Marianne is in the kitchen, making porridge. She can hear Ben in the kids’ bedroom: coochi-coos, raspberries on bare tummies, and giggles from the babies.
‘Breakfast is ready,’ she calls.
‘Be right there,’ Ben replies.
He walks into the kitchen, holding their youngest. Zara is seven months olds, chubby and a delight. Following him is James, who’s nearly three. Ben places Zara into her high chair, then lifts James into his.
‘Stir this, please,’ Marianne says. She passes Zara’s bowl to Ben and bends over to kiss Zara’s forehead.
‘Mumma!’ cries James. ‘Me! Me!’ He bangs his spoon on the table and kicks his legs against the footrest. His head moves from side-to-side with such force, Marianne is reminded of Linda Blair’s character in The Exorcist.
Marianne holds her breath. He’s full on, this kid. She wonders, not for the first time, if there’s a delay, an issue.
‘Of course I’ve got a kiss for you, baby boy.’ There’s a dullness to her tone; it’s flat, wooden, not sing-song happy like when she talks to Zara.
As she leans down to kiss James, he lashes out. His fist whacks the side of her head, his foot kicks into her belly.
‘Fuck!’ she screams. ‘You little brat!’
James pushes his bowl of porridge onto the floor.
Marianne howls. Ben stands, moves Zara’s bowl beyond her reach then guides Marianne away.
‘Be right back,’ he says to the kids. He throws his arms around her shoulders and leads her into their bedroom. He lowers her onto the bed.
‘Babe,’ he says.
‘Don’t even start with me,’ she snarls.
‘Come on. Be reasonable. He’s three years old. He doesn’t mean it.’
‘I know! But am I just supposed to take it?’
‘No,’ Ben pauses. Scratches his chin. ‘But I guess…what he does isn’t a licence for you to do the same.’
Marianne stares at him. She’s sullen, withdrawn. She hates it when he’s right. ‘I know. Sorry.’
‘Babe, it’s not me you should be apologising to.’ He touches her face. ‘Stay here. Get back into bed and rest. I’ll look after their brekkie and wake you before I go to work.’
Marianne sniffs. ‘Thanks.’
‘I know he’s hard. But we’ll get the help he needs.’