CHAPTER SIXTEEN – THE BABY AND THE PRAM

3 Oct

There was an old woman with a pram at the bus stop.
Bernard didn’t think it looked to be the sort of pram that would contain a baby. For starters, it was old and tatty with a grey lacy sheet hanging loosely down one side. It looked, to him, as if it was the possessions of a bag lady, someone lost to the world, someone with no pride and no quality of life left to her and the need of a pram to trundle her world in.
And then the baby cried.
Bernard looked up at God who was already part way into becoming Satan. The deity was a distinctly odd amalgam of a holy master and an evil fiend, and he even had the long swishing tail that Satan dragged along behind him.
God/Satan paused and shook his head.
“Now what are you doing here, Martha?” he asked, “you know the bus is not for you.”
“I’m sorry, Master, but I can’t take it any more,” whimpered the old woman, “I just can’t! All them flowers and sweet songs are upsetting Baby. Can’t you hear him crying, the poor wee mite.”
“He wasn’t a poor wee mite once was he, Martha?” asked the Lord of the Afterlife in his intermediate guise.
“No Master, he wasn’t,” she snivelled.
“What was he, Martha?” asked the Lord, and as Bernard looked at him the satanic part of his appearance faded and he became bathed in light again, like he when he’d sat on his golden throne, and his eyes shone with intense wisdom.
“He was…” she stammered, and glanced at Bernard. “He was Baby Baby Bunting.”
“No, Martha, that isn’t it. You know what I’m asking. What was he?”
“Do I have to say, what with that fine gennelman watching and listening and all,” snivelled Martha.
“Of course you do, Martha.” This time there was authority and command in the regal voice of the Master of Heaven. This time there could be no suggestion of verbally slinking away, no hiding of whatever truth needed to be hidden.
“The gennelman will hear…” protested Martha. “He’ll know…”
“What will he know, Martha?”
“I can’t say…”
“But you know that you must, don’t you?” There was infinite patience in the suddenly majestic voice of the Lord, and there was also the strictness of command, a command that could never be ignored. Martha knew this, and Bernard watched her squirm.
“The baby, Martha, what was he?” asked God gently.
“Nobody told me about stuff,” moaned Martha, “I was a poor old woman in hard times, and nobody told me. The gennelman’ll know how hard it was for a poor old woman with wars raging and soldiers dying on battlefields. Oh, he’ll know all right! And that’s where my man went and died, to the battlefield in a foreign land. Right killed dead, he was, and now, forgive me, he’s here abouts and making daisy chains with the sweet ones and nowt to say to me as bore his child.”
“Martha!” The command was insistent and Bernard felt virtual sweat forming on his brow as the old woman fought against something deep inside her.
“Yes sir?” She was still avoiding the obvious pain of providing a reply.
“The baby, Martha, what was he?” commanded God in a voice that this time was a direct order, the sort that must, at all costs, be obeyed.
“He were dead,” whispered Martha.
“Say louder, Martha, so that all of Heaven can hear!” commanded God.
“He were dead, sir,” said Martha, a bit louder, “dead, dead, dead! Is that enough, sir, enough humiliation for an old woman who has been here for Eternity and has suffered humiliation day in and day out for all of that time.”
“Not Eternity, not yet, but never mind,” sighed God.
“He were dead,” repeated Martha, head hung low, straggly hair limp and penitent.
“Say how he died, Martha,” commanded the Maker.
“Now, sir?”
“Yes, now!”
“In front of the gennelman?”
“Just so.”
“I were … I were cold and hungry, Master, and the wars had swallowed all the young men. Mine were dead, thank you, Lord, and neither me nor Bunting here had a bite to eat or a coal for the hearth. Night were drawing on, cold, bitter night, with ice outside and not a spark to keep us warm, no flame and no food for our bellies.”
“We get the picture, Martha!”
Bernard looked up at the stern face of the Creator, and it could not be disobeyed. It held tremendous power and every breath it took seemed to be some kind of command.
“And I get to think as we’d both die, Baby Baby Bunting here and me. Yes! We was both going to die. There was not a morsel to keep us going, not a chunk of mouldy stale bread, not a drop of water that wasn’t frozen solid…”
“Say more, Martha. How did Bunting die?”
“It was all I could do,” whispered the old woman. I needed victuals to keep me alive and summat to burn on the fire, for warmth for my old bones. So I took the bread knife, the terrible rusty bread knife, and I carved Baby Bunting for meat and set his bones in the hearth for nice red flames to keep us warm and cook the meat on. But the fire wouldn’t burn. Not a flame went up that old chimbley and I weren’t going to eat my baby raw. I’m not a savage!”
“And when they found out, the men of the law, Martha…?”
“They came, they did. Some nosey parker had told them as they’d heard a baby howling, well he did, there’s no denying it. and they came and hauled me off. And I was put before a judge with his wig and great big hooked nose and he perched that black cloth on his head and said I was to be taken away and hanged! Me, as never did anything wrong in me life! Hanged until I was dead! But my baby needs me, I shouted, he can’t see after hisself, he needs his mother… but that mean old judge said as Bunting was dead and no longer needed anyone save a kindly Lord and a good place in Heaven.”
“Well, he’s got a good place in Heaven, in that pram of yours, and as he’s in no need of nourishment any more he couldn’t be better off,” commented God. “And your penalty, Martha, is to confess to your sins when asked, for you have sinned worse than most. And you must stay here, where you are now, at the bus stop, neither in Heaven, which is too good for you or Hell which is too bad for you, for you have been granted, by life and the law, with a grim and sorry life and it is not in me to cast blame at you, not now, not yesterday and not tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Master…” grovelled Martha, and slowly she pushed the tatty old pram away never going far from the bus stop, until she came to a shelter that was every bit like a cardboard box and in no way like anything else.
“The poor soul,” sighed Bernard, “though if I were starving and the cold bit like she said it did, what would I do?”
“You wouldn’t kill your child, Bernard, for that is not your sin, for you have no children to smother in love or starve with or freeze along side. And that, as you know, is your sin.”
Bernard nodded, and could have wept. But he didn’t. There are others in the world, he thought, more deserving of tears.
Like many a Martha.
©Peter Rogerson 03.10.16

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