(15 minute read)
by J. Azoulay
“Pardon.” Tom repeated, smiling briefly. “You’re always telling the children to say ‘pardon’, not ‘what’.”
Hester looked at him steadily over the antique table she had rubbed and rubbed until it glowed like a jewel. No-one was allowed to eat off it – they used the high stools gathered around the kitchen island. She had a first in English Literature. Of course she’d heard what he said – he was sat two feet from her nose – but for some reason the words would not latch on to anything inside her head, would not join the pattern in there and make anything resembling sense.
“I heard what you said, so ‘pardon’ isn’t the appropriate response. I did mean to say ‘what’.”
A nasty frown flitted across Tom’s face like distant lightning on a glorious summer’s day. “Semantics, Hestie.”
She considered telling him he’d started it and yes, it was semantics. “I want clarification, Tom, not a repeat. ‘What’ as in what are you talking about?”
“I said, I’m leaving you. I’m divorcing you. We will sell the house and you will downsize and live with the children somewhere else.”
Hester concentrated on breathing. “Why?”
“Yes, why. As in, why are you doing this?”
Tom was continually in this predicament, Hester realised, recognising that strange tic of the head he had. Caught between his need to do the right thing and his desire to be completely selfish. She waved a hand, plucking him off the mental tack he was snagged on. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.”
“There are so many positives,” he was eager now, seizing her hand. “You’ll have a new home, a new project. I mean, this place is finished now, isn’t it? Perfect? Weren’t you saying that only last week?”
Hester had said that only last week.
“Yes but – it doesn’t mean I want a divorce. I was going to … decorate the lounge again or get another baby. Not a divorce.”
“So what’s the difference?”
“A baby is slightly more bloody important than choosing a theme for the feature wall, Tom!”
“I really don’t appreciate your use of expletives, Hestie. It’s uncalled for.”
“I fucking call for it, loud and clear,” she hissed.
Tom frowned and shifted on his chair. “And I wasn’t referring to those two … things. I was asking what’s the difference between redecorating an already perfect lounge and –“
“Getting a divorce?”
“No, if you’ll let me finish – between redecorating an already perfect lounge and decorating a new place?”
Hester stared at him. “This is my home,” she said.
“The new place will also be your home.”
“But you won’t be at the new home.”
“But you’re always saying I’m never here. That I’m in London all the time.”
Hester had said that only yesterday.
“We won’t be husband and wife.”
“But we’ll be friends. You’ve always said we were friends and being friends was more important than being lovers.”
She had said that quite a lot – usually when she didn’t want sex.
Hester felt her insides begin to crumple up. Her eyes stung and her voice came out croaky. “Don’t you love me anymore?”
“Of course I love you!” Tom squeezed the hand he still held. “I’ll always love you! You’re the mother of my children!”
“And what about the children?”
“What about them?” Tom looked confused. When she didn’t answer, he tried. “I’m their father. Nothing will change that. It’s you I’m divorcing, not them!”
When she lifted her head to look him in the eye, he stopped his laughter with a cough.
“You’ll get a decent amount of maintenance per child,” he said, “ there are laws. I’m sure we can hammer out a deal.”
“Hmmm,” she said.
Their eldest, Hugo, had been a first anniversary gift to themselves and they had chosen him in this very store. Hester pushed her trolley past the sales desk and down the aisle, letting her eyes flick briefly side-to-side, to the rows stacked high with boxes. The ones closest to the desk were the smallest, housing tiny sleeping infants still with down on their cheeks. She had heard that M&S were doing a preemies limited edition for Christmas and her heart came up short when she began to think that she might ask Tom for one as her gift, then realised he probably wouldn’t be buying her anything this year. To counter the niggling pain in her chest she asked herself if she could really have coped with a preemie?
The boxes grew in size as the aisle progressed but there were none that matched the box that their second child came in. Luci (short for Lucinda, as she was always told to introduce herself, but never did) was an accident, plain and simple. Tom had thought he was getting a ‘Valet-kit-in-a-bag’ but the code he’d punched in resulted in the delivery of a ‘Value-kid in a bag’. He’d tried to send her back before Hester got home but Tesco’s Customer Service was unusually un-eager to please and insisted that, barring a genuine fault with the item, there was no legal route for a return and refund, with it being a special offer – which made Hester suspect shady corporate deals and intentional printing errors.
So Luci stayed and unfortunately, you could tell where the ‘value’ came from. She was small, her eyes the palest blue, her limbs and lashes just noticeably shorter than one would expect, her hair mousey brown. She had no sense of humour whatsoever and Hester preferred not to dwell on her academic abilities. But on the plus side, she was docile, undemanding and Hester had grown fond of her.
At the end of the aisle were the larger boxes: the toddlers. Hester’s heart began to pound and her palms tingled. She rubbed them on the grip bar of the trolley. Her armpits prickled and she fought the desire to take off her coat as beads of sweat popped out and stung where she’d waxed her tash the day before. She had planned to choose but now, here, in the end, she didn’t care. She lifted three boxes briskly and dumped them upright in the trolley, swung it around and made her way to the butcher’s counter.
They had foregone two family holidays and begged a loan from Nancy and Mark for their third child, Euphie. She was simply outstanding. A Slavic beauty, ordered from Moscow two years in advance and with a strict qualification procedure. She had gold medal potential, her brochure said, and was precocious. Hester presented Euphie’s papers to the girl in the striped apron and pork-pie hat who was left behind when the master-butcher went for his break. The girl looked at them and said, “Err …”
“The kiddie desk is closed,” Hester told her, “and I’m here to pick up the five-hundred pound order of steak for this child’s birthday party. There’s not a problem paying for these three here, is there?”
“Well, I don’t think you’re supposed to get them from anywhere but the kiddie desk,” the girl glanced behind, “because of the regulations and stuff.”
“That’s our latest child’s paperwork. I don’t think we’ll have any trouble with the regulations – or are you saying I look like a reprobate? Because I don’t take kindly to being insulted and if you can’t be bothered to make sure my daughter has the brothers and sisters she wants for her birthday, you can just keep the meat as well. I’d like to speak to your manager!”
Other shoppers turned in her direction and Hester was afraid she’d overdone it but to her surprise the girl crumpled. She thrust the paperwork back over the counter and held her hand out for Tom’s card. Within seconds the three boxes and the meat were paid for.
“I’ll come back for the steak!” Hester called as she speed-walked towards the lifts.
She bought the little attachment from Amazon. Initially, she was surprised that such a thing could be bought but it seemed that capitalism had overcome ethics and like so many things nowadays, why pay a professional when you could do it at home? It was such a simple, cheap thing it was shocking to think how much the professionals charged.
Of course, she had to wait four days until the toddlers’ sell-by-date was up and she was horrified when the little boy jerked in his sleep as she pulled his box out from the bottom of the shoe cupboard in the utility room.
“No, no, no,” she hissed as she carried him through and put him with the other two on the antique table where Tom had originally set this whole sorry tale in motion. “Don’t wake up, please don’t wake up!”
Thankfully he didn’t stir again though after fetching the vacuum cleaner, Hester watched him and his sisters intently whilst waiting for Tom and the children to come down for breakfast. Euphie was the first to arrive, followed closely by Hugo and then Luci, who bumped into her brother who had come to a standstill behind his sister.
“Ow, watch it!” he frowned.
“Watch what?” Luci asked placidly.
“What is this?” Euphie demanded, sweeping her hand ballerina-style at the boxes.
“These are your new siblings,” Hester smiled.
“What?” Tom entering the room behind Luci, overheard.
“Pardon,” Hester corrected him as he bumped into Luci, who bumped into Hugo, who bumped into Euphie. Hugo turned to widen his eyes at Luci but Euphie simply stumbled and straightened. Good girl, Hester thought, stay focussed.
“Mummy, what do you mean? I didn’t know we were getting siblings today – it’s not on the planner.”
“It’s a surprise from Daddy.”
“Is it?” Tom asked, and Hester thought that actually, it was quite fitting that it was he who had sourced Luci.
“Yes sweetie, don’t you remember? You gave me your card and told me to get them. Don’t you like them?” She smiled at the children. “You each get to choose and name one.”
“Now just a minute,” said Tom, and “Really?” said Euphie and, “Can I have the boy?” said Hugo and “Why is that one moving?” said Luci and Euphie gave a little scream.
“I don’t like it!” she wailed, running to stand behind Tom. “They’re supposed to be dead in the boxes!”
“Not dead,” Hugo corrected her, “it’s called ‘in-stasis’. When you take them out it activates them. It’s the boy that’s moving.” He sounded proud. Hester felt her resolve wobble.
“Whatever, clever clogs – that one is already activated,” Euphie’s arm emerged from behind Tom’s hip and pointed. “Have you had it out, Mummy?”
“No I haven’t, Euphie,” Hester said. “It’s moving because it’s a toddler. It’s very close to the maximum time it can be in the box. They all are.”
“Well, we’d better get them out,” said Luci.
“No we bloody well hadn’t!” said Tom.
“Daddy!” said three shocked voices in unison.
Tom coughed. “Mummy will just have to return them.”
“I really don’t appreciate your use of expletives, Tom. It’s uncalled for,” Hester said. “And Mummy can’t return them, today is their sell-by date. But no need to get upset. It’s not a problem if we don’t want them.”
“It’s not?” Tom asked as she reached over and began to unwrap the package from Amazon. Then, “What’s that?”
One end resembled a mosquito’s proboscis, the other was wide enough to attach to the vacuum’s pipe – all pipes were a standard size, Hester had discovered in her research. Euphie, peering around Tom’s ribs, grimaced.
“What is that, Mummy?”
“I know,” said Hugo. Euphie blobbed her tongue out at him.
“Do you?” Hester was discovering a new respect for her son. “Do you want to tell us?”
Luci closed her eyes and started to rock.
“When toddlers reach their sell-by date, if no-one wants them they put that thing in their ear through the special hole in the box and suck out their brains to stop them waking up.”
Euphie screamed, Tom said, “For God’s sake, Hugo!” and Luci said, “What’s godzake?”
“It doesn’t hurt them!” Hugo cried, panicked. “Well, they say it doesn’t hurt them. It doesn’t, does it Mummy?”
“Shall we see?”
“NO!!!” screamed three voices in unison.
The silence that followed lasted a fair while. Hester waited, poised. Eventually Euphie said, “Could I call the blonde girl Beatrice if we’re keeping them?”
“We’re not keeping them,” said Tom.
“Mine’s called Dave,” said Hugo, striding over to pick up Dave’s box. “Can I take him out?”
Luci wandered over, sucking her thumb. Hester lifted her onto her lap and pulled the final box closer. Luci ran her finger down the cellophane window. Hester squeezed her tight as she looked at Tom over her childrens’ heads.
“Ready to hammer out that deal anytime you want,” she smiled.
Copyright © 2021 J. Azoulay. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Jaclin Azoulay was born in Derbyshire and is a published author of poetry, non-fiction, short stories and the picture book ‘Hic!’. She is a teacher and translator and has five children – which has stood her in good stead for establishing and facilitating the weekly meeting of the imaginatively named ‘Chesterfield Creative Writing Group’.
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