Last month my beautiful Marla hit the big FIVE OH. And the rest. Those extra six pounds cha cha cha'd behind like floozies to the beat of her overworked heart. Instead of losing six of one, she'd gained half a dozen of the other. The poor mite was inconsolable for days. The effort it took us, every time, to get to the hospital for a weighing in. Only to be told, every time, that she had more bulk and a shorter journey to her grave. Sometimes I think that was the smallest consolation. Too fat to travel, it would make her life so much easier if death would come to her.
By all accounts her grand entrance lacked imagination. Her birth was a lazy series of short thrusts followed by a quick trip to the theatre. I simply had to lie back and show willing while a new wound revealed my innards to the masses. The theatre seemed full of a hundred bodies, all waiting to pounce on my early bird and attempt to breathe life into her. And they did. At 3lb 8oz she fought and she won. She looked like a suckling pig wrapped in Clingfilm, straight out of one oven and into another, to be roasted in the hospital for 2 months until tender. She was a beauty. At least, that's what I said to those who listened. She's amazing, I said. I love her so much.
Just hours after I gave birth, before the pain started and the shock wore off, I became repelled by the idea of motherhood. Marla lay there in her knitted pink hat and doll-sized nappy and the nurse asked if I'd like to hold her. Hold her? I wanted to shout. Are you crazy? What if I snap her? What if I drop her? What if I should dislocate or dismember or discombobulate her, you fool? I watched as Jeremy took her in the palm of his hand and shushed and whispered and cried. But the most I could do was poke my fat fingers through the holes in the incubator and stroke her little fists.
I resented her. I would never have said so at the time but it's true. I was sore. I was exhausted; I was sleepless and restless. Whenever Jeremy came too close I swiped him away. I wanted nothing except to be relieved of my duties. I wanted to plead diminished responsibility. It was a mistake, Your Honour. This baby, Marla, had extracted the 'me' I'd grown up with and filled the cavity with terror. What if I killed her? I had dreams of her drowning in the bath, suffocating in her cot, eating a pin I'd lost and thought nothing of, watching in horror as it scratched its way down her throat and riddled her gut with holes. Why did she have to come early? Why was she such a wretched, scrawny little creature who threatened, at the start, to leave us? I was cracked open like a shell - my emotions racked up beyond anything I'd ever felt before. They call it unconditional love; it surges through your tubes and your fine print, in your secretions and exhalations. But it's only hormones. This can't be love, I thought. Love is frenzied and toe-curling. This was just... fear, coupled with incomprehension. I had made her, maybe not all by my lonesome, but she had become solid meat within my hollows, literally connected to me, and now I was supposed to automatically jump into this new selfless outfit that wouldn't even button up the front.
I became acutely aware of my body and its ability to plough through exhaustion. It perfected tricks I'd never have expected. When my milk started to come through and I no longer had to tease out the yellow colostrum, I felt I could put on a jolly good show, and the speed at which I hammered at the piston of the breast pump could have awarded me a standing ovation. I discovered the meaning of relief when, after my breasts were hard as rocks and about to explode, my insides seemed to deliquesce and draw out like ink through a nib. It was as climactic as a long-awaited pee or the welts left in the flesh after a good, hard scratch.
It bothered me that at first I couldn't feed her. I didn't experience the images I'd seen on TV, of a newly-delivered baby placed on the breast and, like a sticky little joey, making its own way to the nipple. Marla was just too busy in the spotlight for that; too busy glowing under ultra-violet, my poor pink-to-yellow sewer rat. Her maw was surely too tiny to stretch around my distended teat anyway. Instead we had to pour my fresh milk into a tube that fed up her tiny nostril and down into her stomach. She never went hungry.
And then one day, when it was agreed she was the right shade of pink, we were allowed to take her home. By this time my fear had mostly been replaced by the love so many people talk about. I was no longer afraid of her. But that was when I had the nurses hovering in the periphery, like Macbeth's three. I know I looked a wreck to them in the beginning, all sodden with tears and milk. Anxious and prickly with leaking breasts and a flapping belly. But by the time we bundled up our baby and waved goodbye to the staff, I think I looked like a reasonable copy of a new mother, with a two-month old babe who had only just reached her intended birth date. Little was I to realise that 'out-there' heralded so many new dangers. My fears of Marla were superseded by something more complicated, a shifting sway of environmental phobia and sheer joy that beat a tattoo against the back of my skull; the anxious tip-toeing around the house, afraid to make the smallest sound in case it set off her wailing siren; the pleads to whoever that she just stay quiet this one time, allowing me to shop peacefully in the supermarket without the screeching sounds of a child in distress. Sometimes her hysterics reached such pitch I felt people staring at me, questioning my abilities, searching for the torture device I was hiding up my sleeve. She suffered from colic, would throw herself around her cot or her pram. She would beat her fists against my chest, lunge this way and that till inevitably she would bang her head against mine and we would both curse in pain. But within this frame there were snatches of wonder and joy and sheer bliss. I would marvel over and over, not just at her small-scale perfectly working body, with its gag-reflex and bowel movements creating a whole symphony of sound and colour, but at the speed of her physical and intellectual development too. I watched as the skinny legs and arms that had flailed in the hospital bed plumped out like feather pillows and creased with rolls of flesh. And slowly those creases ironed out and she climbed onto the pads of her feet and stood tall.
Life became a series of stops and starts as Marla's growing need for independence reached frustrating heights. I was forced to manoeuvre my chores, like supermarket-shopping and toilet-cleaning, around her more important developments. Going for a walk became a diligent exercise in dilly-dallying; a trip to the corner shop took two hours. I became, as every other parent does, an expert in exclamatory shouts of wonder over a twig or stone. I learned how to let life stop, or go in slow motion, while she crouched, hands firmly placed on knees, fascinated by an insect, before squashing it flat with the tip of her finger.
At three, she learned the value of 'why?' and by the time she was four we were holding conversations. She was full of energy and I would chase her round the house just to hold her in my arms and smell her skin and hair. I would chase the little imp for other reasons too, usually at the behest of her inner naturist who refused to get dressed and I would be forced to pin her down with elbows and knees to cram squidgy arms into sleeves and toes into socks as laughter crackled through her. She was a slippery eel able to slide through cracks and into crannies. She left the dining table by crawling underneath it and around our legs. She climbed into the car seat from the opposite door, and would later climb out again before I'd even unfastened her belt. She was lithe in both spirit and form. She was a circus performer - Master of Ceremonies, lion-tamer and acrobat rolled into one. Her tantrums and remonstrations saved mostly for me, she would be the perfect angel for her father. Coiling herself around his stout frame and coyly asserting her autonomy, she had him eating out of her chubby little hand.
She was only eight when Jeremy died. The moment is as clear to me as if it had happened yesterday. And it had, because I couldn't let go of the memory of him sitting there, on the edge of the bed, tying his shoelace. He huffed and he puffed, and then fell backwards onto the bed while we talked about how to keep the slugs off the dianthus. I was brushing my hair and he just died, right there, and I thought, now what Marla? Now what?
Marla had her friends so she didn't need me. She had her friends' mothers and their tray bakes. They listened and they talked and they sympathised. They picked her up from school and took her to drama class and fed her and painted her nails a horrible hot pink. I became the 'absent mother'. Only my body was there, rotting beneath the duvet. I ate little, drank lots, got my groceries and my fast-food delivered. I barely had any need to leave the house. So I didn't. I heard Marla come and go. I heard the thumping of music and the shrill voices of school friends. Sometimes she opened the bedroom door and crinkled her nose in disgust. I always faked a snore and squeezed shut my eyes. I didn't want to face up to what I'd done to her. I didn't want to exist. As I faded Marla seemed to grow in size and volume and spirit. I didn't need to see her to know that. I heard the screaming laughter over some boy's name… I smelled the incense of cigarette smoke… I heard the slamming of doors and the ping of the microwave. She was busy and alive.
And then she was 13 and leaving blood on the bathroom floor. I only saw it because I was breathlessly delving through the damp carpet fibres searching for my heart pendant. I had worn the necklace every single day since Jeremy had surprised me with it and suddenly the clasp had snapped and the pendant had fallen. It had become his heart, his body, and to remove it from its place at my throat would be like tipping the contents of his urn down the toilet.
Seeing those blood spots made my insides jolt. I hadn't felt anything for so long and this was surprising and almost comforting. For one moment I stopped thinking about Jeremy's death. I thought 'Marla started her periods without me'. I knocked on her bedroom door and pushed it open gently when there was no reply. I breathed in the scent of cheap body spray. I scanned the bits and pieces, the boy band and vampire prints tacked to the wall, the phone charger, the books - Jacqueline Wilson alongside Patricia Cornwell. I realised she was at that in-between stage when the adult world offers divine sensation but the world of childhood is holding out a big tub of ice cream.
And then the front door slammed and she was running up the stairs like she was running for her life. She was speechless. "You started your periods." I held my arms out but she looked away. "I started my periods two years ago mum." And then she burst into tears and spewed out this whole mess of snot and occasional words like 'hate' and 'need' and dad, dad, dad until she collapsed in my arms and we sank down to the pink carpet. I'd switched off. My grief had grown limbs and jumped onto my back, pinning me down. As I looked around the filthy living room later when Marla and I were sitting down to our first meal together in years, and I saw the thick layer of dust that had gathered around the urns, I vowed to sort out the mess. When I asked if she wanted another piece of cheese cake, her tearful nod was all the encouragement I needed to start over.
My house is immaculate. Or at least, it was until three weeks and four days ago. I spent the last 7 years obsessing over corners, skirting boards, ovens... behind, above and beneath. Places where dirt and dust collect. I cooked, I cleaned. Sometimes I ordered take-outs and often I drove through. I was happy. I had a purpose and what you might call job satisfaction.
It didn't bother me, at first, when Marla began to get big. Having a full tummy is the way to happiness, I told her, as she stood naked in front of the mirror. She looked wonderful to me. She was just a bigger version of my little dimpled imp, chubby and creased with little fat rolls. I tried to dissuade her from dieting. I'd read all sorts about the effects of crash diets. But I needn't have worried. Her rejections of my food, which I felt as more than just an insult to my cooking, didn't last long. She lacked the will power, and her feelings of guilt just reinforced that lack. I comforted her. It pained me so much to see her like this, so I did everything I could to make her happy. I provided for her every need: starter, main and dessert. I discovered that Marla wasn't a fussy eater at all. I'd heard of teenagers refusing to eat this and that, or yelling if their gravy touched their peas or their custard had a few lumps. But Marla shovelled it all in - burgers, apple pie, pizza, chips, ham and egg, a full English, chocolate cake, ice-cream. If she could have saved time by rolling her main and her dessert up in one pancake she would. She ate like she was in such a hurry to fill her body, as though every cavity I had caused by my rotten behaviour now had to be filled. Like a sausage she crammed the meat in her skin, filled herself up to bursting.
In time, she couldn't get out of the house, her room, then her bed. As she swelled, her flesh seemed to pool around her. Intent on filling the corners, the rafters, down the side of the bed, her expanding body knocked books, soft toys and perfume bottles out of its way. I moved my armchair into her room while it would still fit so we could watch TV together, scribble silently in out Sudoku books and play Guess Who. But later we just watched TV. I gave her a bed bath every night. She seemed to have reams and reams of skin, like an unravelled blotchy pink conveyor belt that folded back onto itself, creating damp Edens for all kinds of infections. She blistered and bubbled and downright stank. But she was still my beautiful girl. Wiping her sweating flesh down with a flannel reminded me of her infant self. Cleaning her up after a bowel movement made me reminisce about the excitement we'd felt, as new parents, over the changing colour and consistency of the contents of her nappy. This was our time, our shared, quality time together.
But it wasn't enough time, in the end.
She was pronounced dead at the scene and once more had to be cut free. Crowds gathered as the firemen bore their way through the walls, and I knew it would take more than a few stitches to fix this mess. At the crematorium her coffin had to be wheeled in through the disabled access doorway because it was too heavy to be carried. It sat there, a dull brown, waiting for its turn in the oven. Twenty six years old, she was. Early in birth, early in death. The doctors had predicted it. They'd unravelled this great list of misadventures possibly coming her way, from diabetes to halitosis, stroke to varicose veins. I had nodded. Marla had cried. In the end she had her father's bad heart. Still, we had many, many good times. We laughed and we loved. We really did. And the best thing, really, is that she's back where she belongs, with her sister and her dad.
What did they know, those people at her funeral who sneered and whispered and laughed at the size of the coffin, "like a wooden shit-house" as I heard someone say? What did they know about love and grief? I loved my family to death. Not many people are that fortunate. Those few who sat and watched the coffin slide its way through the curtains to Rick Astley's 'Never Gonna Give You Up' don't know the half of it. That tiny little urn that used to sit on the mantelpiece beside Jeremy's is now a large vase of mashed ashes. Legs and arms that once hugged, as an extension of each other, two sisters in a web inside me until Marla got hungry and began to take, take, take. She became a parasite and poor Sylvia starved. She died inside me and had to be cut down to size. Chopped, burnt, and shrunk to fit inside a tiny vessel. Well now they are together again, and as the dust begins to settle around the urns I think, what now girls? What now?