This wonderful short story, Wednesday’s Child, was written by Lucy Mouland (Balliol, 1991) and was one of the winners of last year’s Oxford Today creative writing competition — commended in particular for its structure. Take a few minutes to give it a read.
The scent of your aftershave lingers on the landing. When I see the row of shirts in the wardrobe, with Wednesday’s empty hanger, I wish I could smooth your collar and straighten your tie, let my fingers stroke your cheek. If I’ve been up all night with Alice then sometimes I see your shadow in the corridor; by the time I’ve rubbed my eyes and turned to kiss you, you’ve gone and I whisper goodbyes to your draft.
Last night, Alice had been teething and there was nothing I could do to stop her crying. I had nursed her for hours, tiptoeing over the floorboards so that the creaking wouldn’t wake you. Her screams were etched into my brain. When she finally settled, a clammy dawn was breaking and even the birds were too exhausted to sing. I crawled back onto our bed and searched for the scent of you, twisting and turning like a fish out of water until I slept.
I woke when I heard a baby crying. I lay until the screams subsided into hiccups, watching the curtain twitch and letting the city’s morning breath waft over me. A fridge hummed, a car door slammed; the baby cried again, louder and louder. When I staggered through to Alice’s room, her cheeks were crimson and she was fighting her blanket. I unravelled her and together we got dressed, picking our clothes from the piles on the floor and the chairs.
There was nothing in the fridge for breakfast. Ten-thirty: It was then that I had the idea. We’d meet you for lunch. We could sit in the park. I could make sandwiches and we might even have some wine.
Alice cooed an accompaniment from the floor as I put together the picnic. Tucked away in a cupboard I found your favourite crisps and stuffed them in my bag with half a bottle of wine that was dewy from the fridge, a slab of chocolate and some grapes. I’d buy bread on the way. As we were about to leave I remembered Alice’s bottle.
In the pushchair, Alice dozed, her mouth slightly open and her cheeks flushed. With her dark lashes and curls she was a beautiful, miniature, you. But I had underestimated how long it would take us to get to the office. She wailed like a faulty alarm for the last part of our journey and I didn’t know how to stop her.
People stared as we passed. One or two even muttered, loud enough for me to hear, but I kept on pushing straight ahead. I did agree with one woman, though: it was a shame. It was a shame that Alice was still screaming when we arrived at your office because I had wanted her to look her best. I knew you would want to show her off to everyone, but not when she was like this.
I struggled up the shallow flight of steps from the plaza to the smoked glass frontage of the building. People were swarming out for lunch but I didn’t spot your face in the crowd. I thought I saw one of your colleagues, someone who’d been round to dinner before Alice was born, but when I raised my hand he met my gaze only fleetingly and then looked away.
In front of the reception desk we clattered to a halt. A woman looked up from her magazine. I smiled.
‘Hi Sharon, it’s me, Claire.’
‘Sorry? Claire...?’. Her pen paused over her pad.
‘Claire!’ She reached out and took my hand in both of hers. Her palms were cool and soft. ‘Claire, my love, how are you? You look so... different. I didn’t recognise ... Are you doing OK?’
‘I’m fine. We’ve come to meet Daddy for lunch, haven’t we, Alice?’ I grinned. ‘He’s not gone out without us, has he?’
Alice began to scream again.
‘Don’t worry, she does this all the time.’
‘I... Look... Why don’t you take a seat over there, love - just for a moment?’
She pointed to a group of leather seats arranged around a coffee table. With her other hand she reached for the phone. Alice squirmed on my hip and lunged for the receiver. I snatched her hand away and smiled.
‘I’m sure he’ll only be a moment once you let him know we’re here.’
The leather of the chair was sticky against my thighs. I rummaged in the bag for a drink of water and found a half-empty bottle of wine. Slowly, I eased out the cork and raised it to my lips. I took a gulp and then another.
I let the empty bottle drop by the side of the pushchair and kicked off my shoes. I pressed my feet onto the marble floor and closed my eyes. We were on holiday. I was trailing my feet in a rock pool with the sea breeze whispering through my hair. My body had been turned creamy by the sun and voluptuous by the baby inside me. You were laughing and trailing languid fingers over my belly, waiting to feel a tiny kick.
The leather cushion hissed and squeaked. The fine wool of your suit was soft against my cheek and I inhaled coffee and those illicit cigarettes. You promised you’d give up, you promised.
‘Claire. It’s Bob, Bob Simmons.’
An imposter in your suit was prising me away. The woman was holding Alice and walking her up and down by the window. There was a bottle and she was being fed.
‘No, no, no.’
‘Claire. We’re so sorry. So very sorry.’
‘No!’ I lunged for the bottle and sent it skittling across the marble. It shattered against a chair leg. Someone screamed. Stupid cow. It was only a bottle. You can scream when a policewoman comes to your door on a wet Wednesday night, but not when a bottle smashes. If I broke a bottle, I’d laugh.
I was still laughing when the ambulance came.