Read by Tricia Stewart
Annalisa sighed. "Always takes so long, doesn't it?"
The woman looked up. She was probably called Tamara, Annalisa decided, or Hermione. One of those Kensington names. What on earth was she doing here, in the shabby waiting room of the Hackney ante-natal unit? She looked like she should be brunching at the Woleseley, not slouching on a green, foam-filled NHS chair beneath a dog-eared anti-smoking poster.
Besides, Tamara certainly wasn't pregnant. Her grey cashmere dress skimmed an extravagantly concave stomach. Her eyes were hidden behind a pair of bluebottle shades, and in her hands she clutched a large leather handbag, the kind Annalisa had seen in glossy magazines, usually with a four-figure price tag attached.
"It sucks," drawled Tamara. "This is my third scan and the wait's been worse each time."
"Goodness, I would never have guessed you were so far along. How many weeks?"
"Thirty-eight. I just can't wait for it to be over. I'm so sick of lugging this thing around." Tamara pulled at the straps of the handbag, which did look heavy.
Annalisa paused, confused. "That's amazing. I would never have guessed - you really don't look pregnant at all."
She glanced down at her own unruly eight-month bump. She was one of the unlucky ones, as her mother had remarked, patting her distended abdomen sympathetically. She had expanded not only forwards but also widthways, her body acquiring the bobbly texture of a slightly deflated balloon. When she took off her bra at night, her breasts flopped onto her chest like two bloated chicken fillets. Her legs were so filled with fluid that it was unclear where her ankles were, or indeed whether she still had any. For the last three weeks the acid indigestion had been so severe that she had to sleep sitting up.
"Oh dear!” Tamara laughed, and gave a high-pitched snort. “I'm not pregnant. I mean, not in the traditional sense. Not like - you." She leant towards Annalisa, patting the soft flank of her bag. "You must have heard about these, darling. The latest in reproductive science – and the finest Italian leather. They are a marvel. I have no trouble getting back in shape, and I never have to give up gin and tonic.
“Mind you,” she continued, taking off her sunglasses and fixing Annalisa with a sincere expression, “people do say it’s lovely to do it naturally. It’s just about making the right decision for you.”
Annalisa nodded, but no words came to mind. She stared hard at the bag. It was unusually large, and made of dusky pink leather. Its sides bulged and undulated as if it were filled with liquid. At the top, it was sealed tight with a zip and a small gold padlock. A gold insignia hung from the strap; she squinted to make out the lettering: “Bébé a Main”. Was she going mad, or did it move, ever so slightly? “Oh look!” cried Tamara. “There’s a kick now.”
There was a long silence. Eventually a nurse, solid and bespectacled, emerged from the surgery with a clipboard.
"That's me!" Tamara rose and lifted the handbag carefully onto her shoulder.
“Here, let me help you,” said the nurse, taking the straps. The handbag swung perilously towards the ground. Tamara gasped and lunged, catching it in her two outstretched arms. The nurse raised a sheepish hand to her mouth. “Gosh! Heavy, isn’t it? Just goes to show what a burden pregnant women have been carrying around with them for all these years!”
She smiled at Annalisa kindly. Annalisa tried to smile back but found that her mouth was gaping in a rictus of fear and incomprehension. “Mind you,” said the nurse. “There are some advantages to the traditional approach, dear. At least you’ll get a seat on the tube.”
As Tamara followed the nurse across the waiting room, Annalisa revisited the low points of the last eight months in her mind. The first two weeks after doing the test, when she had been so dizzily forgetful that she had thrown her gold necklace and her phone in the bin, and lost her bike. The constant, broiling nausea which had dogged her for months; the evenings spent weeping on the sofa, trying to force down a single bite of cheese on toast; the sensation of a plateful of partially digested risotto rising up her gullet with such force that she wet herself as she vomited. The promotion she had turned down because she didn’t think she was physically up to taking on any more responsibility. The moment she looked in the mirror and saw that her young, beautiful body had been replaced by that of a stout, hobbling Italian matriarch.
The door to the surgery was closing.
"Stop!" Annalisa let a note of desperation creep into her voice. Tamara stuck her head around the door and raised an elegant eyebrow, questioningly. "Where did you get it?"
"Darling. I'd love to help - but the problem is, if I tell you, everyone will want one."
(c) Alice O'Keeffe, 2012
Alice O'Keeffe is a journalist, speechwriter and mum to 2-year-old Stanley. She is expecting another baby in July which she is gestating the old-fashioned way.