BEDTIME BOOKCLUB

The Growing Season By Helen Sedgwick

Imagine a world where it’s no longer just women who can get pregnant – where men, single people and gay couples can bear children, thanks to groundbreaking technology that enables you to grow your baby in a “pouch” that you carry around like a papoose. It has helped create a utopia where all genders are considered completely equal, although look a little closer and all is not what it seems. Chinks start to appear, prompting Eva, a woman who has devoted her life to campaigning against the pouches, to investigate. At first glance, the plot for The Growing Season looks fantastical, but if you’ve read any recent headlines, you’ll know this future could be just around the corner – a few months ago, scientists found a way to keep premature lambs alive in plastic-bag “uteruses”. If that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, nothing will. LD

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THE GROWING SEASON

Helen Sedgwick

£12.99, Harvill Secker

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Imagine a world where it’s no longer just women who can get pregnant – where men, single people and gay couples can bear children, thanks to groundbreaking technology that enables you to grow your baby in a “pouch” that you carry around like a papoose. It has helped create a utopia where all genders are considered completely equal, although look a little closer and all is not what it seems. Chinks start to appear, prompting Eva, a woman who has devoted her life to campaigning against the pouches, to investigate. At first glance, the plot for The Growing Season looks fantastical, but if you’ve read any recent headlines, you’ll know this future could be just around the corner – a few months ago, scientists found a way to keep premature lambs alive in plastic-bag “uteruses”. If that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, nothing will. LD

Chapter:

One

Audio log

7 Feb 2016 18:32

This will be my last audio log. I’ve been thinking about how to explain, though perhaps it doesn’t matter now anyway – you didn’t come, and it is too late to make a difference. So I think I might end with the story of the indigo hamlets. You remember – those luminous tropical fish I used to talk about? For ten years I’ve kept them in my aquarium in the outhouse. When I stand between those four walls of Caribbean Sea I can imagine myself in a coral reef with no glass keeping me separate. I suppose they’ll be dead by the time you hear this, but that’s probably for the best. Fish should not be kept in a tank any more than animals housed in a cage or humans confined to a role. We all of us need our freedom, sooner or later. Don’t you think?

I went out to the rocks this morning, before sunrise. It is not as dark as you might imagine, when your eyes are accustomed and the moon is past waxing gibbous. But I do realise that a fall could kill me and I am not ready to die, not just yet, so I wore my head torch and carried a hand-held beam strapped tight to my wrist. The path out to the black coast is muddied and frozen this time of year. Covered in thin sheets of ice that crack under my feet and puddles that trap my ankles, sinking me shin-deep into half-hearted bog.

I call it the black coast for the rocks, fractured and pitted as they are. Deep like charcoal but sharp as etched glass. Sheets of them stretch out when the sea is away, lives upon lives of sediment. This morning, though, the sea was close in, and the waves were thrashing against the dark sandstone. I wondered if they were trying to claw their way right up into my lighthouse.

I feel alive, standing at the coast, my feet planted – like this – on the rock and my body braced against the wind. It believes I am not a challenge, that wind. It sees only an old woman but it has not blown me over yet. It stings my eyes with grit-salt until they’re raw in the corners and weeping but it does not blow me over. It is hard to imagine anywhere else when you’re facing those waves, standing on those rocks. But even there – even now – there are times when I am in two places at once. When I am living in two times. I am an old woman standing alone with her scowl and I am a young woman sitting among the dark wood and towering bookshelves of that basement room in King’s. The feel of all that cold stone underfoot, the echo of it, the smell of the professor’s tobacco mixing with a hint of stale chlorine that could have come from the lab or from the clean floor in the corridor. That room is as still and timeless, in its way, as the ever-changing black rocks of the peninsula.

‘You can have the post,’ he says to me. His beard doesn’t move as he talks and it obscures his lips – I only see the flash of teeth. ‘Fixed term,’ he says. ‘Three years. You will be expected to publish.’

‘Of course,’ I say, not wanting my excitement to show.

‘I see you have a reference from our Dark Lady.’

He chuckles. His eyes are amused. He seems to find himself amusing.

‘Though Rosy’s not working on cell fertilisation, is she?’

I give a clipped smile as my excitement changes into something vaguely sickening. These are the names they call her, behind her back. The Dark Lady. ‘Rosy’. I’ve heard them before – everyone has – and we all understand the implied insults, too. What an affront, to be a woman. To be that type of woman. I chose to use her reference for a good reason.

He leans across the desk with a reassuring expression, like you would give to a child.

‘Well, let’s see what you’re made of, eh?’

I think he might be about to pat my hand, so before he can I snatch it away and push my chair further back from the desk. It scrapes, nail-like, along the floor. I can hear the screech even now.

I meet his gaze.

‘Thank you,’ I say, standing up, keeping my back rigid and my expression professional. I want to get away from this man, who makes me feel small even as he gives me what I came here for. But if I am to work here, I know that I must be able to work with him.

He stands too. Towers over me. Holds out his hand, expecting me to shake it. I haven’t accepted his job offer, though he assumes that I have.

I am hesitating.

The world spins. The bookshelves grow until they meet in an oppressive arc over my head. I’m trapped in a labyrinth of dark wood and pristine white, of labs and stone and chemicals, and I know, with my arm half raised to take his hand, that my decision in that instant will be the decision that makes the difference. But the flagstones are turning to sharp black rocks that glisten in the sun and my fingernails are aching in the cold. Way out to sea, far beyond the rocks and the whites of the waves, I can see dense storm clouds gathering. I am an old woman again and I start to make my way home, thinking about the indigo hamlets.

I wish I’d told you more about them when you were young. You would have listened then – remember how you used to listen to me, as though my ideas could change the world?

Truth is, it’s been a long time now since I spoke to anyone. I am alone here, quite completely. I’ve made sure of that. The storm has been threatening all day and the lamp glasses are rattling in their frames – perhaps there is an earthquake shaking the foundations of my lighthouse. But I’m going to imagine instead a sea so warm it caresses my toes, a landscape of gently ribboned anemones and shoals of lilac-moon jellyfish, a glowing world of multicoloured coral where I wouldn’t have had to fight in the first place. That is where the indigo hamlets live. And now I’m going to finish where I started, with their story. Close your eyes, just for a moment. Forget how angry you are.

They leave their home ranges before sunset to search for a mate in the warm saltwater reefs of the western Caribbean. When they find a partner – and they find true partners – they wrap their transparent tails around each other and use their blue-white fins to swirl themselves through the sea. They turn together so close that their love dance spins the water into a vortex. It’s beautiful to watch: an extraordinary combining of colour and soft threads of DNA in the sheltered valleys between tall mountains of snowflake coral. They share, the indigo hamlets. They take turns. That is what makes them so special. They release alternating sets of gametes, male one moment and female the next, and it seems to me that they whisper the truth of how it can be. I want to join them but I can’t because suddenly I am back, transported against my will, standing in that room surrounded by the smell of stale chlorine. I have a choice and I must make it. I can walk away to live my life elsewhere. Or I can stay, and become a scientist. This is where the path splits. The world changes.

But now I hear the wind shaking the window glass and feel the air thickening around me. It is no use. The dense purple clouds have reached the black rocks and I made my choice a long time ago and I understand that the storm has finally—

***

Eva often felt that the entrance should be dilapidated in some way – paint chipped off, perhaps, windows in need of a clean. Nothing too dramatic, just a hint of changing circumstances. They had a local community group, though, like most neighbourhoods, and it was very well funded – her windows were cleaned regularly, fresh paint applied each year at the start of spring. Apparently it was more important to make sure the building looked good than to fund the work being carried on inside. It wasn’t even the government she was most angry with.

The winter sun made the window glass shine, glint gold as she glanced up. One of the shelter vans drove past behind her; there must have been a report of someone sleeping rough last night. No sign of them now though – the street appeared flawless. She unlocked the front door, which was painted a deep olive green, and collected her post at the reception. There were flowers on the desk, luminous oranges and purples with each petal larger than the head of a rose. The heating was on full blast. Eva reluctantly smiled at another smiling woman and headed for the stairs. Sometimes she felt like something had gone very wrong with the world.

Her mum had told the tale of how she started the group so many times it had become a sort of genesis story, to their family at least, to their supporters. Women, it always began. We are women. Eva held on to the banister as she climbed, almost pulling herself up the stairs. She felt tired. Was tired. And frustrated, and more beyond that. The staircase was so familiar she could have walked it with her eyes closed, though what she did instead was stare at the small square patches of light that came in from the windows at either end of the stairwell. The beams of sun were strong, low-angled, bright enough to catch the tips of her eyelashes when she blinked. As she reached her floor she noticed, with relief, that the air was colder there – the landing window was open, letting in a breath of December. She felt it cooling her neck, straightened her back then checked with an open palm that her hair was suitably spiky today.

Once inside the office, Eva dropped her bag on the floor by the desk and took a seat. It was a large, light-filled room that ran the length of one side of the building. Large, and empty. Recently she’d repositioned the desk and chair so she could look out – different to how her mother had it arranged, with multicoloured furniture and throws and cushions, scarlet and purple and turquoise, every seat facing inwards, a welcoming circle. No, Eva wanted to look out, to be able to stare out at the world and watch what was happening face-on.

The windows overlooked a small park, though park was probably too grand a name for it – every spare space in London had been turned green over the last few years. So much planting had been done, so many new patches of grass sown, and all those bulbs resting quietly under the ground, waiting for spring. She thought the office had once had a view over a car park, but she couldn’t quite remember. Perhaps it had just been a bit of street where cars had parked. Now it was an elongated triangle of grass with chestnut and cherry trees along the sides and neat wooden benches in between. People went there for picnics, in the summer, parents and children. Today there was just a couple walking their dog. She looked to see if they were carrying anything, but saw to her relief that they weren’t.

She began with the slim white envelope, slid her finger along the seam and pulled out the contents. Next she did the same with the handwritten one, and then the brown envelope with the pristine address label on front – she didn’t bother to read the words, just placed the bill and another two letters of disagreement on her desk and clicked on the screen. Her long coat was starting to feel heavy on her shoulders and she could feel a trickle of sweat running down her spine, but she wouldn’t take it off. It had belonged to her mother, and perhaps her mother’s mother before that. The screen lit up, but didn’t show the login box. It was an old computer. Probably needed an upgrade it would never get. She pummelled the enter key, even though it was useless. Then stopped.

Leaning back in the chair, which adjusted for her comfort, she allowed her eyes to linger on the factory-set pale blue screen of her computer. There had been a photo there once. She closed her eyes, just for a second. There was no point in feeling sorry for herself, but she wanted to take a moment to listen. She listened to the soft pad of footsteps walking across the shared office space upstairs, to the drone of traffic outside, the murmur of indistinct voices from the start-up across the hall, the whisper of warm water owing through cold pipes. And her own breath, the only sound coming from her office as she drew air into her lungs and held it there, imagining the oxygen passing into her capillaries, travelling, eventually, to the left side of her heart.

Enough.

She pulled open the empty bag that she’d carried from home and stood up, shrugging the coat from her shoulders. Walking around the edges of the room she ripped the last of the brightly coloured posters off the cream walls. It didn’t take long.

Eva could remember coming into the headquarters with her mother when she was a child, how full of people it had always seemed. There were several desks in the room back then, though people rarely sat at them, preferring the comfy chairs and low sofas arranged all around for volunteers and visitors. They came to help with campaigns, sometimes, to raise awareness. They came because they needed to talk or because they were unsure, because the facts seemed to say one thing while their instincts were saying another. They came with ideas and with doubts and her mother offered a place where they could be shared, and where they would be welcomed. Where had they all gone, those people?

We are women, her mother would always begin.

And then, four years ago today, her mother had died.

An old-fashioned stapler. A note pad, phone recharger, pens, some letters of support from years ago, all went into the bag along with today’s post and her favourite chipped coffee mug with the half-handle that no one else could hold. She checked her email, though she didn’t know why she was bothering. Clicked through to watch the latest vlog from FullLife: another beaming couple, another newborn. The comments had been disabled. Below that, an interview with the FullLife director calmly reassuring everyone that nothing had been stolen during the break-in last week. Eva stared at her face. At her smiling, lying face. They had probably been going for the newly released covers. The ones that everyone wanted, and some could not afford.

She imagined the laptop making a sigh as it shut down, though it was perfectly silent. She slipped it into her bag. There was hardly any furniture left. The single empty desk and chair she would leave for whomever it was that came next. They would know nothing about her. Or her mother.

She stood up and pulled the bag onto her back. How easy it was, to bring something to an end.

Two

As she walked to the station, no idea what she was going to do next, Eva found herself standing underneath the railway bridge, looking up.

One hundred thousand lemmings can’t be wrong.

That’s what it had said – Eva remembered it from when she was a child, though she hadn’t heard the phrase for years. How had they done it, she’d wanted to know, how had they hung one-armed off a bridge and maintained stability enough to write? Such determination to break the law must come from somewhere. And now, standing under the same bridge, painted a soothing pale green – it was the most relaxing colour to view, and so it had become a very popular colour to use – her eyes searched under the layers of paint, under the years, the decades, for that same scrawl.

It was gone, of course.

A couple walked past, the man’s hand cupped affectionately – though not protectively – around the curve of their unborn child. Five months, Eva thought, perhaps six. Enough that the pouch looked full but still comfortable. Very comfortable, she knew. They had chosen a winter cover of fluffy red fleece. Christmassy. Festive. The last few years had been all about the accessories.

They saw her staring.

‘Are you OK?’

They asked kindly. So kindly her reply came out more wistful than angry, though she wasn’t wistful, and she was angry.

‘No one makes graffiti any more,’ she said.

The man looked up at the bridge then over to the woman beside him, questioning, and she explained.

‘She’s talking about vandalism.’

He looked a little shocked, though he hid it well. Eva could imagine his thoughts: Perhaps she was a historian. Perhaps she was writing a book – doing research.

She adjusted the bag on her back. It was larger than she’d needed, and awkward on her shoulders. Beams of light shot through the gaps in the bridge’s security barriers.

‘Why would anyone want to vandalise anything?’ he asked.

Eva didn’t reply. She didn’t think she had the fight left in her.

The man stood still, an uncomfortable smile on his lips. She knew that he didn’t need to adjust the straps of what he was carrying.

She had tried one on once, years ago, when she was young and would happily have argued with any stranger in the street. She’d wanted to understand – what it felt like to wear one, but more than that as well. The appeal of it. It was before all the different textures were available, though there was a range of colours. Bright yellow, she’d requested, fluorescent, like one of those tropical fish.

‘This is the equivalent of six months,’ they’d told her, as they let her strap it on over her T-shirt. In the early days the FullLife doctors had helped people position it, over the shoulders, snug on the belly, but they realised it was making people nervous – much better to do it yourself, they decided, then you can see how easy it is. How versatile. How safe.

Back then they’d used them in schools as well, as props – teenagers given the chance to see what it’s really like, carrying an unborn child. It didn’t put them o , although whether that was really the intention she’d never been sure. These days, celebrities made a show of designer pouches, of being friends with their children as well as parents – holding hands down the street in their matching outfits, courting the paparazzi. The pouch had become trendy, especially among the young – why wait, when you could study part time and still have your career, now parenthood was equal; and it came in such pretty colours. There had been FullLife sponsorship for all baby pouchers at first, to make financially feasible what today was offered as a free-of-charge benefit to every health-care plan. And if you didn’t have a health-care plan, there were always used pouches available. FullLife were very generous with them.

The texture was almost butter-soft, but padded too, and it slipped into place so easily it terrified her. She’d made a mistake with the colour. Tropical-fish yellow was what she actually might have wanted, had she been a different sort of woman who was not horrified by the baby pouch. Instead she should have gone for a deep black-red, like the colour of the inside, to remind herself of what it really was – to make sure she didn’t slip, quietly, into feeling at ease with it. Even though there was no baby inside the trial pouch she was wearing, she knew she could not let herself relax.

But she had persevered. She’d worn the pouch for the full day, felt the weight and warmth of it, the way it moved against her skin. She’d recognised the feeling of selflessness that would come from carrying something precious. As night fell she’d hung it up on the pouch stand, just like they told you to, turned on the incubator and attached the nutrient bag to the feed on the pouch’s surface. It provided more than food to her imaginary baby; it was what the pouch needed to sustain its cells, its entire biological environment. She closed her eyes thinking of every way that it was wrong. But in the morning it was still there, waiting for her. Warm and inviting. Despite everything, she knew the comfort of waking after a peaceful night’s sleep to reach out a hand and stroke.

The couple wanted to leave, she realised, but didn’t want to be impolite, having started the conversation.

‘I should get going,’ she said, and held out her hand.

He reached forward to shake it, but before she could step away her hand was pulled closer and placed on the soft, synthetic fleece of the pouch. She could feel it, gently pulsing between her fingers. Had to force her eyes away from the subtle stretching and contracting of the fabric back to the man’s face. He seemed to be watching her earnestly.

‘She was kicking,’ he said. ‘I think she wanted to say hello to you.’

He smiled, openly this time.

‘Goodbye,’ Eva managed, pulling her wrist from his grip and backing away.

***

At home, after a busy Tube ride and an empty train journey out of the city, Eva sat at her piano and rested her fingers over the keys. For the first time in a long time, it was the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the week and there was nothing that she had to do. She didn’t even have a plan. The book was open at the Adagio of Mozart’s D major sonata, but she didn’t start to play. The instrument had intricate carvings in the wood, swirls and leaves outlined on either side of the front panel.

There had once been silk behind the carvings, so she’d been told – delicate handmade silk from China, from the nineteenth century. The attachments for the candleholders were still visible, though the candleholders themselves had been lost years before she inherited it. Her mum claimed that her great-grandfather had been given the piano as a gift from the tsar, but it was hard to know when to believe what Avigail Goldsmith said. She’d enjoyed her mysteries. It was old, though. You could tell, from looking at it, from the feel of the wood, the way the pedals didn’t work, the sticking of the notes because the felt had long since rotted away. There was no value to it at all now. The world was full of old, broken pianos. Nevertheless, as she started to play, she smiled at the distinctive, incorrect sound that it made.

Walking into the kitchen that evening, the last rays of sun reaching the windowsill, she switched on the radio more out of habit than for any particular programme. The voices in the background kept her company while she cooked, though today they felt intrusive in her kitchen. She chopped an onion coarsely, turned on the hob to heat some oil.

She was trying to work out what it was that she felt. She was not sentimental, and there had been no satisfaction in her job for years. You couldn’t keep doing something if there was no demand for it to be done – and you can’t help people that don’t want to be helped, either. Her grant had been cancelled eighteen months ago, and she’d hardly been surprised when the last of her private funding was withdrawn. This month, for the first time in her life, she couldn’t even afford the rent on her office. She had asked for more time. They had asked her to leave. It was over.

Guilt, was that it, for letting her mother down? For failing to preserve what she had been asked to protect?

We are women, her mother would say. Life grows inside us, and we protect it. Now, more than ever, we must protect it.

Perhaps she had failed twice over, then. Though she didn’t stop what she was doing – red pepper and sugar snap peas were quickly chopped and thrown into the pan, with noodles and dark soy sauce. Her mother didn’t know what it was like to receive the letters she’d been getting, for years now. Polite, kind, well-meaning letters telling her that she was wrong. That the pouch was beautiful. That it had changed the world for the better. That everyone was equal now we had moved beyond natural birth. That they could help her. That they wanted to help her. The pouchers had no doubts any more; they were happy. The women – and the men. They were happy.

Yes, closing down was the right decision. She couldn’t have taken the futility any longer. She needed to have purpose, needed to feel like she was getting somewhere. An image flickered in her mind, not of where she was going but of where she’d come from. Perhaps she should visit the home where she’d lived for the first three years of her life – so far from where she was now, but only a bus ride away. She shook her head. Going backwards wasn’t the answer. It was some- thing new that she needed. Something totally different. She would take a week. Rest, and think, and make a plan. She piled her stir-fry into a bowl and threw in some extra chilli.

Sitting at the table with the fading light outside, the sound of leaves rustling in her front garden and the gentle voices coming from the radio, Eva tried to enjoy the crunch of a sugar snap pea. She allowed herself to close her eyes again. She allowed herself to imagine how things might have been. And she listened.

She listened to a voice on the radio, so soporific she leaned forwards over her bowl, resting her head in her hands.

Then, she heard the words.

Natural birth.

‘Natural birth,’ they were saying – she was saying, it was a woman in an advert on the radio, a young woman, presumably an actor – ‘that’s why we chose natural birth instead of using the pouch, with the new FullLife NaturalBirth plan.’

‘And we couldn’t be happier,’ the man joined in, backed by the sound of young children running into the room.

What were they doing?

Natural birth. It was what she’d been fighting to preserve her entire professional life. It was everything her mum had believed in. It was what no one wanted any more, what FullLife had destroyed. So why were they promoting it now – in a new health-care plan, no less? Were they scared of losing their customers? Or trying to gain more? With FullLife, it was usually about money.

She realised her hands were clenched around the edge of the table, so she sat back and consciously released the pressure in her fingers. The advert had finished, and a DJ was talking about Christmas and pop charts in a voice that seemed to belong to a different time. As if nothing had happened.

Should she be pleased? Perhaps she should, but she couldn’t be. If women were being encouraged to return to natural birth, then there must be a reason. Hardly anyone had listened to her arguments in favour of it, not for years, and none of her campaigns had made it onto the radio. But this wasn’t about her. Neither Eva nor her mum was responsible for this. FullLife had spent decades – billions – promoting the pouch as the better way, and now they seemed to be doing a U-turn all on their own. For reasons of their own. Someone, surely, should be asking why.

Still, it was none of her business. Not any more.

She stood up, walked across the room and filled the kettle. It was something to do, a distraction from the unease she’d been feeling all day, that had just intensified. There was the piano room. She could use that as an office. There was the last of her mother’s money. Outside the sun fell below the fields on the horizon and the kitchen was suddenly dark, the moon no more than a sliver. She touched the backs of her fingers against the kettle. The heat emanating from it was still a few degrees short of burning her knuckles.

Three

Even at seventy-six, Holly Bhattacharyya was amused by the thought of being a matriarch. To be seen that way by her family was one thing, but quite why the rest of the world had to join in she had no idea. Silly world, she thought with a smile as she deliberately made her way down the staircase much more slowly than she needed to, her walking stick planted firmly on each step in front of her. Holly liked to make an entrance. And there was some fun to be had today.

She’d tried to take down the framed print of that first article many times now. The most recent time she’d gone so far as to take it out of the expensive frame and hide it under the squirrel-patterned cushion on her favourite armchair so she could sit on it while her family tried to search without her noticing. She didn’t let on that she could see them doing it. Instead she pretended to doze, even let her mouth droop open and faked a snore, while they were leafing through the magazines under the coffee table. She could hear her daughter’s whisper – ‘She’s sleeping now, Rosie, go and search her room’ – and Rosie’s loyal reply that she would do no such thing. If she’d had a favourite out of all her grandchildren, which of course she didn’t, then Rosie, with her deep hazel eyes and easy smile, would have been it.

But as Holly pushed open the door, readying herself for another interview, and walked serenely into the front room where Rosie and the journalist were waiting, there it was – cleaned and gleaming – hanging right bang centre over the mantelpiece. Holly Bhattacharyya and her husband Will, it read in the caption beneath her determined twenty-three-year-old face, this morning became the first couple to give birth using the new and still controversial baby pouch. She looked for her squirrel-patterned cushion and noticed that it had been relegated to the long sofa, where it was now being squashed behind the journalist’s substantial back.

‘Oh, crap,’ she said, letting the metal walking stick clatter to the ground and standing in the middle of the room with her hands on her hips.

Rosie took her arm and guided her to the comfy chair. She was late already. On purpose, of course.

‘Nana?’

Rosie was wearing the pouch, and had even dressed to match. Holly felt a swell of pride. Her granddaughter was so good with these journalists – she was a natural.

She turned her eyes towards the middle-aged man interviewing them, and the sleek charcoal-grey phone he’d placed on the coffee table. It was already recording. Hopefully Rosie had done most of the interview already.

‘So, er, you were saying William . . .’ the journalist began in a softer voice than she’d expected him to use. More accented, too. Still, his words were wolfish.

‘I’m not talking about Will,’ Holly said abruptly.

‘We were all very close to Grandpa,’ said Rosie, glancing reassuringly at Holly, and shaking her head just slightly. ‘That’s why we’ve chosen his name.’

Holly’s face softened as she realised what they’d been talking about, and moved her hand to touch the soft, warm pouch that was cradling new life – her great-grandson. Will. Like the man she had loved. Rosie had attached the portable nutrient bag for the interview, and a muffled gurgle came from the pouch. Now she thought about it, Holly rather fancied a biscuit.

‘Well,’ she said, looking back up at the journalist, ‘that should give you a nice sense of closure for the article. Full circle, wouldn’t you say? Mr . . .’

‘Filipek.’

He gave a smile that seemed to Holly to be hiding something as his pen scratched away in his notebook. The pages were angled away from her, so that she couldn’t read what he wrote. Hardly in the spirit of the times. She reached up to her head and touched her fringe, making sure there was still a bounce in her hair. She’d had it cut very short, all over, a few years ago – there does come a point when it simply seems like a waste of time to be styling your hair every morning – but she’d kept her thick, bouncy fringe, which covered her forehead in one gentle inward-facing grey curl to sit just above her eyebrows. She liked to pat it.

It still seemed miraculous to her, even after all these years, that humanity had found a way to share the creation of life. When she was young it had seemed impossible, as if the inequality so blatantly visible all around was an innate part of what we are, as a species.

She could remember one day in particular. It was a late afternoon in September, right at the end of the school holidays. She’d been sitting out with her parents, their deckchairs arranged on the slabs of cracked concrete that served as a patio behind their home in the council estate. A trickle of autumn sun from overhead and similar houses in every direction. It was a small space – there was just enough room for them to sit between her mum’s potted fuchsias and planters of herbs – but then it was the small things that Holly was angry about, that day. Simple things that should have been so easy to change. Like the way her mum made every single meal and her dad sat upright – pressed shirt and tie, as always, clean-shaven like a matter of pride – and never offered to help. How ridiculous.

There he sat, assuming his meals would be cooked for him. And there was her mum, quietly fulfilling his assumptions.

It had never been any different in their entire marriage. Her mum up at 5 a.m. to make the bread, her dad teaching at the grammar school he’d joined as a trainee when he’d first arrived in London. He was the deputy now, having worked his way up doggedly over the decades, still hoping for the headmastership that would never be given to him. He was not English, not even after thirty years of citizenship, and it made no difference how carefully he pressed his tie or how straight he kept his back. She could see that, even if he couldn’t. But retirement was still ten years away, as they sat on their inappropriately bright striped deckchairs on the concrete. They were intelligent people, she knew. So what was it that made them both fall into these roles? What was it that made them both cringe and dismiss her views when she used the word feminism?

‘Don’t you want to do something else?’ she asked her mother quietly, when her dad seemed to have closed his eyes.

Her mum smiled and shook her head.

‘You could do anything,’ Holly said, trying to imagine it. ‘You could . . .’

‘Oh, Harshini,’ her dad said, opening his eyes.

Holly,’ said Holly.

Her dad sighed. ‘These roles, as you call them, are useful. We’re doing what we want to do. Someone has to earn money, and someone has to stay home with the children – that’s how it works in a family.’

If he’d stopped there, she might not have lost her temper. But he went on. Told her the story of how she and her brother had been such different children. How she had been too scared to go on the climbing frame at the park – your brother would just run off, he said, he was fearless! But you preferred to stay close to your mother, play with your dolls.

‘And that’s OK,’ he said, as though trying to get her to accept who she was and just be happy. As if this story was proof – imagine it! – that little boys and little girls were intrinsically different. No acknowledgement of learned behaviour, of the impact of society, of school friends, of the clothes they were dressed in, of the way her brother had been thrown into the air and told he could do anything, while she was told to be careful, always, be careful. No, as far as her parents were concerned, boys and girls were simply different. That was what they actually believed.

She’d argued. She’d shouted. She’d felt something slipping away – she was sixteen years old and that was the moment when she realised that despite her love for them she fundamentally disagreed with her parents.

‘Keep your voice down, dear,’ her mum had said, and Holly’s reply had felt like it defined her:

‘I do not keep my voice down.’

Her dad had stood, turned his back, and walked away.

It had been coming for a while. That afternoon on the concrete was the last of a long series of arguments, and non-arguments: of those barely noticeable details – injustices was too grand a word – that add up over years to form who a person is and how they see the world. But she remembered the day not for the words she’d used but for the recognition that it would be the last time she tried. She gave up hoping to get through to them. It wasn’t the beginning of their argument. It was the end. That day she dismissed their views, as they had dismissed hers.

She’d always believed she could make things different in her own life, though. She’d kept searching for a way – and this was where it had led. The problem wasn’t simply a society sculpted around the needs of men, forcing women into the roles of wife and mother. It was deeper than that. No matter how well they argued, or how hard they worked, women would always be the primary caregivers while they were the ones having the children. They would always have to take more time off work while it was their bodies that needed to recuperate; that were expected to breastfeed. She couldn’t deny it: men and women were different in one way. Not in their minds, or their taste in toys, and certainly not in their abilities – but in their physiology. If equality was to be achieved, the physiology, the biology, had to evolve.

And what a difference it had made! Society at last expecting – no, assuming – that fathers played an equal role to mothers. Businesses offered full parental support, flexible hours, actual understanding. Having a baby wasn’t something you had to work around any more; it wasn’t a difficulty that forced compromise. The rest of life was organised to fit naturally around raising a child.

Not that this journalist was going to get to hear anything about her long-gone anger. None of them had. From that first article onwards, she had been calm and assured. That was who she was able to become, thanks to the FullLife baby pouch. And thanks to another woman, an extraordinary woman who, unlike Holly, had never appeared in a newspaper.

‘Do you have children?’ she asked, and the journalist looked up at her in surprise. Perhaps she wasn’t supposed to be asking questions. His eyes were grey, like his suit, and his case, and his phone, but his hair was a thick, rich brown that curled around his face, giving a hint of someone young, playful. She liked him a little more for it.

‘No, I . . .’

She nodded – she had known what his answer would be before asking him the question. Still, she wanted to delve a little deeper. He seemed different to the other journalists that she’d known over the years. There was something else going on in his head, she was sure of it. She smiled, mischievously, and felt Rosie’s eyes watching her. How often the young imagine they need to protect the old. She reached out again to stroke the warm bump of her great-grandson. He would be able to feel her affection from inside the pouch; it worked both ways, that closeness.

‘Have you ever tried one on?’ she asked, her eyes flicking back to the journalist.

He didn’t reply, but looked horrified. The warmth Holly had felt for him a second ago evaporated, and she withdrew her hand and repositioned the cushion behind her. She remembered the judgement, especially with her first child, the looks certain people had given her. As if she were doing something unnatural. She had even been attacked on the street, once, when her first daughter was still in the pouch, before they’d even chosen the name Daphne. A woman ran right up to her, screaming in her face: ‘It’s not God’s way!’ She was one of the hardliners, the kind of woman who hated other women so much she was against the epidural. It was frightening. Those people had been proved wrong long ago now, of course, but you still met them occasionally – people who thought that women were supposed to feel pain, that the pouch made things too easy. Though whether it was the baby pouch or babies in general that this man disliked she wasn’t sure.

‘I published a series of books on the psychology of childbirth, you know? I wrote the first one after I got my PhD. The last after I retired.’

‘I know.’

‘Hmph.’

So what if he knew about her books. Holly was fairly sure he hadn’t read them. He was just here to write a silly website article. Ha!

She leaned back in her chair and decided that she wasn’t going to make any more conversation. And if he insisted on taking photographs, she was going to have her eyes shut in every single one of them.

Four

Piotr Filipek was uncomfortable. He hadn’t asked for this assignment, and had put off the interview twice already, but Rosie Bhattacharyya’s baby was due to be born tomorrow and, well, you had to have the before as well as the after. Celebrity culture was what it was. There was nothing special about this family, just the fluke of timing and a media desperate to put mediocre people in the spotlight.

So what that Holly Bhattacharyya was the first woman to give birth using the pouch. So what that Rosie was her granddaughter. If it hadn’t been them, it would have been others. This idolising of a perfectly ordinary – and unusually wealthy – family was nothing but a lack of imagination on the part of the human race. No, he didn’t much care about Holly Bhattacharyya, who he was fairly convinced was smirking at him, or her innocent, open-faced granddaughter. What he cared about was more out of reach now than ever. Six years. He hadn’t seen her for six years. That was longer than the time they’d been together.

‘Would you like to tell me about your wedding?’ he said to Rosie, since it seemed totally impersonal and, as such, would probably get a long and detailed response.

He let his mind wander as she described walking down the aisle hand in hand with Kaz – stupid name – and something to do with the music, which sounded like a kind of reggae fusion so far as he could tell. His research had told him that Rosie was only twenty, but he had forgotten how young twenty could be. She was giggly. The colours of the wedding flowers were inspired by Mexico, apparently, where they’d been on their gap year before getting married. The press hadn’t been invited to the big day, thank God, or he would have had to endure the wedding itself as well. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go through with it. After hundreds of years of obligatory marriage society finally gives people the choice not to bind themselves to one another for life and what do they do? He glanced up, and there they were – Holly Bhattacharyya’s piercing eyes fixed on him.

Rosie had finished about the wedding now, and was standing up, stroking the pouch. ‘Next year we’re both going to uni, of course,’ she said. ‘Part time, here in London. We just love it here.’ She paused. ‘It’s great, isn’t it, the way universities offer childcare and stuff? It’s like, there’s no need to choose between . . .’

Piotr closed his eyes, just for a second. Pressed the heel of his hand into his forehead as she chattered away.

‘ . . . and we’ll be able to really relate, you know, be friends with Will, as well as parents. Do you want to meet Kaz now?’ And without waiting for a reply she was skipping her way out of the room to fetch her husband. Well, not skipping, obviously.

‘I wonder . . .’ he began, then stopped and waited until she had shut the door. Now he was alone in the room with Holly. He had thought for one awful second earlier that he was going to be asked to wear the pouch – he’d heard more and more about friends sharing with each other, extended family units being formed, though to offer a pouch to a stranger would have been surprising. Still, that was what he’d thought, and he sighed in relief now that the pouch, and the mother, were out of the room.

‘I read . . .’ he started again, cleared his throat.

It was colder than he’d expected in this house – freezing outside of course, bloody Baltic, with that stinging clear sky, but he’d thought the central heating would be maxed up in here. No such luck. And the entire family seemed oblivious. The last few years he’d found his fingers were getting numb in the cold, completely numb. He clasped his hands together to try and bring back some circulation.

‘There’s been some speculation, possibly nothing—’

‘Come on, out with it,’ Holly snapped.

He studied his hands for a moment, flexed his fingers. He might be about to get thrown out.

‘Do you – did you stay in touch with Freida at all?’

‘No.’

No was good. Much better than the off-limits-to-the-press response he usually got when interviewing anyone who had known her personally. He tried to sit up but only sank further into the pile of cushions in a way that he imagined looked fairly ridiculous. So instead he leaned forwards, attempting to give the impression they were co-conspirators, that he was a man she could confide in.

‘You fell out?’

‘Now why would you think that . . . ?’

Holly paused, as if about to say more, and suddenly he wondered if she had forgotten his name. She was an old woman, after all. Just a forgetful old woman. Ridiculous for him to have felt so awkward earlier. Had he actually been intimidated by her? He smiled what he hoped was a warm, open kind of smile.

‘She’ll be one hundred this year, I believe,’ he continued. ‘If she’s alive.’

Holly raised her eyebrows at him – he wondered if it was subconscious – but she didn’t reply and her silence eventually pushed him to give a little more away.

‘So, you don’t know where she is, then?’ He found he was unable to stop the smile that was creeping around his mouth. He’d been looking into Freida’s whereabouts for quite a while.

Holly’s feet suddenly seemed to be planted firmly on the floor, which was strange because, up until now, they had been dangling a few inches above the ground.

‘Do you?’ she asked mildly, as if making idle conversation, but beneath it he saw the curiosity in her expression, guarded and alert. ‘No one knows, exactly . . .’ he replied enigmatically, but she didn’t seem to register his response.

‘I’m very proud of this picture,’ Holly said, suddenly standing up and walking over to the mantelpiece. ‘Do you see? The one up here on the wall?’

An old newspaper article had been cut out and framed – expensively, as far as he could tell – with the photo centre stage. He recognised Holly’s eyes, her stare. There was something confrontational in it.

‘I don’t mean me, of course, don’t bother looking at me,’ she said, and she actually grabbed his chin – the way his granny had done when he was a little boy, when she’d decide he had some dirt on his face and then spit on a tissue to wipe it off – and moved his head a few degrees to the left, adjusting his line of sight. ‘Now you see this arm here, around my shoulders? Someone just out of the frame?’

‘Oh, yes. I see.’

He took a step away from her, rubbing his chin where her hand had touched him. The jolt of memory had left him unbalanced.

‘Well, that,’ she said, turning to face him with something like defiance, ‘is Freida. And that is all you will be getting out of me.’

***

When Rosie walked back into the room, Kaz carrying the pouch behind her, her nana was pretending to be asleep in her comfy chair again. Rosie wasn’t going to let on she knew it was an act – she never did. And she had an idea. Pausing by the door, she beckoned the journalist playfully, who raised his eyebrows and didn’t get up.

‘We could do the photos outside, what d’you think?’

She beamed and nodded at him. It would be great to do the photo shoot outdoors, in the open, in the middle of winter. Much better than in the front room. Days like this were her favourite – ice cold and bright. She took hold of Kaz’s hand and swung his arm back and forth before pulling his fingers towards her lips and giving them a quick kiss. He was wearing his dreads down today. She loved that. And there was some almost-blue sky visible, a light turquoise winking at them between the sheets of white.

‘It’s the perfect day for it,’ she said with a grin.

The journalist nodded and stood up, slowly, as if his joints ached, gathering his notebook and phone into his bag and pulling out a small camera instead. She thought about asking him if he was OK, but she didn’t. He gave the impression of someone who didn’t want to be approached. Strange, for a journalist – usually they were practised at drawing you in. She rather liked the difference.

‘This way, Mr Filipek,’ she said, turning back to the door and putting her hands on Kaz’s shoulders as he stepped through to the hall. She reached up on tiptoes to kiss the back of his neck.

They went out beyond the lawn of the back garden, past the apple-tree orchard to the shiny holly bushes by the fence. The berries were bright red now, and would look pretty beside the dark red-brown of her hair and the soft mauve of their pouch. Plus there was the satisfying poetry of the name; her nana would be in the photo even as she faked sleep to avoid it. Kaz was carrying Will, with her holding his hand – she directed both her husband and the journalist into the positions she wanted them – and for the shoot after the birth she would hold baby Will in her arms, while Kaz held his hand. She’d got the idea for the symmetry of it as soon as she agreed to the interview. Next year she’d be studying for a BA in textile design – the combination of the way things looked and the way they felt, that was what she loved. Their pouch was an inspiration for a lot of her designs actually; she was so glad they hadn’t waited. If becoming a parent changed your life then she wanted to be one right now, so it could shape her entire life. The journalist took a step back and aimed the camera. Rosie tucked her hair behind her ear.

‘So, are you nervous?’ he asked, filling the silence as he stepped around them in a semicircle, snapping away. Rosie squeezed Kaz’s hand and they looked at one another.

‘You mean about the photo shoot?’ she asked. ‘I’ve been doing these with Nana for years. Someone always wants an article . . .’

‘No, I mean are you nervous about the birth tomorrow,’ he said.

‘Why would we be nervous?’ Kaz grinned, before pulling Rosie towards him for a kiss, the pouch pressed momentarily between them. ‘We can’t wait.’

When Rosie stepped back, she thought she saw the journalist rolling his eyes, but couldn’t be sure. She looked at him through the lens, her smile subsiding. She wasn’t so young she couldn’t give a serious answer to a question – and now she thought about it, it was the most interesting question he’d asked. Her mind ran through the several types of answer she could give.

‘Nana must have been nervous, I think,’ she said. ‘Being the first, y’know? It must have seemed like this massive risk. But now – well, there’s no need for anyone to be nervous, is there?’

He had dropped his arms, was now holding the camera in front of his chest.

‘I do think about those other women though,’ Rosie continued. ‘All those women from before the pouch. The pain of it was one thing, I know, but what must have been terrifying was the thought of something bad happening, some harm coming to the baby.’

Her nana had told her stories, and there was something about them that seemed so personal she wasn’t going to repeat them here. Stories of women who had to be cut open, women whose bodies were so damaged they were left incontinent for life. Then there were the women whose babies had died, who had to go through with the pain of childbirth even though their children were already gone, suffocated in the womb. Suddenly, she wanted to cry for all of them.

The journalist was looking down at his camera, seemed to be scanning through some images. Then he buried it away in the bag slung over his shoulder.

‘Right then,’ he said.

‘Are we finished?’ she asked, surprised.

‘That’s it for today,’ he said. ‘See you Saturday. Good luck.’

Then he turned and just walked off. Rosie looked at Kaz, still standing as if posed for another photograph.

‘Well, he was rude,’ Kaz said, wrinkling up his nose.

Rosie laughed and shook her head.

As they watched, the journalist reached the locked gate at the end of the path, rattled it a couple of times, then leaned down to inspect the padlock.

‘Should I go and tell him . . .’ Kaz began – there was an open gate on the other side of the house – but before he could finish his sentence the journalist had dropped his bag over to the street and begun climbing. Rosie tilted her head as he reached the top and swung his leg up, revealing a striped green-and-yellow sock. Then he sort of tumbled his way over the gate, stood up, slung his bag over his shoulder and strode off. They looked at each other, stunned into silence for a second before the giggles came.

‘I guess he really wanted to get away from us,’ Kaz laughed.

‘Was it something I said?’

He shook his head. ‘You were perfect and charming and lovely,’ he said, pulling her in for a hug around the pouch.

‘And you are sweet, and a little soppy.’

‘Yes I am,’ he grinned. ‘And he was weird.’

They both stood still for a minute, gazing in the direction that the journalist had disappeared in, though there was no sign of him now. The gate, so far as Rosie could see, was unharmed.

‘Come on, let’s go find Nana,’ she said. ‘I expect she’s trying to hide all of Mum’s favourite newspaper cuttings again.’

She pressed Kaz’s hand, still held in her own, gently onto the curve of the pouch he was wearing, then slid her palm further round so they could feel the warmth of it together. The texture had changed as it expanded over the months, as baby Will grew and the pouch filled with amniotic fluid. In its squidgy early days she’d gently pressed her face onto the soft cover and felt the pouch shape itself around her features, but now it was firmer, fuller, velveteen. The pressure of her touch passed through the cover and bio-membrane, just like through clothes and skin. In response she felt baby Will give a soft, impatient kick.

‘This time tomorrow,’ she smiled.

‘This time tomorrow.’

Kaz put his arm around her and they strolled back to the house through the surprising warmth of the winter’s sun.

Five

Audio log

24 Nov 2015 19:04

It is a soft, watery kind of sleet that is falling today – still not the snow that was promised in the clouds, though the wind is getting up to no good and my rowan tree is aching because of it. My night was interrupted by gusts in the chimney, a wheezing through the walls that turned into nightmares, though in the stunning low light of the morning I could see that my nightmares were foolish. My lighthouse was standing on this spot long before I was born, the wind can’t harm it. Besides, as I watched clouds racing the wave tips over the black rocks, I was grateful for the wind, despite my stinging ears and raw eyes.

I walk every morning out to the rocks. In the summer, the miles of purple heather smell like honey and butterflies dip through the bushes. Now, though, the gorse is dominant. Its silver-green blades edging onto my path, sharp and unforgiving, held firm with inexplicable shapes of wood. I once burned it back, and the branches were fragile as hollow bone, shades of silver and white and such curves and angles to them – I felt I had destroyed something beautiful, and was seeing beauty in the scars. I haven’t burned it back since, though the wood shapes decorate my home. Their twists and turns make, one day, the shadow of a wolf, the next, a beckoning hand. Or a smile. I’ll show you when you arrive.

Perhaps we can collect driftwood together.

Would you like that?

I have decided to record this new set of logs as I wait for you. It will help me mark the time, as much as anything. I’m getting forgetful and sometimes I do not know the days. Sometimes I miss the passing of weeks. I’ve wiped all the old logs, to clean things up a bit – there was nothing much there except my ramblings, my doubts. I expect I’ll delete all of these as well, when I see your car pulling in through the gate.

I sent the letter with the Asda man, who promised to post it for me in the village. The postman doesn’t come any more, though I don’t know if that’s because he’s stopped making the journey or if there simply haven’t been any letters to make it for. It doesn’t really matter, though I suppose if you reply by post I might not receive the letter. But of course I wasn’t asking you to write to me, I was asking you to visit.

Perhaps I should have made it sound more beautiful. It is beautiful here, as well as brutal. You’ll see. It is the kind of landscape that inspires. We’ll walk out towards Rockfield, perhaps, scramble over the rocks and search for fossilised remains of giant coral and ammonites . . .

My own coral reefs are surviving, but they need so much care they will never be truly independent. I keep the conditions as close to perfect as I can for my indigo hamlets, and for the exquisite corals themselves. The tanks are maintained at 1.023–1.025 specific gravity, which you’ll need to know if you ever want to keep a reef tank yourself. Calcium at 425 ppm and magnesium at 1300. I can teach you, if you like. The corals need the constant challenge of turbulent water, did you know that? Wonderful, from something so delicate. Their requirements are contrary to their appearance.

It feels so very important that I talk to you now. There was so much I couldn’t say in the letter, since I don’t know really where it will go or what will happen to it. The Asda man is a decent person, I think, but after he posts it . . .

Well, I hope you will come. I’ve been thinking about you all day today, and for many of the days before that.

Hold on a minute. I’ll be right back.

. . . I just went to put more logs on the re there – it’s been on since the morning so the embers are glowing, but the cold really is bitter now. I can feel it in the tops of my feet, spreading through my ankles and shins, curling up to settle around my knees. If you come soon you will be arriving in midwinter, so perhaps we’ll not go to the beach. I’m sorry about that. I’m sorry about a lot of things.

I hope the journey isn’t too treacherous.

I hope you can forgive me.

Well.

I think I should eat something.

***

Eva woke with the sun in her eyes and the curtains wide. The chill was noticeable through the blankets and sheets she’d pulled up to her mouth in the night.

She slept in a single bed. She’d had a double for a while, thinking the space would be a luxury, but it wasn’t. Even though she’d been sleeping on her own for years – the last six years of her forties – she always kept to one side, noticing the cold of the unused portion of bed when she dipped a toe across. The habit was frustrating. She didn’t feel like she was occupying half a house, living half a life, so why this ritual with her side of the bed? Then a few months ago she’d arranged for a single to be delivered, and the old double removed. With the extra space, she’d brought plants into the room: an avocado plant that sprouted long thin leaves, chilli plants of varying oranges, red, purples – like the colours of her hair – and a peace lily. They were standing on small, circular tables of different heights and woods that she got second-hand, from charity shops or street markets. She liked the splashes of green, the terracotta and black pots. She liked the idea of some new life occupying the room.

She sat up, swivelled around to face the door. Soft slippers, placed the night before, were waiting for her feet. Time to get to work.

Four years ago Eva had inherited her house from her mother. She’d never really intended to live there long term, but in the years since her mum’s death she hadn’t quite been able to move out. The house connected her to a past that was out of reach – perhaps it always had been. She’d moved in a couple of years before her mum died, at a time when she’d had nowhere else to go and she’d been grateful, for the company as much as the roof over her head. But the house was more than that, and had been passed down in their family for generations – she didn’t even know who had first lived there, whether it was the grandparents she’d never known, or generations before that.

She’d driven her mum mad, when she was little, wanting to know who everyone was, where they were. Of course she wanted to know. She wanted them to be her family. But her mum never gave a straight answer to anything. ‘Tell me about Grandma Goldsmith,’ she’d plead. ‘Tell me about Grandpa and Great-Grandpa, tell me about Great-Great-Great . . .’ Her mum would lift her up and spin her around, but she didn’t tell her what she wanted to know. ‘Can we visit Grandma and Grandpa Goldsmith?’ she’d ask every holiday, eyes wide until, once, her mum looked at her and said, ‘My dad died when I was young.’

Eva hadn’t known what to say. She’d shuffled closer to her mother, put her head on her shoulder. ‘But what about Grandma?’

‘Enough!’ her mum had said, pushing her away and standing up, leaving Eva gaping in shock. Her mum was everything to her. She didn’t want to make her angry, she hadn’t meant to. She’d have stopped her lip wobbling if she knew how. Her mum had come and knelt down in front of her. ‘It’s OK,’ she’d whispered. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout.’ But after that, Eva stopped asking. Even as a teenager, it was the one subject she knew not to approach. And now? Whatever the history of their beautiful house, it had been home to Avigail and Eva Goldsmith, and that was all she needed to know.

Downstairs a large living-dining room ran the length of the house, with bay windows looking over the herbs in the front garden and glass doors opening onto a patio in the back. Paved with red and grey stones, weeds long since settled in between them, it led to the wonderfully overgrown wilderness that stretched all the way down to the stream. She didn’t use it as a living-dining room though; instead she had her piano in there, and some of her mum’s old paintings on the walls. There were layers upon layers of wallpaper. She’d peeled back a corner once to find an emerald-green stripe, and something with roses in red and gold beneath that. The top layer was pale blue with curved grey branches and light pink cherry blossom. With the dark wood floor and large, empty space, she liked it. Besides, it had been her mum’s favourite room. Aside from the piano and the old sofa in the corner, the only piece of furniture was the roll-top desk, and Eva found herself looking at it now, her fingers running over the curved slats before turning the key in the small lock.

She wanted to find out what was behind the new advertising campaign. There had to be some motivation there – financial? political? Once she knew why they were doing it, perhaps she’d be able to work out how she felt about it. But she didn’t want to start by looking through her own correspondence. It was all too . . . polite. FullLife had always responded to her emails, given answers to her queries about specific aspects of the technology, the statistics. She’d been given no reason to suspect they were doing anything wrong, or that they were lying to anyone.

But she did suspect they were lying. All their perfect data, all the smiling faces in their adverts – where were the parents who felt a lack of connection to their child in the pouch? Where were the side effects? There had to be something. She needed to look further back, to find someone who had hidden the truth and been bad enough at it that the truth had been visible. One of the scientists, maybe. Not PR, not publicity – they were too good at staying on message. She wanted someone who couldn’t follow the rules quite so well. She felt something leaning on her, a pressure on her chest as she pulled out folder after folder of her mum’s notes, piling them around her in disordered stacks. She would go through everything, and somewhere in among it all she would find a name. A starting point.

She sipped her coffee, then stood up and headed to the kitchen for the radio. Unplugging it, she carried it to the piano room – her new office, she corrected – and plugged it in next to the desk. Sooner or later there would be another advert. There had to be. Because one thing she knew for sure when she woke up this morning was that if FullLife had announced a new ‘NaturalBirth’ plan, then something was going on.

***

Rosie rolled over and curled her body around Kaz, the way she did every morning in the half-sleep she passed through before waking. The warmth of his body and the rhythm of his breath- ing helped her open her eyes. She kissed the curve of his neck and rested her head against his. She loved mornings. Mornings were the best.

‘Kaz,’ she whispered.

‘Mmmmm.’

‘It’s today.’

‘I know, baby.’

She inched her head closer to his arm, which he lifted so she could lie on his chest. Her fingers touched his belly, stroked the smooth dark skin she was so fond of.

Downstairs most of the family were up already. She could smell coffee, hear the swish and churn of the bread maker. Nana still insisted that fresh bacon roti was the way to start a birthday. And was she singing? Rosie hummed along quietly to the tune. Her nana was the best, and she was going to be just like her.

Rosie loved living in this house, with all her family. But once Will got older, perhaps had a baby sister or brother, they’d start looking for their own place. Once they were qualified, after uni, and when they both had jobs. Perhaps another house along this street. West London was so beautiful, and the Thames nearby. Maybe they could teach Will to row – there was a club that she’d seen out on the river. They’d have to learn themselves, though, since she’d never actually been in a boat. And she didn’t know how to swim. She’d learn, they both would. That’s what was so great – they’d learn everything with Will and Will’s baby sister or brother. There was so much she wanted them all to learn together, and today was the start of it. Today she was going to learn to be a parent.

She felt Kaz’s body move beside her.

‘Are you imagining holding Will again?’ she said.

‘How did you know?’

‘Your shoulder wobbles when you smile.’

Rosie leaned up on an elbow, looked down at him with her hair falling around his face.

‘You are sooo sexy,’ he said with a grin, wrapping his arms around her waist and slipping his hands under her vest top.

She was glad they’d chosen natural conception for Will, and fairly sure it’d be the same for all their other children. It was special for them, for their generation – in the early days, almost all the pouches began with IVF. But now that the transfer process had been perfected, loads of people opted for natural conception. The hard bit was waiting two weeks for FullLife to monitor the completed transfer. They used the time for screening too, so they could confirm the baby was healthy and everything.

‘Are you ready?’ Rosie said, kissing the tip of his nose.

‘I’m ready,’ Kaz smiled. ‘I’ve been ready since the day I met you.’

‘You mean when I accidentally hit that rounder’s ball into your face in PE?’

‘OK, the day after that.’

‘You mean when you came to school with a bruised eye?’ she said, eyebrows raised.

‘And you looked like you were about to cry.’

‘I was not about to cry.’

‘You reached up to touch it, but didn’t,’ he said. ‘I think it was because you were scared of hurting me again. So your hand just kind of hovered there, by my face, like time had stopped.’

Rosie paused for a minute, listened to his breathing, felt the warmth coming from his body. ‘That’s when you knew?’

‘That’s when I knew.’

‘Shall we have a baby today, Kaz?’

He pulled her closer, kissed the side of her ear, pressed his face against her head.

‘Yes please,’ he whispered, his voice muffled by her hair.

‘Right then!’

She leapt up and pulled the covers off him, jumping out of the bed and laughing as he clutched on to the sheet.

‘Better get up,’ she grinned.

He threw a pillow at her, but she caught it and held her finger to her lips, turning to the pouch stand. The legs of the base were the only part of the stand outside the incubator; inside it their pouch was gently supported by the soft shoulders and central padded shelf. They’d chosen a pale blue for the stand itself – it toned so nicely with the mauve of their pouch – and the transparent incubator was almost like a bubble in the way it refracted the light. She could see little rainbows on its surface as she moved her head from side to side. Then she slid the front panels open and felt the warmth on her skin, just enough to mimic the closeness of a human body, as she reached in to gently stroke the curve of their child. The shape of the pouch really was beautiful, like a painting or something, the way it rested there just like when she or Kaz were wearing it. She could imagine nutrients owing from the nutrient bag, down the matching mauve tube cover, through the feed and into the pouch itself, giving baby Will everything he needed. The pouch was more than a painting – it was like a beautiful living sculpture that you could touch, that you could hug. And outside the incubator it actually shared heat with the person carrying it. She loved that idea, the transfer of warmth between them.

‘Good morning, baby Will,’ she said, kissing the pouch, feeling it softly flex beneath the pressure of her lips. She’d put it on soon, so he’d feel the heat of her body, hear the beat of her pulse on the morning of his birth. ‘We love you,’ she whispered, as close as she could get. ‘We’ll see you soon.’

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BEDTIME BOOKCLUB
Books
Helen Sedgwick
Dystopia

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