I am not the most important person in this story. That honour belongs to Meg who is married to Jack and they are the perfect parents of two perfect children, a boy and girl, blond and blue-eyed and sweeter than honey cakes. Meg is pregnant again and I couldn’t be more excited because I’m having a baby too.
Leaning my forehead against the glass, I look in both directions along the pavement, past the greengrocer and hairdressing salon and fashion boutique. Meg is running late. Normally she has dropped Lucy at primary school and Lachlan at his day nursery by now and has joined her friends at the café on the corner. Her mothers’ group meets every Friday morning, sitting at an outdoor table, jostling prams into place like prime movers on the vehicle deck of a ferry. One skinny cappuccino, one chai latte and a pot of herbal tea . . .
A red bus goes past and blocks my view of Barnes Green, which is opposite. When it pulls away again I see Meg on the far side of the road. She’s dressed in her stretch jeans and a baggy sweater, and carrying a colourful three-wheeled scooter. Lachlan must have insisted on riding to his preschool, which would have slowed her down. He will also have stopped to look at the ducks and at the exercise class and at the old people doing t’ai chi who move so slowly they could almost be stop motion puppets.
Meg doesn’t appear pregnant from this angle. It’s only when she turns side-on that the bump becomes a basketball, neat and round, getting lower by the day. I heard her complaining last week about swollen ankles and a sore back. I know how she feels. My extra pounds have turned climbing stairs into a workout and my bladder is the size of a walnut.
Glancing both ways, she crosses Church Road and mouths the word ‘sorry’ to her friends, double-kissing their cheeks and cooing at their babies. All babies are cute, people say, and I guess that’s true. I have peered into prams at Gollum-like creatures with sticky-out eyes and two strands of hair, yet always found something to love because they’re so newly minted and innocent.
I’m supposed to be stacking the shelves in aisle three. This part of the supermarket is usually a safe place to skive, because the manager, Mr Patel, has a problem with feminine hygiene products. He won’t use words like ‘tampons’ or ‘sanitary pads’– calling them ‘ladies’ things’ or simply pointing to the boxes that he wants unpacked.
I work four days a week, early mornings to three, unless one of the other part-timers calls in sick. Mostly I stack shelves and sticker prices. Mr Patel won’t let me work the cash register because he says I break things. That happened one time and it wasn’t my fault.
With a name like Mr Patel, I thought he’d be Pakistani or Indian, but he turned out to be Welsher than a daffodil, with a shock of red hair and a truncated moustache that makes him look like Adolf Hitler’s ginger lovechild.
Mr Patel doesn’t like me very much and he’s been itching to get rid of me ever since I told him I was pregnant.
‘Don’t expect any maternity leave – you’re not full-time.’
‘I don’t expect any.’
‘And doctor’s appointments are on your own time.’
‘And if you can’t lift boxes you’ll have to stop working.’
‘I can lift boxes.’
Mr Patel has a wife and four kids at home, but it hasn’t made him any more sympathetic to my pregnancy. I don’t think he likes women very much. I don’t mean he’s gay. When I first started working at the supermarket he was all over me like a rash – finding any excuse to brush up against me in the storeroom or when I was mopping the floor.
‘Oops!’ he’d say, pressing his hard-on against my buttocks. ‘Just parking my bike.’
I go back to my stock trolley and pick up the price gun, careful to check the settings. Last week I put the wrong price on the canned peaches and Mr Patel docked me eight quid.
‘What are you doing?’ barks a voice. Mr Patel has crept up behind me.
‘Restocking the tampons,’ I stutter.
‘You were staring out the window. Your forehead made that greasy mark on the glass.’
‘No, Mr Patel.’
‘Do I pay you to daydream?’
‘No, sir.’ I point to the shelf. ‘We’re out of the Tampax Super Plus – the one with the applicator.’
Mr Patel looks queasy. ‘Well, look in the storeroom.’ He’s backing away. ‘There’s a spill in aisle two. Mop it up.’
‘Yes, Mr Patel.’
‘Then you can go home.’
‘But I’m working until three.’
‘Devyani will cover for you. She can climb the stepladder.’ What he means is that she’s not pregnant or afraid of heights, and that she’ll let him ‘park his bike’ without going all feminist on his arse. I should sue him for sexual harassment, but I like this job. It gives me an excuse to be in Barnes and nearer to Meg.
In the rear storeroom I fill a bucket with hot soapy water and choose a sponge mop that hasn’t worn away to the metal frame. Aisle two is closer to the registers. I get a good view of the café and the outside tables. I take my time cleaning the floor, staying clear of Mr Patel. Meg and her friends are finishing up. Cheeks are kissed. Phones are checked. Babies are strapped into prams and pushchairs. Meg makes some final remark and laughs, tossing her fair hair. Almost unconsciously, I toss mine. It doesn’t work. That’s the problem with curls – they don’t toss, they bounce.
Meg’s hairdresser, Jonathan, warned me that I couldn’t get away with the same cut that she does, but I wouldn’t listen to him.
Meg is standing outside the café, texting someone on her phone. It’s probably Jack. They’ll be discussing what to have for dinner, or making plans for the weekend. I like her maternity jeans. I need a pair like that – something with an elasticised waist. I wonder where she bought them.
Although I see Meg most days, I’ve only ever spoken to her once. She asked if we had any more Bran Flakes, but we had sold out. I wish I could have said yes. I wish I could have gone back through the swinging plastic doors and returned with a box of Bran Flakes just for her.
That was in early May. I suspected she was pregnant even then. A fortnight later she picked up a pregnancy test from the pharmacy aisle and my suspicions were confirmed. Now we’re both in our third trimester with only six weeks to go and Meg has become my role model because she makes marriage and motherhood look so easy. For starters, she’s drop-dead gorgeous. I bet she could easily have been a model – not the bulimic catwalk kind, or the phwoar Page Three stunner kind, but a wholesome and sexy girl-next-door type; the ones who advertise laundry detergent or home insurance and are always running across flowery meadows or along a beach with a Labrador.
I’m none of the above. I’m not particularly pretty, nor am I plain. Unthreatening is probably the right word. I’m the less attractive friend that all pretty girls need because I won’t steal their limelight and will happily take their leftovers (food and boyfriends).
One of the sad truths of retailing is that people don’t notice shelf-stackers. I’m like a vagrant sleeping in a doorway or a beggar holding up a cardboard sign – invisible. Occasionally someone will ask me a question, but they never look at my face when I’m answering. If there was a bomb scare at the supermarket and everyone was evacuated except me, the police would ask, ‘Did you see anyone else in the shop?’
‘No,’ they’d say.
‘What about the shelf-stacker?’
‘The person stacking the shelves.’
‘I didn’t take much notice of him.’
‘It was a woman.’
That’s me – unseen, inappreciable, a shelf-stacker.
I glance outside. Meg is walking towards the supermarket. The automatic doors open. She picks up a plastic shopping basket and wanders along aisle one – fruit and veg. When she gets to the end she’ll turn and head this way. I follow her progress and catch a glimpse of her when she passes the pasta and canned tomatoes.
She turns into my aisle. I push the bucket to one side and step back, wondering if I should nonchalantly lean on my mop or shoulder it like a wooden rifle.
‘Careful, the floor is wet,’ I say, sounding like I’m talking to a two-year-old.
My voice surprises her. She mumbles thank you and slides by, her belly almost touching mine.
‘When are you due?’ I ask.
Meg stops and turns. ‘Early December.’ She notices that I’m pregnant. ‘How about you?’
‘What day?’ she asks.
‘A boy or a girl?’
‘I don’t know. How about you?’
She’s carrying Lachlan’s scooter. ‘You already have one,’ I say. ‘Two,’ she replies.
I’m staring at her. I tell myself to look away. I glance at my feet, then the bucket, the condensed milk and the custard powder. I should say something else. I can’t think.
Meg’s basket is heavy. ‘Well, good luck.’
‘You too,’ I say.
She’s gone, heading towards the checkout. Suddenly, I think of all the things I could have said. I could have asked where she was having the baby. What sort of birth? I could have commented on her stretch jeans. Asked her where she bought them.
Meg has joined the queue at the register, flicking through the gossip magazines as she waits her turn.The new Vogue isn’t out, but she settles for Tatler and a copy of Private Eye.
Mr Patel begins scanning her items: eggs, milk, potatoes, mayonnaise, rocket and Parmesan. You can tell a lot about a person from the contents of a shopping trolley; the vegetarians, vegans, alcoholics, chocaholics, weight-watchers, five-two-ers, cat lovers, dog owners, dope smokers, coeliacs, the lactose intolerant and those with dandruff, diabetes, vitamin deficiencies, constipation or ingrown toenails.
That’s how I know so much about Meg. I know she’s a lapsed vegetarian who started eating red meat again when she fell pregnant, most likely because of the iron. She likes tomato-based sauces, fresh pasta, cottage cheese, dark chocolate and those shortbread biscuits that come in tins.
I’ve spoken to her properly now. We’ve made a connection. We’re going to be friends, Meg and I, and I’ll be just like her. I’ll make a lovely home and keep my man happy. We’ll do yoga classes and swap recipes and meet for coffee every Friday morning with our mothers’ group.
Another Friday. I am counting them down, crossing them off the calendar, scratching tally marks on the wall. This pregnancy seems to be longer than my other two. It’s almost as though my body has rebelled against the idea, demanding to know why it wasn’t consulted.
Last night I thought I was having a heart attack, but it was only heartburn. Chicken Madras was a big mistake. I drank a whole bottle of Gaviscon, which tastes like liquid chalk and makes me burp like a trucker. This baby is going to come out looking like Andy Warhol.
Now I need to pee. I should have gone at the café, but it didn’t seem necessary then. My pelvic floor muscles are working overtime as I hurry across the park, cursing every time Lachlan’s scooter bashes me in the shins.
Please don’t pee. Please don’t pee.
An exercise class has taken over one corner of the park. Elsewhere there are personal trainers standing over clients, telling them to do one more push-up or sit-up. Maybe I’ll get one of those when this is all over. Jack has started making cracks about my size. He knows I’m bigger this time because I didn’t lose my baby weight after Lachlan.
I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty. Pregnant women should be able to eat chocolate and wear sensible pyjamas and make love with the lights off. Not that there’s much of that nowadays. Jack hasn’t touched me in weeks. I think he has this strange aversion to sleeping with a woman who is carrying his child, viewing me as some sort of virginal Madonna figure who can’t be soiled.
‘It’s not because you’re fat,’ he said the other night.
‘I’m not fat, I’m pregnant.’
‘Of course, that’s what I meant.’
I called him a bastard. He referred to me as Meghan. He does that when we’re having an argument. I hate the long form of my name. I like Meg because it reminds me of nutmeg – an exotic spice that men and countries have fought wars over.
Jack and I have skirmishes rather than battles. We are like Cold War diplomats who say nice things to each other while secretly stockpiling ammunition. When do couples run out of things to say, I wonder. When does the passion wane? When do the conversations become dull-witted and boring? When do iPhones make it to the dinner table? When do mothers’ groups graduate from talking about their babies to bitching about their husbands? When does the house-training of a man become proof of love? When does the gap between every woman’s dream husband and every man’s dream wife become a journey from pole to pole?
Ooh, this stuff is good. I should be writing it down for my blog.
No, I can’t do that. When I married Jack I promised I wouldn’t be one of those wives who tried to change him into something he wasn’t. I fell in love with him ‘as is’, off-the-peg, straight out of the box, no customising necessary. I am happy with my choices and refuse to waste time contemplating alternative lives.
Our marriage isn’t so bad. It’s a partnership, a meeting of minds and kindred spirits. Only up close do the flaws become apparent, like a delicate vase that has been dropped and pasted back together. Nobody else seems to notice, but I nurse that vase in my mind, hoping it still holds water, telling myself that mid-life humps are like speed bumps that make us slow down and smell the roses.
Jack and I didn’t plan to have another child. This one is our ‘oops’ baby, accidental, unscripted but not unwanted – not by me anyway. We took a rare weekend away for a friend’s fortieth birthday party. My mother offered to look after Lucy and Lachlan. Jack and I drank too much. Danced. Fell into bed. Made love in the morning. Jack had forgotten the condoms. We took a chance. Why wouldn’t we, when you consider the number of times we had risked a quick shag, only to be interrupted mid-coitus by,‘Mummy, I’m thirsty?’ or ‘Mummy, I can’t find Bunny’ or ‘Mummy, I’ve wet the bed.’
My other pregnancies were arranged like military campaigns but this one was literally a shot in the dark.
‘If it’s a girl, we should call her Roulette,’ Jack said when the shock wore off.
‘We’re not calling her Roulette.’
These jokes came after the arguments and the recriminations, which have stopped now but are likely to resurface when Jack is angry or stressed.
He’s a sports reporter for one of the cable channels, doing live football feeds from Premier League games and a full-time wrap-up of the goals and scorers. During the summer he covers a mixture of sports including the Tour de France, but never Wimbledon or The Open. His star is on the rise, meaning bigger games, more airtime and a higher profile.
Jack loves being recognised. Normally it’s by people who have some vague notion they’ve met him before. ‘Aren’t you someone?’ they ask when they interrupt our conversation, gushing over Jack and ignoring me. I look at the back of their heads and want to say, ‘Hello, I’m chopped liver.’ Instead I smile and let them have their moment.
Jack apologises afterwards. I love that he’s ambitious and successful, but sometimes wish he’d give us more of the public ‘Jack the Lad’ rather than the stressed version who comes home late or leaves early.
‘Maybe if you went back to work,’ he said last night, which is another sore point. Jack resents me ‘not having a job’. His words, not mine.
‘Who would look after the children?’ I asked.
‘Other women go to work.’
‘They have nannies or au pairs.’
‘Lucy is at school and Lachlan is in childcare.’
‘And now you’re pregnant again.’
These arguments cover the same old ground as we lob grenades from opposite trenches.
‘I have my blog,’ I say.
‘What good is that?’
‘It earned two hundred pounds last month.’
‘One hundred and sixty-eight,’ he replied.‘I do the accounts.’
‘Look at all the free stuff I get sent. Clothes. Baby food. Nappies. That new pram is top of the range.’
‘We wouldn’t need a new pram if you weren’t pregnant.’
I rolled my eyes and tried a different tack. ‘If I went back to work, we’d spend my entire wage on childcare. And unlike you, Jack, I don’t clock in and clock out. When was the last time you woke up for a nightmare or to do the water run?’
‘You’re right,’ he said sarcastically. ‘That’s because I get up and go to work so I pay for this lovely house and our two cars and those clothes in your wardrobe . . . and the holidays, school fees, gym membership . . . ’
I should have kept my mouth shut.
Jack belittles my blog, Mucky Kids, but I have over six thousand followers and last month a parenting magazine called it one of the best five mummy blogs in Britain. I should have hit Jack with that fact, but by then he’d gone to have a shower. He came downstairs wearing nothing but his short dressing gown, which always makes me laugh. After apologising, he offered to rub my feet. I arched an eyebrow. ‘What are you going to rub them on?’
We settled for a cup of tea in the kitchen and began discussing getting a nanny, trotting out the same cases for and against. I love the idea in theory – the me-time, added sleep and extra energy for sex – but then I picture a tight-bodied Polish girl bending over to fill the dishwasher or wrapped in a loosely tied towel as she leaves the bathroom. Am I paranoid? Maybe. Sensible? Absolutely.
I met Jack at the Beijing Olympics. I had a job in the media centre looking after the accredited journalists. Jack was working for Eurosport. He was still quite junior, learning the ropes, watching how it was done.
Both of us were too busy in Beijing to notice each other, but when it was over the host broadcaster threw a party for all the affiliated media. By then I knew a lot of the journalists, some of whom were quite famous, but most were boring, always talking shop. Jack seemed different. He was funny. Cool. Sexy. I liked everything about him, including his name, which made him seem like a regular Tom, Dick or Harry. He also had a great smile and film-star hair. I watched him from across the room and made the mistake of plotting our entire relationship in the course of sixty seconds. I had us marrying in London, honeymooning in Barbados and having at least four children, a dog, a cat and a big house in Richmond.
The party was winding down. I thought of something clever to say and made my way through the crowd. But before I could reach Jack he was waylaid by a female reporter from Sky Italia. Big hair. Voluptuous. Faces close. Shouting to be heard. Twenty minutes later I watched him walk off with the Italian job and I immediately felt cheated upon. I found a dozen reasons why I didn’t like Jack. He was cocky. He put highlights in his hair. He whitened his teeth. I told myself that he wasn’t my type because I didn’t go for pretty men. This might not have been a conscious choice. Pretty men didn’t usually go for me.
It was two years before we met again. The International Olympic Committee held a reception for delegates who were in London to inspect venues for the 2012 Games. I saw Jack arguing with a woman in the hotel foyer. He was animated and adamant about something. She was crying. Later I saw him alone at the bar, drinking the free booze and hijacking plates of canapés from passing waiters.
I pushed my way between bodies and said hello. Smiled. Was it wrong to catch him on the rebound?
We chatted. Laughed. Drank. I tried hard not to try too hard.
‘I need some fresh air,’ Jack said, almost falling off the stool. ‘Fancy a walk?’
It was nice to be outside, walking in step, leaning close. He knew a coffee place in Covent Garden that stayed open till late. We talked until they threw us out. Jack escorted me home and walked me to my front door.
‘Will you go out with me?’ he asked.
‘On a date?’
‘Is that OK?’
‘How about breakfast?’
‘It’s two-thirty in the morning.’
‘Are you angling to spend the night?’
‘No, I just want to make sure I see you tomorrow.’
‘You mean today?’
‘We could do lunch.’
‘I don’t know if I can wait that long.’
‘You’re sounding needy.’
‘Why did you fight with that woman I saw you with?’
‘She broke up with me.’
‘She said I was too ambitious.’ ‘Are you?’
‘Is that it?’
‘She also said I killed her fish.’
‘She keeps tropical fish. I was supposed to be looking after them and I accidentally turned off the water heater.’
‘When you were living with her?’
‘We weren’t exactly living together. I had a drawer. It’s where she kept my balls.’
‘She was crying.’
‘She’s a good actress.’
‘Did you love her?’
‘No. Are you always like this?’
Our first proper date was a lunch at Covent Garden, close to where we both worked. He took me to the Opera Terrace. Afterwards we watched the street performers and buskers and living statues. Jack was easy company. Curious and attentive, one good story led to another.
We went out again the next evening and shared a cab home. It was past midnight. We both had to work the next day. Jack didn’t ask to come inside, but I took his hand and led him up the stairs.
I fell in love. Madly. Deeply. Hopelessly. It should happen to everyone once – even if love should never be hopeless. I adored everything about Jack – his smile, his laugh, his looks, the way he kissed. He was like an everlasting packet of chocolate biscuits. I knew that I’d eat too many and make myself sick, but I ate them anyway.
Six months later we were married. Jack’s career blossomed then stalled for a while, but now it’s moving again. I fell pregnant with Lucy and turned down a promotion that would have taken me to New York. Lachlan arrived two years later and I left my job to become a stay-at-home mum. My parents helped us buy the house in Barnes. I wanted to go further south and have a smaller mortgage. Jack wanted the postcode as well as the lifestyle.
So here we are – the perfect nuclear family – with an ‘oops’ baby on the way and the doubts and arguments of the middle years starting to surface. I love my children. I love my husband. Yet sometimes I rake my memory to find moments that make me truly happy.
The man I fell in love with – the one who said that he loved me first – has changed. The happy-go-lucky, easygoing Jack has turned into a brittle man whose emotions are wrapped so tightly in barbed wire that I cannot hope to unloop them. I’m not focusing on his failings or tallying his shortcomings. I still love him. I do. I only wish he wouldn’t fixate so much on himself or question why our family isn’t more like the Disney Channel variety where everyone is happy, healthy, and witty and there are unicorns tethered in the garden.
Before becoming a novelist, Michael Robotham was an investigative journalist working across America, Australia and Britain. As a journalist and writer he has investigated notorious cases such as the serial killer couple Fred and Rosemary West. He has worked with clinical and forensic psychologists as they helped police investigate complex, psychologically driven crimes.
Michael's 2004 debut thriller, The Suspect, sold more than 1 million copies around the world. It is the first of eight novels featuring clinical psychologist Joe O'Loughlin, who faces his own increasing battle with a potentially debilitating disease. Michael has also written four standalone thrillers.
In 2015 he won the UK's prestigious Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger Award with his standalone thriller Life or Death. He lives in Sydney.