Hush Little Baby is an emotionally fraught psychological thriller by Joanna Barnard. It’s a dark read-in-one-sitting domestic suspense novel that takes a shrewd look at family life and explores every parent’s worst nightmare.
When baby Oliver breaks his arm, no-one can – or will – say how it happened. His mother is exhausted. His father is angry. His older sister is resentful. And they all have something to hide.
Read on for an extract from Hush Little Baby!
Hush Little Baby
As soon as we got him home, it started; I obsessed about him dying.
I had been all bravado in the hospital, smug with my dark-eyed little bundle, and dosed up on painkillers. Holding him felt like the beginning of everything. I kept whispering his name – ‘Oliver, Oliver’ – relishing the taste of it on my lips. I breathed his new-born scent, stroked his tiny fingers one by one.
We hadn’t known we were having a boy. When we brought him home, via an alarming car journey (had other drivers always been so careless?), I showed Oliver his bedroom. Everything seemed too neutral now, too mild, too magnolia, to contain this spirited, coal-eyed boy. I’ll repaint it, I promised him silently, I’ll buy a blue rug, and big animal stickers for the walls, and a height chart so we can watch you grow.
Richard believed in putting babies in their own room from the start, so I dragged a single mattress down from the loft and lay curled on it that first night, my arm outstretched at an awkward angle so that I could reach his basket, touch his hand, feel his chest rise and fall.
I started to see danger everywhere. Stairs were terrifying. Ours, in our Victorian house, were steep. I would stand at the top with my little boy tight in my arms, frozen for minutes on end. I counted each tentative step, wondering if it was better to hold him in both arms (but what if I fell?), or hold the bannister with one hand (but what if I dropped him?) Which outcome would cause him the least injury?
One of Richard’s friends made a throwaway comment during his not-altogether-welcome visit on day three. There was a lot of manly backslapping and clinking of beer bottles going on.
‘Now, all you’ve got to do is keep him alive,’ he said with a booming laugh. ‘How hard can that be?’
Sick fear instantly pooled in my stomach. Suddenly the idea that Oliver might be taken from me morphed into a possibility, a probability, a near certainty.
Richard took him away from me on the fifth day.
‘I’m taking him out. You need a break,’ he said. I didn’t think I did. I wrapped my baby up, layer after layer.
‘He’ll overheat,’ he said, but I insisted on the hat, the extra blanket. I watched through the curtains as my husband walked down the path, swinging the car seat.
I counted the minutes while they were gone. Thirty-seven, thirty-eight . . .
‘Have a bath,’ Richard had said. ‘Read a magazine. Rest.’
I didn’t rest; I paced. I gnawed at my nails. I saw car crashes, abductions, fires. When they returned I felt as though the missing piece of me was back and I could finally exhale.
Over the coming weeks and months, the fog lifted and the fear abated slowly. I felt myself again, albeit a changed version of myself. Life took on a slower pace than it had had before. I saw the world in a different way. I watched with a new parent’s tireless fascination as Oliver learned to smile, roll over, grip his toys. I clapped and cheered every minute achievement and instead of seeing him as a breakable doll, I’ve now come to think of him as a clever, strong, bold boy who can and will conquer everything in his path. I suppose what I’m saying is, I’ve relaxed into motherhood.
More fool me.
I’m out. That’s all that is running through my mind. I’m out I’m out I’m out.
It’s exhilarating to be walking to the train station, unsteady in ridiculous heels. My arms are almost weightless without a pushchair to lean on, a child to carry, bottles, plates, baby wipes and nappies to balance. I swing my newly light limbs as I walk.
I am waiting on the platform and the phone rings.
The cry in the background is high-pitched, different. Richard’s voice is irritable and terse as without preamble he fires questions at me:
‘What time was he fed?’
‘Did he eat it all?’
‘Have you given him any Calpol or anything?’
‘Has he slept today?’
The undercurrent of it all: this is your fault.
‘You’re his dad.’ I try to keep my voice even. ‘I’m sure you can manage without me for a couple of hours.’
A better wife, a more patient person, might lay on the reassurance at this point – add something like, ‘. . . and you’re a great dad’ – and I try for this, honestly, I reach for it. When it doesn’t come I hang up instead because what I really want to say is: You’re the experienced one, after all. You’re the brilliant parent. Can’t you work it out?
I flick the phone onto silent, slip it into my bag and step onto the train. I put away the guilt, the fear, but most of all, the fury, as though into a drawer. But the conversation, and worse, Oliver’s cry, haunts me.
Parenting is still all new to me, but not to Richard. He already has a fifteen-year-old daughter, Martha, from his first marriage. The whole time I was pregnant I had felt the ghost of his ex-wife over my shoulder. My attempts to engage him in the pregnancy were futile. I would read to him from magazines: ‘this week your baby is the size of a pomegranate’, and so on – they always seemed to compare the foetus to food, for some reason – increasingly exotic food, too. Still, at least it gave me ideas of things to try to eat that might not make me hurl.
Richard just appeared bored and, worse, provided what seemed to be daily commentary:
‘When Zoe was sick, she ate ginger nuts.’
‘Oh, Zoe wasn’t sick past thirteen weeks.’
‘Zoe’s ankles never swelled.’
‘Zoe never had heartburn.’
‘When Zoe was pregnant . . .’
‘When Zoe . . .’
Et cetera. Et bloody cetera. Bloody Zoe.
Zoe is an artist. And an alcoholic. That’s why Martha lives with us. She was with her mother for a while but Zoe needed ‘space’ for her art, she said. She couldn’t focus with a teenager around.
‘She needs space for her vodka bottles,’ I’d muttered at the time, to no one in particular, and I’d agreed to the new arrangements, of course.
It’s only the third time I’ve been out alone, I mean without Richard, since Oliver was born ten months ago. On the other two occasions I’ve had drinks with my antenatal-group friends, or as Richard calls them, the MMG (Mad Mothers’ Group). The first time, we managed a full ninety minutes before we ran out of baby updates and Melinda started checking her watch and yawning. The second time, Esme announced she would be leaving early because she had to get back for the ‘dream feed’, also known as the desperate 11pm stuffing of the baby with milk in the hope they would sleep until morning. Julia scoffed and sank her fourth gin, declaring that she had expressed that night and the baby could have a bottle and like it. The two of them stared at each other in a kind of breastfeeding face-off, and Melinda and I shuffled awkwardly into our coats.
But tonight I’m meeting people from work, for a chance to be the old me, to reconnect with my old life before my maternity leave ends and I go back in a couple of months. It’s a chance to feel like more than a mother, to feel like a person again. If I can only remember who that person is. A bubble of anxiety rises in my throat, and the closer the train gets to the station, the closer it comes to choking me. I do my best to swallow it back down.
We’re meeting in a pub on the river. It’s warm and there’s a festive air, loud voices everywhere suffused with that almost-weekend, almost-summer joviality. People are flowing between the bar and the outside terrace, shouting to each other across their clinking Mojitos and capturing toothy grins and headlock-hugs on their phones.
I see my old team almost immediately; Jamie catches my eye and waves. Within seconds the four of them are crowding me, chattering and slinging their arms around my shoulders. Jamie kisses my cheek. It all feels a bit odd, like I’m not really supposed to be here. Like I need permission to let go and enjoy myself. I remind myself: I’m out. It’s supposed to be fun.
‘How’s it feel to have a night of freedom?’ Helen, the youngest of the team, grins, giving me a nudge with her pointy elbow.
‘I’m on maternity leave; I’m not in prison,’ I say, and it’s meant to be a joke, but it comes out all wrong, a bit too sharp. I try to smile an apology and add, ‘It’s really nice to see you all.’
The railing overlooking the river is strung with fairy lights. I lean against it and watch the water rushing by. It’s not quite drinking-outside weather, not really, but here we are, like animals just out of hibernation; the evening is mild, and dry, and after a horribly wet winter it seems right to venture, blinking, into the light. I draw my cardigan closer around me and at last allow myself a smile, breathe in this new-found liberty.
‘You’ve got your figure back, I see,’ says Charles, a smooth hand on my back as he passes me a drink. I shrug and look back at the river. Charles can be kind of creepy and usually best ignored, but even though it’s supposed to be a compliment, I can’t ignore it and it stings. He couldn’t know, of course, just what a sensitive subject ‘my figure’ is, or the way a certain voice in my head wakes up and throws out its prickly commentary as soon as anyone mentions it.
‘Some people are just lucky like that,’ muses Shirley. ‘Of course, I’ve had three. You’ll discover it’s a lot harder to get it off after the second and third.’
I smile. ‘Oh, I don’t know that I’ll have any more.’
‘Oh, you will, you will.’ She shovels peanuts from a little glass bowl into her mouth with claw-like hands. ‘You just can’t help it. Some things are bigger than –’ she looks me up and down ‘– vanity.’
I swallow, hard.
Being pregnant was terrifying at first – I had no control over my body, I felt like I was being invaded – but in time it became liberating. My competitive side had a new focus: I had to beat Zoe – or to match her, at least – and that meant delivering the healthy baby Richard wanted. So I ate and took care of myself, for the baby. I ate probably better than ever in my life. It was acceptable to have curves. It was actively encouraged. For the first time ever, I was praised for growing. Even my mother looked at me with something like approval.
I thought that once the baby was born, I would get my control back. Little did I know I’d feel less in control than ever in my life.
It starts to feel a bit like I don’t know these people. I certainly don’t have much to say, so instead I drink. They talk about work; of course they do, because that’s their common thread. But it’s not a thread I can get hold of any more.
The wine starts to taste unpleasant. It’s a bit too warm, a bit too acidic, and it’s leaving a coating on the roof of my mouth, but I go back to the bar again and again, hoping the next glass will be as refreshing as the first one. Out on the terrace, someone – Jamie – offers me a cigarette. I haven’t smoked in years but I take it, flicking the ash into the river and squinting in an effort to watch it float off downstream. I lean over the railing and Jamie takes my arm, saying something like ‘Woah there’ and pulling me back. I stagger to a table and place my palms on it, trying to get centred, but everything around me is unsteady. The cigarette has made me feel sick.
‘You look a bit queasy,’ Jamie says, and he gestures to the others. Charles offers to walk me to the train station and I smile and nod, and say I’ll just go to the bathroom and meet them out front in five minutes, but instead I nudge my way through the crowd, back into the bar, straight out of the door and onto the street. I unsteadily make my way to the station.
When I get there, I look at the screen and see that my train is due to depart in two minutes. I do the calculations and I know that even if I move fast I won’t make it. I know this, but I barge through the barriers and break into a stumbling run anyway.
As I cross the bridge I hear the train doors shutting, the screech as it pulls away hurting my ears. I sit on the platform feeling as though the world is swaying around me, and want to sob. Eventually I stagger out of the station and into a taxi. As we round the corner into our road, twenty minutes later, I pull out thirty quid from my purse and think, Richard is going to bollock me for this. He hates wasting money. Was it worth it? He’ll ask, For that one extra drink? Really? That last wine has cost you thirty quid!
I close the front door behind me and perform the elaborate tiptoe dance of the drunk. My handbag, as I drop it to the floor, makes a ghastly clatter and I hold my breath waiting for a shout, a cry, but nothing comes. I sink to the floor with it and close my eyes, wishing for a glass of water to materialise next to my hand.
What should happen next is that I go upstairs, and on my way to our room look in on Martha as I always do, glance at her sleeping face lit by the fairy lights that hang over her bed, maybe cover her spread-eagled limbs with her duvet. When I look at her sleeping I could almost love her. Next I should walk into Oliver’s room, lean over the cot, kiss him and whisper ‘goodnight’. Maybe I watch him for a while, stroke his face. I see all these things playing out, but I can’t be sure if they are real or part of a dream.
Richard is shaking me awake. Somehow I’ve made it to bed, still wearing last night’s top, my knickers, and nothing else.
‘Sally,’ he urges in a hoarse whisper, and above it, I hear Oliver’s wail, right in my ear. ‘SALLY. Come ON.’
I fumble my way out of my fog, aware of a bright light at the edge of my eye. The lamp is on, and below it, the clock reads 4.20am.
‘No . . .’ I moan, bringing my arm up to my face in protest. My tongue searches my mouth in vain for moisture. The front of my head throbs and thuds.
My eyes spring back open and I suddenly see, in the haze of lamplight, my husband, his hand gripping the top of my arm, and on his face, something I’ve never seen there before: fear.
Cradled in his other arm is a whimpering baby. Our baby. My boy. Oliver.
I sit upright, the movement seeming to cause my brain to rattle inside my head.
Oliver is flushed, his face tear-streaked. His hair clings in wet strands to his forehead.
‘What is it? What’s the matter with him?’ I reach out my arms but Richard yanks him away from me.
‘You stink of alcohol,’ he mutters. ‘Put come clothes on.’ At this, I realise that he is already dressed. ‘I think something’s really wrong. Come on. You can sober up on the way to the hospital.’
I fumble into my jeans and, still fastening them, follow Richard onto the landing to see Martha standing there, blinking, her dressing gown pulled tightly around her.
‘Shall I come?’ she asks.
‘Don’t be silly,’ Richard snaps. ‘There’s nothing you can do.’
‘But—’ She’s staring at Oliver with a haunted look.
‘You’ve got school in the morning. Back to bed.’
Richard has left Oliver in his Babygro and wrapped a thick cardigan around him. He peers out from under its woolly hood, whimpering. I sit in the back seat to be next to him, the motion of the car bringing warm bile up into my mouth.
‘It’s his arm,’ Richard is saying, ‘the left one. He’s . . . done something to it, I think. It’s . . . I don’t know, it’s bigger than the other one.’
‘You mean it’s swollen?’ I lean over and try to look under Oliver’s layers, but the car seat makes it awkward and even touching his left wrist causes him to let out a shriek. Fat tears spring from his eyes and I draw back, chanting, ‘Ssh, it’s OK, sorry, sweetheart, it’s OK, it’s OK.’
Arriving at the hospital under a pale-grey, pre-dawn sky makes me think of the last time we were here, ten months ago. Richard drove with a similar urgency that morning, swearing under his breath as he struggled to get a ticket from the machine at the car-park barrier, swooping the car into the nearest space with a loud screech. Then he jumped out and ran around the bonnet while I watched through the windscreen, half-sitting, half-lying on the reclined passenger seat, listening to the long breath I was blowing out through pursed, drying lips.
They say you forget the pain, but I haven’t. It was a fire, a tidal wave, a steamroller through my insides. It made me want to sink, lie on the floor, crawl under the earth. I felt like an animal. Nothing existed but this pain. There in the car, in that instant, I would have done anything to make it stop.
Then Richard took a moment; it was only a split second, but he took his own deep breath and then opened the car door and everything was suddenly slower. Calm. He took my hand and helped me up, then held my elbow all the way to the hospital doors. We had to stop halfway while another contraction washed over me. My knees nearly gave way but his arm was there, and his voice, murmuring words I couldn’t make out, but the tone was reassuring.
Today is different. Today we are both entirely focused on Oliver, even jostling each other to be the one to carry him.
‘I want to hold him,’ I say.
‘Leave him in the car seat,’ Richard says.
‘But I want to pick him up, I want to carry him.’ Oliver is wailing, now.
‘It will be easier, and quicker, to take him in the seat. You can hold him when we get inside.’ I have a wild notion that Richard is trying to keep me away from him for as long as possible, and we form an awkward trio as we shamble into hospital, my husband carrying the car seat and I stumbling next to them, trying to keep my hand on Oliver’s head, the slightest of contact, the wool of his hood, the warmth of his skull a comfort.
We are ushered from the main casualty desk into children’s A&E. It’s quiet, none of the usual injuries at this time of the morning, I suppose. No adolescent rugby tackles gone wrong, no toddlers with marbles up their noses. Most kids, right now, are safe in their beds.
Although there’s hardly anyone there, we find ourselves speaking in low voices to the tired-looking receptionist who logs our details.
‘This is Oliver Townsend. He’s ten months old—’ I start to say.
‘It’s his arm—’ Richard interjects.
‘He’s very distressed.’
‘OK, OK.’ She holds up a palm. ‘One at a time, please. What happened to Oliver?’
‘We’re not exactly sure,’ Richard says, ‘but his arm looks swollen and he’s crying a lot more than usual.’
‘I see. And when did this start?’
‘A couple of hours ago,’ I murmur, at the same moment Richard says, ‘Yesterday evening.’ He frowns at me.
‘It started before you went out,’ he says. We’re now addressing each other, while the receptionist waits with her head tilted.
‘If he was that bad earlier I wouldn’t have gone out,’ I hiss.
‘And what time did you get back?’ the woman asks me. I’m sure she looks me up and down, and I regret not brushing my hair before we left. I wonder if I look like an ordinary anxious, frazzled mother . . . or a drunk. I remember Richard saying you stink of alcohol, and I put my hand over my mouth.
‘I’m not sure,’ I whisper. ‘About one in the morning? He was quiet then.’
She glances down at Ollie in his car seat, shifting and moaning although no longer screaming. ‘He doesn’t look too happy now, poor poppet,’ she says, ‘I expect you’ll need to see the doctor, but a triage nurse will assess Oliver first.’
‘It’s probably nothing,’ I try to smile. Richard flashes me another annoyed look.
‘It’s urgent,’ he tells her, ‘please let them know.’
‘Take a seat, please,’ she says, nodding towards the plastic chairs. ‘It shouldn’t be a long wait.’
There is one other couple with a baby, a little girl younger than Oliver, huddled in the corner. The baby is pale, whimpering. The mother looks as though she hasn’t slept in days. We all smile at each other in a sad, awkward way.
Grinning safari animals populate the walls. Brightly painted lions, zebras and giraffes all co-habit happily in long, lurid green grass, under a huge sun. No hunting or eating. No vultures overhead awaiting a carcass.
‘Oliver Townsend?’ A nurse’s voice breaks the silence and we all look up. ‘This way, please.’ As we follow her I’m aware that I do still smell of alcohol and slip a mint into my mouth, although I know it’s futile. The smell is in my skin, and cigarette smoke lingers in my hair.
We go through the same, somewhat hazy story, with the triage nurse and then again with the doctor who comes in to look more closely at Ollie’s arm. He doesn’t say much, but takes the nurse out of the room for a few moments and speaks quietly to her before slipping away down the corridor when she comes back into the room.
‘We’ll give him a nice strong painkiller,’ she says with a smile, taking out a syringe. ‘It might help him rest a bit while you wait for the radiographer. He looks shattered, bless him.’ She eases the syringe into Oliver’s mouth and he scowls at the taste of the medicine, and some of it dribbles down his chin, but he hasn’t the strength to push the woman’s hand away. I stroke his face.
‘Radiographer?’ asks Richard.
‘Oh, it’s just to rule out a fracture,’ says the nurse. ‘It’s very unlikely he’s broken it, though. Babies’ bones are usually far too pliable.’
Richard and I look at each other but say nothing.
Those first weeks, after he was born. What do I remember?
I remember walking up and down our hall, rocking him, saying ‘Why does he hate me?’ Richard laughing at this but then taking him from me, at which point Oliver promptly fell into casual silence on his shoulder.
Part of the reason I was so elated in the hospital, holding Ollie when he was a few hours old (apart from the oxytocin, obviously) was that here, at last, was a person who was mine. Because even then, it was apparent that Richard wasn’t – well, of course he wasn’t; he had a history (with Zoe) and he had to be shared (with Martha). Here was a person who would be my friend, always.
So when it started to seem that Ollie didn’t like me very much, it was crushing.
People tried to reassure me that he was unsettled with me because he could ‘smell the milk’, but this was a joke, surely. My milk came reluctantly, shards of pain yielding nothing but dribbles except in the night when I would wake in useless puddles, the smell of it high in my nostrils. When bout after bout of mastitis, my breasts red hot and rock hard, made it too difficult to feed him myself, I remember spending almost an hour expressing a few pathetic millilitres into a bottle, to have them guzzled by Oliver in seconds.
I felt the oppression of being expected to be happy. My own mother, when I stood weeping in the kitchen, said in her old, exasperated way, ‘How can you be sad? You have a beautiful, healthy baby.’
I remember feeling that everyone else knew what to do – with their babies, and with mine. These new ‘friends’ who were not friends, not really. We didn’t actually know anything about each other, had been thrown together by an accident of timing, of biology.
It was a weird intimacy – we shared birth stories, in all their bloody, wrenching glory, but we each didn’t know what the others had done for a living, or how they met their husbands, and so on. We only found this stuff out months later when, as though stumbling out of a war zone, we remembered we’d had lives before and it occurred to us to ask questions that weren’t related to nappies or feeding or sleep.
There were weekly meet-ups with these ‘friends’ and when it came around to my turn to host, I spent the morning whirling around the house (wipe, hoover, mop, spray air-freshener). I was conscious that on her turn, Julia had baked cakes. I reviewed the contents of the fridge, smelled the milk, noted I had only four teabags left in the cupboard. I couldn’t imagine how I could get Oliver to Waitrose and back in time and finish cleaning the house. Maybe if I stuffed them in a teapot and let it brew for ages, it would be OK. I put a few Penguin biscuits onto a side plate.
One of the girls, Esme, was a real earth mother, and really was a girl, it seemed to me, although she was all of twenty-nine so actually a little older than me. She was barefoot most of the time, her baby peacefully and angelically nestled in her sling.
My baby had a misshapen head and bruised face. He looked like he’d been in a fight. I felt as though I’d been hit by a truck.
I looked enviously at the others who seemed capable of applying mascara, lipstick even. Stared at them, fascinated. I was barely able to brush my own hair. In fact I remember, one day, making the conscious decision to brush my teeth rather than my hair, because that seemed the more important of the two and I felt I only had the time, not to mention the energy, for one of these tasks. Mascara? How?
I remember the tears. Tears that came every day and became normal.
Everything falling out of me. Blood, ridiculous amounts of blood. Pieces of clotted blood that I kept on mattress-like pads to show to the health visitor. One was almost the size of a chicken breast. She inspected it but didn’t appear concerned. I felt wrecked.
Then, in time, handfuls of hair. I’m losing myself, I thought, soon there will be nothing of me left. This was actually a soothing prospect.
Only eating what I could hold in one hand, and not really tasting it. Sugary biscuits melting on my tongue and bringing brief bursts of energy, followed by guilt. The return of the old, ugly voices: ‘you’re fat, you’re disgusting, you’re useless’.
My new shape, in the bath. My body sack-like.
Everything hurting. Breaking.
‘I’m afraid Oliver has sustained what we call a torus fracture. It means the bone is twisted. Do either of you have any idea how it might have happened?’
We look at each other. We’re in a doctor’s room, a behind-the-scenes kind of place, which is not used to seeing members of the public. It has taken some minutes to get chairs organised and to make space for us.
‘No,’ Richard says; the doctor glances at me and I shake my head. He sighs, as though this was the response he expected but he’d hoped for something else. His next words sound a bit like lines from a script.
‘We’re going to put Oliver’s arm in a cast and make him as comfortable as possible. We need to run a few more tests so we’d ask that you stay until the morning.’
I look at the clock. There are no windows in the room but I know that outside it must be light. We should be at home, getting up, getting ready, making breakfast. It’s already morning.
‘What kind of tests?’ Richard is asking.
‘We’ll be looking for . . . any other injuries,’ the doctor says. ‘In these types of cases, because fractures in young children are so . . . unusual, I’m afraid we have to treat the injury as suspicious.’
‘What does that mean?’ Richard’s voice has the slow, stone-like quality I’ve heard many times. Don’t get angry, I will him silently, please. His knees bounce up and down beneath the table, causing his heels to hit the floor with a rhythmic clack, and I resist the temptation to put my hand out to steady him.
‘There will be a social worker along to talk to you in a few hours. And the police.’ At this I feel Richard start to rise from his chair, from the corner of my eye see his mouth open and then close again. The doctor turns to me and says, ‘It’s routine. Please understand. Your son’s safety is of the greatest concern to us right now.’ He starts to get up from his desk, raising a hand to indicate the door, then almost as an afterthought he adds, ‘We’ll let you see Oliver just as soon as he’s settled.’
Let us see him? He’s my baby, I think. The world is upside down, this is all wrong.
I can feel the rage coming off Richard in waves. He’s biting his lip and a strange sound, between a cough and a growl, is forming in his throat, but he says nothing.
‘Thank you, Doctor,’ I mumble, and we are led back to the waiting room.