Authors: Sarah Rayner
Tags: #General, #Fiction
The water is getting cold; Lou has been in the bath a while. Whilst usually she prefers the swiftness of showers, very occasionally she likes to bathe, to linger and relax,
surrounded by bubbles. She is shaping them into miniature mountain ranges, like she did as a girl. She laughs to herself as she sculpts two extra high peaks from her breasts, Everest and K2.
She slides forward to twist on the hot tap with her toe. It’s a manoeuvre she’s done countless times: this is the bathroom of her childhood home, though only her mum, Irene, lives
here now. The foam – given a second burst of life by the running water – billows in candyfloss clouds at her feet. Lou closes her eyes, inhales. Even the scent is redolent of her past:
Lily of the Valley, her mother’s favourite.
It is late evening and, after a long drive down from the Lakes, the worn avocado suite beckoned like an old friend. Lou lies back, warmth easing up her body and loosening her muscles. She
listens. The sounds of the house are familiar: the wind in the trees outside – she misses those, her Brighton flat has none nearby; the plaintive hoot of an owl, so much less raucous than
gulls. Through the faded pink shagpile carpet she can hear a deep male voice; her mother is watching television. Lou pictures Sofia sprawled on the counterpane in the next room, flicking through
Sunday’s supplement, having discarded the paper that Irene gets delivered with a huff, unable to endure its political leanings.
Lou would like Sofia to be in the bathroom with her, perched on the Lloyd Loom laundry basket, nattering. But it makes Irene edgy when she’s confronted with physical intimacy of any kind
– Lou doubts her mum ever allowed her father to sit there when he was alive. Lou and Sofia’s displays of affection seem to make her mother especially tense, so they tend to avoid
expressing any tenderness when she’s around.
Lou shifts position; the bubbles float to the edge of the bath, revealing the slight dome of her belly. ‘Your little pot’, Sofia calls it. It galls Lou that her tummy is not as taut
and flat as Sofia’s, when she’s the one who’s into exercise. But whilst the rest of her body is reasonably toned, it seems that no matter how hard Lou works out, the pot remains.
If anything, it seems to be getting bigger.
That’s odd, Lou thinks, I’m uneven. One side doesn’t match the other, close to my pubic bone.
Maybe she’s not lying flat. She shifts again, carefully places one foot beside each tap to ensure she is symmetrical.
But if anything it’s more marked. There, to her left, a bulge.
A flutter of anxiety.
Don’t be silly, she tells herself, it’s probably something you’ve eaten. But her stomach is up towards her breastbone, and it’s hardly as if she swallowed her roast
potatoes whole at dinner.
Maybe I just need the loo? she wonders. But she’s unconvinced, so she presses the area with her fingertips.
feel something. She presses the other side. It seems softer, less resistant. Perhaps the angle is different; she’s using her right hand. So she swaps to her left.
She can even detect the shape, rounded, like an orange.
Deep breaths. Don’t panic.
She lies a moment longer, trying to take stock.
She jumps out of the bath, half-dries herself, and runs into the bedroom with a towel clutched round her, not caring that her mother might catch her undressed in the hall.
Sofia is lying on the bed, listening to her iPod. Dark curls scooped in a makeshift topknot, lace-ups discarded on the floor, hoodie slipping off one shoulder.
Lou gestures at her to turn down the music.
‘I think I’ve found a lump,’ she declares. No point in softening it.
Sofia sits up, unhooks her earphones. ‘
Lou repeats it. ‘Here,’ she indicates.
Lou nods. She hopes her girlfriend will be able to provide a rational explanation. Though why she would have more insight than Lou Lord knows: she’s a web designer, not a doctor.
‘Can you see?’ Lou turns, drops the towel.
Sofia inspects her belly. ‘Er . . . no.’
‘It’s bigger on one side than the other.’ Lou stands there, shifting from foot to foot. Even though they’ve been naked together countless times, the worry makes her
Sofia squats down, twisting her head to examine fully. ‘It looks the same to me.’
‘Here.’ She takes Sofia’s hand, guides her to the spot. ‘No . . . Not like that, you won’t be able to feel anything. Prod harder.’
‘It will hurt.’
‘OK, I’ll lie down.’ Lou stretches out on the fleecy counterpane. She’s still wet from the bath, but no matter. ‘Now, look from here,’ she instructs, yanking
Sofia down by her sleeve to her own eye level. ‘As if you’re me.’
Sofia crouches down, rests her chin on Lou’s shoulder. A wave of her hair brushes against Lou’s cheek.
‘There,’ says Lou. ‘See?’
* * *
Cath is trapped in another world, lost in a vast public building, desperate to get somewhere, fast. Time is short – it’s a race against the clock – but there
are hordes of people in her way, moving frustratingly slowly.
‘I’ve got to get through,’ she tries to explain to those around her, struggling to push past the throng, but no one acknowledges her pleas. Instead people leer at her,
pale-faced and ghoulish, or turn their backs, unyielding. Eventually she reaches a barrier, guarded by a man in a white coat. Perhaps he can help her. He’s carrying a clipboard; he appears to
be some kind of doctor – he has a stethoscope round his neck.
‘I must catch it,’ she begs. ‘It’s terribly important. It’s—’ She wants to tell him it’s a matter of life and death, yet can’t seem to get
the words out.
He blocks her path. ‘I’m afraid it’s too late,’ he says.
She jerks awake with a gasp. Her heart is pounding; it takes a moment to ground herself, realize she is safe here in her room. The cat is wedged behind her on the pillow, as she often is; the
gap in the curtains is at the end of the bed, as usual. Cath snuggles in tight to her husband, feeling her breasts and tummy against the smoothness of his back, easing her knees into the parallel
Vs of his larger ones to calm herself, careful not to disturb him. Outside the warmth of the duvet the air is chilly; her arm is cold. She slides it under the covers too, inhales the comforting
scent of his naked flesh as she does so; slightly honeyed, lemony. Beneath her palm she can sense the hairs on his chest, soft and curled. His breathing is deep and slow, it feels solid, just as he
is. Gradually she feels her panic subside. It must be worry about the journey ahead, that’s all.
Just then, Rich’s mobile goes off beside him, a frenzy of buzzing and vibrating. He stirs beneath her touch.
‘Bloody hell, that’s a bit much.’ She is jangled again.
‘Sorry.’ He reaches to switch it off. ‘I was worried we’d sleep through.’ He’s bleary. ‘I was having the weirdest dream . . . ’
‘Me too,’ says Cath.
She’s just about to tell him about her nightmare when he says, ‘Amy Winehouse was in our kitchen, loading the dishwasher.’
‘Yeah . . . There she was, in one of those tight little dresses she used to wear, with her beehive piled high . . . Stacking plates. Very odd.’
‘Mad,’ says Cath.
‘Mind you . . . ’ he chuckles. ‘When did anyone ever have a dream that
‘Yeah, it’s not like you wake up and say, “Ooh, last night I had a very
dream.”’ She laughs. Bless Rich for lightening her mood. She flings back
the bedclothes. ‘Come on then, let’s get up.’
Normally they emerge from sleep gradually. Cath wears earplugs to block Rich’s occasional snoring; he wakes to the muted talk of the radio, nudges her, and they both snooze a while before
getting up for work. But not today. Their plane leaves in three hours; before that, they must drive from Meanwood in Leeds to Manchester Airport, over fifty miles away. They pull on clothes left
out the night before, Rich gulps down coffee, Cath tea, and Cath puts down food for the cat.
‘No sign of sunrise yet,’ she says, as they lug their suitcases down the front steps. It’s mid-December; in a few days it will be the longest night of the year. Rich heaves the
cases into the boot of the car and Cath gets into the passenger seat. The windscreen is icy. Rich removes the worst with a gloved hand while she waits for him inside, breath steaming white and
‘Right,’ he exhales, getting in. He starts the ignition, turns to her and grins. ‘Ready to roll.’
Cath waves goodbye to their red-brick terrace as Rich edges the car with a
over the potholes that have been deepened by a succession of freezing winters, and out onto Grove
Lane. They’ve barely gone half a mile past their local shops on the Otley Road when he suddenly brakes. Luckily, there’s no vehicle behind. He swivels to face her. ‘Did you feed
I left the keys out for your sister. Now, come on. We’ll be late.’
The ring road, frequently nose-to-tail with traffic, is ghostly quiet as they head past warehouses and budget hotel chains out of town. Presently they’re speeding across the Pennines. The
M62 never sleeps, it seems; even though it’s not yet 6 a.m., lorries thunder down the inside lane, spewing spray from overnight sleet. Alongside, their hatchback feels small and vulnerable;
Cath can feel the wind buffeting the side of the car. She rubs mist from the window so she can see: spies a cottage on a remote hillside, whitewashed and pale against the dark heather. She wonders
who lives there, on the moor, whether they’re lonely with no one nearby. She tries to imagine her own life away from the city, their little house, the shops and park, far from anyone. It
might be good for her artistically – she imagines she’d be so bored she’d have to occupy herself somehow – but she would crave company, miss her friends.
She reaches for Rich, appreciating his presence, strokes the back of his neck where his hair is downy, going grey. He hates his neck, thinks it’s too thick and makes him look stupid, no
matter how often she tells him it’s manly. ‘It’s almost fatter than my head,’ he claims.
As if he can read her thoughts, he glances at her and smiles.
She smiles back affectionately, pulls down the mirror on the back of the sun visor to check her own appearance.
At last her hair is growing back properly. Initially it was a different texture entirely; still mousy, but curlier and thicker than it had been; a small consolation for everything she’d
been through. But now it’s returned to its familiar form: thin, wispy, infuriating. She has to wear it short and layered, it won’t ‘do’ any other style. Nonetheless, she is
pleased; at least she looks herself again. Though her skin remains grey and drawn and her eyes have lost some sparkle; she seems older, somehow. Worn.
She hopes this trip will help. After the tsunami of emotions they’ve experienced in the last two years, they both deserve a good time.
She thinks of the mountains that await them, dazzling whiter than white beneath bluer than blue. There will be dramatic peaks, there will be sun, there will be crystal-clear air . . .