timer beeping downstairs.
Jude was due for his lunch – sweet potato and pumpkin mash. Maggie would eat the same, as a big lunch had never appealed to her. She put away the toy from the top of the stairs before gliding down the staircase and into the surgically white kitchen. The open-plan lower level of the house showed a chocolate-coloured suede couch set facing a wall-mounted flat screen television opposite the kitchen’s breakfast bar. White and brown marble counters covered most of the kitchen’s cupboards and dishwasher. An oak dining table and ornate chairs populated the other corner of the first storey. The caramel carpet flowed through these areas too, save for the crisp white tiles in the kitchen.
Not a speck of dirt or mess marred the living or dining areas, while the only imperfection in the modern kitchen was the bowl of mash now on the bench. Maggie took pride in a clean house and polite family. Shoes were never worn inside and food never left the kitchen or dining areas. Pens and crayons were never to be left where they could fall onto the floor and mark the carpet, and the walls had never been touched by hands unclean.
Lunch was quick and quiet, and the eating implements soon rinsed and stacked in the dishwasher. Maggie had better start cooking if she were to have dinner ready for her husband and mother when they arrived. After emptying the rubbish bins from the whole house, including a big bag of nappies from the nursery, she opened the fridge to find ingredients for her roast dinner.
* * *
The table was set when Maggie’s husband Ray arrived home from work, soon followed by her mother.
“Dinner is just about ready, everything is already set so don’t worry about that, the house is clean and rubbish outside – the bin is nearly full so you might need to squash that down for me love – and we’re probably going to need to do a shopping trip for more nappies and wipes before the weekend,” Maggie said to Ray. “Shoes on the rack outside please mum, not just left at the door, I’ve told you that before. You never know what you’ve stepped in outside,” she paused for a breath. “Are either of you going to say hello to Jude?”
Ray looked reluctantly at the smiling 5 month old face at the table. The same smile as yesterday, and the day before. Jude’s grandmother went instead to the fridge for a drink.
“Fine, let your son believe you don’t love him. Let me get it mum, I can do it,” Maggie snapped.
“Just sit down, Alison, don’t push her,” Ray called from his study. Maggie didn’t go in there. There were things in the study that scared her.
Alison sat at the far end of the table from Jude, facing away from the still smiling face.
“He’s quiet today, isn’t he?” Maggie said.
“Day in, day out he’s quiet, Margaret. Every day – silent. Don’t you remember?”
Maggie’s face grew stern again as she turned without reply to the fridge. She emerged with a jug of water with lemon slices and ice and collected three glasses and a small plastic cup to put on the table.
“You don’t need that silly cup, Maggie. Put it back; throw it out.”
“That’s enough, Alison,” Ray said, pushing papers out of the path of the study door as he closed it. He sat at the table and smiled weakly at his wife as she brought forward a feast to be reckoned with.
“I’ll just freshen up before we eat,” Maggie said as she dashed to the downstairs bathroom.
“You need to sort her out, Ray,” Alison said. “It’s not normal. All this prancing around, wasting money just to throw away nappies, eating what a one year-old ought to eat for lunch – it’ll kill her. This is your responsibility.”
“You don’t think I’ve tried? I don’t know how this is supposed to work any more than you do. Some days I barely want to get out bed, it’s so hard. He was my son too,” Ray said as he reached across the table and moved the frame picture of Jude so it was face-down.
Maggie tiptoed in her usual fashion back to the dinner table and slipped into her seat. “Can you carve please hon? Leave some small pieces too,” she said.
Ray’s arms pushed against the table edge and his chair slid backwards. “I’m not hungry anymore,” he mumbled.
“What? I just cooked all this for you! I work so hard, day in, day out, keeping this family together. Now you can’t even eat my food. What’s wrong with you?” Maggie asked.
“The same thing that’s always wrong! The same thing that has been wrong for months! Something is missing from this table and nothing you can do will change that.”
“What’s missing?” Maggie asked, eyes wide.
“You need to see a doctor, Maggie. This isn’t right. Pretending our son is still alive isn’t right. You need to understand that you can’t just be the perfect mother to no child. Even if you’re good enough, he won’t come back. I need you to understand that.”
“If you won’t eat I’ll just throw it out then.”
Alison picked up her bag from the coffee table and went to the door shaking her head.
“She’s your daughter, you need to help,” Ray said.
“I didn’t raise a mentally challenged woman; you turned her into one.”
“I didn’t. Losing a child is something you can’t understand. Well, you probably will soon enough.”
* * *
Late that night, Maggie wandered through the dark house, looking aimless, but with a single purpose in mind. She tiptoed into Jude’s room and closed the door behind her. Sitting in the rocking chair in the dark, she gazed up into the ceiling. On the day he died, the sky had looked like that. She rocked herself and stared unblinking as the clouds tumbled by above her, moving endlessly against the ceiling-sky. Different colours splashed the clouds; dark greys and blacks. It was when the clouds started to touch the walls and cover the floor that Maggie’s eyelids drooped. The room was stormy behind the starry night outside, and the rolling sky was all around her as her body tingled into numbness. Maggie drifted far from the storm-filled room in a silent realisation of her nightly dreams. She drifted into unconsciousness as her body went limp in the dark oak chair. She drifted away to find the baby she’d lost so young, to find her Jude.