The baby next door crying again.
What kinda careless girl live next door though, Lord? Calling herself ‘mother’ when she don’t know nothing ’bout taking care of a baby!
All this gal know to do is spread her legs and take money for it. I lose count of the number of men I see coming and going from that house. Lucky for her, pum-pum is something that can’t run out. Some gal is like clothespin: just grasp them neck, and them legs pop open. That is how that girl get baby. That’s why she have five pickney moving behind her: ducklings trailing Mother Duck. Just like on the cover of fairytale books I used to read to my dollies.
Is modern times now, and women don’t have to pop out a baby to keep a man. Guess what? Baby or no baby, when a man decide to leave, him gone. After him done suck out everything he can get from you and the sweetness between yuh legs not so sweet again. I don’t have to ask nobody ‘bout that. I know. Jobal teach me that. That a man who look at you and swear to the Lord he going be with yuh forever could leave you. Just like that.
One day, Jobal open the closet and take him clothes off the wire hangers and put them into a grip after slamming the closet door that I always asking him to fix ’cause it falling off the old hinge that he ain’t replace yet…Mighty God, I did love that man! Mercy! But not even Jessie could make him stay. That little girl nearly three years old and not saying a word. Not to me or nobody. I can read her eyes. She miss her father. Bad. Jobal didn’t take one look at her on the bed the moment him walk out. Didn’t say a word to me after that either.
‘What about we child?’ I say as him was packing, pointing to Jessie at the edge of the bed, fear shooting out her eyes. She wasn’t even blinking. Him reply: ‘Yuh and me child dead. You know that.’
I know we lose our first girl, Samantha, who I name after my favourite aunt in New York, Mama’s big sister. But we get Jessie right after that.
‘Yuh really think is cheat, I cheat on yuh with another man?’ I ask Jobal that day. Jobal hardly touch me after Sam dead. I know people ’round here love to chat things they don’t know, and many of them mistake my friendliness for looseness.
‘I never keep no other man on yuh, Jo. Mi swear. Is you one mi love. Don’t Jessie look like you?’
Jessie and Jobal have the same dimples, thick hair and bow legs. Down to the eyebrows, is like her daddy. Her hands even big for her size same way like his. I never take out a birth certificate at the Registrar General’s Department, but you don’t have to look at a piece of paper to see that Jessica Veronica Mason belong to Jobal. Never mind that her forehead large and sloping. No doubt about it, Jessie funny-looking. Maybe is that have Jobal embarrassed. When I used to push her in the stroller, people in the street give her strange looks, and them little pickney laugh and point. I would focus on the crunching sound of the gravel under the tiny wheels and don’t say nothing to them. I think she beautiful though and always tell her so, although she too young to understand what ‘beautiful’ mean.
‘Stop,’ Jobal say after him fill up his suitcase. ‘I can’t take this no effing more. I frigging done, yuh hear? I not living like this no more. I flipping sick of you and—and—that thing!’ him say, pointing to his daughter on the bed. Her eyes freeze open in shock.
I grab him hand.
‘Woman, leggo off mi rass hand if you know what good for you,’ him say through tight teeth.
‘Yuh don’t love her!’ I shout, and I want to tell him that is why she don’t talk. She afraid of him.
I did know this was coming.
When I was pregnant and feel Jessie moving and kicking inside me like me was a giant football, Jobal never rub my belly, no matter how much I beg him to. It wasn’t like when it was Samantha. With Samantha, him used to sing for her, him cool breath tickling my belly button, putting him cheek on my skin. But when Jessie in my stomach and I try to guide him hand, he pull away. I had to go to the prenatal clinic by myself, clutching my belly, sitting on a stiff bench in that damp, hot room full of pregnant women, some with babies already on their hip or grabbing their ankles. Many of them teenagers. I did feel bad and alone and return all the hard looks they give me. They probably thinking ’bout how I old enough to be their mama, yet there right next to them, stomach big in front of me.
The nurses who know ’bout Samantha treat me nice. They pat my shoulder and say: ‘Is going be okay, dear.’ The others mean and cold and get meaner every visit. Them say to each other, loud enough for me to hear: ‘Is she again?’ I was at the clinic sometimes three times a week, I was so scared to lose another baby, but Jessie held on.
When I come home with her, Jobal never touch Jessie. I tell him: ‘Look! We get another one…for the girl we lose.’ Me think he would be glad. After all that crying him and me do every night in those weeks after Samantha dead; we tears bathing each other face when we wrap up in the bed.
When Jobal look at Jessie that first time, him say: ‘Yuh think it easy to replace a child, just like that?’ And is the first and only time he ever slap me, swelling up my right eye. He tell me ‘Sorry’ right after, and I could tell him was sorry too from the way him bottom lip was trembling. I forgive him same time. And him was sweet as syrup for couple days after that. Like the old Jobal who used to write poems for me in him exercise book.
But him never change Jessie’s diapers one time. Him ignore her whenever she cry. When she reach for him from her crib, him don’t pick her up. Sam’s death hit him hard which is why him couldn’t stand to look at Jessie. Is like just the sight of her he couldn’t take. When me breastfeeding her, him get vex. Him start come home less and less.
As him zip up the suitcase the day him leave, I tell Jobal we can take Jessie to a doctor. Get a DNA test. We can go see a counsellor. Anything. I make him know we can fix this thing: the me-and-you-thing that we take so long to build. I say to him: ‘This relationship set like ice cube in icetray. From school days when I in tunic and yuh in yuh khaki pants, standing at the bus stop every afternoon holding hands and hoping the bus take forever to come. When yuh used to call me “Sweet Baby”. You know how much licks my mother give me for yuh, just ‘cause her friends tell her they see us at the bus depot standing together? Suppose she did know what me and yuh was doing in the Government Transportation Centre bathroom? Remember when yuh had eyes for just me? When yuh tell me yuh don’t like none of them skinny girls all the other boys chasing at school, that yuh “don’t want no dolly ’pon yuh lap, yuh want weight a-top, just like a pressure cooker”’?
And those times, when Jobal filling up my head with lyrics when I was in school, Mama telling me that I must make sure don’t bring home a baby.
She would say: ‘You know you daddy not around all these years, and after I sacrifice everything to send you to the best high school in Kingston, this is what you doing?! Yuh want to drop outta school to be a helper like me? Yuh think baby is like them whole heap of dolly yuh aunt send you from New York, lining yuh bed like soldiers? Babies eat, shit and piss and need a place to live and yuh can’t give them nothing.’ She tell me I not ready. ‘After all,’ she ask me, holding my chin, pulling it until my face was next to hers, ‘what kinda big woman yuh is to still sleep with dollies at night?’ When Mama was at work, as soon as I get home from school, me and Jobal throw them dollies on the ground and spend hours in that bed.
Mama said Jobal was worthless. That him was no good at school which is why him and him crew rob schools at night, tiefing money from the bursar’s office.
At 15, the worse thing Mama imagine happen. Me get pregnant. Mama take me to a doctor who make it go away. She drag me to the same doctor four more times. Me never tell Jobal because me ’fraid him woulda hate me…Jobal only know about the first one which was bad enough. We call women who do that ‘graveyard’. He woulda hate me for abortion number two to five, so I never tell him.
Is when I finally leave my mother’s house at age 22, I decide to stop doing them things and to start living better, without taking a life. It was just Jobal and me. Jobal bouncing from job to job: construction worker, mechanic, plumber, farmer, construction worker again, and me a cashier at the supermarket, putting food on the table whenever Jobal get fired from every place him go. They say he have a bad temper. But I don’t mind. I love him, and him love me. At least, him used to.
That day, when him finish packing up him clothes in that awful brown grip him get from him granduncle in England, I beg him not to leave. I beg him to take our child in him arms. All Jobal say was: ‘Yuh is a mad woman,’ kicking the closet door. And him peel him lips back like him want to spit on me, but him never do it. That was the last thing him say to me. Him go off to America on farm work, overstay and marry an American girl to sort himself out. So I hear from his mother. The girl give him twins. Jobal’s mother tell me him soon file for him brothers, sisters and ‘we’, by which she mean she. Jobal mother always talking about herself in the royal ‘we’ like she is the Queen of England. She too good to live ’round here. She is a woman who, so she don’t have to paint the walls in her house, cover them with wallpaper.
Before he leave me, Jobal and me try for years and years to get a baby, and, when I reach 38, I finally get pregnant. Jobal’s mother was so glad. ‘We’re overjoyed and elated’, she tell me. His mother used to say it must be obeah I working on her son for him to stay so long with a woman who can’t give him pickney. Mama don’t say nothing. Samantha was the answer to plenty prayers. Nobody in the community calling me a mule no more, and the more I swelling, I glad, and the fatter I getting, the more I happy ’cause I bringing a life into the world. The only thing on earth that’s part me and part Jobal.
And then it happen.
The baby next door still crying.
Jessie on the bed sucking her thumb. Her hair is wavy and soft like she half-Indian. She coo softly when I stroke her cheek. She is the light of my life.
‘Yuh good, baby girl?’ I murmur. She nod and loop the edge of her baby blue dress around her index finger, secure it with her thumb and watch me. I know she missing her Papa. I don’t take her anywhere really these days. Her skin pale from lack of sun. I home-schooling her. I thinking now she need friends. Around people, she shy and withdrawn. I understand why though. The world can be a cruel place. She’s sensitive, like me.
‘Him didn’t mean a word him say,’ I tell her as I fold her clothes that I just take off the clothes-line. I thinking maybe if I was like the gal next door, Jobal wouldn’t leave. If I coulda pop out a baby every year like clockwork. The baby next door, the littlest one, howl morning, noon and night. A sharp pain stab me ’cause I wondering if the gal abusing that child. Why that little baby always crying so? The sound splintering my eardrums. I can’t take it no more. No more. I shift my head from side to side to shake out the echo of Jobal’s voice telling me: I not living like this no more. No more. No more…
Maybe I should go over there. Just talk to her. Mother to mother.
Jessie on the bed, mouth dribbling and nodding like she agree. I wondering when Jessie will be old enough to hear the truth about what happened to her big sister. Jobal think I did something to Samantha. But it was my body that kill her.
Doctors said my womb was too hollow and scarred for Sam to live. They suspect is ’cause of all the abortions. After less than five months, she was gone. Sudden like a rushing wind, a gush of blood and poof! Life end.
That is when Jobal start to hate me. I know it. I tell him I never lose Samantha on purpose.
‘Don’t I was always telling yuh to go easy with all that housework?’ Jobal say, ‘But yuh listen? Yuh damn ears too hard.’
Is not me throw myself off the stool when I was trying to reach the cobwebs in the ceiling with an old broom. Jobal’s mother was coming over that day, and the place did look too dirty. Is a small fall; the shock was bigger than the fall itself, but when I on the floor, I feel blood pouring down through my panty. Doctors say is not the fall cause it. Samantha was doomed to dead. Jobal didn’t want to hear it though.
Nobody understand what me going through…how it feel when the man you love stop loving you and your child.
And I don’t want to take my hate for Jobal and deposit it in Jessie. She remind me of Jobal so much. And I don’t want any part of me to start to hate her too.
Jessie watching me, with the edge of a hairbrush at her mouth. I did think when Jessie come that Jobal would stay. Yes, is foolish but I never wanted him to leave. But some things you just can’t repair, no matter how hard you try.
I ask Jessie if she really think I should go over there. The girl move next door about two months now. I hardly see her in the daytime. I don’t see her going nowhere for work or stepping out for anything except to go to the corner shop to buy a little rice and flour that she have in a plastic bag you can see through like the blouses she wear.
Jessie don’t say nothing, and I tell her I soon come back. I decide to leave her right there on the bed with the TV on. She love her cartoons. Tom and Jerry on; good. That cat and mouse is her favourite show. Mama promise to come by at 1 o’clock to drop off some groceries since I not able to hold down a job ever since Samantha. I check the clock. 12:30.
I got time to talk to the girl next door.
I climb the flimsy wooden steps and knock on the door, which seem like it about to break in two, it so weathered and rotten. These landlords are something else! You can’t get them to fix nothing, but they turn up bright and early every month-end for them rent money.
I realise I don’t even know the girl’s name.
‘Hellllooooo,’ I say again, glad they don’t have a dog. No mangy mongrel come rushing out to bite this intruder entering their yard. The baby still wailing and none of the other little pickney in sight.
I look through the window, but behind the grill all I see is curtain. A blue and white striped one stirring in the breeze.
I know she inside. She just ignoring me. Maybe think that me is a bill collector.
I clear my throat loud and say loud:
‘Is your neighbour. From next door.’
The door crack open, and I see her. She tall with shiny dark skin. She wearing a red bathrobe that loose at the waist, so I see the space between her breasts all the way to her waist. Is like she rub up with olive oil. Her hair wet. The robe short, and I see her thighs. Legs smooth. No varicose veins like mine. I look up into her narrow face and move my fingers to adjust my hair, then realise I have in curlers under a green scarf. She looking me up and down. Taking in my old, but clean, brown housedress and yellow slippers. I shift more of my weight to my right leg, stand wider and try to take up more space.
She wearing pink lipstick and give me a gap-tooth smile, but it don’t reach her eyes. A cigarette at her mouth-corner. She lift her chin and ask:
‘What yuh want?’
Not even a invite to come in. Forget a ‘Good afternoon’ or even a ‘Howdy.’
I stammer ’cause I feeling foolish now. This girl and her baby not none of my business. What I come over there for, leaving Jessie by herself? Suppose Jessie harm herself while I over here, like fall into a pan of water and drown, stick her hand inside a socket and get shock or light a match and burn down the place? I sorry I lock the door so she wouldn’t be able to escape the fiery flames, but I didn’t want nobody go in there and harass her either. So many predators around. I see them on TV. I shoulda bring her, but this is big people conversation I about to have; I don’t know this girl or how she going react. I tell myself to stop worrying. Is a quick visit here, and Jessie going be alright. She’s tough. She hardly ever cry. Not like this baby next door.
‘I did hear your baby crying,’ I finally say.
‘So? Yuh nuh know that babies cry?’ The girl fold her arms and laugh at me, and I feel small. Me older than her; by much, I can see. I doubt she reach 23 yet. Her skin look soft. I feel like touching her cheek just to see how soft it is. But I keep my hands to myself.
‘Look. I just checking if the baby ok.’
‘Yuh is police or what? Yuh think I kidnap the child or something?’ She raise a neatly plucked eyebrow. It thick with black eyebrow pencil.
I turning to go away, when she shrug and say:
‘She ok. You want to see for yuhself?’
She back away from the door. I follow.
Inside dark and feel smaller than I did expect it to be. A crib in one corner of the room, but is like it filling the whole room. The place smell of tobacco, old food like sardine or tinned sausage, stale saltfish, cornmeal and the leftover smell from bodies that don’t wash often. All the odours wrestling inside my nose. A pot of burnt white rice on the ground with a fork sticking out of it. Sheets of newspaper and duct tape keeping one window together. A big mattress against one wall. I realise it must be on that mattress all of them in this one-bedroom house sleep. On the same mattress she produce more children.
‘Where the others?’
‘School,’ she say without turning to face me.
Over her shoulder, she throw the question: ‘Yuh have pickney?’ like a fisherman tossing a net on dark sea.
When I don’t answer, she stop and turn around. She look at my face and sagging breasts. I wish I had on a brassiere.
‘One. Woulda been two, but one dead.’
She don’t say ‘Sorry’, offer no condolences or nothing. She out her cigarette in a cracked white ashtray, and me watch some ash stain her red robe. I wonder if it’s satin. Can’t be silk. She couldn’t afford to buy that. Unless one of her lovers give her.
‘Just be glad for the one yuh have left.’ She rub her neck. ‘Want tea? Don’t have nothing else to drink in the house.’
Before I could answer, she fill an old pot with grey-looking water, putting it on a two-burner gas stove that look like it drop off a truck, then get run over by the back wheel of the same truck. She take a match, light it, turn on the gas and bend her head sideways, blowing a few times to coax a flame to life. Every move she make deliberate and sure. She flick her right wrist two times to out the match and then tuck the matchstick in the ashtray.
The baby in the crib looking up at me. The crib off-white and the paint peeling. She stop cry. Her face plump; her hands and legs fat. Like how I imagine Sam’s would be. She wearing a clean onesie. I put my right thumb in her palm. She grab it and pull and twist. I make a face like she hurting me, but she not hurting me at all. Not in that sense, anyway. I put my left index finger to my lips and say shhhhh. I puff out my cheek with air like those pufferfish you see in ocean shows on TV, like I inflating a balloon, and I cross and roll my eyes all crazy. She laugh. Babies like this need good mothers.
‘What she name?’
‘Mercy Nara Smith,’ the girl say. ‘I have another one name Grace. I name the boys after their fathers.’
The baby put her left big toe in her mouth. I tell her don’t do that. Her big eyes remind me of one of my favourite dolly. She and Jessie would be good friends; I can see that already.
‘What yuh say yuh name again?’ the girl ask like she bored and already forget the question. She yawn.
‘Me?’ Looking at Mercy, I nearly forget my name. Forget my own presence. I only conscious of this baby in this room. She smelling like talcum powder and shampoo. A fly land on her knee.
The girl bring me lukewarm mint tea in a dirty chipped enamel cup, and I don’t want to drink it. Don’t even want to inhale the smell of it. I just want to have Mercy. I cradle her in my arms. I don’t even ask if I can pick up Mercy. And the mother don’t say nothing. She probably glad Mercy not crying anymore.
The girl watching me, and I see the black circles under her eyes. I wonder when last she get a good sleep. Poor soul. All she want is a little rest. I thinking ’bout all the hardships of being a single mother. The unending struggle. Like standing in a wheelbarrow and having to push it same time.
She lean against one wall, arms crossed, eyes half closed, and she say: ‘She likes yuh.’ I tell her there is a way you have to rock them, not too much or too hard, but with enough force and a soothing motion like yuh is a wave and they in a boat rolling over you. I tell her maybe I can look after Mercy sometimes when she get busy.
I thinking how some babies make it and other babies don’t. Mercy here breathing warmness into my neck, her weight secure in my arms. I can see me holding her forever. I see her and Jessie playing…I see my Sam. I want to ask her: ‘Yuh mother appreciate yuh?’
The baby look well fed, and although the place messy, she clean. Still, how you can raise a baby in this place? What kinda mother is this girl? I think ’bout my mother. How Mama used to scrub every inch of the house and teach me to do that too. But in the times me needed her most, she scrub me and my babies outta her life. Like we didn’t have feelings too. Is now she coming back ’round, maybe ’cause of a guilty conscience.
‘How come I never see yuh around before?’ the girl say. I tell her I mainly stay in my house and watch Jessie.
She ask my name again. I tell her.
The girl mouth drop open.
‘Wait, hold on; is you name Esme? I hear about you. I wondering if is really true!
I know I should leave. Mama soon reach, if she not at my door already, pushing her key in the lock.
‘Is true?’ She ask me. ‘What they say about yuh, is so it go or is lie?’
I don’t answer. She block my escape.
She grabbing Mercy from my hands hard, jarring the pickney, so her head fly back and the child start cry. I still holding on to Mercy.
‘Come out! Now! I don’t want yuh in my house again, yuh hear?’ Her tone was like she chasing a stray dog.
She look like she would wrestle Mercy from my grip, so I let her go slowly.
Me ignore the sounds the baby making, the sobbing.
When I reach inside my house, Mama is there, and is like she hear the shouting the girl from next door was making’ cause she look distressed. Her mouth twisted up, and I know is not from the arthritis pain in her back.
Jessie is same place on the bed where I leave her.
‘Yuh have to stop!’ Mama say, wringing her hands.
I blowing hard ’cause I vex ’bout how the girl from next door talk to me and how she handle that baby. I should call the police and report her for child abuse! I sure the way she haul that child, the baby have whiplash. That careless girl don’t know nothing ’bout life yet, about how it can crush you down and want to come judge me and how I live and how I choose to raise my daughter. Outta order!
Jessie on the bed like she yawning. Something shiny in her hand. Is a razor? Good God! Where Jessie get razor from? Is one of them Jobal leave behind?
I yell at her: ‘Give me the blasted thing! What you doing with it in your hand to begin with? You stupid or what? Give it to me. Right. Now. You hear me?’ I grab the razor and it slice my fingers.
‘Esme,’ Mama say, eyes full of tears.
‘As for you,’ I turn on her. Time for her to get her share of the anger I dishing out. ‘Why you wasn’t watching her?’ She trying not to look at the razor blade in my hand.
Mama acting like I slap her hard. But I don’t stop:
‘What kinda grandmother you be, eh? You never make time to babysit, and when you come here you don’t even look on your own grandchild!’
‘Esme!’ Mama step back like she want to go. And fast.
‘Don’t “Esme” me. Yuh too wicked! Is you cause this whole thing!’
I let go the razor and grab Jessie off the bed with my bleeding hand, and her neck fall back slack. I shove her in Mama’s face, but Jessie breathing shallow. She not making a sound.
Mama hold on to my arms and pull them loose so that I drop Jessie on the floor. The sound of her hitting the tile makes a dull sound. She roll under the bed. That is when I scream and dive for her. My sweet baby. I can’t lose another one. Suppose she damage her head? I get on my hands and knees to reach her. I see her on the far end of the wall. I can’t reach her unless I flatten myself and crawl under the bed.
‘I coming for you,’ I say.
She don’t make a sound. ‘Mummy coming.’
‘Esme.’ Mama grips my shoulders. I tell her to let me go.
Maybe Jessie is ok and just roll away ’cause she afraid of Mama. I tell Mama so.
‘Stop,’ Mama say in a voice I know I hear before, a thousand times. ‘I begging you. Please, stop…Jessie not real. Is a damn dolly!’
We don’t mind Mama and what she saying ’cause we know better. From under the bed, Jessie’s plastic eye wink at me. Me smile.
She is all me need. I not thinking about Jobal, him American twins, him foolish mother in her house full of wallpaper, the nurses laughing at me, Mama, or even about Samantha.
I pull Jessie out and say sorry for calling her ‘stupid.’
Me know it was time to tell her.
So me bring her little hand to me belly.
‘You going have a little sister soon.’
As we hug, I realize the baby next door not crying.
Subscribe for new writing
Sign up to receive new pieces of writing as soon as they are published as well as information on competitions, creative grants and more.