Family: Year of the Dragon
She’d taken her clothes off again. I tried to cover her but she shrugged off the throw with one deliberate shudder.
“Don’t disturb me, Em,” she said, “I’ve nearly got it.”
Nearly, always nearly.
“You must be cold. Please just let me put it round your shoulders.”
Anna looked through me, or just past me. I couldn’t tell any more.
“I’m not cold.”
Her eyes slid away, back to the newspaper pages squared up against each other on the floor. Her arms were bumpy with goose pimples. She needed a haircut, a bath, a doctor. I was past the point of believing that a good talking to was going to solve everything. She wasn’t going to snap out of it and turn to me with a smile.
I walked to the hallway and sat at the kitchen table, the fine slab of yellow Formica Anna had persuaded me to buy when the bank demanded she cut up her credit card. The table didn’t fit into the narrow alcove in the kitchen, but stuck out uncomfortably about two centimetres from the wall. And two centimetres was more than I could spare now, lifting my bump around and over the chipped corners.
“It’s so kitsch, Em,” she had said. “We have to have it. It’s an antique, practically.”
“It belongs in a greasy spoon.”
“Oh ye of little taste.”
I rolled my eyes as she tossed her short curls and put her hand on her hip.
“There’s nothing wrong with Ikea,” I muttered.
She got her way. And the table had been cheap, but she’d bid four times as much getting matching chairs with electric blue vinyl seats from eBay. I paid for them too. It all complemented her other design choices, the two foot high flock Buddha and three ceramic ducks reflected in the life-size Elvis mirror. Most of them were impulse buys that she swore would be the last touch for our home.
“Until we win the lottery, of course. Then we can do it all properly.”
We didn’t play the lottery.
I lowered myself onto the chair facing the window, registering each new ache. One week to go. The bag was by the front door, the phone was left charging on the table in front of me with the doctor’s number and midwife’s number and hospital’s number written in the front of my diary.
I gazed past it to the window. The grass still grew. It surprised me somehow. When we’d decided to try for a baby and found the donor and were still laughing at the impossibility of doing something quite so grown up, I’d imagined our child in the garden more than in any of the rooms of our flat.
It was Chinese New Year when we did the test, the Year of the Dragon.
“Do another,” she said. “We have to do three or it won’t count.”
There were numbers in everything she said. Anna talked about the bump: when he’s born in twenty weeks, when he’s at school at four years old, when’s he’s upset about not being the best scorer of goals in the football team.
“But it might be a she,” I laughed. “She might be the best goal scorer.”
Anna didn’t laugh, “I know it’s a boy.”
“It was in the newspaper. Didn’t you see it?”
I laughed again, but she didn’t. She dragged the plastic carton of recycling from under the kitchen table and pulled the papers out.
“I can’t remember which one, what day it was? I wish I’d said at the time and then you’d remember. You really didn’t see it?”
My smile slackened, “Don’t be silly.”
Anna glared at me, “I’m not. I’ll find it.”
“I’ll make dinner.”
I cooked cod fillets with new potatoes, ate and got ready for bed. Her dinner was untouched on the Formica table. The front room was layered with sheets of newspaper. I tried to clear a space on the sofa.
“Don’t touch them!” She looked exhausted. “There’s a pattern. I’m nearly there.”
I lingered, unsure what to say or where I was allowed to be.
“I know you don’t believe me.” She looked at me through narrowed eyes.
“I believe you, it’s a boy. You’re right.”
I kissed her and dragged her to bed.
I cleared away the papers in the morning and forgot about it. But I didn’t buy newspapers any more.
The shadows below her eyes spread. She murmured to herself when she thought I was asleep but, as long as she got up and went to work, I ignored it. Or I tried, like I tried to ignore the red bills she said she’d sort out. They would disappear and then I’d find them inside a saucepan at the back of a cupboard.
One time I woke up to find her crouched beside the bed, eyes closed, stroking my shoulder so softly I could barely feel it. It was as if I was made of paper and she was scared of making me crackle and fold. I opened my eyes and she stopped. I closed them again but I couldn’t feel her anymore.
She stopped coming to bed.
I asked my friend for a couple of diazepam tablets to slip into Anna’s food. When she woke up on an empty sofa in a paperless room she cried and accused me of destroying her life’s work.
“I’ve lost the thread, it’s faded away. I have to start again.”
It was the last time I’d been able to touch her without being pushed away.
When I went on maternity leave in August with three weeks to go, I arranged to celebrate with lunch in Costa. She didn’t turn up. She had our last twenty pounds before pay day and I spent my last pennies on a coffee while I waited. I went to her office to see if she’d been held up. Heads turned and flicked back to whisper dramatically.
Don came over and gestured towards my stomach, “Anna never said a thing. When are you due?”
“Oh, next month, September. Is she in?”
“No, isn’t she sick? I did try to call her.” His raised eyebrows were processing this, adding it to the pregnancy. “Have you split up?”
I could see the rest of sentence in his face: because you slept with a man?
I raised one hand to my head, “No, she’s at home with a temperature. I just forgot. I’m getting very forgetful now. Hormones.” I tried to smile.
His eyebrows became more expressive but he couldn’t find the words. How are you pregnant? Why didn’t she say anything? How exactly did you get pregnant?
I shrugged, “I’d better get back, bring her some soup, or something.”
Don nodded, “Good luck with everything.”
At home I found Anna lying on piles of papers, the heels of her hands pressed into her eye sockets. I checked her purse. She’d spent the lunch money and more on them. I spent the afternoon and the evening watching her. She never looked at me.
When it was dark outside, I switched the lights on, sat down next to her and stroked the fine hairs on her arm. She opened her eyes and looked at me, eyebrows raised as if she’d just realised something was wrong. She really was looking at me and I grasped the moment of recognition. I shifted towards her shoulders, lifted her head into my lap and stroked her curls, greasy like lamb’s wool.
“Shall we phone someone for you?”
Her eyebrows lowered and she bit her lip at the side.
“I’m nearly there, Em, I just need a bit longer.”
Her eyes closed, the lashes meeting silently. I leaned over her, folded my arms around her head and face. I wanted to kiss her forehead but my stomach was too large and tight to bend any more. I had to make a choice.
I whispered, “I’m going to have to let go now.”
But I couldn’t.
With two weeks to go I had taken her food to her, cut it and put it on the fork, and then into her mouth. Practise, of a sort, I found myself thinking. It didn’t help. The food had been bought with the last of the money my mum had sent for a pram.
I lay in bed thinking of all the things that would otherwise be keeping me awake: varicose veins, heartburn, birth, Braxton Hicks, constipation and whether I would hold on until September and the new school year. Those were the things I had expected, not Anna rustling all night like a hungry mouse in a paper nest. If the baby was a girl that could be the final straw for her, I knew that. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel if it was a boy.
I heaved myself from the bed, my pyjamas tightly stretched and my swollen feet hesitant on the floor.
She was back in her newspapers, same as ever.
“Anna, come to bed.”
She didn’t look up but I saw her naked shoulders tense.
“I’m telling you that this stops now.” I crossed over and grabbed her by the arm. She resisted and I couldn’t shift her. “It’s four in the morning, you can’t behave like this. You’re going to be sectioned, you won’t see our baby.” I crouched down, “I can’t do this on my own. It’s not fair to do this, to put it all on me. Come on, I need you.” I held out my hand.
There was no response.
I went to the kitchen drawer and found the scissors. I sat down opposite her and cut out a selection of letters. I ignored her order to leave everything alone and spelled out my message in front of her crossed legs.
please stop this
I love you
She read it over and over and then spoke the words, “Please. Stop. This I love. You.”
She looked up, “Who told you to say this? Where did you find this message?”
“It isn’t a message, you just saw me cut the letters out. I’m having a baby and you’ve gone insane.” My eyes welled but I blinked then back until I could see again. “I can’t do insane and baby, I just can’t.”
Anna moved onto her knees and took my hands, “When I find it, Emily, I will understand everything. I will know why the sun is hot and the grass whispers, what each number shouts to the next. We will have everything we need for the rest of our lives. It’s all for you.”
I knelt in front of her, “Anna, when you get sacked we won’t even have a floor to sit on.” I steeled myself, drew my hand from hers and slapped her hard on the cheek.
“I’m nearly there,” she whispered, as her cheek bloomed.
I took the scissors with me and hid them under the mattress.
Now, with one week to go, at the yellow table, seeing the grass getting longer no matter what happened inside, I had to choose. The phone was sitting on my diary with the days disappearing under appointments and lists. At my last check-up I found myself saying that I was a single parent and burst into tears. I couldn’t explain why Anna wouldn’t be at the birth. I didn’t know why. They expect tears from people like me, so I didn’t stand out.
I had to tell someone. I had no more time or energy to spend on Anna. I picked up the phone and scrolled through the numbers. She sat down at the table and I jumped. She handed me a scrap of newspaper, torn from the top, with six numbers written on it.
“These are the numbers that are going to win tonight,” she said. Her voice was rough and unused, as if she had just woken.
I looked at them, “You know that, if they aren’t…”
“You’ll have to phone. I understand.” She rested her head on the Formica, the yellow glow making her look even more unwell. “I do understand.”
I didn’t want to believe her, but I found myself grabbing my purse and forcing my feet into my shoes. I swept her hair from her forehead and kissed her. She lifted herself from the table top and held me around my middle. Her arms didn’t reach any more.
“It will be all right,” I said. “Whatever happens, it will all work out.”
“I know.” She smiled up at me, her cheeks hollow but her eyes shining, “I love you too. You can let go now.”
I hesitated in the doorway, suddenly convinced that the baby was a boy, the numbers were right and that the sacrifice had all been worth it. I was also sure that when she wasn’t held in my sight any longer, Anna would disappear.