Authors: Emily Barr
Dr Grey fixed me with her dark eyes. She had, no doubt, planned her own conceptions.
'So,' she said. 'I repeat. How do you feel about it?'
I sighed. 'I don't. I've been going out of my way not to think about it for quite some time. But it seems that my legs have walked me here and I suppose I have to face it. Sometimes I think, oh, a lovely baby to dress in cute little outfits — it'll be like a lovely doll, or a kitten. Other times ...' I tailed off, then made myself continue. 'I was in the bookshop the other day,' I said, fiddling with a paperweight on her desk. The paperweight was a gift from some pharmaceuticals company, emblazoned with the name of a drug I had never heard of. 'And I found myself sitting on the floor reading baby books. Looking at diagrams. But you can't buy pregnancy books if you're not even sure if you can go through with it. A month ago I thought I didn't have a maternal bone in my body. A week after that, I felt desperate for a baby. I don't know if I can do it on my own. I'm getting old, and this is probably my last chance.' I passed the paperweight from hand to hand, staring at it. 'I do Google searches for all the things that can go wrong,' I told it. In my peripheral vision, Dr Grey was shaking her head, about to say something. 'I know,' I told her. 'This morning I learned about Edwards Syndrome. It's that phrase they use, "incompatible with life". It sounds innocuous at first, and then you realise what they're saying. How can I not want the baby and be scared of Edwards Syndrome at the same time?'
'Very easily. You're confused.'
'So the first thing you do is you stop Googling. Are you still taking the temazepam?' I shook my head. 'Well done. When was your last period?'
I didn't ask her whether there was a chance that I could have conceived before my last period, because I didn't want to hear her answer. I told her, and she gave me a due date in the middle of August. A part of me was thrilled. I had never expected that I would utter, or want to utter, the words 'my due date'. As Dr Grey said the words, 'August the seventh,' my abortion receded over the horizon. I strongly believed in abortion on principle, but right now, it was not looking like an option.
Suddenly, I was staring at the prospect of single motherhood. I cast around wildly for a support network. My father would help. He had brought me up on his own, and he was a shambling mess. If he could do it, then so could I. He met Sue when I was twelve, and she was slightly more clued up than he was. She would, in fact, be a far greater help than he could possibly be. I had friends with children, though they had all become more distant as their worlds and mine diverged over the past ten years. At the moment, of course, most of them were clinging to Steve, hoping to make him an Elton John-style godfather to their babies. But some of them would, surely, let me back into the fold, if I had a child.
I knew the internet was full of baby websites, because a couple of my colleagues monopolised the computer room whenever they got the chance, posting messages about night feeds and hilarious comments their toddlers had come out with. I might be able to get on the internet and find some new friends. This was London: there were other women out there in my situation, more or less, and I ought to be able to find some of them.
Dr Grey was looking at me sympathetically. 'Come back in a week,' she said. 'I don't think you're ready for me to refer you anywhere. You're only seven weeks. You've got time to make your decision.'
I looked at her.
'Do you know something weird?' I asked her, feeling dizzy and terrified.
'There's only one thing in the world that I want less than to have a baby, right now, on my own.'
'And that is?'
'Not to have it.'
As I left the surgery, I placed my hands experimentally, protectively over my abdomen. It would be a challenge, I told myself. And I was not going to run away from a challenge. I made an effort to pull myself together. I was mortified at the way I'd behaved on the night I met Rosa. That pathetic, self-loathing creature was not me. Life was giving me a chance to prove that I was better than that.
For a second, as I stamped through the cold drizzle, towards the Tube, I was exhilarated. I was on my own. This might be Steve's, and it might be Rosa's. I hoped it was Steve's, but either way, nobody but me had any claim on this implausible embryo. The course of my life had changed. I was going to be a mother. I barely had a concept of what that meant.
A baby would love me. It would be mine, for ever. I tried to tell myself that the fact that I had no mother myself did not necessarily mean that I was incapable of being one. I was not my own mother. History would not repeat itself. I would be there for this baby. I was there for it already. I was its entire world. I encircled it. I enclosed it. Everything was filtered for it, by me. It wasn't a baby yet. It was just a cluster of miraculous cells.
I hadn't decided to have it. I could shrug it off, forget this had ever happened, and carry on with my life in peace.
I found a site that I liked the look of. It was called Babytalk, and it didn't contain any patronising articles by health professionals, or any government advice. It was made up of apparently endless discussion forums. I looked down their names. Pregnancy, Baby, Toddlers, Over-threes, Teens and tweens, Relationships, Gossip, Stress, and many more. I clicked on Pregnancy, amazed to find myself doing such a thing. A bubble popped up telling me I had to register, so I filled in a form and registered as LizGreene. I had never seen the appeal of the kooky username: Liz Greene was who I was. Then I typed a message on the pregnancy forum.
'Hi,' I wrote. 'May I join you? My name is Liz. I'm 37 and I seem to be headed for single motherhood in August. Are there any other single mothers out there? This pregnancy was not planned and I'm overwhelmed and still trying to come to terms with it. Hoping to hear from somebody — anybody. Thanks, Liz.'
I went to bed, feeling strangely tranquil. In the morning, to my amazement, I had five replies. Four were friendly and welcoming. One was from someone called 'Fluffball' who was also expecting a baby on her own. Three said I should talk to Fluffball. The fifth took me to task for 'your extreme insensitivity in parading your good fortune when there are so many of us on here who've been TTC2L and would give anything to be in your shoes'. I had no idea what TTC2L might mean, but I thought I got her drift.
I paused for my morning vomit, then sipped at weak lemon and ginger tea and got to work, determined to reply to everyone before I had to go to school.
Bordeaux, 30 November
I put my head in my hands. I had been sitting at the computer for weeks, and I had got nowhere. There were millions of Elizabeth Greenes in the world, and none of them fitted. The ages were wrong, the ethnicity was wrong. Every time I thought I might have found her, it turned out to be an eight-year-old, or someone on a family tree an American child had assembled for a school project. The same Elizabeth Greenes came up again and again. There was an American astrologer, an actress who had made one horror film, a classics lecturer and a metalsmithing instructor. None of them could have been her. I had checked and checked. I had even emailed two of them, just in case.
My computer was set up on a rickety table downstairs. It was raining outside, though the sun was trying to poke through. I had to find her. I knew that this woman would be my ticket out of here. I didn't want to get a boring job like everyone else. I needed a challenge, and Elizabeth Greene was going to be it. The more I thought about it, the more I knew that she would solve everything. I was absolutely convinced that everything was going to be all right. It was my destiny. This was the adventure I had been waiting for, all my life.
The trouble was, I was beginning to despair. I couldn't fall at the first hurdle, but so far, I had no idea where to find her.
Tom ruffled the back of my hair.
'How long have you been there?' I demanded, whipping round. He was wearing a white sweatshirt and black jeans. Tom loved black and white.
'Just got here.'
'How come I haven't seen you for days?'
He dropped his bag and shrugged. 'School. Football. Mates. You know. Life.' He pulled up a chair. 'Found her?'
I shook my head. 'You're younger than me,' I said, pulling my hair back into a ponytail. 'You're good at the internet. You do it.'
'Still putting her name into Google?'
I nodded. 'I think Mother did it on purpose. Gave her a name with hundreds of variations. I've done Elizabeth, Beth, Betty, Lizzie-with-an-"ie", Lizzy-with-a-y, Liz ... And I've trawled through pages and pages of Google for all of them.'
Tom motioned with his head for me to move aside. I stood up and let him take my place. He started typing.
'What are you doing?' I asked him.
'We'll try some other ways,' he said, without looking up. 'First of all, name a few cities.'
'God knows. Brighton, where the letters were addressed? London? Some other cities in England? Erm, Edinburgh? Manchester? New York?'
He looked at me shrewdly. 'You wish.'
'What do you mean?'
'You're going to go and get her.'
'No I'm not.' I knew I didn't sound convincing.
'I'm psychic, I know these things. You're going to bring her to Mother. A little present.'
I looked away. 'You're mad.'
'Well, we'll find her. Don't worry.'
He stared at the screen, a little frown of concentration on his forehead. I twirled a strand of hair around my finger and stood on one foot, feeling anxious. He typed, then sat back and waited.
'Trouble is, there are millions of E. Greenes in all those places, and she might not even be one of them. She's probably married by now and changed her name. Let's try narrowing down Google a bit.'
'How? Type "my mother abandoned me" next to her name?'
We stared at each other, both frustrated.
'Try us,' I said. 'See if we exist online. If we don't, she might not, either. Then we could try to find her the old-fashioned way.'
Tom snorted. 'Which is?'
I sucked my lip and tried to think of an answer. 'Hire a private detective!' I said triumphantly. 'Follow the paper trail! Start with the address on the envelopes and take it from there.'
'Are we going to put you in a beret and send you slinking around England smoking a cigarette and stumbling on clues?' He rolled his eyes. 'Do private detectives even exist? Aren't they just a construct serving the various branches of the fiction industry?' He pointed at the screen. 'Hey, here you are! Helen Labenne — you're on the school site.'
'Jesus. What for?' I wanted to tell him off for talking like a professor when he was fifteen years old, but this was too interesting, so I let it drop.
'Ummm. Hang on, just clicking it. Here we go. Bordeaux International School. Why in God's name did they put you on there? You are in a long list, I must say.' He smiled. 'A long list of students who passed the International Bac last year. So, in fact, everyone.'
'Cheers. What about you?'
He tapped some more. 'As far as the World Wide Web's concerned, I don't exist. Not as Tom, and not as Thomas, not even anyone else with my name. Anyway, let's get back to our big sister. She's nearly forty. The internet
have heard of her by now.'
Ten fruitless minutes later, the phone rang. I picked it up reluctantly, because I knew who it was going to be.
'Helen,' said Mother. 'It's nearly lunchtime.'
'OK,' I mumbled. 'Be there in a bit.'
Sunday lunch was a ritual of my parents', and while I was living at home, I had to go along with it. Tom was adept at excusing himself but, somehow, I never, ever managed to get out of it. I supposed they saw him all the time because he lived with them, in term time. I kept myself as far away as I could, but I was utterly dependent on their money. Their insistence that I sit down with them and submit to a cringingly formal meal once a week was their way of reminding me that they owned me.
I did not want to be owned. I was aching with frustration. I was holed up here, on this stupid oversized estate, and the whole world had forgotten about me. I knew I should leave, but because I didn't have to, I hadn't dared. The moment we found Elizabeth, I would be out of there.
I knew the parents were glad when I left the big house, even though they never said it. They exchanged glances when they thought I wasn't looking, whenever I was in the same room as them, and they thought I didn't notice. Tom had spotted them doing it too, so I knew it wasn't my imagination. We looked at each other and rolled our eyes when they spoke, in retaliation.
I liked things tidy, and when I took it over, the little house was in a state. Before I moved in, I vacuumed all the floors and washed the linen. I polished every wooden surface and dusted away a citadel of spider webs. I mopped the downstairs tiles. I bought a few curtains for the bare windows. None of this got rid of the musty smell. The downstairs floor was paved with cheap orange tiles, some of which I had covered with rugs. The upstairs floors were wooden, and they creaked, even when there was no one there. Sometimes I had a feeling that there was a ghost, but then I laughed at myself, because I knew that there were no such things, that credulous people invented them to make life more interesting.
I had a little kitchen, kitted out as cheaply as possible by my unstintingly generous parents (I even had to boil water in a tinny little pan on the gas ring, in true French fashion, because they didn't stretch to a kettle). The tiny sitting room had a foldaway table at one end, which presently bore my laptop and broadband connection. Upstairs, I had two poky bedrooms and a crappy little bathroom.
Tom had to live with Mum and Dad because he was still at school. He was gratifyingly jealous of my freedom. In the holidays, he came to live in my spare room. It was a tiny room, but a light, bright one. He had white sheets on the bed, and he made the place come alive. When he was there, I was the boss. I liked being bossy to Tom. It was the only area of my life over which I had control.