A Simple Exchange of Niceties
Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.
– Wallace Stevens
The first available appointment was for next week only. That was in nine days time. Enough time for hands, brains, eyelids and knee joints to form according to the charts. I took a walk. I needed to sit on a bench somewhere under a tree, have a smoke. I know you’re not supposed to smoke when you’re pregnant, but fuck it, I didn’t ask to be, and in nine days time, it was all going to be scraped out of me anyway, which is a lot worse damage than a cigarette was going to do.
There is only one bench I like to sit on in the park. It’s that one just to the left of the big duck pond. It’s got generous slats, not those awkward stingy ones that protrude into your back and don’t let you forget you’re sitting on public property. I once saw seven black swans there, gliding together, it was like a ballet. It sort of made me cry, I don’t know why. Just that perfect connection, unspoken like that. I like benches. They make you feel as if people matter, you know, ordinary people just like you, who haven’t achieved much in life, despite all your teenage dreams of Paris and art school. Benches like that don’t seem to mind that you’ve never reached your potential or managed to finish anything you’ve ever started. They just sit and wait for you, an invitation that’s never revoked: come sit.
I know it’s stupid to be possessive about things that don’t belong to you, but I like to think of that bench as my bench. Put there especially for me, and only for me. You know when you’re a little kid and everyone else runs ahead, and you feel like you’re going to be left behind? When I get to my bench and it’s empty, it’s as if I’ve been waited for. Like an older cousin who stops and holds out a warm friendly hand, not minding being last together with you.
If I arrive at my bench and there’s someone else already there, I just walk on. It’s not that I don’t like sharing. I’d give anyone the shirt off my back, or the food off my plate. That’s part of my problem. My parole officer said people take advantage of that sort of thing. Makes them think you’re easy. I don’t know. I don’t like to see people go hungry or to have to sleep in bus-shelters, which are the unfriendliest of public spaces.
I just like to be consulted first. You know, it’s a respect thing.
And if I’m already sitting there and someone comes and sits down without even a simple exchange of niceties, like, ‘Do you mind?’ ‘May I?’ ‘Do you want to be left alone?’, well, I think that’s just plain rude.
Once when that old lady shuffled up to my bench, I got all panicky. She reminded me of my Nan who’s been dead for more than ten years, but who had a soft spot for me, always pressed some cash into my hand, and whispered ‘go buy yourself something nice.’
The old lady smiled and sat down beside me, and fiddled with her plastic bag, which had gotten stuck, on her wrist, twisted around and around. It took her a good few minutes to work out which way it was twisted and how to untwist it and remove it. I tried not to care what it was she had in her plastic bag, but I couldn’t help seeing she had a pair of shoes in them. A pair of bright red little girls’ shoes.
And that was it. She snatched my peace from me.
‘It’s a cloudy day,’ she said. I didn’t know whether she was directing it at me, or just like, at the water.
I nodded. When I’m sitting on my bench, I’m generally not in the mood for a small-talk and chit-chat.
I got up soon after that and left her there, with her little red shoes in her plastic bag.
Today of all days, I needed to be alone on my bench. I rounded the corner and saw the bench – unoccupied!
I quickened my pace, though there was no-one else in sight, just to claim it. I lay down on it, taking up the entire bench with my body. I reached into my pocket and took out a cigarette. ‘Smoking may be dangerous in pregnancy.’ I laughed out loud, it was a fucking cigarette that got me into this mess in the first place.
When Damien had approached me at the pool table, and leaned in against me, he said, ‘Got a cigarette on that cute bod of yours?’
Not a great opening line, but I liked the confidence and he cut a fine figure in a pair of Levi’s.
He fucked me from every direction and on every surface in my apartment. I still have bruises in places I can’t see without contorting myself into a Yogic position from which I couldn’t disentangle myself without professional help.
We hadn’t spoken much, so I couldn’t have known he didn’t want kids. Not with a trashy whore like me – his words. As if a kid was on my agenda. I guess I never thought before how those two pink lines kind of make an equal sign to the end of a relationship. ‘Better to know someone thinks you’re a trashy whore sooner rather than later,’ Barbie said. She’s my best friend and I swear the greatest hairdresser which is why I always look good even on a waitress’s salary. She gets me right. I heard her. Better to know. Even if you had feelings for that person. Those feelings get the message not to hang around like a spare wheel, not after trashy and whore have been hurled at you like a double fist in the guts. When just two nights before, he held his strong hands behind your hair and licked you from your throat to your bellybutton in a way that made you think, you know, that maybe he loved you.
‘Do you mind?’
I looked up.
Did it look like I didn’t mind? I was lying down, relaxing on my bench, one hand on my belly, the other holding my cigarette, and she asks me, ‘Do I mind…’ Clue-less, as Barbie would say rolling her eyes.
I swung my legs down and sat up. It made me a bit dizzy.
‘You shouldn’t smoke,’ she said, sitting down.
‘Well thanks for your concern,’ I said. ‘Not like it’s any of your business…’
‘You’re right, it’s none of my business,’ she said. She opened her bag and took out a bottle of mineral water and took a big glug out of it. What is it with people and bottled water? Like there’s something trashy about tap-water.
She was married, or at least she wore what looked like a wedding band on her finger.
She took a book out of her bag and rested it on her knees while she looked out at the lake. ‘When fertility fails’ it was called.
She flicked it open and started to read. She seemed to be very concerned with its contents.
She caught me looking at the title.
‘We’ve just been told we can’t have kids,’ she said to me.
I shrugged. ‘It’s none of my business,’ I said.
‘Right,’ she said.
I sat there next to her inhaling my cigarette. She read eight full pages, actually sixteen, she turned the page eight times. Hell, she could read fast.
I thought maybe I felt something move inside me, but that couldn’t be the case. I was only eight weeks pregnant. They only start to move around 18 or 19 weeks, that’s what that book I paged through at the clinic this morning said. Not that I was interested or anything. It’s just that they make you read these things before you can consent to a termination.
As we sat there, a duck swam past.
‘I don’t want to be an old duck, swimming all on my own…’ she said.
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‘There are worse things than being on your own…’ I said.
‘Like what?’ she asked.
‘Like being with someone who doesn’t love you…’
‘Children always love their parents…’ she said.
‘No they don’t,’ I said.
‘Yes, they do…’
‘They don’t. Believe me. And parents don’t always love their kids….’
‘Yes they do,’ she said.
‘You haven’t met my mother,’ I said flicking off ash which had dropped on my shirt.
‘How can your mother not love you,’ she said. ‘You’re her daughter…’
‘I think she would have exchanged me for a week’s holiday at a three star resort… not that anyone was offering… but if they had….’
‘You’re wrong,’ she said shaking her head.
‘Have it your way,’ I said. I swear people who drink mineral water obviously know something I don’t.
And then, and I didn’t see this coming, or else I would have gotten up and left the bench much sooner, she started to cry.
‘Please don’t cry…’ I said.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I just wanted children so much….’
‘What for? Kids are bad news, they’re a lot of trouble.’
She shook her head, ‘They give meaning to your life…. ‘
‘Think of how much money you’ll save…’
‘We’ve spent our entire life savings on four IVF treatments…’ she kind of snickered. ‘And, you know what, I’d sell every single thing I own, just to be a mother…everything, every heirloom, diamond ring, Persian carpet… all of it… it’s all worthless…’
I thought about what I could do if I owned diamond rings and Persian carpets. Paris here I come….
She seemed pretty sincere about it.
‘It wasn’t meant to be,’ I found myself saying, which really wasn’t me speaking. It was like my Nan just popped out of my mouth.
‘Yes…you’re right,’ she said turning to look at me. ‘It wasn’t meant to be…’ The tears carried on streaming down her face. She closed her book and put it in her bag.
‘I guess I have to get back to work,’ she said. ‘Thank you for listening… I’m so sorry to burden you with my problems,’ she laughed. ‘You must think I’m crazy…’
I shrugged. ‘Hell, sister, I’ve got no certificate in sanity, not so far as I know…’
She got up.
‘Do you come here often?’ she asked.
I didn’t know what to say. I did come there often. But not to talk to strangers.
‘Maybe I’ll see you again…’ she said. ‘ This is my favourite bench in the park.. I always think it’s been put here specially for me, isn’t that silly?’
Look, I’ve never done anything with my life. The shoplifting thing just kind of happened, which led to the three months inside.
Bit of an eye-opener. My mother wouldn’t even put up the $500 bail for me. I guess I understand her point. I’m bad news. I hang around in pubs after work. I’m not going to amount to anything. It’s not like I’m going to find a decent bloke and get married. Barbie says I’m like Ruby Tuesday in that Rolling Stones’ Song. I can’t be chained – unless it’s for sexual purposes, now and then, if you know what I mean.
So I had this thought that it might be a nice gesture. She seemed so bloody keen on kids. So since I’m already pregnant and all that, maybe I’ll just have it, and give it to her. She’d be really appreciative, I can tell. And that way, I can get to go and visit the kid now and then without the hassle of having to bring it up myself. It was the first time I ever thought about co-incidence and fate and all that stuff, you know, where pieces all just fit together.
The next time I came to my bench, I had just come from the ‘half-way’ scan. ‘It’s a little girl,’ the doctor said, which I already knew. She liked the same kind of music as me, really got frenetic when I turned up James Blunt on those little headphones I attached to my stomach. At least she’d have good taste in music.
As I looked at the shadows on that fuzzy screen, I didn’t feel like such a trashy whore anymore.
Though I waited at my bench for an hour, the lady with the book on fertility didn’t come. I wondered what she might call her little girl.
‘Summer,’ I said out loud. ‘That’s a good name for a little girl…’ I thought I might suggest that to her when I handed the baby over. Kind of like a ‘use it, don’t use it, but that’s what I think…’
The time after that, I really needed to sit down and it was a huge relief to put my feet up and feel the sun warming them. I was retaining water in my legs and it was getting harder to fill my shifts at the restaurant without my back hurting. Also it was getting hotter and my belly was as smooth and ripe as watermelon.
Even Barbie revised her opinion about pregnancy being ‘grotesque,’ and I didn’t feel fat, the way I thought I’d feel. And when I told my mother I was pregnant, I guess I didn’t foresee that she’d start crying on the phone. Like from happiness.
‘I’m not keeping it, Ma,’ I told her.
‘Don’t you DARE give my grand-daughter away,’ she said.
I never thought of it like that. It gave me a lump in my throat to think that my mother thought there was anything about me worth keeping.
She went and knitted a pink cardigan with rose-buds on it. I kept it. To give to the lady along with the baby, and the name suggestion, when the time came to hand her over.
And my mother started sending money in the post each month.
I was never tempted, not even once to spend it on myself.
By the time Summer came, it wasn’t so much that I’d changed my mind. But since she was ‘distressed,’ and nearly choked on her umbilical chord that was wrapped around her little neck, and given that my mother was at my side, holding my hand, and crying, I thought I’d just make sure she was alright for a while. When she fell asleep on my chest with her little hand curled under my chin, mum said to me, ‘I remember you lying on my chest like that too and wishing it would never end.’
That’s how come I ended up with her lying on the hospital bed with me, with my head in her lap, while she stroked my hair, whispering ‘beautiful girl’ which was either meant for the baby or for me but it didn’t matter.
I did go back to the bench, with Summer, to look for that lady with the book and the mineral water and the Persian rugs and heirlooms.
I guess if she’d been there, I might have had my one and only chance to give her the baby, and who knows, maybe I would have.
But my bench was empty.
Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?