A new mother feels her world contract down to the daily domestic rituals of cooking, cleaning and care-giving in Rachel Sills’ haunting flash fiction, ‘On Toast Crumbs’.
Each day I pick up the baby and walk with a little rocking motion, back and forth, back and forth. We walk through the house like this, a woolly little dyad, and for people passing by who happen to see us through the window it’s a cosy scene. I walk and rock and see the ghost of myself reflected in the window.
Mainly though, we drift unseen. The street’s a quiet side-road. I’m set back from the road behind trees and a little oval lawn. It’s a cloak of invisibility. I am wearing the house.
Each day I’m left alone with the baby. When her dad leaves the house each morning I run to the door as it shuts, but I’m too late. Every second, I ask myself now what do I do? now what do I do? I’ve changed her clothing and picked her up and walked with her from room to room and she is quiet and – now what do I do?
I can’t put the baby down because I don’t know what to do. There was a world once that I belonged to and through which I moved like a queen, like the queen, exuding noblesse, radiating pleasure at the world, which opened like a rose, laying down velvet petals for me to step on. The world was pink, every day was a pink day and I beamed like the sun; yellow rose yellow rose, what a wonderful world.
The baby has swept normal off the table like a pile of toast crumbs. I walk over those toast crumbs now; they embed in the sole of my slippers. And I worry about toast crumbs. I actually give them the time of day and they lodge in my mind and rub away at the soft surface with their sharp edges until my mind is raw with the rubbing of toast crumbs. Why didn’t someone tell me that I’d have to care about toast crumbs instead of entering the world like Prince on his motorbike; like Prince in his magnificence weaving through Paisley Park on his Hondamatic C400A, master-of-all.
I weave between the kitchen and the sofa, but the sofa equals a kind of death. Stasis and cushioned thoughts. I sink into the sofa and I’m telling you it’s not pleasant. Where the sofa’s concerned, it’s the unknown depths and I’m the Titanic. If I let myself sit back, there will be no trace of me left. I perch on the edge of a cushion like a visitor to my own front room, intimidated by the silence and dust. In the museum of my life, the exhibits need a good wipe down.
Sometimes I put the baby down to sleep on a folded quilt by my feet and perch on the edge of the sofa, looking down at her. Sometimes she doesn’t even wake with a jolt when she touches the firm surface, and I can gradually retract my hands. She looks like a walnut, or a brain. She is the new brain, she functions for both of us.
Sometimes I put the kettle on and when the baby’s asleep I tiptoe out of the room then run back with a cup of tea. I’m so thirsty. I’m so in need of a cup that I can hold in two hands. My hands are for holding babies now, and folding clothes and muslin squares and other things that I have never dreamt of folding before. My hands are in service, and I am mainly arms and breasts. That is my function. Arms and breasts, and my voice, a kind of crooning. Language is redundant during the long days. I make noises – clucking, humming, shushing.
Mainly I stand in the window of the front room, looking out. It’s an activity of sorts. Now what do I do? There’s a sense of suspended energy, like being crouched in the starting block of a race and waiting for the pistol to go off.
I carry the baby to the kitchen but it’s fraught with danger and obstacles and toast crumbs. Surfaces are not clear, butter is left out, knives are smeared with jam and dregs of cold tea are forming a white bloom in the mugs. The dishwasher is full, the sink has a pan in it and the weight of it all is like another baby to carry, with not enough arms to hold it. The surfaces and butter and knives and crumbs and mugs and plates and pans rear up between me and myself. Myself cares not a crap for mess and plates and jam forming a skin on the knives. Myself is at the centre, desperately deconstructing such realities, wringing every drop of meaning from the J-cloth, whose function is to wipe smears.
I swim in a sea of days. Stroke after stroke, further from a shore I’ll never see again. Once I looked back, but I was so far out I panicked. I just keep going now. I am domesticated, and honey it stings like a torn perineum.
About Rachel Sills
Rachel Sills is a writer and works in museums. She has a PhD and BA in literature from the University of Liverpool, and a postgrad diploma in journalism. Rachel is the author of two books of poetry. She has three children and lives in Manchester, where she works at the Pankhurst Centre – Emmeline Pankhurst’s former home. Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachel_sills_