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Authors: Emily Barr

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BOOK: The Sisterhood
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Eventually, the midwife booked me a hospital appointment for 6 February, for a scan. That in itself was a surreal prospect. She took my blood pressure, asked a few questions, noting my single status without comment, surprise, or supplementary question.

'Why don't you hop up on here,' she said, as I was getting ready to leave. She patted the couch.

I climbed up gracelessly, and uncovered my abdomen. 'Look at that,' I said, pinching my flab. 'Lucky I have an excuse.'

'Oh, you're fine,' she said, absently. 'You should see some of the ladies who come through that door. The worst is when they take offence when I talk about their weight. Hello? Gestational diabetes? Now, I'm going to use this doppler to try to find the heartbeat, but we often can't find it this early, so don't worry for a moment if I don't get it. I'm only trying because you seem sensible, and because you said there was a chance you might be a bit further on.'

It took her a few attempts to locate it. Then, time stopped. The room was taken over by a swooshy galloping noise. It raced along, unfeasibly fast. I forgot to breathe.

'There you go,' the midwife said, with a small smile. 'Nothing wrong with that. Right. The scan's on the sixth, remember. I'll see you again in a month.'

 

The world looked different. It was tinged with wonder.

Inside me, two hearts were beating. I held tightly to that knowledge. Nothing else mattered Even though I was heinously late, I stopped at the receptionist's desk on my way out.

'Excuse me,' I said, as quietly as I could. I looked around the general waiting room. Here was a mass of ailing humanity.

'Yes?' said the woman, slightly tetchily, I thought. She had a phone to her ear and was sorting through a pile of papers.

I cleared my throat. 'Um, do you know a woman called Rosa? I'm not sure whether she's a patient here. I'm trying to get in touch with her.' I lowered my voice. 'She's a transsexual. Her name used to be Ross.'

The woman was wearing bright pink lipstick. She looked up at me and pouted. 'I don't, but even if I did, we're strictly not allowed to divulge information about our patients.
Particularly
not sensitive information.'

'I didn't want you to divulge information, exactly...'

She had turned back to her paperwork. Then she began to speak animatedly into the telephone.

'Hello, Mrs Bennett,' she said in a sing-song voice. 'It's the surgery here ... '

I turned and headed out. As far as I could tell, Rosa had vanished.

Although I was wrapped up against the cold, it still shocked me when I stepped out of the warmth of the surgery. The sky was heavy with clouds, and my breath puffed out around me. I pulled my scarf tightly around the lower part of my face, pushed my hands into my pockets, and looked down as I strode as quickly as possible towards the Tube, making sure I was avoiding the frozen dog shit. The baby's heartbeat pumped through my head. It stayed there all day.

I got through the day on automatic pilot, as usual. At four o'clock, I collapsed, relieved, on to my special staffroom chair, and patted my stomach, hoping no one was looking. I made an effort to think nice thoughts towards the baby.

The staffroom was large, crowded and untidy. The posters on the walls dated back several years, though many of the older ones had been papered over with Stop the War Coalition offerings. There was always a mixture of fluster and laziness in here. I liked it. I had always tried to ignore the politics and use it as a recharging station, a place to ingest caffeine and sugar.

My special chair, though, was horrible. I leaned back on a metal support, and wiggled myself into a semi-comfortable position, my legs awkwardly tucked underneath me, my bulk slightly too large to be comfortable in any position on this scrappy reject of a seat. Sometimes I dashed off at four, but, at the moment, the end of school marked the arrival of my appetite. I was starving. I clutched my tea, which I'd made in someone else's mug, and ate a ginger biscuit. The cup I was using bore the KitKat logo, and that was enough to make me realise that I needed more sustenance. I took a muesli bar from the bottom of my handbag and demolished it, then looked around to find out what was next. Not for the first time, I cursed the fact that the junk food vending machine had been removed over the summer holidays, and replaced by one that dispensed fruit.

Kathy appeared next to me. She looked businesslike in a crisp suit and sensible shoes. Kathy was a slim and lovely black woman, and she took no nonsense. The sixth form called her Condi. I'd never known whether she minded.

'Hey,' she said. 'Not rushing away?'

'Nope,' I said, through my third ginger biscuit. 'Home is a bit boring to go back to these days.'

She smiled. 'Drink?'

My heart sank. 'Can't. Sorry.' Kathy had been my best friend for years, at work, and we often went straight to the pub after school. For six weeks I had been finding excuses, because Kathy was the one person who would notice that I was avoiding alcohol, and ask me why. It was time to come clean.

'Actually, yes,' I said. 'Why not? I've got something to tell you.'

 

It was a standard London pub, aimed largely at tourists, with low lights, a dartboard, and many beers on tap. Three of our year tens sat at a corner table, thinking we hadn't noticed them, their pint glasses half empty. I bought two packets of crisps, a glass of wine for Kathy, and a lemonade. Then I sat down, and steeled myself.

Kathy had no interest in children, and we had always consoled each other when friends and colleagues made pregnancy announcements. 'Congratulations,' we would say, looking at each other and rolling our eyes. Another one bites the dust,' we would tut, later, in the pub. Over the years, we had bemoaned the loss of dozens of friends, as they went over to the other side, the side where the babies were.

But I had heard the heartbeat. I was twelve weeks pregnant, and my baby, whoever's it was, was alive. I was going for a scan, and that in itself was enough to take me to the other side, the weird world I had never wanted to be a part of.

'Cheers,' she said, clinking glasses. 'So, what's new? Is it Steve? Has he changed orientation again?'

I forced a smile. 'That's not going to happen. He calls from time to time. He's desperate to be able to think of himself as a good guy. But no, he never mentions coming back. I think he's screwing round the gay bars, which will probably take him a few years.' I shuddered. I was nowhere near getting over the fact that I had never known him.

'But you want to tell me something.'

I nodded. 'Can you keep it confidential, for the moment?'

'You're leaving school, aren't you? Good on you. Are you going travelling?'

'I'm having a baby.'

I watched her reaction carefully. Her eyes widened. Her jaw dropped slightly. She stared at me, seeking confirmation. I nodded.

'I'm twelve weeks pregnant. I heard the heartbeat today and it was ...' I tailed off. Kathy wasn't going to be interested in the heartbeat. 'That's why I was late for work. The pregnancy was a huge surprise. As you can imagine.' I steeled myself to say the next bit. 'And it isn't Steve's,' I told her, although I was far from sure. The strong heartbeat was making me think that it might be.

She was still gaping at me. 'It isn't Steve's?' she managed to echo. 'Are you sure?'

'Uh-huh.'

'So whose is it?'

'Just a one-night stand I had with someone I met when I was drunk. I've been trying to track them down. I'm certain they won't want to know. But I feel I have to try. It seems only polite.'

'Jesus fucking Christ, Liz.'

'I know.'

'You're actually having it? I mean, you're well within the time limits ...'

'I know. I thought about it. I know I never wanted a baby, I know we've both said that for years. But now I've got one. I've been living with this for weeks, and I've made my decision. I heard its heart. It was amazing.'

'Are you going to cope?'

'I don't think I have the choice.'

'You're one hundred per cent certain you want to go through with it? Because if you don't, I'll be there, you know?'

I nodded. Kathy was saying what I would have said in her position. 'I know. And I appreciate that. But this is probably my only chance, and it's the strangest thing, but now I do want to be a mother.'

'Fucking hell.'

'Yes.' I drew a deep breath. I hoped that, at some point, somebody might congratulate me. If I'd still been with Steve, Kathy would have been pleased for me, or, at least, she would not have been able to be as rude as this. 'You're the first person I've told,' I said. 'Apart from a woman who lives over the road who I met in the midwife's waiting room this morning. I'm going to see Dad and Sue on Friday. But for now, it's just you.'

Kathy finished her drink. 'So you're going to be deserting me and Sandrine?' she said, looking away. Sandrine taught French, and was the third member of our clique. She wore tight miniskirts, and our school boasted a surprising number of teenage boys who were interested in French as a result. 'You're going to hang out with all the mothers, now. You're going to be coming in with baby snot on your shoulder,' she continued, 'and wearing the same clothes you've worn all week, and you'll never have time to get your highlights done. You're going to talk about "nap time" and "poos on the potty", and you're going to tell Sandrine and me that we could never understand. We're all going to have to cover your lessons when your baby's got chickenpox. Aren't we?'

I felt myself sagging. 'I hope not,' I said. Then I started to feel angry. 'And thanks for the support, Kathy. Thanks very much. It's great that that's how you feel.' I looked at her. She looked back, defiant. 'You're the very first person I've come to. I guess this is what it's going to be like.'

She was calm. 'It doesn't have to be like this. You could still get rid of it. From where I sit, it looks as though you're in the process of ruining your life. I'd quite like to encourage you to think again. Because it really isn't too late.' She laughed. 'Jesus. This is like the little chats we all end up having with year tens from time to time. And another thing, which you know very well. What about the environment? Is bringing another person into the world really a good idea? You're going to be chucking out bags full of disposable nappies before you know it. You're going to be getting cheap flights, after all, because it'll be easier than lugging a baby on the train. You know as well as I do that the planet is vastly overpopulated, and anyone who worries about the falling birth rate in western Europe is just saying they want more nice white babies and fewer pesky brown ones.'

I stood up. 'Cheers.' As I left, I called back over my shoulder: 'You know I'm as pro-choice as you are, Kathy. But that doesn't mean I think everyone should abort every pregnancy. This is my baby, and don't you dare tell me to get rid of it. It's my
baby.'

I was halfway out of the door before I remembered that the year tens were right there, giggling into their lager.

 

I cried while I made my rudimentary dinner. Extreme emotional distress would not overcome my fixation with food. I cooked some pasta, and added anything I could find in the fridge: carrots, some tomatoes, and a bit of hard cheese. I was desperately alone. As soon as the pasta was in a bowl, I took it to the computer, and logged on, as quickly as I could, to Babytalk. Here, I knew I had sympathetic listeners. Nobody on the forum would dare to speak to me like Kathy had done.

I signed in, and scanned through the day's messages on the pregnancy board. I saw a couple of messages from my fellow single mother-to-be, Fluffball, who signed herself 'Jem'. I liked Jem. Her very existence was a comfort to me. Her boyfriend had walked out a few weeks into her pregnancy, and her baby was due a month before mine. She had got through, so far, by herself, and this showed me that there was a way. I always replied to her messages and she always replied to mine. I was steeling myself to suggest swapping email addresses and becoming real friends, even though she lived in Bolton. I'd hoped she would suggest it, but she hadn't yet. She was one of the more popular forumites, so I supposed she had more than enough friends.

There was no sign of Frenchmaid on the forum, but there was an email from her in my inbox. Frenchmaid's name, I had discovered, was Helen Labenne, and in contrast to Fluffball, she was eager to exchange emails. She was almost spookily kind and supportive. I could not understand why someone so young would choose to spend her time on a website that was mainly populated by hormonal women in their thirties. 'I've always been fascinated by the idea of having a baby,' was her explanation, and I was vaguely worried that, some day soon, she was going to post what was known as a 'blue line post'.

I skimmed her email: it seemed she was coming to London, as I'd suggested, and I supposed I would meet her, which would be nice. All the same, Helen was only twenty. I craved a real friend. I wanted to meet someone who understood just how terrifying a prospect this baby actually was. I wanted someone who would see what Kathy's reaction had done to me.

Today, Jem was worried about her mother coming to stay when her baby was born, and taking over everything.

'How can I set the boundaries?' she wrote. 'I don't want her to think I don't appreciate her help. But she said to my dad the other day, "Jemima doesn't know one end of a baby from the other," and I'm worried she's going to march in and want to control everything. Is it selfish of me to want enough of her help to stop me going mad, but not too much? And how do I go about discussing it with her?'

I smiled and opened a banana. 'Hi, Fluffball,' I typed. 'That's one dilemma I don't *think* I'm going to have ...'

Before I could even start to libel Kathy, my phone rang. I took a big bite of banana, and then answered it.

'Hello?' I demanded, speaking with my mouth full, wedging the phone between shoulder and ear, and continuing to type. I typed the words 'My dad'.

'Hello,' said my dad. 'It's your father.'

I sighed, and pushed the keyboard away. 'Hi, Dad. I was just talking about you. Sort of. How are you?'

BOOK: The Sisterhood
12.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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