Charlotte: a short story

It comes in waves. I vaguely remember them saying once that it would, although I couldn’t imagine it then, so I chose not to remember. I don’t know why our brains do that; choose like that. I hope I can choose to forget this whole night.

The dark surrounds me. I’ve left the lights off on purpose, because too much of anything is a distraction right now. I don’t want to see the dishes in the sink, or the boxes, or the piles of baby clothes to be sorted and folded. God I’ll be needing those by the morning. Oh God.

We moved here three months ago, me and my mum, after Shane walked out. Well, after Shane found out about the baby. Mum was lost in that big empty house and big empty bank account, and I was lost behind this big belly, so we cut our losses and said what the hell about the past let’s set up home together. It’s a good idea, right, me and my mum. She did this for me, once, carried me inside her and rubbed her full belly and dreamed, just like I’m doing now.

I bet she never dreamed things would work out like they did.

It comes now. Starts in my deepest gut and rolls forward over me, over into my back. I have to remind myself to breathe. Big breaths. Keep going. It’ll pass. Roll with it girl, roll with it.

And it’s gone.

Breathe out.

The wooden kitchen chair creaks as I stand up. I’ve got this heat pack thing that a lady at our old church gave me, she said it’s good for pain, and it is, but only when it’s really hot. Bernard. Sally Bernard is her name. I waddle over to the microwave and put it in again, pushing the buttons without thinking about it, praying it’ll be hot enough for when…oh God.

The kitchen light goes on with a click and a wash of colour bright, and Mum shuffles in, tying up her dressing gown as she goes. She’s got a cigarette between her fingers already and she’s fumbling in her dressing gown pocket for a lighter, no matter how many times I’ve asked her not to smoke near me.

“Yer right Kel?” It’s the middle of the night and her voice is raspy as a toad. She sits down in the place I’ve just got up from.

The microwave pings to announce it’s finish, and I take out the heat pack and shove it into the band of my track pants again to hold it into place. Just in time. The pain rolls in and breaks over me all over again. I put my head down on the bench and try not to make a noise while I wait for it to finish.

At the table Mum puffs and taps and puffs again. I’m leaning over the bench looking at Mum in the wooden chair, both of us in the same positions we’ve been so many times together. The words slip out of my mouth without thinking. I say them by default, because it’s what I say when I’m standing here, not because I’m thinking about it but because I’m not. She doesn’t seem to notice the difference, or any peculiarity. “Want a coffee, Mum?”

“Oh yes thanks Kel. Only two pills today though thanks love. I’m trying to cut down. You know the doctor says that even artificial sugar isn’t good for you?”

“Yeah.” I get the mugs and put the kettle on to boil while I hunt around in the cupboard for the jar of instant coffee. I’m just spooning it in when another wave comes. This one is powerful, intense, maybe more so because I can’t take refuge in the shadows of the dark.

“…yes, they’re saying now that diabetics should be careful with artificial sweeteners, and that too much of it can lead to Multiple Sclerosis of all things. Shirl Baker’s been having this one for years though, she’s the one who got me onto it in the first place, and she says…”

I slide down behind the bench into a crouch, as if I’m going to start running. If only I could. The pain holds it’s own now and keeps up, longer than before, until I can hear it as if it’s singing in my ears, making me want to moan with it. I don’t. Not with Mum here, not with the cold stark light of the kitchen glaring at me.

“…but Shirl’s got a new man now, and she swears it’s got everything to do with how much weight she’s lost. She goes out with the walking club three times a week, and on Fridays they have…”

I realise I’ve been holding my breath. When I breathe out the pain goes, and I straighten up again. I pour in the milk, stir two artificial sweeteners into Mum’s coffee, and two spoons of sugar into mine, then take them over to the table.

“Sorry it took a while Mum.”

“Oh that’s okay. Did I tell you about Merle? She bought a new washing machine the other day, and oh the trouble she’s had with it already. She did say that you could bring your baby clothes down and use it any time you want though, but the first day she had it, well…”

The chair I’m sitting in is uncomfortable, and my coffee tastes like dirt. We sit here like this for half an hour, an hour maybe; her smoking and blathering and me nursing my coffee and my pain. The clock on the oven says it’s 1:13am, which means I’ve been awake for almost twenty hours now. I can’t do this. I can’t do this any more.

She’s talking now about the debate that’s been raging over whether they should install an elevator in our apartment block and I nod and pretend to listen, but when the pain pushes into me again and I stand up and go to the bathroom, slide down with my back to the door, curl my knees up to my face and sob.

I should be timing these things. I should know how long they are going for, and how far apart they are. And isn’t there something about towels, and hot water? They always ask for those things in movies. I want to call the hospital again and ask them what I should do, whether it’s okay to come in now, but I don’t know if that’s okay. They sounded busy when I called earlier, when the pain first started. They said to stay at home for as long as I could. God I don’t even know what that means!

I’m going to call them again. I can’t stay here any more, not with her. Not with her like this. I’d rather have nobody here at all than a mother who doesn’t notice me.

She held me once. She carried me in her womb for nine months, and maybe she rocked and cradled her stomach the way I’m doing to mine. She hurt, or maybe I made her hurt. Is that what this is about Mum? Did I make you like this? When the pain is dulled for a minute I wipe my eyes and stand up. I know what I have to do.

Mum is flicking her cigarette into the ashtray when I come back through the kitchen, and reading a magazine. I grab the phone from where I left it on the table, and punch in the number for the taxi company. I know it by heart already.  It doesn’t take long for them to answer, and the lady on the exchange says there’ll be one there in about five minutes. I take my heat pack out from the waistband of my trousers and put it in the microwave again. Her name is on the label, just in case I forgot who it belonged to: Sally Bernard, 56 Acorn Road. I can’t believe she’s so organised as to write on that stuff, like she’s some kind of TV mother. I bet her kids have perfect bedrooms and only ever eat organic lunches.

Mum folds the magazine over and holds it up. “Oh look here Kel. There’s an article in here about a lady who…”

I don’t stop to listen. I put my coat on and grab the heat pack out of the microwave before it even beeps. My hospital bag is waiting for me at the front door, with clean clothes for me, clean clothes for the baby, blankets and nappies and the tiniest little singlets I ever saw to start this new life off in. The taxi is early, pulls up just as I pull the door shut behind me. I’m sobbing so hard that the best I can do is hand the driver the address and curl up in the back seat in the dark and wait for this night to end.


I’m on the train to Sydney when I first find out we made the news. The man next to me is reading the paper, and there it is, on page three. I guess baby-left-on-a-doorstep stories are kind of big, kind of noteworthy. They said she’s okay though, that she’s healthy and well, and that the family whose door she was left on are wanting to keep her, to foster her if they can’t locate the mother. I’m glad. I rang that doorbell like crazy before I ran, just so she wouldn’t be alone for too long. I snuggled her up as tight as I could so she’d be warm in those blankets. She wasn’t even crying when I left her. I hope they do keep her. I hope they call her Charlotte, too. Charlotte Bernard has a nice ring to it. I’ll bet she’s a pretty thing, too.

I’ll send her a present from Sydney, I think. I’ve still got the address tucked in my bag, beneath my spare clothes and my wallet and the things I’ve got to start my new life. 56 Acorn Road.

I hope they call her Charlotte.


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