Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE
BATS IN THE BELFIE
SEPTEMBER

Monday, 1:37 A.M. Such a weird dream. Emily is crying, she's really upset. Something about a belfry. A boy wants to come round to our house because of her belfry. She keeps saying she's sorry, it was a mistake, she didn't mean to do it. Strange. Most of my nightmares lately feature me on my unmentionable birthday having become totally invisible and talking to people who can't hear me or see me.

"But we haven't got a belfry," I say, and the moment I speak the words aloud I know that I'm awake.

Emily is by my side of the bed, bent over as if in prayer or protecting a wound. "Please don't tell Daddy," she pleads. "You can't tell him, Mummy."

"What? Tell him what?"

I fumble blindly on the bedside table and my baffled hand finds reading glasses, distance glasses, a pot of moisturizer and three foil sheets of pills before I locate my phone. Its small window of milky, metallic light reveals that my daughter is dressed in the Victoria's Secret candy-pink shorty shorts and camisole I foolishly agreed to buy her after one of our horrible rows.

"What is it, Em? Don't tell Daddy what?"

No need to look over to check that Richard's still asleep. I can hear that he's asleep. With every year of our marriage, my husband's snoring has got louder. What began as piglet snufflings twenty years ago is now a nightly Hog Symphony, complete with wind section. Sometimes, at the snore's crescendo, it gets so loud that Rich wakes himself up with a start, rolls over and starts the symphony's first movement again. Otherwise, he is harder to wake than a saint on a tomb.

Richard had the same talent for Selective Nocturnal Deafness when Emily was a baby, so it was me who got up two or three times in the night to respond to her cries, locate her blankie, change her nappy, soothe and settle her, only for that penitential playlet to begin all over again. Maternal sonar doesn't come with an off switch, worse luck.

"Mum," Emily pleads, clutching my wrist.

I feel drugged. I am drugged. I took an antihistamine before bed because I've been waking up most nights between two and three, bathed in sweat, and it helps me sleep through. The pill did its work all too well, and now a thought, any thought at all, struggles to break the surface of dense, clotted sleep. No part of me wants to move. I feel like my limbs are being pressed down on the bed by weights.

"Muuuu-uuuumm, please."

God, I am too old for this.

"Sorry, give me a minute, love. Just coming."

I get out of bed onto stiff, protesting feet and put one hand around my daughter's slender frame. With the other, I check her forehead. No temperature, but her face is damp with tears. So many tears that they have dripped onto her camisole. I feel its humid wetness—a mix of warm skin and sadness—through my cotton nightie and I flinch. In the darkness, I plant a kiss on Em's forehead and get her nose instead. Emily is taller than me now. Each time I see her it takes a few seconds to adjust to this incredible fact. I want her to be taller than me, because in the world of women, tall is good, leggy is good, but I also want her to be four years old and really small so I can pick her up and make a safe world for her in my arms.

"Is it your period, darling?"

She shakes her head and I smell my conditioner on her hair, the expensive one I specifically told her not to use.

"No, I did something really ba-aa-aa-aad. He says he's coming here." Emily starts crying again.

"Don't worry, sweetheart. It's OK," I say, maneuvering us both awkwardly toward the door, guided by the chink of light from the landing. "Whatever it is, we can fix it, I promise. It'll be fine."

And, you know, I really thought it would be fine, because what could be so bad in the life of a teenage girl that her mother couldn't make it better?

* * *

2:11 A.M. "You sent. A picture. Of your naked bottom. To a boy. Or boys. You've never met?"

Emily nods miserably. She sits in her place at the kitchen table, clutching her phone in one hand and a Simpsons D'OH mug of hot milk in the other, while I inhale green tea and wish it were Scotch. Or cyanide. Think, Kate, THINK.
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