So many things have made this day long; have stretched morning and night so very far apart from one another.
She waits for me to return downstairs. So patiently. She wears headphones, pink and white, which plug into her laptop DVD player. A half-finished bowl of cereal next to her, cushions gathered together to cover her bare feet, cereal spoon still in her hand. She’s absorbed in her film and hasn’t yet noticed me enter the room. It’s only when she is seesaw-lifted by my weight at the opposite end of the sofa that she raises her head and smiles. She removes her headphones. I kiss her and then get up to switch on the monitor, which confirms the subtle shifts of her young sister, now only minutes from finding sleep: three flashing circles of yellow light, then two, then one.
Earlier, I had promised her that we would bake jam tarts using the pastry we had rolled and refrigerated that afternoon. I look at the clock, but I already know the late hour won’t convince me to renege, so I tell her we will make tarts, but quickly. Thirty minutes later, I dip my little finger three times into the red centre of one of the dozen to ensure it is cool enough for her to eat. Like her cereal, she leaves half. I look to the clock again. I find her cushion – the half-blue, half-mauve one that she’s taken to bed with her every night for almost all of her life. It’s now so old, the velvet cover so threadbare, its square shape so hopelessly deformed. I can be alone with that cushion at times and my thoughts overwhelm me: it is with her every night – no doll or teddy has ever been loved more by any child.
I tell her to go on up ahead of me, and I turn to fill her water bottle at the kitchen tap. I return to find her waiting again, at the foot of the stairs. She climbs them slowly, without once looking to see where she is going, only back towards where she has come from; back, towards me. And she chatters as she walks. I stoop forward and swing ape-like arms over each step – a soliloquy, not aimed at mocking our slow progress or making her laugh, but one of those sanity-sparing manoeuvres that parents engage in when their energies are all but spent.
‘Teeth and weewees.’ I instruct, and I pat her on her bottom to speed her to the bathroom. As she brushes her teeth, I repair the order of her room, back to how I found it when I woke her this morning. I return books to shelves. I stand Lego figures into place on Lego lawns, then adjust them slightly, to set them in a more regimented line. I stand the third little figure and shake my head in disbelief at my own ridiculous compulsion: tidily rearranging that which will be disturbed or taken apart in just a few hours’ time. I throw the duvet up and let it parachute back down flat onto the bed. I pull and straighten it at each end and then turn over the nearest corner. I punch a pillow, then shake it, lay it down above the chin line of her duvet and pad it once more. I set her cushion on top of the pillow and smooth that too, despite knowing its appearance cannot be improved: I obsess, but reason that it merits the same respect. Finally, I lower the blind – one of those jobs that cannot be sped up or cut short – by taking the long length of white cord, which is less white and more grey each night, and unwind it carefully from its figure-of-8 embrace with the cleat. All is tidy, ready. We pass on the landing: she walks into the room I have just left and I go into the room where she has just been, and start the slow run of water for her mother’s bath. I rejoin her and find her copycat-plumping a pillow for me and standing it against the bedstead. ‘There you go,’ she says, grinning, and I smile back, never not amazed that she can thaw my tiredness, irritation, ennui, with such grace. I lie down next to her. My body aches, but it’s wonderful to get to this moment of the day, where our demands of one another are no longer a drain on body or mind.
I tell her it’s too late for one of her stories, something I had already forewarned when we set about making the tarts, yet she still lets out a whine, though only a playful one: a last-gasp petition to keep sleep just ten or so more minutes away. I sigh and pull my phone from my pocket. I look at the time and know these figures don’t yet have any significance for her. Her day begins when her eyes open and it ends when they close. My day is enslaved by these numbers: they dictate when, how and all that I do. But I decide to ignore them this once. I suggest that perhaps she would like it if I read her one of the stories that Daddy likes. I hold hope that the pitch and rhythm of my voice might be enough to secure sleep for her. The story is one I had bookmarked for reading at the beginning of the day, this day as yet still without an end. She nods to tell me she would like to hear me read it.
Via four separate presses of my thumb, I bring the first hundred or so words of a story called ‘Valentine’ into view on the small screen. She leans her head against the left side of my chest, tucks the arm on her underside into the cavern between us and brings her right arm over to rest against the right side of my chest, and it sits there as light as the duvet which floated down upon the mattress minutes earlier. She lowers her face into that same area and its weight against me is so joyous – a tenderness that lasts only a few seconds, which feels almost too beautiful to bear; that kind of sensation that must pass from ecstasy to commonplace pleasure so quickly, perhaps to keep us from being drowned by that which we desire most.
I start to read, but she interrupts me after only a few words.
‘Whose story is this?’
‘It’s written by a lady who writes lovely stories that Daddy likes to read.’
‘Do you know her?’
‘No, but sometimes I write to her.’
‘Even though you don’t know her?’
‘I write to let her know I’ve enjoyed reading her stories.’
‘Does she write to you?’
‘Sometimes she does, yes.’
She nods, already suggesting that she understands something of this story that isn’t a picture book, that it is more than just an authorless creation to be consumed as mere bedtime ritual. She resettles her cheek into my chest and her silence is her consent for me to start again. And I read to her. I read to her a story that I had foremost wanted to read for my own pleasure, but am now able to read for hers too. A story that is simple in its telling and mundane in its subject matter, yet affecting in so many ways, and in ways which I don’t really expect her to understand, but which I ponder, and suspect that she might. I sense she already knows something of the words we use and the things we actually mean when we use those words. She knows something of their power, I am sure. The story is short, no longer than one of her own. No pages to turn, just a thumb to scroll a graphic representation on a screen no larger than the palm it rests against. Underneath the last words of the story, there is a photograph of three onions.
‘Those are nice onions.’ she says, yawning on the last word.
‘They are nice onions.’ I repeat, yawning back at her, on the same word.
One press of the thumb cancels the phone’s illuminated display. I reach down to find the switch for the pink lamp, and that too is extinguished. Only the night-light string around her wardrobe door and a plug-in pink disc that glows in the socket next to it allow for the definition of anything else. I find her hand again, still there, so delicate in its repose. She closes her eyes and yawns again, scrunching her nose. I can hear the water running still, and then I hear the closing of a car door, the whirring-shut of the central locking, the up-and-down clunk of the loose slate at the top of the path, the metal jangle of keys, the thud-creak palindrome of the door, and the instant frenzied scraping of the dog’s claws upon the floorboards of the room into which my wife will first enter. I hear all these things and it feels like the house is full again. And tiredness, relief and contentment begin to merrily overlap, cross-fading in and out. All around me, the concealing grey of the room begins to leak its true colour.
She is asleep so quickly. She can barely have let go of the image of the onions.
There is quiet, as the running water stops. My wife pops her head around the door, expecting, I know, to find me asleep too.
‘Oh!’ she says, surprised, and then, ‘Is she asleep?’
‘Yeah. Absolutely exhausted.’
I don’t reply. She smiles to acknowledge the end of the conversation, and to thank me for readying her bath. It is also a smile for that thank-you that is never spoken between us, the one that acknowledges the care given by one parent on behalf of both. She goes next door to undress.
I kiss the head resting on my chest. I let go of the phone, let go of her hand, let go of the day, and close my eyes too.