The following extract is from our April/May 2019 edition, which you can discover more about and buy here.
A Small Dark Quiet
Had both of the twins made it out of the womb alive there wouldn’t have been a name and a life going spare. The name was Arthur and the life waiting to be filled had been made in the shape of a proper little English man – a proper little English man and a proper little soldier.
Harry looked different in Mrs Cohen’s arms – he looked how a baby was meant to look. Sylvie’s eyes turned from the tiny puckered face that had absorbed Mrs Cohen’s gaze, listening to the shush dusting the silence it kept. Just Harry’s breath starting to slow now, slowing Sylvie’s with it, an invisible cord winding her back to him again for the first time since he’d been born. She’d carried twin heartbeats, twin boys, but it was only Harry who came screaming his rude health into the world, slick with her loss. Harry and Arthur, tucked round each other, named the day Mrs Cohen cracked the first egg of the year into the pan and proclaimed a double yolk was a sign.
As Sylvie fell back onto the bed, two cold buds, one in her pelvis, one in her heart, tightened against the spring. The winter hadn’t been as fierce this year, but, just as London’s bones seemed to be beginning to thaw, Sylvie felt a second frost take hold.
Good boy, she mouthed in time with Mrs Cohen, such a good boy, finding a stillness in repetition until a gulp of air shook the rhythm and Sylvie flinched back into her own skin. Mrs Cohen’s gentleness settling Harry filled the room, unlocking Sylvie’s throat, hands, hips, letting her rock forward –
Such a good –
Her closing eyes opened at once by the pressure against the empty swell of her abdomen.
‘Let’s put this little mite down now, shall we?’ Mrs Cohen said. Sylvie bent her head, sight glazed over her knees, the nod that was meant for Mrs Cohen slipping unseen towards the floor. She pulled her chin in to her throat, sliding it hard across her clavicles as Harry’s cry began its crescendo — stop, it had to stop, before that cry unleashed her own.
When the bough breaks —
Sylvie followed Mrs Cohen —
The cradle will —
Hearing herself aloud stopped her — was that her? It had been five days since her voice had been made to carry words. Five days that had left Sylvie behind in the body just split to the absence of Arthur, Harry’s collection of sticky limbs slapped against her, his chest fluttering with new breath and rich blood, but alien-cold without —
Arthur, she’d called out, where are you taking my —
Then bringing Harry home, passing the gashed city by – it was as though a mask had been dropped over her face, the air enough to choke her. She’d just wanted to get them into the house, cough London out of her lungs and breathe Harry in, breathe in whatever of Arthur might still be held in Harry’s skin – but, soon as she got inside, Harry’s head nuzzling between her neck and her shoulder, her throat closed. Couldn’t answer the door that evening, Mrs Cohen’s knock —
Go away, couldn’t she just go away?
She’d sat with Mrs Cohen most evenings from the day Gerald was called up till the day she’d gone into labour. Mrs Cohen was always getting little extras for Sylvie; she’d known she was expecting before Sylvie did, reading Sylvie’s squeezed eyes and hands as fear that Gerald wouldn’t come back, rather than the fear that he would: the man who arrived home on leave never seemed to know her any more than she knew him — a little less of him returned each time, blotting out who each of them had been. She could almost hear Gerald’s voice in his first letters home, reminding her of the jugglers and tricksters that had sprung up in the dark that night they’d been caught in the crowd. The gathering roar of the city had seemed to melt under the sound of a flute rising and the voice of a flower girl calling —
Violets. Lovely sweet violets —
The flower girl had wished them luck, her hand tight round the florin Gerald had given her, and Sylvie had looked back but Gerald was already moving into the gauzy light streaming through an arch, beckoning for Sylvie to follow, their silhouettes thrown by a lantern swinging in the alley, those backstreets empty but for the boys playing marbles and a night porter’s step – yes, of course – then what? Swallowed back up by the throng again, making it to the theatre just before the curtain went up and Sylvie humming the tune of the last song all the way to the river. They’d soon be having their walks by the river again, Gerald had said – she hadn’t forgotten, had she, that evening over London Bridge? No, she hadn’t forgotten – and for a moment the thought was enough to staunch the dread that crept up to the bedside each morning. But whatever echo of her husband she heard on the page was lost as soon as he came through the door: his eyes reaching past her, his few words, sharp and sudden, equal to silence. Somehow the odd tumbler knocked off the table or the box of records they’d collected kicked across the floor let her breathe, drawing the gasp that was just enough to cut the air thick with what was left unsaid. Gerald’s mother had counselled Sylvie not to ask questions, to be attentive but not intrusive, bright but not loud. Articles snipped from magazines advised how best to placate the returning soldier – but Sylvie, just watching the clock tick until his leave was up, found herself bargaining with a God she’d never believed in to get her through each night without waking to the urgent burn of Gerald inside her.
‘You’re quite sure they’re his?’ Gerald’s mother had asked, not waiting for a response. ‘Well as long as they come out white.’
Sylvie wasn’t sure she wanted them to come out at all – until one didn’t and then the want opened, widened, until it was all she was. Sleeplessness had made the days bleed into each other – it was only Mrs Cohen’s knock that struck an interval. Three times a day that knock, each hatching the same thought from collapsed time: if she slipped out just as Mrs Cohen came in, left Harry there, found Arthur…
Good boy, such a – ‘Sylvie dear!’
Mrs Cohen, blurred by Sylvie’s eyes, had taken her hand, insisting its warmth be accepted, careful not to sound anything but practical, crisp. Only to bring a bite, she’d said, quite sure Sylvie was managing just splendidly. But Mrs Cohen couldn’t do crisp, gliding down the hall, swiftly unpacking her string bag in the kitchen before going up to Harry, smiling as she lifted him from his cot.
Precious little –
Not without Arthur. She had to send Harry back into her body, find his brother, so that she could know them both. They’d taken her Arthur away before she’d held him but, dead or alive, her arms cradled the shape he might have taken.
Should count y’self lucky, the midwife had said when Sylvie asked where they’d taken her Arthur, you’ve still got the one, war’s taken all my boys.
Lucky Sylvie. Well it could take her too. Let it have her. Be best for Harry if it took him as well. And Gerald. What had it all been for? Rushing for cover under a molten sky, the frantic hands of strangers dragging her down into the shelter, all only to wait for the same again. There was, of course, no interest in what would have been freely given. Aunt Cynthia had been right, should never have come to London –
London eats girls like you alive –
Others it might, Sylvie had thought, kissing Aunt Cynthia goodbye, but not her.
If only it had, swallowed her whole before she’d met Gerald and brought children into a world that wasn’t made for children – is that what Arthur had understood? When the war had made a hell out of the skies and a pot- luck limbo out of the earth, the only heaven was underground.
Sylvie reached for her shoes, stretching them before she forced her feet in, Mrs Cohen whispering as Sylvie got up —
‘Are you alright, dear? Where are you going? Sylvie dear –’
Harry’s cry, gathering force, was only steps away, but it felt distant, as though it was coming through the wireless. Mrs Cohen was calling after her now — her coat, where had she put — never mind that, she’d do without it, only be a minute or two —
‘Sylvie dear, the baby—’
Mrs Cohen’s voice only quickened Sylvie’s step, legs taking her on: up Llanvanor, on to the Finchley Road and into the park, not stopping until she reached the bandstand. She went a little further, paused by a branch of white buds nodding in the wind. She picked off a handful and scattered them, kneeled and pressed a cheek into the ground until a child’s shout shook her into the cooling light. She didn’t feel the rain begin to spit, only saw the first spots bleed into the petals that hadn’t been turned and carried by the wind. That child’s shout again. How long since she’d heard it? Weeks, maybe even months – certainly not since – but listen, yes – a laugh in it now too – a flurry of notes, high and light and clear. The wet petals seemed to be dissolving into the grass. Wait for me! the child called out, running, tripping, his hand on his tin hat. The image, unchanged, had become as familiar to her as the rhythm of the twins’ kicks, appearing every time she felt her boys’ insistent fists and feet. Queuing up at the grocer’s the first time, digging around in her bag for the green ration book she’d been given. Never liked to get the book out, the way eyes would glance from the book to her belly pushing against the buttons of her coat, and then the comments, the advice, a look, distaste or concern or envy. Pregnancy had divested her of discretion and identity: a body to be prodded and measured by visiting midwives; an exhibit to be appraised and critiqued by the bored, the impatient, the wise. A woman in the queue had commented that Sylvie was doing her bit and gave her a wink. One in the eye for Hitler, she’d said. It must have been the closest she’d felt to patriotism – but it wasn’t patriotism. She’d given an inward wink to each of the boys: two in the eye, she’d thought. No, that wasn’t patriotism, it was her own dazzled sense of herself carrying two grand boys, inhabiting the body that had felt obscene and foreign moments before, making her native to the tiny world she was — and there, in that instant outside time, the only space was the shelter she gave and the shelter she took — but, just as she allowed herself to sink and settle, she found herself displaced: not this world, it wasn’t a world made for children.
Remembering now how the boy in the tin hat had seemed to rush up to her and tug at her sleeve just as she felt Arthur test a foot inside her. Be patient, Arthur! she’d said, looking round to answer the tug, only to feel instead the relay of glances along the queue. No telling with some, came a mutter that encouraged others. Eyes down till she reached the counter, trying to make sense of the tug, verifying the identity of a foetal clench of fingers.
It had only ever been the one boy she’d seen, never two — and it was the same in that dream she had: pushing the pram up to the bandstand, the baby’s face cut from glass shattered in a raid, the skin shredded and the face just a crying wound. Couldn’t go back to sleep after that, just stood outside the room that would be for the boys, the blacked out windows not letting her know how long it would be before the morning came to dim the fear of what she’d seen. She’d find a reason why she needed to go over to Mrs Cohen’s, always wishing she’d tidied herself up a bit. She’d spend as long as she could pretending to absorb herself in the patterns Mrs Cohen had swapped, eyes caught by the needles crossing and clicking.
‘You mustn’t fret, Sylvie. A worried brow won’t do the babies any good. Remember what Lord Woolton says?’
Lord Woolton’s cheery lines on the wireless, parroted by everyone, never leave her head now:
Welcome Little Stranger.
Sylvie didn’t mind it so much when Mrs Cohen said it, but the click and cross of the needles kept catching her – no, no she would never do that – and it was only the blasts and the brawls and the throng of useless songs meant to drown out the sound of wasted lives – only that, not her. She’d known a girl who’d done it – only fifteen, could understand now how desperate she must have felt, how trapped. Everyone found out, whispering what a whore she was, some not even bothering to whisper at all. Terrible thing was it didn’t even work. Local prophets cast the all-seeing eye: a girl born to a tart like that would come to no good. Aunt Cynthia had said they should pray for her. She was hidden away somewhere, which was probably for the best, some home for unmarried mothers. People didn’t talk here like they did in Maldon, but they talked all the same. The little one must be six or seven by now. No, she wouldn’t dare do it herself – she couldn’t bring herself to. The girl seemed almost courageous to her in that moment. Was cowardice all that was stopping her? It was too late anyway.
Unbearable to think now that she might have wanted to get rid of them — how the sight of the needles had slid straight into the image of herself holding them between her legs, not even a breath as she stabbed – the violence of it so detached, so sudden. Thought so tangible it might be as brutal as the act itself – couldn’t have been enough to take her Arthur, no of course not, ridiculous, smacked of the whispering gossipers back in Maldon. Yet the boys did seem to anticipate her fear before she felt it — their turning more restless, restless but weak – and she seemed to hear their jagged pulses —
Welcome little —
Would it have been love to have welcomed them into this? Into an ashen world that had to keep hoping because hope was all that was left.
Sylvie tried to pick the flecks of white still visible against the green, barely able to feel the grass beneath her — and there, for an instant, she felt as though she might have caught the flight of those high, clear notes. The sound drew her eyes up but the image of the boy in the tin hat wouldn’t hold, his outlines dissolving, making him as far and unreal as he was — Arthur’s laughing shadow. She looked over towards the gates and, securing a point of reference, saw again the automated steps she must have taken here – it was as though her legs had walked her away from the house. The sequence, returning to her in disordered fragments, resisted continuity until she could grasp how each action had given way to the next — leaving Harry in Mrs Cohen’s arms, down the stairs, out the door and straight to the park, no intention or direction necessary —
No not this world, this wasn’t a world made for —
Cheek pressed against the ground again and closed eyes that wouldn’t cry made her retrace her steps from Llanvanor —
Sylvie dear, you’ve left the door — Sylvie the —
Harry, she’d left —
Mrs Cohen was lulling him as Sylvie came in, rocking from one foot to another, stopping as her eyes met Sylvie’s, teeth pulling in her lip, ‘Oh Sylvie, your face,’ fingertips touching the cheek Sylvie had pressed into the ground.
‘Gerald’s mother will be round soon,’ Sylvie said, turning, ‘I need to get started on the washing.’
‘I’m right here if you need anything.’ Mrs Cohen’s hand opened towards Sylvie, a falling leaf for an instant suspended. ‘Do take care, Sylvie dear, do.’
Sylvie dug her knuckles into her eyes, slapped her face, and went to the window to see Mrs Cohen standing at the end of her front lawn, back to waiting for the post that would never come. Only the letters and parcels sent back. There must be some confusion, she used to tell Sylvie, the War Office mixed things up all the time. She’d waved the telegram at Sylvie three years after it was dated and asked her how they could make mistakes like this. Mrs Cohen’s husband had been taken from her before the war had even begun; the Lord, Mrs Cohen was sure, would never let her son be taken from her as well. Her hand would float over the mantelpiece and she’d be wondering aloud how she would tell her boy what had happened to his father. She’d never have to now.
Sylvie closed the curtains and watched Harry’s face scrunch and redden, touching it for traces of Arthur.
People would come to speak of two Londons: one gutted and one singing. Sylvie had found herself in each, straddled them, yet she struggled now to recall either. Dimly aware of the bodies trapped under rubble and talking to a woman, holding her hand until the stretcher came; of the jitterbug that had danced round her one night – yes, the ladies in the shelter had taught her, packed in as they were, and drafted her into their world. A gentleman had warned them not to excite a lady in her condition. The ladies’ cheeks had pinched, laughter held in check until the gentleman’s back was turned. Sylvie couldn’t resist mimicking him, to hell if he heard, she’d said as the ladies covered their mouths and snuck glances in his direction, the ageless glee of midsummer fairies flushing their faces. Oh you should be an actress, one said. No chance of that now, another said, her eyes, mellowing, on Sylvie’s belly – she had squeezed her hand then, holding it for a moment longer, pressing warmth into her palm as though it might be something Sylvie could carry with her.
But then, from Harry’s birth to Arthur’s death the arc of life was crossed at once. Empty cradle had been twinned with empty grave and took all sense from the body she’d have to live in, from the city she was meant to call home.
The last all clear wouldn’t sound for another week and, while infant heads and hands and feet were blown from tiny bodies rendered nameless, Sylvie forged a tiny corpse of her own. Binding sticks and twigs, lined with moss and stuffed with stones, she wove her Arthur into deathless life and laid him in the ground, piling the warmth of the earth over him, planting him in a second womb. We’ll visit, she promised, every Thursday.
This is an extract from Miranda Gold’s novel A Small Dark Quiet (Unbound, 2018), which is set in London in 1945. For more information, visit Unbound.
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