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Tom Titanic, A Cautionary Tale

By Ali Munday

She sailed through the pregnancy, but it was a difficult birth. Her pelvis refused to expand far enough to let the baby out by the normal route, and, after twelve hours of labour, the doctor suggested an emergency Caesarean. Gratefully, she signed the consent form as the anaesthetist thrust the mask over her face, and quickly descended into oblivion. Re-surfacing briefly, to find her beautiful son feeding at her breast, she exclaimed in wonder and then drifted back into a drugged slumber, which lasted for most of the day. Later, freed from the drip, she managed to lift him from the hospital cot by her bed, and cradle him. Her stitches hurt, and her mouth was sore from the gas, but her heart was happy.

Next morning, her husband returned to see them, and they spent time marvelling at the little person that was Tom. Eight pound two ounces – not a bad weight. The nurses and midwives fluttered in and out, encouraging her to breast-feed and helping her to latch Tom to her nipple, although he seemed more interested in sleep. “That’s because of the anaesthetic”, they said. “It’s bound to affect him. And of course, he was late. He’s a lazy baby. You’ll just have to persevere”. So persevere they did – Tom seemed happy enough, and she was content to hold him close, asleep on her breast or trying to suckle. Visitors came and went, all armed with flowers and advice. Even her mother-in-law managed a kiss. “I couldn’t breast-feed”, she said. “You just do the best you can”.

Tom was a very quiet, good-natured baby. During the next six days he endured endless prodding and poking by the midwives, and seldom cried. Yet she was concerned. He didn’t seem to be getting very much milk from her, and became frustrated at her breast, biting her nipples with his little gums and reducing her to tears of pain. The midwives became more insistent that “breast is best”, and pulled and manipulated her until she felt like an extra in a perverse porn film. Finally they gave her an electronic breast pump, which made a soothing, rhythmic, pneumatic noise and enabled her to express milk into a little beaker for Tom. He lapped up the milk like an orphaned animal, smacking his lips at the delicious sensation. It took an age to feed him, and half of it went down his chin, but at least she was sure that he was getting some nourishment.

It was a bright sunny day when they were discharged. She was delighted to be home, and her husband waited on her every need. That night, as they snuggled close in their lovely comfortable bed, she could hear Tom breathing softly in his little cot, and everything seemed perfect. Her breasts were full, and her wound was healing. It was not until two days later that the problems began. Tom became listless, his skin dry and hot to the touch. Worried, they took him to the Accident and Emergency unit, where he was readmitted to hospital for observation. She stayed with him. As she had suspected all along, Tom was not getting enough milk from her, had lost a pound and a half in weight and no longer had the energy to feed. After two fraught days on formula milk, he perked up, and they were again discharged, subject to daily visits from the local midwife. “You must feed him at least two-hourly, and record everything he drinks”, she said. “He needs at least 750 millilitres a day”. And so it began.

Working in shifts, they fed Tom every two hours, waking him if necessary. It was an exhausting schedule. Every millilitre of fluid consumed, each bowel movement and every passing of urine were meticulously recorded. In between feeds, she expressed more milk, snatching sleep where she could. Two weeks after his birth, he had regained his birth weight, and began to fill out. His little cheeks grew rosy and he anticipated each feed with delight, guzzling his way through two litres a day by the third week. By week four, the midwife pronounced him a “bouncing baby”. By week five, her husband lost his job due to poor attendance. By week six, Tom was distinctly chubby, but still they continued with the two-hourly feeds. Both living on their nerves, growing thinner as Tom grew fatter, they refused follow-up visits from the authorities. She missed her post-natal check-up, and they did not attend the vaccination clinic. The authorities became concerned.

Sonia Smithson of the Social Services Department was having a particularly bad day. She had already visited four exceptionally incapable young mothers – little more than children themselves – who had no idea of how to look after their own offspring. At least the last visit of the day was to an older couple, although from the notes it sounded as if they could be difficult. They had been most unreasonable, refusing to attend the doctor’s appointments, and not vaccinating their baby. Evidently, they were either trying to hide something or they were stuck in the ways, misguidedly believing they knew what was best for their child (probably some sort of weird hippie couple). She sighed. This was the last thing she needed on a day like today.

When Sonia arrived at the house, she was not encouraged. The front garden was overgrown; paint was peeling off the door, and two disreputable looking cats were hanging around, anxious to be let in. She parked her car in the gateway, gathered up her notes and marched purposefully down the drive. There was no doorbell or knocker, so she banged loudly on the battered front door with her fist. After a few minutes, a woman’s head popped out of an upstairs window. Sonia explained who she was. “I can’t let you in”, said the woman. “The door has seized up. You’ll have to come round the back”. Sonia made her way through the rickety wooden gate, pursued by the cats. The woman had already reached the back door, and held it ajar, just wide enough for the cats to enter. It was obvious that she was not going to invite Sonia to follow.

“I need to see your baby”, Sonia explained. “We’re worried about his welfare – you’ve missed all your check-ups, you know. Why haven’t you been to the clinic?”

“It’s difficult”, the woman replied. “I’ve been ill, and we’re spending all our time keeping up with the feeding schedule – my husband is ill too, and can’t get out of bed. My mother-in-law has been visiting regularly, to help us out.” Sonia could see that the woman was painfully thin.

“Why didn’t you ask for a home visit?” she said. “The doctor or the midwife could have come out to see you.”

The woman shrugged. “It’s been difficult”, she said.

“Well, I’m not going until I’ve seen the baby”, Sonia persisted. “Please let me in”.

The woman looked alarmed. “Tom’s perfectly alright”, she said. “But I’m afraid you can’t see him. He’s already started solids and he’s grown plenty since he came out of hospital. There isn’t anything for you to be concerned about.”

“Solids?” asked Sonia, incredulously. “But he’s much too young to be weaned, he should still be on a milk-only diet. What on earth have you been thinking of? I must insist on seeing him, wherever he is. Why isn’t he at home with you?”

“He is at home”, sighed the woman. “But not indoors. And if you insist, then I suppose you must see him, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. He’s in the greenhouse”.

“What on earth is he doing in the greenhouse?” exclaimed Sonia. This was really too much. She did not like the woman’s threatening tone, and she was not prepared to leave without seeing Tom.

“Go round the back and see for yourself”, said the woman, and slammed the door.

Sonia was furious. She could not abide wilful neglect of children. Muttering with rage, she stomped down the path towards the back garden. At first, she could not make out the greenhouse, covered as it was by creepers and ivy. But the path was clear, as if someone regularly pushed their way through the jungle of overgrown plants. She made her way to the greenhouse door, expecting who knows what – but certainly not the sight that met her eyes. There, sitting contentedly on a pile of warm compost, was the biggest baby she had ever seen. His elbows rested on the greenhouse shelves, his head just cleared the roof and he was evidently being supplied with cow’s milk via a hose, which trailed from a large churn on a sack-truck by the door. He was dressed in a huge night-dress, apparently cobbled together from old sheets, and was sucking a mouthful of tomatoes, or at least something red and sticky – strawberries? Raspberries? 

It was then that Sonia noticed the bones. Piled up neatly in a corner, and sucked quite white. They looked like the remains of small mammals, but she could not see very clearly – partly because the baby was in the way, and partly because she could not bring herself to believe what she saw. Fortunately, the baby did not appear to have seen her – his range of vision was still limited, and he was quite happy to suck whatever it was (she shuddered to think) that he was eating. Frightened to approach him, she stepped back very carefully, but was brought up short by a sharp jab in the back from Tom’s mother, who was wielding a pitchfork. “I warned you”, she hissed. “It’s your own fault. You know I can’t possibly let you go now.”

“Don’t be silly”, gasped Sonia, fighting down the wave of panic rising in her stomach. “I won’t tell anyone. It’ll be our secret. I’ll help you”.

“Help me?” sneered Tom’s mother. “No one can help me now. It was listening to you lot that got us into this mess in the first place. Feed him every two hours, they said. Make sure he’s putting on weight. Fatten him up like a Christmas turkey!”

Sonia tried to turn around to face her captor, but as she moved, the baby spotted her. “Gaaaaaaa!” he cried, and bent his face down as near to the greenhouse door as possible.

“Help me!” cried Sonia.

“Never!” cried Tom’s mother. “He’s already had my mother-in-law, and my husband, who stupidly tried to save her, and the milk man, and my neighbour’s rabbits – he needs flesh! I won’t see him starve!” and she pushed Sonia towards the door with the pitchfork. “You’ll take him away from me!” she cried, “I’ll not be parted from him, not now!” and with a final shove, Sonia was within the baby’s reach. With another terrible “Gaaaaaaa!” Tom grabbed her, opened his mouth wide… and with a swift mastication of gums, she was gone.

Tom’s mother had it all worked out. Sonia’s car keys would pass through the baby’s system in an hour or two, and she could retrieve them while he slept. It was an easy matter to get rid of the car. There would be follow up visits of course, when they realised Sonia had not turned up for work, but she could deal with them. In fact, they would be very useful, although she realised that she could not select too many people from the same source, without arousing suspicion. It was already proving difficult to conceal Tom, but his bowel movements provided the most remarkable growing medium for the dense thicket of plants growing up around him. In the meantime, she had arranged visits from the gasman, the electricity man, the washing machine repair-man, the double-glazing salesman and the odd-job man. That would keep him going for a while. 

Nothing mattered, except the nurturing of her beautiful son.

Ali Munday is a retired English gentlewoman, living in Yorkshire. She likes music, walking, beer, nature and growing things.

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