As if it had flipped some magic switch, the day after finding out I was pregnant, I developed morning sickness. It was awful. For 3 days solid, I spent every morning from 6 until after 11 vomiting up dry toast, sips of tea and water, ginger biscuits, and stomach bile; after those 3 days, I’d had enough, and I reached for the phone to call someone, anyone, for a little sympathy. Who, though?
My mum’s been dead for a long time. Since before I went to university, anyway. My dad—a charming, cocksure Irishman, from whom I inherited my dragonfly-green eyes and my cheeky sense of self-worth—had remarried within 2 years. Sticking to type, he married a Lebanese immigrant with black hair, scary fingernails, and a penchant for gold jewellery; she was nowhere near as beautiful as my mum, but I could see and even approve a little of my dad’s choice. It was almost comforting, to know that he missed Mum’s physical presence so much, he was trying to recreate it.
In the end, I’d started to find it a bit creepy, and had just stayed in the city after finishing uni. While I was at uni, though…
I thought back to my wild, sexually promiscuous group of friends, and recalled to mind the way the cage game had originally started. Six of us, 4 girls and 2 guys in the core group, had taken turns being locked in the cage, with the others positioned strategically nearby, standing guard. In those days, there really had been a hidden camera, sometimes more—Donovan, our resident geek, had also been one of the photographers of the student-run newspaper, with good access to equipment—and we were all careful to make sure none of us were ever ‘found’ by anyone who was likely to be offended, or grass us up. In those days, the cage wasn’t a specialty item from a ludicrously expensive bondage retailer; it was a large kennel for hunting dogs, purchased at a genuine pet store.
We’d each, in our own way, loved going in the cage, but as far as I was aware, I was the only one who’d developed a need for it. The only one who still played my own version of the game. Then again, I was still in contact with James and Sondra, and I’d never admitted to them that I played it—would they have admitted it to me? Probably not. Although as one-half of a polyamorous quartet of free spirits living out somewhere in the Scottish hills, throwing swingers’ parties and fetish nights and God knows what else, they’d have had plenty of opportunity, I supposed … somehow, I couldn’t tell them what had happened to me.
With sudden inspiration, I reached for my address book. I’d call Trudy.
She’d dropped out of uni during our final year, but she’d left all of us her number. Word had come a couple of years later that she’d never come back to school and was expecting a baby. If I’m honest, we all pretty much wrote her off the day she left campus. We were partying and setting ourselves up for a lifetime of making gobs of money that we intended to spend as wastefully as possible, and staying in touch with a killjoy drop-out wasn’t really top of our list of priorities. Now, though, the thought of speaking to her brought a reluctant smile to my lips, and before I could change my mind, I dialled her number.
“Hello?” In only 2 syllables, and even after several years, I recognised her voice.
“Trudy!” I exclaimed, my relief at hearing a familiar voice overwhelming my common sense. “We haven’t spoken in ages. You’ll never guess what’s happened to me—”
“Anais,” she said, with a faint tone of censure. “I can’t imagine anyone else who would be self-absorbed enough to ring up after 7 years, and expect me to recognise your voice. You’re right, I probably won’t be able to guess what you’ve done now.”
I frowned, not at her statement that I’m self-absorbed, but at her suggestion that I’d done this to myself. I was, perhaps, a little more caustic than I intended to be. “I’m currently in a state I couldn’t possibly do to myself—I think you have some experience with it. You have, what; a 4-year-old, by now?”
The sharp bark of laughter was harsh, and entirely unlike the Trudy I remembered. “Close,” she said tartly, “But actually, I was pregnant when I left the university. My son is 6 now,” she said, “And in spite of all the gossip I’m sure I left behind, I was back in school the next term, and I got my degree about 6 months after all of you did.” There was actual venom in her voice when she added, “Not, I’m sure, that you care.”
Actually, there was one point about which I cared very much. Shocked into a quieter tone, I made sure my tone was as delicate as possible before asking gently, “The baby, is it—”
“Of course it’s his.” That was it, that was all she said, but it was also all she had to say.
“Trudy. Trudy, I’m so sorry,” I said, surprised to find that I was, in fact, very genuinely sympathetic. She’d been in love with him for as long as I’d known her, and all through university he’d been our circle’s unlikely, but undisputed, champion of skirt chasing. Thinking back, I could suddenly recall how out of place Trudy had been, in our group—realisation dawned.
“Did you join our group—”
“I followed him from our local grammar school to the best college in our hometown, to university halfway across the country, and I nearly followed him when he moved to London after graduation. Yes, of course I joined that idiotic … sex club, to be with him.”
I hadn’t even realised they were from the same town; I’d just known that out of all of us, Trudy had been the closest to working class. Not sure how to say what I meant, I stumbled through a couple of questions, which Trudy answered.
“My son—both my sons, and I—live with my older sister,” she said, her tone growing a little warmer as she chatted about what was obviously a much-beloved home. “We share a 5 bedroom house, with a lovely garden and easy access to the city centre. She’s a lecturer, at Durham,” she said, referring to the very posh university, “And I work part-time in social care, and spend as much time with my boys as I can.” She told me a little more about her situation, and after a few more minutes, she had to go. Her youngest was due out of nursery soon.
I didn’t blame her for not even noticing what I’d said. Then, just as she was hanging up, she said firmly, “I wish you the best of luck with the baby—but you lot treated me abominably when I had to leave uni, and I don’t want to know. My advice to you, Anais, is to take care of yourself, because unless you’ve changed a lot, you’ll have no one around to help with that immense task."
And on that depressingly accurate note, she rang off.