I sit at the line where the beach becomes the sea, enjoying the cooling when the waves wash into me and the tightening of my skin as the sun evaporates it, leaving traceries of salt. I pick through the stones, choosing the pretty ones; the ones that sparkle in the sunlight, the ones that are particularly smooth, the ones that have paint-box colours.
I find myself willing beauty into the pebbles, moving from the conventional, the pure, smooth white, to the quirks and interesting shapes. My hand is becoming full. I feel bad about the ones I didn’t pick up, but disregarded. Who’s to say they aren’t beautiful, in ways of being small, or large, or jagged, or plain?
I pick up more, and more, until I’m weighed down by beauty, in whatever form it takes, for beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I have the responsibility of being that beholder. I must undertake it to the best of my ability.
So is this what is to become of me? Am I to be the woman stooped with stones under the thick air, heavy with sun cream, because she couldn’t walk away from one of them?
Now, lying on my sun bed, as my bikini has finally dried, I feel the sunshine boring into me. It burns. Not my skin, really, but my soul. But the sun isn’t so bad; it’s the people around me that really burn. Their eyes stare straight through me, into my very core, the essence of me, located just behind my heart. It feels raw, painful, like an exposed nerve.
I feel naked, far beyond the yellow spotted bikini I bought for this trip; it’s more like they know too much about me. But they don’t know a thing. To them I’m just another thirty-year-old with a bit too much flab, but large breasts, which seems to be a redeeming feature nowadays, even to the ugly. I’ve come to embrace my curves, it emphasises the solidarity I have with 51% of the population. Or is it 49%? No, I’m pretty sure there are slightly more women than men.
Why is that I wonder? Strength in numbers against the sex that one day decided that physical strength made it the stronger, and so more privileged? Nature’s booby prize?
And yet we need them so, and always will, no matter what science is starting to tell us. I stare out at the ocean, undulating with its calm breaths, its abdomen swelling and receding, full of life. I swallow hard. So hard it hurts, as I try to repress the bubble. It’s been there ever since it ended; I can constantly feel it, but when I am reminded, it grows, presses against the back of my throat and stings the backs of my eyes.
I wipe away the water that’s leaked onto my cheeks. Not much, I am pleased to note, as I try not to think of my ex-husband. I try not to think of the way he would rest his hand just above my right hip as he introduced me to someone, or the rough texture of that part of his left earlobe (I never did find out what it was), and I especially try not to think about the way his green eyes had flecks of blue and brown in them. I fail, of course.
Though we were never married, we had such a connection, on so many levels, that it is only natural that I refer to him as my ex-husband, The only difference was my name and title, and the fact that we never lived together, as such. Of course, I have only begun to think of it this way since the split, and he doesn’t know. He’s with another girl now, but she’s just a fling. Although, he doesn’t know that, either. I knew him and loved him better than he knew and loved himself.
He’s the reason I took this trip: to get some space, discover myself again; have a rest. They suggested at work that I took some holiday, so I went on one, the first for years, and my first ever alone. It was somewhat refreshing not to be tied to the whims of another individual. Although now, sitting on the plane, waiting to take off homeward-bound, I can’t help wishing for that tie. I swallow hard and try to get the hole that is opening in my stomach to close again, or to fill it with something.
The pressure of the cabin presses into me and I feel trapped in it, trapped against all these other people. People with stubble and BO and cellulite. The man next to me has his legs wide open so that his knee is almost touching me. I squeeze my thighs together tightly to avoid contact. I can see that he must have shaved this morning, but missed a patch on his left cheek, just under a short sideburn. He has large pores on the bulbous nub of his nose.
I divert my attention to the window I’m sitting next to. Despite the early summer heat of the tropics we took off from, ice crystals are now beginning to form on the thick pain. Wisps of clouds, like baby hair, float underneath us, whipped up by the wind. I take a deep breath and the barren air is so dry it burns my nostrils.
I breathe out, slowly, staring down at my abdomen now. Swollen slightly from my rich holiday diet, I place my hand on my belly and smile. Yes. That would make everything right; of course. It seems so obvious now. I let the relief and peace flood through me; I can almost feel it tingling in my toes. The thrill of the secret ending my loneliness. Perfect.
‘Yes, I’m back now. Yes, perfectly safe.’ I smile down the phone to my mother. ‘Lunch soon would be great. I have some wonderful news.’ From her reaction I can tell she thinks I’ve found a new man, and is thrilled by the prospect. But it’s far better than that. I sigh and smile again, admiring the glow of my cheeks in the hallway mirror.
The restaurant is buzzing with people, but I hold my head high and walk through the tide, strengthened from inside. I smile at my parents as I approach their table and I wonder if they can tell. The secret hums inside of me, pushing against my skin; the glory of it seeps out of every pore and I think I must glow in the dark.
Finally the moment comes and I know that my life has been leading up to this announcement. ‘I’m pregnant.’
As I say it I feel the thrill of life thrumming through my veins, like the Tube under the skin of London around us, heavy and full. I start eating for two, and feeling nauseous in the mornings, and telling everyone I come across. The cards trickle in at first, but the flow gets heavier as word spreads.
Phone calls and invitations to lunch and tea hit me like they never have before. Now that there’s someone else inside of me I’m a complete person; people notice me, take an interest in me. Perhaps that was the gap I was missing before, which somehow trigged my invisibility switch.
Magazines tell me what to eat, what to buy, what to listen to, and I follow them strictly. I switch to baggy, mumsy clothes and start buying things. Small things at first: booties, a rattle, but soon enough baby outfits and a cot. Lemon Meringue for the nursery, with a Tiramisu carpet. Lovely. Names? Oh, I’m not sure yet, it doesn’t really matter.
I elude questions. Who’s the father? I smile at them, pitying, they just don’t understand. Due date? I offer them more tea. I now feel whole, fully myself, and I regard my body with pride. It is sacred; it houses the one thing that’s always with me, that I can rely on, that doesn’t question me.
I place my hand on my belly and smile, feeling warmth radiating within me. Yes, this just feels right. The phone calls become more frequent; Mother checking I’m alright, Father asking if I need anything, friends asking to see scans. They become so insistent. Mother keeps badgering me about the father. Why must there be a father?
Oh my dear, they say, how lucky for you—my ankles swelled up like melons. But my dear, you aren’t getting much bigger. Well, why should I? If I don’t want to I can stay as I am. My baby won’t mind. Darling, let me come to the hospital with you for your next appointment, my mother insists. I try to shake her off but she’s perpetual, clinging, sticky.
Father wants to discuss going private, booking a secluded room. Only a few months to go now, right? Right? Right? People want a date to throw a show. Surprise me. But what if it’s too late? It won’t be. Babies in prams cry directly at me and pregnant mothers scowl and me and fathers with toddlers shun me and tippee cups yawn at me and bottles point at me and packets of nappies fall on top of em at the supermarket so that I’m covered and drowning and being swallowed up by an avalanche and nobody notices.
So now I find myself at the bottom of my stairs, numb with the pain and blood pouring from somewhere. A tin of black paint pressed hard against my still flat stomach. The Xs across the nursery walls are calling to me through the closed doors. It was their fault. They caused this pain. It was them that made me lose what I never really had.