A mother desperately tries to keep her family together in a society where parenting standards are strictly monitored…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from Polly Ho-Yen’s Dark Lullaby, available now from Titan Books.
The world is suffering an infertility crisis, the last natural birth was over twenty years ago and now the only way to conceive is through a painful fertility treatment. Any children born are strictly monitored, and if you are deemed an unfit parent then your child is extracted. After witnessing so many struggling to conceive—and then keep—their babies, Kit thought she didn’t want children. But then she meets Thomas and they have a baby girl, Mimi. Soon the small mistakes build up and suddenly Kit is faced with the possibility of losing her daughter, and she is forced to ask herself how far she will go to keep her family together.
The last time that I saw Mimi she was almost one.
We decided to celebrate her birthday early, just Thomas and myself, along with Thomas’s mother Santa, the only parent we had left between us.
I’d made a cake out of little more than pure oats, butter and maple syrup; Mimi had just been diagnosed with an intolerance to gluten and I was now vigilant to the point of obsessive over any crumb that passed her lips since I had received the last IPS [Insufficient Parenting Standard].
I suppose that as we sat down around our small table that night in November we were thinking of how little time we had left with her. We did not speak of it. We simply lost ourselves in my pathetic, flattened offering of a cake, with the electric candle that Thomas had bought especially sitting crookedly on top.
There was a part of me that knew then.
That very morning, I’d buried my face into the wispy fuzz that settled on the crown of her head after she napped. ‘Her little halo,’ Thomas called it, bouncing a hand upon its golden springiness. I knew it then, at that moment: We don’t have long left together. But it was such an awful thought, one so singed with pain, so full of blackness, an emptiness like no other, that I didn’t dare examine it. I shoved it away desperately and whispered, ‘Happy birthday, darling girl,’ into the silkiness of her tiny ear.
We gathered closer together as we began to sing ‘Happy Birthday’, pulled towards each other as though the little hard light from the candle’s bulb gave off something like warmth. We sounded weary. The words no longer bore any promise; they only seemed to spell out our shortcomings. Happy birthday, dear Mimi.
Santa’s singing rang out louder than Thomas and I combined, the off-key notes covering our faltering voices. She was dressed in her usual style, a gold and orange scarf hanging loosely off her shoulders, a skirt that matched her lips in its ruddiness, her dark hair flecked with a few errant silver strands pulled back from her face with a printed headscarf. Thomas and I were like shadows in comparison: grey, blurred, just behind her.
Her rose-red smile was fixed upon her beloved and only granddaughter. I remember thinking that she was making the most of these last moments, filling them with colour and light in the same way that she approached her canvases, her life. She had dressed that day with especial care, in the richer hues of her wardrobe, to offset the gloom, the sadness that had flooded through our life and carried us along with it. I tried to fix a smile on my face but I could feel it hanging there, a slipping mask.
Hap – py Birth – day to – you. Why does the tune slow as you sing it? The last few notes stretched on, awkwardly, until Santa started clapping, which made us all join in too. I looked at my daughter, at the centre of us, and wondered what I always wondered: had we created a world in which she was happy, in which she was safe?
Mimi sat perfectly straight in her chair. It had grown with her through her first year, being some sort of elegant Nordic-inspired design that could be made smaller or bigger depending on its sitter’s proportions. I insisted on it when I was pregnant with her, had coveted it in one of the OHs, the ‘Outstanding Homes’, which we had visited during the induction, despite myself.
Before we visited the OHs, Thomas and I had a frank conversation about money and how having stuff would not make us better parents. Love was the answer, we told ourselves, not stuff. And yet, as soon as I saw the chair, its honey-coloured wood and gently curving lines, I vowed to have it for her. I could already picture our daughter sitting upon it at dinnertime, completing the triangle. It was hers before her eyes were open, before she felt the breath of the world upon her skin, and long before she was ready to sit up or feed herself.
‘Blow it out, Meems!’ Santa bellowed. ‘Make a wish!’
Mimi was entranced by the candlelight – but then her eyes darted to me.
‘Blow it out, my darling!’ I said and I leant in close to her. ‘This is what we do on our birthdays.’ I ballooned my cheeks comically.
Then Thomas joined in too and in those moments, as we clowned and laughed and pretended to blow out the candle together, I think we forgot. I think we forgot what had brought us together a full twenty-two days before the date of her first birthday.
Mimi studied our faces and for a moment it looked like she was going to copy us and fill her bud-like cheeks and blow down on the plastic stump of light.
‘You can do it, Mimi!’ I called out in a burst. I was reminded of a long-distant memory of myself sitting in Mimi’s place, my sister Evie next to me. A birthday cake directly ahead, safe and sure in my absolute belief in everything that my sister did and told me. ‘Make a wish! You can do it, Kit!’ she’d yelled to me, desperately, as I had to Mimi, as though she could not contain it. I remembered thinking that I must do it because Evie had told me to; that it must come true for she had told me it would. But in those few moments I’d already blown the candle out and forgotten to wish for anything.
Mimi’s mouth unfolded into an open grin, and there, right there in her eyes, I saw it.
Her brown eyes seemed to blossom, grow larger, and the light of the candle danced in her pupils. Or was it a light from within her? I let myself revel in it and I thought for that moment: Yes. Yes, my daughter is happy. Yes, all is right in the world. And no, there is nothing, not any one thing that I would ask for more than this single moment of her happiness.
She leant towards the blinking light of the LED candle as though she really did understand that she should blow it out.
‘Switch it off,’ I hissed. For a second longer that it should have, its bulb remained obstinately bright. I was mildly aware of Thomas’s panic beside me; he had been pressing and was now striking the remote that controlled the candle. Quite suddenly, the bulb went out.
I remembered again the candle that I’d blown out on the birthday when I’d forgotten to make a wish. Its wavering flame glowed and as I blew, it bent away from me until it diminished to nothing. Its smoke had streamed from the wick and the scent of it, though acrid and sharp, I’d liked and savoured. But I dismissed the memory: it wasn’t worth the risk to give Mimi a real candle on her birthday cake, however soft the light it cast.
I reached a hand out towards Thomas, feeling for the first time that day waves of contentment inside me. As though he’d had just the same thought, his hand was swinging towards mine and our fingers met in mid-air and clasped together fiercely. Mimi was triumphant now, toothy and innocent; her mouth gaped open with the thrill of it all.
It was then, just then, that we heard the rapping at the door.
Excerpted from Dark Lullaby, copyright © 2021 by Polly Ho-Yen.