It doesn’t start with a kiss. It starts with the touch of bare knuckles under a molehill of cornflakes. That’s when he looks at her and something changes.
Naomi still doesn’t know his name. Doesn’t want to. Knowing if he is a ‘David’ or a ‘Paul’ would reduce him somehow. Like all figures of fantasy, he’s broad-shouldered. Thick hair. Everything about him is thick. Not fat. Rigid. He always wears a bulky check shirt over a T-shirt so, to her, he is ‘The Lumberjack’. She’s often wondered whether the nursery nurses use the same name. They’re probably too young to know what a lumberjack is. They’re too young for him. Maybe his outfit is a conscious choice. Perhaps he knows the power such an archetypal uniform holds.
Naomi feels the heat of a blush so she yanks Prue up out of the ‘messy-play’ tray and walks to the other side of the room, her struggling toddler dropping cornflakes behind them like breadcrumbs from a labyrinth. Naomi glances back at The Lumberjack, engrossed with his son, who’s laughing and squirming as his father throws clumps of cereal into his face. His eyes recapture hers at the exact moment that Prue succeeds in wriggling from her grasp. Naomi throws her arms behind her back and catches her little girl before she crashes head first into the wipe-clean flooring. She flicks The Lumberjack a sardonic eyebrow – Kids. His features are fixed, perhaps his jaw tenses. He doesn’t want the complicity of the harried parent. He wants something else.
Naomi flings milk into a bowl of oats and yoghurt and clatters it on to the highchair tray, putting a stop to Prue’s tears. Her raisin face unwrinkles to reveal skin so smooth that the sunlight streaming through the bi-folding doors seems to halo off it. How can anything as perfect as her daughter’s skin even exist?
She drinks Prue’s plumpness in for as long as she can before pushing herself off the kitchen island and making her way to the living room. She keeps her eyes on the floorboards and their shreds of belligerent underlay as she opens her dressing gown, his dressing gown, flattens herself on to their inherited sofa and arranges herself.
She looks over at her husband’s naked back, skin pulled taut over his spine; unrecognisable from the back she thought she knew. Two flat floury baps for an arse.
‘Bubble, bubble, bubble … Pop,’ Prue sings from the kitchen. Charlie sighs with exasperation, shakes his head.
‘It’s not going to happen, is it?’ She tries to keep her words as matter-of-fact as possible but she can feel the swell of rage brewing inside her. He turns his head towards her but only so she can see his profile, keeping his body hidden from her. He opens his mouth to speak but says nothing. ‘How is it so difficult to have sex with your wife?’ He turns back to the mantelpiece and lets the word ‘fuck’ out in a long, whispered breath. A cry comes from the other room.
‘Spoon. Spoon. Spoooon.’ Prue delivers her message and when no action is taken a desperate wail sirens along the ground floor.
‘It has to be today.’ She sits up and wraps the dressing gown around her top half, knowing how impossible it is to be commanding with your boobs on show.
‘She’s crying,’ he says, arm extended towards the kitchen. ‘I can’t just— Do you know how hard this is for me?’
‘Are you serious?’ She has forced him to do this but she has no compassion. It has to be today. They have to have sex today because he barely managed it last night and the ovulation app on her phone says tonight will be too late. It has to be today. Prue’s cries ramp up.
‘You can’t just click your fingers—’
‘What do you want? Foreplay? We’re not twenty-five any more, for fuck’s sake, Charlie.’ She thinks he might cry so she bounces up off the taupe sofa and walks down the hall towards her howling daughter. ‘You’ll have to come into work.’
‘You honestly think we’ll be able to do it there?’
‘It has to be today. You know it has to be today and you promised me,’ she calls along the hall before reaching her daughter. ‘Did you drop your spoon, sweetheart?’
‘Spooon.’ Prue intones the tragedy of the lost implement like a professional mourner. Love bursts through the cloud of Naomi’s anger.
‘I’ll pick you up at lunch, we can come back here and I can give you a lift back to work afterwards,’ he says from the living room. She imagines him, lost in the middle distance like a victim of shell shock, bum-cheeks primed at the bay window. She pretends to eat some of Prue’s breakfast.
‘Naaaaao,’ Prue barks, threatening further screeching. Naomi gives her back her spoon and she leans back in her highchair and munches her breakfast like a tiny Henry VIII.
‘I’ll make it work,’ a weak voice from another dimension. She knows she should show him some sign of affection, understanding, something. But she can’t. She physically can’t.
He emerges from the living room and they stare at each other down the barrel of the hallway, high ceilings and acres between them.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says.
What is the optimum moment for conception?
What we know?
- Sperm fertilises egg.
- Following the egg’s release there’s a 24-hour window in which point (i) can happen.
What we don’t know:
- When exactly does ovulation occur? About 2 weeks before next period? 28 day cycle = day 14.
- How long can sperm survive in the uterus?
- What factors affect sperm motility AKA ‘get-up-and-go’? Stress? Low mood? Diet?
- How long between each ejaculation do the sperm need to regenerate?
- Is it better to have one big load the day the egg drops or lots of little loads in and around it?
- How can we invent smartphones yet have no definitive instructions for the most crucial procedure for the ongoing survival of our species!
They’d been trying for a year and Naomi had spent every evening poring over the Internet for answers. She couldn’t find consensus. Various discoveries along the way had made her amend their schedule several times but, in truth, these changes were often inspired more by restlessness than empirical evidence. She tried to involve Charlie in the planning, reading him Californian fertility studies, reports of cutting-edge Scandinavian ovulation prediction. Once, she even shared eighteenth-century advice for barren women in an effort to amuse him into engagement. He would always mumble acknowledgements as if he was listening but she knew that, if tested, he’d have a much better sense of the episode of Grand Designs that was on than of her research into how they should go about conceiving their second child.
By now she had settled on their having sex six separate times straddling the day of ovulation. D-Day -3, D-Day -1, D-Day, D-Day (2nd time) and D-Day +1. When she found a medical paper declaring that sperm were mostly incapable after three days in the uterus she’d had to smoke three cigarettes in a row to get over the four months of ‘reservoir’ loads they’d wasted on D-Day -5.
With Prue, they’d managed it before they even knew there was an optimum moment. It had been straightforward. Every other night, after Naomi got back from the office and Charlie had returned from the unit, they’d have dinner – vegetables and some sort of grain with avocado or Feta on rotation – and then they’d head to bed and have speedy, passionate sex. It was a routine but because it had never been codified nor discussed, it never felt like one.
Before they got married they were making love about twice a month and fucking three, maybe four times. They were both delighted to up their quota in order to create what would become Prue. It gave Charlie a convincing glint in his eyes as he extolled the virtues of being newly married to his less grown-up friends.
The sex, the extra sex, made Naomi optimistic. She’d married the man she loved. He was nice-looking, had a big, technical brain she was proud to be baffled by and he wanted children with her. Three children. Just the same as her.
She was thirty. If she was honest with herself and with Charlie – and she had been, telling him early in their relationship that she’d wanted to start having kids in her twenties – it was later than she’d planned. Three babies, one baby every two to two and half years meant that her starting this late gave her no chance of having them all before she was thirty-five. She’d lost count of the number of blogs, articles and research studies she’d read about the increased chances of complications in pregnancy and birth for a woman past thirty-five.
‘My mum was thirty-nine when she had me,’ Charlie would say whenever she mentioned this to him. Two years into their relationship she found a study from the University of Nebraska that indicated that when a subject was anxious about something, and Naomi can acknowledge that she’s a worrier, when that subject was told ‘it’ll be fine’, it was twice as provocative to their anxiety as any other statement. She printed the study out and stuck it to the fridge and every time Charlie’s ‘glass-half-full’ attitude chirped up she’d pat it and give him a pointed look. And it would always make him laugh. The whole act, the research, printing it out, sticking it on the fridge, the voiceless reminding him of his transgression, it was so resolutely the behaviour of the wonderful maniac he fell in love with. They used to laugh all the time; they used to talk about how much more they laughed than all the other couples they knew. They’d always fought like wildcats, but they still used to laugh. They were trying for a baby and she was optimistic about their future together. Their family together. The family she’d been planning for her whole siblingless childhood. The family she’d conceived of while pushing her toy pram around the New Forest when she wasn’t three years old was soon to come to fruition. And then it did. She missed her period. They did the test together. Charlie managed to bodge it somehow but she had a spare and it told them she was expecting a baby. They were so happy. She was happy and a bit scared. Charlie seemed genuinely happy.
A ding-dong. Naomi swallows spit. Lisa, the manager of the Bank of Friendship Nursery School, presses the security button and snaps the handle of the front door down. A boy with auburn ringlets busies through the door with his mother trailing behind. Naomi closes Prue’s scrapbook and returns it to the front desk. She’s been sat in the reception area looking at it since she dropped Prue off a quarter of an hour ago. Too long to be looking at a book with seven pages of photos and finger-painting. Not exactly War and Peace.
She wanted to see him. The Lumberjack. After what happened in the living room with her husband earlier, she feels she deserves to. He often wears shorts. She wanted to see the indent above his knee. That shadowy space at the foot of his thigh, a muscle so defined it seems to be a separate entity, tied to the rest of his leg with cable-sinews. She’s daydreamed about what he must do to have legs like that. He drives a van, so she’s pictured him building houses single-handedly. Squatting down, pushing up entire walls, creating a full-sized doll’s-house home in minutes. A child’s imaginings.
She needs to go back and brief her builders before going to work. She has to be at the house every morning and today they’re meant to be finishing off the stud wall on the first floor. Charlie works from home but she doesn’t trust him to deal with them properly because he thinks the builders know what they’re doing. But Charlie didn’t grow up moving from one ‘doer-upper’ to the next, he didn’t spend his childhood blowing his nose and finding strings of grey cement dust in his tissue like she did. Which is why he sold moving in to a house that requires structural refurbishment on every floor to her as ‘an adventure’, but after what happened to his business, they didn’t have much choice in the sort of house they could buy.
She’s meant to be at work in ten minutes, she still has to get home and yet she’s hanging around a nursery reception waiting for a man who might, at best, describe her to his mates on site as ‘some desperate single mum at my boy’s nursery’ and, at worst, not describe her at all. She thought his son was in on a Wednesday. Lisa, a woman with the narrow physique and posture of a garden-brush who Naomi has always thought hates her, opens the door for her before she’s even moved towards it. She’s definitely been there too long.
When she reaches the car park, her already low mood digs a few feet down. Hatchbacks are boxed snugly at front and back of their new Nissan. Charlie insisted they get a ‘mini-SUV’. A family car. Perhaps an effort to convince her that he really did want another baby. She finds driving it horribly stressful. She couldn’t remember ever feeling comfortable in a car. As a child, if she ever spotted the aftermath of a collision on the hard shoulder from the back seat of her parents’ car, it would always fill her up with tangible dread.
These feelings of dread featured occasionally as she grew up but they’d become far more frequent since Prue was born. They presented themselves as momentary visions, disturbingly real. If she saw a lorry approaching on the other side of the road she would often imagine it piling directly into her car, shattering the skeletons of her passengers like crash test dummies. These imaginings went beyond being in the car. Even at home, sometimes she’d stand at the top of the stairs holding Prue and picture herself losing her footing and tumbling down, dashing the baby’s head on the spindle of the banister and snapping her own leg in two places on the bottom step. Since moving into their wreck of a house where every creaking beam seems on the verge of collapse, these reveries have become, on occasion, paralysing.
She settles herself into the higher driving position, which Charlie assured her would make her feel much safer, and starts the car. She goes forward, angling the steering wheel as much as she dares. Stops. Into reverse. Wheel full lock the other way. Beep of the parking sensor. She goes forward millimetres, waiting in terror for the crunch of headlight on plastic bumper. In the rear-view mirror she catches the sight of Prue’s empty car seat. The pain of her and Charlie’s failure this morning, their failure for more than a calendar year, hits her like a bereavement. Her eyes begin to fill; she shakes her head hard, trying to rattle the coming tears away. She cranks the gearstick into reverse and—
A frenzied thumping on the back of the car. Looking through the back window, eyes wide, brow furrowed, it’s him. The Lumberjack.
‘Do you want me to get her out?’ He’s leaning into the car, his big Viking head filling the open passenger window. He doesn’t sound like she had imagined. For a moment Naomi thinks he’s talking about Prue in her car seat but that can’t be what he means. ‘These two buggers must be trying to ruin your day.’
‘What?’ It comes out more aggressive than she intends, as if he were giving her directions in a language she can’t understand.
‘These two blocking you in.’ He laughs. Is he joking? Has he got a northern accent? She can’t get her mind to decipher what’s happening. His wide forearms press down on the black rubber lips at the base of the open car window. She’s suddenly worried he’s going to break them. She almost presses the button to make the window go up.
‘I can drive it out for you if you want. Not to be all … I mean, you’ve done the hard bit.’ He’s nice. That’s all that’s happening. She beams at him. He grins back and it’s wonky. She’d never noticed. The lips angle upwards to the right. She feels warmth flood the pit of her stomach.
‘Or I could guide you out?’
‘No, you driving it would be great.’ He nods and moves round towards her. ‘It’s my husband’s new car and I’ve no idea how long I am,’ she tells him, stepping out.
In spite of all the nods, the swallowed ‘Mornings’, his ‘Ah’s in response to Prue obsessively counting the fish in the fish tank, this is the first time they’ve properly spoken and she’s already mentioned Charlie. She could pat herself on the back for her loyalty but the truth is she’s just cried ‘husband’ to surround herself with bear traps because she’s scared of how The Lumberjack makes her feel. There’s something about him, the man fumbling underneath her car seat, there’s something about him.
‘Is there …? To get the seat back?’ He’s asking for her help. Charlie would always prefer to struggle with something and make a mess of it than ask for his wife’s help. She wants to go to him, adjust the seat, show him how capable she is, but she stops herself, wary of putting her body too close to his.
‘It’s on the left-hand side,’ she says instead, ‘you pull it out like a drawer.’ He finds the handle and his wedged legs push the seat back with thrilling abruptness. He gives her a Roger Moore eyebrow and she huffs a silent giggle.
‘I’ll bring it round to the entrance,’ he says, ‘get you past that Audi.’ Before she’s a few steps away she can hear that he’s eased the car out of the impenetrable space and is making his way round. She’s not jealous or resentful. She doesn’t feel that she’s compromised any feminist principles. He’s an incredible driver. Of course he is. She’s thought of saying something, initiating a conversation with him, many times but she never knew how to begin. He didn’t seem like a man who wants to talk about the weather, the traffic, children, what he thinks of the nursery, how long his son has been there, did he like it. The questions she would happily ask another mum never seemed like questions she had a right to ask a father. The embarrassing truth was that she wanted to impress him and, on the nursery run, she never feels very impressive.