The Littlest Sound by Karen Onojaife

The Littlest Sound by Karen Onojaife

 

The Littlest Sound

by Karen Onojaife

 

Peter hadn’t always been one for getting his hands dirty, but early on in Jess’s pregnancy, exhausted by his fussing, she had demanded that he find something to do with himself.  The request had led him out to the scarred, abandoned earth of their back garden, which now, months later, blazed with a crayon green lawn and the bright blur of phlox, zinnia and roses.  The neatness of the project pleased him still – the idea that as Jess and the baby grew, so too would the garden.

 

He crouched near a row of flowerbeds, tamping down the earth around the tangled stems topped with flaming, silken petals.  They seemed to drip a thick, sticky scent into the baking air with every languorous nod of their heads.

 

He could hear Jess banging pots and pans in the kitchen, her daily prelude to ripping down the takeaway menu from the pin board and punching out the number to the local Chinese.  If he looked up, he would be able to see her through the French windows, and perhaps she would pause to look back him, and then smile through the dusk and heat.

 

Sometimes, he had visions of Jess asleep in a rocking chair, which he was yet to buy.  She was cradling the baby in the patchwork quilt, which she was yet to make.  He would stand behind them, one hand resting lightly on her shoulder, his fingers dusty and callused from the effort of fashioning a solid pine crib.  He saw the way it would sway gently from an invisible breeze, its curves gleaming under the caress of the descending sun, which would be visible somehow, despite the fact that their bedroom was east facing.

 

He could never tell her such things though. She would laugh or worse still, use the awful phrase, ‘keep it real, Pete’.   It irritated and amused him by turn that a writer of overwrought romantic fiction was always telling him to keep his feet on the ground.

 

Peter smiled as he turned his attention to digging, the rich metal tang of the soil clinging to his trowel and bare fingers.  He didn’t look up until Jess’s belly, swollen by the past seven months, cast a shadow over the neon purple of the pansies.

 

“You’ve caught the sun,” she said, frowning at his darkened face.

 

He shrugged.  “I could spend hours out here.”

 

“You do,” she said.

 

He studied her face then, but her voice had been light and her expression neutral, save for the small crinkle of her nose when she placed both hands against the small of her back and sighed.  He couldn’t think of a response that wouldn’t cause trouble and so he said nothing, turning his attention back to the pansies.  Jess watched him work, tilting her head to one side.

 

He could feel her eyes travelling over him, resting on the paunch that strained against his light grey polo shirt, then moving up to the spread of brown scalp that was creeping through the coiled peppercorns of his hair.   She did this sometimes, looking at him as if he were a handful of wrong change and he never dared ask her about it, for fear she would actually tell him her thoughts.

 

The main thing was, they were happy enough.  Jess did OK with her books, as did he at his dentist’s surgery, and their house would do for now.  The pregnancy had been unexpected, but his relief had been painfully stark; now they had to stay together.

The news had left him able to breathe a bit better; there was a little more time now, for them to remember the things they had once loved about each other.

 

The fact was, he felt too tired to start over with someone new.  And since the baby, a certain stirring had begun to return for him, even at the most random of times, like when he woke in the middle of the night, roused by an errant elbow in his side and he would turn to see her there, shadowed by sleep and lamp light.

 

“So,” she said, lowering herself into a deckchair.   “Singapore fried rice and salt and chilli squid?”

 

“And beef in black oyster sauce?”

 

“OK,” she grimaced.  Tendrils of hair escaped her twists, their pen spring spirals bouncing against the apple of her cheeks.  She closed her eyes and sighed again, wriggling against the back of the chair.  “Of course, I won’t be able to get out of this now.  Unless you happen to have a fork lift truck to hand.”

 

“I’ll carry you,” he said, dropping his tools and coming to crouch next to the chair.

 

She let her arms fall from her lap so that her fingers caressed the grass.  “The sweetest thing you’ve ever said,” she murmured. Her eyes closed, the bristle of her lashes making shadows against her face.  “It’s pretty out here.”

 

Peter nodded, thinking of all the work it took to keep the garden in this kind of heat.  He’d even started flouting the watering ban, the first time he could recall breaking rules of any kind.  For the past several weeks, he had engaged in covert operations, unable to deny the thrill it gave him to stand in the night’s quietness and watch the soft hiss of the sprinklers as they threw out sparks.  Sometimes, he liked to walk right into the spray, his arms outstretched, the scattered droplets dampening his vest and boxer shorts.  He would hear the song of the birds confused by ambient light, and the shriek of city foxes and it seemed to him in these moments, foolish to ask for anything else.

 

Again, this was not something he felt he could explain.  Instead, he made a nonchalant sound, letting a few blades of grass itch the pads of his fingers.

 

Jess’s eyes opened slowly.  Her gaze was unfocused at first before fixing on him and for a second, he couldn’t shake the feeling that she was re-writing, re-configuring things, so that he was somewhere else.  Then she smiled.

 

Her fingers were sticky with sap when she brought them to his upturned face to trace a light path across his nose and cheeks.   Her right hand wandered up to his hair, tugging the tight curls before lightly resting it against his skull.   It was a gesture he vaguely recognised, perhaps from a time when he still closely read her books.

 

“Pete,” she said, but he preferred to kiss her rather than talk.  For some reason, she smelled of apples and it was this crisp taste that flooded his mouth, prickled his tongue.

 

***

 

Jess woke him that night.  He rubbed his eyes until the blur of her face became familiar.  She had the wide-eyed look of someone who had been awake for some time.

 

“I think that…maybe I need to go to hospital,” she said.  He heard her, but was distracted by the way that she held her stomach.  It felt as if he had never seen her do this, although he knew must have.  Nevertheless, the sight remained strange to him and he tried to recall the last time he had watched her long, brown fingers mould her clothing to the mound of her belly.

 

“But you’re early,” he mumbled, his voice still not recovered from sleep.

 

“Yes. I know.  But…I just, I mean can’t feel anything.  It’s usually really restless at night and there’s been nothing for hours now, like it’s just not moving at all and – well – ”

 

“No, yeah, let’s go,” he said.  Somewhere in the moment before he swung his feet from the bed, he felt his throat seize.  Still, he could hear himself talking as he got dressed, then helped Jess into her clothes and slipped her shoes onto her swollen feet.  He was still talking as they made their way downstairs, one hand hovering behind her.  He was careful not to brush against her stomach when she stopped in the kitchen and turned abruptly, her eyes glancing at him then skittering away, as if she had hoped to see a more reassuring look on his face.

 

“Do you…,” he began, unsure of what he meant to say, but she shook her head, her mouth a thick line as she resumed the way to the front door.

 

He was talking again as they stepped out onto the pavement and across the road, where their Mondeo was waiting.  He gripped the cold metal of his keys until they dug into the flesh of his palm.  She struggled to lower her frame into the passenger seat until he remembered himself, his legs working independently of his mind as he raced round to her side, to help fold her into the car. The walk back round to the driver’s side seemed to take several minutes yet when he heard the clunk of the door which he had just pulled shut, he was surprised to see the car clock read 3.17 –  a mere 10 minutes after she had shaken him awake.

 

He was thinking about turning on the radio when Jess began talking.  They spoke about nothing in quiet tones, their movements slow as they reached for their seatbelts.

 

Time was a concertina that deposited them outside the hospital in the gap between one blink and the next.  In his head, he was already practicing sheepish apologies to the midwives and doctors for wasting valuable NHS time.   His hands convulsed around the steering wheel as the engine ticked and cooled.

 

“Just call me Dami,” Jess said, her mouth trying to smile.  His lips tried to do the same but when they started to quiver, he pressed them shut.  He was grateful though; thinking of his sister, Damilola, who like Jess, had just gone past 7 months, calmed him somewhat.  Dami, who plagued her doctors with every episode of trapped wind and indigestion.  In contrast, he and Jess had always been level headed, unfailingly sensible and he knew that afterwards, they would laugh at this, at the way Dami’s foolishness had rubbed off on them, as much as they had tried to guard against it.

 

“Wait,” she said, when he went to remove the keys from the ignition.  She had to clear her throat several times before she could speak.  “Just wait.”

 

“We can’t,” he said softly, though he stayed where he was.  She nodded as she pushed her door open, letting in a blast of warm air.

 

As they walked toward the automatic doors, his hand returned to the small of her back.  He tried to remember what they had spoken about just before bed.  He thought perhaps Jess had been complaining about her new editor.  He vaguely recalled mentioning Dirk, a rival dentist who had opened a surgery across the road from his. Dirk, he had exclaimed over the sound of running water and Jess’ electric toothbrush.  Who is called that?

 

A nothing kind of conversation, boring even, yet how fiercely he wanted that moment back now.

 

After registering at the reception, they sat on hard plastic seats that seemed to resent their weight and they boiled under the fluorescent lights.  Everyone was talking all at once, save for Jess and Peter.  He went to take her hand but she slipped it away to bury it in the dampness that collected at the nape of her neck.  He bowed his head, resting his chin in his hands and propping his elbows on his knees.  He squinted through the large windows to look at their car, which seemed to shimmer through a haze of heat and smog.

 

Jess tipped her head back against the wall and watched through hooded eyes as paramedics kept on bursting through the doors, bearing bodies. It reminded Peter of the flip books he used to make when younger; the jerky stick figures on the corner of each page flickering into life again and again with the rapid flutter of a thumb, the sequence always the same.

 

Had he ever waited this long for anything?

 

There was a drunkard in the corner, declaring loudly that he “had fucking rights, you know,” while a tired woman, who could have been his girlfriend or his mother, tugged at his sleeve before burying her face in her hands.

 

It was clear to him that he and Jess shouldn’t be there and he was counting on someone telling them so in the next few moments.  This would be a story he could tell Marisol, his assistant at the surgery.  He imagined chatting to her on Monday while she disinfected the tools.  She would ask him how his weekend had gone and he would say, “Well, Saturday night was kind of crazy actually…” He would expertly guide her through shock, then anxiety and then finish up at amused relief.  And they’d both laugh, the way people did at tragedies that never really were.

 

Finally, a nurse.  Her name was Donna and she took them to a cubicle which contained a tired looking midwife, who lifted up Jess’s dress without saying a word.  The midwife gave a distracted smile when Peter tried to apologise for all this trouble, firmly shifting him to one side so that she could hook Jess up to a machine.

 

“There she blows!” Peter cried, the way he always did whenever the great satiny expanse of her belly was revealed like this.  No one laughed and he began to realise that perhaps their life had already been divided, without his awareness or consent, into what was now and what had been.

 

The midwife shifted a trace across the drum of Jess’ stomach, as if she were scribbling on a page with a faulty pen and for a moment, no one spoke.

 

“I’m just going to get a doctor,” the midwife said.  He could tell she was aiming for a casual tone but she looked like a thief as she backed out of the cubicle, and that, he supposed, was exactly what she was, for when he turned back to look at Jess, he understood that he was now missing the belief that tonight would end up as just another anecdote.

 

Jess rested her head on the cradle of her crossed arms, her fingers grasping at the ragged corners of the pillow.  Peter couldn’t decide between sitting next to her or keeping an eye out for the doctor and so he ended up hovering near the curtain, like a stranger who had just popped in to offer best wishes.

 

The doctor came, a child in an oversized white coat. His thin face seemed nervous as he flashed a smile at them both.  He advanced into the room, flicking a glance at the midwife who took an almost imperceptible step back.  The doctor tried to get the trace to work.  The midwife frowned, disappeared and then came back with an older doctor who gently tapped at his colleague’s elbow, then motioned for him to step aside.

 

Someone brought in a new machine, but this didn’t pick up anything either, and suddenly the doctors began with a volley of questions, each of which Jess answered after a brief pause.  Peter could still hear the drunken man from the waiting area, except now he was just singing.

 

He thought they said ‘no heartbeat’ just once, but the words kept echoing in his mind anyway.  His own heartbeat was loud in his ears but slow somehow, as if he were preparing to hibernate through a long winter.

 

He stared at Jess’s stomach, slick with gel and spidered with greenish blue veins.   He saw the look that was exchanged between the doctors and the midwife, the latter taking another small step backwards.  Peter was already shaking his head and Jess was raising herself up on her elbows when the older doctor traded his expression of consternation for condolences, with practised ease.

 

“Wait, just wait” Jess kept saying, her voice growing raw.

 

“I’m sorry,” the older doctor said.

 

“Sometimes there’s no reason,” the younger one said, but the words must have sounded ridiculous even to him, because he blushed and looked at the floor.

 

Peter couldn’t stop staring at Jess’s stomach, still exposed, looking the same as it had done yesterday and the day before.

 

A woman was screaming somewhere, her shrieks worming through to his brain and exploding it with sound.  He almost couldn’t think of anything else.  He was still hovering by the curtain because the cubicle was crowded with people and heat and if he spoke, said ‘excuse me’ so that he could push past and reach Jess, this would mean that he was actually here, that this was all really happening.

 

The older doctor apologised again, saying that, the thing was, there was a shortage of beds and there was nothing they could do for the moment, so would they mind going home for a bit, and coming back later to finish things off?

 

“We’ll give you something to start the process,” he said, “and when you’re actually in labour we can re-admit you.  But there’s no way of knowing how long it’ll take for things to get moving, it could be as much as a day and we can’t keep you here for all that time.  I’m sorry, really I am.”

 

“Of course,” Peter found himself saying over the screaming.  “We’ll just get our things.”

 

“We didn’t bring anything,” Jess said.  Peter started at the sound of her voice.  It seemed as if he hadn’t heard it for months.  He barely recognised it now, it was hollowed out and rough, like calico stretched over stones.

 

“No?” he asked, even as he remembered the overnight bag they had not bothered to pack because there had been so much time left.

 

“No,” she said, tapping her fingernails against the hollow bed railings.  “Not a single thing.”

 

***

Peter hesitated outside his own front door.  He had just come back from the shops with the paint Jess had asked him to buy.

 

Three weeks ago, Dami had had a baby boy.

 

They had just received the invitation to his christening the other day.  It had also been the day they had received the certificates, along with the delicate inky blackness of their son’s tiny footprints.

 

Jess had taken to her bed since then, gripping the thick ivory card of Dami’s invitation so tightly that the print had begun to smear.  She had left the envelope from the hospital on the kitchen table.

 

She didn’t sleep in their room anymore, preferring the spare room, which was to have been the nursery.  Most of the time, this didn’t bother him; he had even grown to prefer the space during the nights which were perpetually too hot and too close.   Sometimes though, just before sleep, he allowed himself to miss how it was before.  The way Jess would climb into bed after him, and the mattress would dip, causing him to roll slightly towards the centre.  Then, with their twin weights balancing against the darkness, the mattress would settle, equilibrium regained and she would be lying across from him, her breath scattering goose bumps across his throat or the back of his neck.

 

She had left their room because of the bed sheets.  The sheets she had bled on, the day they had sent her back from the hospital.  Peter had washed them at least ten times since they had come home. He understood that he could just throw them away, that they could be replaced, but the idea of attempting to salvage something was important to him.  So he had gone through the ritual so many times:  boiling them clean, pegging them on the line and then listening to them flap in the breeze. Empty shapes making empty sounds.

 

He could smell the garden from here.  There was a garden inside too, the front room still full of irises, lilies and chrysanthemums sent by well-wishers.  They spilled out from crinkled cellophane, tiny packets of granulated flower food nestling within the creases, as if these were flowers to which they were expected to tend, which they would want to keep.  The scent of all those fucking flowers, barely letting him catch his breath.

 

He would go inside soon. In a minute.  Being on this side of the door was easier somehow.

 

It seemed to him he must have been there for a long time because his shadow was different now, spilling across the driveway in a sharper slant.  He put down the shopping bag full of paint, and let his hands clench and unclench in his pockets.

 

He thought perhaps he was losing his mind a little.  He remembered being awoken that morning by the sound of sharp, indignant cries.  There had been a soft, helpless, milky smelling weight on his chest and there had been crying, he could have sworn it, but before he had even opened his eyes, everything had disappeared.

 

He had watched Jess later that day, considered her over their silent breakfast of toast and cornflakes and he had almost asked.  But of course there had been no crying, because there was no baby – what else did he expect her to say?  She had looked up at him sharply, her shoulders narrow and hunched around her ears.  Pass the butter please, he had said and she had pushed the dish across the table without speaking.  He had spread pale yellow across the light brown of his toast, listening to the rasp of the knife against the bread, then taken a bite before setting the slice back down.  To eat seemed treacherous these days.

 

She blamed herself.  Or, he supposed, she thought that he blamed her.  And of course he had told her otherwise.  But he couldn’t make his voice sound the way he wanted.  So he stuck to simple statements, like ‘pass the butter’ or ‘get some sleep’.  There was less room for error that way.

 

When he finally went inside, Jess was not in the nursery. Nor was she in the front room, bathroom or their bedroom.  He saw then, that the French windows leading to the garden were ajar.  He considered going to meet her but could not imagine what he would begin to say.  Instead, he took the plastic bag, full of paint and brushes, to the nursery.  He started on the far side, painting over the mural that Jess had put there herself; swirling mermaids, selkies and ships coasting on crests of foam.  Halfway through, he heard the slam of the front door.

 

His spine slowly unknotted itself.  The house was lighter without her in it.  Without her glances of reproach. Without the guilt she had yoked to her back, which she now wanted him to share, even though the few words she gave him were weighed with blankness, designed to exclude him from her thoughts.

 

Her baby, she had said the other day to a friend, when she had thought he was not there.  Her baby.

 

It was several moments before he realised what he was hearing – that sound again.  He set his brush down and turned, pausing in the doorway.  It was coming from their bedroom.  He bowed his head, then shook it, but the noise continued, faint yet distinct; a baby. Crying.

 

He saw himself walking to the bedroom, even though he knew he would not.  He simply stood in the doorway, holding his breath.

 

It was easier to just think of the work. Painting.  The up and down of the strokes, the rustle of bristles against the wall.  Yellow swathes washing over cracks and faded patches that once had been bright blue, but had already slid into pale cornflower, half bleached by the unexpected rage of the sun.

 

Karen Onojaife is a writer based in London, UK.  Her short stories have been long listed for the Bridport Prize (2008) and the Fish Short Story Competition (2011).  Her novel ‘Borrowed Light’ won second place and Reader’s Choice in the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2012 for unpublished fiction by women writers of colour. Her story ‘Starling’ won second place in the Mslexia Short Story competition 2013.

 

She participated in the ‘International Voices’ literary event, which took place at Keats House in May 2013 as part of the Keats Festival.  She was one of a number of writers selected to take part in the inaugural UK Callaloo creative writing workshop, hosted by Goldsmiths University in November 2013, and sponsored by the American literary quarterly, Callaloo.  Karen is currently working on a collection of short stories, as well as revising a final draft of  ‘Borrowed Light’.

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