Saturday 15 June 2019

DEBUT FLASH: 'Smallpox Baby' by Denise Woodhouse

A woman walks into the Council’s building and stands at the centre of the front lobby’s polished red floor.  The receptionist looks up from her typewriter.  Seeing what the woman carries, her prepared smile freezes.  Her mouth dries, her throat constricts.  Only the ceiling fans continues to beat their irregular un-oiled rhythm into the hot, thickening silence, oblivious to the dead baby in the woman’s arms.

Mr Warner, the District Health Officer, comes clattering down the stairs, giving instructions to Winston, the senior filing clerk.  They too, on seeing the woman and child, are petrified, until Winston leaps off the staircase and skids out of the back door, shrieking as he goes.  Mr Warner takes a deep breath and speaks to the woman, but she remains motionless, eyes blank.

‘Alright, Linda,’ he barks. ‘Don’t sit there staring. Get the building cleared, get the staff meeting cancelled.’  He looks again at the woman, beckoning her toward him as he opens the front doors.

To his relief she understands and follows him across the empty street, through the dusty car-park, toward the high-fenced dog pound.  No strays or rabid animals have been rounded up and shot today and yet, as always, a fresh pit has been dug in the red earth.

Mr Warner points to the trench and the woman obediently kneels, stretches her arms into the deep hole and lowers her baby down.  As she gets back to her feet he questions her again, but, as before, she says nothing.  Perhaps the woman has no English at all, and unfortunately her tribe’s language is the very one he’s failed to master.

He picks up the spade that is always left in readiness. He scoops the first blade-full of earth from the waiting mound, but then hesitates.  Perhaps he should still, at the very least, say something appropriate?

After what he hopes is a decent interval, he begins to mumble.  ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…’  He hasn’t spoken these words since he was a boy, before the war, at that far-off Surrey prep school.

He buries the child.

Silence.  A mosquito drones.  The wind rises.

The sinking sun casts two long shadows across the neat grave.

Mr Warner waits beside the woman, his head bowed. She stands, unblinking, oblivious to the red dust swirling and stinging their faces.  Then, turning abruptly, she walks away into the bush.

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