1:30AM. We’re driving back across the city; the world outside is calm and still. Always a nice time to drive, empty streets, a clear sky. He’s in pyjamas, I’m not wearing a bra, but we managed coats. Radio 4 hums in the background, almost inaudible, but there, just enough to take the edge off the silence. We wind through Sciennes and Marchmont, wobbling over cobbled streets and uneven speed bumps. He speaks first.

“Do you think Gran will be sad that I almost died?”

Words evaporate before they make it out. Are we talking about this? Now? I pause. Of course she would. I tell him she loves him more than anything in the world. I love him more than anything in the world.

“If I did die, I’m sure you’d make me the fanciest funeral ever.”

I say nothing for a moment, unsure how to navigate his cavalier treatment of it — death. Hadn’t we just brushed it a few hours ago? It was still clinging to us. Death marks life, of course, but so does the nearly. The imprint of the night’s events is part of our story now.

Mid-afternoon 1994, I’m probing my own mother with the same questions. I’m seven too. I’m also sitting in the passenger seat of a Vauxhall. My foot is on the dash, I’m pressing wet peach flannel against the big wound on my leg. It’s rusting as blood meets fibres, spreading like ink in water. I’m contemplating my mortality for the first time. Will I die today?

History throws up echoes sometimes. He and I both seven years old. He and I in the first week of the summer holidays. He and I with fun that went wrong. He’d choked on a ball-bearing, I’d been lunch for local dogs.

“Am I going to die?” I’d asked mum.

“Of course not”.

2017, the car moving through Gorgie now. I tell him about the parallels. The age, the summer holidays, the freak accident. I make a mental note to roll up my jeans when we’re home and show him the scars. He’s proud of his badges from almost eight years of misadventure. The boy with the sliver of wood in his finger. The boy who crashed through the wendy house roof. The boy who ran so hard into a pole I thought he was sprouting a second head. I was that child too. Up things, in things, exploring, testing, falling often. The marks things like this leave that time softens. Bruise-purple scars to milk-white stripes.

But not death. Death is singular in its ability to mark your world. A full-stop. The last sentence of a great book. I think about my bright, blonde boy full of life beside me, looking out the window, talking, putting himself in the same sentence as that big word. People lose children every day. They meet that unknowable pain that haunts all parents from the moment they kiss a tiny head and feel little fingers curl around theirs. A pain that flattens the contours of your existence and splits a life into two parts – before, when everything was good, and after, where the light doesn’t reach. Children and death. Not words to be spoken too closely, you know, in case you jinx it.

My mother felt it. I feel it now. Your child, an accident, an almost, an ending too close to the start.

MY paternal grandmother was kind, but rational. Tall, straight, silver, proper. Always old. Forever a matron. She wore slips. Knitted jumpers. Made wedding cakes. Her house smelled like soup, and her garden, neat as a clipped nail, of fattening tomatoes. Our room was full of love. A rocking horse. Magnetic swans that danced across jewellery box mirror lake. A duck-down duvet, a flat sheet with hospital corners, layered lovingly as her cakes. She made my mother call her “Mrs Mitchell”.

She’d said she’d buy me a proper gift after my first birthday. “You never know if they’re going to make it.” My mother considered the second-hand romper, its scratchy polyester, and cried. It didn’t seem the right sort of gift for the first child of her youngest son. Coupled with the audacity to mention death to a new mother, those words solidified, and have been carried since.

Not so long ago, childhood here was synonymous with death. Gran lived through that. Sickness, poverty, war. There were no guarantees. Even by then, the 80s, things weren’t rosy. Infant mortality has gone down 67 per cent in the last 40 years. Parents once lived close to that shadow. Maybe to mention death now would be to invite it closer again.

HARRY choked and I felt the shadow. In Arlowe’s scream for his twin, in the gasping, I felt it. I momentarily glimpsed the unuttered bifurcated life hanging over this moment as I thumped his small back over, over, over, over. A frail little bird, four stone, all spine and scapula, not built for impact. But I thump with everything.

This isn’t it. It can’t be. Not yet, I think, as the past balloons and gets in the way of the bits that are supposed to remember what to do. Thump again and again. He’s an ice sheet, cracked, threatening to break off and float away from me, from his twin, from the grey semi with the squash-faced cat and the sausage dog. This is what fear feels like. The fully formed kind, solidified and contoured by proximity to that unimaginable pain, the loss of a child. Don’t die. Please, don’t die. “I’ve got you, don’t panic, I’m here.” Where did those words come from?

Usually, the space between breaths lasts a second. To watch it stretch out with each passing second is to lose all connection to reality. The universe unwinds itself, loses its orders, its rhythms, its predictable sequence of the quotidian parts of human existence. The future recedes, the world beyond this moment clouds like a cataract in front of you.


It popped out, and a suck of air, in, in, in. I hold his little face in my hands searching for confirmation that it’s over. Yes. But there was no ricochet. Steel ball, wooden floors. Where the hell is it? Hours later it’d be there on an X-ray, solid black against the map of his little bones. Below the diaphragm. Not in the lungs. Good news. Just bruises and an anecdote. Good news.

So we went home. Harry and I reunited with the rest who’d been waiting for so long, we squeezed together, a hug like a lettuce, arms wrapped around in layers. We went to bed together. All five sardined in, toes brushing toes, fingers interlocked, nose-to-nose, nose-to-ear, nose to hair. We held one another until each small thing drifted off in turn.

And so it was that I pictured my children, in the now and in the what if. In the mirrorverse where our bad times are good, and our happy endings are our greatest sadnesses. I searched for the gentle, rhythmic suck of their sleeping breath, and found it, listening to its music, reassuring as a heartbeat. It made me grateful. Grateful for the hogged duvet. Grateful for teeth grinding to my left, snoring to my right, the foot in my ribs. What precious gifts, every one.