Empathy By Amanda Marples
We sit on the settee, his pyjamas covered in crumbs; Spiderman obscured by something sticky. Jam, maybe. We’re watching TV, lounging together. The jam, if that’s what it is, is on his hands too, clinging in patches on his palm and the backs of his knuckles, catching on the skin of my own hand, in which his smaller one nestles, hot and alive.
He should probably be doing something else. Something creative, instead of staring at the telly. He should be outside in the mud, poking sticks in the dirt; picking gravel out of his father’s tyres, his boy’s mind meandering. But here we are full of buttered toast watching last night’s X Factor; watching two boys – brothers – singing with acoustic guitars and rapping.
Badly, I think.
I can never anticipate what might interest him, this boy of mine. I look down at our tangled fingers. His nails need cutting. They are dirty, and he really ought to have a bath, get that baby smell back that I love so much. But I love his real smell, even without the talc and the no-tears shampoo. The smell of his head in the morning, it lasts until lunchtime. I tilt my head down, feel his hair on my lips, breathe him in. He lays his head on my chest a moment, two moments, in semiconscious response.
‘Love you, little boy.’
‘Love you too. Are they winning Mum?’
‘No. This is just the auditions.’
‘What’s an auditions?’ He twists his hand out of mine and looks up at me. I can see dark flecks of blue in the lighter ocean of his eyes.
‘An audition is where someone sings for the judges and the judges decide if they’re good enough to be in the competition.’
‘Oh.’ He turns back to the television, relaxing against me. His hand finds mine.
His fingernails, his hands. The smell of his head; sweat and pheromones, a deep dusty smell made from a billion cells held together by who knows what; created from somewhere, some act of love, a smell that fills me up and makes me feel more like a mother than a hundred school pick-ups, a million t-shirts ironed and put away. Motherhood is this smell; connecting something deep inside me back to myself, to origins. I want to hold him to me forever.
I know I can’t.
His sister – my eldest – is curled up in the chair beside us, reading. My little bookworm. Their father is upstairs, it being his turn for a lie-in. We’re good at that, sometimes. We take care of each other in these small ways. Even though we fight over cutlery in the sink and time spent in the bathroom and lack of desire and how long are you going to be on the phone and when are you going to fill the hole in that wall and is this even working anymore? But today he is lying-in, dreaming, maybe of being somewhere else not quite so noisy, not quite so demanding-consuming-draining.
But my baby’s hand is still in mine and I can feel his sweat cooling on my palm, where the creases mirror his.
On the screen there’s an emotional backstory playing out. The brothers have had it rough: busking the streets, neglect and loss and death already behind them, packed tightly into their short lives and then into ten minutes of television. I know what the producers are doing. I shrug inside.
‘What do you think, baby?’, I say to him, ‘Do you think the judges will like them?’
‘I don’t know’ he says. A new tightness has crept into his voice. ‘Are they going to win Mum?’ He grips my hand.
‘Well, I don’t know. Let’s watch and see.’
‘I want them to,’ he says, turning his face up at me again, a frown appearing over his blue eyes, wrinkling his smooth brow. My heart fractures a little. A fine line of pain.
‘Who’s this?’ his big sister says, looking up from her book, one hand holding her page down.
‘Oh, just these brothers.’ I say, ‘They’ll make it through. They’ve had loads of screen time.’
‘Is that how you know?’ she says.
‘Yeah, course,’ I say, thinking about formulae and advertising and how it all tessellates. My free hand goes to the nape of my boy’s head, slides through the ends of his hair where it is still baby soft. I resist the urge to lean forward and breathe him in again. I sigh and wish we could be here forever, lounging and propped by carefully chosen cushions, now stained and picked at the edges. Family markings.
The brothers have not done well.
‘Aw?’ says my son, a question of disappointment and refutation, a resistance. The brothers on screen are near tears.
‘Are they crap?’ my daughter says, looking up from her book again.
‘Not crap, no. Wrong song.’ I say, knowing as I do I am just anticipating what the judges will say, nothing more. ‘They need to sing something different. Do you think they’ll get another chance, mate?’ I ask, kissing the top of my son’s head. He shrugs, still fixed on the faces of these singing brothers. Their guitars hang idle, shameful across their thighs. A bottom lip wobbles in pixels.
‘Is this happening now?’ he says.
‘No. Last night.’ I frown. Something ticks over. ‘In fact, no. This was recorded months ago.’
I wonder how the emotion is transmitted with these images. Is it, even? Or do we put it there ourselves, filling in the spaces? My arm has gone dead but I don’t want to move. His little frame is tense. I rub his head, his shoulder, pull him an inch closer.
The judges are about to make a pronouncement. They are serious, even angry-looking. How dare these rapping brothers waste their time! The boys are pleading for another chance, declaring they really want this, promising hard work, promising they will make the judges proud. Everyone is uncomfortable. The judges too. Or pretending to be. The one in the middle sighs, looks theatrically doubtful. The audience is restless. He waves a hand with weary irritation, before crossing his arms and narrowing his eyes. Make it count, he says.
‘Ah. They’re going to do it acoustic. Stripped back version, Jesus. They love that.’ I smile, knowing that they means us, means the audience. I suspect a set-up.
‘What does that mean?’ he says, his eyes still on the screen.
‘Shh,’ I reply, ‘let’s just watch and see.’
They begin to sing. The bottom lips have settled and there’s a shine to their eyes. Their mother is in the audience; her hands clasped to her chest in a prayer for her boys up there. I understand. I understand the tears standing in her eyes, those waters of desperate, unbearable, bottomless love. They are singing like angels; the judges’ eyes are smiling, their annoyance melting, deftly shot close-ups focusing in on emotions quivering in eyelash and nostril. The judges are starting to look at each other, to nod and smile.
The singers finish, and wait.
A soundtrack steals in on tiptoe – music chosen and added in post-production – a single violin note sustained high and sweet, holding the tension with a faint pulse as the camera zooms in on the judges to capture their faces, opaque in their decision-making. The singers are holding their breath, my boy is holding his breath and holding my hand, I am holding my breath and squeezing him without really knowing it and my girl is poised to turn her page but suspended along with us while we wait; the audience waits, the mother waits and I can see a tear trembling in the rim of her eyelid, longing to run down her face but needing the signal, the reason to roll. In pain, or in ecstasy. And then the main judge smiles and says you’re through to the next round and as the soundtrack crashes into drums and swelling violins and the brothers throw their arms around each other and jump in celebration and relief and the maternal tear finally rolls and the audience stands as one body with their arms in the air, my boy turns into me with a cry and weeps, his hot head thrust into my chest, his body wracked and sobbing with something he doesn’t understand. And my own tears rush up through me like something is overflowing and I know I am reacting to his overwrought six-year-old body that cannot take it cannot be so full of it cannot bear to feel this emotion from so many people from so far away.
We are not built for this.
We’ve all been manipulated, like machines. Press this button, get that output. I want to carry it for him, tell him you don’t have to feel what everyone else feels, here, give it to me. But instead I hold him and let him cry until his hitching chest has settled.
A moment of stillness. And then, ‘It made me feel sad.’ He is broken voiced and frowning, trying to understand himself.
‘Well, it’s ok to feel sad. It made me cry too. Why do you think we feel sad when something is happy?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know.’ He says, rubbing his eyes. My daughter pulls her best face of amused disdain and sinks back into her book.
‘Sometimes, we just feel things son,’ I say, ‘and that’s ok.’
He nods and slides off the settee to play with his Lego, leaving me empty-handed.