'Baby Steps' by Susan Howe
Somewhere towards the back of the store a baby starts to cry. The queue stiffens and, for a split second, conversations cease. The checkout assistant glances up from the item she is scanning and rolls her eyes.
ʻThird screamer today,ʼ she says.
The crying becomes less distinct as it moves away. The women in front of me resume their chatter but I follow the sound, straining to catch every rise and fall. My sinews tighten and I press my hand to my stomach, telling myself the answering pulse is in my own fingers, not in what lies beneath. It is too small as yet. Barely formed. And Iʼm still not sure I can do this.
Thereʼs a lull in the wailing and I relax. The queue moves forwards and I will soon be gone from here. Free to choose my future without influence or pressure.
We flinch as an anguished cry assaults us from a few yards away. I swing round and see the young mother, her trolley piled high for Christmas, absolute panic in her eyes. She stops, removes her baby from the trolley-seat and tries to continue shopping with it clamped to her chest. It writhes, red-faced, inconsolable. She passes her free hand over her face and I notice the shimmer of tears. She abandons her task and pushes her trolley to the till next to mine.
ʻI canʼt stand it!ʼ our checkout assistant snaps, tossing the mother a look of disgust.
The woman in front of me agrees. ʻI canʼt think why they bring such young children shopping. Surely someone could look after it for an hour?ʼ
ʻOr they could shop online. Itʼs so much easier than in our day. Thereʼs no excuse for all this palava.ʼ
My heart is racing, my clothes sticky with sweat. The heat in this place is suffocating. The screaming fills my head and my stomach responds with violent cramps.
Iʼm about to discard my shopping and run for the door when I realise itʼs my turn. Drawing a deep breath, I unpack my basket onto the conveyor belt. Itʼs either that or eat toast for Christmas dinner, and Iʼve promised myself a proper meal while I consider my options.
As I wait for my change, I glance behind and see the customers at the adjacent till ushering the young mother in front of them. An older woman takes the child while she unloads her trolley. His crying subsides and stops as the other shoppers stroke his tiny hands and downy head. His mumʼs expression turns to surprise, then pleasure, as she accepts compliments about her son, who is now charming them with peek-a-boo.
ʻMadam, your change.ʼ
My assistantʼs mouth is a grim line. She isnʼt happy, but the knot in my chest is easing and Iʼm smiling as I hold out my hand.