Here you will find some of my stories. If you want to read more, you will find details of where to find my work on the Publications page.
‘Rock a bye baby’ was first published in the Newcastle Journal in September 2013 as part of their Saturday Short Story series. It was later included in the Flashdogs Anthology.
Rock a bye baby
Alanah started life on the cold blue-black slate of the kitchen floor. She lay in the wet slithering mess of childbirth, content. Curled up and blinking in the colourless half-light of the winter afternoon, she didn’t cry. Instead, the cold tiles comforted her. The iron-rich smell from her mother’s blood seeped into Alanah’s subconscious. Trace minerals in the child’s body mixed with her surroundings, subtly amalgamating. Atoms of metal and stone bound to her soul. Alanah forged not a maternal bond, but a unique aggregate.
Her parents wrapped the newborn stranger in warm towels, divesting her of the protective film of blood. Alanah took her first breath and screamed. She cried constantly, unable to communicate her yearning for metal or stone. She was wrapped in blankets and cotton sleep suits in the misunderstanding that she needed comfort to ease her distress.
‘You try calming her down!’ said her mother, Sophie, flinging the child towards her husband. She went to bed exhausted and disillusioned. Alanah’s father, Ian held his daughter, inhaling her newborn smell. Her earthy aroma reminded him of the times he’d been pot-holing. Looking into her dark eyes he felt the same intrigue of the rocks that enticed him underground. He hadn’t been caving since Sophie had fallen pregnant. She was anxious that he would have a serious accident. Rocking Alanah now he didn’t hear her cries, lost in making plans to return underground.
Alanah cried late into the night. Overcome with tiredness, Ian was half asleep when her baby fingers grabbed the metal strap of his watch. Connected, Alanah grew silent and slept. Astonished, Ian kept the pose of pietas, gazing at her as she lay across him. But when he disentangled himself and lay her down she started screaming again. It was only when his wedding ring brushed her face and she nuzzled into his hand that she settled again. Ignorant of her need for metal he let her head rest on his hand, desperate only for sleep.
‘What did you do that I couldn’t?’ Sophie demanded bitterly the next morning. Ian had no explanation. Neither parent knew how to soothe their child. Both were ignorant of Alanah’s chemical imbalance. It was the baby’s innate needs that drove her to seek out and start sucking on the metal poppers of her baby-gro, giving sustenance. Sleep eventually came to all.
‘Get that out of your mouth!’ accompanied Sophie’s panicked slaps on the child’s back. Once crawling, Alanah sought out metallic or stone objects to suck. Her favourites were the house keys or discarded pennies. Having shovelled them into her mouth, their chemical properties permeated her palate or the pouch of her cheek. Recognising the signs of teething, Sophie replaced the nourishing metalloids with plastic teething rings. Alanah’s desire for metal made her poke her fingers into plug sockets. Ian fitted safety caps and tidied away cables. She discovered the kitchen cupboards, unearthing pots and baking sheets, sucking out their goodness. Her parents often found her stripped and spread-eagled on the kitchen floor, licking the rivulets of oxidised copper that ran through the tiles, trying to become part of the stone. Desperate, they fitted a safety gate to keep her out. Alanah just lay against it, sucking the metal bars, their delirious convict.
‘Alanah! What are you doing!’ shouted Sophie, coming in late from work. ‘And why haven’t you been watching her, Ian?’ Alanah was naked on the kitchen floor, the gate lazily left open. Ian was reading his caving magazine. He sprang up from the chair at the sound of Sophie’s voice. Alanah ignored her mother, face pressed ecstatically against the cold stone, absorbing sustenance through her skin.
‘She’s happy there. Why don’t you leave her alone?’ Ian walked into the kitchen. He didn’t see anything wrong with his daughter. Looking down at Alanah, he was sure he remembered his nephew running around naked when he was a toddler.
‘It’s not normal, Ian, this obsession with the floor. She needs stimulation. Why don’t you play with her?’ Sophie’s voice trailed off as she went upstairs.
Ian and Alanah were lying on the grassy floor of the den, heads together inspecting their collection of stones. Sophie was shouting Ian’s name, her voice filtered through the last of the evening sun. ‘I thought you two might be in here.’ Sophie stood at the entrance to the den, ‘How did she get on at nursery today, then?’
‘Well, we gave it a miss and went to the beach instead.’ Ian shuffled backwards out of the den, brushing mud off his knees. ‘We got loads today. Thought we’d got some jet but when we checked it in the book, it turned out to be obsidian. But Alanah did find a cracking piece of quartz.’
‘She needs to go to nursery, Ian, not the beach,’ Sophie followed Ian into the house, ‘She’s two years behind. Keeping her at home isn’t going to help when she starts school.’ Ian started tidying Alanah’s rocks, carefully putting them away in the right order. ‘It’s no good ignoring me, Ian.’ she continued, talking to his back. ‘She needs to at least learn to speak before she goes to school.’ Alanah stood unseen in the doorway, her bare toes on the tiles.
‘She speaks to me, Sophie’ Ian said quietly. Turning around, he spotted Alanah ‘Don’t you, love?’ Both parents looked at her, urging her to reply. Silently Alanah turned and went upstairs. ‘It’s time she was in bed anyway.’ Ian sighed.
At school the magnetic pull of the playground gates meant Alanah had to be prised from them every day, on the way in and on the way out. In the classroom she hugged the steel chair legs. She couldn’t concentrate unless she was sucking at the zip of her cardigan or grasping the metal bar on the underside of the table. The parquet floor of the assembly hall drained her, making her fidget. At break times Alanah followed the bare brick around the playground, her palm in constant contact with the stone.
‘We’re a bit worried about Alanah.’ said the teacher, glancing at Alanah who was sat next to Ian. She was sucking on a piece of haematite, sorting coins into size order, head bent in concentration.
‘I didn’t think it would be long before we had this discussion.’ Sophie started, relieved that someone else shared her concerns about Alanah’s development. Ian insisted she could speak and even write her name. Sophie had only ever heard Alanah say a few random words. She’d never even called her “mummy”. As Ian stood up and walked to the window, Sophie tried not to notice. The teacher started explaining her ideas about autism.
‘Here’s a leaflet about it, just something to think about.’ She smiled apologetically at Sophie as she pushed the leaflet across the table. ‘Excuse me, I need to pop out for a minute. I’ll leave you to read that while I’m gone.’
‘Look at this, Ian and tell me it isn’t Alanah to a T.’ Sophie said, pointing to the section about signs of autism, a victorious look on her face. ‘It’s no good sulking, Ian. It’s obvious Alanah is autistic – just come and read it, will you?’ The triumphalism rang in her voice. From the window Ian watched his daughter. She didn’t seem to be listening. Bypassing his wife he sat back down next to Alanah. ‘Right, then’ Sophie sighed ‘I’ll read it out to you. “Children with autism often find it difficult to interact or play” – that’s definitely Alanah’. She barked a laugh of conviction. Ian picked up one of Alanah’s coins. Without looking at him, she grabbed it and put it back in place. He could hear the stone in her mouth rattling off her teeth. She was moving it around with her tongue, like it was a gobstopper. When he did it again, she gave him a quiet grin, the haematite shining out of the side of her mouth. ‘“Autistic children don’t talk much”, it says here, Ian. Now that’s Alanah isn’t it? She hardly ever speaks.’ Ian remembered last summer when he’d taken Alanah to the beach searching for special stones for her collection. He remembered their long conversations, mostly about their joint fascination with rocks. They’d made plans to go pot-holing when she was older, betting on how old Alanah would be before Sophie would let them go. ‘And,’ Sophie started again but didn’t look up, too busy validating her assumptions. ‘It says here that often babies who have autism either sleep too much or not at all! Do you remember, she would never sleep, would she? And when she did it wasn’t for long enough!’ Sophie scanned the leaflet, shouting out the most corroborative snippets of information. ‘Listen. There’s a bit here about something called “pica”. It says it means “putting inedible items in the mouth”. Alanah does that all the time! She’s always sucking on a stone or something, isn’t she?’ Sophie looked up. Ian was playing with Alanah, sliding the coins back and forth, making different configurations. Before she could say any more Alanah’s teacher returned.
‘How are we getting on?’ she asked Sophie.
‘She’s not autistic. There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s just different.’ Ian answered, looking at Sophie.
‘I’m not sure you understand.’ The teacher sucked in her impatience. ‘She makes no verbal contribution, either in group work or individually. She makes no attempt to draw or write. She needs assessing properly. I’m sure you’ll both agree.’ She aimed her smile at Sophie. Ian placed his hand over the coins, making Alanah look up.
‘You’ve got to talk, love. And do the writing and things. That’s what you do at school. You can play with your collection at home. Just show them you can do it.’ All three adults looked at her, waiting. Eventually Alanah took the haematite out of her mouth and held it up, smiling,
‘I’m like a stone.’ Her voice was thin, stretched out like wire.
‘See. She talks fine. And she can draw and write too. Shall we show them your book?’ Alanah nodded and he pulled a wire-bound notebook out of his pocket. It was overstuffed with bits of paper and other scraps of things packed between the pages. He passed it to her. She put the stone back in her mouth. It clicked softly against teeth as she opened the book. She started to turn page after page of sketches and writings. Alanah had stuck in slivers of stone and metal she’d found on the beach or in the garden. As Sophie saw the pages she tried to think how Alanah could have done this. She hadn’t even seen her hold a crayon. She could tell Ian hadn’t helped; the writing and drawings were childlike, most of the first pages were just scribbles. But as Alanah turned more pages, the writing became neater, the drawings more structured and precise.
‘How long has she been doing this?’ Sophie looked from Ian to the teacher. The teacher just shrugged. Ian put his arm around Alanah, resting his head on hers. To him she still smelled of the caves, the deep underground.
‘You can talk to her, you know Sophie. She’s your daughter, too.’ Ian reached over with his other arm to hold Sophie’s hand. As he touched her, Sophie shuddered. She felt a kind of charge, like the tingle of static from a television set. ‘You can feel her, can’t you? She gives off this kind of energy, like a battery or something. I don’t know what it is but it makes me feel alive. She makes me feel happy, Sophie.’ Ian smiled, happy that he was connecting Sophie and Alanah at last. Then Alanah reached over and held Sophie’s other hand. The pulse of energy that flowed between the three of them made Sophie look at her daughter. Alanah’s dark eyes looked back at her. Then she smiled shyly, the haematite tucked in the side of her cheek.
© Pam Plumb 2015