“Come on.” The words are raw against Jen’s throat. One more go around. Jake would be so pissed if he knew she was out again, she thinks as her hand teeters towards her pained ribs. She glances at her all-weather, all-terrain digital watch, and longs for a glass of water. Caught unaware, she nearly trips over a tree root.
Forty-two minutes. Really? That’s all? Sometimes she marvels at how often this body fails her.
A worm-eaten signpost for picnickers and dog walkers marks her usual halfway point. Quickening the pace, her bangs swat against her squinting eyes. Somewhere behind her, an over-stretched hair band is lost along the leaf-strewn footpath.
Trying to ignore the stitch building in her abdomen, Jen makes a daring bolt up a steep mud slope and disturbs a blackbird in a puddle. As wings hasten to the air, Sid, a black-and-tan German shepherd, vaults into the clearing ahead, throwing his head from side to side in excitement.
He’s Jake’s dog really, although Sid has tolerated Jen a fair bit better since she took up running, she’s noticed. In the last few weeks however, he’s been moving with a distinct waddle at the back end. Jake has made a few concerned comments about maybe scaling back his food. However, not confident to make those kinds of decisions about somebody else’s pet, Jen has never sought to get involved. Anyway, the vet said one-and-a-half of the little scoops should be fine, so the weight gain really remains a mystery.
For a while she and Sid pad along quite nicely side-by-side. When they come to the shortcut that leads back home, however, he springs eagerly out of step with her.
Alone now, Jen pushes on, determined.
There are more trees on the hill. Last night’s rain has licked them all to a Marmite shine. Some of the smaller trees, drenched in shade, have a showy leopard print of frost running up the bark, soon to vanish in the struggling March sun. Jen had sex in this stretch of woodland once. It was when she was sixteen. God, was that really nine years ago now? It was with a male friend from school. Her first. They’d stumbled along this footpath on the way home from the pub, giggling, and then stopped by the children’s play park and jammed themselves into swings too small for them.
After their mild bout of madness in the dark, they’d slotted right back in to being silly: kicking at the warm leaves; opening their mouths to catch sour raindrops through the canopy. It was a mild night still, on the tail end of summer, and, like most things in summer, the rain didn’t last long. He’d asked to be her boyfriend afterwards, although she wasn’t looking for anything serious just then.
Jen thinks she might still have pictures from earlier that evening at the pub. They would be rolled tightly under elastic in a garage box probably, ferreted away underneath poles and tent sails, somewhere behind Jake’s mountain bike and a stockpile of bleach. They were mementoes of a looser time, when the pubs didn’t ID, and friends’ homes and young people’s hangouts were open to her as an escape: Friday night pie and mash; chocolate rocky road and raspberry sorbet for dessert; her and her larger-than-life school mates squeezed into a booth, holding up cheap yellow shots; the crowd of them aggravating the older locals. In one photo, she is captured in an explosive peal of laughter, cider spurting out of her nose, round solid thighs and tits galore, her denim mini dress unable to conceal a swell of chub sandwiching a bra strap.
She’d probably die of humiliation if anyone but her were to see that photo. But still, there must be something indecipherable she likes about it because she hasn’t thrown it out yet.
Jake hasn’t seen that many pictures from her teenage years. Only carefully selected ones in which Jen resolves she doesn’t look so hideous he will leave her. Three years ago, just after she’d married Jake and long before the miscarriage, she had confided miserably over the phone to her once best drinking buddy, Keeley, about how inadequate she felt: You should see the women from his old life, Australian beach babes, the whole lot of them. Keeley had emigrated to Ireland some years ago, and was now busy juggling full-time social work with motherhood. Jen’s once best friend had been broody since the start of high school, she remembers with a nauseous pang. One time, Keeley even remarked, almost enviously, how wasn’t it a pity about Jen’s mother passing away—but still, what a cushy set-up to inherit a three-bedroom detached, away from busy roads and in a good catchment area.
Not unusually, Keeley had been distracted with no less than four other tasks when Jen had last called.
“Never time for a rest break as a working mum,” she’d pointedly reminded Jen at least twice within ten minutes. Then had come the rapid chitter of Keeley-style laughter that prevented a dig from being outrightly condemned as a dig. Of course, Keeley had done her best to muster up some enthusiasm for the most depressing subjects, such as Jen’s job search troubles, or the fact that the best universities were too far away to consider doing a part-time course without uprooting completely. At the subject of Jake’s gorgeous Aussie friends and exes however, Jen’s slot in Keeley’s timetable apparently was up. A moany scuffle sounded down the other end of the line, followed by the shrill pitch of a toddler wailing. The sound of the kid crying had brought a clump of blood to Jen’s temple: Mummy, Simba’s stabb-ed me wiv dis clarws! And now dit’s BLEED-ING!
“Can I call you back, love?” Her friend’s fraught voice had become slightly breathless. “Sorry, got a bit of a situation going on over here, and you know, being cooped up together in this tiny house makes it impossible to concentrate on anything for long! Thanks, love you loads, bye-eee!”
They hadn’t spoken since.
Splashing through a shallow puddle, sudden cold shocks Jen’s frail ankles. The dank weedy earth forces her to slow to an unsteady jog. The birds have woken up, and the canopy is a clumsy panic of winding and weaving. Jen raises her watch to her nose, then wipes specks of mud off it. She jealously imagines Sid panting into the kitchen through the over-large doggy door and creating huge brown paw prints that she will have to clean off the tiles later. The luring vision of a steaming kettle, and huge shapeless slob clothes tempts her towards giving up, but—
“Come on. Just ten more minutes.”
Hmm... are you quite sure, Greedy Goose? It’s not like you to stick at anything with any level of commitment. Not unless it’s cake, that is!
Jen frowns at the unwelcome voice in her head. Greedy goose is definitely a falsely perky and ridiculous term her mother would’ve liked to say to strangers to win their smiles. Or else, if given a frustrated and belittling edge, the same phrase could easily have been targeted at a weight-conscious daughter in private.
Jen hadn’t given a speech at her mother’s funeral. She wasn’t sure if anyone had expected her to, but just in case she’d spent almost the entire service with her chin in her chest, worried that people were judging her. Uncle Merve had done a good job lifting the mood with a few tasteful jokes, but everyone who’d had a go at profiling her mother said she was a cheerful fighter right until the end. They said she was the dearest lady they knew.
The thought of so many kindly impressions made Jen feel unbalanced.
The sky beyond the village green is brightening now. Blood-pinched clouds are rising like pink elephants, while the dwindling echo of church bells announces a new day. This isn’t a good thing though. Soon overly keen dog walkers will begin to appear or holidaying hikers with their ridiculously tall walking sticks and waterproof trousers, off to scale a mountain, one might presume.
Jen never used to dread the risk of bumping into other people. But that was before the sympathetic tones had started creeping in, as well as all the judgemental looks. Her thin body is just too accentuated in lycra running shorts.
Sometimes she wonders whether she wouldn’t have just done better to leave her mother to the care of strangers all those years ago, and escape to Uni, as her friends had done. It would mean that she wouldn’t have met Jake though, of course, who she had bumped into on the snowy church path one late afternoon, when he was home visiting his parents one Christmas.
Jake’s mum, Hollie, still lives close by the couple, and is a kind, rosy-faced, but overly attentive character. Annoyingly, she’s always trying to fatten Jen up during family dinners. And it’s only gotten worse since they lost the baby. Hollie works at the village bakery and keeps unloading boxes of about-to-expire cakes onto her and Jake’s porch, along with supportive notes: A fleeting visit from an angel leaves footprints on our hearts forever.
These gestures are well meant, Jen knows, yet somehow that doesn’t stop them also translating as infuriating. Jen can’t help but view the baked goods as an act of sabotage cooked up between mother and son: overly plump pity doughnuts, spying eye jam roll ups, and suspicious apple turnovers with secretive, concealed custard. She dumps most of them into the bin.
She hates herself for it, but still, she often imagines Hollie and Jake having nasty conversations about her behind her back: Hollie saying supposedly casual, yet awfully poignant things like, “Your wife wasn’t as emotional as I’d have expected when that last scan neglected to pick up the heartbeat . . . Remind me, love, was the baby planned or a surprise?”
Being so suspicious about the two people who surely love her the most often goes further, and tends to remind Jen of all her other inadequacies as well. Guilt for being a conspirator herself, for example. She would rather forget the times when Mum was in her makeshift hospital room at home, towards the end, and a young couple from the village would come to visit. Thinking they were being kind to Jen’s failing mother, they would unload their baby boy into the sickly woman’s lap. When the couple turned away in conversation however, they would then miss the violation: the sticky, lop-sided kiss with a quick nibble of teeth. The joking pretence of insult and cooing, what a silly fuss, as the child screamed was easily brushed aside—Jen’s internal guilt, however, was not so easy to dispel. She had always felt obliged to pretend she hadn’t seen what she knew she really had seen.
The brain tumour only drove her mother’s inner depravity further to the forefront, Jen suspected. A plump, young cheek was always Mummy’s favorite to criticize. In her muddled mind, her mum probably thought she was doing the kid a favour by trimming off a bit of fat, Jen supposed.
At home, the shower sputters into life, spewing out hot spray which Jen swiftly alters to cool. For some reason Jake always likes the shower to burn his skin—a throwback to sunny Australia, perhaps? Steam circles dissipate as Jen traces over the sharp points of her hips and elbows. She lingers over her flat stomach, but soon stops herself. It’s vain to think herself too attractive. She knows this with the kind of ugly self-awareness that the plumper, teenaged her used to feel certain that Mum would catch her if she stole something sweet from the fridge: “A sugar high comes before a fall, dear.”
Once she’s done washing, Jen steps out onto the wrinkled floor mat, and quickly swaddles her body in a thick lavender towel. Combing her hair into small, precise sections, she scrunches each one singularly to coax curls, checking progress in the mirror above the sink as she goes. Still scrunching, she moves into the bedroom. But whilst reaching for her bathrobe, she freezes.
Perhaps it should feel more pathetic than unnerving to find herself in a stand-off against an object. And the dark slit between the farthest wardrobe door and the frame isn’t even that really, is it? It’s just empty darkness. All the same, Jen senses something wrong has occurred here, and a dry bubble quickly forms in her throat. Leaving the bathrobe where it is, she treads softly toward the ajar door of the wardrobe, pulling her towel tighter to her body as she goes.
“What on earth?”
She pulls the door further open, and then the bubble in her throat erupts in a flood of panic.
Neatly folded on the middle shelf, a sizable pile of baby onesies, all unworn, and all shed of their plastic coverings, are staring at her from the stacks of Jake’s t-shirts.
And that’s not even the worst—“Oh, God!”—the cot, the beautiful sleigh style, drop-side, lily-white cot! Jake insisted on buying it new, not second-hand, and it was delivered late, far too late for a baby to ever sleep in it. But now it has been unboxed! It stands with one full skeleton side constructed, on the floor just inside the wardrobe.
Now Jen is paying close attention, the onesie that is on top of the pile, the yellow one with the frilly collar, also looks oddly disfigured, as if large fingers might have been recently tracing over it.
She can’t, or is unwilling to, comprehend what this means. Resting her shoulder heavily against the wall, her heart throbs unhealthily in her ears. She jerks erratic eyes toward the small bedroom window, where brightening yellow rays are now deceptively coating winter. Through the whirlpool of fear, she can hear Sid clicking along the hallway toward his bed downstairs. The rubbish old dishwasher, which Jake keeps accidentally turning to intensive wash, makes a dry clank, like a chain hitting the bottom of a pit.
She squeezes her eyes shut, trying to block it all out.
Jen wishes her mind could just get lost back inside that silly drunken night with the boy in the woods: the clumsy way he kissed her, the taste of fruit cider, and the nervous bob of his Adam’s apple. She wants to relive the way she took control for once, making sure it was her hands moving his, and her body on top, one half of her naked, the skin glowing bright under the moon. She’d forgotten how good that felt. With Jake, it’s always been him captivating her.
But this—this way they’ve been pretending to cope for so long now—it’s no good. Thoughts of the funeral, the last baby scan, the pity cakes, the school friend leaving for a faraway college and then not keeping in touch, getting a new, prettier, Facebook-official girlfriend who actually wanted to go out with him and have his babies—it all collides in a tangle of loose ends.
Jen moves as if electronically compelled. She barely feels herself flinging her head over the toilet, just in time for the bowl to catch her vomit.
As she retches, ashamedly at intervals she still can’t help but take note of the graceful fossil curve of her back in the full-length mirror, angled at her from the bedroom. She notes the cheeky way the muscle running from her right thigh to buttock gently buds outwards like a perky eyeball, and also the hollow under her ribs—the flat, tidy make-up of her denied body.
Lunch surely won’t feel so guilt-ridden now that she is rid of her breakfast.
She’s dressed and downstairs, in the kitchen, before she can fend off the flicker of temptation. Stroking the cupboards in long lazy ripples, it feels as if she’s immersed underwater as she paces the tiles, feeling the chalk of the ancient grouting stirring beneath her bare feet.
She finds what she’s looking for in the bin, where a stricter version of herself exiled it upon arrival.
At the sea-wave breakfast bar, Jen’s fingers stack up a gorgeously accurate doughnut Pisa. The dishwasher makes another gravel punch just as she’s leaning forwards to inhale the pink icing.
After slowly dismantling the tower, Jen constructs a fun run of army obstacle hoops, and then after that, getting carried away with the thrill, a fairy house complete with spy-hole windows. It’s relaxing to build, she thinks, like a mixture of child’s play and discipline.
But her lower lip is quick to betray her; it recklessly pushes forwards and grazes the sugar dusting. One sweet crystal has time to zing on her tongue before she does the sensible thing and recoils in horror.
She’d almost forgotten about Sid, grumbling around in his muddy dreams in his bed. At her audible gasp, his nose rises from the blankets, and then he blinks at her with bloodshot, barely comprehending eyes.
The flat slap of the doughnut against his hairy thigh properly wakes him up. He’s already gobbled down the offering in one gulp, like a snake, before excitement kicks into his pupils. Licking all sides of his face, he fully sits up, looking for more.
Goodness, a hungry thing, aren’t you? The voice of Jen’s mum oozes out of all the cracks in the kitchen units like tree sap. Jen narrows her eyes as a long ribbon of saliva collapses over Sid’s front paw. Greedy goose, she thinks, pinching the spongy edges of the next doughnut.
Sid pines, angling his head. As her fingers purposefully dawdle, he produces a low grumble.
When the doughnut box is completely empty, all crumbs neatly cast into the sink and coated with bleach, Jen climbs into the dog-bed with Sid. Disturbed by her presence, he fidgets, nipping at her towel, snorting, and snuffling against her damp hair, swiftly destroying all her carefully teased curls. His belly is round and warm, and she arches backwards to share his heat. Sid becomes more and more irritated, nudging her back towards the plastic edge of the bed, and then pawing at her back with his blunted claws.
Despite the discomfort, Jen is attracted to the idea of pretending to be his puppy for a while. The blankets are like a different world: holey at the edges; the wool mix is fuzzy, crumby with soil; and everything smells of dog hair, wet grass from the woods, and cured ham chews. The kitchen, from so low down, looks like a giant’s house. If she managed to fall asleep here, perhaps her unconscious mind would kick in, then take account of these scents, and presume she was also a dog.
If she were to have the same dreams as Sid, what would she dream about? She wonders. Where do dogs like to escape to? She supposes she wouldn’t mind returning to the same woods they have just come from this morning, so long as she could do so in a body equipped with four powerful legs, which would rarely trip. She wouldn’t mind bumping into the villagers even, so long as she could knock them down with a capable snout. While she was at it, she might knock down Hollie too, she ponders, and then knock down Jake. It would be thrilling to run on all fours, completely alone, through the whole village, causing havoc, and sniffing out the hideouts and escape houses of her youth. Running up the hill, she would probably feel like an athlete. It would be the most monumental moment of her life.
Jen grins into wiry wool as she imagines herself hunting a deer across the green in front of the church. Sid’s warm breath is sickly sweet with sugar against her neck. It would feel fitting to think of her mother, she fantasizes, before she would tear open the hot deer carcass with her teeth, and then eat her fill.
Annie Rose is an administrator from West Sussex, in the UK. She is currently studying a Master's degree in Creative Writing.