“Is that all he does?”
Baby Liam lay back quietly in his baby seat, eyes half closed, clenching and unclenching his fists adorably. Amanda looked at her friend, startled that her little bundle of joy, whose name she never mentioned without an admiring adjective shining out in front of it, was not getting the unqualified adulation that he deserved. I mean, he was perfect! Wasn’t he?
“He tried to sit up yesterday.”
There was a short, heavy silence. Holly had tried for the right enthusiastic tone but she hadn’t quite managed it.
“No, I mean it is, brilliant. Almost sitting up. Wow!”
Amanda allowed herself a smug smile.
“He shouldn’t be doing that for another two weeks.”
Holly imagined a roomful of university students settling into freshers week and getting to know each other for the first time, comparing baby milestones.
“When did you first sit up then?”
“Two and a half weeks.”
“Bloody hell, that was early. Have a beer!”
“See him over there- he rolled over onto his side for the first time a full two weeks earlier than anyone else in his mother and toddler group. He’s a sure bet for a first.”
Baby Liam blinked and made a made a little noise a bit like a cat’s mew. Amanda picked him up and squidged his mouth into a pout, grinning at Holly in delight.
“So funny. Little chubster.”
Holly smiled back and clapped her hands at him. They were all just babies, that was the thing. All of them- just babies. Of course you couldn’t tell their mothers that, especially when you had none of your own, but the truth was that they were no different to baby lambs. Their mothers and doting grandmas could tell the difference between them but everyone else just had to pretend. Babies all looked the same. The big secret about tiny children- especially other people’s tiny children- was that they were boring. Really boring.
Amanda put her head on one side and held Liam out towards Holly.
“Do you want to hold him?”
This was a question with only one answer. Holly nodded. Liam was passed over to her with exaggerated care. He stared up at the new face. She put her tongue out at him and wrinkled her nose. He really was quite cute.
“One day what?”
“One day it might be you.”
Here we go. Holly looked down and gave a tiny shake of her head.
“Don’t you want children? You love Liam.”
Holly froze. She did not love Liam. She had never said that. She had never thought it. Amanda had no idea.
“He’s very sweet.”
It was going to have to be said.
“I can’t have children.”
Amanda frowned. She looked like she wanted to take Liam back.
“I’m so sorry.”
You could say that it was OK as often as you liked but nobody ever believed it. Especially if they were a mother.
“You could always adopt.”
There was a long silence while Holly remembered all the people who had said those words to her before Amanda, starting with her mother. It was the quickest way that people could find to get themselves out of an awkward situation and make things right. Except it didn’t make things right. It was presumptious and patronising. You must want what I have. You must put right the shameful inadequacy of infertility and find a way to be normal. They would tell you that you were “childfree” but they didn’t mean it. You were childless, a leper who walked the world ringing a bell of emptiness and that void had to be filled- by force if necessary. It was nonsense of course but they believed it and that was what mattered. Perhaps it was how they coped with the fact that their lives had been completely taken over by someone else’s needs and would never be the same again.
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
That was a lie but telling the truth would have felt like slapping baby Liam in the face. Please don’t let her mention IVF.
“Have you thought about IVF?”
“I have no eggs.”
That emptiness again.
Usually that shut people up but Amanda opened her mouth as though she was going to say something else. Holly got in first.
“It wouldn’t be my child- if it was someone else’s egg. And before you mention my sister, just don’t. That would be a complete nightmare.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Amanda reached out a hand. Holly bit her lip. How had she managed to be pitied about the lack of something that she didn’t even want in the first place?
“I know. Sorry.”
Liam started to grizzle. Holly gave him back to his mum and stared into space. At school they had been best friends, then part of a small. close group who went clubbing and ate pizzas together. One by one the members of the group had fallen by the wayside, hijacked by motherhood. Only she and Amanda had hung on. All that had changed after Liam was born. They had only met up three times since then and it had been all about Amanda’s meet ups with “post natal mums”, tiny glass bottles of expensive sludge, marauding health visitors, useless dads, calpol, sugar free juice, baby led weaning, and disposable nappies. Hundreds and hundreds of God awful disposable nappies. They had hardly seen each other.
“Try not to get down about it.”
“I’m not down. I’m bored if you must know,.”
“I could do with a change at work. The new manager is a real pain and I have to share an office now. Nobody even asked me. I was just-”
Suddenly baby Liam’s face changed and an enormous roar came out of his tiny mouth. Amanda’s attention was gone in a heartbeat and the words that had been coming out of Holly’s mouth trailed away into silence.
“Oh baby! He’s starting teething already.”
Liam was hugged, comforted, soothed. His bottom gum was rubbed and he was given a plastic ring to suck on.
Holly watched as Amanda looked at her baby- it was a look that she would never share.
Holly sighed. Amanda pulled a face at her.
“I know. Poor boy!”
Holly nodded and Amanda turned her attention back to Liam, satisfied that a mutual bond had been demonstrated.
“I can’t wait for him to be big enough to fit in the swings.”
That was why they had to come to the park. It was where all the mums congregated to compare buggies, baby outfits and waistlines. Holly was an interloper. The mothers had sailed off together in a flotilla of self congratulation and obsession, powered by love and guilt. She shouldn’t be here. She didn’t belong. She had been left waving them off from the cliff top.
“What were you saying about your work?”
“It doesn’t matter. Just office politics. Nothing interesting.”
Amanda really didn’t want to know. She got out a baby wipe and cleaned Liam’s face all over again.
“He’s got milk down his front as well- messy pup.”
She held him up in the air in front of her and they giggled at each other.
“Whatchou been doing?”
His baby gro had I LOVE MY MUMMY printed on it in big blue letters. Holly looked at it with dislike. There was really no need for that.
When Amanda decided that Liam wanted to go home Holly said goodbye with lots of hugs (snuggles for Liam snugglebug) and then walked alone across the grass until she reached the far side of the park, away from the playground. A group of ducks were feeding, flipping up their tail ends and shaking the water from their beaks while a little row of ducklings followed in their mother’s slipstream. That was the other thing you did here if you had children, fed the ducks. A small voice piped up behind her.
“You don’t give them bread.”
A little girl with a tiny blonde top knot on her head and pink glasses came to stand next to her.
“It makes them fat.”
“It’s all right- I haven’t got any.”
“I’ve got some barley.”
“Good. They like that do they?”
A tiny hand delved into the brown paper bag that she was carrying and she splayed out her fingers and sent a spray of grain out towards the ducks. They scattered to go after it, in waves of excitement, quacking loudly, sending the baby ducks rocking in their slipstream. The little girl made a tiny jump and clapped her hands, sending more barley onto the mud at the edge of the pond.
“Who told you about the bread?”
“My mummy” was hurrying across the grass towards them.
“Evie- I told you to wait for me. Come here.”
She didn’t say “I told you not to talk to strangers”, but she would do as soon as Holly was out of earshot.
“Sorry- is she bothering you?”
That was code for keep your hands off my daughter.
“No, it’s fine.”
Evie was pulled away to a safe distance and her cardigan was straightened. “My mummy” kept glancing back as though there had been some kind of incident. It was hard for Holly not to stare back and give her more evidence. Well perhaps she should remove all doubt. She stood up, stretched herself and sent a shout ricocheting across the water towards them, scattering the ducks.
“SMALL CHILDREN ARE BORING!”
It was deeply satisfying.
“Is that all he does?”