‘The Child’ is one of my favourite short stories. It is strange but familiar, a story that you can read over and over again and get something different from every time. It starts almost boringly normal and gets more and more strange.
It starts in a supermarket: ‘I went to Waitrose as usual in my lunchbreak to get the weekly stuff. I left my trolley by the vegetables and went to find bouquet garni for the soup.’ So far, so ordinary. But when the narrator gets back to the trolley she finds a child sitting in it. The child was ‘big cheeked like a cupid or a chub-fingered angel.’ Nobody comes to collect it, so the narrator takes the child to the customer service counter. The staff, and a crowd of shoppers, are adamant that the baby is the narrator’s: ‘what a lovely boy! He’s very like his mum,’ says one. Their strange perception is one of my favourite things about this story. There’s something not quite right happening. Is the narrator unreliable? Is the child actually hers?
The narrator is swayed by the crowd and takes the child back to her car. She contemplates leaving him ‘in the car park behind the recycling bins’ and you start to worry about her and the child. She decides that she will drive around and leave him somewhere else, somewhere quiet, where others will find him and care for him.
But then the baby starts talking. And he’s not saying nice things: ‘you’re a really rubbish driver. I could do better than that and I don’t even drive. Are you for instance representative of all women drivers or is it just you among all women who’s so rubbish at driving?’ Instead of scolding him for his sexist rant, though, the narrator says that ‘it spoke with so surprisingly charming a little voice that it made me want to laugh.’ He goes on to make jokes about mother-in-laws, asylum seekers and gay people. What’s happening here, then? Every time I read this story I can come up with another idea: he represents Britain, colonialism, sexism. The characters are blinded to his awfulness by his charm. He is an innocent child, but there is something not-human about him. Perhaps I am overthinking this and I should just sit back and enjoy this strange dream-like story. But I do enjoy this juxtaposition of innocence and awfulness.
The narrator tries to leave him in a wood, but she feels guilty and goes back to find him later that night. He’s still there, still being awful. How will she get rid of him? And why has he attached himself to her? These questions don’t really need to be answered for me, I just enjoy the mystery in this story. Ali Smith is definitely up there as one of my favourite short story writers.
You can read ‘The Child’ here: http://www.blithe.com/bhq9.1/9.1.01.html