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Amy Chan

‘Boys, when does training finish? I’ll come back for you around nine then.’ She made a U-turn and headed back home. It’s no good, she thought, as she waited for the red lights to change to amber, she just couldn’t rise to the Great Mother calling. You could easily spot devout adherents down at the ice rink. The mums who were more like dads in their gung-ho approach.

Original Image: © Carine Thomas

The ones who thought nothing of setting off bright and early on a wintry, Sunday morning, for some non-league match, 50 miles down the M25. Such shows of spirit may have been admirable, but to her, they were a complete anathema.

She suspected the boys secretly resented her for being their sole parent and at times an over-stressed and dysfunctional one at that. Along with other grievances, like, if she possessed a master’s degree, why wasn’t she in a better-paid job? Her salary was far from sufficient to cover the excessive materialism of youth culture. In turn, she was driven crazy by their over-reaching expectations, their refusal to be satisfied with their due and the way they took everything for granted. So around in endless circles they went, on the misery-go-round she couldn’t quite manage to stop.
There was an occasion when one of them had encapsulated their misgivings quite succinctly. They were visiting friends in the country. Over Sunday lunch, there had been a banal discussion about sugary drinks and artificial sweeteners. She happened to say that she didn’t have squash in the house anymore as her boys were now willing to drink either milk or water with their meals.

Later, driving back to London, Solomon said ‘You were trying to sound like a “proper” mum. “I won’t have it in the house”. ’ he mimicked.

‘Actually, I never said that. What I said was I don’t, not won’t.’ She hadn’t bothered wasting more breath by asking him exactly what he had been implying. She knew. Anyway, driving down the M11 was tedious enough without initiating an argument about “attitude”. Or parental obligations. But it had irritated the hell out of the resolute rebel in her. There may have been one or two things she would liked to have become, but a “proper mother” never figured on any shortlist. She just wanted to be. Herself. With hindsight, that was probably the point where she’d taken a wrong turn.

She could be obsessional about making sure others knew where she was coming from. In the past, she could deftly transform a hackneyed lover’s tiff into an overheated session on the analyst’s couch. Unfortunately, it usually achieved the opposite of its objective. The ones who got close enough would all declare, in the end, that she was a total enigma. Still, the last thing she wanted now was for people to view her primarily as a mother-of- twins. Incidentally, she never referred to them as the twins, they were always her boys. 

The announcement that she was carrying two foetuses had come as a shock. The hospital had called her in for an early scan at eleven weeks. She lay on the trolley with slimy, cold gel plastered all over her exposed belly, whilst the midwife peered at the monitor. Was there a history of twins in her family? Thinking it was just another of those routine questions, she answered blithely no. What about on his side? No, not as far as she knew. Well, there was now. The midwife had to be joking… She jerked her head round to scrutinise the screen. Her heart started pounding as, all of a sudden, the floor seemed to plummet beneath her. Surely this was one of those “it only happens to other people” things. Couples on fertility treatments or commonly occurring amongst Nigerians (accredited to their high consumption of yams), but rare amongst Chinese or Ethiopians. A multiple birth was not something that should be earmarked for an ordinary person like herself. The midwife was still beaming smiles at her. She returned a sickly grin and slid off the trolley. 

The news had such difficulty in sinking in, that she had no recollection of their leaving the hospital building and only came to, outside Fish Bros. Jeweller’s, half a mile away. It was starting to rain. The skies were heavy with charcoal clouds and the cold, dank air was beginning to seep through her clothing and chill her bones. The jeweller’s window glittered with so much harshly lit up gold that it dazzled her eyes and made her head swim.

She felt completely devastated, but did her best, in front of Him, to disguise her feelings as mere disbelief. He just felt dead chuffed. Probably taking it as sure fired evidence of his virility. The pathetic and shortsighted vanity of men, she thought glumly. In actual fact, it was more due to her fecundity than anything to do with him. She knew from accidents in the past that she could fall pregnant as easily as ripping open a packet of three. So much for the child bearing hips myth. Her hips didn’t look as if they could accommodate passage for one, never mind two. Bloody marvellous, she thought, it was three weeks before Christmas and Santa had decided to drop a bombshell down her chimney. The babies wouldn’t wait to burst into the world and get on with the business of living. It was on an idle, grey Sunday afternoon when her contractions started and she was only 28 weeks. (He had appeared on her doorstep in the early hours of the morning and was now nursing a hangover.) They both tried to deny that anything was amiss. Must be nature’s practice run, he had said. What they were called? Braxton Hick’s cramps or something that mothers-to-be have to endure.
Later that evening she went through to the darkened bedroom to lie down. For half an hour she lay on her side, with eyes transfixed to the luminous hands that jerked their way around the three-inch square clock face. A spasm of pains every two revolutions, regular. Maybe she should get herself down to the hospital for a check. She picked up the phone on the bedside table, and replaced the receiver ten minutes later none the wiser. The midwife said to come down but the doctor said she may as well wait till her clinic appointment the following morning. She then made a second call to a friend who calmly hastened over in her beat up Morris Minor, speeding along the wet and deserted night streets; a woman on a mission.

Her friend took one look at her. “Right, you are going down the hospital.”
He was still affixed to the sofa watching the box. He muttered something like “Yeah, catch you later. Ring me if anything happens.”…(He later claimed that he was just remaining calm for her own good.)
They were half a mile down the road when the call came through that finally managed to prise his posterior off the sofa cushions. Change of plan. The junior houseman said that they now thought she should come in. 

‘Hmph, what do these young doctors know?’ the midwife derided. ‘Cervix, 6 centimetres dilated.’
She was then examined by a gynaecologist who prescribed an injection of steroids which, hopefully, would mature the babies’ lungs enough for them to breathe unaided. ‘You’ll have to have a Caesarean. We’ll try and delay the birth for at least 24 hours, to allow time for the steroids to work. You’ll be fine.’
There was just one small problem; there were no beds available.

An hour later, she was bundled into an ambulance and driven down to UCH where they wheeled her straight to labour ward and installed her in a softly lit room, painted in the lilac blue of harebells. In the meantime, her friend had gone back to her house to pick up her toothbrush and nightgown; and the sofa fixture. After their brief visit to ensure she was all right, what was left of the night was far from reassuring. Periodically, tortured screams from unseen rooms would lacerate the dense silence like banished ghouls fleeing from the underworld. She was glad that that was not awaiting her. They were going to quietly slice her open instead.

The next morning she awoke with the knowledge that there was no postponing the event now and this made her feel more positive than she had been feeling for the past four months. In the hospital room, everything was an oasis of calm. The pale jade curtains gently swayed to the breeze that crept in through the open window. Midwives with silent tread and soft voices drifted in and out and the quiet, hypnotic hum of the monitor signalled that the babies were in readiness and patiently waiting.
At twenty to twelve that night, her waters broke. Excitement began to mount inside her and she was even cracking bad jokes with Him whilst the anaesthetist administered the epidural. It was probably due to suppressed hysteria and the awesome realisation that this was the end of her past life. The drugs were making her uncharacteristcally sentimental. She had to bid farewell to old friends whose names were freedom, space and time. We’ll meet up again some day, she hoped, dreamily, as the theatre doors swung closed behind her.

At three minutes past one in the morning, on May Day, one decade before the end of the century, Simon and Solomon were lifted out into the world. Each baby’s head and trunk could be cradled in the palm of a man’s hand and neither weighed more than that of a dozen small, rosy apples. They made their debut appearance to a grand audience of eighteen medical staff and a third-time father. Their producer was stitched up, wheeled back into the wings, and deposited in an unlit side-room on the maternity ward.

Her body, still semi-paralysed from the anaesthetic, was lifted and rolled onto the bed where she lay inert in some shadowy, darkened space. Her babies had been whisked off to intensive care and she was alone again, with an excavated womb. Her benumbed legs felt like uprooted tree trunks, her mind as if it had been battered in a wild storm; whilst her arms lay empty. Maybe if she could be holding them now, she would feel less like a hollowed out and useless husk whose function had been fulfilled. Eventually, she fell into a fitful sleep, dreaming that it was all a dream within a dream. 

Dependability had never been one of his strengths. In actual fact, he was a total liability, especially to himself and others who were near enough to have to sustain the inevitable fallouts. His seemed to spend his life lurching from one alcohol-fuelled disaster to the next, with the occasional trip-ups in-between.

His background was respectable enough. His father was an architect, renowned in Tigray for the municipal buildings that he had designed and erected in Addis Ababa, and his mother was a descendant of King Johannes II ;or so he said. But their lives had been up-ended by a military overthrow of the government and a series of unresolvable civil wars. He left his family home at the age of fourteen, and went to live with his uncle in the safer port of Asawa where he soon turned out to be quite a successful small-time entrepreneur. Four years later, his father went to tell him to leave Ethiopia as the political situation was worsening and the likelihood that he would be hounded down and imprisoned for his family’s political views was fast becoming more of a certainty. And so he fled to Germany, leaving behind not only his parents and siblings but his pregnant girlfriend and their baby son.

He saw himself as a survivor. You wouldn’t catch him succumbing to mental breakdown or suicide, as some others had. But his escape lay in alcohol and his safety-net in plying subtle, emotional blackmail within his intimate relationships, whilst his heart would always remain back in Tigray, with his fighting brothers and sisters. The one thing they both agreed on was that he came from an ancestry of warriors. He held this belief with pride but she held it with misgiving. She always had an aversion to those who will do what they feel they have to, impelled by zealous beliefs or avengement and stoically bear, even embrace, the terrible consequences. She viewed such minds as being in possession of the mentality of the mental.

At the end of June, the babies were allowed to go home. Once they were firmly established there, the parents swapped over their positions of desirer and desired. He had been the one who had been pestering to have a child. It would bring them even closer together. He would settle down, become responsible. Whereas she knew this unexpected double responsibility would soon drive them apart. Which it did in the end. As time went on, her residual energy from continuous, duplicated baby care was gradually slumping to zero. There was not much left to spare for him. But still he didn’t change. It felt as if there were three children to look after, and to be honest, things were much easier when he wasn’t around. She began not to care, rather than panic, if he was out on the town with his friends when really, she could have done with a pair of assisting hands over at her place.
The irony of this turn-around was that he eventually became bored with male bonding and would plead with her to go out with him. They could go and see a film she fancied, or out for a meal, maybe catch a jazz band, whatever she’d like to do – and he swore he wouldn’t drink. But it was too late for any of that now. Give them enough rope and you know what happens. By then, she didn’t give a toss, he could hang himself with it if he chose to. She became hard, he’d let her down badly. And she would never forgive him for that. 

The inevitable and protracted parting, three years later, was drawn out and far from amicable. She hadn’t seen him for nine months. This was because he was spending time at her majesty’s pleasure. For her, that had been the final straw. Assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest whilst drunk. The responsible father - sure. She remembered her last word to him when she dropped him off at the tube station for his second day in court. One small word that was an outright untruth of her feelings. As he stepped out of the car, he turned his head round and asked her if she’d wait for him. She’d said ‘Yes’.
He knew that if he was sent down, he would not be seeing them for a while. She had told him that she was not going to visit him and nor would she be allowing their sons to take one step across any prison threshold. She watched him disappear down the station steps and was struck by a forceful certainty that for her at least, it was finally all over.

The subsequent weeks and then months slipped by with ease, free from incident, as if she was on extended leave. But none of it could last forever. (She had even started seeing someone else. Someone who had had a crush on her for ten years and who had also sporadically caught her fancy in the past. He was a mathematician, a hill-walker and a handsome dreamer. But that is another story and belongs in another province, far from here.) The release date was six days away and she knew that she had to go and tell him her decision in person. This was the sum total of all she owed him.
His probation officer had kindly driven her up to the open prison which was situated not far from Cambridge. She entered the visiting hall and stood still, both hands clutching the string handles of the carrier bag which contained the suit and clean shirt he had asked her to bring. The regimented rows of desks, each one bracketed by a pair of canvas chairs, reminded her of a school hall set out in preparation for an exam. The late afternoon sunlight which filtered through the tall, net-wired windowpanes cast a mood of serenity in the vast and almost empty room. She carefully scanned the few faces ahead of her until she noticed a solitary figure, sitting apart from the rest, at the far end of the front row. For a protracted moment, she stared at this person, then recognition jolted in the pit of her stomach with a sickening blow. Slowly, she walked over; they exchanged polite kisses to the cheek and she sat down to face him.

They fumbled around with stilted pleasantries but masked behind a repellent emulsion of obsequiousness and charm, a ghost of menace showed in his eyes that told her he already knew, without the knowing. Her memory has long since shut the door on the actual exchange of words. She remembered that at some point, he rose abruptly, making as if to walk away and out of her life for the last time. The metal legs of his chair scraped against the scuffed linoleum and the resultant jarring cacophony crashed and ricocheted around the walls, swiftly arousing the threatening attentions of the two wardens. In the days to come, he was often to make these dramatic but false gestures of closure, as if testing the intactness of her responses. But those old, conditioned responses had long been subjugated and left to rot. Taking his time, he retraced his steps, straightened his chair and calmly sat back down. She had remained motionless in her seat, waiting.

After the outburst of anger came the chilliness, the derision, the moral blackmail; each emotional exposition cresting like a surfer’s wave, only to come crashing down on the sandstone of her resolve. Finally, his depleted ripples went out with the rip tide of a more hardened indominability. She can’t recall his last words of that afternoon but they could be summed up as ‘We’ll see…”. When the door slammed shut and was locked behind him, she realised that the carrier bag was still sitting on the floor.

After his release, the hitherto hidden Ethiopian sense of patriarchal ownership now reared its monstrous head. Refusing to accept her suggestion of supervised visits, he kept reiterating that the boys were his children, as if another man could or would even want to take them away from him. Twice he attacked her and for five weeks he stalked her. Mercilessly. He would wander into the supermarket near her work, around the time of her lunch hour, and stroll aimlessly up and down the aisles as if he was merely deciding what to cook for dinner that night. Or he would hang around outside the glass-fronted piazza where she took her tea breaks and later, interrogate her as to who the guy was that he had seen her with, on more than one occasion. He was only a colleague. Each evening after work, as she turned the car key in the ignition, trepidation would steal over her. Suppose he was waiting on some street corner on the way? Would she panic and accidentally run him over?

There was no peace to be had at home either. He dialled her number at all hours of the night, letting it ring and ring and ring when she didn’t pick up the phone. He said he had relatives living in her area whom he had instructed to keep an eye on all her movements and report on who her visitors were.
In the end, she had to call out the police, at five o’clock in the morning, when he assaulted her, robbed her of her keys and forced his way into her flat. The police found him sitting in the boys’ bedroom. He kept repeating the same three words to them. ‘They’re my children. They’re my children.’

Now, eight years later, she thought, If only he’d taken some responsibility for them, and for himself, he might still be here to hear them say ‘Yes, and he’s our dad.’  

© Amy Chan - The Making and the Breaking

Further Chapters in Amy Chan's evolving biographical novel
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