In this extract from Monica Isakstuen's novel, a wife and mother of three struggles to contain her fury.
The story of us, how did it go again. You say: Why do you think I left work so early that day, why do you think I felt such a sudden urge to read up on ginkgo trees and primeval forests, why do you think I got into my car and drove to the neighboring town when I could just as easily have borrowed what I needed from a library closer to home, why do you think I visited your library, of all libraries, at that time, of any? I say: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, tell me! You say: Maybe it’s because I had a feeling there was someone extraordinary there.
Please, you say. Sit down, relax. As if there’s any time for that, I say. My God, look at all this, look at us! you say, it won’t be long before we disappear completely what with all the painting and plastering and budgeting and planning applications and pest control and bidding. What are you talking about, I ask him, placing my paintbrush down on the kitchen worktop. We can’t let that happen, you say, we can’t let our things own us, or our desire for more things, or our worries, or this house, I don’t want to lose us, I don’t want to lose you, what we have. That’s all very well, I say, it sounds good when you put it like that, but I can’t relax until I’ve made this house our own, that’s just the way it is, you know that, I’ve told you how I feel about it. But when will it be ours, how many coats of paint and repair jobs will it take! you say, don’t shout, I say, you’ll wake the children. We can’t let our things own us, you repeat. What are you talking about, I say, we don’t own anything, not really.
How many arguments will it take for you to walk out on me?
One night, all three of them threw up, one after the next in the space of two hours. First on the stairs, then in bed, then all over the hallway carpet. Only the first comes as any surprise, but after that it’s business as usual, buckets and cloths and fruit squash and antibacterial hand gel at the ready. Imposing order amid the squalor. Do you remember how well we worked together that day. Do you remember that? How unflustered we were. Completing tasks, offering comfort, mopping up. Exchanging glances, each of us instinctively aware of what the other was doing, of what we had to do next. There was vomit all over your legs, and you brought one mattress after the next down to the living room, one child after the next, and there they lay, three washed-out petals clustered around the bright yellow bucket. What do you reckon, think we could manage with another five, I said. The two youngest threw up once again, neither of them hitting their target. Oh, at least, you said, and ran off to fetch extra towels, more paper towels. My heart pounded so warmly in my chest. Everything that meant anything was here in this room.
We play Good Cop, Bad Cop, it’s as if the roles have already been assigned. Not that it matters all that much who plays which part, the trick is to stay in character until the end goal is achieved. The end goal is the complete and utter surrender of the target. By which I mean the child. But all of a sudden you’re not around, you’re working late or on a course or out buying something to replace something else that’s been broken. I have a go at being Good Cop, of course, I’m patient, I speak slowly, quietly, tenderly, and I try to stop and listen at least as often as I speak. What do you think about what just happened, why did you hit your brother. Nod. Take note of my little ones’ words and hide them away in my heart. Take a civilized tone, present my arguments calmly, but then all of a sudden they refuse to answer or turn around and wander off or stick out their tongues or start giggling at completely the wrong moment in time, tiny shifts that cause things to veer off in the wrong direction, and then I remember that they’re children, damn it, I think to myself, putting all this energy into taking the right tone and they can’t even be bothered to listen to a single word I say, and then we’re off, and I cast off my kind expression and reach for a different one altogether, then I'm BAD BAD BAD, and we hurtle into the rougher half of the interrogation, the scolding, the punishment, and then nothing can stop me, not the wobble of chins or the tremble of lips, not the eyes that fill with tears, because now they have no one but themselves to blame, without you I can’t remember where the line is or if it even exists at all, without you I lose my grip.
What is it that actually occurs? When my rage gets the better of me and every ounce of patience kindness warmth is driven out, does it happen gradually, or is it more like the flipping of a switch? Am I more the former than the latter? What if I’m more the latter. What if my rage has filled my core and transformed it, what if it’s become the very essence of my approach to all things, something that is only very occasionally stifled. Recurrent attacks, each worse than the one that came before it, a syndrome without cure. What is it that actually occurs? I think something, do something, say something, ask for something, promise something, expect something. Whatever I expect fails to materialize. They stand or sit or lie there and refuse to cooperate, insist on contradicting me. After everything I’ve done for them, after everything I’ve put up with, after all the patience I've exercised. A caring tone, predictable actions, gentle hands. I’ve followed the rules, I have. So what? What now? Will I once again be denied my evening, that time I’ve longed for, the opportunity to think in peace, to cook alone, to be a lone body. Yes? The hammering of my heart is fierce and menacing, they come too close, ask too much, gorge themselves on my ever-shrinking existence with an insatiable greed. What’s a person to do? How do other mothers do it? I think of the little group I found myself seated opposite on a train heading south, a mother with two young children, somewhere between four and six years old, I assumed. They wanted this and wanted that and needed this and needed that, their demands were never-ending. And, if it’s true what they say, that young children make around three demands per minute, then this woman, over the course of the two hours I observed her, was bombarded with around twelve hundred such demands. Over the course of those hours she replied to their questions and whinges and wails with quiet composure, occasionally ignoring them, occasionally smiling, and every so often she honored their requests, around ten times all in all, I think. All the time I watched her, I thought NOW. This is it, this will be the thing that tips her over the edge. Little brats, can’t you just leave her alone. Can't you see she’s on course to explode? But she didn’t explode. And I couldn't understand it. I thought to myself: what is she doing? Is this a trick? Perhaps I should take my children on train journeys with me, because witnesses keep you in check, the movement through the landscape seems to have a soothing effect and helps you maintain your composure, your dignity as a mother, it helps you be someone else for just a few short hours, the person you hoped you might become.
I scalp them one-by-one, no mean feat, the largest of them is surprisingly heavy. Are they ready? Are they ready are they ready are they ready? they shout, just five more minutes, I hiss, just five minutes, YOU SAID IT WOULDN’T TAKE LONG! one bellows, and I reply by telling them that if they’re going to be like this about it, screaming and hollering and impatient, then we’re just as well not bothering, it makes no difference to me if we have to ditch our preparations because they can’t keep their mouths shut for a single second, can they manage that, do they think? Alas. No. It’s for your sake I’m doing any of this in the first place, I say, your sake and no one else’s, unless you think this is my idea of a bloody good time, you said a bad word, Mummy, she says, Yes I bloody well did! I say, I’m spending my evening scooping the insides out of a vegetable, do you think this is the kind of thing I’d choose to be doing, do you really think that’s how it works? No. She doesn’t think that. Two hours later, we carry the hollowed-out, decorated vegetables out onto the front steps and light candles inside them. We’ve dressed up as ghosts, Dracula and an evil, old witch. We wait. Someone’s coming! one of them whispers. I nod. The sound of voices outside, laughter and hollering. Put on your masks, I whisper, and place a hand on the doorknob, let the door slide open, slow and creaky, BOO! we scream, as agreed, and the two monsters on the steps jump back, one drops a decapitated head straight onto the granite, it bounces down the steps and stops on the gravel. Oh, he says. Trick or treat, the other one mumbles. VERY GOOD! I say. Dracula holds up the bowl of treats. Three pieces each, she says firmly. We haven’t ever come to this house before, the headless one says. No? I reply. He shakes his head. It’s scary here. Nonsense, I say, then roar long and hard with laughter before slamming the door shut. Everything falls silent. The skeletons hanging from the ceiling shake, the spider webs quiver, the candles on the chest of drawers are blown out, Dracula is furious. Mummy! She stares at me. Why do you have to say those things? We’ll never make friends if you keep being like this! That’s enough, I say, tearing off my witch’s hat. The ghosts are in tears. I was only joking! She shakes her head, blood trickles from the corners of her mouth and down her chin, her throat, her chest. God, you’re so bloody ungrateful, I say. Why do you always have to be so cross! Dracula shouts, spitting out her fangs, and they fly out of her mouth and hit my foot, and that’s when it all becomes too much, I open the door and crouch down beside the pumpkins, pick them up and toss them down the front steps one-by-one until they’re all gone. Bed—NOW! I bellow. Skin and flesh and candlewax and sweets and snot and tears everywhere.
There was a time when they were calmer as I put them to bed, they smiled as I hummed, their eyes shining darkly from their beds as I turned out the lights, holding my gaze, and I could sit there and witness their surrender, the drowsy shuffling of limbs, as if underwater, eyelids that succumbed to sleep, their breathing eventually slow, steady. When you love someone, they can feel it. I have it in me. There was a time that different versions of you and I and the children existed. Don't say that we’ll never find them again.
I march from room to room, slamming doors behind me. Be careful, you say, those doors are old, they’ll break if you carry on like that, you know that as well as I do. Now you mention things breaking, I say, have you seen the chunks of plaster that come away from the outside walls when anyone touches them? Have you been in the loft lately and noticed that rotten smell, as if something’s died up there? Have you seen where something has been eating away at the rafters, tiny holes everywhere, the evidence all over the floor, piles of wood dust an inch high? Have you noticed the musty smell in the hallway between the bedrooms? Can you feel the way the floorboards are beginning to sag beneath our feet? Have you noticed the roof tiles coming loose and the ratholes all over the lawn and the stench of urine in the bathroom?
You stare at me, perplexed. What do you mean, what piles, what smell, what stench, what about the floorboards? Stop pretending that I’m imagining all of these things! I shout. You need to calm down, you say, the children are sleeping. No! I shout. I’m not imagining things! I’m not imagining the stench of urine or the mice in the walls or the pigeons in the loft or the damp, crumbling walls or the woodboring beetles in the timber or the salty deposits on the walls in the basement or the ivy creeping into the loft or the screeching magpies in every tree or the sparrows darting around the corners of the house, they're nesting in the eaves! I’m not imagining these things! Please, you say. Can’t we take things one at a time.
No, no, no, no, there’s no such thing as one at a time, one thing drags the next thing along with it, worries refuse to slot into place in orderly rows and columns, worries become tangled up in one another, single thoughts accumulate, they stack up, sway to-and-fro. What if we've been tricked, what if the previous owner knew that this place was falling apart, what if that was why she sold it to us, what if that's why nobody else wanted it. That’s nonsense, you say. But nobody else put an offer in, I say. Not high enough at least, you say. What if you get sick of all this, I say, what if you find someone else, someone younger and softer and prettier at one of your stupid seminars, someone with a green thumb and an interest in aesthetics, what if you take her up to your room and leave me behind, what if all this, the house and the kids and the garden and everything we thought would bind us together, what if it’s actually our undoing, what if we’re their undoing, what if we spend too much time scolding them and too little time listening, what if I can't stop myself, what if I become dangerous, what if I turn them into something they’re not supposed to be, what if, what if, WHAT IF! I say, I can't stop myself.
But! We’re not supposed to feel troubled by our decline. We’re not supposed to be concerned at the thought of aging. We’re not supposed to feel ashamed of wobbly thighs, flabby upper arms, stomachs that will never be toned again, yellowing toenails, we’re not supposed to compare our skin to the oversized cover of an increasingly rickety piece of garden furniture. We aren't to become hung up on such details. We aren't to curse the river of time, we aren't to grieve. Only shallow people grieve over youthful pictures of themselves, opportunities never taken. Only shallow people find it difficult when confronted by the sight of their own mature reflection in the mirror. Come on, now. You’re supposed to view everything that comes to light over time with curiosity. You’re supposed to embrace your age. Even so, for the odd nanosecond now and then, I catch myself reflecting on things: there should be someone much older here with me, Grandma, for example, someone to educate me in these things, to teach me to take heed, to accept. Wrinkle cream? she would have commented. Superfood? she would have chuckled. Dentures? What are those? she would have asked. First come the wrinkles, then the teeth fall away, and eventually the mouth collapses and leaves a gaping hole behind it. What's done is done, life goes on.
Stop all that, you’re beautiful, you say, turning your gaze toward the bowl. I can't work out if it's the bread dough or me you’re addressing, but it's the bread dough that you’re touching.
How do you love someone so that they feel it?
From Rase. © Monika Isakstuen By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Rosie Hedger. All rights reserved.