This is an extract from my latest short story, Balloons. A piece of contemporary fiction, it is about a thirty-something year old woman who finds herself struggling to come to terms with the enormity of how her (wanted) pregnancy will change her life.
I wrote the story when I was six months pregnant myself so you are right to wonder if there is some truth in the story and if her feelings are my own. My honest answer is yes and no. Maybe one day I'll tell you what was the truth and what was made up but for now you should know that, as with most of my stories, most of it is the creation of my over-active, slightly peculiar imagination...
If you'd like to read the story in full, Balloons will be sent to newsletter readers on the afternoon of 30th April 2015 you can get it for your Kindle on Amazon right now.
Please note that Balloons was published as part of the ongoing creative project Twelve where I write and publish a new short story each month for the year 2015. If you'd like to receive future stories from Twelve for free (plus a load of good stuff about travel, work, life and love from around the web) then please sign up to my newsletter.
My belly balloons before me. I never knew it would be so hard. Turgid, I mean. Like the thin pieces of scrap fabric my grandmother used to spread tight over her jars of jam and marmalade, held in place with an elastic band. I always wondered what happened to all the lids those jars should have had. And now I wonder what will become of what’s inside my turgid, immovable belly that has started to surprise me when I bend over to put my shoes on.
Six months. That’s how long it’s been growing inside me. And there are four more to go.
That’s what they don’t tell you before you get pregnant. You’re never expecting for nine months, it’s ten, near enough. They also don’t tell you about the more peculiar, unexpectedly ugly symptoms of pregnancy. First there was the flatulence, then the clumsiness and for the last four months the skin on my face, neck and back has erupted into a landscape of angry red spots, their tender peaks puckered in yellow, lying beside a valley of pink blotches that I’ve already squeezed and scratched.
“They’ll scar,” Chas said to me when he once saw me contort a hand behind my back. “Just let them be. It will pass.”
I loved him for never once telling me to cover them up or do something about them.
It wasn’t just the acne that bothered me unexpectedly. There was also the way I felt things move, inside me. In the first few weeks of knowing - by which point I was already five weeks pregnant, lazily blasé about another late period - I expected sickness and nausea and certain foods to send me running to the bathroom, like you see in films. When that didn’t happen and my relief at this had subsided, I was left to become aware of every little thing that was happening. Day by day, step by step, I felt things shift inside me. I became aware of an almost ethereal ache within my hips and in my lower depths. ‘Relaxin’, I read, a hormone that makes my ligaments loosen up, opening my pelvis and readying my body for childbirth. However, in those early weeks, with the act itself so far ahead of me and no bulge in my belly to prove to me that it was all real, I just felt as though I was going through something else; an invisible change that applied a soft but constant pressure to my lower back and the occasional sharp pain against the hump of my pubic bone.
All the while this was happening slowly, an almost instant altering took place further north. Within days of that test showing not one but two faint blue lines - why so thin and feeble? I needed them to be thick and strong and affirming - the buds in my breasts inflated, hard and ripe. Within weeks the colour of my nipples had changed completely, darkening to a tone I didn’t recognise. As the flesh around them filled out, and continues to do so, my breasts no longer looked like my own. Even the freckles that danced around my areola have pivoted to new homes. Now, when I take my bra off at night I feel like I’m looking at someone else in the mirror. The irony is not lost on me that Chas seems enthralled by them. Often, before touching them with his fingertips or his lips, he’ll stare at them as if he’s about to feel them for the first time.
“They’re so big,” Chas said last night, talking about my nipples. He touched them delicately, as if they would be too hot to touch. “Do they still hurt?”
“Yes,” I said, though the truth is they don’t. Not like the fires I felt in the first trimester, ignited by something as simple as pulling on a T-shirt or accidentally brushing them against a door I didn’t open wide enough. I just can’t stand for them to be his sole focus during sex. I need for him to focus on me, to look into my eyes, to remind me that this was what we both wanted.
We talked about it, of course. We agreed it was the right time and in a strange ceremony one Monday night, we threw my pill in the bin together, staring in silence at the foil packet as it rested on top of a bathroom bin full of curled threads of floss and empty toilet roll tubes. Three months later when we found out, we celebrated with cheeseburgers and chocolate milkshakes in our local American-style diner, grinning stupidly at each other over a sticky table top. But now the sense of achievement has dulled and the waiting and growing has set in, I am starting to realise that for all the things you do as a “we”, only one of you is actually pregnant. I’ve started to envy Chas when he leaves for work in the morning. He doesn’t have to take this belly with him. He isn’t reminded ten times an hour that there’s a baby growing inside of him. He can play squash in his lunch hour, drink as much coffee as he’d like all day long, and there’s no need for him to skip after work drinks because he’s too tired or because he can’t face another glass of flat lemonade diluted with too much ice.
I should stop. It’s not right to feel so downbeat about everything when I’m lying here on the thick mattress of a sun lounger looking out over a bright stretch of sand that sinks into the Caribbean Sea. It’s our ‘babymoon’, a holiday for expecting parents. That’s what my friend Shannon called it and knowing that she reads all the magazines I don’t and watches all the TV shows I avoid, I don’t doubt her authority in calling it that. Chas and I, we are calling it “The Last Holiday” and when we say it out loud we emphasise each word in a deep voice, as if it is a doom-filled event. Even in my head, I do the same and each word echoes in my mind.
“There will be other holidays,” the waitress serving us dinner last night had said, her accent a sort of song, like a lullaby. I could listen to the locals talk all day long. Sometimes I do.
“Exactly,” said Chas, reaching for my fingers with one hand and raising his rum punch to his lips with the other.
Oh, alcohol. I never thought I’d miss that, but I do. Not that I’ve abstained completely. In week eleven, I felt so low after a long day at work and a particularly unpleasant phone call with a client that I had to resort to my old habit of a chilled glass of Sauvignon to lower my heart rate. More than the alcohol, the greater risk probably came from the fact it was a bottle that had been opened for more than seven weeks as I’d forgotten to throw it out. But it served its purpose in calming me down and making me something similar to my old self. Now I allow myself two thin fingers of vodka mixed with lime and soda each week and pray that I only have one bad day a week. But if you were to ask Chas, he would be none the wiser and he would tell you proudly how well I’ve done not having a drink for nearly five whole months.
I know I shouldn’t hide things from him. He tells me everything, after all. (At least everything I ask him to tell me.) But I have come to the conclusion that pregnant women already have so many secrets they can’t share, why not a few more? Of course, others will say ‘secret’ is the wrong word. But when you physically cannot share the experience of feeling a new life wriggle inside you and the words never seem to do it justice when you try to explain to your partner how full of fear and love you can be in the very same instant, then it all becomes a secret by default, unshared and carried only by one. Even other pregnant women don’t understand because every pregnancy is different.
“I get this weird feeling in the side of ribs, like the baby’s moved around towards my back” said one lady at my prenatal yoga class.
“It feels like she’s scratching to get out of me,” said another.
“I have these headaches that leave me completely useless,” said Tonya, the one I’ve got to know best from the group.
Tonya’s had it all. All the bad stuff. The sickness, the headaches, the constipation, the lower back pain, the pelvic pain, and in the last few weeks she just found out she’s got gestational diabetes.
“I’m so sorry,” I said when she told me the news.
She shrugged and reached past me for a yoga mat, our bumps touching in a way that made me feel a bit dizzy. “It’s not so bad. I don’t feel any pain or discomfort, and it’s not forever,” she’d said with a smile. A real smile, not a forced one like those I’ve mastered in recent months.
I always find myself staring at Tonya when my eyes are supposed to be shut during yoga. I learned after the third week that the instructor and everybody else closes their eyes during the first ten minutes of silent meditation and so I had a free reign to roam the room and look at everybody. It’s been eleven weeks now and I’m yet to get caught out by someone else sneaking a look. I study all the other bumps, looking at their shapes and sizes. Then I assess other parts of the women’s bodies; their breasts, their upper arms, their thighs and I try to reassure myself that most are putting on more weight than me. When I look at Tonya, I always see her holding her stomach from below and above, cupping it as if she’s trying to keep it in position. Her lips twitch and I know she is talking to her baby. I wonder what she’s saying to it because so far I’ve struggled to figure out what I should tell my baby about me and his father...
You can read extracts from Twelve short stories published in January, February and March this year and several other Words from my Stories here. And don't forget to sign up to my newsletter for a new short story free every month!
Photo by DonnieRayJones
Frances M. Thompson
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