July 5, 2016
The ringtone is long and alien. My heart pounds in my ears. On the third ring, she picks up and her voice is sharp and muffled.
“Where the fuck have you been?”
“Claire, I’m so sorry. I’m out of the country, my phone died…”
“It’s been almost a month, Pete! A whole month! Have you even seen my messages?”
“Right. So, how do you think it’s been, dealing with this on my own for a month? Hm?” I have no words that will help, so I stay silent. “Don’t you have anything to say?”
“Sorry?” I venture quietly.
“Sorry? Is that it?” Her voice begins to shake. “Don’t you have an opinion? Something to say? This is your child too you know. This is not just my issue.”
“Claire, I don’t know what to say, I haven’t got a clue what to suggest, I’m only just getting my head round all of this. Do you have any idea what you want to do?”
“I don’t know Pete! I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. At first I thought we’d, you know, deal with it and move on, but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything without talking to you first, it didn’t seem right.”
Claire. She always wants to do what’s right, not necessarily what’s right for her.
“So, is it too late?”
“No, not literally. Why? Is that what you want?”
“I’m not saying that, honestly. I’m just trying to figure out what our options are, that’s all.”
“Where are you? The line’s all weird, there’s a delay…”
“Austria.” I lie “on assignment.”
She sighs deeply and I feel a tug of desire to comfort her, to fix it.
“I don’t know, Pete. I really don’t. I feel…different. I had a scan.” A scan. She’s seen it. The beginnings of the life we made together. “I had some bleeding and I didn’t know if I was pregnant still or not, so I had to. I saw it. They showed me on the screen, a little heartbeat, pulsing like a beacon. I just don’t know if I can do it now, Pete. I don’t think I can.” My limbs are heavy and numb. “I know it’s not ideal, but maybe we can make this work. We don’t have to get back together if you don’t want to. We could just be parents who aren’t together – that’s not even that weird any more, is it? And you can be as involved as you want to be…”
So, that’s it then. I am forever tied to her. My connection is unextractable. Terminal.
“Whatever you want to do.” is what comes out of my mouth. “I’ll do whatever you want.”
“But what do you want?”
“Not to hurt you.” I say. And it’s the truth.
We let the silence grow. It’s like home. I realise that I miss her, or I miss us, I’m not sure which.
“I’m so sorry, Claire. I am. I should have called sooner. To be honest, I was totally freaked out. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared and hurt and just…I’m a mess.”
“It’s okay.” she says, in that comforting voice she does. “We’ll be okay. We can figure this out, we’re smart people. Right?” I nod to myself, my eyes closed. “When are you back?”
When am I back? Will I ever be back?
“I don’t know. This job’s turned out to be complicated. It’s gonna take a while.”
“Can’t you cut it short?”
“I can’t. I’m really sorry. I know that’s shit of me, but I’d lose this contract and it’s for an agent, so they’d probably drop me and it’s my biggest client at the moment…”
“It’s okay.” she says, like I knew she would, because that’s what she’s like. Easygoing. Forgiving. Kind.
“So, where do we go from here?”
“I don’t know Pete. I really don’t know. Do you want to see it?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Hey, who else knows?”
“Just my Mum. No one else.”
“Nope, not yet. Pete, are you okay? You sound so different.”
“Don’t worry, I’m fine. It’s just a lot to take in, isn’t it? And I feel shit for not calling you sooner.”
“It’s been so weird not seeing you or talking to you. I missed you.”
“Same.” What am I saying?
I think about it. “Yes.” I say and I realise that’s also true.
“Look, I’m at work, so I really have to go. Shall I call you tomorrow?”
“No, it’ll cost you a fortune. I’ll call you, about one. Okay?”
“Well, speak then.”
I end the call and stare at the black screen as my head spins. When I finally look up, I’m shocked to find myself where I am. Who I am. Not for the first time, I wonder how the fuck I ended up here. It’s like I’m two separate people sharing one body.
I take my camera out and turn it on myself. I want to mark this moment, to embed myself here, stamp myself into time. I look fiercely into the lens – I’m here. I am here – and release the shutter with a clunk.
My phone buzzes. It’s a message from Claire, which I open, and there is black and white picture. My breath catches in my throat. It’s tiny, but obvious. A head, arms, even the suggestion of facial features. Why didn’t I know that even this early on, it would look so human? I expected something vague, shaped like a kidney bean, an amorphous blob. Not this. Not my child.
I walk back via the canal, where it is quiet and grey. The water is frozen in parts and I take pictures of debris encased in the murky ice. A discarded shoe. A shopping basket. A computer keyboard. Who brought them here? Who decided this would be their final resting place?
Josie isn’t home. I let myself in with the hidden spare key and stop at the top of the narrow staircase. This tiny room that had started to feel like home, it makes my head hurt. I want to turn and run. The messy mattress on the floor, the filthy sofa, the miniscule, ancient excuse for a kitchen. I didn’t ask for any of this. This isn’t what I had planned.
I could move us out, into something nicer. Something with a bedroom and a bed and a kitchen that has a dishwasher and a four-ring hob, for christ’s sake. But I know what she’d say if I offered. There’s no taming Josie.
I find a cloth and fill a bowl with hot soapy water and do my best to clean the kitchen surfaces. I clean the cupboard doors, the shelves in the fridge. It’s good to see it change. A measurable improvement.
I venture back out into the frozen streets and buy a new duvet, a set of covers, pillowcases, pillows, a fitted sheet, a mattress protector. Then I think ‘fuck it’ and I buy a lamp too, a blanket to cover the nasty old sofa, a blind to replace the piece of fabric in the window and a set of crockery, because Josie only has one of everything, a new rug. The till girl grins at me as she packs it all into huge plastic bags. I expect she thinks my girlfriend sent me.
Next I find a hardware shop, buy a drill, screwdrivers, a hammer, screws and nails, a spirit level. Then I drag it all back to Josie’s, laden down like Father Christmas, and I get to work.
At 5.45, the door opens downstairs. Quickly, I switch on the new lamp and turn out the main light. Josie stops at the door, her mouth open.
“What the fuck is this?”
“Do you like it?”
“Did you buy all this?”
“I did. And I cleaned up.” I grab a glass of good red wine from the sparkling kitchen counter and hand it to her. “Dinner’s on. Spag bol. Hope that’s okay.”
“I wondered what the smell was. So, what’s going on? Are those new bedsheets? Fucking hell, I’ve never owned more than one set.” She takes off her hat and scarf and sits on the newly blanket-covered sofa. “So this is either really good news, or really bad news.” she says.
“It’s good.” I say, surprised by how easy it is. “It’s all good. She’s not pregnant.”
Josie frowns. “What?”
“She’s not pregnant. It was a false alarm and it’s over.”
“Are you for real?”
“Honestly. I’m so sorry you had to go through all that. If I’d just called her back sooner, you wouldn’t have even had to worry. “
“So, she was never pregnant?”
“She’s not sure. She missed a period, so she might have been, briefly. But she’s definitely not now.” She eyes me suspiciously as my face begins to sweat, but I see a glint of hope. “It’s done. She’s gone. She doesn’t want to see me again and it’s done.” I say as I take her hat and scarf. “Dinner will be in fifteen minutes. Relax. Everything is okay.”
“So, you’re staying?”
She stands up and launches herself at me, wraps her legs around my waist and buries her head in my shoulder. I laugh and collapse us both onto the fresh sheets of the mattress.
“Fuck dinner.” she says and unbuttons my jeans.