by Lee Murray
“I’ll get it,” Marie calls.
Nell tenses. Marie’s little-girl voice is overloud. Loud enough to be heard by the caller on the other side of the door.
From her armchair in the lounge, Nell glimpses a flash of pink as the child dashes the length of the hall, little feet running, the sound muffled by carpet out of date two decades ago. The child opens the front door. Nell pictures her in her Dora the Explorer skirt and Hannah Montana leggings, tip-toeing to reach the door handle.
“Um, is your mother there?” A man. Youngish, with a rasping voice. A smoker, maybe.
“No, Grandma is though. I can get her, but you’ll have to wait a minute. The doctor says she’s supposed to use her walker.”
“Oh no, that’s okay. Don’t make her get up.”
Nell relaxes a little. It’s not someone looking for them specifically. No one using their name—just your generic everyday doorbell ringer. One of those polling people, asking questions about what medical insurance they have, or some do-gooder looking for sponsors to buy goats for Africa. Failing that, he’ll be from the God Squad, any denomination. Take your pick. All types round here.
Still, this place has been good, the community big enough for anonymity. Nell is sick of always moving on. Dragging the two of them from one crappy rental to the next. Low-rent housing, they call it. Which in Nell’s experience means high rent but run-down to all shit. Nell would prefer to stay here. At eighty-four, she’s tired of running.
“Okay, bye,” Marie tells the man.
“Oh, little girl, could you give your gran this for me, please?”
“I’m not a little girl. I’m Marie.”
“Marie. That’s a pretty name. Could you give this to your gran?” The guy’s a real trier. Probably a petition. That would make sense. The news has been full of demands for a referendum on mining. There’s a quiet pause and Nell imagines the man pushing the paper through the gap as the door closes.
“Okay, bye,” the child says again. Then she remembers her manners. “Thank you for coming.” Nell’s heart clenches. Sometimes, after all these years, she still feels it. That deep sense of longing for a child. Love. That indescribable sense of promise, tinged with fear. Sometimes, if Nell closes her eyes, it’s almost as if…
Sighing, she slumps back in her chair. Best not to wish.
“You can open your eyes now, you old trout. He’s gone.”
Nell is jolted back.
The child flings herself onto the sofa, letting the papers drop to the floor.
“What did he want?”
“Lawn mowing service.”
“Oh, that’s okay then. You didn’t give anything away?”
A roll of the eyes. “No, it’s fine. He has no idea.”
“Yeah, and I should get an academy award.” Marie picks up a Barbie doll, a prop left on the living room floor in case anyone should happen to peer in a window, and begins pulling at its hair, swivelling the doll’s neck in unnatural ways. “You know this won’t do, don’t you? We’re going to have to go out soon. And not just to the bloody supermarket.”
Nell looks up sharply. It’s still a shock when Marie swears. Profanity’s always so vulgar in a child. Nell bites back a reprimand.
“Well, we will,” Marie insists, her little cherub mouth twisted in a sneer. “We need to find someone, don’t we?” She yanks cruelly at the doll’s ponytail, pulling its neck backwards.
Nell nods. “I know, love. We will. Tomorrow, okay? It’s just, I’ve been so tired today.”
“Yeah, you were tired yesterday.”
“And the day before.”
“We’ll go tomorrow.”
“Promise!” the child shrieks. She throws the doll across the room. It bounces on the floor, its head coming away, while the body rolls under the sofa.
“Yes dear, we’ll go out and look for someone tomorrow. I promise,” Nell says.
“We’d better,” the child warns. She runs off to play in her room, leaving the headless Barbie under the sofa.
Nell looks up the addresses of a couple of clinics in the yellow pages. The first one’s no good. Too far away. But the second one is closer and looks like it might be private.
They catch the bus to the commercial centre—waiting for the low floored bus for Nell’s walking frame—and walk the last two blocks to the clinic. By the time they arrive, Nell’s back aches and her legs are shaking. She wonders how long she’ll be able to continue, if they don’t find someone this summer.
Outside the clinic, Nell sinks gratefully onto the painted bench. Marie sits beside her, her skirt falling in tidy pleats. Together they watch the clinic’s clients come and go: well-dressed, neatly-coiffed women, their hands gripped tight by solemn-faced men. People wanting a baby. Nell knows how that feels. She’d always wanted a baby. So much so, she’d stopped taking the precious pills. David had been furious—she’d lost him over it, ending up a single mother in the sixties—but Nell didn’t regret it; she’d got what she wanted, and it’s the same thing that brings these couples to the clinic.
Nell scrutinises Marie’s face each time a woman descends the tiled steps. She feels like a detective, as if the child were her witness, and the women part of a line-up. Mostly, the women arrive with their partners, but sometimes they come alone. The women on their own are the ones that Nell and Marie are interested in.
Chewing her lip, and fiddling absently with her christening bangle, Marie regards each one.
Nell leans in close. “What about that one?”
Marie shakes her head. “Too fat.”
“That might be a good thing. It could mean she’s a good cook.”
Marie glares at Nell. “I said, no.”
“Okay. What about her? The one coming now. She looks nice.”
“Too young. She’ll want a dolly, a little girl to dress up.”
“Now, you don’t know that—”
“Do you have any idea how much I detest pink?” Marie hisses. “Do you? Do you even care?”
“Sorry, love. I didn’t think.”
“You never think. That’s the problem. Anyway, she’s too young—just look at her.”
Nell studies the woman, her heels clattering cheerfully as she skips down the stairs. Wearing a white sundress sprigged with tiny yellow roses, the vibrancy of her outfit matches the bounce in her step. Marie’s right. This one won’t do. They can’t afford to fail another time.
“See?” Marie says scornfully. “I told you, we have to wait for someone older. Someone sad.”
Another hour passes before a mousy-haired woman in her late thirties, or perhaps her early forties, leaves the clinic. Her eyes are rimmed red and she carries a crumpled tissue in her hand.
Marie nudges Nell. “This one.”
Now that they’re about to go through with it, Nell’s resolve melts. Her head aches. She can’t do it. In spite of everything, letting the child go will break her heart. Nell’s about to pull her back, but already Marie has slipped off the painted wooden bench, her little legs carrying her along the sidewalk away from Nell.
Approaching the woman with purpose, at the last minute Marie gets shy. Ducking her head bashfully, she tugs at the woman’s top. “Excuse me, are you my new mummy?” she says, curling the tip of a pigtail in her fingers.
“I’m going to be adopted. I’m going to get a new mummy.”
The woman bursts into tears.
Nell hesitates, stomach churning. She doesn’t want to go through with it—this charade—but Marie tilts her head, and Nell catches the warning in her eyes, demanding that Nell play her part.
Nell owes it to her to try. The woman’s blubbering looks to be slowing.
“Marie,” Nell admonishes. She makes a show of struggling to her feet. It isn’t hard to be convincing, Nell’s been sat here on these slats for so long. “Come away now, darling. Let’s leave the nice lady alone.” Nell grips the back of the bench and extends an arm awkwardly. Seeing her difficulty, the woman steps forward to push the walking frame within reach. Nell gives her a grateful nod.
“I’m so sorry if Marie upset you. We’re supposed to be meeting a representative from the adoption agency. She hasn’t turned up: the little one’s getting impatient.”
“You’re meeting an adoption agency? Here?”
“Yes,” Marie says. Curls bobbing, she looks up from under her lashes. “I’m getting a new mummy.” Then, dropping her voice to a whisper, she says: “My other mummy can’t look after me anymore.”
Over Marie’s head, the woman looks questioningly at Nell, who gives her a meaningful nod. Turns out, Nell’s not so shabby at acting either. She should nominate herself as Best Supporting Actress.
Nell shuffles up the front path, and frowns. Marie’s form is visible at the window, peeking out from behind the mildewy nets. Nell had told her to stay out of sight. The last thing they need is an interfering neighbour calling the authorities. Not now when they’re so close.
“Well?” Marie says, jumping down from the suitcase she’d been standing on, and rushing forward. “It’s about time you got back. It’s been ages. What happened? Are they going to take me?”
Nell’s heart clenches. She’s hardly taken a step inside the hall. Is Marie in such a hurry to get away?
“Give me a sec to sit down,” she says. Placing the manila envelope on the battered side table, she abandons the walker and makes her way to her chair in the living room, using first the walls, and then the furniture for support.
“Come on. Hurry up!” Marie says, wind-milling her arms. “Okay, you’re sitting down now. What did they say?”
Nell looks at her, the baby she’d wanted so badly, and is assailed by memories: Marie climbing into Nell’s lap for a story, Marie licking the cream off a doughnut, her animated little girl chatter, the bubbles of laughter.
“They’re going to take you,” she whispers.
“They’re going to take me!” Marie chortles joyfully. “Yay!” She jumps on the sofa.
“They accepted the paperwork,” Nell says, while Marie bounces. “And they didn’t mention bringing in their lawyer, so they know what we’re offering isn’t exactly legal.”
Marie stops jumping, her toes curled on the sofa cushions. “It’s perfectly legal,” she retorts.
Nell gives a little sigh. “Yes love, but it’s best to let them think otherwise, that the adoption’s a little unconventional. We don’t want them asking any hairy questions. They really want you, Marie. They’re desperate for a child. They would have preferred a baby—well everyone does these days—but they’re happy to have a daughter. And you’ll never believe it: Tim’s mother’s name was Marie.”
“Yes, yes. Of course, they want me. I’m irresistible,” Marie says, her voice full of sarcasm. She jumps down from the sofa. “So, I assume there are no other snotty offspring?”
“No, it’s as we expected. The Hammonds can’t have children. They were on their final attempt at IVF when we found Paula outside the clinic.”
Marie nods. “What was the house like?”
“It was lovely. You’ll like it,” Nell says trying to sound enthusiastic. “It’s a big house: four double bedrooms, with a beautiful yard out back for you to play in.”
Marie frowns. “I’m not a baby.”
Nell’s eyes stray to the sofa where Marie’s Barbie’s legs stick out from under the base. “They think you are,” she says softly.
“Then I’ll have to show them, won’t I?”
Nell leans forward and lays a hand on her arm. “Marie, you’ll have to be careful. You should do as we discussed and take things slowly. The Hammonds have to fall love with you completely before you tell them the truth. They’re going to find out eventually, but we don’t want them to discover too soon.”
“Yes, I know, I know.” Marie snatches her arm away. “Stop going on about it. I’m careful. I’m always careful. No one’s found out so far, have they?”
“No, but there was—”
Marie stamps her foot.
“Sorry, love. You know I just want the best for you. I want you to be safe—”
Marie, eager, cuts her off. “When? When can I go?”
“Wednesday,” Nell says, her eyes welling up. “We’ll go on the bus, the day after tomorrow.”
Moonlight streaming across the bed from a gap in the curtains, Nell buries her face in her hands, and stifles her sobs. It’s done now. Nell knows it. But losing her hurts so much, as if Nell’s heart is being ripped from her chest. Marie had been so happy when she’d learned about the Hammonds. She’d done a little dance, while Nell shattered into splinters.
Of course, Nell can understand it. It’s been so hard for Marie, being five, and she’s been disappointed before. The last time they’d come close to having her adopted, Nell had changed her mind, unable to go through with it. Well, when is a mother ever ready to let her child go?
Nell labours to shift her hips sideways off a wrinkle in the sheets. Not that it matters what she wants. No one is granting her wishes these days, anyway. There was only that one time, decades ago when Marie was five, on a night not unlike this one, when Nell had lay in her bed and wished her little girl would stay that way forever.
She blinks back tears. No, no wishing. Marie absolutely has to leave tomorrow. There’s no backing out this time. Nell’s just too old. Any longer and the authorities might take Marie and who knows what might happen then?
But Nell loves her so much! If only Marie didn’t have to leave.
The moonlight striking her face, Nell closes her eyes, and remembers her as a tiny baby. Her perfect, perfect baby girl. Chestnut curls, soft brown eyes, and dimples to drown in.
Nell doesn’t want to let her little girl go.
The bottom drawer open, Marie picks out a Care-Bear t-shirt. Nope. Not taking that. She flings it into a corner for Nell to throw away when she’s gone, then plunges her hand into the drawer again, this time pulling out a cheap hypermarket dress, a yellow one with Belle on the front. God, she hates Disney. Over the years, Marie’s wardrobe has included every Disney princess from Snow White to the Snow Queen. Nell insisted it was good camouflage, making Marie indistinguishable from the other little girls. At least this one isn’t pink. Marie reaches over to put it in her ‘maybe’ pile, but she stumbles and slips, gouging her leg on the corner of the drawer.
She sits on the floor with her back to the bed and examines the gash on her shin. Runs her finger over the welt, and sucks the blood off her finger. Not too deep. With a bit of luck it might not scar too much.
Just another to add to her collection.
The network of raised white welts are the reason Marie stopped going to school. It was boring anyway. Always the same stuff: greeting the teacher, counting to twenty, reciting the alphabet. Once you know how to read, it can be so tedious reciting that crap day after day. But schools have libraries and computers and other things to entertain, so she’d been prepared to tolerate the dull-witted babies and clucky infant mistresses. A few times she’d made it to Year Four before staff started to comment about how much smaller Marie was compared to other children her age. About twenty schools in—Marie lost count—a well-intentioned school nurse had noticed Marie’s scratches, a half a century’s worth. Marie had escaped through a window while the nurse was calling child services.
Marie smoothes her nightie down over the wound. Maybe as the Hammond’s daughter, she’ll get to go back to school for a while. They’ll be better prepared for questions from nosy nurses: Nell telling them that Marie went through a window in the accident that killed her parents. Funny. After tomorrow, Nell may as well be dead because Marie will never see her again. Does Marie feel sad? She doesn’t know.
Standing, Marie lifts her Piglet duvet and climbs into bed, pulling her nightie down when it rides up. She can barely remember the time when she called Nell Mum, before Nell got too old and became Marie’s grandmother instead. It was so long ago. She vaguely remembers clinging to a young woman’s hand, the whispered stories and soft lullabies. She remembers her mother caressing her hair in the night, stroking it gently from her face. Marie used to love her mother.
Nell’s bladder is full. She tries to ignore it, but eventually the urgency becomes too much. She gets up, puts on her dressing gown and slippers, and shuffles to the toilet. She hasn’t been there long when Marie gives a little squeal.
Suddenly, she’s pounding on the toilet door.
“Nell!” Marie shouts. She bangs hard on the plywood. Screeching. The neighbours will complain. Then Nell remembers that today is Wednesday. Ah, that explains it. Her baby is impatient to leave. Full of excitement, she wants to be gone from here, across town with her new mother. After everything, Nell can hardly blame her. Her heart breaking, Nell pulls up her pyjama pants and re-ties her dressing gown.
Nell pulls open the door. Dressed in her pink Tinkerbell nightie, Marie is standing in the hall. Her face is contorted in fury. Ugly. Hard.
“You stupid bitch,” Marie screams. “You just couldn’t fucking help yourself, could you?”
“What, love? What have I done?” Nell is taken aback. What’s upset her now? Marie’s going today. It’s what she’s wanted, what they’ve planned. Nell sighs. Sometimes there’s no pleasing the girl.
“For God’s sake, hurry up!” Marie turns on her heel stalks into Nell’s room. Nell follows her, scuffing in her slippers. “There!” Marie spits, pointing at the bed.
It’s Marie, not more than a year old. There are six of them.
Naked in the cool air of the morning, the babies writhe, shaking their chubby little fists at the ceiling, their faces twisted in frustration. Horrified, Nell clutches the door frame.
“You stupid bitch,” Marie says again.
Nell looks at her daughter. She’s put a sweatshirt on over her nightie and is carrying her little suitcase. Too heavy for her, Marie has to use two hands. The suitcase bangs against her legs.
“If you think I’m staying to help, you’re wrong. You wished my life away, and now you have to live with it,” says Marie. “Again.” She turns away.
Nell sinks to the floor as the front door slams. Her little girl has gone. Nell imagines Marie lugging her suitcase onto the bus, the hiss as the doors close.
The babies start to shriek.
“Marie” (© Lee Murray) was published in Issue 3 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.