Issue #30, Honorable Mention #1

K. S. Dearsley has an MA in Linguistics and Literature and has had numerous stories published on both sides of the Atlantic. She lives in Northampton, England, and when she is not writing, she lets her dogs take her for walks. Her fantasy novels are now available on Amazon. Find out more at www.ksdearsley.com.

 

Maternal Instinct

by K. S. Dearsley

 

Behind the counter, Gilbert smiled nervously. “What would you like today, Mrs. Brown?”

Sonia almost felt sorry for him. The other women had given him a hard enough time with their picky demands before the war had started, but now that most of the men were off fighting Hitler, his life was one long apology. She was one of the few who did not look at him with accusing eyes.

There was a snort from behind her. “Why bother asking? You know you won’t have it. Just tell the girl what you’ve got.” Tilly Jones had the look of a sweet old lady, as soft as fudge, but had a will like rock and a tongue acid as pear drops.

Becoming pregnant was the best idea Sonia had ever had. A queue of solicitous women in headscarves and curlers or last year’s hats had ushered her through to the grocer’s counter. In this heat there were minor discomforts, but the benefits far outweighed them.

“I’d love some humbugs or that really hard toffee that makes your jaws ache.”

A sigh wistful as Sonia’s words rippled through the queue.

Tilly patted her hand. “Still getting the cravings, ducks?”

Sonia nodded.

“Don’t talk to me about cravings.” Vera, Gilbert’s wife, appeared from their living room with their nine-year-old daughter, Mary, trailing behind. “When I was expecting this one, I had to have pineapple. Thank goodness there wasn’t a war on then!”

There were more murmurs. Women who would never normally have done more than nod “hello” now found a camaraderie in making do and mending. Not Sonia. She hitched awkwardly at her belly; the sooner she got home and got rid of it the better. Immediately, there were frowns of concern.

“It’s all right. It just kicked, that’s all,” Sonia reassured them quickly.

“Gilbert—fetch a chair. Fancy keeping Mrs. Brown standing!”

Gilbert scurried to obey. The daughter, Mary, tugged at Vera’s skirt and whispered into Vera’s ear as she bent down.

“I don’t know,” Vera said. “You’ll have to ask her.”

Mary looked at Sonia shyly and shook her head.

“She’d like to feel the baby move. Is it all right?”

Sonia hesitated. The waiting women wore indulgent smiles. Annoying child! Sonia would have to agree.

“I don’t know if it’ll do it again,” she said. She took hold of Mary’s hand and placed it carefully on her bulge. “There—feel it?”

Mary nodded uncertainly and withdrew her hand.

“Say ‘thank you’, Mary,” Vera said. “In fact, I think you ought to thank Mrs. Brown properly. Go and fetch that jar of barley sugar—well, go on.” Vera shooed the reluctant child out. “We’d been saving it for her birthday next week, as a treat, but she won’t miss it.”

Gilbert returned with a chair and helped Sonia into it. She supported her stomach as she eased herself down, the way she had watched other heavily pregnant women do.

“We put a few bits by to make up for not being able to get her the doll she wanted,” Gilbert explained as he relieved Sonia of her shopping list. There were murmurs and shaken heads.

“This war!” Tilly spat out in a way that suggested she wished Hitler was in front of her so she could give him a good talking to.

Mary reappeared with the jar.

“Go on, dear. Mary doesn’t mind, do you Mary?” Vera said, giving the child a shove forward. The look on Mary’s face said otherwise.

“All right then. Just a couple.” Sonia filled her pocket. Mary peered into the jar.

Gilbert put her purchases in her basket. Sonia knew when she unpacked it, there would be a little something extra—maybe an additional sausage or some cheese—because Sonia was “eating for two”. Maybe it was depriving someone else, but, Sonia shrugged mentally, it was not as if she asked for it. She rose and clutched at her belly. Something had slipped.

“Another kick, ducks?” asked Tilly.

“That baby’s going to come early. Look how low she’s carrying,” Vera said. Sonia blushed under their appraising stares. “When did you say it was due?”

“Not for another month yet. I’ll be moving to the country soon. I promised my husband I’d have the baby well away from the bombing.”

There were sympathetic murmurs.

“At least let Gilbert deliver the shopping for you.” Vera nudged him.

“Yes, it’s no trouble.”

“No, I can manage. The exercise will be good for me.” Sonia took her basket from him, holding it against her belly as she maneuvered her bulk out of the door. She struggled back to her bleak bedsit as fast as she could, past the rubble of bombed streets and the blank windows of the houses waiting to be next. Turning a corner, she steadied herself against a lamp-post and with a quick look over her shoulder, gave her stomach a hoist. As she walked on, Sonia looked increasingly as if she was giving birth and had to wrap one arm around herself. Shutting the door of her bedsit behind her, she spread her arms and allowed the pillow to drop out.

“Sonia, my girl, that was too close!” She sank into a chair at the table, too relieved for the moment to get up and put the kettle on. This was the third town in which she had been pregnant. She had never come so close to “miscarrying” before, but then, she had never gone to eight months before. It was time to move on.

“Bloody Hitler,” she muttered and pulled the local newspaper towards her. There must be another bedsit somewhere in one of the other districts. It had to be far enough away not to bump into her old neighbors and big enough for newcomers not to create a stir. The trouble was, she had allowed herself to get settled, enjoying the attention. Now, with so many people homeless, thanks to the Luftwaffe, accommodation was in as short supply as nylon stockings. The thought made her pick up the shopping basket.

What little surprises had Gilbert put in for her this time? She unwrapped everything slowly, savoring the smells. There was a piece of bacon that had not been on her list or in her ration book. Sonia began preparing a feast: a slice of the bacon and one of the real eggs that Tilly had slipped to her the last time they met.

“Go on, you’re eating for two, remember?” they all said as they pressed their treasures on her. Sonia had cravings all right, and being pregnant was the ideal way to satisfy them.

After her feast, Sonia strapped the pillow to her once more and set out across the city with the newspaper in her carryall, determined to find a new home. The first part of the journey was not so bad. People were only too happy to give up their seat on the bus to someone in her condition. When she was sure she was far enough away to be safe, she found a rest-room and exchanged her pillow for a smaller cushion from her carryall. She surveyed the results. Instead of looking as if the birth was imminent, she could now pass for five or six months.

She walked past the address in the newspaper without realizing it. What the bombs had not destroyed, fire had finished off. Everything was a dripping, sooty mess of broken glass and lives. Sonia peeked at rooms whose prized possessions were now exposed to public view; tawdry, sad and ignored by passers-by who had seen it all too many times before or were too superstitious to pause. As she looked, Sonia’s heart jumped and she felt her scalp prickle. An arm was poking through the rubble. She picked her way closer, wanting to run in the opposite direction, wanting someone else to deal with it. Then she saw the head and breathed again. It was a doll with bandy legs and scorched hair. Sonia pulled it free. Why not?

*

The baby would have been well overdue when Sonia headed for the grocer’s once more. She was pushing a pram. Scouring the abandoned streets for blankets and toys had been far more fruitful than her search for a new place to live. It had become necessary for her to “give birth” until she could “evacuate to the country”. Few of the local housewives were around; shopping was a morning activity. Sonia parked the pram outside the grocer’s and went in. The bell as she entered snatched Gilbert from his doze behind the counter.

“Mrs. Brown! We thought you—the bombs—oh!” He noticed the pram outside. “Congratulations! Can I take a peek? Vera’ll be so sorry to have missed you.” He started around the counter.

“No!” Sonia was the image of an anxious new mother. “Sorry. I had such trouble getting her to sleep.” Sonia’s “baby” would pass at a distance, but if anyone pulled back the comforter she was sunk.

They turned back to the business of shopping. Gilbert weighed out her purchases, giving even better measures than before. The bell made Sonia’s palms go clammy with fear. It was Mary. The child clutched her school satchel in front of her.

“Say ‘hello’ to Mrs. Brown, Mary,” Gilbert said.

“Had a good day at school?” Sonia asked. The muttered answer was inaudible as Mary disappeared into their living room.

Gilbert rolled his eyes. “Still sulking about her birthday present.”

Sonia nodded, not really interested, allowing her eyes to roam over the shelves to the window display. Her hand fluttered to her throat. Tilly Jones was bending over the pram. Sonia rushed out.

“What are you doing?” she demanded.

Tilly’s face was as white as hers. “I’m sorry, ducks. I thought—I wanted to—I’m sorry…”

Sonia looked in the pram. The blanket was pulled back. Gilbert looked over her shoulder.

“The baby. Where’s the baby?”

Sonia could have sat on the pavement and laughed. The doll was gone—she was safe. The expressions on Gilbert and Tilly’s faces stopped her.

“But she was only in the shop a minute…” Gilbert said.

Tilly took command. “Fetch her a chair.”

Caught between relief and irritation, Sonia kept a shocked silence.

*

Over the following weeks theories abounded, but gradually Tilly’s gained credence. 

“Poor ducks went into labour early, didn’t she, and lost it. Grief’s sent her funny. We shall have to keep our eye on her—make sure she takes care of herself.”

“Bloody Hitler!” Sonia thought, as she was ushered to the front of the queue once more, the better for the other women to ask impertinent questions and give intrusive instructions under the guise of sympathy. She could already feel their gossip burning into her back. To think that she had craved attention—it was a trap.

Mary walked through the shop singing to a doll, cradled in her arms. Sonia made out a bandy leg and scorched hair. Mary turned at the doorway to the living rooms and looked at Sonia with a smile. Sonia shuddered.

“It’s just a doll, dear,” Vera explained. “Found it on a bomb site. We’ve told her it’s not safe, but…” she shrugged. “She did so want a doll.”

“Sweets,” Sonia said, seeing again the expression on Mary’s face when she had half-emptied the jar.

“There aren’t any, ducks. Rationing, remember?” Tilly spoke as if to a three-year-old. “Fetch her a chair, Gilbert.”

Sonia sank onto the seat. “She’s a wonderful dolly,” she told Mary. “You take care of her.”

Mary nodded.

“She will, dear,” Vera said. “Our Mary’ll make a really good mother one day.”

 

Copyright 2017 by K. S. Dearsley