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The trip to London is Jay’s idea, two months into this union that neither of us has given a name to. Jay has an obsession with a tiny specialist record shop in Soho, his nose is on the big side, and his hair sticks out around his ears in tufts that I want to flatten down, but he’s tall and confident in a restless, where’s-my-next-joint kind of way.
Chipotle on Baker Street: The future has arrived at the steel-slab tables where we sit and eat Latin American food from plastic baskets that are stacked neatly for reuse. Outside the window bright clouds shimmy above the people coming and going, and the city throbs with its sense of self. I’m stunned by it all because I’ve been in bed for practically five years; everything seems big and loud and impressive.
Jay is barely out of his twenties and I’m well into my thirties, and this is the gist of it: Jay’s version of time is an elastic infinity stretching into the Neverland of the future. Mine is a condensed, squashed thing that makes the next twenty years seem like twenty minutes. A woman of about the same age as me bounces her baby, taco in hand, and I can see the hint of crow’s feet around her eyes, the last smatterings of youth being swallowed into the vacuum of late nights and early morning feeds. I watch her stare at the baby gurgling through tiny lips, sucking up her vitality and projecting it back out into the world as she laughs along.
I look at Jay and wonder, and then I ask the question.
“Do I want kids?” he repeats, shrugging his shoulders and munching his burrito.
I push shards of taco shell into splashes of black bean. “People usually know, one way or another…”
His body tenses, and his eyes fail to connect. “What is this wanting kids?” he grouses. “Everyone wants kids as if they’re some kind of possession, something I buy from the shop and just take home and stick in a cage like mice or gerbils or fucking…rats.”
He wolfs down the last bite of burrito and slugs back his Coke as if the food is an assault on his throat, and I imagine him with an army of rodent babies that, despite his current venom, he would come to love. He once had a tortoise who died in hibernation despite all the cotton wool and warmth of the radiator. Never had another pet, he said.
I stare at him and smile.
“What?” he licks guacamole from around his mouth, eyes glinting.
“You.” I grin back.
His irritation floats off as fast as the shoal of clouds pushing past the window. Summer London: red bus slick with a model’s outline, bare skin, canary yellow cardigan, easyJet flights to Amsterdam. Jay’s hand jabbing affectionately at my cheek. I want to reach out and smooth those tufts of hair, lay my head on his chest as if it were a bed of grass that hasn’t yet been pissed on by the local cats. Has he? Been pissed on, metaphorically speaking? You could say he’s a popular boy. Man/boy. I always knew who Jay was and that, more often than not, there was a girlfriend or someone he was with. His grass was patchy, let’s just say that.
“Why are you so worried about whether I want kids?” he says. His eyes are so firmly on mine that I blink away.
I think of the last five years when the energy even to contemplate this question would have been too much to muster, and whether I’m now destined to be one of those desperate body-clock women who only wants kids because she’s running out of time. Did I ever want them to begin with? I mean that deep urge you hear about? I know it was one of those momentous life choices I thought I’d have my turn at until the exhaustion came and took the luxury of time away; flatlining in bed listening to radio programmes about the flatlining economy, in which the capitalist holier-than-thous said we have to live within our means and the other people either agreed or became irate. And it strikes me now, so near to the epicentre of the nation’s wealth, that having babies is like the economy, pushing money out into the world, watching it grow and take on a momentum of its own until we’re just this big mass… and when the whole thing goes wrong we just pump a lot of new money into the world. Notes out of think air; speculate to accumulate; pro-creation. Like it or lump it, it’s the way things are, and sooner or later the urge to join in starts pressing at you.
I’d known I was getting better when I got the urge to go out and have sex with someone; someone like Jay who walked past my bedroom window, all cocky and knowing and not even really good looking. My limbs had regained enough strength to lift the makeup brush to my face whilst leaving just enough bareness of skin to catch someone like Jay’s eye. It turned out that Jay liked weed and dub reggae and skinny girls with long hair and, though technically not a girl anymore, I fitted the bill. He walked past my bedroom window every morning at ten past nine, his grubby work bag beating against his side like a drum. I found out that he was a builder and which pub he drank in, and put myself in his way for just long enough. By the end of the night he was offering me shots of black Sambuca, which I declined for Bombay Sapphire and tonic. He said he wasn’t surprised Sambuca wasn’t my thing, and he didn’t seem to notice that I made my one drink last all night, hazed as he was in his stoned, smiling way complemented by his friends’ Valium-ghostliness, haunting around each other like shadowless creatures who I bantered with and baited just to bring to life. I’d spent too long being a shadowless creature myself to tolerate it in others.
Afternoon in Soho: I tag along to Dub Vendor, which Jay treats as the Holy Mecca and where I forget, for a while, about the unanswered question. Soho is reminiscent of itself but different than I remember, Soho is Wahaca, Bar Bruno, Banana Tree, Vietnamese street food, Hummingbird Bakery, hemp milk and barley grass, cocoa nibs, agave syrup, Thai massage, and technicolour cats waving beneath Chinese lanterns; Restaurant Lease to 2025, £160,000 per year, Substantial Premium, 1 a.m. license.
D’Arblay Street;theDub Vendor concession is tacked onto the back of Black Market Records, but when we arrive Black Market is stripped to its bare bones, light fittings hanging loose inside wooden casings, a single dance music poster hanging from the wall. We make our way through to the back. Cockney-patois ricochets around the four walls, about whole catalogues and pressings and mixings. A man rushes in desperate for news about the sudden demise of the shop, talking about protected leases and strength in numbers and tweeting a photo he’s just taken on his phone. The owner of the Dub Vendor Concession predicts that it too will be gone by Sunday; the rents are going up in September. Everywhere around us things are changing, hanging in the balance, perching precariously on the wings of global capitalism. Notes out of thin air; speculate to accumulate; pro-creation.
As we wander back down D’Arblay Street onto Wardour Street, I picture Jay in middle age, T-shirt brimming over a wide girth; neck, hands, shoulders, everything smoothed and stretched wide like a canvas pulled on a rack, and I wonder what genetic cocktail the two of us might throw out: European Haplogroup I, Celtic skin tone, slightly above average height, several inflammatory markers from my side and a predisposition to some disease or other from his.
Water beats time in the hotel wet room, with its Moroccan tiles and marble basin mounted on stripped pine. I imagine this is our home instead of where we usually end up: Jay’s bedsit with its smoke-infused stale-man smell. The jingle of a Disney cartoon fills the room as Jay’s soap-fresh lips tickle my ear, his naked thighs locking around my legs, nudging me onto the bed. He tells me to turn off the TV, pushes in close, his skin warm and soft from the shower.
His eyes pulsate under the spotlights. He burrows his mouth into my neck and whispers his request. I root around in my makeup bag, passing my hand over a foil packet, letting my fingers linger on its sharp edges and then telling him that I forgot, and before you know it he’s inside me, buoyed along by the three Czech lagers and two Polish vodkas and by the act itself, which insists so insistently on supremacy that I am left breathless and wet with the question of future.
I lie awake as Jay snores and wonder whose responsibility it was to remind him to pull out, but it’s a pointless question: me with my recklessly abandoned reasoning and Jay with his drunken willy and his unpredictable semen.
Tube back to Waterloo. A skinny girl mirrors her mother’s pose: cross-legged and efficient, with large glasses and an Alice band pushing her cornfield hair back from her forehead. She’s a reproduction in miniature, skin so pale I can practically see inside of her. There’s something in the way nature copies yet still manages to formulate a new cluster of possibilities each time. A buggy hovers over the escalator. “Fuck’s sake,” Jay says, “you think they’d take that thing down rather than lug that kid like Cleopatra on the fucking Nile.” I stare at the buggy, remembering that inside me right now could be the seed of a thing that began during a moment that Jay either can’t remember, or hasn’t bothered to mention.
My bedroom back at home is a vortex that sucks me back to inertia. The tulip nets throw strange jungle shadows on the walls. I lie down on the cool bed and watch the road beyond lined in a damp sheen, LED lights casting it in a white-blue haze. The tarmac hums. The shadows cast by the tulips loom large and lofty as trees, their bulbous heads stretched and immense. I am exhausted and uneasy, caught between the cosy claustrophobia of the room and the impending sense of a decision to be made.
The chemist and the doctor’s surgery are closed, and there’s no way of dealing with this until morning, but when the morning comes I’m in a fog of confusion and that crushing tiredness that obliterates everything in its wake. I want to hear Jay’s dirty laugh, I want him to tell me one of his silly jokes. I want to hear his funny, silly voice. He doesn’t return two texts and one voice message. Twenty-four hours come and go; all the websites agree that you have seventy-two hours for 89 percent effectiveness. It’s not the first time Jay has gone AWOL: He recently went off to Bournemouth for two days without his mobile. When I asked him what he had got up to, he laughed and lowered his voice conspiratorially and said, What goes on on tour stays on tour, and then he rubbed my leg with his big hand and said Joking, baby, joking, and told me that it was a mate’s stag do; naked rubber dolls with orifices, coke in the toilets and drinking games all night. Carnage, he said, absolute carnage.
On the phone the next morning, Jay’s voice is as bright and buoyant as the sun peeping through the curtains. He tells me he’s taking me to Cantina for breakfast, laughing as if at a dirty joke. And when I meet him there, every crease in his complexion is as it was, every hair as haphazard, everything as unplanned yet fully confident as it always was.
“I was out for the count,” he says in Cantina, looking down at his food. I hide my irritation behind a passive smile; imagine him screwing some girl from the pub with more get up and go than me and ten times the tolerance to Polish vodka. Dan the waiter jokes to Jay about keeping me up all night, and they laugh their blokey laugh, and I laugh, too, pleased to be thought of as capable of wearing Jay out. And still the decision hangs in the air. Something about the whole thing is so abstract, I can barely get hold of it. A potentially life-altering decision that comes down to one little pill that may or may not alter the probability of getting pregnant that may or may not be there to begin with. Jay’s baby, I think: JAY’S BABY, and I can’t imagine it, and because I can’t imagine it, I drag myself up and out of the door. The chemist is closed for lunch and I’ve missed the 8 a.m. deadline to get an appointment with the doctor.
When the chemist opens I go back there and ask the male pharmacist for the pill, which is quite embarrassing because he’s quiet and sweet and it just feels a bit furtive asking a man you don’t know to decide whether to sell you something that confirms you’ve very recently had unprotected sex. But the pharmacist just treats it as if it’s any other interaction, like asking for paracetamol, and I go on my way. After I take it, I feel quite nauseous and a bit weird, and later on very tired and washed out.
A few months later we have gone our separate ways. Jay proves to be too unreliable, too difficult to pin down. He prefers nights in the pub to nights with me, and it turns out I’m not ready to be a pub-girlfriend. The last straw is the sex we have when he’s drunk again, and I’m sober again, and although I make sure we use a condom every time, I realise that we’re never going to be loving, not in that way. And still I miss his dirty laugh and his silly jokes and his big hands around my waist and my back.
And it only takes a few months for Jay to go out and get a new me, who isn’t really a me at all. And still I’m surprised when it happens, six months later, as if I haven’t been expecting it. I see them in the aisle of Tesco Express among the jars of curry sauce and then chatting to someone outside my bedroom window, brazen as the shoal of clouds in the sky; and I can see the oval bump protruding from the vest top of his new love. Jay’s eyes move in my direction a few times as if he expects that I might be here, watching from behind the tulip nets.