She arrived furious, fists clenched, blonde wisps matted with blood. In a Bronte novel the clouds would have spilled at her first cry, but in real life, the weather stayed. Hot. A dry shimmering heat that assaulted her daily those last few months, too huge and heavy to lie in the bath or roll in the shade; skin prickling, flesh swollen, ankles as well as waist, too lumpen even for sandals; housebound then, curtains drawn, sweat dripping from coarse curls over heavy, veiny breasts, over the core where an alien squirmed and cavorted and fought to prise her way free, fists first. She watched an outstretched hand appear through the skin of her belly, huge in her hollowed out self.
At eight months pregnant, she sat her finals. Dark odorous hall heavy with sweat, buzzing with panic and flies. The child kicked through the Dickens paper, slept away all three hours of Icelandic folklore. One slow lazy fan moaned its protest from the ceiling.
At the cafe where she worked chips danced in the oil as she burst from her uniform, dispensing an odd animal odour, not unpleasant, mingled spitting fat and sweat. Sam drifted in and out, wanting cups of ice from the dispenser, shouting at her for lifting heavy crates. She paid no heed. The baby made her dreamy and indifferent. She waltzed across the cafe floor, imagining her girl. Sharp-eyed, strong-willed. A doctor perhaps, with decades of learning and certificates for her wall, or – no, an actress, making a speech at the Oscars, thanking her mother as tears ran down her cheeks, listing her amazing sacrifices. She could cry herself imagining it, if she could find the energy. It was cooler away from the kitchen. She spent as much time on the floor as she dared, slowly wiping over the tables, feeling the baby hiccup. A businessman type came in most days, loosened his tie, made himself a nest of paperwork, ordered sundae after sundae. Toffee, chocolate, then strawberry, in sombre succession, hour after hour. He smiled whenever he saw her, and left better tips than she deserved.
Sam finished with her properly after her shift one night. How do you feel it’s been going? He said. Very well, she answered, truthfully, trustingly, as she’d let him do anything he wanted to her, and didn’t know what else would help keep him. But Sam wasn’t happy. Felt trapped. He’d tried. But if he wasn’t happy, no one would be happy, and that wouldn’t be fair, would it?
Next day, she locked herself in the storeroom, squatted by the freezer, and pulled out the five litre catering tub of ice cream. She pushed her fingers deep into the yielding, yellowy goo, then forced fistfuls of it into her hot hungry self, and again, and again, a sweet creamy mush that helped stop up the hollow. When she heard the manager call her name she wiped her lips on her apron, pushed the tub to the bottom of the freezer, and staggered to her feet. From his table the businessman met her gaze, and held it for an extra heartbeat.