Brooke studied the trio of women clustered around the next table at the pub. Two of them were pregnant – just like her, except not.
The third woman was clutching a white zinfandel or something, which seemed surprisingly demure given the severity of her hair, bleached and shorn close to the scalp. The woman had assertive cheekbones and the haircut suited her. It wouldn’t have suited Brooke.
Christ, she could murder a bourbon.
Leo pushed away the plate of fries and climbed down from his seat, copper mane flopping around the toddler’s face. Brooke had wanted to call him Aslan, but Martin had intervened. Martin was sensible. He could parent with one hand tied behind his back. Brooke could barely parent with both hands, an early childhood nurse for a mother and nine books on raising children (waiting to be read, but still). She had no maternal instincts whatsoever. So much for women’s intuition.
“Done?” Brooke asked, hoiking Leo to her hip before he could object.
Even rushing, they were late for swimming. Brooke hurried her son into the pool and sat on a slatted bench to watch him, her breasts resting unevenly on her belly, which was still too soft, measuring small at 31 weeks.
Leo let go of the pool coping and started to sink, but before Brooke could get to his side, the instructor hauled him back above water and reinstated his grip.
Gravity had started this whole mess: Brooke in the shower, five months pregnant, stooped with soreness. She’d cupped her breasts to relieve herself of their weight and a lump had met her left ring finger, palpable as a pearl.
“Good job you caught it early,” Martin said, as if she’d been responsibly checking all along. As if “catching” it meant everything was under control.
By then, the foetus had the sweetest little mouth they’d ever seen on ultrasound. She also had a name: Freya, after the Norse goddess of fertility because Brooke and Martin had been using condoms when she was conceived, even though Brooke was already taking the pill. Leo was only eight months old at the time, the scar across Brooke’s belly scarcely healed, her brain still red and screaming.
Freya would be born September 1, the first day of spring, a herald of new beginnings. Brooke would begin the rest of her treatment while she was still bleeding from her daughter’s birth.
“I kinda think babies should just arrive in their own time … when they’re ready,” said Martin’s sister, who was childless and didn’t know about the lump even after it was out, precisely because she was as forthcoming with her opinions as her brother was with his kindness.
“She’ll be ready,” Martin said, squeezing Brooke’s hand as hard as he spoke to his sister. Martin had a booming voice and genes for strength on his side. All Leo had of Brooke was her hair.
Fingers crossed, that would be all Freya inherited, too.
The boy in the Wiggles rashie was a redhead. Freckled but tanned. Brawny in a loose-skinned sort of way. He looked exactly like Sam as a child. Like pictures of Sam as a child.
Tish traced the mother’s bulging belly with her eyes. At least seven months, maybe eight. It was hard to estimate these things.
Maya said it was like having an octopus inside you. Teagan laughed. “Try goat.” They slugged their soda water while a glass of rosé warmed in Tish’s palm. “Lucky,” they called her.
Tish imagined an octopus in the woman’s belly, then a goat. A teddy bear. A doll. She pictured her friends full of treasure, and her ribs laced tight.
Was this how it felt? Suddenly aware of parts of your body that you didn’t usually notice?
Tish got cramps quarterly instead of every month. They always seemed less of a squeeze than a pull, as if something – or someone – were tugging her from within. The heaviness of it all.
At other times, she was ready to run away with the sun and the wind and a stranger who sighed on the back of her neck at the supermarket. Even now, she slowed past AFL training – all those players with the tiny nylon shorts gripping at their thighs.
“You’re a good dad,” she told Sam that evening, when he forgave their puppy, Minnie, for tearing up his office chair.
Sam shrugged. “Good excuse not to do any extra work tonight.”
“Oh, yeah? Any ideas what we should do instead?”
It was nine weeks before Tish realised. Nine weeks before the doctor confirmed – the same week that both Teagan and Maya delivered. When Tish walked past the oval after her appointment, the AFL players looked like they’d been pulled from a sewer.
Tish hooked her thumb through the waistband of her skirt and thought of the snowy growsuit with little ducks embroidered around the collar hidden in her dresser drawer.
“Look what I bought,” she’d say, when Sam came back from his business trip.
“For Minnie?” he’d ask.
But while Sam was still pitching to investors in Perth, Tish felt that familiar undertow. There was nothing her doctor could do to make it stop.
The next morning, Sam came in from his taxi to find her nursing a beer on the sofa.
“Bit early, isn’t it, Tish?”
She didn’t respond.
Tish avoided Sam’s eyes in favour of a mole on his temple. “I was pregnant,” she said, something inside her unspooling. “Now I’m not.”
Sam grabbed at his cowlick. Tish used to find it endearing; now it made her mad, how Sam’s hand instinctively went to himself instead of to her. Then she was in his arms, letting her tears soak his shirt, the fabric soft and crumpled from travel.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
“Shh, babe. It’s all okay.” Sam patted her back, breathing his coffee-and-chewing-gum breath. Usually they’d have kissed by now.
“Close call, hey?” he said.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 25, 2021 as "Ready and Lucky".
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