When he presses her up against the cool ceramic sink, her arms plunge into the water. He lifts up her patchwork pinafore, the one that ties oh-so-loosely at the back. She allows him to part her legs with his one good knee while he exhales ashy air onto her bare neck. Then his wet mouth is on her, and he groans, his weight pushing her forward until her eyes are level with the tray, still charred from last night’s meat, that—try as she might—she cannot get clean. Strands of hair from her bun loosen and dip in and out of the water as his rhythm begins. It’s like swimming as a child, going under, then bobbing back up for air, looking for her mother at the poolside or her father who was never there.

She feels the sheepskin rug beneath her sliding under their feet, and a rough hand searching out her breast through her blouse. Her too-flat stomach presses against the curve of the sink, her body a concave silhouette that he uses to steady himself. She hears the lambs bleating from the barn, and the noise of them and him mingles together until she cannot tell one yelp from the other. He slows. Stops. Rasps on the top of her back. An apron string dangles. He ties it up again, straightens her hair and her underwear, and then the rug. She closes her legs and continues scrubbing at the tray as she listens first for the toilet flush, then for the fridge, then for the hiss and click of a pulled beer, and then the television. The tray is not going to get any cleaner.

Later, she moves through the house, closing windows and drawing curtains. She pauses in the smallest room, the one at the back full of piles of washing, books, broken things waiting to be fixed. She moves her hand across the browned wallpaper that they never got round to replacing, strokes the faded cartoon lambs nestled under bunches of balloons. She can hear the desperate cries of hunger and separation as she closes the window.  

In the barn, the mother paces her small patch, frenzied and bleating. Her babies pull at the gate opposite, walking in circles on gangly legs. She goes in to their pen, unbuttons her blouse and picks up a lamb. She strokes it for a while, then holds it to her breast and grits herself as the mouth finds her nipple. The small tongue licks and searches for milk that is not there. After a few moments she carries it out of the gate and places it in the pen with its frantic mother, who stares at her with dark, black eyes. She repeats the action with the next lamb, and the next one.

Suckling their mother, the lambs are at last satisfied and settle down in a milk-drunk stupor. She wants to pick one up again, to hold it close, to feel what it is like to be so wanted, but the mother locks eyes with her. They watch each other. She stands up and stretches an arm to reach in. To hold them one last time. To have something that is small and warm and hers. But still the mother watches. She pulls her arm back and mouths an apology to the sheep, to her body, to the world. Then she fastens up her blouse and makes her way back to the dark house where her only life awaits her.

Back at the sink. She rolls up her sleeves, plunges her hands into the water, but the tray is not going to get any cleaner.

© Gaynor Jones
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read Gaynor’s interview]