This is a story I wrote during lockdown when we were all stuck inside, many of us with lots of children to feed and entertain. Motherhood has never been easy. Inspired by the painting by August Heyn
They hadn’t been out of the house for months. Stay at home. Don’t spread the disease. They said it was the plague. Painted crosses had started appearing on houses further down the street. Whatever it was, was spreading. That was all very well but there were seven of them living in two rooms on an upper floor of an overcrowded street of timber framed makeshift prisons. Most people didn’t bother to go out anymore – they didn’t want to risk catching anything and bringing it into the home. The streets were deserted except for the scavengers. The big houses had already had their kitchens stripped bare – their owners had long since scarpered for the country. Her baby now had her own cot which some little lord or lady must have slept in; they all had shiny new clothes “borrowed”, her husband said, from a stranger’s wardrobe; and she and her husband had fine new tapestried chairs to sit on. The novelty of having new things had soon worn off.
She encouraged her husband in his enterprises and to go out because if he didn’t go out every now and again she would probably end up killing him. There was always the worry that he was bringing the disease home but they had been lucky so far. When he was home he paced around the living room like a caged bear. He took no interest in looking after the children – that was women’s work. He wouldn’t read to them or teach them to write their letters. There was no work to be had. Everything had shut down. He did what he did to feel like the man of the house. He was providing for them. She just wished he would provide the right things.
How were you supposed to explain to four children under ten that they couldn’t go outside; they couldn’t see their friends; there was no tea tonight. They’d grown lethargic in recent days and had stopped asking to go out. That was worse. They were tired and hungry. The baby was the least of her worries – she couldn’t ask questions yet and didn’t know any different. She probably thought it was normal having all your family around you all the time.
The next youngest stood looking up at her in her borrowed finery. “Mummy, I’m hungry.” And she just put her head in her hands and wept.