(First published in The Liver Bards 2002)
The right angled V of the sheltering tablecloth hanging almost to the floor separated the heavy, leather-laced shoes and moleskin trousers from the inches of brightly floral skirt, brown stockings and black, flat, shiny, patent shoes. The V was woollen and green and not nice to touch as silks and cottons were.
Baby sat, legs apart and with the big yellow truck between his legs. The truck that tipped the hard yellow, green and red wooden blocks so that baby could fill the truck again and press the silver 'tip' lever again. Baby sat now watching the shoes and hearing the loud and unfamiliar noises. He sucked a big red block and felt with his free hand for the funny feeling that was in his tum, like when he'd eaten too much din-dins. Usually he liked being under the table but now the noises hurt his ears and his tum felt all funny.
Little Puss had run away to the far side of the dark beneath the table. Sometimes puss slept in the big yellow truck and baby pressed the silver lever and tipped her out but puss never minded. Puss was soft and nice to touch and baby liked to stroke her and to press her face into Puss's fur. Once Puss had licked the rusk crumbs from baby's chin with a warm, wet, rasping pink lick and baby had gurgled and threw his arms around Puss.
Baby loved Puss and Puss loved baby.
Baby didn't like the noise that was always growing louder and he didn't like the shoes that moved either. The shoes were usually still and Puss would rub up against them or lie still between them with the heat from the black grate (which baby had to keep away from) pouring on to her shell-striped furry back. Sometimes Puss would move her fat tail lazily to one side and then, ever so slowly, she'd move it back again as one or other of the shoes that faced each other stirred, but mostly she was still and the shoes were still upon the great rag mat. The great rag mat had lots of lovely colours like the yellow of the golden dust that fell from the flowers in amongst the seeding cabbages in Grandpa's allotment or the glowing red of Aunty Emma’s lips. And it smelt dusty when baby was lifted from the tin bath to sit upon it whilst the white cotton towel with the big triangular patch sewn tightly in the middle made the skin near baby's neck tingle while the friendly brown hands rubbed him dry.
But the shoes now were moving. Moving towards the great rag mat and then back towards the pantry door but not moving like when they danced on special nights and baby was held high near where the gas-mantle hissed, not like that at all. The noise now was different and baby felt funny inside. Now the shoes moved like stabbing crab-nippers or the quick, scurrying rats that ran near the dustbins at the end of the lane.
The rats always made baby's tummy feel funny and full and hot and tight. Everyone chased the rats. Even Little Puss scrambled to follow them, as they ran away past the water tap that jutted from the red brick wall and which dripped water into the gutter. On and over the slated, moss-crusted roofs of the outside toilets they'd scurry and squeal with Little Puss showing her teeth and folding her ears back because she was not big enough to follow them. Baby didn't like rats 'cos everyone chased them and shouted very loudly, but Puss seemed to like rats.
Baby liked to watch the crabs with their green crab nippers when Da-da tipped them onto the floor from the brown cane basket that was shaped like a bucket and smelt like the sea. The crabs scuttled and stabbed but the big shoes hemmed them in. When they were dropped into the hot water they turned red but the nippers continued to wave in the steam and they were shiny and black at the ends... like patent shoes. Baby knew the nippers could hurt but he liked to watch the crabs.
The oil cloth was cool and wet-feeling on baby's legs. Under the table the green and white squares of the oil cloth were shiny except at each end of the table where large patches were scuffed gray-black and uneven. Outside the V of the woolen cloth and beyond the protection offered by the fat-round, shiny-brown, table legs, the bare parts between the rag mats were pitted deep with round, stabbed holes and long gray scrapes. Near the coal cupboard the green and white pattern had gone completely and all was a dull gray smear. A strong smell that lay over all the oil cloth was strongest beneath the table, it was a smell baby liked, it was the smell of washing day and soap and scrubbed white-wood tabletops.
In between the noises that baby didn't like the crystal-set sang from the mantle shelf. 'Patience & Prudence' sang inside the brown box with the tight-stretched, brown-cloth front. The words that they sang were noises that baby didn't know but they too seemed different now and added to baby's tummy-tightness. Baby put his thumb past the big red block and into his mouth. It tasted of salt. Slowly, in the unfriendly darkness that now invaded his hiding place, he began to heave the tightness from his tum in heavy and uneven sobs. Puss looked up and shifted her weight backwards, snuggling small in her dark corner beneath the green woollen walls that encompassed them both.
Her voice seemed to reach his brain as if it were struggling through insuperable clouds. "Good God! Why have you stopped the car? Are you all right? God you're white as a sheet, I'd better drive... are you ill?"
At the side of the roadway, beneath the heavily fruiting branches of an oak, he sat behind the wheel of his car and leant his face against the coldness of the steering wheel reliving the scene from his childhood, remembering the baby-thoughts, feeling the baby-fear, picturing the event as though a videotape was being played inside his head. His stomach was tight as if gripped by those same baby-cramps. It was all so clear. So shiny-bright in his memory. The chessboard squares of the lino stabbed with patches of gray and black, fat brown table legs as hard as glass and reflecting his face as he pressed against the coldness, clean antiseptic smells and Puss wide alert in the far shadows, the rugs made of sacks threaded with rags of all colours and textures standing erect or splaying broken where feet had crushed them. The truck, the blocks, the cold-damp oil cloth and the two pairs of shoes scuttling to and fro. And the echoes from the car radio sparked the electric memories... Most clearly in his mind he could see the shoes because as a baby he had known that the shoes were connected with the noises that burnt inside of him and that they in their turn were connected with the sobs that shook his body... that shook it now that he was a man... and he knew that he was learning something new but that he couldn't understand what it was.
"Christ love, say something. You look like death..." and she shook his arm. She was leaning in the window now on the driver's side. A light July breeze rippled through her hair. Passing cars beeped their horns. "Move over, let me drive."
"No. I'm all right now.” He lifted his head and his face was pale. “It's that song, the song on the radio, that 'Patience & Prudence' or whoever, it makes me feel sick inside. I hate that song... for some reason... come on, get back in. It's dangerous standing there."
And when she resumed her seat she kissed his cheek.
"Shall we stay here a while?"
But he shook his head lightly and pulled out into the traffic and the memory was already tucking away in his brain, tunneling into the darkest recesses where it could sit and wait for another opportunity to surface when the time was right. One day, perhaps tomorrow or perhaps when he was old but before death released him, he would recall the final part of the scene, the part when baby realized what it was he had to learn. He turned the radio off. The scenes were fading. The song already forgotten.
The dazzling cacophony of smells, sounds, images and confusions rushed at baby, his whole frame shook and his tum was as tight as the skin on the blue and white drum. He crawled to the back wall which the table nestled against as his mother's body crashed to the floor with red smeared across her face. His tiny baby hand stretched out towards Puss in a fearful search for comfort when suddenly Puss struck out with her sharp claws and baby, with a movement as swift as the heavy shoes which bounced against his mother's body, grabbed Puss tight with one hand and struck her hard with the red, wooden building block. And then struck her again. And then again. Tiny red spots appeared over Puss's eyes and baby hit her even harder and ‘Patience & Prudence’ sang even louder and the tightness in his baby tummy made him howl and blood ran freely from the scratches in his hand and someone out there screamed a horrifying, nightmarish, mercy-seeking scream and the bitter taste of stomach-bile rose in his mouth as he squeezed Puss's limp body to his face and washed him with hot salt baby tears.