“Can I see your ID?” says the cashier lazily.
“Your ID. I need to see it.”
Thalia stares at him. He is 17 years old, max, and here she is with a baby on her hip, two bags on her arm, and her debit card in her hand. Her ID?
“For the ibuprofen. You have to look over 23, so I need to see your ID.”
What the shit is he talking about? She needs the ibuprofen for the cramps that are threatening to send her into fits, cramps her son of a bitch doctor says will improve once she is back on birth control, but refuses to refer her to a specialist for. She doesn’t need this. She doesn’t look under 23, she looks like a harassed 35-year-old sea witch.
“I don’t look under 23. And my hands are full.”
He looked up at her. “ID please.”
Does he think this is a game? Does he think she is impressed? Or flattered? Does he really think she is even close to his age? She is twice his age and then some.
She hears her grandmother’s voice in her head. You’re lucky. You got good genes. Her grandmother, who was a professional mother in a time when your options were being a walking uterus or a teacher or a secretary. Until you got snapped up by some man and then your choices were gone. You got our looks.
She puts her debit card down on the counter, and fishes in her back pocket for her wallet. The baby starts to wriggle, and Thalia knocks her debit card to the floor with her elbow. Out comes the ID, and the cashier does some very slow maths. This is where he’s going to be working for a long time, she thinks. Here, harassing tired parents and stopping them from sedating their uteri with mild narcotics.
He finally gets to the right decade and looks surprised. “Oh. Ok, sure,” he says, and checks the box of medication through. “But you can only have one box. That’s the rules.”
He’s wrong. The rule is two boxes, two boxes of ibuprofen or paracetamol, but not a mix and match cocktail. Two boxes to dull the pain for a week, or longer if you’re unlucky enough to have endometriosis like her friend Sara, who lives on a dripline of pain meds because she has been on a waitlist for three years for treatment. Thalia squats down to get her card, knowing her traitorous jeans have exposed her butt, knowing she will have to fix them when she stands up and will feel awkward in front of this little shit of a kid at the checkout.
She pays for the shopping, shoves her cards haphazard into her wallet and crushes the wallet into the too-small pockets of her jeans. The baby screeches. Thalia screeches. The cashier says, “Please don’t yell at me, I’m just doing my job.”
Thalia grabs the food and medication and leaves the shop, vowing never to return, knowing she’ll be back the next day to get all the things she’s forgotten off the list lying forgotten on the kitchen counter.
By the time she has reached home, the baby has been sick in the car and is squealing with delight at the squelch it makes in her chubby little hands as she grabs and squeezes, grabs and squeezes.
Thalia thinks she might make it home without being sick herself, although, she reminds herself, she’d lose some of the baby weight more easily if she was. Half a kilo, maybe more, because she has eaten that packet of biscuits to make sure the ibuprofen didn’t upset her tummy. She’d thought that was sensible at the time, but now she is beginning to feel sick anyway, and the baby isn’t helping. Maybe it’ll be less than half a kilo she will lose on the pavement in front of her house, but at least she won’t have to feel guilty for the rest of the day, trying to remember to do sit-ups later, then realising the next day that she’d forgotten.
The smell reminds her of a limo ride a lifetime ago, sitting in the back, holding a young influencer’s hair out of her face while she empties her guts into the champagne bucket after a wild night promoting the kind of shoes Thalia wouldn’t even be able to stand up in. A sweet, sticky smell. The girl had been new to that world, had been nervous, had asked Thalia to come along for moral support as she drank her way across three London nightclubs. Thalia had thought it was a good laugh, then.
She pulls up at home, and lugs the groceries inside before unbuckling the sick-smeared child. She had learned that lesson months earlier. Do the food first, protect tomorrow’s dinner. She is a hunter-gatherer at heart, always thinking about tomorrow’s food. She thinks maybe one day she will get in trouble for leaving the baby for too long while she unloads a car, but she doubts anyone will actually get close enough to want to touch her carsick kid, though they’re welcome to try. She doubts it would be a high point in their day, either.
The ice cream goes into the freezer on her way to run a bath, and at least she knows she can soak her feet in the tub, in the warm bubble bath, while the baby splashes. They will sit together in the water, and she will smile, and hope that these are the memories that will last. She hopes her tiny daughter will remember only the moments of quiet they had together, the moments Thalia tries to cultivate for her.
She hopes her daughter will know there are choices, and that she doesn’t have to do this when she grows up. She wonders if she can quietly convince her not to.
Thalia sighs. “Daddy’s home,” she says to the happily splashing baby. They had been in the tub for too long. Her feet and the baby’s fingers look like prunes. “We’d better get out, huh?”
She reaches over to the radio, turns it off. She knows that the last song that was playing will be stuck in her mind for days, wishes it hadn’t been Bitter Sweet Symphony. It is already chasing itself around her head and she can’t stop a quiet whistle from escaping her lips.
’Cuz it’s a bitter sweet symphony, that’s li-ife.
“Hey! What’re you all up to? Early bath? You smell great, yes you do!” Karl goes straight for the baby, as he always does. He loves her like he loves nothing else, is always thinking of her first, of her comfort and future and all the amazing experiences she will have. Not that he seems to do much practical about it. He hadn’t looked up pre-schools, hadn’t signed up for baby ballet and baby music and baby swimming. He doesn’t shuttle her to sessions or medical appointments, spending twice as long in the car as in the place itself. But he does make her feel safe and happy, which, Thalia thinks, is maybe more than she does.
“You’re so sweet, you smell so fresh! Did you have a good day with mummy? Did you? What did you get up to, was it tickling?” And he nuzzles her fat little neck while she giggles. Thalia dries her feet and walks away, letting the baby drip onto Karl’s work clothes. He can dry her off when they’re done giggling.
“Did you eat?” she calls. She knows that he’d gone out with colleagues, which she is grateful for, because she can’t deal with his work talk tonight. She doesn’t think he can deal with her shit, either, not that he ever says it. She’d tell her therapist that later.
“Yaarf. Sorry, yeah. Baby fist in mouth. Yeah, we ate a bit at the pub. I’m alright. Thanks though!”
He is so cheerful, the way he says thanks, as though she’d been offering to cook. Had she been offering to cook? She didn’t think she had. But now she definitely doesn’t have to, so it doesn’t matter anyway. She thinks maybe she is just tired, and getting a little sensitive. And the cramps, dulled but still there, probably aren’t helping.
She grabs a jar of baby food from the cupboard, and feels a pang of guilt. She knows all the other baby mamas will be cooking up something fresh, or at least telling each other that they cooked something fresh, so their babies would have the best, the purest, the most organic food that middle-class money can buy. She pops the lid, and tastes it, regrets tasting it. Well, her daughter has bad taste anyway – this is the same kid who was happily playing in sick an hour earlier. Probably comes from Karl’s side of the family.
She grabs a spoon and pops it on the table with the jar, then goes to find a baby grow from the basket in the laundry room. She is pretty sure it’s clean. It looks clean. She picks up the post-its that have fallen off the kitchen cabinet. She needs to remember to buy better ones with stickier backs.
“Here” she says to Karl from the doorway of the bathroom. “She needs this, it’s chilly.”
He pops the baby into the garment like a pro. He should have been in childcare, Thalia thinks, not business. Why don’t we raise men to be carers? She knows how awful she is around babies, hates how difficult she finds it and how easy Karl seems to manage them, like a demi-god of infants, eliciting smiles and happy gurgles while stuffing a wriggling ten-month-old into a nappy and onesie like he’d been trained for it since childhood. He is like a monster hunter from one of those books she loved as a kid but can’t remember the name of now, trained from childhood. But someone who is nice, rather than scary.
They troop into the dining room, to a table set for one. Less than one, flashes across her mind, and she smiles at herself.
“You’re looking happy,” says Karl, spooning food out of the jar. “Good day?”
Thalia shrugs as she stands back up. The post-its are in the kitchen and she wants to write some new ones while she waits out the slow progress of baby feeding. “It was ok. No one died.” This is her baseline, that no one died. Karl thinks this is crazy talk. Thalia thinks it is sensible. “How about you? You find a new salesperson?”
His company has been doing recruitment for weeks, struggling to find someone who fits into their niche tech company, looking for someone who can bring a flair to sales while also embodying two, or possibly three, diversity quotas in a single person.
“Maybe. We had some good interviews with some girls today. They were really sharp.” He doesn’t think he sounds patronising. He never thinks that.
She waves her pen in the air. It’s nearly empty and she’s not finished her replacement post-it notes.
“Yeah, well, we’ll see. I’ll make my recommendations tomorrow, then it’s up to the board and HR. They’ll do the final decisions and clearance.” He mops up the baby’s face. “It looks like she’s nearly done, so unless you need me for something, I’m just gonna go call my cousin. He texted saying he’d had a shit day, and needs someone to talk to. You ok to finish up here? Oh, and, hey, did you get a chance to call in to work? Tell them you’re nearly ready to come back?”
Thalia wonders if she should explain why she hasn’t called work yet. That she is more than ready, that she’d been ready for months, but that she never has more than 10 minutes of peace and quiet and that that call would take over an hour, as she’d have to talk to her boss, then HR, and then her colleagues would probably get the HR people to send the call back down so they could tell her to come in so they can coo over baby photos, or better yet bring the baby so they can coo over her. She doesn’t tell him that she needs help during working hours so she can get that job done. She shakes her head, her grip on the pen hard enough to feel the ridges driving into her palm.
He shrugs and walks out of the room, unlocking his phone.