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For Roses Too

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Eddie's rasping snores fill the small room. He's sprawled on his back, arms and legs splayed across the bed, leaving Gillian stiff and wooden on the very edge of the mattress. Normally she might elbow him, fight for more of the duvet, but tonight she lies still under the weight of his arm. She breathes shallowly.

Even that little movement sends fresh pain shooting down her spine each time the rough pillowcase brushes against the open wound on the back of her neck.

Eddie snorts; his breath catches. Gillian holds her own, praying he's stopped for good. The long silence almost gets her hopes up. Finally he coughs, half-waking, and her gut clenches with dismay. He tightens his hand on her hip and she winces.

From the other room, she hears a thump, then the whimper that promises a full-on crying fit from Raff. She rolls out of bed quickly, plucking Eddie's arm off her like a dead chicken from the coop. He grumbles, but she shushes him, already halfway out the door.

Raff, newly moved from his cot, has fallen out of bed. He's sat dazed in the middle of the floor, and she sweeps him into her arms, grunting a bit. "You're getting to be so big," she says, hoisting him onto her hip and bouncing him. "Soon you'll be picking up your wee mum, won't you?"

Raff snuffles against her shoulder and tangles his fists in her hair. When he tugs, the pain that rips down her nerves is so bad she feels its echo in her toes. Her hands spasm around Raff and she barely manages to keep hold of him. It costs her: she can't hold back a gasping moan.

"Mummy?" Raff whimpers, and from the other room Eddie slurs out, "Gilly?"

"I'm with Raff," she calls back. To disguise the wobble in her voice, she starts singing a lullaby, the first thing that comes to mind, "As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day..." Raff's sobs subside slightly, and she swallows hard, rocking back and forth despite the pain.

"Shut it," Eddie yells from their bed, and Gillian bumps Raff's door closed with her hip, still singing but softer, swaying him until his grasp on her hair finally, blessedly loosens. His eyes droop and he goes limp in her arms, trusting utterly to her ability to keep him safe. What a liar she is.

"Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew," she finishes quietly, laying him in his bed and tucking the covers snug around him. "Yes, it is bread we fight for – but we fight for roses, too."

The back of her neck burns as though the cigarette is still pressed to her flesh. She reaches for it, then away, afraid to touch it – afraid to do more harm, afraid of the harm that's already done. She should put a cool cloth on, she knows, but Eddie will hear her if she tries to go down the stairs or turns the water on.

In the corner of Raff's room, there's a jumble of rubbish, things he doesn’t need any more that they haven't yet bothered to bin. It's the stack of unused nappies that makes Gillian think of it: she goes down on her knees and paws through the pile as quietly as possible, coming up, finally, with a half-empty tube of nappy rash cream. She pops it open and coats her fingers, then reaches tentatively around the back of her neck.

When she touches it, every nerve in her body sings with pain. She bites her lip and breathes through her nose, holding herself still, not flinching. Under her fingers, she feels tiny fluid-filled blisters shift and ooze. But she layers on the cream, and slowly, the burning cools. Eventually, she thinks she might even be able to sleep.

Capping the tube of cream, she tucks it back where she found it. Less chance of Eddie getting it, unless he has a sudden urge to be useful, and how likely is that? She snorts.

She can hear him snoring again, even through Raff's door. The moment she slides back in bed he'll wake up, though, she's sure of it. And if he does, god knows – no. She can't, not tonight. Instead, she lies down on Raff's bed, curling up and fitting herself around him. His breath whistles through his nose, clogged from his earlier tears, and it blocks the sounds from the rest of the house. Gillian presses her nose to the top of his head, inhaling his scent, soft and clean but not, any more, the sweet scent of babyhood. He really is getting big, she thinks, growing up so fast.

It's her last thought before pain and exhaustion chase her down into an uneasy sleep. "Bread and Roses" echoes through her dreams.

In the morning, Eddie's on his best behaviour. He bangs Raff's door open in passing, but when she gets to the kitchen he's poured her a cuppa. He jokes with Raff over toast and Weetabix – and when he buggers off after, she gets a chance to find the nappy cream again.

This time, when she touches it, the pain isn't – quite – blinding. Her sweat stings while she works in the yard – Raff behind her, tossing feed to the chickens – but when she comes in to make lunch, she's brave enough to look at it in the mirror.

It's tiny, she thinks, craning awkwardly over her shoulder. She presses cream-covered fingers against it as if to check – yes. She hisses in pain. Yes, it still hurts. It's real, all of it. Real enough.

She doesn’t realize how long she's been staring, lost in the wound, until the door bangs downstairs and she hears Raff's delighted cackle at the sight of his da. Her heart leaps in terror and she hurries out of the room. This can't last, she thinks, rushing down the stairs. Hearts starve as well as bodies. Something's got to happen.