Authors: Emily Barr
I could hear cars in the distance, but other than that, I seemed to have Kentish Town to myself. There were light grey clouds overhead, and the cold was making my nose shine and my fingertips tingle. I felt as if I were out at five in the morning, and checked my watch. It was almost eleven o'clock. A car passed, the first I had seen.
I was nauseous, and still no one had guessed my secret. I had shut myself off from all my old friends, had pushed them firmly towards Steve, because I couldn't bear to confide in anybody. I didn't want anyone to know about my night with Rosa. I didn't want to talk about my pregnancy, to deal with the questions that would arise, so I had busily ignored everyone. At work, though, I felt it must be written on my face. No one had noticed that I spent most of the morning holding a handkerchief over my nose, trying to screen the smells that made my stomach heave. Nobody had commented on the fact that I stroked my stomach ceaselessly, and they were probably all relieved that I'd stopped moaning about the fact that I would never have children.
My New Year's Eve had been mainly miserable, leavened with a tiny glug of excitement. I had a bath, watched some television, and went to bed at ten, as usual. I was woken at ten seconds to midnight by a roared countdown from the pub up the road, swiftly followed by Big Ben in surround sound from radios in the area, and then fireworks which sounded as if they were in the neighbours' garden. At that point, sleep eluded me entirely and I tossed and turned, got up, agonised and felt sorry for myself until four in the morning. I went on the forum, briefly, and exchanged odd messages with Frenchmaid, who was the only other one sad enough to be online in the early hours of New Year's Day.
'Happy New Year,' she'd written. 'The year when your baby's going to be born! It's going to be a brilliant year for you, I can tell.'
'Thanks,' I wrote back, pleased with the illusion of company. 'You too. What are your resolutions?'
'Leave home,' she replied. 'Go abroad, probably. I've got plans for an adventure.'
'Well, come to London then,' I told her. 'And whatever you do, try not to give in to your broodiness. You've got your whole life ahead of you, you lucky, lucky person.'
She was enthusiastic and friendly, and I hoped she had no idea how pained I was by the contrast between her life — a twenty-year-old girl who seemed to have the world at her feet — and mine.
My life was all bad, except that it wasn't. Frenchmaid was right: this was the year in which I was going to become a single mother. Somehow, that prospect was at the same time the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to me and wildly exciting. There were going to be two of us, against the world. I knew it would be difficult. I dreaded almost everything about my immediate future. Yet I could not stop a few moments of elation. I was going to have a baby. I would be a mother. Two months ago, that had seemed utterly impossible, and now it was happening.
Christmas had been horrible, as I spent two days with Dad and Sue pretending to drink, and the rest of the holidays wallowing by myself. Next Christmas would be different, because if all went well, I would have a four-month-old baby. That was beyond my capabilities to imagine.
Lying in bed, listening to the parties going on around me, I wondered whether it was really going to be harder doing it on my own than it would have been with Steve. I concluded that I would have ended up on my own pretty swiftly anyway. It didn't really matter.
What mattered was that I had a network, that my baby had other people than me in its life. I was trying to persuade myself that Rosa really was the father, although until I had a dating scan, I was going to cling to the shred of hope that it might be Steve's.
Lying in bed last night, listening to other people having fun, I'd made a resolution. Although my instincts were still yelling at me to leave Rosa out of my life and my baby's life, I was going to try to overcome my fear and contact her. That was the mature thing to do. However bizarre the circumstances, Rosa had fathered my baby, and she had a right to know about it. I was trying to convince myself to stop being afraid of her, and ashamed of what I'd done that night. I was going to do my best to track her down and share the news. I would not be scared of her reaction. I would just tell her. Then I would walk away and leave her alone until she wanted to talk to me, if she ever did.
I vaguely remembered that Matt had addressed her as 'mate', and that she had given him the finger. This made me think that he'd known her for a while. He was the only lead I had. As soon as I'd had a scan, I was going to tell the father. If it was Rosa, she would hate me. I hoped she might come around to the idea, in time. If it was Steve, he would assume I had done it on purpose, that I was trying to trap him. Either way, I was going to piss somebody off.
I was nearly at the café when I gradually became half aware that someone was walking towards me. Without looking up, I moved to the edge of the pavement, to let them pass. They didn't. They stopped in front of me and put their hands on my shoulders. I looked up. When I saw who it was, I shrugged his hands away.
'Steve,' I said, and turned away. At least my bizarre conception had stopped me obsessing over him. I tried to think of something to say. I didn't look at his face. 'Hello,' I said, and tried to keep walking.
'Hi, Lizzy,' he said, and finally I looked at him. Unfortunately, it still gave me a pang. I had loved him for years and years. Nothing changed that. He had a handsome face that was getting craggy as he got older. It suited him. So did his hair, which was now professorially long and messy. The black was sprinkled with more grey than I remembered.
'Hello,' I said again. 'What brings you here?'
He smiled. 'New Year's resolution,' he said. 'Can I come back for a coffee?'
'I was on my way to Matt's.'
It felt odd, to be walking with him again. We reached the top of the road, and turned right. Every shop on the little row was closed. The scummy newsagent, the grotty, expensive food shop. These were the retail outlets of our life together. As far as these shut and barred façades were concerned, Steve and Liz were walking together to the café, as usual. Nothing had changed, in their view.
We didn't say anything as we walked. I was suddenly tired, exhausted to the point where I had no idea whether I would be able to reach our destination without stopping for a quick nap in someone's doorway. I wished I had stayed in bed. I could have listened to Steve ringing the bell, and I could have ignored him. I wouldn't have done, though. I would have answered it.
I wanted to tell him. I couldn't tell him.
The café's windows were half misted over, and I could see a couple of figures inside. When we stepped in, it was unfeasibly warm. Frank Sinatra was playing on the stereo. Matt looked at us, and did a small double take.
'Happy New Year,' he said, uncertainly.
'Happy New Year to you, too, Matthew,' Steve replied, too jovially. We took a table in the furthest corner. It was not the table where I had sat with Rosa.
Coffee made me sick, so I ordered mint tea. Steve raised his eyebrows.
'Given up the hard stuff?' he asked, clearing his throat.
'Just for today.'
'Good night last night?'
'Fabulous.' I looked at him, and saw that he believed me. 'Are you having a croissant?'
Steve shouted our order over to Matt, who pushed his blond fringe aside and got to work. We sat in silence for a while. To my annoyance, I cracked first.
'Were you coming to see me?'
Steve sighed and looked down.
'I want to apologise,' he said quickly, fiddling with the sugar. 'I'm sorry about everything I've put you through. It's shitty.'
I thought of the tiny embryo and tried to rise above this.
'It's OK,' I said as casually as I could. My voice betrayed me with a wobble. 'It's in the past.'
He looked up and frowned. 'Not very far in the past.'
'What is this?' I demanded. 'New year, new, caring Steve? Suddenly realised that sauntering off down the fucking street with a teenager's hand on your arse wasn't your finest moment? Come back to say a pathetic sorry so you can start to feel good about yourself again?'
He nodded slowly, acknowledging my point with a grimace. 'Something like that.'
I tutted and rolled my eyes, because I knew that he hated it. He sighed and ran both hands through his greying hair.
'It's Miles,' he said, eventually. 'He's spent the holidays at home. With his parents. And it's rather struck me, since we've been apart, that he's seventeen. And I'm thirty-eight. I've been infatuated, I'll be the first to admit that. I'd never known anything like it, when I met Miles. Sorry. I feel like a fool. I mean, bringing him to the flat and everything. It wasn't the greatest behaviour on my part.'
I swallowed. 'Seventeen-year-olds are young and stupid and they think they own the world. I see too many of them at work.'
'Good thing I'm not in your line of work.'
'You'd be in prison.'
'What do they call it — the nonce's wing?'
'So you and Miles?' I was numb. I was trying not to care. I was pretending to myself that Steve and I had no history, that he was just someone I'd met in the street, or a friend of a friend. I wanted to yell at him, 'I might be having your baby!' but I didn't. It did not seem appropriate.
'I might call it a day.' He looked at me quickly. 'But I'm still gay.'
'So, that's it really. Sorry that I've been such a bastard.'
I considered letting rip at him, but I lacked the energy. 'It's all right,' I said. I chewed my croissant. Over the past few weeks, I had discovered that it was possible to be nauseous and starving at the same time, and I ate quickly before the sick feeling caught up with me.
We sat in silence. Steve tried to start a couple of conversations.
'How's your dad?' he asked.
'She's all right.'
'How about Kathy? She must hate me.' Kathy was my best friend at work.
'Pretty much.' In the end I turned on him. 'Steve,' I said, wearily. 'I appreciate your coming over and trying to be nice. But if you're thinking we can "still be friends" or anything like that, please fuck off. You go and live your life. I'll live mine.' I opened my mouth to tell him I was pregnant. I closed it again. I needed him away from me.
He looked at me for a while, then stood up and went to pay at the counter. From the corner of my eye, I was aware of him pausing, wondering whether or not to kiss me. I didn't look round, and he went.
As soon as he'd gone, I went to the counter and sat on a tall stool.
'Jeez,' said Matt, flicking a croissant crumb from his black T-shirt. Matt was tall and burly, and he had very annoying hair. He always wore black. 'What was going on there?'
I shrugged. 'Steve was trying to feel better about himself. Now he can walk away feeling all fluffy, telling himself that he's done the right thing. He wanted to be friends. Tempting as that was, I turned him down.'
'It never works, does it, the "can we still be friends" thing?'
'Particularly not under our circumstances.'
Matt leaned forwards on his elbows. 'Do you think it's better or worse, though, being left for a man? On the one hand, it's like it's nothing personal — it's the whole of womankind that's not doing it for him. On the other hand, he's left you for a boy, and that's just not normal, is it?'
I sighed. 'Thanks, Matt. Thanks for the analysis.'
'Just thinking aloud. You know it's quiet here today. And apart from you and Steve, no one's given me any interesting gossip for weeks.'
'You should start doing food. Proper food, I mean. Not the croissanty stuff. Then everyone would come for their hangover breakfasts.'
He nodded, slowly, several times. 'I'm thinking about it. Big expense. I'd need to get a proper kitchen, and a few people to work it, and that would take more space. And money. But I know where you're coming from, and you're right.'
I remembered why, originally, I had been on my way here. 'Hey, Matt?'
'Remember about six weeks ago? I was in here and I got talking to a woman? Rosa?'
He stepped back, looked at me, and laughed loudly. '"Got talking to" her?' he bellowed. Two people drinking milky coffees at a nearby table looked round. 'Got wildly drunk with her, more like. Yes, I do remember. I remember listening to you moaning to her about how you'd never have a baby.'
I winced. 'Does she come in often?'
He shrugged. 'Mmm. From time to time. Used to come in when he was a bloke. Gave me a shock the first time he rocked up in a dress.'
'I'm sure you got over it. Does she live round here?'
'Over by the station, I think. Why? Do you want to renew the friendship?'
I ignored the unmistakable sarcasm.
'I want to talk to her about something.' I swallowed. 'It's important. Does she have a boyfriend? Or a girlfriend?'
He blew his hair off his face. 'Either. Both. Plenty, I'd say. Sometimes she's on her own, and other times she's on a date. Gets them off the internet, I reckon. They have special sites, you know.'
I looked at him. 'I guess she's had the operation by now.'
He held up his hands. 'Too much information, thank you.'
'Look, if you see her, um, can you just say that I was asking after her?' I handed him a piece of paper. 'Give her my number?'
He looked at me, sizing me up. 'Is this a sneaky way of giving me your number? Is it Rosa you want to call you, or is it me?'
I laughed. 'You flatter yourself.'
A couple came through the door, and Matt turned to them with a professional smile. They ignored him, white with hangovers.
'Seriously,' he said, out of the corner of his mouth. 'I'd give her a wide berth. She's nice, but she's trouble.'
I had to gasp for breath when I saw what I had supposedly written. It was horrible. A stream of abuse had snaked its way down wires and across national borders from my little laptop to the computer, wherever it was, that belonged to the most important woman in the world. I stared at it, in my sent messages folder, unable to take it in. Words jumped off the screen. They were random, splenetic abuse.
, I had apparently written.
What makes you think you can have a baby? Going to be a crap mother just like yours. You make us all sick. You deserve all the misery.