The monitor only allowed one-way communication, so although Danni could listen to her child if she needed to, she could not respond, like a one-way mirror, she thought, in a police interrogation room, but then the baby couldn’t respond anyway, not yet, and her brother had given her the device. It was the first, she imagined, of many hand-me-downs, and she was glad of the savings. She didn’t need all the bells and whistles, and they weren’t cheap, and she wasn’t rich.
At first the little image had proved a source of fascination: Sophie’s cot, even when empty—the little view into the back bedroom, into her baby daughter’s world, which on the monitor always looked a little different, a different cot, in a different room, and a different baby under the blankets. She hadn’t been sure she really needed it, because even in those first few weeks, with all the disruption, Sophie had slept like an angel, as Danni’s mother had informed her several times, whilst cooing, and had asked Sophie herself, just like a little angel, aren’t you dear? but her brother Jack had really recommended it—he was the sort of person who always liked some new device to fiddle with, and seemed keen to pass it on, get some more use out of it, he said, having purchased an unnecessary upgrade, slow its momentum towards it final destination as landfill—and, well, free was free. You couldn’t argue. And she found she liked it. Or at least that it interested her in an idle kind of way. Just looking at it sometimes. The different cot in the different room, a different baby under the blankets. Through its poor resolution it was like seeing through a gauze. In those days, as she felt herself going slowly mad, it provided some measure of distraction from the torpor that had claimed her since the birth.
Sometimes it was like looking through the screen as through a window into the baby’s room; other times, as if the monitor, hoarding secret depth, contained its own room, its own world, beneath the plastic of the screen. She wondered why she found it so peculiar. Her mother, to whom such things were deeply alien (we never had anything like this when you were a child!), and who hated phones, had never owned one, immediately took to it. It’s better than telly! she said, on several occasions, as she spied on her granddaughter in the back bedroom.
Those first two months of her life, Sophie was the calmest child. Danni’s mother was shocked: neither of her two children, she pointed out repeatedly, had let her get much rest. She made it sound like an injustice. But it was an injustice that would soon receive some small redress, because it was around that time, when Danni would find herself staring idly at the little low-res image of the different cot in that different room, that Sophie’s angelic period came to an end. Danni had not known it was just a period: it became a period in retrospect, she saw, through its elapsing; and, as she would see, it really had elapsed, for good. And for worse.
One October evening, having finally settled her daughter down, as she tried to relax, to loosen the tension in her shoulders, sipping a cold beer, the television on but muted, she glanced at the monitor and stiffened suddenly, all the tension ratcheting up her spine, through her shoulders and neck, and it was a moment before she understood what she was seeing, her shock causing thought to lag.
Buffering, she thought, and heard a hollow laugh, her own laughter become a stranger laughing, as she hurried through to the little room at the other end of the flat. She was used to this kind of dissociation: it was not unfamiliar, was not uncomfortable. Behind her, cold lager foamed out of the bottle of beer, pooling on the coffee table, adding a new landmass to the archipelago of beverage stains adorning its unlacquered surface.
Later, returned to the living room, she picked up the monitor again and studied the image of her sleeping daughter. In a trick of the light or the lack of it, of snugly layered fabrics and the camera’s low resolution, the cot had appeared empty. Only appeared, she thought. Only appeared. But then even appearances were more than mere appearances.
It had appeared empty.
That, she would think, in the weeks ahead, had been the very first time, had been the start of it all.
Sometimes I think I’m going mad, Danni said to Roisin, whom she had known since primary school and with whom she stayed in intermittent touch. As children they had bonded over a shared love of horses, and Roisin’s parents had been rich enough to buy her one, later, once she was in secondary school, by which time Danni had learned that they inhabited very different worlds. The ferocity of Danni’s jealousy, of which she had felt acutely embarrassed at the time, had been a long time fading, though in retrospect she supposed that the horse had been a cypher for other jealousies; and now they were the always-meaning-to-meet-up kind of friends, seldom meeting up; but this time, it appeared, they had actually meant it, or Roisin had meant it, for it had been at Roisin’s instigation and insistence.
I haven’t seen you in months! Come on! How’s baby?
Danni had found herself caught between two undesirable options: to have Roisin over to visit, or to venture out. And her own mother had not been shy of commenting on her appearance: you look pasty, dear. You’ll never attract another man looking quite so pasty. Well, unless he’s pasty too. And who wants a pasty man?
Men were lower down her list of priorities than her mother might have liked.
Going mad? Roisin asked, sipping tea in the living room. She was pregnant herself, with her second child, a month to go. Some people, Danni thought, looking at her, are good at pregnancy. Some people are good at motherhood, and some are not.
Now Danni was staring at the coffee table. It looks like an atlas, she thought idly. Then she glanced up, realised that she was lagging.
I guess I’m just tired, she said.
Roisin nodded. It’s a lot, isn’t it. And for you—especially—
Roisin pursed her lips, halting mid-sentence, afraid of the indelicacy on the tip of her tongue.
My mum helps, said Danni. Then she laughed. Sometimes too much.
She’s worried about you.
So why ‘mad’?
As if on cue a tinny gurgle gargled through the speakers of the monitor.
I keep going into rooms and then forgetting why I’m there. The other day, I was halfway to the shops before I realised I had no idea what I’d gone to get. Almost had a panic attack.
Good to get out. Get some air.
Danni nodded again. The other evening, I was sitting here, and I glanced at this thing, and her cot was empty.
Her cot was empty?
Looked it. Seemed to be.
Had she escaped? Once, my mother found me wedged upside down between the cot and the chimney breast. Dad called me Houdini.
Apparently not, said Danni, wondering what Sophie would grow up to make of her own father. I don’t know why I’d thought that, except that when I looked at the screen she wasn’t there. I nearly had a fit. I can remember it clearly, you know? She wasn’t there. Then when I went through into her bedroom there she was.
Roisin touched her hand. It’s hard work, she said. You were tired. That’s all.
Roisin smiled, setting her cup down on its saucer.
Danni wondered did she still have the horse.
It’s good to see you, Roisin said, and touched Danni’s hand again, at which Danni flinched. Then sighed.
She would have to get better at this, she told herself, at appearing okay.
Sorry, she said.
It’s fine. Really. I should be getting going.
As Roisin stood to her feet, she picked up the monitor. Maybe I should get one of these things this time around, she said.
Danni was relieved when Roisin was gone, glad of the empty flat. Empty except for herself and the baby in the cot.
Now, the next day, her brother would not answer his phone.
Danni missed him. He had been stressed a lot lately, had seemed distracted when she had seen him last. When he had given her the monitor, among other things. Which was how long ago? She left him a message:
I haven’t seen you in weeks! Aren’t you going to come round and see Sophie?
I get lonely here, she didn’t say.
Maybe you could take mum off my hands, she said.
Call me when you get this.
What was the word? On the tip of her tongue. She could taste it, the word for the way he had seemed before. Furtive. No. Secretive. No. Distracted. Sort of.
Evasive, she said, to the empty flat.
She had been listening to the dial tone on the landline for a full minute when she put down the phone.
He didn’t call.
That night she didn’t sleep.
The next evening, watching television, she glanced at the monitor, not for the first time, and felt the world go silent and cold.
Reaching over, she picked it up from the arm of the sofa and peered at the screen.
Sophie? she said, tilting her head.
That’s not Sophie, she said to herself.
Released from the vice of shock she scrambled up from the sofa and hurried through to Sophie’s room at the back of the flat, thinking: that’s not Sophie. That’s not Sophie. That’s not Sophie.
She lifted the baby from the cot and held her up for scrutiny.
Sophie, she said, rocking her daughter in her arms, and standing in the darkness of the baby’s room she wondered if it was possible to die of relief.
Disturbed, Sophie started to cry.
It was after this that Sophie’s sleeping got really bad, as if the disturbance of that night had never passed. It’s my fault, Danni thought repeatedly, a thought that became a refrain, a loop, a negative mantra: it’s my fault—I disturbed her, put my own stupid fears on her—I woke her up that time and now she never sleeps, now she’ll never sleep.
Exhaustion made the world grow thin. The fabric of the world, Danni thought, has become threadbare. The world is wearing through. Or I am. Like an old dress I am wearing through. Gauzy. The world is an old dress and it is wearing through.
The monitor wasn’t much use through those nights, each night become a small eternity, a capsule prison universe she doubted she would ever leave. It wasn’t much use because she was in Sophie’s room half the time and the other half of the time Sophie was in with her. But still sometimes she found herself looking at its little screen.
It nagged at her.
Nag nag nag, she thought, picturing horses.
Her phone lit up and Danni frowned. She never kept her phone on silent but apparently she had muted it. There were three missed calls. Shapes on the screen. They were letters, she realised, lagging into sense: Mum. With a jerk she caught up. Her mother had called. She had found herself doing this a lot lately: zoning out. A ping and a new message appeared, announcing voicemail. Idly Danni wondered if you could mail a voice. Seal it in an envelope and slip it in a postbox. She realised she was smiling. As she listened to the message that smile stiffened into a grimace.
Darling would you please answer your phone? I called round today and you didn’t answer. Were you in? I thought you were in. You are making me worry. This isn’t like you. And Jack—Lord, why have I been cursed with such difficult children? I don’t know what’s got into that brother of yours. Or into you. Just give me a call, okay. Okay. Bye.
Evasive, thought Danni, tasting the word. That was the word. Jack was being evasive.
Why was Jack being evasive?
Danni had always wanted to be an actress, once she had given up on her initial dream of owning a stable, a whole stable of horses and the land around, before the grey disappointments of life had set in. But now Danni was an actress. I am an actress, she said aloud. Leave the horses to Roisin. I am acting. This was what she told herself, a new refrain, a positive mantra. She was an actress, playing a part. Unshowy, no protagonist, part of the supporting cast, part of the scenery. The sort who never looked like she was acting. It took tremendous effort. She let the Health Visitor into her flat. She smiled and made small talk as if it were a language in which she was fluent, and tried to detect if the Health Visitor had detected anything beneath the surface of her smile.
Sophie is a good weight. She looks healthy. How’s she sleeping?
Danni delivered her lines.
He had a long, thin face and a lantern jaw, and there was a greyness to him, as if he lived in monochrome, and a gentleness, and under the caring gaze of his grey gentle eyes she felt scrutinised and exposed.
She delivered her lines.
She had read something the other day, about fake Health Visitors, strangers who posed as Health Visitors and called in at the houses of new parents to spy on the children. Why? Were they pedophiles? Maybe. Sometimes they were afraid of pedophiles, were vigilantes checking up on children they deemed to be at risk from pedophiles. Pedophiles everywhere. No one seemed to know.
Danni smiled, wondered if the man here in her flat—was his name Jack? John? James?—was a stranger acting a role, and here she was in turn, delivering her own lines with great elan, two actors acting at the intersection of two different plays, each unaware of the other’s duplicity.
But she didn’t think so. She had seen him at the Children’s Centre on Ivory Place.
Thank you, she said, smiling, as he stood to leave. He said something or other about future dates and she agreed, nodding, smiling, smiling, and then closed the front door behind him. Slowly her smile stiffened into a grimace, and then the grimace began to fade.
All the effort of acting took its toll.
She felt herself give way, fell asleep on her bed as Sophie, an actress too, deep in role, sleeping for the first time in what might have been forever, lay quiet in her cot. Exhaustion made the world seem thin. She is wearing through.
The world is wearing through. Sometimes she finds herself dozing unawares as dreams slip through from the other side like shapes passing through a gauze. There was the grey Health Visitor who wanted to take her baby away, the baby that was a fake, a doll of exquisite wailing shitting realism, fitted, it amused her to think, with a one-way listening device, deployed by the Health Visitor to spy on her. And there were others, too, other strangers, creeping about; the peopled shadows teemed.
She had seen her brother in town, across the road, carried downhill by the flow of the Saturday crowd. He hadn’t seen her, or at least he hadn’t appeared to see her, before the river of people took him away.
Appeared, she thought.
Her mother would not stop ringing. She wondered what she could do about that.
At night she looked out of the window and saw a shape sitting on the bench across the way, under the canopy of an elm tree, a tall thin man in a raincoat, she realised, his long face shadowed beneath the raincoat’s hood. He gazed up at the window of her flat with eyes that caught the light of a streetlamp and catching it appeared to glow.
Danni, she said, to the empty flat, which wasn’t empty, Danni is evasive. Then hoarse laughter filled the empty flat which wasn’t empty, through lips that did not move.
The question was, in whose employ were they? Was it the grey Health Visitor, her brother, who was always up to something, or her mother meddling, sending someone to keep a watch on her? Or someone else?
Danni pulled the curtains closed.
Exhaustion had set an aching in her bones. She swung her foot, turned her leg at the knee, dug her toes into the mattress. Sciatica.
She is in the flat that isn’t the flat, its colour gone, the edges of things grown jaggedy like the image on the screen. In her dream she is inside the screen, in the screen flat, in the secret hoarded depth of the monitor, and she is not alone. No one ever was in an empty flat, she thinks. There was always herself for company, that ghostly companion. There was her baby and the baby was crying and its cry was like the ringing of a telephone that she dared not answer. There was something else, too, somewhere, someone, a tall thin shape, a shadow moving carefully, always at the edges of her vision. Then the shape turns—
and for a moment steps toward the centre of her vision, and she sees a long thin face, looking at her, regarding her, a man who wears a rictus mask of longing and despair, a smile stiffened to a grimace, and a face she recognises but cannot place, a name upon the tip of her tongue—she can taste it—
but then she woke, to the ringing of her phone.
Her neck was stiff. She was on the sofa, but could not remember falling asleep. It was morning. It felt like morning. The ringing of the phone cut out.
The flat was silent except for the churn of her own body, the beat of her own heart, the surge of blood through veins.
As she sat up the monitor fell off her lap and to the floor. She hadn’t realised she had been holding it. Her mobile lay ringing on the coffee table, dancing with the poltergeist force of its vibrations. Irritated—why wasn’t it mute?—she picked it up and powered it down before the shapes on the screen could lag into letters and sense.
Nag nag nag, thought Danni, picturing horses.
She slumped back on the sofa, sighing, began to yawn. To sleep so deeply and to dream such fevered nonsense, and then to wake even more tired than you were before—what was the point?
The flat was silent.
Sophie is being evasive, she thought.
She looked at the monitor, screen-down on the carpet, and the urge to pick it up and smash it up and disperse the pieces far and wide seized her suddenly.
No, she told herself, and held herself. Her arms around her knees, her knees pulled to her chin, she held herself.
I need to talk to Jack, she thought. Jack is being evasive. I need to talk to Jack.
The call clicked straight to voicemail.
Danni settled Sophie in the pram, the pram that Jack and his wife had given her, among other things, and within minutes Sophie was sleeping. Why now, she thought, why not at night? Why now, why not at night. Why now?
Jack lived on Ewat Street, off Southover Street, up the hill. It wasn’t far, but Sophie knew that fear could elongate the shortest distances, could expand brief moments into capsule prison universes without end. It took an hour to work up the courage to go out.
I am okay, she told herself. I am okay. I appear okay. Through appearing okay she would become okay, convince the world and through convincing the world convince herself that she was okay, and so be okay.
Okay, she thought, let’s go.
It was cold outside. The autumn, hasty for winter, was closing in, and by six o’clock the evening had darkened into night. The night brought rain, fine pellets of rain that bore an icy edge, and Danni realised she had not dressed for the rain, nor for the cold, but it was too late now: she was on her way.
Through small streets that began to twist and elongate, she passed between lonely islands of light beneath the streetlamps, pushing the pram with Sophie sleeping through the oceans of shadow between. There wasn’t much traffic on the roads and the pavements were all but empty. Everyone was tucked up indoors, in the warmth. Why now? thought Danni. Why not at night? Why now, why not at night. The question repeating in her thoughts like the clip-clop of hooves.
Nag nag nag, thought Danni, picturing horses. I shall nag my brother into answering.
But the little house on Ewat Street, when she reached it, was silent and dark. The curtains were drawn and the house seemed in a cagey mood, as if the windows were narrowed eyes, as if masonry could scowl.
Parking the pram to the left of her brother’s front door, its pedal brake pushed down, she crouched to peer through the letterbox, and in what light reached the hallway carpet from the streetlamp behind her she saw a pile of letters, bills, ads for fast food restaurants, estate agents, a local chiropractor.
Jack? she called through the letterbox.
Voice mail, she thought. You’ve got mail.
Jack is being evasive.
Why is Jack being evasive? thought Danni, who might also have said it aloud.
I could call mum, she thought, or said aloud, but the thought filled her with immediate dread. I can’t be dealing with that right now.
Or Sandra: Jack’s wife.
She pulled her phone from her pocket to find it dead, and swore.
Glancing round, her heart lurched into her throat: the pram was gone.
She spun on her heel, ready to scream, then stopped immediately, shuddering still. To the right of the house where she had parked it, the pram stood waiting.
She moved to release the brake but it wasn’t down. Through empty streets that lengthened and turned, through lonely islands of light and the shadows in-between, she hurried home.
That night she saw him on the monitor as the world went cold and still, the grey thin shape. She must have knocked the camera when she had settled Sophie down an hour before, for in its purview now was only half the cot, a stretch of carpet, and the old green chair opposite; and sitting in the chair there was a man.
She couldn’t move. She held herself, staring at the screen, through the screen as if it were a window, into the little room at the other end of the flat, and could not move though she willed to move.
Sometimes when Sophie couldn’t sleep she would work herself into some position whereby it seemed that she was looking up at the camera’s lens. Under that infrared gaze her eyes would glow like cat’s eyes, like the eyes of a devil; and now that shape, so tall that even while seated its head appeared to brush the ceiling, turned its face to look at the camera, at the camera and through it, to Danni on the other side, at Danni gone rigid on the sofa, and its eyes glowed like a devil’s eyes, and the sounds of its breathing and of the crying of her daughter seeped through into the living room, as Danni felt her own uncertain self give way.
She awoke exhausted, stiff and sore, unable to recall ever falling asleep, and when she rushed through into the back bedroom she found her daughter lying happily awake in the cot. If relief could kill. Sciatica played a nervous trill through tired legs.
Danni ran her hands through her hair and paced the room, circling the cot. She drew the nails of her right hand down the side of her face, drawing blood.
This can’t go on, she said. This can’t go on.
In her pocket, her phone, dead the last time she had looked at it, began to ring.
This can’t go on.
She declined her mother’s call and thumbed through to her brother’s name in the list of contacts, then stabbed the screen with her index finger until it made the call.
She listened closely. There was a strange sound on the line.
Oh Danni, he said.
Was he weeping?
It was not like Jack to cry. A strange sound.
I know why you’re calling. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
Did you—she paused, unable to comprehend for a moment what he had done to her—did you know?
The crackling line made his sobbing strange.
How could you do this to me?
There’s only one thing you can do.
Where are you?
There’s only one thing you can do, he said.
What can I do?
Pass it on, he said. Give it away. Give it to someone new. I don’t know why. But it—I don’t know. It seems to work. You have to pass it on. I’m sorry—I was desperate, and you were—I’m sorry . . .
Pass it on, thought Danni.
Another call came through and her phone asked if she would like to place her brother on hold. She saw the shapes of letters, lagging into sense, become a name: Roisin.
Yes, thought Danni, picturing horses, as she pressed the screen to answer.
Pass it on.
After all, Roisin was surely due.
Originally published in I Would Haunt You If I Could (a collection).