Before You’re Mine by Samantha Hayes
I’ve always wanted a baby, even when I was little and didn’t know where they came from. It’s been an ache deep in my soul for as long as I can remember – a sickness, a malignant desire creeping through my body, winding its way around my veins, twisting along the billions of nerve pathways, wrapping up my brain in a hormone-fogged desire. All I wanted was to be a mother.
A little baby girl. Is that too much to ask?
It’s funny and makes me embarrassed to remember now. As a kid, I used to wish and wish with screwed-up eyes, summoning all the magic I could through clenched teeth and tight fists, concocting an imaginary magic powder from my mother’s pink-smelling talc and a tube of silver glitter. I sprinkled it over Tiny Tears, holding my breath for the moment she would come to life – my pain-free, virgin labour lasting all of three minutes.
Yes, it makes me laugh now. Makes me want to smash things.
I remember the dusty halo of sparkly powder falling to the carpet in a disappointing drift when I gently poked the inanimate plastic doll. Why wasn’t she breathing? Why wasn’t she alive? Why hadn’t the magic powder, or God, or my special powers – anything – made my dolly real? She was still cold plastic and as good as dead. How I sobbed when she just lay there, unmoving and rigid in my arms, swaddled in a knitted blanket. What about all the love I had given her over the years – the longest gestation on record? Didn’t that count for anything? I wanted to snatch her from toy-box-land into real life so I could be her mummy. Didn’t she want to be mine? Didn’t she want to be loved and fed and rocked and played with and gazed at and cherished above anything else? Didn’t she love me back?
I must have tried the magic powder a hundred times. Each time was a failure, like some kind of useless, waste-of-money IVF – not that I knew what that was back then. By the time I was twelve years old, I’d pulled Tiny Tears’s head off and pushed it into the glowing coals of the living-room fire when no one was looking. She drizzled into the ash pan. Her eyes melted last, each one staring up at me in a different dizzy-blue direction.
Stupid molten baby.
‘If anyone’s going to give me grandchildren, it’ll be you,’ Mum always used to say as her right cheek twitched a feverish dance. I prayed I wouldn’t let her down. Mum wasn’t the kind of person who took kindly to disappointment. She’d had too much of it in her life to be lenient with it any more.
‘Sissy’ was what my older sister called me. The name had stuck when she couldn’t pronounce my real one. There are only eighteen months between us in age, and being the only live babies our mother had, we were driven closer still by her smothering. Apart from us, there were eight miscarriages, three stillbirths and a little brother who died from meningitis aged two. I was the youngest – lucky last.
‘We nearly lost you, too,’ she reminded me regularly, as if losing children was what everyone did. She was sitting on the old bench, caught up in the dangling red creeper, crunching her tablets and chain smoking. She looked on fire.
Telling me how I survived against the odds should have made me feel special, as though I was her clever near-miss who had somehow broken the spell, like I shouldn’t really be there at all but by good luck; by huge sprinklings of magic powder, here I was. Breathing and alive.
In contrast, Pa was a quiet, unassuming man, who ate hisfood leaning against the sink, watching the three women in his life, winking at me when the wretched guilty feeling about my existence squeezed tears from my virtually dry eyes. I felt sorry for all my dead brothers and sisters, as if I’d pushed in and taken their places. Pa forked up his mashed potato, a ciggie tucked behind his ear for afters, and always with those lines of coal dust circling his throat. Pa loved me. Pa stroked my hair when Mum wasn’t looking. Pa had been dying for as long as I could remember.
The dirty circles were still round his neck when I peeked into his coffin as a virtually mute fifteen-year-old. The tattooed necklace from years down the mines (lung cancer and emphysema to boot, my mother proudly told everyone) was the only thing I recognised about him. At the wake, I overheard Mum talking to Aunty Diane about the likelihood of Pa having gone to heaven and becoming a baby again. Mum was into all that crazy spiritual stuff and went to see a medium before Pa’s body was even cold. Usually Aunty Diane would humour Mum during her ‘less-than-normal times’, as she called them, to make her feel better. But now, I think it was just to make me and my sister feel better, to make us believe that everything was all right when it wasn’t. ‘Your mother’s as loopy as a box of weasels,’ she told us once. After that, I wished Aunty Di was our real mother.
Later, in the bath, I scattered the remains of my old magic talc mixture all over my tummy, pretending it was my poor Pa’s ashes, praying he would somehow be absorbed into my eggs, my womb, become a baby and not be dead at all. All I’d ever wanted was to take care of something. I figured it was the next best thing to being taken care of. Better than anything, though, I knew it would make Mum happy to have Pa alive again – even if he was born a little girl.
Having a baby, I decided, would be my life’s mission.
‘Someone’s replied to our advert.’ I peer over my laptop lid, making a semi-pained face. Part of me had been hoping no one would answer, that I could somehow manage alone. The heat of the computer is cooking my legs but I can’t be bothered to move. It’s work and a winter-warmer rolled into one.
‘You shouldn’t have that thing so close, you know.’ James taps the screen as he walks past on his way to the cupboard. He pulls out the wok. ‘Radiation and all that.’ I love him for cooking, for caring.
‘The scan says she’s got all her arms and legs. Stop worrying.’ I’ve shown him the ultrasound pictures a dozen times. He’s missed all my scans so far. ‘We have a healthy little baby girl on the way.’ I shift uncomfortably and put the computer on the old saggy sofa beside me. ‘Aren’t you interested in who’s replied to the advert?’
‘Of course I am. Tell me.’ James splashes oil in the pan. He’s a messy cook. The ring of blue flames leaps into life as he turns the gas burner to high. He bites his lower lip and tosses pieces of chicken into the wok. The smoke gets sucked up into the extractor fan.
‘Someone called Zoe Harper,’ I say above the sizzling noise. I read the details in the email again. ‘It says she’s got loads of experience and has all the right qualifications.’ I will phone her later, get a feel for how she sounds. I must show willing even though the thought of a stranger in the house isn’t a particularly pleasant one. I know how worried James is about me coping when he goes away again. He’s right, of course. I am going to need help.
Our nanny chatter is suddenly interrupted by noise and fuss and screaming coming from the sitting room. I heave myself up from the sofa, legs apart and hands wedged in the small of my back to stop my spine giving way. I raise my hands to halt James’s rescue dash. ‘It’s OK, I’ll go.’ He seems to think I’m incapable of anything since he’s been home. Probably because last time he saw me I didn’t resemble a house.
‘Oscar, Noah, what’s going on?’ I stand in the sitting room doorway. The boys look up at me. Forlorn, they have been sprung in the early stages of war. Oscar has something crusty and yellow stuck in the corner of his mouth. Noah is brandishing his brother’s toy gun.
I only let them play with toys like that when James is home. He doesn’t see the problem. Other times, they’re locked away in a cupboard. Toy weapons were a hot topic at that dreadful dinner party, a few years ago now, not long after I’d met James. I’d wanted all his friends to like me, to not make comparisons, to trust that I had my own set of maternal instincts when it came to bringing up my newly-inherited sons.
‘How do you handle things like that with the twins, Claudia?’ she’d asked me, when I stated I didn’t like to see children playing with swords and guns. God knows, in my job I see enough messed-up kids to know that there are better things they could be doing with their time. ‘Must be hard being a mother . . . but not being one,’ she finished. I could have slapped her.
‘Come here, Os,’ I say, and do the unthinkable. I lick a tissue and wipe his mouth. He wriggles away. I eye the gun in Noah’s hand. Taking it away from him would cause a major incident.
At the dinner party, I’d feebly explained that as stepmother to twin boys who’d lost their birth mum to cancer, I believed it pretty much gave me the right to call myself their mother – but no one really cared or was listening by then. The topic had moved on. ‘James is in the Navy,’ I heard myself saying, ‘so of course they’re fascinated by wars . . . it’s not taboo as such in our house but . . .’ I was burning crimson by that point. I just wanted James to take me home.
‘Give the gun back to your brother, Noah. Did you snatch it?’
Noah doesn’t reply. He holds up the plastic weapon, aims it at my belly and pulls the trigger. There’s a weak crack of plastic as it play-fires. ‘Bang. Baby’s dead,’ he says with a toothy grin.