“FOR SALE – BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.”
Six words, powerfully evocative and believed to have been written by Ernest Hemingway to win a bet.
The words were the inspiration for The Baby Shoes project – a collection of flash fiction, compiled and edited by the author Hache L. Jones. Her challenge went out: write a story of no more than 500 words explaining why a pair of unworn baby shoes were up for sale.
I decided to take up her challenge and submitted a piece entitled Ashleigh, inspired by the sad but true story of my brother and sister in law, whose premature daughter survived for just four days before losing her fight for life. It was an indescribably bleak time for the entire family, but somehow, the words flowed with ease and on the first anniversary of her passing, I shared the story with Ashleigh’s parents, who both felt that it was the perfect tribute to her.
I was delighted when Ashleigh was chosen for inclusion in the anthology, which is now available on Amazon, with all profits going to the Make A Wish Foundation, which helps make wishes come true for seriously ill children. It contains 191 stories in total and is well worth a look. In the meantime, here’s a taster …
She came into the world on a crisp December day, tugged from inside you through incised flesh and torn muscles. Your body had ached to house her until the New Year, to keep her safe and incubated. Yet here she was, twelve weeks early, rushed away to a manger, before you could even hold her.
Tubes became her lifeblood, your precious bundle wrapped in ribbons of wires. You yearned to feed her instead of that drip, longed to swaddle her in her own crib, but all you could do was watch and wait, your helplessness ricocheting around the ward.
When, at last, you scooped her up, her heart beating against your own, it felt as though she’d been with you forever. She was as light as a loaf of bread, her doughy limbs not yet fully risen. Still, her tiny fingernails were perfectly formed and her hands gripped yours with urgency, grasping at life. Awash with love, you prayed that she would hold on, that she would grow – like her premature brother – to be a gale force of resilience and curiosity.
Three days passed before you breathed her name to the world – the name you’d spoken softly as you watched her chest rise and fall, the name you’d murmured during snatched hours of half-sleep. Your joy spread, her name shining bright, shimmering with hope.
But then, fresh news crushed that hope – the night had snatched her from you, claiming your star as its own. A fist pumped inside your ribcage, flooding your veins with disbelief. Every fibre of you coiled with anguish as you relived the shock of her form ripped from yours, over and over again.
Back home, your three-year-old son was giddy with Christmas spirit, unable to comprehend why mummy and daddy were so sad. You wondered how life could continue in her absence, when the echoes of your loss followed you from room to room.
Flowers arrived, each condolence a reminder, a new thorn. Yet simultaneously, those words of comfort chided you, made you realise you were not alone. You thought of the presents at your baby shower, the anticipation of pitter-pattering feet. You pictured the shoes, wrapped delicately in tissue paper, their velvet as soft as your daughter’s cheek. You’d never get to see her first steps, to hear her first words, but she remained with you, her memory chattering and dancing by your side.
Others doubted your judgment, selling those shoes, but as you handed them to your radiant, pregnant buyer, you felt a reclaimed purpose in their soles. You donated the money to the hospital – Ashleigh’s parting gift.
Now, on her first birthday, you light a candle and speak her name once more. You reach out to your husband and son, your bastions of strength. The scars of your loss will never fade, but as you trace the scar across your stomach, you know she is waiting for you – that one day you will hear her call your name.