He slid into the world with no warning, landing on the bathmat as I stepped out of a hot shower. He was so small his skin hung off his twiggy limbs like an oversized suit. He stared at me with wide astonished eyes. I wrapped him in a towel, held him to my heart and crawled on my hands and knees into the bedroom to phone an ambulance.
From the hospital I phoned Laurie to tell him he had a son. He came rushing into the room in such excitement he forgot to duck his head under the door frame and almost cracked it open. Rubbing the bruise on his brow he gazed at the tiny scrap in my arms. His face clouded over. “He looks like a sausage with the stuffing taken out,” he said. “Is this the best you could manage? This … Tom Thumb?”
I started telling him that babies do grow into their skin, but my words drifted on the space between us as he shot out the door. Ah well. At least he had suggested a name.
Before I brought Tom home two weeks later, I went to the local craft shop and bought dolls clothes as everything I’d knitted and sewn were far too big. Laurie wasn’t impressed with the dolls clothes even though they fitted perfectly. He was even less impressed when we had to cover all the furniture in plastic shower curtains to protect them from Tom’s projectile vomiting. After trials with different kinds of cow and goat milk the doctors concluded he was lactose intolerant and the only milk he could keep in his little belly was soy. That stopped his incessant crying, but by then Laurie was in the habit of working late at the office, or so he said, and he saw no reason to stop. I didn’t mind. I preferred evenings with just Tom and me.
Tom grew oh so slowly. When he started school he was head and shoulders smaller than the smallest girl in the class. Despite the fact that he was the sweetest child imaginable, no one would play with him and he spent lunchtimes alone in a corner of the playground collecting ladybirds in a matchbox and then setting them free on a leaf when the bell rang. The teacher told me the other children were afraid he would break so she was going to bring him into the classroom during playtimes and teach him to knit. He practised this at home and looked so happy and content with this activity that I had to hide my tears. He knitted dolls hats, cardigans and booties and took them to school to show the teacher. The girls in the class were so impressed they asked him to teach them how to knit like that. A few of the boys also joined their group. Their finished projects were donated to the local maternity hospital for premature babies. There was a write-up in the local paper, which I hid from Laurie.
One of Tom’s new friends invited him to her birthday party. I was glad Laurie was working away from home all weekend so he wouldn’t know about the party, or the fact that when I picked Tom up he and the six little girls were dressed in princess clothes with make-up on their faces and sparkly crowns on their heads.
On the way home Tom’s smile spread the width of his face as he chatted about the party. I had never seen him so animated. I turned the key in the front door, opened it and saw Laurie standing in the hall taking his coat off. Tom piped up in his tiny sweet voice, “Daddy, look at me, I’ve been to the best party in the world. I won a prize for best costume.” Laurie’s mouth dropped open and the veins that sprang up around his beetroot red face threatened to burst.
After Tom was in bed I returned to the lounge to see Laurie pacing up and down with a bottle of beer in his hand. He rounded on me, glaring as though his eyes would pop out of their sockets. For a second I thought he was going to smash the bottle over my head. He didn’t, but the words that streamed from the mouth of this man I’d once loved were so vile I wouldn’t have believed any civilized human being capable of uttering them. I asked him if he would have said those things if Tom had been a girl. He turned away and the only thing he said was that he would sleep on the sofa and I had to make sure he was awake before six next morning because his boss was going to pick him up at seven as they had a vitally important meeting to go to.
In the middle of the night I woke up and crept back into the lounge. As I suspected, there were now more than a dozen empty beer bottles and half-smoked cigarettes on the floor and Laurie was comatose on the sofa. I picked up one of the still burning cigarette ends and thought how easy it would be to drop it on the sofa. I could say afterwards that Tom and I had already left the house after Laurie had threatened us in a drunken rage. But what I did instead was find my make-up bag.
By the time I’d finished with him Laurie actually looked a great deal better than I’d ever seen him. I packed a bag for Tom and myself and we left the house just before seven. We waited in my car out on the street until we saw Laurie’s boss arrive. I watched him park his Mercedes in our drive, walk up to the front door and ring the bell. On the third ring the door opened.
Sandra Arnold is a novelist, short story writer and essayist. Her work appears in numerous international journals and anthologies, most recently in Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018). In 2019 her third novel Ash will be published by Mākaro Press (NZ) and her first flash fiction collection Soul Etchings by Retreat West Books (UK). She is on the advisory board and is a guest editor for Meniscus: The Australasian Association of Writing Programmes.