I don’t want to turn aside and look at my reflection in the darkened window, but I have to show people I don’t belong with these three young women who just got onto the train. They’ve interrupted my knitting. I can’t continue it now – not any longer. If I carried on looping and threading and diving my needles in front of them, they’d put a curse on my baby.
I chose a neutral wool colour – a red and orange stripe – as I don’t want to know the baby’s sex. It actually goes rather nicely with the scarf I’m wearing, the one I knitted last winter. And with my hair. I think an orange that isn’t too strong helps to liven up a pale skin. I will gather my baby up to my shoulder and it will rest its head against whatever soft thing I’m wearing. I will feel its warmth transfused into my veins. I will clasp its head in my hand – maybe chestnut-coloured, like mine (my grandmother used to call it ‘rich mouse’, and I would picture a tiny brown whiskered creature flicking his long tail as, squatting in their midst, he counted his straw-woven money bags). Or it might be dark, like Paul’s. But always the pale skin, given by both of us. I don’t know what all this mother-love business is really about. This is my first. Still – I find myself grow heady as I close my eyes and imagine it.
Closed eyes are best. I don’t need to look at my reflection in the window, and although I can still hear those three young women loud and clear, at least I can’t see them. On the screen behind my tight-shut lids, though, their painted faces bob and burst. The make-up is plastered so thick, I can’t tell their true skin colour. Come to think of it, they’re probably not much younger than I am. No babies yet; footloose and fancy-free; so out for a night on the town.
I keep my eyes closed, and I keep listening… having no choice.
‘I got Darren to look after the kids this evening. In the end. But he took a fucking lot of persuading, and course he’ll use this one miserable little brownie point as an excuse. I mean – a reason to go down the pub every night next week.’
‘Tell me about it. Do my nails look all right? I’m not sure about purple. I mean, I love it – but is it really my colour? You’re a lucky bitch, Kyley: you can carry off anything.’
‘That’s right. That red-black-red-black look you had going last time we had a girls’ night out… Remember? It was wicked.’
‘Course I remember – till I got too plastered to remember anything. Blaise, stop going on about your nails. They’re great. Take it from me. Blimey O’Riley – that was some night out, wasn’t it? Can’t wait to hit town this time round. Hit the town; hit the bottle. Yes… tonight I’m going to drink till I’m legless.’
‘Well legless is OK. Me and Shannon might just be able to drag you home. Just make sure you don’t break a leg like you did last summer.’
‘You’re a fine one to talk, Blaise. When was it you broke your leg and we spent the whole bloody night in A&E?’
‘That was more than a year ago, wasn’t it?’
‘That’s right, Shan. And unlike old Kyley here, I didn’t have kids to go home to with my leg in plaster.’
‘Oh don’t remind me – that fucking plaster! The worst thing was the itching. Did I tell you about the time with the ruler?’
‘Ruler. The itching got so crazy I tried scratching underneath the cast, like, with the ruler. Disaster! The ruler snapped. So it was back to the hospital to have the cast taken off, the broken bit of ruler removed and a new cast put on. I ask you…! It was Craig’s ruler. Too grown-up for him, really, but we want him to be good at maths.’
‘I thought it didn’t sound like the sort of thing you’d just have sitting around at home. Well anyway, I never had a cast when I broke my leg. Don’t you remember? I refused. Just like that. I said, “Give me a boot instead.” So they did.’
‘Why did you want a boot?’
‘So my skin wouldn’t go wrinkly.’
‘Christ, tell me about it.’
‘And I was going to Gran Canaria and wanted to get a tan.’
‘One leg tanned, one leg in a fucking great itchy plaster cast! No wonder you asked for a boot, Blaise. Remind me about that next time, will you?’
‘Except there won’t be a next time.’
‘Well there won’t be tonight, Shan. Word of honour. I mean, just trying to picture Darren running around like a headless chicken between two screaming kids and yours truly on crutches… Christ, it gives me a headache.’
‘How was Darren when you broke your leg last time?’
‘It wasn’t Darren. Remember? Darren’s Lily’s dad. Craig’s father was…’
I opened my eyes some time ago, of course, just to check on Kylie, Blaise and Shannon. I don’t know how they thought they’d manage to drag legless Loudmouth Kylie anywhere: she’s the fattest of the three. The other two are quite nicely dressed up, really, their short (but decently below the crotch) skirts revealing their long, slim legs. I suppose the surplus flesh might be put down to… what were they called? Lily and Craig. That’s it. Craig and Lily. After my baby’s born I won’t let myself run to fat. I mean, I know I’m overweight. My grandmother used to tell me that God had chosen a very solid piece of clay when he created me. Paul is very nice about it; says he likes something to hold onto and hates the skinny waif look. But I’m hoping that breast-feeding the baby will help me to shed a pound or two. I expect Kylie bottle-fed her pair. Sorry, I sound like a disapproving snob, don’t I?
But actually I don’t begrudge them their night on the tiles. Lord, when I think about Mum and Dad’s place, the place known as ‘home’, I shudder as I recall the emptiness, the grey, puckered-lips denial of any pleasure. They claimed their kind of Christianity forbade alcohol. They kept a miniature brandy in the bathroom cupboard ‘for medical purposes’ in case my grandmother had one of her fainting fits when she visited. I once unscrewed the bottle (a small amount had already been nipped) and sniffed the devil spirit. It smelt sweetish, but with a sharp angry bite threatening to leap out at me. I swiftly re-fastened the lid, shut the cupboard door and didn’t taste alcohol until I’d left home forever. Paul’s very good with my parents. We visit them at Christmas, on birthdays and Mothers’ Day (though they pretend this last celebration is, like alcohol and fun in general, spurned by their kind of Christianity). This year’s ritual – just under a week ago – was as dry as a dead daffodil. Next year we’ll go to Paul’s mother’s, even though she lives so much further away. This year was her first Mothers’ Day as a widow. She was invited to my sister-in-law’s. Pamela the Perfect.
Actually, I’d say I’m pretty contented with Paul the Perfect. We like to spend the evening together, just the two of us. I suppose we ought to make more effort to go out and see friends: that’s not something we’ll be able to do much once the baby’s arrived. People tell me it’s easy when you’ve got just the one: you can take it anywhere. It will fall asleep in its little Moses basket in your friends’ sitting room while you’re all eating and laughing round the kitchen table. And drinking. But I prefer it when it’s just the two of us: Paul and me. He’ll have a bottle open this evening. Before I was pregnant, we always had a glass or two over dinner on Friday night. I think he told me he was going to cook some fish (‘brain food for the baby,’ he said). So perhaps he’ll have got himself a nice bottle of Chardonnay. A bit sad drinking on his own, with me sitting opposite – just a bit far out from the table now my bump’s suddenly started getting bigger – sipping sedately on orange juice. But it’s good to be together. He’ll just have the once glass and then put the stopper in. People tell me once the baby’s born I’ll be running back to the bottle just to keep me sane during those first difficult months. I wonder if Kylie gave up alcohol when she was expecting Craig and Lily. There they are, re-fixing their make-up: we’re about to pull into Liverpool Street. I put my knitting back into my bag, then turn my face into the window once more – even though I don’t entirely like what I see.
‘Come on, Kylie! You can do it…’
‘Shurrup, Shan. I’m fine.’
‘Well… hardly. What’s Darren gonna say when he sees you in this state?’
‘Leave her alone. Let’s just concentrate on making that train.’
‘Remember the time we missed the last train?’
‘I’m gonna throw up.’
‘No time for that. Look, not far. There’s the station up ahead.’
‘We should’ve taken a taxi.’
‘She’d have thrown up in it.’
‘Well, if we’re in luck with the train, she can puke on the platform. Hold it in there, Kylie.’
In the middle of the night, I feel a strange sensation. There’s a kind of pounding in my stomach. Indigestion again? I stroke my bump, and the pounding’s suddenly stronger.
‘Paul. Wake up, Paul. The baby’s kicking.’