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RealCare Baby

Judith arrived home on Wednesday evening to find her fourteen year old daughter sitting in the corner of the sofa nursing a baby.  From where Judith was standing, still wearing her coat and holding her briefcase, she couldn’t see the baby’s face, only its little feet in blue bootees poking out from the edge of a crocheted blanket.  Her daughter’s head was lowered and she appeared to be feeding the baby from a bottle.
            Judith had heard of concealed pregnancy.  Her mind reeled over the last nine months.  She’d been preoccupied as usual with work, but she’d have to have been blind not to notice Cassandra’s mood swings, her reluctance to get out of bed, the weight gain – no – there was no way she was going to let this happen.
            “Whose is it?” she said, marching into the room.  Her progress was stalled by a carrycot, a folded up pushchair, a car seat and three bulging bin liners.  “Let’s get it back to its mother.”
            Cassandra raised her head slowly.  “It’s mine,” she said.
            “Duncan!”  Judith called. 
            “Dad’s not back yet.”
            Of course he wasn’t – sometimes the only evidence of Duncan coming home at all was the previous day’s newspaper and a teacup on the draining board.   She rummaged clumsily in her briefcase for her phone. 
            “Chill out Mum,” Cassandra said.  Judith, stumbling over the baby clobber, bashing the keys on her phone at the same time, was now close enough to see the baby properly.  Its bald head had a plasticy shine to it and its protruding surfaces - nose and ears - were tinged with a patina of grey.
            “Ah, right,” Judith said, “I see.  Very funny.  Now perhaps you wouldn’t mind clearing up this mess, and taking that…thing back where it belongs.”  She scanned the room; she should be able to get it all in the car.  “Quickly please,” she said, clapping her hands.  This was all she needed, especially after the day she’d just had.  Now the supper would be delayed; she’d have to make her New York calls before eating.  “Move … darling!”
            It was as though Cassandra hadn’t heard a word.  She was sitting there, nursing the grubby doll as if it were her own child.  It gave Judith the creeps, actually - a nearly grown girl reverting to this kind of infantile behaviour.  Not that Judith had been forced to witness too much of the infant years.  She’d been determined from the start to set the child an example, a pattern for parenthood - for womanhood - that her daughter would in turn aspire to, achieve and pass on to her own daughter.  Not for Judith, the demoralized and dependent housewife in her pinny, desperate for her children to get home from school so she would have someone to talk to.  No, she would demonstrate how financial independence, grown-up conversation, nice clothes, luxurious holidays, as well as a family, were the entitlement of today’s educated female.  Judith looked on her career as both her duty and her pleasure.
            “Frankie’s staying here,” Cassandra said, tilting the doll carefully upright. She propped it against the cushions beside her and reached for the remote.
            “At least you can help me get the supper.”
            “Sorry,” Cassandra said.  “I’m busy.  Miss Honey told us looking after Frankie is a twennyfour seven job.”
            “Frankie, frankly, is a doll, Cassandra.”  Her mission, first, must be to snap her daughter out of whatever this nonsense was.  The sight of them was making her feel queasy.  The doll was gruesomely lifelike, and ugly in the way that other people’s babies often were.  His eyebrows were puffy and his cheeks were out of proportion to his pointy head.  There was a wariness about his expression that Judith found disturbing, ready to trust, but only if trust was earned.
            “Sorry Mum, but it’s not that respectful to call Frankie a doll.  Miss Honey said he’s virtually real.”
            Frankie made a sort of hiccupping noise.
            “See,” Cassandra said and Judith watched her daughter lift the baby, placing one hand woodenly behind its head.  It made a non-babyish sound, an electronic collection of notes, some kind of recognition system linking with the wristband that Judith now saw Cassandra was wearing under her school jumper. 
            The doll started to grizzle quietly.  Cassandra stood up and rocked it while it cried into her neck.  There was a repeated pattern to the sound, but Judith had to admit, the recording was strikingly authentic.  Cassandra rubbed and patted the baby’s back, her movements awkward again, as if she was trying to remember a specific sequence of manoeuvres.  “Sometimes he needs a burp after a feed,” she said.  The doll wasn’t responding.  The crying grew louder.  “He might need a new nappy.” Cassandra pointed urgently to the bin liner by Judith’s feet.  “Can you empty it – that one!”
            Judith fiddled with the knot.  “It’s too tight.  Anyway, I don’t think I want -”
            “Give it to me.”  Cassandra grabbed the bag, the bawling baby pinned under her arm, and shook its contents onto the floor.   Baby gros, hand-knitted cardigans, odd socks and bonnets spilled onto the carpet, along with a sprinkle of sweet wrappers, biscuit crumbs and Rizla papers.  She rummaged in the jumble and pulled out a grimy cloth nappy.  Pulling down the doll’s trousers, she ripped open the Velcro tags, replaced its pants, lifted the doll into the crook of her elbow, and rocked it.  The crying stopped almost immediately, and was replaced by cooing noises and after thirty seconds or so by silence.
“You do understand the implications of this,” Judith said to Duncan.  She’d finally escaped to the car to make her US calls, postponing the meal until afterwards, getting Duncan to fetch some takeaway on his way home, the remains of which - plastic cartons, plates and paper bags - were scattered over the surfaces along with two spare nappies, a dummy and the bottle of fake milk.  Cassandra had taken Frankie into the other room, now he was finally quiet.
            “Grandparents at forty four, you mean?” Duncan said.  He had adopted an attitude to the crisis that combined detached amusement and scientific interest, which wasn’t so very different to the way he’d approached the arrival of his own child.  He was flicking through the booklet called The RealCare™ Baby:  A Guide for Parents.  “There were ante-natal classes, apparently.  Perhaps a lecture on birth control would have made more sense.”  He laughed.  It infuriated Judith how he could find any of this funny.
            “I meant the immediate implications,” Judith said.  Normally the kitchen would be cleared by now, transformed into her evening office.  The loss of routine was compounding her stress. 
            “I don’t expect it’ll maintain this level of activity all night,” Duncan said.  “There will be health and safety restrictions.”  He came to stand close behind Judith’s chair and began to massage the muscles at the base of her neck. 
            Judith pulled away sharply. “I mean socially - educationally.  She’ll have been given this … this equipment for a reason.  Despite my considerable efforts to demonstrate the potential life holds for her, Cassandra has been singled out as a child at risk of throwing everything away for a baby.”
            Cassandra drifted back into the room, the baby pressed to her shoulder.  “I asked for him,” she said.  “He’s a doss.  You don’t have to stay in lessons and you don’t have to do homework.”
            The sense of relief Judith felt at Cassandra’s explanation, lasted only until she’d thought it through. 
            “Anyway, all my friends are having a turn with him, I didn’t want to be the only one not to.”
            “I don’t think that’s any …” Judith started.  She should play this carefully.  Cassandra was at such a vulnerable age.  Impressionable as clay.  And although she wouldn’t admit to a similar motivation, a number of her own friends had confessed that not being left behind was a factor behind their pregnancies.
            “But now I’ve got to go out,” Cassandra said lying the baby on the kitchen table.  “He’ll be quiet for ages.  I’ve done everything, bottle, burp, nappy.”
            “Are you suggesting leaving him here?”  Duncan said.
            “I probably won’t even be that long.  Just going to Emma’s.  Back by ten.”
            “It’s against the rules.”  Duncan flicked through the booklet to find the right page.  “Here.  The baby must remain with the student throughout the agreed period of care.”  
            “Nobody sticks to that,” Cassandra said.  “We want to watch a DVD.  I can’t bring him, he’ll totally ruin it.”
            “But you signed up to three days.”
            “Three days!” Judith said. “Now listen -” 
            “But I don’t need it any more,” Cassandra said.  “I’ve got the message.  Babies are a pain.  They totally wreck your life.”  She started to tug at the wristband.  It was just like the one they’d put on Judith in the hospital, as soon as the umbilical cord had been cut.  The baby had been fitted with one too, as if to remind mother and child they belonged together, before they’d got used it as a fact. 
            Cassandra was rummaging in the drawer for the scissors. She held them, poised, as if aware that this was a momentous step.
            “Even if you cut it, Cass, you’re still tied to him,” Duncan said.  “He’s going to cry, and that’s going to show up on Miss Honey’s computer.”
            Judith knew exactly how it was that Duncan could remain so calm about this, talking in his slow low voice.  He had no idea, never would, how it actually felt to be tied to another person.   The most it meant to him was a trace line on a computer printout, interesting in the same way that the doll’s internal technology was interesting, in the way that moisture retaining crystals in disposable nappies had been.  But Cassandra had got it - the wrestle between self and other.  Judith could see how hard she was trying not to cry. 
            “I don’t care,” Cassandra said, as she snipped the wristband.  It fell to the floor, the computer chip bouncing a couple of times on the tiles.  “I don’t want to do this any more.  I quit.”
            Frankie hiccupped.  Judith, Duncan and Cassandra looked at the baby, without moving.  He hiccupped again.  Still no one reacted.  The baby started moaning, its low level start-up noise, monotonous and whiney. 
            “Don’t you think you’d better pick him up?” Duncan said.
            “I don’t want to.”  Cassandra backed away as if it were an abandoned suitcase on an airport concourse.  “Anyway, I’ve lost the chip,” she said, scanning the floor cursorily.    
            Judith strutted forward and picked him up roughly.  The baby’s head jolted back in its socket, and immediately the crying switched to a register they’d not heard before.  It sounded frantic, injured and frightened. 
            “You should have held his head,” Cassandra said, still keeping her distance. “That’s what happens otherwise.  It’s the same as shaking him.” 
            Judith put the baby to her chest, cuddling it tightly against her work blouse.  Only then did she think about staining - tears, snot, saliva - she lifted him off, checking for excretions.  
            “It must be possible to disable the thing,” she said, still holding it at arm’s length, having to shout over the noise.  “Take out the batteries.”  She thrust the baby towards Duncan.  “Go on.”
            “It requires a code,” Duncan said, loftily knowledgeable once more on the intricacies of baby mechanics.  “It’s impossible to deactivate.  That’s the whole point.”  He chuckled again, or at least Judith thought he did. 
            Judith brought the baby back to her shoulder.  Something was telling her to sway with it, to cup her hand to his little baby head, to speak to him, murmuring comforting nothings while pressing her breath out in warm streams to tickle his ear.  But it wasn’t a baby.  It was a doll, one that stank of teenage bedrooms, of girls it had been designed to repel.  Its crying was still intense and deafening.  She could feel herself wanting to cry too, a deep welling of impotence and frustration. 
“For God’s sake, Duncan - get me the chip!”
There was nothing in the instructions about the night, except the warning that the RealCare™  baby should remain within easy reach of the student’s bed.  Duncan searched the internet, certain there would be codes and regulations governing the scheme.  He found nothing, but said he’d be very surprised if they were interrupted between midnight and five o’clock. 
            It woke first at eleven, not long after Cassandra had gone up.  It cried for a few seconds, before settling down.  It was awake once more just before midnight, quietening quickly again.   Judith packed her briefcase ready for the morning, and went to bed. 
            The next session was at 12.47.  Judith thought the noise was outside in the road to start with, some other person’s child, before she remembered.  She waited, tense and stark awake, for it to stop.  But it didn’t.  It got louder.  She nudged Duncan, who rolled away from her, heavily asleep.  She waited a little longer, seconds or minutes, before dragging herself out of bed.          
            Cassandra was heavily asleep too; it was impossible to believe, but she was, the severed wristband with its vital computer chip on the bedside table, next to the bottle of pretend milk and the spare nappies.  Judith shook her daughter’s shoulder.  Cassandra turned over, squinting painfully in the dim light from the landing.  Judith plucked the screaming baby from its pram and plonked it onto Cassandra’s chest, pressing the bottle firmly into her daughter’s hand, the computer chip into the other.  Cassandra swore blearily, then poked the bottle towards the baby’s mouth, tried again, and on the third attempt the racket began to recede. 
            When the 4.45 session kicked in, Judith knew she’d had it in terms of sleep.  She sat up, tense with fatigue, threw the covers onto Duncan, and stomped downstairs, leaving the door to her own bedroom open, but closing all the others between the baby and the kitchen, where she sat down, tried a few calming breaths, hoping to make the most of the early start by checking her emails.  It was impossible to concentrate.  Her eyes watered with soreness and an intermittent wincing pain pierced her brain.  She hadn’t felt like this since Cassandra was new born.  It all came back to her now; how she’d tried to carry on as if nothing had changed.   Going into the office day after day, leaving her six week old baby with the Polish woman, she’d felt like a glove puppet without a hand.  She’d looked the part, more or less, but she was missing something – something stable deep down in her core.  She’d felt perpetually attenuated, like a piece of plasticine, rolled so thin it was ready to come apart at any moment, quietly, unnoticed, crumbling into invisible pieces.   It wasn’t that she was longing to be a full-time mother – God forbid, no – Jolanta was much better qualified for the day-to-day – it was just that it had taken her longer than she expected to fight off the wooliness, the propensity to tears, the tender ache in her breasts when she thought of her child at home. 
Judith left the office at half past six, confident of a much more peaceful evening.  She was sure Cassandra would have handed the baby in.   A couple of superficial questions on Miss Honey’s part would have established the device had achieved its purpose.  Judith was exhausted, of course, but she could see that the previous night had probably had some value.  At least the experiment couldn’t have done Cassandra any harm.
            Duncan’s car was in the drive, unusually, and when she opened the door, she could smell something cooking, which was more unusual still.  They were in the kitchen, all three of them.  Duncan was prodding a knife into a saucepan while Cassandra performed a slow polka round the room, Frankie whinging quietly into her hair. 
            “What does he need?” Judith said.  She was annoyed no one had warned her.  Wouldn’t a teenage mother have a social worker checking on her – how come the school didn’t simulate that? 
            “Nothing,” Cassandra said, cheerfully.  “He’s just fussing.  It’ll stop soon.”  She caressed the baby’s padded bottom, and, it was almost imperceptible but Judith was certain she saw it, kissed his ear. 
            “Have you been off today,” she said to Duncan.  “Are you ill?”
            “I worked at home,” Duncan said.  He was draining the greens through a colander.  “I was up with Frankie’s alarm call at five this morning.  You were lucky you missed it.  He certainly made up for his quiet night.  What a clever piece of apparatus it is.”
            “Apparatus!” Cassandra said, teasingly, laying the baby down in his pram, supporting his head as she did so.  She had tied a hankie round the baby’s neck; it reminded Judith of a homeless person’s dog. 
            “I thought you were going to talk to Miss Honey,” Judith said.
            Cassandra folded the baby’s cardigan, and collected some other bits and pieces, tidying them into a changing bag.  “About what?”
            “Giving him back.”
            “I was going to, but Miss Honey found me first and she said my computer readout was a disgrace – neglect borderline abusive or something.  There was no way she was going to let me.”
            “Meal’s ready,” Duncan said.  “Judith would you mind setting the table.  Cass has rather got her hands full.”
            She was tempted to tell him to hell with his meal – the sheer injustice of it all - but she didn’t want to discourage him.  She couldn’t remember the last time he’d cooked.  She thrust open the drawer and threw some knives and forks onto the table.
            “What about for Frankie?” Cassandra said, screwing a high chair onto the table edge.  
            “He eats solids now, does he?” Judith said.  “Perhaps you can get Dad to Moulinex a helping?”  She slammed down the pile of plates. 
            “Ready.” Duncan heaved a casserole dish off the stove.  He’d made chicken breasts wrapped in bacon; the sauce was a viscous red.  The smell was almost enough to lift Judith from her foul mood.  She pressed her fingers to the back of her head, forcing herself to relax, just enough to get through the meal.
            Duncan unscrewed a bottle of red and poured a large glass for Judith.  She’d normally refuse on a week night, but she’d taken a large gulp before Duncan had even poured his own.
            “So, how was it at school?” Judith asked, taking another gulp.
            “Fine,” Cassandra said, piling her fork with a mixture of chicken and greens.  She was wearing the wristband again, repaired with Sellotape. 
            “And him?”  Judith allowed herself a longer look at Frankie.  He was sitting up in the high chair beside Cassandra’s seat.  His expression seemed more confident somehow, his slightly open mouth curled almost into a smile.  From this angle he might even be mistaken for one of the family.   There was definitely a touch of Duncan’s mother about him – the pointy head, perhaps, or was it the eyes?  The dark blue irises were the colour of a newborn’s but the shape and the hint of judgment, was familiar. 
            “Fine,” Cassandra said.  “Well, after Maths, anyway.  I lost the milk bottle and I couldn’t shut him up so I had to go out of the lesson.  It didn’t matter.  Like, I mean, when are square roots ever going to be useful?”  She reached sideways and tickled under the baby’s chin. “Eh Frankie?”
            “Now listen, sweetheart,” Judith said.  “Sometimes it’s not the direct application of -”
            “I was so tired I actually fell asleep in Geography.  But all I missed was how to measure the depth of a lake – which I also can’t see myself ever needing to know.” 
            “You mustn’t think about it like that,” Judith plodded on.  She was so tired, she wasn’t certain the words were in the right order, or were even the right words.  “Duncan, back me up, education – importance…”
            “More for anyone?”  Duncan said, “or are we ready for pudding?  You know, they should make a toddler version of Frankie – one that refuses to get dressed, and won’t eat anything home-cooked.”  It wasn’t a chuckle this time.  It was a full-blown belly laugh.  Judith didn’t think it was funny at all.  She understood that kids were awkward and fussy.  But what possible use would it be to thrust that on a teenager?  If anything, they would empathise.  The point, surely, was that looking after this thing was supposed to be an utter and unrepeatable nightmare. 
            Duncan handed round bowls of rhubarb crumble.
            “I was down on the field after school with Emma and Millie,” Cassandra said, pouring half a pint of double cream onto her pudding.  “Millie found the bottle, it was in the next door locker from Tina, so we think she hid it.”  Judith had to admit the child looked better than she had in ages, chatting away like this, smiling, her skin almost rosy.  “Frankie hardly cried at all.  I don’t really know why,” she said, shyly.  “But Millie said I was a natural with him, and my printout next time would be fucking fantastic -”
            “Cassandra please,” Judith said. 
            “It’s only what she said.  And if I had my own baby, she reckons it would be like a million times easier because this one only cries – no offence Frankie – but mine would also laugh and if it did cry, I’d be able to cheer it up in other ways like blowing raspberries on its tummy.  That always … works…”  Cassandra slowed up, looked at her plate, then looked at Frankie, as if willing him to make his little hiccup so she’d have an excuse to leave the table.  But Frankie looked blandly content.
            “I’ve been thinking about the lost bottle,” Duncan said.
            “I know it was Tina who did it, and I know why -”
            “They should develop a version of Frankie that breastfeeds.”
            “Dad - that’s disgusting!” 
            “Enough, Duncan.”  Judith wasn’t sure what he was getting at.  Whether it was a practical solution to the lost bottle, or a more convincing way to put the kids off.  Or was he was getting at her?  That was probably it.    
            “Product authenticity,” he said. 
            “I wasn’t breastfed,” Cassandra said.  “So how would it be more authentic?”
            “No you bloody well weren’t.  Sorry about that.”  Judith got up, scraping her chair back noisily.  “I had enough to do, with my job, and running the household, and handing you over to the nanny, and now, since I was awake longer than any of you last night, I’m going to bed.  In the conservatory.”
            Duncan caught her hand as she stormed past him.  She tried to flick free of him but he held tight.  “Take Frankie off now, Cass,” he said.
            This was all such a mess.  She was exhausted and she was about to have another dreadful night.  “Don’t you care what’s happened?”
            “It’s fine, love.”
            “Fine!  Are you blind?”  Loud sobs burst from her.  “Cassandra’s besotted with this baby – it’s had the worst effect possible – I have a good mind to sue the school, or the council, or the health service, whoever’s bloody stupid idea this was.”
            Duncan stood up, still holding Judith’s hand, and wrapped her into his arms.  She was too tired and too upset to free herself; she stood stiffly upright, her back to him.  “Or at the very least she’ll be after some job in childcare.  She’ll want to be a nanny or a child minder – I mean, for God’s sake after all I’ve done!”
            Duncan pulled her closer, placed his palm softly on her forehead.  She could feel the pressure of his hand, nudging her to relax.  She wanted to resist, to hold her head, stop it from falling, but then, because of the wine or the tiredness, or a combination of both, she allowed the muscles to loosen, and her head to feel its weight and come to rest against his chest.

Judith went in to wake her daughter at seven the next morning.  Sleeping downstairs, she’d managed a good night’s sleep and hoped this had not been the case for the other two. 
            The pram was empty, the covers thrown back roughly.  Cassandra was still asleep, the duvet pulled up to her nose.  Moving closer, Judith saw the top of Frankie’s head snuggled in by Cassandra’s shoulder.  She felt a sudden panic – co-sleeping – wasn’t that one of the factors in cot-death?  She pulled the covers back a couple of inches.  The baby’s eyes were open, his dark blue irises gazing right at her. 
               Judith leaned in, lifted Frankie out of the bed and cuddled him close.  Everything about him was familiar - his satisfying weight, his smell like a sleepy Cassandra, his borrowed warmth, the curve of his head against the bow of her neck.  Her arms, chest, shoulders softened and yielded to him.  She’d heard of muscle memory; she wasn’t sure if this was it.  It was more like the resurfacing of a long buried instinct.  She swayed with him, stroking his warm head, the softness moving to her torso and legs, and with it a tender yearning at holding something so small. 
               She put him down and tucked him back in next to her daughter.  Perhaps she’d let them have another twenty minutes; Cassandra could be late for school, just this once.  Shutting the door soundlessly, Judith returned to her own room to get dressed.  She’d be late herself if she didn’t get a move on.  She sat down on her side of the bed, Duncan still asleep on the other.  Perhaps she’d have another couple of minutes herself, just this once.  She pulled back the duvet and wound herself in beside her husband. 
            “Do you think forty four is too old?” she whispered, half in her head, half aloud; half glad Duncan wasn’t awake to hear it, half hoping he was.