BREEDER’S DIGEST BY JOSEPH CLEGG

The route C3 timetable still hangs in the bus shelter: charts of undistinguished places linked by obsolete departure times. Admirals Court, Bishops Rise. Six and forty-two minutes past every hour. Weekend services operated by Travels with Bonzo Ltd. Panes of aged glass filter the light sour yellow and the early autumn shadows seem weighted with damp. There’s no bad weather to shelter from today, and never a bus to catch. But Caz comes here every Saturday at lunchtime to be out of sight of the class.

She perches on the seat and rests her back against the wall. Since the route was changed, spindles of nettles have started to crawl in. They brush her ankles when she shifts her balance. She flicks the cigarette ash as far as she can from her legs. Rubbing a cheek, she lifts her eyes upwards, inhales, then closes them. The sweep of passing cars is the only sound. Her left ankle itches from the nettles.

When she looks down again, a green-trousered girl has materialised from somewhere.

‘Shit,’ Caz says, dropping the cigarette and rolling it under her heel.

The girl, standing in the shelter’s entrance, is watching her. Her wrists are covered in rainbow snap bracelets and loose curls are tugged out at her temples. She could have been there five seconds or half a minute, Caz has no idea.

‘There isn’t any buses from this stop,’ says the girl. ‘The C3 doesn’t run down this road anymore. So.’

‘No, no, I know,’ Caz replies. ‘I’m not trying to catch a bus. I’m just having a – some food here.’ The story sounds suspect, even to her. ‘I mean, because I work in the school.’

‘What, on Saturday?’

‘Every Saturday. Me and a friend run the drama club in there.’

‘Oh. Some guys from my year go to that.’

The girl turns out to face the street, glaring at a crescent of modern brick houses. The green scrunchy on the back of her head almost matches her trousers.

‘It isn’t too late to join the club now, if you wanted. We’ve still got four weeks to the production. You could be one of the singers.’

‘Honestly, no.’ The girl smiles over her shoulder. ‘I’m sorry. You didn’t have to trample out your fag for me.’

Caz tilts her boot and peeks at the stamped-out end.

‘Oh, that,’ she says. ‘No. No, that’s a prop.’

For the next few Saturdays, Mish joins her at the bus stop, staying no longer than five minutes before wandering off in the direction of the shops. (‘I don’t do this on purpose,’ Mish maintains. ‘It’s just the way I walk to Tescos.’) It makes Caz’s face ache, the thought of this girl spending lonely Saturday afternoons watching clouds form over the school fields, and she tries once or twice more to recruit Mish to the drama club, although by now there really isn’t time to learn even a minor chorus role.

Early morning, on the last Saturday of term, there’s an email waiting for her. It’s not unexpected, she gets a similar one exactly twice a year, but she’s never quite able to prepare herself for its arrival. She hunches over an uneaten bowl of peanut butter porridge, contemplating her phone. Just not reading it doesn’t help, though. Putting it off until tomorrow only leaves the anxiety around her waist all day.

With a half-curled middle finger, she flicks the envelope icon, then slips her hand back into the wrist of her hoodie. The Breeders’ Digest, Hugo calls them, these emails from her daughter’s dad. (‘Can’t you just click on “unsubscribe”?’ he used to joke, until Caz told him to stop.) The half-yearly update on sixteen-year-old Lisette’s life in Holland, filled with photos of flushing cheeks, confident smiles, selection box poses. Incidental glimpses of the step-mum, the older half-brother.

Caz taps through the new series of pictures. Her version of Lisette is a showreel composite, of course. From time to time Dirk might write something non-specific like, ‘We had a stroppy moment leaving the beach. Who can blame her, in this heat.’ But those awkward upsets and unflattering scowls never make it onto the visual record. The stupid scenes they’ll all laugh about when they’re a bit older, edited out, so as not to trouble Caz. Who would even take a photo at such a time, anyway? But just once it would be nice to happen upon that secret action shot: Lisette, arms folded, boots planted hard in the sand, laying into her papa.

Hearing the hiss and spit of boiling water, Caz turns to see Hugo in the kitchenette, with his rugby kit on underneath his dressing-gown. When she first got up, she boiled the kettle, but forgot to take any follow-up action. That was about two hours ago.

‘I was going to grab us a tea,’ he says.

‘Thanks.’

Hugo opens the cupboard and proceeds to grab tea. Caz lifts her feet from the floor, places her heels on the lip of her seat, rubs at the cold edges. Her cat is stretched along the breakfast table in a gentle arc, like a ginger croissant.

‘Are you sure you don’t want to call in sick?’ Hugo asks. ‘You hardly slept, Caz. Just call in. You covered for them before.’

Caz nods and then shakes her head.

‘I swear, babe,’ he adds. ‘You ever want me to arrange something with Dirk, I promise I’ll sort it all out. You want to go over to Holland for a little visit, whatever, just tell me. I’ll do –’

‘I know, Hugo. Not yet. It really would just confuse everything, wouldn’t it?’

‘Well. Just let me know.’

Caz brushes cat hair off her arms.

‘I want Lisette to make the first move,’ she says. ‘That’s the best approach, right?’

‘If you think so.’

‘Yes.’

A few days after Lisette was born, Dirk visited Caz. He asked how she was doing and tried to apologise for his wife’s unpleasantness at the hospital. It was this kind of indirect and, therefore, rather valueless apology: but, when a man has cheated on his wife with you and made you pregnant, valueless apologies can end up being given out.

She told him it was sweet of him to say sorry.

‘Nicole just has to come round to this,’ he said. ‘She knows we’re doing the right thing, but I guess it’ll take some time before she completely accepts it.’

‘She needs to realise,’ Hugo intervened from the kitchenette, ‘that it’s a hundred times harder for Caz than for her. It’s a difficult situation for everyone, mate, but it’s hardest on Caz.’

‘Hugo, come on,’ she said. ‘Give it a rest. Really.’

Hugo shrugged and wiped his head with the apron skirt. He and Caz weren’t in a relationship then, although he’d been around for her through the pregnancy, and cooked her many pesto-flavoured dinners. On the settee, Dirk was hunched forward with ponderous politeness. Caz tried not to think of the last time he’d sat there, nine months ago. It was weird enough just having these two guys together in her living room. Aside from anything else, the comparison made Dirk look suddenly old, and Hugo a bit short.

‘Glass of wine, mate?’ Hugo asked.

‘You know, that would actually be perfect, thanks.’

Hugo poured out the red wine, and the three of them tapped together their recycled jam jars. (Actually, the jars originally had contained antipasti, not jam. When she first moved in, Caz had thought it would be fun to get jam jars to use instead of wine glasses. But then she’d realised this would mean eating half a kilo of jam before she could have a drink.)

‘Who are we toasting, then?’ Hugo asked, and a dull throbbing started between Caz’s ribs.

‘Did you and Nicole decide on a name for the little one yet, Dirk?’

‘I… No, well –’

‘Mate,’ Hugo said. ‘I get it’s not the easiest thing to talk to your wife about, but that poor girl is going to need a name pretty damn soon.’

Dirk nodded and tilted his jar to his mouth. Caz smiled at him.

‘Let me know when,’ she began, ‘when you guys –’

But this was all she could manage to say. Maybe, she thought, maybe they just wouldn’t bother letting her know the name. Maybe that secretly was the plan; maybe they had decided it was better that Caz never found out. What could she even do about it, anyway?

Half an hour later than usual, Caz leaves the rehearsal studio for her break. As she trudges down the littered, unloved path behind the tennis courts, a pair of magpies are scuffling up in the tree. The branches shake under the force of their disagreement, and a collection of the morning’s rain scatters on Caz’s head. Dizziness is normal, she assures herself, after stepping out of a curtained studio into full light, having eaten only a few spoons of oats since yesterday. I’ll be fine after a Lucozade and a chocolate bar, she thinks. I can treat myself at the vending machine on the way back.

At the bus stop, Mish is waiting. Her hair is down, shielding her face as she stares into her phone. A duvet of grey, above the playing fields, has tugged itself over the sun. Caz stops for a lorry to pass before she crosses the road.

‘Okay,’ Mish says, her eyes still on the screen. ‘This actually is deliberate.’

‘What do you mean?’ asks Caz. ‘Are you okay?’

Mish looks up at her. Her jaw twitches before she speaks.

‘If you’re avoiding me, then I want to find out why, don’t I?’ She slides her phone into a tweed purse. ‘And you had to come down here sometime, for your shady puff. So.’

Keeping her brow low, Caz edges past Mish and seats herself inside the shelter. The girl rotates as she passes, tapping the backs of her hands together and frowning accusingly.

‘I just came out for the air, Mish,’ Caz says. ‘I am not avoiding anyone. In particular.’

‘Whatever. I’ve frozen my arse off standing out here. Don’t suppose you care.’

‘What? It’s not even cold.’

‘It bloody is. Chilly as an eel’s slit.’

Mish throws herself down on the steel bench. The sleeve of her white jacket brushes the back of Caz’s hand, leaving a static feel on her skin.

‘I don’t know,’ Caz says, ‘why you’re so upset that I’m taking lunch a bit later today.’

‘Because it’s obvious you’d rather sit here by yourself, like a creepy weirdo, and you’re annoyed that I started hanging out with you.’

Caz fixes her eyes to the encased timetable on the opposite wall. She notices a Sharpied smiley face next to the 12:33 Saturday departure. Oh god, she thinks. Did Mish put that there, as a token of how much these encounters mean to her? No, no way. It’s probably from years ago. She can’t remember it having been there before. But she’d have had no particular reason to notice it.

‘Come on,’ she says. ‘That’s nuts.’

‘Right.’

Mish places the emphasis at the end of this word, giving the ‘tuh’ its own syllable. She upends the tweed purse and shoves her iPhone in front of Caz’s face. There’s a message open on the screen from someone called Shamina. There is, Caz notes with some trepidation, a girl called Shamina in her drama class.

ur precious Caz asking 2 swop break times with the other teacher XD she is so blanking u

Caz looks into Mish’s eyes. If Shamina put less effort into gossiping, she might not miss so many vocal cues. The trouble is, she can’t deny that Shamina is right. She did ask to swap break times.

‘I am always happy to see you, Mish. It’s just, today, I’m feeling a bit spaced out.’ The sky brightens again – autumn on a dimmer switch – and panes of amber light fall on the flagstones. Caz turns her face away from Mish and adds, ‘I heard from someone this morning.’

‘Oh.’

After a few moments, she feels a hand on her elbow. ‘I think you should probs have your shady little puff now.’

‘Thanks, but I’d better not.’

‘Oh my god, you sound well choked up. Who was it that got in touch? Do you need me to slap them?’

Caz reaches to touch the glass pane, pushing her fingers through a film of exhaust particulate and other sticky stuff.

‘What if,’ she says, ‘you hadn’t met your real mum, and then she turned out to be me? That would be a good thing, right?’

‘Huh?’

Caz pulls her hand off the filthy glass. You’re right, Mish, she thinks. That isn’t nearly enough context. So: what if a woman found a man’s child inside her? What if she could not see herself bringing up his child – or any child, for that matter? But what if was possible for the girl, instead, to live with the father, his wife and their son? And what if the wife demanded that, to ensure what was apparently known as the girl’s ‘core familial stability’, the birth mother should have a ‘less active presence in the formative years’? What if family law confirmed this? What if child psychology agreed? What then?

‘Well,’ Caz replies. ‘What if –’

There’s a squeak of steel and the bench twangs as Mish stands.

‘What the frick are you on about?’

Caz looks up at Mish, who is red. The girl snaps her mouth shut.

‘What the actual frick?’

‘Look, Mish, I probably shouldn’t have said –’

‘If you were my mum?’

‘Mish, forget I said that. It was just a random question. A stupid random question.’

Mish folds her arms and pouts.

‘Was it?’ she asks. ‘Was it, though?’

The neighbourhood allotment meeting has been called off by the increasingly ugly rain. Caz hunches past the deluged veg patch, in the shadow of her riverside apartment block, an umbrella resting against her neck, her shoulder bag of scripts swinging round. At the edge of the allotment, trees are shedding, and her pumpkin harvest has been buried under a layer of leaves. The prospect of an afternoon’s hoeing, with a Red Stripe and some old, dour blokes, had carried her through the screeching nonsense of the afternoon’s song rehearsals. But now that’s off the menu.

Strip-lights crowd in on her as she bundles into the stairwell, and she has to tug the umbrella free from the weighted door behind her. Inside the lift, her watch bleeps. There’s a few hours to go before Hugo gets home; his rugby team will still be drowning in a puddle in Enfield somewhere. As she’s trying to remember whether they left anything in the bottle last night before bed, her phone bleeps. Then the lift bleeps.

‘Stop bleeping,’ she mouths, swiping at the screen.

The kids have found her online. Winking in the top left is a notification from ‘Shamina K’. Oh superb, she thinks. Bloody Shamina the shit-stirrer. She clicks through to the message.

R u okay miss? Our friend Mish says u think u r her mum loool.

And this, Hugo’s voice says in her head, is what happens when you don’t finish breakfast. Your brain turns itself to porridge and you start sharing your secrets with teenagers.

Zigzag walls greet her as she steps into the flat. She stands the umbrella in the corner, flings the score of Guys and Dolls across the dining table and makes for the kitchenette. They did finish the wine last night, it seems, but Hugo’s birthday whiskey is gleaming behind the empty bottle. She pours half a tumbler, throws it back, says a short word and refills the glass.

‘Are you digging to China down there?’ Hugo asks her when he gets home. ‘What are you hunting for?’

‘A dress,’ she calls back from deep in the drawer, her voice squashed by her doubled-over spine and the coating of Glen Caddoch whiskey. ‘You know my brown dress.’

Her hands scrape the gritty dust collected at the back of the drawer. She levers herself out.

‘Course I do,’ he says, shouldering the bedroom doorway in his stocky post-ballgame way. ‘You’re going to start wearing your lovely brown dress again, are you?’

‘Not if I can’t find the bloody thing, no.’

‘It’s not in the wardrobe?’

‘Doesn’t seem to be.’

‘Hold on. Let me sort out this kitbag and I’ll give you a hand.’

His steps resound through the flat.

‘It has just disappeared,’ she shouts into the hall. ‘Gone. The elves must have come in the night and taken it.’

‘Well, yeah,’ he replies, with a deep-chested laugh. ‘Along with my Glen Caddoch, apparently.’

She sits on her haunches, hands resting on her radiator-warm jeans. There had been something strange about being in that position: him standing in the door, her rummaging head plunged among the clothes. Staged – that was how it felt, like a stock photo in a catalogue, or an animated scene that doesn’t go anywhere. The woman hunts, the man looks on. Twentyfour frames of film loop over and over. The passing moments are defined only by the unstoppable hitting of the rain.

About The Author

Joseph Clegg grew up in St Albans, Hertfordshire and now lives and writes in Haarlem, The Netherlands. His essays on jazz and hip-hop have appeared in BRICK music magazine. He is seeking representation for his first novel.

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One thought on “BREEDER’S DIGEST BY JOSEPH CLEGG

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