Picasso’s Face—VS Pritchett Short Story Prize-winner 2020

It was probably a mistake to take the baby to the beach...

January 12, 2021
Kate Lockwood Jefford
Kate Lockwood Jefford

It didn’t cry or make much of any sort of fuss all day, which was amazing really, considering.

After picking the baby up, I’d dawdled at the fag-end of a flea market behind the brand-new football stadium which loomed, vast and shiny as a spaceship, above the tangled heaps of clothes, sad shoes, scuffed plates and naked Barbies on their backs, arms and legs stuck out like marching zombies.

There was nothing there for a baby.

It was probably a mistake to take the baby to the beach, but there was a tram coming and the stop was right there. A man of fiftyish with slicked-back hair sat waiting with a pony-tailed pre-pubescent girl. Father and daughter, I presumed. Probably a second marriage for him. A woman in a bar had been telling Roberto and me how the national divorce rate for middle-aged couples had spiked after 1976. Most of the men remarried younger women who went for them because they were solvent, but the women, well, she said, the women were gagging to get on their glad rags and go. Out to work, to college. To restaurants and bars. They wanted sex, yes, but husbands? No.

Roberto said it made marriage sound cold, unromantic.

The tram was crowded, surprisingly so. No seats, not even for a woman with a baby. I squeezed the baby tight to my chest. It was so peaceful. Not a peep. I’d wrapped it in one of the polyester scarves I’d bought to hang across the bare windows of our rental apartment. I don’t like people looking in. Roberto’s face was pinched in disapproval, but he didn’t know what I did when he was out. 

Roberto was right about some things. But he was wrong about me and motherhood.

It suited me to death.

Roberto absolutely should’ve listened. But he was so insistent about saving the planet, going on and on about too many mouths to feed and carbon footprints. In the end I stopped bringing it up. Decided to do it my own way.

At the beach the sun was high and fierce and hot as hell and there was no shade to speak of. Too close to the middle of the day. The shadows were short. Me and the baby looked like a squat two-headed monster. The promenade was sunstroke-bright, and still no shade. Nada. Not from the skinny giraffe-high palm trees or the row of huts selling sunglasses, espadrilles, beach mats. The baby was far too young for any of that.

The scarf worked well as a baby-sling and I made sure all its soft as a petal skin was covered. Sleepy it was by then. Slow blinking dazed eyes. It hadn’t come with a pram or a pushchair but weighed no more than the five kilo dumbbells I’d been using to build upper arm strength. Roberto was never a big man, but he was solid. I knew he’d be no feather to shift when the time came.

The smell of sulphur from sea-sludge and rotting fish got up my nose, mingling with aromas of chicken and garlic and oil from the string of restaurants advertising paella and aircon. Air-conditioningdries me out, gives me eczema and cold sores. God knows it couldn’t be good for a baby.

I took a tram back to the city with a notion of finding a shady spot for an ice cream. I had a park in mind, the green patch north of the riverbed on my map.

When the tram stopped for lights at an intersection, I watched two young women in Lycra shorts perform a swift acrobatics act with a hoop, then whiz along the line of cars collecting tips from drivers slumped in their seats, a row of elbows resting on open windows.

I used to be amazingly slim and supple. People would come up to me and ask if I was a model, or a dancer. 

There were a lot of teenagers on the tram, all bare limbs, tanned and tattooed. Little birds and angels on shoulder blades. Some of them were singing Spanish pop songs. Others were speaking a language I didn’t recognize, but every so often something English sounding came out. I’m sure someone said breastfeeding. You need breasts for that. I’d have to buy some formula soon and I was worried all the supermarkets would be closed, even though I’d checked online and found a Mercadona that should beopen until nine-thirty. But you can’t always trust the information on the Internet.

I pressed my lips to the baby’s head, felt the firmness of its body, a warm, moist bundle sticking to me, dampening my shirt, its fingernails, so tiny, tiny, and precious like mother-of-pearl. If I didn’t hop out quickly enough, they’d be jammed and blackened in the tram doors.

On my way to the park I passed a tennis club. The sound of rubber balls bouncing on a court, like popping your finger in your cheek.

I was never really a big fan of tennis. Not since Ilie Nastase, who turned out to be not a very nice man. Dark and good-looking though.

I always liked dark.

Roberto used to be dark, so I overlooked his disappointing height. Tall would have been good. Still, in the end I didn’t need to worry about genes. He said nothing when I put the child safety gate on the stairs.

The park was quiet, eerily so. A man sat alone on a bench. I glimpsed a couple on bikes in the distance.It felt empty, exposed. I felt vulnerable. Who’d have thought I’d feel like that in a public park on a Sunday afternoon? Women are not really safe anywhere. Even women with babies. Especially women with babies. People can be very funny about babies.

I shifted the baby higher. Its sweet little head lolled on my shoulder. It had a fair amount of hair for a baby. Dark. It could even have been Roberto’s child.

We strolled to the southern end of the park where there were trees, a kiosk, families sitting at tables, toddlers running about. Toddlers are too much for me, what with all their tears and teeth and sticky little hands tugging at your hem.

I prefer babies.

I fancied a tub of ice-cream but there were none at the kiosk, so I bought a white chocolate Magnum. The girl who served me was curt, actually quite surly. She must have disapproved of the baby, or the way I was carrying it.

I had to eat the Magnum standing in the only slither of shade I could find because all the seats were taken. You’d think someone would have moved for a woman with a baby, in such heat. Maybe no-one realised the peaceful, still bundle was a baby. I pulled the scarf across to reveal the top of its head, so they’d see.

I gave the baby a tiny, tiny taste, a blob of ice-cream on my little finger slipped into its purple hole of a mouth. There must be some milk in a Magnum. Its mouth felt cooler than I’d expected, but it hadn’t cried or made much noise at all. No coos or ma-ma-ma. Just some hiccuppy sounds. It couldn’t have been hungry. A strong pong like poo hit me suddenly. I sniffed it down there, but it wasn’t the baby. It must’ve been manure or compost. My face felt flushed and my armpits sticky, rivulets of sweat ran from the base of my neck to pool in the hollow of my back. The front of me was soaked.

I emerged from the park next to a grand, domed building that turned out to be the Museo de Bellas Artes. It was free entry and they didn’t mind the baby. The man on the desk touched its head, like the pope giving his blessing. I didn’t appreciate him doing that to the baby. I didn’t want it catching anything. I couldn’t think of the Spanish to say all that, so I gave him a look I don’t think he registered.

Inside was airy, almost chilly, a marble echo-chamber of footsteps and whispers, a faint smell of fresh paint. There was a small exhibition about Picasso, mainly photographs. Picasso’s face. Round as a dinner plate, arch of white hair receding above a sheeny convex forehead, eyes like chocolate buttons. Letters to Jacqueline were displayed in a low glass case, hard to read with a baby. I didn’t want to tip it. At the end some ceramics on plinths. That face again.

Roberto’s face when it dawned. What I’d done. There doesn’t have to be noise and mess. A man can fall asleep over his dinner. Good job I didn’t have the baby with me then. It wouldn’t have been good for it. Babies are very sensitive.

I noticed the museum attendants had truncheons and handcuffs hanging from their belts. That couldn’t be right.

Roberto was such a liar. He had it coming, he really did.

When I took maternity leave, nobody asked questions. They all clubbed together and got me a bouquet of flowers and a scented candle. The flowers were tricky to get home on public transport in rush hour.

They don’t know you, do they? Roberto said, when he saw the gifts.

They do, I said. It’s you who doesn’t.

He should have heeded the warnings. They were written all over my face.

After the museum Iwalked to the cathedral, perched my bony bottom on a pew and pulled the baby close. It was dim and cool after the blinding, scorching conditions outside, smelled of wax, incense, ancient stone and dead saints. Tourists prowled with selfie-sticks. Old ladies with black lace mantillas on their bowed heads clicked rosary beads in twisted hands crisscrossed with purple veins.

The baby remained so peaceful. A proper catholic baby.

I lit a candle for Roberto. An actual candle, not one of those electric ones they have in most churches now. It almost slipped from my fingers as I held its tip close to another candle to light it. There’s nothing like a real flame.

I sensed the baby twitch, its head rolled like it might fall off. I took it back outside. I’d gone too far off course for Mercadona but saw I was close to a shop I’d seen the previous day that sold colourful leather handbags made by local artisans. I’d wondered about buying four, one each for my sisters, getting them gift-wrapped and sent to Florida. But looking at the bags again, it was obvious they were too small. No room even for a baby.

My arms were tired. I regretted the lack of a pushchair. I sat the baby on the pavement, propped against a lamppost so it didn’t fall sideways. Just for a moment, to rest my arms. The pavement was lovely and warm.

The baby didn’t move. I walked to the next lamppost, stood behind it and poked my head out, but it was probably too young for peekaboo. It stayed upright, and so calm. It couldn’t ever be Roberto’s child. I walked a little further, to see what it would do, but it just stared at me in a strange, unsettling way.

Just like Roberto.

But still it didn’t cry.

I retreated further.

I wondered about a taxi. For all his fulminating against fossil fuels, Roberto was very fond of taking taxis. He thought I didn’t know. Thought I didn’t see the headlights throw moving stripes across the bedroom ceiling as I lay waiting, thought I didn’t hear the engine ticking or guess how he paused so I wouldn’t link the sound of the car to his key scraping the lock. Him and his fold-up bike parked in the hall, all sanctimonious, poised to trip me, bruise my shins and toes.

Later, on the balcony, watching people dancing in the square below, I tried to picture Roberto, but I could only see Picasso’s face.

I didn’t yet know they’d get the details wrong in the paper, say I was forty-seven when I was actually forty-six. It’s always the way when you’re born near the end of the year. People round it up. It’s annoying.

I had an urge to go down to the square. A woman on her own wouldn’t be noticed in a crowd like that. I could smile and wave from the edges. I could even dance.

Roberto never would.