I don't go back to the office but instead drive to Hyde Park. I park and then walk. And walk. And walk. Stopping only to barf and retch unproductively en route. It's an icy cold January afternoon. There's hardly a soul around, unlike the summer when the park is heaving with revelers. The occasional tramp shuffles by, and I see the odd figure dashing home through the twilight, probably clerks who religiously leave their office at five. Not paid enough, or motivated at all, to stay a minute after clocking-out time. Oblivious to their surroundings, they don't glance left or right -- the park is simply something that must be passed through on the way to centrally heated rooms and hot cups of tea. The odd mother rushes by with her toddler in a pushchair. The kids are invariably ugly, tired and dirty. The mothers are all that, and also harassed. I suppose that pushchairs, previously beneath my notice, will soon become significant to me.
Pushchairs and high chairs and baby baths and cots and diapers and it's impossible. It's alien. It's wrong.
Where is the unquashable exhilaration that, surely, should be the order of the day?
I'd settle for a faint flush of enthusiasm.
I walk on. I walk past the Serpentine, the desolate, deserted bandstand and around the Round Pond. I walk up and down. I circle. I walk so much that I'm actually warm even though it's freezing and late. My feet and legs ache. I'm starving. And I feel sick. How's that possible? On balance the hunger is more compelling than the nausea. I'm so desperate that, for the first time since I gave up watching Black Beauty, I buy a hot dog from a suspiciously filthy man pushing an off-white cart. The cart, man and hot dog would fail all health and hygiene regulations with spectacular success. I try not to think about it. He piles greasy onions into the bread bun and then smothers the hot dog with mustard and ketchup, which squelch onto his fingers and down his arm. He wipes his dirty hands on his dusty trousers, runs his hand through his hair and, the final flourish, wipes the back of his hand over his mouth. I don't care. The hot dog looks delicious. I'm that hungry I would eat the man, dusty trousers and all, if necessary. Without even stopping to check if anyone can see me I gobble down the hot dog in approximately three bites. For about seven seconds I feel almost normal. My hunger is satiated and I don't feel sick, an exceptional state of affairs for the last month or so. On the eighth second my stomach lurches uncontrollably and I am hoying for Europe. The undigested hot dog, with onions, mustard, ketchup and trouser dust lies forlornly on the pavement. It's accompanied by two digestive biscuits, and I think that other thing is rye bread from my sandwiches at lunchtime.
"Ya fackin stupid bitch," says the hot dog seller. "What the fack did ya do that for? That ain't good for business, is it?"
I scrabble in my handbag and locate some tissues with which I wipe my mouth, sick-splattered trousers and boots, and then I walk away, too weary to fling back a clever retort, never mind reapply lipstick. I walk around the park again until I'm convinced that my boots are worn through. Finally, I throw myself onto the nearest park bench, not bothering about the bird excrement or chewing gum.
The park seems joyless. Littered with filthy vendors, rushing faceless people, dog muck and broken glass bottles.
I am growing a baby.
There is a baby inside my stomach. Or womb, or uterus. Or somewhere.
I try to think about that for a moment.
It's so big. The thing, it...he or she is probably about the size of a single grain of couscous, but the fact that I'm pregnant is big. Too big.
Do I want to be pregnant? Do I want a baby (the natural conclusion)? I have no idea. My mind is completely blank. I rummage around a bit but there is only space, a yawning gap, a brilliant, dazzling, gleaming, glossy whiteness where a reaction or a response should be.
What will Hugh think? What will Hugh say?
I pull out my mobile and flick through the menu. Who to call? Hugh? God no. No. Not until I'm calmer, more certain. Of what? Certain of what to say, of how I feel. The idea of calling Drew, Karl, Brett or Julia, the people I work with, the people I've spent upward of ten hours a day with, five days a week, for several years, makes me laugh, or at least it would if I didn't feel so much like crying. While each of them is certainly sexually active, alert, even aggressive, I don't think any of them have ever connected the thing they do every Friday and Saturday night with making babies. In fact the primary concern has always been making sure sex didn't have anything to do with making babies. Sam? No point. Not unless I can somehow spin my pregnancy story so as to relate to finding her an eligible bachelor; she talks of nothing else. I dismiss a dozen or so other names, acquaintances that will trill that this is marvelous news. The thought terrifies me because I'm not certain that I'm ready to hear that.
Because I'm not certain it is.
There's Jessica, of course. She is my mother. Albeit the type of mother who insists I call her by her Christian name, as she hates to admit that she has a thirty-two-year-old daughter and she hyperventilates if I reveal our relationship in public. She is so much the epitome of a "lady who lunches" that my father ought to have placed a copyright upon her when they married. She's all suntan and surgery, diets and drama. Her life's work is turning back the hands of time. To give credit where it's due, she's very successful in realizing this ambition. She looks about forty-five whereas she's nearly twenty years older than that. My parents live in Cannes in the summer and Cape Town in the winter. My father is a very silent man, more notable for the things he doesn't say than for the things he does. He is a retired diplomat, a career that suited him; he finds that the skills he developed in his professional life are still extremely useful as he negotiates his way toward his fortieth year of marriage. And Jessica, for her part, is the perfect wife for a diplomat. She knows things like how to address a bishop or a lord, which flowers last the longest in hot weather, and how to write an utterly charming thank-you note. She is at all times extremely practical and clear-sighted. To date, her maternal advice has ranged from which sunblocks are indispensable to the recommendation of personal trainers; I figure it's time to use my joker card.
"Darling, how lovely to hear from you. Oh God, it's not your birthday, is it? Have I forgotten your birthday?"
"No. Of course not. You were a summer baby. It's not mine, is it?"
Jessica hasn't celebrated a birthday since I was eight. Instead, she goes into a darkened room on the actual day and wears black for a week.
"No," I assure.
"So why the call?" A sad but fair testament of our mother-daughter relationship.
I consider talking about the weather but realize it's pointless. "I'm pregnant."
There's a wail of horror. "Oh darling. How could you do this to me? That will make me a -- oh God, I'm going to have to sit down -- a grandmother." She hiss-whispers the last word, as though articulating a curse.
"I didn't do this to you," I splutter, resisting the urge to scream, "Bugger you, what about me? What about me!"
"I've been dreading this call since you were fourteen. Oh darling. You didn't plan this, did you?" She's incredulous. We are, in many ways, very similar.
"Is it Hugh's?"
"Of course." I try not to sound offended.
"Well, that's something, I suppose," she mutters. "It will, at least, be good-looking." This is typical of my mother. Untouched by the traditional concerns, such as the facts that the child is unplanned, illegitimate and fathered by a married man, she focuses her attention on the aesthetics. I don't know why I was expecting her to be supportive or cheering. Since absolutely everyone's first question on seeing a baby is, "How old is he/she?" my mother views children as little more than giant, depressing egg-timers. She's always made it clear that she finds it hard enough to understand how planned pregnancies are met with delight, so she thinks falling pregnant accidentally is one of the worst things that can happen to you. Obviously not as bad as finding out you are seriously ill or someone you love is dying. But certainly up there with losing your job or your lover, worse than being gazumped on a house sale or pranging the car.
"Do you want it?" she demands, unabashed. I don't have the chance to reply before she adds, "Unlikely. I mean, who in their right mind actually wants a baby?" I try to forget the fact that this woman is my mother. "They are highly inconvenient and not in the slightest bit rewarding until they are old enough to make one feel ancient." She stretches the word ancient for an unfeasibly long time. "And, goodness, the damage they do to your figure." I have by now completely lost sight of the reason I chose to call my mother. "It's irreparable. Darling, have you considered the stretch marks, the weight gain, the varicose veins?"
"It's good of you to remind me," I snipe dryly.
"So, you don't want it?" Finally, I detect something like sympathy, or at least concern, in my mother's voice.
"I don't know," I wail.
"Shush, darling. You mustn't cry. You'll get awful wrinkles, crying dries out the skin terribly." She coos this instruction and it's soothing. It's vain and faintly ridiculous but soothing.
"I don't actively not want the baby. Or at least, I don't think so."
"Goodness, so many negatives, does that make a positive?" Forever the grammarian.
"I don't know," I mutter weakly. I deal with facts, data, information, and certainties. Agonizing over and trying to understand everything from my psyche to my G-spot has always seemed positively farcical, but now I'm considering, debating, procrastinating, feeling left, right and center. All this not knowing is exhausting. I have always known things. I know the importance of identifying a single-minded, strategic focus. I know that standing orders are an efficient way to pay bills. I know the importance of owning at least one piece of jewelry from Tiffany. I know that the Burberry bandana has been done to death, I'm over it. I knew I wanted Hugh. I knew he didn't want me, but I knew I could make him want me and I knew how to do it.
"I'm not ready for this, Jessica."
She sighs. "No one ever is. Even the couples who have spent years trying with IVF. They are not ready. They may want it more. But they're not ready either."
Job. Lover. Home. Friends, all star quality. I have it all.
Including a sneaky suspicion that this is a little bit more than I bargained for. This wasn't part of my plan. "Having kids seems like the end of life as I know it," I mutter.
"It is exactly that."
We both fall silent. I study the park bench. The graffiti reads Andy Luvs Angie 4 Ever. Will they? Forever? It seems such a long time. The time I have left is forever. George Feels Sick 4 Ever. George Changes Diapers 4 Ever.
My mother interrupts my musings and asks quietly, "So are we talking gin and hot baths?"
It's admirable that she does not shy away from the issue. I am, and always have been, pro-choice. Abortions are an option for teenagers, mothers of half a dozen children in increasing, overwhelming debt. They are an option for anyone who finds out that their baby is seriously ill. They are an option for rape victims. Abortion is not an option for me. I'm thirty-two, solvent and I love the father of my child. "No. No gin or hot baths."
"Oh good." Jessica sighs with relief, although she hadn't betrayed her viewpoint until she'd heard my decision. This is her greatest strength -- she never passes judgment. "Well, darling, I hope you know that your father and I are always here for you." She adds the caveat, "Providing you never, ever use the Granny word. By the way, Georgina, when I said the damage to your body is irreparable, I wasn't being entirely honest. I can give you the name of a marvelous surgeon at Bart's. The very essence of discretion. Visit him within three months of the birth and everything will be as good as new, if not better."
I know she's trying to be a comfort.
I hang up.
It's raining, and I wonder how long it has been doing so. It's the dark, relentless type of rain that offers no compensation or joy. Wind snakes its way into my coat and licks my back. Circles appear in puddles and disappear almost as quickly. It nearly always rains at commuter hour. I think of the sweaty tube carriages, damp and steamy with dripping people, bags and umbrellas. Irritated and exhausted shoppers tutting if someone opens the window, tutting if no one does. Tutting if someone stands on their toes, or they on someone else's. I imagine harassed office workers irritably fighting for an extra square inch of space, and drunks who sing and smell of streets and urine. In my mind I see the groups of Japanese girls who giggle quietly and relentlessly, neat and identical in their designer clothes. They are oblivious to the fact that all the other women in the compartment are glaring their resentment at the slim hips and advantageous exchange rate. I know all this life is happening right now, as it did yesterday, and as it will tomorrow. Everything going on as it went on before. No one aware that my life has changed, irredeemably.
I pull my coat an inch further around me and walk to the park gates.
Time to go home and tell Hugh the news.
Copyright © 2003 by Adele Parks-Smith
Larger Than Life
She never planned on getting pregnant. Now she's the kind of woman who scavenges the office trash bin for that last doughnut...who bursts into tears reading baby books...and whose life is about how it feels on the inside, and not how it looks on the outside. But as George grows bigger, Hugh grows more distant. The tiny being who hasn't even entered the world is already testing theirs. And by the end of nine months, George will know what it truly means to love someone unconditionally -- including herself.