Sally corners me in the cereal aisle. Stuck between weetabix and muesli with a milk-stained Baby Bjorn strapped to my chest and a trolley heaped with ready meals, I force a smile.
‘So glad I bumped into you,’ Sally says. ‘It’s great to finally meet Amber.’ She leans over the bar of her trolley, getting a better look. ‘Is she a good baby?’
My smile freezes. I glance down the aisle. Just the two of us under the smiling gazes of the cereal mascots. Each set of cartoon eyes seems to be looking straight at me. What does she know?
‘Are you ok? Still suffering from ‘baby brain’?’ Sally gives a knowing laugh. ‘I was asking about Amber.’ She nods to the three-month old parcel of wispy curls, rounded cheeks and pouting lips, wrapped up in lace and bows and fast asleep in the baby carrier.
‘Sorry.’ I grate out a laugh to match. Just follow the script, I coach myself, tell her what she expects to hear. ‘I had a tough night.’
‘Oh?’ Sally’s eyebrows raise as though my scraped back hair and marshmallow eyes had led her to believe I was well rested. She looks at Amber and I see the beginnings of judgement. Stay calm, don’t assume, I tell myself. She can’t suspect.
‘Does she sleep in her own room?’ Sally wants to know. ‘Sometimes they fuss just because they can smell you, they don’t really need milk. You’re still breastfeeding, aren’t you? And the birth – natural?’
‘Sh-she’s very good!’ I evade the barrage of questions. ‘She’s an angel, actually. Sleeping. Eating. Everything.’
‘Really? That’s wonderful!’
‘Really.’ My smile feels painful. ‘A really good baby.’
Using her trolley as the podium, Sally lectures on the importance of routine. I try to make a normal face, the face of a person who is listening with interest to the virtues of essential oils. I try to think about lemongrass and eucalyptus in a two-to-one ratio. I try not to think about last night. About the strange hard bundle lying at the bottom of Amber’s cot, wrapped up in her polka dot muslin. About the clink clink of jewels and coins spilling out, of how I tiptoed out of the nursery, struggling to quiet the slamming of my heart in my chest.
This morning the bundle was gone. Amber was cooing when I went into the nursery, sucking her chubby fist and smiling at me. I was ready to write the whole thing off as a hallucination brought on by exhaustion, until I heard the news report on the radio.
Maybe I’m the naive one and this is what is really meant by a ‘bad baby’. There could be gangs. Syndicates. A whole underworld mafia kept quiet by guilty parents, fearing they will be judged for their babies’ crimes.
‘Actually -’ I’m ready to confess when my gaze falls on the newspaper in her trolley, laid on top of a six-pack of almond milk. The headline blazes: expert jewellery thief strikes again!
So, this wasn’t the first time? I don’t know what facial expression I make but Sally follows my gaze.
‘Isn’t it an interesting case? The police are saying it has to be someone local. A cat burglar maybe, someone who can squeeze in through small spaces.’ Sally’s eyes are wide as she relishes the scandal of it all. ‘Despicable.’
‘Yes,’ I say. Amber squirms on my chest, starting to wake up. Her soft palm grazes my cheek, and I’m one part scared to a million parts in love. ‘It’s really bad.’
As we leave Sally and meander to the check-out, I’m calm. I talk to Amber as I load the shopping into the conveyor belt. I’ll never tell, I know that now.
The shop assistant gives me the total and I wince. Those ready meals really add up. Amber is looking around as I hand over my card and I’m already predicting tomorrow’s headline: robbery at the supermarket – dozens of tills raided!
In the car park I buckle Amber into her seat.
‘Mummy loves you very much,’ I tell her and kiss her on her cheek. ‘Let’s go home and do story time, shall we?’
As I drive home, I accept that I’ll spend the rest of my life protecting my bad baby. It doesn’t have to be one-sided, though. Maybe if I’m a really good mother, she might give me a cut of her next haul.
Sarah M Jasat grew up believing her family was very strange but later discovered she was Indian. She lives in Leicester, UK, and writes short fiction about the strangeness of family. She dreams about writing a novel for older children if only she could get her own child to go to sleep. Twitter: @sarahmjasat