‘Milly!’ Jamie pushes the door wide, linking his arms around Emily’s neck.
‘God you’ve grown,’ she says to him, taking in his doughy face and graffiti-scrawled T-shirt.
‘I know,’ he says, smoothing his thick black hair. I’m nearly as tall as Mum, and Dad bets I’ll be as tall as him one day.’
‘I bet you will.’
Two large dimples pucker in his cheeks at this, and his wide-set eyes almost disappear.
‘Come on in Milly.’ Jackie comes out from behind him. She’s put on a little weight and coloured her hair ash blonde, giving her complexion a yeasty sheen that reminds Emily of a visit to an old aunt in the chapel of rest.
Jackie places a hand on her son’s shoulder. ‘You’re looking well Milly. It must be what – almost a year?’
Emily shrugs. Her last visit to this house was barely six months ago. Jackie’s been pestering her with texts.
‘Come on in then love, I’ve just put the kettle on. Jamie, take Milly’s bag up to her old room will you?’
As Jamie lugs her rucksack upstairs, past the row of steadily maturing school photos; one for each year, Emily follows her foster mother into the kitchen where the sweet aroma of roasting meat infuses with that of boiling cabbage. Jackie struggles with the lid of a Quality Street tin. A cluster of butterfly cakes flutter enticingly but Emily waves it away.
‘Phil won’t be long.’
As they look out of the large French windows, Emily’s foster father appears from behind the rose bushes, and makes his way over. He slips off his boots and gloves, throwing his arms around Emily; stifling her with the smell of frost-clung mud. He brushes her cheek with his: stands back, and takes her in.
Jackie frowns at her husband and shakes her head without really moving it. Plants a mug of tea in one of his hands and a sugary cake in the other. She gestures Emily towards a stool ‘So?’
‘So?’ Emily replies, supporting her belly as she lifts herself onto the seat.
‘Is everything okay with – you know?’
‘Yeah everything’s fine.’ Emily shuffles uncomfortably.
‘No morning sickness?’
‘And do you know what you’re having?’
Emily shakes her head, flicking imaginary crumbs from the Formica.
‘Don’t think it’ll get any easier. I remember what it was like with Jamie. That last month it felt like he was sellotaped to my bladder. I couldn’t even walk round the corner to the shops without . . .’ She wafts the rest of the sentence away. ‘And then he was born, and it was the most exciting day of my life. Well, until. Well . . . you know. When the doctors all came to look at him: too focused on his little toes they were – moving them apart, putting them back together again, moving, putting. “They’re all there aren’t they?” I just wanted to say. Why weren’t they looking at his beautiful little face? He is – beautiful.’ Her face changes: ‘You have had all the tests haven’t you?’
Emily nods, shivers; remembering the relief when they’d said her results were fine.
Jackie scans the room looking for cues to segue the conversation, the tired clunk of the central heating emphasizing the gap of silence. Her eyes rest on a photo. ‘Jamie. Jamie love,’ she calls, ‘dinner’s nearly ready.’
‘I can do it all by myself you know,’ Jamie says, showing Emily how to arrange the knives and forks. ‘And Mum says that on my next birthday – when I’m a teenager – she might even let me go to the sweet shop all by myself as well.’
‘Better make sure you don’t eat too many,’ Emily says, digging a finger into the squidgy roll of fat around his belly.
‘You’re the fatty,’ he giggles, reaching out to Emily’s stomach, then bending down so his face is level with her navel. ‘Hello baby,’ he says.
‘I think she’s awake,’ Emily whispers. ‘Here.’
She moves his hand to the right and gently pushes against it.
‘How did she get in there?’ Jamie snuggles in, pressing his ear as close as he can get it.
‘A man . . . ’
* * *
‘Emily!’ She jolts upright.
‘Sorry to wake you love,’ Jackie’s face looms over the sofa. ‘You fell asleep in front of the telly; slept all afternoon.
Emily sits up, blinks a few times and looks around.
‘I’ve run you a bath if you fancy it? And put a clean towel in there for you. Unless you want to watch Midsomer Murders with us?’
There’s only a shower at the bedsit. Emily lies back in the lavender-scented water, its vaguely familiar spiced-woody scent reminding her of her long-dead grandparents. Makes her feel both old and very young. Letting the bubbles surround her, she takes a deep breath and holds it: pushes her head below the surface. Imagining the crime drama unfolding downstairs in the safety of Phil and Jackie’s lounge, she opens her eyes underwater and lies perfectly still: fixes her stare as the perfumed water stings them with life.
The baby kicks then, hooking its little foot under Emily’s rib. It startles her. She takes a breath half a second too soon, letting out a long burpy cough as her nose and lungs react to the herby water.
‘Is everything okay in there?’ comes Jackie’s voice almost instantly.
‘Fine,’ Emily replies, massaging her naked bump. Grabbing the hand-towel from the heated rail, as Jackie’s footsteps head back downstairs, Emily wipes her eyes and nose, rubbing in the slug trail of snot she leaves behind. She lowers herself back into the bath, closes her eyes and lets her head bob up and down, pushing her stomach upwards and out of the water. The bump shifts first to one side, then back: head and bum, bum and head. Inside her, the baby leans on Emily’s bladder and she relieves herself in Phil and Jackie’s bath water, just as the baby does it to her.
She scrubs herself all over with a block of Jackie’s best soap, using the honeycombed rind to exfoliate. It marks her skin in tiny red welts, and the yellow lather and syrupy smell remind her of the Roald Dahl story her birth mother read to her as a small child. She listens then for a buzzing inside of her: wonders which of them her little one would sting first. Or would she? If she knew that she’d die too?
Emily takes the lilac bath towel and wraps herself up in its thick warm softness, then nips across the landing to her old room where Jackie’s made up her bed, just for tonight. Seeing it striped in candy, with new pyjamas – still in their plastic – placed on top of an extra blanket, reminds Emily of that first night she spent here six years ago when she was just twelve. She’d sat, looking out of the open bedroom window towards the house-rammed horizon, blowing thin lines of blue cigarette smoke into the black air, waiting for one of them to find her – punish her – maybe even send her away.
‘We’d rather you smoked outside,’ Jackie had said. ‘Then you won’t set off the alarm. Is that a deal?’
She could have said yes, or even just nodded.
‘Come on in,’ she giggles nervously, and he closes the door behind him.
‘Give me your hand,’ she says. Relaxing a little, she takes it in hers and slides it under the towel, pressing it firmly over a kicking foot. Smiling at the sensation, he kisses her gently, then removes a thread of wet hair from her lips; tucks it behind her ear: rubs an imaginary mark from her cheek.
‘Phil! Are you up there? Jackie calls.
He puts a finger to his lips and slips out of the room before her footsteps thud up the stairs. Emily takes a handful of Jackie’s cocoa butter and slathers it across her front, concentrating on the jagged stretch marks that track up and down, her skin contracting in response.
‘Hello,’ comes Jackie’s voice accompanied by knocking. Emily barely manages to cover herself before Jackie’s head pops round the door.
‘Sorry love,’ I didn’t realise you weren’t decent.’ Jackie shields her eyes. ‘I’ve brought you hot chocolate,’ she waves the cup blindly at Emily, and backs off immediately, spilling apologies.
Ripping the plastic from the Winnie the Pooh pyjamas Jackie’s laid out for her, Emily steps into the bottoms and pulls the top over her head, tugging it to fit her swollen stomach. In the mirror, Eeyore’s face is plastered across her body; his normally sad eyes stretched wide. She hears Jamie calling up the stairs, but her eyes refuse to look away from the horrified donkey’s: Jackie never would have thought to get maternity. Has probably forgotten it happens so fast.
About the author: Rhoda Greaves is a PhD Creative Writing student, dog blogger, and Mum. She was awarded second place in the flash fiction competition Flash500 (2011), was longlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize (2012), and shortlisted for the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize (2013). Her work is upcoming for publication at Litro Online.
Image: (c) Rebecca Siegel
Image: (c) Rebecca Siegel