In the second class I sit next to Alberta. She’s a fifty-two-year-old housewife suffering – as she keeps telling us – from empty nest syndrome.
‘Adrian, my oldest, is in his third year at Warwick,’ she boasts, and I can almost see her fluffing her feathers, ‘and Heather went off to Durham this September.’ She wears a lot of headscarves and headbands and other assorted headwear, which sort of jar with the rest of her image, but in a good way. In a very her way.
I find I like sitting next to Alberta most. She is by far and away the most talented of the group. Her paintings are of things, as opposed to Becca’s abstract shapes and splodges of colour. She paints landscapes, trees, beauty. She shies away from praise though, it makes her uncomfortable.
‘My pictures are too static,’ she says. I have given her a compliment, not knowing yet that she likes to be unrecognised. ‘I want it to tell a story, I want people to look at them and think about what’s going on.’ She shrugged. ‘I don’t know. It’s stupid.’ The phrase grates on me. It sounds like a line from an American sitcom. It’s stoo-pid.
But Alberta I like. She seems shy, she’s like a child trying to discover herself.
‘I’ve been a wife and a mother for so long,’ she says. ‘And don’t get me wrong –’ American phrase again ‘– I love it, but now the kids are grown up, I want to find out who I am on my own again. I mean, not on my own, I’m still married, but Jonathan works all day, and I have to be by myself, I have to have things for myself now. Does that makes sense?’ I nod, but she doesn’t need me to say anything. ‘Do you have children?’
I look down, unscrewing the paint.
‘No, I don’t,’ I say. ‘No children.’
I wish I could say I looked into the cot and felt nothing.
I was very aware of the noises around me. Beeping and whirring and the squelch of a mop in the corridor, the undercurrent of murmuring voices and shoes tapping or squeaking or scuffing. I was alone in the room, I remember, though I don’t know where everyone else was. A nurse would enter in a minute or two and ask if I wanted to hold him, but for that minute or two, it was just him and me.
I looked at him.
He was small and red and a little crusty round the edges. His tiny limbs moved jerkily, as though separate entities from him. His mouth opened and closed. I didn’t know what newborns were meant to look like. His head seemed very large and heavy – but wasn’t that normal? His ears were a little small, I supposed. His eyes were very small, and far apart, squinted into deep creases. One of his hands stretched out towards me, like a miniature high five. I looked at it, tiny lines and tiny nails and tiny knuckles.
I looked down at him and I hated him.
As a child, I had a new dream every week. I wanted to be an astronaut, a chef, a ballet dancer. None of them were really serious. For a while in primary school I insisted I was going to be a nurse when I grew up, but that was only because I wanted to be like my mum. I wanted to impress her, to make her proud of me. I never really had the temperament for a caring profession; too impatient, too rough, too squeamish. In the early years of secondary school I toyed semi-seriously with the idea of being an illustrator, but, having no idea how one would go about earning a living illustrating, decided that success was too unlikely, and probably I wasn’t good enough anyway. When people asked, I would shrug and scuff my toes on the floor and say I didn’t know what I wanted to do after school.
I was smart enough and well-off enough to go to University, and it seemed a good way to put any career decisions off further. Out of my little gang of schoolfriends, only myself and my best friend Maria were aiming for higher education – the rest went to work in a dress shop, as a nanny, or got engaged. Maria and I sat at the back of our class and looked at hairstyles in magazines and tried to meet the others for coffee or a cigarette or to discuss wedding dresses, but the times never seemed to work out. We stayed behind after school to do our homework together, and watched the boys from the boys’ school down the road play rugby on the sports field.
History was my best subject, and my most encouraging teacher, and so I applied to do History, not really knowing where I could go with it, but not caring too much about that either. I had no destination in mind, but my horizon was limitless.
Maria wanted to be a nursery-school teacher, had been decided on it for as long as I’d known her. Her path was as clearly mapped out for her as mine was hidden from me. We said a tearful goodbye at the end of our last summer as we set off in different directions, promising to write and visit and keep in touch. The promises were empty, and they broke easily.
Our mid-way perambulation. I find myself falling into step with Eamonn.
‘You know,’ I say after a beat. ‘Sometimes, I’m not entirely sure if you’re running an art class or a therapy session.’
Eamonn smiles benignly at his boots.
‘Does it have to be one or the other?’
I got pregnant, once.
I’d had my suspicions for a while; I’d done the maths. My husband – though we weren’t married yet – had to go away, for a funeral, and was going to stay on for a fortnight to help out his family. I took the opportunity, when I was alone, to make an appointment with the doctor. I was in the shower when my hand strayed to my abdomen. Was it a phantom swelling I was feeling? I imagined the baby, a perfect human in miniature, an entire tiny future-person beneath my fingers. I wondered if it was something I could do, raising a baby. Again.
First, I thought I could. I felt those maternal feelings I’d always heard of rise in my breast. I imagined a child of mine and his, to love and raise and be a part of us.
And then I knew it was stupid. We couldn’t afford it, the time or the money, and – though it was the hardest thing for me to admit – I didn’t want to. I had spent my early twenties being kept awake by a crying baby, and now, as a more mature thirty-something-year-old, I didn’t want to shackle myself to that, again. I wanted to move towards independence, not away from it. I didn’t want to lose myself, sacrifice myself, again. I didn’t want the exhaustion and the worry and the mess, I didn’t want any of it.
But I wasn’t imagining it. It was happening. I knew there were options, I knew I could get rid of it – but I also knew that I wouldn’t. Leaning against the sink, I saw my mother looking back at me from behind the fogged mirror. I couldn’t do that to her. And could I do that to him, my boyfriend, my one-day-to-be-husband? Could I deny him the chance of being a father?
I wondered how I was going to tell him. Would he be excited? Would he be angry? Anxious? Was this something he wanted to do with me? Would I dare bring up the idea of adoption? I couldn’t bear to spark hope in him only to snuff it out again.
Sometimes, just sometimes, I caught myself daydreaming about a little girl, a daughter. Our daughter.
It happened in the night. Four days before my appointment, I was woken by stabbing pains in my lower back, and lay there for a moment, clutching the edges of my mattress like I was going to fall off. Another cramp shot through me and I cried out, then bit down on my pillow and prayed I hadn’t woken anyone.
I sat on the toilet and squeezed my eyes shut and tried to breathe through the pain. I tried not to think about what was happening, about what was leaving my body. I was being emptied, and the void hurt.
I took a shower afterwards. Red ran down the insides of my legs and pooled around the drain. I let hot water drip down my face and stood there until it was over. Almost over. It didn’t completely stop for days. I stripped my bed and scrubbed at the stains until my hands were raw. I cleaned the bathroom. I bought new sheets. I didn’t attend my appointment. When two months had passed, I knew I was sure. There was no baby.
I still didn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t find the words. There was nothing to be done about it now, anyway. There was no point in telling my boyfriend, giving him the pain of losing something he hadn’t known he had. I fed Robert and cared for him and cooked for my father and saw my boyfriend and went to work, and life carried on.
My overwhelming feeling was relief, and I was scared of being judged for it.