Keeping Charlie

A short story

 

 

Keeping Charlie

 

‘Charlie is such a dear little moppet!’ Victoria says to Annie, showing her the latest photograph.

Her friend Annie already has two ‘moppets’ of her own, and the two-year-old is throwing uncapped felt-tips atthe artisan-inspired furnishings in the sitting room that Victoria designed, whilst Annie breastfeeds his baby sister. Victoria proclaims that she has probably saved Charlie’s life. Not that he’ll have a life anything like Annie’s children’s, of course. Charlie is large-eyed, frail, much too small for his age, which is five. He is no bigger than Annie’s stocky two-year-old. She tells Annie that Charlie will do until she has children of her own, sometime before she gets to forty.

Victoria is 35, and reckons that she can pass for 29. Plenty of antioxidants, gallons of mineral water. Botox, collagen and a personal trainer, called Grovotny, from somewhere in Eastern Europe. He tells her he was one of ten children, but that his mother had a figure like a sack of potatoes by the time she was Victoria’s age. ‘You don’t want to have babies, Victoria,’ he said, gravely, as if she was planning a defection to some alternative and decadent culture. More particularly one where she wasn’t around to pay him quite so generously. But, one day before she is 40, Victoria knows she will have a child of her own, when she will magically transform into a Yummy Mummy like Annie.

Victoria gets bulletins about Charlie’s progress that she shows her husband, Marcus, as if they were a product of her latest art class. Charlie has sent her a crayon picture of his family, lined up in order of height. He is the next to smallest wearing red shorts but his mother has a new baby who will soon take its place at the bottom of the line. Charlie cannot write, of course, as he is only just five, and has not had the benefit of nursery education. However, the missionaries in the refugee camp where Charlie lives are holding classes, supported, of course, by Victoria’s sponsorship.

Two years later, Charlie has learned to write. Victoria is not yet a Yummy Mummy, but – gosh – she has another three years to go to the big four-oh… The missionaries say that Charlie is exceptionally bright and has the reading age of a 15 year-old. They hope that someone in Britain may sponsor him to go to abroad for a proper education. Victoria replies that she must consider her own future children, and hopes that a rich sponsor will be found, but she sent Charlie a Christmas card and photographs of herself and Marcus skiing. Charlie writes back in neat printed letters to say that he has never seen snow, but he dreams of a beautiful country so pure and white that angels must live there. He says nothing about the conditions in the refugee camp, only that his father died and had gone to Heaven and that his mother is very sick after having another baby and that she is expected to die too. He hopes that Heaven is like the beautiful white place in the photograph Victoria sent. The photograph of Charlie sent in the update was of a thin child with a disproportionately large head and abdomen, and his huge eyes are now covered by recycled adult-sized spectacles donated by an aid agency. His clothes are ragged and everything in the background seems dusty and bleached, as if it has been left in a shop window and forgotten.

Victoria turns the picture round to show her husband. How sweet, the naïve little darling she says to Marcus, who is opening a bottle of rather nice fizz to go with the tapas Victoria bought from the deli on the way home. The things they fill the kids’ heads with…Angels on the slopes… Marcusmuses. We should try the new West African in Mason Street.

‘Maybe it’s time we thought of having a real child.’

Marcus spills some wine on the polished granite surface. It bubbles like seltzer.

‘Isn’t Charlie real?’

‘Of course he is, but he’s poor. He doesn’t have much of a future. A child of our own could be anything.’

‘I’d rather thought of going to Tuscany again this year,’ Marcus replies. He sips his fizz dreamily.

Children and Tuscany have to be placed on hold when Marcus’s firm collapses and Marcus is made redundant. He says they have to cut back until he can find something else. Victoria’s interior design business doesn’t net her much income after her expenses are taken into account.

‘Surely we can’t be that poor?’ Victoria asks.

‘Our investments are worth bugger all,’ he says gesturing to his laptop. He has drawn a graph with a dangerous-looking line that goes downhill like a black ski-slope. He displays a long list of their outgoings.

‘Choose, Victoria. What can we forgo?’

They manage to trim a few luxuries from the list and agree to go out less. However, their virtual exercise upon Marcus’s laptop still shows negative cash flow. It seems like a computer game, where nothing really hurts, especially with a bottle of Rioja for anaesthetic. Victoria bravely nods at each cut until Marcus highlights certain expenses that are close to Victoria’s heart. She steadfastly refuses to give up her personal trainer, and all the supplements, without which she would shrivel and die. Victoria agrees to cut down on clothes. I’ll shop in Oxfam… 

Marcus agrees that he won’t buy any more wine until he has a new job. They drink a toast to that too. Victoria pouts about holidays. She is still working, of course, and needs a holiday to wind down. Their lifestyle is now full of holes, but somehow it costs them much more than Victoria earns.

‘It is in the details!’ Marcus declares, ‘Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.’

They agree to cut the shopping bills and give supermarkets less of Victoria’s hard-earned. ‘Besides,’ she says, ‘So much of the food comes from half way across the world! Think of the food miles!’

They agree to switch off lights, use less detergent, and walk when possible. They get to Charlie, who is costing them £30 a month, £360 a year. In annualised terms, Charlie suddenly seems almost expensive. She scratches around for things she can do without; hairdressers? That was a necessary professional expense. She could go to a cheaper one – bad investment. Manicures and facials? Similar arguments.

‘There’s always Grotny, or whatever it is you call him…’

‘Grovotny is the only thing that is stopping my tits from hitting the floor, my bum from trailing behind me like a bean bag!’

‘You could pay two dozen Charlies for one Grunty!’

‘There is always Nadia. Now that you aren’t working we can cut her hours.’

Nadia is the cleaner, who is as pretty as Grovotny is rugged.

‘I’m sure that you could manage a bit of dusting…’

‘I shall be out there looking for another job. We’ll think over Charlie and decide tomorrow. Nadia is on borrowed time.’

Victoria lies back on the sofa and looks at Charlie’s latest picture. His report says that he is exceptional, and that the money they send helps to keep him healthy and pays for his schooling. But if only he could find a sponsor to send him to a private school where his intellect could be developed…. To send a child to private school here would cost thousands. She wonders if she’ll ever have her own bright little Charlie. Forty is not really so far away and Annie has told her how expensive children are and that a woman must make sacrifices, especially in the you-know-what department. But Victoria is proud of her toned body. So many of her friends have sagged a little after children, despite being Yummy Mummies on the outside. She imagines a huge baby stretching her skin, bursting through her perineum, ruining her pelvic floor, her breasts overflowing with milk and all of her becoming a pile of wobbly jelly. Marcus would leave her for Nadia and she’d be a single parent. Or worse, she’d die in childbirth. But Charlie’s mother had had twelve children with no medical help, before she died from a basic infection after her thirteenth baby was born. Then they didn’t have running water, let alone an en suite body spray shower, three toilets and private health care.

Everything was fine, nothing was denied when Marcus had been employed… Apart from her own Charlie, of course. A baby would so difficult now. But she could have one without the benefit of a supportive exercise and beautification regime. Just like Charlie’s mother. Victoria’s muscles would become as flabby as old elastic, her body no longer a thing of beauty, but a receptacle for babies. In her head, Victoria chops figures, calculates the cost of her own Charlie. Surely the beautification regime would be useless for a baby-ruined body. She could become a Mother. A beauty more spiritual than physical…

In the morning, Marcus is hung-over. The postman brings another batch of rejections from potential employers and an even bigger batch of bills, most of them Victoria’s.

‘It’s crunch-time, Victoria. We need to lose Grotty, Nadia and Charlie. At this rate, we’ll be in debt by Christmas.’

Victoria almost collapses with shock. Marcus has never been so hard-line. She looks down at her fingers – one of the extensions came off in bed last night and her hand looks as if one of her fingers is missing.

It isn’t easy. Marcus struggles to find a job. They sell the house and move to a smaller one. Marcus tries setting up on his own, but he is not a good businessman and ends up working in local government for a paltry salary. Victoria’s friends show their true colours. It’s one thing to sponsor a poor person but quite another to associate with one.

Victoria’s decorating business trickles along for a while, but she gets resentful designing interiors for women who have a disposable income several times what she and Marcus make – she now feels like a socio-economic inferior, struggling to keep up appearances. Victoria relinquishes her business and goes to work in a department store as a soft furnishings advisor. At least she gets 20% discount on everything, and she manages, by dint of heartbreaking economies, secretly from Marcus, to keep Charlie.

At forty-two, Victoria is taken unawares by an early menopause. The question of having her own little Charlie is now irrelevant as she can’t afford fertility treatment, being too old to obtain it on the NHS. She consoles herself with the increasingly irregular bulletins about Charlie, which cease after his refugee camp is overrun by hostile forces. No one knows what happens to him.

At fifty-five, Victoria will be in hospital for a hysterectomy under the NHS, or whatever it is called then. No private facilities, more like a transients’ camp where everyone is shunted in and out within a few hours. Perhaps she will be attended by a small-framed African surgeon with heavy glasses and a serious face.

‘I wish I’d had children,’ she tells him.

‘It is a hard world to bring children into.’

‘Every woman wants a child.’

‘There are too many women having children. The world does not have room for all of the babies. You have perhaps done the world a favour.’

‘I sponsored a child. A little boy in Africa. I don’t know if he lived, or grew up to something better.’

‘One can always hope, Victoria.’

 

 

 

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