Bedtime story ‘Breathe’ by Imogen Hermes Gowar
“Close your eyes,” I say, “and don’t breathe.”
Hannah, Abbie, Addie and Mercy stand in a line with their hands clasped in front of them and their faces screwed up. Our little brothers are piled on the bed with their thumbs in their mouths and their fingers up their noses; when they see my tall gold can of hair spray they whisk the blankets over their heads, just tufts of hair and dirty toes poking out. I shake the can once to be professional and twice because I like the sound.
The bedroom in the motorhome is dark and poky, with a shiny grey curtain you pull across to hide the kitchen. I tread on my sisters’ toes as I circle them – Hannah, tall up to my shoulder now; Abbie and Addie in their best dresses; sweet Mercy trying so hard to stay still her eyebrows quiver – and swoosh a cloud of spray around each of their heads. They look so sober with their closed eyes and dropped chins, I imagine I’m giving a sacrament.
When I’m done, I lift my arm and circle the can once around my own head: pshhht. It puts a sweet, gluey taste in the back of my throat. We’re all quiet with our eyes scrunched, and then the boys fling their blankets off, shrieking, and the girls blink and cough. They start chattering all at once, grabbing my hands and clothes; the girls on tiptoes at the mirror – “Leah! Leah, put the pink lip stuff on me” – “Leah, where’s my necklace?” Since Becca got married and Mother’s so busy with the new baby, I’m the one they all want, and when they aren’t climbing on my lap or pressing their hot faces to my cheek, or peeling back my fingers to get their hand inside mine, their voices go on and on, all questions and wants and secrets. Even when they aren’t touching me, it’s like their hands are all over me.
Our family ministry is to visit churches and sing. Dad drives; Mother plays the guitar; I keep the kids in order. We were gifted the motorhome, and it’s a blessing but it’s not meant for so many people, let alone their private thoughts, or their unbrushed teeth. The boys monkey about on the seats, and the bin swells with nappies, but when we walk on stage, all ten of us, Mother carrying the baby, amazement always rustles through the congregation. Forgive me, but I feel proud then. We line up in height order to show how blessed we are: I join hands with Hannah and marvel at the way our voices fill the room. Afterwards there’s a collection for us, and a buffet.
Today we’ve been invited to a big, glass modern-looking place, a congregation of five hundred on the edge of a potato field. The earth is silky and the flat land fades into the biggest sky I ever saw. I decide we’ll do our warm-up in the car park, and when I open the motorhome’s door, the kids rush out like puppies, chasing loops in the dust, their arms spread against the milky-blue sky.
I call them to stand in a wide semi-circle, nobody touching anybody. We breathe in, breathe out. “Imagine a big space inside your tummy,” I say, and the little kids clasp their hands over their ribs. “Imagine you’re hollow like a violin, and your voice fills it right up.”
They all start at once, their voices crowding in on me, but I shout, “Quiet! No talking!” We hear the cries of birds tumbling in that huge sky. “Just breathe.”