She spent the
morning in the kitchen, mopping the floor and wiping down the cupboard doors and shelves,
even though they were clean. During the night, lying restless with her son held tight to
her chest, she had tried to reassure herself that everything would turn out OK, that the
house would be shining when they came round, but she didn't believe this. She knew the
dirt was there, waiting to embarrass her, and in the end she had gone downstairs and
started dusting the living room.
By the time Mark woke up she had
worked her way through the house to the kitchen, her hair tied back into a knot, her
fingers raw from scrubbing the oven. After making his breakfast, she sat him in front of
the television, holding him as he gently rocked from side to side, trying to get his
attention, I'll be in the kitchen yeah? If you want mummy just shout, pointing in
the direction of the doorway. Mummy's only going to be away a little while.
The boy paused for a moment,
then kicked his legs, waving his hands at the cartoons on the screen.
That's it honey. Mummy wants
you to sit here until she's finished. She built a nest of sofa cushions around him,
trapping him inside a tight circle, then kissed him on the forehead, squeezing him closer.
You'll be okay, okay?
Clearing away the foam, she ran
her fingers around the water, gathering up the last few dishes and rinsing them under the
tap. From the window she could see cherry blossoms shivering in the breeze. The air
clouded with glittering petals until the gust died and they fluttered to the ground,
sinking into the wet street.
The house was quiet. Cars hissed
along the road outside.
With a rag she soaked up the
drops of water from the draining board. She could see faint stains scarring the surface,
so she rubbed in a few drops of cleaning fluid and scraped at the edges, forcing the
aluminium to gleam.
She backed away from the sink,
angling her head to the light. The marks were still there. She scrubbed harder, pressing
her nails into the cloth, her face becoming red with the effort, but as hard as she tried
she could always see them.
After finishing the kitchen, she
dragged the vacuum cleaner upstairs and began to clean the bedrooms and the bathroom. She
didn't think they would go further than the living room, but still she felt uneasy at the
thought of someone wandering around the bedrooms, taking notes, getting the wrong idea.
Clothes were piled up on the bed, toys were strewn across the landing, towels had been
left wet on the floor by the bath, the mirrors smudged with fingerprints and water marks,
and all of this reflected on her, telling everyone she couldn't cope, that maybe it was
her fault after all.
She remembered the nurse looking
at her as they walked along the corridor to the consultant's office, saying well
sometimes mistakes are made, and you can never be completely sure, but to be honest I
think you really need to ask yourself . . . glancing down at her jeans, noticing the
food stains she hadn't had time to wash.
This time it would be different,
she told herself. Everything would be clean and in its place. Everything would shine.
She would make sure of it.
On the staircase she held the
vacuum cleaner and fed the nozzle into the cracks and corners. After a few steps, she cut
the power and let the whine slowly ease down to silence. She listened, waiting to be
She heard the television. People
were arguing, shouting at one another.
She yanked the cord further
down the staircase, waiting for him to make a noise.
Mark? Mark? Where are you
She stopped breathing.
Her voice was flat against
the stillness. A tune began to blare out from the television. She dragged the
vacuum cleaner downstairs and ran into the living room. The nest was empty, the cushions
pushed aside. A woman's face glared from the television.
All she could see were a few
toys spread out across the floor, sullen in the glow of the screen. She stared at the
discarded cushions. She couldn't understand why he wasn't there, and as she stepped over
the toys she found herself looking around so quickly that she saw nothing and had to look
again, and then again, to be sure that he wasn't lying there. She fell to her knees and
crawled behind the sofa to find nothing but old boxes and plastic bags and other things
that she knew shouldn't be there because this is what the nurse had said could happen if
you left him unattended for too long. How could I have been so stupid, she thought; this
is what happens, this is what happens when I'm not here to look after him. She clutched
hard at the bags as if they were the cause of all her problems, until she turned round in
time to see him hunched up beneath the coffee table, chewing on the wheel of his truck.
She reached under the table and
pulled him out, gripping his arms and shouting, don't you ever do that again, do you
understand? do you hear me? her voice tailing off to a whisper as she folded her arms
around him, hugging him tight, smothering her tears in the soft curls of his hair, you
scared me baby, you scared me, rocking back and forth, stroking his head, calming
herself down. Always stay near me. Always stay near mummy. Okay? Okay?
She knelt there for the rest
of the morning, the boy cradled in her arms, waiting for them to arrive. They'll only be
here an hour, she told herself, then they'll leave and it'll just be the two of us again.
She stared at the empty nest of cushions, frightened at the thought of letting him go.
The social worker was ten
minutes early. She stood on the front step of the house with her clipboard and folders in
full view of the neighbours, fumbling through her pockets for her ID card.
Hello. Clare isn't it?
My name's Heather. We
spoke on the phone. She shoved the card back into her pocket, nodding her head as if
she'd been asked a question. I'm going to be your caseworker.
Clare allowed the door to
Thanks. The woman stepped
in, looking up the staircase, then glancing along the hallway. Well. This looks like a
Clare showed her to the living
room. Mark's through there.
She made two mugs of coffee and
listened as the woman baby-talked Mark. She felt an awkward fear, as though she was scared
he might prefer the woman's voice to her own, and she tried to distract herself by
reaching for a cloth and wiping down what was already clean and shining. Outside it had
started to rain, and what was left of the fallen blossoms was now trickling along the
gutter towards the drains.
She looked up at the clock.
Darren was late.
In the living room she set the
mugs down on a pair of drink-mats and sat on the chair opposite the sofa, lifting Mark
onto her lap. He struggled briefly, then settled against her bosom.
Oh, thank you. I haven't
stopped all day. The woman took a sip, making sure that she placed the mug back on the
mat. Then she took a deep breath. Well now. I'm just going to take a look at Mark here,
see how he's looking, okay?
Clare passed the boy over,
then locked her hands together and dug her nails into her palms, wincing as the woman
lifted up his shirt to reveal a faint ridge of pale yellow bruises across his back.
Well. That looks like it's
clearing up, doesn't it? Yes. She tickled the boy, her hands cold against his warm
body. You're a strong boy aren't you? Yes. A strong boy.
Clare tried to smile.
Okay then. Just give me a
second won't you? She looked over his arms, then checked his legs and head before
quickly pulling down his shorts. That's it. All done. That didn't hurt did it? No.
She bounced him on her knee, making faces. No. Of course it didn't, because you're a
strong boy, aren't you? She passed him back over to Clare. He seems fine. Has he
been back to the hospital?
No. She nestled him against
They sat watching Mark for a
while, letting him fill the silence.
The woman checked her watch. He's
running a bit late isn't he?
Sometimes he doesn't get out on
It's just that I'm not going to
be able to stay past the hour. I've got another meeting.
I'm sure he'll be here soon.
Actually. The woman reached
for a folder, pulling out a few sheets. While we're here, maybe I could ask you a few
questions. Would that be alright?
Clare nodded. Her shoulders
Let's see. She placed a
sheet onto the clipboard, taking out a pen. How have the two of you been getting on?
You and your partner. Have the
two of you had any problems, in the past? Sorry. I know it sounds personal, but it's just
for a general sort of background, for the forms.
Yes. She checked over the
question on the sheet. I mean. You've never had any trouble have you? I mean,
more than the usual sort of thing anyway.
Not really. She moved Mark
over to her other side. Nothing apart from the-
Apart from what?
You know. Just. The usual.
I see. She wrote a few more
words and ticked a box. Has he ever shown any sort of violent or aggressive behaviour?
I mean, to you or the child?
No. Not really.
Not at all. Not while I was
Okay. Okay. She turned over
the sheet, glancing up at Clare. Where is Darren staying at the moment?
Okay. She made a note, then
tapped her pen against the clipboard. Have you had any problems here, I mean, being on
your own, with Mark?
Clare shook her head.
Okay. She ticked another
D' you want to look around?
No, no. That shouldn't be
necessary. She looked around the room, nodding her head. I can see it looks fine. She
placed the sheet down and braced her hands around the mug, to be honest it puts me to
shame, I'm so messy.
Their laughter fanned as
they looked over the cold, cracked walls. The woman took another sip of coffee, admiring a
set of picture frames along the wall, dried flowers pressed behind the glass. Oh,
they're nice aren't they? You must like them too, eh? The woman winked at
Clare, then shook her face at the boy. Eh? Do you like the pictures?
The boy looked at the woman
for a while, then tucked his head behind his mother's back. They watched him hide, and
glanced over at each other, smiling, reassuring themselves.
The doorbell jarred the silence,
snapping the women to attention. Clare got up, balancing Mark against her shoulder as she
walked to the front door. Through the window she could see Darren waiting in the rain, the
water dripping from his baseball cap, his face in shadow.
Fuck'sake Clare. Come on.
It's pissing down out here.
She opened the door and
noticed he hadn't bothered to wash his face. It was smeared with engine oil and grease.
You alright? He paused
for a moment, then leaned in to kiss her, but she backed away, pushing him off with her
I didn't have time. He
stepped through the door, waving to the boy. Is she here?
Clare nodded her head at the
I didn't want to use my keys,
y'know. Didn't want her to think I was just walking in when I felt like it.
That's okay. The social
worker had stepped out into the hallway. As long as I'm here when you are.
Oh. Darren pulled off his
baseball cap. Yeah.
Shall we sit down? The woman
pointed at the sofa. Sorry, but I can't stay for much longer. You should have called to
say you were going to be late. We could have rescheduled.
Clare followed Darren into
the room, staring at the carpet in horror. His muddy boots had etched his journey from the
doorway to the living room, and as she tried to rub the prints away with her foot, she
became aware that they were waiting for her to sit down.
She took the seat beside the
social worker. The two of them faced Darren, watching as he tried to get comfortable.
Any chance of a coffee love?
I'm fuckin'ññhe stopped, glancing over at the social workerññthirsty.
Clare hesitated for a
moment, then passed the boy over to the woman. Would you like another?
The woman shook her head.
Clare walked into the kitchen
and switched on the kettle. As the water began to boil, she stood by the doorway so that
she could listen in. Darren was talking about the weather, that it had become so dark
outside that he'd been driving with his lights on. The woman seemed to be agreeing.
She walked back into the living
room with the mug of coffee, passing it over to Darren. Mark played on the floor by their
Okay then. The woman
stroked the boy's head. Now. I think it's time you got to hold your son, eh? She
picked the boy up and gently passed him over to Darren.
Clare felt her hands shake. She
had to clasp them together to stop herself from taking the child back.
Alright son? Remember me? Darren
hooked his hands underneath the boy's arms and swung him in front of his face, rubbing his
nose into the boy's belly. It's your dad, remember? Course you remember.
Clare couldn't recognise him
sitting in the small chair, the boy made small in his arms. She was used to seeing him on
the sofa, splayed out tired with the boy tucked in beside him, but now he seemed
monstrous, his shoulders hunched over, his arms spread wide so he could fit between the
arm rests. She could smell the white spirit he'd used to clean his hands, but she also saw
the black ridges underneath his nails, the dirt rigid between the lines of his knuckles.
Okay. Okay. The woman
leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. Now Darren, I'm not criticising, but I
think it might be worth looking at the way you handle the child. You're a big man, and
sometimes, well, sometimes we don't realise how strong we are.
Well. I saw how you picked Mark
up and, well, I mean, you have to be gentle don't you?
I know how to pick my son up.
I realise that, but I noticed-
Clare had also leaned
forward. Why can't you just listen to her? Just listen to what she has to say.
Don't start, Clare.
Look what you're doing. You're
hurting him. You're hurting-
Look at him. Look! Give him back
to me. She snatched the boy back and walked over to the doorway.
Okay. The social worker
raised her hands. Okay. Let's just calm down a little here.
Darren had tucked his head
between his hands, staring down at his boots. Why don't you just say what you're
thinking Clare? Why don't you just say it?
The social worker reached
for her folders. I think we'd better end it here. She picked up her clipboard. I'm
sorry Darren, but we should leave. We can reschedule for another day.
Do what? He looked up at
her. I only just got here.
I know. I know. But
let's just take this step by step.
Clare was staring at the
carpet, at the muddy footprints Darren had carried through. She noticed he was staring at
The social worker took a deep
breath. Listen, we can meet up next week. In the meantime maybe we should all have a
little think about how we want to resolve this. Okay? she looked over at Clare. Okay?
Clare nodded, holding the child
closer. She could feel the boy moving, struggling to find room to breathe.
She watched them leave. They
stood for a while beneath the cover of a tree, sheltering from the rain. Darren had his
arms folded, nodding his head while the social worker pointed towards the house. She was
writing something on her clipboard. After a few minutes they both left, each of them
getting into their cars and driving away, until the street became quiet and all she could
hear was the rain against the window.
She walked through to the
hallway and noticed that the steps at the bottom of the staircase were dirty. She had
forgotten to finish cleaning them. She sat down on a step and let Mark crawl across the
hallway to the front door while she wiped her fingers between the struts of the banister
rail, brushing away a few specks of dust. She looked back at the boy and realised that he
had started plucking at the clumps of mud on the carpet.
Everywhere she looked she could
She licked her fingers and
quickly wiped his hands clean, turning him around to make sure the mud was all gone. He
looked clean, but she knew he wasn't.
She lifted up the shirt and
stared at the pale blossoms on his back, gently rubbing her fingers against the skin. It
frightened her how smooth they were, and when she could bear the sight of them no longer,
she gathered the boy in her arms and pressed him against her body, like the pages of a
book closing upon a flower.