Breathe by Caitlin Cording

I’ve been falsely detained under the Mental Health Act. No, that sounds like an SOS message; besides, they’ll know that. Start again. Start again. I was seeing Dr Edmund as an outpatient. They’ll know that too. Better explain. They’ll want detail. Stuff they won’t find in my file. I was suffering from a slight case of insomnia due to work issues, so some friends recommended him. Yes, mention friends. That’s important. On our fifth session, we began to—no—he initiated a more intimate relationship. When I fell pregnant with Tommy, he said he’d take care of us. He promised we’d go public—said he’d admit it to the board. He lied.

A coldness clenches my stomach. The pen drops from my hand. An invisible force presses down on my chest. I start counting the bits of crumbling blue tack on the walls in a desperate bid to ward off the panic, then refocus on the ceiling and count the dead flies trapped inside the fluorescent tube. But it doesn’t help. Grounding techniques rarely do. I grip the desk. The tidal wave rises.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

In.

Out.

I surface with my throat burning. Reaching for the jug of water, I—my God, Tommy. How long has it been since I last checked?

I stand too quickly. Dizziness engulfs me, but still, I stagger towards the Moses basket nestled in the corner of my small and Jordy blue-painted room. Tommy is sleeping peacefully. I scoop him up then slip him inside the swaddle wrap carrier so his cheek is pressed against my chest. He doesn’t stir. Doesn’t murmur. Sometimes I wish he would.

Digging under the sponge mattress, I locate the gun and slide it into the waistband of my jeans. The cool, hard steel bolsters me. I’m in control now. I seize the moment. Drink it in.

The crying starts as a feeble whimpering. The sound bleeding through the walls. I redouble my grip on my still-sleeping baby. Every part of him is touching me, yet I want him closer still.

“Don’t worry,” I whisper, my voice scratchy. “Mummy’s going to get us out of here.”

I move back to the desk and study my note. The words formed in light and hasty strokes. Somehow, they remind me of who I was before all this. Before, when I consumed life with an unquenchable thirst. Before his doughy armchair and beguiling smile.

I press my fingers to my temples. Shut down the memories before they come. Pick up the pen and focus. Try to pull more words from my brain. But then the whimpering subsides and the real crying begins. The wailing grates at my every nerve. “Shut him up! Shut him up before he wakes mine!”

I’m thumping at the wall when a sharp rap at the door interrupts me. A nurse with a prosaic face pops her head round. I hate how they’ve all got keys.

“Really, Jessie? I thought you’d stopped with that nonsense.”

“They’re taunting me. Trying to make me jealous. I mean, what kind of mother just lets her baby cry like that?” I say, gesturing.

The nurse’s gaze flicks from me to the wall and back again. Then she pretends she hasn’t heard.

Pretend. That’s all they do here.

“The doctor is ready to see you.”

“Already? But I thought I still had an hour?”

Panic squeezes my insides.

Breathe. Just breathe.

“Sorry, love, but he’s waiting.” She’s not sorry. Doesn’t look it at all. She moves into my room. Moves close to me. I smell peppermint and cigarettes.

Stretching out a hand, she runs her forefinger down Tommy’s cheek. I try to say something, but the words snag my throat like thorns. Her lips purse and she hums. That hum. I can’t stand it. I’ve never figured out what it means.

Tommy’s bottle rests on the desk. But I don’t bother reaching for it. There’s no point. Tommy’s not a hungry baby. He can do without.

The nurse’s fingers close around my elbow, and she guides me through the door. The air is thicker on the ward. Like breathing through a straw. Yet patients mooch around here. I know their stories without knowing their names. They amble aimlessly, yawn and stretch, but there’s a barrenness about them. They’re desolate. Like background actors in a play. It’s the pills. They make you malleable. Make you conform. I won’t let my eyes ever look that haunted. Won’t ever let Tommy’s look that glazed.

I bow my head. Walk slowly. Lend courage from my baby and reassurance from the gun. The nurse keeps glancing sideways. She’s tracking my every move. I get the feeling she’s suspicious, so I start on a rant about the tinny rattle of the dinner trolley and how it wakes Tommy from his naps. I keep talking until we pass the OT room and catch a waft of paint. My stomach twists. I forgot I’ll miss woodwork tomorrow. Now I’ve finished my last project, I promised Tommy I’d carve him something special, like a wooden spoon or a bird.

Up ahead, I glimpse the meeting room. It’s one great whitewashed, insipid space. Everything’s in its plastic, sterile, and nothing’s out of place. Chairs and tables line the walls. They’re not so far apart that you couldn’t overhear your neighbour if you strained. Modern psych wards don’t believe in privacy. We’re brainwashed to think this is the norm.

It doesn’t matter, I remind myself. The gun, it’ll go off like a sonic blast. Everyone will hear. Everyone will see.

The nurse loosens her grip on my elbow. Gives me a smile I don’t return. She holds the door open. I fold my arms around Tommy. Take a shaky step.

Breathe in.

Blood in my ears like the roll of an ocean drum.

Breathe out.

My heart skitters.

Breathe in.

My nerves crackle and spit.

Breathe out.

I see him. Sitting two tables away. I see him. Sitting there with his life and career untarnished. I see him. Grey stubble dusting his jawline. Glasses slightly askew. His lanyard with the key dangling from his neck. He’s a monster in a posh suit.

My fingers move to my hips. Trace the shape of the gun over the denim. I could do it now. End it now. Swallow this envy and spit it out as hate. Right now.

Except I think Tommy’s gurgling. A noise he makes when he’s going to be sick. I falter. Distracted. No, not gurgling. He’s still asleep. His soft, shiny eyelashes rest against his milk-spotted cheeks.

“Jessie?”

My name seems to echo all around me. My skin prickles, and I know he’s cutting across the room. Moving with that easy, rolling gait. When he reaches me, I jut my chin. Meet his gaze. Something in his flickers and I can tell he understands this time it’s different. I won’t play his games.

“Why won’t you let us live in the mother and baby unit?” I don’t ask for want of knowing. I’ve heard his excuse a thousand times. But it feels important that some part of him recognises his cruelty. I want him to acknowledge our suffering before he dies.

“Why don’t we talk about something else for a while, huh? How’s your therapy going? Are you taking your medication?” He wraps an arm around my waist. Tries to lead me to a chair.

I bristle. Sidestep. Shrug him off. “Answer me.”

But he doesn’t. His hands dry wash his face like he’s trying to rub out the lines.

I focus on his chest. Watch the way the plastic card rises and falls in time with his every breath. Then I notice the yellow blotch staining his collar. The way he’s misbuttoned his shirt. Somewhere deep inside me, this registers. But I can’t quite figure out what it means.

“I can’t,” he says at last.

“Why can’t you?” I ask, spitting out the words like they’re acid on my tongue. “You’re in charge. You’re the reason I’m stuck here. The whole reason everybody believes I’m some crazed fantasist. Why can’t you just do one half-decent thing for us? Why refuse the move?”

“I’m not. I’m not a psychiatrist anymore, remember? And there’s no mother and baby unit next door.” He leans forward, pushes the key card in my face. “See? A visitor pass. The board revoked my license after I told them about us. About Tommy.”

His lies inflame me. I slide my hand into my jean’s waistband, my fingers wrapping around the gun. But a sharp splinter pricks me. Catches me off guard. I retract my hand. Fast. Too fast. The gun tumbles to the ground. Lands with a hollow clatter.

The crack in the barrel splits me in two.

“Tommy died of SIDS,” he says, staring sadly at the wooden gun. “You’re in here because—because the grief was too much. They thought… giving you a kind of substitute might help.” He nods his head at Tommy.

Sleeping Tommy.

My precious boy.

I brush my finger against his cheek, but he doesn’t stir. Doesn’t mummer. I’ve never wished so hard he would.


About Caitlin

Caitlin Cording is a full-time writer concentrating on her first novel. She recently obtained first prize in the Reader Writer Lounge International Short Story Competition and has had her works accepted for publication in a handful of literary magazines. She lives in Wales with her wife and son.

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38 thoughts on “Breathe by Caitlin Cording

  1. I was on the edge of my seat from start to finish and eager to find out what was going to happen at the end! Brilliant writing 👏👏👏

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  2. Outstanding piece!Gutted when I came to the end! Definitely left me thinking and wanting more. Felt like I was there in the moment with the amount of detail! Well done x

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  3. Writer uses expressive and atmospheric read which leaves reader with unforgettable read and leaves reader with haunting questions wanting more

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  4. This is a brilliant read. Left me wanting to read more. You are a very talented writer Caitlin. I’m looking forward to reading your novel.

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    1. That was an amazing read. It felt like I was with her the whole time and it was a great experience. Great work. Looking forward to your novel.

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  5. This incredible story involved each of my senses–by the end of the story, I felt I could even smell the musty old facility and “cigarettes and peppermint!” I felt affected by the same emotions and anger as Jessie, and although I suspected her delusion, I wanted her and Tommy to prevail. What a powerful story!

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