i

They play in their garden every evening, spilling out of the doors at six o’clock sharp. I’ve never seen young boys with such restraint. They kick their foam green ball from foot to foot, and when the rare miss comes, apologise to each other, and sprint to fetch it. I hear their tinny voices saying sorry, and decide that when I have children, I want them to be apologetic.

ii

Sometimes, the oldest pushes the youngest on a chain swing, and he doesn’t squeak ‘higher, higher’, he just sits there, legs dangling, perfectly content to leave his brother in control. Four boys and all of them impeccably behaved. I want Jim to watch, sometimes. It’s 5.58 and I’m washing up by the kitchen window, scouring pots of burnt stew with iron wool. Jim says I’m crap at cooking, and I apologise, just like those lovely boys. Look, I say, as the spring light glances off their rounded cheeks. Shut it, Jim says, pulling the tab from his can and throwing it across the kitchen. Jim doesn’t really watch, not like me.

iii

Yesterday, the one with curly hair moved an outdoor chess set to the patio all by himself. His little hands turned red with the effort, wrestling their bulky frames in fits and starts. When his brothers came out, they embraced him as a thank you. It was a real squeeze, none of that light tapping on the shoulders. One day, I’d like to teach Jim how to hug.

iv

Pink light sifts in through the open window as the match commences, and their laughter floats above my sink. I’m so caught in the smile of the youngest, a wiry six-year-old in a blue jumper, that I don’t hear Jim’s question. I realise this only when his face is inches from mine. Are you listening, he hisses. I asked you a question.

v

I often wonder whether they notice me. When I’m feeling brave, I wander along our shared fence and pretend to water the hydrangeas. I notice the minutiae of their expressions. A scrunched nose here, a bitten lip there. A robin titters from my apple tree and the blonde one steps towards the trellis. Fly away, he says. Shoo. His face is expressionless as he jogs back to the game. What a lovely boy. His parents must be so proud of their gorgeous children. The last time I saw their mother, she was unpacking brown bags from the car. I nearly hugged her. I haven’t seen her for weeks now.

vi

They finish playing at seven and I hear the cuckoo clock chirrup as they file inside. Did you remember to buy beer, Jim says. You stupid bitch, Jim says. All the lights go off next door. I extract my fingers from the yellow gloves. The power cuts out, and we’re shunted into the dark. I’m going to ask next door for some candles, Jim says. I’ll go, I reply. No, you won’t, he says.

***

Anna Pembroke (she/her) is a writer and English teacher based in London, England. Raised in South Africa and Nigeria, she taught in Malaysia for a year before beginning a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at the Open University. She spent the Fall 2018 semester at the Aegean Center in Paros, Greece, studying creative writing and photography under Jeffrey Carson and John Pack. Her most recent publication is a poem in Messy Misfits Zine. Find her on Twitter @annaisediting.