Authors: Emily Barr
Liz had received this, from me. Tears streamed down my cheeks. Every moment of my life was consumed by my relationship with Liz. I imagined her, tall and slender like Mother and me. I pictured myself meeting her for the first time. I thought, all the time, about the scene, the wonderful scene, that would take place when I brought her back here, the way she would light up the chateau.
'Tom!' I yelled. 'Tom, you get your fucking arse down here
Of course, he did not. He was hiding, upstairs.
'Tom!' I shouted again. I waited. 'I've just read it.' I stopped shouting, and spoke normally. 'You've ruined everything,' I said quietly.
'I haven't.' He appeared by my shoulder. He had not been upstairs after all. He giggled, wildly. 'You must admit, it's a good test,' he chuckled. 'If she decided you're mad and never wants to speak to you again, that means she wouldn't have been up to the task, anyway. If she can't take this, then she certainly can't take Mother.'
I held my head in my hands, watching my future curl up and die. Everything looked hopeless now. 'Tom,' I said, wretched. 'She doesn't know about Mother. Liz and I are friends now. I've worked on this non-stop for weeks and weeks. Every time she posts a message, I reply to it. I've been so careful to say the right thing all the time. She trusts me, or she did. We only graduated to personal emails a couple of weeks ago.' I checked the time of the message. It had been sent four minutes ago. Liz had probably read it by now. 'What have you
I wailed. 'Vicious personal abuse? She isn't going to want to be friends with someone who calls her a slut.' I turned round and lunged at him. 'You stupid bastard.'
He stopped laughing, grabbed my arms, and we tussled until we ended up on the floor. He pulled my hair. I pulled his, harder. We sat up and stared at each other.
'Sorry,' he said. 'I wasn't thinking.'
I turned to look at him. Tom had strange turns, occasionally. He said they were like out-of-body experiences. He could see what he was doing, but he couldn't stop himself. He would send reams of abuse to someone, or trash the house, or smash up something important just because he thought it was looking at him strangely. It was odd that he was the one who did these things. Normally, I was the one who didn't cope with life.
This time he had trashed the most important thing we had.
'Right,' I told him, shooing him away. 'Let me see if there's anything at all I can do to salvage this.'
I got to work, quickly composing an apologetic email to Liz. 'I'm blaming you,' I said, half looking over my shoulder, as I frantically explained to Liz that my eccentric younger brother had written a load of nonsense to her from my computer. I implied that he was nine or so, rather than fifteen. It seemed more plausible that way. Then I realised it would have taken an alarmingly precocious nine-year-old to compose the filthy tirade that had just flown Liz's way, so I rewrote it. I hoped she was going to believe me. I dropped in a couple of hints about his mental state.
'I am so sorry,' I finished up. 'I've now got my mail password-protected. Believe me, it won't happen again. Hope the morning sickness truly has gone for good. Speak to you soon, H x.'
'Right,' I told Tom. 'Now we just have to hope. Time for the walk.'
We took a walk together every afternoon. We had done for years. From the moment I learned to toddle along on my own, Mother had pushed me out into the garden at three o'clock and insisted that I get some exercise and stay out for an hour. I hated it when I was four — I knew she just wanted me out of sight so she could forget about me — but when Tom started coming too, it got a lot better. I remembered our first walk together. Tom was only three. I looked round, and he was coming up behind me, wearing a thick black duffle coat.
'Hello,' I said to him, and waited for him to catch up.
He looked at me with big, trusting eyes. 'Where are we going?' he asked, in his careful, babyish voice.
'To the woods,' I told him, and took his hand. I was pleased to be able to look after him.
The habit was ingrained now. We went out every afternoon, even though Mother couldn't make us do anything we didn't want to do. Now, it would never occur to her to be concerned about our physical well-being.
We always walked around the vineyard. People seemed to think it was glamorous to have parents who owned a vineyard. It was not. It was just loads of fields full of vines, which, for half the year, looked like sticks linked together with wire. For the other half, they demanded constant attention. The parents always tried to rope us in, but we generally managed to avoid manual labour, to leave it to the workers. My horror was not of the work (there was something appealing in the idea of physical labour), but of the social interaction. The workers scared me. They were confident and loud and they laughed and shouted at each other. I preferred to stalk past, ignoring them, pretending to be aloof.
This was a miserable January day, but nothing prevented the walk. We put on thick coats and woolly hats. I wore my camel coat, because I was sure that Mother and Papa wouldn't see me. As soon as I put it on, I felt I could do anything. I knew, though, that it looked funny with my bobble hat. When I went to London, I was going to have to pay attention to details like that.
Tom's coat was just his old black parka, but he still managed to look like someone from one of those cool British bands. I would have looked like a spanner if I'd put it on.
We did the walk that went away from the main house, because we didn't particularly want to risk bumping into our progenitors. The path followed the edge of the first field, and then sloped off downhill, towards the woods. It was a freezing day. I was sure that winter was worse where we lived than it was in places with people and shops. Some places were alive whatever the weather. Out here in the sticks, everything was all right in summer when the place was full of tourists on their wine tours and each village had a wild summer fête which involved vast amounts of merriment. It went dead in winter.
Today, the trees were black and bare. The sky was grey and full of clouds. The vines were sticks poking out of brown earth. Everybody seemed to hibernate. I had no idea what they did. Presumably, they stayed indoors until the leaf buds and the daffodils appeared. When you walked past someone's house, you smelt meat cooking, which proved they were in there. Probably, they were in there looking out at me from far enough back in the room for me not to be able to see them, as long as the lights were off. Almost certainly they were muttering about the stuck-up English girl who never spoke to anyone, and her charming brother who was so funny and friendly and helpful when his sister wasn't around.
'I can't wait to go to London,' I told Tom.
'Mmmm,' he agreed. 'Me neither.' He looked around at the nothingness that surrounded us. An animal ran through the dead undergrowth, somewhere nearby.
'London!' he said. 'Big red buses and big black taxis.'
'Nelson's column,' I countered. 'With lions around it.'
'Lots of people. No one watching us. Nobody at all interested in anything we do, because there are too many other people for anyone to bother to gossip about us.'
'Radical Islamic fundamentalists. Big Ben. The Queen.'
Tom and I occasionally watched
on the BBC. That was largely where our view of London came from.
'You know you're not coming though,' I told him, offhand. 'Just me.'
He frowned. 'Of course I'm coming. This is our project. Joint. Because she's our sister. Joint. And I was the one that found her.'
I shook my head. I wanted Tom to come with me, but I knew it was something I needed to do on my own.
'No way,' I told him. 'You've got school. I'm doing this one myself.
after that email you just sent.' I tried to catch his eye, but he looked away, up into a tree with clumps of mistletoe at the top. 'You've probably ruined it all, you know,' I added. 'I probably won't be able to go, anyway.' It was true. I felt sick to my stomach.
We had reached the middle of the woods. Tom marched in ahead of me. I could see from his face that he was marshalling his arguments. The dead leaves had long since rotted away, and the ground was absolutely bare. We skirted the rotting stump of a tree. It had been there for ever. A bird flew through the branches above us, and then everything was silent. I pushed some ivy aside. When Tom turned round his nose was red.
'You need me to come because she's mine as well,' he said, a tremor in his voice. 'And you can't go from here, from this ...' He showed me what he meant by waving his arm at the dead wood, the mistletoe high in the trees, the looming black sky. 'From this, to London! On your own! You've never been anywhere like London. You've never done anything without me. You've left school but you haven't even had a job. You just bum around here, and now you think you can go to London. It's not going to work. You need someone with you, Hels. I'm sorry about that mail, but I'll make it all right. I promise. You need me.'
I shook my head. 'I don't.' I said it with conviction, because suddenly I knew that it was time for me to get away from here. 'You'd be surprised what I can do, on my own.'
Mother stepped out in front of us, when we were nearly home.
'Are you all right?' she asked. She looked at my coat and smiled. 'Nice to see you wearing that thing for once.'
I was annoyed. 'Yeah. Fine. Thanks.'
'Why wouldn't we be?' added Tom.
Mother stared into my face. 'You're sure?' she said. 'You're acting a bit strangely, Helen. Are you plotting something?'
'Why would we be plotting something?' demanded Tom, rudely.
'Well, are you?' she asked again. 'Tell me.'
'What makes you think that?' I asked.
'Oh. Something about the look on your face. You're excited about something. Come in. Come on. Come in and have a cup of tea and a biscuit.'
I was almost tempted. Tom pulled my sleeve.
'No thanks,' we said together, and we turned and went home.
When we got back to the cottage, hot from the walking but cold on the outside, two emails sat in my inbox. Each subject line contained five words that made me grin with relief and grab my brother and hug him in delight and forgiveness. Liz had a Hotmail account, and Hotmail accounts were always filling up or being deleted or timing out. The gods had smiled on us today, and uttered the beautiful words that restored my faith in the world. 'Undeliverable mail,' it said, 'returned to sender.'
I was sitting in the midwife's waiting room, concentrating hard on my nausea, when I saw a woman I recognised. She had a small bump, which I looked at uneasily, and long black hair. She was frowning, puffing, and looking at her watch.
I decided to risk it. Pushing aside a curtain of nausea and fatigue, I cleared my throat.
'Urn, hello,' I said, sounding stupid.
She looked at me, quizzically.
'Hello?' she said.
'I think we're neighbours.'
The woman frowned at me. Then her face cleared. 'You live over the road! Your boyfriend's gay.' She had a slight accent. I thought she was Spanish.
I had to take a deep breath before replying to this.
'How do you know that?' I asked, trying to sound nonchalant. 'I thought Londoners weren't meant to know anything about their neighbours.'
'Oh, sorry. The guy in the café told me. Sorry, I didn't mean to upset you.'
'That's all right. The gay boyfriend upset me more than you. Though I'll also be having a stern word with Matt. I knew he'd been gossiping about me with his clientèle, but all the same ... '
'Jesus, he is a terrible gossip. You shouldn't tell him anything.'
'Yeah, you're right.'
The waiting room smelt of disinfectant, with an undertone of bodily functions. I had taken an appointment before school, on the basis that the midwife could not possibly be running late at 8 a.m. It was now 8.31, and although I had a late start today, I was still due to be teaching year seven at 9.45.
'What time's your appointment?' I asked the woman.
She tutted. 'Quarter past eight. How about you?'
'Oh, no way. No fucking way. I asked for an appointment before work because I actually have to go to work. This happened last time, as well.'
She smiled tightly at me. 'I'm Anna.'
'Hi, Anna. I'm Liz.'
'Hi, Liz. So you're having a baby?'
'Yes.' I gripped my handbag tightly as I said it. This was the first time I had told anyone, apart from the doctor, face to face. Anna looked at me, the question in her eyes, and I gave in.
'It's not Steve's,' I said, firmly.
'Steve is the gay one?'
'Yes. It's not his. I'm having this baby on my own.'
She whistled. 'Wow. Well, good luck to you.'
'So, you have a partner?'
'A husband, yes. Jeremy. He's English.'
The midwife's door opened and a heavily pregnant woman emerged. I avoided looking at her bump, and stood up.
'See you again sometime,' I said to Anna. And please, could you not tell Matt at the café that you saw me here? I can't bear to have him telling the neighbourhood. I'm not telling anyone until I've had a scan.'
She smiled, a sudden, brilliant smile. 'My lips are sealed. Come over and drink some tea,' she said. 'Number forty-five. I mean it, whenever you like. Or send me an email at work.' She took out a card, and quickly put it into my hand.
The midwife was flustered. Her hair was in a bun, which had half fallen down. This was the first time I had seen her, and I would have preferred Dr Grey.
'Sit down, Elizabeth,' she said. She was filling in the previous woman's notes as she spoke to me. I tried to read them upside down but her writing was too messy. 'So you're, what, twelve weeks or so along, you think? Shall we get you a scan appointment? How are you feeling? Any nausea?'
She picked up the phone and chatted incessantly while waiting for someone at the other end to answer. I looked around the room, aware, once again, that my life was taking an unexpected turn. After six weeks of guarding my precious, incredible secret, I was about to make it official. I was to be transformed into a Pregnant Lady. It was unsettling. Soon, if everything went well, I would have to start telling people. I thought that I preferred the lonely panic, after all. Matt was going to gossip. Dad and Sue would worry about me. Kathy would be horrified. Our friendship had been founded on the fact that neither of us wanted children. Together we had long been exasperated by friends who stopped being interested in the environment or politics or anything from the wider world, and focused exclusively on their wombs, their offspring.