Twenty-four

Zoey shouldn’t’ve asked me to come. I haven’t been able to stop counting since we got through the door. We’ve been here seven minutes. Her appointment’s in six minutes. She got pregnant ninety-five days ago.

I try to think of random numbers, but they all seem to add up to something. Eight – the number of discrete windows across the far wall. One – the equally discreet receptionist. Five hundred – the number of pounds it’s costing Scott to get rid of the baby.

Zoey flicks me a nervous smile across the top of her magazine. ‘I bet you don’t get anything like this on the NHS.’

You don’t. The seats are leather, there’s a big square coffee table stacked with glossy magazines, and it’s so warm that I’ve had to take my coat off. I thought it’d be full of girls clutching hankies and looking forlorn, but me and Zoey are the only ones here. She’s scraped her hair back into a ponytail and she’s wearing her baggy sweat pants again. She looks tired and pale.

‘Do you want to know which symptoms I’ll be most glad to get rid of?’ She rests her magazine on her lap and counts them off on her fingers. ‘My breasts look like some freaky map, all covered in blue veins. I feel heavy – even my fingers are heavy. I keep throwing up. I’ve got a constant headache. And my eyes are sore.’

‘Anything good?’

She thinks about this for a moment. ‘I smell different. I smell quite nice.’

I lean across the coffee table and breathe her in. She smells of smoke, perfume, chewing gum. And something else.

‘Fecund,’ I tell her.

‘What?’

‘It means you’re fertile.’

She shakes her head at me as if I’m nuts. ‘Did your boyfriend teach you that?’

When I don’t reply, she goes back to her magazine. Twenty-two pages of hot new gadgets. How to write a perfect love song. Will space travel ever be accessible?

‘I saw this film once,’ I tell her, ‘about a girl who died. When she got to heaven, her sister’s still-born baby was already there, and she looked after it until they were all reunited.’

Zoey pretends she hasn’t heard. She turns the page as if she’s read it.

‘That might happen to me, Zoey.’

‘It won’t.’

‘Your baby’s so small I could keep it in my pocket.’

‘Shut up, Tessa!’

‘You were looking at clothes for it the other day.’

Zoey slumps back in her chair and closes her eyes. Her mouth goes slack, as if she’s been unplugged. ‘Please,’ she says. ‘Please shut up. You shouldn’t’ve come if you’re going to disapprove.’

She’s right. I knew it last night when I couldn’t sleep. Across the landing, the shower was dripping and something – a cockroach? a spider? – scuttled across the bedroom carpet.

I got up and went downstairs in my dressing gown. I was planning a cup of hot chocolate, maybe some late-night TV. But there, right in the middle of the kitchen, was a mouse stuck to one of Dad’s cockroach traps. The only bit of it that wasn’t glued to the cardboard was one of its back legs, which it used like a paddle to try and get away from me. It was in agony. I knew I’d have to kill it, but I couldn’t think how to do it without causing it more pain. A carving knife? A pair of scissors? A pencil through the back of the head? I could only think of awful endings.

Finally I got an old ice-cream carton out of the cupboard and filled it up with water. I dunked the mouse in and held it down with a wooden spoon. It looked up at me, amazed, as it struggled to breathe. Three tiny air bubbles escaped, one after the other.

I write Zoey’s baby a text: HIDE!

‘Who’s that to?’

‘No one.’

She leans over the table. ‘Let me see.’

I delete it, show her the blank screen.

‘Was it to Adam?’

‘No.’

She rolls her eyes. ‘You practically have sex in the garden and then you get some kind of perverted kick out of pretending it didn’t happen.’

‘He’s not interested.’

She frowns. ‘Of course he’s interested. His mum came out and caught you, that’s all. He’d happily have shagged you otherwise.’

‘It was four days ago, Zoey. If he was interested, he’d have contacted me.’

She shrugs. ‘Maybe he’s busy.’

We sit with that lie for a minute. My bones poke through my skin, I’ve got purple blotches under my eyes, and I’m definitely beginning to smell weird. Adam’s probably still washing his mouth out.

‘Love’s bad for you anyway,’ Zoey says. ‘I’m living proof of that.’ She chucks her magazine down on the table and looks at her watch. ‘What the hell am I paying for exactly?’

I move seats to be next to her.

‘Maybe it’s a joke,’ she says. ‘Maybe they take your money, let you sweat, and hope you get so embarrassed that you just go home.’

I take her hand and hold it between mine. She looks a bit surprised, but doesn’t take hers away.

The windows have darkened glass in them so that you can’t see the street. When we arrived, it was beginning to snow; people doing their Christmas shopping were all wrapped up against the cold. In here, heat is blasting from the radiators and piped music washes over us. The world out there could’ve ended, but in here you wouldn’t know it.

Zoey says, ‘When this is over and it’s just you and me again, we’ll get back to your list. We’ll do number six. Fame, isn’t it? I saw this woman on the telly the other day. She’s got terminal cancer and she’s just done a triathlon. You should do that.’

‘She’s got breast cancer.’

‘So?’

‘So it’s different.’

‘Running and cycling keep her motivated. How different can it be? She’s lived much longer than anyone thought she would, and she’s really famous.’

‘I hate running!’

Zoey shakes her head at me very solemnly, as if I’m being deliberately difficult. ‘What about Big Brother ? They’ve never had anyone like you on that before.’

‘It doesn’t start until next summer.’

‘So?’

‘So think about it!’

And that’s when the nurse comes out of a side room and walks towards us. ‘Zoey Walker? We’re ready for you now.’

Zoey hauls me up. ‘Can my friend come?’

‘I’m sorry, but it’s better if she waits outside. It’s just a discussion today, but it’s not the type of discussion that’s easy to have in front of a friend.’

The nurse sounds very certain of this and Zoey doesn’t seem able to resist. She passes me her coat, says, ‘Look after this for me,’ and goes off with the nurse. The door shuts behind them.

I feel very solid. Not small, but large and beating and alive. It’s so tangible, being and not being. I’m here. Soon I won’t be. Zoey’s baby is here. Its pulse tick-ticking. Soon it won’t be. And when Zoey comes out of that room, having signed on the dotted line, she’ll be different. She’ll understand what I already know – that death surrounds us all.

And it tastes like metal between your teeth.

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