First Thing in the Morning – Sue Webster

 

Annie stood in the doorway of Jay’s room. In the dull glow from the kitchen light she could just make out the shape of her son’s dark head on the pillow. One small hand clutched knitted Eeyore, a toy donkey scuffed at its woolly grey edges from the wear and tear of constant love. The boy had partially kicked off the bedclothes during the night, leaving his feet uncovered. In the half dark, she could see their dirty soles. She’d told him there wasn’t time for a proper bath. She’d told herself it didn’t matter once in a while.

She heard the steady rhythm of his breathing and decided it was safe to leave. She crept along the hall in bare feet, then bent to pick up her keys and running shoes. She opened the door with the tiniest click, closed it softly behind her, and stepped into the stairwell.

Head down, she padded down the steps, glancing at the doors of the neighbouring apartments, willing them not to open. She resisted the urge to hold her breath. She dreaded the thought of bumping into the students across the hall, on their way home from a night out, dizzy with cheap booze and loud music. It would be even worse to meet the man on the ground floor who sometimes headed out for an early bike ride while his wife cooked creamy porridge for their daughter’s breakfast before getting her ready for day care. Surely she’d smile as she brushed the little girl’s wavy hair and tied it back with a bright ribbon.

Outside, smoky dawn light was seeping into the edges of the sky. Annie knelt on the path to pull on her shoes and lace them up. When she stood up, she raised her hands high above her head as if trying to push against the soft air, grateful for the way this released the knot of tension in her neck and shoulders. Then she zipped up her jacket against the damp and pulled the hood low over her brow. She checked that her keys were safe in the side pocket, then trotted down the driveway toward the street.

At the end of the drive, she hesitated. There was still time to change her mind. She could simply turn around, go back inside, up the steps and home again. No one would ever know she had thought about venturing out at this time of the morning. No one would judge; no one would criticise. No one. Including Jay. Especially Jay.

Annie felt a prickling sensation on her skin, the ripple of a shiver although she was quite warm. Her gait felt choppy at first – she hadn’t warmed her muscles, hadn’t stretched them out. Each footfall felt flat and awkward, as if she were swinging her legs out at an angle – a duck trying to waddle too fast for its webbed feet.

As she followed the footpath down toward the bay, Annie began to count each step in an attempt to block out the thoughts jangling in her head. Past the pocket park, houses, blocks of flats, scrubby gardens, the edges of things still blurry in the half-light. Gradually her stride lengthened and her feet landed smoothly on the ground. Her steps struck up a rhythm with her breathing and her arms began to move in unison with the muscles driving her legs forward. Annie felt herself begin to relax into the calm of forward motion: her legs drove, her arms swung, her mind began to clear. When she got outside and moved under open sky, she knew she could make things work. She could stay in control and everything would be okay.

She ran on, covering several blocks. She scarcely slowed when she needed to cross a road this early in the day. She could clearly hear a motor and the cars still had their headlights on. Her steps ate up the ground beneath her and soon she was waiting at the traffic lights to cross the highway. After that it was only about a hundred and fifty metres to the waterfront.

She kept her head down. If someone were to look her in the eye, she could stare them down, no problem. It was the sidelong glances and pitying looks that made her cringe inside. Sometimes they came from strangers, sometimes from people she knew slightly – the good-looking boy in the butcher’s with the crooked smile, or the woman with dyed red hair in the convenience store. When she caught them out, she wanted to tell them that it wouldn’t always be like this. She wanted to tell them that mostly she was clever and organised, and on a good day, she had the smartest, most adorable kid in the world.

The lights changed and she lunged forward with the tok-tok-tok of the walk signal. Across the lanes, over the traffic island, alongside the boat ramp – she was almost there. The path narrowed; she had to be careful of early morning cyclists and slowed her pace slightly. She could smell the salt tang of the bay with its slight overtone of rot and iodine from seaweed washed up along the tideline. Her legs stretched out further with each new step. The path was still lit by great curved lampposts while daylight began to wash over the bay, flattening out the shimmer of the navigation lights. She could hear the gentle slap of small waves as they curled onto the shore.

Annie looked ahead where the hill took shape in front of her. She quickened her pace again as she rounded the curve where the path hugged the rocky beach. Now there was an incline, gentle at first but then sharply rising. She breathed deeply – once, twice, and on the third breath she struck out. Each stride became harder; she had to push up through her heels to hold her momentum. Sprinting now, she leant forward and forced her legs to pump harder to propel her up the slope. She took harsh, shallow breaths as she laboured to get more oxygen in: the air snagged in her throat and she heard herself huhh as she exhaled. Gasping, she took the last few steps to the top of the hill. It felt like breaking the surface of the ocean. She pushed the air out of her lungs in an exultant whooh, brushed the hood back from her head and felt the breeze tickle her hair. She danced a few jerky steps, threw her arms upward to open up her chest, and took in big, grateful gulps of cold morning air.

The wide sweep of the bay stretched before her: a rust-coloured box of a cargo ship edged its way in from the sea; to her right, the red bulk of the Spirit of Tasmania was already docked at Station Pier. Annie drank in the blues of the sky and the water, the quiet broken only by the cries of gulls on the wind. Here she felt part of the flow of things, strong and sure of her place in the world.

But as her breathing returned to normal, the fear she had been outrunning came back to gnaw at her. She curled her hands into fists. She raised her right hand to her mouth and bit down on the knuckles of her fingers. She knew it was wrong to leave a four-year-old locked in a grimy flat on his own. Against the law even. She pushed away thoughts that he might wake while she was gone. Mostly he didn’t, anyway. But when he did, it tore at her. She remembered the last time. When she opened the door to find him standing there, his face wet with tears and snot. He stood silent for a moment, then flung Eeyore to the ground and raised his arms to her and roared: ‘Mumma! You were gone!’

She had sworn she would never do it again. She bent to hug him. ‘No, Jay-boy, no way! I was just taking the rubbish out to the bin. I wasn’t gone.’ She’d cuddled him close, tousled his spiky hair. She picked Eeyore up from the floor. ‘Mumma wouldn’t leave you.’

But sometimes she had to. There was that time her mind had clouded over. Something had happened; she didn’t know what. She had heard a voice shouting, an ugly, ragged sound. She had seen a hand raised ready to strike. And she had looked around and realised it was her voice and her hand. Then Jay looking up at her, his mouth loose, lower lip trembling. His little cries: ‘No, Mumma, no.’ So soft, so quiet in the face of her inexplicable rage. Her knees giving way. Slumping to the floor. ‘Jay, Jay – baby. I won’t hurt you.’ Drawing him close, kissing the hair on the top of his head. ‘Mumma will never hurt you.’ Feeling revulsion coursing through her body. Bile rising in her throat. When the shuddering subsided, curling her body around his, rocking him gently. ‘I love you, Jay. Mumma loves you, baby.’

Sickened by the memory, Annie turned away from the bay and headed back the way she had come. Not gloriously sprinting, but urgent. Back toward home. In less than fifteen minutes, she was turning into the driveway, grabbing her key from her pocket. She let herself into the stairwell and ran up the steps two at a time. Holding her breath, she clicked open her door.

Silence.

She crouched to unlace and pull off her shoes and shrugged out of her jacket. She padded softly into Jay’s room and breathed in the sweet, fuggy smell of a sleeping child.

Annie felt a wave of warmth flow through her. Gently she lifted the doona and slid into the narrow bed. She folded her body around the boy, bent her head to his and inhaled the scent of his hair. He stirred a little, only to nestle himself in to her chest and belly. She bit her lip and stared up at the ceiling while cradling him to her breast.

 

***

Sue Webster is a writer and freelance editor based in Melbourne, Australia.  She is inspired equally by city living and the natural world, and prefers to be within walking distance of the sea.

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