Birth Pangs at Tea
Martin J. Goodman
The girl invented a host of friends for herself, and made them call her Imogen. It was a name to conjure with. Imogens wore white cotton dresses that hung flat across the chest, and paced barefoot over stately lawns. Sometimes, when the love of her friends became too much, she would tread her way into solitude across the soft grass.
“There she goes,” her mother said, and raised a finger to trace the passage of the girl’s footsteps across the living room ceiling. “There’s a portrait hanging over my bed, a magnification of a sperm. I ripped it out of a library book. It’s her to a tee. That round and bulging head of hers, so smug and so bland. I took the test, found I was pregnant, and knew she had to come out. Like a gallstone she was, a gallstone in the womb, only this one keeps growing and growing even though she's been extracted.”
The woman had waited months and months for the baby’s first words, those tiny lips folded to blow out a sound. “Ma,” it said. “Ma-ma.”
“Don’t,” she screamed, and the baby was silenced. “Don’t call me mama ever again. You can’t fool me. I know what you’re up to.”
“Ma-ma,” the baby slipped in amongst the gurgles over the next few days.
“No way,” the mother shouted. “You’re not my baby. You’re my out-of-the-body experience.”
She had read of these in another library book, cupid-like versions of the self that floated from a sleeping body and up into the corners of rooms, drawn to a chorus of angels’ voices and a shimmer of clearest light, from where they would turn in curious pity to the carcass left below.
“Doesn’t she ever speak?” a friend asked as the girl drifted through the living-room where the mother staged afternoon tea for a select and invited few.
“When you’ve only got two words, you don’t need to use them.” She watched the fat girl whisk a slice of Victoria sponge off the cake-stand and pass it to her lips as she sailed away. “Give me,” she mouthed.
The friend looked blank.
“Give me,” she voiced, once the girl had wafted from the room. “Give me give me give me give me. It’s the mantra of her breathing and the pleading in her eyes. Give me give me give me give me. Give me clothing, give me warmth, give me drink, give me food.”
The new-born baby had been clamped to her breast by an impatient nurse and promptly started to suck her milk. Four years later a health-visitor prised the infant away. She couldn’t have chosen to stop the feeding for herself. She served a function. It wasn’t something you did by choice.
“What’s her name?” another friend asked.
“The same as mine.” A thing was what it was. To call it something else was an evasion.
“We walked out once to a meadow by a lake. The lake was artificial, its banks stacked with stones. I pulled them out one by one. The mud of the bank pulled back, but the mud wasn’t my daughter, this was a battle I could win. With a slurp and a start each stone sprang free. I washed them in the water and dried them on the grass. She picked them up, of course she did, and put them in her mouth, but even she couldn't chew on stones. Angel cakes were lighter on the gums. She let my rocks be.
“It was a summer’s day. I wore four cardigans till I was almost her size. Those rocks were so mighty they filled a pocket each. They were to weigh me down, but not yet, oh no. I rose as if I were naked and kicked off my shoes.”
“Oh no!” and the friend lifted a hand to her lips, and brushed away some crumbs. “I see it. The lake, the child, the rocks in pockets. You didn't, you couldn’t?”
“I don’t swim.”
“My God.” Then the obvious dawned. “But you’re here. Right now.”
“The here and now.”
“She followed you? Saved you?”
“I was sure I would drown.”
“But your daughter?”
“You forget. She’s a floater. I stepped from the bank, through the mulch of leaves, my toes squelching down till I stood.”
“And you walked?”
“And I walked.”
“And your daughter?
“And I walked. I walked. Alone, untroubled, I walked and I walked. The water rose higher, to cover my knees, then filched above my knickers. My life drained away and I was free.”
“I walked till the land rose to greet me, and stood on the farthest bank.”
“An artificial lake. Three feet deep at its deepest.”
“Just a walk. I looked across the water and she looked back at me, but she was small. So small. She fills this house but not my life. I know I can walk away.”
“And then? What did you do then?”
“I walked back.”
“Through the lake?”
“No, around. You forget, I can’t swim.”
And the ladies smiled.
And Imogen smiled, as she sat on the floor above their heads. The sun beat on her closed windowpane, and her imaginary friends packed her so tight she glowed with the heat of their love.