The treat

One Thursday I was having my lunch — my weekly indulgence — in a corner of a big department store restaurant when Jamie started grizzling. I took him on my knee and tried to jiggle him a bit while I finished my mushroom omelette, but it didn’t work. He nuzzled my chest and squealed. I was an expert now at discretion. With the right clothing and a jacket or scarf, it just looked as though I was cuddling him.

Just after he started, a waitress came over to me and said: "Is your meal all right, Madam?"

I replied positively, and carried on eating with the hand which wasn’t holding Jamie. The waitress joined another at the door to the kitchen and they whispered together. Soon, a supervisor joined them. I could see them glancing at me as they talked, and then the supervisor came towards me, moving neatly between the tables. She wore a shape-fitting short-skirted blue suit with a scarf in the store’s logo, the epitome of an elegant businesswoman, just like I used to be.

She bent down to me with an intimate smile and said quietly: "I’m sorry, Madam, we’d prefer you not to feed your baby in the restaurant."

I looked up at her, puzzled: "I beg your pardon?"

She pulled at the scarf around her throat and glanced back to the waitresses before saying: "There’s a chair provided in the Ladies cloakroom."

"The Ladies? You want me to go to the Ladies? Why, has someone complained?"

I looked around. No-one had been aware of Jamie until now. Most customers at the other tables avoided my gaze. A woman with a toddler in a highchair smiled at me.

"I’m afraid it’s policy, Madam," said the supervisor.

"But what harm is done?" I asked.

"People are eating!"

"So is my baby — and me — I’m a regular customer!"

"It’s on health and safety grounds, Madam. There’s a chair provided in the…"

"Ladies." I finished for her. "I know. You mean you want me to leave the restaurant, where people are supposed to eat, to go to the Ladies loo? Isn’t it against health and safety for a person to eat their dinner in the Ladies? Seems pretty unsanitary to me."

"It’s policy, Madam, it’s not my decision."

"How on earth are Jamie or I contravening health and safety in a way that all the other diners are not?"

"Madam, I must ask you to leave the restaurant if you insist on feeding your baby."

Did she really think it was me who was insisting? At this point Jamie sensed the tension in my body, let go and started to bawl.

"Well, you can hear his opinion," I said.

The woman spread her hands.

Jamie had strong lungs and a piercing howl. Now other customers were looking uncomfortable. The mother opposite me was handing the toddler in the high chair a baby bottle of milk.

"Well I’m not feeding him now, am I?" I said, "Do you prefer him like this?"

"Madam, please!" begged the supervisor. She was a size eight, if that, and looked about twenty. There was no way she would understand a mother’s point of view.

I struggled to adjust my jumper and stop Jamie kicking my ribs with some force.

"Please what? Please go? Please shut the baby up? How?"

My treat had become a tragedy, my nice meal a nightmare. Ready tears were about to make it an embarrassment too. I plonked the howling baby in his pushchair and struggled to my feet.

"I don’t suppose it’s a problem for that baby to have his milk!" I hissed. The supervisor was going pink. Hands fluttered.

"Thank you, Madam," she said. "The Ladies is outside the restaurant."

I cut her off. "I know where it is, but I’m not interested! You can’t suppose I’ll stay in this store — or ever return to it again? You can keep your storecard!"

I opened my bag and wrestled with my creditcard holder, but I couldn’t find the right green card.

The supervisor tapped me on the arm and I pulled away and, sniffing hard, loaded my shopping bags onto Jamie’s pushchair and began to push it towards the entrance.

I kept crashing into the backs of people’s chairs and getting the wheels stuck under cutlery units. When I got to the pay desk I just marched past, barely seeing it through the haze over my eyes, making a grab for a toy which fell off the buggy. They didn’t call me back.

I waited for the lift almost completely sightless, rage and futility threatening to burst out in a wash of tears. When it came I pushed Jamie in and jabbed at the control panel. I had to try three times for the right button. When the lift opened to the cool dimness of the car park I was grateful. I stopped in the shadow of a pillar marked "2F Make a note of your parking bay!" and blew my nose. I wiped my eyes and kissed Jamie, who was still grizzling, but not as noisily. How would I ever be able to visit town again? How could they treat me like that?

With Jamie in the back, lulled to sleep after his exertions by the motion of the car, I drove out of the carpark with misted eyes.

When a bus braked just in time to avoid turning both Jamie and me into tinned meat — I realised I'd better stop until I was better able to see the road ahead. I pulled into the carpark of a church I was passing, but as soon as I stopped, Jamie woke up and began crying for the remainder of his feed. I unstrapped him from his seat and headed for the big wooden door.

Surprisingly, it was open. Inside the church was cool and smelled of stone and wood polish. Coloured rays slanted through the sainted windows. I sat in a pew and began to feed Jamie, gazing around me at the statues and the altar and the Gothic lectern, eagle's wings spread. The eagle looked fierce and it was difficult to imagine the loving word of God being preached from behind it. The saints carved on the rood screen had kind faces, though, looking down on me, in sympathy it seemed. One held an apple or a ball in her hand, stretching towards me as if in offering.

I relaxed. Suddenly a woman appeared from the dark recesses of a side chapel, dark in dress and busy in manner. Another officious type, I suspected. I pulled Jamie towards me in consternation. I hadn't brought my scarf in here.

The woman came into the glass-stained sunlight and her hair lit up with violet and vermilion. She smiled.

"Don't mind me, I'm just doing the flowers. I've a few jobs to do yet, so stay as long as you like."

I stared at her, words forgotten. She moved away quietly and Jamie carried on sucking.

The church was called St Mary's. Perhaps Mary, Mother of God, liked to lend a helping hand to other mothers.  It was comforting to think so.

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Helen Whitehead

Part of this work was submitted as the Dissertation for the MA in Writing

Nottingham Trent University

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Last amended on 8th September 1998 / copyright H. M. Whitehead