[Warning: content includes infant death]
It is more difficult to look up at the sky than it is down at the floor. This is why, when we are feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed, we look at our toes. It is why those at the top of their field can comprehend those below them whilst the less well-informed can only fumble and grasp at the musings of their betters. So it is with my endeavour.
I have long since accepted my lot of looking down upon those around me. What solace would there be in confiding my plans in my wife, for example? What insight could she add to such a project? I am alone with my genius and my heartache. Is it too much to ask for silence as I work?
The arrangement of my test tubes and Bunsen burners must seemingly wait as, above me in the house, my wife is failing to quiet our second-born. His plaintive cries may well mean hunger to her; they simply result in a lack of focus for me. My work must have silence and if I must wait until she quiets the child to sleep then so be it.
There. My planning has meant that the last sunlight of the day streams through the basement window and onto my table. Dust motes float above bubbling liquid and are buffeted by jets of steam. Engines chug quietly in the background. Everything is industry. Everything is science. It must be this way. Once my workspace had pretensions of homeliness. My wife had seen fit to place family photographs on the wall and our children’s drawings on my desk – a well-meaning gesture no doubt but one which only served to clutter and distract.
There must be laboratory conditions down here. Even now, I can smell the scent of evening lavender filtering through the window. How could I have been so slack? Such a variable could render my experiment meaningless! The window is shut and the curtains drawn. Perhaps it is better this way – some things are not meant to see the light of day.
Where the senses fail us, reason must step in. So it is with science – such blunt tools can only take us so far. I have a log burner in my subterranean laboratory. I stoke the flames and pile the wood high. Only when the temperature is right can my work begin.
Music now, shivering down the walls of one of the apartments above. It isn’t my wife – she would never be so thoughtless. It is one of my slack-jawed neighbours, married only to their guttural pleasures and ignorant that history is being made underneath their feet. I sit, and seethe, and stoke the fire, and wait. It is Schubert or Chopin, I’m not sure which. I try and judge if the piece is coming to an end, but the crescendos and diminuendos tease rather than titillate. It is a never-ending ode to idleness and self-aggrandisement.
The appetite for mirth is finally sated, and the music is turned off. My work can begin in earnest. A pipette of fluid here, the introduction of some bacteria there. As it always has, time flies when I am working. When I look up again a wan light is creeping around the curtains and I can hear the floorboards above me creaking. It is nearly time.
I am about to enter the final stage when there is a commotion from outside. A pair of toddlers’ welly boots can be seen silhouetted through the curtains. I can hear his mother telling him to come away from the basement when Daddy is working. There is a brief protest when he asks for me, but my son sees sense and leaves me to work in peace. There will be time for him later.
I need no incentive to turn back to my equipment. Putting on my goggles, I take from my lab coat pocket an infant’s sock. The product of my night’s labour soaks eagerly into the white cotton, and I carry the stained garment over to the log burner. The incantations are easy to remember for a mind such as mine, and the flames soon take the sock. My Latin words sound oddly flat, reflected back at me by the basement walls.
Nothing is happening.
I pay more attention to the pronunciation and inflection of my words – perhaps it is in the elocution.
Wait. There, in the midst of the flames, a face. I wouldn’t know it was there if I weren’t looking for it, but I can see it, bordered by the crooked log and the metal grate. It is the face of my deceased daughter. The fire sputters and she is gone again. It does not matter. She was there, I know it, and if I got her back once I can get her back again. She was in the flames, as peaceful as when I last set eyes on her in the crib. Such beauty.
The hot room and the safety goggles have made my eyes water and I take a moment to run my hands through my hair and reflect on what I have just achieved. I must not let this moment go to waste. Notes must be made, reflections captured.
This part of science is never easy. It is not made any easier by my son reappearing at the window. I can hear his boots crunching in the gravel and his mother hissing at him that they will be late for school. It is a regular day for them. Little do they know that, under their very noses, magic has just been made.
*Thanks for reading, folks. Thought I’d highlight the work of the Lullaby Trust who do some amazing work supporting anyone who has experienced the death of a baby or young child. Images courtesy of Wallpaperflare, Needpix, and pxfuel.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order.