Authors: Araminta Hall
‘Stop it, Alice.’
‘Please. You’re my best friend. What about Dot and Mavis?’ Alice felt she was grabbing at thin air, falling down a hole.
‘Dot and Mavis can still see each other. It’s not like I can’t bear to see you, but there’s nowhere left for us to go, is there? I mean, everything I say to you, you’ll know it’s all based on a lie. What will you say to make me feel better when Gerry puts his hand on the next girl’s knee?’
Alice was crying as well. ‘I wouldn’t judge you, San. I’d have done the same with Tony if I’d had the chance. I’d have forgiven him anything. My God, I probably still would now. I understand what you’re doing.’
‘Alice, go and have a great life. You’ve got it all: you’re kind and funny and beautiful. You just need to wise up a bit. You and Dot should start again, get out of that old house.’
‘But you could do the same.’
She shook her head violently. ‘It’s all over for me. You can’t kill your baby and get away with it.’
‘You did not kill your baby.’
A nurse put her head round the curtain. ‘Visiting time’s over. She should be getting some rest now.’
‘She should be getting off this ward,’ Alice said, fury blazing in her. ‘Can’t you move her or something?’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Sandra, ‘I’m going home tomorrow.’
The nurse jerked the curtains back from around the bed. ‘Like I said, visiting time’s over.’
Alice stood up. ‘I’m always here, Sandra. If you ever change your mind.’
She shook her head so Alice bent to kiss her cheek, but as she did Sandra grabbed on to her arm, pulling her closer so that her mouth was level with Alice’s ear. ‘It was a boy,’ she whispered, ‘he was a boy.’
Alice jolted with the awfulness of the knowledge, but Sandra held on tight. ‘I didn’t give birth to him. Apparently they had to cut him out of me to save my life. Not a particularly good exchange, wouldn’t you say? I never even saw him. Nobody told me anything. I had to drag the information out of Gerry. It’s like he never existed. Nothing. I won’t even be able to get a birth certificate or have a grave.’ Her hand slackened so Alice stepped backwards.
‘Sandra, listen …’
Sandra was crying again and the nurse had returned with some pills in a tiny plastic cup, which she swallowed greedily before lying down and turning her back on Alice.
Alice waited in the corridor for the nurse to finish with the other women and stopped her as she came out. ‘What happened to my friend’s baby?’
The nurse shook her head. ‘It died, I’m afraid.’
‘I know. He died. But what happened to his body?’
‘She was only twenty-two weeks gone, so we’d have disposed of him.’
The nurse shifted her weight on her overworked feet. ‘He wasn’t viable. It was a horrid accident, but your friend will be fine.’
Alice cried all the way home in the car, her tears blurring her vision so that she kept having to pull over to stop herself from crashing. People’s lives seemed to her like a litany of tragedies; they all lurched from one calamity to the next, each obliterating the one before in its awfulness. And every tragedy is personal; your own is so hard to bear because it belongs only to you. Alice understood why Sandra had told her about the baby, because sometimes even one other person sharing in your grief makes it more bearable, makes it less likely that you’re going to jump out of the next open window. People cross the road to avoid you when you have been knocked down because they are clinging so desperately to their own fragile all-rightness, which could be shattered at any minute. Really, Alice thought as she pulled up in front of her house, life is a terrifying balancing act. She remembered the tightrope walkers in the circus with their spangly costumes and safety net.
It was absurd how long it took to do anything with a newborn. Days would go by and Mavis would be pleased if she’d got dressed and brushed her teeth. Her mum was helping her loads because she seemed to have an incessant desire to hold Rose or take her for walks or make Mavis milk-producing meals. But still time had slowed to a near halt whilst also accelerating way beyond the proverbial speed of light. It was not a dilemma Mavis felt she had enough brain power to pursue. For now being was enough. Mavis found simply existing with her baby was like stepping into a new world, that hours could pass just watching Rose sleep or holding her chubby fingers or smoothing her shock of red hair. She’d call her mum in from the kitchen and they’d both wonder at this tiny new life, smiling at each other because they didn’t need to speak. Even her dad seemed charmed. He hadn’t smoked in the house since Rose had come home and he always washed his hands after every cigarette, which did seem to be lessening in frequency. He would bring in a cup of tea for them all after dinner and they’d sit round the telly and the night before Mavis had even heard her parents laughing after she’d gone up to bed. There was a completeness and a cosiness to it all that made life feel like a rolling moment of warmth and delight.
Nearly a month after her birth, Rose woke Mavis at around seven, hungry and wet, and Mavis spent the next hour or so changing and feeding her daughter, watching her earnest face as she sucked on her distended breast. She tried calling Dot before she went downstairs to wish her luck, but her mobile was off so she left a message. By the time she got into the kitchen the sun was hot and her mother was washing up at the sink, the back doors open on to the garden, in a way they never used to be. Mavis asked if she’d mind holding Rose while she had a bath, knowing that there was nothing her mother liked better than to be alone with her granddaughter. She would even stop cleaning for her and that wasn’t something Mavis could ever remember her doing before. In fact, if she remembered anything from her childhood it was her mother telling her that she would come when she’d finished cleaning, except that the cleaning never ended: dust always resettled, plates were used, floors needed hoovering, surfaces wiping. It used to make Mavis furious that her mother couldn’t see the futility of what she was doing and in the end she stopped asking for anything.
She ran the bath hot and dripped some lavender oil into it. She had stopped bleeding now but the stitches were still sore and her breasts only felt normal when she confounded gravity by lying in water. She tried to imagine Dot where she was but couldn’t place her so far away. Mavis worried as she washed her hair that it had been insensitive to ask her to come to register Rose’s birth. She hadn’t thought about it until after they’d left the registrar’s and seen Dot’s white face and asked her what the matter was and she’d simply said, ‘I’ve never seen my birth certificate.’ Mavis remembered how she’d felt the atmosphere tense when the registrar had asked her for the father’s name and she’d given Clive’s and stupidly she’d thought that was because it was Clive, not because it made Dot realise that there was a piece of paper somewhere in the world with her father’s name written on it.
Maybe she should have taken Clive; he’d offered, after all, but it had seemed too strange. And when they’d arrived at the town hall and sat in the waiting room with the other cooing couples, she’d been overwhelmingly pleased that it was Dot sitting next to her and not a boy she barely knew. She’d only told him of Rose’s existence the week before and of course she’d only done that because Dot had insisted, which meant it was a fact which still hadn’t entirely settled in her mind. But it had unequivocally been the right thing to do; he’d been round and met Rose, brought a stupid pink balloon which had made Mavis laugh and spat out the no-doubt well-rehearsed right words about how he’d like to be part of Rose’s life and, when he left college and got a job, he’d help out financially. He’d texted her only last night to ask if his parents could come and visit Rose. Mavis hadn’t yet replied, the thought of sharing her daughter was still too much.
‘Do you reckon we should get married before or after college?’ Mavis had asked and he’d paled so quickly she’d been worried he might faint; she’d laughed and hit him on the arm and assured him she was only joking.
‘Debbie’s taken it hard,’ he’d said then. ‘I think it’s good I’m going away to college in September.’
‘If you get maths,’ Mavis had joked.
He laughed. ‘Yeah.’
‘It’ll be OK,’ Mavis had said kindly and he’d smiled, but she’d got the feeling that he was ready for a change anyway.
‘What about you?’ he’d asked.
‘I doubt I did my best,’ she’d replied. ‘I can sit them next year and I’m going to ring Manchester. Mr Hughes rang and he said universities have good policies on studying with babies now. So, you never know.’
Dot had rung a few hours after they’d got home from registering the birth and asked Mavis where she thought her mother might have hidden her birth certificate.
‘In your house it could be anywhere,’ Mavis had answered. ‘Why don’t you ask her? It’s about time.’
‘I know,’ Dot had said. ‘I want to but I can’t. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to. This might be the only way. I Googled it and there’s a place in London you can go to get a copy. Charles House in Kensington it’s called.’
‘What if his name’s not on there?’
‘Then I’m no worse off than I am now.’
‘Are you thinking of going?’
‘I don’t see why not. The exams are all over and all I’m doing is waiting around.’
She’d called back a bit later and said she’d arranged it all. She’d found a B and B to stay at on a place called Edgware Road, which was just a short tube ride from Kensington and she’d told her mum that she was going on an open day to Manchester so would be away for a day and a night.
‘I wish I could come with you,’ Mavis had said, meaning every word.
‘So do I, but you’ve got Rose. Anyway, it’s probably one of those things I should do alone.’
‘When are you going?’
‘Well, it opens at nine and it says on the website to get there early cos they’re always so busy, so I’ve booked into the B and B for this Wednesday night and I’ll go along on Thursday.’
‘Wow,’ Mavis said, ‘nothing like striking while the iron’s hot.’
‘That’s what I thought.’
But then Rose had started squalling and Mavis had had to go and somehow forty-eight hours had passed in a second and now Dot was in London and Mavis had only spoken to her by text last night when she’d been on the coach.
Getting dressed was easier now. Mavis still couldn’t fit into her jeans or anything, but every day she felt slightly lighter. The midwife had told her that was because she was so young, her skin was still firm and the baby was sucking the fat out of her. Wait till you have your third, she’d laughed, grabbing a roll of fat on her own belly. Her mother was cooing over Rose in the garden, pointing up at trees which Rose had no way of seeing.
‘She’ll be smiling soon, in the next couple of weeks I imagine,’ her mother said as she handed the warm bundle back to Mavis. ‘Why don’t we go for a walk by the river in Tinmouth later? I’ll drive us over. It’s such a beautiful day.’
‘Yeah, there’s that nice café there, we could get some cake,’ said Mavis.
‘Lovely. I think she’s hungry again. Why don’t you feed her and I’ll bring you in a cup of tea.’
No wonder Rose was hungry, it was nine-twenty and she hadn’t eaten for two hours. Mavis settled herself on the sofa in the sitting room, cushions bulked around her to take the weight from her arms. Her breasts were straining, one was leaking against her bra and it felt like a release when Rose started sucking, as if the milk was coming from deep inside her. The TV remote was just out of reach and she tried to pull it towards her with her foot, but her movement was making Rose restless so she lay back and shut her eyes for a minute, wondering when or if she might ever sleep for more than three hours at a time again. Everything about her old life seemed so far away, so unattainable, it sometimes made her heart race. She was completely in love with Rose and already could hardly remember life without her, but still she knew she was giving up a lot. Of course her life wasn’t going to stop, but it was undeniable that it was never going to be the same again, that she would never approach another situation with the carefree attitude of a teenager.
Eventually her mother came in with the tea and some biscuits so Mavis asked her to turn on the TV. For a minute neither women could understand what they were seeing. At first Mavis thought they were replaying footage from 9/11; it was the only logical explanation for all the people emerging from smoke, limping and bedragged, covered in blood and soot. But the ambulances looked British, so did the streets, so did the people.
Her mother sat down next to them, reaching out for Rose’s foot.
A woman came on to the screen. She was standing on a street somewhere with people dazed around her, sirens blaring and smoke billowing from behind her head. She was fiddling with something in her ear, but suddenly jerked her attention towards the camera. Her voice was shaky and her eyes darted off screen.
‘The scenes in London are devastating. It’s like something out of a film with injured people everywhere. We’re not entirely sure what’s happened, we know bombs have gone off and people have been injured, but at the moment that’s all I can tell you. All public transport systems have been shut down and the police are advising people to leave central London by foot. We don’t know who is responsible, but suspicion has naturally fallen on al-Qaida.’
The picture flicked back to a studio where a harried-looking man was reading a piece of paper, his eyes nervous and darting.
‘Thanks, Laura. Information is coming in so fast that it’s hard to get a handle on what is going on. To recap: all we know for sure is that bombs have been exploded on our public transport system. We’re getting unconfirmed reports of an incident on a tube train leaving Edgware Road. No news on fatalities as yet.’
‘What did he say?’ asked Mavis.
Her mother looked round, her hand still on Rose’s foot. ‘What?’
‘Did he just say Edgware Road?’
‘Sshh, I can’t hear.’
‘I think he said Edgware Road.’ Rose was still sucking, but Mavis stood up anyway, handing her to her mother, so that the baby started to scream.