“Pregnant?” I choke.
“Yes,” smiles the doctor, “about three months in.”
“Pregnant?” I repeat. “As in: with child?”
“Yes, that tends to be how these things work.”
The doctor turns slightly. Short, clean nails type something into her computer.
The word LOL?
“Sorry,” I pause, “it’s just, are you sure?”
She blinks at me. I blush.
“It’s just,” I cough, “I mean…I once thought Angela was pregnant. But it turned out to have just been one hell of a burrito. Could it maybe be something like that? I mean, I do enjoy a burrito…”
Excellent. This woman has more letters after her name than I do in mine, and I’m asking if she’s mistaken a foetus for a glorified fajita.
The doctor turns away from her screen towards me, kindly taking my hand.
“Definitely not a burrito,” she says, gently. “Definitely a baby.”
She taps my hand twice, and that special, ‘doctor’ authority returns to her voice.
“And speaking of,” she says, “maybe lay off the burritos. It can make the baby gassy.”
What fresh hell is this?
I sit on the bus with my arm pressed against my stomach. I feel around for bumps, but unsurprisingly, it still feels the same. No sudden ridges. No kicking. Just a few stretch-marks. But if I’m I’m honest, those have more to do with an addiction to Nutella than with baby burrito.
Hang on, can babies handle Nutella? What if Nutella makes them gassy too? Is foetal flatulence really this much of an epidemic? I’m not prepared for that. Mind you, I can’t actually remember when I last washed this bra…I’m not really prepared for much.
My phone buzzes. Dylan.
Not today, Satan.
Answerphone. He rings again.
“Yes, Dylan,” I snap.
“Woah,” I hear him laugh, “one too many tequilas last night, eh Rubes?”
“Sambuca,” I wince, apologetically tapping my tummy. “You called?”
“The client thinks pink is too feminine.”
“Tell her pink is very en vogue.”
Unlike her 1950s attitude.
“I’ll tell her you’ll be in soon.”
He clicks off the call.
I wonder if that’s something I’ll need to start worrying about too? Like, can I buy the burrito dresses? Or do I roll it up in white pillow-cases until it decides what it wants to wear? God, what if it ends up resenting me like Morgan’s kid, Paul? Pauline. Also, probably shouldn’t really be calling it ‘it’…
I ring the bell for my stop.
I need a drink. And a burrito.
When I rename it ‘mellow red’, the client goes for the pink. Dylan comes into my office. He’s wearing forest green shoes with yellow ribbon laces. One of them is untied.
“Mellow-red,” he laughs, flumping himself into my visitor chair. His feet stacked slovenly on my desk.
“Please remove whatever these are from my desk,” I snap, stabbing his toe with my pen. “And preferably from your feet.”
“These?” he uncrosses his ankles. “They’re a present from Kathy’s aunt.”
Kathy’s aunt, the artist formerly known as Dame Edna.
“Who’s Kathy?” I grumble.
“You really don’t listen when I tell you the intimate details of my love-life, do you?” he stands, leaning forwards to press the standby button on my monitor.
The screen blacks out.
“The blonde?” I turn to him, arching an eyebrow. “Or the one with the panda tattoo?”
“The blonde,” he laughs. “Panda got back with her ex. Shame.”
He winks at me. I roll my eyes.
“Yes, shame Bachelorette Number three had to leave the competition so soon,” I sigh. "Anyway. charming as this has been, I’m very busy, Dylan.”
“You have sod all to do,” he laughs, sitting on my desk to face me. “I should know.”
I feel his navy eyes scanning me, goading me.
Don’t cry, Ruby.
“Rubes,” he ponders, “you alright?”
Dylan Cross is the biggest pillock you’ll ever meet. Serial womanizer. Makes a terrible pot of tea. Vehemently enjoys changing my name to ‘Pubes’ on important emails. And of greatest concern for my mental health, he’s also my best friend.
He sneaks a big arm around me and pulls me into his bear-sized chest. I can smell the Guerlain aftershave I bought him last Christmas.
I was 11 when I decided to never have children. To be exact, it was the day of my 11th birthday. My parents made a lot of birthday cakes that year. One for every room.
One in the dining room.
One in my bedroom.
Three in the kitchen.
One in the garden - which the neighbour’s cat, Merlin, kept making eyes at.
And one in the living room where my parents sat. They were crying.
Alice had now been missing for two years. She’d have been 20 by then. 36 now. I can’t remember exactly what she looked like. Except that she had red hair. And we both had purple-ish birthmarks on our collar bones. Mine faded when I was 21.
I wonder if she still has hers.
Mum sat on the couch wearing an apron and yesterday’s clothes. Dad next to her. They looked like a cancer awareness poster. Last year, I recreated it for a photoshoot. We won three awards.
We weren’t allowed to talk about Alice. Dad said it made mum cry, and mum said it upset dad. So, we didn’t. Instead, they baked cakes.
We all cried in secret.
Mum saw me standing by the door.
“Happy Birthday, darling!” she smiled, hurriedly swiping the tears from her cheek.
Dad sprang up too, kissing me.
We were good at pretending.
“11 now, eh Rubes?” he grinned.
Sad people have this strange crack in their voices. It’s there, even when they stop crying. Like they’ve got a bit of tissue stuck down their throats.
“There’s a lot of cake,” I muttered, “again.”
Dad caught mum’s eye.
“Sorry love,” she said, squeezing me, “we only meant to bake the one.”
Alice liked baking. She’d always wanted to open a bakery called ‘Bakes and Beards’, serving bold cakes to hairy hipsters and that guy Julian she'd always fancied.
That’s how it all started. I guess my parents hoped the cakes might have the 'Hanzel and Gretel' effect; bring her home.
In I way, I can’t fault her for trying. The woman makes damn good carrot cake.
The next morning there was still cake everywhere. Except from the one in the garden. In place of that was a pile of cat sick. I hadn’t touched the one in my bedroom either. It was Alice’s birthday cake, not mine.
I watched eight perfectly tiered birthday cakes turn to mould, and I vowed never to have kids.
Kids break people.
Dylan says I have options. But he sounds like a vegetarian reading out the menu in a steakhouse. I tell him I need to be on my own.
He hugs me, brushing smudged eyeliner off my cheek.
“Do you want me to get Phil to deal with your clients?” he asks, brushing my birthmark with the back of his index finger.
I wish he’d stay.
“The intern’s called Phoenix,” I laugh, pushing him away.
“Of course,” he rolls his eyes and steps towards the door. “Bloody hipster.”
He winks, closing the door. I’m alone again.
My stomach growls.
Does the baby notice? Or is it pulling the strings now? One growl for savoury. Two for dessert, please.
I take an early lunch, and head across to Starbucks. There’s a young mum in front of me waiting for her coffee. The barista hands her a hot chocolate, and the mum holds it back from her son.
“What d’you say, Robbie?” she nods at the drink.
“I love you,” he says, taking the drink in both hands.
The barista giggles.
“No!” his mum laughs. “I meant say ‘thank you’.”
She runs a hand through his blonde hair, still laughing.
I take my coffee to a seat, and watch them for a while. In my mind, I photoshop my face onto hers. Sitting in a coffee shop. Reading MoshiMonsters books together. Telling him to keep his feet off of the table.
Or maybe not. Maybe, I’ll raise myself a little badass. More likely an asshole. But I guess I’m cool with that.
My phone buzzes.
The signal’s a little fuzzy in the café.
“Do you want me to come over later?” he asks.
There’s rattling in the background, and he sounds a little distant. Like when my mum forgets to hang up after voicemails, and I have to listen to her traipsing around ASDA.
Yes, Susan, 80p is a bargain for a ‘bloody enormous’ pineapple.
“Where are you?” I ask Dylan.
Are you with her?
He ignores my question.
“I can probably make it for around 6?”
I don’t reply either.
“Rubes?” he whispers.
I stay on the line for a while longer. A few times, I try to say something. He takes a deep breath, and I think he might too. Eventually, he clicks off.
I don’t know why I’m surprised he looks older. It’s been five years since I was last here. He should look older.
“Hey dad,” I smile, “how are you?”
He blinks at me. The window blind claps at his face in the wind.
“Got piles,” he sighs.
“Buggar,” I nod.
“Who is it?” Mum calls from somewhere behind him.
“It’s Ruby,” he matches her.
She doesn’t reply. Father and daughter stare at each other, awkwardly.
“Come in?” he moves the door back, and motions me inside.
My parents have changed the colour of the hallway. It’s a dark maroon shade, almost brown. I raise an eyebrow at my dad.
“Your mum saw something on Pinterest,” he winces, catching my eye and hiding a smile.
He steers me towards the living room. It’s just the same. Green walls, two empty tea-mugs on the coffee table, and my mum knitting in her teal armchair. She doesn’t look up, but the clatter of her needles gets sharper.
“Hi mum,” I whisper.
“Hello Ruby,” her needles clatter. “Have you eaten? You should have called. We’ve already had ours.”
She drops a loop in her knitting. Dad frantically threatens to cook me something. He has one foot in the living room, and the rest of him angled towards the safety of the kitchen.
“Don’t worry, Dad,” I tell him, “I had something on the train up.”
Mum looks up at him, narrowing her eyes. He sits beside me, and we both cower our heads.
Like when he’d give me ice cream before dinner, and I’d be too full for mum’s slow-cooked pork.
“So, how’s work?” he coughs.
“Busy,” I nod.
He nods. My parents have a postcard beside the TV. ‘Greetings from Malaga’.
Who the feck went to Malaga?
Mum glares at dad. He shrugs back at her.
I feel dizzy.
“Any new…” Dad starts.
“I’m pregnant,” I cut him off.
I look up. Both their mouths are at their chins, like broken Nutcrackers. We sit for a while. Eventually, Mum creaks onto her bad knee and comes over. She sits on the other side of me. I’m wedged between her and dad like a meal-deal sandwich filling. She takes one of my hands and kisses my forehead. He takes the other.
“George,” she asks, “do we have cake?”
Despite myself, I laugh.
“I’ll make one!” he grins, squeezing my hand, running through to the kitchen.
Mum waits with me. I hear him rattling through the baking tins. She’s looking at the frame of Alice above the television.
It’s her baby too.
I thought I saw her once. In Edinburgh, by the train station. Just a flash of red hair.
I answer on the first buzz.
“I told my parents,” I tell him.
“Oh,” he sighs. “How many cakes?”
“Just the one,” I smile.
“So,” I hear his inhale, “this is happening, then?”
“Yes,” it’s the first time I’ve said it aloud.
I can breathe.
“Are you there?” I ask.
“I broke up with Kathy,” he exhales.
“Was it the shoes?” I feign a laugh.
“Something like that.”
Alice said her favourite thing about Dylan was that she always knew exactly what he was thinking.
I’ve always liked that I don’t.
“It’s ridiculous,” he sighs.
“What is?” I whisper.
“I think I want you even more now.”