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I came to as if cracking through ice, gasping, a fish with a hook down its throat. Ice, fish, throat: sounds dragging concepts, a lag, but also a cellular knowing. Lines of sticky sensors circled my head and ran down my chest and across my back, faintly itchy where they adhered like octopus suckers, trailing red and white and blue wires, as if my arteries and veins were external to my body.

I wish I could say the first thought I had was of my children, but what came to mind was Wolfie’s favourite cereal. Sometimes I ate it late at night when the kids were with Jean-Paul. I didn’t always bother to do the shopping when the children were gone—and wouldn’t do it until they were due to come home, to save money. I was probably depressed then, ferociously spooning up the little wheat squares into my mouth by the light of the open fridge, feeling I had set a detonation off under my life and now had to live in its aftershocks as a kind of punishment.

I had set a detonation off under my life and now had to live in its aftershocks as a kind of punishment.

A voice, soft and high and urgent—Grace, though I didn’t know it then. ‘Esther?’

The name was mine. I knew that I was an I. A self. Myself. The taste of wheat and jam and full cream milk were there on my tongue, as tangible as if I had a mouthful I needed to swallow.

The voice said, ‘Try to stay calm. You’re okay. I’m looking after you.’ Clatter of metal on metal. Movement: the soft snare of fabric, synthetic thighs brushing. A brisk walk. Warm hands working over skin, rubbing. My skin. I burned with cold, as if being set alight.

There was only one voice, hushed and urgent, muttering. A bathroom smell: antiseptic, lemon, cool white tiles. Shhh, shhh, the voice went, tsking and clucking in time with the hands, making the same soothing noises I had made in the nursery in the dead of night, rocking newborn Clare while Jean-Paul slept on, wearing earplugs so he could wake in a decent state for work. We thought that was a reasonable arrangement then. It had been my idea—altruistic on the surface, belying the limits of my capacity underneath.

By the time Wolfie was born two years later, Jean-Paul was sleeping in the guest room, and I was going mad. This seems ironic now, given I was in that state to protect Jean-Paul’s job, which as a psychiatrist revolved around caring for other crazy people. What of my experience fell within the normal experience of early motherhood and what was pathological? I didn’t know the answer and couldn’t ask him, terrified of being deemed unequal to the task of mothering Clare and Wolfie by some invisible judge. Jean-Paul seemed to think everything was in order and, as I had made him the arbiter of my reality, I accepted his diagnosis hook, line and sinker.


I was electric with pain as Grace tended me in the dark. I smelled something cool and coppery, like a coin laid on the tongue. Her hands on my skin made bursts of blistering lava break over me, the way fingers through darkened water will trigger blooms of phosphorescence. I couldn’t quite tell which was the dream: what was happening in the room or my thoughts and memories. I had seen phosphorescence once, travelling in Thailand with Zoey. We were nineteen and high on magic mushrooms, drinking cheap Thai whisky out of a bucket with eight straws stuck in the ice. After sunset, I stayed on the sand, but she staggered into the water. The cove was almost glassy in its stillness. Behind us, music from the guesthouse bar came beating down the beach and I turned to watch the dancers in silhouette against the jungle rising sharply behind us.

Her hands on my skin made bursts of blistering lava break over me.

‘Holy fuck!’ Zoey screamed, half laughing to cover her terror, and I turned so fast to see what had happened that a ribbon of whisky flew out of the bucket onto my skirt. Zoey stood wearing a look of fear and wonder I’ve only seen one other time: on Jean-Paul’s face, as our babies were being born.

‘The sky’s fallen into the water, Esther.’ Her voice was reverential. It did look that way. We swam in the phosphorescence every night for as long as we stayed on that island, and I knew then that the world was just a strange repetition of shapes and meanings, the macro and micro repeating and repeating. Patterns of milk ducts in breasts and veins in lungs with the roots of trees. Tree rings with human fingerprints. Constellations of stars with bioluminescence.

Grace’s touch brought my body further into focus, her hands cartographic. Black space lit up under the pressure of contact: elbow, forearm, hands. Mine. But the pain of it. My muscles contracted, writhing. The sound in the room: an animal dying.

‘I’m so sorry,’ Grace said. ‘I’ve got to rub you down hard like this to get things going.’ At my lips: cloying tape, sticky and strong. I jerked my hands to remove it and found they were tied down. A prick in my arm and the pain submerged back into itself, darkness retreating from torchlight. Screams became moans. Then I lay quiet.

With eyes rolled back in my skull, I saw something. A newborn baby caked in cheese-like vernix, blue lipped, squalling. The tiny purple-pink hands, nails like pearly flecks of shell, fingers curled with the effort of crying. The baby’s eyes clenched shut, mouth open, the wail so forceful no sound came. Latex-fingered midwife; a towel, white and blood-streaked. She rubbed the infant harshly to make it draw breath. Soon its skin was pinking, vernix wiped clean. A blanket drew the flayed arms in. Swaddled, the baby was lifted, passed. Those were my arms. Looking down at the child, that was my wedding ring glinting there on the left hand as it touched the infant’s cheek.

I tried to say, ‘Where is he?’ A word, that critical word, was missing. My voice had rusted over, machinery long out of use. Snake’s skeleton hung down my throat, sharp-boned and choking. Even so, the name was clotting there, unsayable. I heard it in my skull, resounding like a bell.

Wolfie. Wolfie. Wolfie!

Grace was talking as she worked. I heard her say, ‘Shh, you’re safe now, Esther.’ I vaguely registered the note of anxiety in her voice, discordant with the words. But I was too exhausted to indicate that I was listening.

The effort it was taking just to order my thoughts was like nothing I’d experienced before.

I lay bogged in mud for a time, until fingers encircled my wrist. The woman clucked anxiously, murmuring to herself.

‘Your blood pressure’s still too low.’ Her voice grew faint as she retreated across the space, then louder again: ‘Now, where are those bloody blankets?’

I wanted to say ‘Don’t go,’ but the words were only a longing. I was trapped in honey, in amber, voiceless but preserved.

Soon she was back. ‘I’m going to take this tape off your eyelids slowly, so that you can see.’

I felt it then, a graze across both lids and the lids themselves heavy, gummed as if with hardened wax. The sweet, high voice, close to my ear. ‘Now, try to open your eyes, Esther. Don’t fight me. I need you to be nice and calm before I can try to take the breathing tube out.’ Low murmuring: words I couldn’t make out. ‘I’ll turn down the lamp for you, there. Open your eyes slowly. Take your time about it.’

Dim light, a hot blade. I blinked, blinked, blinked, and felt like retching. Later, I will think that describing a room as swimming into focus had always seemed a bit of a stretch to me, but that’s what it was like. Flat on my back, blinking at the ceiling, the face peering down at me. I felt I was looking up from the bottom of a lake.

‘Oh dear, your heart rate,’ the woman said quietly, her voice coming small and pinched as if she was trying to keep her thoughts from spilling out. ‘Try to stay calm!’ She squeezed my hand where it lay flat, bound against the rails. Her face was just a spectrum of tones, like a watercolour painting. She said, ‘You’re in shock. I know you’ll have a lot of questions. I can help you. But I can’t take that tube out of your throat until you’re stable.’

I heard what she said, but the words did not penetrate; they slid off like oil on water. Another name was surfacing inside me, painful as a contraction and more urgent than anything the voice in the room might articulate. Clare. I heard myself choking on the sound of the name, the gurgle and spit of my vocal cords against the breathing tube.

I heard what she said, but the words did not penetrate; they slid off like oil on water.

‘Shh,’ the woman said. ‘Don’t try to talk just yet. You hear what I’m saying?’

The body was just a hunk of something, a creature strapped down, a weight. I was somewhere inside, clawing to get out. My limbs trembled, all the hinges and sockets and joints of my body alive with the friction of shifting tectonic plates. Fingers cuffed my ankles, gripping my legs to stop them shivering off the bed. The balls of my eyes rolled. My head turned side to side on its neck as if looking for an exit.

‘You’re clammy,’ Grace said, trying for matter-of-fact. An alarm sounded, sharp and urgent, or maybe it was something inside me. ‘Can you hear me, Esther?’ The cacophony of the room, all those screeching electronic noises, the urgent human voice, blurred together to form a single high-pitched flatlining note.

‘Your blood pressure’s going berserk.’ The woman seemed to be swaying as she spoke, her voice rising and receding as if it were a wave breaking and drawing back. ‘All right, but listen: you’re going to be okay. Okay? I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.’ She sounded on the verge of tears. I had the urge to reach out and offer her comfort but at that moment all the blood in my body roiled up towards my head, like a pot of pasta boiling over.

The woman screamed, as if to prevent me from stepping into oncoming traffic. ‘No, Esther! Stay with me here. Please.’

But I was already falling backwards into a deepening shaft. Far above, the real world, a disc of light, receded to a prick.

This is an edited extract from If You Go by Alice Robinson (Affirm Press), available now at your local independent bookseller.