Plenty of people said that Edward Read was a handsome baby, but that wasn’t strictly true. Oh, he looked perfectly proportioned at first sight, but if you had to look at him for any length of time – and Mr Read and Mrs Read felt they had a parental obligation to do so – then the defects were really quite pronounced. Edward’s eyes were a little too far apart. His nose was too big, which gave his nostrils the impression they were permanently flared. His lips were thin. He was by no means an ugly baby, he was better than average, Mr and Mrs Read had seen worse. But he wasn’t as handsome as all those people kept telling them, and sometimes that irritated them a bit, and they wished that they’d stop.
But Mr and Mrs Read loved Edward. He was the new centre of their world.
He wasn’t much of a bother. He did what was required of him. He’d feed when it was time to feed, he’d sleep when it was time to sleep, when Mrs Read had to take him on the Thursday supermarket run he’d sigh with weary resignation at the banality of weekly routine and go and wait by the pram. He didn’t poop in his pants much, and seemed to regard the production of faeces as a grim necessity that should be endured not enjoyed. And when he sucked at his mother’s breast he did so very gently, balancing the nipple between both lips with studied care, as if there were something not quite right about all this, as if there were something dirty; he’d take a drink of her milk with cold efficiency and then pull away, his face embarrassed and disdainful, he wanted that tit away from him and put quickly back under wraps before anyone could see.
And he never cried.
Everyone warned them about the crying. Friends with kids. Second time birthers they met at the hospital. Their own parents. Even people who’d never had babies of their own, merely by dint of having been babies once themselves, everyone was an expert. “Baby will like to cry, baby will like to keep you awake all night,” the nurse had told them. “But you mustn’t be cross with Baby. Baby just wants to communicate, the only way he can.”
But, still, Edward never cried. They wondered if something was wrong. They took him back to the hospital. “You should thank your lucky stars!” a doctor told them genially. “He’s probably just a bit shy.” But the baby never seemed shy, sitting in the centre of the rug, staring at them, silently, and frowning with disapproval. “He’ll start crying when he begins to teeth.” But the teeth were already pushing their way through the gums, Mrs Read could feel them clamp her nipples into place when he wanted to feed. “So long as he’s crying a little bit,” said the doctor, giving up, “he’s crying a little bit, isn’t he, it’s all right so long as he’s crying a little bit.” And Mr and Mrs Read were eager to get out of there and get home, so they said yes, there was nothing really wrong with him, their baby wasn’t damaged, he cried a little bit every once in a while. But he didn’t.
“Why doesn’t our baby want to communicate with us?” Mrs Read asked her husband one night.
Mr Read just shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t have anything to say.”
But as a rule, Mr and Mrs Read chose not to talk about it. Mr Read would come home from work, and he’d ask Mrs Read what sort of day she’d had, and she’d ask him the same in return. They’d both say, fine. And Mr Read would ask how Edward was. Fine. It was simple that way.
If nothing else, they were grateful Edward let them sleep. Sometimes, in the dead of night, when the house was so still and peaceful, they could pretend they’d never had a child at all.
They’d installed a baby monitor by his cot so that any sound Edward made in the night would be immediately transmitted to their bedroom. They’d bought it as part of a joblot with other baby paraphernalia back when Mrs Read was expecting – a pram, some toys, a rattle, little blue pyjamas that looked as if they’d been designed for a doll. They’d made good use of everything else they’d bought, though Edward hadn’t looked overly impressed with the rattle. The baby monitor, though, never made a squeak.
So when it spat into life that night – so suddenly, the noise of a baby shrieking, in what seemed like deathly terror – well, they were surprised, of course, and a bit alarmed, but as they fell out of bed and rushed to the little nursery down the corridor the most overwhelming sensation that either the parents felt was one of relief. Edward, at last, was speaking.
By the time they’d reached the room the shriek had stopped. It had stopped quite abruptly, although at the time neither Mr nor Mrs Read gave that much thought. Edward was awake, his face lit up by a Walt Disney night light, and he looked unperturbed – he stared at his Mummy and Daddy for a few seconds, as if asking them to explain their intrusion, and then turned away from them, turned over on to his back, and fixed his attention to the mobile of circus animals rotating slowly above his head.
They felt they’d been dismissed. And Mr Read stood in the doorway, uncertain, not wanting to come in. Mrs Read felt she should do something – something maternal – she should tuck her baby in tight, she should check his brow to see whether he had a temperature – and she stepped into the room, and went to her son, and it was only then that she saw the body lying beside the cot.
The baby was a little smaller than Edward. Its eyes were open, and stared up at her in what looked like innocent confusion, but then, all babies look innocent, don’t they? It didn’t blink once, and she thought it might be dead, but then perhaps that it was playing a game with her, babies liked playing games, most babies anyway – but still the blink never came, and Mrs Read nudged the body gently with her foot, and, yes, it was dead. She saw the head wasn’t balanced upon the shoulders properly, the neck was twisted. And now that there were marks around the neck, little pressure points flaring red against the baby’s milk skin. There was a thin line of drool coming out of the dead baby’s mouth, welling up into a tiny bubble.
She looked back up to Edward. His chest was heaving, his eyes were closed tight. He had gone back to sleep.
Mr and Mrs Read went down to the kitchen, and put the kettle on, and sat together, and talked it through.
“We need to call the police,” said Mrs Read.
“We certainly need to call them,” agreed Mr Read.
Though neither of them did.
“Maybe,” said Mr Read eventually, “it was self-defence.”
Mrs Read laughed at that. She didn’t know where the laugh had come from.
“There’ll be fingerprints all around its neck,” she said. “They’ll know Edward is guilty.”
“They won’t put him in jail,” said Mr Read. “Not at his age. I’d have thought.”
“They’ll say we were bad parents,” said Mrs Read.
It occurred to her they’d just left the dead body up there. They’d left their baby sleeping in a room next to a corpse.
“We’ll bury it,” said Mr Read, suddenly decisive. “In the garden.”
“Do you think so?” said Mrs Read. She liked the idea. She sounded relieved. She just wanted to be sure.
“It won’t take long,” Mr Read pointed out. “It’s only a little baby. It won’t need a very big hole.”
“Edward is only six months old,” said Mrs Read. “We need to give him the best start in life we can. We can’t have him saddled with this, not at his age. We need to be good parents.”
“And besides,” she said. “Maybe it was self-defence.”
They went back upstairs. Edward was still fast asleep, and he looked so very peaceful. He hadn’t moved at all, he was still lying flat on his back. The other baby hadn’t moved either.
Mrs Read brought with her a plastic bag, a strong one she’d got from the supermarket. The idea was that they’d tip the baby into that, at least then they wouldn’t have to look at it any more. But now that it came to it, she couldn’t bring herself to touch the dead body. Neither could her husband. So he fetched a spade from the garden shed, and he picked it up with that.
In death the baby had already stiffened. Mr Read looked at it curiously. “It doesn’t seem entirely normal, I think it was a bit deformed.” Mrs Read leaned in, in spite of herself. The skull was too small. The legs and arms, both awkward and spindly. And now that Mr Read lifted the body up to the light, they could both see that there was a little stump, just a few inches in length, sticking out from the baby’s stomach. Mrs Read realised it was an umbilical cord, and she hadn’t noticed it before, it must have been lying flat against the skin. Now it had stiffened too, and it was standing erect, hard and unyielding and poking upwards like a drain pipe.
“For God’s sake, just put it in the bag,” Mrs Read said. Mr Read did.
She watched him from the bedroom window as he dug the baby’s grave, as he laid the plastic bag within it gently, as he filled the hole and covered it with topsoil.
Neither Mr nor Mrs Read slept very well that night.
They were woken up, far too early, by the clock radio by their bed. Without a word they listened to the news bulletin. There was no mention made of a missing baby.
Mr Read got up, looked into the mirror with bloodshot eyes, sighed.
“Call in sick,” said his wife. “Stay home today.” Stay with me.
Mr Read said, “We should carry on entirely as normal.”
He drove to work at the usual time.
Mrs Read went into the nursery to see Edward. He seemed to wake as soon as she arrived, as if he were only waiting for his cue.
He wanted breakfast, so she took her breast from out of her nightie. Edward pulled it towards him with two strong little hands, wrapped his mouth around it, and sucked down all the milk he required in four bold gulps. Then he wiped his mouth dry with the back of his sleeve, and pushed the breast aside.
Mrs Read listened to the midday news. Then she phoned her husband.
“There’s still nothing about a baby,” she told him.
“Darling, you mustn’t call me at work.”
“I just wanted you to know.”
It was a Thursday, and on Thursdays Mrs Read would do the supermarket run, so. She took Edward with her. Usually, as a treat, she’d let him sit in the front of the trolley. Today she kept him in his pram, and carried all the groceries in a basket. The shopping was heavy, and the weight of the basket hurt her hand. If Edward realised he was being punished he didn’t seem to care; he surveyed the aisles of breads and cereals and tinned beans with supreme indifference.
There was nothing on the early evening news either.
When her husband got home she told him, “I want Edward to sleep in our room tonight.”
He seemed surprised. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she said, although she suddenly realised she didn’t want Edward anywhere near her, what she really wanted was that he stayed in his nursery and they locked him in, she knew she’d never sleep peacefully with her son so close to her in the dark.
They moved Edward’s cot to the end of their bed, and his Walt Disney night light, and his mobile of circus animals too. They put him to bed at about seven o’clock. They ate their dinner. She tried not to talk about babies. He obliged her by not talking about babies either. Most of the meal was spent in silence.
“I’m tired,” he said, and yawned.
“You must be.” It was the only intimation either of them made to the events of the night before. That far, and no further.
So they went to bed early. They got undressed carefully, so as not to disturb Edward. He whispered good night to her, and she whispered good night back, and they kissed just the once, and she turned out the bedside lamp.
He went to sleep straight away. She thought the night light would keep her awake, but there was something so comforting about it, and the way that as the mobile turned she could see all the little animals shining one by one – a tiger, a lion, an elephant.
She must have dozed – because there was a noise that woke her up, something light, something skittering across the floor and then up, up on to the cot. Its wooden frame creaked, the mobile was sent spinning chaotically. And she saw it – it was no bigger than a monkey, and it had a monkey tail, and it was staring down at her sleeping child.
Mrs Read shook her husband awake. “Look,” she whispered.
And at that the little monkey lifted its face and looked at her. And it was a baby, of course it was a baby – and it seemed to recognise her, and its face positively lit up, and it beamed at her, that little face shone out with such unquestioning love. It was her baby. She knew that in an instant. It was her baby, it was hers – it belonged to her, she knew it, and the baby did too.
Mr Read began to climb out of bed. She stopped him, held him by the arm.
Like the last baby, it didn’t look quite right. It hadn’t properly developed. The head was far too small, it sat upon those shoulders like a growth. She could see that gripping on to the bars of the cot there were fingers and things that weren’t quite fingers yet, just knuckles, little else. But it didn’t have a tail. It had another umbilical cord, but it was a full one this time, long and majestic, and twice the length of the baby’s body, and drooping behind it like a dead weight.
And the baby cried at her. Not a wail, not a scream; an acknowledgement, an introduction, a wave hello.
That little cry was the mistake. It was all Edward needed, and now he was awake, and alert, and his hand reached up strong and clasped itself around the intruder’s throat. The baby gave a gulp of surprise that was almost comical, and it had a second to flash of look of quizzical concern at Mrs Read. Then it was pulled down into the cot.
Mrs Read tried to go to it, tried to help, but she felt something stopping her, and she turned to look, and it was her husband, this time it was her husband pulling her back. “Just wait,” he said.
There were screams coming from the cot now, but none of them were Edward’s; Edward fought with a ferocity that was calm and quite unemotional. He punched the baby once, twice, three times in the face – there was a crack, and the nose was broken, and Mrs Read saw a little spray of blood. And then Edward grabbed hold of the umbilical cord, and wrapped it around the baby’s neck, looping it a couple of times, all the while the baby looking stunned and even now doing nothing to defend itself, only reaching up to its crushed nose in wonder – and then Edward pulled, and the baby gagged, and Edward pulled even tighter, and the baby’s face seemed to swell like a balloon, bulging eyes, flailing legs, jazz hands, and Edward throttled the life out of it.
“No!” said Mrs Read, and she shook her husband off. But she didn’t get out of bed. And she did nothing to help, and she saw the baby give up the fight and stop struggling and die. Only then did Edward let go.
“He’s only doing what is natural,” said Mr Read. “He’s defending his territory. It’s what boys have to do, you wouldn’t understand.”
She had nothing to say to that. Her husband clearly expected a response. He didn’t get one. He sighed with resignation.
“I’ll go and get the spade,” he said.
They moved Edward and his cot back to the nursery after that.
The baby monitor woke them up most nights. “Well,” said Mr Read, “we were warned we might not get much sleep!” He was trying to make the best of it, she knew that. He was trying not to let his exhaustion make him irritable. She hated him a little for that.
And whenever Edward disturbed them, her husband would be the one who’d deal with it. At one point he said, “You know, maybe we should set up some sort of rota?” And she glared at him so forcefully that he never brought up the matter again.
Edward still never cried. Her husband would go to work, and she’d have to spend the day looking after him, feeding him, helping him get big and strong.
“I don’t think this will go on for much longer,” Mr Read dared confide to her one day. “The babies who come to challenge him, they’re all getting smaller and weaker. Eddie can polish them off, no problem.” She got up one night to see. “What are you doing here, darling?” Mr Read said, gently. “You go back to bed.” There they were, the two of them, father and son, and it looked as if they’d bonded over something, and she’d interrupted some private joke – and they were hiding the dead body from her, her husband had turned the spade away so she couldn’t see.
When she’d been pregnant, Mrs Read had wanted to be the perfect mother. She’d read any book on the subject she could get her hands on, and there were so many books, she thought there might be one book out there per child. The perfect mother, she’d held on to that through all the stomach aches and the sickness – and then out had come Edward, all red and new, and utterly silent, and the doctor had snipped off the cord that had tied him to her, and held him up to smack his bottom to get him to start crying, and the crying had never started. The doctor had shrugged. “Oh well,” he’d said.
She’d read all those books, and she knew that to make a foetus some forty million sperm compete for the attentions of one single egg. All of them racing up the uterus, with only one possible winner. All of us, everyone alive today, anyone who has ever lived – we were all champion athletes once.
She wondered if Edward had cheated.
One day at breakfast Edward had coughed, and cleared his throat, and then said, very clearly and slowly, “Daddy.” And Mr Read had turned to his wife, and he was starting to cry, his eyes were shining with joy.
That same afternoon she went into the back garden with the spade, and she dug up the most recent pretender to her son’s crown. She opened up the supermarket bag, and looked at the body inside, so weak and malformed it had never stood a chance.
“It just doesn’t seem a fair fight,” she said.
Edward sat on the carpet between them, flexing the biceps of his right arm.
“Well, no,” Mr Read said. “No, it isn’t. I mean, Edward has really toughened up a lot recently. Realistically, those little babies don’t stand a chance against him now. Realistically, I don’t know why they all just don’t give up and go home!”
Because this is their home, you idiot. He laughed at his joke anyway, and Edward smiled cruelly with those thin lips of his, he liked it when his Daddy laughed.
“It just doesn’t seem fair,” she said again. “I think it should be more fair.”
What are we teaching our son? She wanted to say. What are we teaching him, but that might is right? We’re teaching him to be a bully and a thug. We’re teaching him to be a monster. She didn’t bother. She just said, “Tonight, I want you to even up the odds a bit.”
Mr Read laughed again, Edward even gave a dry chuckle.
“I want you to tie one arm behind his back.”
“Dear oh dear!”
“Just one arm. It doesn’t have to be his good arm.”
“I want you to make it tight, so he can’t get free. And it isn’t fucking funny.”
He stopped laughing. Edward didn’t notice, or didn’t care, he carried on with his chuckles anyway.
“I don’t think I love you any more,” she said. “You, or him. I can’t stand this fucking family we’ve become.”
He didn’t say a word.
“I think I want to leave you, I think. I think I want you out of my life, I think, It’s me or him.”
Still not talking to her, just like his son.
“This isn’t what I wanted it to be,” she said. “And I’m so tired.”
He nodded at that, at least. “I know.” He looked as if he might be about to say something else, but he didn’t.
They watched television for a while. At seven o’clock Mr Read got to his feet, and said quietly, “I’ll take Eddie to bed.” She didn’t reply, didn’t even look at him, just bore her eyes into the TV commercials until they hurt.
Mr and Mrs Read went to bed a few hours later. Under the sheets his pyjamas brushed against her and she flinched.
When the baby monitor woke them up, he said, “I’ll go, you don’t have to see this.”
“No,” she said. “No, I’m coming.”
For once the scream still sounded as they reached the nursery. A strange little baby was giving a victory cry. His face was featureless like putty. His limbs barely more than stumps. He raised the stumps in some sort of jubilation, tipped over the umbilical cord that was coiled fat around his body like a cobra, fell down.
Edward was dead. His body was hanging from the mobile. It was too heavy for it, and had all but pulled it down from the ceiling; the animals could no longer rotate, the lions and elephants looked confused.
Mrs Read saw that both of the child’s arms were tied behind his back.
Mr Read said, “I love you. I love you. Please. Don’t leave me.”
Mr Read didn’t want to bury his son in a supermarket bag, and he didn’t think he had one that was big enough for him anyway, and he didn’t know what to do – and by the time he’d returned to the nursery with his spade the body of his baby boy had vanished, as if it had never been there.
She wondered how to explain it, why her baby had changed appearance so radically. But no one seemed to remember the old Edward. They all thought she was a very brave mother, coping with a child who had such deformities. They wondered whether she’d had the measles or the mumps when she was pregnant, or whether she’d smoked, or taken drugs, whether was an alcoholic – whether, frankly, there was just something wrong with her insides. They all thanked God they’d never had a baby like hers, would they have loved it, could they have? No one ever said he was a handsome child.
Edward cried a lot in the night. He cried for years. His screams were very loud. They didn’t need a baby monitor to hear them.
At kindergarten the other children would keep away from Edward, and when she’d pick him up to take him home he was usually howling with tears.
At primary school the other children began to beat him up. And as they grew taller so Edward seemed to shrink, as if the extra weight he put on was pushing him downwards somehow.
He learned to fight back.
One day, when Edward was about six years old, his mother caught him outside in the street playing with a stray cat. He’d got it trapped under a box, and it was spitting and snarling. He was trying to set light to its tail with matches, he’d managed to get the tail free from the box, he was holding it fast with one hand whilst trying to strike matches with the other. Mrs Read took the matches from him, shouted at him, and he just stared at her without understanding. The cat had been smaller than him and weaker than him. Edward’s arms and face were covered with scratch marks, he was bleeding all over, and he didn’t care.
When he was eight he joined a gang. He told his parents that with some pride, and they thought at first he meant some after-school group, that at last he’d made some friends. No, he’d joined a gang – teenagers mostly, but some even older than that, and they’d walk around the town at night swearing and drinking and kicking over road signs. They called Edward ‘gargoyle’ and ‘dwarf’, they said he was their mascot.
“I love you,” she said to her son once. She actually held on to him, put her arms tightly around him, so he couldn’t get free. “I love you so much!” she said. He wriggled, he kicked, he shouted at her to piss off.
His father lost his temper with him once. He grabbed hold of him, pushed him hard against the wall, told him he was going to punch his lights out. Edward looked frightened, but also exhilarated. Later that day Mr Read tried to apologise, and Edward laughed at him. But from that point on he seemed still to have some respect for his dad. For his mum, he had none.
He had been expelled from his first school. The second was harder, they promised they wouldn’t let him off so easily. But Edward didn’t go to school very often.
Mr Read would come home from work, and he’d ask Mrs Read what sort of day she’d had, and she’d ask him the same in return. Fine, they’d both say, fine. And Mr Read might ask how Edward was. Fine. It was simpler that way.
She wondered whether her husband even remembered their other son, but she didn’t like to ask.
One day he was waiting for her in the kitchen. She didn’t recognise him for a moment. She thought he was very handsome. And then she looked a bit more closely, and she saw that his eyes were too far apart, she saw his big nose and the thin lips.
He was fifteen now, maybe? Yes, that would be right. He was smart. He wore a blazer and a tie, he looked posh.
“How did you get in here?” she asked.
“Don’t call me that.”
“What should I call you?”
So she told him her proper name, and his eyebrows raised, he’d obviously never even guessed.
It was easier to talk to him if he used her name. No one used her name any more. Her husband called her ‘darling’, her son might sometimes call her ‘mum’, for the school counsellors and policemen she was always ‘Mrs Read’.
She made them both a cup of tea. He thanked her.
She told him family news. His grandfather had died, and his aunt Beryl had run off with someone. He’d met them both, did he remember? No, he didn’t.
He told her what he wanted to be when he grew up. He was going to be a lawyer, one of the nice lawyers, he only wanted to do good in the world. And his eyes were too far apart, and his nostrils seemed to flare in contempt, and he spoke through such cruel thin lips, and she didn’t believe a word of it.
She told him how very lonely she’d become. And she hadn’t even realised until she thought to say it.
“I could come back, you know,” he said.
“I could be your son.”
“I have a son.”
“I could be a better son.”
“No. Go away. Go away. I have a son. Do you hear me? I never want to see you again. Go away. Go away.” And he nodded at that, and smiled a little, and she wondered whether he was going to do what she asked, or whether he was just humouring her.
Her husband came home an hour or so later. “How was your day?” “How was your day?” “Fine.” “Fine.” “How’s Edward?” “Fine. You just missed him.”
They were both alone in the house that night. Edward hadn’t come home. No doubt he’d stagger in later, drunk, or worse; or there’d be a phone call to tell them he was in trouble again. But for the time being they were on their own.
They went to bed, and lay next to each other in the dark.
It was so quiet.
And she began to cry. And so as not to disturb the silence, she did so as softly as possible.
“Hey,” he said. “Hey.” And he moved closer towards her.
She held on to him.
She remembered what she’d said to her son. How lonely she felt.
“Hey,” he said. “We’re all right, aren’t we?”
And she kissed him then. Properly, on the lips. She hadn’t done that for a while. He didn’t respond at first, it was very dark in there, and she might have been aiming for his forehead and missed. But she kissed him again, they were kissing.
“Make love to me,” she said. “Please.”
“Are you sure…?”
He kissed her again, a bit more forcefully, and she wasn’t sure at first whether she liked it, and then decided that she did. He turned on the bedside lamp, and she saw this middle-aged man, old before his time, fat and sad and dull.
“No,” she said.
“I’m going to find a…”
“No,” she said. “Turn the light off. Make love to me in the dark. Let’s make another baby.”
He didn’t turn the light off.
“Are you sure?” he asked again. “Because, darling, we’re neither as young as we were.”
“And maybe. Maybe it won’t come out right.”
“Then we’ll love it anyway.” Or we won’t. But let’s wait and see. Can’t we just wait and see?
He turned off the bedside lamp, and kissed her again, and they made love, and it was a little better than she’d remembered, and when he shot forty million sperm into her she let out a cry into the dark.