Every night, my little boy repeats the same things before we leave his room.
‘Cuddle and kiss before you go to bed.’ He tugs my arm towards him, neither of us ready to let go. I kiss his forehead, searching for the scent of his skin, the post-bath softness of him, still unblemished but for a hint of eczema on hands that know the permanence of his parents.
I cannot remember those pre-sleep conversations with my daughter. By her bedtime, I was frazzled, trying to figure out how one parent and one salary might strike out the debts of an absent father. I tried to forget what he hissed down the phone. Mad woman. Bad mother. I hurried her to bed, tucked her in, tucked into her cold leftovers, threw a cheap glass of wine down my throat and threw myself into the cut-price sofa I’d bought when he refused to return my furniture. Sometimes I would imagine sharing these minutes with someone else who could comfort me.
On nights when she cried out, I ran to her, stroked hair nothing like mine, hoping her nightmares were different too. I stayed until a smile settled, even as she outgrew her toddler bed, graduating to a pink princess one, from which she would always wish for our family to grow.
‘Put me back in bed, if I fall out’, my son says now, though this has happened just once in five years. I nod again, tucking him in tight, just in case. He teases away the covers, and I know when I come in for that final cuddle and kiss, his bedding will be tossed back because he gets too hot, like his Dad does, though I tug our duvet to my neck. Then kissing him, I will pull my son’s sheets back again, gaze at his angel face, and cherish the magic of him.
‘Leave pony light on.’ When he smiles, he has a dimple by his mouth that makes me melt. I nod. He does too, ginger curls bouncing forwards, hair glowing like gold and I treasure it more on him than I ever did on me.
The pony light was a present from his sister when he was a toddler. It’s really a unicorn. She outgrew it when he was still young enough to worship everything about her, too young to know the difference between half and full siblings. By then, on the precipice of adolescence, she knew mythical beasts weren’t real, but did not see her absent father’s promises were just as untrue.
‘Remember, I love you’, my little boy says, and I nod again, folding memories into their correct drawers, like I do his clothes, knowing some are so close to spilling over that one day the cupboards will burst open, scattering mess everywhere.
By now, my husband has filled the reusable bottle by our son’s bed and placed it next to a torch within his small hand’s reach. His other arm is wrapped around another gift from his sister – a pink teddy bear which on some days he loves more than her. He has realised how to navigate the age gap now, knows which buttons to press, how to wind her up. Sometimes she reacts in a certain way and I see myself, watch her moan or mother him, know where learned these skills.
‘Fresh water. Straight from the tap’, says my son, and his Dad repeats it, touching my knee with his and I know he wants to bottle this too.
‘One day, I’ll write down everything he said,’ I tell him, ‘so we don’t forget what it was like’. I don’t tell him how I wish he had raised my daughter too from birth, how much I love him for the rocking me to sleep when the nightmares return. I don’t tell him I cannot remember chunks of my first child’s infancy because they are too closely connected with a man who haunts me even in his absence.
We look at our son and smile. ‘Milker’, says my husband, because we both know he’s playing for time, but right now, we want to grasp this moment and never let go.
When I creep in later, I’ll tell my sleeping son I love him, stroke his soft skin and hair. Then I’ll poke my head around my daughter’s door, pause, searching for lost time. I’ll whisper the same words and wait, believing that beneath her dark hair there’s a smile like mine, one that reminds me we’ve done ok, one that says ‘Remember, I love you.’
Hannah Storm writes flash and creative non fiction. Her work has been recognised in Best Microfictions, the BIFFY 50 and placed second at the Bath Flash Fiction Award. Her debut flash collection is published this year by Reflex Fiction and she has recently completed her memoir. When she’s not writing, Hannah works in media and as a mental health advocate. Her Twitter handle is @hannahstorm6.