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You used to watch the flickering lamp light, your big brown eyes shining and dancing along with it. I had expected them to be blue, because everyone says babies are born with blue eyes; but you were different. You had the most beautiful eyes, the colour of chocolate, always wide open and curious. And when I held you to my chest and you looked at the lamp, I would wonder what went through your head, because those eyes of yours seemed so deep and thoughtful, almost knowing. You could stare at that light for hours, but after a while I would veer you away and dab your face; soaked with silent tears because of the intense brightness of the light.
The sky was still navy blue when I woke up. I could hear the thunderous beats of music coming from above me, swarms of drunken voices singing along and shouting in the corridors. It had been going on for hours; sometimes so loud that it leaked into my dreams, writhing around in my ears, my brain. I pressed my cold fingers against my forehead in an attempt to soothe the throbbing, but it wouldn’t go away. Warily, I sat myself up and edged out of the bed until my bare feet met with the coarse floor below. The bathroom was only a few steps away from where I stood, but I walked as fast as I could without running. When I was a child, I was always scared to get up in the night, in case the darkness grabbed my leg. In this place, I felt just as vulnerable.
The light switch in the bathroom refused to work for me as I desperately raided the medicine cabinet. My head was dizzying now, and I could feel my stomach churn uneasily with every breath I drew. There were no headache tablets left. I slammed the cupboard shut and knelt against the bathroom wall, my eyes screwed shut. It took me a minute to notice you were crying, piercing, hysterical shrieks. You didn’t do it often. I was very lucky to have such a good baby; the nurse had said so, as you lay contented in the hospital. I was contented there, too. It was safe there, warm and tranquil and friendly. I coped in the hospital; they said I was a natural mother. But I had people there on standby, people to help with everything, people to give me advice, to reassure me that I was doing everything correctly. I didn’t have anyone here. I looked at my reflection in the mirror. A small, slight woman, with a pale, pinched face and dark bags under her eyes. At 25, I wasn’t an overly young mother, but my thin frame could have been that of a teenager’s. Looking at my reflection, I didn’t seem so out of place in this building. As I turned to walk towards you, I felt tears run down my own cheeks.
We lay together on my bed, but neither of us slept. I rocked you back and forth, and whispered comforting words to you, and wished I had someone to do the same to me. For a while, we cried together, clinging tightly to one another and never wanting to let go. But we stopped the tears, at some point. You dozed off, and I closed my eyes too, but my head was whirring. I lay, still and silent, until you woke up again.
It was a relief to see daylight. As soon as you were fed and fully awake, I dressed you in your yellow dress, the one that had a monkey motif on the front, and placed you gently into your pram. You looked lovely; happy and cute with rosy cheeks. It was harder for me. In the end, I just wore my plain black top and jeans, and tied my hair back. I put some make-up on; although I hated the way it felt on my skin; heavy and clammy. I closed the door behind me, and we rushed along the corridor to catch the elevator. My shoulders tensed as the doors opened, but there was nobody else inside. We went to the ground floor, and hurried out into the open air. Getting out of that place was usually the only thing I had to look forward to.
I walked for a long time, until my feet itched to sit down. We passed the local park, but I didn’t want to take you there; where the swings were covered in rust and the climbing frame was covered in graffiti, where only half the people there were actually mothers and children. You were too good for a place like that, so we kept on going. I had nothing better to do with my time, in any case. You watched the sky from your pram and I walked along until we got to the nicer part of town. The part of town where the houses had proper gardens with neatly trimmed hedges, and men in suits and women in flowery dresses would walk along with smiles on their faces, not a care in the world. I took you to the park there, a spacious, green rectangle lined with cherry blossom trees. There was an orderly white-pebble path that surrounded the grass, and in the middle were swing-sets and roundabouts and slides, all spotlessly clean and colourful. I took a cautious step into the park and felt as though I was entering another world. You looked just as awed and impressed as me, although you always did. Everything was new and exciting and fun to you. It was selfish of me, but I almost wished we could swap positions.
I took you all around the path, and then repeated the circuit, and repeated it again. Some of the middle-class mothers looked at me with suspicion and concern. I wasn’t surprised; I stuck out like a sore thumb amongst these elegant ladies dressed in designer labels, a coffee to go in one manicured hand, nattering away to one another about their husbands’ jobs and their ‘hectic’ lives. They didn’t say anything to me, but the look in their eyes told me I was unwelcome. I didn’t blame them; I was like a different species to them, but it angered me that they could push you out, too. You had as much right to be there as anybody. I didn’t want to, but I gave up, because I didn’t have the strength to cause a scene. I felt the eyes of every woman in the park follow me as I walked out with my head low.
As I briskly walked away, you asleep in your pram, I watched those beautiful rows of houses, proper family homes, utterly enchanted by them. One day, I thought, we’ll live in one of them. Women like that won’t look at us twice. We’ll have everything they have, and more. I almost convinced myself, but then the streets grew gradually darker and dingier, until those houses seemed like a distant dream.
We could have gone back home, but I didn’t want to face it yet. I turned in at the supermarket and stepped inside the automatic doors. There wasn’t enough money for shopping, but I walked through every isle with you, because it was something to do. I headed to the bakery department, and inhaled the freshly made bread, wishing I was the sort of mother that always had some wholesome baking in the oven for your dinner. You hadn’t reached the stage where you could eat solid foods, but I hoped that when you could, it would be proper meals. I suddenly noticed how hungry I was. I thought about what food we had at home - I knew for a fact that there wasn’t much there. I walked over to the row of pre-made sandwiches, and glanced around me, hesitant. Nobody was looking, and there were no staff nearby. I winced as I stretched my arm out, grabbed a sandwich, and stuffed it in my jacket. Then I ran with you, out the supermarket, and we had our lunch.
I didn’t know what to do after that. I sat on the bench with you in my arms, watching people come and go for I don’t know how long, trying to work out a way in which to spend the rest of the day. An old couple walked towards us, obviously hinting that they wanted to sit down, so I gathered our things together and we left, wandering aimlessly through the streets for what seemed like a long time. Eventually, we came to the duck pond. I hadn’t been there in a long time, not since those first few weeks I’d known your Father. I suppose I’d forgotten about it on purpose, buried it somewhere and left it behind. And I would have turned away then, but you reached your soft little hands out enthusiastically, and smiled. You wanted to go there, so I took you.
There were barely any people around, and even less ducks. I could only see two, an elegant brown mother and a small fluffy duckling bobbing alongside her. They looked as though they could do with feeding up. I scrambled around in my handbag, where my sandwich container was waiting to be thrown into a bin. I tipped the crumbs of bread onto my hand and tossed them onto the water, and the duck and her baby pecked at them eagerly. You had never seen such an animal before, and you craned your neck curiously to see. I lifted you up out of your pram, and you smiled and gasped and chuckled all at once at the sight of them. I sat you on my lap and you watched them, content and excited. I watched them too, as they swam this way and that, dipping their heads into the water, the mother grooming and gently pecking her young duckling every now and then. We watched until they swam out of view, and then we watched the space where they had been, and we watched until our eyes blurred and the air chilled and the world faded into darkness. I abruptly stood up, my legs numb, and got you settled in your pram. Then I walked back home with you, slowly, calmly, thoughtfully.
It was an oddly quiet evening. The neighbours must have been out somewhere, I didn’t care where. I hoped they would never come back, but I knew they would, and then everything would be as bad and scary as ever. I gave you another bottle, before taking you over to the sofa with me and holding you close against my chest, breathing in your soft scent, smoothing your soft hair, kissing your soft cheeks. And then I switched on the lamp, and let the room glow dimly, making every cavity and fault less pronounced. I watched you watch the flickering light, your big brown eyes dancing with it, deep and thoughtful, almost knowing. I think you knew.
I gave you another hug and a kiss, and walked to the phone box just outside the high-rise that I ashamedly called home. “Police, please.” I said, my voice thick with the tears I was suppressing. “I’ve just discovered an abandoned baby.”