taped flyers to the maple trees that lined both sides of the street. Your gap-toothed smile stared back at me, crooked school tie, and favourite pink bow. I only had one poster left in my bundle. I smoothed it flat against the wine-coloured bark, ripping off pieces of duct tape with my teeth to paste down the edges. The sky was overcast, gunmetal grey, but the heat was stifling; sweat, oily as sardine water, trickled down the back of my neck. I looked again at your face, your flushed pink cheek, puckered from the ridges of the bark underneath. I hovered my finger over it a moment and, as I pulled my hand away, a random thought flashed through my mind. I had read somewhere once that Stradivarius violins are all carved from maple wood, every one of them. I stored this away, to tell you about it later.
Your Mother ambled across the road towards me and flipped over her empty cardboard box. “We need to print more,” she sighed, her voice thin as wire. She fished around in the pocket of her woollen cardigan, then lit up a cigarette. She gazed blankly along the street, arms tight across her chest, inhaling deeply. There were lines at the corners of her eyes now. I squatted down on the lip of the kerb, my mouth dry as dust, damp patches under my arms.
“Aren’t you hot?” I asked.
“I’m freezing.” She took one long last drag, then mashed the cigarette out under her boot.
From a nearby garden, we smelled the familiar tang of burgers and steaks on a barbecue, and heard a faint tangle of voices, tinny music, kid’s laughter. I slowly stood up and gathered our belongings.
Before we left, I turned to stare at those gnarly trees, like old men stooped over, praying. They’ll watch over you, I thought, closing my eyes, and that, at least, was a comfort. It was hard to leave. The image of your face, repeating down the street, like a grey echo.
It was a clammy Sunday afternoon when we heard the rap of knuckles on the door. Your Mother was making a lamb casserole, slicing leeks and carrots on the chopping board, when the banging started again. She stopped; knife poised in mid-air and glanced over to me. We both knew you’d never knock.
I blinked hard at the police officer standing on our porch.
“I’m sorry to disturb you Sir, but are you Mister Anthony Weinberg?”
I nodded. “Yes?”
He lowered his voice. “It might be better if I speak with you and Mrs Weinberg inside.” A hard knot of panic lodged low in my stomach.
Ushered inside, he kept his eyes to the floor. He held a navy-blue cap in his hands and twirled the brim of it between his fingers. He hovered on the edge of our sofa, and gave a brief, awkward smile; one of his front teeth was made of porcelain.
“Who was it?” she called from the kitchen.
The cooking pots gently clattered and a humid breeze drifted in from the open windows, making the curtains swell. I coughed several times.
“Anne,” I shouted. “Annie? Could you please come out here for a second?”
“Oh,” she said brightly when she saw him. “Hello?” Then a shadow of realisation passed over her face, and her smile faded. He gently motioned for her to sit down beside me.
Her breath came out in small, sharp gusts. She held a grubby dishtowel, and with every word he said, wound it tighter around her wrist. He stared at his notebook and told us that a bike had been found, abandoned by the side of a narrow lane, purple handlebar streamers, cherry-coloured mud guard, a faded playing card placed in the spoke of the back wheel with our names and address written on the back of it.
“Oh God,” she moaned. “It’s hers. It’s Amy’s.” She groped for my hand, and tightly laced my fingers through hers, pressing down hard on my knuckles.
“Is she hurt, Officer?” I asked in a voice I didn’t recognise. “Was it an accident? Did a car…?”
The officer shook his head. He pinched the bridge of his nose, then slowly flipped open a small pad. “Mr Weinberg, I need you to give me a description of Amy”.
A noise caught in the back of your Mother’s throat, like a rusty nail had been hammered clean through the nape of her neck. He avoided our eyes and quietly repeated the question. The stench of lamb burning in the kitchen filled the room.
Several days later, on a drizzly morning, they returned your bike to us. I leaned against the door frame, and shakily pointed the way to the garage. Two officers, in shiny black raincoats, held the front and back wheels as reverential as pallbearers. They concentrated their attention on everything but my gaze. I saw their shoulders loosen as they walked back outside, their boots crunching along the gravel path.
The bike, buffed and gleaming, had been a surprise present for your tenth birthday in May. I knelt beside it and traced the thick outline of crusted dirt clinging to its spokes and stuck to the mud flap. Propped against the wall, it was like looking at an open wound, a mute witness. I had to place a tarp over it.
At night, I dreamt that I heard the flipflipflipof a playing card, rattling and spinning, against the back wheel of an abandoned bicycle. In the middle of the night, my bare feet squelching across the linoleum on the kitchen floor, I’d sit at the dining table, doing crosswords until dawn. This was how I discovered that ‘heartspoon’ is the name for the small hollow at the base of the breast bone. I stored it away, so I could tell you about it later.
One morning, groggy and stiff, I awoke to the smell of butter sizzling in a pan. My neck clicked as I slowly stretched my arms above my head, it felt like plywood was fused across my shoulder blades. The bedroom window was opened a sliver and the air tasted warm, but flinty, a reminder that soon the leaves would be shedding their branches. I got up and made my way to the kitchen. Your Mother was in front of the cooker, her back to me, the cord from her dressing gown trailing on the floor like an unfurled noose. She sloppily dipped a slice of bread into the bowl of beaten eggs and milk, then dropped it into the hiss of the pan. French toast on Saturday; Pancakes on Sunday. It stung to see her still clinging to these small rituals.
“Smells good,” I said, as she placed the plate in front of me, the tips of the bread were burnt. An open punnet of strawberries and a large bowl of sugar were placed in the centre of the table,but no jar of chocolate spread, I thought, swallowing hard. From outside, in the distance, tin dustbin lids clattered on the ground, their hollow ringing hung in the air between us like a tuning fork. She propped her chin in her hand, picking off pieces of toast.
“‘We should take the car today. I think we need to put flyers up further away.”
I scraped my thumbnail against the grain of the table, avoiding her eyes. We sat like that for several minutes until, abruptly, she took her plate and shoved the barely eaten food in the trash. I heard her stomp up the stairs. I felt relieved that she’d left, sometimes I felt closer to her when she was gone. I noticed the carton of milk still sitting on the worktop counter.
“This milk is sour,” I said aloud to no-one, before putting it back in the fridge.
I needed to collect some personal belongings from my vestibule at work. My boss, Desmond Alexander, called ridiculously early one Wednesday morning. On the first shrill ring, she and I both pounced out of bed. I stumbled down the stairs, two at a time, and grabbed the phone. Desmond, whispering apologetically, stated that he needed me to vacate my cubicle space. She was poised on the last step, biting her fingernails, searching my face for answers. I shook my head. She covered her face with her hands, then wearily climbed back up the staircase. Desmond’s voice sounded like snakes crawling into my brain. I rubbed my eyes until I saw stars and, hoarsely, told him I’d be in later that afternoon.
It felt strange to walk through those revolving glass doors again, across freshly buffed marble floors, and over towards the bank of elevators at the rear of the building. My skin felt like an ill-fitting suit. I had planned to buy a bottle of water from the vending machine, my tongue was glued to the roof of my mouth, but when I reached the fifth floor Desmond was already waiting for me. He sat on the leather sofa in reception, flicking through a magazine. As I walked out of the elevator, he leapt up and gave a wan smile. My palms were sweaty as we shook hands, but we both pretended not to notice.
We walked, shoulder to shoulder, down the long lilac corridor towards his office. My mouth made a slight suction noise whenever I spoke. His office – tacky framed prints of Parisienne cafes, fake potted plants, the smell of a freshly hoovered carpet – was the same as before. Although I noticed, with a sharp pang, that he’d removed the framed pictures of his daughter from the desk.
Desmond, with his bushy ginger moustache and horn-rimmed glasses, always reminded me of a detective in a play. And, as he balanced on the corner of his mahogany desk, nodding grimly, I thought: this would be the part, in the very last act, where he’d tell us all who the murderer was.
“Anthony, we’re a family here, you know that, and whenever you’re ready, you can return. Anytime at all, there will always be a space for you. However, as it has been a few weeks, and again that’s totally fine, but we do need the space….”
His words were white noise, so I focused on a square of wooden skirting beside the door. After an excruciating twenty minutes, ending in an awkward attempt at a hug from him as I left, I hastily made my way to the main work floor to collect my things.
My cubicle – pictures, of the three of us, tacked to the fuzzy grey felt of the partition, coffee stained mug on the desk – felt like a sick joke; relics from another life. I slumped down on the swivel chair and opened the filing cabinet. A cardboard box had been left for me, and I emptied the contents of the drawer into it; stapler, hole punch, crumpled chewing gum wrappers. I rooted around, checking for any missed items, when I felt it, hard and sticky, wedged into the far corner. I gasped. How could I have forgotten? The tiny ceramic frog that you painted for me. It felt like holding your breath in my hand. You, kneeling on the chair, kitchen table covered in old newspapers, as you covered that frog in thick blobs of purple and green, your cheeks streaked with paint. It caught me like an uppercut. I staggered towards the water cooler, lifted the plastic cup to my lips and took a sip. Some spilled onto my chin.;My hands trembled. I collected the pictures, and the frog, then left without saying goodbye.
The house was in darkness when I returned. A slither of apprehension crept up my back. I called out for your Mother, but there was no answer. I took the ceramic frog from my jacket pocket and placed it on the console table in the hallway. I shouted again. I paused at the top of the landing, straining to hear, suddenly exhausted. Faintly, I heard water dripping from a tap. I knocked gently on the bathroom door. Your Mother in a half-filled tub, sobbing, knees hunched up to her chin. The mirror was fogged. Your baby-size unicorn toothbrush, unused, in the glass jar beside the sink.
She stared ahead, eyes rimmed red. Her whole body shook, her arms gripped around her legs.
“My body feels like it did before I had her.” Her voice was barely louder than a whisper. “What I mean is, I feel…weightless. Before I knew how it felt to carry a child inside me.”
She rubbed her knuckles into her eye sockets. “Her imprint is leaving me.”
I flicked off my shoes and slid into the bath behind her, the lukewarm water seeped through my socks and trousers. I wrapped my arms and legs around her, wiping tears away with the flat of my hand. The tops of her ears were cold against my lips. We stayed there, huddled together, until the water turned to glass.
There are certain phone calls when, before answering, you know exactly what the person at the end of the line will say. I remember having that feeling, one bright clear morning in May, and knowing instinctively that it would be your Mother, telling me, breathlessly, that her waters had broken. She’d been shopping in the supermarket, and the clear puddle from between her legs had spilled out onto the fresh produce aisle. I had that same sensation, one tawny November afternoon, when the sharp trill of the telephone screeched from our hallway.
As I stood, I noticed colours were silently flashing around the walls of the living room; red and blue lights, coiling together into one liquid purple ribbon. I closed my eyes. A memory – of you, standing under the glass dome of the local aquarium, stingrays floating over your head, the water lit violet, a carpet of blood red anemones pulsing, your arm raised to touch the belly of a hammerhead shark that zig-zagged past the glass, as a watery blue shadow flickered over your face. The familiar rat-a-tat-tat on the door. Although this time the knock was quieter, more resigned, and two officers were standing there. I bit down hard on my bottom lip and nodded, as they followed me into the living room. Neither of them could look me directly in the eye. The older one said they had news. None of us were breathing. The only noise was the clock, ticking on the wall like a metronome. He asked me if I wanted to get my wife, but I knew your Mother had to hear this from me, so I shook my head. I told him I wanted to know, that I needed him to tell me everything. And so, while staring at a point on the wall above my head, he did.
I can’t sleep at night. Your Mother keeps a blister pack of pills on her bedside table, a rattle and click when she breathes, as though her throat is filled with paperclips. The room smells ashy and sour; cigarette butts stubbed out on a saucer. I lie back and stare at the ceiling. The bare branches of a maple tree graze our bedroom window. I took the nearby bottle of Pepto-Bismol and swig some straight from the bottle. A constant dull ache in my chest as I gulp down that pink liquid.
Two young boys, throwing rocks at supermarket trolleys bobbing in the canal, noticed something lodged in its muddy banks. They chucked stones at it for a while, thinking it was only a narrow pipe sticking out, before realising – in horror – that it was an arm, limp and grey, snapped at the elbow, like a wishbone. A naked, bloated body submerged under dirt, silt and sludge.
A plastic bag, filled with your hair, was found jammed into a nearby bramble bush. Every bone in your hands had been broken and your small fingers had been bent back until they snapped. Your gap-toothed smile was the only way we could confirm you were our little girl.
I kept the kitchen lights turned off. A crack in the curtains filtered the glow from a streetlight, turning the room blood orange. Snowflakes swirled outside in the calm, glassy air. For a moment, I thought I saw a familiar tiny silhouette. In the hallway, cardboard boxes – filled with tinsel and baubles – lay untouched. I spread the crossword flat on the table, my fingers inky with newsprint. I had struggled with this last clue for days. Wearily, I flicked through the dictionary, hoping to finally find the answer, hoping to finally find relief, when a word caught my eye. I underlined it.
Acrophobia – The irrational urge to jump from high buildings…
Ac – ro – pho – bi – a
I stored this away for later.