by Jude Higgins

Mary Bunting from next door has put her baby in the tree again. I tell my husband her man’s gone a-hunting for rabbits and someone needs to go around to get the baby down. In the end it’s me. Mary pats me on the arm and says the cradle’s quite low down, there’s a proper framework in the tree and it rocks nicely in the breeze. Her baby loves it. I look at the tree and say the bough could break, but she tells me the tree’s sturdy and it will all be okay.

Mary’s done away with flowers in her garden. Silver bells hang from bushes and there are cockle shells all over the place as if she just tips them out when they’ve finished their meals. While she’s seeing me off down the path, I mention that if she wants anything else to eat apart from sea food, to come around and I’ll make her a nice stew. She says it’s the wrong weather for stew, and she’s got plenty of food in, thank you.

Mary’s always been contrary. She used to come around and sit with me for hours after my loss, but since her own baby came, she hardly visits at all. I stand in our garden and look over the fence at baby Bunting tucked up snugly in his cradle and cross my fingers that he won’t fall out. Then I go back inside.

My husband’s at the table, peeling onions for his pickles and his face is streaming with tears. It’s funny to see him crying. I could almost imagine they’re real tears and he’s sad for baby Bunting, out in the cold, or that he’s sad for our own baby, but he’s full of Little Bo losing her sheep.

‘She doesn’t know where to find them,’ he says. ‘As if anyone could lose a sheep around here.’

I don’t tell him about the bleating I heard in his allotment yesterday because he’d have a fit if he knew the sheep had got in there and eaten his vegetables.

‘She’s had a thing with the fat guy you call Georgie Porgie,’ I say, ‘So I suppose she’s been distracted.’ I wonder why anyone in their right mind would let Georgie’s slobbery lips wander all over them. Last week, when I saw the way Bo had put on weight, I thought soon enough looking after sheep would be the least of her worries. The onions my husband’s peeling make me cry now. ‘Do you really think the Bunting baby’s going to be okay?’ I say.

He wipes his eyes and then mine with one of the posh paper napkins I bought for the street party I was going to organise to cheer everyone up. Such pretty ones, printed with little maids all in a row. I try not to mind that he uses them up like an ordinary kitchen roll. It would have been lovely to have a party for the local children but none of the neighbours seemed very keen.

‘Don’t worry Goosey,’ he says and strokes my hair. I want to cry properly when he uses his favourite pet name for me. I pick up one of the pretty napkins and press it over my mouth so he won’t see my lips trembling. Soon after our baby died, he kept finding me sleep-walking. Once I tried to grab his leg and throw him down the stairs. In my sleep, he said I told him it was because he wouldn’t say his prayers that we lost our little boy. He was very upset about that. He reminded me the doctor said it was no-one’s fault.

‘We could have the Muffet girl and the Horner boy over today,’ I say. ‘I could make lemon curd sandwiches and something lovely with all our left over plums.’

But my husband says their parents don’t like them coming over here, they need to be in their own homes. He sits me down and makes me label the pickle jars. Yesterday he made me polish the silverware. The doctor said repetitive tasks would be helpful and would stop everything being mixed up in my head. And it is soothing for a while sitting down with my husband, us doing things together. But our cupboards are full of what he’s preserved and I wonder why he wants to store everything away.

Outside the wind is getting up. I hope Mary takes the baby in.

Jude Higgins is a writer, writing tutor and writing events organiser. Her flash fiction pamphlet, ‘The Chemist’s House’ was published in 2017 by V. Press. She has been published widely in anthologies and magazines and has won or been placed in many short fiction competitions. Jude runs Bath Flash Fiction Award and co-directs Flash Fiction Festivals UK. Website judehiggins.com. Twitter @judehwriter