I must choose. It will focus me.
Today, the choosing will be in the style of Grace Kelly. I run a hand along the sleeves hanging in my walk-in closet and take out the orange, princess-line maternity coat. A colour analyst recently told me that I was a ‘summer’ and should be bolder in my choice of fabrics, wear more vibrant shades. I discard it, the bump is too big now, I look like a pumpkin.
Next up, the charcoal wrap. It’s cashmere weave is a miracle of warmth but too dull for Grace. Now the electric blue, silk-blend swing jacket. A quick check on the weather app suggests it is not substantial enough for an early Spring day but it’s my favourite: expensive, classy, makes my eyes look bluer. Everyone comments on my eyes: men see them ‘sparkling’, women call them ‘piercing’, so accessorising them with complementary shades of blue works well. I re-hang the discarded coats, fixing and buttoning them securely onto padded hangers to avoid accidental slippage. Graeme detests disorder.
I check myself in the hallway mirror, front view, side view, and am satisfied. With tentative composure restored I open the front door.
In these last few heavy weeks I have needed the iron handrail to negotiate the stone steps down from door to street. At the bottom, my breath is stopped by an icy wind that whips and burns through flimsy fabrics. My phone buzzes. It bulges in my pocket, spoiling the cut of my coat but I leave it. The unsettling encounter of the previous day should have been stored and forgotten, along with the other neurotic suspicions and uncertainties in my mental archive. Why did the university approach me, of all people, to take part in their research project? And why did I agree to it? I’m not remotely interested in gender-stereotypes in books for babies, it seems a ridiculous topic, a waste of money to prove what we already know: boys and girls are different. I made an error of judgement. I gave too much away.
The researcher’s office had been tiny but personal, not like an interview room at all. The sun shone in through a floor length window illuminating pyramids of books, largest at the bottom, covering every surface. She told me her name was Bernadette, and she seemed to like me: laughed at my jokes; nodded at my opinions; wrote them all down. She was striking but very clever, Hedy Lamarr in conversation with Marilyn Munroe, getting on famously. She was so friendly, so relaxed, I fell into telling her everything: how we met; how he proposed that we should have a child; how we decided to move in together. Graeme despises indiscretion. I am such an idiot.
A posed canvas photograph of her on a cruise vacation with a little girl was the centre-piece on the wall above her desk and, after spilling my beans, I’d wanted her to reciprocate.
“Is that your daughter?” I’d asked.
“Yes, on holiday last August. It was an odd trip to be honest.” She tapped the tip of her biro against her teeth and leaned back to consider the picture. I peered closer, startled by the coincidence. The oversized lifebelt they were leaning on announced in a colourful high-vis font that their cruise ship, Ariel, had docked in Cartagena for the afternoon.
“I think my husband was on that ship.” I’d said brightly, lulled by the camaraderie of the exchange and excited by the personal connection. “Maybe you met him?”
“Doubt it, Kirstin. It’s a huge ship.” She turned back to me, swivelling her chair so that our knees almost touched. She smiled and poised her pen. Her eyes were not an exact pair: one teal, the other emerald green.
“Graeme Brooks,” I’d persisted, “Tall, fifty-something, bushy eyebrows, talks a lot.” I’d laughed at my description without any real expectation that it would resonate with her.
“Are you kidding me?” she’d said. “We were at the same dinner table for the whole trip but he was with…” she’d interrupted herself, her expression growing smaller.
“I know, don’t worry,” I waved away her discomfort, “he was with his wife, ex-wife, it was before we got together.” She looked towards my bump then fixed my eyes, asking the silent question with raised eyebrows. “Well, you know, before we got together permanently,” I’d said. She had nodded, brushed imaginary dirt from her trousers and rearranged the papers on her desk. I was desperate for her to talk more about Graeme. I opened a long silence for her to fall into.
“I didn’t see much of her to be honest, they were never together.” This was excellent news and I struggled not to look pleased. “I can’t even remember her name,” she’d said, looking at me expectantly.
“No idea either,” I’d said, grinning, embarrassed at how unlikely this sounded. “He just calls her “the loony lush” or “the mad cow”,’ I’d added, still grinning like a fool. “I never actually met her. But you had dinner with her every night on the cruise, surely?”
“I only met her once and she didn’t drink at all. She was sick after the first night, ate in her room, never came back.”
Bernadette had lifted her notepad from her lap. What was she writing now? We’d moved a long way from pirates versus princesses. The tallest of the yellow tulips in a small vase by the window radiated sunshine, a yogic drishti, but I couldn’t fix on it, couldn’t re-orientate, could not let it go.
“But she didn’t leave until the last port, you must have seen her again, surely?”
“She left? In Vigo? That doesn’t make sense. She disembarked with us at Southampton. Well, at least, I thought she did, Graeme said that she was in the ladies’ room when I wanted to say …” Bernadette had stared at me again, eyes flitting between bump and face.
I’d gathered my things, apologised, promised to return for the follow-up session, apologised again, promised to meet for lunch, kept apologising, promised to keep our meeting a secret from Graeme. She’d called after me but made no attempt to follow. Panic blurred my vision, squeezed my heart, shortened my breath. I cradled my bump with both hands as I hurried through the maze of corridors turning into more corridors, dead ends, alarmed fire doors. I could hear the sirens that had screamed so insistently in my own head echoed in Bernadette’s expression.
She let me escape yesterday but, call it instinct, I know the text is from her. My phone thumps into my hip as I walk. I can’t face the underground today. I turn back. It’s freezing, the baby is too heavy and my heels are too high. I summon Audrey Hepburn to restore some dignity and elegance to the journey: she brushes away wind-whipped tears, smudging make-up on my cashmere glove. She wants to hail a cab but I walk on: Graeme detests decadence. As I climb the three steep steps to my front door my phone lights up again. It might be Graeme: I have to check.
Great to meet you yesterday. Let’s do lunch at Forum’s. Friday 1:30.
I delete it and let myself into the darkened hallway of my lovely house.
I must rest. I have spent twenty minutes running through my yogic breathing repertoire and am still as tense as a tightrope. I push fat cushions under various bits of fluid retentive flesh and try to sink deeper into the cold hard comfort of my Chesterfield sofa. A screenshot of Bernadette’s text has seared itself on the inside of my eyelids. I have devoted considerable energy to relegating irrational anxieties to the catalogue of fabricated nonsense in my brain, I am not equipped to have them realised in the rational world. What happened to that woman? Where is she now?
The cycle of disquiet and denial only began when I became the de facto wife. I had my chance, the phone call I overheard the week before I moved out of my apartment, was, I see now, the pivotal juncture in my life: the critical moment when I could have acknowledged that things didn’t quite add up and run. I had no fear or scruples about holding the door ajar to eavesdrop, I had burned all my bridges to be with him, I had to be alert. Through the crack in the door I could see him in the mirror, hunched over my dressing table, the bedside spotlight casting stark shadows under his eyes. His attitude compelled me to listen: the bombastic bluster had an unfamiliar undertone of self-doubt. ‘There are too many memories associated with the house, my wife needs a break with the past. I will be in touch when we are settled; her notes will need to be transferred.’ There was no sign off, no thank you, no goodbye.
I went at him, accusing, incoherent with rage and panic. He fastened my flailing arms and declared that he and I were moving together, as a family. It didn’t make any sense but it was thrilling to hear. How attractively I wept in the dim light of my shabby sitting room, how delicately I apologised and how thoroughly I relaxed into his embrace in order to wallow in the splendid realisation of my ambitions. My mother was so proud that everything she possessed she had earned; that nothing had been bought on credit; that she owed nothing to anybody. I have no interest in self-inflicted suffering and revelled in my successful escape from the generational cycle of hardship she had destined for us both.
I must try to stay present but the black velvet gentleness of afternoon nap I’d anticipated is obscured by Bernadette’s face, morphing from bewilderment to suspicion to alarm. I recognise that transition. The first time it happened to me, the woman’s name, Barbara, drew me in. I stood behind him and watched him type, ‘Hi Barbara, I can’t tell you how much our correspondence means to me. How kind you are to keep it up – we spent so little time together on the cruise. Graeme is always keen to hear about how things are going with you both and sends his warm regards. I pray for you…’. Graeme had slammed the lid of the laptop shut the instant he felt my presence.
I walked round to face him in incredulous silence. With the despair of a long-suffering victim he insisted that he had given me no cause to go creeping about in the night spying on him. He reminded me that he was faithful and generous and self-sacrificing and that I didn’t deserve him. He was right, of course. He was, and still is, all of those things. He persuaded me that the baby would bring us closer together and, to be fair, he has proved himself true to his word. Whatever he did to make it easy for us to be together obviously worked.
I begin, at last, to glide into the delicious realm between consciousness and sleep. I am momentarily weightless. I reach towards the coffee table, an automatic response to the ‘ting’ of my phone.
Hi Kirstin. Just checking. Are you on for Friday?
I let the phone rest on the rapid rise and fall of my chest. I know that Graeme would not be thrilled to discover that I was considering seeing her again. When I proposed ‘Bernadette’ as a name for the baby last night, he almost choked on his sirloin. He declared that the only Bernadette he had known was a terrifying harridan of a woman, a flame-haired daughter of Satan. There is no doubt that we are acquainted with the same Bernadette but why would she lie? Did the Lush really only go to dinner once? Didn’t anyone ask where she was? Didn’t they think it was odd? Did anyone see her again?
The story of her disappearance simply doesn’t add up. I am pretty sure that there are strict checks about who gets on and off cruise ships. I tried asking subversively innocent questions about ship security, immigration procedures and missing passengers but the last, and final, time I broached the subject resulted in one of the most verbally violent of his rages. Blue veins throbbed dangerously in his crimson temples and with each of many curses he’d splattered threads of saliva across my face. I can’t risk that again but there are things I need to know: Is she dead? Is he responsible?
I click the remote to open my heavy, brocade curtains and let the late afternoon sunshine encourage me from the sofa. I have managed a short nap and am reanimated by the prospect of selecting from Jamaica Blue or Guatemalan Espresso coffee beans to brew a complicated cup of coffee. I walk barefoot into the kitchen letting the cold, hard marble shock my body into full wakefulness. I place a cast iron trivet on the granite surface of the kitchen island which gleams beneath the skylight, high in the ceiling. Graeme is very particular about trivets and coasters and placemats. A kitchen material that can’t tolerate heat seems very stupid to me, idiotically unfit for purpose, but it is in my interests to keep the peace. His fixations and obsessions are much less irritating since I discovered how they can, almost always, be turned to my advantage. Knowing that every doctor will prescribe a liberal dose of ‘take-it-easy’ for all pregnancy related ailments, I only had to spend three lazy, bed-bound days listening to the silent settling of the dust before he hired a daily domestic. I was not put on this earth to clean.
Hi Kirstin. My friend Mattie, who was on THE cruise, is down from Manchester. We NEED to talk to you. Call me.
I wonder if they’d remember her voice if I played the audio? I wasn’t snooping when I found the USB, it was purely accidental. I do, obviously, check frequently through his phone records and his laptop, empty his pockets, read his receipts, search through his wallet and comb every inch of his overnight case looking for false linings. But on this occasion, I had just been trying to please him with feigned frugality by having replacement soles fitted on his expensive dress shoes. The audio files were stored on a USB drive in the hollow of one the heels. I breathe deeply, trying to shake her out of my head but she’s insistent: talking at me through the computer, announcing their arrival in every port, wishing a ‘nice day’ on their travelling companions. If anyone had called her room the answerphone would have announced that Mr and Mrs Brookes were on an excursion and would get back to them. There was something inscrutable about her voice which modulated just beyond a monotone: was it ironic? sad? mocking?
My first thought was that he had kept it for sentimental reasons and I sniffled miserably as I replaced the USB in the heel and dumped the shoes surreptitiously in the neighbour’s dustbin. I must admit that later in the day I toyed with the possibility of more sinister implications but assured myself that the story behind the messages must be benign or he would have destroyed, not just concealed, the gadget. The Lush probably put the USB in the shoe herself.
I stare at Bernadette’s text, playing conflicting scenarios through my mind. I switch my phone to ‘private browsing.’ She must be somewhere on the internet, everybody is. The search engine returns a list of unimaginatively named private investigation agencies. I scan the web pages and it occurs to me that they have little to offer that I couldn’t actually do myself. My mind is swimming with ideas and schemes: there are too many considerations to trust to memory. I am anxious that my pregnant brain might forget some vital detail so I choose an unfinished notebook from amongst my journals, hidden where I know he will find them. This one must be small enough to hide properly, along with my other secrets.
Stalking is such a time sink. It’s twilight. I slide and stretch across the silk counterpane of my emperor bed to calm myself before Graeme gets home. The front door slams. I slip the notebook into the closet, under my bracelet tray, and Ursula Andress glides down to meet him. He is standing in the sitting room looking pleased with himself. He holds out a perfectly shop-wrapped package. Inside the bows, ruffles and baby-shaped confetti is a teddy bear. Small and pink and tagged with an expensive label. Ursula sighs gratefully and sensuously. We spend our evening leafing through nursery catalogues by the flickering log fire, stroking the bump and laughing our way through the baby name book. I don’t tell him that I have already chosen her name.
The moment he steps into the shower I retrieve the campaign notebook and place it deep within the outside trashcan. I know what she looks like. I know she worked in a book store. And frankly, it’s as much as I need to know. That’s quite enough of that nonsense. Graeme has given me a fictionalised reconstruction of the past but in the movie sequel I am the star of my own happily-ever-after romcom. There will be no more doubts, no more questions. Baby girl will be in my arms by the end of the week; my life is perfect.
I type item 3 into my task-tracker phone app:
- Pick shirts up from Dry Cleaner
- Pack hospital bag
- Block Bernadette
Graeme has gone to bed. I move swiftly through the house, clicking off light switches as I go: mustn’t waste money, mustn’t keep him waiting. Your name is Jade I whisper to my daughter. I smooth my hands over her outline and climb the stairs of my beautiful house, pleased with the future I have made for her.
Two days to go. I have slept late and feel worse for it. I swing my legs off the bed and let the sumptuous pile of my bedroom carpet ooze up between my toes. My mouth is dry, my tongue thick with stale garlic, wine dregs and nightmares. I need coffee. A car horn punctuates the white noise from the recently fashionable London street outside my bedroom window. Looking down on the random mid-morning activity, I am drawn to the backseat of a taxi cab moving too slowly past my house. Bernadette is staring up, fixing me, radiating intensity. TING!
Good morning Kirstin.
We have reported Marilyn Brookes missing. I wanted you to know before they come looking for her. Call me anytime.
A trickle of liquid runs down my leg. Then it breaks.