For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn

For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn

For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn. That’s what the advert said, and that’s exactly what we needed.

I was expecting my own newborn in less than a month, but what kind of a world was it coming into? It was thoughts of the future that possessed me as I rode to collect the shoes.

We weren’t badly off, my husband and I, and I never forget that it could be worse. Our hover-car is self-controlling – with all the safety features – and it zooms up and down the San Franciscan valleys with the speed of an old world roller coaster.

It still feels strange to cross the waters at the bottom of Prospect Hill. Like a lot of people, I remember when San Francisco was seen as a coastal town. Nowadays it’s just a series of small islands, each poking their head above the sea like a Pacific volcano. It won’t be too long, they say, before it goes the same way as New York, Sydney or Hong Kong. The old timers reckon it all happened so fast, but they had warning… decades of it.

As I make my way through what used to be known as Silicone Valley, I pass by a government information screen that advertises off-world opportunities – The chance to begin again. I won’t go though. The off-world colonies are a dream – the technology’s still a century away, and Mars… It’s a sham. It’s like dropping cheese into the waves while rats are fleeing the sinking ship and I won’t go with them. There’s got to be a better way.

I touch my belly again, and think of the child that grows inside. Is it really fair to bring another living human being into a civilisation that’s on its way out? Beaten by our own blind evolution.

They desperately sought progress, with no idea that this is where we were going…

By the time I realise that we’ve reached my destination, I realise I’ve been sitting outside the house for long minutes, lost in thought while I stare across the bay. Three ships are sitting in dock, waiting to travel to the cool of the North; taking the chosen few to a new life in the scientific resorts of Alaska and the Arctic.

I shake feelings of envy from out of my head and look to the house. Only because I’m waiting for my own child, I remember their advert and am touched by the sadness of this family’s grief. For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn. Their child must have died.

In a moment, I realise that the father is standing in the doorway beckoning me in. I move to position my UV protector mask, but he comes bounding down the garden path, carrying a portashield, and then bundles me into the house.

“Come in, come in, get out of the sunshine,” he says and guides me into the living room to where a pair of simple, blue faux leather children’s shoes sit inside a cardboard box. They have flowers cut out of them, and for a moment I remember a time in my youth when flowers – like baby’s shoes – were commonplace and disposable; but everything was back then.

“I couldn’t believe that we’re selling them on so soon,” says the grieving father, with a grin that sits somewhere between pride and a schoolboy’s cheek. “We’re not the first though.”

I’m not clear on what he means for a second, but then I turn and see his wife enter the room swaddling a baby who gurgles playfully before being a little sick on her shoulder.

“Oh I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t… I thought…” I look between the parents, clearly bemused.

“Oh… you… I mean… you didn’t know?” the father stammers.

“But you must have read about us?” the mother exclaims, joyfully. “We’re the new generation.”

I step back, thrown slightly. The mother approaches me, in a way that leaves me strangely en-guard, and begins peeling off the layers that surround her child.

“Look, but look, he’s the future…” she says, almost pleading. And then, as though performing some kind of magic trick, she extracts her baby’s sausage like leg, and I realise with horror why they are selling the shoes.

His leg is normal – pudgy and healthy – but it leads down to a foot that’s splayed, like the flipper of some fat, pink frog. It’s as long as my hand and for a second I believe it’s plastic, but then the child laughs and flexes his flipper and I turn to face its father, who’s still smiling as though he wants reassurance or acceptance from me.

“We’re the future,” he says. “That’s what we were told.” He’s silent only briefly, though it feels longer. “We’re going to Alaska soon,” he adds with a kind of apologetic pride.

“They’ll try to make you all like this,” the mother says, as she reaches for me. “They can still … help your…” she gestures at my belly but I turn and run, out of the room and back to the car. I slam it into motion and take off, dangerously leaping between two peaks.

I’m almost home before I allow the car to slow down, and then stop; fearful sobs desperately try to breathe something like calm back into my body. I think of my sister, and remember her decision to leave. I miss her so much it hurts.

And then my hand slowly rests again on the child that grows inside of me, and my thoughts return to that evening, many months ago, when my husband and I decided to try.

“Oh my baby,” I whisper. “What have we done?”

Father Christmas

Father Christmas

The snow fell gently that night. A wind chime tinkled. Rainbow coloured lights blinked and winked, illuminating a single line of footprints that led down the side alley of the house.

The rusted lock had been opened with ease – the intruder had the key and grease he’d needed – and the tangle of bikes and garden implements had been silently avoided, even in the darkness.

He’d slunk across the patio and made for the laundry room, where he’d found the window with the loose latch through which he knew he could enter, silently, even though he was drunk.

Inside, there were clothes hanging to dry: a child’s snowsuit, a woman’s underwear, a man’s overalls. The intruder breathed deeply and shuddered in the darkness.

She deserved to suffer. But it was the child he wanted.

In a moment, he realised where he was and remembered the need for speed. He slipped off his shoes – a desire to leave no trace – and, clutching a pillowcase like a swag bag, he gently eased open the door and entered the house…

He wasn’t inside long, and he exited the same way he’d arrived, vanishing into the night.

He knew he’d pay for the visit, but it didn’t matter. He knew he’d never see their faces when they saw what he’d done, but it didn’t matter. Because he also knew that, on Christmas morning, she’d awaken to an unexpected gift beneath the tree, with a label on it that read simply: Love, dad xx

 

As I said in the recording, I wrote that a while ago for a story competition that had to be exactly 250 words. It was really about remembering not just the perspectives that we often have on dads – and men in general to some extent – that men are a threat, a danger.

But hopefully it will also remind is that for a lot of dads – myself included – Christmas can be an intolerably lonely time, one marked mainly by absence. The loss of children always brings about a kind of grief, and even if the children are “ok” – living as they are with their mother – their absence is always accompanied by a deep and profound kind of pain. 

So maybe, while we celebrate Christmas this year, we could remember those men who are refused access to their children, or whose children have been taken away from them by mothers who decided to live abroad, or across the country.

Happy Christmas anyway xx 

Perspective

Perspective

Audio from Opening Lines, Brighton, December 2018

Just a little reminder to take care this Christmas… xx

The Victim
There’s a blackness so deep it almost glows. And that’s all there is. I’ve an awareness of myself, but nothing more. It’s as though I’m surrounded by an emptiness, a vacuum, that draws me outward to fill it, and it stretches me so thin I almost don’t feel like I exist; and I know that I haven’t the strength to fight it forever. For a half a second I am enough to reflect on what had happened: I remember, like the memory of a dream, the warmth of a fire, presents unwrapping, a scooter I could ride; and then – from out of the darkness – I see the lights of a car, made ghostly by the cloud of wet sleet and snow that’s being whipped by the wind. The lights approach me, faster and faster; and then a dull clunk like two stones clashing. And then I’m alone again, in a blackness so deep that it almost glows…

The Driver
I shouldn’t be here. ButI can’t leave. It wasn’t my fault. But I know I’ll replay this again and again for the rest of my life. I’ll live this forever… I was driving to my parents’ house; there was incessant noise from the backseat; the snow and sleet flew so thick it was like a fog. And then, there was a moment where it parted, as though some divine wind had passed, and by then it was already too late… I can still see her face, strangely frozen, in an eyes-wide-open moment of pure terror.And that’s the image I’ll take with me, branded into my mind. And when I close my eyes to sleep, she’ll be there as well. I curl up and cry.

The Nurse
I check the instruments, but nothing’s changed. She’s in a coma and unless she wakes up soon she’ll stay that way until we shut it down. The man who hit her looks awful– thank God he’s sober. I feel for him, I really do. I feel for her as well… and the family. God, the family! But in this line of work, it’s hard to hold that care and my mind begins to wander. I keep an eye on the readings, there’s not much I can do, and if I’m honest, a part of me is itching to check my phone and see if Hannah’s still on for Thursday. I know it’s insensitive, and so concentrate to hold back a smile at the thought of her… And then I feel a cold wash of guilt as I look back at the girl on the bed, her skin as pale as a ghost, and remind myself that there’s nothing I can do.

The Messenger
I know they’re in there. I spoke to them earlier. I reassured them as well as I could. Over the years, I’ve learnt the knack of that: if you’re too hopeful it makes things harder later on; it makes for an easier shift if you keep expectations low. I resent the times when I deal with this like it’s a job, but it is. Their only child, and she’s gone. Is that a job? Carrying news like this. Is it something you should do so often you’re good at it? Before I open the door – every time – I remind myself that although this how I pay my bills, this isn’t a job. This is about life, and I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta to do, because someone’s gotta do it.

The Family
She’s gone. There are no words. There is only grief, and the memories that burn.

The T-Shirt
Shit happens.

Power

Power

He placed a small box onto the table.

Ornate carvings it had none;
Gilt and gold was not its thing.
In fact
It was hard to see the colour really;
It was almost hard to see.

But it was there:
A small box, sitting
on the worn green leather top
of a wide wooden desk, before
the most powerful man in the world.

“It’s yours, if you want it,”
The traveller said.
“It has the power to create
anything you desire;
the power to control people;
it has the power to meld and mend
consciousness itself
and as such,
it creates reality.”

The traveller sat back:
“It’s yours, if you want it.”

“What’s the catch?” asked
the most powerful man in the world.
“There must be something.”

The traveller shrugged:
“I have one myself.
And no-one needs
more than that.”

There was a moment’s pause
Where the man’s hand itched to reach out,
And snatch it,
And be damned with what else.

“What do you want?” asked the man.

“You have a choice,”
the traveller said.
“My asking is only curiosity,
But I want to know what you’d do:
You can have this,
I’ll give you ten;
Or I’ll give you one for everyone
On the face of your planet.

The decision is yours.”

The man thought,
in the way we often do,
not rationally or logically
but dreamily,
excitedly.
He played out hopeful scenarios,
Pursuing an end to a point of comfort:
If everyone had one,
What would that be?

The endless consumption;
Street corners riddled with drugs
And debauchery.
The population losing focus,
Chaos reigns.
The lecherous mob,
drowning in their luxury;
Humanity sinking into sand.

Or he could manage it,
Help them,
Distribute it fairly,
And see the future through.

And he knew what he must do.

The traveller left that afternoon,
His ship slipping silently into space,
And the man was left holding his box:

Ornate carvings it had none;
Gilt and gold was not its thing.
In fact
It was hard to see the colour really:
It was almost hard to see.

And it never seemed to work.
And he often looked back and wondered
If he’d simply chosen wrong.