Nina woke to find him half on top of her, his heavy arm all that was keeping her from falling out of bed. There was a fleck of spittle vibrating on his lip, his face cracked into the pillow like a child’s. She was breathing through her mouth. His pores exuded the fermented sweet and sour of the Chinese they’d consumed the night before, and, though she promptly added it to the list of his failings, she supposed that waking up with anyone had its drawbacks. On the positive side, he was boyish for his age, had his own teeth and hair.
“Men our age want someone twenty years younger,” her sister Kate never tired of telling her (Kate, who was in fact eight years older than she was). Men, in Nina’s experience, were too good at letting themselves go. Their general decrepitude bothered her, that guilty aura, as if they’d survived some dirty war. And nine times out of ten they’d have some special request tucked up their sleeves: the bassoon player at work – fly-blown, bloated – who suggested she shave off her pubic hair.
Stephen was the third man she’d met online. He lived at the opposite end of town, worked in Hackney with excluded teenagers. But it turned out he was doing an evening class round the corner from the flat. Fate, he called it, and they’d agreed to meet up afterwards one Monday night in the pub where all the other students met.
The second time, same place, a fortnight later, they were both more nervous. Between them, they’d managed to polish off two bottles of Chianti. She was telling him about the Finnish Disco Lesson, trying to explain to him how funny it was. “He’s exactly like our conductor,” she said. The clip was on Youtube, and doing the rounds of the orchestra. “The trousers! The way he looks at you – .” She tried to demonstrate. His laughter both encouraged and frustrated her. She was consumed with the desire for him to share the real thing, which, given that neither of them had the sort of phone that played videos, he promised to do as soon as he got home.
It would have been unnatural at this point not to suggest they went back to hers. The flat was a five-minute walk away, and the cold air, sobering. But she wasn’t in the mood to be sensible. Half the fun, she reasoned would be to witness his reaction. She lived on the top floor, three flights of stairs. She couldn’t wait. By the time they got up there she was breathless, finding it hard to get the key straight in the lock.
Inside, she dumped her bag, turned into the little sitting room, switched on the funnel-shaped lamp for him.
“I’ll get more drink,” she said, and disappeared, leaving him to sit down on the sofa, stretch his legs. The ceilings sloped. There was a table, two chairs. Shelves had been built into the eaves – a stacked-up music system, books, hundreds of CDs. She came back through with glasses, and a screw-top bottle under her arm, which she duly handed over, casting round distractedly. The laptop was on the table. She moved one of the wooden chairs over to the window and took the computer, fired it up, squatting on the floor to find whatever it was she was after, skipping impatiently through the ads.
“It’s porn, isn’t it?” Stephen asked, jokily, leaning sideways to peer around her head. Centre-stage, in a room suffused in a deep reddish glow, stood a man in a white V-neck and trousers, a dark-haired woman at his side.
Nina tapped the cursor to set it going, and scurried back to her seat.
“Cheers,” she said, as he handed her a glass, and she took a swig without taking her eyes from the screen.
The man had rolled-back hair, a ziggurat moustache. He addressed them in a sing-song: if-yu-kno…disco-dancing… like a child’s invented language. The woman took his lead, deadpan, rocking her pelvis, arms in sync like slow-moving pistons. Nina was transfixed. As the steps grew more involved she rose from her seat. The man gave a hitch of his hip, a shimmy to one side, and, Nina sprang back in a paroxysm of delight.
Disco-musak! the man called, and a perky drum machine began to pulse, the boppy electronics of a keyboard. Dansiman disco! From the margins of the room, couples began to sidle to the floor, men in gold-buttoned jackets, women in slacks and sandals. Nina grabbed Stephen’s wrist as the man took off, ranging freestyle, one arm loose from his waist as if he were dousing for oil. Her grip was so distracting that Stephen struggled to keep in check. He focused intently on the screen. “What’s with the arm?” he asked to show he was paying attention.
“It reminds me of a horse,” Nina said, burbling. She caught his eye. “An excited horse,” she said. He blushed to his core.
“Oh,” she said, “Hang on.” She lurched forwards. The recording had ended abruptly. “It’s better the second time round, I promise,” she said, and Stephen, who was going nowhere, lifted his shoulders weakly as if to say, I’m in your hands.
“Look at the face on her,” she said, as it began again; she was squinting at the screen. “Don’t you think she’s trying her hardest not to laugh?” The room tipped sideways as she got to her feet. She spread her arms to balance, then turned, catching him off guard. “Up!” She wiggled towards him. “Come on.” She grabbed hold of a hand.
“I don’t,” he said, half-raising his knees in protest. But she was determined. “Rubbish,” she said, yanking until he fell sideways. She tugged, and he gave in. She got him to stand by her side, looking down at his feet. She shook his arm. “I’m serious,” she said.
Yks, kaks, the man in the video counted, hands resting on his buttocks, sliding his soft, white shoes.
Stephen moved his feet ineptly. “There you are!” she said. But as soon as the steps got more complicated, he lost it, no sense of rhythm; they collided, jarred. Nina tripped away from him to the middle of the room, doing her own thing, hands above her head like maracas. Once he was released Stephen sank back into the sofa to watch, pulsing with excitement and the tender bruise she’d implanted on his hip.
“He’s dressed like a sperm,” he called, to remind her of his existence. “Like Woody Allen!”
“Do you remember that film?” Her eyes raced. “All you Ever Wanted to Know About Sex!” She was drinking him in. “Oh My God. I must have been about thirteen. It was absolutely terrifying!” She swung off again, aquaplaning, and then, stumbled, veered towards him. He raised an arm to break her fall, and they collapsed together onto the sofa, his hands full of her dense pounding flesh. Befuddled, spinning, he fell onto her neck, her shoulders, a fish-mouth of greedy kisses. And in a frenzy of tugging and plucking, their clothes flew off into the room like bits of shell. She was rolled out, newly hatched, no other impulse but the primordial one, to be impressed, to be taken and undone. He hovered over her. She eased her head from where it was propped and to accommodate him better shifted lower down the sofa, reaching pragmatically beneath the keel of him – that heat-seeking roving member! – there! – locked! – and taking stock, the engines perfectly attuned, they began to turn over, the heavy roil of water, gathering, churning, a confluence of glut and longing, the needles of the gauges quivering, holding tight – not yet, not yet – and in one extraordinary octapussy body, breasting the surface into upper air, the dials all turned to zero, O, O, O.
Left to its own devices the computer gaily leapt upon some other hand-me-down of seventies disco, and was pumping it enthusiastically into the room. The screen flickered. Neither of them wanted to make the first move. His chin rested on the ledge of her shoulder, she, with one leg at a right angle, toes glancing the floor. His chest throbbed, he was a dead weight. “You can go home now,” she said, her idea of a joke. She nudged him by shifting her hips. He breathed warm swampland into her ear, pushed out to face her, his eyes, so earnest she couldn’t meet them. She sidled from under him to put a stop to the computer, pulling the tartan throw from the back of the sofa and wrapping it round herself. He reached for his shirt.
In recent history three months was something of a record for Nina, the last few weeks of which Stephen had stayed over more often than not. “It’s the flat you’re after, isn’t it?” she teased him.
“You’re clever,” he said. “That’s why I like you.”
She kept their disco evening revolving in her head; picked at it in slacker moments at work. Sometimes when she summoned him to mind, he had the pelt of an animal, at others, the efficiency of a machine. Either way, however she managed to frame it, and however many times they’d repeated the experiment, nothing, it seemed to her, ever came quite as close. She couldn’t help wondering if it had been the drink, suspecting that being that drunk might be the only sure way she had to get over herself.
But the last thing she could face these days was a drink. Her innards girned, a dull throbbing at the base of her spine. She’d managed to twist away from him, prized herself from under his leg, and fumbled for the carpet. From where she sat she pulled the toweling dressing gown off the chair and swung it round, pushed her arms into the sleeves. He’d been wearing it; his musky smell was everywhere. She used the chair to haul herself up, her belly, tight as a pot, rubbed where the pressure was sharpest.
In the dim light of the bathroom a towel on the floor lay rucked up like a sloth. It stank in there too. He never remembered to put down the seat. She rolled her eyes, and with the tips of her fingers dropped it distastefully into place. She sank down. She’d been holding on so long, so wound up, that it took a real feat of concentration. She hissed. She hadn’t been able to get an appointment with a doctor ’til Friday, and she wasn’t going to discuss the possibility with Stephen until she was absolutely certain – certain she was, certain she wanted it, and that she wanted him to know.
The air around her was rank as vinegar. She imagined her insides pickled in it, ancient cloudy jars of gherkins with the pale seeds floating loose. She’d bought the pregnancy test in the Boots at the station on her way in to work. All morning the little oblong packet had burned a hole in her bag. In their first break she’d gone down to the basement loos. As she sat waiting the rotating fan down there had whirred like the flutter of wings. She hadn’t had to wait long: the prongs of blue were almost spontaneous. Upstairs, as she slid into position at the back of the section, she imagined that everyone could tell. The conductor’s baton found her out, and she wobbled on the end of it like a man on a high-wire. No one said a word. The sound of the orchestra stretched and distended like wax, she couldn’t keep up. By the time she got home, she was so exhausted that she doubted herself, convinced that it must be a fluke, some phantom mid-life hormonal cocktail.
Too restless to get back into bed, she padded into the kitchen, the lino clammy beneath her feet, and hobbled over to the fridge. The light from inside was brutal. He’d got into the habit of sticking things in there, willy-nilly: half a scotch egg, the slimy ends of a packet of bacon. A huge carton of milk loomed from the pocket of the door like the Titanic. Even the word, milk – the flaky crust around its lid – made her balk. She was breathing again through her mouth. She shut the door, and wandered over to the sink, ran the tap. How many times in London did a glass of water get pissed-out by someone else before you got to drink it? She took a few pip-sized sips, but it tasted like poison. She filled the kettle instead. The cooker was erratic; there was a knack to lighting it. The crown of gas clapped alarmingly before circling and settling like a dog to its ring. She stuck the kettle on.
In the sitting room she slid on a plastic lid. She flicked the light switch. Typically, though he’d been the last to bed he hadn’t bothered to clear up, cartons from last night’s meal strewn across the table – noodles like sandworms where she’d pushed them under her fork, the single embryonic glob of a water chestnut.
She teetered, a surge of outrage and nausea, made for the window. Grimly she hoisted the frame as far as it would go. The casement cord was broken, and she replaced the cardboard stops, posted her head sideways through the opening. Spits of soft rain landed on her nose and forehead. She shut her eyes, and the picture swirled like a Van Gogh. Too bad if she was sick out there over the ledge. It would serve the woman right, the selfish cow downstairs whose garden it was, her and her two standoff-ish cats.
There was no one Nina could talk to. She didn’t want it leaking out at work. And Kate was the last one she could tell about this: their confidences founded on the premise that their successes were discrete, their failures, commensurate. The hundreds of thousands of conversations they must have had over the years, the miniscule daily detail, when things – little things – had gone awry, or when things just didn’t happen: kids, specifically (the biggest failing of them all): how kids weren’t the be-all and end-all.
The stick was in its box at the bottom of her bag, and she resisted the temptation to have another look. She’d never discussed kids with him. It wasn’t a subject you raised straight off. Not at the age of forty-two, when you were in serious danger of looking desperate enough. She’d read a magazine article recently about sperm donation, and fantasized about what she’d choose if she were given the choice: brown eyes, six foot, intelligent, GSOH.
He was three years younger than she was and didn’t have kids already. So it could be that he’d never wanted them. Before Nina, he’d been with a woman Kate’s age for nearly ten years. Perhaps they’d tried and couldn’t? All he’d told Nina was that it had ended messily – she didn’t yet feel sure enough to ask him how or why. But the fact that she was older Nina chose to find comforting. Better a mother complex than a penchant for teenage girls. In fact his mother had died when he was seventeen. He’d nursed her. She died of breast cancer. Loosing her, he’d told her, though it was the worst thing that had ever happened to him, had been the best possible preparation for his job, and worth all the training put together. Perhaps it was why he’d gone into social work. There was always a reason a kid ended up doing what they did, he said. There but for the grace of God.
The stories he told her about his work were the sorts of things – if it ever came to it – she’d be telling Kate. Because she could hear her sister’s derision already, the obstacles she’d throw in his way. He knew next to nothing about music, not the kind Nina played. There hadn’t been much call for symphonies where he’d grown up, he’d said. She wasn’t a snob, she told him, though she was making some attempt to educate him. The Britten song cycle was a test: she’d chosen deliberately because it was a favourite of Kate’s, too. Blow bugle, blow! Stephen had had trouble keeping a straight face, the tenor voice, so girlish, so gay. And she’d had to restrain herself from making a dig about the kind of crap he liked, riled by his inability to understand how crucial this was to her. She wasn’t all laughs, all good time.
Inside the flat somewhere the kettle began to whistle. Her eyes popped open. For a moment she appeared to be trapped. What if it all ended now, bang: the kettle boiled dry, the blast like an IED that blew off the roof?
“Fuck’s sake,” she moaned, extricating herself from the clamp of the frame to go and turn off the gas. The rehearsal was at two. She’d put on a bath. The kettle hissed violently as she approached, hunched and malevolent as some cornered creature. How nice it would be to wash her hair of the lot, including him, who appeared to her now as the genius of this present chaos.
She pulled the dressing gown round, tightened the belt, and went back to hunt out her phone. It was where she usually left it, on the mantelpiece, but at an odd angle as if it had surfed on the plane of its own vibrations. Kate. A missed call, a text. Where are you?x.
Kate had made it perfectly clear that she thought the whole Soulmates thing was sordid. “As if meeting someone’s the be-all and end-all,” she’d say, their other sister, Julia, a permanent reminder of the pitfalls of marriage and child-rearing. It took very little to get Kate wound up. Perfectly intelligent women, she’d say, brain-washed: buggies, scented wipes, chatting happily about characters from CBebbies. What the hell had happened to feminism? It made her weep.
There was no room for contradiction with Kate, or doubt. Or the staggeringly contented look Nina glimpsed – and it was everywhere! – on the faces of women she happened to catch on her way in to work. Inviolate. Hanging from the ceiling straps in the stretch-jersey that drew attention to their bumps, and at which no number of unlikely commuters would leap to offer up their seats.
Nina took the phone over to the sofa, clambered up, pegging the hem of the bathrobe round her toes. She held it warily as if Kate herself were brooding inside. Will ring U later X, she typed swiftly. Send. She couldn’t face talking: anything she said would be a lie. But almost immediately the phone began to buzz. Kate, in little robot letters. Nina checked the door. If she’d been anywhere else, doing anything else, she could have ignored it. But she had the impression that it had her in sight, knew exactly where she was.
She pressed the phone to her ear. “Hello,” she said cautiously.
“Where are you? Where’ve you been?”
“I’m here. Working.” Nina cleared the back of her throat. “It’s been full-on. Sorry.”
“Are you all right? I thought you might have been abducted,” Kate said.
There were pictures of Kate when she was eight, carrying Nina as a baby like a prize marrow bundled over her shoulder. She would dress her jealously, and feed her and change her nappies. Later she’d tell her what books to read, take her on marches, to gigs, pass on her taste in clothes, teach her that no one would ever be good enough. “You’re not my mother,” Nina had yelled at her once, in the terrible time after their father had gone. “Leave me alone!” But on most things, ever since, they’d managed to concur, not least in their disapprobation of Julia, who’d invested from an early age in a very different kind of life. Julia, with her pig of a husband, her spectacularly unappealing children, palmed off every year with a two-week holiday in Greece.
Recently Nina found herself making more of an effort with Julia. She wondered if she might, after all, have more in common with her than Kate allowed.
“How are you?” she’d ask, ringing mid-morning, when she knew the coast would be clear. She was able to confide in Julia what she couldn’t tell Kate: that she’d started seeing someone, that he wasn’t a musician, and that he was nice. Nice?
“I know,” Nina’d said.
“What’s happened to you?” Julia asked.
And then Nina had made her promise, “Don’t tell Kate.”
“Why not?” Julia asked. “Why should Kate mind?”
“I don’t want to tempt fate,” Nina said.
“You shouldn’t let her be so controlling,” Julia said, and, though Julia wasn’t necessarily the most astute of judges, it did give Nina pause.
“You don’t have to tell me anything,” Kate had said, detecting the hesitation in Nina’s voice.
The door opened abruptly and Stephen poked his head into the room.
“But you could have texted,” Kate said. “I was worried.”
Nina smothered the phone on her shoulder, and mouthed something at him. He sauntered over to the window, trailing the loincloth of the bed-sheet, stretched and let the sheet drop, punched the air with his fists. Nina curled around the phone. “Can I talk to you later?” she asked. “Properly. It’s just, I’ve got a bath on.”
There was no response. Then Kate said, “Is someone there?”
“No. No one.” It had been a complete mistake to answer the phone.
Stephen thought he was being funny. He was standing in front of her, arms folded below the puckered shells of his nipples.
“Julia says you’ve got a boyfriend,” Kate said, coldly. “She said you didn’t want me to know.”
Nina churned, besieged. “She’s got the wrong end of the stick.”
Stephen listed forwards, a cocky smile on his face.
“There is someone there, isn’t there?” Kate said. “What’s the problem? Why can’t you just say?”
“It’s the radio.” Nina said. “Look. I’ll ring you later. The water’ll get cold.”
Can I have a bath? Stephen mouthed, jiggling his eyebrows; then crouched, squatting, balanced on the pads of his feet, poking the seat of the sofa to stay upright. Everything dangling. Ridiculous.
“Hello?” Nina said. She shook the handset. “Kate? Fuck,” she said, “she’s hung up!”
He plonked himself next to her, drew up a leg. She could smell the ripe rottenness of him.
“Thanks!” she said, crossly. She was wrestling with the toweling to find her feet. “I’ve pissed her off now.” She batted him away and he sprawled histrionically against the back of the sofa.
“You could have cleared up,” she said. “It’s disgusting in here.”
He snuffled towards her making simpering, puppy noises.
“You’re in the way,” she said.
He made a grab for her. “Fancy another go?” pulling her down towards him.
“Who brought you up?” she asked.
“Wolves,” he said.
She wasn’t going to relent. “I’m having a bath,” she said and disappeared. The room door shut behind her, the snub of the little bolt. From inside the pipes began to knock as if she was taking a hammer to them.
Steam ballooned into the room in great swathes. It was a relief to be on her own, to indulge in the flood of noise and with its suggestion of railway stations, Brief Encounter, escape. She went to the sink to catch the mirror before it steamed over. What if she told Kate she was pregnant and that she wanted to have the baby and keep it and Kate could help her bring it up? Would that work? She was shocked by how jaded and puffy she was looking.
Stephen was outside, he rattled the door. “Oi!” he called, “I thought you were going to let me in?”
“I want to think,” she said, raising her voice.
“Sounds dangerous,” he called.
“I want peace,” she said bluntly. She had let the dressing gown fall to her feet. Cupping her swollen breasts, she cast down at the purse of her unfamiliar belly, the distant criminal gangs of her toes.
There had been a small window of time before her older sisters were teenagers when all three of them had their baths together. Chasing round beforehand, naked, over-excited, she must have been about four when she’d tripped and fallen against the corner of the metal dressing-up box. She’d been carted off to the doctor in her nightie, Mum and Dad, as if she were their only child. There were stitches, orange jelly babies, and a magic powder to sprinkle on the wound when it seeped. Julia and Kate had been left at home, sobbing at the foot of the trunk because Kate had convinced them both that Nina was dead, and that it was all their fault.
Just below her right temple, she still bore the little boomerang scar. It marked her out. And now she had been marked again like chosen women everywhere, and – catastrophically – unlike Kate.
She turned off the tap and tested the water, ran the cold, slooshing it up the far end, pausing only to note the answering rattle of loose change. It was the saucer in the hallway where she kept her spare keys. And then the clunk of the door, the throb of footsteps. She was brought up short. He was cross. (Everyone was cross with her.) He hadn’t even said goodbye.
She’d started ’cello lessons when she was eight. There’d been a child-size instrument going at primary school, and she’d been the first to put her hand up for it. The one she had now was only half hers; the other half belonged to a Dutch bank. When she brought it home to practice she kept it in the bedroom. It was a grave responsibility, and she was nervous of letting it out of her sight.
Once she’d got out of the bath and dried herself she pulled on old leggings and a T-shirt, grey hiking socks. On the back of the bedroom door she caught sight of a jumper he’d left behind. She pounced on it. How mad was it to want him now she’d driven him away? Surely something vital had been missing in her education, some knack there must be for holding onto a man, or managing to like him sufficiently at the right time? She plunged her head into the fug of the sweater’s body, the long sleeves, frayed at the ends. Sometimes it felt as if the only thing she was any good at was breaking up.
She opened the ‘cello case, took out the bow and tightened it, unbuckled the instrument from its strap, and grasped the neck, grateful for its familiar solidity. She unscrewed the metal spike, set it into a pucker in the carpet, and positioned herself in the chair. In quick succession she flexed the fingers of her left hand, leant an ear to the fingerboard. The bow across the open strings sent up a puff of flowery rosin; she stretched down to adjust the tuning. The Haydn had been her warm-up since she was at college, and she set off into the first few bars. The acoustics in the room were terrible, the faster runs, horribly creaky and amateur. She kept going until she could bear it no longer. Her bow arm sagged, and she was seized with the impulse to do the thing damage, to hurl it away from her, across the room, to plunge her foot through its belly. She crushed the bow against the strings, and, forcibly, laid the instrument down on its side, backed off, moved as far apart as it was possible to get. Across the room the case gaped its crushed velvet lining. And not for the first time she thought of climbing in, pulling the lid on top of her like Tutankhamun.
A sound on the stairs startled her; it was the thud of footfalls rising from the lower landing. She wasn’t in the mood for the woman downstairs, and shrank, intending not to answer the door. But the next thing, there was a key in the lock. The woman had the spare in case of emergencies. But what on earth reason did she have to come up here now? The front door brushed across the carpet.
“Nina?” He appeared in the doorway, a paper bag in his hand. She didn’t move, though the way her stomach leapt to her throat she was dangerously close to throwing up. “I thought you’d left,” she said steadily.
“Went for a walk. I got you something to eat. Are you okay?”
She pressed her forehead onto her kneecaps, staring down the black barrels of her thighs. Her voice was disembodied like a smoke signal: “I was a cow.”
He laughed. “I can take it. Are you feeling better?”
She slumped. “Not really,” she said. “I feel sick.”
He came into the room and stood over her, then dropped to his haunches. “What’s up?” he asked.
She lifted her head a fraction, glared at the ’cello. “I hate it when I can’t play.”
He put a hand on her shoulder and she flinched. “Sorry,” he said. Then, sheepishly: “I thought it might be the time of the month.”
“What? No!” she snapped.
He got to his feet, backed away.
“I haven’t actually had a period for weeks,” she said, grimly.
He swapped hands with the paper bag and shrugged out of his anorak.
She clutched her knees together, tighter. She could hear the cogs in his brain. “You’re not – ?” he asked, jauntily.
She refused to look up.
“Not pregnant?” he said.
She stuck her chin to her kneecaps.
He backed against the frame of the door, put out an arm. “Fuck!” he said under his breath.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be anything to do with you. Nothing at all.”
He ducked out of the room. She glanced up. He’d disappeared. She heard water rattling in the bottom of the kettle, the mini-explosion of the gas. What the hell was he doing? There was a clatter of china, the hiss of a bin liner as he tied up the ends. No reason at all why she shouldn’t do this on her own. People did. That’s what she’d tell him. That bloody kettle, whistling.
He came through with a mug of instant coffee, and she might have saved him the trouble – coffee, too, was making her retch. In his other hand there was a plate with a croissant on it, which he prodded across the carpet. She stared at it for a moment, then pulled the plate towards her, reached and broke off a pointy end of the pastry. He sat down on the floor across from her, his back against the sofa, knitted his hands, cracked his knuckles.
“Don’t!” she snapped.
“Sorry.” He sat on his hands. “Sorry. Wow. Are you sure?”
“What? Yes. I think so. I don’t know.”
He snorted, a silly laugh. “I’d have thought it might have something to do with me?”
He’d better not try to make a joke of it. He couldn’t afford to put a foot wrong, she wanted to warn him of that. She could flare up like a gorse bush if he wasn’t careful. Like a shooting cactus.
“Have you seen a doctor?” he asked.
“Friday,” she said. “This Friday.”
“You’re feeling sick. That’s good, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” She looked askance. What did he know?
She couldn’t work out what she wanted to say. His hands now were flopped over his knees.
“I don’t suppose you wanted children?” she blurted.
“I hadn’t particularly thought about it,” he said.
“It never came up.”
“Didn’t it?” she glared, pulled her knees into her chest. “We hardly know each other,” she said, accusingly.
He turned the corners of his mouth, shrugged.
“It’s a huge thing,” she said. “It’s massive. I don’t know how you can be so casual.”
He huffed. “Give me a chance. It’s sudden,” he said.
She tore at the croissant, posted another piece into her mouth and chewed.
He was stroking his arm. “Is it such a disaster?” he asked.
“What do you think?” She was fair-skinned, but she looked paler than usual, washed-out, and there were two raspberry-coloured blotches on her forehead where she’d imprinted her knees.
“Are you happy?” he asked.
She jerked her head, as if happiness had never been an option. Happy. The word in his mouth was sweetly unadulterated, no cynical spin on it. She swiped at the tears that sprang in her eyes.
“Don’t be upset,” he said, surprised. He came over on all fours and began to rub her back, up and down. She hung her head, hair falling over her face so he couldn’t see. He was rubbing as if she’d fallen off her bike, picked her up from the floor, brushed down her scabby knees.
She put a fist to her nose. “I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“I don’t think that,” he said. “I’m not thinking that at all.”
She shuddered. He moved away from her because he seemed to be making it worse. “I have to get my head around it,” he said. “It’s a bit of a shock. I need to take it in. But it’s fine.” He stopped, and then, gently, as if he were lifting a hood on a hawk, steadying his gaze. “It’s great,” he said, his voice swooping upwards, arms folded tightly to contain himself.
“I wasn’t even going to tell you yet. It’s early. It might all go wrong. It might have all sorts of things wrong with it.”
“Of course you needed to tell me. They do tests, don’t they?”
“You don’t have to be involved. Don’t say anything now. Think about it. You don’t have to commit to anything.”
“You know what I think.”
She was eating the insides of her lip.
“You’re lovely,” he said. “I feel incredibly lucky. You know that. It feels lucky. Don’t you think?”
“What if it goes wrong? With us?”
“Why should it? We’re grown-ups. We’ll be fine.”
She stared. “It’s a car crash,” she said.
“No. I mean – .” She gave up trying. There was something irresistible about handing over to him. She lifted the hem of her T-shirt to blow her nose, rubbed her eyes. “I think it must have been that night,” she said, sniffing, and they both knew what she was talking about. “I forgot to take my pill. I never forget.”
“Ah-ha!” he said. He was up on his knees and began to shuffle towards her, shunting his elbows back and forth, “Disco feeling-kin.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” she said, and drew herself tightly into a ball, the deep red room, the golden curtain. “Iksi, Kaksi,” he was counting in a sing-song, and – she could still remember how marvelous it was – the joyful disco whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.