I went to Waitrose as usual in my lunchbreak to get the weekly stuff. I left my trolley by the vegetables and went to find bouquet garni for the soup. But when I came back to the vegetables again I couldn't find my trolley. It seemed to have been moved. In its place was someone else's shopping trolley, with a child sitting in its little child seat, its fat little legs through the leg-places.
Then I glanced into the trolley in which the child was sitting and saw in there the few things I'd already picked up: the three bags of oranges, the apricots, the organic apples, the folded copy of The Guardian and the tub of kalamata olives. They were definitely my things. It was definitely my trolley.
The child in it was blond and curly-haired, very fair-skinned and flushed, big-cheeked like a cupid or a chub-fingered angel on a Christmas card, a child out of an old-fashioned English children's book, the kind of book where they wear sunhats to stop them getting sunstroke all the post-war summer. This child was wearing a little blue tracksuit with a hood and blue shoes, and was quite clean, though a little crusty around the nose. Its lips were very pink and perfectly bow-shaped; its eyes were blue and clear and blank. It was an almost embarrassingly beautiful child.
Hello, I said. Where's your mother?
The child looked at me blankly.
I stood next to the potatoes and waited for a while. There were people shopping all round. One of them had clearly placed this child in my trolley and when he or she came to push the trolley away I could explain these were my things and we could swap trolleys or whatever and laugh about it and I could get on with my shopping as usual.
I stood for five minutes or so. After five minutes I wheeled the child in the trolley to the Customer Services desk.
I think someone somewhere may be looking for this, I said to the woman behind the desk, who was busy on a computer.
Looking for what, Madam? she said.
I presume you've had someone losing their mind over losing him, I said. I think it's a him. Blue for a boy, etc.
The Customer Services woman was called Marilyn Monroe. It said so on her namebadge.
Quite a name, I said, pointing to the badge.
I'm sorry? she said.
Your name, I said. You know. Monroe. Marilyn.
Yes, she said. That's my name.
She narrowed her eyes at me as if I sounded dangerously foreign to her.
How exactly can I help you? she said in a singsong voice.
Well, as I say, this child, I said.
What a lovely boy! she said. He's very like his mum.
Well, I wouldn't know, I said. He's not mine.
Oh, she said. She looked offended. But he's so like you. Aren't you? Aren't you, darling? Aren't you, sweetheart?
She waved the curly red wire attached to her key ring at the child, who watched it swing inches away from his face, nonplussed. I couldn't imagine what she meant. The child looked nothing like me at all.
No, I said. I went round the corner to get something and when I got back to my trolley he was there, in it.
Oh, she said. She looked very surprised. We've had no reports of a missing child, she said.
She pressed some buttons on an intercom thing.
Hello? she said. It's Marilyn on Customers. Good thanks, how are you? Anything up there on a missing child? No? Nothing on a child? Missing, or lost? Lady here claims she's found one.
She put the intercom down. No Madam, I'm afraid nobody's reported any child that's lost or missing, she said.
A small crowd had gathered behind us. He's adorable, one woman said. Is he your first?
He's not mine, I said.
How old is he? another said.
I don't know, I said.
You don't? she said. She looked shocked.
Aw, he's lovely, an old man, who seemed rather too poor a person to be shopping in Waitrose, said.
He got a fifty pence piece out of his pocket, held it up to me and said: Here you are. A piece of silver for good luck.
He tucked it into the child's shoe.
I wouldn't do that, Marilyn Monroe said. He'll get it out of there and swallow it and choke on it.
He'll never get it out of there, the old man said. Will you? You're a lovely boy. He's a lovely boy, he is. What's your name? What's his name? I bet you're like your dad. Is he like his dad, is he?
I've no idea, I said.
No idea! the old man said. Such a lovely boy! What a thing for his mum to say!
No, I said. Really. He's nothing to do with me, he's not mine. I just found him, in my trolley, when I came back with the -
At this point the child sitting in the trolley looked at me, raised his little fat arms in the air at me and said, straight at me: Mammuum.
Everybody in the little circle of baby admirers looked at me. Some of them looked knowing and sly. One or two nodded at each other.
The child did it again. It reached its arms, almost as if to pull itself up out of the trolley seat and lunge straight at me through the air.
Mummaam, it said.
The woman called Marilyn Monroe picked up her intercom again and spoke into it. Meanwhile the child had started to cry. It screamed and bawled. It shouted its word for mother at me over and over again and shook the trolley with its shouting.
Give him your car keys, a lady said. They love to play with car keys.
Bewildered, I gave the child my keys. It threw them to the ground and screamed all the more.
Lift him out, a woman in a Chanel suit said. He just wants a little cuddle.
It's not my child, I explained again. I've never seen it before in my life.
Here, she said.
She had pulled the child out of the wire basket of the trolley seat, holding it at arm's length so her little suit wouldn't get smeared. It screamed even more as its legs came out of the wire seat, its face got redder and redder and the whole shop resounded with the screaming. I was embarrassed. I felt peculiarly responsible. I'm so sorry, I said to the people round me. The Chanel woman shoved the child hard into my arms.
Immediately it put its arms round me and quietened to fretful cooing.
Jesus Christ, I said, because I had never felt so powerful in all my life.
The crowd round us made knowing noises. See? a woman said. I nodded.
There, the old man said. That'll always do it. You don't need to be scared, love.
Such a pretty child, a passing woman said. The first three years are a nightmare, another said, wheeling her trolley past me towards the fine wines. Yes, Marilyn Monroe was saying into the intercom. Claiming it wasn't. Hers. But I think it's all right now. Isn't it Madam? All right now? Madam?
Yes, I said through a mouthful of the child's blond hair.
Go on home, love, the old man said. Give him his supper and he'll be right as rain.
Teething, a woman ten years younger than me said. She shook her head; she was a veteran. It can drive you crazy, she said, but it's not forever. Don't worry. Go home now and have a nice cup of herb tea and it'll all settle down, he'll be asleep as soon as you know it.
Yes, I said. Thanks very much. What a day.
A couple of women gave me encouraging smiles, one patted me on the arm. The old man patted me on the back, squeezed the child's foot inside its shoe. Fifty pence, he said. That used to be ten shillings. Long before your time, little soldier. Used to buy a week's worth of food, ten shillings did. In the old days, eh? Ah well, some things change and some others never do. Eh? Eh Mum?
Yes. Ha ha. Don't I know it, I said, shaking my head.
I carried the child out into the car park. It weighed a ton.
I thought about leaving it right there in the car park behind the recycling bins, where it couldn't do too much damage to itself and someone would easily find it before it starved or anything. But I knew that if I did this the people in the store would remember me and track me down after all the fuss we'd just had. So I laid it on the back seat of the car, buckled it in with one of the seatbelts and the blanket off the back window, and got in the front. I started the engine.
I would drive it out of town to one of the villages, I decided, and leave it there, on a doorstep or outside a shop or something, when no-one was looking, where someone else would report it found and its real parents or whoever had lost it would be able to claim it back. I would have to leave it somewhere without being seen, though, so no one would think I was abandoning it.
Or I could simply take it straight to the police. But then I would be further implicated. Maybe the police would think I had stolen the child, especially now that I had left the supermarket openly carrying it as if it were mine after all.
I looked at my watch. I was already late for work.
I cruised out past the garden centre and towards the motorway and decided I'd turn left at the first signpost and deposit it in the first quiet, safe, vaguely-peopled place I found, then race back into town. I stayed in the inside lane and watched for village signs.
You're a really rubbish driver, a voice said from the back of the car. I could do better than that, and I can't even drive. Are you for instance representative of all women drivers, or is it just you among all women who's so rubbish at driving?
It was the child speaking. But it spoke with so surprisingly charming a little voice that it made me want to laugh, a voice as young and clear as a series of ringing bells arranged into a pretty melody. It said the complicated words, representative and for instance, with an innocence that sounded ancient, centuries old, and at the same time as if it had only just discovered their meaning and was trying out their usage and I was privileged to be present when it did.
I slewed the car over to the side of the motorway, switched the engine off and leaned over the front seat into the back. The child still lay there helpless, rolled up in the tartan blanket, held in place by it inside the seatbelt. It didn't look old enough to be able to speak. It looked barely a year old.
It's terrible. Asylum seekers come here and take all our jobs and all our benefits, it said preternaturally, sweetly. They should all be sent back to where they come from.
There was a slight endearing lisp on the s sounds in the words asylum and seekers and jobs and benefits and sent.
What? I said.
Can't you hear? Cloth in your ears? it said. The real terrorists are people who aren't properly English. They will sneak into football stadiums and blow up innocent Christian people supporting innocent English teams.
The words slipped out of its ruby-red mouth. I could just see the glint of its little coming-through teeth.
It said: The pound is our rightful heritage. We deserve our heritage. Women shouldn't work if they're going to have babies. Women shouldn't work at all. It's not the natural order of things. And as for gay weddings. Don't make me laugh.
Then it laughed, blondly, beautifully, as if only for me. Its big blue eyes were open and looking straight up at me as if I were the most delightful thing it had ever seen.
I was enchanted. I laughed back.
From nowhere a black cloud crossed the sun over its face, it screwed up its eyes and kicked its legs, waved its one free arm around outside the blanket, its hand clenched in a tiny fist, and began to bawl and wail.
It's hungry, I thought, and my hand went down to my shirt and before I knew what I was doing I was unbuttoning it, getting myself out, and planning how to ensure the child's later enrolment in one of the area's better secondary schools.
I turned the car around and headed for home. I had decided to keep the beautiful child. I would feed it. I would love it. The neighbours would be amazed that I had hidden a pregnancy from them so well, and everyone would agree that the child was the most beautiful child ever to grace our street. My father would dandlethe child on his knee. About time too, he'd say. I thought you were never going to make me a grandfather. Now I can die happy.
The beautiful child's melodious voice, in its pure RP pronunciation, the pronunciation of a child who's already been to an excellent public school and learned how exactly to speak, broke in on my dream.
Why do women wear white on their wedding day? it asked from the back of the car.
What do you mean? I said.
Why do women wear white on their wedding day? it said again.
Because white signifies purity, I said. Because it signifies-
To match the stove and the fridge when they get home, the child interrupted. An Englishman, an Irishman, a Chineseman and a Jew are all in an aeroplane flying over the Atlantic.
What? I said.
What's the difference between a pussy and a cunt? the child said in its innocent pealing voice.
Language! please! I said.
I bought my mother-in-law a chair, but she refused to plug it in, the child said. I wouldn't say my mother-in-law is fat, but we had to stop buying her Malcolm X t-shirts because helicopters kept trying to land on her.
I hadn't heard a fat mother-in-law joke for more than twenty years. I laughed. I couldn't not.
Why did they send premenstrual women into the desert to fight the Iraqis? Because they can retain water for four days. What do you call a Pakistani with a paper bag over his head?
Right, I said. That's it. That's as far as I go.
I braked the car and stopped dead on the inside lane. Cars squealed and roared past us with their drivers leaning on their horns and shaking their fists. I switched on the hazard lights. The child sighed.
You're so politically correct, it said behind me, charmingly. And a terrible driver. How do you make a woman blind? Put a windscreen in front of her.
Ha ha, I said. That's an old one.
I took the B roads and drove to the middle of a dense wood. I opened the back door of the car and bundled the beautiful blond child out. I locked the car. I carried the child for half a mile or so until I found a sheltered spot, where I left it in the tartan blanket under the trees.
I've been here before, you know, the child told me. S'not my first time.
Goodbye, I said. I hope wild animals find you and raise you well.
I drove home.
But all that night I couldn't stop thinking about the helpless child in the woods, in the cold, with nothing to eat and nobody knowing it was there.
I got up at 4am and wandered round my bedroom. Sick with worry, I drove back out to the wood road, stopped the car in exactly the same place and walked the half-mile back into the trees.
There was the child, still there, still wrapped in the tartan travel rug.
You took your time, it said. I'm fine, thanks for asking. I knew you'd be back. You can't resist me.
I put it in the back seat of the car again.
Here we go again. Where to now? the child said.
Guess, I said.
Can we go somewhere with broadband so I can look up some internet porn? the beautiful child said, beautifully.
I drove to the next city and pulled into the first supermarket carpark I passed. It was 6.45 am and it was open.
Ooh, the child said. My first 24 Hour Tesco's. I've had an Asda and a Sainsbury's but I've not been to a Tesco's before.
I pulled the brim of my hat down over my eyes to evade being identifiable on closed circuit and carried the tartan bundle in through the out doors when two other people were leaving. The supermarket was very quiet, but there were one or two people shopping. I found a trolley, half-full of good things, French butter, Italian olive oil, a folded new copy of The Guardian, left standing in the biscuits aisle, and emptied the child into it out of the blanket, slipping his pretty little legs in through the gaps in the opened child seat.
There you go, I said. Good luck. All the best. I hope you get what you need.
I know what you need all right, the child whispered after me, but quietly, in case anybody should hear. Psst, he hissed. What do you call a woman with two brain cells? Pregnant! Why were shopping trolleys invented? To teach women to walk on their hind legs!
Then he laughed his charming peal of a pure childish laugh and I slipped away out of the aisle and out of the doors past the shopgirls cutting open the plastic binding on the morning's new tabloids and arranging them on the newspaper shelves, and out of the supermarket, back to my car, and out of the car park, while all over England the bells rang out in the morning churches and the British birdsong welcomed the new day, God in his heaven, and all being right with the world.