In Through the Skin
“He said, ‘Ed, we’re too old for this business.’ ”
“Youre not too old,” I said. “Look at Dylan.”
Ed put his arms around me. “Nobody tells Axl Rose he’s too old.”
“Tommy can go to hell,” I said. “Bass players are 10 a penny.”
Ed pushed me back on the pillows. “Thanks, doll,” he said. “What would I do without you?”
He kissed me and I opened my mouth to him, my tongue chasing the taste of his last cigarette. Boys my own age were useless compared to Ed. He pulled up my T-shirt and ran a hand over my stomach.
“She was here today,” I said.
It was Frank, the drummer, who introduced us to Clara. His girlfriend, Agnieszka, was a cleaner at the Brookes Fertility Clinic, where Clara had been seeing a specialist for years. She had approached Agnieszka first, but Frank said they wanted to try for a baby of their own.
We met Clara and her partner, James, in the car park of the Heuston Hotel. “Leave the talking to me,” Ed said. As we climbed into the back of the silver Mercedes, Clara turned and smiled from the passenger seat, her hair swept up in a tortoiseshell clip. Ed was impressed, I could tell.
James was late 60s, loud, sweaty, over-weight. When it was time to discuss money, he produced a single typewritten sheet. If I’d had to actually do it with James, that would have been the deal breaker. Instead, he called round one evening with a plastic container and a syringe. It worked first time.
“Good girl!” he said, the night I took the pregnancy test, and he slapped me on the back as if I were a racehorse led into the winner’s enclosure. “Of course, you’ve got youth on your side. It makes all the difference.” Clara had gone to stand by the window then, tugging at her necklace and staring out at the darkness that threw back only her own reflection.
Ed was by the same window now, looking out on a back yard littered with the carcasses of abandoned bicycles. “No one’s blaming you, doll. You’ve just got to keep your eye on the ball.”
“But what difference does it make?” I asked again.
“She’s supposed to ring first; that’s the arrangement.”
“So she didn’t ring. Big deal.”
“She was checking up on you today,” Ed said, “and look what she found.” He spread his arms wide to encompass the chaos of the bedsit.
“What?” I said. “So the baby’s going to be, like, deformed or something because I didn’t pick my knickers off the floor?”
Ed took my face in his hands. “We need this money, doll. Don’t mess it up, okay?”
My belly grew taut as a drum, skin stretched tight over tributaries of blue veins. My breasts swelled and dark mysterious circles appeared around my nipples. Clara began to call more often. Sometimes she rang and sometimes she didn’t, but the cheques arrived each month and Ed stopped worrying.
When the baby started to kick, Clara called almost every day. She brought ginger biscuits and bunches of dark cherries from the market. She threw out my shampoo with its litany of chemicals and replaced it with an organic one that smelled of coconut. “You can’t be too careful,” she said. “Some things get in through the skin.” She would ask me to unbutton my shirt so she could rest her head on my stomach. Then she would start her whispering. “Can’t wait to meet you,” she would say. “It’s a beautiful world out here.”
Sometimes my belly would be still as an underground lake. When that happened, Clara would grow fretful. “Poke it,” I would say, “it won’t do any harm”, but she would refuse. Then a limb would shoot out, a strange, alien contortion, and we would fall back, laughing, on the pillows, her hair mingling with my hair, both of us smelling of coconut.
Other days, she would be weepy and neurotic, though I was the one with all the hormones. On those days, she needed to be consoled like a small child.
“Do you believe in God?” she asked one afternoon in October as we lay on the bed, listening to rain beating against the window.
“Sure,” I said. It was easy to believe stuff for Clara.
“Sometimes,” she said, “I think that I’m being punished, punished for things that happened a long time ago. Things that nobody knows about, not even James. Is that why I can’t have a baby?”
There was a sadness in her face I had not seen before. “But you’ve got a baby,” I said, bringing her hand to my stomach. And she smiled and was happy again.
One morning in early December, Clara was walking around the bedsit, picking up clothes, rinsing mugs in the sink. I was under the blankets, snuffling with a cold. Clara had forbidden paracetamol and instead had mixed up honey and lemon in boiling water. She brought Ed’s frostbitten socks in off the window ledge, put them to air by the heater.
“I suppose I remind you of your mother,” she said, picking knobbles of wool from one of my cardigans.