I’d started babysitting more regularly since moving in with Ivan. It wasn’t about the money. The rent at his flat was no higher than my last place. I did it because I liked the feeling of, having left, coming back. Surfacing on the tube to a text, Grab us some eggs? Striding through the wet streets, my cheap headphones scratching at my ears. The light going. Pit stopping in Sainsbury’s. Taking the stairs up to the flat, the soles of my trainers sticking to the lino, a Bag for Life slung over my shoulder. Letting myself in to find Ivan in the kitchen, a room that always looked too small for him, hunched over garlic cloves, tiny red chillies he’d grown in a pot on the windowsill. Remembering, in that moment, the first time I realised I was in love with him: the day he climbed over a garden fence to steal some pears from a stranger’s tree, and sat down next to me on the curb, eating them bottom to top, cores and all. I’d feel like a grown up, returning from work to this scene of domesticity, remembering the misadventures of youth.
Chuck was six, and we got on fine. He decided he was vegetarian when I explained to him what it was, which I respected him for. I’d show him gruesome PETA videos of animal torture on my phone, and he’d sit on my lap and cry. Afterwards, even in the freezing cold, we’d get ice lollies. On his birthday, I gave him a huge pinecone that I’d found in the park. I cleaned it first, in water and white vinegar, to get out all the grit, and then baked it dry. It shrank into itself in the bath, like an accordion closing up, and expanded again in the oven, stretching its little spines out into the heat. Finished, I left it to cool on a wire rack like a fresh cake, and the whole flat smelt of beeswax and snuffed out candles.
I was walking across the St. Luke’s Infants playground, carrying a brown paper bag of things Chuck liked, such as pistachios, root vegetable crisps and fruit leather. On days after his mother had transferred the previous week’s money into my bank account, I stopped in at the health food shop around the corner from the school, and spent too much of it on snacks, scooped and priced by a teenage boy with a gold earring that I desperately fancied. I suppose I was making up to Chuck’s health for all the ice lollies, and it was fun joining the queue of the playground’s coolest mothers, with their glinting skin and wrap dresses. The school’s bell could be heard from the shop, at which time we’d all empty out onto the pavement, and I’d feel a little uneasy in this sea of women, biting off pieces of apple to give to their toddlers, like birds regurgitating in the nest. It reminded me of one week in secondary school when, for reasons still unknown, I was accepted into the most popular group of girls, and we’d strut the corridors together, looking the part.
I gave my name at the classroom door, and Chuck’s teacher ticked him off the register. I was passed a book bag, puffer jacket, lunch box and PE kit. Chuck had fallen off the monkey bars at lunchtime, so there was an accident form for that too, basically saying he was fine, as well as a bunch of newsletters and supermarket coupons. I hugged everything to my chest and worked my way through the crowd of parents, while Chuck hung behind, waving to his friends and picking up any sheets that slipped from beneath my elbows. Outside the gates, I straightened all the papers into Chuck’s book bag, stuffed his arms into the jacket, and worked out ways of strapping all the bags to my arms and wrists. Afterwards, we leant against the bus stop, throwing pistachio shells out into the road.
How’s your head?
I mimicked Chuck’s tough little stance, arms crossed over his chest, brows scrunched. You should see the monkey bars, I said.
Chuck puffed out his cheeks, exhausted by me. It wasn’t even on the monkey bars. It was kiss chase. I only told my teacher that because kiss chase isn’t allowed.
He liked to tell me about the rules he’d broken in school. I think he knew I found it secretly impressive. Well, well, I said, feeling like a weird old dad, Kissing, eh. Is there anyone special you like to chase?
Not really. Everyone just goes for Lottie, because she’s slow.
I nodded understandingly and passed him a fruit leather.
The bus took us to an indoor adventure playground I’d seen advertised as free on Wednesdays. I only ever took Chuck to places that were free. Inside he threw his shoes at me and disappeared. I sat with my feet in a sand pit filled with rice. Don’t you just love this concept? It’s so different, one mother told her baby. I stared into space, rubbed the hard grains between my fingertips, and let them fall back into the pit like rain.
I bought myself a cup of black coffee from the kiosk and burnt my tongue on it. I spent a while stalking my ex-boyfriend, Teo, on Instagram. He dumped me a few months before I met Ivan, for a girl on his art foundation. Now, they were living together in Cornwall, over a beautiful view of Falmouth harbour, where the sun seemed to be always either setting or rising. They made loaves of sourdough bread and bottles of kombucha. They displayed pumpkins on their kitchen table, just as props. They went on bike rides, walking holidays and trips to their parents’ countryside cottages. I knew this only from the photographs they shared, all of which were high quality and beautifully lit. I found it alarming how fascinated I was by them. I hadn’t even liked Teo that much to begin with; I think we both spent most of our relationship waiting for one of us to meet someone else. Still, most nights, him and his new girlfriend would somehow work their way into my dreams, and I’d wake up next to Ivan in the dark, feeling sweaty and inadequate.
Chuck appeared on all fours at my feet.
Hi, I said.
Glad to hear it.
I’m a dog.
I asked the waitress at the kiosk for a bowl of water, and she played along cheerily. She was used to this sort of thing. I set the bowl down underneath Chuck’s chin, he lapped away at the water, and I felt close to him.
After Chuck had clambered off, I returned the bowl and thanked the waitress. There was a woman in yoga pants stood waiting for her drink, frowning at me slightly.
Not sure that was very hygienic if I’m honest, she said. I flashed her a default smile, not concentrating, waiting for my brain to process. You just let your son drink from the floor.
Er, it was from a bowl. I think he’ll live.
Mm. She pulled some wipes from her handbag, and started polishing the cheeks of the baby on her hip, as if to make a point. You must have been awfully young when you had him.
I laughed at that. It was too late to correct her on the son thing. Anyway, I didn’t want to. I’d watched Teen Mom on MTV for years. Juno was an excellent film, in my opinion. I considered myself educated on the plight of young parents, and pleased to stand with them. So I spat at her. Not too hard, but enough to leave a nice fat bubble sliding down her left cheek. Enough to make her baby throw itself into a fit of hysterical giggles, which was precious.
Chuck and I were asked to leave the building, but by that point, I think he was pretty much done playing. We caught the bus back to his house, and I heated up whatever it was his mother had left out on the side. Afterwards, we made collages, cutting sections from a stack of magazines I’d found in the bathroom. Chuck, a glue stick balanced behind his ear, produced a large robot with car headlights for eyes, and a Rolex moustache. I challenged myself to make a normal looking woman from the glossy models, and, of course, failed.
At bedtime, Chuck noticed a fox stalking the back of the garden, and we pressed our faces to the window.
Will he see us?
I don’t know, I said, Maybe.
We knelt down side by side, looking out over the patchy grass, the dishrag clouds, and willed it.
On the way home, I popped into a restaurant with a full bladder. The place was busy for mid-week and smelt of sweet perfume and Sambuca. I shouldered through to find a sign on the door saying, Bathroom is for customers only. Find the code on your receipt. I stood with my legs crossed tight, hoping someone might come out and hold the door. The bathrooms were in their own little alcove, cut off from the restaurant itself, opposite what looked like the beginnings of the kitchen. The door was propped open, and through I could see the pot-wash, turned away from me, his hands in a sink of grey water, and then rows of bread and cake, lined up on the stainless steel counters, still in their tins.
Sorry, have you seen the sign? Toilets are for customers only?
I nodded at the waiter, but he’d already sped off, consulting his little pad of orders. I reached my arm around the propped kitchen door, shook a loaf of banana bread from its tin, shoved it still warm into my handbag, and left.
I pissed behind a yellow van in the carpark on the corner and took the cake home to Ivan, where we broke it off in chunks and ate it with our hands, leaning against each other on the sofa. This felt like love, I remember thinking, but what do I know.
This is great. Ivan spoke with his mouth full. Had no idea you could bake.
It was Chuck’s idea really. We followed a recipe on my phone. I shrugged. The truth had felt like a long story at the time.
Didn’t he want any for himself?
We made two.
Oh, my Fräulein! Ivan put his hands, greased slightly by the cake, under my t-shirt and onto my breasts. My Fräulein Maria!
When Ivan’s mother moved house, she gave him a stack of DVD’s she was convinced he’d be able to sell online. Instead, we worked our way through them in the evenings, projected onto a big white sheet we’d pinned to the wall. We’d watched The Sound of Music earlier that week, and ever since, Ivan had taken to calling me ‘Fräulein Maria’ and singing. In his version of the opening song, he substituted the word pills for hills.
We ended up having sex on the carpet. Afterwards, I sat with a glass of red wine, leaning out of the window to smoke. Ivan lay naked on the floor, cracking his knuckles, telling me about his new manager, who was obsessed with The Apprentice, and had said to Ivan, by way of an ice breaker, This morning, I genuinely slipped on a banana skin. Genuinely.
Ivan got up, kissed me on the forehead, and walked into the bathroom to shower. When I heard the water running, I picked up his phone and began to read through it. I did this most days. He’d been texting a Tara Blake, who he’d never mentioned, pretty constantly for about a month, and I liked to keep an eye on their progress. Mostly they’d just tap away sweetly about their lives, checking in every two or three days. Once, she’d texted while I was looking at his phone, and I deleted the message in a kind of flushed panic. It just said something boring like, how r things, but it’s strange to think that Ivan, who it was meant for, never read it, never got the chance to reply.
Times when there wasn’t anything new in Ivan’s conversation with Tara, like tonight, I’d suddenly get quite guilty and sad, and convince myself that now would be a good time to tell Ivan about Raf, our mutual friend, who I’d slept with three or four times over the last few months. Raf referred to Ivan as my ‘ball and chain’, which I despised. The last time I’d seen Raf, Ivan had been away for the weekend, and we’d sat on the bonnet of my car, drinking rum and apple juice. Afterwards, he’d driven us back to the flat, made me pancakes in the middle of the night, and fallen asleep on Ivan’s side of the bed. In the morning, Ivan called to say he was on his way home, and I looked across at Raf, burst quite suddenly into tears, and had to pretend I’d stubbed my toe. When Ivan hung up, I’d kissed Raf, for comfort, and told him that this, I was sure, would be our last. As Raf was leaving, I noticed that he kept blinking at the floorboards, and realised, with surprise, that he was hurt. We hadn’t spoken since.
Once Ivan was out of the shower, pink skinned, scrubbing at his hair with a tiny towel, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him. This was always the way. Ivan just looked too dopey, too sweet, for any real conversation. He was like a garden gnome who’d been stretched. So, instead, I’d fall into the role of his cute, uneasy friend, something like the local bluebird or squirrel, chatting away guiltily and fluttering about. Darling, relax! I twittered away, Have a glass of wine, why don’t you? It’s rich, deep, and I’m sensing woody notes. Oak! Put your feet up. Have it with the stilton. There’s rye crackers.
Of course, I knew nothing about wine, and those other things certainly didn’t exist.
Hey, hush, Ivan said in reply, settling into the sofa, inviting me rest my head in his lap. I did, and we sat together like this for a while, eyes closed to the yellow light, him gently thumbing my eyebrows, as if trying to remove a smudge.
The Saturday of that week, Chuck’s mother called and asked me to help out last minute. She’d had some work thing come up, and when I asked to bring Ivan, knowing that she was desperate, she said that that was fine. We arrived an hour later, and she left immediately. Chuck was pleased to meet Ivan, having heard about him from me, and led him on, what Chuck called, ‘a grand tour’ of the tiny house. I sat in the kitchen, listening as Ivan was introduced to all of Chuck’s toys, one by one. I thought of the day Ivan first brought me to meet his mother. Her hair was sprayed hard into flicks, and we played cards in the shadow of her huge pink fridge. The television stayed on in the background the whole time, and I could see that he was showing me something that meant a lot.
We took Chuck out with the promise of hot chocolate, and ended up in a cafe with no lights, so that when a bus passed in front of the window, the whole place flashed dark. I had never seen Ivan around children before. It was good. He used his scarf to blindfold Chuck, and sent him up to the till like that to order the drinks. When Chuck tripped over a chair leg and fell, Ivan picked him up and held him for a long time, apologising profusely, looking at me with an expression of pure sorrow.
Back at the table, Chuck removed the cap from my can of Coke, turned to Ivan and asked, in a flat, serious voice, Do you love her?
Ivan looked up at me, licked the coffee foam from his top lip, and said, Chuck, my friend, I absolutely do.
To the same question, I replied with a hard nod, a long look across at the collar of Ivan’s t-shirt. Chuck, satisfied, held my left hand and tried to shove the cap over my ring finger. It wouldn’t get much further than the nail, but I kept it there for a long time, letting the trapped skin fade yellow from lack of blood.
We went to the park and sat on the swings, our hats in our hands. I hadn’t used a swing set for years, and the wind felt soft on my neck. I leant back into the air and, in my mind, spun a future with Ivan. I saw us in a tiny concrete garden, squared off with high stone walls webbed with creepers and, it being autumn, leaves blushing a hot pink-red. We would have very little money, and our neighbour, noticing this, would give us a huge marrow that he had grown in his allotment. The marrow would be slightly larger than our new-born child, and we would stare down for hours at both objects, having no idea what to do with either.
With Raf, for some reason, I imagined eating a lot of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut, and living somewhere with awful, leather-look wallpaper. We would go to comedy nights at the local pub, and buy each other bunches of flowers from petrol stations on Valentine’s. We would decide not to have children, instead breeding pet reptiles in glass tanks, and selling them online for an enormous profit, which we would spend on trainers and improving the Wi-Fi connection.
At the swing’s highest point, I jumped, letting my body buckle, knees and elbows first, into the rubbery floor below. Why, I wondered, was I imagining a future with Raf? I closed my eyes, tight so as to see colours, and lay where I’d landed, listening to the empty swing thrash about behind me. After a while, Chuck came over and sat in the small of my back.
What time is it?
Four thirty, I said, my eyes still closed, guessing.
When we dropped Chuck home, Ivan, leant against the dusty front of the house, thanked him for the banana bread. It was five star baking, Ivan said, you have a gift. Chuck looked up at him blankly, and Ivan looked over at me. No-one said anything for what felt like hours, and then Chuck’s mother opened the door.
Silly banana! Chuck shouted, wrapping his arms around Ivan’s thigh in a cross between wrestle and hug, and dashed off into the house.
I can’t thank you two enough, Chuck’s mother said, and nodded manically at us both, her eyes glazed over with exhaustion.
On the tube home, Ivan stretched his arm out across the back of my seat, and let me steal bites of his cheese and onion pasty. Whenever we walked past a place selling them, he’d turn back, dig around in his pockets for the right change, and buy one. We’d missed so many trains because of this. When he was a child, his mother used to heat them up for dinner on a Friday night. He loved the way the grease soaked through the paper bag.
Finished, Ivan asked if I’d like to go for a drink in a bit, with a girl called Tara. He seemed to have forgotten about the banana bread, and I was glad not to have to explain myself. Tara, Ivan explained, was an old school friend who he’d bumped into a while ago in Costa. They’d been meaning to meet up since, but she was mostly living in Edinburgh these days. This weekend though, she’d come down to London for a job interview. I think you guys would really get on, he said, She’s cool. I remember in school she used to shave one leg and not the other, just to see what would happen.
And what happened? I asked.
Nothing, obviously. He smiled at me, a flake of pastry on his chin. So, you gonna come?
No, no, I don’t think so. You go. I’ll stay in tonight.
I thought about, vaguely hoped for, the possibility of something happening between Ivan and Tara if I wasn’t there. Some sort of messy fumble in the velvety booth of a dark bar, or the last cubicle in a row of toilets, wallpapered with old pages of Beano, his hand running through the soft hairs of her one unshaven leg. I imagined him coming home to me afterwards, attempting nonchalance, smelling very slightly of Juicy Fruit gum, and me feeling the weight of my own mistakes being lifted, just a fraction, from my weary shoulders.
I looked at our reflections in the tube windows, side by side, blurred in the black glass. I met Ivan’s eyes in them, turned to face him, nibbled at the thin skin of his neck, and whispered, I love you, into his ear.
Later, after Ivan left the flat to meet Tara, I headed out for a walk. The evening was a few hours into darkness, the black streets busy with students, couples, bus-stop drunks. I walked aimlessly, enjoying the sound of my own footsteps on the pavement, the infinity of poles and wires lit up across the sky. I found a square of tall, clean townhouses, with a rectangle of grass in the middle, and a few wide benches. The sort of place where busy and important people might take their tiny dogs to shit. One of the benches had a plaque which read, David and Julie, Better Together! and I thought of my grandmother, who married for the third time at seventy-two. On her wedding day, after applying a coat of pearly lipstick in the lens of her glasses, she turned to me and said, Honey, all anybody really wants is somebody to hold their hand when they die. I was twelve and had no idea what to say. Now, equally baffled, I stared out into the speckled drizzle, the leaking light.
I was in bed when I heard Ivan come in to the flat, and wasn’t sure whether or not I’d slept yet. He was drunk and slow, taking his shoes off in the hall and banging into things. I felt the cold come in with him, working its way under the covers. Winter, if it hadn’t already arrived, was coming.
Yes, I said, thinking about how people always manage to bring the smell of the pub home with them. How was Tara?
Yeah, we had fun. Tired now. I nodded into my pillow, listening to Ivan rustle around with his clothes. Raf was there, Ivan said into the darkness, and I was surprised by the way my body seized suddenly, wound up with fear. I waited like this, unmoving, barely breathing, for Ivan to go on. He spent forever pulling his head out of his t-shirt, and said finally, Yeah, Raf knows Tara somehow. Small world. Anyway, he was being quiet. Didn’t stay for long. Ivan kicked his clothes into a corner of the room, and picked up where he left off. Was just thinking on my way home that it’s been a while, hasn’t it? Raffy. We should have him round one night. I’ll send a text.
I didn’t say anything. My lungs were working fast and shallow, as if I’d only just come up for air. I was just about to tell him about Raf when Ivan climbed into his side of the bed and pulled my arms around him. You’re so warm, he said, pushing his hands into the space between our bodies. I pressed my lips together and turned a confession over and over in my mind until I noticed that Ivan was asleep, his breathing loud and steady, whistling slightly on the exhale.
Saba Sams lives in Brighton, UK. Her work has been published in various magazines, such as The Forge, Cluny MCR and Ink, Sweat and Tears. Prizes include a winning story in Brighton Festival’s 2017 short story competition, as well as the University of Manchester’s Anthony Burgess Centenary prize for creative writing. She is a member of The Writing Squad.