Our most recent homework assignment was to stalk...erm, follow someone for ten minutes. This could be any person, someone we knew or a total stranger. I opted for the latter. We were required to write a story incorporating not only their mannerisms but also our emotions, including an element of tension. Tall order! Once again, I enjoyed the challenge. Unfortunately I missed the class due to illness so I didn't get the chance to share my efforts with my peers. So I'm sharing them here instead!
Names and places have been changed to protect identities.
At first I follow her with only my eyes. She comes out of ‘Cash Exchange’, swinging a carrier bag and talking enthusiastically into her mobile phone. I can’t tell whether she is angry or happy as her expression changes from one second to the next. She is re-living a moment, re-telling it. I glance at my watch and start the process.
The Girl is painfully thin apart from her pregnant belly which is straining to escape from under her top. She reminds me of the Ethiopian children I’ve seen on the television; skin-covered skeletons with bellies full of air.
It’s difficult to tell how old she is but I hazard a guess at late teens, possibly older but still far too young to be a mother. I am reminded of something my Dad would say to describe someone who is a bit rough around the edges - Looks like they’ve had a tough paper round.
I can’t decide whether her eyeliner is deliberately smudged or whether it has slipped down into the creases beneath her eyes over the course of the day. Either way it is stark against her gaunt, pale face.
My emotions take me by surprise. I want to take her into the café next door, buy her something to eat. I want to help her, protect her, save her. I can only hope the growing child is managing to swallow a small amount of nutrition. She finishes her conversation and slips the phone into the pocket of her jeans. She is smiling, remembering something funny. She looks totally at peace with the imminent arrival of the small infant that she will have to care for. I am intrigued by this. I think of myself during this late stage of pregnancy; an anxious wreck too frightened to leave the house, not least because I was worried Greenpeace might attempt to rescue me. I wonder whether The Girl is aware of this small person growing inside her. Perhaps she has not yet made that connection. Perhaps she is oblivious to the fact that underneath her stretched skin there is a helpless human being – years of sleepless nights, endless worry and empty purses.
She slides a plastic bottle from the bag. The bright blue contents slosh around as she takes a swig. It looks like she is drinking screenwash. She heads towards the escalator, pushing through the crowd, belly first. She walks faster than her size should allow and the effort to keep up with her makes me sweat. At the foot of the escalator she is intercepted by a cocky salesman advertising personal injury compensation.
“Had an accident in the last three years, madam?” he asks, skilfully blocking her way.
“Aye, aboot nine mumphs ago, can you no tell?” she answers, patting her bump.
The man laughs awkwardly and moves aside.
She is like a little powerhouse. It’s like she’s trying to prove something – I’m coping, I’m good at this, I’m ready. Or perhaps she is simply in a hurry. She hops onto the bottom step of the escalator and I prepare myself to sprint up the stairs two at a time behind her. But she uses the few seconds to look through the contents of the bag. As she scans the cover of a horror DVD she absentmindedly rubs her belly with the tips of her fingers; little circular motions. I notice her nails are chewed. There is a heavy ring on her index finger: chunky gold capitals that spell out the word MUM. She has done this before.
The top half of her long hair has been scraped back by a clip, a messy mixture of colours clearly in need of a wash. I suspect that some of the hair is not her own; cheap fuchsia extensions pulled tightly to reveal her white scalp. The jeans that cling to her skinny legs are tucked into scuffed boots, the kind that are usually worn on a building site. They look too big for her and I briefly wonder if they might belong to someone else; a man, the father of this child. The T-shirt does not reach her waistband and I spy the top of an elaborate tattoo - possibly thorny roses or barbed wire - scrawled across the base of her spine. White tissue paper skin.
She turns her head and one of her huge hoops earrings smacks the side of her face. I catch her eye and curse inwardly. She probably felt the cold sting of my judgement seeping through her clothes. Rather than look away, I smile and she smiles back. Her eyes belong to a much older woman. I feel an overwhelming urge to comment on her pregnancy, to offer her some words of support, to tell her how wonderful it is being a mum, to advise her to relax and enjoy the first few months for they will pass quickly. But I don’t want her to remember me. I plan to follow her for the next 8 minutes. Wherever she goes, I will go. I need to be as invisible as possible.
She steps off the escalator and heads for the Chemist, walking so fast that her hair can’t keep up. I follow her into the shop, flashing a smile at the beefy security guard so he will stay off my case. I have no intention of buying anything. I am here to observe.
The Girl marches over to the counter and flicks through a leaflet while she waits for some assistance. I slide behind the make-up aisle and immerse myself in the lipsticks. If I tilt my head to the right I can still see her. She is chewing on her thumbnail. The confident air has left her and her eyes are darting nervously. The pharmacist greets her with a smile and asks how she can help. The Girl would like some nicotine patches please.
“How far gone are you?” asks Nice Pharmacist, eyeing the stomach which is squeezed up against the counter.
“I’m two days overdue,” replies The Girl, with a hint of apology.
Nice Pharmacist takes a small step backwards and stares down at the bump like it’s an unexploded bomb. She jokingly asks The Girl to keep her legs crossed until she gets home. The Girl laughs a gravelly laugh.
“If I’d kept my legs crossed nine mumphs ago I wouldnae be in this state now!”
There’s a conversation about the benefits and the potential risks associated with nicotine patches during pregnancy. The Girl rests her hand on the top of her bump and listens intently, nodding in the right places. Nice Pharmacist advises that it would probably be best to wait until the baby is born before starting patches or gum. The girl laughs and says she will start smoking again once the baby is born; this is just to see her through until the birth, which she hopes happens soon. The smile on Nice Pharmacist’s face slips but quickly returns. I notice a twitch in her left cheek that wasn’t there before. The Girl realises she has made a blunder.
“I’ll make sure I’m in a different room when I’m having a fag,” she adds quickly, “and I’ll clean my teeth before I kiss the bairn.”
The security guard has started circling me like a vulture. I attempt to look nonchalant as I read the small print on a Super Duper Lash Enhancing Mascara. To my annoyance, I miss whether The Girl makes her purchase. When I look up she is gone and a fat lady with a headscarf and a hacking cough has taken her place.
I leave the shop as quickly as I can without arousing further suspicion. I spot her striding out of the main exit, carrier bag swinging back and forth like a pendulum. Aren’t pregnant women supposed to waddle, be red-cheeked and out of breath? As she marches through the people, they step aside, creating a bubble of air around her. I glance at my watch.
I’d better move fast if I am to catch up with her. Out in the open I find her chatting outside ‘Bargain Busters’ with an older woman who has borrowed the same hair dye. I pretend that the perfume display in the window has caught my attention and position myself at an angle where I can see what is going on behind me in the reflection of the glass. The older woman is leaning against a buggy. Strapped inside is a toddler who is clutching a half-eaten sausage roll. The woman is telling The Girl about something that happened at the Job Centre earlier that morning. Her language is turning the air blue. She says something that makes The Girl laugh her gravelly laugh. The toddler starts straining to escape from his buggy. He screams out in frustration, kicking his little legs until one of his trainers fly off.
“Stoap it, ya wee git!” shouts the woman as she attempts to push the shoe back on.
He kicks his legs and screams until his face turns pink. The woman smacks his leg and he throws the sausage roll on the ground in protest. The Girl picks it up and offers it back to him. I imagine the germs swarming over the pastry.
“Are you havin’ a bad day, son?” she asks with a gooey voice.
The woman gives up and tosses the trainer into the hammock beneath the buggy.
“I swear tae God I’m gonnae kill him!” she hisses through gritted teeth. “I didnae get a wink ‘o sleep last night and Billy’s oan night shift all week.”
In the reflection, I catch The Girl’s eye. I have outstayed my welcome and I start to panic. But there is no need because she turns her attention back to her friend.
“I’m sick of this bairn,” she groans, pushing her knuckles deep into the small of her back. “Kaden wiz nearly two mumphs early but this yin is never coming oot.”
“You need tae smoke,” says the woman. “Trust me hen, they come oot quicker and they’re much wee’er so it’s an easier birth.”
“Huv you goat a fag?” asks The Girl tentatively.
Her friend pulls a new packet from the compartment at the back of the buggy and peels off the cellophane in one swift motion. She discards it and a gust of wind snatches it before it reaches the ground.
“Mama!” whines sausage roll boy.
His tears have made tracks down his grubby cheeks.
“Shut it!” she spits before lighting a cigarette, cupping her hand around the flimsy flame.
She takes a long draw before handing it to The Girl, who sucks hard, inhaling deeply, savouring the moment. She closes her eyes when she exhales, blue smoke streaming out from her mouth and nostrils.
It’s now I realise it was not this emaciated girl who caught my attention and brought out my nurturing, protective streak. It was the child inside her with its seashell fingernails and gossamer eyelashes. Floating in a cocoon of warmth I now imagine its wrinkled face screwing up as this mouthful of smoke floods its living space. I imagine the infant choking, gasping for air, kicking its tiny limbs. Perhaps that will encourage you to pop out, I think.
I think of the months I spent fretting over every morsel that crossed my lips. No soft cheese or runny yolks. No coffee or Paracetamol. I think of my refusal to enter the kitchen if the microwave was on, the panic over the bottle of champagne I consumed before I knew about the tiny seed blooming inside me. And after he had left my body, the struggle to make everything safe remained and always will.
I recall the tears over my failure to breastfeed, the piles of literature about the MMR jab; the hours spent chopping grapes into tiny pieces to reduce the risk of choking. I think of the care I take now to make everything perfect for my growing boy, the labour of love that will ensure he lives a healthy life until the time comes for me to let go. And even then I won’t let go. Above all I feel a profound sadness that I was unable to be Mum to more children. Precious, wanted lives that never were.
I know I cannot protect this woman’s unborn child any more that I can protect those broken little Ethiopians that live inside my television. I cannot save everyone.
I can still hear The Girl’s gravelly laughter long after I’ve walked away.
© Hazel Allan 2013