Rag Baby

Rag baby

first published in Staple Magazine 2007

I’ve got good eyes. I’m not good at much, it’s true, but I see what others miss. Gary calls me ‘totally bloody useless’. But I’m not useless: it was me who saw the baby first.

It was dark and raining and we drove past it fast because Gary always drives too fast, even faster since he was banned. I said ‘Slow down!’ but he didn’t slow down because he never does when I ask him to. He never does anything when I ask him to, not even go to bed. Or wash. Then I said ‘Slow down, Gary. That looked like a baby lying in the road,’ even though I couldn’t really be sure what it was. It was late and the windows had steamed up.

‘I saw what you saw,’ he said, not caring about what I’d seen, not even trying to imagine it.

‘Well, if you saw what I saw, why haven’t you stopped?’

‘Because it was a pile of rags’

‘Who’d leave a pile of rags in the road?’ I said, and as I said it I thought you don’t see rags any more. Not anywhere.

‘Who’d leave a fuckin’ baby in the road?’ he said, as if I’d said something really stupid. As if he hated me.

That is how we came to find the baby. Because for the next three or four miles we argued about what it was we’d seen lying in the road. We went through all sorts of things:

A badger (you see a lot more dead badgers these days than you used to; I  suppose there must be more living ones too, living under the ground, or living  wherever it is they live. I only ever see where they die)

A pile of dirty magazines (this was Gary’s idea; he likes dirty magazines. He’d  like the internet, but we haven’t got a phone line. We’ve got a phone, but it doesn’t work)

A Chinese takeaway (Gary has cold Chinese for breakfast sometimes, straight out     of the silver foil containers; whatever he didn’t fancy the night before)

An octopus

An alien (thinking of the octopus made us think of the alien and of Men in Black        which is Gary’s favourite film, though not mine. Mine is Titanic, but Gary        always spoils it for me by shouting ‘drown you bastard’ at Leonardo Di  Caprio)

That was when Gary braked so sharply that the car skidded on its bald tyres and turned around on itself, in the middle of the road, which was just like in the films, like in Pulp Fiction.We both like Pulp Fiction. Gary said ‘Right, we’ll take a bloody look, shall we?’

‘It’s probably been run over by now,’ I said, but I didn’t think it would have been, and I could feel myself getting excited and sort of sick at the same time. And I wasn’t sure whether it was because I didn’t know what we’d find or because I might be about to get a baby or because Gary had listened to me.

When we pulled up alongside the pile I got out of the car and walked up to it and saw it and turned around and I said to Gary ‘Aahh, Gary, it IS a baby. Aaah look, isn’t it sweet?’

Gary wound down the window and leaned his head out. He had a funny smile on his face, almost as if he was about to laugh: ‘For fuck’s sakes you silly bitch, pick it up.’ I hadn’t really thought of picking it up or taking it home until then, I’d only wanted to take a look, really, a baby not being something you expect to see lying in the middle of a country road in the middle of the night.

The baby was wrapped in pretty clothes. Not modern baby clothes, which look like hot water bottle covers, but old fashioned things, like one of those china dolls you see in antique shop windows, with lots of copper coloured hair and big blue eyes and rosy cheeks and a flowing white dress made out of fancy tablecloth material and brown boots on its feet. This baby looked a bit like that, except she didn’t have any hair, and she had a bright red mark on her cheek, not blood or a bruise, though it looked like it in the dark, but a birthmark. Lovely, that birthmark was. Shaped like a ship on fire.

‘Don’t just stare at it, pick it up’ said Gary, and all the laughter in his voice had drained away. That’s how it is with Gary. All smiles one minute…..no smiles the next. You can’t call him easy. He was smoking a roll-up in his really pissed off way. He has two ways of smoking, Gary: pissed off, which is when he makes his lips really tight and his eyes really slitty and he puffs and puffs and then pinches the roll-up out and chucks it wherever without looking, which means it quite often lands in my hair. His other type of smoking is his laid-back smoke, sometimes even when he’s smoking tobacco, which is when he leans right back and holds his right ankle with his left hand and smiles a really dirty smile and puts his head back and shuts his eyes. He makes a roll-up last a really long time when he’s having a laid-back one.

Suddenly I didn’t want to pick it up, so I said: ‘You pick it up’.

Then Gary said in his very calm, very slow voice, which he only ever uses when I’m going to get knocked-about-a-bit: ‘Pick…… it…….. up.’

On the way back home Gary drove really slowly. It was as if he didn’t want to wake the baby, so I said – not in a nasty way at all: ‘It isn’t asleep, you know.’

‘You don’t say,’ said Gary.

‘No. It’s dead,’ I said. ‘This is a dead baby.’

‘That’s why I’m driving slowly, in’it?’

I thought that was lovely, because I thought he’d meant it out of respect or something, so I said ‘Ohh that’s lovely, Gary.’

‘You what?’

‘Ooh, it’s lovely, you driving slowly for the dead baby.’

Gary looked as if he was going to laugh again.

‘Shall we take it to a hospital, Gary?’ I asked.

‘They don’t bring the dead back to life, do they?’

‘They might,’ I said, because you never know, these days.

That was when Gary said ‘I wish it had been a pile of wank mags. Or a badger. Even a fucking badger.’ Then Gary drove fast again.

When we got home we put the baby on the kitchen table and talked a bit about what to do, whether to bury it or put it in the bin or call ‘NHS Direct’ and ask for advice but, like I said, we don’t have a phone. Then we went to bed.

Sleeping with Gary is not nice. Don’t get me wrong, he can be nice in bed, if you’d call what he does when he’s in the mood nice, which I think some would. Then, when he’s asleep, a minute or two later, his body and face press heavy into the bed, like he weighs tons instead of ten stone two and a half pounds which is all he does weigh being as he only eats carrots and lettuces he’s grown in the garden and veggie burgers and the occasional chicken chow mein. His nose sort of bends upwards on the pillow and his mouth drops down and he makes this growly noise, not a snore, which is a pig sound, but something more like a dog sound: a dog with a bad chest. His pillow case is smeared with his dribble, which is a bit brown, (from the smoking, I think). And he smells like a dog, too. His breath smells like the slime you get under the sink, and he breathes it all over me, which he can’t help I suppose. Often I get up and just sit at the kitchen table, which is better than sleep in some ways. More relaxing. I’m a bit nervous when I’m asleep, which might sound odd, but it’s a fact.

I got up the night we found the baby, though it must have been quite late because it was already light. I went into the kitchen and the baby was still on the table, just where I’d left it. I don’t know why I was surprised to see her, but I was. Sometimes I am surprised by things I’ve left somewhere just the day before: a cup of tea I didn’t drink, or a toenail or a bit of money. It’s not often money.

The baby looked very blue in the morning light. The bluest thing I’d ever seen.

We’ve had a compost bin ever since Gary nearly became a nearly-vegan. He goes on marches for animal rights and protests about the stuff they spray on fields and he grows organic marijuana in the bathroom. I’m pleased he’s found something to believe in. I do not like the compost bin: Gary nicked it from outside a garden centre. He put it on the roof of the car and drove off really fast (like he always does) and made me lean out of the passenger window and sort of hold the bin on top of the roof to stop it falling off. Although I do not like the compost bin, I know a lot about it. This is because if I throw something in the rubbish bin instead of saving it for the compost bin when it is ‘suitable for composting’ Gary gets angry. This is what he does: he comes into the kitchen after I have made a cup of tea and flips open the bin with his left foot and looks down into it. Then he says: ‘You disgust me,’ and he leans down and reaches into it and picks out the teabag between his yellow fingers and throws it at me saying ‘Organic! Bloody COMPOST.’

Gary made me read a leaflet about what goes in the compost heap and what doesn’t. The leaflet had green ticks against little cartoons of good things. Good things are: flowers, grass, vegetable peelings, mushrooms, teabags, wool and something that looks like pooh but can’t be. The leaflet had red crosses against cartoons of bad things. Bad things are: baked bean cans, acrylic jumpers, plastic bags, newspapers, cigarettes and dog pooh.

Babies weren’t on the leaflet at all.

I walked out into the garden, which was dewy and cobwebby as it is at six o’clock on a day that is going to be sunny in September and I opened the lid of the compost bin and I popped the baby in the top of it. I pushed her down into the rotting grass where it is warmest and went inside and had a bowl of Chocopops and a Silk Cut. But as I sat smoking at the kitchen table I suddenly had a thought: ‘Clothes’, I thought. Because Gary gets angry if I put anything in the compost that’s ‘not suitable for composting’ and although I could say to Gary that I thought the baby was allowed in the compost bin, he knew that I knew that clothes aren’t allowed (except for wool). So I got up from the kitchen table feeling quite tired and went back to the compost bin and got the baby out again and took her back to the kitchen table, and I saw that her nice clothes were horrible because they were covered with potato peelings and tomato skins. They weren’t worth keeping once they’d been in the compost, so I threw them in the rubbish bin.

Two nights later I slept really well and when I woke up I realised that I had been dreaming about the baby. Everything is beautiful in my dreams, even horrible things. This is what I saw: her hand, sitting in among the potato peelings and the grass clippings and the tea bags. It was white as soap and its fingers very long, and the line of its knuckles looked like a line of marble hills, and the tiny nails on the end of its fingers looked as if they had been chewed and even in my dream I wondered if that could be so.

Because I remembered my dream, which I do not always, I went out into the garden and peered into the bin, and guess what? The baby’s hand was sticking up, just like in the dream. I stood up on tiptoes and leaned right into the hatch at the top of the compost bin and looked down on her head. She had already sunk a long way into the soft, warm rotting mulch of the heap, and I hoped that she was not so cold as the night I found her. The ridges and dips of the heap seemed alive because they were shifting and churning with all the buzzing flies and little worms, which like to eat the rot of what we haven’t managed to stuff into ourselves.

I couldn’t see the baby’s fingers clearly in the dark of the compost heap, so I leaned in and pulled her out. Something had already been eating away at her, because she didn’t have eyes any more, just bloody holes that looked much too big for her head and her lips had been pared back to show her gums and tiny thin worms were coming out from under her tongue. I was surprised that my baby wasn’t a pretty girl anymore, but her hand was still perfect. It lay limp in mine, so that it felt like a lily flower, but as I turned her tiny fingers to see the nails I smelt something horrible, something that had not been in my dream: pipe tobacco. The smell (which is the smell of smouldering trees and birds’ wings and damp coats all mixed together) always warns me that Mr MacStravick is in his garden. There is no fence or anything between us, just a bit of wire, so you cannot ignore him, although he always ignores me because he thinks I am muck and should not be living next door to him, but there is nothing he can do to get me out even though he has tried. He has written to the council about me, which I know because they have told me. I looked around and stared right into his tuna grey face, right into his empty eyes and said ‘Morning Mr MacStravick’ for I am quite polite when I have to be. He looked at me a bit strangely and then turned around and walked slowly back into the house, which is what he usually does. He is so rude.

It was only then that I realised that I was holding the baby in my arms, cradling her just like my own lovely living baby, and I wondered if Mr MacStravick had noticed.

The lady who came to the door didn’t seem very interested at first. She was wearing a police uniform and she had big wide hips that stretched her black skirt very tight, like a proper policewoman, but I could tell that she was not a proper policewoman because she didn’t try to come straight past me into the house. Usually they do; they go straight to Gary’s wardrobe and take his stash. Or they go upstairs and come down with papers and things which are Gary’s and which I don’t know anything about. And they say to me in a special police voice which means they don’t mean what they’re saying ‘So, Mary, I suppose you’re going to tell us you had no idea these were here,’ and I say ‘No’ and they say ‘Is that right, now? Thought as much,’ but they don’t mean it. But it is the truth. I always tell the truth.

But this lady was different in all sorts of ways, which is a shame really, because if she’d done what the police usually do she’d have just gone upstairs and pissed Gary off or, him not being there, taken some of his stuff and that would have been that. First of all, she didn’t know who I was.

She said ‘Miss Sangster?’ and after I nodded she said ‘I’m afraid we’ve received a complaint from your neighbour’, but she said this as if she was really sorry to put me to any trouble. She said ‘May I come in?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, because I was really surprised that she asked me. Then I said ‘Gary isn’t here any more’ and she didn’t even know who Gary was, which meant that no one had warned her down at the station.

‘Is there a great deal of friction between yourself and your neighbour?’ she asked.

‘Yeah,’ I said, because I suppose that’s what you would call it, him smoking his pipe and complaining about us all the time. Friction. As she walked through into the kitchen she pulled off her cap and I noticed that she was almost bald and I couldn’t take my eyes off the top of her head.

‘What sort of accusations has Mr MacStravick made against you?’ she asked, and she must have noticed me looking at her hair, because she pulled her cap back on.

‘Accusations?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ she paused and then added, a little impatiently, ‘What does he say about you?’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘Well, all sorts, really. He says we’re dirty, he doesn’t like us keeping chickens, but they’re all dead now anyway, he reckons we stay up all night playing music, that we hang our clothes to dry on his washing line, which we only do if there’s nothing on it, that we have loud fights, which is true but isn’t my fault.’ I went on for some time and told her everything I could think of, because I could see she wanted me to be honest. As I was talking her expression changed. At first she smiled at me comfortably, as if we were having a nice chat about our mums, but then she began to look a bit worried, staring at me and pursing her lips. Then she stopped me by holding up the palm of her hand, like I was a van or something, and said:

‘Miss Sangster, do you know anything about a baby?’

‘Only a dead one’

‘Where is it?’

It was horrible when she went and looked in the compost bin. I watched out of the kitchen window and it was like watching someone in a film, in slow motion. I saw her walk to the end of the garden, her calves pumping, stuck into her sensible shoes like a pair of upside down tenpin skittles. Then I saw her lift up the lid and peer in and then she slowly-oh-so-slowly pivoted on her skittle legs and slid down the side of the compost bin making her jacket ride up over her shoulders and her cap flip off her head to show her bald spot again. I wondered whether to go and see if she was alright, but then I saw her open her eyes and take a breath, sort of startled, and then she leaned over and puked up all over Gary’s courgettes.

I know who’ll get the blame for that, and it won’t be Miss Skittle-legs, will it?


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