Jessie Jeffrey was born in Connecticut, raised in Wales and lives in Manchester. She feels lost a lot. Following her BA in English and Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, Jessie began work on her first novel, which explores the fallout of a mother’s unusual way of dealing with grief. She’s interested in messy characters and why people make mistakes. During writing breaks, Jessie tries her best to remember she’s made tea before it goes cold, and takes long walks to sadly contemplate the fact that, since she’s moved out of her mother’s house, she doesn’t technically own a dog anymore.
Extract from the novel, The Reborners
Abigail’s bedroom was at the end of the upstairs corridor, past all the other rooms. The novelty of being home for the first time in months, combined with exhaustion, made her move slowly. Not much had changed; Abigail noted each familiarity with some satisfaction. Nothing had broken apart in her absence. The carpet by the staircase had grown a little more unpeeled since she was last home, exposing a larger triangle of wood. The paint was still chipped on the bathroom door; Helen’s door still had her name stuck on it. Her mother’s door was propped slightly open, exposing a few inches of darkness.
Abigail wasn’t sure why she stopped there at first; she couldn’t see it, not yet. Only the darkness was unusual – it was still light outside, the evening sunlight falling onto the hallway carpet and warming her feet. The unexpected black in her mother’s room made Abigail a little uneasy, enough to stop and peer through the gap. At first, she couldn’t really see inside. She waited a moment for her eyes to adjust, then noticed the bulky shadow, its muted colours – white, brown, blue. She pushed the door open, listening to it brush against the carpet, unsure why her insides felt so suddenly heavy.
The curtains were drawn. Her mother’s bed was made, the duvet tucked neatly into the side – it didn’t look as though she was still sleeping sporadically through the day. The room was neat and orderly. The floor had been hoovered recently, there were no dirty clothes strewn over the chairs or the floor, no clutter on the dressing table. The cot was next to the window, its bars casting striped shadows on the curtains.
Abigail remembered the cot. It was the big pine one, the one her mother used when she and Helen were babies. The one that had been flat-packed in the attic until last June, when they spent an afternoon trying to screw the pieces together. She remembered that day, the rain splattering the windows and the laughter as they failed to understand the faded diagrams on the instructions.
It was up for almost two months before they moved it back to the attic.
And now it was here again, in the same place, with the blue blanket all bunched up at its foot. For a moment, Abigail was sick with hope.
There was a tiny shape at the head of the cot. Abigail moved towards it, digging her nails into her palms. She wasn’t breathing, although she wasn’t sure why.
There he was, impossibly, arms and legs curled up towards his chest, his tiny white jumpsuit still too loose.
He looked exactly the same. Abigail gripped the sides of the cot and stared. He was sleeping, eyes squeezed shut, expression almost determined, as if he had to concentrate. His hands and toes were coiled inwards, his faced pursed and pouty. A few strands of black hair clung to his forehead. In places, his skin seemed purplish – as if it were thin, delicate, but not bruised. He was too small, and completely still.
And it wasn’t him, although it took Abigail a moment to realise what she was looking at. It must have cost a small fortune, she thought, then felt bad for thinking it. She reached out to touch the doll, but stopped herself. She didn’t want to feel it. It would be awful if it felt real; it would be worse if it felt cold.
No one had told her. How long had he been there? No. Not him, Abigail told herself. It. The doll wasn’t her brother, it wasn’t Rhys, and if she didn’t draw that line now then she would go mad. She wanted to go downstairs right then, to scream at Helen until she got some answers, but it was difficult to tear herself away. There were little blue veins in its forehead. Someone had painted patches of dry skin onto its scalp. Its eyes were bulbous, almost too big for its head. She hadn’t expected to see him again. It, she reminded herself once more, but she stayed staring until pins and needles took hold of her left leg. A burst of canned laughter came from downstairs. Helen was below her, still watching telly, despite knowing full well that this was in the room upstairs.
Abigail shook her head, looked around. There was a baby monitor on the dresser; on the screen a green-grainy version of herself shifted next to the cot. Where was the other one? Did her mother have it? The thought of her mother peering at it whilst wandering around Tesco, of seeing Abigail crouched next to the cot, shocked her into standing up. She half-hobbled towards the door, wobbling as the feeling came back into her leg.
Abigail closed the door firmly behind her when she left, feeling the need for a solid barrier between her and the doll. She did it quietly, though she didn’t need to. It wasn’t as if the doll could wake up.
She marched downstairs, stood in the hallway of the living room. She noticed for the first time how heavy her breathing was.
There had been exercises – she’d taught them to herself, from some blog she found at university, for when things got particularly bad. One hand on the stomach. Exhale first, slowly. Then inhale. Exhale again. Let your shoulders loosen, your fists unclench. Focus on breathing until your head has cleared. When she felt steady again she walked into the living room, stared at Helen until she looked up.
‘Are you already done unpacking?’ Helen asked, and Abigail felt a fresh wave of irritation.
‘What’s in Mum’s room?’
Helen tensed up, just for a moment, the movement coming across almost as a shudder. She kept her eyes on her book, her nails scrabbling against the fibres of the armchair.
‘I saw it,’ Abigail said. ‘Just now.’
Helen didn’t answer. She wasn’t looking up. She was breathing very slowly and steadily – Abigail could see each movement of her chest.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I didn’t know how?’ Helen’s voice was quiet. ‘I thought you wouldn’t like it.’
Well, obviously, Abigail was about to begin, but she stopped herself. She watched Helen make little circles on the carpet with the toe of her sock and felt annoyed again. It seemed unfair that her sister got to act like the uncertain one, when she had known about this for God-only-knew-how-long and Abigail had only just found out.
‘What about the doctor?’ Abigail asked, forcing her voice into a more neutral tone. ‘What did he say?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know if she’s told him. She goes in alone.’
‘She clearly has to, though! It’s – ’ She paused, her hand in the air, vainly trying to emphasise some unknown point. ‘Don’t you think it’s a little unhealthy? How long has this been going on for?’
‘About…maybe a month?’ Helen shifted in her seat, closed her textbook. ‘It’s weird. But she seems better, Abby. It like…changed something.’
What had changed, Abigail thought, was that her mother had finally and completely lost her mind. She didn’t say this. She turned around, still annoyed, and left the room.
‘I’ll actually unpack now,’ she told Helen as she went, although everything good about being home seemed to have faded entirely.
Usually Abigail found it hard to stop unpacking once she had started; it turned her room into such a mess that it was difficult to think straight until the job was done. Tonight she felt listless and distracted. When her mother returned from the shops, Abigail was still sitting on her bed, twisting the arm of one of her jumpers. She looked up to see her mother leaning on the doorframe, watching her. Abigail wondered how long she’d been there.
‘Here, I’ll help.’ Her mother took the jumper from her, folded it neatly. Helen had told her, around February, that their mother had been easing herself back into work doing part-time at Next. She could fold clothes the way shop assistants did, now, with the arms tucked neatly behind the chest. Abigail would never be able to replicate it.
‘Where do you want it to go?’ her mother was opening a drawer. ‘I know you have a special system.’
Usually the jumper wouldn’t go in a drawer at all – it belonged on the middle-left hand side of her wardrobe, where her bulkier layers were. She considered explaining this to her mother, decided against it. It had already been folded so nicely.
Anyway, there was only one thing she wanted to talk to her mother about, although she was struggling to find a way to bring it up.
‘Anywhere’s fine,’ Abigail said, pulling a pair of jeans from her case. ‘I’m just glad for the help.’
Later that night, unable to sleep, Abigail stared at her wardrobe, re-organising it in her head. She tried to make herself lie still, told herself it didn’t matter. They were just clothes. Her mother hadn’t crumpled them; nothing would happen if they were left out of order for a while. She managed it for almost an hour, just lying with the discomfort. Then she stood up and moved everything to its right place. It was too difficult, otherwise, knowing things were all jumbled up and wrong.
End of Extract.
Jessie can be reached at email@example.com