In Through the Skin
“Not unless you’re an ex-con with a methadone habit,” I said. I saw immediately that I had shocked her. She stopped her fussing about and sat on the edge of the bed. She looked at me as if seeing me properly for the first time, her eyes not on my belly but on my face. “Relax,” I said, “it’s not hereditary” – but she didn’t laugh.
“I’m sorry,”she said. “I never knew. I thought . . . Well, I guess I didn’t think.” She seemed to be casting about for something to say. “Was it very hard?” she said eventually, “growing up in a family like that?”
I shrugged. “My mother did her best. She just wasn’t cut out to be a mother. Some people aren’t.”
Clara was sitting up straighter. “And me?” she said. “What about me? Am I cut out to be a mother?”
“You?” I said. “Are you crazy? You’ll be a great mother. Why wouldn’t you be?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, how does anyone know?” Her fingers were fluttering about her throat, even though for once she wore no necklace. “James will be at work all day. How am I going to look after a baby?”
“We’ll do it together,” I said. “I’ll come over and help you.” I realised then that I had no idea where Clara and James lived, that it had never been mentioned.
Clara had gone very still. Her hands dropped to her lap and she clasped them together so tightly her knuckles grew white. She stood up, smoothed down her skirt. “I’d better get going,” she said. “James is expecting me.”
The following afternoon I returned from the dole office to see a silver Mercedes straddling the pavement outside our building. Ed’s bike was at the bottom of the stairs. The door of one of the ground-floor flats had been left open, filling the hall with the smell of chips frying. All day the baby had lain low and heavy in my stomach, straining and kicking, and I felt it pummel the small of my back as I climbed the stairs. As I got closer to the top of the house, I could hear voices. First Ed’s voice, then that of another man.
In the bedsit, Clara and James were sitting side by side on the sofa. Ed was standing in front of them, fidgeting with his ponytail.
“What’s up?” I said.
Ed took me by the shoulders and pulled me into the centre of the room. “Help me out here, doll.”
I stared at him blankly.
“These people” – Ed nodded at Clara and James – “think that you’re getting a bit . . . I don’t know . . .”
“Attached,” Clara said.
“Attached to the baby,” James said.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“See?” Ed said. “What did I tell you?”
He let his hands drop from my shoulders and, crossing the room, sat down on the bed. “Fatherhood isn’t my gig,” he said. “Know what I’m saying?” He was quiet for a moment before continuing. “I had a child before,” he said. “A boy. Things didn’t work out.”
I had never heard Ed mention a child. I wondered it if was true or if it was something he had invented for James’s benefit.
Ed ran a hand through his ponytail. “What I’m trying to tell you,” he said to James, “is that you’ve nothing to worry about. You’ll get that baby if I have to put it in your arms myself.”
“Just so we’re all clear,” James said, “there is to be no contact of any nature once the baby is handed over.”
“You have my word,” Ed said.
They stood up and shook hands then, Ed and James, and started towards the door. Clara got up without meeting my eye and followed them. I lagged behind as they made their way down the stairs, the men in front, all camaraderie now, Clara close behind, her high heels ringing out on every step.
On the first-floor landing, I slipped into the bathroom and slid the bolt across. The others were already down at the front door. I heard Clara laugh at something Ed said, but there was a tremor in her laugh, and I knew her fingers would be on the necklace around her throat, fluttering and tugging.
I sat on the edge of the bath and listened. My belly hung round and heavy as a moon, no hint on its tranquil exterior of the life that lay beneath. I heard the front door open and close and a car start up outside. Then the sound of Ed’s feet returning on the stairs. The footsteps paused for a moment on the landing before continuing on up.
Suddenly my stomach broke into great rolling waves and the baby kicked with such intensity that I thought, this time, some tiny limb must surely rupture the surface. “Hey,” I whispered, “can’t wait to meet you.” And I slipped a hand beneath my T-shirt, moved it in slow, gentle circles over my skin, until my stomach quietened again.