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Uneven Surface

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Breda hadn’t intended to go to the shops that morning, but she hadn’t slept and she felt that some reward was necessary. She was looking for some form of chocolate treat, the only reward that still held true. In years gone by, in the sepia drowned stills from her memories, she could imagine all sorts of rewards when she needed them. A night out with an array of choices; drinks, food, friends, music. It might be clothes or shoes, something she’d coveted for a while. But the problem was that now there were no nights out and she seemed incapable of imagining when there could be plans again. There were clothes still, but her size was in a constant state of flux. And even if she could guess the number correctly, she didn’t know what to covet anymore. After months of unfashionable maternity garments, she had lost any sense of her own style. The only constant treat that worked was chocolate. And now, there was more need for reward than ever. There was a brief window of sleep between the first and second nightly feed while her baby, Maggie, had slept soundly but Breda had not timed her coffee intake correctly. She lay down with purpose but was unable to reach that peaceful bliss. Now, in the blindingly bright morning, she needed sugar to access her reserve of steel and energy. She catagorised her reward through the luxury of the chocolate itself. This was not a mere Wispa day, she was due something more encouraging than that. Not the Lindor range, as she needed to keep something in reserve if sleep failed her again. But maybe an unusual choice like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. The ritual of the orange wrapping, the satisfying thump to separate the pieces. And of course the chocolate itself.

     She rushed out of her car with the urgency of a paramedic and bundled the uncooperative Maggie into her arms. She ignored the chaos of the backseat; the empty fast food boxes, the crumbs, the used wipes that gave her recriminating glares. She had a mission and she could achieve a measurable goal. When she reached the necessary aisle in the supermarket, her mouth began to salivate in Palovian response. She greeted the colourful bounty of wrappers like old friends, as they warmly welcomed her into the conversation. The Terry’s Chocolate Orange shone under the fluorescent light, almost gleaming with pride. She was reaching for her salvation when her phone rang. It was Clodagh, her friend from work. Breda rebalanced Maggie on her other hip, rearranging her priorities like a puzzle until she released her phone from her back pocket. Clodagh reminded Breda of her past glory and rebellious capabilities. Breda was eager to show that she was still capable and worthy of her time. That her all-consuming, all-altering love for the truculent Maggie had not changed her right down to her brain chemistry. The call was a reminder that she once existed outside of the world of feeding and changing and what cry was that and does her skin look the right colour and should she be able to hold her head up longer and does she even like me. As she answered, Breda  turned away from the shelves to become her previous self. In her eagerness, she failed to register a missing floor tile and she tripped. 

     In the slow motion of it all, Breda couldn’t do anything but watch as her infant slipped out of the protective nook of her mother’s arm and began her unstoppable descent onto the supermarket floor. The rush of adrenaline through Breda’s system allowed her brain to process the moment in painstaking detail but, bizarrely, unhelpfully, did not equip her with the coordination to prevent it. The baby let out a lacklustre squawk, elongated and falling away into the void. Then the inevitable thump of brittle, baby bone on laminated concrete. In the following silence, Breda was stuck in a frozen hell with her phone lodged safely in her hand. The priority of her unconscious motor skills were shamefully on show for all to see. More silence and time trailed on, then suddenly, a shriek from the baby. It was a cry of shock but not one indicating a fatal wound. It was much too powerful for that.

     Breda collected herself and, belatedly, rescued her baby from the floor. The triage revealed no major breaks or cuts, no gushing or limp limbs. Maggie continued to cry in earnest and indignation seemed to colour the tone. Breda couldn’t yet check her pupils for a tiny discrepancy of dilation, that examination would have to wait for a calmer moment. Gradually, Breda became aware of her fellow shoppers and realised that she was surrounded by a semi-circle of concerned citizens. A couple had already been involved in the collection of Maggie’s blanket and soother, but Breda had failed to register any other humans until then. She felt as though an explanation was needed so she whispered her defence to the nearest woman. She had tripped, she hadn’t seen the sign, she...but she trailed off as the woman noticed the telltale phone in her hand. Breda caught the glance and the pointed look away. She tried to acknowledge it and seek out some kind of pardon, but the woman refused to give it. With a polite and damning smile, the woman was gone. Breda was alone again with her shrieking baby and her deafening shame. Breda re-examined her neglected baby, carrying out the second of many future checks of her cranial region. She wondered what internal cranial bleeding would look like on a four month old. She wanted to take out her phone again and search for help but she stopped her hand midway to her pocket. To look at her phone now would be a confirmation of her obsession and her lack of motherly ability. Breda decided that she no longer deserved her Terry’s Chocolate Orange and quickly left the scene of the crime.

     Clodagh tried for a flippant angle of support when Breda called her back that evening. She recounted a similar story where she dropped her spaniel pup, Leon, in a misguided effort to save her own phone. Breda appreciated the attempt but their stories differed in a fundamental way that Clodagh didn’t seem to realise. Clodagh didn’t appear to differentiate between hound and baby and Breda couldn’t find a way to express this difference without alienating her ally. Breda’s baby was the first fissure of separation between them and Breda didn’t want that divide to grow even wider. Before Maggie arrived, Breda would have had no problem with the comparison, but now her understanding had changed and become charged with animalistic emotion. She listened to further tales from the office as Clodagh bragged through favourable comparisons, offering up the shoddy work of her colleagues for critique. But Breda no longer associated with Clodagh's triumphs. She never achieved anything in her work anymore, entire days passed without any sense of completion. She had no stories to offer to the conversation; no co-workers, no acerbic insights, no entertaining anecdotes. Her joy in living vicariously through Clodagh had passed and she needed a different remedy.

     Breda confessed the incident to her husband later that evening, when they both collapsed onto their well-worn couch.  His first reaction was one of concern as he carried out his own cranial examination of the patient. But when he found only a barely perceptible bruise on Maggie’s forehead, his exhaustion ended his anxiety. He tried to encourage Breda to forget the incident, that no-one was judging her and that she was doing a really great job, but he was too tired to really sell those statements. It passed from a concern to an indulgence for him, faster than it would have, back in the old days of comfort and sleep and energy. He said the words, but she felt a gap between the meaning and the sentiment and into this gap, she placed her wildest fears and insecurities. For weeks, her cranial and neurological examinations continued, included in the run of the mill concerns about Maggie’s development and general demeanour. Watching and waiting awash with an all-consuming primal fear, she kept strict observation of every movement for signs of tremors or seizures or any bodily indication that spoke of her crime. The baby hadn’t picked up a new tick of frequent blinking, but the longer Breda stared at her, the more the rate of blinking seemed to increase worryingly. She found herself canvassing in her groups; the sling-wearers, the breastfeeders, the baby and mother yogis, retelling her crime over and over, with a forced laugh and an almost pathological analysis of their reactions. She would latch on to strangers’ comments about parents or minders with phones and she found herself enraged by any indictment, and thoroughly ashamed. She attended fewer and fewer meetings. She hadn't allowed herself chocolate for weeks. She found a new level of isolation in an already well-known isolating period of a woman’s life.  She would have continued down this path had her newest friend, Sarah, not reached out and suggested a playdate with her two children, her toddler, Daisy and her baby, Mark.

     They met at the park and, within minutes, the story appeared between them. Breda intended to throw it away as a casual one-liner and then review Sarah’s reaction forensically, somewhere between the first and second nightly feeds. But instead, she gave the full version in all its shameful glory. Sarah studied Breda’s face and then offered an admission of her own. One week previously, she had forgotten to close the safety gate and her toddler, Daisy, had followed her up. Suddenly suspecting her mistake, Sarah swung around to check the gate and knocked Daisy off balance, back down the full flight of stairs. There was a hospital visit, numerous stitches and oceans of guilt. It was exactly what Breda needed to hear. Sarah’s bigger mistake allowed her to re-categorize her own with this in place, she attempted another meeting for the local New Mothers’ group at the community hall. Once the small talk was bubbling along, Breda found an audience for her confession. She tried to pass it off with a performative confidence but in a moment of panic, she offered Sarah’s story, to contextualise her own. She didn’t give any names, she felt like she protected Sarah’s character, but she did emphasise the differences between Sarah’s crime and her own. A couple in the group vocalised their own horror at Sarah’s mis-step, their empathy tainted with subtle shades of judgement. Breda’s crime was understandable, the product of exhaustion and shredded nerves, but Sarah was convicted of carelessness.

     If Breda hadn’t been so intent on selling her narrative, she might have had more time to revisit the practical aspects of the story. Without her desperation distracting her, she may have noticed in her mind’s eye that before Sarah made her confession, Sarah slid a bobbly hat over Daisy’s head. She might have noticed that Daisy’s head was, in fact, perfect, completely devoid of the injuries or stitches to which her mother would allude. She might have realised that there was sympathy in Sarah’s eyes. But Breda’s focus was on the group response and their pardon of her crime. When the moment passed safely,  Breda gazed down on her sleeping baby and noticed how clean she looked and how peaceful. When one of the mothers passed around a box of Quality Street, Breda picked out her favourite and unfolded its crinkly yellow wrapper with glee.

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