While waiting for his faecal transplant, my husband wasn’t as fun as he used to be. This was largely due to the changes in his diet. He had to be strict. He was down to eating chicken breasts poached in unseasoned water, and a small variety of baby vegetables. Baby carrots, baby corn, baby beets.
‘Why only baby vegetables? How is baby corn different from corn?’
I was being peevish. I couldn’t help myself.
‘It’s what the doctor said. I can’t take any chances.’
I stared while he cut the piece of baby corn into three, chewing each piece the recommended twenty-five times. I actually counted the movements of his jaw. Twenty-five, right on the money, every time.
I knew that I should take his condition more seriously. The last time Connor had thrown caution to the wind – it was his birthday, he ate a chicken parmigiana and a tiramisu and nearly wept with the joy of it – he’d had to run home from the train station the next morning because, without warning and in considerable volume, he’d shat his pants.
He’d grown wan like a wilting lily on this new diet. It wasn’t just the weight loss and the pallor, which left him looking bent, like the weight of his head was too much for his body. It was that he’d lost shape and definition, muscle mass. I felt like I might accidentally skim a bit of him off, the way you can chip part of a mushroom away without really meaning to.
‘Anyway. Tell me about your day,’ I said, spinning my glass of wine. I’d given up on joining Connor in his misery and was halfway through a bloody steak.
‘We went to the park,’ Connor said. ‘Didn’t we?’
Our child, Samuel, nodded enthusiastically. ‘Daddy saved a seagull.’
I knew I sounded sarcastic, but Samuel didn’t seem to notice.
‘It was hurt,’ he said.
‘I just called the council.’ Connor cut his chicken breast along the grain. ‘Poor thing couldn’t fly. It was the least I could do.’
I could tell he wanted to be congratulated for his humane behaviour, for the good example he was setting.
‘They’ll just euthanise it, you know,’ I said. ‘Kinder to let the other birds kill it.’
They would, too. I’d seen the way those gulls went at each other.
Samuel looked at me, appalled. He got up from the table and ran to his father. Connor bent his head to Samuel, and I wished, once again, that Connor wasn’t going bald. He looked like a villainous, wispy invalid, especially because his paleness made the rims around his eyes seem a bright watery red, like tomato skins.
Connor put his arm around Samuel and hushed him.
‘You said seagull would get better,’ Samuel said. Then he commenced whimpering.
This annoyed me. Samuel was a smart child, and he knew where to put a definite article. He reverted to baby talk to soften up my husband. This was unnecessary. If Connor was any softer you’d be able to eat him with a spoon.
‘Mummy doesn’t mean it,’ Connor said, looking over him to meet my eye. ‘Mummy’s had a hard day at work. She’s very tired.’
Mummy was two glasses of wine down and hadn’t had satisfactory penetrative sex in over a year.
‘Daddy’s right,’ I said. I drained my glass. ‘Mummy’s very tired.’
I liked Samuel best when he was asleep, though even then his drooling and the curl of his little marsupial hands irritated me. No one had told me it was possible to dislike your child. Or at least if you did, it was supposed to happen later, when they were bratty teenagers and then ungrateful, smug adults. I didn’t like Samuel right off the bat. Don’t get me wrong: I loved him – in the sense that I had every intention of discharging my obligations towards him – but, to be frank, he was annoying.
He was fussy, for a start, fussy about temperature and sunlight and noise. He had a series of illogical phobias: he was scared of denim and windshield wipers, and would scream if he could smell bananas. When he danced, he used moves that were weirdly sophisticated, even risqué – rolling his body, thrusting his hips – things he must have dragged up out of the collective unconscious, because he certainly didn’t see me or Connor dance like that, or at all. In some ways I was looking forward to the inevitable bullying he’d receive. I was hoping that the cruelty of other children would effect developmental changes that I couldn’t seem to trigger.
Worsening all of this was the fact that Connor seemed oblivious. He took no responsibility for his part in creating a defective human being.
One night, in bed, I’d tried to talk to him about it.
‘Do you think Samuel’s a little . . .’
I was hoping I wouldn’t have to finish the sentence.
‘A little what?’
I rolled my eyes in the darkness.
‘What?’ Connor hissed. He still had some grit about him then. He wasn’t spending his days on forums, trying to chat up faecal donors.
‘You know. You know what I mean.’
‘You’re talking about our son here.’
‘I know that.’
‘And there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s perfect just as he is.’
‘Okay, geez,’ I said. ‘No need to get defensive.’
I rolled over.
Maybe I was able to view things more objectively because I’d thought Samuel was off since he’d been a foetus. He’d felt like an alien in there, wriggling around, eating my lunch, kicking my organs. Connor wouldn’t understand. Tapeworms are less intrusive.
It was a relief to get to work in the mornings. I made excuses about having to get in early, about my boss being demanding, but the truth was that my boss was a sanguine paunchy man with a lunch budget of 4100,000 per year, who sauntered around humming Ravel’s ‘Boléro’ or selections from the musical Chess. My name is Fiona, but he called me Fifi. He had twelve grandchildren and was the one I ended up confiding in about Samuel, about my suspicions that I disliked him as a person.
‘Don’t worry,’ he’d advised. ‘You’re allowed to have favourites.’
He then told me how he’d ranked his own grandchildren in order of preference. At the top of the list was Maisie, eight, who wore a severe side part and had won the part of Mary in the previous year’s Christmas pageant, despite strong campaigning from the parents of two other girls. At the bottom of the list was Eden, five, who had once eaten a bar of soap.
‘I mean the whole thing,’ Roger said. ‘He didn’t eat a bit and stop. He ate the whole thing. Was burping bubbles.’
Eden had also dropped his pants in the school playground, unprompted. Roger worried that this might be an indicator of future depravity.
‘I’ve told my son: drive out to the middle of the bush and push him out of the car. He won’t listen. Doesn’t listen to a word I say.’
He was joking, of course. My office was full of the nicest people I’d ever known. I worked for Raleigh, one of the largest defence, aerospace and security companies in the world. I had studied science and engineering, and had a PhD in mechatronics. I’d spent a number of relatively measly years in the university’s engineering department, working on robots or what passed for robots; nothing that was going to pass the Turing test.
It was nice to be where the real money was. At the university, we scrambled and schemed for every grant, every dollar of funding, and I had to renew my contract every six months. Being an academic felt like being one of those seagulls fighting over the few cold chips thrown by amused tourists. People were only too happy to enter into bitter, decades-long feuds. These fights were often the only thing sustaining their work after the money and accolades dried up.
At Raleigh, though, there were no such problems. There was plenty for everyone and the atmosphere was genial. I’d never known such camaraderie as I found when I started designing missiles for a living.
I was part of the air-to-air missiles team. What we were hoping to achieve was an improved capacity for our missiles to turn around if they missed and passed their target. The problem was a basic one: air-to-air missiles are powered by rocket engines which only burn for a short period of time. Small ones burn for a few seconds, and the larger ones, like AMRAAMs, might have twenty seconds of propulsion.
After that a missile is really a giant dart. And every turn they make – say, in chasing an aircraft which is trying to outmanoeuvre them – creates drag, and drag slows them down, meaning that their target has more chance of slipping away.
Solutions to this problem, or rather ways of mitigating it, already existed. The positioning of the guiding fins, for example. The use of high-altitude attacks, where instead of pursuing the target directly the missile shoots straight up into a less dense altitude, allowing it to go further and lose less speed. It dives when it has run out of fuel and is – hopefully – approaching its target.
But Raleigh thought we could do better. It wanted to develop a missile that could turn in mid-air and fly back at its target with more or less the same speed. It wanted to increase the no-escape zone. This is exactly what it sounds like, and was a selling point when it came to bringing our product to Poland, the UK, Kuwait, Japan, Qatar.
This, however, was a long-term goal. For now we were working on an updated version of our signature AAM, the Raleigh Starling. My team was refining the design and placement of the attitude thrusters that helped guide the missile towards its target. These were tiny, outward-facing rockets which fired when the missile needed to change course. Each could only burn for a fraction of a second. My team was thinking about their angles, their components, their placement.
Roger had no ethical qualms whatsoever about building weapons that could cause massive, instant carnage. I know this because, unprompted, he told me. It was my first week, and I was in our staff kitchen heating up some noodles in the microwave. He was on his way back from lunch. He stuck his head into the room.
‘I think your ramen days are over, don’t you?’
I looked at the spinning bowl, thought of the invisible waves causing the molecules to go haywire.
‘It’s good to stay humble. Isn’t it?’
He scoffed at this.
‘Don’t ever be ashamed,’ he said. ‘Not of the work, the money – none of it. That’s what the little people want. To shame you. They don’t understand.’
He came close and his voice was low and conspiratorial. Even his halitosis smelled expensive, like beurre blanc and fennel.
‘The way I see it,’ he said, ‘it’s like karate. You learn karate so that you never have to use it. And no one looks askance at a man for learning karate, do they?’
I had to agree; they didn’t.
‘That’s the thing you need to remember Fifi,’ Roger said, pleased with his own wisdom. ‘Everyone holds their fire. It might come down to the last minute, the last second even. But no one really wants to press the button.’
I told Connor about this view of my new position, and he was only too happy to agree.
I’d thought that Connor would disapprove of my working at Raleigh. Weeks earlier, when I told him about the offer I’d received, and how much I’d be paid, he said, ‘Sounds great.’
I was surprised. ‘Great?’
Connor had briefly been an anarchist, and also a vegetarian. He’d gone through a period of wearing Nehru shirts. Now he was a marketing consultant, but still – I hadn’t expected so little resistance.
‘Someone’s going to do it, right?’
‘May as well be you.’
I had been gearing up for a fight and found myself disappointed I wasn’t going to get one.
‘You really don’t mind?’
He was reading the ingredients on a tub of yoghurt. He didn’t answer me. This was just when his digestive problems were turning serious. He peeled the foil lid away from the yoghurt and licked it.
‘I have a feeling I’m going to regret this,’ he said.
The call came to me because Connor was at an appointment. The appointment was about his faecal transplant, or FMT as he’d taken to calling it. The difficulty he had – the reason he’d been waiting so long – was that FMTs were usually only given to people infected by the stubborn C. diff bacteria. People could die from C. diff infections, Connor told me during one of his many long stuttering bouts on our en-suite toilet. But faecal transplants were an exceptionally effective treatment. The idea was that the healthy bacteria in the donor stool would wipe out the infection. Rates of success were as high as 95 per cent.
But it wasn’t easy to get an FMT if you weren’t being treated for C. diff. Connor’s particularly volatile IBS didn’t make him an ideal candidate, and doctors were unwilling or unable – Connor was evasive on this point – to refer him to a colonoscopy centre to have the procedure. That day he was seeing a new doctor, armed with his own research and an email exchange he’d shared with a man he’d met on Poop4You.com. Connor had seen the man’s screening results and described his stool as ‘pristine’. He’d offered the man $200 for a donation. The man had agreed.
The phone at my desk rang and shocked me out of my reverie. I’d been eating salad and reading an article in Munitions Journal about recent constraints in the AAM market. ‘Constraints’ meant that one war or another had come to an end. Our shares would rise when another one started.
I picked up the phone.
‘Fiona? Hi, it’s Gaby from Blossomings.’
That was the preposterously named early-learning centre that Samuel attended.
‘Hello,’ I said. I looked at my half-eaten salad and Munitions Journal wistfully.
‘I’m sorry if this is a bad time. It’s just that – well, we have something of a situation.’
‘I’ve told you before. Samuel’s not really allergic to bananas, no matter what he says. He’s just scared of them.’
‘It’s not bananas.’
‘His sunglasses should be there, if it’s the light thing again.’
‘No, it’s not his photosensitivity. There’s been an incident with one of our other pupils.’
This got my attention.
‘I mean, Samuel’s okay, he’s fine, he’s just –’
I let the journal fall closed.
‘I think he should go home for the day. Could you come and collect him?’
‘Did someone hurt my son?’
‘Mrs Tomlinson –’
There was a fractional pause.
‘Doctor Tomlinson. I understand that you might find this an upsetting situation, but I’m here to assure you that at Blossomings, we –’
I hung up and grabbed my keys.
‘It’s my son,’ I said to Roger on the way out. ‘He needs to be picked up from day care. Something’s happened.’
‘Oh God,’ said Roger. I started to walk away and my boss’s voice followed me down the corridor. ‘Did he keep his pants on?’
Blossomings was painted in muted shades that recalled nature: greens and browns, occasional bursts of autumnal orange. It was designed to be at once calming and uplifting. Theirs was an ‘expansive’ style of education – like a Steiner school, but without the insanity. They let the children play with paint and pipe cleaners, but also introduced them to a few words in Mandarin and taught them to mash their little fists on electric pianos. It was ludicrously expensive, of course, but we were at the point where this gave us relief rather than anxiety; it was good to think that Samuel was surrounded by people who would be influential in the future. He was going to need all the help he could get.
I started heading for Samuel’s classroom – his ‘Experience Pod’ – but Gaby came out and met me in the corridor. Nature sounds – dripping water, breezes through trees, bird calls – floated past us, putting us at ease and allowing us to enter our most creative and receptive states.
‘Where is he?’
‘Dr Tomlinson, it’s so nice to see you. Thank you for coming in. Samuel’s fine.’
‘Where is he? What happened?’
‘Why don’t you have a seat?’
She gestured to an undulating green bench. I didn’t sit.
‘So help me God, Gaby, if you don’t tell me right now what the fuck is going on –’
I was whispering, but pointing, and spittle was flying from my mouth as I enunciated my consonants. My winter coat had cost over $1,000 – it swished in what I liked to think of as an authoritative fashion around my knees. There was a pause, and we heard a kookaburra singing out to signal hunger or distress or desire. Gaby looked around to make sure no one had heard.
‘This way,’ she said.
Samuel was asleep in the sick bay, or the ‘Wellness Centre’ as they called it. We stood in a kind of anteroom filled with low children’s chairs and educational toys made from felt and wood, and looked in on him through the window like he was in quarantine. There was a Band-Aid on his chin. Blossomings used Band-Aids derived from bamboo.
‘If he has any lasting damage –’
‘Dr Tomlinson, we can assure you, it’s just a little graze. Barely noticeable. He’s really here because he needed some space to calm down.’
‘He needed to calm down? He needed to calm down?’
‘What I mean is –’
The door from the corridor opened. We turned to see a frumpy woman coming in, early forties, wearing depressing earth mother-ish clothing – some sort of thermal skivvy stretched over the welcoming expanse of her bosom, a thick elastic headband, a tunic that was probably made from hemp. Her shoes were red and fastened with Velcro. Her leggings had stripes. Her rosacea added another level of clash to the overall ensemble.
‘Are you the nurse?’ I said. She looked like someone who might work at Blossomings.
‘You must be Samuel’s mother,’ she said, glancing at Gaby. ‘Dr Tomlinson – is that right?’
When I assented, she said, ‘I hope I’m not interrupting?’
‘Oh no, not at all, Deidre,’ said Gaby. When Gaby smiled, you could see more gum than tooth. It was off-putting. ‘I was just going to come and ask you to join the conversation.’
‘Why don’t you sit down?’ Deidre said to me.
‘Who are you?’ I said.
Her smile was indulgent. ‘Deidre Moss,’ she said. ‘Luna’s mother.’
‘She’s in Samuel’s pod. They found themselves a little out of sync today.’
‘Out of sync?’
I was trying to be outraged, but found myself sitting in one of the child-size chairs, my coat’s hem limp on the ground, the toes of my pumps pointing at one another. My handbag was in my lap.
Deidre sat too. She reached out and touched my arm. ‘They’re so mysterious, kids. Aren’t they? They have their own little worlds. Who can keep up?’
Deidre was smiling and I could see all the broken veins like little purple lightning forks in her rosacea. I felt like my anger had collapsed in on itself; like I couldn’t get it out. I felt like it was making my throat close over.
‘Are you feeling okay, Dr Tomlinson?’ Deidre asked. She stroked my arm. ‘Would you like some water? Gaby, could you be an angel and fetch Dr Tomlinson some water?’
Gaby was only too happy to leave the room. ‘Of course,’ she said, flashing her gums. ‘Take your time.’
Deidre sat back in her chair, using the expanse of her gut as a kind of armrest. ‘He’s a beautiful little kid,’ she said. ‘Sammy. Just gorgeous.’ No one had ever called him Sammy.
I felt fuzzy headed, like I couldn’t remember why we were there. It was those nature sounds. They were getting under my skin. This was why I didn’t trust relaxation of any kind.
‘Hm,’ was all I could manage.
She leaned over. Something she’d applied to her body contained a high percentage of ylang-ylang.
‘I’ve told Connor over and over. Sammy’s a gem. Such a funny little kid. Such an original.’ She clucked with laughter at a private memory of some amusement my son had afforded her.
Gaby came back in and gave me a biodegradable cup filled with chilled water that had the fluoride filtered out. She wasn’t alone. With her was a dour strawberry-blonde child with a downturned mouth and chubby cheeks. I had to admit it; the child was adorable.
‘Look who I found!’ said Gaby.
‘Luna-bear,’ said Deidre. The child wandered over with a strange, knowing weariness and flopped her weight into the pillow of her mother’s belly. ‘There you are.’
The child stared at me.
‘I think,’ said Gaby, joining us in the circle of tiny chairs, ‘now that everyone’s here, we ought to talk about what happened today. Just so everyone’s feeling okay about it. How does that sound?’
‘With the child here?’ I said.
‘Of course,’ said Deidre. ‘This concerns her. She should be part of the conversation. Feel free to bring Sammy in. If you’re happy for him to be woken up.’
We all gazed into the other room where Samuel slept, untroubled.
Deidre’s fingernails were stumpy and cuticles sprang up from their sides. I directed my gaze away from her and towards her daughter.
I looked Luna square in her pale blue eyes. I remembered reading somewhere that the most common eye colour for murderers is pale blue. I wasn’t going to let this child intimidate me.
‘You’re in big trouble,’ I said.
‘Now just a moment –’ said Gaby.
‘It’s all right,’ said Deidre. She held up her hand and Gaby stopped talking. Luna stared up at her. ‘Remember what we said about having difficult conversations?’
Luna nodded, though whether she had any comprehension of what Deidre said remained unclear.
‘Good girl. Why don’t you tell Dr Tomlinson what happened?’
‘I punched him,’ Luna said then.
‘You did what?’ I hadn’t expected her to be so blunt.
‘Wait, let’s regroup,’ Gaby said. ‘Remember what you told me, Luna? You said you and Sammy were just playing.’
Luna didn’t blink. ‘I punched him,’ she said again. She stood away from her mother and mimed an uppercut. It was graceful, a sickle-swipe up through the air. ‘I punched him like that.’
‘And what did he do that made you respond physically?’ said Deidre, her voice full of understanding.
‘I don’t care about her motivations,’ I said. I could feel my temper hit a rolling boil. ‘She’s four. What kind of reason do you expect her to give?’
‘She’s three, actually,’ Deidre said. Luna had returned to her and Deidre was stroking her long, smooth hair. ‘Blossomings felt she wasn’t being sufficiently challenged in the lower age pod. She’s been accelerated.’
‘Uplifted,’ Gaby corrected.
‘Uplifted,’ Deidre repeated. ‘Anyway – go on, honey.’
‘We were playing goodies and baddies,’ said Luna. ‘He was the baddy.’
‘You see? A simple case of misplaced verisimilitude,’ Deidre said. ‘She must have read about so-called “goodies” and “baddies” somewhere. I don’t allow screen time, obviously, but I don’t like to censor her taste in books.’
‘Sammy’s fine, truly,’ Gaby chimed in.
‘Samuel,’ I said.
‘He’s the baddy,’ Luna said.
‘This is fucking ridiculous,’ I said, before I could stop myself.
Luna’s face was gleeful. ‘She said a bad word, Mummy,’ she said, her blue eyes on me. ‘Is she a bad lady?’
‘No, sweetheart,’ said Deidre. ‘She’s just upset. And when people are upset they find it hard to control their feelings.’
Samuel chose that moment to appear at the door. ‘Mum?’
‘Come here, darling,’ I said. ‘Let me take a look at you.’ He looked wary at my effusiveness, and I didn’t blame him. It wasn’t exactly my usual mode. But, through loyalty or lack of imagination, he obeyed.
I tilted his chin up, examined his face with its oddly proportioned features that I hoped would grow into some semblance of harmony.
‘Do you have a headache?’ I asked.
He looked at me hard, trying to figure out the answer I wanted.
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘How many fingers am I holding up?’ I held up two. Samuel looked at me, his eyes searching. Come on, I thought.
‘Four,’ he said.
On the way home we stopped at McDonald’s. I bought us both ice-cream sundaes with extra chocolate topping.
‘Don’t tell your father,’ I said. He promised he wouldn’t. We sat in companionable silence in one of the booths, scratching the sides of our cups with plastic spoons, scraping up every iota of lactose we could get.
In bed that night: another whispered conversation with Connor. I don’t know why we whispered; Samuel’s room was downstairs. But that was how these talks happened, as though someone were listening, as though they might not approve of what they heard.
‘He could have been concussed,’ I said.
‘But he wasn’t.’
‘He could have been.’
‘He’s fine. Aren’t you the one who says we should be teaching him resilience?’
‘That’s exactly what I’m doing. This little bitch came for him and I’m teaching him not to back down.’
‘Jesus Christ. She’s what – four years old? You really need to let this go.’
I didn’t tell him Luna’s real age.
‘Someone punched our son and you want me to let it go? What the fuck is the matter with you?’
‘Nothing. God. I just think you should pick your battles.’
‘I do. I pick this one.’
He sighed for dramatic effect in the darkness. I’d demanded that Samuel receive a medical examination, that there be an investigation into Luna’s behaviour and Gaby’s negligence. I’d felt strangely exalted there in the anteroom, making my list of demands. The rage had been white hot. I’d had the distinct sense that this was how a mother should feel; that for once I was getting it right. At home, I’d sent the director of Blossomings a strongly worded email. I wouldn’t stop until Luna was expelled from Blossomings. I would make sure she was kept out of every good school. I would hunt down her university applications and see them rejected. I would phone her future employers. I’d show up at her wedding, bristling with objections.
‘Try to remember she’s just a child,’ Connor said.
‘Can you grow a spine for a second please? You’re supposed to be on my side.’
‘I am on your side.’
‘Are you in love with Deidre? Is that it? You want to put her floppy tit in your mouth?’
‘What? Where did that come from?’
‘You want to bury your face in her bush? I bet it’s a big one, Connor. I bet it goes all the way to her knees.’
‘Christ, Fiona. I wish you could hear yourself sometimes.’
‘Have you seen her rosacea?’
‘I’m going to sleep.’
Roger, thankfully, was on my side.
‘Hippies,’ he said, giving a little humph of derision. ‘It always descends into violence with them, doesn’t it?’
We thought we’d come up with an innovative new placement for attitude thrusters, one that might improve their ability to direct the Starling’s course. We were waiting for the prototype to be built so that testing could begin. It was a long process and while it was happening Roger was on edge. If we failed, he would be the one answering questions, explaining the budget, justifying our choices.
He was only too happy to have a distraction.
‘Tell him to hit her back,’ he said.
‘I thought of that. But she’s a girl.’
‘Doesn’t really matter at that age. Some girls nowadays are monstrously big. It’s the hormones in chicken, they think. All these little overdeveloped girls with huge feet, wearing training bras before they’re in primary school – a disgrace, if you ask me. Maisie’s chicken intake is supervised very closely. We’re thinking of moving her to game birds. Pheasant, quail, that sort of thing.’