He played along. Just for the adults. He’d rather be working on his wireless remote pigeon tracker or pressing his PE kit. He even had homework to do, but the parents had insisted he leave it. Incredible abuse, he’d thought. But, he considered, they did earn the money to pay for his projects, provide accommodation and taxi services, food, laundry resources, and the occasional trip to the Science Museum, that he may as well bolster the relationship with some form of reciprocal happiness. So, he’d posed for the stupid photo with the stupid fake too-yellow chicks. He’d greeted the overly excited neighbourhood children as they were dispatched by their parents at his house. And he’d only rolled his eyes slightly as his mother handed out the boiled-beyond-death eggs along with trays of poster paint and cheap brushes. He’d been as polite as possible about the disastrous results. His mother voiced her approval with squeals of delight and bulging eyes that apparently made all four of the invited children extremely proud of their eggy art works. The most difficult part was dealing with Marcia, the next-door-but-one neighbour’s five year old girl. All pink and ribbony, and very much into unicorns. Their respective parents were good friends, and, as they lived so near, they felt it was good for Marcia and Tom to be friends, even with the age difference.
He’d see her at school and she’d always make a point of saying hello, especially in front of his friends, just to cause extra embarrassment. Even the nerdiest of kids have standards of cool and not cool, and a kid from first year talking to a kid from fourth year was bad enough, never mind a kid that was a girl, never mind a kid that was a girl with pink ribbons and unicorn dresses. She seemed popular amongst her peers. Any time he spotted a crowd of girls on the playing field he knew Marcia would be in the middle, the focus, the centre of attention. All the girls peering at something in amazement, pushing and shoving to get closer to the pink ribbon in the middle, the one on top of Marcia’s head. When a dinner lady approached they’d all feign nonchalance, and Marcia would put on her brightest smile as she concealed whatever was so fascinating behind her back. Tom noted the dinner lady never asked to see what was being concealed, but the flattered smile on her face told Tom that Marcia had just paid her a very charming compliment, thus deflecting attention with wonder and awe at what an amazingly lovely little girl she was. She was doing the same thing right now with his mother.
“I love these buns you’ve made, Mrs Boyle. The icing is so pretty.”
“Oh, thank you, Marcia,” said Tom’s mother, with that expression of delight that only a pink ribboned five year old girl paying an adult a compliment can do. Marcia was smiling so sweetly that the sugar filled buns felt they may have competition in the room. One of them was handed to Marcia by Tom’s mother, who excitedly proclaimed it was finally time for the egg hunt in the garden.
The children scattered having been given the build up to “Go!” and Tom sluggishly trailed himself into the long but narrow back garden. “Keep your eye out for the Easter Bunny!” shouted his Nikon camera clad mother. He carried the basket his mum had procured from the local pound shop and searched under trees. In bushes. Behind freshly stacked sticks. All the obvious places from which he could get something into his basket that looked like he’d spent time, made an effort, etc. It was soon all boring enough that he noticed the trail of smoke curling up from behind the buddleia bush which, he thought, was worthy of further investigation. He picked his way carefully through the border of primroses, over the crisping daffodils and around newly budding buddleia branches, then stopped, dead.
The rabbit was what his brother would call manky. His white fur had lost its whiteness. Instead it was a clumpy yellow, with flecks of dirty fluff and patches of peeling skin. Tom didn’t know what to make of it, so he just stared. The rabbit peered back at him through the smoky curls.
“I’ve been watching you.”
Tom considered replying, but the fact he would be replying to five foot rabbit was something his brain couldn’t get over in order to form those word things it was usually quite good at.
“It’s kids like you that will be the death of us,” said the nicotine stained voice. He took another drag. His mangy ear flopped over his left eye as he did so. Shaking slightly with the effort.
Tom’s brain decided that superiority was the way forward in such a bizarre situation.
“Why would I listen to a stinky rabbit?” he said, with a dismissive nose twist.
“A stinky rabbit!” exclaimed the stinky rabbit, throwing down his half-finished cig and hopping stompily towards the boy. His arms with their chewed paws gestured wildly as he spat and spoke. “YOU made me like this. Kids like you. You have one job and you can’t even do that properly!”
“Yes!” the rabbit spat. “Being a kid.”
“But, I am a kid,” said Tom. “I can’t be anything else.”
The rabbit laughed into the air, then shook its head. It’s whiskered smile turned into a sneer as it edged closer towards the boy.
“Yes. A particularly stupid one, it appears.”
Tom was, in fact, stupefied. Tom had never considered he could become stupefied, but, in this moment, he would remember, he most definitely was.
“If you don’t believe,” said the rabbit, “then this is what I become. An old memory. Something pointless and lost. Forgotten. Homeless. That’s what kids like you want isn’t it? Hmm?” The rabbit’s eyes widened as it pushed its face into Tom’s. “Isn’t it?!” Tom tried to edge backwards but stumbled over a broken gnome. He felt the panic race through his body.
“Even disrespecting the King of the Garden,” the rabbit spat while towering over him.
“But, I…I didn’t know…”
“Hey, rabbit! Where’s your fat fluffy arse?”
This confidently demanding voice wrapped in the sweetness of a five year old’s voice box came from the other side of the buddleia bush, followed by a rustling of branches, followed by Marcia. The rabbit backed away instantly, seemingly cowering at the presence of the small human. It jittered and held its paws against its chest, almost like it was trying to be cute.
“There you are,” said Marcia, who then saw Tom and his very confused expression.
“Oh, you’re here too,” said the girl, slightly perturbed, for a second at least. “Never mind. So, rabbit, got my stuff?”
“Yes, yes, Miss…ma’am.” The rabbit fumbled within its fur, as if looking for some concealed skin pocket. “Here…” A small bottle of something pink and a little bit sparkly was handed over.
“Good,” said Marcia, sharply.
“It’s the finest breath you’ll get, Miss. Taken from one of the finest unicorns I know. Lives in the mountain forests of the Unseen where it roams amongst the ancestors, eating only the juciest of sprouting clovers of the four leaved variety.” The rabbit attempted a crooked smile, all teeth and stains. “Good quality clover, ma’am. Some say if you look really hard you’ll find a five leaved one in there somewhere. If the unicorn ain’t ate it, y’understand.” The rabbit let out a wheezing laugh, full of nerves and eager to pleaseness. But Marcia wasn’t listening. The girl was inspecting the small bottle carefully, like she knew what she was doing, it seemed. She was taking her time about it, which appeared to agitate the rabbit. He bit his lip a few times, pulling at the whiskers so they splayed out and sprang back like fibre optics. He rubbed the back of his neck, then his chin, glancing at the girl in between the awkward movements, then finally he blurted, “So have you got my stuff?”
“Oh,” said Marcia, distracted from her thorough inspection, “Yes. But don’t forget, rabbit,” she said, moving up close to the rabbit who, even though he rose above her a good couple of foot, still shrank back at her forwardness, “I make you, and I can break you, so don’t go running off too soon, I’ll require your services again.”
“Ye…yes, Miss…ma’am…,” said the rabbit, now visibly shaking.
The girl dropped an assortment of chocolate eggs, various sizes, at the rabbit’s feet, keeping eye contact with the animal at all times. “Don’t eat them all at once,” she said. Then, covering her face with her bestest overly-lovely grin, Marcia pocketed her unicorn breath and made her way out through the buddleia bush. The rabbit, as if a sudden bout of rabies had hit him, delved into the pile of chocolate, hurriedly unwrapping those that needed to be unwrapped whilst cramming those that didn’t into his mouth, smearing his yellowing paws and facial fur in brown goo. Tom took the opportunity to get the hell out of there, careful not to tread on the broken gnome, the King of the Garden, as he left.
As they all departed from the successful, happy-filled day, Tom’s mum gave each child a goody bag filled with their egg based works of art, some small chocolate eggs and too-yellow toy chicks. Tom was expected to stand at the door while this ceremony occurred, which he did, diligently. And with less superiority than usual, noted his mother. Marcia was last to leave. She thanked Tom’s mother with her trademark grin and big, honest blue eyes, and took her goody bag.
“Bye, Tom,” she said, as she walked past him. “Oh, and…” Her proximity was way too close for comfort, Tom knew, but his body wouldn’t move as she whispered in his ear, “It’s good to believe, Tom. But no one will believe you, of course.” And with that, and an extra sparkle from the pink bow on the back of her head, she was gone.
“Mum,” said Tom.
“Yes, love,” said Tom’s mum, mid-wave.
“I think we should get another gnome for the garden.”
Her feet hurt, as if the shopping centre floor were made of shards of glass. She stopped at a convenient bench embedded within a wall of freshly planted council flower display. The smiling purple and yellow pansies giggled at her in the slight breeze, nodding and cajoling each other. She made sure she caught the heads of some as she swept her bags onto the bench. She only had five bags, one Prada – carried on the outside of the stack at all times – and the rest from various high end fashion outlets, but she felt like she’d been carrying a sack of potatoes for the last hour. She placed her hands into the small of her back and stretched. Her huge belly protruded before her, rotund with a joyous small human. A now quite heavy joyous small human. This would probably be the last time Judith could visit her favourite shops before she went into labour. Three days from her due date and Judith was excited to welcome her second little girl into the world. Excited to lose this huge bulge from her front. Excited to fit into her designer dresses once more, after a few sessions on the Abs-Master, of course. She sat on the council bench, pushing her back into its curved comfort and felt the gratefulness soak through her calves and into her feet. She was considering removing her heels, when…
“Room for a few more, love?”
The woman smelled of the underside of a bridge. A dilapidated bridge over a disused canal. Her ragged hair matched that of the two young girls standing with her: a dirty black, more knots than hair. The woman was smiling greedily. Her whole face contorted in on itself as she did so, making her stained teeth brandish themselves forcefully. The two children, pale, with lost eyes, stared. Judith recoiled.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
Glad that her bags were taking up most of the rest of the bench, Judith turned away from the three grubby females towards the comfort of her shopping, bringing a delicate hand to her nose to alleviate its distress.
“Is tha’ any way to treat your fellow kind?” said the woman, holding the two pale faced girls close to her. But Judith did not see her. Instead, she fumbled in her bag, smelling the shop she’d bought her new shoes from within it, hoping to get lost in reliving the experience rather than staying in this stinky reality. As she glided through the aisles of designer shoes she could hear a muttering coming from the outside world. She touched the velvet soft Jimmy Choos, the smell of dead animal skin, processed for her enjoyment, and the muttering faded. She felt a drop of something wet hit her ankle, but when she turned again to face reality there was no rain, there was no woman, no girls. There was just her and her bags, and a damp pool around her shoes.
Twelve hours later, on 23rd May 2016, Judith sat in her hospital bed while Abbey, aged five, had a tantrum on the pale blue disinfected floor. Colin, Abbey’s adoring father, had just finished crying, mostly relieved he’d carried out his perfectly planned emergency birthing procedure and delivered his wife safely to the hospital so that she may deliver their new daughter just as safely. He’d even managed to get a grumpy Abbey to sleep on the plastic chairs in the waiting area some time in the early morning hours, for a bit at least. He just hoped his parents would arrive soon to take the sobbing girl away from what should be this peaceful moment. Abbey needed attention, and lots of it. Colin knew it was only a matter of time before she worked out that she wasn’t centre of attention in this situation. That, along with the disrupted night’s sleep and lack of red crayon, had finally brought about an extraordinary outburst of pent up despair. He was sure he’d get an earful from his mother, having cut their luxury spa weekend short upon his urgent call, but what else could he do? It was part of the emergency birthing procedure. His father would understand that. A tiny gurgle in between Abbey’s gasps for breath reminded him it was all worth it. The brand new little girl looked up at Judith with unfocused eyes. Judith remembered the purchase of her first Chanel handbag, and the kindred emotion of the moment filled her eyes.
Two healthcare assistants were still clearing up around the now family of four, and another large bottomed nurse slipped through the door with a fresh jug of water and a huge bunch of rainbow flowers.
“These are from…” she studied the card embedded within the bunch, “…Barbara and Peter.”
“Oh, my parents are here?” said Colin, hopefully.
“Yes, they’re outside. I said I’d check how you were doing first.”
The nurse placed the flowers in yet another vase. A seemingly endless supply was inside the small cupboard next to Judith’s bed. Abbey, having noted the audience numbers increasing, screamed loudly.
“Good,” said Colin, and almost too efficiently gathered up the scattering of crayons and colouring books, Mr Fluffy the Penguin, and Abbey.
“Looks like Mummy’s not the only tired one round here,” laughed the nurse, who seemed immune to the formidable piecing screams coming from the small child. “I think we all need some rest, hmm?”
The suggestion felt more like an order. The lingering large brown eyes of the nurse confirmed this. Colin was used to decoding those sorts of looks. He kissed his wife and new baby girl gently as if he could break them, and took Abbey to see her grandparents.
The nurses, rosy with a job well done, smiled and left her to sleep. And Judith slept.
When she woke she was sore. To be expected. Except this sore felt different to her last stay in hospital when Abbey was born. The usual soreness was there but it felt like an extra weight was bearing down on top of it all. She pulled herself up, and at once the horrifying lump made itself known. Had she dreamt the twelve hour labour? No. The cards and flowers were still there. The ‘It’s A Girl!’ balloon still bobbed in the corner. And she could still hear the soft breaths of her baby daughter mingled with the dull conversation from beyond her private room. Yet her swollen belly lay before her. Judith prodded it. It didn’t hurt. She smoothed her hand over the mound, pressing slightly in the hope of some escaping wind. Then something from within the lump pressed back. Without taking her eyes away from this horrifying situation before her, Judith hit the red button to the side of her bed. Eventually a nurse rushed into the room.
“All right, Judith, love, you can stop pressing your call button now,” said the nurse; the same large bottomed nurse who’d produced the endless vases. This flash of recognition happened in the back of Judith’s mind, as did the instruction to stop pushing the button. But, unable to process anything else, Judith continued pressing the button until the nurse took her hand from it.
“It’s moving,” struggled Judith, pointing her protruding blue eyes towards her engorged belly. The nurse unbuttoned Judith’s silk night shirt and revealed the lump. She massaged its edges, her eyes wandering about the room. She jumped, then stepped back.
But the nurse didn’t reply.
“Er…” she stammered, backing away. “There must be some internal bleeding,” she said, grasping for the door handle, unable to remove her eyes from what shouldn’t be possible. “I’ll get the doctor.”
The doctor’s face changed from concern to puzzlement as she listened to Judith’s swollen stomach. Without saying a word the doctor hurriedly left the room and returned swiftly with another doctor. This doctor repeated the process and the same expressions adorned her face as the first doctor. They both listened. They fetched another doctor. The echocardiogram machine was wheeled in, the gel applied, and all stared intently at the monitor. There was much nodding, chin rubbing, and exchanged glances with furrowed brows. Just before the third doctor managed to say they’d be right back for the fourth time, Judith broke.
“What the hell is going on?” she snapped.
The first doctor stepped forward. Or rather her colleagues stepped backwards, leaving her exposed for explanation duties.
“Mrs Richards,” said the doctor, approaching Judith nervously, “I’m afraid… I mean, I’m happy to tell you you’re pregnant?” Inflected by the questioning tone, the statement assured Judith that this was indeed an anomaly in the mind of the doctor as well as herself. They weren’t prepared for this. Their three bedroom, two acre home with heated garden room couldn’t accommodate three children’s needs. Their 4×4 only had two back seats with considerable storage space. And they’d only bought a single Armani baby nest travel system. How would they cope?
That night, after only two hours, Judith gave birth to a beautiful daughter. She lay in the cot next to her newborn sister. A confused Colin had managed to deposit a disgruntled Abbey at her grandparents’ just in time for the unexpected happy arrival. The doctor said it must have been twins all along, just didn’t register on the machine at any point during the four 3D or the two 4D ultrasounds or the three abdominal examinations, even though they were paid for privately and done by several different consultants. “One must have been behind the other on every occasion,” the doctor had laughed. Judith and Colin had laughed too.
More cards arrived. More balloons bobbed. More vases appeared. As they explained the situation to the endless stream of visitors Colin and Judith came to believe the doctor’s story themselves. Colin cried, again. He kissed his wife and left to relieve his parents of their granddaughter. Then Judith slept.
She woke with a start and pressed the buzzer immediately. The same fat bottomed nurse had barely stuck her head round the door before her eyes widened and she ran down the corridor to fetch the doctor. The doctor arrived, then the next, and the next. The machines were plugged in, the monitor whirred softly to life, revealing the random blue grey shapes that somehow melded into the form of ten toes attached to two globular feet. Ignoring the impossibility of triplets being missed throughout a whole nine months of pregnancy, the doctors helped Judith through her third labour in three days. After only an hour the soft breaths of a third little girl joined her sisters. When the fourth sister came the next day Judith was moved to a more private private room. Somewhat larger than the other room, this room had no windows, no wi-fi, and no telephone. And after the fifth baby girl arrived Judith understood the cautious actions of her privately paid doctors.
In the moments between births Judith tried to rest. She tried to distract herself by picturing her favourite shoes on the blackness of her eyelids, but she could not get the image of that woman at the council bench out of her mind. Only she remembered something different. The pansies were still there, laughing at her. Her feet still throbbed. But the woman wasn’t smiling greedily as Judith thought she should remember. Instead, the woman was muttering words that seemed to fly into Judith’s body. The contorted face and stained teeth distorted as the murky blackness left the woman’s wide mouth, and invisible spears of her disgusting breath sunk into Judith’s skin, crawling through her. The two pale girls smiled while they watched. They told Judith something with their silent eyes. They would be safe now. And she slept.
A flustered Colin paid for a nanny to assist with the barrage of nappy changing and cyclical feeding schedule. Judith didn’t have too much trouble accepting she wouldn’t be able to breastfeed as all the magazines had told her to, and when the fourth and fifth nanny arrived to join the army of carers Judith happily showed them where the cupboards, later to be rooms, of formula were kept. The next baby arrived, then the next. One a day seemed to be the routine. The doctors considered sound-proofing the rooms on the advice of the legal team, should an unscrupulous member of staff decide they needed some extra holiday money from the Daily Fail. Feeding time was when they were most vulnerable. The 26th nanny suggested Colin invest in some earplugs, which he did, and got a discount for such a large order. One after the other they came. All girls. A new one each day. Another sister, another daughter. More soreness. More pain. Until, on 23 May 2017, while her 365th baby slept soundly, Judith awoke to a different soreness. A lighter one. It was over.
The chorus of hungry babies rang through the concealed hospital rooms as the army of 146 nannies marched into action. Machine upon machine mixed up batches of formula. Boxes of nappies were wheeled in on trolleys. Shrink-wrapped bundles of baby wipes made their way towards toxic bottoms in hurried porter’s hands, and stoic doctors awaited the page that never came. As unbelievable as the situation was, all these people knew these lives were precious. Each baby individual. Each to be someone unique. Each worth the time and effort, the care and love, even if all they could give back right now was stinky gifts. Judith slumped in her bed, her home for the last year. She thought of Colin. She thought of Abbey. She listened to her children’s call and vowed on the life of her Dolce & Gabbana earmuffs to always be nice to strangers as if they were her own. Even ones that smelled of canal.
“But it’s not my fault it’s raining!” I exclaimed to the officer who’d just placed the handcuffs round my wrists.
“They’re designed to expand. It’s what I pay for them to do,” I said.
The officer had now chained me to the nearest lamppost while waiting for his colleagues from homicide. He was inspecting the scene carefully, occasionally stopping, looking at me, then shaking his head as he wandered to the next pair of legs protruding from the saturated white mass in the middle of the shopping precinct. Sales assistants peered from doorways and stock room windows. The busker had stopped playing his ukulele version of I Want to Break Free and was trying to decide what, if anything, he could play next. Dogs sat, tied to lampposts and drainpipes, looking sorrowfully at me. A line of Motability scooters formed, and grey ladies peered over their baskets through magnified eyes and under plastic headscarves, lips dangling like dried apricots. Babies dribbled in bulky pushchairs wondering why their mothers had curtailed their journey. The joins between the crazy paving were slowly taking on a red hue, dribbling its way like carefully constructed rivers, bits of pigeon scattered on their banks. A discarded McDonald’s chip floated on one of the rivers, like a lost un-nutritious boat that will never rot. Of the next victim, only his feet remained, beshoed and soggy. The force of the suck had ripped the rest of him from them. His torso must be in the process of absorption. Soon the gathering crowd would be able to see the delicate pink stain within the whiteness.
“A sorry state of affairs,” said the policeman, shaking his head.
It appears, you see, that you shouldn’t leave your pocket open in the rain when it contains the super absorbent deluxe maxi expandie tampon. People may get seriously hurt.
Ever since she could remember the locket had always been there in her mother’s jewellery box. It looked old. She had never seen her mother wearing it. It was silver with a pattern made of dirt. Naturally ornate, curling and curving over its oval figure. It was beautiful. Something to treasure. Something important, judging by its enclosed existence inside its red velvet bed on her mother’s oak dressing table. The clasp was stuck fast so the contents of the locket had always been a secret. It remained a fascination to her in any case, and she’d sit and fold it between her fingers, let it dangle delicately from her hands, spinning and twirling its patterns like a fairy dance.
She remembered hazy dreams when she sneaked through her mother’s creaky bedroom door, not treading on the loose, painted floorboard with her right foot, over the spongy pile of the bedside rug, snugly on her naked feet, to the big oak dressing table. She remembered opening the heavy lid and letting it rest on its hinges, its plush redness inviting her in. The seductive beauty of it. The locket was the first thing she looked for, and the first thing she found. She remembered the click of the clasp as it opened effortlessly. The small yellowing parcel inside, the faded photograph. It told her its story. A sad and frightening story. The pain coursed through the locket’s dirty curves while she listened, and felt. A story she could never forget, but one that she never remembered. For dreams only.
One day her mother found her with the locket and was very angry. Far too angry. It was only a locket; she wasn’t breaking it. Her mother snatched it away from her and took it with her as she left the room full of cross words. The locket didn’t return to the jewellery box for ages after that day. Instead she tried on her mother’s rings of gold and red, playing with the light that sparkled in them. Broaches that creaked when she opened the pin, the years of flint encrusting the hinge, always blue. She made snake nests with the silver chains in the bottom of the box, swirling them round so that they lived. But nothing could enchant her more than that locket, and her time spent with the box grew less and less because of its absence. Until the day of her 13th birthday.
She had a new dress, the colour of shepherd’s delight. Her mother suggested a ring from her jewellery box as her little girl was nearly a grownup now. She hurried up the stairs, her new dress flowing behind her, square heeled shoes clomping on each step. As she lifted the lid and the crimson velvet warmed her eyes she spotted it. The locket. As beautiful as she remembered it some years ago. She took it into her hands, immersed in its ornate dirt, feeling its round edges between her fingers and thumb. She smiled her broadest smile and rushed to her mother, who was wearing her green fruit apron while she prepared butterfly cakes for the party. Her mother turned abruptly at her daughter’s wild excitement as she flung herself round the door, hanging from the frame. She held out the locket to her mother, pleading with her to let her wear it. But instead of seeing her mother’s kind eyes melt into acquiescence, she saw the fearful whites of them twist into uneasy rage.
Her mother shouted at her so loudly that the ringing in her ears lasted until the next week. She thought about what had happened for a long time after. Her mother had said sorry to her, but told her not to touch the locket again – she’d thought she’d hidden it and didn’t know how it ended up back in the jewellery box. It must mean a lot to her. But she never wore it. It wasn’t fair.
She didn’t see it again. Many birthdays passed, and many changes came. The locket nearly faded into nothingness.
Years passed, and new life came. Her mother deteriorated quickly. She did what she could to look after her, visited her every day, taking her granddaughter as a reminder of happiness.
She found her mother one evening, around seven. There was blood where she’d hit her head falling against the big oak dressing table. Her eyes were closed. Sleeping, endlessly. The open jewellery box blazed against the dark wood; the locket wasn’t there.
She cleared the house, apart from the odd bit of furniture. It wasn’t important. As it stood there on that patch of ground with lifeless windows, the house became something to get rid of. But nobody wanted it. So it was just left to fade away.
A squirrel moved in. Holding a fresh acorn between his teeth, he found his way to his stash behind a barren arm chair then scampered his scratchy claws up the abandoned stairs and across the peeling floorboards, over the one that creaked. It snapped in two under his weight, and the broken section lifted and rocked with a tingling squeak. A silver chain hung on its corner, weighted by its oval burden. The ornate pattern danced like dirty snakes as it twisted in the air. Below it, a dusty pine casket peered from the dark hollow, small as a child. A baby. Running from its home’s disturbance, a spider hurried across the small wooden plaque on top of the casket. The dust danced in the stale air. Gold writing glinted in the sunlight, almost as though enjoying the warmth of its rays for the first time in so long.
“Born asleep. Forever remembered.”