After sex that night, which was at best perfunctory, I lay on my back on top of the duvet with my knees drawn up to my chest, like I’d seen Maude do in The Big Lebowski. Owen was in the bathroom and I could tell from the sporadic muffled yelps that he was tweezing his nose hair.
‘Gravity,’ I said aloud. I’d read about gravity-assisted conception, how to give the swimmers a better chance. Owen was the one who cooed over babies, so I assumed he would applaud my initiative.
I was right. Three weeks later, I waited nervously on a deckchair in our small garden, while Owen checked the pregnancy test. One blue line meant no hCG hormone, no baby. Two blue lines meant baby. Of course it was two. I knew even before Owen burst through the patio doors, holding the pee-stick triumphantly in the air, a wide grin on his face. I just knew. I stood up and we gripped each other tightly.
‘This moment,’ he said, to me, to the cluster of cells in my uterus, ‘this moment we will remember forever.’
Owen knelt to kiss my stomach and when he raised his face to me there was a look in his eyes that I hadn’t seen before. It may have been wonder. Or excitement. Or something else.
When I arrived home after work, Owen was in the narrow galley kitchen rinsing salad with filtered water and blackening two tuna steaks on a griddle.
‘To get rid of the bugs,’ he said, as he served up pieces of desiccated fish with a side of damp lettuce. I was finally hungry again and could have murdered a rare steak with blue cheese sauce, but I guessed Owen would rather I went hungry than let me eat bloodied meat and unpasteurised cheese. He poured a glass of wine and a glass of milk and we sat down at the small table.
‘I checked the book today,’ he said. He’d spent the last few weeks reading What To Expect When You’re Expecting and regaling me with facts about the developments in my womb. He particularly liked the size comparisons with fruit. We’d been through raspberry, green olive and prune.
‘Oh yes?’ I stared at the blood red poppy his mother had crocheted, pinned to the front of his jumper.
‘The baby is now the size of a plum. Isn’t that amazing? It’s such a miracle.’
‘It’s hard to believe that there’s a real baby in here.’ I gestured to my still-flat stomach and eyed the wine. Owen looked over to the grainy black and white scan photo stuck to the fridge with a magnet in the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge, and smiled. I sipped my milk.
I was laid out on the sofa watching the X-Factor final, when Owen came to sit next to me.
‘I’ve got a little gift for you,’ he said. An early Christmas present that he wanted us to open together. He went to get a small package from the spare room and cupped the brown paper parcel in both hands as he presented it to me. It was about the size of a large piece of fruit. I started to feel queasy. He had that look again so I attempted to arrange my face in a smile of gratitude when I saw what lurked inside. I failed. Instead, I grimaced and said, ‘What the fuck is that?’
‘It’s a foetus doll.’
An inert soft-limbed object lay in my lap, naked and hairless. Its moulded plastic face had a little stub nose, pursed pink lips and brown eyelashes over its closed eyes. Owen carefully took the thing from me and lifted it upright. The eyes snapped open. In the low lighting of the living room, two dark eyes stared vacantly into mine.
‘I gave them the scan photo and they transposed it onto her face.’ I didn’t say anything. On the television, Little Mix were singing their cover of Silent Night. Owen said that he’d ordered dark brown eyes, like mine.
‘You said you couldn’t picture having a baby, so now you, we, can practise. Changing nappies, that sort of thing.’ Owen held the thing in his arms. ‘It’s what she’s going to really look like. Can you believe it?’
I stayed up late that night and changed in the bathroom so I didn’t wake Owen. I stood naked, looking in the mirror at the small swelling of my belly, my breasts with their visible veins and darkening nipples, the brown line drawn from pubis to tummy button: the linea negra. I felt flutters beneath my skin. The quickening, they used to call it, before hormone tests and ultrasounds; evidence that couldn’t be dismissed as simply a case of nausea or bloating. Evidence that something was in there, inside.
Owen loved to place his hand flat on my belly and wait for the tremors under the surface, like winged insects flapping and flitting, trying to find their way out. I put on my nightgown, went into our bedroom and bent down over him. I could hear his rhythmic, heavy breathing. I felt the warmth of his face and brushed his curly dark hair with my fingers. Next to his head I felt a smaller head, cold and smooth. I ran my fingertips over the indents of its eye sockets. I pinched its tiny ears lightly. That thing, in our bed.
‘It’s another year now and I’m still pregnant.’ I perched inelegantly on a bar stool and waited for my third non-alcoholic cocktail of the evening. The barman was pouring a bright orange liquid through a strainer into a tall glass and then piercing pieces of tropical fruit onto a cocktail stick.
‘I thought you’d enjoy being part of the baby club,’ said Louise.
‘It’s getting big, though. Too big for Owen’s fruit analogies.’ I patted my expanding belly. ‘I liked imagining it the size of a pineapple, with an orange face and spiky green hair.’
‘Shouldn’t you be calling it ‘she’ rather than ‘it’’? ‘Yeah, feels strange though, like it’s a real person.’
‘Er, hello, she’s a baby, not a pineapple. Didn’t Owen get you a doll to help with all this?’ ‘Let’s not talk about the doll.’ I’d found Owen holding the thing the other evening, stroking its cheek and saying ‘shhush.’ I also noticed that he’d set up the baby monitor on his bedside table. He looked at me guiltily when he saw me staring at it and said, ‘just practising.’
The barman placed two drinks on the shiny bar top. Louise and I chinked glasses.
‘Let’s not talk about either of them,’ I said. I slid a chunk of fruit from the stick, put it in my mouth and chewed.
It was late when I got off the train and walked down the long flight of steps out of the station. It had been dark for hours and the road was quiet. A man passed by on the other side of the street, pushing a buggy. He was tall and a chunky scarf wound around his neck. I could hear the wheels of the buggy turning as I stepped onto the road.
‘Owen?’ I said. The man didn’t turn around. I reached the pavement on the other side, as the man and the buggy disappeared into the shadows of the railway arches. I stared for a minute and then turned and went home. When I opened the front door, the buggy was still in its box in the porch, the knitted scarf from Owen’s mother hung from the hatstand. I felt relieved and a bit ridiculous.
As I passed the spare room door on my way up to bed, I paused, turned on the light and went in. John Lewis boxes lay stacked in the corner, the wallpaper was peeling, old green curtains hung thinly from the plastic rail. A pack of newborn nappies lay opened on the changing table. Only the cot in the corner was made up, a clean white sheet stretched over the mattress, a wind-up Peter Rabbit mobile attached to the bars, plush mini bunnies on a carousel. I walked over to the cot and looked in. The thing was lying in the centre under the mobile, wrapped in a pink cellular blanket. Underneath the blanket it was wearing the towelling sleep suit that we’d bought a few weeks earlier. Its eyes were shut.
We were late for the NCT class as Owen was fussing over that thing. I waited at the front door, drumming my short fingernails on the wood.
‘It’s a doll, Owen.’
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I know.’ He placed it in the bouncer in front of the TV and flicked to the BabyTV channel.
When we arrived at the church hall at the edge of the tree-lined common, seven other couples were seated on grey plastic chairs arranged in a semi-circle. The men looked uncomfortable; the women rubbed their bumps and winced.
The teacher, Denise, who had long blonde hair and a beatified expression, passed around a photo of a woman giving birth outside, in what looked like scrubland, alone. This was supposed to be an example of how women should labour. There were murmurings around the group of how beautiful it was, how natural. One of the women said that this was how she wanted to do it, without drugs or pain relief. Denise nodded her agreement, ‘the body knows how,’ she enthused. I looked at the photo. The woman was kneeling on the ground, back arched, her face contorted, the tendons in her neck stretched to breaking.
‘It looks horrific,’ I said. ‘Poor woman.’
Denise told us about the signs of early labour: diarrhoea, mucus plugs and the bloody show. Most of the men slumped in their chairs during this part. Denise perked them up with practical instructions on how to time contractions and what to pack in a hospital bag. She told us that our babies would now be covered in lanugo and vernix: downy hair and a greasy, cheesy substance, to stop them pickling in the amniotic sac. That when they were born, their breasts may be engorged, with nipples leaking a thin white liquid named ‘witches’ milk.’
Owen began to get distracted after lunch; he kept looking at his watch. I thought he was just bored at first; that he’d switched off, like the other men, when Jasmine asked for advice on how to give herself a perineal massage to prevent tearing. But when I looked at him he seemed anxious, panicked even, and I felt a cold dread in the back of my mouth.
He drove home quickly, jaws clenched and silent. I sat beside him clutching the handout showing photos of the varieties of newborn poo, ranging in colour and viscosity. He drove straight into a parking spot outside our home, leaving the back of the car sticking out into the road, and dashed into the house. I sat for a while, remembering what my mother had said about baby poo, my own infant excrement. Like the smell of freshly baked bread, she’d said, playfully, teasingly, knowing she wouldn’t be there to help me change a nappy when the time came.
‘That seems unlikely,’ I said out loud, looking at a picture of a rancid yellow substance and wishing that she was there, that she was here.
As I walked in the door, Owen was in the kitchen bent over the counter, a muslin cloth over his shoulder with that thing perched on top, pinhead eyes staring. He was boiling the kettle and measuring out spoonfuls of formula into a bottle.
‘It’ll be so much easier when you can breastfeed,’ he said, not turning around to look at me.
‘I may not bother,’ I replied, even though I had fully intended to. He turned around now. ‘Oh, you heard what Denise said?’
Yes, I heard what Denise said. That it was important for I.Q., for immunity, that nothing could replace the amber nectar of colostrum. She even claimed to be able to tell by looking at the shape of an adult’s chin whether they were breastfed.
‘But you weren’t breastfed, were you?’ I said, looking at his face in profile, which sloped around the jaw area in an unsatisfactory manner. He shook his head, irritated, and took the bottle and the thing upstairs.
I nearly walked past my office at work this morning, as there was no name on my door. My desk was clear, apart from the phone and computer. Everyone seemed busy, phones ringing, people running back and forth. Louise passed by a few times and I called her name, but she didn’t hear me.
I waddled uncomfortably to her office at lunchtime, conscious that my colleagues eyed the large globe under my tight lycra top with alarm and pressed themselves against the walls of the narrow corridors to let me pass. No-one looked at my face these days. I collapsed into the spare chair in Louise’s room with an ‘oof,’ leant over the desk and squeezed her wrist tightly. I needed to speak to her, about Owen, about home, but I hesitated.
‘How are you feeling?’ she said, leaning forward and patting my clawed hand. No-one asked how I was anymore; only how I felt. I adjusted the elasticated waistband of my uncomfortable maternity trousers, leant back in the chair and said I felt fine.
‘Fine?’ She tilted her large round head to the side, like a planet on an axis, and narrowed her eyes at me. ‘How are you feeling about the birth?’
This was something I could talk about. I relaxed. ‘Terrified. I mean, how the fuck’s it going to get out? It’s massive.’ I looked down at the body that wasn’t my body. Louise laughed.
‘Women have been doing this for millennia, I’m told,’ she said. The phone rang and she picked it up, mouthing ‘sorry’ as she put the receiver to her ear. Millennia, yes. But what about when it goes wrong? I’d read the stories, the mothers who died in childbirth, the babies who died, who were still dying daily, hundreds of them. And what about my baby? What if she died? Louise was talking to
Marv Chester, my old client. She was holding the receiver in her left hand and writing notes on a lined pad with her right. She wrote ‘Trial’ at the top of the page and underlined it. Marv used to be my client; I hadn’t realised that his case was going to trial. I waited a few minutes more, staring uselessly at the white section of wall over her left shoulder, before I heaved myself from my chair and left the room.
I arrived home from work in daylight. The wisteria was starting to bloom on the climber over the door. Owen was frying minced beef in a casserole dish, wearing a baby sling with that thing in it. He’d started taking the doll to work with him. He introduced it to his colleagues as Feety, since ‘foetus doll’ was a bit of a mouthful, and the secretaries took it in turns to cuddle it. This is what he’d told me.
I slung my handbag on the floor and leant against the counter.
‘I’m getting lots of movement,’ I said, easing the backs of my flats from my swollen feet. ‘That’s a good sign,’ he responded, tipping a tin of tomatoes into the dish and stirring. ‘Do you want to feel?’
‘Sure.’ He paused. ‘Maybe later, I’ll just get this cooked first.’
I stared at the top of the thing’s head poking out of the sling. It was wearing a pink hat, the one I’d bought for my baby to wear.
‘Give me the doll,’ I said.
‘Ok. Fine. Feety. Give me Feety.’
Owen smiled and put down the wooden spoon. He took it carefully from the sling and handed it to me. I held the thing gently, knowing that he was watching me. The doll was ridiculously lightweight. I went to the cupboard, took out eight cans of beans and chopped tomatoes and stacked them up inside the sling.
‘Now keep that on for a month,’ I said and stomped off upstairs to the loo, ignoring Owen’s gasps as I deposited Feety on the kitchen counter.
My limbs ached; I couldn’t sleep. I was propped awkwardly on my side, supported by pillows. My ankles were puffed, my thighs lumpy with extra fat and blood, the veins at the top of my legs clumped into large purple pools. The baby inside me stretched and pushed, her feet in my ribcage, her hands pressing the taut skin at the base of my rounded abdomen. It was like the nozzle of a bicycle pump had been inserted in my anus and the piston pumped until the pressure gauge was off the scale.
Owen was breathing deeply. I reached across the many pillows that separated us and shook him. I felt his breath on my face.
‘Who is going to remember?’ I asked. He murmured and rolled over, his back to me.
‘Who is going to remember all the babies who die?’ I said, to myself, to my unborn child. When their parents die, there’s no-one to remember them. I imagined a pale infant, barely warm, cradled in a mother’s arms. In a hospital bed; in a house; outside, alone. It is the same loss. The baby is gone, it doesn’t even get a chance.
‘And what about you?’ I pressed the heel of my hand lightly onto my bump. There was a nudge of a little limb into my palm in response. I smiled. My baby, my daughter, her heart beating inside my body. ‘You’re going to be just fine,’ I said, stroking the place where we had almost touched.
I rose, and despite my weight, padded soundlessly into the nursery. The walls were painted light blue with a border of baby owls, flapping their wings or perched on twigs. Owen had decorated a few weekends ago. There was a matching blind at the window and packets of cotton wool piled on the changing table. In the cot by the window was Feety.
I stood by the side of the cot and looked down. It was swaddled in a white blanket. The light from the street lamp outside blurred around the edge of the blind and onto its face, illuminating the pale features. Owen had been practising with a thermometer, pretending that Feety had a temperature.
‘Are you poorly, Feety?’ I whispered. Feety’s face was smooth and waxen. I may as well have asked a potato if it had blight. I could have chucked it in the bin, but I didn’t. I gave it a little prod in the chest; its head lifted and the plastic eyelids opened.
Jasmine sent back her eggs because they were too runny. ‘I’m pregnant,’ she said, somewhat unnecessarily as she patted her bump of nine months’ gestation. We were sitting in a local cafe for brunch, six bumps and two mothers with new babies. The babies arrived hidden under parasols attached to enormous buggies, their mothers laden with massive bags. I tried to keep up with the birth stories and the third trimester woes of the NCT group women, most of whose names I couldn’t remember, but I was pre-occupied, distracted.
‘I got a contraction when I was in the admissions queue at Chelsea & Westminster and my waters broke all over the floor…’
‘My friend’s boobs got so hard when her milk came in that her husband had to suck her nipples in the shower to let the milk out.’
‘I laboured for 18 hours before I had an epidural. I feel like a failure.’
‘I had acupuncture yesterday, to bring on labour. It was totally weird! The guy doing it had dreads, but he was really good.’
‘It’d be so special if my baby remembered being in the womb. If that was, like, his first memory.’
‘Really?’ I said, suddenly interested. ‘Suspended upside down in fluid, head pressing against bone, body covered in hair and cheese. Why would you want it to remember that?’ Hermione, or someone I thought was called Hermione, paused with her mug of camomile tea held in front of her, her enormous bump adorned with a floral pashmina, what lurked beneath separated from the world by a contraction of muscles, a stretch and tear of skin.
‘I think it could be a beautiful experience,’ possibly-Hermione countered. ‘A point of true connection with my child.’
‘Right. Its first sight in the world is of its mother’s arsehole.’ I felt self-conscious as the bumps and new mothers looked at me, with the tongue on my The Bigger Bang 2007 tour t-shirt distorted as it stretched over my swollen stomach and breasts. I shrugged. ‘Wouldn’t you want to forget?’
I stayed in the cafe after the others had left, and then I walked around in the late Spring sunshine for a while, for a long while, until my hips felt like they’d pop out and I wasn’t sure where I was anymore. I didn’t want to go home, but I was tired. Owen would be there, with the thing. He was there all the time these days; he never seemed to be at work. I resolved to talk to him, to make him engage with me; I’d put it off for too long. I started back in the direction of home. A man overtook me, smoking a cigarette as he walked, the wafts of smoke billowing behind him. I quickened my pace to keep up with him, as much as I could with a skull lodged in my pelvis. I breathed deeply, knowing that Owen would consider this on a par with ramming a knife into my own stomach, but I did it anyway.
The shadows were lengthening in the street as I neared home, and my feet felt as if the arches would collapse from the weight. The cramps started gently at first, but by the time I reached our front door the pain was ramping up. I rested my forehead on the cool oak of the door for a few seconds before I reached for the keys. I slotted the key into the lock. It wouldn’t turn. I twisted it back and forth, clutching my stomach with my free hand, but the lock didn’t budge. I started to sweat. I felt sticky and put my left hand between my legs. Blood had seeped through my thin cotton trousers. I tried not to panic. Just the bloody show, like Denise said. I banged on the door but no-one came to answer it.
The streetlights were on now. I stood on the pavement and looked up at the nursery window. The blind was down but a lamp was on inside and I could see the outline of a figure through the material, a male figure, cradling something in his arms. The figure was rocking slowly, rhythmically, from side to side. I held onto the door knocker with my right hand as I slid to the doorstep onto my knees and put my bloodied fingers through the letterbox.
‘Owen,’ I sobbed. ‘Owen!’ The hallway was dark. A contraction came and I pressed the small of my back to ease the pain. With the next one, a rush of liquid streamed down the inside of my legs and onto the step; not blood but a pale, thin liquid. Amniotic fluid.
The pain intensified; it was blinding, shocking. I was nauseous, wailing, tearing my hair, scrabbling at the door. Someone would hear, someone would see. I felt the excruciating pressure down below, the head of a real baby, ready to tear me in two. Gravity, doing its thing again.
I called Owen’s name again in a voice that didn’t sound like mine. Silence, then finally, Owen’s voice, deep and melodic, floated down the stairs and through the letterbox. It was the sound of a lullaby, softly sung, ‘Hush little baby, don’t say a word.’ I put my head down onto the concrete doorstep and moaned my despair.