Kelly is a man trapped in a female body suit and now pregnant. He is slowly coming to terms with his situation and discovering feelings he didn’t know he had.
Things get a little darker for one of our characters. Our love goes out to anyone of you who have had to deal with similar issues.
I took a deep breath and began typing the e-mail.
“Jeremy, I hope all is well. I was hoping that everything had died down from the blog and we might discuss my returning to the agency. Would you be available to meet for coffee? Let me know. Kelly.”
I hit send. I wasn’t sure I wanted to return but I needed money. The book was coming along great but, even when Rich placed it, the advance would be small. Jamie wasn’t going to return what was mine. I wouldn’t go back to modeling and, even if I could, what could I model - maternity wear, stretch mark cream? Fi was more than generous but it was time to stand on my two feet.
Half an hour later, I received a response.
“Glad to hear from the next Ian McEwan! I’d be happy to meet you and go over old times. I’ll see what I can do on the job front but obviously can’t make any promises. How about next Thursday at the Costa at 2? Jeremy.” It was funny that he chose Ian McEwan. For a man who spent his life chasing the next thing, his taste in novels still returned to a time when he was the next thing.
I was glad he chose Thursday. I had set up a meeting with Rich and Hannah in the morning and was happy to be able to fit it all into one outing. I debated whether to tell him of my change but decided to surprise him.
Thursday morning came around. I was wearing the blue dress and flats that Fi had bought me. I debated heels but it was getting hard enough to walk as was, without trying to balance myself on top of it.
I was making breakfast when Fi came in and kissed me on the cheek. “Don’t you look smart?” she said. “That smells delicious.”
“Thank you,” I said. “It’s spinach and feta.” She smiled. “I’m meeting Rich and Hannah at 11 and then Jeremy at 2.”
“Jeremy? Who’s that,” she said, sitting down at the table.
“My former boss.”
She looked concerned. “Catching up?”
I took a deep breath. “I thought I’d see whether I could get my old job back.”
“Whatever for?” I could see the look of consternation in her eyes.
“You’ve been more than generous, Fi, opening your home to me…” I said, as I brought over her omelette.
“Our home, Kells. It’s yours as well as mine.”
“And you’ve bought me clothes and I, uh, just wanted to help out.”
“Kells, if you wanted money, I have more than enough. You just had to ask.”
That’s the problem, I thought. I don’t want to ask. If I wanted to ask, I could’ve gone back to James. “I know, Fi. I just want to feel like I’m contributing around here.”
She looked hurt. “Kells, you do contribute. I mean what do you call everything you do, the cooking and cleaning and all?” I knew what I’d call it and didn’t want to call it anything for just that reason. “Besides, what about Matt?”
Matt walked in. “What about me?” He gave Fi a kiss and then me. He sat down. “May I have a cheddar and sausage scramble, Kells?”
“Of course,” I said.
“So, what about me?”
“Kells was going to talk to her old boss about her job. She feels that she doesn’t contribute around here.” That’s a low blow, I thought, bringing Matt into it.
“Will you still cook and everything?” That was Matt.
I smiled as I started scrambling the eggs. “Of course. I mean this probably won’t amount to anything anyway.”
Matt smiled, “Good on you, Kells. Go for it.”
“Thank you Matt. Please, Fi, I won’t do anything to interfere with things around here.”
“What about the book? That’s your dream.”
“I know but that’s getting close to done. Besides, it’ll do me some good to get out and about, especially before little Humphrey or Priscilla comes.” Before we had the sonogram and knew what I was having, Fi and I had started calling the baby ‘Humphrey’ or ‘Priscilla’ as a little in joke. If I had gastric reflux, it was Priscilla. If I farted, ‘Humphrey did it.’ “Please Fi, I need this. I need to see.”
She sighed, then relented. “I’d just hate to see you burning the candle at both ends,” she said, putting her hand on my belly.
“I know. Don’t worry. Besides, it’s just a meeting and I made a dog’s breakfast of it before I left.” I had told Fi about the blog.
She laughed. “Did you tell him about, well…”
I smiled. “I thought I’d surprise him.”
“Well, that it will be,” she laughed.
Matt finished his breakfast. “I’m off to the programme,” he said. “Bye, mum,” he said, kissing Fi on the cheek. “Bye, Kells,” he said, giving me the same kiss. “Good luck today.”
I put my hand on his arm, “Thanks. Have a good day.” I almost said, “Say hi to Saff for me,” but remembered at the last second.
Fi moved next to me and I rested my head on her shoulder. She started running her fingers through my hair. “I’m sorry Kells. I’m being selfish. If this is what you need, I support you.” It didn’t feel 100% sincere.
I had my meeting and then jumped on the Overground. After arriving at the correct station I went over to the Costa. I waited across the street on a bench until I saw him go in. He sat down, ordered a coffee and took a sip.
I smiled to myself. ‘Here we go,’ I thought. I walked over, threw my arms around him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Jeremy,” I said loudly, as half the cafe turned around. The rest, good Londoners, didn’t look up from their phones.
“Erm, I’m sorry, miss, but do we know each other?”
I started to cry. Given my hormones, this was strangely easy to do. “You don’t remember me?” Now, the Londoners looked up. “At the party? You told me you could get me a job as a model. I believed you,” and I started to sob.
I could see the beads of sweat forming on his forehead. His hand shook. I could see his coffee sloshing around. He looked around nervously. “I, uh, think you’re, uh, mistaken, Miss.”
“You’re Jeremy Peckham from Stoke-on-Trent. You told me how much I reminded you of your sister Olivia. And, now, now that I’m pregnant, you want to pretend I’m mistaken?” I yelled. I swear I saw phones out. ‘Bastard Dumps Pregnant Girl’ now headed to YouTube, I thought. I saw the women in the cafe looking for pitchforks and torches.
As Jeremy sweated, I decided to let him off. I whispered in his ear, “You ever shag an albino?” We had been at a party once where he had chatted up an albino woman. This was our inside joke through three agencies. “Yeah, it’s me, Kelly. Nanosuit. I’ll explain.”
He whispered through gritted teeth. “I’ll bloody kill you.”
I turned to the cafe and said, “And scene, ladies and gentlemen. Sorry for the scare. I wanted to get a natural reaction from him. Do you think I did?” The cafe applauded. “Come Nigel, let’s go,” I said, as I led him out of the cafe. I had no idea where this last part came from.
We walked about a block when he said, “Bloody hell, Kells.” He was laughing. “What the hell’s going on? I told you to lie low, not under.”
“I mean, I know we’re all worried about turning forty, but you know, a smart pair of glasses, a new suit, maybe a sports car…”
“Having fun, Jeremy?” I laughed.
“Not as much as you apparently.” We sat on a bench. “Seriously, what the hell happened?” With that, I recounted the whole story, from my firing (which he knew) through the nanosuits through Iceland to here. When I finished, he said, “Hmmm.”
“Hmm? That’s all you have? Hmmm? And you’re a bloody creative director?”
He paused and twirled his glasses with his fingers. He paused, “We’ve known each other a long time, Kelly.” Whenever someone begins a sentence like that, you know it’s not good.
“Seems a bit odd the whole thing to me. I mean I don’t understand science. I don’t know how a circuit works much less all this,” he said, waving his hand up and down. “It just seems odd to me that all this happened by accident.” I started to get upset. Not at him per se, rather at myself. He was only saying what I had been thinking when I chose to think about it, which wasn’t often. I was too busy getting through each day and thinking about what was to come to think about what had been. I could feel the baby kick. He kicked when I got upset. I took some cleansing breaths like Dr. Patel recommended. I didn’t want the cortisol to get to the baby. “Are you OK, Kelly?” he said, with genuine concern. “I didn’t mean to get you upset.”
“I’m fine, Jeremy. Not to be weird, but the baby just kicked. He does that when I get upset. I know, weird, huh?”
He smiled. “That’s the least weird thing so far. I wasn’t suggesting anything, y’know. It’s just bloody strange. Like something off ‘Black Mirror.’”
I laughed. “Tell me about it. Anyway, if I haven’t blown up my chances today, I wanted to talk to you about getting work. Am I still persona non grata?”
He laughed. “You stopped being a topic about two and a half months ago. I mean, the millena-twats circled your cubicle like jackals before the seat got cold but everyone else,” and he made a pfft sound. On the one hand, I was glad that I had been forgotten. On the other hand, I had been forgotten. “We could probably get you back on assignment. Not B & Q, obvs.”
“Obvs.” It sounded ridiculous, two grown men saying ‘obvs.’ Well, one grown man and me. “I’d really appreciate anything you can do.”
“Short of cash?” he said, taking out his wallet.
“Put that away. I mean, yeah, I need the cash, but I’m kind of looking to get back to get back too. Get some of the old Kelly back.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Not sure that’s possible, mate. Or should I say, ‘babe?’” He grinned.
“That’s bloody sexist. I hope you don’t think I’m that sort of woman.”
“Oh, please, you silly cow. You slept with someone who promised you a job.”
“Areshole,” I laughed. “Like I’d sleep with you.”
“Have you slept with anyone? I mean besides Jamie.”
“Are you bloody seriously asking me that, you tosser?” I laughed. “God no. Fuck’s the matter with you?”
“You’ve got a bloody vag, mate. I’d think you’d want to give it a go and all,” he was laughing so hard, he could barely get the words out.
“You would. Besides, by the time I found out, I was three months gone. I don’t think anyone wants to be puked on during it.”
He laughed, “Been to Amsterdam? Anyway, I’d need to run it by Mark.” Suddenly, he smiled. “What do you say to scaring the crap out of him like you did me? You owe me that.”
“Sure,” I said. “Oh, by the way,” I said, taking out the Grazia. “Look at this shite people are putting out.” I turned to the page. “Lure him to your net? Christ.”
He laughed. “That’s ours.” He looked at the page. “That you?” he said, pointing to me.
I sighed. “Yes. I needed the money.”
He smiled. “I’d shag the other two before you.”
I came home around 5 and started dinner. I had stopped by Waitrose, and picked up salmon, dill and asparagus. Between Rich and Jeremy, I was feeling good and wanted to make something special for Fi and Matt.
I had changed and was in the kitchen prepping everything when Matt came out of his room. He came over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Hey, Kells. How was your day? How was the meeting with your old boss?”
I smiled, thinking of the scene in the Costa. I was going to say something but figured I’d wait for Fi. “Good. How was programme? How’s your work colleague? Sasson? Sandra? What’s her name again?”
He laughed. “That’s got old, Kells. She’s good. She asked if she could see the sonogram.”
“Of course, she can!” I liked this girl.
We had a copy attached to the refrigerator with a magnet. Matt picked it up and looked at it. “It’s really bloody amazing,” he said, with a smile.
“It is,” I said. “I can’t believe it either.”
He looked at me and said, “Are you ever sorry about it? I mean that...I dunno...you’re like this?” He looked ashamed. “Sorry, it’s none of my business. Forget it.”
I put my arm around him. “Matt, don’t apologise. It’s totally normal to ask.”
“Are you sure?” I wasn’t sure how Fi would respond, but I felt I needed to answer. He, of all people, had a right, a need to know.
“Yes, I’m sure. Am I sorry about it?” I took a deep breath. “I mean I’m sorry how it happened. I didn’t choose this, it got chosen for me. And it was weird when I found out. And I was angry. At Jamie. And I still am. But am I sorry I’m like this? Not anymore. Not really.” That was the first time I had ever articulated that.
Then he said, “If you could have chosen it, would you have? Like if she had asked you beforehand?”
I was afraid to answer this question. First, I didn’t know what the answer should be. Matt was mature for fifteen, much more than I was at that age, but I imagine he had to be. Plus, they were exposed to a lot more information now than we were. On the other hand, living with a fifteen year old had taught me that they had infinite information but no context. I didn’t know how he would take whatever I said. Furthermore, I had no idea what the answer was. I genuinely didn’t, so I answered. “I really don’t know Matt. That’s kind of an impossible question.” He looked dissatisfied with that, so I continued. “She did this to me without asking. And to answer yes or no would be like validating what she did. Does that make sense?”
I could tell it didn’t. “So, it’s like if she had asked me, would I have? I dunno but she didn’t, and it’s hard to go back and imagine what I would have done had she done the right thing.” I took another deep breath. “Probably not.” He looked upset. I gave him a hug and looked him in the eyes. “But that’s because I didn’t know how amazing it was. I was a stupid guy back then.”
He smiled. “Can I ask another question?”
“Do you ever think that this is who you really are?”
I dropped the knife I had in my hand and I started to cry uncontrollably. Matt came over and took me to a chair. The baby was kicking up a storm and I couldn’t stop to breathe. Matt put his arm around me and began to cry. “Sorry, Kells. I am so sorry. I am really, really sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. Please. Please. Please stop crying. Please. I am so sorry. I never said it. Please. I don’t mean to hurt you. I was wrong.” Now, we were holding each other, crying.
I regained my composure, sort of. “It’s OK, Matt,” I said, as he kept crying. “I know you didn’t mean anything by it. I know,” and I took a deep breath, “how hard it’s been for you. I mean I don’t know. I can’t know. I mean it’s a fair question to ask. I was just afraid to ask it.” I couldn’t believe I was saying this to a 15 year old. To Fi’s son. I had probably not just crossed, but obliterated, the line.
He stopped crying and rubbed his eyes. “I guess I just thought. I mean, it’s a suit. You could take off the suit and you didn’t. I just thought…”
“Do you want to talk, Matt? I’ll just listen.”
He looked at the floor, and then at me. “I don’t know. It’s just like since I was little, I dreamed of what you have. Like I could put on a suit and be a boy, be who I was. And it’s like all you want to do is tear off this suit, y’know?”
I thought about that first day, that first week. How I had pulled and scratched at it. “Yeah, I do. I actually do.”
“And everyone keeps trying to put you in the suit. Like, when you get older, you’ll really like it and you never do. And then they let me try on this suit and I like it, but no one else does. Like you’re this freak…”
I put my arm around him. “You’re not a freak. I know you’re not a freak. Saff doesn’t think you’re a freak.”
“Mum does,” he said, sadly.
“No, she doesn’t. She loves you.”
“I know she loves me,” he said. “But she still doesn’t understand.”
“She’s coming around. I mean I’m not defending her although I think you’re wrong about her. But, it’s like you give birth to this child,” and I put my hand on my belly. He had calmed down. “And you have these hopes and dreams and you want to protect them with all your power. To make sure they don’t get hurt. And,” I started to tear up again, “you see them hurting and you want to stop it and you can’t. You want them to be happy and healthy and comfortable and, when they aren’t, you feel like you failed. I think she feels like she failed you. Not because you’re you but because you were in pain for so long.”
He said, wiping his eyes, “She didn’t fail. This is me. I think she’d rather me be Saff.”
“That is absolutely not true, Matt. She loves you. She doesn’t want Saff. She wants you. I just think that, first your dad and then this, it was a lot to face. Your mum is the strongest woman I know. It was just too much. I mean, did she fight going to the gender specialist?”
“Did she go to school to let you be Matt?”
“Does she let you have that bloody awful haircut?” I said, with a smile.
“Shut up,” he grinned.
“She loves you, Matt. She loves you. Matt. When we’ve been out, she always talks about her son. Not stammering. No stuttering. She talks about her son Matt. I think she probably has a hard enough time with you growing up at all.”
He came over and gave me a kiss. “Thanks, O.M.”
“Other mum,” he smiled.
I heard the knock on my door. It was about 11 P.M.
Fi said, “I saw the light on. I figured you were up.”
“Yeah. I can’t sleep.” As of late, I couldn’t fall asleep comfortably. I tended to sleep on my back but, as the baby got bigger, the weight made that more and more difficult. Plus, as Dr. Patel had told me at the last appointment, “pregnancy loosens the joints to prepare you for childbirth,” which made me shudder a little. And made me excited. Which also made me shudder.
Fi laughed, “I can’t imagine why. My god, look at all these pillows!” To make myself more comfortable, I had a pillow under my head, and one under my belly and another between my legs. Oh, and one behind my back, just in case. “Where do you sleep?” She started picking up the pillows off the bed.
“Where are you taking my pillows?” I said.
“To my room,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Grab those two, OK?”
“Fi, I can’t take your bed. Where will you sleep?”
She smiled. “My bed. It’s a king size, Kells. There’s more than enough room.”
I thought of John’s side, the way that she hadn’t moved anything since he died. The way that even the sheet on his side stayed flat. “Are you sure?” I said.
She smiled. “I’m sure. It’s just us girls.” Yup, just us girls. “Don’t try any funny business,” she said, laughing.
“I don’t think I could even find my business, with this belly and all,” I joked. “Seriously, thanks, Fi.”
She gave me a light kiss on the lips. “Stop it. You deserve a good night’s sleep.”
We dragged all of my pillows into Fi’s room. I gingerly got into the bed, not wanting to disrupt anything on John’s side. It felt strange to sleep in a big bed after all these months. Even in Iceland, we only had a large double.
Fi watched me get ready for bed with barely contained amusement. I had developed a system for positioning my pillows. First, the pillow between my legs. I would place between my legs then lay down. Then, the belly pillow. After three months in the single, I knew where to place it. Now, in a king size bed, I didn’t know where. Fi watched me squirm around and try and position myself until, sufficiently exasperated, she came over and said, “Oh, let me help you.” She placed it under my belly just so.
“You didn’t go through this with Matty?”
She smiled and looked up. “Sorry. It’s been a while. I did. Eventually, John went and bought me one big body pillow. Said he didn’t want to sleep in the Marks and Sparks bedding department.” She sniffled a little.
“Sorry Fi, I didn’t mean…”
“Nonsense, Kells. I know you didn’t. It all goes so fast.” She regained her composure. “Let’s put this one behind your back,” she said, fluffing it. “How does that feel?”
“Thanks, Fi. This feels much better. Thank you.”
She leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Of course. Goodnight, Kells.”
“Goodnight, Fi.” It took me a while to fall asleep. Partly because of the baby. Even in a larger bed, I was still six months along. Mostly, because I was in Fi’s bed. But it was just us girls.
I looked at picture on the fridge, slightly obscured by the two magnets. One the shape of an orange, the other a cherry. I hadn’t been able to stop myself coming back to it for days now. Sitting down, I felt Fi’s hand on my shoulder.
“He’s beautiful, isn’t he?”
“He is,” she squeezed my shoulder. “He’ll be a handsome boy, what with his mother’s genes.”
I assumed she meant me, but I thought of Jamie.
“Do you want something to drink? Elderflower tonic?”
“Hmmm? Yes thanks,” I patted her hand before she took it away. I watched her back as she moved around the kitchen. Since we started sharing a bed, it was like we were playing house. “Matt will be home soon, I should put dinner on.”
“Don’t be silly, we’ll get a take-away, my treat.”
I tried to push myself up, not an easy task anymore, “I don’t want the two of you surviving on take-away when I’m away.” It was weeks away but I’d already begun freezing meals for them.
She pushed me back down in the chair with relative ease. “We survived before you, Mary Poppins.”
I could see her mind was made up. Perhaps I had been going crazy with the healthy eating, “I hear Indian food is supposed to be good…”
“That’s for getting the baby out of you,” she laughed.
I clutched my stomach, as if frightened my son was going to fall out. My son. I played with the concept in my head. Fiona had picked up her phone and was typing out a text. “I’ll let him know what we’re planning,” she said. “Where is he tonight?”
“I think they’re having movie night for the volunteers.” I smiled, thinking of him and Saff holding hands, maybe sneaking a kiss before the others would make kissing noises and silly comments. “Captain America - Civil War, I think. He should be home soon.”
She shrugged. “I’m glad he’s so involved with programme,” she said, looking a little guilty. “I mean I’m very proud of him and everything,” her shoulders sank,
“It’s just this is the last summer before he leaves high school. I had hoped to see more of him…”
I felt bad. The time was approaching when I’d need to tell her about Saff. I felt conflicted. I liked sharing a secret with Matt. He asked me not to, but she was his mum.
“We’ll wait for Matt.” I waddled over to the laptop and opened up Hungry House, looking for Indian.
We waited, and waited. After about an hour and a half, the hunger became too much for us and we ordered, Fi making sure to include Sag Aloo and a garlic naan for Matt. “We can always reheat it when he gets in,” I tried to reassure her.
I kept looking at my phone. It was past 10pm now. It wasn’t unusual for Matt to stay out late; it was unusual for him to fail to at least text. I knew he’d be with Saff. I could remember how easy it was to lose your sense of time during the flush of first love. To lose any sense. Still I needed to tell Fi. She wasn’t even able to concentrate on Line of Duty.
My phone started buzzing making me jump. I didn’t recognise the number, “Er, hello?”
“Is this Kelly Cooper?” I vaguely recognised the voice.
“Urm yes, who’s this?”
“Richard. Richard Mitchell. We met at the park. Saffron gave me your number,” he said uncertainly. My blood ran cold. “Kelly, there’s no easy way to say this. I’m in hospital with Matt and Saff.” There was a long pause, one in which I could feel every beat of my heart, “I’m afraid Matt has been assaulted.”
“What?” I said. “Is he OK?” I heard myself speaking, as if I was listening in on someone else. My voice was loud and shrill.
Fi came over, “What? What’s wrong?” The look in her face told me that she knew before I said anything.
“Matt. Is in hospital. Assault.” Richard said more, but the buzzing in my head drowned most of it out. All I could focus on was Fiona’s face, all the colour having drained away. I heard him say, “they say the injuries are serious.” I gasped, nearly dropping the phone.
“… and they want to keep an eye on him.”
“Sorry, Richard. I dropped my phone what was that?”
“He’s in a bad way, but he’ll live.”
“Oh thank God!”
Richard hung up, muttering something that made it clear he was in no mood to discuss God at that moment. I looked up. Fiona was looking at me, her expression one of total fear.
The next few minutes passed like some waking nightmare. I gathered up some clothes for Matt in a bag. The pyjamas he never wore, a few t-shirts, pants and jeans. Fiona was catatonic, moving like a trauma victim. I had to steer her out of the door. On the way, she tried to pick up her car keys. I pried them from her hand. She just looked at me like I’d asked her an extremely difficult question. The car journey was remarkably easy. Thankfully by that hour the streets had cleared.
“So,” Fiona seemed to be coming back to earth, “Who was that? On the phone, you seemed to know them.”
“The dad of one of the volunteers. We met at the park thing.”
She nodded her head slowly. I wondered how much of it she understood.
“Fi, there’s something I need to tell you,”
She turned towards me, she looked like she was trying to listen through a terrible headache.
“The guy, well his daughter. Matt has a kind of a thing for her. And her him. They have a thing. For each other.”
There was silence. Fiona just looked at me.
“OhmyGodFiI’msoooosorryIshouldhavetoldyouearlierbutIthoughtitwasjustacrushthenitwasmoreandIdidn’tknowwhattodo.” I had to stop, if only so I could breathe.
Fiona just nodded. We reached the hospital and parked up. As I found a pay machine, Fiona looked at me, unable to speak. She walked towards the door. “Go,” I said, “I’ll come find you.” I nearly added ‘If you still want me to.’
I found the room number from the reception. The journey up in the lift felt like my last walk on death row. What state would Matt be in? Would he want to see me? Would Fiona let me? I felt bad for worrying about myself.
As I neared the room, I could see Saff and Richard. Saff was in tears, sobbing into his chest.
“Hey,” I said softly. They both looked up.
Saff took me by surprise when she launched herself up, rocket like, throwing her arms around my neck.
“Oh Kelly, it was awful,” Her body shook with every sob. I looked over at Richard. He stood behind her. I felt a huge amount of pity for him. He looked so lost and helpless.
“Fiona? Matt’s mum?” I asked. He nodded at the closed door. “What happened?”
Saff crumpled, crying even harder than before. The girl must drink pints of water back to back to be able to produce so many tears.
“It was Saff’s cousin, my nephew, and some friend,” and he spat the word ‘friend’ like a curse. Richard clenched his fists, his knuckles turning white. At that moment, his phone started buzzing.
Richard looked at Saff. “It’s your mother.” Saff shook her head furiously. He walked away, looking at the phone, agitated.
Saff and I sat, her still clinging to me. “It was horrible,” she said. “They followed us, saying,” and she convulsed with sobs, “terrible things. Matt said to ignore them and walked away, but they kept following us. But, then Amadou’s friend...he grabbed me...and Matt tried to…” her voice trailed off, her head in her hands.
Richard returned. He was angry. Saff looked at him and then leapt up.
“I’m not leaving here. I’m NOT!” She balled her fists, unconsciously mirroring her father’s earlier gesture. “I’m staying here until Matt gets out. I don’t care what SHE says.” I could have kissed her.
Richard smiled at her, less a smile of happiness than relief. “I wouldn’t ask you to,” and he stroked her face.
“And I will NEVER go back if Amadou’s there!”
Richard saw the look of determination in her face and got a look of what I could only call pride. “We’ll cross that bridge if we need to. If we have to we’ll stay with your Aunty Ruth.”
I saw the door to the room open and Fi came out. I could only catch a quick glimpse of Matt, tubes running from his nose and an IV in his arm. My heart stopped, wondering why he needed that. Fi walked over, took my arm and pulled me to one side. ‘Well this was it,’ I thought, bracing myself for the worst, which I deserved. I’d let her and Matt down.
When we were out of earshot, I tried to pre-empt my bollocking, “Look Fi, I can’t apologise enough. I’ll pack my bags and be gone before you get back,” Fiona watched me as I spoke, her expression unreadable, “I’m sure Bill will take me…”
She looked at me. “What?”
“This is my fault. I hid this from you. If I had told you, we could’ve stopped this.”
She laughed. “Really? A 36 year old mum and a six months pregnant girl?” I started to say something about mums lifting cars off children but she put a finger to my mouth. She pulled me into a hug, which was not easy given the size of my stomach. “Thank you.”
“Thank you?” my voice was a little muffled as my face was crushed into her neck,
“I’m so glad Matt is able to talk to you. I can’t believe I’ve pushed him away…”
“No, no it’s me. I should have told you. You’re his mother.”
She held my chin up, so I could see her gaze, “You’re his mother too.” I cried.
Fiona took me in to see Matt. It was hard to see him lying there taking shallow breaths. His right eye was swollen shut. The bruises on his face, and there were many, had already begun to turn purple. A horrible, nightmarish purple.
Shortly after that, two police detectives arrived, a man and a woman. It was gone midnight by then and both looked tired. He had a neatly cut beard and spoke with a West Midlands accent. She was short with a bowl haircut.
“My name is DS Leach, you can call me Susan. This is my colleague DC Alderson.”
“Thomas,” he introduced himself.
We nodded in unison, not really sure what we were supposed to say.
“Can I ask which one of you is the mother?”
Fiona spoke before I had chance to, “We both are.” I took her hand.
“Of course,” Susan smiled weakly. “And the girlfriend?”
“That’s me.” Saff was standing behind the officers.
They asked us lots of questions. Had Matt being having much trouble at school, who are his friends etc. I felt bad because Fiona had to look to me to answer. After a while, Susan began directing her questions at me directly. Fiona stayed silent, her hand holding on tight to mine. Eventually, they took Saff and her dad into a different room to take their statements.
“Why are they asking so many questions?” Fiona took her hand away, crossing her arms.
“I suspect they need to establish a timeline, make sure everything connects up.” I’d watched a lot of police procedurals.
Fiona just nodded after a while she spoke, “It felt like we were on trial.”
The night turned into a blur. None of us could sleep and we slipped into an unspoken rhythm. There were two of us ‘girls’ by Matt’s bedside at any one time. The nurses wouldn’t let any more people into the room. I suspected it was so they could get in quickly in case of an emergency. I didn’t say anything to Fiona.
Around 4 AM, Richard tapped me on the shoulder. “Why don’t we go downstairs for a bite? You could probably do with something, as I recall,” he said with a smile, looking at Saff. The writer in me would say that he was remembering when his wife was pregnant with Saff, an easier time, one of hope. Saff went to get up and Richard said, “why don’t you stay here? Keep Matt’s mum company.”
Saff looked to me for help. “Don’t worry,” I said, “Fi doesn’t bite.” Fi laughed. Saff looked less than convinced.
“How are you holding up?” We were out in the corridor when Richard spoke.
“Urgh, I’m not. Just about keeping it together. You?”
“It’s all so strange. I just cannot understand how this happened. I just don’t,” and he shook his head, letting the sentence trail off.
We looked at a site map on the wall, trying to find the canteen.
“Do you think it’ll be open?”
He shrugged, “We’ll have to find out.”
The service area was closed, but the canteen was open, at least to sit in. There were several vending machines. I dithered for a while about risking a coffee. In the end, I chose a herbal tea and a chocolate bar as the lesser of two evils. Richard chose a black coffee, lots of sugar.
“What is your nephew - Amadou, right?” He nodded as I continued, “What’s he like?”
“Well up until now I’d have said Amadou’s nice, if a little intense,” he sighed, “Ellen’s brother sent him here to keep him out of harm’s way. When he started going to church with Ellen, we were pleased. There’s so much stuff out there to tempt teenagers, crime, drink, drugs, the usual, especially when you’re new. Perhaps we were looking in the wrong places.” He rubbed his temples.
“You know if you and Saff wanted to nip off and get a few hours sleep, I’m sure we could manage.”
He laughed hoarsely, “Like she’ll let that happen. I won’t even try, I’m not that stupid.” Then he looked away, “Also, I won’t take her back until I’m sure Amadou isn’t there.”
“You don’t think the police will have arrested them?”
“I don’t know,” he looked down at the table. “Ellen isn’t exactly communicating with me.”
I almost jumped up, baby and all. “She can’t possibly be defending him!”
“No. Not the attack at least. She just doesn’t think Saff should be seeing Matt,” he took a deep breath, “And she thinks maybe Matt provoked them a little.”
I slammed my fists on the table with such force that I woke the junior doctor napping at a table near the back. We looked at the junior doctor’s bemused expression and then at each other. We laughed.
He looked at his hands. “I can’t say I understand it. I’m a Quaker, a nice English religion. Raffles, cake sales and a past that includes using Christianity to excuse the evil of colonization. The nearest we have to extremism these days is passive aggressive emails.”
“How can someone as sweet as Saff come from someone so… bigoted. Sorry, I know she’s your wife… but.”
“Look, Ellen is a wonderful mother in most ways. And maybe we can’t understand it. She was a Christian in a mostly Muslim country, then a black woman in a white nation. The church was the one thing her family had. I don’t believe what she believes and I don’t condone what happened,” he sighed. “People are complex. Never entirely good, but not entirely bad either.”
I offered him a piece of my chocolate and we alternated silence and chatting, mostly about nothing. The weather - good, for now; the government - bad, for the foreseeable future, football - I was an Arsenal supporter. Apparently, Richard and Saff were a big Liverpool fans and had offered to take Matt to a game. I was surprised to hear that Matt had been enthusiastic about the idea. Outside the window, the sun rose over East London. It was going to be another beautiful day.
When we returned to the room, I was surprised to find Fiona and Saff laughing. Judging by the watery glints in their eyes, there had been some crying as well.
“Did you know that Matt tried to get everyone at school to call him Matt-dog last year?” Fiona looked at me. It was good to see her smiling again.
“No, but I think it’s probably a good thing he’s unconscious right now.”
Fiona looked at Saff, “Go lie down, Saff,” she said, rubbing her hand. Saff did look tired. We all did.
Saff looked frantically between Fiona and her dad, “I’m not leaving him!”
I put my hand on Saff’s shoulder. “There’s a family room down the hall. Go lie down for a while. If there’s any change, we, I, will come get you.” She didn’t look sold.
“Come on,” her dad gestured, “You’ll be no use to Matt if you fall asleep as soon as he wakes.”
Once they had left I sat down next to Fiona, “How about you?”
“I’m not moving,” she replied firmly. I leaned my head on her shoulder. “He looks so peaceful,” she mumbled.
“He’ll pull through. He has to.”
She smiled. “Well, you’re really a mother now Kells. This is what it’s all about. All worry and little or no power to do anything about it.”
We sat there for a long time, just staring at Matthew, as if we could will him better.
“You should wash up Fi,” I squeezed her shoulder.
“Go splash some water on your face, get a coffee. I can keep an eye on him.”
She didn’t speak, just nodded. She moved slowly out of the room, poised ready to dart back at the first sign of movement.
With Fiona gone, I moved up one seat so I was closer to him. His fringe was plastered to his forehead. As gently as I could I pushed a few strands of hair out of his eyes.
He blinked. I assumed it was involuntarily, until I heard him weakly say, “Aunty Kells?”
I nearly jumped out of my skin. “Matt!”
“Where am I Kells?” His voice was weak and frightened. It reminded me of when he was little.
“You’re in hospital Matty. Everything is going to be OK.”
He moaned, pain written across his face. “How’s Saff? Is she OK?” He looked panicked.
“She’s fine, Matty,” I said, rubbing his hand, taking care to avoid the IV. “She wouldn’t leave your side all night. She’s just down the hall. I’ll go get her and your mum,” I said, trying to lift myself up.
He started to tear up. “No, please don’t. Please stay.”
I hugged him as best as I could. “It’s OK. You’re safe now. It’s going to be OK.” I didn’t know that but had to believe it. “I promise.”
From the door, I heard, “Matt!” I saw Fi in the doorway. “Thank God!” I pulled myself up and moved out of the way. The rest was an explosion of relief, hugs and tears.
While Fiona fussed over him, I went to fetch Saff and Richard. When I came in, Saff was lying, head on her dad’s lap while he gently stroked her head. He looked at me as if to figure out what was going on. I smiled.
He gently shook Saff. “Honey,” he said tenderly.
She opened her eyes and I told her the news. She leapt up and ran past me.
Half an hour later, the doctor examined Matt.
He pulled Fiona and me aside. “Well, besides the contusions on his face, he has two broken ribs and a bruised kidney. All in all though, he’s a lucky young man.”
“Lucky?” Fi and I both said. “How can you say he’s lucky?”
“Sorry. That may seem callous, but thankfully the shite, excuse me, that did this to him only kicked him in straight on the face. Had they kicked the side, he could be looking at brain damage or worse. And the kicks to the side only bruised the kidney, not lacerated it. He will recover from these injuries with hopefully no long-term damage.”
I felt like I breathed for the first time in hours and spontaneously hugged him. Fi laughed while he looked confused and said, “Uh, you’re welcome?”
While Saff fussed over Matt, Fi led me out of the room. “I saw you talking to Matt earlier, when you thought I wasn’t there.”
“Sorry Fi, I wanted to come get you but I couldn’t leave him alone…” I stopped because Fiona had taken hold of both of my hands. She pulled me into a long kiss.
“Kells, stop. Thank you for everything. Not just tonight but all the time. For being there for him. For...being his mum. The perfect mum. For...” and she stopped.
“I could not ask for a better partner. A better…” and she paused again.
I took a deep breath, “Wife?”
She nodded. “Yes. Sorry.”
I smiled, “Don’t be,” and I took her hand. I was too tired and too happy to think.
She whispered, “I love you, Kells.”
“I love you too.” My head was spinning as we walked back into the room. Too many feels, as Matt would say. I didn’t know where to start. I only just remembered to let go of Fiona’s hand before Matt and the others saw us. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but as I caught his eye, Matt seemed to be giving me a satisfied smile.
Matt was in hospital for a week. By the second full day, he was up and shuffling along the halls, taking his IV pole with him. Fi and I walked on the either side, each holding an arm.
He laughed, “I’m not an invalid, you two.”
“Sorry, Matt,” Fi said, “We were….”
He rolled his eyes. “I know. I know. You were just so worried.” I laughed, glad to see the old Matt coming back, slowly but surely. We went past the nurse’s station, the nurses smiling at us as we walked past. We were a sight. A boy, his mum and his pregnant 25 year old other mum.
The week was a constant cycle of Matt’s friends, from school and the programme. The boys brought an XBox which they convinced the hospital maintenance staff to let them set up. It wasn’t hard; the janitors would come on off hours to play FIFA and GTA, bringing sweets that I guessed got lost on its way from the supply room to the service area. The nurses let it go, “as long as you keep it quiet.” They did as best as 15 and 16 year old boys could, which was poorly. The girls all fussed over him, bringing him snacks and balloons and cards. Matt enjoyed it immensely. Saff was, to say the least, not best pleased.
She pulled me into the hall. “Look at her,” she said, staring daggers through a horse-faced girl named Charlotte, “Oooh, Matty. You were so brave. Stupid cow.” I was surprised that she was willing to leave the room, although she never took her eyes off the door.
I smiled. “Saff, please. Like he would have anything to do with her.” I felt bad criticising this girl who was only trying to be nice, but I liked Saff better. “Besides, Fiona’s in there. She’ll make sure.”
She and I had been getting closer before everything, and had become closer now. “Saff,” I said, smiling, “would we let anything happen?” Fi had become very fond of Saff. She said that she was a good girl who cared for Matt. If I thought about it, I think she made it easier for Fi to see Matt as he was, a normal teenage boy. Saff smiled and I continued. “How’re things at home?”
“Dad says not good.” Saff had been staying with her aunt Ruth. “Says everyone back there has been calling mum constantly, asking how she could let all this,” she sneered, ‘all this’ “happen. Like it’s her fault the police took him. I mean, other than it was.” Since it happened, she wouldn’t speak to her mom. She blamed her for what Amadou did.
“Saff, Amadou and the other one,” I couldn’t bear to say his name, “did this. No one else.”
“Yeah, well, it’s all her bollocks that caused this. They remember all that Leviticus shite, but not Galatians or Matthew.” I was barely Anglican, my father taking us on Christmas Eve and Easter, unless we complained loudly enough and then we didn’t go. Our church was the VCR, our god Blackadder. I must’ve looked confused, because she said, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor male or female, for you are all one in Christ.’ ‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and ignore the log in your own?’ Yeah, she dragged me enough. Guess I didn’t learn the right stuff.”
I was at a loss for words. I felt awful. No one this young should be this angry. “Saff, the police will take care of this. And whatever’s up there will take care of that.” I wasn’t sure what I believed but that wasn’t a discussion for Saff and me. “Matt’s going to be OK and that’s what’s important.”
Fi walked out of the room and Saff ran back in. There were five other kids in the room but the cost of young love was apparently eternal vigilance. We watched her stomp in and move Charlotte out of the way. “She’s a tough one,” said Fi, with no lack of admiration.
I laughed. “Reminds me of someone.” She put her hand on my leg. We had since stopped trying to hide public displays of affection, well as much as any two self respecting English women would. “Poor kid. She’s so angry.”
“So am I,” Fi said. “I can’t believe she hasn’t even tried to come around.” I knew who ‘she’ was.
“Richard has.” He had come every day. He brought cards from Addo and Amie. Amie’s was a riot of horses and rainbows and multiple marker colors. Addo’s said, “Get better soon,” and had a stick figure.
“He’s not her. It wasn’t his nephew that did this. It wasn’t his church that spread all that hate.”
Dressing for work didn’t use to be this hard. Most of the male creatives I knew walked around with their arses hanging out of their designer jeans. I hadn’t really paid attention to the female creatives. I remembered short skirts but I wasn’t really in a place to wear that nor was I sure that I would have wanted to be.
Fiona said, “You’re fortunate that you’re pregnant. Otherwise, it’s smart, but not too smart. Nothing overly revealing, because you don’t want the other women to think you’re like that. But you don’t want to cover up too much either, no one likes a prude. But, lucky for you, you don’t have to think that way yet.” Lucky. That was me. Lucky back pain. Lucky leaking from my breasts. Lucky incontinence. That’s me, Ms. Lucky. I was so focused on my ‘good’ luck that I ignored ‘yet.’ After several costume changes, I settled on a white shirt and a black mid-length pencil skirt. I felt awkward going to work in a skirt, if only for what Jeremy would say, but Fi said, “take it from me, it will be the most comfortable.” I chose my black trainers as I felt they’d be comfortable and match my skirt.
Jeremy was having his fun, showing me around the office. With his hand on the small of my back he led me into the ideas room.
“So everyone, let me introduce you to Kelly. That’s Kelly..?” He turned to look at me, I realised I hadn’t given him a fake surname.
I couldn’t use Cooper and wouldn’t use Rogerson. “Walters,” I said without thinking too much.
“Hi,” the three millennials waved at me. I recognised all of them. The two women, Otty and Liv came as a pair. They had come up together at Saatchi and joined us at the same time about two years ago. As far as I knew, they regarded the old Kelly as part of the furniture. Josh was a silent type who, if I was honest, had got on my nerves. Maybe it was the lumberjack beard on a face, a baby face, that never did a day’s physical labor, or perhaps it was the way he buttoned the top of his shirt up even when he wasn’t wearing a tie. All I knew about him outside of work was that he’d been to a Steiner School.
“Hey,” I took their hands one by one. At first I was unsure why they were still smiling until I realised they saw me as one of them. We chatted for awhile, what campaigns we’d worked on (I edited mine down slightly) and what I might be working on.
“I’m thinking of putting Kelly with Josh, help with the TK Maxx brochure. Give the female perspective,” He was loving it. Even the daggers Otty and Liv were staring at him didn’t take the shine off his shit-eating grin. “OK, I’m going to take Kelly into the office and talk details.”
As he led me away I caught Liv talking to Otty, “Typical, they get younger and younger.” I nearly laughed out loud when I realised she meant me. Get used to it. There’s always someone younger and newer.
“So what do you think of our offices Kelly?” Jeremy asked as he closed his office door behind me.
“Very much like my old place.”
“Seriously, how are you doing. How’s Matt?”
“Getting better. He’s back at home now. Fi’s taken some time off to be with him. To be honest I think he’ll be glad to have a break from two mothers fussing over him.”
Jeremy raised his eyebrows but I just looked straight back at him, not flinching. After all that Matt had been through, I owed him my honesty.
“Well good, let’s get down to business,” Jeremy was a little flustered. “So you will be coming back on a short term contract until November when you’re due. Two days a week, one in the office and one working remotely.”
I nodded, this is what we’d agreed.
“We think it’s best if your office day is Wednesday. We want you around for the weekly staff get-together,” Inwardly I sighed. The Staff get-together/meeting was the worst part of my working week. Everyone eager to prove how important their little project is. Meant to last an hour and a half they often ended up taking up the whole afternoon. Still, if they wanted to pay me to be bored out of my skull for half a day that was up to them so I said ‘OK’.
We chatted for a while, mostly about what had been happening in the office over the last few months. To be honest it was a relief. The internal politics that used to bore were a pleasant distraction. To be honest they just didn’t matter the way they used to.
“Right, let’s get started. I’m putting you with Josh for today. He can bring you up to date on the TK Maxx account.”
“Josh?” I couldn’t hide my annoyance.
“Yes Josh, he’s really stepped up since you left. And no one knows that account better.”
“It’s like totally awesome and everything,” I spoke in my best Trustafarian accent. It was probably unfair of me.
Jeremy led me out into the office, over to where Josh was sitting. I noticed it was my old spot.
“So Josh, I want you to take Kelly through the account. She’s very experienced for one so young so hopefully she can take quite a bit of work off your plate.”
With that Jeremy shook my hand and disappeared. I stood there feeling like it was my first day at big kid’s school.
Josh must have noticed my discomfort, “Kelly, let me get you a seat. Don’t mind Jeremy, he’s not that bad really.” Once we were seated he started taking me through the work. I was pleased to see it wasn’t anything too strenuous. The company had a new line coming out for Christmas and wanted to produce a promotional brochure for the free papers. It was mostly writing copy on how this skirt and those pairs of jeans were the latest thing. Bringing together various quotes from different fashion bloggers. The sort of stuff I could do in my sleep.
“I’m sure you can cope. If I can do it, anyone can,” He smiled, stroking his beard in a way that seemed older than his years.
I laughed, “The way Jeremy tells it you’ve been running this place,” since I left, “the last few months.”
“Well we had a bit of a crisis about six months ago. The old head copywriter left under something of a cloud.” I bit my lip, he must have taken it as a sign I wanted to know more. He leaned in, “Apparently he’s supposed to have insulted a couple of clients in some blog.” I couldn’t look him in the eyes, “Personally I liked the guy. He was a bit grumpy but he always made me laugh. I suppose his heart wasn’t in it anymore. Then again who still wants to be a copywriter in their 40s?”
40s? Bastard! “Well not me.”
“So what’s your escape plan?”
“I’m a writer,” He laughed and rolled his eyes. “No really! I have an agent,” he continued to chuckle. “Susan Crisp is my editor and everything.”
“We’ll, colour me impressed,” his smile seemed genuine enough, “most of us have our ‘novel’ hidden away in a drawer somewhere. Good for you for going for it.”
“There’s no need to be so condescending,” I teased him.
“Well, I learned from the best,” he glanced in the direction of Jeremy’s office. We both laughed.
In the past I’d need a strong coffee and half an hour with my emails before I could face the real work of the day. Now it didn’t seem so bad. Perhaps it was the time away, maybe knowing I had Fiona, Matt and little ‘Humphrey’ waiting for me gave me greater perspective. Either way by the time it reached lunch I had two drafts of the opening paragraph written up and about five taglines.
“Hi Kelly,” I turned to see Otty standing over me, “do you want to join us for lunch,” She gestured back to Liv and another girl she introduced as Ffion. I glanced over at Jeremy’s office. Somehow I’d thought the two of us would be having lunch together. Thinking on it I realised it would have looked funny. It wasn’t like we had lunch together that often back when I was the male Kelly.
“Sure, where are you thinking?”
Sils, short for Silvester’s, was a small, family run Italian café on the edge of Shoreditch. The original Silvester had been an Italian immigrant who had come to London in the 20s to escape Mussolini. The family who owned it now are Portuguese but it still specialised in good, simple food that was what past for affordable in London. I ordered a parmesan cheese and tomato panini, the other three went for salad or soup.
“You’re so lucky to be able to eat that,” Liv indicated my sandwich, “The closer I get to thirty, the longer it stays on my thighs.” At most she was 3 years older than I looked. Just you wait, I thought.
“Well, I’m eating for two.” I patted my belly.
“How mad is it?” Otty spoke, but all three leaned in.
“Is it really hard? You know working as well?” Ffion asked, “I don’t know if I could do it. You must have a very supportive partner.”
I decided to get it all out there. “I do. She is. But the father isn’t around anymore. He kind of left me in the shit.” As a man I’d have to put a brave face on things, pretend nothing fazed me. As a woman, I could enjoy my peer’s reaction.
“Fucking bastard!” exclaimed Liv. And that was one of the kinder comments.
I knew that I’d not need to repeat myself. I trusted Otty, Liv and Ffion to pass the news around, and they rose to the challenge beautifully. By the end of the day, the women in the office had adopted me as some sort of celebrity cause and I had been made more cups of tea than my bladder could cope with.
As the others left around 6ish I hung around. I knew Jeremy would offer me a lift home and I didn’t fancy the crowded tube or a never ending bus ride. As I waited, one eye on his office door my phone buzzed. I looked down and my heart leapt. It was from Jamie. He hadn’t tried to contact me in months. My hand trembling slightly I opened the message;
‘The film has wrapped. I’m back in London. We need to talk’
I read it through four times but still it gave me no more information.
“Miss Walters, I trust that you’re not spending your day on social media.” I jumped. Jeremy was behind me. He caught a look at my face, “I’m only kidding. I didn’t mean it…”
“It’s not you,” I sighed. “Can we go somewhere? I need to talk to someone.”
I stood outside the flat, staring at my phone. I didn’t want to call her. I wasn’t ready and, instead of looking at why, I had convinced myself that she had no right to hear from me. I knew, however, that I had to. Jeremy and I had gone for a drink (half a pint of some mini-brewer’s ale for him, club soda for me) and he had convinced me that I had to do it.
“Look mate, what she did was beyond contempt but she’s still the father of the child,” he said, with a little chuckle. “Sorry, it really isn’t funny. More fucked up.”
I laughed. “You think? Anyway…”
“She’s still the child’s parent. Whatever you think of her, she is that.”
“I don’t want to deal with her.”
“You have to. You want to go to court over this? Drag this through the mud?” I shook my head. “You two are going to be parents together. Be civil to each other. My mum and dad,” I knew they were divorced, “were at each other’s throats through my childhood. They played a game of keepy-uppy and me and my sister were the ball.” He laughed, swirling his drink around, “None of that conscious uncoupling for them. Bloody war, damn the victims. Fuck ‘er, Fuck ‘im,” I could hear the Brummie accent he worked so hard to lose coming back. He regained composure, “Look mate. Whether you two fail as a couple, don’t fail as parents. You’re going to have birthdays and weddings and graduations together. Show little Jeremy,” he grinned and I stuck my finger down my throat, “how to be good people.” It was funny. Jeremy and I had spent countless hours in countless pubs. I knew his parents were divorced only because he’d mentioned his father’s wife. Once. In fourteen years. We would never have said anything beyond that and now it felt normal.
“Thanks Jeremy,” I said. Over my shoulder, I saw a woman, about 32, the north end of Jeremy’s interest, looking over at the table, checking him out and trying to figure out who we were to each other. Just then, I said, loudly enough for her to hear, “Mum will be so surprised when you show up for dad’s retirement,” and I gave him a kiss.
“Bloody hell mate,” he whispered.
“Shut up you arse,” I said, with a smile. “There’s a woman over your shoulder who’s interested. Go over, you wanker.” He turned around and they checked each other out. “Thanks, sis. Remember don’t tell mum.”
Jeremy and the woman, Victoria chatted each other up, while I checked out my phone. I hoped that the message from Jamie had disappeared and that I didn’t have to face this. It didn’t. After fifteen minutes, I walked over and said, “I’ll go catch the Overground. You two stay.”
Jeremy said, “Nonsense. I’m not sending my little sister home alone. Victoria, dinner next week, right?” Victoria smiled as he continued, “these young girls, so sure of themselves. Why, dad would have my neck if I sent you home alone,” and he shook his head. “Come, I’ll fetch the car.” We left the bar.
Jeremy laughed, “I like this angle. The concerned older brother. Bloody chick magnet. Can that suit keep you pregnant longer than nine months?”
“Sick bastard. Using a poor young girl in the family way for your lewd and lascivious purposes.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” he laughed. “Anyway, you going to call her?”
I sighed. “Yes. You're right. I owe little Boris Nigel Cameron, any other name than Jeremy, that much.”
We pulled up to the flat. “If you need anything, call me,” he said.
I sat on the porch, took out my phone and stared at it. I took a deep breath and hit the number.
“Hello?” The voice said. It was deep and unfamiliar.
“May I speak with Jam-James, please?” I had grown used to my new voice but now it rang strangely in my ears, like another woman was here.
“Who is this?” The voice said. In the background, I heard another unfamiliar voice say, ‘give me that.’
Voice 2 said, “Kelly?” I hadn't heard her new voice in months and the hurt came flooding back. I tried to remember the good times but drew a blank. It was as if we had no history before 20 February, the day I had been fired.
“Jamie?” I suddenly felt short of breath. I gripped the arm of the bench, wondering whether to hang up.
“It's so good to hear your voice,” James said. I couldn't call her ‘her,’ but ‘him’ sounded absurd. Like Alex, James was James. Neither male nor female. “How are you?”
I wasn't ready for even the most banal pleasantries. “You said we needed to speak. Why?” I was best pleased with myself that I could keep it like this.
James said, “I’m back in London. I would like to see you.”
“That's not a need, James,” I said coldly.
“I knew if I said that I wanted to see you, you wouldn't respond.”
For once in our relationship , I said out loud what I was thinking. “So you thought you'd lie to me - again. What is it you want, James?”
“I just want to see you,” James said softly. “It's been almost five months.” I could hear the old vulnerability, the kind Jamie showed every time a casting agent told her she was too old or her eyes were too far apart, coming through.
“That was your choice.” I wasn’t going to give an inch.
“You left,” James said, getting defensive.
I took a deep breath and thought of Matt and what he went through - and what he still had to face. That was important. This was not, not yet. “James, not now. “
“I understand that. We each hurt each other,” James said. This was one of her old tricks, to try and create mutual blame. By admitting that she bore partial responsibility, she made me feel like a bad person for not sharing in it. Maybe it was the male voice or maybe the months away, but I wasn't interested. I did nothing wrong.
Yet, I wasn't ready for a full on fight, not yet and not here. “You hurt me,” and before James could say anything, I said, “but this is neither the time nor the place.”
James’ voice brightened. “Does that mean you’ll see me?”
“Not until next week, at the earliest. If at all.”
James and I had a long history. James had been the only person that I had ever told in depth about my mother. Well, now James, Fiona and Matt. “It’s not you,” then I paused, “well, not only you.” I wanted to hurt James a little. “I don't have the bandwidth now. Bill found her and we're seeing her Friday.”
James gasped. No explanation was needed. After all the pain, we had the shorthand that all couples develop over time. The sort that allows entire stories to be connoted by a word, a phrase, a look. “Really? Where is she?”
“Yep. Up in Cheshire. Remarried to a Land Rover dealer. Has two girls. “
“Are you OK?” James sounded concerned. “Does she know about you?”
“We’re not telling her. What’s one more person being surprised by this?”
“If you need anything…” Like money, a place to stay, dignity?
“I’ll be fine, thanks.” I said coldly. “I’d ask you not to call me before I call you. I have too much on my plate.”
“I understand,” James said. I could hear the hurt in James’ voice and first thought, ‘good. I want you to feel pain.’ Then, Humphrey began to kick and I remembered what Jeremy had said about being parents.
“Sorry James. Between this and the baby, please don’t call me until then. I will call you. But I need a clear head for this.”
“I get it. I know you don’t want to hear it, but I love you and, if you need anything, even while you’re there, you can call me.”
“Yeah, well, thanks,” I said. James meant it. Whether I cared was another story.
I opened the door to the flat. “Hi honey, I’m home,” I said, with all of the insincere sitcom charm I could muster.
Matt shuffled to the door. Every time I saw him, I tried not to wince. The bruises were starting to subside, but his face was still a patchwork of garish purple. He could walk unassisted, but still needed a cane to lean on to get up and down. He would put on a brave face but you could see the pain in his eyes sometimes. “Hey, O.M.,” he said, as he kissed me on the forehead. “How was the first day back?”
“Bloody tiring,” I said. “Tiring and strange.”
As I said that, Fi came in. She gave me a peck on the lips. Since the accident, we had stopped hiding, at least at home. We weren’t sexual, but we were intimate. If it bothered Matt, he never said anything. “So how was it,” she said, as I sat on the couch. She reached down and took off my trainers and rubbed my feet.
I laughed and recounted my day, from Jeremy’s obvious amusement to Liv, Otty and Ffion to Josh. She was especially amused by my work on the TK Maxx account. “So, now you’re writing taglines for clothes. To get the female perspective,” she laughed. She picked up the copy of Grazia. By this point, my face now had a beard, googly eyes and all manner of inappropriate comments coming from my mouth, my favorite being Saff’s, ‘My eyes are up here.’ “So, what shoes should she wear with this tail?”
“Hahaha, Fi. What do you expect me to do? One of the girls was complaining about how hard it is to eat now that she’s approaching,” and I took a deep breath, “thirty.”
“Heh heh,” Fi laughed. “Tell her to try postpartum. Sorry, Kells.”
“Yeah.” I wanted to say something about James, but not with Matt here. I waddled over to the table and Fi brought me a plate of the chicken piccata I had made before everything happened with Matt. Matt wandered off to his room and Fi said, “What’s up? You had a look before. What happened at work?”
“It wasn’t work. James texted. Said he needed to speak to me.”
“And? Did you speak to him?”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling ashamed of myself.
“Why?” She looked annoyed.
“Promise you won’t get upset,” I said.
She smiled. “We really are a couple now, aren’t we? Did you ding up the car, dear?”
I laughed. “Seriously, promise.”
“I promise. Why now?”
“I was talking to Jeremy about it. He said, whether you fail as a couple, don’t fail as parents. I figured I owed Humphrey that much.” I thought Humphrey would soften the blow. It didn’t.
She took a sharp breath. “And?”
“And nothing. James wants to see me. I told him that I didn’t have the bandwidth what with her and all. Told him that, if I was going to see him at all, it wasn’t happening until next week.” I left out the whole mutual blame speech. There was no need to upset Fi too.
“Are you going to?”
“I really don’t know. On the one hand, I don’t want to. James hurt me...badly,” I said.
Fi came around the table and rubbed my shoulders. “Then don’t.”
“On the other hand, I feel like I should. Not just for the baby, but for me. Like, I need to know why. To see his, her, whatever’s face and say my piece.”
“I just don’t want you hurt,” she said.
“That ship has sailed, I’m afraid,” I said.
“Not that. James has a way with you. A way of taking advantage.” I knew what she meant. It was the ‘we both hurt each other’ and ‘what about me.’ Had you said it to me six months ago, I would have laughed - and fallen for it. Now, I hoped I was better, but I still didn’t know.
“Thanks,” I said, looking at my plate.
She smiled. “That’s not it. My mum had it with my dad. James had it with you. I had it with John,” and she paused. She pulled over a chair and sat next to me. I pulled her into a hug. She started to cry.
“It’s OK, Fi. It’s OK. Shhhh. I know. I know.” The baby started kicking.
She sniffled a little and laughed. “Ow, Humphrey! I can feel him kick me,” she said, with a smile. She leaned over to my belly, “Sorry, Humphrey,” and she said, “he’s a sensitive one, isn’t he? Sorry about that.”
I smiled, “Don’t be. I know this wasn’t where you saw your life going. Me either.”
She kissed me. “I’m happy Kells. I love you. And whatever you want to do with James, I support you. I just don’t want to see you hurt.” I wondered if Jamie felt the same way.
“I love you too, Fi. And don’t worry. I’m a big girl now,” I said, grinning. “I will not let some man trick me. I mean, look what happened last time.” We both laughed, in an disproportionate amount to the joke. We went to the couch and watched TV. I laid in Fi’s arms, her hands resting one on my shoulder and the other on my belly.
Friday morning came. Bill and I were headed to Warburton.
Fi and Matt came the door to see me off. “Call me as soon as you’re there,” Fi said. “Let me know you’re safe.”
I smiled, “I will, dear.”
“I’m bloody serious,” she said. “And text me when you can when you see her.”
Bill laughed. “Bloody hell. Julia’s not this concerned about me.”
Fi laughed. “She is, if only so she doesn’t get stuck with the two of them alone.”
Bill said, “Fair point. How you feeling Matty?”
Matt smiled. “Eh. Getting better.”
“That’s good. Come to Brighton sometime. The boys’d love having an older cousin around. Julia’s just got nieces.” Matt smiled. I could tell he liked that Bill saw him as another man.
Fi said, “You really haven’t told her about Kells?”
Bill smirked at Kells and said, “Yeah, well, I figure she could use a surprise. Besides, I think my little sister looks positively radiant. One day it’s petticoats and pinafores, the next day it’s a maternity jumper.”
“Petticoats and pinafores were yours, Sally. I remember how you cried when dad wouldn’t let you wear them. Back in Year 6.” I turned to Fi, “Anyway, the meals are in the freezer. I left instructions on the counter.”
Bill turned to her. “I hope you tell Kelly how lucky you are. Julia went to her mum, we ate takeaway for the week.”
Fi gave me a kiss on the cheek, “Thank you, dear. Have a safe trip.”
We got in Bill’s car and pulled away. We were barely out of the driveway, when he said, “Matt looks like bloody hell, no offense.”
“He’s 1000% better than before, but yeah. They beat him bad. The doctor told us he was lucky.”
“Her fucking COUSINS did this to him? Christ. Fucking arseholes. Meanwhile, there’s some poor Syrian can’t get in because this fuckface can’t admit he likes boys. Christ. Poor fucking kid. Matt that is.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“There any news on what’s going to happen?”
“Soon. Crown Prosecutor told us that the hearings will be soon. I’m worried.”
“Why? Kid got beaten up.”
I hadn’t told him that Matt was trans. Partly because that wasn’t my place and partly because I no longer saw Matt as anything but what he wanted to be, what he was. I wanted to say something but that was Matt’s story to tell, not mine. I decided to tell not a lie, but a half-truth. “Well, the girlfriend’s family, the mum’s side, has been putting pressure on her not to testify. Protect the family and all that bollocks.”
“Ah, shit. Yeah, well, I don’t know. I mean I don’t know what I would have done in that situation. At that age. You?”
I stopped and thought. If Bill had beat my girlfriend’s brother, would I have testified against him. I thought of the Bruce Springsteen song, ‘Highway Patrolman’ - ‘man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good.’ Except the narrator’s brother didn’t beat someone up for being who he was. Matt hadn’t done anything except hold his girlfriend’s hand. “I don’t know. This isn’t two boys fighting. This was a fucking beating for no good reason. He could’ve died. Or been paralyzed or brain damaged. For no good fucking reason.” I took a deep breath. “Sorry. I just…”
Bill smiled. “You love that kid, don’t you?”
I smiled. “Was it that obvious?”
He kept one hand on the wheel and held the two fingers on his other slightly apart. “What’s up with you and Fiona?”
“Nothing. She gave me a place to stay. I’m grateful.”
He laughed. “You’re a shitty liar, always were. You love her.”
I blushed. “Shut up.”
“You looooove her,” he said mockingly. “Seriously, Kelly. And she loves you. Pretty fucking obvious.”
“Oh Christ.” I kept blushing. “Yeah, well…”
“You’re happy, she’s happy. Who fucking cares?”
“Yeah, well, whatever,” he blushed. “Fuck are we going to do when we get there?” We had spent our childhood so focused on her absence that we had no plans for her presence.
“I dunno. Say hello?”
“Do we kiss her? Shake her hand? Tell her to fuck off?”
“I dunno. I guess I just want to see her. I’m not expecting anything. You?”
“I guess not. I mean I never knew her. She may as well be the man in the bloody moon for all I know. Julia asked me once if I remembered anything about her. I don’t. I hate the fact that I fucking don’t, but I don’t. You?”
“I remember smells and shit like that. I remember going to the seaside once but for all I know that’s just from the picture dad had.” He kept a picture of the four of us in his drawer. Me, him, mum and Bill. Mum had her blond hair tied back with a kerchief. She was wearing a two-piece bathing suit. She was holding Bill in her arms, while my dad held my hand. I found the picture when I was ten and looking for money. I asked my father about it. He snatched it from me and said, “What the hell were you doing in my drawer,” and he smacked my hand. It was the only time I could ever remember him getting truly angry. We didn’t discuss the picture then and hadn’t discussed it since. “Anyway, that’s about it.”
We drove in silence for a while, then talked about everything else on earth.
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