[Trigger warnings: depression, postpartum depression, suicide and self harm, endangerment of an infant]
It’s the first clear day in weeks. December sunlight falls through the shutters and draws lines across Monique Bailey’s face. Her eyes slide in and out of shadow, but she’s too concentrated to be annoyed.
If this were a regular Monday, she’d already be at the firm, ensconced in the soothing confines of the office. The windows there would be appropriately shaded, the outside world filtered into harmless sterility, not permitted to intrude. The sun that is now commencing its brief winter path over the Georgian townhouses across the street, would cut into an empty kitchen, slant unseen over a gleaming countertop. The black-and-white marble would shine baren, uncluttered, no drying baby bottles or breakfast debris for the light to bisect. But this is not a regular Monday. There hasn’t been one in eight months and six days.
The crinkle of plastic and tin foil fills the sunny kitchen as Monique presses temazepam pills from their blister packs—fifteen, sixteen, rip-pop, seventeen, eighteen. The tablets land silently in a granite mortar in front of her, cushioned by a mound of fluoxetine granules.
William had picked up the fluoxetine prescription two months ago, pressed them into Monique’s hands, urged her to please—“please, if you love me, please”—take them. That evening, he’d watched her fill a glass in the dimness of their kitchen, watched her swallow. He had kissed her forehead in gratitude and held her tight. He'd waited for her to hug him back and, when she hadn’t, he had reluctantly let go and told her it was fine. He hadn’t checked her tongue, because he still loved her in a way she could no longer remember ever loving him.
She’d hoarded the green-and-yellow capsules, each day spitting them into her palm, sequestering them until she had a chance to retreat to their home office. She had stored the antidepressants in a folder in her filing cabinet, trusting Will’s respect of client confidentiality to keep her secret safe.
This Monday morning, she’d kissed Will on the lips for the first time since Oliver’s arrival, had wished him a good day at the firm, and had felt nothing as his face shifted from surprise to happiness, the sun breaking through. She’d shut the door on him and watched the hallway clock for ten minutes, large hand slowly sliding round the face. When she was certain he wasn’t coming back, she had retrieved her hoard from the office, pilfered William’s bedside table, and set up her workstation on the cluttered marble countertop.
The rest of her morning had been dedicated to bisecting the two-toned lozenges he’d bought for her, dumping their contents into the mortar. With tender fingers, she had pulled apart the capsules, each discarded shell a fresh betrayal of her marriage vows.
With a pop, the final temazepam pill releases from its packaging. She wipes the empty blister packs and antidepressant capsules off the counter, into a used Greek yogurt container. She folds the aluminium lid shut and stuffs the container deep in the rubbish bin. On top, she plants the overflown dirty nappy she’d saved for just this purpose. Somewhere, grey and soft, it registers that William will come home late tonight, tired, stressed, and will find his bedside table empty. Without his temazepam, he won’t be able to sleep.
She pulls the mortar closer. The heavy pestle is cool in her palm. The dark grey of the granite contrasts pleasingly with the pale granules and pills. Her husband’s little treasures stare at her, each one a good night’s sleep he won’t get. She bends over the counter, bears down on her clasped hands, and grinds. Fire blossoms along the stitches in her abdomen with each twist of the pestle. The white tablets give beneath the stone.
Solicitor Monique Bailey, née Walker, is always in control and always has a plan. Her colleagues, Will included, would describe her first and foremost as disciplined, “an iron will to rival Thatcher.” A great compliment for the child inside Monique who still burns with the shame of her upbringing, bred in an environment where discipline was neither praised nor practiced.
Born on a council estate in Leeds, the youngest of three by a decade and change, she was the unplanned, unwanted, and explicitly unwelcome afterthought of two alcoholics. Her co-dependent parents did not wish to make space in the destructive three-way between them and whatever liquor was on sale that week. They left Monique to be fostered by her brother Craig and sister Kelly.
Monique was five when Craig vanished who-knew-where. He got lost somewhere along the same booze-soaked path as his progenitors. All small Monique knew was that one Monday morning, he didn’t show at the breakfast table. When she went to his room so he could tie her laces before school, the way he always did, his bed was empty. She had cried in Kelly’s lap each evening for a week, until their mother grew sick of the noise and provided something else to cry about. Not long after, Kelly moved out to live with her free-handed boyfriend and Monique received reach-me-down Velcro shoes.
She occasionally saw Kelly at the Asda where she worked the till. On good days, she’d slip her a cinnamon ball from the counter display, a finger pressed to her lips. For her ninth birthday, Kelly gave her a whole bag of the spicy sweets. That day, while rolling one of the confections around in her mouth, enjoying how it clicked against her teeth, Monique studied Kelly. The left side of her face was swollen again, the eye crusted shut, cheekbone covered in greasy makeup and knuckle marks. Despite a pregnant belly straining the stiff, green polyester of her Asda uniform, no-one asked if she was alright.
While her father filled a trolley with discount gin, Monique pondered if people didn’t notice or didn’t care what had happened to Kelly’s face. The winces and furtive glances of shoppers provided the answer. She made a birthday promise to herself: her life would be different. She bit through the hard sugar shell, cinnamon burning her tongue, and made her plan. No-one—no parents with belts, no boyfriends with knuckles—would stop her. And for thirty years, that was true.
She joined the many who ignored Kelly’s bruises, focussing instead on her schoolwork. She studied until her vision blurred, skipped breakfast and dinner because her father didn’t like her reading while he ate. As planned, she collected all A stars on her A-levels and cashed in a full scholarship. She traded Leeds for Cambridge, Velcro sneakers for patent-leather Mary Janes, her Broad Yorkshire for the Queen’s English. A new person, she rose fast and bright, the star of the law faculty. After two years, nobody would’ve guessed that she had once been an underfed runt with bruises on her ribs. She stopped going home to Leeds, ignored Kelly’s letters until they ceased coming.
On schedule, she graduated with a first into London’s Magic Circle, a trainee at Slaughter & May destined for greatness.
At thirty, also to plan, she married a fellow solicitor who knew only the vague contours of her history.
At thirty-five, she made partner.
At thirty-nine—eight months and six days ago—she aborted her plan.
In the newly renovated bathroom of their townhouse, something small and meaningless crushed the finespun confection of Monique's life: a blue plus sign. Pregnant. The emergency ultrasound showed her IUD had shifted enough to permit an unplanned—unwanted, unwelcome—implantation. With removal of the IUD, the pregnancy was viable. William couldn’t hide his joy.
In a flood of emotion, he confessed. When they started dating and she had made her position clear, he’d tried to forget his original vision for the future. Being with her had been more important to him. He had earnestly attempted to suppress his desires, but now, faced with this unexpected opportunity, his old vision returned—as large as life, impossible not to wish for. He wanted children with a longing whose depth he had heretofore not plumbed. Fear of losing her had shut his mouth on the topic, but seeing that black-and-white image released the secret wishes of his heart. They spilled out, all over Monique’s painstaking plan. Despite his promises, the frequent reassurances, he could no longer help himself. He dreamt of a family, their family. He wanted this baby more than he had words to describe.
She tried—oh, how she tried, there was no room in her life for a child—but for the first time since crushing that cinnamon ball between her teeth, the iron in her will bent. She did not have the strength to end his dream. William shone as if it was their wedding day anew. He sealed their new-laid plan with a kiss, a ghost of cinnamon on his tongue.
And thus, it is Monday morning, nine AM, golden hour in their kitchen, and mandatory maternity leave traps Monique behind the half-open shutters. Sunlight streaks her face. It's the first clear day since Oliver’s arrival.
With sweat on her forehead, ignoring the pain in her abdomen and the itchy flow of blood into her maternity pad, she tips a fine-milled powder from the mortar into her Greek yogurt. She uses her index finger to wipe the dust from the pestle and licks it. The bitterness makes her gag, which pulls on her stitches. She closes her eyes—breathe in, breathe out—until the pain eases. She counts out ten raspberries and ten blueberries. One by one, they plop into her bowl. They make little poof sounds as they hit. She drizzles pine honey over top in a concentric swirl. Where the syrup hits the powder, it rolls into thin, white worms. To finish, she adds a dusting of Ceylon cinnamon—no more than a quarter teaspoon, because cinnamon is toxic. With a silver spoon, she folds her ingredients together.
As planned, the berries and honey do much to mask the bitter taste. She leans against the counter, rests the bowl on her breastbone, and closes her eyes. The winter sun warms her face. She takes slow bites, savouring. She bursts the blueberries against her palate with her tongue, their subtle flavour barely perceptible. The cinnamon tickles her nose. She cannot tell if the grit between her molars is raspberry seeds or uncrushed granules.
From the corner of the room, a crackle rises. The baby monitor blinks on and the cries of someone’s newborn intrudes into her peaceful halo. Pain lances from her armpits into her breasts, followed by a swell of pressure. Two milky flowers bloom on the white of her satin pyjama shirt, a thin stem trickling down each flower. It takes her a moment to remember why Aahana isn’t rushing in to stop the noise; without conferring with William, she had given their au pair the day off. Aahana was likely still asleep in the guesthouse at the back of their garden.
Monique finishes her breakfast, drowning out the tinny wails by concentrating on the sound her spoon makes as it grates along the bottom of the bowl, scraping up the paste of yogurt and powder. She rinses her bowl in the sink and sets it on the drying rack, next to a collection of baby bottles and pump parts in the same pale yellow as the flowers on her shirt. She dries her hands on a fresh Laura Ashley towel. Soft and grey. She presses it to her nose and inhales. Lavender.
On her way out, she unplugs the baby monitor and lets the cord drop. The heavy plug pulls the device from the windowsill and it clatters onto the tiles, the screen brightly reflective in a slash of light.
The burgundy carpet in the hallway absorbs all sounds. Monique heads upstairs. She runs her fingers along the flowing pattern of their oak banister. Through the stairwell skylight, the sun mists down and paints God rays in the air. Oliver’s cries weave through the light. The noise glides between her fingers and over the honeyed wood, it slips down the railing to pool around her bare feet. Where she passes, it soaks into the dense, red wool. The fiery line in her abdomen blossoms in sync with her breaths—in and out, in and out. Up. Up. Up.
On a symphony of light and sound and colour, she floats towards the nursery, the smell of cinnamon in her nose.
For the first time in eight months and six days, Monique is back on plan.