Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Baby in the Box

The parlour is bathed in light. Large panes of chamois'd glass allow the warm glow of afternoon sun to dance dappled shadows on the perfectly polished mahogany table. Heavy red velvet drapes frame the window. They remind her of the capes of queens and how she'd love to parade around the house wrapped in their regal warmth. Dressing up and immersing herself in other worlds is what she does.

She doesn't understand why the parlour is only used for serious occasions. It's the 'special'  room, the 'front room', the room to where those of great import are ushered such as the Vicar and distant relatives. Here, they take tea in delicate Shelley China, nibble salmon and cucumber sandwiches, diced into small triangles, pinkie fingers extended, and begin concerned conversations that she doesn't understand.

It  was one of those memories that slept the slumber of giants and was never explained. A  small child, dressed in her Sunday best stands leaning against a darkened oak doorway staring at her new, shiny patent shoes. Her mother weeps and people she doesn't know pinch her cheek, lovingly stroke her hair and smile sadly at her.

Upon the table is a box. She doesn't know it's name but it's a special box. Small and white with gleaming brass handles on the side, its lid now resting gently against the sill. They stare into the box and their eyes moisten. Backs of gentle hands stroke something out of view. They hug her mother and wipe their leaking eyes with lace trimmed hankies. The hush is deafening and she wonders why nobody speaks above a whisper.

"Go play Pamela . . " her mother urges, turns her round to face away and gently pushes the small of her back. She's confused, she's never allowed to play in her good clothes and patent shoes but aquiesces without resistance, emerging into the garden planted with raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb, she imagines fairies at its end and becomes beguiled in fantasy, oblivious to the sadness within the cottage.

Two women, share a moment.  "There's something I think I should tell  you", says the older of the two, drawing  deeply on her Rothmans Blue and thoughtfully stirring a cup of tea, strong enough to stand the spoon in upright, while the smoke curls suffocatingly towards the ceiling and lingers as a cloud of gloom.

These  kitchen conversations are frequent as she visits her mother each Saturday. The kids running rampant in the basement and stealing crisps from the bar within the private hotel. They help themselves to tiny bottles of ginger ale and bitter lemon  while mother and daughter chatter on about the week that was.

"What Mammy?  What'?"  Her mother was not  one for serious conversation. In her youth she'd been a party girl, a 'flapper', a good  time girl. A hopeless wife, a wayward mother. She'd  maintained her irresponsible ways well into her sixties. This Gin queen and packet-a-day smoker, more child than parent. More bar wench than grandparent. But this was different. Her countenance changed and brow furled, tears began to well behind ornate Dior glasses as she forms the words unspoken for over 30 years.

"You had a brother." The sentence uncharacteristically short.  The ensuing silence punctuated after what seems an eternity by her surprised daughter. "What?" She utters almost inaudibly and in disbelief. Being an only child of a socialite was lonely and the thought of a sibling exciting, disappointing, incredulous. Ivy continues, for that was her name, Nana to us, Mammy to Pam but Ivy to the shallow group of friends she had accumulated, the ones who came and went but never kept in touch.

"I had another baby after you were born." Her daughter now agape in disbelief, this secret held for 30 years and never told has her catching her breath, " . . but he died.", Ivy continues, "It was long ago and before they could stop it."  Glycerine tears slide silently from normally stoic eyes now forced downwards and gazing on vein-protruding hands as she laments with gentleness the loss she'd held inside. Hands that pulled beer for well-oiled punters, hands that cleared the till at 3am, hands that prepared meals, stroked on make-up too thick for a woman of her age. Hands that once cradled a son, now long gone. "What?" The gentle inquisitiveness in her daughter's voice rising to urgency. "I had a baby after you. He was born yellow," her mother continues, "We just thought it was jaundice but he died two months later. There was a wake in Auntie Doris' parlour. You were only three, do you remember?" She feels the phantom push in the small of her back and is transposed to the time of patent shoes and solitary imaginings while women wept in the parlour. All she'd been told was that it was a 'grown up thing' and not to worry, to 'go and play' and hadn't thought of it since preferring to dance with fairies and eat strawberries straight from the plant.

Those were the days when being ARH- was fatal to a second born. The first born child was safe. Successive children died with the toxic melding of mother's and foetal blood. Long before the advent of RHI Immunoglobulin. This Pamela knew, a nurse, a mother RH negative herself, she'd had the shot and produced four children, healthy, happy, loved. The pang of heartbreak barely visible, it made her catch her breath. As Ivy left the stain of tannin in her cup and swallowed the bitterness of her own memory, Pam also remembered.

At once it flooded back like the first time she'd grazed a knee or winded herself falling from a swing. The tears, the parlour, the grief, the reluctance to go and play, the white lies that were never explained. The pinches on the cheek, the sobbing women and dour men. Nothing more was said, the pain shared with a glance, a look, a daughter's open palm on a crying mother's face. Yes, she remembered . . the baby in the box.

Created for 10th Daughter of Memory - White Lies Belie a Darker Truth


  1. god, this one hit me hard...one of the hardest images in my mind was burying my 6 month old nephew...coffins should not be that small...

  2. aw, so sad. i haven't thought of the rh- thing in ages...perfect fit for the muse

  3. I had a bit of deja vu with the whole box in the parlour part. How horrible would it be to have your own child in that box?

  4. As an encapsulated moment, this works, but I still have the feeling that it's missing something. Also, I love that this is still your unique style, but that you're incorporating stuff from Australian Breakfast writing. Consciously or not, it works.


    Edit? Not sure if this is an honest typo or a difference between American and British-English, but you .", after dialog once or twice.

  5. Now there's a memory that needed a good solid answer. Haunting. I like the line, "...a daughter's open palm on a crying mother's face..."

  6. This one hurts. A fear every mother has, some to the paranoia of never trying again. 3 babies lost to good friends this year. One took a photo anyway. A baby in his mother and father's hands - no one can believe he's not just sleeping.

  7. Exquisite write up, the pain of a mother and the surprise at revelation of buried truth is well accounted.

  8. What a sad piece, beautifully written.

  9. It is strange how memories can change-up when more is revealed. -J

  10. I really liked your physical descriptions: "Glycerine tears," 'Gin queen," and 'bar wench.' They made imagining the scene so much more vivid

  11. I missed the transition from past to present at first. Still really enjoyed this though.