The Sneeze and the Superhero
by Sandy Bennett-Haber
The tingle of the sneeze lingers inside her nose after the explosion. An unexpectedly large volume of spittle and snot drips down her face. With each arm occupied holding the precious, un-putdownable burden she has no choice but to lean sideways and wipe the mess on her own shoulder. Even this movement is perilous and must be done with extreme caution. She rolls her shoulders carefully, and then shrugs them forward in an attempt to position her cape over the snotty snail diarrhoea trail smeared across the shinning blue of her suit.
Her muscles are tense, hands vice-like, but tender with their burden, as the train carries them forward on their journey. The business of being a superhero cannot be disrupted by normal human eruptions. This mission is all important. Nothing. Nothing, is worth failing at this point. Besides which, her own snot is benign compared to what she has faced since the baby was born. Humanity at its most vulnerable and unpredictable has been thrown at her night and day; she’s had to grab rest when and where she can, and more often than not has done without. Still, her billowing cape is always at the ready. Should trouble strike she is there. Her suit is sometimes soiled, but her super-human status never wavers.
Up ahead she spies a possible threat. The sneeze has brought into focus another bodily function she has been studiously hoping to avoid. She tries, she truly tries, to use her brains as well as her guts and brawn, but sometimes the lack of proper rest gets to her and she miscalculates. She trembles, fears she might break down and disturb the baby before her nap is over. Why, why, must superheroes wear onesies, because sometimes even superheroes need to pee.
Then, on the brink of an impossible choice, a figure slips into the seat opposite and smiles across the table.
‘How old is your baby?’
This ritualised conversation starter is what people say to her now. It has replaced ‘Hello, how are you today’, and remarks about the weather. Last week, seven separate shop assistants had asked it in identical, empty wonderment. By the fifth she stopped answering; she just smiled and nodded. It was obviously drawn from the how to talk to mothers section of their customer services handbook. Yet just now, the question from this fellow traveller seems kindly meant, the asker looks intent at least on hearing her answer.
‘She’s five months old.’
‘She’s getting nice and big. Congratulations.’
‘Do you have any children?’ She asks, as is expected. The yes and the how old are they and the, oh that must be a lovely age, takes them through the stop at Newcastle and the bustle of new passengers.
‘I saw that jerk of a conductor make you fold up your pram earlier, and I’ve been sitting over there telling myself to come and give you a hand. You must be exhausted – poor thing. Are you going right through to London?’
‘Yes, I’m going to visit my sister. There was nothing on the booking system about prams, or infants,’ she says. The distance travelled, with babe in arms, and the distance still to go are bearing down on her. ‘I’m so…’ She shrugs – what she is, is obvious.
‘I thought you might need a cup of tea, or maybe a spare pair of hands?’ says the welcome stranger. ‘You must be exhausted holding the baby. Let me take a turn for you.’ She holds out her arms. ‘You must be busting for the loo.’
The baby transfers from one set of arms to the other without a murmur. She walks down the train. Arms free, but body still rigid. ‘Engaged,’ reads the toilet sign when she arrives. She is forced to stand, wait, do nothing but look out the small window as trees, hedges, sheep and an occasional glimpse of motorway rush past. Her arms, clenched in one position for so long, have kinks and cramps, her neck still holds her head up, but seems to complain at the un-endingness of the duty.
“Her arms, clenched in one position for so long, have kinks and cramps, her neck still holds her head up, but seems to complain at the un-endingness of the duty.”
A man in creased trousers emerges at last and she goes inside. After checking three times that the door is locked, she carefully removes her suit; imagining how she would juggle the baby in the tight, unsanitary conditions. At long last she has a wee. And tries to remember whether the midwife said waiting too long to urinate after you have had a baby was good or bad. She is pretty sure it is something – but can’t remember what.
It is not until she is dressed again and has thoroughly washed and dried her hands, and removed the snot trail from her face that she recalls the story told in one of her mother’s groups; a mother leaving her baby with a kindly stranger while she went into a public toilet, only to have a panic attack that the woman was a baby stealer. She’d rushed out half naked to find the baby exactly where she had left it.
In remembering the half-proud, half-embarrassed tone with which the woman had told her story, she feels guilty for not worrying about leaving her baby with a perfect stranger. The woman holding Emma – whose name she does not know – is a cape-wearing alumnus. That’s enough, isn’t it? Has the bliss of having a wee in silence, and walking along the crowded aisle without a babe in arms tricked her into trusting the wrong person?
Suddenly her hands are sweaty and the hieroglyphs explaining how to open the door make no sense. Her mind swims with disastrous possibilities, clouding her capacity to perform basic tasks. She summons her super powers, narrows her vision and re-reads the instructions. Having figured out how to unlock the door she rushes along the aisle in a panic, almost overshooting the place where Emma is peacefully sleeping in the stranger’s arms.
She slumps back into her seat and reaches across to run her hand lightly through her daughter’s hair.
‘Did you panic I was going to take the baby?’ The woman asks.
She feels herself flush at the forthrightness of the question, but after a moment answers honestly.
‘I did, but not until after I was fully dressed.’
‘That’s a good effort, lasting almost a whole trip to the bathroom by yourself without panicking.’
‘You make it sound normal.’
‘It is normal. A new normal, but normal.’
‘I keep thinking my mum-super-powers are supposed to keep me calm in these situations.’
‘Look at this healthy contented baby.’ The woman looks down at Emma still asleep in her arms. ‘I am pretty sure your super powers are doing whatever it is they are supposed to do.’
Tears spring to her eyes as she looks at Emma. ‘I never used to be one of those women who cries at the drop of a hat,’ she says wiping her eyes on her cape.
‘You’re wearing that blue suit well, you know. I remember mine at five months, all stained around the wrists. And stretched out – I totally underestimated how big my boobs were going to get and ordered the wrong size. Don’t even get me started on how it used to ride up my crutch.’
‘Why didn’t you just get them to send you a new, bigger suit?’ She asks, horrified at the discomfort described.
‘I just never got around to it. I got myself some elastic waisted jeans instead – I kept the cape though, just pinned it through my shirt until the kids got bigger.’
Both women nod at the capes indispensable qualities.
‘Without my cape there were times in the early days I would have just been a woman, topless and crying in a restaurant and trying to feed my baby.’ She is surprised at herself for revealing this very non-super-mum moment.
As if in response to the mention of feeding, Emma wakes, grizzles a little and starts to root around for a feed. Taking her back she feels grateful for the adjustable feeding top built into the suit, and for the prescription feeding bra, that lets her feed the baby with a minimum of fuss. Most of the time these days she does not even bother with the covering capacity of the cape – just gets on with it. She leans back with the warm softness of the baby nestling into the crook of her arm, feeling herself relax as Emma nuzzles for a moment and then latches on and sucks.
‘Look at you now though, feeding like a pro.’ The woman smiles across the table at her, and she accepts the compliment from this plain-clothed super hero.
She wakes to find herself alone with her cape tucked in around her and a hot cup of tea in front of her. Emma is snug in the pram, fast asleep again after her feed. The train conductor is nowhere in sight so she drinks her tea and does not once worry about scalding the baby.
Sandy Bennett-Haber is an Edinburgh based Australian writer and mother and is inspired by family, travel and everyday life. She is the editor of You Won’t Remember This – travel with babies and a founder member of the Women Writers Network. Sandy has had short stories published in the UK and Australia, and has blogged for Travellets and Lothian Life and Edinburgh Gossip Girls.