Cleaning up my desktop I encountered a ghost of Christmas past - a short story which I still have a lot of affection for. ‘The Coming of Topher’ was one of my first attempts at bringing aspects of my practice of writing poetry into my fiction practice. As I am currently teaching both poetry and fiction modules, and in keeping fitting with the tradition of Dickens writing ghostly Christmas stories, I offer up my own piece of fiction written at Christmas time. ‘Topher’ is also perhaps a ghost story - but I suppose that’s for any one who stumbles across it here to decide...
The Coming of Topher.
Nancy froze next to the closed door. Held her breath. Heard toddler voices. Definitely two. Her girl in a steam of chatter and, and a, boy. Nancy’s hand moved the door knob. Stopped. No, that was impossible, this was impossible. She spun the door knob, leaped into the bedroom. Her daughter, duvet-tucked, looked up from her picture book.
‘Have you been reading?’
She moved to the bed. Knelt. Lifted the bed clothes.
‘Peek a boo,’ giggled the child.
‘Were you reading aloud?’
Nancy sat near her daughter, took the book with shaking hands.
‘Topher likes stories.’
Nancy pressed the book to her chest. Gazed into the pastel pink carpet. Small fingers tapped her arm. Elizabeth’s blue eyes, round and smiling. The child voice copied the mother’s intonation.
‘Lights out now?’
Elizabeth wriggled to a lying position. Nancy smoothed the duvet around her. Eyes squeezed shut, the small arms reached up, expected the kiss. Nancy kissed for two.
‘Night, night honey.’
The room in darkness. The door was left ajar.
Nancy lingered a while in the adjoining bathroom.
Soft steps downstairs, away from the sleeping child.
‘Is she asleep?’
Nancy swept past the man watching television on the sofa.
Elizabeth gave Nancy her painting. Black and red. Nursery favourites.
‘It’s lovely. Is that you?’
‘No silly, it’s Topher.’
A stick boy with a red smile. If only…
‘What would you like for lunch?’
Nancy laughed. She clasped Elizabeth’s soft, warm hand. As they walked along, Elizabeth held her hand out at an angle. An old man stared at the hand suspended mid air. Nancy scowled at him.
Nancy set the table. Elizabeth sat, swinging her legs, singing a nursery rhyme, soft and low.
‘Where’s Topher’s plate?’
The extra plate was fetched.
‘Where will Topher sit, honey?’
‘He’s next to me.’
The child reached across and patted the already pushed out chair. Nancy didn’t know why she felt ashamed for not noticing. She put the plate down, staring at the nothing in front of her.
‘Topher says thank you.’
The oven timer bleeped.
Shepherd’s pie and broccoli were brought in. Nancy served Elizabeth first, to cool. She hesitated at the next plate. Elizabeth waved her hand over it.
‘Topher has sausages.’
Nancy clumsily filled her own plate.
Nancy poked and flipped the food.
‘What’s the matter with it?’
The masculine tone grated on her. In the dim restaurant, she would not look at him. She sipped more wine.
‘Are you serious?’ The wine made her reckless.
He stabbed at a potato. She sat back in her chair. Glaring. She saw he was glad they were not home.
‘Nancy, don’t you think it’s time…’
She would not tolerate triteness, not about that. He was an emotional imbecile. Nancy wanted to get up on the table, stamp, scream, rend her clothes. Not all the wine…What was the point? The restaurant was empty.
‘You have to think of Elizabeth.’
Nancy sprang forward, knocking her knife to the floor. Martyn coughed into his napkin as the waiter attended to her. Nancy thanked him.
‘Tea for Nanna.’
‘Mmm, thank you.’
‘Juice for Lizbeth.’
Elizabeth poured ‘juice’ from the same plastic teapot that had provided tea for Nanna.
‘Milk for Topher.’
‘Does Topher like biscuits?’
Elizabeth cocked her head.
Elizabeth leaned to one side and whispered behind her hand.
‘No thank you.’
‘What about Elizabeth?’
Nancy rocked the baby. Inhaled his sweet, milky warmth. She touched her nose to the downy hair, musty from over-night sleeping. Her breasts tingled, hardened and leaking, he had slept so long. The baby could smell her. He turned his head, open-mouthed, searching drunkenly, hungry. Nancy sat on the edge of the bed. Unfastened the buttons on her nightie. He wriggled. Her fingers struggled with the tiny plastic discs. The baby let out a scream. Her trembling fingers, clammy, had no grip. Her breasts burned hot, so hot, needed relief, burning. Nancy screamed. The form in her arms fell still, heavy. Afraid, she would not look at him. Clasped the coldness to her. Rocked. Cold as marble. Have to put him down now. Rhythmic rocking and patting. They would not force her. She would not hear them.
She pulled tighter. No. Her jaw muscles went into spasm. Teeth chattered.
There was an extracting, a forcing away. A resistance. Her arms, so cold, unnaturally light, empty, must hold something.
She felt him touch her shoulder. Without turning, she handed Martyn the pillow, and left the bedroom.
Elizabeth wrapped the teddy bear in a blue blanket. She slung him over her shoulder and gave three smart pats to his back. Nancy, seated nearby, watched over her cup of tea. Teddy was dropped heavily into the doll’s pram. Another blanket, pushed on top, covered his face. Pretend play, Nancy knew. Elizabeth went to the hall for her shoes for going outside. Nancy went over and fixed it so Teddy could see.
‘Can we go to the park Mummy?’
It was half past ten. Cloudy but dry.
Nancy lifted the pram down the steps and held the gate open.
The child walked straight-backed, her head held high. Nancy felt like a giant next to the miniature mother and baby.
The play area was empty. A cool wind cut across the open space. Left in charge of baby, on the low metal bench, Nancy hugged herself.
Elizabeth’s foot slipped on the damp wood in her haste to get up to the slide. Nancy felt that prickling lurch in her stomach. The child glanced back and smiled. Nancy unfolded one arm to wave. With her eyes trained on her daughter, Nancy would not look at the pram.
‘Want to go on the swing.’
Nancy stood up, Elizabeth skipped ahead. The pram was left with the bench.
The child facing Nancy was red-cheeked and wild-eyed.
The swing had a good momentum. The playground remained empty. Nancy sat on the next swing. Stood with the seat against her thighs, lifted her feet, pointed them forward and up as she cut through the air. She tucked her legs under the seat as the swing came back. She repeated the movements to ascend.
Rhythm and pleasure suffused Nancy.
The child’s swing had almost stopped. She stared at the adult in surprise, tinged with envy.
‘I want a push.’
‘I want a push.’
Nancy looked down at the small blurry face.
‘Topher wants a push too.’
Elizabeth glanced to her left. She began an intimate chattering. Air whistled past Nancy’s ears. She scraped her shoes on the ground to stop the swing.
‘We want to go home.’
‘We’ll go and have lunch.’
Elizabeth slapped her feet down like flippers until she reached the pram.
‘Poor, poor baby.’
She snatched the teddy up and rocked him.
‘Did Mummy forget you?’
Nancy picked up the fallen blanket, held it to her mouth and nose. Swinging had made her feel sick.
The cloakroom was swamped with expectant mothers. Gossip, inane chat. Posters and paintings obscured the view through glass to the end of story time. Nancy had never been late.
‘Would Elizabeth like to come for tea?’
Social engagements for three year olds was de rigueur. Nancy assented. Did Topher attend these events? Probably disallowed. Elizabeth ran into her legs, circled them with her arms and tucked her head sideways against her mother’s body.
‘You’ve had a good day?’
‘We had a very special visitor.’
The child frowned at her effort to enunciate clearly and correctly.
‘Who was that then?’
Elizabeth tugged Nancy’s hand. The mother allowed herself to be pulled into the nursery room. Children were being dismissed to the waiting adults. Mrs Shepherd gave each child an apple on their way out. A hexagonal table held glistening paintings. Black and red. The warm air smelled of sugar, milk and paint. Elizabeth tugged more. Round a stomach-high shelf, into the quiet reading area.
In a dusky corner sat Mrs Atwell. A tiny baby clasped to her breast, half concealed by the top vent of the white blouse. The dry air made Nancy’s gasp catch at the back of her throat. She tried to swallow to stop the choking.
‘The new baby.’
Nancy stared at her daughter’s jubilant face, her own cast in shadow. Prickly heat was spreading across Nancy’s chest and throat. Thirst-quenched, now hungry, the baby sucked noisily. Elizabeth squeezed Nancy’s hand. Nancy bent down, stroked her daughter’s back.
‘The baby is beautiful.’ But Nancy would not look at Mrs Atwell.
‘Topher likes the baby.’
The room had become excessively hot, the milky smell, sour and sickly. Nancy leaned in to Elizabeth to steady herself.
‘See Mummy, that’s how baby eats.’
Mrs Atwell was happy to be today’s show and tell. Nancy patted her daughter’s back.
‘Let’s go for our lunch.’
Elizabeth skipped to the cloakroom for her coat.
The impulse to reach out. Nancy saw herself extract the soft tiny form. Run Nancy run.
Elizabeth swung round his legs. She waved a photo at him. Martyn was watching Nancy. She kept her back turned, waiting for the kettle to boil.
‘Just a minute…’
‘Daddy,’ with a stamp of the foot.
A teaspoon rattled in a mug.
Martyn gave his daughter a gentle push.
‘Go into the front room.’
‘Don’t want to.’
‘I want to talk to Mummy.’
‘I want you to look.’ Elizabeth pushed the photograph up to his face.
‘That’s baby Elizabeth.’
Martyn cast a furtive glance at his wife.
‘I’m a big girl now.’
The child stood on tiptoe. Martyn was staring at baby Elizabeth.
‘Daddy?’ She tugged the hand holding the photo. ‘Will Mummy have another baby?’
Steam began to envelope Nancy. Droplets formed on surfaces.
‘Here, take this biscuit.’
Elizabeth put her hands behind her back.
‘Don’t like it.’
‘You do like…’
Nancy spun. Husband and daughter stopped, waited. Nancy snatched the biscuit, gave it to the child. Shrouded in steam, she poured milk into the plastic beaker. Knelt, gave this to Elizabeth. Kissed the child’s forehead.
‘Supper time.’ Nancy pointed to the doorway.
Elizabeth sulked into exile. The kettle rattled on its base, an excess of steam. Nancy pushed the lid on properly. The front room was out of earshot.
Nancy poured the boiled water into each mug.
‘Talk to me Nancy.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
She swept past him with the teabags. The bin lid clapped shut.
There was a baby, a brother. Born early. Handsome and sweet. Was poorly. Couldn’t breathe. The doctors tried to help him. He was so tiny. He died. Mummy and Daddy were very sad. Mummy cuddled the baby, did not want to let him go. Everyone said baby had to go to heaven. Daddy made Mummy let him go.
The door is ajar. Two voices. Definitely two.
‘Is heaven nice Topher?’
‘Didn’t want to go.’
‘Wanted to stay with you.’
Nancy broke into the bedroom. Elizabeth dropped her teddy.
‘Where is he?’
The child held her teddy up.
‘Topher, where’s Topher?’
‘You scared him.’
Elizabeth held teddy close.
‘Where’s Topher now?’
‘Tell me where he is.’
Elizabeth giggled. Nancy sank to her knees. Leaned on the bed. Covered her face.
‘Hide and seek?’
The child crawled down the bed. Stroked the fallen head. Kissed it better.
‘Nap on Elizabeth’s bed.’
Elizabeth put her blanket over Nancy’s shoulders.
‘Shhh. Mummy’s sleeping.’
The child tiptoed noisily out of the room. Sunlight from the window lay across Nancy’s body. Two voices, Elizabeth and Martyn, faint from the garden.
‘Peek a boo.’
Louder than outside.
‘Peek a boo.’
Not outside. Not Elizabeth. Nancy’s eyes were wide open. She lay still. Her breath became short fast pants. Nancy could not look.
Nancy was encircled by pain. Pushing eased it. Pushing brought baby closer.
8.24am. A boy. Nancy thought she would die. Martyn held his son. The midwife repaired Nancy.
8.30. Alarm. Swathes of blue. Not breathing. Nancy stranded on a table. The baby. Blue. Not breathing.
That scream did not come from the pain of childbirth.
Nancy had spread a blanket on the lawn. A warm, dry, sunshine day. There were sandwiches, red jelly, chocolate rolls and crisps. Elizabeth was allowed real juice in her teapot. She filled three cups without spilling.
‘One for you.’
Katie from nursery took a gulp. Elizabeth sipped hers. Nancy watched through the open French doors.
‘Whose is dat?’
Elizabeth put her nose in the air. Katie reached for the plastic teacup.
‘No.’ Elizabeth was faster. She slopped juice on the sandwiches.
‘Urgh.’ Katie pushed the paper plate. Two crustless sandwiches fell to the grass.
Elizabeth put her teacups down.
‘The birds will eat them.’
Katie jumped up and grabbed both sandwiches. She tore them in chunks which she threw up in the air.
Katie took more sandwiches from the plate.
‘Stop. I’ll tell.’
‘No.’ Katie stuck her tongue out.
‘You’re not my friend.’ Elizabeth marched across the lawn and straight past Nancy.
Elizabeth would not speak to Katie for the rest of the visit.
Nancy waved goodbye to Katie and her mum.
Elizabeth had slipped outside, was pouring two lots of juice. Nancy sat on the warm blanket.
‘I don’t like Katie.’
‘Topher says she’s silly. Topher is my friend.’
‘Katie can be your friend too.’
‘Not like Topher.’
‘Topher is very special.’
Elizabeth eased herself onto Nancy’s lap. Nancy hugged her.
‘Topher will be upset.’
‘If I don’t play with him.’
Nancy kissed her daughter’s neck.
‘I think Topher would be happy if you had another friend.’
‘He won’t cry?’
Elizabeth stood up, blocking the sun from Nancy.
‘Katie has invited you to her birthday party.’
‘A party, a party.’ Elizabeth skipped around the blanket alternately leaving Nancy in sunlight and shade.
Thankful for football, Nancy was reading by herself in bed. Making pictures in her head. Safe and light. Four pages in, her eyes kept closing. Reluctantly she book-marked the page. Placed the book on the floor. Removed one pillow. Switched off her lamp. Facing Martyn’s side of the bed, away from the door, Nancy nestled her head in the pillow, tucked the duvet round her shoulders. Fuzzy and warm.
Footsteps along the landing. Nancy sighed. Did not move. Waited for Elizabeth. Her eyes, so heavy, shut tight. The door swung into the bedside table. A cold waft.
‘Back to bed.’
A touch, so icy and light, fell on her cheek. Lingered. Nancy opened her eyes. Stared at Martyn’s empty pillow. Slowly, Nancy placed her own warm hand, trembling, over the coldness of the hand that did not belong to her daughter.