Short Fiction by Rosie Allabarton
It hadn’t sat comfortably at first. Something at the bottom was rubbing through the fabric against her rib like a phantom limb. Sticking her hand in, Harriet rummaged around blindly, a lady at a lucky dip, her fingers wriggling between the rolled-up socks and tea towels strapped to her chest, pulled tightly to her breasts in a small, beige sling.
Finding and adjusting the offending item she straightened her back and looked at herself squarely in the mirror. The modest furnishings of her one room apartment twinkled over her shoulder, her bed, excessively pillowed and inviting, winked.
She examined her handiwork. That would do, she thought, tucking a loose strand of hair behind one of her small, elfin ears. Tom had come up with that, ‘elfin’. Funny the things you remember about a person, the language that stays with you long after they’ve gone.
The hair-tuck was just one of the gestures she’d got under her belt ready for today. There were others, she didn’t need to rehearse them again now. She could ad lib if necessary. When she wanted to she could be so convincingly normal, so convincingly human. It just required a bit of practice, that was all, to be just like everyone else. Besides, it was almost impossible to tell these days who was the real thing and who, like her, was simply doing their very best impression of it.
It’d be a quick in and out job, nothing over the top. She’d found out where they’d be that morning from Facebook; the new girlfriend, Cherie, was something of an over-sharer. They had friends in common – though Tom was not one of them – which helped; gave Harriet access to more than she was entitled to know. More than was probably good for her. On her work computer she had learnt the keyboard short cut to minimize her browser window at a moment’s notice, and Harriet did this so many times at the sound of footsteps behind her that she was worried she would give herself a repetitive strain injury, and not even for something fun like masturbation or sexting. She continued to scroll, her fingers singing from the ache.
Social media had been cruel in its unrelentingly rose-tinted documentation of Tom and Cherie, as social media always is. There’d been the weekend breaks in the Lake District and down to Dover, the winter strolls against dizzying backdrops of Christmas lights and candles, and finally the holiday in Portugal which had ended in a zoomed in photograph of a French manicure, a cartoon-sized diamond and a caption beneath which read: ‘I said YES!’. So very tacky, Harriet thought as she scanned the 37 comments, each one as sickly sweet and sycophantic as the last. She remembered many of those names. Smilies gathered in crowds and rejoiced. Hearts abounded. How quickly they had forgotten, she thought, moved on; put their stamp of approval on this cardboard cut-out of a woman who had swooped down out of the sky and inexplicably replaced her.
She pulled her large duffle coat around her, her new addition stuck like a tumour to her front. The bonnet was the final touch, and it rested just perfectly on the pomegranate nestled a little under her chin. She’d bought the tiny lace head piece the previous week at Gap in Camden on her way home from the office after a particularly harrowing day on Facebook, and for the first time, Instagram; a whole new hell. There had been no plan. Not really. It was as though she had just found herself there, in Baby Gap, surrounded by clouds of cotton in every available pastel shade, soft and suffocating. Booties hung like testicles from display windows. Bibs strangled faceless baby mannequins. It was how she imagined Limbo might be, for all those poor, unbaptized babies her mother would have prayed for.
She didn’t take her time choosing the bonnet, but simply grabbed the first one from the shelf, the eyes of the store on her as if it knew her intentions were not what they should be. She felt like a shoplifter; the quickening of her pulse as she picked it up and walked to the counter was, she imagined, an echo of the thief’s own fear and thrill. She could not meet the assistant’s eye as her tiny prize was folded on the counter, a story of an imaginary newborn niece on the tip of her tongue like an Alka Seltzer, should she need it. But it wasn’t necessary. All she had to do was hand over her card, then fly out of the shop before she could think about what she had done, the bonnet flapping like a flag in her hand as the automatic doors closed slowly behind her.
That was last Friday. Now with Sunday brunch looming she checked herself one final time from one side then the other in the tall mirror, pleased by the shape. With the coat fastened around them both all you could see aside from the bulge was a little bit of lace poking out the top; a small hello to the world. She placed her hand gently on her front and smiled at herself in the mirror, her cheeks as round and shiny as apples. With an hour before brunch she decided to head to the park.
She’d come to the park with Tom often when they’d lived together. The trees outside their flat would tap against the upstairs windows in the wind, enticing them out of bed where they lay all arms and legs and hearts balanced precariously on sleeves. She walked along the hedgerow by the canal that ran along the bottom of the gardens; a footnote to the flowerbeds. The bulge felt heavier than when she’d left the house, the body of cloth thickening beneath her coat like a clot. She shifted the sling awkwardly on her shoulder, the little tea towel legs and sock arms falling out of shape, refusing their new position. She felt them pushing against the fabric, loose threads tickling, creeping out at the sides like tiny fingers against her blouse. Reaching under her coat she tightened the strap of the sling a couple of notches, her breasts squeezed together more tightly than before. With a hand still cradling her extra load, she crouched down on her haunches by a tree to catch her breath.
“You alright, love?”
A woman’s face appeared before her, yellow-orange hair floating around her head like a small fire. The face itself was lined and the corners of the mouth pointed down as though the pencil had slipped. In tow was a boy who was dragging an ancient-looking dog on wheels behind him, his tiny hands holding the worn, red thread tightly. The dog had turned onto its side, but the child dragged it regardless, his eyes hard and lifeless as dried peas.
“Yes, I’m fine. Just getting my breath.” Harriet smiled what she hoped was a tired new mum smile, all teeth and sad, shiny eyes. It was one of her signature expressions, practiced and put away ready for a moment like this.
“I remember those days.” The woman indicated the bonnet and what she presumed was beneath it. Harriet thought she looked far too old to be the mother of the child she was with and far too slender in the hips to have carried a child to term. The woman craned her neck to try to get a better look. Harriet stood up quickly, the blood rushing to her head as she did so. She worried she might faint.
“I should keep moving, it’s getting chilly.”
The woman moved on, taking the boy by the hand. The wooden dog, now upright again, trailing in the mud behind them.
Harriet stopped at a bench opposite the duck pond, clutching the ornate ironwork, her cold hands white at the fingertips. She felt the swell of her duffle coat as she lowered herself onto its icy black slats. Folding her hands in her lap, she let her legs splay slightly to support this new and unfamiliar weight, a weight which had taken on a density and depth since she left the flat. It was as though her sling were slowly filling with water, ballooning beneath her.
A youngish looking woman was showing her daughter how to throw bread to the ducks, the little girl red-faced and furious from the effort. Harriet closed her eyes. It felt good now, the sock baby. Warm and whole and entirely hers. If she was really quiet, she could feel it breathing against her chest, its tiny sock mouth gasping for gulps of air just how she imagined a real baby would. Under the layers of tea towels, it was a secret under her coat. She closed her eyes, adjusting her own breathing to the rhythm. In a few minutes she had fallen asleep on the bench, beached and bloated by the water’s edge.
Harriet hurried along the cobbled alleyway. She was late. The baby baggage strapped to her front had not been designed with speed in mind and it weighed her down like bricks tied to a corpse. Despite her best efforts all she could manage as she hastened along the freezing Islington streets was a robotic waddle, destroying the elegant, earth-mother image she had so hoped to cultivate before this morning’s brunch.
She turned the corner onto the final street and stopped short. There were two figures standing between the islands of white ironwork table and chairs which were stacked up outside the bay windows of the café. Harriet recognised them both immediately. Tom had his back to her, but it was undeniably him: the shape of his head, a kind of walnut, and the irritatingly relaxed stance instantly gave him away. Cherie, who Harriet knew only from her pixel-perfect online presence was facing him, talking, gesticulating in an un-English display of emotion. She was nice looking, Harriet conceded, but certainly a lot curvier in real life than her pictures suggested, her face rounder and more human. Neither, it seemed, had noticed Harriet. Tom was smoking, which was unusual for him, and both were wearing the most hideous matching black puffer jackets Harriet had ever seen. Together they looked like a pair of giant dung beetles.
Harriet panicked. This was not how it was supposed to be. This was not the casual, breezy entrance she had imagined. There was no audience for a start. No buffer. Just her and them. Scanning her immediate vicinity she saw outside the shop next to the café a small wooden bench, presumably for customers. If she kept her head down she could sit near enough to hear what they were saying without being spotted. She put her hood up and shifted closer, the words becoming more audible as she neared. Once she was parked on the bench and half hidden behind a conveniently positioned bush, she got out her phone and pretended to be reading its blank face.
Cherie was doing most of the talking.
“I mean, what the fuck was that all about Tom?”
Silence. Harriet presumed a shrug from Tom but didn’t dare to look up for confirmation.
“She’s my fucking cousin! In what world is that behaviour OK?”
There was an American twang to Cherie’s voice which Harriet had not expected. The accents on the words hung heavy and long, creating a more dramatic intensity. Her voice had the weight and authority of a proper grown up. Like someone on TV, Harriet thought.
“I just asked her how the breastfeeding was going.” Tom muttered. There was no fight in his reply. Resignation hung in the air like a bad smell. It was clear he’d been here before.
“You asked my cousin about her fucking tits!” A pause. “Did you get a good look while you were at it?”
“Cherie, they’ll hear you. Please don’t shout.”
“I’ll shout if I fucking want to shout!”
There was the sound of a chair scraping. Iron on concrete assaulted Harriet’s ears.
“I’m sorry you’re upset …” Tom began.
“That’s not an apology Tom.”
“I honestly don’t know what I did wrong. I barely know these people! I was just trying to find something to say to her.”
“And your first thought was her breasts?”
“For God’s sake.”
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You’re obsessed with sex.”
In her hiding place on the bench Harriet cringed. It was like listening to your parents’ arguing, but worse. Surely no one’s parents argued like this. It was painful.
“If I was, would you blame me? I can’t even remember the last time I saw your tits.” His voice was low and the ‘s’ from ‘tits’ lingered longer than it should have.
Harriet heard an audible intake of breath from Cherie.
“How dare you!”
“Well, you brought it up.” The nonchalant tone was back. There was the sound of a lighter.
“I’m going back inside.” Cherie, this time. “And when you’ve finished your stinking cigarette you’re going to put on your happy face, come inside and keep your mouth shut.”
Harriet heard the bell on the door of the café as it swung open and banged behind Cherie.
“My fucking happy face,” Harriet heard Tom say to himself.
The door to the café opened again.
“And chew some gum before you come back in,” Cherie hissed, “your breath is disgusting.”
Another bang of the door.
Harriet heard Tom let out a loud sigh into the cold air. She dared to look and through the thin, bare branches of the bush she saw him crouching on the floor, knees wide apart, head in hands. His cigarette lay near his feet, burning itself out. She wondered if she felt sorry for him.
Harriet stood up. She took a few steps forward and cleared her throat like a judge on a panel show. He didn’t move so she did it again, louder this time and with more intent. It seemed he no longer responded to subtlety, perhaps as a result of living with the screaming fiancé. He half turned his head over his shoulder, a look of annoyance creeping into his features before he realised who it was.
“Tom?” It croaked out. She hadn’t said his name out loud in months. She wasn’t sure why she was saying it now.
“Harriet!” Tom leapt to his feet, surprise in every crease on his face, every line. Her mother had always said he would age badly; he looked so old. His hand went straight to his hair, combing it back with his fingers nervously, revealing his receding hairline. The white winter sunlight bounced off his elongated forehead.
“What are you…. How are you?” His gaze fell from her face to her front. She squirmed under her many layers, sweat gathering under her arms and around her crotch in warm pools.
“I’m fine. You know.” Her words were as soft and floaty as she could make them. She followed his gaze down to her front and smiled. It was her earth mother smile; lowered eyelids, round, rosy cheeks and wisps of hair blowing like a halo around her head. Finally, she thought. All that practice was paying off. She didn’t need a mirror to know that in that moment she was the embodiment of contentment itself. Not an Instagram filter in sight.
“It’s so good to see you.” He couldn’t take his eyes off the bulge under her coat.
She smiled again.
“Shall we sit over here?” He gestured towards the bench. He clearly wanted to be out of sight of the cafe.
Back on her bench she placed her bag between them and sat as far away from him as possible, pulling her coat up higher to cover the bonnet.
“I didn’t know you were … You know!” Tom laughed awkwardly as he gestured at Harriet’s coat. “You should’ve told me!”
“Oh, well. We weren’t really talking…”
He was edging closer, trying to get a look. Harriet was about as far back from him as she could manage, the arm of the bench pressing into her back painfully.
“So it’s not …”
“No of course it’s not yours!”
Tom gave her a puzzled look.
“I mean she’s not yours.” Harriet jiggled the bump up and down a few times. She’d definitely seen women do this.
“Oh, ok.” He looked disappointed which infuriated Harriet. He had no right. “How old is she?”
“Just a couple of weeks. We probably shouldn’t stay out too -”
“ – does she have a name?” Tom interrupted.
“Yes.” Harriet hadn’t thought this far. Wasn’t expecting so many questions. “Ginger.”
“Yes.” It was the name of her sister’s hamster when they were kids.
“Well hello Ginger!” Tom reached forward and stroked the front of Harriet’s coat with a finger, which, considering the reaction from Cherie to the breastfeeding comment earlier, Harriet thought was a bit of a risky move. She looked around, but fortunately there was still no one else about.
“Could I maybe hold her?” Tom’s face, a face she knew better than anyone else’s, was flushed and excited.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea right now. It’s too cold to take her out of this thing.” She gestured the coat-sling getup that was covering her shameful secret. Harriet found she was enjoying talking about Ginger, her new daughter.
“Ok. Maybe another time.”
“You know, I always thought you and I would have kids.”
Harriet said nothing. Her cheeks flushed against her wishes. The fury in the bottom of her stomach bubbled.
“I always knew you’d be a great mum.”
“Tom …” It was time to shut him down, this fool running his mouth off.
“I think it’s best if we go.” Harriet said, taking her handbag and putting it on her lap. The ‘we’ felt good. “It’s nearly time for her next feed.”
“Don’t go yet Harriet. Please. It’s been so nice to see you.” He paused. “To see you both.”
She stood up.
“Can we meet again? Next week? I’ve …” He paused momentarily, he lowered his eyelids, his timing perfect. “I’ve missed you.”
She had dreamed of this moment. For months she’d waited for him to come back to her, realise his mistake. But as he looked up at her from the bench, his hands clasped together in an imitation of prayer he seemed kind of pathetic now. She towered over him, a look of pity creeping onto her features. He seemed so small, so irrelevant.
“Bye Tom.” She said gently and turned around.
She had reached the end of the road and was waiting at the traffic lights when she heard Tom’s voice, high and thin call after her:
“I hope you don’t think I was faithful to you!”
She stopped. The red man on the traffic lights at the crossing froze as if waiting to see what would happen next. But Harriet couldn’t wait. She had to get herself away from there. Get away from him, for good this time. Eyes blinded by tears she stepped out into the road. She heard the screech but didn’t see the car.
It was getting dark when she got back to the duckpond.
They’d checked her over at the hospital but she was barely scathed. The bump of tea towels, socks and pomegranate had prevented any serious injury, they said. She’d pretty much bounced out of the way, the paramedics surmised jollily, as they took her away in the ambulance just to be safe. She’d seen their bemused glances to one another as they had removed the layers of padding from her front. The original horror on their faces – the thought of a baby flattened on the pavement – quickly collapsing into barely-disguised giggles of relief. Even the pomegranate was still intact. At least they were kind enough not to mention it, Harriet thought. They’d even packed it all up just as it had been, after they had examined her, the tea towels and socks neatly folded in place. Tom had been there, somewhere, but her thoughts of him were hazy. He had disappeared by the time the ambulance came.
Silence had descended over the pond like a death, the children and mums having left long ago. Harriet stretched her arms above her head and let out a loud sigh that tripped and stumbled along the ripples of the water. It was with a start that she remembered the sock baby.
She looked down at the top of the baby’s bonnet, the white lace trim fluttering slightly in the evening breeze. She began unbuttoning the top toggle of her coat. Removing the pomegranate with its bonnet and placing it on the bench next to her, the gentlest of beheadings, she reached deep into her sling and pulled out a long, woolly sock. She held it before her for a long time, seeing it but not really seeing, a faint look of disgust and confusion smeared on her face as the reality of her plan sunk in.
A laugh bubbled up through her throat and escaped out her mouth in a gurgle. What had she been thinking?
Rolling the sock into a ball in her hands she chucked it with a force she didn’t know she had across the dark pond. It broke the surface with an anti-climactic flop, before slowly disappearing from view.
She reached in again, another giggle threatening to erupt over the water. A tea-towel this time.
‘A fucking tea towel!’ she muttered to herself, attempting the American accent. She laughed at herself, laughed at how very wrong she’d got it. Hot tears began streaming down her face, freezing in place. Her laughter rocked back and forth over the gentle waves in the oncoming darkness.
She placed the cloth delicately on the water’s surface near her feet and watched it float for a moment then sink. It took her less than two minutes to empty the contents of her sling, which she finally removed and left on the bench like a deflated football.
“Did you get a good look?”
She asked it, her voice was sing-song now; her attempt at Cherie’s accent more cartoonish than ever.
“Did you get a good look at her tits?”
The sling stayed silent. Harriet’s sides ached from laughter; the bench beneath her squeaked and squealed in delight.
Finally, she picked up the pomegranate, the bonnet still tied neatly in the saddest of bows where she had imagined the chin might have been. With it nestled in her hands she held it firm to her stomach for a moment before raising it above her head and hurling it across the water. She didn’t hear the splash. She was already running through the trees, coat open and flapping in the wind; her smile, glowing in the darkness, as wide as her outstretched arms.