A Shift by Kehinde Fadipe

A line snakes out the door and round the corner. Of course I’m stuck at the back of the queue, squinting up at the blackboard menu, trying to ignore the lone ranger contact lense stabbing every corner of my eyeball. Trying to ignore that sick hungry feeling mixed with dread that’s been eating at me all morning.

I’m already fried by this point, squashed into my dress like a pork sausage cooking in its skin, and all I want, all I’m begging for is to be back home with Charlie where I belong.

How I should be: crosslegged on the floor, in shorts and a string camisole that leave me be, ready to catch the little fella as he leaps off the sofa. Or shaking like a madwoman to my divas (Gladys Knight, Beyonce, Kesha – all the greats), lifting a generous leg for my baby-man to run under and grunt in time to the music, while Anna fixes us some homemade lemonade with a pinch of ginger – just the way I like it.

Sweat sticks to my back like a God-awful handprint, and my knickers too. But of course I can’t do anything about that, not here in this very public, very busy square. Not here, where the locals are so bloody skinny, where it’s all tight trousers and tucked-in shirts, mini skirts and five inch heels (bit disgraceful for a corporate setting don’t you think?) and not an ounce of fat between.

I see him crossing Raffles Square. Every other step’s a little run or a skip, like he wants to move faster but he doesn’t want the attention. He looks so gorge dressed up, my Tarik. Dressed so smart he stands up straight so you can’t see the spread in his middle. I can’t help it, I break into a smile. Then I see he’s frowning. At the sun, at me, at his watch, at the queue. The more I smile, the more he frowns. That’s how it is now. That’s why I’m here.

It’s got to stop.

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“I think I… I want a divorce”, he gulps the word down. He shoves a forkful of salad in his mouth and stares into the dirty-socks water.

I know this place like the back of my hand. This marble slab we always sit on, the fake drawbridge ahead, the ice cream van on the other side where you can get those ice cream cakes that look like a flurorescent alien puked them up. The Fullerton Hotel looking like it should be part of a military procession, like a dwarf general in white and grey leading the skyscrapers behind. From here you can see that twisted sculpture of naked children pushing each other into the river. They’re stuck in midair like someone from the future took a photo and freaked them out so much they froze.

People always say Singapore changes all the time. But I’ve been here three years and I don’t think this part of it will ever change. Which is good. Because now when I remember the moment my husband sort of asked me for a divorce, I won’t have to wonder if it’s still the same.

“Where am I supposed to go? What am I supposed to…?” I spit the smoked duck into my napkin (you have to pay for your napkins everywhere in Singapore, so that’s a waste of fifty cents).

What was salty and delicious a second ago is now thick and furry and heavy with my tears. I’m crying inside my mouth. I didn’t even know that was a thing.

“I’ll take care of you”, he says quickly, but still can’t look at me.

“And what about Charlie?”

“I haven’t figured that out yet”, his face goes stony again, like he was just pretending, like it’s really not so easy. I know I should do things differently, just for once, but the words are coming out like little frenzied people.

“Oh you haven’t yet, have you? You haven’t figure out what to do with your son? Tricky is it? Trying to figure out how to get rid of us?”

“Don’t make a scene”.

Scene. Is that why they call it that in the movies? Because messy shit is about to happen?

“Then you shouldn’t have asked me to come down here, should you?”, I hiss, closing my plastic box so hard that the lid crumbles in my hand and salad squishes out onto the ground.

“I didn’t -” he waves his hand like he can’t be bothered. “This is the problem, Hannah. I tell you I want a divorce and you make it about Charlie. It’s not about Charlie, it’s about you”.

“It’s always about Charlie-”

“No, it isn’t!”

“Then it bloody well should be!” cracks across the river as sharp and loud as a gunshot. Tariq jumps, his body twisting away from me. It’s officially a scene. And it can’t be ‘un-scened’.

“I’ve given up everything for you! I left a bloody good job for you. I left my friends, my life!” I press my fist into my cheeks, trying to wipe my tears as quickly as I can. “I’ve been a good wife and mother, I take good care of Charlie, I-I-”

A door closes in my mind and another one opens.

“I should be divorcing you!” I jab at him, my voice low and hot with this fresh revelation. “You never touch me, you’re moody all the time. You’re just trying to control me and I won’t be controlled Tariq. You never give me any money-”

He laughs up at the gods like he’s just heard the most incredible, ridiculous piece of rubbish.

“I mean real money. All my friends’ husbands give them credit cards, everything’s equal. Shit!” I wipe my nose with my napkin, trying not to smear my face with duck grease and olive oil. “I shouldn’t have bothered getting all dressed up and trying to fix my face and do my hair like an idiot”. I tug at the last, real offender, still brown and straight and stupid, and shove it behind my ear with a sour grimace.

And then he looks at me – finally – but it’s a cold bowl of soup tipped down my back. It’s anger and disgust but it’s bitter like I’m one of those giant crabs in Clarke Quay you’re no longer fascinated by or curious about or even scared of. Now you’re just sick of looking at the fucking thing on your way home.

“I’m sorry you had to force yourself”, he stands and puts his box on the seat. “I’m not arguing with you. You don’t listen. You think you do but you don’t. You cry and shout as if nothing matters but how you feel, but really it’s just so you don’t have to care about how I feel. So it’s no longer your problem. You don’t have to give up anything anymore”.

“Tariq”, I sob and grab his hand but he shakes me off, looking round to check no one saw.

“We can talk about Charlie when you’re… calmer.” He walks away and over the fake drawbridge, past the stone children bombing the river and behind the grey and white general.

All I can hear, over and over, is my stepdad Nige’s voice as he closed the door and waltzed back into our front room.

“He speaks well doesn’t he?” his face drawing inside itself in surprise. My twenty year old self tuts and eye rolls, smug and superior, but actually dim and dangerous, loving a man with words in his pocket, light and sharp and armed with the truth.

—————————

“Hello Chupa Chup!” I tidy my face and move off the glass window. The sweat on my arm makes a sucking sound. I pretend-smile at Anna,who’s as small as a bird and eats like a horse but never sweats.

“It’s Mama!” Anna stops pushing Charlie’s stroller and crouches down beside him, making an event of this unusual moment. I know it’s nothing but it grates, seeing her head pressed against his. It’s me who takes him everywhere – the river, playdates, Musical Monkeys. This is meant to be my time.

“Ready to play?” I grin like a TV presenter and open the door. Charlie blinks at me, bits of yellow flour from his favourite rusk stuck to the corner of his mouth. Anna turns the stroller and wheels it into the baby gymn. They turn right while I go left to the help desk. I look round the room while I fill the form. Most of the regulars are here for the one hour free play, most with their helpers, a few with their mummys.

You get all ages this hour, tumbling and jumping on the mats, climbing the wooden ladders and down the slides. The older ones hang from monkey bars and ropes while the toddlers snatch plastic balls from each other or get themselves stuck in the baby play house. The little blonde Russian boy pushes one of the Japanese babies, who turns to his mother with a face that will crumble any minute. One of the Japanese mummies nearby waves at me and I wave back. It’s our weekly, nameless pantomime.

Charlie’s already out the stroller, headed straight for his favourite see saw. Anna hovers over him, smiling at the other helpers. I know she wants to sit and gossip but she’s on her best behaviour with me here.

I hook my handbag on the stroller and sit at one of the tables. I used to love this place. I found it so comforting because it never changed – the same faces, the same kiddie version of current pop songs. I’ve never sat and watched before, I’m usually running behind Charlie, twirling him, chasing him, plopping him on a slide. But now I can see that it has changed, it’s been changing all along. The Russian boy’s doubled in size, the little girl who used to crawl after her older sister now stands in front of a mirror, finger in mouth, no longer frightened by her own reflection.

Everything’s been shifting, one quiet inch at a time like the bloody globe moving on its axis or the skin on your face drooping down, like melting cream on your birthday cake. I trusted this damn universe and it’s dumped me like a pile of shit in a landfill.

“Anna!” I wave, speaking silently and then out loud. She’s running behind Charlie, her arms stretched out like he’s six months and about to fall, when he’s eighteen and more than bloody able.

Stop hovering! I mouth but she doesn’t understand ‘hovering’ so she can’t read my lips. Now I have to think of a bloody word that means ‘hovering’ when ‘hovering’ is exactly what I mean.

She pauses, confused, then jolts forward, holding Charlie back from an oncoming baby-cycle. She must have understood me though, because she sits down on the mat behind her, gathers some plastic balls and rolls them away. Charlie runs after the balls, picks two up and runs back to her. He throws them at her giggling. She rolls the balls again then calls his name. He turns around and follows her finger pointing towards the playhouse.

“Play Charlie!”, she invites, but he just runs to pick his balls again. I jump up with a puff, the words independent play drumming in my ears.

“Let’s swap”, I mouthe and Anna immediately obeys, stepping to the side in that tidy way she moves. Charlie returns after retrieving the second ball from under the slide. He stops short, teetering to the left to regain his balance.

“Hi Puppy Wuppy! The fun begins!” I announced our weekly refrain, wiggling my fingers in up-and-down jazz hands. Charlie blinks at me, just like he did in the stroller, and turning left and right, searches the room. He spots Anna sitting to the side of the room and runs to her, dropping the balls in her lap.

This time I feel the shift.

I stare at my boy, tapping his fingers on his helper’s bare knees. I can’t look at Anna, but I can feel her embarassed surprise. I keep my eyes on Charlie’s face, so I can only see her hands turning him round, urging him back towards me. Coaxing, pressing, begging him to go back to his Mama and play.

The seconds grind to minutes. Charlie sticks to Anna, dancing when he recognises a nursery rhyme, playing with an abandoned toy if it’s left nearby. Not once does he move towards me.

I shake the heavy rag pressed inside my chest and lift my eyes to make eye contact with her.

“Bring him,” I almost plead, my voice sounding like a stranger’s. She holds his hand and leads him, sitting beside me on the play mat. He leans on her, his solid little man-body resting against her shoulder.

“It’s Mama, play with Mama,” she shakes him off.

“Don’t force him,” I croak.

He stares at me, my wonderful, sweet, strong, little imp. His eyes pick me up then drop me, like a piece of crap you thought might be a quid.

“Charlie, what’s wrong with you?” Anna’s voices the question I don’t dare to breathe.

I’m in a nightmare and one horror story after another picks it way through my mind, demolishing everything in its path. Has he hit his head? Is he autistic? Have I spent too little time with him? Has Anna too much? The fading xylophone of a jingle being played gives me an idea.

“One – one, two, three – one, two, three, four, five!” I sing his favourite song, wiggling my fingers at his tummy. He smiles but he doesn’t move. This lady knows my song, I’m sure he’s thinking, but I force myself to sing on despite the lava burning my throat. I sing as hard as I can, putting all the energy and passion I can into this song that used to be our song, my whole body contorted on this mat. The fear of people realising my son does not know me is the only thing keeping me from jumping to my feet.

“Seven coming through – let me sing for yooooou!” I snap forward like a marionette, my fist curled into a microphone near my mouth.

Instinctively, I slide my finger up my nose to push the glasses that always slip down at that bit of the song. Instead, skin rubs on skin and I nearly poke my left eye.

Jesus.

I stop singing. I can’t believe it. I swallow in a big gulp, taking in a precious, silver gasp of air.

“My glasses,” I shake Anna’s arm. “I’m not wearing my glasses!”

In seconds I’m at the stroller and back. I crouch next to Charlie who’s holding on for dear life, and hands shaking, slide my black frames on.

“It’s me, Charlie. It’s me.” His face is now a blur, the colours and shapes around him melting like wax. I hear his cry and feel his arms around my neck. I leap into the air, twirling him round, feeling with my arms how happy he is.

He smiles at my face, and I feel something release, like a sink unblocked. I smell his pyjama-skin, so cotton warm and milky, and his hot, apricot breath.

Later, in bed, I think of this. The loss of him, how one day it must come. And then, the daily loss Tariq must feel when pushed away. The sheepish shrug I used to reply with, the secret glee I’d hide.

That night, I reach my hand across the sheets, and try to shift us back.

***

Kehinde Fadipe is a trained actress and teacher. She has starred in award winning TV show ‘Misfits’ and on stage in Pulitzer Prize winning play ‘Ruined’. She has written, directed and produced a short film, ‘Spirit Children’ which was screened at international festivals, and she writes a popular blog, www.blackgirlinspore.com.