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The Time Child

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Helen Henley



After my appointment with the specialist I went through the door marked ‘Patient Rest Area’ and got myself a coffee from the machine. As I turned to find a chair I saw the child. It was perched against a cushion in one of the upholstered sofas, curly-haired, fair-skinned and flushed, big-cheeked like a cupid in a Botticelli painting. I looked around for the mother but the room was otherwise deserted.

‘Hello’, I said. ‘Where's your mummy?’ The child looked at me blankly.

I finished my coffee, looked at the prescription - Prozac - and considered what the specialist had said about the root cause of the headaches, the heavy periods and loss of appetite being my break-up with Roger. I was acutely aware of blue eyes staring at me. ‘You’re being a very good boy,’ I said conversationally. ‘I am sure mummy will be back soon.’

I went out into the corridor but there was no sign of anyone who could make a claim to be a mother. I turned to go back in and was propelled through the door as a hospital trolley came round the corner at speed with four white-gowned staff in attendance. ‘Stand aside, cardiac arrest’ shouted someone. The trolley vanished noisily through the swing doors at the opposite end.

Unnerved, I lifted the child off the sofa, concerned to protect him. We did cuddling . It was an amazing, wonderful feeling.

‘That was what was wrong with Roger,’ I said very quietly. ‘For three years he had my loving.’ The child gurgled and snuggled his head into my shoulder. ‘Three years when we never once made love without him being careful. I moved the child to the other shoulder and rubbed his back thoughtfully. ‘I know what you are going to say, one just like you might have made the difference. But he kept insisting marriage was meaningless. But it isn’t is it?’ I felt a small hand rubbing my breast. I sighed. ‘Let’s find your lucky mummy then.’

I walked with the child down the corridor. I looked this way and that and saying ‘Hello’ in a sort of helpless voice. I found my way to reception.

‘I think someone may be looking for this’, I said to the nurse behind the desk.

‘Looking for what?’ she said without looking up.

‘I feel sure you've had someone losing their mind over losing him’, I said. ‘I’m sure it's a him; the blue tracksuit - blue for a boy. Ha,ha.’ The nurse looked up, stared at the child who stared back.

‘Could you put a call out on the speaker system?’ I said, trying to sound helpful.

‘We are not allowed to put out messages on the public address. It is now considered to be an invasion of a patient’s right to privacy.’ She turned away and picked up a phone. She pressed some buttons. ‘ Hello?’ she said. ‘That you Jean? Good thanks, how are you? Yes, it was great evening. And Nigel, well I laughed so much I was sore. Must do it again. Oh, while you there, anything on a missing child? Lady here claims she's found one.’ She listened to the voice at other end then turned to me. ‘ Maternity - that’s the likely place. Turn left at the end of corridor, up the stairs and you will see it at the end on the landing. It’s clearly marked.’ She returned to the phone to agree that Nigel had been the life and soul of the party.

It wasn’t clearly marked and on the way down yet another corridor the child and I were nearly run down again by cardiac arrest traveling with the retinue of medical staff at warp speed in the other direction.

The sign on the desk in the maternity department said ‘Madge Blenkinsop’. Madge was on the phone and did not turn round. She said to the wall. ‘Your appointment is with whom?’

‘I don’t have an appointment. I have found this child...’

‘If you haven’t an appointment please take a seat.’ The tone was exasperation overlaid with stress and bad temper. She shifted her position just long enough to hand me a card with the number 17 on it. ‘When you hear your number called just go through that door there.’ She waved vaguely at a pair of green swing doors and continued her phone conversation.

The child was starting to get heavy so I was glad of a seat. Two women, one with a push- chair, the other with a carry-cot, rearranged themselves to give me room.

‘He's a lovely boy,’ Push-chair said. She lowered her face close to the child. ‘A real poppet aren’t you sweetheart? Is he your first?’

‘How old is he?’ Carry-cot asked.

‘I don't know,’ I said.

‘You don't?’ she said. She looked shocked.

‘Number 9' shouted the woman at the desk. There was a mild commotion at the other end of the room and a child started howling in the way they have when they decide they are not getting the attention they deserve, or just too much attention.

Push-chair looked at me. ‘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!’ Carry-cot said. ‘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 the rest room and I am trying to locate his mother. At this point the child sitting on my lap turned and looked at me, stretched out his little fat arms and said, ‘Mummy.’

The women seated along the opposite wall looked knowing and smiled. Push-chair and Carry-cot nodded at each other over my head. The child pulled itself up on my lap, turned, and threw its arms round my neck half strangling me. ‘Mummy.’

‘Number 10' yelled Madge. As I wrestled with the child he started to cry. Crying escalated into screaming. I had the full attention of the entire room, even the toddlers came to look. Even Madge had to put down the phone, turn round and stare at us. I thought she was about to say something about keeping the noise down as this was a National Health Service Hospital with a two million overspend but she just looked away.

‘He probably wants changing,’ Carry-cot said in a knowledgeable tone. ‘I’ve got a spare you can have.’ She opened a huge shopping bag.

‘I’ve never changed a nappy,’ I said truthfully.

Carry-cot look more shocked. ‘Oh, one of those! Nanny’s day off is it? Nanny couldn’t come and you had to cancel your cocktail party and turn out. What a bleeding shame.’ She looked over my head at Push-chair. ‘They enjoy the making and ‘aving them but they don’t want the responsibility. Let someone else bring them up - we can afford it they tell their husbands.’

The rest of the room made it clear with gestures and looks that they disapproved of mothers who could afford nannies. Sensing the atmosphere for a riot, the receptionist shouted ‘Number 17.’ She was too late. I was already out of the door and on my way down the corridor with the bawling child held at an undignified angle across my chest.

Back at reception I could see I was not going to get any further help. Cardiac arrest was parked in his trolley blocking the access. One of the white-coated attendants was waving a stethoscope like a weapon and shouting at the reception nurse, ‘There has to be a bed somewhere.’

I carried the child out into the car park. He weighed a ton. I got him on the back seat and secured him in a car rug wrapped clumsily in the seat belt. As we drove out I waved to cardiac arrest being hurriedly wheeled towards a building with the sign Proctology.

The police station was closed. A sign on the door gave the opening hours and directed me to another sign with instructions on what to do when the police station was closed. Someone had obscured the wording using a black aerosol to write the word ‘Pigs’ across it.

I apologized for dialing the emergency services but said that a lost child was probably an emergency. The women on the end of the line was sympathetic and suggested I take him round to the hospital. It was her best suggestion before I lost the signal.

I thought about leaving the child right there on the steps of the church. But the police now had my name and address and I would probably be traced.

I sat staring into the dusk and said aloud ‘What the hell do I do now?’

A clear voice said, ‘The best thing you can do is to take me home.’

There was a long silence followed by mental flashing lights and loud ringing alarm systems.

That’s it, I thought. Just as I expected I’m having a nervous breakdown. First I had been telling my problems to a child, now I was hearing voices.

I leant over the front seat into the back. The child still lay there rolled in the car rug, but it had freed itself from the seatbelt. It didn't look old enough to be able to speak beyond saying ‘Mummy’.

‘For a minute there I thought you spoke?’ I said.

The voice said, ‘Yes, yes, I did. Impossible, against all reason. But I can explain. Really. Let’s go back your place, wherever that is, and we will discuss it calmly. You don’t look the hysterical type - not like the last one.’ Big blue eyes were open and looking straight up at me with an expression of adoration. I was mesmerized as if the whole thing was one of those long dreams where you are doing stupid things and wished you weren’t.

‘Look’, said the child, ‘Trust me. I can help you. Yes, really. And, by the way, that Roger - what an uncaring, selfish arsehole.’

‘Oh hell, you heard all that.’

‘I did and while you were messing about calling the police I had a look in your handbag...’

I learnt further over the seat and saw the contents of my handbag strewn all over the seat and floor of the car. ‘You are a very naughty boy.’ I thought to myself, I am going to awake up in a minute and it will be fine - no child, handbag intact.’

The child blew a bubble. ‘Never mind all that - I read your bank statement, you are up to your nose in debt. I can solve all that.’

In a voice that was tinged with mounting hysteria I said, ‘You have no right reading my private papers - at any age.’

‘Look Mummy - if I can call you that - in the mess I am in, and the mess you are in, we neither of us have time for the social niceties.’

‘Please God, I’m dreaming this.’

‘Don’t bring Him into it, this is a private deal.’

We stared at each other. The child had the most the adorable smile and had got his arms-out-for-a-cuddle gesture off to perfection.

I started the car and headed for home. I could explain that I was looking after the beautiful child for a friend. Yes, that made sense. Then of course I would have to take the beautiful child to the police and tell them the whole story. A voice prompted me from the back seat. ‘You need to stop for baby food and disposable nappies and also a copy of the Racing Post.’

I pulled into the parking lot at the supermarket. ‘I don’t know why I am doing this,’ I said to the bundle in the back.

‘It’s because I am the most beautiful baby you have ever met,’ said the voice from the back seat. ‘And don’t forget - the newsagent - a copy of Racing Post.’

‘I don’t think it carries anything in it about baby care,’ I said.

Mrs Clegg, my downstairs neighbour who is forever telling about how she brought up four was very understanding. She loaned me both a high chair and a cot. ‘Your friend should have brought hers round for you.’

‘She had to leave in something of a hurry,’ I said.

Following Mrs Clegg’s instructions I changed the beautiful child's nappy and listened to his beautifully modulated voice and perfect pronunciation. He declared that the explanation would be best in the morning after a good night’s sleep. First though I had to read out to him the runners and the riders and the trainers at two race meetings, one Saturday and one on Sunday. He had me make copious notes.

I did not sleep. I spent most of the night staring into the cot. At six I was changing another evil smelling nappy and then feeding him. Nine o’clock I was in what I can best describe as a condition of unreal unreality on the PC. At the child’s prompting I was opening up an account with a bookmaker using my credit card that was already almost up to its limit. ‘Yes, yes’, he said rolling onto his back and wriggling his legs, ‘we are sorting that out right now. I have been to that race meeting. Lost a packet I did.’

‘I know I am dreaming all this but I still don’t understand,’ I said, ‘You lost money and so what makes you think you will have more success with this race meeting?’ He paused his wriggling to look at me. ‘I didn’t know the winners that time but I do now. Trust me. Four trebles, an accumulator and a Yankee.’

‘I don’t know what those bets are and I don’t know why I am doing this.’ I burst into tears. ‘It is mad and I am going mad.’

From the high chair the child said ‘Cut out the waterworks and give me a cuddle and you’ll feel so much better.’

‘Wormholes’ said the child from my shoulder. I stared at him as he played with my hair. ‘ I came through one from 2007. Yes, difficult to grasp but the technique of time travel has been known for years and I might hope you have read Paul Davies How to build a Time Machine published in 2001. No? Anyway, he was right but only now - I mean then - has a way been found to establish a permanent time difference between the two ends of the wormhole. No, I didn’t think you’d understand.’ The child laughed his musical laugh. ‘A way has been found to go back or forward in time and, for a short while, occupy the mind and body of someone living then. Anyway, I cocked up everything including the time coordinates and instead of getting myself into the body and mind of the chosen adult when he was aged 47 in 2050 I found myself here in 2005 when he was still a child. And the worse thing is that back in the lab they will be trying to bring me back from 2050.’ He began a sob quietly and I gave him another cuddle. ‘There, there.’ I heard myself say, ‘Mummy’s here.’

I wiped a crust from his nose. He sniffed . ‘I know you are Angela so you had better know my name. Surprised you didn’t ask right off. I’m Rodney and this’ he looked down and displayed his tiny toes, ‘is , when I am not using him, John and John’s feet.’

‘Hello, Rodney.’ I said.

‘Hello, Angela.’ he said. And we both laughed. Suddenly it seemed to make some strange kind of sense.

Mrs Clegg arrived with a pushchair. We put Rodney in it and wheeled him to the park so he could see the ducks. He glared up at us all the way there and bawled all the way back. I fed him with more of what Rodney called ‘disgusting slops’, changed his nappy and put him down for a nap. I decided I needed moral support. I rang my father on his mobile omitting the details that might excite the suspicion that his daughter was insane. He said he would be round as soon as the bowls match was over.

Propped up on cushions before the Tv Rodney was getting more and more excited. ‘Ring them up and they will tell you the exact amount but my guess that even before the race meeting tomorrow they owe you £18,000. It was in the papers then - I mean now - about one anonymous punter taking the bookies to the cleaners. I never dreamed it was me - I mean us.’

‘Your mother, God rest her, always hoped you’d make us grandparents but when you and wotshisname split up…’ My father tickled him under the chin. ‘He’s a lovely little chap. How long have you got him for? What about your job?’

I said I was packing that in for the time being as I’d had rather a nice win on the gee-gees. Father said I was always surprising him as he did not know I was even interested in horse racing. My story of meeting a distraught woman in a café who had been let down at the last minute by her baby-minder, just an hour before she due at the airport, distracted him and was accepted. I waved my hand vaguely and said I thought it would be a week.

The smart suited man from the turf accountants who arrived on Monday, after I wheeled Rodney back from the shops, said it was customary with a big winner to deliver the cheque in person. There was also the matter of checking for possible fraud before handing over £39,422.62p after tax. Especially since I was a previously unknown customer who had only opened the account on Saturday.

I had rehearsed the story with Rodney. I had until recently worked in a betting office where I had gained my knowledge but staff there were not allowed to bet. Smart suit said that would explain everything. He wished me luck in the future. He smiled. ‘But not too much luck as we cannot afford too many punters like you.’

‘He’s going to be a prize-fighter when he grows up,’ said father struggling with a wriggling Rodney. ‘He is very strong for his age. He gave me a real left hook just now.’ It was now ten days later and father had decided we needed to talk to the police and the social services. There had been no contact from the mother.

Ms Prism was one of those tall angular women who regard social work as a relentless crusade against the forces of intransigence, stupidity and ignorance. The woman police constable who came with her said that all the enquiries had drawn a blank. The name I had given them had turned out to be a receptionist in the maternity department at the hospital who had become rather upset when quizzed by the police. ‘You must have been given a false name.’ Father, fielding punches from Rodney, said that his daughter was prepared to look after the child while further enquiries were made. Miss Prism declared that was out of the question, I was not on the list of approved foster parents and she looked down at me from the height of her angular nose as if to say I was unlikely even to be considered.

Rodney, howling and screaming, was taken from father and installed in her car. She returned with a folio of paper for me to read and sign. Out of the corner of my eye I could see through the car window small limbs wrestling and heaving. Then, quite suddenly, Ms Prism’s transport was sliding slowly down the slope of the drive gathering speed by the second. I shouted a warning and watched as Ms Prism and the policewoman charged after it. There was a dull metallic crash as the car hit the bollard in the middle of the road.

Ms Prism was hysterical by the time Rodney was pulled from the space between the seats. ‘I know I had the brake on. I don’t know what could have happened. He couldn’t have got out of the child seat.’ The policewoman disagreed. He clearly had and the suggestion that a child of that age could operate the hand brake was absurd. Had there been any passing traffic there could have been a serious accident. She said she had no alternative but to report the accident. Father said lamely he had read that a lot of these child seats been recalled on safety grounds. I said the child would be safer left with me.

After an exchange of phone calls the policewoman took Rodney in her car to the hospital. She was sympathetic to my tears but said that the law could not be ignored. I could visit him there until the courts had made their decision. Father said he was going to consult a solicitor. ‘I’ll ask Bill from the bowling club.’ He patted Rodney who glared up at him. ‘I’m starting to think of him now as my grandson.’

Bill, the solicitor appointed by father, had a formidable presence. ‘My client’s case in outline is that the responsible authorities have failed in their statutory duty of care. We have first the incident where the child was endangered by a careless social worker in an avoidable automobile accident and now we have the situation at the hospital. This, may I remind the committee, has resulted in a inquiry being set up and two senior members of the staff at the children’s ward being suspended.’ He paused looking around at the table and there was nervous shuffling. He turned back to the judge. ‘The child at the centre of this case was found not in its cot but in a surgical ward, on the floor below, in the bed of a female patient who was coming round from a general anaesthetic after an intimate gynocological operation. The effect on both the patient and the child of what has, on first examination, all the appearance of a practical joke in very bad taste has yet to be assessed. In view of these circumstances my client has suggested that the rules about foster care...’ he paused again to stare at the seated representatives of the Children’s Department and Ms Prism had the grace to flush. He then continued, ‘... that these rules be set aside and the child returned to my client who has shown a commendable commitment of care...’ Another pause. ‘under supervision until such time as enquiries to find the natural mother can be completed.’

Rodney, strapped into his car seat, said ‘I thought we might do the Football Pools next. I can remember most of the league table. ’

I carefully eased us into the traffic outside the court. ‘Never mind all that. Just tell me who took you from your cot?’

‘Oh, get real,’ said the voice from the back. ‘I climbed out of the cot and crawled along the corridor and down the stairs. I was hoping to find the rest room where you met me and maybe pull the same trick. Hell, but that place is filthy. No wonder they have this MRSA virus. Anyway, I was pooped by the time I got down on to the first floor and anything marked exit was locked even if I could get to the handle. God knows what would happen if they had a fire. So I decided to find a spot to have a little kip while I figured out the rest of my escape plan.’

‘So you are telling me you managed to crawl into a ward....’

‘Swing doors’

‘...and climb somehow into this woman’s bed.’

‘Wasn’t easy but I wasn’t going to sleep on that dirty cold floor. I am sure there were rats. ’

‘You do realize that the woman waking up to find you sleeping next to her has caused... well, she has had some kind of breakdown and her husband is suing the hospital.’

‘So he should, the place is an absolute disgrace. She certainly knew how to scream. I’m still deaf.’

I pulled into the drive. ‘As I am not married I am told I cannot adopt you. I am a temporary foster parent that is all. It is going to be an orphanage and you won’t be allowed to escape from there. There will be nobody to give you cuddles.’ I couldn’t help it. I started to cry.

‘Would a nice cuddle now help?’

‘No (sob).’

Rodney began to wail. As I carried him up the stairs he apologized. He whispered that he did it to distract me. ‘Things are not as bad as you make out. Anytime now they will find out I am in 2005 and not 2050 and will get me back. I got a pull when I was in that awful hospital. And I had another this morning. As soon as they can align up the worm holes...’

‘What does that mean?’ I said. ‘If your extraordinary story is true I’ll be left caring for - what will you be - a normal baby? And please tell me whose baby?’

I spread him out on the table and dusted his bottom with powder. Face down the voice seemed strained. ‘Start thinking, stupid woman. I am not in here with a card index referral system. I am just the short-term lodger. When I move out you’ll be glad to get rid of the baby who would cost even before you get him to nursery school. Anyway his life is already mapped out for him - his name is Price by the way - he is - or to be more accurate, is about to be - a fostered child who does well academically, has a job in our time research labs, and I was supposed to catch up with him in 2050.

‘Life won’t (sob) be the same.’ I said putting him into the high chair.

‘But just think - in two years’ time we will meet again.’ he said. He thumped me with his teddy bear. ‘ The real Rodney. I’ll give you my mobile number.’

I grabbed a tissue and wiped my face. ‘Explain to me then why I can’t ring you up right now at your lab and speak to the real you?’

He sighed as if exasperated by being faced with someone with an IQ you could add up on your fingers. ‘Because I am not there, I am here. In a locked cubicle, linked to feeding tubes and electrodes, is Rodney being, I sincerely hope, carefully cared for but denied the power to answer calls until I get back.’

I needed a stiff drink to take all this in. Rodney sat on my lap and insisted on a taste. ‘I shall have to educate you on single malts, this stuff is rubbish,’ he said as I wiped the dribble from his mouth. He climbed up on my lap and put his head to my ear. ‘Can I ask you something?’

‘Yes’, I said, ‘Of course.’

‘Will you marry me?’ he said.

I almost dropped the child on the floor as I was almost hysterical. I am not too sure now but I think it was with laughter.

‘Ok,’ he said. ‘But there is a precedent - Oedipus married his mother. This is more legit as you aren’t really my mother.’ He used his favorite gesture, whacked me with his teddy bear and gave a happy gurgle and blew a few bubbles. ‘It is a great offer. I won’t be careful like the late Roger and, if all goes to plan, soon after the wedding you will be getting ready to have one just like me to cuddle. So you have to say yes.’

I stared at the remarkable, beautiful child, tears running down my face.

He looked at me with a wrinkling around the eyes and mouth that was the nearest a child of his age could attempt at an anxious expression. ‘Of course if you don’t like our child you could always leave it in the patient rest room at the hospital.’


Read more stories by this author



2009-08-30 02:49:59
Smart & funny. Kuddos

2009-03-31 17:13:23
I like it. It's clever, straight foreword, and 'cute' too. A little nit picky 'comma here, word choice there' can be trained. A clever imagination that creates truly interesting prose is talent pure and simple. "Bullshit" couldn't do better. Better than "Bullshit" >>> !/?.<&'$$$ S4

2009-03-28 21:12:06
I can tell you right now, Bullshit couldn't do better. They use too many exclamation marks. This is a cute story. It should be tightened and toned but it's not too flabby. Good work

2009-03-17 06:44:36
Then go ahead and try. It's easy to complain, not so easy to actually create something worth reading. And, no, I'm not the author of this piece.

2009-03-17 05:52:53
THIS IS BULLSHIT!!! I CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS!!!




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