She was floating, arms outspread, water lapping her body, breathing in a summery fragrance of salt and coconut. There was a pleasantly satisfied breakfast taste in her mouth of bacon and coffee and possibly croissants. She lifted her chin and the morning sun shone so brightly on the water, she had to squint through spangles of light to see her feet in front of her. Her toenails were each painted a different color. Red. Gold. Purple. Funny. The nail polish hadn’t been applied very well. Blobby and messy. Someone else was floating in the water right next to her. Someone she liked a lot, who made her laugh, with toenails painted the same way. The other person waggled multicolored toes at her companionably, and she was filled with sleepy contentment. Somewhere in the distance, a man’s voice shouted, “Marco?” and a chorus of children’s voices cried back, “Polo!” The man called out again, “Marco, Marco, Marco?” and the voices answered, “Polo, Polo, Polo!” A child laughed; a long, gurgling giggle, like a stream of soap bubbles. A voice said quietly and insistently in her ear, “Alice?” and she tipped back her head and let the cool water slide silently over her face.
Tiny dots of light danced before her eyes.
Was it a dream or a memory?
“I don’t know!” said a frightened voice. “I didn’t see it happen!”
No need to get your knickers in a knot.
The dream or memory or whatever it was dissolved and vanished like a reflection on water, and instead fragments of thought began to drift through her head, as if she were waking up from a long, deep sleep, late on a Sunday morning.
Is cream cheese considered a soft cheese?
It’s not a hard cheese.
It’s not . . .
. . . hard at all.
So, logically, you would think . . .
. . . something.
Lavender is lovely.
Must prune back the lavender!
I can smell lavender.
No, I can’t.
Yes, I can.
That’s when she noticed the pain in her head for the first time. It hurt on one side, a lot, as if someone had given her a good solid thwack with a baseball bat.
Her thoughts sharpened. What was this pain in the head all about? Nobody had warned her about pain in her head. She had a whole list of peculiar symptoms to be prepared for: heartburn, a taste like aluminum foil in your mouth, dizziness, extreme tiredness—but nothing about a hammering ache at the side of your head. That one should really have been mentioned, because it was very painful. Of course, if she couldn’t handle a run-of-the mill headache, well then . . .
The scent of lavender seemed to be coming and going, like a gentle breeze.
She let herself drift again.
The best thing would be to fall back asleep and return to that lovely dream with the water and the multicolored toenails.
Actually, maybe someone had mentioned headaches and she forgot? Yes, they had! Headaches, for heaven’s sake! Really bad ones. Fabulous.
So much to remember. No soft cheeses or smoked salmon or sushi because of the risk of that disease she never even knew existed. Listeria. Something to do with bacteria. Hurts the baby. That’s why you weren’t allowed to eat leftovers. One bite of a leftover chicken drumstick could kill the baby. The brutal responsibilities of parenthood.
For now, she would just go back to sleep. That was the best thing.
The wisteria over the side fence is going to look stunning if it ever gets around to flowering.
Ha. Funny words.
She smiled, but her head really did hurt a lot. She was trying to be brave.
“Alice? Can you hear me?”
The lavender smell got stronger again. A bit sickly sweet.
Cream cheese is a spreadable cheese. Not too soft, not too hard, just right. Like the baby bear’s bed.
“Her eyelids are fluttering. Like she’s dreaming.”
It was no use. She couldn’t get back to sleep, even though she felt exhausted, as if she could sleep forever. Were all pregnant women walking around with aching heads like this? Was the idea to toughen them up for labor pains? When she got up, she would check it out in one of the baby books.
She always forgot how pain was so upsetting. Cruel. It hurt your feelings. You just wanted it to stop, please, right now. Epidurals were the way to go. One epidural for my headache, please. Thank you.
“Alice, try and open your eyes.”
Was cream cheese even cheese? You didn’t put a dollop of cream cheese on a cheese platter. Maybe cheese didn’t actually mean cheese in the context of cream cheese. She wouldn’t ask the doctor about it, just in case it’s an embarrassing “Oh, Alice” mistake.
She couldn’t get comfortable. The mattress felt like cold concrete. If she wriggled over, she could nudge Nick with her foot until he sleepily rolled over and pulled her to him in a big warm bear hug. Her human hot water bottle.
Where was Nick? Had he already got up? Maybe he was making her a cup of tea.
“Don’t try and move, Alice. Just stay still and open your eyes, sweetie.”
Elisabeth would know about the cream cheese. She’d snort in her bigsisterly way and be precise. Mum wouldn’t have a clue. She’d be stricken. She’d say, “Oh dear, oh no! I’m sure I ate soft cheeses when I was pregnant with you girls! They didn’t know about that sort of thing back then.” She’d talk on and on and worry that Alice had accidentally broken a rule. Mum believed in rules. So did Alice actually.
Frannie wouldn’t know but she’d research it, proudly, using her new computer, in the same way that she used to help Alice and Elisabeth find information for school projects in her Encyclopedia Britannica.
Her head really did hurt.
Presumably this was only the squidgiest fraction of how much labor would hurt. So that was just great.
It was not as if she’d actually eaten any cream cheese that she could remember.
She didn’t even really like cream cheese.
“Has someone called an ambulance?”
There was that smell of lavender again.
Once, when they were undoing their seat belts, Nick said (in answer to some fishing-for-compliments thing she’d just said), “Don’t be ridiculous, you goose, you know I’m bloody besotted with you.”
She opened the car door and felt sunshine on her legs and smelled the lavender she’d planted by the front door.
It was a moment of lavender-scented bliss, after grocery shopping.
“It’s coming. I called triple zero! That’s the first time in my life I’ve ever called triple zero! I felt all self-conscious. I nearly called 911 like an American. I actually punched in the nine. There’s proof I watch too much television.”
“I hope it’s not, like, serious. I mean, I couldn’t, like, get sued or anything, could I?”
Was that talkback radio she could hear? She hated talkback radio. The callers were always appalled by something. Alice said once that she’d never been appalled by anything. Elisabeth said that was appalling.
“Alice, can you hear me? Can you hear me, Alice?”
Sultana, can you hear me? Can you hear me, Sultana?
Every night, before they went to sleep, Nick talked to the baby through an empty toilet roll pressed to Alice’s stomach. He’d heard this idea on some radio show. They said that way the baby would learn to recognize the father’s voice as well as the mother’s.
“Ahoy!” he’d call. “Can you hear me, Sultana? This is your father speaking!” They’d read that the baby was the size of a sultana by now. So that’s what they called it. Only in private, of course; they were cool parents-to-be. No sappiness in public.
The Sultana said it was fine, thanks, Dad, bit bored at times, but doing okay. Apparently he wished his mum would stop eating all that boring green shit and have a pizza for a change. “Enough with the rabbit food!” he demanded.
It seemed the Sultana was most likely to be a boy. He just seemed to have a masculine personality. The little rogue. They both agreed on this.
Alice would lie back and look at the top of Nick’s head. There were a few shiny silvery strands. She didn’t know if he knew about them, so she didn’t mention them. He was thirty-two. The silver strands made her eyes blur. All those wacky pregnancy hormones.
Alice never talked out loud to the baby. She spoke to it in her mind, shyly, when she was in the bath (not too hot—so many rules). “Hey there, Baby,” she’d think to herself, and then she’d be so overwhelmed by the wonder of it she’d splash the water with the flats of her palms like a kid thinking about Christmas. She was turning thirty soon, with a terrifying mortgage and a husband and a baby on the way, but she didn’t feel that different from when she was fifteen.
Except, there were no moments of bliss after grocery shopping when she was fifteen. She hadn’t met Nick yet. Her heart still had to be broken a few times before he could turn up and superglue it together with words like “besotted.”
“Alice? Are you okay? Please open your eyes.”
It was a woman’s voice. Too loud and strident to ignore. It dragged her up into consciousness and wouldn’t let her go.
It was a voice that gave Alice a familiar irritated itch of a feeling, like too-tight stockings.
This person did not belong in her bedroom.
She rolled her head to one side. “Ow!”
She opened her eyes.
There was a blur of unrecognizable colors and shapes. She couldn’t even see the bedside cabinet to reach for her glasses. Her eyes must be getting worse.
She blinked, and blinked again, and then, like a sharpening telescope, everything came into focus. She was looking at someone’s knees. How funny.
Knobbly pale knees.
She lifted her chin a fraction.
“There you are!”
It was Jane Turner of all people, from work, kneeling next to her. Her face was flushed and she had strands of sweaty hair pasted to her forehead. Her eyes looked tired. She had a soft, pudgy neck Alice had never noticed before. She was wearing a T-shirt with huge sweat marks and shorts and her arms were thin and white with dark freckles. Alice had never seen so much of Jane’s body before. It was embarrassing. Poor old Jane.
“Listeria, wisteria,” said Alice, to be humorous.
“You’re delirious,” said Jane. “Don’t try and sit up.”
“Hmmph,” said Alice. “Don’t want to sit up.” She had a feeling she wasn’t in bed; she seemed to be lying flat on her back on a cool laminated floor. Was she drunk? Had she forgotten she was pregnant and got deliriously drunk?
Her obstetrician was an urbane man who wore a bow tie and had a round face disconcertingly similar to that of one of Alice’s ex-boyfriends. He said he didn’t have a problem with “say, an aperitif followed by one glass of wine with dinner.” Alice thought an aperitif must be a particular brand of drink. (“Oh, Alice,” said Elisabeth.) Nick explained that an aperitif was a predinner drink. Nick came from an aperitif-drinking family. Alice came from a family with one dusty bottle of Baileys sitting hopefully in the back of the pantry behind the tins of spaghetti. In spite of what the obstetrician said, she’d only had a half a glass of champagne since she’d done the pregnancy test and she felt guilty about that even though everybody kept saying it was fine.
“Where am I?” asked Alice, terrified of the answer. Was she in some seedy nightclub? How could she explain to Nick that she forgot she was pregnant?
“You’re at the gym,” said Jane. “You fell and knocked yourself out. Gave me an absolute heart attack, although I was sort of grateful for the excuse to stop.”
The gym? Alice didn’t go to gyms. Had she woken up drunk in a gym?
“You lost your balance,” said a sharp, jolly voice. “It was quite a fall! Gave us all a shock, you silly sausage! We’ve called an ambulance, so don’t you worry, we’ve got professional help on the way!”
Kneeling next to Jane was a thin, coffee-tanned girl with a bleachedblond ponytail, shiny Lycra shorts, and a cropped red top with the words SPIN CRAZY emblazoned across it. Alice felt instant dislike for her. She didn’t like being called a silly sausage. It offended her dignity. One of Alice’s faults, according to her sister Elisabeth, was a tendency to take herself too seriously.
“Did I faint?” asked Alice hopefully. Pregnant women fainted. She had never fainted in her life, although she spent most of fourth grade practicing, in the hope that she could be one of those lucky girls who fainted during church and had to be carried out, draped across the muscly arms of their PE teacher, Mr. Gillespie.
“It’s just that I’m pregnant,” she said. Let her see who she was calling a silly sausage.
Jane’s mouth dropped. “Jesus, Alice, you are not!”
Spin Crazy Girl pursed her mouth as if she’d caught Alice out being naughty. “Oh dear, sweetie, I did ask at the beginning of the class if anyone was pregnant. I would have put you up front near the fan. You shouldn’t have been so shy.”
Alice’s head thumped. Nothing anybody said was making sense.
“Pregnant,” said Jane. “At this time. What a disaster.”
“It is not!” Alice put a protective hand to her stomach, so the Sultana wouldn’t hear and be offended. Their financial situation was none of Jane’s business. People were meant to be delighted when you announced a pregnancy.
“I mean, what are you going to do?” asked Jane.
For heaven’s sake! “Do? What do you mean, what am I going to do? I’m going to have a baby.” She sniffed. “You smell of lavender. I knew I could smell lavender.” Her sense of smell had been extra strong because of the pregnancy.
“It’s my deodorant.” Jane really didn’t look like herself. Her eyes didn’t look right. It was quite noticeable. Maybe she needed to start using some sort of eye cream.
“Are you all right, Jane?”
Jane snorted. “I’m fine. Worry about yourself, woman. You’re the pregnant one knocking yourself out.”
The baby! She’d been selfishly thinking about her sore head when she should have been worrying about the poor little Sultana. What sort of a mother was she going to be?
She said, “I hope I didn’t hurt the baby when I fell.”
“Oh, babies are pretty tough, I wouldn’t worry about that.”
It was another woman’s voice. For the first time Alice looked up and realized a crowd of red-faced, middle-aged women in sports gear surrounded her. Some of them were leaning forward, staring at her with avid road-accident interest, while others had their hands on their hips and were chatting to one another as if they were at a party. They seemed to be in a small, fluorescentlit room. She could hear tinny music somewhere in the distance, clanking metal sounds, and a sudden burst of loud masculine laughter. As she lifted her head, she saw that the room was filled with stationary bikes, all crammed together and facing the same direction.
“Although, you shouldn’t really be doing exercise that gets your heart rate up too high if you’re pregnant,” said another woman.
“But I don’t do any exercise,” said Alice. “I should do more exercise.”
“You, my girl, couldn’t do any more exercise if you tried,” said Jane.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She looked around at the strange faces surrounding her. This was all so . . . silly. “I don’t know where I am.”
“She’s probably got a concussion,” said somebody excitedly. “Concussed people are dazed and disoriented.”
Spin Crazy Girl looked frightened and stroked Alice’s arm. “Oh dear, sweetie, YOU MIGHT BE JUST A LITTLE BIT CONCUSSED,” she yelled.
“Yes, but I don’t think that makes her deaf,” said Jane tersely. She lowered her voice and bent her head toward Alice. “Everything is fine. You’re at the gym, you were doing your Friday spin class, the one you’ve been wanting to drag me along to for ages, remember? Can’t quite see the attraction, actually. Anyway, you must have got dizzy, or fainted or something, because one minute you were riding like a madwoman and next thing you were crashing to the floor. You’re going to be fine. More importantly, why didn’t you tell me you were pregnant?”
“What’s a Friday spin class?” asked Alice.
“Oh, this is bad,” said Jane excitedly.
“The ambulance is here!” someone said.
Spin Crazy Girl became goofy with relief. She bounded to her feet and shooed at the ladies like an energetic housewife with a broom. “Right, gang, let’s give them some space, shall we?”
Jane stayed kneeling on the floor next to Alice, patting her distractedly on the shoulder. Then she stopped patting. “Oh, my. Why do you get all the fun?”
Alice twisted her head and saw two handsome men in blue overalls striding toward them, carrying first aid equipment. Embarrassed, she struggled to sit up.
“Stay there, honey,” called out the taller one.
“He looks just like George Clooney,” breathed Jane in her ear. He did, too. Alice couldn’t help but feel cheerier. It seemed she’d woken up in an episode of ER.
“Hey, there.” George Clooney squatted down next to them, big hands resting between his knees. “What’s your name?”
“Jane,” said Jane. “Oh. Her name is Alice.”
“What’s your full name, Alice?” George gently took her wrist and pushed two fingers against her pulse.
“Alice Mary Love.”
“Had a bit of a fall did you, Alice?”
“Apparently I did. I don’t remember it.” Alice felt teary and special, as she generally did when she talked to any health professional, even a chemist. She blamed her mother for making too much of a fuss over her when she was sick as a child. She and Elisabeth were both terrible hypochondriacs.
“Do you know where you are?” asked George.
“Not really,” said Alice. “Apparently I’m in a gym.”
“She fell off her bike during the spin class.” Jane adjusted her bra strap beneath her top. “I saw it happen. I’m pretty sure she fainted. Her head smashed against the handlebars of the bike next to her. She’s been unconscious for about ten minutes.”
Spin Crazy Girl reappeared, ponytail swinging, and Alice stared up at her smooth long legs and hard flat stomach. It looked like a pretend stomach. “She can’t have had her feet strapped to the pedals properly. I do make a point of reminding everyone about that at the beginning of the class. It’s a safety issue,” said Spin Crazy Girl to George Clooney in the confidential tone of one professional talking to another. “Also, I really don’t recommend spin classes to pregnant women. I did ask if anyone was pregnant.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll sue if necessary,” said Jane quietly to Alice.
“How many weeks are you, Alice?” asked George.
Alice went to answer and to her surprise found a blank space in her head.
“Thirteen,” she said, after a second. “I mean, fourteen. Fourteen weeks.” They’d had the twelve-week ultrasound at least two weeks ago. The Sultana had done a peculiar little jump, like a disco dance move, as if someone had poked it in the back, and afterward Nick and Alice had kept trying to replicate the movement for people. Everyone had been polite and said it was remarkable.
She put a hand to her stomach again and for the first time she noticed what she was wearing. Sneakers and white socks. Black shorts and a yellow sleeveless top with a shiny gold-foil sticker stuck to her top. It seemed to be a picture of a dinosaur with a balloon coming out of its mouth saying, “ROCK ON.” Rock on?
“Where did these clothes come from?” she asked Jane accusingly. “These aren’t my clothes.”
Jane raised a meaningful eyebrow at George.
“There’s a dinosaur stuck to my shirt,” said Alice, awestruck.
“What day of the week is it today, Alice?” asked George.
“Friday,” answered Alice. She was cheating, because Jane had told her they were doing a “Friday spin class.” Whatever that was.
“Remember what you had for breakfast?” George gently examined the side of her head while he talked. The other paramedic strapped a blood-pressure monitor to her upper arm and pumped it up.
“Peanut butter on toast?”
That was what she generally had for breakfast. It seemed a safe bet.
“He doesn’t actually know what you had for breakfast,” said Jane. “He’s trying to see if you remember what you had for breakfast.”
The blood-pressure monitor squeezed hard around Alice’s arm.
George sat back on his haunches and said, “Humor me, Alice, and tell me the name of our illustrious prime minister.”
“John Howard,” answered Alice obediently. She hoped there wouldn’t be any more questions about politics. It wasn’t her forte. She could never get appalled enough.
Jane made a strange explosive sound of derision and mirth.
“Oh. Ah. But he’s still the prime minister, isn’t he?” Alice was mortified. People were going to tease her about this for years to come. Oh, Alice, you don’t know the prime minister! Had she missed an election? “But I’m sure he’s the prime minister.”
“And what year is it?” George didn’t seem too concerned.
“It’s 1998,” Alice answered promptly. She felt confident about that one. The baby would be born next year, in 1999.
Jane pressed her hand over her mouth. George went to speak, but Jane interrupted him. She put her hand on Alice’s shoulder and stared at her intently. Her eyes were wide with excitement. Tiny balls of mascara hovered on the ends of her eyelashes. The combination of her lavender deodorant and garlic breath was quite overpowering.
“How old are you, Alice?”
“I’m twenty-nine, Jane.” Alice was irritated by Jane’s dramatic tone. What was she getting at? “Same age as you.”
Jane sat back up and looked at George Clooney triumphantly.
She said, “I just got an invitation to her fortieth birthday.”
That was the day Alice Mary Love went to the gym and carelessly misplaced a decade of her life.
Jane said of course she would have come to the hospital with her but she had to be in court at two o’clock.
“What are you going to court for?” asked Alice, who was perfectly happy not to have Jane come to the hospital. That was quite enough of Jane for one day. “An invitation to her fortieth birthday.” What exactly did she mean by that?
Jane smiled oddly and didn’t answer Alice’s question about court. “I’ll call someone to be there at the hospital waiting for you.”
“Not someone.” Alice watched the paramedics set up a stretcher for her. It looked a bit flimsy. “Nick.”
“Yes, of course, I’ll call Nick.” Jane enunciated her words carefully, as if she were acting in a children’s pantomime.
“Actually, I’m sure I can walk,” Alice said to George Clooney. She never liked the idea of being lifted by people, even Nick, who was pretty strong. She worried about her weight. What if the paramedics grunted and grimaced like furniture removalists when they lifted the stretcher? “I feel fine. Just my head.”
“You’re suffering from a pretty serious concussion there,” said George. “We can’t muck around with head injuries.”
“Come on now, our favorite part of the job is carrying attractive women around on stretchers,” said the other paramedic. “Don’t deprive us.”
“Yes, don’t deprive them, Alice,” said Jane. “Your brain is damaged. You think you’re twenty-nine.”
What did that mean, exactly?
Alice lay back and allowed the two men to efficiently lift her onto the stretcher. As her head rolled to one side, the pain made her dizzy.
“Oh, here’s her bag.” Jane picked up a rucksack from the side of the room and squashed it next to Alice.
“That’s not mine,” said Alice.
“Yes it is.”
Alice stared at the red canvas bag. There was a row of three shiny dinosaur stickers like the one on her shirt stuck across the top flap. She wondered if she was about to be sick.
The two paramedics lifted up the stretcher. They didn’t seem to have a problem carrying it. She guessed it was their job to lift all-sized people.
“Work!” said Alice in a sudden panic. “You’d better call work for me. Why aren’t we at work if it’s a Friday?”
“Well, I really don’t know! Why aren’t we at work?” repeated Jane in that pantomime voice again. “But don’t you worry a thing about it, I’ll call ‘Nick,’ and then I’ll call ‘work.’ So by work I assume you mean, ah, ABR Bricks?”
“Yes, Jane, I do,” said Alice carefully. They’d been working at ABR for three years now. Could the poor girl have some sort of mental illness?
Alice said, “You’d better let Sue know I won’t be in today.”
“Sue,” repeated Jane slowly. “And by Sue, I take it you mean Sue Mason.”
“Yes, Jane. Sue Mason.” (Definitely loopy.)
Sue Mason was their boss. She was a stickler for punctuality and medical certificates and appropriate work attire. Alice couldn’t wait for her maternity leave to start so she could get out of the place.
“Get better soon, Alice!” Spin Crazy Girl called out from the front of the room, her voice amplified by a microphone strapped to her head. She was sitting astride a bike up on a small raised platform, facing the class. There was a television screen flickering above her head and a huge rotating fan next to her. All of the women except for Jane had climbed back onto their bikes and were pedaling slowly, their eyes fixed on some invisible horizon. As Alice’s stretcher reached the door, there was a burst of loud throbbing music and the lights in the room suddenly went out, plunging them into darkness. “Let’s go, team!” shouted Spin Crazy Girl. “We’ve got to make up for lost time! Where were we?”
“Stuck behind a semi-trailer halfway up the mountain!” shouted one of the women.
“That’s right! Let’s push it up a notch! Push it, push it, push it . . . and out of the saddle!”
The women’s bottoms lifted simultaneously in the air as they stood up on their pedals, their strong legs pumping like pistons.
Goodness, thought Alice.
Jane propped a heavy glass door open with her foot, and Alice clutched the sides of the stretcher, worried that they’d have to turn her on an angle, like a sofa, but the paramedics carried her smoothly through.
“You’ll be fine,” said Jane, giving one of Alice’s sneakers a jaunty pat.
The glass door closed, and the music’s volume was suddenly reduced to the sound of a distant party. Alice could see Jane’s face through the glass, watching them go. She was pinching her lower lip together with her finger and thumb, so she looked like a fish.
She must remember every moment of this freaky day to tell Nick. He’d think it was hilarious. Yes, this whole day was quite a hoot.
Now she was being carried through another, much larger, blue-carpeted room, with rows of complicated-looking machinery being operated by men and women who all seemed to be straining to lift, pull, or push things that were far too heavy for them. The place had the studious, muted feel of a library. Nobody stopped what they were doing as the stretcher went by. Only their eyes followed with blank, impersonal interest, as if she were a news event on TV.
A man stepped off a treadmill, pushing his headphones down from his ears and onto his shoulders. “What happened to you?”
His face—bright red and beaded with sweat—meant nothing to her. Alice stared up at him, groping for something polite to say. It was surreal, making conversation with a stranger while lying flat on her back on a stretcher. She was in one of those dreams where she turned up at a cocktail party in her pajamas.
“Fell off her bike and got a bit of a bump on the noggin,” George Clooney answered for her, sounding not at all medical.
“Oh no!” The man smeared a towel across his forehead. “Just what you need, with the big day coming up!”
Alice attempted to pull a rueful face about the big day coming up. Perhaps he was one of Nick’s colleagues and it was some work function she was meant to know about?
“Well, that’ll teach you to be such a gym addict, eh, Alice?”
“Ho,” said Alice. She wasn’t sure what she’d been trying to say, but that’s what it came out as: “Ho.”
As the paramedics kept walking, the man climbed back onto his treadmill and started running, calling out after her, “Take care, Alice! I’ll get Maggie to call!” He held up his thumb and little finger to his ear.
Alice closed her eyes. Her stomach churned.
“You doing okay there, Alice?” asked George Clooney.
Alice opened her eyes. “I feel a bit sick,” she said.
“That’s to be expected.”
They stopped in front of a lift.
“I really don’t know where I am,” she reminded George. She felt like it was worth mentioning again.
“Don’t worry about it for now,” said George.
The lift doors hissed open and a woman with sleek bobbed hair stepped out. “Alice! Are you okay? What happened?” She had one of those “How now, brown cow” accents. “What a coincidence! I was just thinking about you! I was going to call you about the—ahh, the little incident—at school, Chloe told me about it, you poor thing! Oh dear, this is all you need! What with tomorrow night, and the big day coming up!”
As she kept talking, the paramedics maneuvered the stretcher into the lift and pressed the “G” button. The doors slid shut on the woman lifting a pretend phone to her ear just like the treadmill guy, while at the same time a voice cried out, “Is that Alice Love I just saw on that stretcher?”
George said, “You know a lot of people.”
“No,” said Alice. “No, I really don’t.”
She thought about Jane saying, “I just got an invitation to her fortieth birthday.”
She turned her head and was sick all over George Clooney’s nice, shiny black shoes.
Elisabeth’s Homework for Dr. Hodges
It was just toward the end of the lunch break when I got the call. I only had five minutes before I was back on and I should have been in the bathroom checking I didn’t have food between my teeth. She said, “Elisabeth, oh, hi, it’s Jane, I’ve got a problem here,” as if there was only one Jane in the whole world (you would think somebody named Jane would be in the habit of giving their last name) and I was thinking Jane, Jane, a Jane with a problem, and then I realized it was Jane Turner. Alice’s Jane.
She said that Alice had fallen over at the gym during her spin class.
So there I was with 143 people all sitting back behind their tables, pouring their ice water, eating their mints, looking expectantly at the podium with pens poised, who had each paid $2,950 to see me speak, or $2,500 if they took advantage of the Early Bird discount.
That’s how much people pay me to teach them how to write a successful direct-mail campaign. I know! That nasty commercial world out there is entirely foreign to you, isn’t it, Dr. Hodges? I could tell you were just politely nodding your head when I tried to explain my job. I’m sure it has never occurred to you that those letters and brochures you receive in the mail are actually written by real people. Real people like me. I bet you have a “NO JUNK MAIL” sticker on your letterbox. Don’t worry. I won’t hold it against you.
Anyway, it wasn’t exactly the most convenient time for me to go rushing off to see my sister because she’d had a gym accident (some of us have jobs; some of us don’t have time to go to the gym in the middle of the day). Especially when I wasn’t talking to her since the banana muffins incident. I know we talked at length about trying to see her actions from a more “rational perspective,” but I’m still not talking to her. (Of course she doesn’t actually KNOW I’m not talking to her, but allow me my childish satisfaction.)
I said to Jane (somewhat irritably and self-importantly, I admit), “Is it serious?” For some reason it never occurred to me that it really could be serious.
Jane said, “She thinks it’s 1998 and she’s twenty-nine and we’re still working together at ABR Bricks, so it’s seriously weird, that’s for sure.”
Then she said, “Oh, and I assume you know she’s pregnant?”
I am deeply ashamed of my reaction. All I can say, Dr. Hodges, is that it was as involuntary and unstoppable as a huge hay-fevery sneeze.
It was a feeling of trembly rage and it went from my stomach to my head in a WHOOSH, and I said, “I’m sorry, Jane, I have to go now,” and hung up.
George Clooney was very nice about his shoes. Alice was appalled and tried to climb out of the stretcher so she could somehow help clean them, if she could have just found a tissue from somewhere, perhaps in that strange canvas bag, but both paramedics got stern with her and insisted that she stay still.
Her stomach felt better when she was buckled into the back of the ambulance. The chunky clean white plastic all around her was reassuring; everything felt sensible and sterile.
It seemed to be quite a sedate trip to the hospital, like catching a cab. As far as Alice could tell, they weren’t screeching through the streets, flashing their lights at other cars to get out of the way.
“So I guess I’m not dying, then?” she asked George. The other guy was driving and George Clooney was in the back with Alice. He had hairy eyebrows, she noticed. Nick had big bushy eyebrows, too. Late one night Alice had tried to pluck them for him and he’d yelled so loud, she was worried Mrs. Bergen from next door would do her neighborhood-watch duty and call the police.
“You’ll be back at the gym in no time,” answered George.
“I don’t go to the gym,” said Alice. “I don’t believe in gyms.”
“I’m with you.” George smiled and patted her arm.
She watched bits of billboards and office buildings and sky flash by through the ambulance window behind George’s head.
Okay, so this was all very silly. It was only the “bump on the noggin” that was making everything seem strange. This was just a longer, more intense version of that funny, dreamlike feeling you got when you woke up on holiday and couldn’t think where you were. There was no need to panic. This was interesting! She just needed to focus.
“What time is it?” she asked George determinedly.
“Nearly lunchtime,” he said, glancing at his watch.
Right. Lunchtime. Lunchtime on a Friday.
She said, “Why did you ask what I had for breakfast before?”
“It’s one of those standard questions we ask people with head injuries. We’re trying to ascertain your mental state.”
So presumably if she could remember what she had for breakfast, everything else would fall into place.
Breakfast. This morning. Oh, come on now. She must be able to remember.
The idea of a weekday breakfast was clear in her mind. It was two pieces of toast popping up in tandem from the toaster and the kettle bubbling crossly and the morning light slanting across the kitchen floor, just in front of the fridge, lighting up the big brown splotch on the linoleum, which looked like it could be scrubbed away in a jiffy, but most certainly couldn’t. It was glancing up at the railway clock Nick’s mother had given them as a housewarming present, with the fervent hope that it might be earlier than she thought (it was always later). It was the crackly background sound of ABC morning radio—worried, intense voices talking about world issues. Nick listened and sometimes said things like “You’ve got to be kidding,” and Alice let the voices wash over her and tried to pretend she was still asleep.
She and Nick were not morning people. They liked this about each other, having both been in previous relationships with intolerably cheery morning people. They spoke in short, terse sentences and sometimes it was a game, exaggerating their grumpiness, and sometimes it wasn’t, and that was fine, because they knew their real selves would be back that evening after work.
She tried to think of a specific breakfast memory.
There was that chilly morning when they were halfway through painting the kitchen. It was raining hard outside and there was a strong smell of paint fumes tickling her nostrils as they silently ate peanut butter on toast sitting on the floor, because all the furniture was covered with drop sheets. Alice was still in her nightie, but she’d put a cardigan on over the top of it, and she was wearing Nick’s old football socks pulled up to her knees. Nick was shaved, and dressed, except for his tie. The night before he’d told her about a really important scary presentation he had to give to the Shiny-headed Twerp, the Motherfucking Megatron, and the Big Kahuna all at the same time. Alice, who was terrified of public speaking, had felt her own stomach clench in sympathy. That morning Nick took a sip of his tea, put down his mug, opened his mouth to bite the toast, and dropped it onto his favorite blue-striped shirt. It stuck right to the front of his shirt. Their eyes met in mutual shock. Nick slowly peeled off the toast to reveal a big greasy rectangle of peanut butter. He said, in the tone of a man who has just been fatally shot, “That was my only clean shirt,” and then he took the piece of toast and slammed it against his forehead.
Alice said, “No it’s not. I took a load while you were at squash last night.” They didn’t have a washing machine yet and they were taking all their clothes to the laundry down the road. Nick took the squished-up toast off his face and said, “You didn’t,” and she said, “I did,” and he crawled through tins of paint and put both hands on her face and gave her a long, tender, peanut-buttery kiss.
But that wasn’t this morning’s breakfast. That was months ago, or weeks ago, or something. The kitchen was finished. She hadn’t been pregnant then either. She was still drinking coffee.
There were a few breakfasts in a row where they were on a health kick and they had yogurt with fruit. When was that? The health kick didn’t last very long, even though they were pretty gung ho about it in the beginning.
There were breakfasts when Nick was away for work. She ate her toast in bed when he was away, relishing the romantic pain of missing him, as if he were a sailor or a soldier. It was like enjoying feeling hungry when you knew you’d be having a huge dinner.
There was that breakfast where they had a fight—faces ugly, eyes blazing, doors slamming—about running out of milk. That wasn’t so nice. (That breakfast definitely wasn’t this morning. She remembered how they forgave each other that night while they were watching Nick’s youngest sister acting a tiny part in a stupendously long postmodern play that neither of them could understand. “By the way, I forgive you,” Nick had leaned over and whispered in her ear, and she’d whispered back, “Excuse me, I forgive you,” and a woman in front had turned around and hissed, “Shhh! Both of you!” like an angry schoolteacher and they’d got the giggles so badly, they ended up having to leave the theater, clambering past knees and getting into terrible trouble afterward from Nick’s sister.)
There was a breakfast where she’d grumpily read out possible baby names from a book while he’d grumpily said yes or no. That was nice, because they were definitely both only pretending to be grumpy that morning. “I can’t believe they let us name a person,” Nick had said. “It feels like something only the King of the Land should be able to do.” “Or the Queen of the Kingdom,” Alice said. “Oh, they’d never let a woman name a person,” said Nick. “Obviously.”
Did that happen this morning? No. That was . . . some time. Not this morning.
She had absolutely no idea what she’d eaten for breakfast that morning.
She confessed to George Clooney, “I just said I had peanut butter on toast because that’s my normal breakfast. I can’t actually remember anything about breakfast at all.”
“That’s fine, Alice,” he answered. “I don’t think I can remember what I had for breakfast myself.”
“Oh.” Well, so much for ascertaining her mental state! Did George actually know what he was doing?
“Maybe you’ve got concussion, too,” said Alice. George laughed dutifully. He seemed to be losing interest in her. Maybe he was hoping his next patient would be more interesting. He probably liked using those heart defibrillator thingummies. Alice would if she were a paramedic.
One Sunday, when Nick had a hangover and she was trying to convince him to go to the beach with her and he was lying on the couch with his eyes closed, ignoring her, she said, “Oh, no, he’s flatlining!” and rubbed two spatulas together before pressing them to his chest, yelling, “Clear!” Nick obligingly gave a realistic spasm right on cue. He still wouldn’t move, until she cried, “He’s not breathing! We’ve got to intubate him—now!” and tried to shove a straw down his throat.
The ambulance pulled up at a traffic light and Alice shifted slightly. Everything felt wrong about her body. She felt an overwhelming tiredness deep in her bones, as if she could sleep forever, but at the same time a jittery, twitchy energy making her want to get up and achieve something. It must be the pregnancy. Everyone said your body didn’t feel like yours anymore.
She lowered her chin to look again at the strange, damp clothes she was wearing. They didn’t even look like something she’d choose. She never wore yellow. The panicky feeling rose up again and she looked away and back up at the ambulance ceiling.
The thing was, she couldn’t remember what she had for dinner last night either. Nothing. It wasn’t even on the tip of her tongue.
Her chicken thing with the beans? Nick’s favorite lamb curry? She had no idea.
Of course, weekdays always tended to mulch together anyway. She would try to remember what she did last weekend.
A tangled jumble of memories from various weekends poured into her head as if from an upturned laundry basket. Sitting on the grass in the park, reading the paper. Picnics. Walking around garden centers, arguing about plants. Working on the house. Always, always working on the house. Movies. Dinners. Coffee with Elisabeth. Sunday-morning sex, followed by sleep, followed by croissants from the Vietnamese bakery. Friends’ birthdays. An occasional wedding. Trips away. Things with Nick’s family.
Somehow she knew that none of them had happened last weekend. She couldn’t tell when they’d happened. A short time ago or a long time ago. They’d just happened.
The problem was that she couldn’t attach herself to a “today” or a “yesterday” or even a “last week.” She was floating helplessly above the calendar like an escaped balloon.
An image came into her head of a gray cloudy sky filled with bunches of pink balloons tied together with white ribbon like bouquets. The balloon bouquets were being whipped ferociously about by an angry wind, and she felt a great wrench of sadness.
The feeling disappeared like a wave of nausea.
Goodness. What was that all about?
She longed for Nick. He would be able to fix everything. He would tell her exactly what they ate for dinner last night and what they did on the weekend.
Hopefully he would be waiting for her at the hospital. He might have already bought flowers for her. He probably had. She hoped he hadn’t because it was far too extravagant.
Of course, really, she hoped he had. She’d been in an ambulance. She sort of deserved them.
The ambulance came to a stop and George leapt to his feet, ducking down so as not to bump his head.
“We’re here, Alice! How are you feeling? You look like you’ve been thinking deeply profound thoughts.”
He pushed the lever to open the back door of the ambulance and sunlight flooded in, making her blink.
“I never asked your name,” said Alice.
“Kevin,” answered George apologetically, as if he knew it would be a disappointment.
Elisabeth’s Homework for Dr. Hodges
The truth is that sometimes my work gives me a little “rush,” Dr. Hodges. I’m embarrassed to admit it. Not a huge rush. But a definite shot of adrenaline. When the lights go dim and the audience goes quiet and it’s just me up there alone on the stage and my assistant Layla gives me her dead-serious “OK” signal as if this is a NASA space launch we’re running. The spotlight like sunshine on my face, and all I can hear is the clinking of water glasses and maybe a respectfully restrained cough or two. I like that clean, crisp, no-nonsense smell of hotel function rooms and the chilly air-conditioned air. It clears out my head. And when I speak the microphone smooths out my voice, giving it authority.
But then again, other times, I walk onto the stage and I feel like there is some weight pressing on the back of my neck, making my head droop and my back hunch, like an old crone. I want to put my mouth close to the microphone and say, “What is the point of all this, ladies and gentlemen? You all seem like nice enough people, so help me out and tell me, what is the point?”
Actually, I do know the point.
The point is they’re helping pay the mortgage. They’re each making a contribution to our groceries and our electricity and our water and our Visa. They’re all generously chipping in for the syringes and the shapeless hospital gowns and that last anaesthetist with the kind, doggy eyes who held my hand and said, “Go to sleep now, darling.” Anyway, I digress. You want me to digress. You want me to just write and write whatever comes to my mind. I wonder if you find me boring. You always look gently interested, but maybe you have days where I walk in the office looking all needy, bursting to tell you all the pathetic details of my life, and you just long to put your elbows on your desk and your chin in your hands and say, “What is the point of all this, Elisabeth?” and then you remember that the point is that I am paying for your Visa, mortgage, grocery bills . . . and so the world goes around.
You mentioned the other day that a feeling of pointlessness is a sign of depression, but you see there, I don’t have depression, because I do see the point. Money is the point.
After I hung up on Jane, the phone rang again immediately (presumably her—thinking we’d been cut off) and I turned it off mid-ring. A man walking by said, “Sometimes you wonder if we’d all be better off without these damned things!” and I said, “Damned right!” (I have never said “Damned right!” in my life before; it just popped bizarrely into my head. I like it. I might say it our next session and see if you blink) and he said, “Congratulations, by the way. I’ve been to a lot of these sorts of workshops before and I’ve never heard anyone speak such good sense!”
He was flirting with me. It happens sometimes. It must be the microphone and the bright lights. It’s funny because I always think it must be obvious to any man that all my sexuality has been sucked out of me. I feel like a piece of dried fruit. Yes, that’s it. I AM A DRIED APRICOT, Dr. Hodges. Not one of those nice, soft, juicy ones, but a hard, shriveled, tasteless dried apricot that hurts your jaw.
I took a few deep breaths of bracing air-conditioned air and clipped the microphone back onto my jacket. I was in such a frenzy to get back onstage, I was actually trembling. I feel like I may have become temporarily deranged for a while this afternoon, Dr. Hodges. We can discuss this at our next session.
Or maybe temporary insanity is just an excuse for inexcusable behavior. Maybe I’ll be too ashamed to tell you that somebody called to say my only sister had been in an accident and I hung up on her. I package myself for you. I want to sound damaged, so you feel there is something useful for you to do, but at the same time I want you to think I’m a nice person, Dr. Hodges. A nice damaged person.
I strode onto that stage like a rock star—and I started talking about “visualizing your prospect” and I was on fire. I had them laughing. I had them competing with each other to yell out answers to me, and the whole time we were visualizing the prospect I was visualizing my little sister.
I was thinking, head injuries can be pretty serious.
I was thinking, Nick is away and this is not really Jane’s responsibility.
And finally I thought: Alice was pregnant with Madison in 1998.
Nick wasn’t waiting at the hospital with flowers for Alice. Nobody was waiting for her, which made her feel slightly heroic.
Her two paramedics disappeared as if they’d never existed. She couldn’t recall them actually saying goodbye, so she didn’t get to say thank you.
The hospital was all flurries of activity, followed by periods of waiting alone on a stretcher in a small white box of a room, staring at the ceiling.
A doctor appeared and shone a tiny pencil-thin torch in her eyes and asked her to follow his fingers back and forth. A nurse with stunning green eyes that matched her hospital uniform stood at the end of her stretcher with a clipboard asking about health insurance and allergies and next of kin. Alice complimented her on her green eyes and the nurse said they were colored contacts and Alice said, “Oh,” and felt duped.
An icepack was applied to what the green-eyed nurse described as an “ostrich egg” on the back of her head, and she was given two white tablets in a tiny plastic cup for the pain, but Alice explained the pain wasn’t that bad and she didn’t want to take anything because she was pregnant.
People kept asking her questions, in voices that were too loud, as if she were asleep, even though she was looking right at them. Did she remember falling over? Did she remember the trip in the ambulance? Did she know what day of the week it was? Did she know what date it was?
“Nineteen ninety-eight?” A harried-looking doctor peered down at her through glasses with red plastic rims. “Are you quite sure about that?”
“Yes,” said Alice. “I know it’s 1998 because my baby is due on August eight, 1999. Eighth of the eighth, ninety-nine. Easy to remember.”
“Because, you see, it’s actually 2008,” said the doctor.
“Well, that’s not possible,” explained Alice as nicely as she could. Maybe this doctor was one of those brilliant people who were hopeless with normal stuff like dates.
“And why isn’t it possible?”
“Because we haven’t had the new millennium yet,” said Alice cleverly. “Apparently all the power is going to fail because of some computer bug.”
She felt proud of knowing that fact; it was sort of current affair–ish.
“I think you might be confused. You don’t remember the new millennium? Those great fireworks on the harbor bridge?”
“No,” said Alice. “I don’t remember any fireworks.” Please stop it, she wanted to say. This isn’t funny, and I’m just being brave about the pain in my head. It really does hurt.
She remembered Nick saying one night, “Do you realize that on New Year’s Eve of the new millennium we will have a toddler?” He was holding a sledgehammer in both hands because he was about to knock down a wall.
Alice had lowered the camera she was holding to photograph the end of the wall. “That’s true,” she’d said, amazed and terrified by the thought. A toddler: an actual miniature person, created by them, belonging to them, separate from them.
“Yep, guess we’ll have to get a babysitter for the little bugger,” Nick had said with elaborate nonchalance. Then he’d joyfully swung the hammer and Alice had clicked the camera as a shower of pink plaster fragments rained down all over them.
“Maybe I should get an ultrasound to check that my baby is okay after the fall,” said Alice firmly to the doctor. This was how Elisabeth would be in a situation like this. Alice always thought “What would Elisabeth do?” whenever she needed to be assertive.
“How many weeks pregnant are you?” asked the doctor.
“Fourteen,” said Alice, but there was that strange space in her mind again, as if she wasn’t absolutely sure that was correct.
“Or you could at least check the heartbeat,” said Alice in her Elisabeth voice.
“Mmmm.” The doctor pushed her glasses back up her nose.
A memory of a woman’s voice with a gentle American accent came into Alice’s head.
“I’m sorry, but there is no heartbeat.”
She remembered it so clearly. The tiny pause after the “sorry.”
“I’m sorry, but there is no heartbeat.”
Who was that? Who said that? Did it really happen? Tears welled in Alice’s eyes, and she thought again of those bouquets of pink balloons whipped by the wind in a gray sky. Had she seen those balloons in some long-forgotten movie? Some extremely sad movie? She felt another wave of extraordinary feeling rise in her chest. It was just like in the ambulance. It was a feeling of grief and rage. She imagined herself sobbing, wailing, digging her fingernails into her own flesh (and she’d never behaved like that in her whole life). And just when she thought the feeling would sweep her away, it dissolved into nothing. It was the strangest thing.
“How many children do you have?” asked the doctor. She had pulled up Alice’s T-shirt and pushed down her shorts to feel her abdomen.
Alice blinked to make the tears go away. “None. This is my first pregnancy.”
The doctor stopped and looked at her. “That looks very much like a cesarean scar to me.”
Alice lifted her head awkwardly and saw that the doctor was pointing a nicely shaped fingernail low down on Alice’s stomach. She squinted and saw what looked like a very pale, purple line just above the top of her pubic hair.
“I don’t know what that is,” said Alice, mortified. She thought of the solemn expression on her mother’s face when she used to tell Elisabeth and Alice, “You must never show your private lady’s parts to anyone.” Nick fell about laughing the first time he heard that. Why hadn’t he noticed that funny scar? He’d spent enough time examining her private lady’s parts.
“Your uterus doesn’t seem to be enlarged for fourteen weeks,” commented the doctor.
Alice looked again at her stomach and saw that it was actually looking pretty flat. Skinny-person flat, which would normally be an unexpected bonus, except that she was having a baby. Nick had started to chuckle gleefully whenever she wore something that showed the round bulge of her stomach.
“Are you sure you’re that far along?” said the doctor.
Alice stared at her flat stomach—very flat!—and didn’t say anything. She was filled with confusion and fear and excruciating embarrassment. It occurred to her that her breasts—which had become so heavy and tingly and overtly breasty—felt like they had gone back to their normal humble, unobtrusive state. She didn’t feel pregnant. She certainly didn’t feel like herself, but she didn’t feel pregnant.
(What was that scar? She thought of those stories of people drugging you and removing your organs to sell. Had she gone to the gym, got deliriously drunk, and someone had taken the opportunity to help themselves to her organs?)
“Maybe I’m not fourteen weeks,” she said to the doctor. “Maybe I’ve got that wrong. I can’t seem to get anything straight in my head. My husband will be here soon. He’ll explain everything.”
“Well, you just relax and try not to worry for now.” The doctor readjusted Alice’s clothes with gentle pats. “First we’re going to get you a CT scan and see if you’ve done anything serious to yourself, but I think you’ll find things will start to fall into place soon. Do you remember your obstetrician’s name? I could give him or her a call and check how far along you are. I don’t want to upset you if we can’t find the heartbeat because you’re not far enough along to hear it.”
I’m sorry, but there is no heartbeat.
It was such a clear memory. It felt like it really happened.
Alice said, “Dr. Sam Chapple. He’s at Chatswood.”
“Okay, good. Don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal to feel confused after a serious head injury.”
The doctor smiled sympathetically and left the room. Alice watched her go and then lifted up her shirt again to look at her stomach. In addition to being flatter, her stomach had feathery silver lines up and down the sides. Stretch marks. Awestruck, she ran her fingertips over them. Was this really her stomach?
A cesarean scar, the doctor had said (unless she’d got it wrong, of course. Maybe it wasn’t a cesarean scar at all, just a perfectly normal . . . scar. Of some sort).
But if she was right, that would mean some doctor (her own Dr. Chapple?) had sliced through her skin with a scalpel and lifted a bloody squawling baby straight out of her stomach and she didn’t remember any of it.
Could a bump on the head really knock out such a significant event from her memory? Wasn’t that a bit excessive?
She thought of times when she’d been watching a movie with Nick and had fallen asleep halfway through with her head on his lap. She hated it because she would wake up sticky-mouthed to see the lives of the movie characters had moved on and the couple who hated each other were now sharing an umbrella under the Eiffel Tower.
“You had your baby,” she said tentatively to herself. “Remember?”
This was absurd. Surely she wasn’t about to slap herself on the side of the head and say, “Oh, the baby, of course I had the baby! Fancy that slipping my mind.”
How could she have forgotten her baby growing and kicking and rolling inside her? If she’d already had the baby, that meant she’d already been to the prenatal classes with Nick. It meant she’d bought her first maternity clothes. It meant they’d painted the nursery. It meant they’d been shopping for a crib and a pram and nappies and a stroller and a changing table.
It meant there was a baby.
She sat up, her hands pressed to her stomach.
So where was it? Who was looking after it? Who was feeding it?
This was far bigger than a normal “Oh, Alice” mix-up. This was huge. This was terrifying.
For God’s sake, where was Nick? Actually, she was going to be just a bit snappy with him when he finally turned up, even if he did have a good excuse.
The nurse with the green eyes came back into the room and said, “How are you feeling?”
“Fine, thank you,” said Alice automatically.
“Do you remember why you’re here and what happened to you?”
This constant re-asking of questions was presumably to check her mental state. Alice thought about yelling, ACTUALLY, I’M GOING OUT OF MY MIND! but she didn’t want to make the nurse feel uncomfortable. Crazy behavior made people feel awkward.
Instead, she said to the nurse, “Can you tell me what year it is?” She spoke quickly in case the doctor with the glasses came back in and caught her checking up on her facts behind her back.
“It’s definitely 2008?”
“It’s definitely second of May, 2008. Mother’s Day next weekend!”
Mother’s Day! It would be Alice’s first-ever Mother’s Day.
Except, if it was 2008, it wasn’t her first Mother’s Day at all.
If it was 2008, the Sultana was ten years old. He wasn’t a sultana at all. He would have progressed from sultana to raisin to peach to tennis ball to basketball to . . . baby.
Alice felt an inappropriate gale of laughter catch in her throat.
Her baby was ten years old.
Elisabeth’s Homework for Dr. Hodges
Much to Layla’s horror, I stopped halfway through “Visualizing the Prospect” and switched over to the “Idea Olympics.” I’m sure you’ll be fascinated to hear, Dr. Hodges, that this is the part where I get them to look under their tables and find their “Mystery Product.” Everybody gets pretty excited about this and they dive under the tables. It’s amazing how so many different people can come out with EXACTLY the same jokes. It reinforces this feeling I have that the years are rolling by but nothing is changing. I am the perfect example of the phrase: Going nowhere fast.
While all my students were writing down ideas on butcher paper for how to market their Mystery Products, I tried to call Jane back. Only of course now Jane had switched her phone off, so I loudly said “Fuck it” and saw Layla give a tiny, tight smile. I had offended her by changing the agenda, as if the agenda didn’t matter, when the agenda is her life.
I explained to her that my sister had been in an accident and I didn’t know what hospital she was at and I needed somebody to pick up her kids from school. Layla said, “Okay, but when are you going to finish the rest of the ‘Visualizing the Prospect’ segment?” (I guess that sort of dedication is good in an employee, but isn’t it a bit pathological, Dr. Hodges? What’s your expert opinion?)
I called Mum next and got her voice mail, too. Oh for the days before Mum got a life. It seems only a short time ago that I would have called Frannie first. She was always so calm in a crisis. But Frannie decided to stop driving when she moved into the retirement village. (I still find that weirdly upsetting. She was such a good driver.)
I called the school and got put on hold listening to a recorded message about family values. I called Alice’s gym to find out if they knew which hospital she’d been taken to and got put on hold listening to a message about sensible nutrition.
Finally, I called my husband, Ben.
He answered on the first ring, listened to me babble, and said, “I’ll take care of it.”
Look, Grey’s Anatomy starts in ten minutes. This journal writing must not impact on my nightly TV gorge. I don’t care what Ben says, without the narcotic effects of TV, I might have gone truly insane a long time ago.
Apparently Alice’s CT scan was “unremarkable,” which had made her feel ashamed of her mediocrity. It reminded her of her school reports with every single box ticked “Satisfactory” and comments like “A quiet student. Needs to contribute more in class.” They may as well have just come right out and written across the front: “So boring, we don’t actually know who she is.” Elisabeth’s reports had some boxes ticked “Outstanding” and others ticked “Below Standard” and comments like “Can be a little disruptive.” Alice had yearned to be a little disruptive, but she couldn’t work out how you got started.
“We’re concerned about your memory loss, so we’re going to keep you overnight for observation,” said the doctor with the red plastic glasses.
“Oh, okay, thank you.” Alice self-consciously smoothed her hair back, imagining a row of doctors and nurses with clipboards sitting next to her bed, watching her sleep. (She sometimes snored.)
The doctor hugged her own clipboard to her chest and looked at her brightly, as if she felt like a chat.
Oh. Gosh. Alice searched around for interesting topics of conversation and finally said, “So, did you ring my obstetrician? Dr. Chapple? Of course, you might not have had a chance . . .” She didn’t want the doctor to snarl, “Sorry, I was busy saving somebody’s life.”
The doctor looked thoughtful. “I did, actually. It seems Sam Chapple retired three years ago.” Alice couldn’t believe that Dr. Chapple was no longer sitting in his big leather chair, carefully noting down answers to his courteous questions in beautiful copperplate writing on white index cards. She really needed to get this . . . this problem sorted out once and for all. Pronto! Quick sticks! As Frannie would say. Was Frannie still alive in 2008? Grandmothers died. It was to be expected. You weren’t even allowed to be that upset about it. Please don’t let Frannie have died. Please don’t let anyone have died. “Nobody else in our family will die,” Elisabeth had promised when she was ten and Alice was nine. “Because it wouldn’t be fair.” Alice had believed every single word Elisabeth had said when they were little.
Maybe Elisabeth had died? Or Nick? Or Mum? Or the baby? (I’m sorry, but there is no heartbeat.)
For the first time in years, Alice had that feeling she used to get when she was little, after their dad died, that someone else she loved was about to die. She longed to gather everybody she loved and stow them safely under her bed with her favorite dolls. Sometimes the stress would become so overwhelming she would forget how to breathe and Elisabeth would have to bring her a brown paper bag to breathe into.
“I might need a bag,” Alice said to the doctor.
Ridiculous. She wasn’t a child who hyperventilated at the thought of people dying.
“I had a bag,” she said to the doctor. “A red backpack with stickers on it. Do you know what happened to it?”
The doctor looked vaguely irritated by this administrative question but then she said, “Oh, yes. Over here. Would you like it?” She picked up the strange backpack from a shelf at the side of the room and Alice looked at it apprehensively.
The doctor handed it to her and said, “Well, you just rest up and someone will be along to take you up to a ward soon. I’m sorry there is so much waiting. That’s hospitals for you.” She gave her a motherly pat on the shoulder and quickly left the room, suddenly in a hurry, as if she’d remembered another patient who was waiting.
Alice ran her fingers over the three shiny dinosaur stickers on the flap of the backpack. They each had speech bubbles saying either “DINOSAURS RULE!” or “DINOSAURS ROCK!” She looked down at the sticker on her shirt and peeled it off. It was a definite match. She stuck it back on her shirt (she felt that she should for some reason) and waited for a feeling or a memory.
Did these belong to the Sultana? Her mind skittered away from the idea, like a frightened animal. She didn’t want to know. She didn’t want a readygrown baby. She wanted her own little future baby back.
This could not be happening to her. But it is, so get a grip, Alice. She began to open the bag and her fingernails caught her attention. She held up her hands in front of her. Her nails were beautifully shaped and long and painted a very pale, beige color. Normally they were ragged and broken and rimmed with dirt from gardening or painting or whatever other renovation job they were doing at the time. The only other time they’d looked like that was for her wedding when she’d got her manicure. She’d spent the whole honeymoon flapping her hands at Nick, saying, “Look, I’m a lady.”
Apart from that, her hands still looked like her hands. Actually, they looked quite nice.
They were bare, she noticed. No jewelry. It was a little unusual that she wasn’t at least wearing her wedding ring, but perhaps she’d been in a rush when she was getting ready for her “spin class.”
She held up her left hand and saw that there was a thin white indentation from her wedding ring that hadn’t been there before. It gave her a disconnected feeling, like when she’d seen the feathery marks on her stomach. Her mind thought everything was still the same, but her body was telling her that time had marched on without her.
Revue de presse
A bittersweet tale by a gifted writer (Women's Weekly)
The writing is beautiful: sometimes funny, sometimes sad but always compelling (Good Housekeeping)