© Paula Daly
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Warrior Mother (Short Story)
Long before I became a mother I travelled with a small screwdriver in my pocket. It made me feel safe. When passing men who, after a quick once-over I deemed a possible threat, I would tighten my grip around the shaft, ready.
I’d read that an air of confidence and a strong stride were just the ticket if you wanted to deter an attacker, and my small screwdriver seemed to allow me these qualities.
Motherhood took them away again.
In the early months after the birth, I tried searching for the enjoyment which I knew just had to be hiding somewhere. I went through each stage of her development smiling, pretending to be so fulfilled that I could barely contain myself, when, in actuality, I was pretty lost. Day to day experiences that until then I’d done on a sort of happy autopilot now had me vulnerable and scared. I’d sit at traffic lights, panicking that the entire sequence had gone ahead without my noticing and returned to red again. I was fearful in simple conversation. What if I should say something ridiculous because, for the most part, I was thinking through a thick fog?
I coped by being responsible. I reasoned that: even if I couldn’t do motherhood happily, I could still do it.
I set about attending to my baby’s needs with feverish zeal and that’s how I found myself down by the lake at seven-fifteen on a bright May morning. We’d had a bad night and when it became obvious that Eve would not be returning to bed, I loaded up the pram. I could at least tick one thing off my Guilt List and get the ‘Fresh Air Allocation’ over and done with. (Along with The Guilt List I had my Worry Quota - which required regular replenishment to keep me in a constant state of anxiety).
The day promised to be hot, the morning already heavy with heat; just pushing the pram up the gravel path that lead to the lake made me sticky enough to want to remove my jacket. I was crouched, stuffing it into the basket beneath the pram seat, when I first caught sight of him walking towards me. I scanned him swiftly. Years of practice and I’d developed the canny ability of assessing danger at a hundred paces. His frame - large and angular - made me uneasy momentarily but then I saw he was pushing a pram.
I exhaled, I could relax.
A chocolate Lab lolloped along behind him and as he neared I became anxious for a different reason entirely. He was attractive, and I was looking my worst.
I smiled my new ‘I’m a parent too’ smile at him and he nodded in response. His face was creased from sleep and his hair stuck out from the left side of his head as if it had been cut badly. He was unshaven and his stubble had a reddish hue, mismatched to his mousy hair. How nice for his wife, I thought bitterly. She must be lounging in bed right now while he, her devoted husband, doggedly pushes around their infant.
My husband worked in Abu Dhabi. He was devoted in his own way, just not around very much to show it. It was not without its advantages though - our situation. I could pour used cooking oil down the sink if I so wished and he was none the wiser if I used the tumble dryer to dry my big bath towels.
I rose from my crouched position and took a deep breath, preparing myself for the tough negotiation of my cheap pram on the unforgiving gravel. His pram, I’d noticed, had lovely big rubber tyres and great suspension allowing his baby to practically glide along. Mine, I thought with a stab of pram-envy, was more like something you’d use to wheel fruit and vegetables around on.
I headed to my favourite bench where I liked to sit and watch the car ferry. Commuters made their way from the east to the west side of the lake each morning and, for as much as I didn’t care much for my new role as mother, I did get a small feeling of satisfaction from watching people on their way to do a full day’s work.
I sat down and let my shoulders slump. Eve had drifted off which, though pleasant enough now, meant she would require less sleep later when she had her afternoon nap – just around the time I was ready to drop. Her right fist was curled tightly around her favourite cot blanket, her left thumb jammed hard into her mouth. As I eased on the brake, the slight motion of the pram set her off into a fast sucking action and I gazed down at her full of love. That was the thing about being a mother – I loved her, I just didn’t love it. The great dichotomy.
I heard the crunch of gravel and looked up to see ‘new dad’ making another trip along the path. His baby was still awake and I expected he’d been given strict instructions not to go home until it was asleep. He gave a wave when he saw me and rolled his eyes skywards in acknowledgment of the sheer drudgery of parenthood. Then, unexpectedly, he turned his wheels onto the grass towards me. “Mind if I sit with you for a moment?” he asked.
“Not at all,” I said, wondering if I’d remembered to brush my teeth. He parked his pram next to mine and we sat in uncomfortable silence for a moment as I ran through suitable questions in my head: Sleeping through yet? Started teething? Is your wife still in bed?
“Boy or girl,” he said, gesturing to my pram.
He whistled to his dog who was gulping down water from the shore, its tail wagging steadily like a metronome. And then he began tapping his feet nervously and I noticed his boots were dusty from the path. Most of the new dads I found myself speaking to were nervous. They would rather be anywhere other than making small talk with a stranger about their baby. Apart from, that is, the ultra-enthusiastic ones who were just plain irritating.
His son began a half-cry, a protest at being stationary. “Matty doesn’t sleep too well,” he said, resignedly. There was alcohol on his breath which I found strangely satisfying. There was no way I’d let my hungover husband be in charge of my baby, I thought.
And then, the strangest thing happened. He leaned across and began to kiss me.
My first thought, bizarrely, was: ‘Careful…someone might see us!’ as if we’d pre-arranged this rendezvous, but then suddenly he grabbed the hair at the back of my scalp and forced my head towards him, hard. “Don’t move,” he hissed into my ear and I stared at him, uncomprehending.
“What are you doing?” I whispered.
His breath was rank, dehydrated and I for a second my mind switched to the last time I’d pushed away my husband after a night on the booze.
He released his hold on me, and, as he re-positioned himself, I saw his mouth was raw, almost bloody, as if he’d torn off a piece of live flesh with his teeth. That was when I should’ve screamed because the next second he moved his grip to around my throat. The compression on my larynx forced me to gag and when the enormity of my vulnerability hit me. My daughter sound asleep in her pram right in front of me had rendered me helpless.
I could not run and I could not fight.
He used his free hand to undo his trousers and as he lowered himself down upon me I made my choice. At that moment I was fully prepared to be raped. I glanced sideways at my infant daughter and my overwhelming urge was to safeguard her. If that meant submitting to this animal, so be it. Women have endured worse, I reasoned.
“Unfasten yourself,” he snapped angrily.
I let my eyes float upwards under their lids to give the impression I was starved of oxygen and he lessened his grip around my throat. Then, as steadily as I could, for my hands were shaking violently, I slid my thumbs inside the waistband of my jeans and wriggled my hips to lower them. The backrest of the bench cut into my spine as he forced his weight upon me and I closed my eyes to shut out the world, and, the pain. Silently, I recited the first verse of ‘Jerusalem’ in my head. I blocked out conscious thoughts and relaxed my body purposely, hoping it would lessen my ordeal.
He cursed and spat in my ear as he pulled at my body, floppy like a corpse, into a position where he could get at me. I kept my eyes shut tight and prayed he would leave me alive after this was over. My thoughts raced ahead. What if he killed me and Eve was left here alone? Deserted?
But then, there was noise. Loud, urgent noise and my eyes flew open.
His baby was screaming wildly as his dog reared up and barked in high-pitched, frightened yelps. He reached across and jostled his pram to shut up his son as his panicked dog jumped up and down repeatedly, close to Eve. Her eyes were wide with fear and it was this fear that triggered the primordial sense within me and made me attack.
He’d pulled away from me momentarily to hit out at his dog and I kicked him hard in the stomach with my heels. He fell backwards and rolled onto the ground making sharp, gasping sounds and I knew that I’d winded him.
Grabbing the jacket from the basket of my pram I withdrew the small, electrical screwdriver and ran at him in fury. His baby’s screams seemed to amplify my rage and I did not consider my actions until he’d stopped writhing, the screwdriver sticking out from his neck at a right angle. His dog continued to dance around barking and yelping, “HUSH!” I shouted, and both it and his baby fell silent and then stared at me expectantly.
I slumped down on the grass and hung my head between my legs; my post-pregnancy belly hanging over the top of my jeans sprayed with blood.
I was panting, hyperventilating. What now? What now?
Crawling on my hands and knees back to the bench, I searched in the long grass for my phone which had fallen out of my back pocket during the struggle. As I fumbled to unlock the key-pad, Matty - his baby - whimpered a little before fat tears began to slide down his face. I had no choice but to lift him out of his pram and comfort him. Rocking him gently and whispering his name I dialled the police as his father lay dead before us.
I sat Matty facing away from the body, shielding his view from his father’s face which was contorted with the pain of his death. He’d already gone grey, the blood from his face now lying mostly on my shirt. At the sound of my voice Matty relaxed in my arms and nuzzled his cheek towards my breast. His breathing slowed and he yawned then smiled at me from the crook of my arm. I tightened my hold on him, feeling a protectiveness which was both strange and natural at the same time. His eyelids flickered and then began to droop as I swayed him softly.
Eve watched on with uncertainty. She was not happy about her mother touching this other baby. Not happy at all.
When they’d settled I reached for the phone. I was shaking. Shock was taking hold. Before the police, before anyone else found us, I needed help.
“Mum…?” I said, my voice cracking on hearing her. “Mum…?” I cried and then collapsed into loud, racking sobs.