My baby is born with cat eyes, irises like lunar black holes. The Ophthalmologist shines a light into them, stares down the lens and tells me it might be cosmetic. I hold my breath until it hurts. We both know that Teddy can’t see the moon.
I think about all the things he will not see; his grandmother’s grey-green fossil eyes, his first Liverpool shirt, me waving at the school gates.
We bring him home in daylight. I fumble with the straps of the car seat and my partner weaves his fingers through mine as we walk up the path. I steel myself against the kindness of neighbours and their cheery waves from behind bay windows. The noisy excitement of the children at No 42, drowning out the crying baby who won’t settle. Mr Morris next door closes the door of the greenhouse. We all have blind spots and there are no words to comfort me.
My mother calls me on the phone, and I can hear her vocal chords twist into tight strands.
‘I’ll pop by later,’ she says. ‘When you’re both settled.’
The baby has worked himself into a ball of tight fisted heat. The sound he makes does not seem human, reverberating around this small house with small windows. The air sticky with the heat of July. Airless, joyless house. I make a show of unbuttoning my blouse, pressing the baby’s open mouth to the dark areola of my nipple. I close my eyes. I cannot look at his.
It had been a long irritable labour. The royal blue midwife came and went as I crouched on all fours and wailed. Waited for him to turn. Pain radiated up and down my spine, sliced across my abdomen. I practiced my yoga nidra breath, listened to a cooking podcast and thought about the room we had painted melange at home, the woven crib we’d bought on Gumtree. I wanted a natural birth but gave up and asked for gas and air when the contractions erupted into song. I held on to my partners arm and twisted his skin white between my fingers. When the baby arrived, they laid him on my chest, skin to skin, still wet with amniotic fluid. My body flooded with relief. I thought he was perfect.
At home we sit on the sofa, and I stroke his strawberry cheek. My breasts hard-tight with milk, a heaviness I want to beat out of me. The heat moves under my skin. A line across my eyes that hurts. All I want to do is sleep, forget.
The health visitor knocks at the door. She swings my feline baby over her shoulder and pats his back. She tells me not to worry, he’s latching on nicely, he’s nearly at the 50th centile. ‘Funny eyes,’ she says. ‘They don’t follow my finger. Almost black like coal.’
We never intended to have a baby, I want to say this to her and realise how broken that sounds. We’ve only lived together for six months; we just afford the rent as it is. My partner works as a porter during the day and shifts in a bar at night.
I lay my baby on my chest and we breathe together. His face creased. When he’s sleeping his eyes are like small folds in tissue paper.
My mother holds him carefully as if he’s broken, and her Yardley perfume gets under his skin, and I want to bath him and make him smell like mine again. When I leave the room I watch her turn my baby towards the light, to stare into the dark holes of his eyes. She doesn’t hide the horror. My mother is defensive. Generations of the McColls with no visual deformities, she only wears glasses for reading. I breathe long and slow through my hands and try not to bite back. As my mother is leaving, she whispers, ’You are going to need help with a baby who is bl….’. I close the door to block out the word.
Afterwards, I put the baby in the sling, and he settles into me, and sleeps. When we close our eyes, we don’t need to see the truth.
When I wake, Mrs Greenhalgh is standing at the front door, offering me her pound-pot pie with a glazed crust. I don’t have the heart to tell her I’m vegan. Iron is good for nursing mothers she says, touching his small hands. He’s a right bobby dazzler.
My partner deliberates about going to work but I tell him we need the money. I stand by the window and watch the moonlight reflected off the tiled roofs, the black shine of the road. Lose myself into the night. Sometimes we can hide in the darkness.
In the launderette, Pearl jigs the baby about to Rocksteady beats, sways to the spin cycle. She says his eyes are special like Whitby jet stones. Teddy smiles from ear to ear. He loves movement, loves music.
‘He can help me with the service wash any day love,’ she says.
Cheryl, the key worker from the RNIB sits on the sofa at home and offers me pamphlets. It’s just one of our five senses, she says. Children like Teddy make up for it in other ways. They’re special.
‘I think you need to meet other mothers like you,’ she says, and I know I don’t want to.
After she’s gone, I lie in the garden on the damp grass, my baby stretched across my chest, watch the purple fronds of the lilac bush move against the sky. The cool beneath my legs, against my skin. Over the fence I can hear Mr Morris watering and raking the soil. The earthy smell of tomatoes and greens. Giant green spikes of sweetcorn poking over the fence.
At the six week check the GP stares at his computer screen and won’t say the B word. It’s most likely to be genetic, a faulty gene. It has a name Macular Coloboma. I can say it, but it can’t be corrected. ‘Just think,’ he says, ‘in ten years’ time he could have bionic eyes, grown from cells in a petri dish. He’ll see the stars.’
I want to say that it’s all my fault, that I didn’t realise I was pregnant. We used to freewheel through nights at the pub with rounds of snakebites, Pernod and black.
In the depths of the night, I hold Teddy in my arms and howl at the moon.
The baby gym mothers sit in a roly-poly circle, throw rainbow hoops and balls, ‘Hey diddle-diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon.’ On the count of three I catch the bean bag. The other mothers avert their eyes, but I can feel the weight of them pressing inwards. Other babies all look like Teddy on the outside. There’s coffee afterwards, books for sale, but I hurry home. And after I’ve gone the mothers say, ‘oh my god I didn’t know what to say to her, it’s such a shame, he’s such a cute baby.’
Days turn into nights and weeks of endless bottles of creamy white milk. My partner and I sometimes forget to be kind to each other when we’ve had no sleep. I’m resentful that he escapes every day to a job where he doesn’t have to look at Teddy, to try to imagine his future. New baby cards drop onto the door mat but I don’t open them. I close the curtains to keep out the daylight. Our world becomes smaller. Dark. Some days it’s hard to get out of bed and I sit on the sofa and don’t answer the door. It’s hard to remember who I once was. Losing sight of the future.
Cheryl comes round with a woman who’s child is at special school. I don’t want to think about special school. She talks about adaptations for the house, Teddy’s IQ and need for stimulation. Being independent. These children are so rewarding, she says. After I shut the door on them I break open. The truth is more frightening than I could ever have imagined.
I put Teddy in the sling to stop him crying and he hangs off my chest like a limpet. I watch Mr Morris water the seedlings in his greenhouse, tending to the new shoots. He sees me at the kitchen window and gives me a nod.
The mother of the kids at No 42 comes round. They’ve been having a sort out and they crowd around the baby offering him wooden blocks, stack up cups and make plinking sounds with a Xylophone. The kids sing and dance, and waggle his fingers and toes. The kids break out into the garden and we sit and drink green tea amidst the mayhem. Teddy kicks his legs excitedly. ‘Come round any time,’ the mother says. After they’ve gone the floor is scattered with bright coloured plastic. I feel suddenly hopeful.
I put the pram in the shade of the magnolia tree. The white petal cups flutter in the breeze and I imagine Teddy is watching them. I remember the night we moved in to the house, we lay on a rug here, drank too much wine and stared at the stars. My head resting on my partners shoulder. It felt like we had the world in our hands. I breathe in the scent of sweet jasmine and close my eyes.
Mr Morris pops his head over the fence and offers me a tray of tomato plants, runner beans and some sunflower seeds. ‘Something sunny for you both in the garden,’ he says. I shrug and point at the weeds. He carts round a couple of Gro bags and pots filled with compost, shows me how to push the seeds down into the black earth. ‘Don’t forget to water them mind,’ he says.
The plants become part of a new routine, watering, picking beans, watching them grow. I learn to trust my instincts. Teddy loves the sun on his face, the soft satin ribbon on the edge of blankets, me singing The Cure. He stretches out his hands to feel the breeze, kicks his legs in the cool grass and giggles when he feels raindrops.
The sunflowers grow tall against the fence, turning their yellow faces to the sun. The cherry red tomatoes swell, and the green beans grow heavy with plump pods. Everything in the garden is growing.
Mr Morris holds my baby in his arms as I dig a bed for the winter vegetables.
Author Bio: Helen Kennedy is a Mancunian writer currently completing her MA in Creative Writing in Oxford. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for the Bristol prize in 2022 and the Cambridge prize 2021, as well as being featured in the new writer series for Flash Flood in 2022. Her poetry has been published by Fly on the Wall Press.