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by Alan Beard

Bones ache. Leaves frosted. Lone bird singing, low rumble of traffic. House seems to elongate, squeeze down, trapped with baby like a stone in a maze. Like the bull, what was it, that joke we always had, what’s that half man/half animal? Minotaur. No, Buffalo Bill. Days of walking between pubs, shouting and jostling and singing out loud, so sure of ourselves.

You can have quiet, maybe a bit of radio. Some stillness by the window, but then baby overrides all. Behaviour becomes automatic, a kind of stupor, re-working earlier jobs. Making feeds, washing utensils, sterilising, changing, coaxing, gurgling, tickling, comforting, singing, carry and jiggle, over and over, gurgle, gurgle until you feel like a cow or a machine, or both, a cow-machine, feeding, tidying, keeping up, shutting down.

Texted June, drinking partner from some years ago, when I was working. Rang her too, hi what you doing type of conversation which I can’t steer to what I want to say, ask. Anyway she’s busy, kids growing up, couldn’t possibly fit me into her life, so I don’t ask.

Finally out, the same walks again and again, shop to shop to grab the goods to keep us going. Me and the little one. Filling up the pushchair beneath the baby, bag hanging from the handle, almost tipping.

Waiting for the bus, road stuffed with traffic, humming, stopped, sputtering out exhaust. Darkness, half fog. Lights blurred, the road walled on both sides, trees stick out above, above head height. Bricks seem oil-soaked, paper in cracks. Leaves long dead have rotted and stuck onto the pavement to pattern it. Taxis go by I wish I could afford. Teenagers occupied in their headphones, their texting. A dog with muscles at the end of his lead. Cold going down my back, spine like a crocodile’s, seems to be growing and pushing out the skin, like a tunnel being dug. The wrong bus comes, then another one, and people get off and on while I wait, sucking in the fumes along with fag smoke, baby quiet again. Occasionally shift the pushchair, roll it towards the kerb and pull it back. This time, pushing it towards the clamour, I’ll let go.

Alan Beard has two collections out, Taking Doreen Out of the Sky (Picador, 1999) and You Don’t Have to Say (Tindal Street Press, 2010). He has had numerous stories and flashes in magazines and anthologies, including Best British Short Stories 2011 (Salt).