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ST AUBYN, Edward

Mother's milk

Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born? Keeping him awake for days, banging his head again and again against a closed cervix; twisting the cord around his throat and throttling him; chomping through his mother’s abdomen with cold shears; clamping his head and wrenching his neck from side to side; dragging him out of his home and hitting him; shining lights in his eyes and doing experiments; taking him away from his mother while she lay on the table, half-dead. Maybe the idea was to destroy his nostalgia for the old world. First the confinement to make him hungry for space, then pretending to kill him so that he would be grateful for the space when he got it, even this loud desert, with only the bandages of his mother’s arms to wrap around him, never the whole thing again, the whole warm thing all around him, being everything.

The curtains were breathing light into their hospital room. Swelling from the hot afternoon, and then flopping back against the French windows, easing the glare outside.

Someone opened the door and the curtains leaped up and rippled their edges; loose paper rustled, the room whitened, and the shudder of the road works grew a little louder. Then the door clunked and the curtains sighed and the room dimmed.

“Oh, no, not more flowers,” said his mother.

He could see everything through the transparent walls of his fish tank crib. He was looked over by the sticky eye of a splayed lily. Sometimes the breeze blew the peppery smell of freesias over him and he wanted to sneeze it away. On his mother’s nightgown spots of blood mingled with streaks of dark-orange pollen.

“It’s so nice of people…” she was laughing from weakness and frustration. “I mean, is there any room in the bath?”

“Not really, you’ve got the roses in there already and the other things.”

“Oh, God, I can’t bear it. Hundreds of flowers have been cut down and squeezed into these white vases, just to make us happy.” She couldn’t stop laughing. There were tears running down her face. “They should have been left where they were, in a garden somewhere.”

The nurse looked at the chart.

“It’s time for you to take your Voltarol,” she said. “You’ve got to control the pain before it takes over.”

Then the nurse looked at Robert and he locked on to her blue eyes in the heaving dimness.

“He’s very alert. He’s really checking me out.”

“He is going to be all right, isn’t he?” said his mother, suddenly terrified.

Suddenly Robert was terrified too. They were not together in the way they used to be, but they still had their helplessness in common. They had been washed up on a wild shore. Too tired to crawl up the beach, they could only loll in the roar and the dazzle of being there. He had to face facts though: they had been separated. He understood now that his mother had already been on the outside. For her this wild shore was a new role, for him it was a new world.