The Pram by Roddy Doyle, part of ‘The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story’ anthology, is a dark tale worth taking the time to read. I’m a fan of Roddy Doyle, especially the Barrytown trilogy, but I hadn’t read any of his short stories before.
Through the eyes of Alina, we are introduced to a (Clontarf-based?) middle-class family who have employed Alina as their au-pair. The first paragraph (‘But he did not cry very often. He was almost a perfect baby’) sets the scene like a fairy tale. She adores the baby who she brings for a walk every day down by the sea. It’s too wholesome though–we sense a looming Big Bad Wolf or evil step-mother.
Doyle is the expert storyteller who sets the scene beautifully: ‘The piano was in the tiled hall, close to the stained-glass windows of the large front door. The coloured sunlight of the late afternoon lit the two girls as they played. Their black hair became purple, dark red and the green of deep-forest leaves (nice foreshadowing here). Their fingers on the keys were red and yellow.’
The two little girls Alina minds, although well-spoken and polite, have a macabre presence about them–I picture Wednesday and Pugsley Addams.
Alina is from Eastern Europe—Poland, we learn later—and tries to carry out her duties as best she can. But when the little girls give her secret away, the mother’s nasty side emerges: ‘Listen, babes, said O’Reilly. – Nothing is your private affair. Not while you’re working here. Are you fucking this guy?’
Alina begins to simmer:‘Alina was going to murder the little girls. This she decided as she climbed the stair to her attic room. She closed the door. It had no lock. She sat on the bed, in the dark. She would poison them. She would drown them. She would put pillows on their faces.’
The author has given us time to believe that she will. But this is quickly followed up with ‘She would not, in actuality, kill the girls.’ We are left feeling uneasy.
Then comes the story within the story. This is nicely executed. I can clearly picture the old woman in the forest as the woodcutters draw closer. Doyle paints the scene perfectly, the two little girls sitting on Alina’s feet listening, the pram creaking.
The portrayal of the mother, though, is a little clichéd. As a working mother, she is portrayed as a hard-nosed bitch who cares more about her BMW, her expensive pram and her material possessions than her children. She ‘took the pram and pushed it through the gateway. She tapped the brick pillars. – Don’t scrape the sides. She tapped the sides of the pram. – It is very valuable, said the mother.’
The mother’s evil traits emerge further. She frightens her two daughters by telling them the pram is haunted. She speaks crudely to her colleague on the phone: ‘We have to cancel tomorrow’s meeting. Yes. No; My Polish peasant. Yes; again. Yes. Yes. A fucking nightmare. You can? I’ll suck your cock if you do. Cool. Talk to you.’
And she exploits the au-pair, and treats her like she is disposable. Alina is subsequently fired with a simple ‘You can stay the night, then off you fucking go.’
The husband is also a walking cliché: He touches Alina with his foot under the table, and his wife says ‘lock your door tonight, sweetie.’ Alina comments that she has no key. A little disconcerting – is this the usual and acceptable routine for the husband to take the key and fuck the au-pair?
So I’m a little disappointed at the way the family is depicted. Yet most clichés are based on reality and maybe this story of a middle-class family employing and exploiting an au-pair is a story that is worth telling.
There used to be an urban myth doing the rounds of an au-pair who sent a photo of her charges in the middle of a dual carriageway to the parents before resigning. So, although hard to read, it is a story that makes you think.