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You could phone your mom," Alice suggested tentatively, and only because she was safely on the other end of a phone line and she knew that Natalie couldn't throw something at her.
"I am not going to phone my mom," Natalie told her sharply, pressing the palm of her hand against her forehead as she spoke. "I would rather pull out my own fingernails with my teeth than contact my mother and tell her that not only have I just had a baby when she didn't even know I was pregnant, but I am also unmarried and not in any kind of relationship. I am definitely not asking her for any help. She'd be so happy she'd probably drop dead from joy on the spot." Natalie paused for a moment. "Actually, perhaps I will call."
"Natalie!" Alice didn't like it when Natalie made jokes about wishing her mother's demise, which was principally why Natalie made them. She was very fond of her friend and business partner, but the two women could not have been more different. They were like chalk and cheese or perhaps more appropriately, considering their business, like soft chiffon camiknickers and a red lacy thong with diamanté detail. Natalie was well aware that she was the thong; often showy, trying too hard to be sexy, and sometimes quite uncomfortable to be around. At least, that was what she had been like before Jack.
"You see, Alice," Natalie went on, "you don't understand because your mother is a nice normal woman who would be interested in her grandchild. My mother wasn't even interested in me when I was a baby. Plus, she would be so smug. So I'm not contacting her. It's not that desperate yet. It would have to get really desperate for me to contact her, and seeing as I don't even count a giant asteroid about to hit the earth and wipe out humanity forever as a good reason, I don't think it will ever come to that."
Natalie glanced out of the window at the leaden March sky that churned over the rooftops of the houses across the street. Winter this year seemed to be dragging on for an eternity and she was counting the days until the clocks changed and the evenings became light again and then finally her aged and cantankerous heating system wouldn't have to struggle to keep the house slightly warmer than the Artic Circle anymore.
"She phones the office, you know," Alice remarked a little bleakly. Alice hated lying, she was terrible at it, whereas Natalie had practically made it her specialty over the years. "Since you got that caller display she phones the office because you never pick up at home."
"You know what to tell her when she phones," Natalie said. Her baby stirred in the carrycot at her feet and she held her breath as she waited for him to break out into the full-blown crying that she had come to know so well over the last ten weeks, but then his face relaxed again and he slept on.
"She doesn't believe that you've been on a fact-finding mission in China for six months," Alice said. "And I hate lying to her, I feel sorry for her."
"You see, she preys on souls like you, innocents who think the best of people," Natalie said darkly. "Feeling sorry for her is exactly what she wants, that's how she draws you in." She glanced down at her baby son. He looked an awful lot like his father, which was interesting because she had almost forgotten what Jack Newhouse looked like until she'd given birth to his son. Or at least she had tried to forget, very hard.
"And it's not really Freddie I need help with," she said, an unexpected smile creeping into her voice. "It's hard and scary and I never exactly know what I'm doing, but somehow we're muddling through. It's more that I need someone to look after me now and again. If there was someone to mind him while I had a bath, or watch him while I popped out to the shops. If I could brush my hair now and again and put some makeup on, I might feel a bit more like me. I need to put on some makeup, Alice, I look like crap. I'm fat and shiny and my boobs have gone all enormous and I've got stretch marks." Natalie gave a resigned sigh. "I know now that I will never have sex again, which is just as well. I should have had an elective Caesarean. That midwife who told me natural birth was best for mother and child was so totally lying."
There was a long silence at the end of the phone, and Natalie knew that Alice was mortified.
"Too much information, Natalie," Alice said eventually.
"Sorry," Natalie apologized lightly. "It's just that I've got no one else to talk to. I haven't seen anyone since the day after Freddie was born, except you. No one has visited, not Suze or Phyllis none of the old crowd. And I know why. They all think I'm mad for keeping him. None of them know why on earth I kept the baby of a man I spent one weekend with and...never saw again."
"What I don't understand is why you didn't want to even tell him," Alice said. "If you'd told him things might be easier. You might not be so on your own."
Natalie knew her determination not to tell Jack Newhouse that he was now a father had worried Alice from the start. But Alice's specialty was preparing for the future. It was Alice who had a five-year plan, Alice who understood the mechanics of achieving year-on-year growth for the business, and Alice who pictured the day when Freddie would want to know about his father. Natalie, on the other hand, was barely capable of making a five-minute plan, and she found it hard to imagine what the future might hold for her in the next half-hour. Especially when it came to her personal life and particularly when it came to how her son was conceived. The thought of any future encounter that might or might not occur between some distant version of her son and his father was simply unimaginable. It was a tactic, in her opinion, that made her new life so much simpler. And it was an opinion that she and Alice fundamentally disagreed on.
"Trust me. He's not the kind of man who wants a baby foisted on him," Natalie told Alice for the millionth or so time. "All we would have got from him is money and we don't need that." She stifled a yawn. "Alice, the man was a professional philanderer, he had to be. What other kind of man would go to all the trouble of picking me up on the Tube and acting all wonderful and lovely and then whisk me off to Venice for incredible sex?" Natalie paused. Whenever she said out loud what had happened between her and Jack Newhouse, it always took her a second or two to believe that it was her that it had happened to, and not some true-life article she'd read in a gossip magazine. "Anyway, that was all there was in it for him: a conquest, a challenge. And so there would be no point in telling him about Freddie. He didn't call me once after that weekend and I didn't know where to find him. His phone number isn't listed in the London directory. So he's not going to want to know about us now, is he, even if I could get hold of him? And anyway, Freddie's got nothing to do with him. I didn't have Freddie because I'm secretly in love with his dad, or because I'm thirty-six and my biological clock was ticking or any of that nonsense!"
"No one is happier than me that you are enjoying being a mother so much," Alice said, without bothering to disguise her incredulity. "But I must admit I was surprised you went through with the pregnancy it just didn't seem like you."
"Then you don't know me as well as you think," Natalie said. It was true that when she had realized her period was late she had thought, Right, if I am pregnant I'll just deal with it. I'll get an abortion. And even on the way to the pharmacy she was planning who to call, how to pay for it, which credit card to use. During the three minutes she was waiting for the test to show a result she was totally sure she knew exactly what needed to be done. And then when Natalie saw that blue line and knew for sure that there was a baby growing living inside her, she suddenly felt as if she didn't have any options anymore. She didn't have to decide to keep him, because there wasn't any decision to make. She just knew she was going to have the baby.
"I am glad you're happy," Alice repeated warmly. "And you're right, I did underestimate you. You're a really great mother."
"And I am happy," Natalie reiterated restlessly. "Of course I am, but I'm just a tiny bit bored and lonely, so I was thinking, I might be able to work on the Christmas lingerie line or something. I could even...oh I don't know...bring Freddie in to the next marketing meeting?"
"Nope," Alice said quite firmly. "No, you won't. You told me that on no account was I allowed to let you do any work during the first six months. You made me promise, Natalie..."
"You said that no matter how much you begged and pleaded I had to keep you off."
"But I didn't mean it..." Natalie pleaded.
"You said you'd say that. You said to ignore you." Alice was adamant.
"Alice!" Natalie heard another phone ringing in the background.
"Oh," Alice said breezily. "The caller display is showing a call from abroad perhaps it's your mom. Now, if you want to stay in China then I suggest you go and put your feet up."
"But I'm bored and lonely!" Natalie protested pitifully.
"Go and join a mother and baby group or something," Alice said and the line went dead.
Natalie looked down at Freddie. A mother and baby group, she thought, wrinkling up her nose. She couldn't think of anything worse than sitting around with a bunch of brain-dead housewives going on about married bliss and family life endlessly.
"Fancy a game of poker then?" she suggested to her baby.
He didn't seem too keen.
Natalie woke up with a start when Freddie started crying. The house was dark and gloomy and when she looked at the clock she saw it was almost five. She must have fallen asleep where she had been sitting after speaking to Alice, because the phone was still in her lap. That was something she was still trying to get used to: impromptu napping. The maternity nurse said that she was lucky to be able to nap at the drop of a hat when Freddie was sleeping, and that too many new moms tried to spend all night and all day staying awake. But Natalie didn't like it. It reminded her of the days when she used to drink too much and wake up in places where she didn't remember going to sleep.
Natalie's twenties had been tumultuous, to say the least. It had been a decade filled with a catalog of terrible decisions that she had then attributed to living life to the fullest. Living life like an idiot was more like it. Things had improved as soon as she and Alice became unlikely friends. Alice was the sales rep for a large lingerie company and Natalie the junior buyer for a small chain of budget-clothing stores based in and around London. They had nothing and everything in common, and after several months of talking about every subject in their meetings except for the pedestrian garments that Alice was supposed to be selling, they decided to form a partnership and launch their own lingerie company. It should have failed, two half-strangers throwing all their savings and hopes into a business together. But it had worked better than either of them had imagined, because by some amazing piece of good luck Alice and Natalie brought out the best in each other, pushing themselves to peaks of inspiration and hard work that they had never thought possible in their previous incarnations.
Natalie had given everything in the intervening eight years to Alice and to the business, so much so that she had inadvertently straightened out most of her chaotic behavior and lifestyle choices along the way. She had grown up considerably.
However, there was still room for the occasional and usually highly visible setback, the most recent of which was now crying to full capacity.
She scooped Freddie out of his carrycot and rocked him against her shoulder.
"Are you wet, hungry, or fed up, little man?" Natalie asked the angry baby. "All three, I bet. Let me just switch on the lights and I'll get you changed and fed in a jiffy, and after that we've got a whole evening of great conversation and soaps to look forward to! Yes we have!"
Natalie flicked on the light switch by the living-room door. Nothing happened.
"Bulb's gone," she told Freddie, swaying him from side to side as she made her way down the hallway and toward the basement kitchen. "Naughty bad bulb. We'll just go into the kitchen then, won't we...yes, we will, we'll just go into the...oh."
The light at the top of the stairs that led down to the kitchen was also not working.
Natalie carried her crying baby into her study. Nothing. And the light on the base unit of her phone wasn't working either.
"Oh, I know, I need to reset the fuse box," she told Freddie. "Silly old Mommy." But the fuse box just kept tripping.
"It must be a power cut," she cooed in Freddie's ear as if she had spoken fluent idiot all her life. "Naughty bad power cut!"
She went to the front door of the house and opened it. There were lights on across the road. Sheltering Freddie under her cardigan as she walked out onto the steps, Natalie peered up and down the road. There were lights on in both of the houses on either side of her, too.
"Bastards," she whispered as she went back into her house and shut the door.
"Not a power cut then," she said. She looked around the hallway filled with long, dark shadows. No electricity meant no light, no heating, no hot water, no fridge, no TV. It was a disaster.
Natalie took her cell phone out of her bag, sat at the bottom of the stairs, where the hallway was partially lit by the street lights outside, and put Freddie to one breast. As he quietened and settled into feeding, she set about finding an electrician who was cheap, honest, and most of all available now.
Copyright © 2007 by Rowan Coleman Originally published as The Baby Group in Great Britain in 2007 by Arrow Books, a division of Random House