Jaanvi Gilfillan needed to go to the supermarket. The fridge was empty in a western-world kind of way, the freezer overloaded with six- month-old breast milk in thin plastic bags, and the pantry contained only staples that couldn’t quite make a meal: flour, cumin, some weevil-ridden oats and a torn packet of Uncle Ben’s rice that dripped grains one by one to the shelf below. In the back of the fridge lurked the leftovers from a roast chicken, beads of condensation clouding the glass container. It may have been there a month; it may have been there a year. Only one thing was certain — the longer it stayed there, the less likely Jaanvi would remove its fetid contents. There was a chance, she reasoned, that if it was left long enough, it would eventually decompose to nothing. Then she could get back the container that had taken her three months to earn with stickers collected from Fresh Choice.
Jaanvi still needed to go to the supermarket. Why was she standing in a lingerie store? She must have walked: across town, down Queen Street and up that narrow cobbled lane pretending to be somewhere in Europe. Perhaps it was lack of sleep that had caused her confusion. Perhaps she’d reverted to a primeval part of her brain that elevated sex appeal above sustenance. Copulation above consumption. Reproduction above survival.
She’d been woken early that morning by a babycentre.com text message:
Your little one is six months old. He is now ready to try solid food. He may also try to become mobile. But be careful, you may be so focused on what your baby eats that you forget to feed yourself.
And everything from there on in had spelt disaster. Though it was a Sunday, Mark had gone to work. She’d dropped a plate on her foot, the last piece of bread had burnt in the toaster, and a gaggle of teenagers at the bus stop across the road had shouted at each other all morning, gesticulating then hugging in a cycle of emotion that repeated itself every ten minutes.
It was good to be out though.
The shop assistant’s voluptuous curves were pushed high, hugged tight, spilling over her stool. She watched Jaanvi from the counter, her glasses resting on the tip of her nose. An ornate chandelier cast roaming speckles of light, and piano music trickled from speakers on the violet- coloured walls. This place was sophisticated. No girls bouncing up and down to hip-hop music, arms loaded with fluoro-pink underwear sporting slogans across the arse like ‘all you can eat’. They needed warning signs, those stores. And the salespeople, always looking Jaanvi up and down, judging her for almost everything: her clothes, her size, probably even her mocha-latte skin. As if they were better than her because they could fit clothes made for children and anorexics.
Ayla reckoned wearing lingerie was like holding a delicious secret. As if she was a present, waiting for someone to unwrap her. Jaanvi wasn’t getting unwrapped much lately. Mark didn’t seem to see her as a present. Not that she actually wanted to be unwrapped. But things were bound to improve. Early days. What was it Ayla had said? ‘I’d be locking myself in a box. Then I’d eat the key and wouldn’t be able to free myself and fulfil my potential until I was prepared to dig around in my own shit.’ At the back of the store, Jaanvi picked up a sky-blue bra with a diamante detail. Unbelievable. Imagine forgetting to eat. You’d have to have mush for brains. She’d probably still be getting those texts in ten or fifteen years’ time:
Your sixteen-year-old has lost his sense of humour and all joy for life. He spends most of his time in his bedroom and hates the sight of you, particularly when you are trying to do those things that keep you alive, such as breathing and eating. Try to make the most of this time by re-establishing the social life you lost by having him.
She should cancel the texts. She’d only signed up to them for the fruit and veggie updates. Your baby is the size of a poppy seed. Your baby is the size of a kidney bean. Your baby is the length of a banana, a carrot, a spring onion; the weight of a tomato, a cauliflower, a rock melon. Five days past her due date, and just wanting the damn thing out, Jaanvi had waddled into the grocery store, picked up a pumpkin and sobbed while the shopkeeper clucked her tongue, patted her arm and spoke soothing words in Mandarin.
Cancelling the alerts would not be a difficult process. A click of a link, or flick off an email to sender.
She stood in front of the mirror and held the blue bra over her tee-shirt. She didn’t need another bra. She had lots of bras. But then, she didn’t have a blue bra. Not a single one. Mark liked blue. The other day he’d commented on a news presenter wearing a blue dress.
‘You’re welcome to try it on,’ called the shop assistant.
Jaanvi walked up to the counter. ‘You don’t want to try it on?’ asked the shop assistant.
‘You really should try it on.’
The shopkeeper frowned. ‘It might be a good idea to try it on.’
‘I can’t be bothered.’
‘I do believe this might be too small for you.’
‘Look, I don’t care what you—’
Off to the side of the counter, something caught Jaanvi’s eye. Something small and plump and quiet.
A baby with dark hair as thick as a helmet, fast asleep in a Moses basket on the floor. Why was she surprised? The human race still had to propagate. But this was what happened when you thought about something. Stuff happened. Sometimes she couldn’t help but think it was best not to think at all.
‘Gorgeous, isn’t he?’ said the shop assistant.
Some parents despised a stranger-invasion. They pictured germs crawling over the hands of the school child, proliferating over the man’s dog-haired jacket, tumbling off the checkout-operator’s puckered lips. But Jaanvi couldn’t help herself. She leaned over and skimmed his face with her index finger, down his cheek to his chin.
But his skin was cold and he was too still, too—
The smell of bleach rushed up Jaanvi’s nostrils, and she was standing in a tight, white room with a crowd of people all dressed the same, all in green, everyone rushing around, each with a task except for her, standing there in her slippers and a nightie. She had nothing to do. She was his mother and she had nothing to do. An alarm went off, screeching over and over as blue numbers flashed on the screen:
89. 87. 86. 85. Then, 78. 60. 45. The number was important. Oxygen. It was Jonathan’s oxygen levels. Someone reached up to the monitor and hit the silence button, and Jaanvi stumbled backwards into the chicken-breast boob-enhancer display.
The shop assistant jumped up.
‘He’s not real for God’s sake. He’s a doll.’
‘A reborn doll.’
‘I thought he was dead.’
‘You’re not the first.’
The shop assistant straightened the toppled display stand and collected the fillets that had skidded to the door.
Jaanvi inhaled through her nose and out her mouth. What could she feel? The air-con. Too cold. And the diamante on the bra cutting into her palm. What could she smell? Perfume like roses. The shopkeeper’s, perhaps. What could she see? A doll. A bloody doll. Her heart slowed back down and her breathing returned to normal. A doll. Only a doll. Yet a doll with all the perfect imperfections of a newborn, tucked underneath a blue woollen blanket. Blotchy skin, tiny milk spots on the corner of his nose — and at the edge of his mouth a damp spot of saliva.
‘He’s realistic, isn’t he?’ said the shop assistant. ‘Makes the store feel homely.’
‘Homely is one way of putting it.’
‘I never had children. He’s my child. He never gets dirty or cries. I can dress him in beautiful clothes and they won’t go to waste.’
‘That makes sense, I guess.’ Each to their own — it wasn’t for her to judge. It took all sorts to make the world go round.
‘He’s perfect,’ said the shop assistant. She looked at Jaanvi over the top of her glasses. ‘I don’t suppose you have children.’
‘Yes. I have a boy.’
‘This is James.’
‘He looks like my son.’
‘Same hair. Jonathan would be six months old today. I just got the text alert.’
‘A lovely age, I imagine.’
‘Yeah, it’s not bad. Except for the forgetting-to-eat part.’
‘The thing about a reborn is they don’t respond, though, do they? That’s the one difference.’ The woman looked out the window. ‘But I take him out with me. I have a beautiful pram. Lots of people speak to you when you have a baby. When you’re alone, not so much. I’ve been divorced ten years now.’
‘What kind of pram?’
‘Oh. One of them.’ Jaanvi had pushed one around at the baby show last year. Light, compact, folded up easily, but with a price tag that would give Bill Gates a heart attack.
‘Is his dad babysitting?’
‘Isn’t that great, him giving you a break. That’s the reason I decided not to have children with my husband. It would have been all on me.’ An image of Mark from the night before: his prematurely balding head bobbing in front of the microwave as he watched his meal travel the small loops around and around. Mark wasn’t perfect. He complained a lot, couldn’t sing well and worked long hours. But he always put hugs and kisses at the bottom of the notes he wrote reminding her that the laundry needed doing, or they were out of milk, or that Styrofoam did not belong in recycling.
‘I hope you have him in a routine,’ said the woman, her face hardening. ‘My sister never got her children into a routine and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why. It’s like she wanted to make things more difficult for herself. Children love boundaries. Boundaries and consistency. What kind of routine is your son in?’
‘If you value your sanity, you’ll do something about that.’
Jaanvi felt a flash of anger. But it dissipated as quickly as it rose. She missed unsolicited advice. She could choose to keep or discard unsolicited advice. But what was she to do with the awkward hugs, the muttered apologies over and over, as if the whole thing was somehow their fault? What was she to do with the framed picture of a cartoon baby with the words ‘The tiniest little feet leave the biggest footprints on our hearts’? How about the fake flower arrangement from her aunty, or the card her antenatal class had sent her? Those five women did not mention their own babies, though they were there, an invisible presence behind the rushed scrawls. They hadn’t invited her to their coffee group.
This severe woman was an odd comfort.
‘Yeah, you’re right.’ She crouched down and stroked James’s hair. ‘Can I hold him?’
‘If you want. Just be careful with the lace on his blanket. It’s delicate.’
A nun entered the store, her talcum-soft face peeking out from a brown and white habit. ‘I want to return these,’ she whispered, laying a crinkled bundle of underwear on the counter in front of the assistant.
‘Sorry, you’ve removed the tags, no returns.’
The nun smiled, and with an air of benign patience said, ‘Let me first explain to you my situation.’
Jaanvi lifted James up. He was just the right weight. He was perfect. His chest moulded into her chest, and over her stomach his legs folded like a little frog’s. The top of his head sat under her chin, and the smell of baby shampoo, its pure deliciousness, rose up to her. She couldn’t have held Jonathan like this. His arms and legs, though warm and soft, had stretched long and limp, and his head flopped from side to side whenever she’d tried to adjust her position on the hospital La-Z-Boy.
The shop owner was explaining underwear hygiene to the nun. The nun kept on interrupting. ‘Now that’s all very well, dear, but have you met Sister Nancy? She sings like an angel, and has the smallest feet you’d ever see. Very devout, yesterday we were—’
‘I’m not religious,’ said the shopkeeper.
Jaanvi took a backwards step. And then another. Every step away, and James felt a little more like hers, a little more like he belonged right there against her chest. A baby did not belong in a cold bassinet on a shop floor with a stony woman old enough to be his grandmother. She reached the door, spun around, jumped down the tiled step, and walked quickly up High Street.
It was cold and windy out. Jaanvi brought the edges of her jacket up and over James, and she could almost have sworn he stirred against her. Above her, the plane trees were starting to turn red, sprouting from their concrete slabs like giant sculptures. Many stretched as tall as the buildings that surrounded them, their wide-open branches like a thousand arms. When you lived in the city it was strange to think that underneath you, under the immense stretch of hard tarseal and grey concrete, there lay dirt and rocks, vast networks of roots, indestructible creatures and ancient worms, and far below them plates that collided over oceans of magma.
Perhaps, one day, this would all disappear and wildlife would return. As Jaanvi hurried back to her apartment, she imagined vines growing up and over rubble of crumbling concrete, taking over the footpath and tripping her up. There’d be little monkeys too, running everywhere, just like in that movie.