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1. Helen AT THE TOP OF the beer-stained carpet, a taped sign on the door reads National Childbirth Trust. The doorknob feels like it might fall off if I turn it too hard. Inside there is a semicircle of chairs. A flip chart. Trestle tables with juice and biscuits. The sash windows are jammed shut.
Three other couples are here already. I am the only one on my own. We smile politely at each other, then sit in silence, too hot and uncomfortable for small talk. One bearded husband tries to yank a window open, but after a few attempts, sits down with a defeated shrug. I smile back sympathetically, fanning myself with the baby first-aid leaflet I found on a chair. We teeter like bowling pins, our swollen bellies resting on our laps, arching our backs, our knees apart, grimacing.
As the room fills, I glance at the clock on the wall. Past six thirty. Where are they? I keep looking at my phone, waiting for the flash of response to my messages. But nobody replies.
I’d peeled away from the office early, wanting to get here on time. I hadn’t been the only one. The air-conditioning has been broken for days. By this afternoon the place had been half empty, just a few desk fans still whirring limply into the flushed faces of middle-aged men.
When I picked up my bag and flicked my screen off, I had glanced at Tom, but he’d been hunched on a call to building services, complaining about the temperature for the third time that day. I’d tried to catch his eye with a sort of awkward half wave, but he’d barely acknowledged me, gesturing me away with a sideways glance at my belly, his other hand still clutching the phone to his ear. I think he’d forgotten today was my last day.
Unable to face the slow suffocation of the Tube, I’d decided to walk instead. The glare had been blinding. Heat bounced off pavements and crosswalks, shimmered between cars and buses. Horns honked in sweaty frustration. It is all anyone is talking about, the heatwave. No one can remember a summer like it. We are constantly reminded to stay in the shade, carry a bottle of water. It hasn’t rained for weeks. Shops are selling out of fans, ice packs, garden umbrellas. There is talk of a garden hose ban.
I decided to cut across the park, between the Observatory and the Royal Naval College. The hazy light seemed to soften the edges around everything. Office workers were spread out on the yellowing grass, shoes kicked off, ties loosened, sunglasses on. They were drinking gin and tonics from cans, sharing Kettle chips, speaking slightly too loudly to each other, the way people do after a few drinks. It had felt like walking past a party, one I hadn’t been invited to. I had to remember not to stare. It can be hard not to stare at happy people. They are mesmerizing somehow.
It was hot like this the summer we graduated from Cambridge. We used to punt down the river, the four of us. Serena and me sunbathing. Rory punting. Daniel sorting the drinks out, his pale skin reddening in the heat. We’d veer into banks, get tangled in curtains of weeping willow, the sky cloudless, the sunlight catching sequin-bright on the clear waters of the Cam. It felt as if the summer would go on forever. When it ended, I feared we would lose the closeness we felt back then. But we didn’t. Rory and Serena came to live in Greenwich, on the other side of the park. Daniel went to work with Rory at the family firm. And now, there’s our babies, due just two weeks apart.
The course leader is here now. She jams the door open with a folded beer coaster, then picks up a sticky label and writes her name on it with a thick green marker: SONIA. She presses the label onto her chest, then dumps a faded shopping bag and some Tesco grocery bags next to the flip chart. A whiskery braid runs almost the length of her spine.
“Right,” says Sonia. “Shall we start?”
She begins a practiced monologue about labor, pain relief, and Caesareans, one eyelid flickering during the embarrassing parts. Occasionally she is forced to raise her voice over a crash of pots and pans, or a burst of expletives, from the pub kitchen on the floor below.
After she has been speaking for a few minutes, I glance down at my phone screen again, just as a message flashes up from Daniel. I open it. Meeting only just finished, he says. Heading home now. Train gets in at 10. He is so sorry again about the class, says again that he wishes he could be there with me. He’ll make it up to me, he says.
I know he would be here if he could, that he is gutted to have had to let me down. That this last-minute crisis meeting just came at a terrible moment. At the same time, I can’t help feeling so disappointed. I’d been excited about these classes, about doing them together, like proper expectant parents.
Sonia starts to pull objects from the grocery bags: a pelvis—through which she squeezes a fully dressed plastic newborn—knit nipples, a pair of forceps, a suction cup. The men look horrified, the women sweaty and anxious. We pass the objects around the circle, trying bravely to smile at each other.
The chairs to my left are still empty. The bearded man has to lean right over them to hand me the objects as they come around. I glance down at the name tags I wrote out for Rory and Serena, sitting on their vacant seats. Those two were supposed to be here at least, to keep me company, make me feel less alone. I feel foolish, like a woman who has invented two imaginary friends. Could Serena really have just forgotten?
Another message comes through. It’s from Serena. My heart sinks. Somehow, deep down, even as I tap to open it, I know what it’s going to say.
Hey, Helen! I know it’s the first prenatal class tonight. Hope you don’t mind, but I think Rory and I might skip them after all. I was actually looking online and I found these other ones that look a bit more my thing—beautiful bump classes—they’re supposed to be a bit less preachy, and they meet in the organic bakery. I was thinking I might try those instead. So sorry to cancel at the last minute. Have fun!
Sonia is brandishing a red marker at her flip chart now. “So. Can anyone tell me what they know about breastfeeding?”
I try to focus on the breastfeeding discussion. It is not going well. Most of the mothers are staring at the floor. One mutters something about positioning, another offers an anecdote about a friend who kept breast milk in the fridge.
“Anyone else?” Sonia is flagging now, half-moons of perspiration spreading from under the arms of her T-shirt.
Just at this moment, a girl walks in, slamming the door behind her. Sonia winces.
“Fucking hell. Sorry, everyone,” she announces loudly. She slips a metallic-gold backpack off one shoulder and drops it down on the floor with a thud. It lands inches from my foot.
“Oops.” She grins, one hand on her bump.
Everyone stares. Sonia, still standing in front of the flip chart with her red marker pen held aloft, eyes the girl coldly. The only things written on her flip chart so far are CORRECT POSITION (NIPPLE) and STORE IN FRIDGE.
The girl points a purple-painted fingernail at the seat next to me, the one I had reserved for Serena. “This chair taken?”
I hesitate, then shake my head. I feel the eyes of the other couples on me as I haul my bags over to the other side, scrape my chair out a little to make more room.
Sonia sighs. “Anyone else?”
The flip chart charade continues for a few further minutes. The women begin to shift in their chairs, exchange raised eyebrows, uncomfortable glances. I try to concentrate. The girl next to me, the latecomer, is chewing gum. All I seem to be able to hear is the snap of it between her teeth as her jaw opens and closes. When I glance sideways at her, I glimpse it between her teeth, a neon-pink pellet, an artificial cherry scent. She catches my eye, grinning again, as if the whole thing is hilarious.
Finally, Sonia surrenders, pulling the back of her arm across the moisture on her brow. “OK,” she says. “Shall we take a short break?”
A murmur of relief goes up. All the women waddle toward the jugs of juice, and I quickly follow them. Soon they are grouping up, the room filling with the noise of chatter. I am being left behind. I feel a plummeting panic. No Daniel, no Rory, no Serena. How do people make friends? What would Serena do?
I hover on the edge of a group, trying to look casual, waiting to be included. But there never seems to be a good moment to interject. I open my mouth to speak a few times, but on each occasion, someone else speaks first. I end up closing my mouth again, like a fish drowning in air. I feel the trickle of my anxiety begin, the nerve center at the back of my head starting to alarm. I am uncomfortably warm. Can’t someone get that window open?
The girl who came in late appears at my side. She is holding two enormous glasses of what appears to be cold white wine, clouds of condensation on the side of the glass.
“Do you want one? I thought you looked like you might need a real drink. One a day can’t hurt, surely.”
She holds out the glass in front of me. Her painted fingernails are short and chewed. She looks very young—perhaps she just has one of those faces. Round, dimpled, babyish. Yet when she smiles, there is something wolfish in it, her canine teeth protruding slightly, small but sharp.
“What’s the deal, then?”
I blink at her. “I beg your pardon?”
The girl places the glasses of wine down on a side table, gestures to the two chairs next to me, the name tags Rory and Serena still lying on them. “Just wondered what the setup was.” She shrugs. Then her face snaps back at me, her eyes wide, her fingers pressed to her mouth. “You’re not a surrogate, are you?” She laughs. “That would be typical, wouldn’t it? Didn’t even want it, and now you’re left holding the baby!”
The girl hoots. I look over her shoulder, try to catch the eye of one of the other women. But none return my gaze, so I am forced to reply. I clear my throat.
“No, um. No. I’m not.” I try to laugh. “It’s just that my husband, Daniel, couldn’t make it tonight.” I shake my head slightly, as if it’s just one of those things, doesn’t matter.
I pause, before realizing she is waiting for an explanation about the two other empty seats.
“The other couple is my brother and his wife. Rory and Serena. They’re expecting in the same month as us. We’d been planning to do the classes together, as a foursome, but... I think they... obviously decided against it in the end.”
The girl smiles sympathetically. “Hopeless. Never mind, you can team up with me, can’t you?” She picks the glass up again. “Shall we have this drink, then?”
“Thanks,” I say hesitantly. “But I’m not sure...”
Why am I incapable of completing my own sentences? I should just say no, thank you, I would rather not drink. I mean, I’m pregnant. We both are. Surely I don’t have to spell it out?
“Oh, I know what you’re saying,” she booms, rolling her eyes and glancing around the room. “Ridiculous, isn’t it? All this pressure! The way they change the advice all the time! One minute you can drink, the next minute you can’t, then you can ‘in moderation,’ then it’s basically illegal! Bloody doctors.”
I clear my throat, unsure how to answer. I am very aware now of the gaze of the other women in the room, looking from me to the girl and the wine, and back.
“Well, fuck doctors,” she continues. “Our mums all got smashed when they were pregnant. We all bloody survived!” She is speaking far too loudly. The room is silent, and people are starting to openly stare.
The girl looks over at the other mothers, registers their disapproving glances, then raises her eyebrows at me and giggles. She holds the wineglass aloft to toast her own sentiment. She brings the glass to her lips. “Fuck the NHS,” she spits. “That’s what I say.” She tips the glass to her lips and drinks. As she does so, I notice one or two of the other mothers actually wince.
The girl picks up the drink she has brought for me. She holds it out, like a threat, or a dare.
“Come on,” she hisses. Her eyes flick down to my name badge. “You know you want to... Helen.”
Later, after everything, I will come to wonder why I act as I do in this moment. For even now, there is something about this girl. Something that makes me want to edge away, to look for a place of safety. Like the feeling of being on a cliff-top path, when the wind is just a little too strong at your back.
But I don’t step away. I take the wine. And as I do, the other women turn their heads, as if by taking it I have answered all their questions. I want to tell them I’m just being polite, that I have no intention of actually drinking it. But they are already looking the other way.
“Thanks,” I say weakly.
“Nice to meet you, Helen. I’m Rachel.”
And then Rachel clinks her glass against mine, knocks back another deep glug, and winks at me, as if we share a secret.