Object permanence

It was about quarter to seven on the morning of November 9, 2016. We were crawling through an inch of snow along the B6269. Still dark; the snow, I think, still falling. Red tail-lights strung out all the way up to Toller Lane.

At (I think) about 3am I’d woken up and flipped open my tablet to check on the outcome of the US Presidential election. We know how that turned out. Some time after that I looked up the Test score from Rajkot. England 100 for 3 or thereabouts, Duckett caught behind off the last ball before lunch. And some time after that we got out of bed and dressed to go to the hospital.

We lost our baby that day, at thirteen weeks, in a holding bay in an overstretched A&E department at Bradford Royal Infirmary.

While we waited to be seen, I heard a doctor in blue scrubs ask a nurse about the election, and then smile grimly and say god help us. I imagine that people all over the world were saying those words to one another that morning, in all sorts of languages and dialects: god help us.  

I just looked up how they might say god help us in Gujarati, as they speak in Rajkot (where England were 300-odd at tea). What came up was ભગવાન અમને મદદ કરે છે. I ran it backwards through the translator. Learn more about god. Probably a glitch in Google but it read like a humanist catechism.

So on the Tuesday we were pregnant and by lunchtime on the Wednesday we weren’t any more. England closed on 311-4.

I’m not used to seeing life as an outcome. Life, like Test cricket, is surely a process, a complicated business of incremental change, of moment-by-moment evolution. Things happen, of course – things do nothing but happen. But the world didn’t ought to change in a finger-snap. They didn’t ought to change overnight.

Such a beautiful and important evening! Trump tweeted at 11.36am, EST. The forgotten man and woman will never be forgotten again. We will all come together as never before.

I think there’s a poem – I can’t find it, but I think there’s a poem – where the poet awakes to a frost or a fall of snow, and says something to the effect that someone, while he slept, must have stolen the landscape away, and replaced it with this other one, this cold, white, colourless one.         

We’re lucky, and we have a daughter now. She’s almost a year old (she’ll turn one between the first and second Ashes tests). I gather she’s currently getting to grips with object permanence – with the understanding that things (plush penguins, carrot muffins, mummies and daddies, stacking cups) continue to exist even when you can’t see them. It seems to me like a big step. I’m not sure she’ll ever get her head around it completely – I mean, I’m not sure any of us ever do.

We’d gone to bed a bit worried. It’s probably this ‘round ligament pain’, we’d said to one another, in the bedroom at ten-ish, faces lit by the uneasy glow of Mumsnet forums. Probably normal enough. Probably just one of those things. We’d gone to sleep a bit worried.

Of course it turned out to be one of those other things.          

Some biologists call it ‘saltation’, leaping, when, or if, it happens in nature, in evolution – if ever natural selection breaks with the usual run of things and makes a great, lumbering lurch in one direction or another.

You fall asleep and – snap – the world changes. Snap, England are all out for 403, having lost their last six wickets for 35 runs (Perth, 2017). Snap, Donald Trump – yeah, no kidding, Donald Trump, that Donald Trump – is in the White House.

Snap: the world is colder, darker, emptier than it ever used to be.

Watching the returns at 9:45pm, he tweeted, while we slept. #ElectionNight #MAGA 

I woke up early on the morning after the 2015 General Election. May 8th. The light through the kitchen window a pale pewter-grey. It must have been about six. I looked over the internet while my coffee machine came up to temperature. Tory majority. Labour nowhere. Lib Dems demolished. A friend had posted an old Lambchop song to his Facebook feed: is there any reason, it went, over and over, why we take this crap? I played it and had a little bit of a cry, leaning on the cooker-top. That was a bit out of character for me. I was sad and angry about the result but that wasn’t why I was crying. It was all the hope. Hope had been everywhere, those last few weeks; so many people I liked and cared about had had so much bloody hope this time around. I hadn’t had much but I don’t often have much. That was neither here nor there. All that hope: snap, gone. I made my coffee and put the kettle on for my wife’s tea.

I know it doesn’t just happen in the night, while you sleep. I know it happens all the time. It happens in that town while you’re in this town. It happens when you’re out of signal range or your battery’s flat (it happens in your voicemails, in your unread texts, piling up). It happens when you turn your back – just quickly, only for a second.

They’re not the same, of course, all these things, on all different kinds of scales and metrics, they’re not the same – batting collapses, election results, things the doctor tells you that you already know, thanks, you’ve already guessed – no, they’re not the same, but I can’t think of one, now, without thinking of the others, or of the others without thinking of the one, and they’re all, in their own ways, about that word collapse. The collapse of many possibilities into one. The collapse of a process into an outcome.

We play Peepo – that agonising test of object permanence. Where’s daddy? Still here – yes, still here. Only behind the blanket. Peepo! There’s always a quiver of uncertainty in and among the seven-toothed smiles. Deep down she suspects that object permanence is bullshit. Deep down I think I do too.  

It isn’t really about how things happen, all this, it’s about how we see, and what, and when; it’s about what’s hidden from us and what’s disclosed to us, about which bits of the process, which elements of the magic trick, we’re allowed to look at.  Ta-daa, says the Cricinfo scoreboard or the Guardian headline or the doctor in the blue scrubs (god help us, ભગવાન અમને મદદ કરે છે). Got you again.


  1. Thank you. I want to say it’s a wonderful piece, and it is, I’m deeply moved by it, your writing is superb. But in a way it isn’t wonderful, and of course you’ll know what I mean. It IS wonderfully written.
    At my age, lost babies (2 for me) are unspoken beings, unbeings, and even though I’ve been blessed with 4 big strapping healthy children who are happily producing grandbabies, I still think of the lost ones. For fathers it’s often more painful. At least us lasses have the bodily physical discomforts to wash over the soul pain. To a degree.
    Enjoy your little person who keeps you busy today. Best wishes to you all and thank you again.


    1. Annie, thanks so much for saying this. I’m touched that you found something in it that spoke to your own experience – we can’t help thinking of those lost ones, can we? Our little person has a baby brother now: two little people to keep us very thoroughly occupied. Thank you again – and warmest wishes to you and your family.


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