Just Another New Kid in Town
No, Mitzi didnít want to hold the baby, thank you very much, for fear it might break. It was a scrawny, red flop of a thing, with eyes like milky puddles and an angry gash of a mouth. No sooner had it relinquished its motherís puddingy breast than it was bawling again, screaming its fury into the too-hot room while the other women clucked around it like excitable hens.
But Mitzi was spared the problem of explanations because Jessie was already there, answering for her in tones of gynaecological awe usually reserved for Mrs Konnickerís emergency hysterectomy and Patriciaís ongoing 'complications.'
"Mitzi doesnít do babies," Jessie whispered, if you could really call it a whisper. Even the baby stopped, briefly, to listen, while it gathered its reserves for a fresh onslaught. "Sheís understandably sensitive . . . you know, on account of what happened at the grotto."
"What do you mean?" asked the babyís mother, who must surely be the only one of them who hadnít heard the story a hundred times before, who hadnít squirrelled away their own set of cuttings from the local papers, with a dedication that might have been considered morbidly distasteful had it not found further expression in casseroles and lasagnes and similarly well-meaning displays of culinary concern. To this day Mitzi couldnít so much as look at a hotpot, without that thick, congealing sensation in her stomach.
"It was years ago now," said Jessie, her eyes already alight. Seven leading roles in seven Patterbury Players productions and she knew how to hold the room. It was in the facial expressions as much as the words themselves. "She was little more than a child herself . . ."
Mitzi closed her eyes to them all, sinking back into the clammy warmth of the wall in the vain hope that it might swallow her.
"She was working as an elf . . . Ever so pleased she was when she got the job as well, poor girl . . . Sewed her own costume out of a dyed green sheet, with a red felt hat and funny pointy ears . . ." The mother moved her head in closer to hear, as the baby let rip with another roar of anger. It still hadnít forgiven the world for the glare of its noise and newness or for dragging it from the muffled redness that was its true home.
Oh the hours that had gone into that costume. Mitzi thought her heart might burst right open when her mother had thrown it onto the fire like that, as if it were the root of all their evils. All that time and effort, all those neat little stitches swallowed up; the hot yellow tongues licking at the foam lobes and pointy tips with a loverís mocking urgency. They might have let her keep the costume. Theyíd taken everything else.
"Not Santa, surely?" gasped the mother, with ill-concealed delight. Now that would be a tale worth the telling.
"No, not Santa. It was another elf. An out-of-towner," Jessie said, as if that explained everything, which for most of the room it probably did. Only an out-of-towner would be capable of such a heinous act. Only an out-of-towner would look twice at a girl like Mitzi.
Someone was struggling with the sticky window at the far end of the room, in a futile bid for some fresh air.
"Not that one dear," called the mother. "Weíll never get it shut again. Thereís a fan upstairs in the bedroom. Perhaps you could fetch it down for me?"
It wasnít quite clear who this last remark was addressed to but no one else was making any effort to move so Mitzi slipped away from the group and headed towards the door, glad of an excuse to put some space between her and her story. They all thought they knew it but they didnít. Sure, they knew laws and medical procedures but they didnít know love. They didnít know the wonderful pressure of hands on dyed green shoulders, that sweet whisky heat against elfin cheeks or the soft swearing of promises into pointed ears. You donít tell anyone, you understand? This is our little secret.
Upstairs in the bedroom, Mitzi fingered little blue bootees and breathed in the soft baby lotion smells until she grew wet-eyed and shaky. She would have kept the secret safe . . . she did keep it safe. She kept it and she waited, kept and waited. Only the secret showed itself just the same, didnít it?
When she got back with the fan the room had fallen suspiciously quiet.
"Alright Mitzi dear?" called Jessie. She was clutching the now-snuffling baby to her chest, her face a picture of possessive satisfaction.
"Just plug it in over there," called the mother. "Youíre a star." Mitzi did as she was told, feeling anything but radiant. Star of her own freak-show maybe. Thatís what they all thought, wasnít it? Poor foolish Mitzi, too young and too simple to understand what was going on. Not until it was too late. And probably not even then. The mother turned back to Jessie. "And she hasnít spoken since?"
"Not a word," chipped in one of the others, all pretence at lowered voices forgotten in the renewed excitement of the story. Nothing so terrible had ever happened in Patterbury, before or since. Or maybe they thought she was deaf as well as dumb.
"Utterly destroyed, she was," said Jessie. "When I think what that bastard did to her . . ."
"Never the same afterwards, poor girl . . ."
"Itís no wonder she lost the child, when you think about what sheíd been through. The shame of it all."
Mitziís hands were on the hollow flatness of her stomach. Oh the pain of it all.
"It was a kindness reallyóshe'd never have coped, not even if the circumstances had been happier. Motherhood would be an awfully big ask for a girl like Mitzi."
It was a big ask. Every day she asked, the same silent plea≠≠óplease bring him back to me. Our little secret. And please make me another baby.
Mitzi turned up the level on the fan as she squatted in front of it, letting the warm air rush at her hair, lifting it from her small round ears so that it haloed up around her head.
"No wonder she gave me that look when I asked if she wanted a hold," said the mother. "I had no idea. Gosh I feel awful now." She took the baby from Jessie, drawing it back into her protectively, as if the family misfortune might somehow be contagious.
"Bastard got off far too lightly if you ask me," added another voice from the gaggle. "And to think of where it happened . . . Makes me feel quite queasy even now."
Mitzi put her hands to her ears, shutting out the whole sorry lot of them. What did they know about anything?
she didnít want to hold the baby, thank you very much. She didnít even want to
look at it any more, for fear it might break. Just like they broke hers.
Jennifer Mooreís short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous publications on both sides of the Atlantic, including The Guardian, Mslexia, The First Line and Short Fiction (further examples of her writing can be found at http://jennifermoore.wordpress.com). She was a runner-up in the Tenth Glass Woman Prize with ĎMy Motherís Tailí and is currently putting the finishing touches to a Young Adult novel based on Sir Gawain and the Green Night.