0014 | the end of the day

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?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘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.’

‘You okay?’

‘Yeah. You?’

‘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.

Reader Comments

  1. I have been lucky enough to hear your fragments first hand. For that I feel privileged. I’ve read every one you’ve had the time to write and each time I can picture every element of that moment. It’s like we’re there with you, whether as a boy, in a waiting room or tucking one of the girls to bed. You capture a memory beautifully and we’re very lucky to be part of them.

  2. I have been lucky enough to hear your fragments first hand. For that I feel privileged. I’ve read every one you’ve had the time to write and each time, I can picture every element of that moment. It’s like we’re there with you, whether as a boy, in a waiting room or tucking one of the girls to bed. You capture a memory beautifully and we’re very lucky to be part of them.

  3. i feel like i come here knowing i am going to read something special, void from unnecessary fluff or ego, free from empty ramblings and i do but what i don’t expect each time i read a piece i am going to be moved by it more the last one, because at the time it feels possible. then i read this fragment, i pause ,wipe tears and say of course it more beautiful for his hearts voice has now learned to sing it’s memories.

  4. Kavey:
    Thank you. And for your post-script comments on Twitter. They’re such lovely words to hear.

    Sharon:
    It was a lovely thing to read your story for Tilly. And it was lovely to realise it could then be written about. In a story-within-a-story-within-a-story scenario that would send even Charlie Kaufman running for the hills, I read this Fragment only this evening to Tilly and she seemed to really enjoy it, as did I. ‘Valentine’ was such a great bit of writing, and you and a few others remain a real inspiration to keep me publishing here, so thank you every bit as much.

    Julia:
    Thanks. I thought about you as I wrote some of this, daring to think you might enjoy it. So glad you did.

    Philip:
    Not only is that a very touching comment for me to read, but it comes from someone whose own writing I have such a great respect for. Thank you, it means a lot.

    OpinionsToGo:
    Joanne, thank you. It pleases me that you’re enjoying these more and more.

    Claire:
    Thank you. It’s so lovely to have a comment from you, because I know I’ve been boring you for the last three years or so of our lives with all this sort of stuff. I had no idea you were listening to any of it. I love that you read these: it means the world to me.

    Nadia:
    What a beautiful thing to say. That touches me deeply. You know that I am always incredibly moved by your response to these Fragments, but never more than with this comment.

    Bertle:
    Those girls are fantastically lucky. They get to go to bed late, and mere minutes (minutes!) after eating jam tarts. Thanks so much, as always, for reading.

    Kristy:
    Thank you for visiting and commenting. It’s lovely to see new readers (or at least readers leaving comments for the first time). The feedback is something I really do appreciate. I’m so glad you liked it.

  5. I think this could be your best piece so far. Very tender and a perfect portrait of a family evening.

    I still find the font on your page hard to read on a laptop, though. It’s as if it’s filtered through privacy glass, slightly blurred.

  6. God we miss you guys. Never thought you’d ever love anything as much as Butch. I loved reading this Matt, so tender and beautiful. It’s good to stop and smell the roses. Miss you all. Xxx

  7. I just found you via Kavey Eats (I am her mum). Such wonderfully written, tender words. We have all experienced such moments with our children, but I doubt if anyone has penned them so beautifully. They brought back so many memories. God bless!

  8. Kelly:
    Thanks for your comment, and very happy you enjoyed it so much. I’m hoping my designer who set the fonts for the site can improve the way they show. A few people are struggling to read, but a fix is hopefully on the way soon!

    Sam:
    How very lovely to hear from you! Especially so to find you reading here. Thanks so much, and really glad you liked it. And rest assured I have never ever loved anything as much as that dog. That goes for Charlotte too. Take care and do drop in again. x

    Mamta:
    It’s lovely to receive new readers, especially when they come bearing comments like yours. Thank you so much and thank you to your daughter for leading you here!

  9. Matt, your ability to evoke a visual scenery
    through your skillful use of words never ceases
    to inspire me. The way you can bring your writing
    to live through your descriptions of the little
    details that are ofter-looked is magical.
    Looking forward to the next fragment and the one thereafter….

  10. They never like it when it is ‘too late’ for a story. I probably overuse the ‘too late’ threat.

    “Don’t get your hair wet tonight, otherwise we’ll have to dry it and it will be too late for a story.”

    “Lie still, let’s get your nappy on, otherwise it’ll be too late…”

    I used to arrange toy figures in all sorts of hilarious scenes for the littluns to find. The joke wore thin far too quickly, so other than the occasional regimented line I don’t bother these days.

  11. Chantal:
    A belated thank you for your comment. It’s received so gratefully and I’m so glad you enjoy these fragments.

    Mo:
    Thanks for reading. I almost always renege on the ‘too late’ threat! My OCD desire to tidy is always tested by my daughters; they have ‘softened’ that tendency for the better, I suspect.

    Charles:
    I love that you find the pieces meditative. Thanks, always.

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