Calla Preece

Short Fiction

Watching television together gave me time to sneak those little glances down towards her nails. This was important because it was my job to keep Alice’s nails clean and proper just like it was my job to keep the whole of Alice clean and proper. I would examine her and shake lightly in just the way she liked, her face making those sweet little sounds that I liked, talk to her and point to the screen to say, ‘This here actor was in such-and-such and that actor used to be married to that actor but is now married to this actor and those two actors hate each other because the one in the blue cardigan has a lovechild with the actor riding the horse,’ which really was a very lovely thing to do. I checked the nails because when she was born I’d been told by my own mother (and also some mothers on the internet that were hopefully mothers and not just others pretending to be mothers) that newborns’ nails are so soft and delicate that they wear down by themselves on contact with their clothes and skin and indeed my clothes and my skin. This was a very strange thing that you would absolutely not notice at all except when you looked out for it, and when you did it was so easy to get distracted and for a moment just see the nails looking so soft and pretty, each of them growing so slowly and then filing themselves down so that it seemed they weren’t moving at all. That is, until the one morning when I noticed the nails jutting out ever so slightly. Becoming these small little nails that you could imagine scratching into or hanging onto something. That day I watched the little nails scurrying around the hand and I pinched the fingers with my own fingers and I tried comparing the fingers. My own nails had grown longer too. The polish that I liked that was called Ballet Shoes or Lilacness had receded into the little islands like it does, and it was lovely seeing Alice’s nails and then my own nails that were the little islands. The longer nails meant Alice was older and stronger now too, that really I was doing very well working to be a good mother, with Alice’s face all curled up and wrinkled and with too much skin and making the little happy squealing sounds she would, her fingers just now ready for their first cutting, and her eyes watching the television and maybe not picking out the details because really it would be some time before she saw colour, and without the colour I did wonder if the pictures on screen were anything but a series of lights and mirrors.

A day later I checked for the nail clippers first in all of the usual places and then after that I checked in the more unusual places. I checked underneath the fridge, pulling the fridge out into the centre of the kitchen and revealing the grime and the thrown around crumbs and the safety pins and the remains of peppers and onions and the unmentionable stuff sticking itself out of the green and brown grease. Dug through the makeup bag that when opened puffed up that sickly sweet smell of caked concealer. The broken bathroom light meant I had to search the cabinet in darkness and then I left sanitary towels and empty shampoo bottles and plastic razor heads all over the blueblack tiled floor. It was while I was routing through the bedside drawer that I heard the cry and ran back to Alice who was awake now watching a new man who wasn’t an actor explaining about gardening. I told Alice, ‘When he was younger no one knew he was gay and then he got married and then he cheated on his wife and now no one knows if we’re supposed to be happy for him or not,’ and Alice was very calm and very drowsy and she did not say anything back because she was still very far away from saying anything back at all. 

I kept not finding the nail clippers and I thought that this was not okay but I was not too worried. I considered driving somewhere to buy some, but it was still cold outside and it was best not to take a newborn most anywhere in case something happened, so I contented myself in knowing I would find them eventually. Besides, on the advice of the internet mothers I had already enacted what they called a “critical mass approach” when it came to such things as nail clippers. That is, I had bought tens and tens of them and had peppered them all over the house with the hope that when need arose for one I would simply have to reach into a nearby coffee mug or else under a sofa cushion and—hey presto!—it would be right there waiting for me. It was not nice having the system fail now, but I thought it best not to worry too much about it. The internet mothers had warned against stress. Instead we focused on the soap-opera shows and late-night-talking shows and home-improvement shows and we’ve-got-too-much-plastic shows and she-who-I-thought-was-my-mother-turned-out-not-to-be-at-all-my-mother shows and we’re-turning-this-old-church-into-a-hotel shows and country-living shows which told you how to store herbs and grow avocado plants and the other shows where I would be like Alice and not even be sure if I was seeing anything or if it were all just a series of lights and mirrors. It was nice. It let you lie with Alice and talk to Alice, who would then sometimes reply in that internal language that I sometimes hope that I can maybe understand. That language which is much harder to write down and feels slightly angrier and more guttural that you say with your body and the smells from your body and with your organs squelching all together just below your skin. With words that come out as burps and sickups like before when Alice first told me she was unhappy by spilling out bits of bile down my top. It really was a big and beautiful thing that for no reason at all I could sometimes know her intricacies just by the little spit bubbles drooling out of her mouth. It was a thing not spoken about by most of the books or any of the internet mothers or even my own mother and a thing I certainly did not see in any of the television shows that we would watch together. Though I remember thinking how there were no shows about babies’ nails and how I had reached a point where all I wanted in the whole world was for smiling and television-ready faces to talk calmly and beautifully about the intricacies of babies’ nails.

The searching for the nail clippers amongst other things did make it so there wasn’t much time for cleaning or washing much of anything that wasn’t Alice or Alice’s clothes, which then meant, with the fridge in the middle of the kitchen and the bathroom light all broken and the clothes strewn around the rooms, it could be very embarrassing if anyone ever came round to visit. Though I think only my mother ever came round. She was to only drop off shopping and then only for the briefest moment and really I would try and make it so that she wouldn’t come further than the hallway. I did not ask her for clippers because I made it very clear that I could manage. Understand when I saw the gay television gardener play with worms I knew that I also was not afraid of worms. I knew that as a girl I could hold them up in the playground and then hide them in boys’ jackets. I just hoped that Alice would also be okay with hiding worms when the time came when it was appropriate for her to do so.

But worms were one of the many things that we should absolutely not let anywhere near a newborn. Just like we must be careful about when they should be going to bed and how much sun they should be getting and the exact time for weaning and the appropriate toys to optimise development and how you must always leave at least some portion of the day undiapered and take them on walks for stimulation and burp them upright and place them on their backs when they sleep and always always make sure their nails are clean and soft and proper. In fact at some point I was told very meanly by the internet mothers that Alice’s nails had become far too long. I had wanted to ask some advice on developing Alice’s neck strength and maybe about the mothers’ least favourite nursery rhymes, and somehow the discussion had become not about reverse cradling or “Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight” but instead about how Alice’s nails were no longer nails but talons and claws and hooks and that there was something terrible about any mother that would deprive their child of something as important as having freshly cut and trimmed nails. I tried to explain that their critical mass approach wasn’t working but the mothers were not obliged to answer this explanation and so they did not answer. There was a far more pressing crisis and Alice and I were quickly forgotten about and I thought that this was strange because a baby really is the last thing in the whole world that should ever even for a moment be forgotten about.

Days passed before I spoke to a mother again and I tried not to think too hard about these internet mothers and how they had all the time in the world and did not struggle at all with keeping their ten-bedroom houses clean and their surgeon husbands fed and their two Yorkshire terriers on a healthy five walks a day and who always made sure to go out for coffee with their little ones and to chat pleasantly with each other in cafes, charmingly and coquettishly smiling to the waiters to get extra hashbrowns and black pudding and to indulge in their little fantasies of wandering eyes. I explained to Alice that there were sadly people in this world that were very mean and very horrible and that it was essential for her generation grow up to be better than the last, though I realise this was a lot of pressure to put on a newborn. And really I did have to admit that Alice’s nails really were somewhat ever so slightly just a tiny bit too long now. There was dirt appearing sometimes around the edges of them and because they were not painted there didn’t seem anyway to hide this dirt. Which meant again I searched the bathroom. I couldn’t find the torch so I searched in the dark, feeling through the empty boxes of paracetamol and hair removal cream and the wetness of the floor because the floor was always wet now since the shower curtain fell down, and again I couldn’t find the clippers anywhere. I was sitting in the wet and feeling the dampness getting all inside my leggings, moving around the boxes on the floor and just not seeing clippers. There didn’t seem any nail clippers in the whole world and I tried not letting that be a bad thing but sitting there on the tiled floor it felt like a very very bad thing.

I decided then that it was important that no matter what I trim down Alice’s nails. That there really were some essential and immovable responsibilities of motherhood. I picked myself from the floor and brought all the wetness with me, moved into the kitchen, picked those big scissors I had that were usually reserved for bacon, and went towards Alice. The television was showing a cooking show about a comedian who had stopped being a comedian and had decided instead to become a chef. Alice was looking very calm or at the least calm enough and I thought I could cradle her little body and let her keep watching the television. I brought the scissors in close to her, the scissors looking too big and almost the size of her and with the brief thought that surely Alice couldn’t be this small, except of course she was this small, and I held the pinkie of her left hand out with her nail that was long and maybe slightly dirty and with the colour that was the same colour of my nails now that the little islands had all chipped away. I tried cutting slowly and very gently. Pressing the scissors down like I was cutting the softest and most delicate paper in the world. Like the paper that my mother had sent Alice’s present in, the crinkly pink stuff that nested her knitted socks that were really far too big for Alice but were regardless a lovely gesture towards the mending of certain bridges. It was very nice because I was cutting the nail and realising that I wouldn’t cut nails the same way again. That is, I wouldn’t be cutting Alice’s nails for the first time again, which felt a very intimate thing to share with Alice and I told her so, said, ‘Alice this is a very intimate thing and you do have the softest of soft fingernails.’ I cut down and Alice seemed slightly nervous and I think I was slightly nervous too, which maybe caused me to get slightly annoyed and to maybe cut down just a little bit harder and less carefully than I had intended. Which was bad because Alice started crying. It was very bad whenever Alice cried and I really would hate it whenever I made Alice cry.

The crying stopped the cutting and I thanked the world then that there was no way for the internet mothers to see me like this. Alice’s left hand had one trim and proper nail and there was a tiny portion of blood just cutting through her sweet little ring finger. The blood was coming out all viscous and heavy and was dropping down onto the cushion that my mother had brought for me last Christmas. The television made patterns on Alice’s forehead and Alice was not smiling and around her face there was the comedian chef telling us how to make stir fry with bits of chopped up and minced lamb. She was crying just like the television babies sometimes do and just how I’ve been assured by the internet mothers that babies always sometimes do. I wiped her face and said, ‘This comedian was a comedian long before either of us were born so I really don’t know why he’s doing this now.’ Looking for the little echo of the laugh that she sometimes has. The cut wasn’t even deep and I think the blood was already clotting. I ran then to the bathroom to find a plaster that I wrapped very neatly indeed around her ring finger. ‘That’s better,’ I said. ‘Just like the television doctors.’ Just like that.

A day later my mother did come round. The television gardener was on again because it seemed so often the television showed gardening. I told Alice, ‘What do you think we’ll be growing today then?’ her little hand with the one prim and proper nail and the plaster around the ring finger. My mother had made comments about the fridge but nevertheless had been forced to bring the necessary nail clippers, which was a very good thing indeed and I thought that soon would be the perfect time to cut the nails. Soon there would be the show with the actor who is no longer allowed to be an actor because of what he did to other actors in a time before we talked about that sort of thing. I would cut the nails then. Yes. And I know I should have taken a wet and hot sponge to my mother’s cushion except I wouldn’t do that for a long time, maybe not for a week, and by the time I did the blood had hardened and gone black and when my mother finally asked about it I told her I had spilled jam.

Calla Nell Preece is a trans writer from Birmingham, England. She has publications in the likes of Adelaide Literary Magazine, Qwerty Magazine, and Wrongdoing Magazine. Most recently she has been nominated for the Pushcart prize. Her work focuses on self-deception and the difficulty of true, honest introspection. Currently she is completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham.

Photo credit: Calla Preece, private collection

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