You’ve got a pop belly, mama. Like when you had that baby.
It’s a pot belly, she said. And there was no baby.
I thought it was pop, because babies just pop out.
She didn’t say any more, though when I was very little she said I popped out like a pea—sweet pea—like my little cousin Billy did from Auntie Lo.
I shouldn’t have mentioned the baby. But in the light of that harvest moon, I saw them lowering something, her pushing it down with the walking pole and the cursing and panting and her clinging on to him so she didn’t get sucked down by the mud too. I’d followed them from a safe distance, up the track with the rotten fence and over the wild headland where the bogs get greedy after the rain. I’m not sure if it was him because many men look the same from behind in the dark. With their hoods up. The wind stole their hushed and gasping words.
The day after I said, You went up to the headland. I saw you both, I wanted to see where you were going with your big bag—
Big bag bog.
We were delivering the meat and eggs to the O’Malleys, she said.
The O’Malleys lived in a forlorn cottage up beyond and over the hill. The only cottage for miles. But why didn’t they go in Uncle Peter’s van and take the coast road? I guess they’d have had to walk up from the other side. As broad as it’s long, mama would have said.
Uncle Peter kept the meat supplies in the cold storage unit joining our cottage. He and Auntie Lo lived in the caravan at the bottom of our land and both of them, together with mama, saw to the hens and the eggs.
Papa’s car went pop pop last time I saw him. Just like the first time he turned up in it. The happy horn announced his arrival.
This is my rescue car, he said. We can go places now!
The exhaust was hanging down and popping out fumes as it bumped along and kicked up gravel. I coughed and laughed. He made it all shiny and happy and took me and Billy to vintage car rallies and travelling fairs.
That car is the belle of the ball, he said.
But after a while the car popped to a stop and needed fixing, sitting for ages on bricks under a tarpaulin. Papa got unhappy but it wasn’t just the car. A bottle of German beer was papa’s companion as he worked on it. He finally fixed it the day after the massive row with mama.
You’ve been seeing him while I’ve been working away from home, he roared. You’re not right in the head!
They woke me up with their shouting and door slamming.
Your belly! You’re up the duff and it can’t be mine.
What? There is no baby, she said. There is nobody else.
But he had proof. The coded messages on her phone to Uncle Peter, the schemes to cover their tracks. The row spilled outside. Her flame-hair fell from its moorings as he yanked her towards the chicken coops. The moonshine picked out the ghastly mascara stains beneath her eyes. She hissed. He tried to drag her as far as the caravan but when Aunt Lo appeared in the doorway to see what the commotion was, papa lost his nerve.
She’s been unfaithful and I’m leaving her. He spat the words.
Then he turned back to the cottage.
He was up at first light fixing the car with renewed resolve and I rushed down to be with him. He was silent, he didn’t want me beside him, delaying him, making leaving difficult. He’d come and gone before, and this distance in him was a sign he was about to go again.
Can me and Billy come with you, papa?
He shook his head.
Be good, he said, and after the final wipe of his hands on the oily cloth, he kissed the top of my head. I didn’t dare ask when he’d be back in case he said never. He got in the car, and drove erratically away, waving a hand from the window. The car went pop pop.
That was two years ago. Mama grew fatter and tried to hide her pop belly. I guess the baby died inside her. You know the rest. I’m still waiting for word from papa.
Kate Rigby is widely published and has been writing for over four decades. She writes mainly gritty or retro novels, but also non-fiction, short stories and poetry. She recently co-edited a hard-hitting poetry book on disability assessments. Website: http://kjrbooks.yolasite.com/ Amazon page: amazon.co.uk/Kate-Rigby