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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

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21 across

What is this place, anyway?

Usually he does radio voiceovers and boyfriends, making the ex jealous or putting off curious workmates (he's got the right sort of untidy hair for it). He's had a few husband-for-a-night school-reunion calls as well, but Sarah's been passing him over for fresher faces lately: in a city the size of Adelaide, there's only so many women you can pretend to be married to before someone notices. He prefers jobs that don't involve lying to jobs that do, anyway, though there haven't been many of either lately.

"You must be Cerise." He stretches out his hand. "My name's Hector, and I'll be your baby for this afternoon."

"Hello," she says. She looks nervous. "I should let you know this wasn't my idea."

He'd known that. He launches into the preprepared spiel: "I understand that you're probably suspicious, but whatever your husband's told you or told himself, this absolutely isn't about persuading you that you shouldn't have children. It's about simulating the experience of parenthood, to give you as much information as possible before you make the decision for yourself."

"What is this place, anyway?" She's turning around, looking at the photos on the walls, trying to see back into the welcome area, the receptionist's desk. "Nobody could sustain an entire company by hiring out imaginary babies."

"Actually this is only my second time as a baby. We do all sorts," Hector says, and smiles his friendly smile. "Advertisements, children's parties. I spent two hours outside Harris Scarfe last week reading the sales on dinnerware and manchester over the PA. People phone Sarah to ask for a magician or an MC or somebody to dress up as the March Hare at their Alice in Wonderland party, and then she contacts someone appropriate to see if they're free."

"And she asked if you could pretend to be my son for an afternoon. I hope you aren't expecting me to change your nappies."

"No," he says. "No nappies, I promise. If I do need to use the toilet I'll start crying about it, and it'll be up to you to work out what's going on and take me to a bathroom, but of course you can wait outside once you've taken me to the door. And by crying, I don't mean I'll embarass us both by screaming out 'mama' in the middle of the street. I'll just quietly say 'waah' or 'moan'." He opens his clipboard and runs down the checklist. "Now, will Greg be joining us later on?"

"No," she says. "I want to stay home with my child for the first year, and Greg thinks it'll give me a more realistic idea of how that's going to feel if I'm on my own. He set an alarm clock to wake me up three times last night as well. I don't suppose that was your company's idea?"

Hector turns his laugh into a sympathetic grimace. "No," he says. "He must have come up with it on his own."

He keeps his friendly smile in place as Cerise looks at him. "All right," she says, smiling for the first time and standing up.

He hasn't finished the spiel. "Now," he says, following her out, "I want to help you make the best decision you can, but I can't do that unless you give me a chance and take this seriously. My part of the deal is that I'll stay in character, and try to give you a truly useful motherhood experience. But in exchange, I need—"

Her hair flicks behind her as she turns around to look up at him, three steps below. "Once we're outside this door you have to be quiet, yeah?"

"That's right. So—"

"Well, then." She steps backward and waits. He follows, confused, and when he's within reach she holds her hand out, takes his, and pulls him onto the footpath. There. He looks startled, so she leans in. "Now, Hectie darling, we've got a busy afternoon ahead of us."

"Gurgle," he says after a moment.

"That's a good baby. First Mummy's going to take you shopping, to get a few things for dinner. Maybe some baby potatoes, all teeny and round like you, with their little eyes."

He'll only move when she's holding him, he'd explained in the office; he's playing a six-month-old, not a toddler. She keeps her hand around his arm and walks down the footpath. "Gurgle," he says again as he follows. The pale blue shirt and the jeans remind her of the growsuits she's been looking at in shops.

"And your little potato eyes are a lovely right colour," she says. "All my nephews have just that shade of blue, you know. Greg's are brown, but I looked it up and there's still a good chance our baby will have blue or green." She reaches out to pinch his cheek. "The stubble doesn't help though, sweetums."

"Whimper," he says quietly, and stops walking.

"Oh shush," she says, pulling his arm again. "We can stop to have something to eat in a little while." She's enjoying herself, now that he's quiet; now that he can't move without her say-so. "Am I supposed to find this frustrating? Because I've only been at it a couple of minutes, I know, but it's the best fun I've had this week."

He cries as she leads him through the market but she smiles at him again and gets on with her shopping, pulling him past fruit stall attendants and a man who's trying to buy rotten fish. It's difficult to keep hold of the bags until she realises she can hook them over his arms: "Pretend you're a stroller handle."

After ten minutes there's a crash, and when she looks around he's dropped one of the bags: a bottle of wine. The glass hasn't broken through the plastic, though, so it's easy for her to carry it to the bin, pulling him along after her and tutting while he cries.

"Just for that," she says, "I'm tempted to take you to buy clothes," but she relents when he starts sniffling loudly and wrinkling his nose again. She carries him into a cafe instead. He can have some apple juice; she doesn't know whether he likes it or not, but she's not giving a six-month-old coffee. Or a muffin, for that matter, just one for her, full of pear and cinnamon.

It takes three journeys to get everything to a table at the back. "If you were really a baby," she says, "the nice lady behind the counter would have offered to carry this out for me."

"Waah," he says, looking around the cafe, refusing to meet her eyes.

"Oh, don't sulk." She takes hold of his chin and turns him to face her, then smooths out his forehead with her fingers. "Apple juice, sweetcorn."

He makes eye contact but doesn't pick up the bottle; maybe he's not old enough to manage for himself. She gets a straw, and holds it up to his mouth. "Come on," she says after he's been sipping for a couple of minutes. "Suck it down. My coffee's getting cold."

Hector pulls away from the straw and sprays apple juice from his mouth, over Cerise's black top and the tabletop. She looks down. "Missed," she says, and picks up the dry muffin to put it out of range.

"Whimper."

"But no more apple juice for you, Mister Grotty." She leans back in her seat and looks away from him. The woman behind the counter is reading a magazine; the man who was trying to buy rotten fish is drinking coffee and writing in a notebook. Nobody's even watching them.

The baby's grumbling again, so she breaks a corner off the muffin and pops it in his mouth. "Just a little bit," she says. "Open wide."

He spits it out onto the ground; she picks it up and offers it again. "There you go."

He spits it out again, so she picks it up and eats it before wiping his face off with the napkin. "What is it you want, then, grumblenappy? If it's more juice then you should have thought of that before you spat on me. Or maybe you're sleepy? Well, so am I, but that's what happens when you wake me up three times in the night. Maybe you won't do it again."

"Louder whimpers," he says insistently, but she just laughs and fluffs his hair.

"This is just the same colour as my dad's used to be," she says. "I don't know if my real baby will have it as well. Sometimes I hope he won't, because I'd have to dress him in clothes that match, no pink or yellow or purple or red. That gets tricky with school uniforms, of course. You'll have to tell me what school you went to, when you can talk again."

He's looking grumpy still, cheeks chubbed with worry. "Calm down," she says, shifting her seat closer to him and putting her arm around as he declares another whimper; he looks away, and she leans closer. "Mummy's here, cabbage. We'll get a loaf of bread and then go home, shall we? Have a little nap and then watch playschool. I'll puree some apples for you too."

She leans back to look at him. He's quieting down, and when she clucks her tongue he turns his head to look at her, blinking, querulous. "Maybe you should stay for dinner, until Daddy gets home," she says. "We can afford another couple of hours, and he'll be so sad to have missed your pretty little nose and your pretty little eyelashes, and your fingers. I bet your toes are even cuter, aren't they?" She watches for a reaction; his eyes are wider than ever but he doesn't look away.

On the walk out of the market she pulls him closer. They pass a juggler, and then Reg from her work leaving a pharmacy. She smiles at them both, and feels like she's the sun, beaming out at everything around her. Maybe Reg will tell everyone else he saw her, and they'll ask about the baby when she gets in tomorrow. She'll take some photos just in case.