6.07 / London Calling

In the Duck Light

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My baby son got a rubber duck in his Christmas stocking. It lights up when you press the little metal sensors on its underside and the heat of the unventilated bathroom keeps it flashing all night. It leads me in to land when I have to piss in the night, listing to the side I had just been sleeping on as if I’m several engines down. It strobes the bath, an emergency vehicle come to pick up the body of the spider my wife smashed with the butt of her anti-dandruff shampoo bottle.

I sit to pee. The cold contracts my hamstrings and my body forgets how to tell itself to urinate. It’s only the buzzing of fireworks outside that prompts realisation at what day it is. What night. What year.

I told my wife I wanted to kiss her at midnight – so I could say I kissed between 2010 and 2011. She flipped a smile like a cop shows his badge – up, then it’s gone, but I know my place. She said she’d see in the new year at the baby’s next feed, but right now: auld lang fucking sleep please.

The baby cries. She sighs. I hate her anger at waking because he needs to eat. She gets to his room without really lifting either foot all the way off the ground. I’ve left the bathroom door open – am sitting legs wide apart, still no peeing action – but I don’t think she sees me, may not have even noticed I was missing from the bed.

She turns up the dimmer so she can read with her eyes three inches away from her book – boy latched on to whichever side matches the wrist she left the hairband on. It’s meant to remind her but she often can’t remember if it signifies the breast she just fed from, or the one that comes next. She sometimes asks me to gauge their weight and I oblige, tongue between teeth, estimating like sacks of sugar at a school fête. Their veins protrude like steroid abuse. When he has a growth spurt, and they engorge and inflame and leave her in damp sheets in the morning, she hisses and curls her toes at even towelling dry from a shower. I used to leave fingerprint bruises on them when I came, then apologise and stroke the red marks away. She would snigger and say she liked it. Now she rolls away from me, cringes, says that’s not what they’re for.

She reads on past the point that the baby is full, and so fast asleep she could toss him back in the cot like a rugby ball. His lips quiver around the nipple like a dog’s back legs chasing rabbits in a dream. Milk pools in a fold of her stomach. She reads one more chapter. A trickle burns me as I finally piss – a pathetic payoff – I watch the toilet paper change from red, to green, to blue in the duck light.

He wakes the instant his back touches the mattress. She sings “swingin’ on a star”, asking him would he rather be a pig? Or a mule, or a fish, delish? He keens his reply, unamused, until she rests him on her shoulder again. I can hear her yawn and her jaw pop from down the hall.

I open the window to find I can only see the fireworks that die on the way up – impotent sparks that fart as they fall. The duck eyes up a flannel with the face of a frog – both have permanent expressions of holy shit what is that? The baby chews them when he bathes and blinks involuntarily at the flashing light. I’m afraid it will reveal epilepsy and we will have that horrifying moment of discovery in this room, in this bath, and I feel sick.

When he was a month or two old I slicked the hinges of his door with olive oil after our creeping out started to wake him – the telltale door that crooned after us “you’re not getting off that easy”. But now I slip noiselessly inside the dimness, too low for me to read, but she’s got through seven novels since he was born, and I lay a hand on her swaying back and raise my chin and my eyebrows to ask if she wants me to take over. She shakes her head, keeps on rockin’. All the monkeys aren’t in the zoo, she whispers, every day you see quite a few. I don’t know what time it is, what year it is, but I give her a new year midnight kiss anyway, brushing his head with stubble and making him squirm into her collarbone.

A couple of weeks later we discover the flashing duck is full of black ooze that bred inside with trapped bathwater. We throw it out, feel bad for the times it has been in the baby’s mouth and it takes me days to acclimatise back to pissing in the dark.

Jo Gatford wants to live on your bookshelf. She has short works published in Litro, The Pygmy Giant, Metazen, Underground Voices, Short, Fast and Deadly, and was a finalist in this year's Aesthetica Creative Works competition. She lives in Brighton and is currently editing her second novel.