Crossing — Lizzie Nunnery

It took a while to place her. So many faces out on the street, in and out of the terraces all day long. Early in the mornings, women of all ages wrangling toddlers into pushchairs, shoving uniformed teenagers out of doors, tripping on long skirts while chastising their tangle-limbed kids for dive-bombing off the front walls. Later, men cutting through in twos or threes, settling deeply personal business in English alternating with Somali or Lebanese, Farsi or Arabic. Voices and footfalls bouncing magnified off red brick and asphalt. A soundscape unrolling all day and into the evening on Aspen Grove. Engine hum. Human hum. Endless.

Mary hadn’t lived there long. From behind the blinds she tried to work it out, counting on her fingers the weeks since she’d discovered with a jolt that she was pregnant. Thirty-two weeks. Eight months. Nearly eight months since she dragged her pot plants and second-hand furniture out of her happy little parkside flat and did what you do, if you’re lucky enough, when a baby’s threatening to surface: bought a cheap two-bed. The first six months she’d barely had time to stand still, but since the school signed her off – she counted on her fingers again. Eight weeks since the pain in her hips became so intense that she passed out during a school assembly and collapsed into a sea of singing six-year-olds. Since then, she mostly watched. Flitted between windows. She tried to get out once a day, to the big shop on the corner, but by the time she got back with a bag of bananas she’d have pains shooting from her coccyx to her eyeballs. So she was mostly in. Waited for her mother to come around with biscuits and baby vests. Wondering why her mates never bothered. Shuffling about the newly painted living room, drinking prohibited black coffee and playing 90s records. Painting her nails red, then green, then blue, then red again. Feeling the child inside stretch and turn, like the sensation of great bubbles popping. Watching.

Friday nights were the best. Seeing the pavement fill up as the summer evening yellowed, as halfway up the grove the big wooden doors were dragged open to reveal…a mosque. Right there behind the terraced street – three or four houses knocked together to make space for it. A mosque appearing like a mirage and with it the people – two or three hundred – the women brightly swathed or in black, the men in white, sombre but loud. Loud. The children trailing in then exploding out after. Cars backing up the road and across the junction in to Lodge Lane for half a mile. Mary listened, watched.

It took a while to pin her down. With her long dark hair so often hidden. With her sharp cheekbones and darting eyes. Mary had seen her face time and again in the Spendwell and on the pavement but it was a surprise stepping into the front yard one morning, seeing the little woman step sparrow-like from the red front door opposite, her belly protruding pregnant and huge – pregnant and huge as Mary’s. She looked from her own belly to Mary’s and laughed from the back of her throat. That cackle. Of course. That’s the one. She lives there.

For Mira family was a wild rockslide, an inevitability on which to travel.

It emerged as a casual ritual, gently established by a beckoning hand. After all the kids had been taken to school or nursery there was a 9am lull. Mary and Mira on one front wall or the other, wrapped tight in their coats, cups of coffee held close. Mira with that thick Turkish stuff that almost had Mary vomiting in her chrysanthemums. Mira laughing at that, uncontrollably from the gut. She laughed at everything. She laughed at how old Mary was to be having a first child. ‘Thirty two! You’re joking me?! You think now’s a good time to start?’ She laughed when she saw the misgivings in Mary’s eyes. ‘You’re in it now. We both are. No way out of it I’ve heard.’ It was alright for Mira. She wasn’t alone. She wasn’t an only child who’d never held a newborn. She wasn’t marooned on Aspen Grove, she was embedded: blossoming where she sprouted. Youngest of four sisters, she’d been raised with a child under her arm, and at twenty-three she stood fearless in the face of chaos. Morning after morning Mary would lean back on her wall and close her eyes, listen to the rhythmic assurance of that voice. For Mira family was a wild rockslide, an inevitability on which to travel.

‘Everyone’s been born. Everyone’s been a baby once. All kinds of people are parents. What makes you so different?’

It was September now, the mornings turned sharp and breathy. Mary tugged on her long blonde hair, picking at the split ends, swallowing to steady her voice:

‘What if it’s not in me? And it was never meant to be me in it?’

Mira didn’t laugh at that, but screwed up her pretty nose, drew her black eyes wide:

‘What if we get devils? What if we get ones like little wild monkeys? You open up the door- who knows what comes in?’’

I mean it.

‘I mean it, too!’

Mary kept her gaze on the pavement, the heat of tears in the backs of her eyes. None of this was the plan. She tried to keep her tone light:

‘You don’t mean anything.’

Mira nudged closer then, pressed her shoulder to Mary’s, the fake fur of her hood warm on Mary’s cheek.

‘There’s no story, you know? Why do you always have to put yourself in a story?’ Mira was looking at the pavement now too. ‘It’ll happen. You’ll do it. It’ll be okay.’

She grinned again then, all teeth. She shrugged.

Who knew about the blood? And the milk and the puke and the piss and the shit- who knew all of that would be endless and everywhere – the washing machine humming and turning. Each time she reached for some peace or comfort she found herself interrupted by a cry: a tiny hand outstretching, a mouth asking, swallowing. For weeks Mary stumbled from room to room, from the glaring headache of day to the dim tunnel of night. Her mum at her elbow through the daylight, speaking underwater, a stream of advice impossible to apply. ‘Don’t overfeed, don’t let him get hungry, don’t bounce him, don’t pick him up all the time, don’t let the poor thing cry, don’t ignore him, don’t over-stimulate him…’ Friends passing through and disappearing in a parade of wrapping paper and exclamations. And through those first weeks, a growing weight of knowledge: that no one could lessen or remove this task. No one else could be Danny’s mother.

Everyone else cooed when they saw him but Mira howled, cracked up. ‘He’s huge! The size of the boy! How did he come out of you?’ There was something like relief, hearing the solidity of that laugh. In the winter morning sheen they held their offspring aloft together – limp little bodies hanging from their hands, one elfin and dark, one hulking and blonde, two puppy faces blinking surprise.

They’d wave to each other from their windows in the early hours – the two of them pacing their mirrored front rooms, rocking and shushing. Mary would look from her disordered living room to see Mira’s TV flashing. She imagined her friend confined to the downstairs while her baby boy cried, jogging and hushing so as not to wake her husband. Jogging and hushing. Mary couldn’t sleep because Danny couldn’t sleep. And then when Danny was asleep, still Mary was awake. Behind glass she watched Mira’s every move as though trying to unravel a code. How do you watch television, Mira? The cop shows and horror flicks and shock docs and the news – oh god, the news? The trails of bodies crushed into trains and camps and boats, the faces against the wire, the hunger and the panic and the children, the children. How do you stand in the street and smile? How do you stop your heart from beating in your throat? How do you stop yourself from sobbing because your child is so beautiful and so raw? Because the world is so rough? How? She pressed her forehead hard to cold glass, trying to press back the nameless panic. Count to ten. Twenty. A hundred. Keep breathing, keep moving. Rocking, feeding, cleaning – focus. Focus on the baby.

A crowd on Aspen Grove. This isn’t a Friday. That was Mary’s first thought as she forced the shopping-laden buggy round the corner towards home. This isn’t right. Cars parked on both pavements in either direction, men and women bunched outside the mosque, crowding all the way to Mary’s front wall, so she had to ‘excuse me’ and ‘sorry’ her way past. Danny starting to cry as she pivoted the pushchair hard off the front step and into the house: a meek whine quickly winding into a wailing peak. Without looking at him she undid his clips, heaved him from his seat and pressed him to her chest to feed, stepping fast to the front window. People were spilling across the road now, blocking a taxi driver who banged on his wheel, red-faced and bawling. People were slipping off the pavements, a cloud of white and grey clothing. No bright colours now. Women crying. Men covering their faces. And from somewhere close by, a cry: a long, guttural cry. Mary watched as an old woman stumbled to her knees and tore at the asphalt with her nails. Who? Did Mary know her? She had a look of Mira. Could be her mother, her grandmother? And then, Mira – suddenly she was breaking through the throng, pushing the others aside, searching for space, for air. Turning her head from the crowd she gasped deep breaths, as the people drew back, in reverence or in fear. Mary followed Mira’s gaze towards the red front door and saw four men carrying out a parcel. These men in robes carrying something wrapped in a sheet, something tied in ropes? And then of course she understood. A body. A tiny body. Mira screamed. Like nothing Mary had ever heard. She screamed and turned in every direction and just for a second she saw Mary. Mary with Danny in her arms, staring at the inexplicable. Caught in that instant: Mira’s face a flare, alive with something like terror. Mary ducked away. She slid to a crouch, turned the blinds tight as she heard the old woman yell again. Eyes closed, rocking and hushing, rocking and hushing as the voices beyond circled and cried, as the street sounds turned to singing, floating in and out of the mosque. So many voices singing so slowly together in Arabic, rhythmic and heartfelt and heavy, carrying loss or rage or hope. Mary didn’t move. She murmured wordless comfort as Danny wriggled and whined, as the room dulled to evening. As the streetlights turned up their neon, finally she looked out. Mira was nowhere to be seen. The old woman was standing on the pavement shaking hands and bowing her head, the front door standing open, until finally like the end of a show, it closed.

As Danny grew and smiled and reached for her, Mary felt herself softly folding into him, falling in to him, and whatever was living across the road was a threat, a blade to be edged around.

When her mum rang that night, Mary almost told her all about it, almost sobbed and spilt it all out on the phone. But somehow she couldn’t start – couldn’t bring herself to hear the words in the air. For days and weeks the curtains opposite were drawn and the red door closed, and if Mira was in the window at night Mary wasn’t looking. She’d keep to kitchen at the back of the house, or keep the blinds drawn. What good would it do Mira to see her gawping? And of course she knew she should go over, should knock, bring a card or whatever thing you do, but how would that face look framed in the doorway – that horror that had flamed in the street? There was no cure for what was living behind that door. What good would a smile do, or a polite word? She was just a neighbour. Mary found herself saying these things aloud: ‘I’m just her neighbour. She’s got her family, her own people. I’m not her people.’ And as Danny grew and smiled and reached for her, Mary felt herself softly folding into him, falling in to him, and whatever was living across the road was a threat, a blade to be edged around. Leaving the house she’d keep her eyes on her child, him alone, fuss with his hat and coat, tidy his hair, keep moving: focus, focus on the baby.

After obsessively imagining the moment of seeing her again, it was so ordinary when it happened. Two months since the funeral, Mary wheeling Danny round the corner of an aisle to see Mira holding a tin of beans, looking at the label like it might tell her something important. Her sharp boots peeped from under a long skirt, her old fur-lined puffa was zipped tight to the neck, the long black hair uncovered and hanging over her face. All so ordinary that Mary felt a lurch in her chest – an instinct to announce herself, to call out. But instead she stood and watched. She watched as Mira put the tin back on the shelf, watched her walk out of the shop and onto the busy pavement, watched her move out of view.

She lurched from the bed with a gasp that emptied her lungs, left her straining and gaping. ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ Spluttering and panting, ‘Danny? Danny?’ while the room rolled to a stop. There. He was there. His little body tight in his cot beside her, his chest rising and falling, his soft lips just parting. Breathing. Breathing. A half-grasped nightmare held her: images of Danny falling through floors, covered in insects, simply turned to air. She put her hands on him gently, felt the warm solidity of his little form. He was real and he was breathing.

If the street hadn’t been so silent that night, she might not have turned on the TV downstairs. She might not have heard the reporter’s voice low and grave on the news, or stood shivering in her nightie, her finger hovering over the remote control. There on the telly a line of people walking beside a wire fence. The voice was calling them migrants, describing the numbers, giving the stats, talking of borders and nations ‘overwhelmed’ and at the front of this queue, a woman – a woman with a baby strapped to her chest. A little girl about a year old, feeding herself from a bottle as her mother walked in a line stretching for miles. A little girl tipping her head to drink the last drop. And what will she drink later? The thought so clear and urgent she almost spoke it aloud. Mary edged closer to the screen, searching for some clue. What will she drink later? Breast milk or powdered, and how to keep the bottle clean? And where are you taking your child? Where are you going with a baby strapped to your chest? What can you hope to find there?’ And there it was again: that panic rising from her gut like a tide, like a storm pulsing in her fingertips, cramping her belly so the room seemed suddenly empty of air. And the world inside the house and the world outside were spinning in wild disarray while her brittle child lay unknowing.

‘I can’t.’ She said it aloud now. ‘I can’t, I can’t…’

And who could help her? Who could know how to steady her? Stumbling to the door and out in to the cutting cold, rasping for breath, looking across the street and there in her bedroom window, shifting behind the glass, Mira watching. ‘Sorry. I’m sorry’. Mary turned away suddenly, mumbling it, shouting it back across the road as the red door opened, waving her hands in shame. But Mira was moving towards her, dressing gown flapping, slippered feet shuffling over asphalt… ‘What, sweet? What’s this?’ Mira was taking Mary’s fingers, gripping them tight, pulling her close. Beginnings of words spluttered out on Mary’s lips, vital and inadequate, ways to try to say the unsayable, but Mira was rocking, shushing, lulling, her breath whispering and steady as waves, as the traffic on the main road. ‘Quiet child, quiet now.’

Lizzie Nunnery is an award-winning playwright. Her work includes Unprotected (Liverpool Everyman/Traverse Theatre) which was awarded the Amnesty International Award for Freedom of Expression), The Swallowing Dark, (Liverpool Everyman/Theatre 503), a finalist for The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and Intemperance (Liverpool Everyman), shortlisted for the Meyer Whitworth Award. Her play with songs Narvik (Box of Tricks Theatre National Tour) was described as a “thrillingly enigmatic memory play” by the Guardian and won the 2017 UK Theatre Award for Best New Play. She also writes extensively for radio and has penned numerous original dramas and adaptations for Radio 4.

Image: Flickr, G Witteveen, Village Street and gardens