NOTE: thesquawkback.com is temporarily messed up because of Google's policies, which are always changing, when they'll stop nobody knows. Our team of idiots is working round the clock to fix it. If you have a problem with this, call Google. However a more feasible course of action would to just stop trusting Google. Thank you for your patience.

Baby, Be by Philip Swann

You see Mr Barnes peeking out from the net curtain, and he sees you, and he looks dismayed as his wife closes the gate behind her. Mrs Barnes crosses the road with such elegance; she could be a ballerina. She watches you more than the traffic, they can’t touch her; they can’t catch the pirouettes of her body. Cars roll by with their accustomed morning groans and you play the game your father taught you: ‘now listen love, listen to the engine and tell me, is that petrol or is it diesel?’ Father worked as an engineer and he wished you to follow him to the murky depths of oil and pistons and the nameless array of devices that could tear a body from its limbs. Such thoughts were the damnation of his dream. Poor father.

Mrs Barnes points her toes into the pavement and appears to hover in the air. She looks down her nose at you, literally—for she is not a lady of disdain or malice. You have stood there, that very spot, every Tuesday morning for three months straight with the hood pulled over in privacy. You give Mrs Barnes the reproachful look of muted motherhood and follow her beside the road. You push the pram with a careful guile: as though it were a shopping trolley. She asks of your father, that poor old man—she says—and you reply that he is well; you assume that to be the case, anyway. ‘No news is good news’ is the shovel with which you dig deeper into the deceit. You ask of her daughter—a young woman now, a real lady, with long hair and rimless spectacles. You fall silent and listen to the longing thuds of blood circle in your ears. A bus lurches by, its exhaust hisses, shakes you from your step; Mrs Barnes asks if you are quite alright. She chides the poor bus-driver with words you can’t bear to hear; the very sound of them draws pins into your skin. You glance in her direction and notice she is smiling and you wonder why you’re not smiling too.

You push the pram and tell Mrs Barnes that Henrietta had a terrible night’s sleep. She was awake five times during the night. Between the fourth and fifth time, you sat down and let the snowstorm of midnight television burn your eyes. You found a programme that accommodated the deaf. A woman was stood in the corner of the screen, her hands flailing with wild intent. You cried. She was trying to escape, but could not, that poor woman. Then Henrietta had cried again.

Mrs Barnes listened because it was all that she could do. She drops a step or two and hovers over your shoulder, glaring. You adjust the hood—lower—and push the pram ahead. From across the road Mrs Hunter waves hello, her voice carries above the traffic. Mrs Barnes scolds the woman beneath her breath. What a one, she says, that woman has no shame. Mrs Barnes offers little more than a regal wave, a limp hand blown by the breeze this way and that.

You sit down among bottle-wielding mothers. The café is small and loud: the ceiling hangs low over the tables. Mrs Barnes asks if Henrietta is hungry, but you insist that she is asleep. You blink and glance inside the hood, and swallow and pull the hood back down. You shift the menu and nod in the affirmative, unable to speak; so heavy is your tongue, so undeniably weighted with false courage. You wonder what Mrs Barnes will order. You want to hear, to feel a guiding influence, but you decide before her anyway. You insist that little Henrietta is asleep.

The café is full of ponderous women doting on their children, on other women’s children, observing faces full of fat, bellies so full of milk. You watch and witness the same world exploding in every pair of eyes, over every pair of lips breaks a smile swollen with furious, red joy. You look inside the hood and close your eyes, you pull the hood back down and try to smile.

The coffee arrives and Mrs Barnes thanks you for paying. She tells you quite courteously that you need not have bothered, but you rubbish her words, dabbling the air with your fingers. You recall reading a proverb once—-perhaps the only proverb you have ever read: “coffee should be strong as hell, black as death and sweet as love.” T.S. Eliot wrote a line about coffee too, but you don’t remember that one. You ask Mrs Barnes if her coffee is O.K. but you don’t wait to listen for her reply. You are busy watching mothers be mothers.

A quiet envelops the room, closing in from the corners of the room. The silence doesn’t last; it is broken by a strangled cry that hasn’t cried before. Mrs Barnes asks if it is Henrietta; is she awake—she asks—does she need feeding? The cry rises and falls and you look inside the hood: the home of shame, of embarrassment, the stage for a masquerade veiled behind the cotton frills and cushions.

You look at Mrs Barnes. She stretches her hand across the table and lets it lie amongst spilled sugar. You say that it can’t be Henrietta, quite simply, with quiet upset. You feel a soft-moan rising, a stretch from your stomach up. Your ears hear the words before your lips have let them go. The cold clasp of hands is everything and more. You wanted to say before… before, and Mrs Barnes nods, you wanted to tell her, and Mrs Barnes understands, with a gentle smile of upturned lips she knows. With pink eyes and a quiver, Mrs Barnes sits and holds your hand.