‘Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep, But We Don’t Mind’ was the third prize winner in our Short Story Competition 2017.
We’ve been married three years when Sylvia Plath appears in our bedroom. There is a chair in the corner, an old French Louis XV-style copy in walnut and cream. The seat is soft, flecked with grey fur at the edges where the cat likes to sit. The cat doesn’t sit there any more, though. There’s no space. Where there was once the cat, now sits Sylvia.
When I first see her there, collar like a ruff of white lace around her neck, I assume she is a new cleaner sent by the agency, that she is waiting for me to give her instructions on bleach versus white vinegar, to tell her whether we want our sheets ironed or left creased, because of the bedspread. Nobody can see what’s beneath the covers if there’s a bedspread. You can leave behind the detritus of a day – toast; those crunchy, black paper envelopes that hold After Eights; condoms; tear-splatter stripes of mascara. Life’s hidden intimacies.
She sits on the chair just so, and I can tell she isn’t a cleaner by the way she crosses her legs at the ankle, like she doesn’t have anywhere else to be. She doesn’t say anything. She just looks at me, her face open and closed at the same time. It is a look that says, I see you. I stare back at her, confused, and then it dawns on me that it is eleven at night and you are downstairs, watching TV, and it is Friday, and she is Sylvia Plath.
I know her from the reddish-brown of her hair, the girlish Alice band, the plainness of her dress, her eyes. Those haunted eyes. I know her from that old copy of The Colossus from 1998, a first edition, the one we have on the bookshelf with her name in orange on the front. The Colossus and Other Poems. She sits on the cover like she is sitting on our chair: young, cross-legged and decidedly, stubbornly alive. Yet I know she is dead. I know that she took her own life at 30, the age I am now. I know this, and the knowing leaves questions hanging in the air like smoke.
Ten… nine… eight… I let most of my breath out in one go, like the helium in that shiny-red, heart-shaped balloon you gave me with some flowers for my birthday. I moved it from room to room, hoping it would snag on a nail, the cat would prick it with a razor claw, hoping it would wither. In the end, I snipped it with scissors in the kitchen when you weren’t looking and stuffed it in the bin.
Three… two…. My lungs deflate, making me dizzy. I breathe in again, look at Sylvia and nod. She nods back. We share a mutual sense of resignation. Then she settles back in the chair, her hands neatly stacked in her lap.
Your shoes are heavy on the stairs. They make the glass lights on the ceiling below jingle and shake. You come into the bedroom. You look from me to Sylvia and back again. Spit foams at the corners of your mouth. You remind me of a goldfish with pop-eye.
“What the fuck is she doing here?” You point accusingly, as though she is mine.
I shrug. “I don’t know,” I say. This makes you madder.
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Your voice has risen a couple of octaves. It sounds the way you sounded when we were fourteen, when you’d throw gravel at the porch to let me know you were waiting, leaving a spider-web of cracked glass. I’d tell Dad I was going for milk and slip out of the door sideways, in a dress with lemons embroidered on the collar. I would mutter, “Alright?”, my heart a snare, and climb up on the saddle behind you. I’d press my face into the back of your black-and-white striped Adidas tracksuit top and close my eyes, breathing in ash and beer and salt. My toes would drag along the concrete as we coasted down the hill and it would burn red-hot but I wouldn’t lift my feet up.
“How did she get in? Did you let her in? Why isn’t she talking? Jesus Christ, what the fuck is wrong with her? Is she homeless or something?” You go close to Sylvia, wave your hand in front of her face, punch the wall. Paint scatters.
It goes on like this. You’re still talking, but I can’t make out the words, and I wonder if I’ve gone deaf, or if your voice is so high with rage that it’s reached that mosquito alarm pitch only young people can hear. We’re not young anymore, so I can’t hear you. We’re not young anymore.
Later, after you’ve stalked off to the bathroom to brush your teeth, to shave, you get into bed, one eye on the chair, watchful and wary. You are wearing the underpants I asked you to throw away two Christmases ago, the ones that hang down to your knees.
“Is she just going to sit there like that, or what?” you say, grunting with displeasure the way you grunt when someone asks us for money when we’re outside a restaurant.
I shrug again, but this time I don’t say I don’t know. We sleep.
You’ve left for work by the time I wake up, and I don’t know if you kissed me goodbye. I feel sluggish and press myself deeper into my pillow, tiredness like a coat I can’t take off. Then I remember her. Sylvia. I open my eyes and rub grit from the corners. I stare at the ceiling. I imagine what I’ll say when you come home, when I tell you about the dream I had.
“I dreamed Sylvia Plath was sitting on that chair in the corner of our bedroom,” I’ll say, my voice sounding at once amused and tinged with irony. “We had a fight about it. You punched a wall.” I’ll probably run my fingers through my hair in that way you once said made me look cute. I’ll be ready to laugh or to dismiss the conversation, depending on how your day has gone. You’ll say, “Who?”, as disinterested as if she was someone I work with.
I push myself up on my elbows, shaking off pins and needles. I look across the room to the chair, and there she is.
She’s wearing different clothes to yesterday. A cardigan, heavy wool, though the heating is on and the brass thermometer on the bedroom wall reads 22 degrees. There is a brown-and-white checked hem running from her neck to her waist, decorated with buttons. She is pregnant, which is strange, because in that instant I realise that I am too.
“Of course,” I think, staring with wonder at Sylvia Plath, at her belly’s gentle roundness, at her sober smile. She wears the same downturned lips and high cheekbones as yesterday. I guess she is six months – seven? – gone. I know it the way pensioners in the street tell young women who didn’t ask that it’s “definitely a boy”.
I feel it stir somewhere deep within me; tiny, sunflower seed, not 2mm long. I picture myself like Sylvia, months from now, belly like a road map, filled with the whirls and ripples of impatient life. I imagine myself, stumbling from bed, cow-heavy and floral, like her Morning Song.
I wonder what you’ll say when I tell you. The last time, the time it didn’t work, you grew flat and distant. I used to catch you staring into space, your hand close to your mouth but not quite touching. If I asked, you’d look at me blankly for a few seconds, then say, “Huh?” and, “I’m fine”, but the top of your nose would wrinkle with irritation. I couldn’t help myself. I asked you ten, twenty times a day, willing you to give me any other answer but “fine”, willing myself to believe you.
“This time,” I say to Sylvia, determined, nodding my head like it makes a difference, “it’ll be okay. This time it’ll stick.”
I place the flat of my hand against the softness of my belly. This time, I tell her, I will do pregnancy yoga and antenatal classes. I won’t skip out because I am embarrassed by the demonstrations, by the teacher’s giant, woolly model of a vagina, by the photos of huge, swollen women who don’t look a bit like me in birth pools, stained red. I’ll take 400 micrograms of folic acid every day, and extra iron, and omega-3s. I’ll stop smoking. Drinking. Coffee, vodka. Maybe even wine. I won’t clean out the cat’s litter tray any more when it’s overflowing and stinking, that will be your job, and I’ll stop eating cheese with mould in it. I’ll go to bed early and I’ll – we’ll – take a photo of my belly, every week. We’ll go for gentle walks in the forest on Sundays and I’ll set aside two, five to ten-minute periods of the day, every day, for mindfulness, to bond with the baby. I’ll even join an NCT group.
“Did you do all of those things?” I ask Sylvia, doubtfully. She places her left hand on her belly – she looks about eight months pregnant, I decide, not six – and stares dolefully out of the window.
“I was amazed when I found how easy she was,” she tells me but doesn’t tell me: Ted and Sylvia, 1961, an interview, uploaded to YouTube. I place the words in Sylvia’s mouth now, like a kiss. “I had wondered if I would feel swallowed up by motherhood and never have any time to myself. But somehow, she fitted in beautifully.”
“You loved Ted, didn’t you?” I ask. I fancy she is telling me with her eyes what I’ve read about, about how she wanted to meet Ted Hughes because she’d read some of his poems, and she’d been impressed by him, and they went to a party in London, and then somehow, ended up married.
I think about how we ended up married. It didn’t begin at a party, like Sylvia and Ted, but at the back of the bus, in 2001. You called me “babe” and stuck your hand down my top to feel the silky lining of my bra.
We “did it” for the first time two weeks later in the park in Bethnal Green, after it was dark and the wardens had locked the gates. You helped me climb over the metal spikes. I put my hand in somebody else’s piss and wiped it on my jeans, but you didn’t mind. You held it anyway and led me to a bench where we drank cheap, warm cider that tasted like sweets. It made my head spin as I looked up at the stars. This, I thought. This is the love I dreamed of.
“It” happened. I could feel the wet grass against my back, the cold air on my thighs. It was rough, like holding my hand under the cold tap until it was numb and aching; hot, like carpet burn on my knees; sharp, like the stitches the doctor said I had to have, and I knew I had to have them, though every fibre in my body wanted to pull away. When it was over, you kissed me and said I was special, that you’d never let me go.
I lay back against the pillows again and ask Sylvia what it was like for her as a child. “I was happy, up to the age of about nine, very carefree and I believed in magic,” she says-said through the small speaker in my phone. “At nine I was rather disillusioned. I stopped believing in elves and Santa Claus and became more realistic and depressed.”
I nod sympathetically. “I understand,” I say.
When I was a child, everything was cold and I had to sit in my room while my parents got drunk in the kitchen. I would stay perfectly still in the quiet dark, listening to them laugh and joke and fizz and sometimes my mother would stamp upstairs and throw open the door and hiss, her teeth bared like the wild cats in the alley next to the supermarket. Sometimes she’d grab my arm so tight it would leave bruises and tell me I was a “bad girl”.
I like it when you call me a “bad girl”, though. I know it turns you on, because you growl a little bit and slap me and say, “oh, yeah, oh, fuck, yeah.”
I tell Sylvia about the day my mother died. I was nine, and she forgot to pick me up from school, and so I walked home, and climbed through a window because I didn’t have a key. Inside, everything was messy and smelled of wet, and she was in the kitchen, slumped over a bowl of milk. The milk had a film across the top of it, like custard. I touched her and she was a mannequin, one of those plastic women with both arms cut blunt at the wrist, smile fixed, eyes blue and glazed. She wasn’t my mother anymore. I wondered if she ever was.
Thinking about this makes me feel sad. I get up and put on a dress, something pink to draw my mind towards daylight. I go downstairs and watch TV, and somehow, the day passes. Nervous moths bash and crash into my ribcage.
When you come home, you don’t hug me or say hello. You slump on the sofa in your crumpled suit, the remote-control slack in your hand, your laces undone and trailing like worms on the carpet.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” I swallow, hovering at the edges. You sigh and nod your head sideways to tell me I’m in the way of the TV.
“I’m pregnant,” I say, biting my lip until I taste blood.
You turn to me, frowning. “What?”
“Pregnant,” I repeat.
You stare at me. The remote slips from your hand and clatters off the sofa to the floor. You press your fingers to your temples. You breathe in, your cheeks filled with air, and out, in one, quick burst. You push yourself up with your hands and stand. The sudden movement makes me flinch. I take a step back.
“I’m going for a walk,” you say, not looking at me as you leave the room. I put my arms around myself and hug myself tight as the front door slams. I don’t know when you’ll be back. The cat wanders in and winds himself around my legs like a question.
Above my head, the glass lights jingle and shake like bells, and I feel an aching. I stare up at the ceiling and wonder if Sylvia has gone or if she’ll stay another night, tonight – please, just one more night – and watch over us while we sleep.