Day minus 92
I feel the laboured contractions of your heart, pounding to maintain my mirrored beat, as you toil to grow me in time:
A nine-month lease. A prebirth rental.
Dad's hand massages the relieving puddle of cream into the stretched craters of your flesh, which grows in love and sacrifice by the day. Dad's other hand brushes the sweaty, tangled wires from your face, and tightly presses against your forehead with a damp, rolled-up flannel. I can feel you both as I fall asleep in the well of your crib, dad's body supporting us both, like a living pillow. You wake me, a few hours later, with a lunch of gherkins on top of the slices of English muffins you insisted dad burn to a near crisp, belching away for the both of us. Dad begins to burp you, burp me, to ease your indigestion, and his sturdy, rhymical pats send me back to sleep.
"I love you, Giulia," you whisper into your own skin.
"I love both of you more than anything," dad joins in, and I kick out, as I dream.
"I hope we win the pools so you don't have to go back to work on Monday," you say, as you and dad each place a hand upon your stomach, and I see my roof, our roof grow lower, as you both press down to find me.
Although my tenancy expires, and you're forced to evict me, you immediately pull me to your chest, so close I think you are trying to push me back inside your body. I remember your heartbeat as it pulsates through my own, and it instantly calms me, as we resynchronise. Dad, shirtless by your side, glistening eyes, reaching forward, sits on the bed, his legs pressed firmly against your own, snuggling into the togetherness, his hand cupping my head, and I recognise his touch.
Later, Aunt Eldine comes in, a garden of stalks and petals growing from her palm, which she replants in the brown armchair, nearby. "They're only from the gift shop, nothing special. I raced all the way from home. Left the kids with my neighbours, Koji and Graham," and then pausing when she sees me for the first time, "My God, she's gorgeous, Sana."
Placing me in her arms, I breathe in the now familiar scent of love and skin. But it's not the skin I'm used to. Too floral, too foreign, not enough mine, and I start to scream for you and dad, from missing, rather than fear.
As you feed me from your breast, later on, dad feeds you from the punnet of purple grapes that Uncle Federico brought in for you earlier. I remember how relieved I'd felt when he was too frightened to hold me because I knew I wouldn't be pulled from yours and dad's embrace ‒ and we could remain as one.
I can still see the lingering night in the air around me, as dad exits the womb of our bedroom, and turns on the hallway light. I hear the zmmmmmm of his electric toothbrush, and when he comes back inside, I don't understand why he is pulling strange-smelling clothes from the opening walls.
I try to shout to him, "Dad, what's going on? Why are you not still asleep next to mum?" But my words come out as deafening wails, and stir you from your unconscious exhaustion.
"Just tell them you're unwell. Tell them the toilet's flooded. Tell them anything, Laurie. Just don't go…don't leave me alone," you beg, as you rub the large comets of sleep from your puffy eyes.
"Do you honestly think I want to, sweetheart? You think this is fair, on any of us? It's the worst thing in the world. But you know I only had three weeks of paid holiday saved up."
"It's not enough," you sob, and you bundle me into your arms, and sit on the edge of the bed.
"I know it isn't, I really do. But I'll have a few more extra days saved by next week," dad tries his best to console, as he comes and sits beside us, and we all cry together for the next five minutes before dad kisses us on the forehead and disappears.
You put me back in my crib, and I cry more than I normally do that day, because you and dad take it in turns to pick me up when the painful water starts to fall down my face, and every time you lift me into your arms, I hope the next time they will be his arms.
We are used to dad having to work during the week, and when he leaves we often sleep through his departure, now, unlike in the beginning when we both used to cry, although your tears continued for longer than mine.
"Sana, are you okay?" I heard dad whisper with worry, when you had barely lifted me out of my loneliness for the seventh day in a row, or put a fragment of food to your lips, or let dad press his I missed you kiss upon your cheek when he came in from the outside, and re-joined our world.
"I'm fine, I promise," you'd insist, wiping away the remerging tears, that so desperately wanted to fall.
"Why don't I make an appointment, just in case? I'll take the morning off. We'll walk there together," and I saw you nod your head, because you wrongly believed that speaking aloud the word, "yes," made you a bad mother.
I can't remember how long it took. But with some help from the kind woman with glasses, and the small, white circles, you managed to free yourself from the illness that had tried to steal you away. And on our one-year anniversary, you bind my heart tightly to your own, and we stroll to our favourite stay-and-play in a soil-brown centre, in the middle of our local common, and it looks like the common has grown the building themselves, from their own earth.
Afterwards, we sit on the sunlit, sprawling grass, endless and gentle, and you feed me cold semolina. I stick my whole right hand into its soft deliciousness and try to feed you back, pushing my hand into your chin.
Then I spot the shiny, purple-collared pigeon, on the lookout for crumbs, and I attempt to stand from my crawl, and give chase. But I see something more enthralling up ahead, as dad races towards us, and for the first time in my life, I totter into his arms, and he carries me back to you, as he lowers himself down into our nuclear circle.
"Happpppy birthday to youuuuu…" you both proudly sing, and I join in with a celebratory laugh and a birthday babble.
I tug your hand forward, forcing it ahead of your unready heart, but you pull me back into your arms to hug me goodbye, for only the fourth time. "It will just be for a couple of hours," you tell me, to reassure yourself, my body wriggling to escape your arms. "Just a couple of hours," you repeat, as I roar towards different smells and never-met-before faces. Engulfed in a world of ginormous red play blocks, and Wendy Houses, and multicoloured tunnels longer than living rooms in a wide, green back garden, and I get lost, for a while, in the nursery's heady variety, and its newness, and bustle, and I forget about your scent of love and vanilla, and your loving grey eyes, and your twin heart that normally matches my own, identically, and our tiny two bedroom flat sat on the bottom of Dog Kennel Hill, and the yellow-painted walls of my bedroom, and the three seat settee where every day we sit down to read my books; dad joining us on the waiting cushion when he gets home from work.
My amnesia only lasts for an hour, and I soon begin to search for the island of you, as I swim in an unfamiliar sea of rough, blue carpet, small faces that bounce up and down like buoys, and smells and toys that I know don't really belong to me, and I won't get to keep.
When you come to collect me, the lady with long, orange pigtails, which sit on top of a brightly coloured apron, takes my hand and leads me back to your safe land.
"She loved it, at first, and then it all seemed a bit much, and she started to look for you," she says.
"Mumma," I cough and splutter, and I point up to your face, and you bend down and scoop me skyward.
"Poor baby!" you coddle, and even though I know that you hate to see my cry, I can tell that you're secretly relieved that I hadn't forgotten you for the whole time we were parted.
Your stomach starts expanding outwards, like the bubbles I blow from our planter box of a balcony, barely wider than a ledge, and I hear you tell dad, "I think it might be time to look for a new home," and I watch him nod, in sadness and excitement, that an old chapter will need to close so that a new one can begin.
A month before your due date, we move into a semidetached ‒ three times the size of our old flat. Sitting on our old settee, in our new home, I stroke the skin protecting the new life inside you.
"Is this what you looked like when I was being made, mummy?" I ask. No longer feeling special. No longer the only centre of your world.
"Similar, darling ‒ but not exactly the same ‒ no pregnancy ever is, because the person you are growing inside is always different. Unique. One of a kind."
"Do you love me less, now you have to share your love between me and the baby?" I ask.
"Never, my darling Giulia," you tell me with absolute certainty. "As my stomach grows again, so does the amount of love I have to give, so there's more than enough for you both," you explain.
And when Marzia is born, I understand exactly what you mean, as I feel my heart expanding outwards, larger than your stomach when you carried her inside it, and far beyond.
My morning alarm sings me awake, the opposite of a serenade, and I frisbee a pillow in its direction to silence its unwanted song.
A few seconds later, Marzia barges into my bedroom. "Wake up, sleepy head," she cries; piercing my barely woken eyes with a sabre of torchlight, brighter than the summer sun, and it obscures my vision. Blurring my sense of right and wrong. Naturally, then, I can't help but hold Marzia responsible for everything that I do next.
I refuse to blame my face, pimpled like cold arms, with spots, or still waiting for my braces to come off, or wishing for a training bra, and a first period so I can be the same as Parul and Angie, or hating my frizzy hair, or French in lesson 2, and R.E in lesson 4, even though Miss Cullinane is supposed to teach us Geography during that class. I will not blame the fact that dad has taken the Friday off work, and I would get to spend the day with him, and you, whilst Marzia is at school, because you work from Monday-Thursday, and not on Fridays. Marzia, and Marzia alone, is responsible for all my subsequent actions.
"Mummm," I purposely croak ‒ not too loud, but loud enough that you can hear, and you rush inside my room.
"Look," I say, in mourning for the undeniable loss of my health, "I don't think I'm well," and I pass over the thermometer with my trembling fingers, so you can see the extent of my sickness.
"100 degrees. That's definitely not good, you poor little thing. I'll ring the school, straightaway," you say. "Perhaps it's the flu? Or one of those 24-hour bugs? Maybe you ate something funny at school, yesterday?"
"I suppose it could be any of those things, really," I agree, attempting to push away the truth from my brain that I had purposely placed the thermometer on the searing window ledge five minutes earlier ‒ trying to convince myself that I am genuinely starting to feel quite peaky.
But by midday, as I lie on the smaller settee in our living room, near you and dad, laughing hysterically at the cartoons you have put on for me; forgetting I'm supposed to be sick; demolishing my fifth packet of crisps, I get the feeling that you and dad may have begun to suspect that my illness is probably a ruse. You don't say anything, directly. "You seem to be on the mend," you chirpily comment, instead. "I'm sure you'll be fine for Monday if you keep recovering this quickly."
"I guess so," I mutter back, self-conscious, suddenly, rapidly reigning in my overt wellness, so I don't completely blow my cover ‒ actually looking forward to Marzia getting home from school, so the attention is not all on me. Even if it means I no longer have you and dad all to myself, it feels like a fair exchange.
We sombrely unpack the inanimate objects from their boxes, and I can't believe how unfair it is that they are allowed to remain with me, in a way that you, and dad, and Marzia cannot: toothpaste, and duvets, and hoodies, and hairbrushes all carried forward into my new life, but I have to leave the only things that matter behind.
"I wish I'd chosen a London uni, now. Why didn't I?" I ponder.
"Because you loved Brighton when you spent the day here with Parul and Angie, and you felt Royal Holloway was too quiet," you remind me.
"Well it doesn't feel the same as last time," I protest, "and it's too far away."
"Not as far as Liverpool or Manchester, at least. So thank goodness you only chose Brighton," dad says.
"I wish I was allowed to move here," Marzia adds.
"Let's just try and enjoy the day together, exploring your new home," you encourage with a laboured smile, and so I follow your footsteps, because I know they won't be ahead of me, beside me for much longer.
"Can we at least go to Pizza Hut for lunch?" I ask. "Ooh and I'd really love to go back to the little second-hand clothes shop I discovered with Parul and Angie if I can remember the way," I add, linking our arms together into one, and your smile becomes less forced.
"Of course, darling, we can do whatever you like ‒ today is your day."
"It's our day, mum," I tell you, "mine, yours, dad's, and Marzia's," and we begin to walk down one of the cobbled lanes, not knowing exactly where we are heading, but slowly making our way forward ‒ trying to trust that we'll eventually get to where we're supposed to be.
"His name is Pascal, and I knew, almost instantly, that he was the one. I can't wait for you and dad to meet him, mum," I gush through the mouthpiece, breathlessly excited, heart racing out of the driveway of my chest, like it's been hijacked by a joyrider ‒ eager to tell my longest love everything about my newest, even though it already feels like I've known him forever.
"We're leaving Brighton, and moving back home to London, because I want my beautiful future kids to fully know their beautiful grandparents," I tell you. "I realise, now, that visiting every other month is nowhere near enough."
"That's such fabulous news, darling. We've missed you so much since you left, and then, of course, Marzia went off to Glasgow, and there has been too much silence, too much unfilled space around us."
I spend the next hour on the phone telling you about the newest member of our family, and all of the plans we have started to make for our future.
Seven months later, I nauseously walk the fifteen minutes to your house, even though I think I will always see it as our house: yours, mine, dad's, and Marzia's, but especially yours and mine.
"Twins!" you gasp, as we sit on the same settee you sat upon whilst carrying me.
"I know, mum ‒ I can hardly believe it. I didn't think twins ran in our family, apart from you and me ‒ but I guess they do. I have absolutely no idea how I'm going to cope. I've never even looked after one baby before, let alone two."
But you know exactly how to calm me. "Well, it's lucky you'll have Grandma Sana to help out," you say. "Honestly though, darling, you'll find that just being with your children is the best way of learning how everything is done. I mean what other choice do you really have?"
"I have you, thank goodness."
"You do, and I'll always be there for you. But you and Pascal will also find your own way of doing things, your own special path," you reassure me, and I feel my dread dissipate away, as you squeeze me close, transfusing your love into my veins; and I grow in strength through your selfless giving.
As my body rests beside you, I press my hand against my sprinting chest, and I feel my children's heartbeats.