Someone's replied to our advert." I peer over my laptop lid, making a semi-pained face. Part of me had been hoping no one would answer, that I could somehow manage alone. The heat of the computer is cooking my legs but I can't be bothered to move. It's work and a winter-warmer rolled into one.
"You shouldn't have that thing so close, you know." James taps the screen as he walks past on his way to the cupboard. He pulls out the wok. "Radiation and all that." I love him for cooking, for caring.
"The scan says she's got all her arms and legs. Stop worrying." I've shown him the ultrasound pictures a dozen times. He's missed all my scans so far. "We have a healthy little baby girl on the way." I shift uncomfortably and put the computer on the old saggy sofa beside me. "Aren't you interested in who's replied to the advert?"
"Of course I am. Tell me." James splashes oil in the pan. He's a messy cook. The ring of blue flames leaps into life as he turns the gas burner to high. He bites his lower lip and tosses pieces of chicken into the wok. The smoke gets sucked up into the extractor fan.
"Someone called Zoe Harper," I say above the sizzling noise. I read the details in the email again. "It says she's got loads of experience and has all the right qualifications." I'll phone her later, get a feel for how she sounds. I must show willing even though the thought of a stranger in the house isn't a particularly pleasant one. I know how worried James is about me coping when he goes away again. He's right, of course. I am going to need help.
Our nanny chatter is suddenly interrupted by noise and fuss and screaming coming from the sitting room. I heave myself up from the sofa, legs apart and hands wedged in the small of my back to stop my spine giving way. I raise my hands to halt James's rescue dash. "It's OK, I'll go." He seems to think I'm incapable of anything since he's been home. Probably because last time he saw me I didn't resemble a house.
"Oscar, Noah, what's going on?" I stand in the sitting-room doorway. The boys look up at me. Forlorn, they have been sprung in the early stages of war. Oscar has something crusty and yellow stuck in the corner of his mouth. Noah is brandishing his brother's toy gun.
I only let them play with toys like that when James is home. He doesn't see the problem. Other times, they're locked away in a cupboard. Toy weapons were a hot topic at that dreadful dinner party, a few years ago now, not long after I'd met James. I'd wanted all his friends to like me, to not make comparisons, to trust that I had my own set of maternal instincts when it came to bringing up my newly inherited sons.
"How do you handle things like that with the twins, Claudia?" she'd asked me, when I stated I didn't like to see children playing with swords and guns. God knows, in my job I see enough messed-up kids to know that there are better things they could be doing with their time. "Must be hard being a mother ... but not being one," she finished. I could have slapped her.
"Come here, Os," I say, and do the unthinkable. I lick a tissue and wipe his mouth. He wriggles away. I eye the gun in Noah's hand. Taking it away from him would cause a major incident.
At the dinner party, I'd feebly explained that as stepmother to twin boys who'd lost their birth mum to cancer, I believed it pretty much gave me the right to call myself their mother–but no one really cared or was listening by then. The topic had moved on. "James is in the Navy," I heard myself saying, "so of course they're fascinated by wars ... it's not taboo as such in our house but ..." I was burning crimson by that point. I just wanted James to take me home.
"Give the gun back to your brother, Noah. Did you snatch it?"
Noah doesn't reply. He holds up the plastic weapon, aims it at my belly and pulls the trigger. There's a weak crack of plastic as it play-fires. "Bang. Baby's dead," he says with a toothy grin.
"They're asleep. Kind of," James says. He's wearing his favorite sweater, the one he doesn't know I take to bed with me when he's away. And he's got a glass of wine. Lucky him on a Friday night. I've got peppermint tea and a pain in my lower back. I'm convinced my ankles look swollen today.
He sits down beside me on the sofa. "So, what did she sound like, this Mary Poppins woman?" An arm goes around my shoulders, fingers twirling the ends of my hair.
While he was tucking the boys into bed–drunkenly singing Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun" but putting the names Oscar and Noah in instead–I'd phoned Zoe Harper, the woman who replied to our advert.
"She sounded ... fine." I say it rather flippantly because I hadn't expected her to sound fine at all. "Lovely, in fact. To be honest, I was hoping she'd sound like a witch and be slurring from booze." The thing is, I've tried two nannies before and, one way or another, they weren't exactly what they claimed to be. Besides, the boys didn't take to having them around at all. So between understanding friends, day-care and, more recently, school breakfast and afternoon clubs, we've somehow managed to cope. James thoroughly advocates them being cared for in their own home while I'm at work and, now our own baby's nearly due, he wants things more settled.
"But she really didn't," I say, watching his expression change to one of hope. "Sound like a witch, that is." What with James away at sea for weeks or even months at a time and me trying to cram a demanding job into hours that often aren't regular, I was tearing my hair out with guilt. I wanted to be the best mother I could but not give up my career. That was one thing I'd promised myself when I took on this ready-made family. I love my job, it's who I am. I guess I wanted it all, and now I'm paying the price.
"Yes, she sounded perfectly normal and down to earth."
We sit in silence for a moment, both pondering the reality of what we've done–the advertisement took up several nights of deliberation. I don't think we ever considered the reality of what came after that: actually having someone live with us again.
"Oh God, but what if she's like the last two? It's not fair on the boys. Or the baby. Or me." I shift my bump so I can curl my legs up on the sofa.
"Nanny-cam?" James says. He pours another glass of wine.
"Give me a sniff," I say, leaning over, desperate for a sip.
"Fumes," he says, holding the glass away from me and covering it with his other hand. I slap him on the shoulder and grin. It's only because he cares.
"But I need fumes. Nanny-cam? You're not serious, right?"
"Of course I am. Everyone does it."
"Buggering hell, they do. It's a violation of ... of their human nanny rights or something. Besides, what do you want me to do? Sit staring at my computer all day watching the boys play LEGO while nanny feeds the baby? Kind of defeats the point of having her, doesn't it?"
"Give up work, then," he says in his faint-but-serious voice.
"Oh, James," I say, hardly believing he's trying that one again. "Let's not go there." A hand on his thigh is warning enough as he shrugs and turns the telly up. It's Children's Hospital. The last thing I want to watch is sick kids but there's nothing much else on.
I consider the nanny-cam idea. I suppose it could work.
Suddenly Oscar is standing frozen in the doorway for effect (he does it so well)–tiny boy in dramatic period setting with blood pouring from his nose. He doesn't even attempt to contain the flow. His Ben 10 pajamas look theatrical.
"Oh, darling Ossy," I say. No point me moving. James is up quickly with a handful of tissues plucked from the box on the table as he goes. "Not again."
James swipes our son up and plants him on the sofa next to me. He goes off to fetch ice, and Oscar leans on me for a cuddle. He rests his head on my bump and blood gets on my old T-shirt.
"Baby says she loves you, Ossy," I tell him. He looks up at me with big blue eyes and a murderous bloody nose. James comes back with a pack of frozen peas. "Tea towel?" I say, not wanting to put them on Oscar's skin directly. James nods and goes off to get one.
"How can she love me? She doesn't even know me." He sounds all bunged up.
James returns again. I wrap the peas in the tea towel and hold it against the bridge of Oscar's little nose while also pinching it gently. The GP says if it keeps happening it'll need to be cauterized. "She loves you, I guarantee it. It's instinctive, built-in. Babies come with their own love and she already knows we love her."
"Noah doesn't love her," Oscar says from beneath the peas. "He says he hates her and wants to shoot her off the planet."
Even though it's just Noah, my little son-by-proxy, I flinch inside. "He's perhaps a bit jealous, that's all. He'll be fine when she's born, you see." I glance over Oscar's head and catch James's eye. We each pull a face, wondering what delights are in store with three under-fives, and then I'm fretting about getting them used to a new nanny again. Perhaps it would be easier if I did give up work.
"Now, let's see how things are going here." I lift the bag of peas and peel away the red sodden tissue. The bleeding seems to have stopped.
"As I was saying," I continue when Oscar's tucked up in bed, "Zoe Harper sounded ... lovely." Other adjectives evade me. "No, really." I chuckle when James pulls a face. "Oh God, I don't know." I run my hands over my tummy. "She's worked in Dubai and London apparently."
"How old?" James's breath smells all winey. I want to kiss him.
"Thirty-something, I suppose. I didn't actually ask."
"That was smart. She could be twelve."
"Give me some bloody credit, James. I'm going to put her through the mangle, turn her hide inside out and then re-mangle her again. By the time I've finished with her I'll know more about her than she knows about herself."
"I just don't understand why you're bothering to go back to work at all. It's not as though we need the money."
This is the point at which I laugh. A good belly laugh. "Oh, James." I shift myself sideways and press up against him. I kiss his neck. "You've known the deal from the start. We wanted a baby but I also love my work. Am I selfish to want everything?" I kiss him again and this time he turns his head and reciprocates, but it's so very hard for us. He knows the deal. Doctor's orders and I'm sticking to them this time. "Anyway, everything would go to hell in a handcart in the department if I stopped working completely. We're understaffed as it is."
"I thought Tina was running things while you're away?"
I shake my head, starting to feel stressed. "Everyone's sharing out my caseload while I'm on maternity leave, but when the baby and the boys are settled, I'll want to go back. At least if I work up to my due date, I'll have more time at home with the baby after she's born."
Sensing my anxiety, James cups my face and plants a smacker on my mouth. It's a warm kiss and says: I won't mention it again and, more importantly, I won't pressure you for sex.
"Anyway, Zoe Harper, nanny extraordinaire, is coming for coffee tomorrow morning at eleven." I grin.
"Fine," James says, switching the channel to Sky News. He starts hoovering up all the stock market stuff and moans about his pension and investments. I can't really see that far ahead–being old, retiring, needing to draw off James's inherited pot. I can only see as far as the end of this pregnancy, having my baby, being a complete family. Becoming a real mother, finally.
I'm going to be late. I feel the frown chiselling into my face as the freezing air bites at my skin. I can't afford to be late. I need this job badly and it's not an option to fail. God, no one knows how much I need this position with James and Claudia Morgan-Brown. Get them--double-barrelled and all big-housed in Edgbaston. I pedal harder. I'm going to be a sweaty red mess when I arrive. Who decided cycling was a good idea? Was it to impress them with my enjoyment of the outdoors, my penchant for green transport, my love of exercise that I'll no doubt impart to their offspring? Or perhaps it'll just make them think I'm an idiot for arriving at an interview on a bike.
"St. Hilda's Road," I say over and over, squinting at road signs. I wobble as I stick out my arm to turn right. A car honks as I dither and waver in the middle of the road. "Sorry!" I yell, although it doesn't look like the kind of neighborhood where one yells. It's a far cry from my place ... my last place.
I pull over to the curb and take a bit of paper from my pocket. I check the address and cycle on. I pedal past two more streets and turn left into their street. The houses were big before but they're massive down St. Hilda's Road. Imposing Georgian buildings sit squarely in their own grounds either side of the tree-lined street. Gentlemen's residences, they'd be called by estate agents.
James and Claudia's house is, like all the others, a detached period property, the lower half of which is being strangled by a twiggy Virginia creeper. I'm no gardener but I recognize it from my childhood home, which incidentally would have fit twenty times inside this place. The creeper still has a few scarlet leaves clinging on even though it's mid-November. I wheel my bicycle through a huge pair of open wrought-iron gates. Gravel crunches beneath my feet. I have never felt so conspicuous.
The Morgan-Brown residence is a symmetrical house built of red brick. The front door, surrounded by a stone portico, is painted shiny green. Either side of the impressive entrance are large stained-glass windows. I don't know what to do with my bike. Should I just lie it down on the gravel at the bottom of the front steps? It'll make the diamond-shaped rose beds and the neat squares of lawn set into the sweeping parking area look like a scrapyard. I glance around. There's a tree just outside the main gates. I quickly go back out onto the street. Its roots are pushing up and splitting the tarmac like a mini earthquake and the trunk is too big to get my security chain around. I walk along the pavement a bit further, wheeling my bike, and notice that there's another, smaller drive down the side of the house leading to a triple garage. I tentatively enter the property again, feeling as if dozens of eyes are staring out at me from the windows, watching my silly, incompetent arrival.