It’s a wonder Liam still finds me attractive. But how I look and how I feel is so far apart there is no link. I have never felt as sensual, so alive, my senses on overload. I can’t walk through a shopping mall food court without smelling botulism but the taste of fresh strawberries sizzles on my tongue.
My creative world still surrounds me. I love to escape to my studio at the bottom of the garden. I quickly get my hands wet and mould and shape pieces for my collection, I’ve called ‘Bloom’. A series of vases that I will fire and paint an earthy red. But for once there is another creation that takes over my heart.
I place my hands on my hard belly and cannot wait to hold my son. At night when my small frame aches from the extra weight, I imagine his face. He will have blue eyes and Liam’s blonde hair. My hot temper or his father’s calming air.
The nights are long. I need to pee every 10 minutes. Last night I woke Liam whilst trying to rise gracefully from our bed and drift through the air like music. I must have sounded like the cymbals in the 1812 Overture. My dear man smiled, gave me a neck rub and gently placed a pillow under the lump that will be our first born.
Hannah is in her highchair, throwing pieces of toast on the shiny white tiles. Our house, chosen before she was born, with its whites and creams, marble and glass. Hannah is 18 months old. Curled red hair and big brown eyes, Botticelli angel but I know the truth.
Before she was born and I was not yet a mother, I had a taste for Bollinger champagne and snails in garlic sauce. I was funny, I was smart, I had a career in marketing. I had handbags that matched shoes. Then I put my feet in stirrups and my trust in an obstetrician. I purged my body of blood and bone, flesh and tiny fingertips. And I disappeared. I ran until I was as small as a dot and became part of the line on the horizon. But this wasn’t the tragedy. The tragedy was that no one noticed I was gone. Everyone noticed her.
My daughter is more demanding than any former boss. She is more critical, she lives to make me look bad. I see her fix me slyly with a half-smile before she screams or pushes out her crocodile tears. Her needs make the difficult tasks of my former life seem like an endless summer. Before the birds are awake, I pick her out of bed in the morning, screaming. I feed, water and wipe the shit away. I push her through the shopping centre, ply her with chocolate buttons, and deal with her tantrums that make people stare. “She can’t cope. Look at that woman, she can’t cope’. They should see me on the floor, trying to play with my child. Wearing track suit bottoms covered in snot and pureed food. When I’m down there with her I feel at my lowest.
Hannah has demands north and south of her, whilst my despair, has become the wicked witch of the east and west. The whole damn motherhood thing coats my life as far as the eye can see.
Breakfast is nearly finished but then so am I. I scarcely notice Pete give his daughter a kiss, deftly avoiding vegemite fingers. She smiles for him, the little b….. His lips barely brush the top of my head and he’s gone. Hannah’s being here doesn’t seem to have marked him. With his shiny shoes and his smart briefcase he heads to an office cleaned by others. Even his waste paper bin will have been emptied miraculously by invisible strangers. A light scent of air freshener will hang in the air. How I envy him.
Time doesn’t run out, it runs away. 25, 30, 35 then before you’ve put your knickers back on you’re 42. The man by your side is younger. That doesn’t matter, your friends say you pass for 30. God only knows the age that runs through you like rings on a tree. The only way to pin an age to a tree is to cut it down. Nobody was cutting you down. But there’s more than one way to fell a tree.
‘I was too busy carving out a career’ is the catch-cry sweeping the nation, but it’s true. I worked so hard to become good, to be better than a hack. Head down, bum up. ‘No one told me when to run’ is how the song goes. I’d have worn sensible shoes if I’d even known that it was a race. I look for meanings everywhere, whereas before ‘what the hell’ was always the right answer.
Bill wants babies but he doesn’t know it yet. He’s my last chance, he has to be The One. I want to be his family not his last wet dream before he settles down with someone called Tiffany who works in accounts.
I compare my eggs to making a pavlova and saving the leftover yolks in a cup in the fridge. You intend to make a cake or a golden omelette. You never do and five days later they have shrunk, clinging together with a distorted layer hardening, protecting their fragility. A slight whiff about them. Useless.
I awake late with the sun on my pillow. It must be after nine and I need to pee again. I carefully shower, dress in one of the voluminous dresses my sister gave me, five years out of fashion but practical. Deirdre’s babies are all at school.
Liam has laid out the breakfast things. In the fridge there is fresh orange juice my heartburn would not thank me for. There doesn’t seem to be much room for food in me. I manage a bowl of cocoa pops and a cup of tea.
It is sunny in our kitchen. I love warm colours of orange, red and yellow, colours of a spring garden or the sun itself as dawn turns to day and day to dusk. I could linger here all day but today I have a hospital appointment at half past ten. I go through the house locking up and notice that Liam has left the screen door open. I nearly missed it. I have arranged many of my pots in our lounge room. I’d hate to lose them. Liam laughs and says that thieves only want things to sell, computers, plasma screens. They are not cultured, they wouldn’t want my works of art.
But something isn’t right. A ruffling sound, a dark shape in the corner of my eye. A starling is flying in a circle, trying to catch up with the ceiling fan. Fear steps out from the sunshine and I run back to the kitchen, closing the dividing door with a slam. I was a child when a blackbird flew in my face, where I was trapped behind a table. Somebody’s birthday, lots of noise, no one heard my screams. I have to get it out, I can’t leave it here.
I take a slice of bread from the packet on the table. I slowly open the door and dash toward the open screen, ready to throw the bread outside on the deck. The bird has the same idea. It flies towards me, skittish. I drop the slice and run back to the kitchen.
I sit for a few minutes, panting, swallow great gulps of air, clutching the edge of the table until I’m ready to try again.
I know I’m a bad mother. I read those books whilst pregnant, the dangers to small brains of watching television, how breast is best, homemade toys are so much more imaginative and making faces out of baby’s food is fun. Fuck you, Dr Miriam Stoppard.
I pick up Hannah from her highchair. She holds her hands above her head, pointing at the ceiling, her little body stiff. I dump her unceremoniously in front of ‘The Night Garden’ or some such nonsense. Child psychologists write this shit. The characters talk only in vowels. Surely most one year olds can cope with a consonant or two. Has the world gone mad, or is it just me?
I tidy away the bright toxic plastic blocks into the toy box, knowing I should have sought wooden ones. I sweep the crusts from under Hannah’s chair and wonder how long I have to wait for a glass of wine. I can’t face food and I need to throw up. Kneeling, head bent over the toilet, I notice we are out of paper. The thought of a trip to the local shop overwhelms me.
I pack too much, for a dozen potential scenarios which may play out. Enough nappies, spare clothes, warm clothes, layers. Band aids, toys, food. She takes up all the room, there is nowhere for left me. Pete usually frowns at me, thinks I’ve lost the plot. He’s right. When it’s his turn he picks her up, swings her around, puts her in the pushchair and they’re away. It’s not like that for me. I never used to worry. What’s happening to me?
I check my face. In the mirror I am various shades of yellow. I add a couple of dashes of red lipstick. I look like hell.
Hannah is sitting neatly, watching a show in primary colours which would be great on acid. I have prepared the pushchair and a bulging bag of possibilities.
“Hannah. We are going shopping. Won’t that be fun?” My voice is like a circus freak show. Shrill and false, wearing a mask.
My daughter, she’s in charge. Hate slices through me. I need help or God help me.
Bill asks me to a party at the house of friends. They live smartly in the suburbs, he’s a tax accountant, I’m not sure what she does. We arrive late. My conception temperature was optimal, we did it in the car at the end of a cul-de-sac on the way. Bill thinks I’m a nymphomaniac not a desperate woman with a cunning plan. I chose Bill for his looks, I have the brains. I will stay home and write, read or stare at the garden I never get a chance to look at, with a beautiful child in a Moses basket, breathing lightly, nearby. Baby would fit snugly beside the table at book signings and people would say how good he was. “You’re a natural, how do you do it?”
Tim answered the door, looked me up and down and roared at Bill, clapped him on the back, called him Bro. I winced. Bill shakes Tim heartily by the hand.
“Tim, this is Kate Young.”
Tim took my hand, smeared his lips across it and leered.
I was dumped in the kitchen with the girls. The boys were outside, stoking the barbecue and each others egos, smoking cigars.
Jenny, Cheryl, Dawn and Emma. Nurse, nurse, teacher, model. Younger. Ugly antiques displayed on Ikea shelves.
“Kate, what do you do?”
“I’m a journalist, Jenny.”
“For what paper?” Cheryl asked between sips of tea.
“Freelance mostly. Some stuff for the Guardian.”
“Would I have heard of you?” Emma, the model, yawned the question. Her type brought out the worst in me.
“I wrote a book.”
“You’re not K S Young?” Tim stands in the doorway with a bottle. I nod and thought I saw him shudder.
“Speak, one of you. What book?” Jenny asked us both but looked at Tim.
“`Society of the Damned: Prognosis for a Future’.”
“You have that book on your nightstand. I thought you said it was written by a bloke.”
“Apparently not, Jenny. K S Young. Is that your real name, Kate? ”
It might have been me but I’m sure he emphasised the word Young.
“Yes. It worked for A S Byatt and P D James. Even J K Rowling. Men rarely read books written by women.” I take a glass from the counter and the bottle from Tim’s hand. Slosh a healthy amount of Chardy and head outside. A collective gasp follows me out.
I find Bill with his chums, still trying to light the fire.
“Darling, when I’ve finished this glass of discount wine I am leaving. That gives you a couple of minutes to make up your mind whether you are coming with me.”
No one says a word as I drain my glass. I pick up my jacket from the coat rack so quietly Tim and Jenny in the next room don’t hear.
“You see, darling. That’s what happens when a girl is overeducated. She expects too much.”
I take the car, Bill can make his own way home. I want a baby but not that much.
I put down an ancient copy of Hello!, where the wedding covered had long since ended in divorce and follow the mid-wife into her room.
“Your blood pressure is high.”
“It’s never high!” I protest.
“Did anything happen this morning? A shock?”
That damn bird. I lay on the bed. The room was a soothing shade of lavender with a newly painted ceiling. No clutter. The mid-wife, Gloria, presses down on my belly. Her hands are cold, she had forgotten to warm them. “How many weeks?” She frowns.
“37. Is anything wrong?”
“The baby has turned.”
“Posterior. I’ll give you an exercise sheet which should help.”
“Will I need a caesarian?”
“Probably not. All done.”
I slowly swing my legs around and place my feet on the step.
“What happened before caesarians?”
“A lot of dead babies.”
Gloria smiles distractedly and hands me a sheet with stick figures in various positions on it.
Outside I decide to have a cup of tea at the hospital café. They are a few seats in the sun. As I stir the sugar and try to make sense of everything I am reminded of the ghost train near the holiday apartments where I had stayed with my parents as a child. Sitting strapped in safely, when suddenly the doors crashed open. The car headed down the slope into darkness. Anticipation, fear, excitement; all mixed up like trifle. There was no getting off.
I laugh out loud. Not a hollow laugh but a lusty one. I draw stares from an elderly couple and a man in a business suit. In a corner near the door a woman feeds her child. She looks up, takes in the whole of me. She smiles and there is warmth in her eyes. I finish my tea.
“I don’t think I can do this anymore.” My chest heaves, my heart, if I still have one, is in shreds. Dr Rodrigues waits for me to stop. She has a lovely face. Just looking at her makes me feel calmer.
“It’s alright, Liz. Take your time.”
Her voice soothes and her smooth hand strokes mine. I had looked her up in the telephone directory. Too ashamed to ask Pete for help and I couldn’t think of a friend of mine who would sink as low this. I didn’t want questions so I had left Hannah with a neighbour I knew only casually, telling her I had a dental appointment.
It pours out of me like bile. I tell her how everyday is hell. I wake up at the bottom of a black pit. The monotonous tasks like torture that await me, my hatred for my little girl. “What sort of monster am I?”
Dr Rodrigues sits quietly, very still. My pulse slows and blood drains from my head.
“Good.” She smiled. “You’ve taken an enormous step today. Well done.”
Had she been listening? Surely she realises I’m crazy? She looks into my eyes, she isn’t smiling now.
“It will pass. I promise you.”
“Liz, whatever you feel now will pass. Do you believe me?”
“I want to.”
“Many mothers suffer from post-natal depression. It can be a chemical problem treated with medication or therapy, or both. In most cases this will help tremendously. You were very brave to come to see me.”
I leave Dr Rodrigues’s rooms and walk out into a cloudy day. I feel flat but with a prescription in my handbag and an appointment scrawled in my diary for the end of the week, I don’t feel wretched or guilty. I stop off for coffee on the way home, in a mall where I can pick up the medication.
I look around at all the different people, some alone, others in groups. Strangers. I wondered how many others had drifted as far as I had.
A teenage girl is standing outside the shoe shop. She seems impatient, tapping her heels on the tiles. A middle-aged woman with graying hair and brown shoes walks towards her. The girl smiles. “Mum! You’re late.”
Arm in arm they walk towards the café, chatting and laughing. That could be Hannah and I in a decade or so. I almost smile.
“There’s no doubt about it. You’re pregnant.” The doctor had said.
I manage the walk to the car but when I get there I can’t work out how to turn the key in the ignition. There’s a knack to it but I can’t remember what it is. My hands shake and panic pricks my skin.
I lock the car and decide on a walk. Instinctively I reach for a cigarette inside the tortoise-shell cigarette case I’d had since I was 20. I shouldn’t. Last one. If I keep it. My hands won’t stay still enough to light the bloody thing.
I walk until my legs ache. Past the bright glare of shops about to close for the day, the smell of family dinners, doors wide open, welcoming the summer evening inside. I walk until my path comes to a natural end and I find a bench to sit on. I take off my shoes and rub my foot, flexing it. I squeeze my big toe and my fingers find a hole in my tights. I stick my finger in it.
Commitment has always been an issue for me. Men, dogs, car leases. If I go through with this there will be no backing out. I finish with my left foot and take my right foot in my hands which are warm now.
Stop seeing that man, don’t sign the forms, flush out the seed. I don’t have to make my decision now.
A man sits down next to me. A man whose life has fallen in on him. He wears an old coat which smells faintly of horses, and his trousers are tied up messily with string.
“Gotta a ciggy, love?”
I nod and rummage in my bag to find the treasured cigarette case and extract a cigarette. On impulse I hand him the case, along with a slim silver lighter which is heavier than it looks, and walk back to my car.