I can’t recall her name, but fortunately she’s one of those women who have to tell you about the conversations they hold with themselves.
“Barbara, I said to myself, that can’t be Alice Waters at the table in the window,” she coos, “so I crossed over for a closer look. And guess what? It is you.”
I try to look equally delighted at this revelation, and reach out to move my parcels, whilst my former work colleague collapses onto the chair opposite me.
As we go through the usual courtesies, the waitress bustles over to take her order.
“And how’s Baby?” she says as the waitress departs. She’s one of those people who seem to accord reverential status to others by missing out the definite article… people who say ‘I’m waiting for Nurse’ or ‘Doctor will see you now’. I remember that it always irritated me when we worked together.
“Oh, Rachel’s not a baby anymore,” I say, thinking of the robust four-year-old I’m due to pick up from the day-care centre in half an hour. “She’s quite a handful these days.”
“Four years… it seems like yesterday,” she sighs. “So much water under the bridge.”
She then proceeds to reel off a list of matches, hatches and dispatches at Jonas Carter & Sons, all of them relating to people of whom I’ve only the haziest recollection.
Except for one.
“And Rosemary was blessed with a baby at last,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “That was so sad, wasn’t it? You must have felt awful.”
The years roll back. Awful? Was that the word for it?
Barbara rambles on. “I expect that was why you left so abruptly? I mean, because you felt sorry for her, losing her baby when everything was going so well for you. Or did it spook you? I know we were all surprised you started your maternity leave so early. You’d said you were going to work right up to a couple of weeks before your due date.”
“I….” It’s difficult to know what to say. Then inspiration strikes. “No, it was because Nick was being transferred to Pendlebury. You know how the police are, they like to move you around, widen your experience. There was accommodation available close to his new station, and we were only renting at the time, so it seemed like a good idea to take advantage of the opportunity. But as you say, it would have made things more difficult if I’d been in the office.”
It wasn’t a lie. I had left earlier than planned. But not really for any of those reasons. Even now, I still couldn’t get that afternoon out of my head.
It had been a typical day at Jonas Carter & Sons. I worked in their export office, where Rosemary Travers was the longest-serving employee, and the de facto supervisor. They were the usual bunch of office girls, clique-y, bitchy and ditzy. I wasn’t one of the in-crowd, but as the newest recruit I didn’t expect to be, nor was that a situation I aspired to. The work was boring, but the pay was reasonable. I went in, worked hard, and didn’t make waves. I wasn’t particularly popular with the other girls, but neither was I unpopular.
“We’ll be at the Pig and Whistle, if you’ve nothing better to do,” Rosemary would occasionally say to me, glancing over her shoulder as they all left in a group at lunchtime. Besides allocating work, Rosemary also dispensed or withheld social inclusion. And my case she chose to withhold it, so far as reasonably possible. I didn’t mind in the slightest – I was there for a pay cheque, not a social life.
When I became pregnant though, things warmed up a bit. The girls were a lot friendlier, even though Rosemary remained fairly distant. Bootees were knitted, bibs proffered, and cuddly toys appeared at regular intervals. The girls were the ones now who invited me to the pub at lunchtimes, though I had a ready excuse for not going along now.
It seems every office loves to have a mum-to-be in their midst; perhaps it’s a welcome reminder that life isn’t all drudge and toil – that there is a more magical, creative side. People from other departments would stop at my desk to chat to me, ask me how I was, when I was due, and did I want a boy or girl. Nothing too intrusive, which was fine by me, though I suspected that a bit further down the line I was going to be in for a fair bit of belly-stroking. They were a tactile bunch at Jonas Carter & Sons. Lots of hugging and kissing, and that was just the men.
Through it all, I sensed, rather than saw Rosemary watching from the side lines. Occasionally though, I’d glanced up during the course of the afternoon I’d find her dark gaze upon me, weighing me up. I sometimes fancied I saw her grinding her teeth when any of the executives stopped by my desk to enquire after my health. I surmised that she’d always considered herself the official conduit between the hoi-polloi and these exalted beings, and my ‘interesting’ condition undermined this process.
So in a way it helped when, two months after my pregnancy announcement, Rosemary burst into the office one morning with news of her own.
“Guess what?” she’d announced, “I’m pregnant too!”
There’d been an uncomfortable moment; nobody had realised she was even in a relationship, but once over the surprise, people were as attentive to Rosemary as they’d been to me. Before too long, Rosemary, who could be a bit of a drama queen, was centre stage again, having cravings, fainting fits, rushing to the ladies to be sick and complaining about her ‘tender boobies’. I retreated, with some relief into the background.
As our pregnancies progressed, and since I was a bit further along, Rosemary gradually started to rely on me for advice and information. I think by this time she’d have liked us to be a lot closer than we were, but I managed to hold her at arm’s length, whilst feeding her with details of the routines she could expect at the antenatal classes, the ultrasound clinic and all the rest of the maternity rigmarole. I was just grateful she lived in a different catchment area and we didn’t go to the same antenatal clinics – that really would have been too much. We were just having babies for God’s sake, not pioneers in the art of childbirth.
Before too long, I found her holding court, dishing out, in the manner of a veteran, the information I’d supplied to her. It didn’t matter to me; I just wanted to get to the end of my pregnancy, not dwell on every step of the way. Everybody’s approach is different, I suppose.
Rosemary had certainly turned out to be different, though.
One afternoon, around four years ago, I’d been due to meet Nick after work, to choose a baby-buggy at Bentalls. Even though I was almost seven months gone, and was starting to feel very tired, I’d stayed late at the office to finish up a job. I was in the Ladies toilet when I discovered he’d texted to say he’d be delayed leaving the station. Sitting on the loo, I texted directions to the Baby Department, where I said I’d wait for him. All the time, I was aware of someone else outside the cubicle washing their hands, using the dryer, and then everything went silent.
When I finished the text and came out of the cubicle, I got the surprise of my life.
Rosemary, five months pregnant Rosemary, was standing by the sinks with the hem of her dress tucked between her teeth, whilst she struggled to adjust two of the four tapes that were holding a huge cushion in place over her stomach. Our eyes met, and we just stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity.
Then, she sprang at me, grasped my wrists and shoved her flushed face uncomfortably close to mine.
“It’s not what you think,” she hissed.
“You’re not really pregnant?” I said, incredulously. There was a brief pause.
“I was.” There was a hint of defiance. “But I lost it.”
“But all the stuff about your clinic appointments …?” I was shaking my head, not comprehending.
“I make it up. I just need time to get over it. To think how to tell people. I will tell them, but I can’t yet, I’m not ready…”
She stared at me, and in some small way it seemed that she too was digesting the impact of what she’d said.
I suddenly felt very uneasy. She seemed weird, unbalanced somehow. I freed my wrists and put my hands under the cold tap whilst my mind raced. Was this true? Why couldn’t she just say she’d lost the baby? Why go to these elaborate lengths to perpetuate the pregnancy pretence? Wouldn’t that just make things worse in the long run?
Or – and this insidious thought crept into my mind – was she simply such a drama queen that she hadn’t been able to bear not being the centre of attention and she’d totally invented her pregnancy? Had she’d been drilling me for information, just so that she could put on a convincing performance? And if this were true, how did she plan to resolve the situation? Because it certainly would have to be resolved eventually. This couldn’t go on indefinitely.
She was watching me closely as I dried my hands.
Perhaps, I was thinking, when I eventually had my baby, she’d pretend to have a miscarriage. That way she’d remain in the spotlight, still being the centre of attention. I immediately felt ashamed of even entertaining the thought. How uncharitable and nasty I was being. For whatever reason, the poor woman was clearly in need of help.
“Are you going to split on me?” she’d said, in a voice like steel.
I reached for my comb and ran it through my hair. I needed to cut her some slack here, and I also needed to get out into the fresh air. Away from her.
“Of course not, Rosemary. Losing a baby must be a terrible experience, and I’m deeply sorry. I’m not sure how I’d handle the situation if it were me. I don’t think I’d do it the way you’re doing it, but everybody’s different. I won’t mention this again. To you. Or to anybody. ”
Her shoulders relaxed, and her gaze lost that disturbing intensity.
“I promise. But I do think you need to get yourself some help, Rosemary. And soon. If there’s anything I can do to help, just let me know.”
I hurried from the cloakroom, thoroughly shaken. She needed help all right.
I was true to my word though. I never told anyone, not even Nick. If it were true, if she had really been pregnant and lost the baby, then I didn’t wanted to dwell on it, not with two more months of my pregnancy to go. And I certainly didn’t want to make Nick any more anxious than he already was, with this, our first child.
But, if that suspicious little voice at the back of my mind were right, if the whole thing was a cry for attention, an attempt to share the limelight throughout my pregnancy in order to steal it at the end… well I didn’t want to think about that possibility either. And at times I felt very mean, even contemplating that scenario. I didn’t want Nick to think I was capable of thinking like that.
The very next day Rosemary rang in to announce she’d had a miscarriage and would be absent from the office for several weeks. The girls were absolutely distraught, gathering in tearful little huddles for days, chuntering about whether they should make contact or leave her alone to grieve. I suggested we send some flowers with a message of sympathy which, I hoped, would indirectly reassure Rosemary that I’d not told the others the truth. It was the least I could do.
But I certainly couldn’t contemplate being there when she returned. That would be too awful for words.
“I just feel so upset about Rosemary’s loss,” I’d said to the office manager, “and it’s starting to make me feel ill now.”
He was really sympathetic.
“It’s dreadful for us all, so I can imagine how you must feel in your condition, Alice. Why don’t you start your maternity leave early? It won’t be easy with two of you missing, but we’ll cope somehow.”
I accepted gratefully, and left before Rosemary returned to work. I’d never seen her again. I’d not forgotten her though.
Now Barbara’s voice, and the babble of conversation in the tea shop, cuts through my reminiscences.
“You seem miles away. Is everything all right?”
“Sorry, just distracted. So Rosemary had a baby then? I’m so pleased for her.”
“We all were, especially after losing her first one like that. She was so brave, but I think it helped that when she recovered and returned to the office, you were already gone. I don’t know how she’d have coped otherwise.”
“No, I can see how difficult that would have been. So everything worked out for the best then, eventually. Did she return to work after maternity leave?”
“No, it was odd really, the coincidence.”
“Well, I think she felt a bit like you must have. Yvette, the girl who replaced you, well she was pregnant at the same time as Rosemary, maybe two or three months ahead.”
The hairs begin to prickle on the back of my neck.
“Don’t tell me she lost her baby…”
“Oh no … well she did, but not like that. You must have heard about it. A couple of years ago… it was all over the television and the news. She had a little girl, lovely little thing too. We all went to see her afterwards in the hospital. Emily, she called her. But someone got into the baby unit when no-one was there, and Emily was taken. It was only a few days after she was born. They searched high and low, but she was never found. Yvette went absolutely crazy, she was off work for months. She’s back now but she’s really fragile, even after all this time.”
I do remember seeing it on the news. I’d been horrified, like everyone else, and even Nick, who gets to see a lot of dreadful things in his job, had been quite disturbed by the reports. I’d been glad at the time that he’d not been assigned to that particular investigation.
“Well, the whole thing upset Rosemary dreadfully. You’d know this – that when you’re so far along you can’t help but imagine it happening to you. Maybe it’s your hormones or something, but like you, she just felt she couldn’t stand being in that awful atmosphere at work. We were all devastated but Rosemary really took it to heart. She started her maternity leave immediately… and then she went back north to stay with her mother. I think she was nervous about having her baby in the same hospital and having the same thing happen to her. Nobody wants to think there’s a nutter going around stealing babies. Eventually she sent a letter saying she was fine but she wasn’t coming back after her maternity leave, and we never saw or heard from her again.”
“She had a little girl, right?”
“Yes, did I mention that? She called her Emma, I believe. We wrote back asking her to send a photo but she never did. You lose touch with people don’t you? Are you sure you’re all right? You look really pale.”
I glance at my watch. “Heavens, I’m late. I need to pick Rachel up; the nursery will be wondering where I am.”
I gather my parcels, and air-kiss Barbara.
“It’s been lovely seeing you,” she says, “you must bring your little girl in to see us all.”
I force out a smile. “Maybe I will.”
I rush out of the tea-shop, leaving the bell above the door jangling crazily, and head towards the day-nursery centre. Suddenly I’m beginning to see how close I may have come to losing my daughter, and I need to feel my arms around her sturdy little body, hug her tightly, kiss her fuzzy blonde head, over and over again.
Then I’m going straight home, to see Nick.
I have something I need to tell him. Something I should have shared with him a long time ago.
He’s a policeman – he’ll know what to do now. He’ll know how to find Rosemary.
And the baby, that I suspect isn’t Rosemary’s baby.
This was another story that had achieved shortlist status elsewhere, and had been relentlessly edited and re-edited since then. I was conscious that with a huge “back-story” content, it was very heavy on “tell” and a bit light on show. I did my best on subsequent editing to redress the balance, and was delighted therefore that this one was awarded second place, behind “Triangles” in the Flash500 Annual Short Story Competition, 2016. This was certainly a competition I’ll remember for a long time. 🙂