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The Barcelona Review

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It’s set up to look like a home, with sofas and a coffee table, but nobody’s fooled. I haven’t been here since she was a newborn. Stupid of me.
       “She’s a bit tired today,” I say. “Busy day yesterday. We went to the park. She didn’t want to get up this morning.”
       The clinician smiles briefly, a little wanly. Her assistant sets out cubes on a mat on the floor. At the touch of a keypad a mounted camera in the corner swivels towards us. Behind a glass screen another clinician watches.
       Cara’s spotlessly dressed in her smartest clothes. I’m wearing my dumbest outfit, complete with slogan.
       Dean clears his throat. “She might not be at her best,” he says.
       “Put her down on the mat,” says the clinician.
       I put Cara down and she reaches immediately for the shapes. She looks at them. Starts to put them together, clumsily. She piles them up but they fall down.
       “This is normal,” says the assistant. “By eighteen months she’ll be able to do it.”
       “Does she babble?” says the clinician.
       “Babble?” says Dean. “Oh yesshe talks.”
       She sure as hell didn’t get her brains from him.
       “Gabber-gabber-gabber,” says Dean. “Mum-mum-mum.”
       The assistant smiles.
       “Is she walking yet?” says the clinician.
       I shake my head. “She crawls a lot more than this normally,” I say, as the assistant holds out a toy to her, arm’s length away. “She’s a bit tired from yesterday is all.”
       Cara crawls towards the toy. The clinician seems satisfied and touches the screen on her device. “We don’t record brain activity this time,” she says. “Just run basic checks.”
       She taps her keypad and a Perspex box to our right emits a high-frequency sound. Cara turns towards it and a puppet waves at her. She laughs. The clinician repeats the task several times, different frequencies and different directions. Then with no sound, just the puppets waving.
       The assistant passes Cara a pen. Cara pincers her fingers.“Good.” Into her device she says: “T33. NA.”
       “We’ll see you again at fifteen months,” says the clinician. She consults her screen. “Which will be some time in June.”
       Cara stares at my T-shirt and starts to form a shape with her mouth. I scrunch up the shirt and zip up my jacket.
       Back in the anteroom she’s weighed and measured, her stats plotted on a graphreassuringly unexceptional for her ageand then we are free to go.
       We walk home. From her buggy Cara says, “I liked the puppets.” And then she falls asleep.
       We take the path by the nature reserve. The daffodils are out.
       “We got away with it,” says Dean. “For how much longer, though?”
       At home, I put Cara to bed to sleep off the cough syrup.
       Over dinner I say, “I wonder if we just don’t talk in front of her.”
       “We can’t keep her with us forever,” he says.


At Wednesday baby group she’s spotted. By one of the other mums, newish. Her child’s well dressed. New spring trousers already, rolled up at the cuff. Woollen waistcoat and brown leather boots, though he’s hardly walking. One of those.
       Cara’s sitting in the toy kitchen, stirring some play food round and round in a pan.
       “She’s a clever little thing, isn’t she?” Harsh-eyed.
       I laugh. “Is she? Saves it all up for when we go out then.”
       “What you got there, Cara?” says the woman.
       “Egg,” says Cara.
       The woman purses her mouth and says nothing more, eyes hard with satisfaction. Cara abandons her saucepan and crawls to the bookcase, clambering up it and pulling down picture books much too old for her. I read them to her to quieten her down but I know that the woman can see me, peering over from her place at the sand-table.
       After the session the manager catches me. She wants to make a film of me reading to Cara. She’s never seen a baby that likes books so much. I laugh uneasily.
       “Think about it,” she says.

I stop taking her to the groups so regularly. I tell people she’s had a cold. I tell them we’re going to the park more often now that the weather’s better.
       “I hope she’ll be walking by summer,” I say. “I can’t wait.”
       And I get people to give me tips about trikes and trousers and surfaces to try her on. I go to the more active groups, leave the quieter ones alone. But a week or two later I lift Cara onto the top of a slide and she says, “One, two, threego!” quietly, but I look around and there’s the new woman, watching me.
       “Go!” I say, and push Cara down the slide.
       I look up again and she’s still looking. She holds my gaze for a moment and then slowly turns away.
       At lunch that day, Cara counts out her beans onto her highchair, one to twenty.
       “If I eat one, it will be nineteen,” she says.
       “That’s right,” I say.
       “If I eat two, it will be eighteen.”
       I don’t reply.
       “Mummy? It will be eighteen.”
       “Eat your beans,” I say.
       After lunch she wants me to read to her. I say nono more books now, I’m tired. While I load the dishwasher she crawls to the pile and pulls one out, then sits on the floor and studies it, turning the pages delicately. She furrows her brow. I take it from her, gently, and switch on the TV.

I’d heard of this before, on the internet. Archived chats. Coded suggestions. Always accompanied by post deletions. And then posters who just stop posting. It doesn’t end well.
       I start to overbuy, little by little, in my grocery ordersmall, cheap things that won’t be noticed by the software; things that are easy to pack and that don’t require cooking. Flat tins of sardines are the best, but I have to be carefultoo many will raise a flag, so I get one extra every weekjust enough to look like the baby’s eating more and likes tinned fish, I reckon. I vary the other itemsone week hot dogs, another baked beans. In this way I collect twelve tins within six weeks.
       We eat a bit less, and save what else we can. We run through everything in the store cupboardanything we can’t takeand eat that instead. Pasta, rice, noodles, dried pulses, instead of valuable tins and vacuum packs.
       I go to a shop in the next district and spend some of next month’s tokens there, filling my basket with party foods and a small birthday cake. I buy birthday candles too, and a birthday banner, and household candles, and a cigarette lighter. In another shop on the way home I buy another lighter.

At baby group, I sow the seeds. I give out that we’ll be staying with my sister for the summer, with a view to moving there. I tell them she’s got an allotment.
       “It won’t feed all of you, though,” says the new woman, sharply.
       “Maybe not, but we’re going to learn how to work on it,” I say, mildly. “My sister doesn’t have the energy to make the most of it, she’s not in good health. And we’ll pool our tokens. Anyway, it’s not definitewe’ll see how we get along over the summer and then think about it.” I smile.
       “I didn’t know you had a sister,” says one.
       “No… we haven’t seen much of each other in recent years. She’s not in good health.”
       “What about Dean’s job?” says someone else.
       I sigh. “That’s part of it really. We always worry about him being laid off, things never look good. He can pick up some work with my brother-in-law over the summer, and then his boss’ll take him back on afterwards if it doesn’t work out. We won’t need much money out there. They’ve got a generator.”
       I wish I had a sister. With an allotment and a generator. Some safe place where Cara could be well, and we’d just be country bumpkins, not worthy of notice. The clinic appointment comes through, and I open it with a lurch.
       Cara needs a pox jab. She’s not quite old enough for it, but we’ll have to be gone before she is. I could take her and tell them that we know someone who’s got it, but we might be caught out, and we can’t risk that. I could go to the walk-in centre in a panic and say I saw a boy with spots, and act a bit stupid when they ask for details, but it’s still a risk. But then we’ll come up on the records anyway when we miss the jab in half a year’s time.
       I take the risk, at the walk-in centre, and they agree to do her. Cara knows what’s up. When she sees the needle she screams. “No, mummy! Hurts!” The nurse doesn’t bat an eyelid. I realize that she hasn’t looked at Cara’s date of birth.

On Dean’s day off I leave him with Cara and head out to pick up the last supplies. The camping shop is in the next district but one, in a row of specialist traders. I’ve passed it before but never had any call to go in. As I push the door, a bell ting-tings. Proper old school. A skinny old man comes out of the back of the shop, newspaper in hand, and nods “Morning” to me before taking a seat on a stool behind the counter and settling back down to read. I take out my phone and scroll down my list, brushing through the racks of cagoules, examining elasticated inner cuffs and breathable linings. I look at map protectors and whistles and torches, and then at thermal underwear.
       “Looking for anything in particular?” says the man, eyes still fixed on his newspaper.
       “I’ve got a list,” I say, going over to him.
       He looks at it, then up at me. “Where you going?”
       “Spending the summer at my sister’s in Suffolk.”
       “And you’ll need a tent there, will you?”
       “We might do some camping while we’re there. Explore the countryside.”
       “Might you. Nothing firmly planned then?”
       “I’ll see what the prices are.” I shrug and move away. “We’ll need the clothes anyway, got nothing suitable.”
       I wander over to the small bookshelf and run my hands idly over the spines. Birdwatching… wildlife… birdwatching… birdwatching for children… angling… geology. I pick up a secondhand paperback, Foraging, and flip through the pages, stopping to read. I sense him watching me and snap it shut. It puffs up a cloud of dust.
       “When I was younger a lot of people used to do it.” He smiles and looks at me intently.
       The bell ting-tings and a middle-aged man comes in, asking for waterproof trousers in a Large. He buys them and leaves.
       The owner watches me for a while as I try out binoculars, then eases himself up off his stool and beckons me to follow, round the L of the shop, through an archway.
       In the inner room recess, three mannequins dressed head to toe in waterproofsa man, a woman, and a child a little older than Cara, her dark hair cut into a bob with a blunt fringe crouch round a campfire, in attitudes of rigor mortis. The mother, skin a waxy yellow, eyes full and staring, whistle dangling from a lanyard round her neck, clutches the cup from a thermal flask. Three silver sleeping bagsone junior-sizedsit neatly rolled in the pop-up tent behind them. Kendal mint cake and firelighters litter the groundsheet. A square of tinfoil lines the portable grill.
       I inspect the tent, shiny green nylon, just big enough for one person, or one person and a child. “I’ll take the lot,” I say, turning to him.
       “Sizes?” he says, going to his stockroom, and I tell him, giving Cara’s next size up.

He piles the bagged-up clothes and boxed-up boots and gear on the counter, then comes out from behind it with a packet in his open palm.
       “Sterilizing tablets, in case you can’t boil your water.” He shows me and chucks them on the pile.
       He pulls things off the shelves and out of drawers. “A flaskwhen you do boil water, put some in a flask. Then you have it even when your fire’s gone out.
       “Medical kitessential.
       “Thick winter glovesalso good for picking nettles. You can eat nettles, you know. Yesonce you cook them they don’t sting. That’s where your flask of hot water comes in handy.” His thin mouth stretches over his teeth in a smile. “They also make good tea, for when you’ve drunk all the real stuff.”
       Has he been questioned before, I wonder, about branded goods on people found (alive?) in the woods, in caves? I’d love to ask him whether they were found alive. I wonder if he ever hears back from anyone. How he knows what works.
       “Do you sell anything else?” I ask, looking at him directly. He looks away. And then goes to the door of his backroom. I wonder if it’s an invitation to follow.
       I make another circuit of the shop. I choose a large waterproof camper bag, maps, torches, penknives, and binoculars. I pick up the Foraging book and Birdwatching for Children.
       “Oh, and I might take these,” I say carelessly, dropping them onto the counter. Then I hand over the equivalent of three weeks’ pay.
       As he packs up my purchases into the camper bag, he passes me a card. “Do come back,” he says. “We do mail order too.” And he smiles again, revealing a false crown.
At home I pack the dried foodstuffs into the camper bag
cheesy biscuits, packets of small cakes, raisins, and chocolateand all the tins. Candles. Cutlery. Vitamins. Toiletries. Jewellery. Cash. Nothing electronic. A few warm clothes, mostly things for Cara. Wellies in two child sizes. We’ll wear the rest. Dean collects up all his lighters from when he used to smoke, before the pollution got too bad. I used to tease him for being a hoarder. I stuff in a couple of print books for Cara. We eat the birthday cake.
       Late at night, in the kitchen, with the washer on, I read about foraging, committing to memory the properties and seasons of fungi, berries, leaves, bulbs, roots, flowers, nuts, and seeds. I make Dean learn about them too, in case we get split up. One day I’ll teach Cara, if we last that long.
       I re-draw the maps on paper, using codewords for the names of places and marking in South as North. I make copies for both of us. We’ve got an old compass that belonged to Dean’s granddad. I don’t know how to use it but I’ll figure it out. I know how to use the sun.
       It’s hard to leave all of Cara’s baby things, but if we hang onto the past we lose the future. Nothing to keep them for anyway: no chance of having another one now. I don’t want anyone else to have them, so I burn them in a metal waste bin on the balcony, one box at a time, one Sunday afternoon.
       I tell our neighbours on both sides and down the walkway that we’ll be gone for the summer. Dean tells his boss that we might not be back.
       We’re lucky the weather’s still cool when we leave in June. No-one will comment on our anoraks. We dress as holidaymakers, in light hiking gear, Dean in shorts.
       At our local shop I use some more of next month’s tokens for picnic food. Some of it will keep for another dayand the tokens are no good to us now. I tell the shopkeeper we’re away for the summer. He knows us. “Sister’s got an allotment!” I say. And “Dean’s got a holiday job!”
       The last thing I do is tell the clinic we’ll be on holiday when the check is duegone for the whole summer. No, we don’t have time to reschedule: we’re leaving today. The receptionist huffs with frustration, especially when I say I don’t know exactly when we’ll be back.
       “She’s hitting all her milestones…” I say.
       “That’s not the point!” she snaps, and huffs a bit more as she types something. “Just call for an appointment as soon as you’re home,” she says. “I’ll make a note to contact you in September, just in case.”
       My heart gives a little leap.
       I know that if they want to find us they will. I just have to hope that they don’t care enough. We’re nothing valuable to themat least, they don’t know that we are.


When we get to the forest, we look for an area with good cover, not too far from a stream. We find a small place surrounded by bushes. We can stay here for a while, and maybe come back here too. Some of the bushes are evergreens, so they’ll shield us in the winter. I mark the place on our maps. We use branches and a picnic blanket, and cover them with ferns to build a bivouac. I set out bowls to catch rainwater. We take off our layers of clothes and pack them away, back in the waterproof bag. We make a light camp; we might need to move quickly.
       We build our first fire, just for the practice: dry leaves and twigs, one match, one candle, smiling in the glow of it. We eat sardines and madeleines. I read Cara her book and brush her nine teeth. While she sleeps in the tent, I leave the camp and scrape the dirty nappies with leaves, then wash them in the stream. When I get back I curl against her. A fine rain patters on the bivouac, but in our sleeping bags we are warm, and it will only get warmer this summer. We should be hardened enough when October comes round.

In the morning I wash myself, upstream of the nappies. I find some field mushrooms on the banks, and cut them with my penknife: they smell fresh and mouldy, damp with dew or rain. I walk back jubilant, a longer way, so as not to make a path between our camp and the stream. Nettles grow everywhere. I’ll pick some later, to stew with the mushrooms.
       As I cross a clearing, a huge auburn fox, the biggest I’ve seen, as big as a pig, pounds past me, a hare in its jaws. Another, younger fox chases it. I watch them hurtle through the wet trees, flashing tawny and white.
       When I return to the camp, Cara is standing outside. She is barefoot. She fixes me with her eyes and takes two tiny steps on the forest floor, then a pause, then one more. I run to her and scoop her up, then show her the mushrooms, which she wants to eat immediately. I wipe them on a cloth, slice them and put them in the pan.
       “Dean, I’m going back for nettles,” I shout, and I grab my winter gloves.
       I wonder about the foxes, and the other things. Will we be their prey, when the weather turns, when the ice sets in?
       I wonder about loneliness.

Maybe we’ll find some of the others? There must be others.

© Uschi Gatward

This electronic version of “The Clinic” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of Nicholas Royle and the author. It appears in the anthology Best British Short Stories 2015, edited by Nicholas Royle, published by Salt Publishing, 2015. It first appeared in Structo 12. Book ordering available through and

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Author Bio
Uschi GatwardUschi Gatward was born in East London and lives there now. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt), Flamingo Land & Other Stories (ed. Ellah Allfrey, Flight Press), Southword, Structo and, as winner of its 2015 New Writing Prize, Wasafiri.