May 07, 2009

Rock–a–Bye–Baby

Daniel is three months old, and yet he has never left the womb. In his warm cocoon of blankets and stuffed toys, he hibernates throughout the winter only waking to satisfy his hunger for food and thought. This is his sanctuary, a bubble which protects him from all the evil in the world. If a baby-snatcher had the audacity to attack, the antique cot immediately transforms itself in to a fortress with heat-seeking missiles to match; if an earthquake shook the foundations of the Merchant’s home, Daniel would not feel a tremor. Spell-bound, the cot is enchanted with some remarkable powers.

Usually Daniel is a very quiet baby; after all, crying is not in his nature but tonight the spell broke and nothing could satisfy him: Eve gives him all the breast milk a baby could ever want, and his father Michael desperately tries his hand at juggling to sooth his son’s fury. At the two hour mark, Michael is in agony: he would do anything for some peace and quiet, even if it meant growing a pair of breasts.

‘Is he teething?’

‘No, my boobs are still intact. Besides he’s far too young for that.’

‘How about a song? Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are! Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky!’

The words are lost on Baby Daniel. His little larynx drowns out his father’s voice with wave after wave of insurmountable wailing. Neither could Eve’s melancholic Baa Baa Black Sheep or Faeroe Jacka halt the tide. With a great sigh and a deep breath, Eve makes her final assault:

Rock-a-bye, baby
In the treetop
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock
When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall
And down will come baby
Cradle and all

The final note breaks Daniel’s resistance. Eve remains resilient; Michael looks like a survivor of the tsunami. In tandem, relief surges through their bodies like a hypnotic current, whilst a profound silence invades the room.

‘Sing it again’ said Michael tentatively, in fear of disturbing Daniel.

Placing the baby carefully back in to the cot, Eve whispers with enthusiasm this time.

Rock-a-bye, baby
In the treetop
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock
When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall
And down will come baby
Cradle and all

Well-fed through his mother’s love, Daniel studies the orbit of his mobile and drifts off in an eternity of sleep whilst his father watches over him in tethers. Twelve weeks have past and Michael is still unsettled. Fatherhood used to be a concept, a character in a novel, a role played by other people, and now he too is a Daddy. Whatever he calls himself, Papa, Padre or even Dadeo, it makes no difference; his life has changed forever. And then again, sometimes he wonders if he was on the right track but got off at the wrong station- surely he is too young to have a wife and child? There is so much of the world he has not seen? How many more women could he have slept with? Immediately, he concedes the thought and locks it away for another rainy day.

‘I can’t believe it, he’s actually asleep.’

‘Thank God. If Rock-a-bye Baby didn’t work I might have got mum down here. I don’t care if it’s a twenty hour flight.’

‘Well it worked, and I always thought you were tone-death. May be Daniel has an acquired taste in music- I’ll give “Hit Me Baby One More Time” a go tomorrow night.’

With that final quip, Michael kisses his son and wife goodnight. He has very little time to spare; a power-walk morphs in to a jog, and within seconds Michael begins to climb the paper mountain in his study. The first draft is in for Monday, and he still has another three chapters to write. May be he could finish his book in mid-sentence and surprise the publishers with a sort of post-modern ending. Yes! Let the reader, the true authors, write the last three chapters- what a great selling point. No, that would not do. Atom invests in controversial work, but a novel with fifty vacant pages, staring nakedly at the reader, is beyond eccentric. To his frustration, Michael’s ideas were shooting blanks. His brain-spark, as he likes to call it, is his life blood; it is his currency. Without this creative landscape, Michael is just a desert and ever since Daniel came in to the world, his father has been a dead man walking with a wounded imagination. He has to concentrate, he has to focus. ‘Only a thousand words, only a thousand more’. The number flashes in his mind, burning a hole in his conscience. By 2 am, he has written three hundred heavy words which sink to the bottom of the page. Every letter is a struggle, a battle against Daniel who continuously tugs at his father’s fingers, twisting them back before snapping each digit in half. The pain is too great, fatigue falls upon him like an avalanche. At 6am, he makes a final push for the summit but with the sun rising Michael finally gives up the fight, and rolls back down to base-camp.

                                                 ****************************

‘That was Charlotte. “A Window in the Wall” will be out in the shops by Christmas!’

‘O pity. I thought your novel wouldn’t make it out of the editing room and then you could do what you’ve always dreamed of. Ballet.’

With grace and panache, Eve jumps off her chair and pirouettes around her husband. This is her way of saying congratulations, well done.

‘I did have my reservations; after all I was six months pregnant when you left Saatchi. But, you did it. You really did it. Michael, I’m... really proud of you.’

The lack of sarcasm in her whisper tickled Michael’s ears. Her breathing soothed him and caressed his neck, like a warm scarf in winter.

‘Eve’

There is nothing else to say. They embrace. Usually, a bite on the lip and a kiss on the neck always leads to Michael’s belt buckle, but this time it stays firmly fastened. Daniel must be hungry. Eve reluctantly pulls herself away from her husband and takes some baby formula from the fridge. There is no going back for her either, she too is a mother. And so with a wry maternal smile, she returns to the nursery and is greeted by a cacophony of goo goos and ga gas.

Michael does not complain- he has grown up a lot in the last five months. Not too long ago, he used to wear his fatherhood like a new pair of shoes: at first it was cramped, often he would trip and stumble. Michael, the father, was an uncomfortable fit. But with Eve back at work part-time, Michael has more responsibilities and must take good-care of his son; feeding him is certainly not a problem, especially when there is always a fridge full of gourmet baby food to choose from and Michael has even started to take nappy changing seriously, as a sport. His personal best is 22.3 seconds, which is respectable but not exactly Olympic standard. Playtime, however, is where Michael really flourishes. In his father’s hands, Daniel wobbles and turns in to silly putty; one moment he is an astronaut orbiting the moon and the next he is crashing back down to earth as a giant Blue Whale. Michael, relishing this strange art of human origami, often out-giggles his son. There is no doubt that his spark has returned, and after ten months of wear and tear, fatherhood suits him well.

As he takes a swill of orange juice, Michael could not be more content. The oranges are freshly squeezed in Florida and there is not an added preservative in sight. It tastes sweeter because everything has settled. His life has settled.

‘Michael!’

Eve runs in to the kitchen with Daniel howling in her arms.

‘Get some Ice. He’s banged his head.’

Michael takes Daniel in to his arms and coos softly in an attempt to clot the bruising. Gently, he then places a towel packed with ice on Daniel’s head.

‘What happened?’

‘I don’t know! He must have unclipped the latch; I turned for only a second.’

‘We need to buy a proper cot; it was really nice of Dad to give us his old one but the cot is over fifty years old. It’s not safe.’

‘I guess you’re right. We’ll buy a new one at the weekend.’

Michael nods and threads a dummy in to Daniel’s mouth; it really is the only humane way to gag a baby. Immediately after contact, a vacuum is created and all the noise is squeezed out of the room. Michael marvels at this ingenious contraption and its infinite mysteries before handing Daniel back to his mother.

‘He’ll be okay- just a little bit of wear and tear.’

Eve is not a melodramatic woman; she prefers to manage minor crises in a charming display of rationality. Nevertheless, she did not like Michael making light of their son’s injuries; her mouth opens, but the tongues sits quietly in defeat- there will be no battle-lines drawn tonight. Instead, she takes Daniel back to the nursery and smothers her son with kisses whilst Michael sucks on ice and sits down to a night-shift in his study. The mountain is now just a mere mole-hill; he has an article due in next Friday for the Guardian and that is it. Though, he could work on the first draft of his next novel, ‘I Dream of Calcutta’, or simply stare endlessly out of the window. An evening in May can be mesmerising, especially when the clouds look like pink icebergs, floating on the air waves as the sun sinks to the bottom of night’s ocean. The hypnotic power of nature leaves Michael in a trance in which half an hour passes without an addition to the word count; his eyes are still transfixed on the window, but now the curtains have fallen on the evening’s extravaganza he reflects pensively at his own reflection. He looks older and may be a little wiser than he was a year or so ago. A grey hair is met by another and his beard has grown ragged, but this does not alarm him. As the rain begins to fall, his appearance blurs and shifts in to a portrait of Daniel. They have the same button nose , but in the battle for genes Daniel has won his mother’s eyes, mouth and ears. His hair is a mystery: there are tinges of red in his blond crown, but his locks are already getting darker. May be by the age of thirteen he will have a hybrid of metallic purple hair or even a turquoise green. Daniel, the teenager, delights and disturbs his father: Will he be an artist? Will he be an addict? Will he

Rock-a-bye, baby
In the treetop
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock
When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall
And down will come baby
Cradle and all

The words, like thread, weave around his adolescent son wrapping him in a warm blue blanket, and with a little bit of black magic Daniel is a baby again. Michael is evidently spooked. Eve’s voice carries through the walls, and gathers a supernatural energy; each note twists, shape-shifts and levitates as poltergeists in Michael’s mind, dancing to the song’s phantom melody.

Rock-a-bye, baby
In the treetop
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock
When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall
And down will come baby
Cradle and all

‘Down will come baby, cradle and all’. He repeated the motif three times to exorcise the demons playing with his marbles. But, the song kept coming and coming until Daniel’s cry broke the curse. He must have fallen over again. What if he’s badly hurt? Michael does not waste time in finding out; he crashes out of the study and launches himself in to the nursery to find... no-one other than Daniel, asleep. ‘Am I going mad?’ He looks to the baby for reassurance, but Daniel’s eyes are closed. He picks up one of his cuddly toys instead and gives it a squeeze. He drops it. There is menace in the monkey’s eyes, as if Michael had been trespassing. Daniel is not safe here! The cot is about to implode! With a second to spare, Michael grabs his son and dives for the exit.

                                                    **********************

‘Can you believe it? His first word! Eve reckons he’s going to be a marine biologist.’

‘Come on, don’t beat around the bush Michael. What was it? Fish?’

‘Do we own any fish? It’s whale of course. All those hours I put in to my Blue Whale impressions really paid off.’

Stephen does not share his son’s sense of humour; he never did. But, the news of his grandson’s first word raised an honest smile and even a hiss, which should be interpreted as a giggle.

‘That is great news. When you were a child, once you learnt how to talk you couldn’t stop. Dog was the word- yes, dog because we always had a mutt barking next door. After dog you pretty much swallowed the English dictionary. Your Daniel will be saying mummy and daddy in no time.’

‘I don’t know. I’m still not convinced; I would put money on octopus being his next word or may be satellite. He’s a smart kid.’

Again, Michael’s wit is lost on his father. Stephen retracts his smile and folds his arms, as if to defend himself from his son’s sarcasm. Michael bites the bullet:

‘Dad. I didn’t drive down here just to tell you about Daniel and the whale. Well, Eve and I really appreciate the gesture; the cot kept you safe as a baby after all, but we are going to buy a new one tomorrow. Daniel has been getting a couple of knocks, and we think it’s the cot.’

Stephen does not know what to say. He avoids his son’s hand of reconciliation and shakes it off. With a staggered step he slowly walks back to the house without a word. Michael shakes his head; he is stunned by his father’s sensitivity; does he feel guilty for presenting the cot, at Daniel’s shower, in the first place? Or, has his son broken some secret covenant in the father-son relationship? Before Michael could get up and make amends his step-mother Margaret intervenes with a flask of whiskey and an old newspaper:

‘Your father told me what you said. I still find it hard to believe, and yet I always feared this day would come.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Look, give Eve a call. Okay. And tell her not to put Daniel in the cot.’

‘He’ll be fine for another day- it’s not a death trap.’

‘Just do it.’

‘Okay, I will if it will give you some peace of mind.’

Michael does not know where to look; he is utterly bewildered by Margaret’s concern. May be she had missed her medication.

‘I don’t want to sound disrespectful, but have you taken your medication today?’

‘Yes, I have thank you very much. Did Eve pick up?’

‘No, both phones are engaged. I have to admit it’s strange. I’ll try again in five minutes’.

‘Here, drink this.’

‘Since when do you offer me whiskey? Are you going to explain what’s going on here?’

The strain is evident on Margaret’s face; her wrinkles are usually well-hidden by the best make-up money can buy, but today she is creasing and folding all over the place.

‘Well, Michael the cot has some history.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Your grandmother did not die in childbirth, Michael. She killed your uncle when he was just six months old.’

‘What? I don’t have an uncle! This is madness! Let me talk to my Dad.’

‘If you don’t believe me, look at these newspaper clippings.’

The yellowed paper spreads its cancer malignantly all over Michael’s body; he vomits on Margaret’s petunias and holds his face to prevent his eyes from bursting in their sockets. The name and the dates all add up- Margaret is telling the truth.

‘She was taken to an institution when Stephen was just four. Poor Stephen. Thank God, he has no real memories of her.’

‘And the cot?’

‘Yes. I am so sorry. That was where little Frank was found.’

Michael vomited again. The tinge of yellow has left his body; what is left is just a spectre, a lost soul.

‘How? Why?’

‘Your father and I only found out a month ago. He rediscovered the clippings in an old-box from the attic. Remember, he has lost a lot of his memories to Alzheimer’s. Please, do not hate him for this. It is not his fault.’

‘No, you’re right. I just can’t believe my baby has been sleeping in that thing for the first ten months of his life. I need to go back home, and see Eve.’

‘Michael, again I am so sorry. We should have told you sooner, but your father... well it’s just taken him a while to come to terms with it.’

‘I understand. Really, I do. But, I must be leaving now.’

‘I will not stand in your way. Drive safe, and send my love to Eve and the baby’.

The two of them have been maimed in a plane crash; they hug each other goodbye, and walk in separate paths wondering how they survived. Michael gingerly gets in to his car and turns on the ignition, half-hoping he would vanish in a cloud of petrol. But, he has to be strong for his young family; he has to be there as a husband and a father rather than just a lost memory or even a newspaper clipping. So Michael drove meticulously on the motorways, while keeping the family fresco of Eve teasing Daniel with kisses and cuddles in mind. He loves his son so much! His boy has no sense of direction; he is always getting lost in his mother’s big beautiful Indian eyes. Mesmerised by those crescent moons, he suckles on her loving light for nourishment and support; without it Daniel would perish, and without her Michael would forever wonder the streets aimlessly, crashing in to lampposts at every wrong turn. Their marriage sent Michael on the right course, the right side of destiny.

After navigating his way back home for three hours, Michael crawls to the front door exhausted. He must remain strong, but at least back home he can find sympathy and affection in his wife’s arms. He nudges the door open; a vase is broken in the hallway.

‘Eve. It’s me. Are you okay?’

‘Eve. Hello Eve.’

Fear is a lactic acid, corroding every stride Michael takes. He trips on his own dread and falls down the stairs cracking a rib and a collar bone. But it does not matter; he must see his wife and baby.

‘Eve.’

Rock-a-bye, baby
In the treetop
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock
When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall
And down will come baby
Cradle and all

Relief melts in to ecstasy. Eve’s reply is emphatic and it lifts Michael a couple of inches off the ground; he barely touches the stairs as he makes his way to the nursery, a place of perfect tranquillity. The door-handle, itself, grabs Michael’s hand and shakes it affectionately, but as he pushes it down something pulls him away. He sways like a drunken bear, and slips on one of Daniel’s monkeys. Tired and deflated, Michael resembles a broken soul, one that has been denied paradise and condemned to the jaws of gnashing teeth. But the siren, with its melodic crescendo, continues to lift Michael’s spirits; he is still a husband and a father, no-one can take that away from him. And so without permission from St Peter, Michael kicks down the gates of heaven.

‘Eve!’

Has blood on her hands. She stands there just staring at them, marvelling at the crimson dripping from her fingers. Michael barely recognises his wife; her eyes smoulder with fire and brimstone, and her face is whiter than death. Michael, blind with shock, sinks to his knees and begins to pray in to the abyss. The baby has fallen, cradle and all.


November 18, 2008

Praying for Boredom

We were bored. So I tried to save the night by asking a question I had not asked in ten years: “who wants to play 40/40?”. A couple of friends laughed, but I was serious. With confidence I asked them the same question. With a shrug and sigh we began to play in the dark solitude of the night.

Nostalgia had won. Immediately my girlfriend and I carefully trod the same skipping steps we had taken as toddlers. With childish frenzy I launched myself in to a bush, but it was no use- we could not hide there. Eventually we found a forest of mounds, and hid there like escaped convicts: if our life depended on it we were not going to be caught! So we had to sit patiently, waiting for generations and millenniums to pass in the bitter cold. That was until Lizzie broke old time and complained ‘my arse is numb’. I laughed so loudly, the sleeping birds shook from the trees. Damn it! I had blown our cover- we had to run- now!

We scrambled towards the base and to our disappointment everyone had returned before we did. But, something was wrong. Our friends’ faces and clothes had changed: fashionable Primark was replaced by puma tracksuit bottoms and the girls had lost their sex and their hair, except one. Once my eyes stopped flowing over with frost, I soon realised these people were not our friends. We had been ambushed.

They surrounded Foxy and our valuables. It became clear that this was not a game anymore. You don’t play ‘marco polo’ in a fish tank full of piranhas, so cautiously I made conversation with them. After a couple of false starts, I got to know one of them and he was quite polite. But I was still concerned for Lizzie’s safety, and walked her back to the Safe Zone. Foxy was left on his own; he was pregnant with fear. I didn’t know him, but he could not be left on his own; he might be torn to pieces.

I found his friend Horny and explained the whole situation. It seems no-one knew what going on- everyone was in the dark, literally. Once he was enlightened, we both went back to defend his friend against the hounds. For a while silence dominated the night- not a snap or a howl could be heard. But, they were merely procrastinating- the feast would come.

With a trumpet of ‘he says he fancies you’, the ceremony began. The only girl responded in harmony ‘I’ve got a boyfriend’ and then bang! The fireworks went off. The silence had split with the rage of thumping fists. Two guys pinned me, the smallest prey there was, to the ground. I tried to fight back and escape but I was in chains. Soon I didn’t know where I was- all I could do is cover my temples, as the boxers do.

Just stay conscious. Just stay conscious. Just stay conscious! No not like this. Not like this! Cried my monologues which wept in my tears. This man, this boy, I don’t know, is mistaken. He kept pummelling me as if I had murdered his family and then torched his house. What was going through his head- I can’t describe it- try describing sound. But, I imagine I was just another faceless punch bag which squeezed out all of his frustrations and anguish. If that was the case, he had a lifetime of pain because he never stopped. He wanted me dead.

A conscience pricked and stopped the proceedings. The polite guy I spoke to before saved me; he seemed to have authority in the group and with a word the hungry psychopath had finished. I survived and ran and stumbled and ran to safety. Dazed and confused I saw the night flash with sirens.


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