Saturday short story: My Baby, by Jan Pryor
“She comes over. You’re my mother, she says. Yes, I say. I don’t know you, she says”: a mother and child seaside story by Wellington author Jan Pryor.
At the bach it’s just me, the baby, and the boyfriend. It’s not his baby. I love the boyfriend. I like the baby. He doesn’t like the baby.
The baby cries a lot, that annoys me. I don’t do that breastfeeding thing. The boyfriend doesn’t like it, he says my tits are his. It’s hard to get the bottle right for the baby. Too hot, too cold, whatever.
There’s sea at the front of the bach. Sometimes waves crash in over the stones. Sometimes it is so still I can hear the night birds calling across the water. They sound lonely.
It’s hard to get here, to the bach. The road is gravel, like the beach. The boyfriend’s car was stuck for a while, til the farmer came and pulled it out. Just in time – we were running out of formula.
The baby still cries quite a lot.
I can hear a car coming. You can’t creep up to the bach in a car – the gravel gives you away. I go out to see who it is. It’s my Dad. I’m surprised.
He’s a church minister. He always wears that white collar. It reminds him who he is, he says. Since Mum died he’s gone kind of quiet – doesn’t say much, except in church.
He gets out of the car, gives me a hug. He didn’t used to hug me, or Mum, much. He smells of Palmolive soap and tobacco - I smell of sweat and baby vomit. We don’t have a shower at the bach. I pass him the baby. He looks at her as if she’s one of those miracles he talks about when he’s preaching about Jesus. I want to say no, it’s not a miracle. It’s what happens when you get drunk and sleep with your boyfriend’s friend.
Dad says would you like me to take her for a while. I find a bag and put stuff in - formula, nappies, baby clothes. The boyfriend has been out the back while Dad’s here. He comes and waves as they drive away.
It is good not having the baby. It’s not good too – I miss her body on my lap. I’m surprised. I don’t tell the boyfriend. He’s happy. Now we can smoke whenever we feel like it, which is every day. He goes fishing, I mooch around the bach. It’s quiet.
It feels like a long time later that Dad brings the baby out. She’s standing on her feet, her bottom fat with nappy, wobbling on the gravel. I run out. Her face screws up, she turns and puts her head between Dad’s knees. He swings her up on his shoulder, she buries her head in his neck.
Don’t worry, he says. It’s her age. Do you want me to leave her here. I look at the boyfriend, lurking behind me. He’s been nice to me recently. No you keep her a bit longer, I say. She likes you.
Dad seems relieved. He must be lonely without Mum. He says that he and the baby have breakfast together. He’s bought a high chair from the Salvation Army shop; she has porridge the same as him. After she’s gone to sleep at night he reads, writes his sermons. He likes, he says, to have another beating heart, another of the Lord’s souls, in the house.
I wave to the baby as Dad drives out. She’s looking at Dad. She seems sleepy. He puts his hand on her head. I’d like to know how that feels, having your head stroked. I remember how she felt when she went to sleep on my knee. Floppy, helpless, warm - trusting.
I’m by myself in the bach now. The boyfriend said he was bored, he needed to be in town where things happen. He left me his old Toyota, bought himself a blue car so low to the ground it couldn’t get through the gravel. It has a spoiler, makes it go faster he says. I’m okay here. The farmer checks on me, brings eggs. One evening when it was still light he pulled some cans of brandy and ginger ale from the box on his quad bike. We looked out over the sea from the plastic chairs, drank a few cans. He told me how the wife was frigid, liked her chickens more than him. We went to bed. I understood why his wife had gone cold. It didn’t happen again.
Next time Dad comes the baby is running. She goes toward the sea. Dad calls her, takes her hand and shows her the waves. She giggles as the water laps her toes. She looks up at Dad, smiles into his face. Something inside me hurts a bit.
The baby says Hi. Dad told her to say that. She holds onto his hand. He has brought gingernuts. We drink tea and the baby has water.
She’ll be five next month, Dad says. I’ve enrolled her in the school in town. Would you think of moving back and living with us?
The baby is staring at me. There’s the curl of a frown on her forehead. She looks like the boyfriend’s friend, not like me. Her hair is curly and dark. Mine is thin and yellow.
I have another boyfriend now. He works on the farm. He drives down to the bach on his quad bike with his dogs yelping at the tyres. We fuck, he strokes my head, he brings me fags. That’s all I need. If I go back to Dad’s house I’ll have to smoke outside. I’ll have to go to church, too.
She’s happy with you Dad, I say. I’ll stay here a bit longer. He tips the cup up to get the last of his tea. He turns it so the chipped part is not in his mouth. They drive away. The baby turns and waves. Dad told her to do that, too.
I’m going to make a garden. My boyfriend gets stones from the beach, brings bags of sheep poo. I mix sandy earth with the poo, plant silver beet seedlings and broad beans the farmer’s wife has sent over. It feels good growing vegetables, it’s something to do, something I can do.
It is a long time before Dad brings the baby again. She’s tall. She’s quiet. I don’t know what to say to her. She brings a book. I look at her face, serious and pale, bent over her pages in a corner while Dad and I drink tea.
Dad’s looking old. He groans as he stands up from the chair. He makes noises as he breathes. I’m fine, he says. He and the baby drive away, waving.
Does she know who I am? I have only just thought of that. What has Dad told her? What does she say to the kids at school about her mother? I’m thinking about this now, as I plant beans. I remember Jack and the Beanstalk, my mother reading it to me, I wonder if the Baby knows nursery rhymes. I didn’t read any to her. I don’t read much. The farmer’s wife sends over her old Women’s Weeklies. I read romances, stories about women and men falling in love, overcoming everything to be together. I don’t know anyone like that. Mum and Dad met at Bible class. They didn’t overcome anything to get together. Maybe they didn’t fall in love. Maybe they only did it once – I am their only child. I never asked.
My only child doesn’t ask me anything, either.
A car roars quietly through the gravel. A man gets out wearing a suit and a sad face. Your father just died, he says.
I’m in the church, wearing the only dress I have. It’s a kind of sack with flowers. I wore it when I was pregnant with the baby.
She’s beside me. She’s as tall as me. She goes to High School in town. We are both crying. I am crying for my Dad, she is crying for my Dad who is more her Dad than he was mine.
Outside the church no-one talks to me. They don’t know me any more. Women go over to the baby, hug her as she weeps. I go over to the fence at the edge of the church yard.
She comes over. You’re my mother, she says. Yes, I say. I don’t know you, she says. Her eyes are grey, they are level with my blue ones. I’d like to get to know you. Can I come out and stay some time, she says.
I’m looking at this young woman, my baby, whose mother has done nothing for her. I don’t want to mess her up like I’m messed up. It’s the only good thought I can hold, maybe the only one I’ve ever had. I look across at our father’s coffin sliding into the hearse.
I don’t think so, I say. I’m leaving soon to live up north.
Next week's short story is from a new collection by Christchurch writer Frankie McMillan.