© Claire Whatley
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So Red (new edit)
A SHORT STORY
(Three words in italics are marked **)
© Claire Whatley
So red. So new. So shiny. Even ten months after driving away from the showroom in her sporty, sexy birthday present, Alison still felt glamorous enough to grace the cover of a top end glossy magazine every time she slid into the leather driver’s seat. She could almost feel her non-existent waist being air-brushed to an impossible slimness, eyes enlarged, lips plumped and her sagging jaw line neatly tucked into a youthful firmness.
The irresistible smell of leather and new upholstery still lingered in the spotless, off-black interior. The car’s very air seemed to initiate a hormone rush that made her feel – her fifty years hidden safely behind large sunglasses and a windscreen – capable of a flirtatious glance at every man on the road. She’d heard someone on the radio say that seventy was the new forty, so that made fifty the new – what? (there must be some law of diminishing returns involved) - thirty-eight maybe, thirty-five?
As she drove away from the village primary school, Alison checked her biscuit blonde hair in the rear-view mirror, then fingered the gleaming array of audio system buttons. With the lightest touch she switched on her favourite music radio station, before dropping her left hand down to move up, lovingly, through the gears.
She reviewed her morning’s work in the Year Two class known as Cirrus (those cloud names were far too esoteric in her opinion) and considered that, all in all, she could award herself nine out of ten for effort and achievement. The most trying boy, Nathan, had been taken out of school for two weeks to go on a family holiday to Florida; the second most trying boy, Robbie, was off sick. She’d been helping the most sweet and biddable children with the concept of bar charts, which they appeared to grasp; playground duty had been uneventful with no blood spilled and she’d actually managed to leave on time. Filing away her teaching assistant self, she turned up the volume as Springsteen belted out ‘Dancing in the Dark’.
At the traffic lights, as she waited to turn left, a well-groomed middle-aged man in a pewter grey saloon car pulled up in the next lane. She dipped her sunglasses to look across. Yes! Eye contact. He broke into a delicious half-smile suffused with romantic possibilities just as the lights changed and they went on their way. Those four seconds were enough to trigger a gently erotic fantasy to enjoy for the remainder of her journey home.
More often than not when she was behind the wheel, her attention would be drawn by some unattainably young man with a louche manner and floppy haircut, strolling along the pavement. Or it could be a swarthy and stubbled man in a van with twinkly eyes under a mousy brown number-four-all-over. A woman’s sexual proclivities as she reached the menopause seemed to be one of life’s best kept secrets. No-one had told her the fifties would be like this. She’d expected doom, gloom and hot flushes, not lust, lechery and batting lashes. Steve’s birthday present had certainly given her a new lease of life.
The sun, having played hide and seek all morning, took up its rightful place in the June sky and the morning’s few remaining clouds went to play elsewhere. Alison sang along with Billy Joel at the top of her voice to ‘Up Town Girl’ as she accelerated along the straight and enticingly empty stretch of road before the right turn into her village. It was Wednesday!
Steve had taken an early retirement package last year at fifty-six, just after Alison’s fiftieth birthday. He easily filled his time now with the gym, golf, an Open University course in History of Film and lately - to everyone’s surprise – cookery. On a whim, he had taken a course in Mediterranean cookery last term and Alison reaped the benefits. For several months now, he had been cooking her a garlicky, antioxidant-rich lunch on her early finish Wednesday, and they shared it with a bottle of good red, rounding off with freshly ground coffee and a few squares of organic dark chocolate. The afternoon then continued, curtains closed and phone unplugged, with a long, leisurely and frequently noisy bout of sex. It was one of the many new-found joys of becoming a couple once more thanks to their son and daughter having both finally left home. Louise had gone some time ago, married in lavish style, and recently announced that she was expecting a baby. Ben, more reluctant to forge out alone, had needed a gentle push, but he was now respectably mortgaged with his own one bedroomed, riverside flat in town and seemed to be doing quite well in his accountancy job.
Alison was convinced that good food and great sex were keeping her young. Some people said working with children kept you young. Alison doubted it. Wednesday afternoons were far more efficacious. The best thing about sex in a twenty-seven-year-old relationship was the joy of familiarity. Like a tried and trusted cake recipe, they knew how far they dare vary the ingredients without spoiling the mixture.
Late on that particular afternoon, they lay in bed in a post-coital snuggle. Alison nestled in, enjoying the smooth warmth of Steve’s chest and the slow thub-dup of his heart. He smelled of calm and coal-tar soap. She felt the rumbling vibration of his voice as he said, “You know, you really do look young for your age.”
He had always been a reliable source of compliments: one of Alison’s many reasons for finding him still loveable after so many years. After all, she had long ago identified that her attraction to him and her inclination for sex were based on how she felt about herself, not vice versa. The occasional compliment from a stranger, in the form of a glance of sexual invitation through a car window, also enhanced her pleasure in making love with her husband. It was her own secret ingredient and if Steve had his fantasies, that was fine, too. The cruel indignities inflicted on the human body by gravity and the western diet had not yet entirely won the battle in Alison’s case. And Steve’s chunky fifty-seven year-old body held no horror for her. Inchoate rolls and folds could be sensibly overlooked in favour of the more vital senses of touch and smell. She kissed the soft skin of his chest in gratitude, “Thanks! But will you still love me when I’m sagging and wrinkly?”
He gave her left breast a gentle squeeze, like a shopper assessing fruit for ripeness. The gesture made her consider climbing on top of him again, but she suspected it might be a lost cause.
“Nothing sagging there,” he said. “By the time they’re drooping, I’ll be too senile to notice. Anyway, when’s this menopause business going to kick in?”
“I keep wondering about that. It’s one thing nobody talks about in the staff-room and half of them are older than me. I s’pose it’s to avoid upsetting Philip’s delicate sensibilities.”
“Poor bloke. Imagine being the only male teacher amongst you lot!”
“I know. And he has more mood swings than any of us. I don’t feel in the least hormonally challenged yet, though.”
Steve pushed himself away from Alison to study her more judiciously. “I think you’re looking even better than you did ten years ago. I’m sure your breasts are getting bigger.”
“What! Am I getting fat? It’s all the olive oil!”
“No, Christ! I didn’t say that, did I? In fact, the rest of you looks slimmer.”
Soothed, Alison peered down to study herself. “D’you think so? OK, then – we’ll stick with your Mediterranean diet in that case.” She hesitated. “Mind you, there is one menopausal thing I’ve noticed in the last month.”
“What?” Steve lifted himself up onto one elbow and reached behind with middle-aged awkwardness for his glasses on the bedside table. She observed his grey head – still more charcoal than silver - as he turned back to her. Middle age suited him: his hair had begun to complement his eyes. Their grey-blue irises were now magnified behind his small, silver-framed spectacles.
“Dunno, might not be connected, but I have been feeling really tired lately.”
“Is that why you fell asleep during ‘Rear Window’ last night?”
Alison laughed, “You noticed! Sorry, love. I was shattered last night - I don't know why. Seen it before, anyway.”
“I know. Great film, though. I'll be starting the unit on ‘Jaws’ tonight. Want to watch it with me?”
She stretched across the bed to get up, allowing herself a comfortable yawn, “Well, I brought home some craft materials to sort through for tomorrow's art project. I could watch it while I'm doing that.” As she rose, she noticed that a slight extra heaviness in her breasts was indeed perceptible. Probably just time of the month, but... A silly thought popped into her head. She dismissed it and headed for the shower.
* * *
One month later.
Alison placed the innocuous looking bar of smooth beige plastic on the side of the wash basin. She let out a shaky sigh and bent forward to stare again at that little window. The thin blue line was bright, clear and irrefutable. She picked it up. She put it down. She sighed again, this time with a long, accompanying sound that vacillated between a wail and a groan. She couldn’t blame the plastic or the little blue line. She knew anyway. The nausea; the wine that now tasted like liquid tin; the ravenous hunger; the tiredness. At their crazy ages, she and Steve had made the impossible possible and a cluster of cells was proliferating down there in her abdomen even as she stood staring at the testing kit. By now, it could be a tiny human tadpole.
Why had they played Russian roulette in their sex life? When had they become so devil-may-care about taking precautions? Nobody ever said you don’t need contraception after fifty. She studied her face in the mirrored door of the bathroom cabinet. Through the toothpaste spatter, the aged, anxious face of a stranger stared back. God! That face looked sixty, not fifty. She relaxed her features into their mirror-face before steeling herself to glance again at the blue line.
No, this had to be a mistake. Perhaps menopausal hormones could cause the testing kit to give unreliable results. Perhaps every symptom was a kindly menopause-induced trick to soften the blow; a way of making a woman feel young and fertile again when she’s actually desiccating into an old crone. Every symptom could be accounted for. Absence of periods was nothing to go by – they would be dwindling at her age, wouldn’t they? She wouldn’t say anything to Steve today. No point in worrying him. The pack had come with two kits - she'd do another test tomorrow. Meanwhile, the Internet would surely reveal whether she was just in the grip of some sad, mid-life delusion. She hurtled across the landing to the study.
Oldest mother natural conception.
Google search. Click.
After reversing out of innumerable semi-literate culs-de-sac (*artificial incrimination!* God help us!) full of apocryphal tales and self-indulgent anecdotes, the definitive answer to the question she had originally googled appeared to be fifty-nine.
Yes, she’d speak to Steve tomorrow.
The neural pathways along which her sleepless brain obsessed in bed that night followed three basic routes. Route One: not pregnant, just menopausal; Route Two: pregnant and a termination needed ASAP; Route Three: pregnant and she and Steve would see it through. Of these, Route Three was the most convoluted – full of sharp bends, unexpected gradients and occasional emergency stops followed by frantic reversals to the safe, wide road of Route Two.
The fear that kept her adrenal glands pumping was the prospect of Steve’s reaction in the morning. She wished she could save him that painful jolt from ignorance to knowledge with all its attendant, predictable responses. Though he was normally so calm, this was the kind of shock that, to a man at such a susceptible age, could cause a coronary; a stroke; a mental breakdown. She’d be an aged new mother and a widow. She almost wept for herself. Such thoughts finally re-arranged themselves into tragic, beautiful, cinematic dreams as she dozed off around four am.
Four hours later, Alison was prodded into reluctant consciousness by an ache in her right thumb. It wasn’t the first time. Had to be the onset of arthritis. She wouldn’t be able to lift the teapot this morning. Her eyes felt gritty and she had the needlings of a headache coming on.
She was alone in the bed. Steve would be downstairs, drinking his first mug of tea, laptop on the kitchen table, peering at Facebook to see what Ben, had been up to lately.
Alison moved her legs to the edge of the bed. She winced as she knocked her bruised left shin where that little swine, Nathan, had kicked her under the table in Literacy yesterday. As she sat up a green wave of nausea swept over her. Taking a deep breath she stood, swiped her dressing gown from the back of the door, eased it around herself in one fluid movement and hastened down to the kitchen.
Through the interminable waking hours of her night, Alison had rehearsed over and over how she might phrase what she was about to say. She had delved into her mind for the correct choice of words; selected an entirely different set of words; re-ordered them; punctuated the sentences with pauses; altered the tone. Still, not one of the variations seemed to ease the import of what she had to say. How could she filter and soften it so that it didn’t hit her unsuspecting husband with all the subtlety of a speeding SUV?
She entered their tidy kitchen. The garlic and onion scent, which was now a permanent feature of the room, did nothing to ease her nausea. She sat at the scrubbed pine table at her usual place. Even though the kids had gone, Steve and Alison kept to their Mum and Dad chairs in their Mum and Dad places.
“Hi.” A cheerful mumble from Steve whose eyes did not waver from the screen.
“Hi.” Alison ran her hands through her hair which she knew would be rivalling Medusa's. “Ste-eve?”
He looked up. In the two seconds it took to glance her way, his face dropped. “You OK?”
Her face crumpled; her body crumpled; her mouth drooped; tears gushed. She blurted, each syllable punctuated by a sob, “I’m preg-nant!”
The scraping of Steve's chair on the slate floor knifed into Alison's headache as he reached out to comfort her. She knew he regarded tears as a crisis to be averted at all costs. But before he could put his arms around her, she dashed to the downstairs loo to vomit up a small quantity of bile. Steve followed her and she heard him rip off some sheets of toilet paper, ready for her to wipe her mouth when it was over. She sensed him waiting stoically in the doorway as she retched.
Within twenty minutes, they were sitting at the kitchen table, laptop discreetly closed, fresh tea brewed, and a generous pile of dry toast placed in front of Alison.
“OK, so are you sure? How d’you know? I mean, have you been to the doctor?”
“Steve, I’ve done this twice before – I know. Besides, I’ve done a test and they’re really reliable these days. It was a definite positive. I’ve got all the symptoms – I don’t need a doctor to tell me. Watch my lips. I’m nearly fifty-one and I’m pregnant.” Her voice was beginning to take on an edge.
“Look, don’t worry – we’ll sort this out. It’s obviously early stages. There’ll be no problem at your age getting a quick abortion—”
“How do we know that’s what we want?”
Steve laughed nervously, “Well, as you just said – you’re nearly fifty-one. Besides which, I’m fifty-seven and retired, and in case you’d forgotten, we’re going to be grandparents in about five months’ time.”
“But none of that makes any difference if I’m healthy and the baby’s healthy—”
“Al, think about it – we’d be collecting the kid from school on our way to pick up our pension.”
“Well, you would – I wouldn’t! So what if Louise’s baby has an aunt or uncle the same age? They’d be playmates for one another…it would be lovely.”
“Lovely? Al, fifty-one is too bloody old. It's not safe. The chances of having a healthy baby must be zilch. We’re too old to look after a baby with God knows what problems—”
“No, listen! If I’m not too old to conceive I can’t be too old to give birth, can I? If nature says I’m still young enough to get this far, I must be young enough to go the whole way.” Still young enough? She imagined her present appearance: a manky haystack of hair over an unwashed, un-made-up face, slouching over toast in a creased dressing gown. Hmm. Must look sixty-five at least. She was amazed to hear the vehemence of her own argument. She had no idea she felt so strongly. If Steve had argued to keep the baby, would she then be arguing for an abortion?
“OK, just suppose you go ahead with it, and it’s fine. Think about the money. My golden handshake’s fine for everything we want, but it wouldn’t cover bikes and Nintendos and bloody designer trainers! And you wanted to retire when you were fifty-five.”
Tears welled again.
“But I don’t want to kill our baby…”
“Look, love,” Steve said in his well practised conciliatory tone, “I think we’d better get you to the doctor as soon as. She’ll know better than we do about this. Finish your toast and phone the surgery. Tell them it’s urgent. I’ll do some googling on older mothers.” He was opening the laptop before he’d finished speaking. She couldn’t argue. She rummaged in her dressing gown pocket for a tissue. She blew her nose and went over to the phone.
* * *
Two months later
As she turned the key in the front door she almost cried with relief at the thought of herself recumbent on the sofa at last. The regular teacher in Cirrus had been off sick and the supply teacher hadn’t a clue. Alison had practically run that class today, single-handed. She wasn’t paid enough.
In the hall, she eased one navy-blue pump from an aching foot. Before she could relieve the other foot a violent pain wrung her abdomen like a giant hand squeezing a sponge. It was so sudden and so extreme, her eyes bulged and she doubled over.
She had an urgent need to get to the bathroom. Or to bed. She didn’t know which, but she had to move. She flung off the other shoe. She inched towards the stairs. Another contraction made her shout out. She dropped down to all fours and crawled up the stairs, whimpering like a dog in disgrace.
In the slowness of her progress up, she saw the film of dust on the skirting board, fluff on the stair-carpet, a dirty mark on the paintwork.
She pleaded with the baby in a whisper. “Please. Don’t…go. Please.”
As she reached the landing, she felt blood seeping through her underwear, and streaming unevenly down the insides of her thighs. Still on all fours, her head hanging down, she saw the blood fall drop by drop onto the pale green carpet – so red, like poppies blooming in a graveyard.
The distance of four yards to the bathroom door seemed insuperable. She yelled as the malevolent fist squeezed her again. Their bedroom door was nearest. She’d grab the phone. Tell Steve. He’d know what to do.
He was on the golf course and took a few rings to answer. “Hi, Al.”
She was trembling so much she could barely keep hold of the phone. “Steve, I need you to get home. Please. Now. I think I need an ambulance.”
Alison heard him speaking in quiet, urgent tones to whoever he was with.
“Terrible pain. And bleeding. Please get here.”
She heard him speaking to someone else, heard the word, ambulance.
“I’m on my way.”
As another contraction came she dropped the phone, and once again hanging her head, she observed the trail of blood in a pattern of stepping stones across the landing.
She whispered again, “Please…don’t…”
Then, with a deafening buzzing in her ears, the scene disappeared in a slow fade to black.
* * *
One year later
She’s really let herself go, thought Alison. That’s the standard bitchy phrase that women would use about her now. Ha! Freed herself up was more to the point. There was no time nowadays to worry too much about her own appearance. Her (five per cent lycra) jeans and loosely fitting sweatshirt, both from a respectable high street chain, were practical and comfortable when hauling a baby’s car seat plus baby about. She clipped the carry-cot-cum-car-seat with its sleeping occupant into place. She remained leaning forward into the back of the car to admire the unselfconscious perfection of the infant’s features. Too early to say, really, but she did think that little Freya had Steve’s mouth and nose. She double-checked that the seatbelt was securely clipped in the correct way around the seat and resisted the temptation to stroke Freya’s cheek. What a poppet!
Alison strolled round to the driver’s seat and slid into her new sensible, marine blue, family saloon. She smiled for a moment thinking of that ridiculous sporty thing she used to drive. God, how could she? Just like one of those middle-aged men who tries to relive his youth by buying himself the Harley-Davidson he could never afford until he was too old for it. That car was completely unsuitable now and she was glad to be rid of it. And red! So brash! She’d never choose red again. It was sweet of Steve to have bought it for her, but frankly, it had been for himself as well. It was a phase they had gone through and life now was so busy and fulfilling - and exhausting - they didn’t give cars a second thought. And caring for a baby was infinitely more satisfying than her old day job.
It had been a tough year, and she still sometimes wondered about how things might have been. Sometimes she still had a brief, private weep. Really, though, everything had worked out for the best.
Of course, the menopause had kicked in with a vengeance. It was bound to after all that had happened. She’d put on a few pounds, but then, so had Steve. She had the odd night sweat, but let’s face it, so did Steve. She was sure keeping so active now helped. Oh, and her MenoCare multi-vitamins with added soy isoflavones, possibly. Luckily, it hadn’t so far affected her mutually satisfactory sex life with Steve - but if it did, she might think about HRT…
She drove through the five o’clock traffic at a steady pace. On the occasions that the car was stationary she took the opportunity to peek round at Freya. Aaah! With any luck she’d still be asleep when they reached Louise’s house. The usual cliché that every grandparent used was so true: babies were great when you could hand them back at the end of the day. It was great to be a granny.
At the traffic lights, as she waited to turn left, a craggily handsome older man in a car similar to her own pulled up in the next lane. She looked across. They smiled at each other just as the lights changed and they went on their way.