They tell me off for her these days. Because she’s big for her age.
Mirror-image, polar opposite of what my grandmother told my mother.
I don’t overfeed her. She just is what she is. But I know what they mean. Annabel: this bright bundle, wobbling along the grass, scarf wrapped around her, coat buttoned up -a red-and-gold ball of yarn. Well, most of it’s padding, defence against winter.
She jumps in amongst the ducks, into the puddles. She doesn’t care. Why would she? She’s two-and-a-half, and yes, I can see that her hair could use combing, and I can see that smudge on her cheek. Jam? Syrup? And I can see when people notice it. But do they also see her smile, do they see the ways she runs amok, clapping and laughing; do they see the unmitigated joy expressed there?
“Mummy, come and see me!” She does a handstand — she tries to, seeing what the bigger girls can do. She goes over sideways; she comes up still grinning. She’s a little bit wet on one side — well, clothes wash; wet gets dry.
She’s like a spaniel, she chases the ducks. They fly up out of the water when they see her come thundering along in red, twinkly shoes. She stops at the edge, she looks back at me.
There’s something in that smile that could mend anything. I’m one to know, because she’s mended me.
“You. A baby? You!”
“I won’t let it happen. I’ll see it taken off you.”
“Don’t make me have to do it…”
Me: floppy haired. Face half-hidden; looking down, letting the hair fall over my cheek, not wanting to meet their eyes, avoiding that head-on collision with so many years of disappointment. A mirror in the corner reveals me: looking bedraggled, showing bruises on my knuckles, shadows beneath my eyes.
I have to summon up the words. It needs to be done. “You won’t be able to. It doesn’t work that way.
Annabel: rushing over to the swings, calling me along, clapping her hands. “Push me, Mummy, push me!”
She wants to struggle up onto the swing by herself, but she’s ungainly with her less than three full years. Untutored in her limits. Kicking against the air. I pick her up and set her down, check her mittened hands are firm around the chains. I push her, careful and controlled. Just like all the other parents here. I feel as if I’m one of them. Equal with them. Like there’s a thread binding all of us together, this common practice of pushing, encouraging, reassuring, always-watching.
“Push me! Push me!”
She soars. She laughs and squeals out loud, and the wide smile on her face is everything I need it to be: transported, lost in the moment. Like there’s no limit to how happy she can be.
A brief smile from one of the dads here.
Like I’m no different to any of them.
So perfect. As soon as they put her in my arms. As soon as I see that soft face, with all its features in miniature. How warm she is with her skin against mine, the feathery tickle of her hair as I rest my cheek against her head.
My determination, born in that moment, that the two of us belong together, the absolute same flesh. That nothing will break us apart.
Not so. Not as far as they’re concerned.
“For the best.”
And I know why they think it. I’ve seen myself. But I’ve also seen the light. I know.
And I hold that knowledge — it’s a weight in my heart — while I stand in that courtroom with my heart beating, waiting. My lip bitten ragged, my hands full of fidgeting. Because what if they don’t understand? How can a judge see into my heart, how can he see the changes she’s wrought, the scars that come from healing, and beautiful because of it?
My lawyer: a gentle touch on my wrist, meant to be reassuring.
And me, holding my breath, feeling the seconds stretch out into individual eternities, as I wait for the judge to speak.
We break off pieces of bread. We hold them out for the ducks.
Annabel loves the way they walk, the comical sway of their signature waddle. She sometimes likes to imitate them, running around with her hands on her hips, shaking herself all over, trying to make the kind of quacking sounds they do. And then quiet, all sincere and serious, holding out that bread crust for the nearest duck. This one, with white in its feathers, wobbling forward with caution, but buoyed by each second when no attack comes. Reaching its head forward to quickly snap the bread crust up in its beak.
Then they go wild.
Scuttling away. Running. While the rest of the flock dive in pursuit, six at once quacking and pecking, grabbing their share of the crust. And seagulls swooping in, coming for what they can take.
Her laughter is like music in my ears.
And look: I’m three years sober now. And it’s been three years always hard; sometimes nearing impossible. Three years on the brink. Days when I couldn’t stop shaking. Days when I couldn’t stop crying. But she’s worth it. So worth it.
I take her hand, and we skip up the steps together, up to the road alongside the park, to her grandparents waiting for us in the car.
Rosalie Kempthorne has no idea what it takes to write a good Author Bio, and all her previous attempts have so far come to nothing. She has somewhat better luck writing stories. You can read more of her short stories on 365 Tomorrows, ABC Tales, Flash Frontier, or on her website: www.RosalieKempthorne.name.