Something a little different this week. In part, this piece is in response to current parenting trends that deem a child is an unruly influence on the lives of adults, to be controlled, restricted, trained. Most parents have done some of the things that Alma deems to be ‘perfect parenting’, I doubt any have done them all. I hope not, at least. In the current welter of conflicting advice on ‘how to... raise a child’ mothers in particular are stuck in an unending grind of feeling they don’t know what to do, and trying out the latest ‘advice’ to show them a pathway. Most, however, soon find their own instincts and realise what is, or isn’t, working for them. I took the ‘cry it out’ advice seriously and put my baby to sleep in a room of its own to ‘teach’ it to sleep. And promptly took the baby out fifteen minutes later and never did such a thing again. So, as I said, this story is, in part, about what’s going on the media around us, to tell us how to raise a child.
But only in part. The other part is the exaggerated world view of the horror writer. And, like all writers, I lie. I take factual happenings and twist them, meld them, blend them, and add a narrative arc: the skeleton of a storyline that has a beginning, middle, and end. I take one small aspect and magnify it, making it larger than it could be, should be, in real life. I also order the events to suit my pen. Life itself is rarely so neat, so well contained, so finite. Therefore, in some ways this story is unsatisfying, as although it ties up the loose ends and take us to a finite moment of resolution, the situation does not end. The characters live on in their own story, finishing their lives without us. I think the horror of the years that follow the final words, are more troubling to the mind than what is here. I think about Alma often, and hope that her daughter makes a better escape than the one she thinks she has achieved. I’d say ‘enjoy’, but that’s the wrong word. Enjoy your journey then, in this story, if not the events...
‘What is that stench, how can she make such a foul odour?’
Although quiet, and polite, Alma’s husband could hear the repulsion in her tone: could hear her muscles clenching and her body turning to piano wire as she spoke.
‘Don’t speak like that in front of Catherine, she can hear you.’ Acutely aware of his wife’s moods, his own words were muted and light, with an attempt at humour. He smiled down at three week old Catherine, and rubbed her belly with a light tickle.
‘Oh don’t do that, she doesn’t want a poo-ey hand touching her. Haven’t you finished?’
James had indeed finished changing the nappy. Poor Catherine had seemed a little constipated, and had squealed and cried and turned bright red as she howled. He’d come home from work to be greeted by the shrieks from the pram in the outer porch whilst Alma had been finishing making dinner in the kitchen.
Alma liked dinner to be on the table in front of him as he walked in the door at 6.15. The screeching from Catherine had been matched by the icy silence from Alma, as he entered at 5.55. Prior to his daughter’s birth, he’d have hung around at the train station until he could walk in the door at the correct moment. Now, his desire to hold his daughter in his arms, lift her up and cuddle her, and have that bit more time with her before she was sentenced to the bedroom at 7.15, over rode other considerations.
Alma was furious on two counts. One, he’d come home ‘early’ and two, dinner wasn’t nearly ready. Catherine, it transpired, had been an absolute nightmare all day. Crying, refusing to sleep, refusing to swallow all her bottle, and deliberately vomiting up her milk on her nice clean clothes.
‘Honestly James, she is just like you. She never listens and does exactly what she wants.’ Alma had stirred the bolognaise sauce she was working on with such speed it slopped out onto the cooker.
‘Now look what she’s made me do!’ Alma took the saucepan off the ring and washed down the cooker top before putting it back on and continuing the frantic swirling.
James had smiled a smile of consolation and comfort, picked up Catherine and taken her upstairs. Twenty minutes later, with her tummy rubbed and her legs bicycled up and down, she’d finally managed to get rid of the thing that was hurting her, and had stopped crying. James had cleaned her up and was just about to put the new nappy on, when Alma had arrived to comment on the smell, and to state that dinner was on the table. James thanked his wife and carried Catherine back down the stairs. He placed her in the little Moses basket his mother had given them, and watched her look around as he ate his spaghetti.
‘I wish you wouldn’t keep looking at her like that, she’ll get spoiled. She has to learn she’s not the centre of the Universe.’
James smiled and carried on eating, carried on gazing at his beloved Catherine.
The shrieks were ear piercing. James felt his nerve begin to break. He’d been pacing the living room for over an hour, despite Alma’s promises that it wouldn’t go on for more than ten minutes. So far he’d kept to his side of the bargain: not to interfere, not to intrude on her authority as the mother. But the feeling of his skin searing off his body, and fear knotting up his stomach, was becoming impossible to ignore. Every one of Catherine’s screams and wails was killing him. He could feel his heart jumping in response. He gave in to his instincts and went upstairs.
Alma was sitting outside the nursery, reading her Women’s Weekly. She’d put her chair in front of the door, barring the way. She looked up at him as he emerged onto the landing. Her eyes rolled and the magazine was put down with a huff.
‘Oh for goodness sake, James! She’s perfectly all right!’
‘She doesn’t sound all right.’ He’d had to raise his voice to be heard above the cries.
‘She is warm, well fed, safe and comfortable. I double filled her bottle to get her through the night and her nappy is dry. There is nothing wrong with her.’
‘She’s lonely!’ His voice raised until it was almost matching Alma’s extortions.
‘She’s in a TEMPER. You don’t propose to raise a spoilt brat, do you?’
‘She’s six months old, how can she be spoiled?’
‘Easily, with you around. Always picking her up, cuddling her, telling her what a good girl she is. Always rushing to her for the slightest whimper. You’ve caused this!’
James stared at his wife. The schism that existed in their world had never seemed so great, so profound.
‘How can you bear to hear her in pain like this?’
‘She is not in pain. She’s in a temper, and heaven knows, if we don’t control it now, we’ll have worse to come.’ Alma seemed not to hear the pain in James’s voice. ‘She has to learn to sleep, and this is how she’ll do it. Not by being mollycoddled by you.’
Alma picked the magazine back up and purposely stared at the pages. James had been dismissed. Short of physically pushing her out of the chair to get to the nursery, there was nothing he could do. He stormed back down the stairs, pulled his coat off the hook, and left.
‘Another night at the pub whilst I do the hard work.’ Alma spoke out loud, as if addressing the baby through the door.
‘Now see what you have done...’
James opened the door at 6.13. ‘I’m home!’
Alma smiled her greeting, and her thanks, as she placed the dinner out on the table.
‘Smells good!’ said James, as he hung up his coat. ‘I’ll just wash my hands.’ He ducked into the down stairs toilet that Alma had had installed under the stairs. She was immensely pleased with this civilised addition to the house. James would have preferred... well, quite a lot of things, actually, but it was keeping Alma happy.
Alma was settling Catherine into the high chair, as he seated himself. Beef Cobbler was one of his favourites: once again, Alma was showing her thanks for him giving in on the extension.
‘Well, how have my girls been today?’
Frost formed in the air as Alma launched into her tirade of how trying her day had been. James tried to tune it out, and concentrate on Catherine, who was playing with a rattle he’d bought for her, but it was difficult.
‘...And then she spit up all over her new bib. I’d starched it too, when I ironed it, and she got bits in the little embroidery roses. I’ll never get them looking that good again...’
‘Tut,’ said James, quietly. He winked at Catherine. Alma didn’t pause for breath.
‘... so I tried the new banana one, and she spat that out too. I mean, what child doesn’t like mashed banana? It took me an hour to get that jar into her. I was exhausted by the time for her nap, and then she threw up all over her clean bedding, so I had to re-feed her and do the bed linen...’
James spooned down his dinner, trying to juggle his attention between the women in his life. Alma would erupt if she felt she wasn’t getting enough, or that Catherine was getting too much. All he wanted was to beam and smile at Catherine, and talk to her in little whispers and tickle her until she started to hiccup with laughter. He nodded and smiled at Alma enough times to keep her mollified whilst giving Catherine his secret smile and pulling faces that Alma couldn’t see. Catherine giggled. Alma droned on...
‘Claire was round, and she said little Emily never spits out her food, and every scrap is taken from the jar...and heaven knows Emily doesn’t manage to stink out the room every time she breathes...’
Catherine dropped the rattle on the floor as she squealed in laughter.
‘That’s it, that’s the third time today.’ As James had leaned down to pick up the rattle, Alma swooped up Catherine. A sharp slap and a sharper cry rent the air, and James’s heart.
‘Never, never, never, do that again.’ On each ‘never’, Alma slapped the back of Catherine’s hand hard. Catherine’s howls became screams, as Alma whisked her up the stairs. ‘When will you learn?’
James looked at his beef congealing into the gravy, as he heard the uproar upstairs as Catherine was stripped of her clothes, pushed and pulled into a sleep suit, and the door firmly closed on her cries. By the time Alma came back downstairs he was in the pub.
‘There, who is a pretty girl, then?’ James finished buttoning Catherine’s coat and stood up to look at her. How could she be so grown up? She looked tiny and vulnerable in her school uniform, which like all first school uniforms was too big for her. Catherine looked up at her Daddy with adoring eyes and smiled.
‘Will I do then, Daddy?’
James laughed, and was just about to speak, when Alma came rushing into the hall.
‘Oh, for goodness sake, aren’t you ready yet? We’ll be late. Catherine, what is that bird’s nest on top of your head? You don’t think it’s a hairstyle, do you?’ She shot James the look, the one that made it clear that Daddy was an idiot and how could he call that pigtails? James ignored her and leaned down to try and adjust the approved school ribbons.
‘Oh don’t make it worse!’ Alma slapped James’s hand out of the way, pulling the ribbons off. Cathy squealed.
‘Oh be quiet, I didn’t hurt you.’ She unpicked the pigtails and pulled a brush through, starting again, in double quick time. As she twisted the first layer in deeply, pulling the hair tightly into the scalp, Cathy squealed again. Alma slapped her bare legs with the palm of her hand.
‘Don’t argue back. I’ve told you, you have to suffer for beauty, you better get used to it now. I’m not having everyone looking down on us as your hair falls out half-way through the day. I’ve told you, you have to finish the day as neat as you start it. Is that clear?’
Cathy nodded, her eyes brimming with tears. James turned away, breathing deeply.
‘There, that’s much better. Make sure the ribbons don’t come out, won’t you, sweetheart?’ Alma dropped down to Cathy’s height.
‘You know Mummy loves you, don’t you, darling? I just want the best for you.’ James turned back to his look at his girls. Tears were brimming in Alma’s eyes and her voice was choked. James patted her on the shoulder.
‘She’ll do her best, won’t you, Cathy?’
‘There’s no ‘Cathy’ in this house, is there, Catherine...?’ Alma’s tone had returned to its usual cadence of disapproval and frustration.
‘No, Mummy, only a Catherine.’ Cathy sing songed back to her.
‘And don’t you forget that at school today. If the girls call you Cathy, you tell them politely and nicely, that your name is CATH-ER-INE. Is that clear?’
‘Good girl, well then, let’s get going, we can’t be late!’
Alma had already instructed James that he was not to get out of the car at the school gates.
‘None of the other fathers even turn up. Of course, I’d need my own car to be able drop her off myself.’
‘We can’t afford another car and the school fees. The uniform alone cost enough to buy you a little banger.’
‘A banger! You’d let your wife drive a second hand car? Well, that shouldn’t surprise me...’
James had taken in a deep breath and counted to twenty. Once, he’d only needed to count to ten. He had wondered what would happen if he ever needed to get to thirty...
She looked so small, and fragile, as Alma led her across the school yard to the lines of children waiting patiently. The Nuns looked so tall in their habits, so severe. He hated that Alma had won this battle; every instinct in him wanted him to get out the car, gather his little treasure up in his arms and take her away as quickly as he could. With a final instruction of some sort Alma let go her hand and backed off to hover with the ring of mothers looking on anxiously. Alma wasn’t anxious. She beamed with pride and happiness at the sight of her Catherine in the long line of silent little girls, who looked as if they had been made from a biscuit cutter; with their identical hats, blazers, satchels and pigtails. The Nun on the top step of the school doorway rang a large hand-bell she carried. The lines started to move into the school, older girls first.
James watched as his perfect child, his little girl, his lover of cuddles and tickles, stood the longest and marched in last: the baby class.
He gunned the car up to life. The revving disturbed the silence that had fallen on the playground as the mothers had nodded and smiled to each other. Alma’s eyebrows rose up and she shot him another icy gaze. He ignored it, and when she finally got into the car, he wrecked the gears as he tried to drive off quickly. The car shuddered and stalled. He jabbed the pedal down and pulled the key round hard.
‘Careful. You don’t want to flood the engine.’
He remained silent as he slowly started to count to fifty.
If you want to finish this story, you'll find Alma Mater in Fragments.