The following is an excerpt from the novel True Things About Me.
My house needed sorting out. The baby probably wouldn’t notice, but it didn’t feel right to have him in a sad, dishevelled place. And who understands what babies see? Maybe everything. Maybe we all start off very wise and far-sighted and end up stupid. Anyway, I was worried the invisible, dark mood clouds swirling around might get to him. So I opened the windows and pushed the vacuum around, sucking up more than dust and cobwebs. I picked some rice pudding- coloured dog roses from among the undergrowth at the bottom of my garden. Their open faces looked like gentleness realised. They had the frondiest of leaves, and when I sniffed them they gave me the most honeyed, creamy distillation of rose I have ever known. I put them in a sage-green bowl and they arranged themselves perfectly, the leaves spraying out in neat collars around each ﬂower.
I had lunch because when the baby came I didn’t want to think about things like that, then I sat in the kitchen near the roses and drank some tea. The warmth in the room and the ﬂowers’ fragrance made me feel drowsy; sort of heavy and thick-tongued. I rested my head on the table and drifted off. The doorbell rang and I leaped up and ran down the hall. There was Alison, a bit breathless, and the lovely baby in his buggy. So, I’ll see you at ﬁve, she said. You’ve ofﬁcially saved my life, and she pushed the buggy up over the doorstep while handing me a bag of equipment. It’s a good afternoon for a walk, she called back as she got in her car. He loves a walk. Then she was gone and the baby and I were alone in the silent house. In the kitchen I had a good look at him. Crikey, I told him, you are the most scrumptious baby I have ever seen. He smiled kindly at me, and sighed, looking around calmly, his pudgy hands resting like two pink cakes on his lap. He seemed to be interested in the roses so I picked up the bowl and brought them near him. He laughed and grabbed at them, then let out a sharp and shocking scream. I dropped the vase and it smashed, spraying water over his little brown legs. He stiffened and started bellowing.
His tiny hand was still closed round one of the rose stems and I realised with a razor-sharp slice of fear that all the thorns on the spine were hurting his tender palm. I burst into tears and sat beside him in the spilled water. Somehow I forced him to open his hand and took out the strangled rose. I got cold water and bathed his palm, singing to him through my tears. He quietened and watched without malice as I soothed his hand, shuddering rhythmically.
Everything had gone wrong and I’d only been in charge of the baby for ten minutes. I kissed his head and tried to look at his hand again, but he wasn’t going to allow me. Little boy, I said to him, I’m so, so sorry. His cheeks were shiny with tears and I gently wiped them. I felt as if my heart would break, he was so sweet. I emptied the bag Alison had left and found a cup with baby drink in it. He drank it all. I sat on the kitchen chair and shook. Inside it was as if I had emptied out, like a cloud after a downpour. I wondered how to explain to Alison about his poor hand. Little man, I asked him, would you like to go for a nice walk?
I pushed the sleeping baby in his buggy through town. The wind barrelled round and round the concrete walkways. I went in nearly every shop. They were all playing the same music. The shop assistants were dusting shelves and rearrang- ing things, talking about their weekends: . . . anyway, he said, then I said, then he said, then I said. . . lowering their voices when I passed by. Girls, girls, girly girl girls, I wanted to say, as if I give a damn what he said and you said. All the shops were empty; I didn’t see one single, other shopper around. It was as if the real people had been spirited away. I concen- trated on keeping the buggy moving, otherwise the baby might wake up.
There were lots of lovely things to buy. I wanted a scarf patterned with blobby circles; a pair of caramel leather sandals; some chicken marinating in olive oil, chillies and garlic; a dusty, plaited loaf of bread; a long Cossack coat with a fur collar, but I didn’t want to disturb the baby. In a department store I decided to stop and sit down; my legs felt decidedly dodgy. The café was empty, and the food looked artiﬁcial. I ordered a cup of camomile tea and perched on the edge of the chair, rocking the buggy. As I drank I worked out how much time was left till ﬁve o’clock.
In the home furnishing section they were going for an oriental theme. I wondered why people would want to decorate their homes that way. I touched all the curtains and picked up vases and candlesticks. In the lift going down I detected the faintest of stirrings from the buggy, so I rushed out of the shop and started to run. Only when I reached the underpass did I slow down. The lights were dim and I could smell wet concrete and maybe urine. People had daubed messages on the walls. One, written using red gloss paint read: Is this fuckin all? I wanted to get the baby out of there quickly, but it was difﬁcult; I had to manoeuvre round a warped trolley.
As I emerged into the bright light I stopped. There were some things on the cover of the buggy, things I knew I hadn’t bought: a candlestick and a small Chinese cushion. Silky, emerald-green tassels dripped from each of its corners. An embroidered dragon or bird or reptile, I couldn’t tell, stared up at me, its eye a sparkling blue gem. The colours glowed in the gloomy mouth of the underpass and seemed to undulate over the creature; it looked as if it were about to take off, hightail it back to the department store and tell security.
I was so shocked I felt winded. The path ahead was deserted. The wind gushed out of the underpass and sent my hair upward in a swirling cone, pushing me towards home. I walked as briskly as I could while still looking normal. When I got there I rested against the front door for a little while. I left the still-sleeping baby in the hallway and carried the things into the lounge. I arranged them on the coffee table. Then I sat on the sofa and looked at them, waiting for Alison to come back.