The Perfect Baby
Danny had finally come into the World, after almost ten months' gestation, at Teign Hospital, a terrifying fifteen miles from the farm. Had Callum's truck not chosen that night to have an ignition failure, they would never have thought to ask his mother to deliver them to the maternity suite. Driving wasn't one of Jane's strong points. It was two o'clock in the morning so luckily there wasn't too much other traffic as she weaved indiscriminately on both sides of the road, tyres squealing in mad pursuit of every rabbit that had the misfortune to be lit by her headlights. "Run 'em down," she said, and Tilda, in the back, biting Callum's hand with each contraction in an effort to "buck up," would not have been surprised had she started blowing on a bugle.

Tilda's first thought when she set eyes on Danny was of a Christmas gammon, boiled and ready for studding with cloves. His eyes were rimmed and sore --- looking, almost myxomatosis rabbit. She stared with a rather queasy and complicated fascination at the livid creature, with its flailing arms and the umbilical cord, like a great purple worm still attached to its tummy, and knew that these were not the thoughts she was supposed to be having.

"When Callum was born I couldn't believe the overwhelming currents of love that flowed from me to him," Jane said. "I would have killed anyone who came near," and Tilda stared at the baby as it was laid, still screaming and slimy with blood, on to her stomach. She bit her lip and thought that now she was going to be found wanting at this along with everything else.

Tilda had read about deep eye contact, or "imprinting" if you're a poultry breeder; she had witnessed it on the farm dozens of times with the cows giving birth. She had stood in the barn and listened to the soft sounds they made calling to their calves as they emerged with an almighty squelch on to the straw; shiny and streaked in their slick blue sac of membranes. The mothers nuzzled and licked, miraculously turning them from slimy sea creature (that no matter how many times you witnessed it you always believed must be dead), to fluffy toy-shop thing on drunken legs, a magical transformation achieved with no other trick than the steady caress of their tongues.

The cows were clearly superior beings. Tilda didn't feel the need to stare at her baby in quite such a star-struck way. In fact as he lay there slithering on her stomach, she was ashamed to remember that she had looked around the room, as though she. was seeing it for the first time; the calming tone of the pale green walls, the tasteful stripe of the curtains, and wondered about the other mothers. How many births had the room seen? How many didn't make it out?

They decided to call him Danny, which was about the only name from Callum's list that Tilda hadn't vetoed on the grounds of being characters in novels by Thomas Hardy. Jane was disappointed, naturally, when "Samuel" was not chosen. "Such a fine family name."

"Oh Danny boy," Callum whistled as they drove to the farm, Tilda with the newborn in swaddling, as recommended by Jane; trying to feel something more than pity, still believing that the love would come crashing in along with her milk.

She kept waiting. The eye contact business didn't improve. It seemed to Tilda that there was always something she didn't want to see. He had sticky eye at a week old; all that yellow crustiness made her own eye feel gummy just to look at it, and the health visitor suggested she squirt a little milk into it from her breast. And now he was at eye level in the high chair, sitting up and burbling, she was scared that if she looked she might find reproach. It was all beginning to feel too late. She sang "You Are My Sunshine" and "I've Got You Under My Skin," but didn't mean a word.

She'd tried to brush everything away with jokes when he was new: "Quite honestly, I'd rather go out in the garden and dig worms," when the health visitor called, a crash course in the fine art of feeding, "I'd be good at finding worms." All that talk of aiming the areola to the back of Baby's mouth. "Do it so he nearly gags!" Her breast grappled with like something to be stuffed into the gaping cavity of a chicken.

Stout in Hush Puppies, the health visitor had been a daily occurrence. She brought green cabbage leaves when Tilda was so inflamed that her breasts looked like two monstrous gorgonzolas, Cornflower for her cracked nipples and, on Fridays, iced buns for Callum.

After the first few weeks Jane took to calling in when the health visitor was due, and discussions of Tilda's nipples took place in the other room, over a cup of tea. They noticed when Tilda's breasts had leaked into a pillow. Perhaps the boy had missed a feed? Tilda began to feel that she belonged in the dairy. If she didn't watch out they'd call in the vet. Eventually she gave up and put the baby on the bottle. The first night she dreamt that her breasts were two s's of melting vanilla ice cream, the second night was more disturbing: she dreamt that her mother-in-law came into the room wearing her maternity bra, dancing and swaying, opening and shutting the flaps, up and down, flaunting it.

By the time of Callum's birthday Danny had started on solids. "A one-man chimpanzee's tea party," Callum called it, laughing at the mess, though Tilda secretly dreaded the mashed and moulied food reappearing later in the folds of Danny's neck. She had gift-wrapped for Callum the new Halliwell's, though they hadn't seen a film for ages, and an American first edition of In Cold Blood that she'd found at the village bookshop, as well as the sheepskin-lined waterproof boots that he had asked for and she thought hideous.

She had dragged herself out of bed before he stirred, to arrange his presents on the kitchen table and to get the kettle boiling. Danny was already squawking, of course, so she grabbed him on her way down. "Blimey," she said when she got to the kitchen and Jane's clock. "Five bloody a.m."

"He'll make the perfect farmer." Jane always said that about Danny. "The hours he keeps. It's in his blood, you know . . . "

Didn't she know it. Tilda lodged the infant farmer on the mat at her feet, changed his nappy and tried not to gag as she wiped him clean with a wad of damp kitchen roll. Danny kicked his fat legs and rolled himself over. She wondered if all babies had that much cellulite on their bottoms as he did lewd little press-ups in an effort to master the mechanics of crawling away.

The day stretched before her: a day with Danny was like being left in charge of a nuclear power plant, lonely and bleak, slightly nerve-racking, with lots of servicing and safety checks required. Cal would be down any minute, dressed in his usual garb plus extra-thick socks over his jeans, and the grey beanie hat that he'd taken to wearing. Happy Birthday to You. Later Jane would galumph by for her morning coffee and a madly gesticulated monologue on the Meet down at Southwood; the fall she'd taken from her horse, the way she'd got straight back into the saddle. "Tough as old boots, me," she'd say.

Another day with Danny. Too wet to go out. She could already hear the wind whining between the barns, driving straight at them from the East. "Siberia." She shivered, remembered a map of the winds from geography lessons at school. All arrows pointing at good old Blighty. It was still dark outside and the bare knuckles of climbing plants battered the kitchen windows.

Cream for their porridge, a golden swirl of demerara in the shape of a heart in his bowl. Six o'clock in the morning and Callum had already opened his presents. Danny was in his father's arms, chewing on the corner of the first edition of Truman Capote's masterpiece.

"I've decided to make you a cake," she said.

"It's easier to make a baby than a cake, you know. Wouldn't you rather?"' He looked to the ceiling in the direction of their bedroom. "It's quicker, more fun . . . " Callum had four younger brothers; she could have seen this coming. Jane was the eldest of eight. Theirs was a family that liked to breed.

"It's certainly quicker," she retorted, retrieving the Capote from harm but making Danny howl in the process, and Callum flicked her backside with the tea towel.

Callum wasn't wrong. It had been easier, and a lot more fun, to make a baby than a cake: they'd done it without even trying.

--- From Perfect Lives
Polly Samson
©2016 Bloomsbury
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