The Fear – by SARAH COTTINGHAM

The Fear

 

I don’t own a fridge. Amelia’s fridge is a Smeg, seriously shiny and effortless to open. There’s a montage of photos on the side: babies with varying amounts of hair, their eyes following me around the room. There is also a calendar – not the Hollyoaks Hunks Amelia had up in our university halls, but the M&S simply food calendar: this month, artistically shot oranges.

 

“Have you been to see Ottelie yet?” Amelia asks. “She’s absolutely adorable – that photo does not do her justice. You should go while you have time. Karen can’t make it today –they’re visiting Steve’s parents.”

 

“No, not yet.” I finger a solid spot on my chin pushing it in until it feels like a bruise.

 

Amelia is balancing the baby she’s packed into a pale blue onesie in one arm and attempting to fill the silver kettle with the other. I wonder what would happen if she dropped him on the work surface. It’s granite or fake granite and could crack a head like an egg.

 

She dangles him in front of her and puffs her lips out to mimic his.

 

“Agoooo. Can you say agooo? Agoo?”

 

The baby makes a noise in no way similar and is met by a wall of kisses. I don’t believe in praising people for things they haven’t done correctly.

 

“Here, take Jax for a minute while I take out the ciabatta – just let him sit on your lap and hold his head, ok.”

 

Amelia airlifts the bundle into my arms. Jax sits patiently on my lap, his wide blue eyes staring out of the window into the garden. The grass needs cutting but I can see the effort she’s made with the borders. The dead rose bush has gone and a few green shrubs and a sunflower have appeared. I’ll tell her she’s done wonders with such as small space. She has a gardener called Tess. Amelia told me this woman is amazing – just had twins and already back to landscaping, of course her husband’s had to drop down to part-time and men don’t always like that.

 

My phone beeps persistently in my bag but I can’t reach it with this sack of joy on me. He must have smelled my scent laced with last night’s vodka because he begins to judder and cry, so I make a bit more effort, swinging him over my shoulder and jigging him up and down until I begin to feel queasy.

 

The ciabatta smells as if it’s burning, but Amelia’s fixated on the wall-hung flat screen,

 

“I love this programme! They match people based on what they like to eat, which almost never works but it’s so entertaining.” Amelia turns to me, wide eyed,  “Hey! You should apply to be on it Charl – what have you got to lose?”

 

The baby has slipped down to my chest and is rooting around my breasts with his mouth. For a second I wonder what it might be like to breast feed a baby, have it latched onto you with leach-like dependency, liquid love oozing into its mouth.

 

“I’ve actually got a date next week. A guy I’ve been messaging,” I reach for my phone.

 

“Really? Yes of course you did mention – David or Daniel? No, David was the Headhunter and Daniel was doing a PhD -”

 

“His name’s Mikolaj – he’s from Poland.” The baby is shaking his head from side to side attempting to burrow into my breastbone.

 

“Oh my god he’s so hungry look at him! Come here Jacky! Mummy’s sorry – she was putting her guests’ food before yours and that is not the way it should be… not the way it should be…” she holds him up in the air, staring into his eyes, twisting his body with each syllable.

 

The doorbell rings. “Get that will you Charl.”

 

On the doorstep are three young mums and buggies stuffed with bald heads, fat legs and tiny hands. I maneuver myself around the side table and behind the door to make space for the head of the procession, more chariot than buggy, containing a puffy pink marshmallow child in a net dress. I recognise the mum, all blonde-highlights, from the pub last summer when I thought I was meeting a heavily pregnant Amelia for lunch, but was actually meeting Amelia and Anthea for baby briefing. She leans in and bumps cheeks with me, depositing a residue of orange.

 

The other two women I know of only from brief glances at a watsapp group on Amelia’s phone called ‘Hypno-Mums’. Amelia described Christina to me as ‘Greek’ and ‘submissive’ and the other, Hannah, as ‘dull’ but with ‘a very rich husband’. Their more modest vehicles follow, containing identical looking human potatoes, one in yellow, one in blue.  I tag along behind – my hip bruised from the door handle.

 

I’m soon stuck behind a traffic jam of buggies and mums with baby bags bigger than travellers’ rucksacks. I find myself yelling over the siren screams of the girl potato,

 

“Everyone into the kitchen on your left!” As if we are reacting to a bomb alert.

 

I’ve done my bit and so I watch as the mothers build a familiar world around their children. Christina has installed a carrycot, decorated with various dangling plastic animals and deposited her child inside. The little girl who won’t stop screaming now has a dummy and is lying in what appears to be a pink dinghy on the floor. Andrea’s paunchy marshmallow has been installed in a highchair at the table, barely visible beneath layers of netting too voluminous to fit under the tray. I stand in the corner of the room fingering my phone in my pocket, hoping I don’t accidentally step on the dinghy and listening to conversations on topics I hadn’t ever considered.

 

“… Andy and I thought it was the chicken pox at first, so we took her to A&E, but the doctor said it was baby acne – acne! Well, I told him I’ve never even had a spot and Andy’s skin is perfect, so where the hell has she got it from?” The other mother’s nod along gravely – clearly there is no God.

 

As skinny wrists weave around the ciabatta towards the Kettle Chips, conversation moves to the frequency of nappy changes and I get my phone out, adopting the role of baby photographer until Amelia insists on taking one of me with a baby. I glance from carrycot to highchair to floor, trying to decide which baby might be least missed if dropped; eventually I opt for the female potato. Hannah says nothing, but stands within catching distance whilst Amelia takes photos of the stranger with the baby in front of a blank cream wall, like some sort of kidnap mug shot. She begins cooing at the screen and prodding at it with her thumb until her face creases with disdain –

 

“Umm Charlotte, I don’t know if you’re aware, but some guy just messaged you calling you a slut!”

 

Amelia holds the phone at arms length as if it’s ready to blow. The other ladies exchange looks and the girl potato starts to cry. I snatch the phone, deposit the girl with her mother and take refuge in the toilet.

 

I sit on the lid, and prod at the screen. The final message from Mikolaj reads “U dirty fucking slut!” I circle my spot with a fingernail, considering what to reply. He’s probably only joking, either that or his English isn’t that good. A few years from now I’ll be sitting in our kitchen, covering our baby’s ears while Anthea regales the other mums with the ‘slut’ story. They’ll laugh and nod along.

 

I scroll up and read the previous messages– numerous requests for photos of my ‘tits’. I wonder how much it would cost to fly his parents over to Britain for the wedding – unless they already live here? I imagine trying on wedding dresses with Amelia, Karen and Anthea. I’ll burst into tears because his old Polish grandma would love to see me in this dress, but she’s just not up to the flight. They’ll sigh and tell me it will still be a beautiful day – ‘Don’t forget you can always send photos!” Amelia will say.

 

I lift up my top to my chin, pull down the cups of my bra and focus the camera on my breasts. They don’t look as full as I like them to, but I send it anyway.

****

sarah

***Sarah Cottingham retired from teaching English at 27 and lives in London. She writes, tutors and bins all the red pens she can find. She has a 1st in law and a post-grad qualification in teaching Shakespeare, but no cause to use either. A bunch of her short stories, flash fiction and blog posts cohabit contently at www.shortstorynation.com and she tweets @ShortStoryNatn.   ***

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