Tonight, I won’t sleep. Dead relatives stand still in my dreams these past few nights.
I put the lamp on, breathe out. I think of the lights going off in other houses as I decide if I’m up for reading. Across the shadow line of this hemisphere a wall of dreams is taking shape, like clouds on the edge of the weather report, dispersing as the day wheels round.
It is in these moments that you often notice your breathing and you realise you’ve been taking it for granted. Sleeping and breathing, breathing in spite of it all. Even before you were born, the collective breathing dating back. That great grandmother who immigrated, poor and disowned, armed only with the wrong religion and a strong will. These twists of fate in the roots of your family tree somehow led to your being. Somewhere it began, in spite of the hard wind and the rain. You arrived.
I pick up my phone.
We had just got a smartphone security camera as a baby monitor. It is pointed at the crib. Most nights Charlotte has to take the wee one into bed.
I open the app and rotate the camera slowly toward them. Night-vision mode makes everything dreamlike. I pinch-zoom for a closer look. How close they are. Just as I am about to shut the app—a movement. Charlotte tucks an arm around the small folded body, wriggling closer in response, and they became one organic whole.
I am taken back to that first ultrasound scan. It was like everything was building towards it. Generations in the making. Action by action, second by second, cell by cell. Seeing live life inside her. ‘Actually look at it!’ I said. ‘Oh my God.’ The nurse was using the computer to measure the head and spine. Every line she drew on the tiny shape was a new piece of data in the grand clock of our lives. ‘Oh my God,’ I kept saying. ‘Is this actually live?’ I asked the nurse. She shot me a look and said, ‘No, it’s pre-recorded, ya dafty.’ I must have smiled for the rest of the week.
A speck of something across the camera lens makes me think about the prelife. Stardust, potential. We’d never spoken much about religion. But people started asking about the baptism and if we’d picked a middle name. I’d never given it a thought. Leafing through a book of saints one day I was struck with the unlikeliness of it all. That a life can emerge, soul and all, from exactly nothing and chance. This particular life.
On the day we became three there was a brief period of time, maybe twenty minutes or so, when everything might have been lost. I watched the number on your heart rate monitor perform divisions as the midwife’s face clouded over. Within a few seconds a swarm of blue gowns filled the room. They were pulling out cables and wheeling the bed away. I can’t remember the exact words, but the eyes of the nurse were stark and firm as she told me not to panic. She’d be back in a few minutes, she said, to let me know if I can attend the birth.
When she was gone I stood in pace, looking at the small window of the hospital room. Ten minutes before it seemed like all the warmth of the summer sun was spilling on this side of the building. A low droning sound, like a ghostly keening, started up inside me. But, strangely, I didn’t feel alone. So I prayed—properly—for the first time in years. Before then every prayer broke down somewhere between my barely-moving lips and the gauze that covered my soul.
Watching them on the app, I realise how different my life might have been. The new shapes they could make just by lying together seem suddenly miraculous. And they are so still. More like a snapshot than a livestream. But there, on the top of the screen, the incessant seconds, stacking into minutes.
I open up a magazine.
‘A scientific breakthrough helps deaf people hear for the first time.’ A few of them are surprised to learn that the sun doesn’t make a sound. I fold in the top corner of the page.
Eventually I come to a feature. On the left, an elephant on its side, its trunk strewn like an ancient snake, as the herd march on. To the right, a homeless woman whose face is blurred by the busy legs of passers-by. A pull-quote between them reads: ‘Self Preservation is the First Law of Nature’ – Thomas Hobbes.
I look at the screen. Charlotte’s arm has moved.
She once told me she was born asleep. For years I thought she was at it, but she stuck to the story and eventually her mum backed it up. And one day, on a walk through the snow, I asked her what her first memory was. ‘Waking up from a nap,’ she said, without hesitation. ‘The light in the hall was coming in onto the far wall of my room. I could hear chatter, I felt safe, and I fell back asleep.’
She was five, she said. Maybe six. She asked for mine. More snow began to fall. The white fluff landed in droves, becoming a crunchy canvas. By the time I decided I had it, I realised I was also about five years old at the time. Maybe a little younger, but not by much. ‘There should be a rule,’ she said, ‘when you turn thirty you take away the years you can’t remember. And however many years that happens to be, people have to respect it. In the number of candles and everything.’
She squeezed my hand at the word ‘everything.’
‘Weird,’ I said, ‘All those lost memories belong to other people.’
‘At least they belong to someone. That’s the whole point. You pass something on.’
‘Yeah, I suppose.’
We tried to make snowballs but our hands were not up to the task. Numbness spread to the tips of my fingers and before long I gave up. I turned round as she was drawing a heart in the ground with a branch. She passed it to me without a word and I carved our names beneath it, ritualistically.
Entire years reducing down to an hour here, a feeling there.
We weathered together. Side by side, against the seasons. Soon began a seamless bond. Two vessels somehow joining at the middle and assuming the form of an hourglass. And our memories, like trickling sand, became inseparable. We could not conceive ever picking them apart.
I looked down at my hands in the lamplight and observed a small scar. My gran’s dog had bit me when I was younger. I can’t remember the pain, but I recall my gran, in tears at the door. I remember my dad’s hand on her shoulder, assuring her no-one was saying the dog should be put down. ‘That isn’t going to happen.’
Before long the wound turned into a crescent moon between two veins. And now you would have to be looking for it to see it.
I thought of the other scars, fading with every trip around the sun. But some were etched in time.
The sound of her sadness was the sound of waves. Not roaring waves on the ocean, these waves had been lapping the shore of her mind for years; for more years, in fact, than I’d known her. Such a timeless scale of erosion was as incomprehensible to me as the formation of an island.
There was so much light around her. To watch her resting expression for a second was to see it. To hold her hand was to become it. Sometimes when she speaks to a stranger with all the care and attention you would only give a close relative the light can be seen briefly. These things would surface like buoys in a sea of doubt, and always just in time.
But one night, as the clock passed two in the morning, something broke down in the silent space that was growing between us. I woke up on the couch with a cold feeling, like I’d heard something.
Before long she appeared, silhouetted in the doorway. I put on the light, revealing her tired eyes. Her gaze shifted heavily from one step to the next as she made her way to the couch. When she sat down I could see red scores peeking out the tops of her pink socks. A surge in my stomach, and without speaking I leaned over and rolled them down, counting a dozen or so cuts. Some were deeper than others, as if she’d went over them again and again with a butter knife.
‘When were you going to tell me?’
‘I’ve been trying to.’ She said.
‘Your skin.’ An eternity. ‘It’s a mess.’
‘That’s not the half of it.’ Her bloodshot eyes filled, but offered no relief.
I must have said ‘show me.’
She pulled one leg of her pyjamas up above the bend of her knee.
I blink, hard. My eyes return to my own near-forgotten scar, and my veins.
When I used to press her about her past I’d been searching for that one moment, one seismic event that led to that night. Of course, she couldn’t think of a single point in time, just lots of half-formed memories, looming over her in the long nights like a mist. And in the winter she would look out the window with a woolly head and heavy eyes, and she’d see mist above the grass in the garden. It might have been beautiful at first: each blade kissed with moisture in the vagueness of early morning. But sometimes it is bitterly cold and the grass is made brittle.
A blade bends, about to break.
I look at the screen again. The bed is empty. A creak in the hall turns my head.
‘Are you okay?’ Charlotte asks from the door, her voice clear as if she has been awake for hours.
‘I am now. Is she—’
‘Sleeping,’ she smiles. ‘In her crib.’
She sits on the floor in front of me. As she turns back to face me I hold on to her shoulders and kiss her on the head. ‘I still owe you that massage.’ She says I don’t have to, but in an inviting way, and I begin.
I start by running my fingertips across her back, barely touching her skin. I imagine a cooling breeze on a hot day. After a few minutes I press a little firmer until I am almost kneading the base of her back, working my way up and down, down and up.
‘I was so tense,’ she says.
I use my nails, tracing invisible swirls on her porcelain skin. I trace heart shapes, remembering the day in the snow. I make a vine-like pattern with off-shoots like flower heads, remembering the tattoo she has always wanted.
I visualise the scars disappearing now, one in particular fading in time-lapse to a milk-coloured line, faint to the point of nothing in certain lights.
In bed at last, but still I can’t sleep. I listen to Charlotte’s breathing. Soft, slow waves issue in and out of her nostrils. In the dark, all the edges of the room become soft and ambiguous. That Schumman piano number—‘Child Falling Asleep’—begins to play in my head.
The summer our baby was born. A smell of cotton, wool and Fairy non-bio. Her tininess was earth-shattering. The lack of sleep etched it deep.
For weeks I couldn’t get it out my head that she almost never made it. Falling asleep in my arms, her hands were feather-light. No one prepared me for that. Those small hands, warm to the touch. The puffy wrists and the neatly folding skin. No one prepared me for the feeling of new love that fills you to your fingertips, and is almost too much.
I am ready to sleep but I wait.
I wait until our lungs begin to fill at the same pace. Until everything under the skin is in sync, ticking together, and our cells, aging in unison, can be measured by their own celestial clockwork, and every hundred years or so the spiralling dust suspends as music in the quiet moments of the lives of our descendants, and longer still.
Craig Lamont is an academic and writer working at the University of Glasgow, carrying out research for the new scholarly editions of the Works of Robert Burns (Oxford) and the Works of Allan Ramsay (Edinburgh). Besides Scottish Literature, Craig’s research specialism is cultural memory. His monograph, The Cultural Memory of Georgian Glasgow will be published early 2021. Before working in the eighteenth century, Craig completed a Masters in Creative Writing (University of Strathclyde) and worked at an independent publishing house, Cargo. Craig writes short stories mostly, some of them published in Scottish journals and magazines over the past ten years.