Tony O'Brien

That’s Not a Baby

They ambled on to the station platform, a young couple pushing a pram, a baby gurgling and pointing, drinking the new experience like a drug. They sat on the platform seat, first with the pram facing them, then with the pram facing the tracks. They talked, this young couple. About when the train would come, who had the money to pay, whether they should put their new TV on the cabinet in the lounge, or in the corner of the dining room so they could watch it during meals. They talked loudly, like it didn’t matter who heard about the TV, the unpaid power bill, the woman’s pregnancy. 

The woman was wearing a loose muslin dress, with a drooping, tasselled hemline. It was blue; light at the top and darker at the bottom, as if the colour was sinking through it and would soon drip out of the tassels and lie in a blue pool at the woman’s feet. Her hair was yellow, pulled up at the top into a fountain. The man wore below-knee shorts, trainers, and a tee shirt with a name splashed across it. He was fat. He had dimpled cheeks and an extra chin, and puffy arms, round and smooth, like the baby’s.

There wasn’t much to say. The couple watched the other commuters shuffling about, then the man took out a timetable and scanned it. He announced to no-one: ‘The train’s late.’ He looked up and down the railway line as if by looking he could summon the train, draw it out of the afternoon, and see it heave into the station. But the train didn’t come; instead the silver lines disappeared in the distance, and at the right angle, flashed in the eyes of the commuters who blinked and looked away.

A seagull settled on the line, and pecked at a plastic bag full of bread. Some more gulls arrived, screeching and fighting. A large blackback circled the melee, then swooped down, the smaller gulls scattering as the great flapping wings of the blackback slapped its sides.

The couple walked to the edge of the platform and watched the gulls.

‘That big one,’ said the woman, ‘that’s a baby.’ 

‘That’s not a baby,’ said the man. ‘That’s not a baby seagull.’

‘Yes it is.’ said the woman. ‘My grandfather told me that. He told me they’re born big, then they get smaller.’

‘No they don’t,’ said the man. ‘They don’t do that. That’s not a baby.’ 

‘What is it then?’ said the woman. ‘Tell me what it is and I’ll believe you.’

‘I don’t know what it is,’ said the man. ‘It’s not an albatross, but it’s not a baby either. Look at the size of it.’

They watched for a while, but couldn’t decide what the large bird was. They turned from the gulls and sat on the station seat. At first they didn’t sit together. When one sat, the other stood, playing with the baby, talking to her or chucking her chin. The woman walked a short way down the platform, talking over her shoulder to her husband. He talked back, louder as she got further away. Then the woman walked back. Into the breeze, her dress blew against her, showing the swelling in her front. The man noticed this. He placed a hand on the swelling and said:

‘When that one comes out we’ll put another one in there.’

‘No, honey,’ said the woman. ‘Not right away.’

‘You said,’ said the man.

‘But not right away honey,’ said the woman. ‘We have to wait a while. Five years. Then we can have two more, and the big kids can look after the bubbas. That makes it easy when they do that.’

‘Five years,’ said the man.

He took the baby from the pram and began walking her along the platform. The baby’s legs recoiled as her feet touched the tarseal, then she began groping the ground with her feet. The man called to his wife: ‘Look,’ he said, ‘she wants to walk.’

‘You should teach her,’ said the woman, ‘like you taught your nephew. He can walk now, and he isn’t even one. If she learns to walk I won’t have to carry her around.’

‘I should,’ said the man, then he bounced the baby so that her feet brushed the ground. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘You can do it. Take a step. Just one. You have to try.’

The baby laughed and wriggled, but every time her feet touched the ground she kicked, or pulled them up. She wasn’t walking.

‘Come on,’ said the man. ‘Don’t you want to walk? I’ll teach you. Come on.’

The baby’s efforts grew weaker, until she hung like a limp doll and finally stopped moving.

‘You must be tired,’ said the man, and he put the baby into her pram. He sat on the seat beside his wife. The baby was silent. 

‘We’ll have to start giving her solids,’ said the woman. ‘She must be old enough now.’

‘We could,’ said the man. ‘That would help her strength.’

There was no more conversation for a while. They both sat watching the baby, occasionally looking down the line for the train. The woman sighed.      

‘It’s hot,’ she said, and she pulled at her dress to make a draught. She looked at her hands, then twisted her wedding ring.

‘Sorry, honey, I’ll have to take it off. Watch where I put it.’

She pulled the ring off and tucked it into her purse. The woman leaned back against the man and closed her eyes. The man wrapped a fat arm around her and pulled her close, rocking her. She appeared to be sleeping, and he kissed her ear. She pulled away sharply.

‘Gross!’ she said.

The man stood, then began pushing the baby along the platform. He walked to the edge, and watched the gulls squabbling over the bread, then to the end of the platform and back to where the woman sat with her eyes closed. The baby was making noises, imitating the gulls. The woman’s eyes opened. The man placed the baby on the seat, and she sat there, her bright blue eyes wide and staring. The man gave the baby his cellphone, and pressed a button so that it played a tune. The baby laughed, and put the phone to her mouth. The woman snatched it away, saying ‘He shouldn’t give you that.’

The man walked to the edge of the platform and looked into the distance. ‘The train should be here now,’ he said.

Then the woman held the baby, her arms running up the baby’s back. She held the baby up and looked into her eyes. When the baby smiled the woman swung her out until she was almost horizontal, then up, so that she looked into the woman’s eyes again. Then it was down, and up again, the woman lurching forward as she swung the baby in an increasing arc. She spoke to the baby as she swung her up and down, her breath coming in hurried gasps at the top of each swing. As she swung the baby up and down, the woman became breathless. When the man turned around he said: ‘You shouldn’t be doing that. She’s only a baby.’

Finally the woman swung the baby low, almost upside down.

‘You’re getting heavy,’ she said. ‘You’re a big baby now.’

The level crossing bells sounded, and the man looked down the track where the train approached, shrouded in heat haze. The smaller gulls scattered. The blackback swallowed a crust, then grabbed at the bag. It spread its wings, and lurched to the air, scraps of bread scattering over the tracks. The blackback flew in the direction of the railway line, then wheeled away. The man watched as it disappeared.

“That’s not a baby,’ he said. ‘That’s not a baby.’

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Tony O'Brien has published numerous short stories and have had three stories accepted for short story anthologies which are due to be published later this year. Another story, "Mrs. Mafua’s Hat," has been produced for radio, and has been filmed by Rachel Walker (you can see the stills on Rachel's website http://www.littlesisterfilms.com). Tony works as a mental health nurse and lectures in mental health nursing. He is married with three adult children and can be contacted at joanandtony@xtra.co.nz.