Auto-fiction: A dingo took my baby

For her daughter’s second birthday, Laura visited her local toyshop. It was 1984 and the city was pockmarked with similar stores loaded to the rafters with every child’s dream.

A barn of a place, toys were arranged in rows and ranked according to age. Babies’ gear to the right, with each additional age grouping lumped together and gendered along the various rows.

Toys that moved for boys and all things pink and stationary for girls. 

Even in 1984 the pressure placed on children to identify with the bodies into which they were born annoyed Laura, but the pull of her own childhood memories was too great.

Had her daughter been born a son, Laura was determined she would never buy combat toys or superheroes like those displayed loudly in rows for boys aged five and upwards.

But the lure of the nearby doll section was impossible to ignore.

There she sat. The biggest baby doll Laura had ever seen. A doll, the size of an actual baby, only this doll-baby must have been a healthy six-month-old with oversized head, fake brown hair clamped over its scalp, rubber arms and legs attached to a flexible torso made of cloth.

The doll came dressed in a green outfit, shorts and press stud top that could be removed for washing.

Laura would have preferred a more lifelike representation of the human form, but in 1984 manufacturers had not yet learned to make plastic pliable enough so it felt like the real thing. Even as they curved the baby’s fingers just so and the toes likewise tilted inwards as if moulded from the image of a real baby caught in sleep. 

Laura knew it was a mistake to buy this baby for her daughter. The doll was almost as tall as her two-year-old but memories from her own childhood filtered through. The joy she felt – admittedly as an older child – when she and her sister opened their Christmas presents one year to discover they shared identical Rothmans dolls. One in a pink nappy, the other in blue. These dolls all made of plastic, although not quite the size of the doll baby now in her arms, were large enough to give Laura the illusion as a seven-year-old she was nursing her own baby. She loved poking the mock bottle with its pointed teat into her baby’s mouth. Loved pulling off the layers of clothing she arranged on its unforgiving body. Loved to lie it down to sleep and then pull the doll into a possessive embrace whenever Laura decided her baby had slept long enough. 

The price was almost as big as the baby doll, but Laura knew this chance would not come again. Her chance to give her daughter something she’d have loved herself. Something as magnificent as the biggest baby in the doll kingdom and she looked forward to the birthday morning when Pippa would open the doll to screams of delight.

This did not happen. On the day, Pippa ripped off the colourful paper and looked at the monster baby with an expression of utter bemusement. What do I do with this

‘We’ll call it Azaria,’ Pippa’s dad said looking askance at the doll. He had told Laura, soon after she brought the creature home and pulled it from its paper bag, it was over the top. 

Pippa flung Azaria to one side as she pulled at the wrapping of her other presents, more interested in the small tokens her mother had bought to add to the sense of celebration.

Not that Laura thought anything else was necessary, but she believed small children should not have to settle for only one present on their birthday. And although there would be many more gifts later that day, as Laura and Tom had invited twenty of their adult friends, most of whom had small children like Pippa to her first ever proper birthday party, she needed more than one gift from her parents to underscore the celebration.

At least Laura needed to buy more than one for her. 

In 1984 people still argued over Lindy Chamberlain’s innocence or guilt. She had claimed a dingo stole her baby from a camp tent in Alice Springs, and sometime later, a jump suit was found in bushes nearby. There were also hints of what was thought to be blood stains in the boot of the Chamberlain family car. 

Azaria, the actual baby, was only nine weeks old when she disappeared, and after much scrutiny and prejudice against a mother who was foolhardy enough to take her new baby camping in the desert, the courts looked severely upon her demeanour as a woman who showed no proper grief. 

Laura knew about the mixed feelings mothers might have towards their babies. She had felt them too, especially when Pippa first came into the world. How her cries unsettled Laura to the point she went to the chemist to buy Merbentyl, a red syrup that was intended to help baby’s deal with their colic. And sleep better.

Merbentyl is no longer recommended for babies under six months, but Laura didn’t know this then. She was convinced Pippa’s tears erupted because of pain inside her small body from frothy mother’s milk that went down too fast. She had no sense of the workings of a small person’s digestive system. Only that it was immature and must hurt. 

Laura had looked forward to the birth and right up until it happened it did not register that a real flesh and blood baby would be different from the Rothmans dolls of her childhood.

A real baby would not cooperate and go to sleep on demand, feed on Laura’s request and stop feeding when it suited her mother. 

In the hospital after a thirty-six-hour labour, at the end of which Laura, drugged to near paralysis on Pethidine, could no longer push. Her doctor in a room filled with students and nurses, hitched Laura into stirrups and stretched her legs wide.

She had no energy left to protest or to feel shame when the doctor raised his fingers-of-steel. Forceps shaped like those a doctor 29 years earlier had used on Laura’s own unborn head as her mother lay on a hospital gurney, which Laura’s mother later described as a butcher’s table.

He, too, dragged out Laura, as the other doctor pulled Pippa, small marks left on both foreheads that stayed visible only a day or two. 

Several hours later – a worry to Laura who came from the school that recommended early bonding of mother and child, though Laura could not stay awake until the evening – she feared for her baby.

Pippa was born at lunchtime. And when Laura woke in her hospital bed with three other women feeding babies in beds nearby, she begged a nurse to produce hers. 

Not long after the baby arrived, swaddled in a seersucker wrap and whimpering, the nurse drew curtains around Laura’s bed, and proceeded to teach mother and baby the art of feeding. Not from the pointed teat of her childhood, but from her adult sized nipples.

Laura had nurtured them as her pregnancy progressed, rubbing them with lanolin to increase their flexibility. She was awed when she squeezed the first of the sticky yellow colostrum from each nipple several weeks before her baby appeared. 

Laura had not even considered this possibility before Pippa was born. She knew she wanted to breast feed. It was a given, but she had no idea how this might happen. It was not without mishap to help Pippa get the hang of latching on but latch on Pippa did and feeding became Laura’s default source of comfort. Whenever Pippa cried, hungry or not, Laura attached her to a breast and Pippa obliged, until she was nine months old. 

Laura took the art of feeding to heart. The hospital nurses advised allowing Pippa to suckle only three minutes on each side before shifting to give her nipples a rest.

Laura mistook the nipple care when one nurse told her how to prevent baby from catching an infection hygiene was essential. Laura bathed her nipples in methylated spirits after each feed.

It stung as tiny cracks erupted on her skin under Pippa’s ferocious sucking. Her nipples screamed in pain. Only when she left the hospital did Laura realise her mistake. 

The rules of hospital faded over time and mother and baby fell into an easier rhythm. Then, months later, Laura and Tom took Pippa on a picnic to Hanging Rock. Around lunch time they spread a check blanket over a flat patch of ground and Laura drew Pippa to her, in readiness for a feed. Pippa protested and screamed. She stopped only when Laura set her upright.

Laura tried several times later that day and the next to feed her daughter, but the more she tried the more Pippa refused. 

In time Laura was convinced Pippa had weaned herself. This was okay, though over the next several days Laura’s breasts grew hard and painful like gigantic Tombowlers.

Pippa was old enough then to drink from a cup and she took her cow’s milk this way and water and juice and any other liquid she needed to help to lubricate her tiny body. The months moved on.

By the time the courts refused to believe a dingo had taken Azaria, and her innocent parents were in prison, Pippa was well on her way to toddlerhood.

Although Laura baulked at the name her husband had chosen for the doll baby, she saw the funny side of it. Especially when Pippa took to introducing the doll to adult friends.

Pippa never took to playing for long with Azaria. Something of the size differential, or her mother’s desire, got in the way. 

Azaria languished in a corner cupboard through another two actual babies born to Laura and Tom. And neither of these two, like Pippa, took to playing with Azaria. They wanted the latest in Cabbage Patch dolls, the real ones not the fakes. 

One day during a quiet cull of no longer used children’s toys, Laura drove Azaria to her local Opportunity shop in the hope some other child might enjoy the company of this doll baby. A child who might give this monster baby a better name, a name not synonymous with death and dingos.