Jan Carson's short story 'Family Circle' is the first new writing to emerge from the International Literature Showcase's 'Crossing Borders' series.
The baby came down the river in a Family Circle biscuit tin.
All wedged in she was, with newspapers and a pair of once-white hand towels twisted round her middle like a kind of bandage. Looked she similar to just born Jesus in paintings. The word for this was swaddled.
The baby could not have tipped herself out even if she’d tried. Not with elbows or much squirming. The baby didn’t try. She enjoyed the closeness of the biscuit tin. The way the walls of it pressed tightly against her skin and burbled when the river ran over pebbles. This shifting nearness reminded her of the previous place, though it had been dark in there and a great deal warmer.
The baby mostly slept and, when she wasn’t sleeping, looked. There was much to be seen in every direction.
The river didn’t sleep. It could not hold itself long enough still nor stop, without assistance. The river ran one way. One way only. From medium sized mountain to much bigger sea. This was the way with rivers. East the river went, directly to West, slicking through three villages and a pine-stenched forest, a bridge, a second bridge and the farmland belonging to two brothers who did not speak.
Like a bold word it went; slicing their one field into two.
“This be your side,” the river said, “and this be yours, and do not be having any notions of a bridge.”
This was suitably fine with the brothers. They were not at all taken with bridges/rowing boats/mobile telephones or any such means of making contact. They were great old fans of the distance: distance, and separation, and not having to take your Christmas dinner in the company of your eejit brother or his wife. One brother had not looked directly at the other in almost a decade. Nor, had they spoken, save to say, “get your bloody cows out of my field,” every so often, on the telephone, yelling, (always yelling). Distance they craved, and borders, and knowing which bit of the world was definitely yours. The river was great for spelling this out. A ten foot wall would have been even better.
Before the baby there’d been nothing between the brothers but history and a river. Afterwards there would be more of the same, but thicker.
The baby had no clear notion what she’d floated herself into. Down the river in a biscuit tin came she, bobbling past ducks, parked cars and a flock of straight-backed turbines, their arms cycling like aerobic ladies. She open-eyed the sky as it swung past and sometimes, the water. She could not yet tell her up from her down but colours were available to her. She found the pallid blues familiar and the whiteness of clouds. She could not eye the sun directly. It stung. Often, she slept.
Where the river shuddered to avoid the big tree’s roots, the water thinned and the riverbank ran thick with soft glar. The biscuit tin slurred and caught against the mud, sticking fast. Then, the baby could not go any further with the river. Shortly after it became night. The colour of this was also familiar to her. Like the walls and ceiling of the previous place, but much colder and without movement of any kind. There was nothing to eat or see. So, the baby slept.
Jamesie was first to notice the biscuit tin.
“The hell is that?” said he, raising a hand to tunnel his eyes.
He stood at some distance from the river, heeling himself up on the gate for a better squint. He had the dog with him -a wee yippety thing with some collie in it- and an old hurley stick he’d taken to leaning over when walking. The wife insisted upon this and the mobile in his pocket. Fully charged. “Just in case,” said she, and held her long pause like a blush, before saying, “at your age, ‘tis best to practice caution.”
The wife was bedded yet, would rise on the half hour to fix his breakfast and afterwards, lift the eggs. The wife was good to Jamesie and, once acquired, loyal as a farmyard cat. He did not greatly mind the company of her, but much preferred her absence. Hence the fields and the long hours roving; the up and quickly out each morning. Not so much as a dry word in parting. No mouth kissing.
Jamesie didn’t immediately know it a Family Circle biscuit tin though he’d seen the likes of them often enough: just before Christmas and when there were visitors expected. From a field’s distance it looked like any old piece of scrap metal run aground in the roots. Red, it was and chippering round the edges to reveal tarnished aluminium beneath. He looked at it hard and was reminded of fingernail polish peeling from the fingernails of certain ladies. Not the wife. He thought he might take a closer peer and did so, sharply. The wee dog went ahead of him, chasing its nose through the damp grass. Yapping at birds.
The morning was vicious thin, and early. The sun still bloody in the East and opposite, the done moon, pale and lingering like a backward child. Jamesie felt it best to be at this hour, with nothing but the cows for getting on with. He liked the sound of his own boots suckering as they lifted from the muck. The way the breath came out of him in white, cauliflower puffs. And the quiet trees. “Oh,” thought he, “the comfort of quiet trees.” All this would be lessened in the company of another.
Even from the riverbank he still thought it nothing more than a common biscuit tin. Such items came down the river daily. Shampoo bottles. Plastic footballs. Crisp packets. Once, the head of a child’s doll, staring up at him with stuck, unblinking eyes. Such shite people dumped in the river. Such ordinary shite. He was inclined to turn and leave the biscuit tin be, or stone the living piss out of it, shifting the bloody thing down river and off his land. Then, the noise began to rise off it; a noise like teeth being pulled or sirens. And the fear came on Jamesie; all up his arms and round his chest. The grip of it would not let up. He’d to sit himself down in the grass, quickly, before falling.
“The hell is that?” he said, out loud this time, for the benefit of the dog. This was not necessary. He already knew it was a baby and they hadn’t anywhere to put a baby. Not even a drawer or a decent sized box. Furthermore, he could not take a baby home for the wife was not good with surprises. Even pleasing ones.
Jamesie let himself picture the wife coming into the kitchen with her skirt tails full of warmish eggs, the anorak on her zippered all the way from hip to chin. And himself, standing by the range, leaning a little backwards with his arms full of the youngster. Awkward it’d be, like holding an outdoors cat. All itch and twitch and scrambling limbs. The child, most likely howling.
“Happy birthday,” he’d say to the wife, though he’d not a notion when this day usually fell, “look what I have here for you.” Then, the wife would drop her eggs in fright. The clear and yellow of them spreading out across the kitchen tiles, puddling under the fridge where it wouldn’t be easy to clean.
“Where’d you get that craitor?” she’d ask, as she went for the floor cloth. Or, maybe, “what would I be doing with one of them?” Which was exactly what she’d said the time he bought her a hostess trolley for Christmas and back it had to go. To the shop. First thing on Boxing Day morning. Swapped for a new hoover with a good strong suck on it. “No point,” said the wife, “in holding on to things we don’t have need of.”
The wife wouldn’t want a baby. Not at her age, with the money they cost, and the racket they made, and the way the neighbours would be wondering where they’d come by a youngster and whether there was something untoward in holding on to it.
“No,” said Jamesie, soldiering both feet on his side of the river, “no, we will not be acquiring a child any time soon.”
He reached out over the water and, using the tip of his hurley stick, nudged the biscuit tin across the river ‘til it wedged fast in the soft mud on his brother’s side. “Now,” said he, “let our Michael deal with it.” He forced himself to laugh out loud because this was how he’d tell it later to the wife, at the breakfast table with a hot mug cupped in both hands. He was careful not to touch the baby with his bare skin, knowing that a child, once held, was a very sticky thing. He would not be tricked into that. Oh no! He’d sooner use a hurley stick.
Jamesie did not once think that the baby might be in need of certain items such as milk or warmer blankets; that it might require keeping. The baby was not an actual child to him. Only a noise which had been close and was now more distant. Only another bit of rubbish come bumbling down the river. He’d grown cold from standing and hungry for his breakfast. He was all, “ha, ha, ha,” inside his head thinking about Michael, coming out to the cows and finding instead this creature, raising red Hell, in a Family Circle biscuit tin.
“Let my bastard of a brother take responsibility for a change,” thought Jamesie and headed up home for his breakfast toast.
The cows were second to notice the biscuit tin.
Necks stretched and tongues lolloping out for a decent lick, they could not easily reach it from the riverbank and, not being naturally drawn to the consumption of red things, wouldn’t risk their necks in wading in. They had a notion that red was the colour of great happiness, or possibly danger, and weren’t certain which, but knew this colour was not for eating. Definitely not. Then, stood they round the river’s edge for one mean hour, cropping the grass in loose circles until the newness of the biscuit tin went old, and they drifted back across the field to their babies, and their lovers, and the thorn tree which was particularly well-placed for scratching.
During this entire time the baby did not noise at all, not even to snuffle her nose. She understood herself in the company of larger creatures and was, for the first time, afraid. (Noted she a tightness to this feeling, similar but different to that of the biscuit tin).
Michael was third to notice the tin. He’d better eyes on him than Jamesie and saw the red of it screaming from the road.
“Hey ho,” said he to his wee lad, who also went by Michael, “what’s that stuck in the river? Not another traffic cone I hope.”
Young Michael took off then, racing ahead of his da. All the way through the cow field, the wellies on him whipping round his ankles so he waddled like a pregnant women or a fella wearing two left feet.
“’Tis a baby in a Family Circle biscuit tin,” said he, cupping his hands about his mouth so his whole face made a megaphone.
“Is it dead?” asked Michael.
“Naw,” said young Michael. He was a farmish lad harbouring neither fear nor confusion when it came to death, to sexing and all such bloody matters. “It’s not dead,” said he, “but it will be soon. ‘Tis going blue around the lips. I’ll lift it out.”
“Don’t touch it, Son. Never touch anything you don’t want to hold on to. Let me think for a wee minute.”
Michael sat down on the damp grass and drooped his legs over the riverbank. He always found the thinking came quicker to him, sitting down. “What to do?” he wondered, “what to rightly do with a baby in a biscuit tin?”
The kindest thing was to keep it. To take it home to the wife, wrapped up in the inner lining of his coat and say, with big, sadly eyes, “look what came down the river in a biscuit tin, Marion. Almost dead, and none but us to care for it.” To make the wife soft with the pity of it. Then take the wee mite in and feed it milk from a dropper, keep it warmly next to the Aga, like a runty pig.
But Michael was not by nature a kindly man or much inclined to duty. He did not fancy the expense of another child. There were four of them already, knocking round the house –eating and drinking and costing the earth to clothe- and one more off at the agricultural college, requiring fees. This one here wasn’t even his by blood. “Not my responsibility,” said he, and looking round saw they were alone by the riverbank. Even the cows were off chomping elsewhere. “Only myself and the young lad,” thought Michael. “Maybe God.”
The baby looked up at Michael and his son. She didn’t see them as people, only long, black smudges darking against the blue. Words were not yet available to her. She couldn’t speak help. So, she cried. The loud wail of her rising up and over the fields like struck glass or sirens, like the Angelus bells not knowing when to stop. The thing she was trying to say was, “you are bigger, warmer, better placed. Have a bit of common decency.” The thing she actually said was noise.
Michael chose not to hear. He looked down the side of the biscuit tin and over to his brother’s field where four fat heifers were grazing by the gate. “Typical,” he thought, “just typical that this baby’s wound up on my side of the river when I’ve already the five weans bleeding me and the tractor on its last legs. And there’s your man, over there, sitting pretty with no children, the home house given to him, and a big, strong lump of a wife for helping round the farm. Why’s it always Muggins here, having to deal with whatever shite comes floating down the river?”
He wished he was home in his kitchen drinking tea, not knowing about the baby in its biscuit tin.
He wondered if enough wishing/wanting/under breath praying might shake the biscuit tin free so it floated off down the river at a too fast speed, with himself dashing after, and never quite catching up, but all the while shouting, “come back, wee babby, come back now. I was all for helping you,” (This he’d say for the benefit of Young Michael. Loudly he’d say it, for the lad was bothered with gluey ears).
Michael knew that the thing to do in such circumstances –charitable giving, church going and the like- was to look like you were trying to help, and sadly couldn’t, on account of various obstacles getting in the way.
“What should we do, Dad?” asked the young lad.
“It’s not our problem, Son,” said Michael. “If other folks can’t be arsed to look after their own weans, why should we be lumbered with them? Sure, we’d fish this child out of the river and tomorrow there’d be two of them and by the weekend, an epidemic. Babies. Scabby dogs. Elderly ones from the nursing home. Every lazy bastard between here and Belfast would start pitching their problems into the river, expecting us eejits to deal with them. Folks need to take responsibility for their own shite”
“But it’s freezing cold out here. Yon baby’ll die if nobody takes it in.”
“Tell you what, Mikey. Your Uncle Jamesie doesn’t have any weans of his own. Chances are Auntie Margaret’s been after one all these years. We’ll push the tin over to his side of the river and leave the babby as a wee surprise for him. Sure, it’ll be good for the pair of them to have a young one about the place. ‘Twill be a distraction for them. It’s a wild big house for two old ones to be rattling round alone.”
“Right you be, Dad,” said Young Michael and, using the toe of his welly boot, nudged the biscuit tin back across the river ‘til it stuck firmly on Jamesie’s side of the bank.
Then, turned they away from the baby, and fed the cows their cow feed, and let the sheep out, and carried on with their everyday doing like there wasn’t a baby in a biscuit tin, turning blue at the bottom of the field. Michael would not let the guilt of this sink its teeth in. Oh no, he would not let it catch. No other soul had noted his turning back, his line-set mouth, the way his ears deafed themselves to the baby’s screams. Yes, indeed there was a tug in his lungs like wet concrete, a heaviness which could only be shame, but with nobody there to bear witness, it would quickly lift.
Up the field he went and took soup for his lunch; vegetable broth with boiled potato chunks islanding on the surface like the faces of tiny people drowned and floating now with the bloat. Read the paper. Smoked his pipe and once or twice laughed with the wife at something funny the children had said. No spare thought had he for the baby in her biscuit tin, slowly bluing.
The baby slept and when she wasn’t sleeping, cried and wondered why her own noise was getting further away from her. Less it was with every hour until she could not hear herself for the silence. She slept and gurned and all day long shuttled back and forwards from one side of the river to the other as Jamesie moved her with a stick and Michael shoved her back with his foot. Then, Jamesie once more with a stick, and once again Michael, making Young Michael do it with a fishing rod. Side to side she went with little licks of river splashing over the biscuit tin’s edges so she was damp and dizzy from the froing and could not tell where she was or which side was not wanting her now. Shortly after it was dark. The colour of this was familiar to the baby now, like the previous night and the place which had happened before. All the comfort had gone out of the blackness. All the hope of being held.
At some point during the evening the baby fell out of the biscuit tin and went fumbling down the river to the larger sea. The sea was glad to have her. This was the way with seas; always greedy, willing to swallow anything.
In the morning, when Jamesie came down for the cows, he noticed the biscuit tin empty. “Hey ho,” he thought, “that situation’s sorted itself out,” and just a heartbeat later, “what could I not do with a biscuit tin in decent nick?” Thereafter, he entertained thoughts of storing eggs or seeds or indeed, shop bought biscuits still in their packets. He went hooking after the tin with a stick. There was an urgency to his grabbing which almost unbalanced him. Bent, he was, like a snapped toothpick.
“Here now,” shouted Michael, looming on the opposite side. “That’s my biscuit tin. I’m for keeping photos in it. Get your thieving hands off.” He bid the young lad into the river in his bare feet, “get that biscuit tin before your uncle lays hands on it.” Not caring about the current or the cold. Only wanting to own a valuable thing.
“Finders keepers,” yelled Jamesie and ploughed in after young Michael. Not a bit bothered that he’d left his wellies in the yard; that his good boots would be ruined with the wet. Then, the trouble really started. The wee dog opened its mouth and howled. The cows lifted their fat heads from the grass to stare. The river ran away with itself, wanting to avoid a commotion and only carrying the fuss of it further downstream.
This went on for many hours -the grabbing and grunting and sharp-handed trickery of the two- until one brother won and the other went home, damp. Then, he who finally owned the biscuit tin, held it tightly against his chest, like you would with a football trophy. Relieved he was, greatly so, to find nothing -not so much as a smallish dent- marking the place where the baby had been.
When his wife saw the biscuit tin she said, “just the thing for keeping stock cubes in.” He was glad he hadn’t told her about the baby- the thought of it would not ruin his moment- but you could never tell with women, what they’d take exception to.
Belfast based novelist and short story writer. Magic realist