SEVEN

I’M NOT REALLY GOING to give Luke a questionnaire. In fact I’ve thrown it in the bin for various reasons, namely:

1) We have a mature, trusting marriage where you don’t quiz each other on what color hair you prefer.

2) He would never have time to fill it in (especially the section “describe the qualities of your wife you most admire in 500 words”).

3. I have far more important things to think about. Suze and I are going to a big baby fair at Earl’s Court today, and there’s going to be about five hundred stands, plus freebies, and a mother-and-baby fashion show, and the biggest collection of prams under one roof in Europe!

As I come out of the tube station, there are already crowds streaming toward the entrances. I have never seen so many pushchairs in my life, and we haven’t even got in yet!

“Bex!”

I turn to see Suze, in a fantastic lime sundress, holding the handles of her double buggy. Wilfrid and Clementine are sitting up, side by side, wearing the cutest stripy hats.

“Hi!” I hurry over and give her a big hug. “Isn’t this fab?”

“I’ve got our tickets in here….” Suze rifles in her bag. “Plus vouchers for a smoothie each…”

“Has Tarquin got Ernie today?”

“No, my mother’s looking after him. They’ll have a lovely day together,” Suze adds fondly. “She’s going to teach him how to pluck a pheasant.”

It’s not just Tarquin. Suze’s entire family really is the weirdest.

As we enter the fair, I can’t help a tiny gasp. This place is huge. All around are gigantic photographs of babies, and colorful stalls, and promo girls handing out carrier bags. The music from The Lion King is playing out of loudspeakers, and a clown on stilts is juggling foam bananas.

“So,” says Suze in a businesslike manner as we join the queue. “Have you got a list?”

“List?” I echo vaguely. I can’t stop looking around at everyone’s prams and changing bags and babies’ outfits. A few people are smiling at the sight of Wilfrid and Clementine, sitting up side by side with their bright blue eyes, and I beam back proudly.

“Your list of baby gear,” says Suze patiently. “What do you still need?” She rifles in the envelope containing the tickets. “Here we are. The New Baby Checklist. Do you have a sterilizer yet?”

“Er…no.” My eyes are fixated on a bright red stroller with a cool polka-dot hood. That would look fab going down the King’s Road.

“Or a nursing pillow?”

“No.”

“Are you planning to use an electric breast pump?”

“Urgh.” I recoil slightly. “Do I have to? Ooh, look, they’ve got mini cowboy boots!”

“Bex…” Suze waits till I turn. “You do know having a baby is about more than buying them clothes, don’t you? You do have…realistic expectations?”

“I have totally realistic expectations!” I say with slight indignation. “And I’m going to get everything on that list. I’m going to be the best-prepared mother ever. Come on, let’s get started.”

As we head down between the stands, my head is swiveling from side to side. I’ve never seen so many gadgets…and baby outfits…and adorable-looking toys….

“You’ll need a car seat,” Suze is saying. “Some fix into the car, and some also clip onto wheels….”

“OK.” I nod vaguely. I can’t get that excited by car seats, to be honest.

“And look, here’s a sterilizer and bottle system,” says Suze. She pauses by the Avent stand and picks up a leaflet. “They have microwave ones…electric ones…. Even if you’re breast-feeding, you’ll need to express….”

My attention has been caught by a stand named Disco Baby. “Hey, Suze!” I interrupt her. “Baby leg warmers!”

“Right.” She nods. “Do you want a four-bottle sterilizer or a six-bottle sterilizer, or—”

“And rattles in the shape of little glitter balls! Suze, look!”

“Oh my God.” Suze’s face lights up. “I have to buy those for the twins.” She abandons the Avent leaflets, grabs her double buggy, and pushes it over. There are little “disco girl” and “disco boy” sweatshirts, and the cutest little baseball caps.

“I just wish I knew what I was having,” I say, picking up a tiny pink skirt and stroking it longingly.

“Did you try the ancient Chinese chart?” says Suze.

“Yes. It said I was having a boy.”

“A boy!” Suze’s face lights up.

“But then I found this Web site called Analyze Your Cravings, and according to that, I’m having a girl.” I sigh in frustration. “I just want to know.”

Suze looks perplexed, then reaches for a hat. “Buy this. It’s unisex.”

I buy the hat and a pair of the most fabulous kitsch platform bootees, and a Groove Baby miniature dressing gown. At the next stall I buy a baby beach towel and mini-sunshade, and a remote-controlled Winnie the Pooh mobile. I’m getting quite laden, to be honest, but Suze just keeps stashing all her stuff in the double buggy. Prams are so handy for shopping. I’d never quite appreciated it before.

And we’ve got all day here.

“Suze, I need a pram,” I say, making a snap decision.

“I know.” She nods vigorously. “The Pram City stand is just here, behind Zone C. You’ll probably need a whole travel system, and you might want to get a lightweight buggy for traveling….”

I’m barely listening as I head for the Pram City sign. The entrance is decorated with bunting and balloons, and as I step through, I can see prams stretching into the distance like an endless chrome shrubbery.

“Hi!” I say to a man in a green jacket and PRAM CITY badge. “I need a pram straightaway.”

“Of course!” He beams at me. “We normally deliver within four weeks—”

“No, I need one now,” I interrupt. “To take away. I don’t mind what kind.”

“Ah.” His face falls. “These are all for display only, I’m afraid….”

“Please?” I give him my most winsome smile. “You must have one you can sell me. Just one little pram? Some old one you don’t need anymore?”

“Um…right.” He glances nervously at my stomach. “I’ll…see what I can do.”

He bustles away, and I look around at the trendy prams. Suze is swooning over some state-of-the-art double buggy on a special podium of its own, and to my right, a pregnant woman and her husband are pushing an amazing contraption upholstered in black leather, with built-in drink holders.

“I knew you’d like it.” The woman is glowing with pleasure.

“Of course I do.” The man kisses the back of her neck, cradling her bump. “Let’s order it.”

I feel a sudden pang, deep inside. I want to try out prams with Luke. I want to go as a couple, and push prams around and for Luke to kiss me like that.

I mean, I know it’s a hectic time for him and he’s really busy at work. I know he’s never going to be some New Man who knows every brand of diaper and wears a fake pregnancy stomach. But still, I don’t want to have to do everything on my own.

And I bet he’d love that black leather one too. It’s probably even got a BlackBerry holder.

“Hey, Bex.” Suze comes over, pushing the twins with one hand and the state-of-the-art buggy with the other. “Do you think I need a new pram?”

“Er…” I look at the twins. “Isn’t that double buggy quite new?”

“Yes, but, I mean, this one’s really maneuverable. It would be really practical! I think I should get it. I mean, you can’t have too many prams, can you?”

There’s a kind of lust in her eyes. Since when did Suze become such a pramaholic?

“Definitely,” I say. “Maybe I should get it too!”

“Yes!” says Suze in delight. “Then we’d be matching! Have a go!” She hands it to me and I push it about for a bit. It is pretty cool, I have to say.

“I love the squidgy handles,” I say, squeezing them.

“Me too! And the cool wheel design.”

This is just how we used to be in clothes shops together. God, I never thought I’d get as excited by a pushchair as I do about a dress.

“Madam?” The assistant is back. “Here we are. I can let you buy this model today. Seventy pounds.”

He’s pushing an old-fashioned coach pram in an uninspiring shade of gray, with a pink lacy pillow and quilt. Suze stares at it, aghast.

“Bex, you can’t put the baby in that!”

“It’s not for the baby,” I say. “It’s for my shopping!” I plonk all my carrier bags inside and grasp the handles. “That’s better!”

I pay for it, and prize Suze away from the hi-tech buggy, and we head off to the Refreshment Zone, passing lots of stalls on the way. I buy a paddling pool, and a box of building blocks and a huge teddy and just sling them all on top of the pram. And there’s still room for loads more! Honestly, I should have bought a pram years ago.

“I’ll get the coffees,” says Suze as we near the caf? area.

“I’ll be there in a sec,” I say absently. I’ve spotted a stand with vintage-style hobbyhorses, which are absolutely gorgeous. I’ll buy one for the baby and one each for Suze’s children.

The only trouble is, there’s a massive queue. I maneuver the pram into line as best I can and lean on the handles with a sigh. I’m quite tired actually, after all this walking. In front of me is an old woman in a dark red raincoat. She turns, then pulls an expression of horror as she sees me leaning on the pram.

“Let this young lady through!” she exclaims, tapping the woman in front of her. “She has a baby and she’s expecting! The poor thing’s exhausted — look at her!”

“Oh!” I say, taken aback. Everyone is moving aside like I’m royalty, and the raincoat woman is urging me to push the pram forward. “Um…I don’t actually have a…”

“Come through, come through! How old’s your wee one?” The old woman peers into the pram. “I can’t see the poor little thing for all your gubbins!”

“Er…well…”

The stand owner is beckoning me forward encouragingly. Everyone’s waiting for me to go first.

OK. I know I should be honest. I do know that.

But the queue’s gigantic, and Suze is waiting…and what does it really matter if there’s a baby in here or not?

“Is it a boy or a girl?” the old woman persists.

“It’s…a girl!” I hear myself saying. “She’s asleep,” I add hurriedly. “I’d like four hobbyhorses, please.”

“Ah, the dear little thing,” says the old woman fondly. “And her name?”

Ooh! Names!

“Tallulah,” I say impulsively. “I mean…Phoebe. Tallulah-Phoebe.” I hand the stall owner the money, take the hobbyhorses, and somehow balance them on the pram. “Thanks very much!”

“You be a good girl, Tallulah-Phoebe,” the old woman is clucking into the pram. “You be good for your mum and the new arrival.”

“Oh, she will!” I say brightly. “Nice to meet you! Thanks very much!” And I hastily wheel the pram away, feeling a giggle rise inside. I turn the corner and immediately spot Suze at the coffee counter, chatting to a girl with highlights and an off-road pushchair and three children in matching stripy tops tied to it with reins.

“Hi, Bex!” she calls. “What do you want?”

“Can I have a decaf cappuccino and a choc chip muffin?” I call back. “And I have to tell you what just happened—” I break off as the girl with highlights turns.

I don’t believe it.

It’s Lulu.

Lulu, Suze’s horrible friend from the country. My heart sinks like a stone as I wave cheerfully. What’s she doing here? Just as we were having such a good time.

They’re coming over toward me now, all the toddlers trailing in their wake like kites being dragged along a beach. Lulu is looking as sensible-mummy as ever, in her pink cords and white shirt and pearl earrings, which probably all came out of the same sensible-mummy catalog.

Oh God, I know that’s really bitchy. But I can’t help it. Lulu has rubbed me the wrong way ever since the first time we met and she totally looked down on me because I didn’t have any kids.(And also maybe because I took my bra off in front of all the children to entertain them. But I was really desperate, OK? And it’s not like they saw anything.)

“Lulu!” I force a smile. “How are you? I didn’t know you were coming today!”

“I didn’t know myself!” Lulu’s voice is so sharp and posh, it makes me wince. “I was offered a sudden promotion opportunity. For my new children’s cookbook.”

“Yes, Suze told me about that. Congratulations!”

“And congratulations to you!” Lulu eyes my bump. “We’ll have to get together sometime! Talk baby things!”

Lulu has never been anything other than mean and patronizing to me, all the times I’ve met her. But now suddenly because I’m having a baby we’re supposed to be friends?

“That would be super!” I say pleasantly, and Suze shoots me a look.

“There’s a section on pregnancy in my cookbook, actually….” Lulu rifles in her bag for a shiny book, illustrated with a photo of herself holding an armful of vegetables in her kitchen. “I must send you a copy.”

“Like, on cravings and stuff?” I take a sip of decaf. “I could do with some good nonalcoholic cocktail recipes.”

“I’ve called it ‘Think of the Baby.’” She frowns slightly. “It’s shocking, what some people put in their bodies while they’re pregnant. Additives…sugar…”

“Right.” I hesitate, chocolate muffin halfway toward my mouth, then defiantly stuff it in. “Mmm, yum.”

I can see Suze hide a giggle.

“Would your children like some?” I add, breaking it into crumbly pieces.

“They don’t eat chocolate!” Lulu snaps, looking horrified, as though I’ve tried to peddle them cocaine. “I’ve brought some dried banana snacks.”

“Lulu, sweetie?” A girl in a headset ducks down to our table. “Are you ready to come and do the radio interview? And then we’d like a photo of you and all the kids.”

“Absolutely.” Lulu bares her teeth in her horsey smile. “Come along Cosmo, Ivo, Ludo….”

“Go Dasher, go Dancer,” I mutter.

“See you later!” says Suze with a strained smile as they walk off. And all of a sudden I feel a bit ashamed. Lulu is Suze’s friend and I should make the effort. I’m going to be nice about her, I suddenly resolve. If it kills me.

“So…that was great, seeing Lulu!” I try to inject some warmth into my voice. “She’s right, we should all get together and have a good chat. Maybe we should meet up later on and have tea or something—”

“I don’t want to.” Suze’s low voice takes me by surprise. I look over, and she’s staring down into her cappuccino. Suddenly I recall Suze’s reaction at Mum’s house when I mentioned Lulu. That kind of tension in her face.

“Suze, have you and Lulu fallen out?” I say cautiously.

“Not exactly.” Suze won’t look up. “I mean…she’s done a lot for me. She’s been so helpful, especially with the children….”

The trouble with Suze is, she never wants to be nasty. So she always starts off bitching about people with a little speech about how lovely they are really.

“But…” I prompt her.

“But she’s so bloody perfect!” As Suze raises her head, her cheeks are all pink. “She makes me feel like a total failure. Especially when we go out together. She always has homemade risotto or something and her children eat it. And they’re never naughty, and they’re all really bright….”

“Your children are bright!” I retort indignantly.

“Lulu’s kids are all reading Harry Potter!” Suze sounds despairing. “And Ernie can’t even really speak much, let alone read. Apart from German phrases from Wagner. And Lulu keeps asking me if I played Mozart to him in the womb, and have I thought about extra tuition, and I just feel so inadequate….”

I feel a hot surge of outrage. How dare anyone make Suze feel inadequate!

“Suze, you’re a brilliant mother!” I say. “And Lulu’s just a cow. I knew it, the moment I met her. Don’t listen to her anymore. And don’t read her stupid cookbook!” I put an arm round Suze’s shoulders and squeeze tight. “If you feel inadequate, how do you think I feel? I don’t even know any nursery rhymes!”

“Good afternoon!” Lulu’s amplified voice suddenly booms out from behind us, and we both turn round. She’s sitting on a raised platform, opposite a woman in a pink suit, with a small audience watching. Two of her children are on her lap, and behind her are huge posters for her book, with a notice saying “Signed Copies Available.”

“A lot of parents are simply lazy when it comes to feeding their children,” she’s saying with a pitying smile. “In my experience, all children like the taste of such things as avocado, monk-fish, or a good homemade polenta.”

Suze and I exchange glances.

“I’ve got to feed the twins,” mutters Suze. “I’ll go and do it in the ‘Mother and Baby’ area.”

“Do it here!” I protest. “They’ve got highchairs—”

“Uh-uh.” She shakes her head. “No way, not with Lulu around. I’ve only brought a couple of jars. I’m not letting her see those.”

“D’you want some help?” I volunteer.

“No, don’t worry.” She eyes my pram, piled high with the hobbyhorses, the paddling pool, and the teddy. “Bex, why don’t you go round again and this time maybe look for basics? You know, things the baby will actually need?”

“Right, yes.” I nod. “Good idea.”

I head down the aisles as fast as I can, trying to get away from Lulu’s grating voice.

“Television is the most dreadful influence,” she’s saying. “Again, I would say it’s just sheer laziness on the part of the parents. My children have a program of stimulating educational activities—”

Stupid woman. Trying to ignore her, I pull out my fair guide and am looking around to get my bearings, when a large sign attracts my attention. FIRST AID KITS ?40. Now, that’s what we need.

Feeling rather grown-up and responsible, I park the pram and start to peruse the kits. They all come in cool cases, with different things in sections. Plasters…rolls of bandages…and the cutest little pink scissors. I can’t believe I’ve never bought a first aid kit before. They’re fab!

I take the kit up to the checkout, where a lugubrious-looking man in a white coat is sitting on a stool. He starts tapping at his till and I pick up a MediSupply Professional catalog, which is pretty dull. It’s mostly rolls of elastic tape, and industrial-size bottles of aspirin, and—

Ooh. A stethoscope. I’ve always wanted a stethoscope.

“How much is the stethoscope?” I say casually.

“Stethoscope?” The man gives me a suspicious look. “Are you a doctor?”

Honestly. Are only doctors allowed to buy stethoscopes, or something?

“Not exactly,” I admit at last. “Can I still have one?”

“Everything in the catalog is available to order online.” He gives a grudging shrug. “If you want to pay ?150. They’re not toys.”

“I know they’re not!” I say with dignity. “I actually think every parent should have a stethoscope in the house for emergency purposes. And a home heart defibrillator,” I add, turning the page. “And—”

I stop midflow. I’m staring at a picture of a smiling pregnant woman clasping her stomach.

Baby’s Gender Predictor Kit.

Conduct a simple test in the privacy of your own home.

Results accurate and anonymous.

My heart is doing a kind of jig. I could find out. Without having another scan. Without telling Luke.

“Um…is this available online too?” I ask, my voice a bit husky.

“I’ve got those here.” He rootles in his drawer and produces a large white box.

“Right.” I swallow. “I’ll take it. Thanks.” I hand over my credit card and the man swipes it.

A voice comes from behind me. “How’s little Tallulah-Phoebe?” It’s the woman in the dark red raincoat again. She’s clutching a hobbyhorse wrapped up in plastic, and peering into the ever-more-laden pram, which I parked by the display of first aid boxes. “She is a good girl, isn’t she? Not a peep!”

I feel a prickle of alarm.

“She’s, um…sleeping,” I say quickly. “I’d leave her alone, actually….”

“Let me just have a little look! I don’t know how she can sleep with all these packages on her pram. Can you, Tallulah-Phoebe?” the woman croons, pushing aside all my plastic bags.

“Please leave her alone!” I start toward the pram. “She’s very sensitive…she doesn’t like strangers—”

“She’s gone!” the old woman cries, and stands bolt upright, pale with fear. “The baby’s gone! Only her little blanket’s left!”

Shit.

“Um…” My face floods with color. “Actually…”

“Miss, your credit card doesn’t work,” says the man at the till.

“It must work!” I turn back, momentarily distracted. “I only got it last week—”

“A baby’s been abducted!”

To my horror, the raincoat woman has bustled out of the stand and accosted a security guard, still clutching the lacy blanket. “Little Tallulah-Phoebe’s gone! A baby’s disappeared!”

“Did you hear that?” a blond woman cries out in horror. “A child’s been abducted! Call the police, someone!”

“No, she hasn’t!” I call. “There’s been a…a misunderstanding….” But no one hears.

“She was asleep in her pram!” The raincoat woman’s gabbling to anyone who will listen. “And then it was just her blanket! These people are evil!”

“A baby’s gone!”

“They just grabbed her!”

I can hear the news spreading like wildfire among passersby. Parents are summoning their children to their sides with sharp cries. To my horror I see a pair of security guards heading toward me, their walkie-talkies crackling.

“They’ll have dyed her hair and changed her clothes by now,” the blond woman is saying hysterically. “She’ll be halfway to Thailand!”

“Madam, the fair entrances were secured as soon as we got the alert,” says a security guard in a terse voice. “No one’s coming in or out until we’ve found this baby.”

OK, I have to take control. I have to tell them it’s a false alarm. Yes. Just admit I invented Tallulah-Phoebe in order to queue-jump, and I’m sure everyone will understand—

No, they won’t. They’ll lynch me.

“It’s gone through. Do you have a PIN number?” says the man at the till, who looks totally unmoved by all the fuss. I jab it in on autopilot and he hands me the bag.

“Her child’s missing…and she’s shopping?” says the blond woman in tones of horror.

“Can you give a full description of the child, ma’am?” one of the guards says, approaching me. “National police have been informed, and we’ve got a call out to the airports….”

I am never going to tell a lie again. Never.

“I…um…” My voice isn’t working properly. “I should probably…explain something.”

“Yes?” Both men are looking at me expectantly.

“Bex?” Suddenly I hear Suze’s voice. “What’s going on?” I look up, and there’s Suze, pushing the double buggy with one arm and holding Clementine in the other.

Thank God, thank God, thank God—

“There you are!” I say, grabbing Clementine from Suze, my voice high with relief. “Come here, Tallulah-Phoebe!”

I hug Clementine tight, trying to hide the fact that she’s leaning out of my arms in a desperate attempt to get back to Suze.

“Is this the missing child?” A security guard is looking Clementine up and down.

“Missing child?” Suze looks incredulous. She turns and takes in the crowd around us. “Bex, what on earth—”

“I completely forgot that you’d taken little Tallulah-Phoebe off for lunch!” I say in shrill tones. “Silly me! And everyone thought she’d been kidnapped!” I’m desperately imploring her with my eyes to play along.

I can see her brain working it all out. The great thing about Suze is that she knows me pretty well.

“Tallulah-Phoebe?” she says at last, in tones of incredulity, and I give a slight, shamefaced shrug.

“Baby Tallulah-Phoebe’s back!” The raincoat woman is spreading the news joyfully among the passersby. “We’ve found her!”

“You know this woman?” The security guard regards Suze with narrowed eyes.

“She’s my friend,” I say quickly, before they arrest Suze for abducting her own baby. “Actually, I think we should probably go….” I squish Clementine into my pram as best I can amid all the packages, and maneuver it into a getaway position.

“Mama!” Clementine is still stretching out her hands toward Suze. “Mama!”

“Oh my God!” Suze’s face lights up like a beacon. “Did you hear that? She said Mama! Clever girl!”

“We’re off now,” I say hurriedly to the guards. “Thank you so much for all your help. You’ve got a great security system….”

“Wait a minute.” One of the guards is frowning in suspicion. “Why did the baby say ‘Mama’ to this lady?”

“Because…she’s called Mamie,” I say desperately. “Clever Tallulah-Phoebe, that’s your aunty Mamie! Aunty Mama! Let’s go home now….”

I can’t quite look at Suze as we head toward the exits. On the loudspeakers, the DJ is saying, “And baby Tallulah-Phoebe has been found, safe and well….”

“So, do you want to tell me what that was all about, Bex?” Suze says at last, without turning her head.

“Er…” I clear my throat. “Not really. Shall we go and have a cup of tea instead?”

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