Rachael O’Connor hails from Newcastle West, Co. Limerick and holds a Masters in Writing from NUI Galway. She has previously published articles, short stories and excerpts via Campus.ie, The Galway Review, and Sin Newspaper. She currently lives in Germany.
She woke the same way she always did: to the cries of their month-old infant. It was midnight, and outside the confines of their small apartment rain was plummeting, freezing in the dark November night. The hour-long sleep the new parents had managed to catch had heated the sheets with bodily warmth, and the act of getting up would be a difficult one.
Orlaith began to pull herself out of the bed but the chill that settled on her arms changed her mind. She rolled over and poked Chris in the back. He grunted but didn’t wake. She couldn’t understand how he could sleep through the wails coming from the cot in the corner. Actually, she wasn’t convinced that he was sleeping through it. Probably just waiting for me to get up and do it, she thought. But not tonight.
“Chris”, she whispered. “Wake up. Your son wants you.”
Again he groaned but made no movement. She could just about make out his shape in the dark from the weak light of the baby’s mobile. He was on his side, his back to her. His coarse hair stuck up in angles and there was a whiff of stale milk from where the baby had spit up on the back of his shirt. Before, the idea of keeping on clothing with puke on it would have made Chris retch himself. But Before was a different life. The baby had fallen asleep, and they’d collapsed into the bed.
Now Francis’ cries were getting louder and she had to take drastic action. She moved her hand from the blanket to the radiator by the bed. It was freezing to the touch and she gritted her teeth against the shock of it.
“Ssssh, Francis. Daddy’s coming, just wait.”
She left her hand there until she could barely move her fingers with the cold. Francis was still crying. She wondered at how quickly she had gotten used to the noise. For the first few days she’d thought her eardrums would shatter and her heart would stop. For the first few days she’d cried along with him. Now it was just a part of life.
She removed her hand and buried herself closer to Chris under the goose feather duvet. It was so comfortable that she forgot herself and allowed her eyes to close, to breathe in deeply and take a moment. But the life they had created together let out a particularly heart-wrenching wail. And she pulled Chris’ shirt up and put her freezing hand on his soft stomach.
He jumped out of the bed like it was on fire. He landed on the floor, clumsily, but still on his feet, and looked at Orlaith, who was lying, smirking, in the bed.
“What the fuck! What the fuck was that!”
“Francis wants you,” she said. “He said so himself.”
“Ah, Jesus, Orlaith. Could you not have poked me like a normal person?”
“I’m not a normal person,” she said. She was already turning around and tunnelling herself into the blankets. “I’m a mother. And you’re a father. Go see to your son.”
He thought of arguing with her for the sake of it but decided against it. He was already out of bed as it was. He turned on the lamp, illuminating the room. It was a mess. Clothes were all over the floor and spilling out of the wash basket. A trail of baby powder led from the changing station to the corridor. A pile of clean nappies hung precariously on the edge of the bed. One nudge from Orlaith’s feet would send them flying.
He smelled awful. Like sweat and baby vomit. So did Orlaith, but God knows he wasn’t going to say it to her. He wasn’t a complete amadán.
Now that he was awake he found it a miracle that he was ever able to sleep through his son’s cries. He kicked his way through dirty clothes and leaned over the cot; a small red face greeted him. Blue eyes and his grandfather’s nose. There he was, there was Francis. The only thing in the house that was pristine. He picked him up gently, anxious as ever of the weak neck. Four weeks in and he still feared he would break him. He seemed too delicate to be true.
Orlaith woke for the second time that night to the same noise. Francis crying. It was closer this time, and she was disoriented by a second noise, this one quieter. She blinked blearily into the yellow light of the lamp and made out Chris’ shape standing over her, holding Francis.
“Whaareyoudoin,” she said, too sleepy to feel annoyed.
“He won’t stop. He won’t stop crying. He just won’t stop. Orlaith, he won’t stop.”
His voice was shaking and as she woke up properly she realised what the second noise was. Chris was crying — or was very close to it. His bottom lip was quivering and his breaths were coming in short bursts, like a child who had just finished throwing a tantrum. Huh-huh-huh.
She pulled her two boys down into the bed with her and threw the blanket over them. She knew it was supposedly dangerous to have her baby sleep in the bed with herself and her partner, but lord, she was so tired. And Chris was having some sort of breakdown. So she figured it would be fine, just for a few minutes.
She wasn’t even afforded those few minutes. The second they settled into the bed Francis became almost hysterical. Orlaith’s eyes snapped open; she was awake now for sure.
“Orlaaaaaaaaaith,” Chris whined. He was most definitely close to tears.
“Okay, okay, I’m up.” She took the small but loud bundle from Chris, trying not to flinch at the noise. “What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know, that’s the problem.”
“Did you try feeding him?”
“Yes, he didn’t need it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Orlaith, I’m not an idiot! I’ve been doing this just as long as you have!”
“Okay, alright, I’m sorry.”
Sometimes it was hard to remember that they were supposed to be a team. With both of them so exhausted all the time it was easy to snap at each other. They looked at the wailing child before them, both feeling the same resignation.
“So what do we do?”
“Maybe we should take him for a walk?” Chris suggested.
Orlaith looked out of their large apartment window. It was pitch-black outside, rain bulleted against the glass relentlessly.
“I couldn’t think of anything I’d like to do less.”
“Have you got a better idea?”
They stepped out into the rain and the wind and the dark. Alone in the world apart from their infant. A young family, all dressed in rain-repellent black clothes, Francis tucked up in his small buggy.
Finally, his cries had subsided, but through the clear plastic sheltering him from the weather they could see his eyes were still open, watching the water trickling down. They were careful to keep their voices down around him, and meticulously avoided cracks in the pavement. The smallest bump in the road would pierce the silence.
Orlaith’s eyes were closing as she pushed, and she almost fell over a pebble that caught under her shoe. They were walking up St. Mary’s road, a quiet residential street mostly full of young families like themselves. By now it was after one in the morning.
The houses were dark, and family-carrier cars stood solitary in the driveways, ready for the school run in the morning. Scooters and tricycles littered gardens, and a Barbie doll sat on the windowsill of one house. Rain drummed on the tiled roofs and spilled into gutters. They could have been the only people in the world.
And then they passed a house with lights on and the spell was broken.
A front door swung open and noise bubbled out onto the quiet street. Two girls stepped out of the door, saying their goodbyes in voices that were loud enough to indicate they had drink taken. They wobbled down the path and onto the street, their arms around each other. They were both in dresses and heels, their hair tugged and preened into shape.
Their laughter spilled into the air, seeping into the peace the young family had finally managed to attain. Francis stirred in his pram, his mouth pulling down into a scowl. Chris jerked his head towards the girls, ready to roar at them.
But Orlaith stopped him, silently. Her hand on his arm, her eyes silently pleading. They were only twenty-three — not long ago this had been their life. He hesitated, then stepped back in line with her. Francis was quiet in his pram again; they were alright for now.
The taller girl lit up a cigarette, and from across the street Orlaith caught the whiff of smoke. She tensed, taking a deep breath though she couldn’t possibly inhale second-hand smoke from her position. It had been just under a year since her last smoke. She had quit on the spot when she realised she was expecting Francis, but had always secretly resented the fact that she had never gotten to enjoy the final cigarette with the knowledge that it would be her last.
The girls were on one side of the street, Chris, Orlaith and Francis on the other, but all were heading in the same direction. Through the sheets of rain and whisper of wind they could make out parts of the girls’ conversation.
“Did you talk to Jack?”
“Did I fuck! He’s nothing to do with me anymore. Far as I’m concerned my only responsibilities these days is drinking and having the craic.”
They spoke in wavering voices, almost every sentence ending in bursts of drunken laughter.
Chris realised Orlaith was sniffling. Her face was illuminated by the harsh orange street lamps and she was looking down at Francis. He was gazing back at her through the clear cover of his pram. Finally his body had relaxed and his eyes were getting heavy. She should have been happy.
“Remember when we met? It was at a party like that,” Chris said. He was trying to cheer her up.
“We should still be at parties like that,” she said. “But instead you have puke on your shirt.”
“Don’t go feeling sorry for yourself! We’re in the same boat and you don’t hear me complaining every day of the week!”
“Don’t you dare–”
Her voice was too loud. Francis was squinting his eyes, and his mouth was turning down in the way they had come to recognise as indicative of an oncoming crying session. Both parents held their breath until his face relaxed again. Orlaith sighed.
“We can’t even have a proper fight.”
Chris shook his head. The two girls were ahead of them now and were nearing the top of the road. When they reached the top they stopped and hugged and shouted that they’d see each other at the next session.
The shorter girl continued in the same direction but the girl with the cigarette turned and started walking back the way she came, back to the house with the party. It was still raining, and her previously perfect hair was now sodden and stuck to her face. Her make-up had begun to run. She caught Orlaith’s eye from across the road and waved.
“D’ye want to come to a party, lads?” she said. Her voice was too loud in the quiet street and both parents bristled with irritation. “Go on, it’ll be a good–”
She stopped suddenly, swaying on the spot. The hand that she was waving in the air suddenly slapped across her mouth. And she leaned over and puked into the gutter.
Orlaith and Chris found themselves stopped, staring transfixed at the puking girl. When she was finished, she straightened up and wiped her mouth with her hand.
“Christ. Sorry about that.”
She began walking again, this time with one arm on the wall for support.
They waited until the girl got back to the house she had come from. Then they took the turn to their own apartment. As they arrived at the front path they could make out the faint green glow of the baby mobile in the dark. A blast of warm air and familiar surroundings greeted them.
Francis was asleep. They were out of the rain again.