Ritual by Daniel Shooter

From Belsize Park to Camden she stands, gripping the overhead handrail, clinging to wakefulness in the gently swaying train. After swapping Northern Lines, she finds an end seat, closes her eyes and rests her head. Time for her daily seventeen-minute nap.

Heather is an experienced tube-sleeper. A partition is vital to support her dead-weight head, as are wet wipes or tissues to clean head grease, or other residue, of previous nappers. She once used her phone alarm but now wakes automatically on the approach to Woodside Park.

Since swapping offices from Whetstone last year the short sleeps on her commute have been a revelation. She’s now a bit more conscious when she collects the boys from nursery. Jude is a great sleeper, but Oscar is a nightmare. After lying with him to get him to drop off, then a lifeless microwave meal, zoning out in front of the TV, and crawling into bed, he wakes an hour or so later. Bad dreams, night terrors, bed-wetting. Two, sometimes three times a night, she changes the bedding or cuddles him, strokes his hair, dispenses medicine. Jude and Dan sleep through it all, oblivious.

They’ve tried everything. Controlled crying, white noise, background music, blackout blinds, doctors, dietary changes, paediatrician. What’s the point in elbowing Dan to take turns? One of them should sleep. She’s become a horror movie zombie, sunken eyes and slow motion. Keeping a lid on her irritability at work means she’s a monster at home – no patience, sniping at the boys or Dan for the slightest annoyance.

Her eyes open. The train is slowing. An elderly lady opposite stares. Heather attempts a smile, aiming for the universal-motherhood kids huh? Don’t they ruin your life? The lady looks away.

‘The next station is Woodside Park.’

She stands.

‘Please mind the gap.’

She nods to the nursery receptionist and makes her way to the Badger Room. She opens the door and several four-year old heads turn to see whose parent has arrived.

‘Mummy!’ shouts Jude and nearly flattens two girls as he sprints across the room.

He grips her left leg and she walks with him attached, koala bear style. She helps with his coat and tries to concentrate as Aimee, his key worker, describes Jude’s day. She is distracted by the holes in Aimee’s earlobes; are they getting larger each day, or is it her imagination? Another modern trend she doesn’t understand.

‘Sounds like you’ve had a really interesting day Jude!’ she guesses. ‘Lets go and get your brother.’

Aimee raises her eyebrows to one of the other workers – Jude has probably done something odd or behaved badly and she should’ve said something. Never mind.

‘See you tomorrow Jude,’ says Aimee. They high-five. Aimee speaks into her walkie-talkie as they leave. Jude turns towards the exit, but Heather pulls him the other way.

‘Your brother Jude! Why do you always do this?’ she admonishes.

‘I don’t want to go in there!’ Jude shouts. He pulls his hand away and sits on the floor in full sulk mode – doorstep bottom lip, folded arms, epic frown. She detests it when one of them misbehaves, feeling the judgement of better parents. She yanks him up and drags him into the two-year-old room. Various smells assault her – the ubiquitous nursery blend – food, soap, disinfectant, urine, faeces, wet clothes, paint, nappy rash cream, and the workers’ cheap perfume.

She can’t see Oscar. One of the ladies comes over. Jude pulls desperately at her arm, and he is strong. She snaps.

‘Stop that!’

He starts crying.

‘Mrs Atkins?’ says the worker. Her name might be Josie.

‘Where’s Oscar?’

Josie looks at Jude and her runs into her open arms.

‘Let’s talk in the corridor Mrs Atkins. The nursery manager is on her way.’

‘Why? I don’t understand. Has something happened?’ Josie leaves the room holding a sobbing Jude. ‘What’s happened?’ She turns to look for Oscar again as she follows them out the room.

‘Has there been an accident?’ she asks, trying not to panic. Josie looks upset and talks to Jude whilst stroking his head.

‘What’s going on?’ Her voice rises in irritation. ‘Does Jude know what’s happened to Oscar, is that why he’s upset?’

‘Here’s Angela, I’d rather she dealt with it.’

Angela waddles down the corridor looking irritated.

‘ — yes she’s here now. Hold on,’ she says into a phone.

‘Where’s Oscar? What’s happened?’ She is hysterical now.

Angela nods to Josie who takes Jude back into the Squirrel Room.

‘Hey, why — ?’

‘Please, Mrs Atkins,’ says Angela, grabbing her elbow.

They sit on a large windowsill.

‘Oscar doesn’t exist.’

She jumps up.

‘What? Where is he? Is this some sort of joke?’

‘I assure you it is not Mrs Atkins. Your husband is on the line. We always contact him when this happens.’ She is passed the phone.

‘Dan?’ she said, ‘What’s going on? The nursery are saying –’

‘–Heather darling, I’ve got to be quick, I’m chairing a meeting with the other partners. Jude is an only child.’

Her entire body is being sucked into her stomach. She doubles over, grabs the wall to stop herself falling.

‘What?’ she screams from her gut. Tears distort her vision, images flash through her mind. A hospital bed. Blood, pain, exhaustion.

‘Heather! Are you listening!’ Dan is shouting now. ‘I need to get back — I can’t keep dealing with this crap. Sometimes you think we have another son called Oscar – every bloody day this week in fact! Its been going on for about a year. I’m not sure how much more of it I can take. Get Jude home, feed him. I’ll be back for bedtime, ok?’

Angela retrieves the phone, and tells her to sit and take a moment. Heather closes her eyes and rests her head.

Daniel divides his time between teaching part-time at a local school, being a stay-at-home dad, and writing. His short fiction has been published in Spadina Literary Review, (Canada), and is forthcoming in Dream Catcher magazine (UK), and Reality Break magazine (USA). His website is here and he tweets here.

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