He came round on Wednesday to pick up a box full of kitchen utensils and the rest of his shirts, and after he left she decided once and for all that she would get rid of it. It was not worth bringing into the world the offspring of such a father.
It was much too late to consider any of the conventional options, and as Ellie balanced her dinner tray on her protruding belly it came to her mind that she had once heard of doe rabbits, when conditions for birthing their litters were poor, actually absorbing the unborn kittens back into their own bodies.
“We’ll show him,” she said softly, and felt it somersaulting within her. Lying on her back in bed later she rubbed her hands absentmindedly over the breadth and height of the bump. She closed her eyes and imagined the blurring of edges, the softening of surfaces, tiny fingernails receding into the ends of tiny fingers.
“We can do this,” she whispered. “You and me. We can do this.”
It was a weight from her mind. For the first time in months she took to waddling absently around the house, humming to herself. She pottered through the conservatory and watered the cacti. She vacuumed the bedroom, bending with some difficulty to pick up stray socks that belonged to him. Disposing of these in the pedal bin in the bathroom, she paused, catching sight of herself in the mirror. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes over-bright. She hadn’t looked this way since the first heady weeks of knowing that it was inside her. She ventured a smile and saw the blood rush into her cheeks.
Her mother called, and before she had even put the receiver to her ear said “He’ll be back.”
“Perhaps not this time. Perhaps we’ve really run our course.” The words were a familiar script, and now, they rolled painlessly from her tongue. Ellie chewed at a strand of hair and listened to her mother gabble at the other end.
“…high and dry this way, and you the size you are…”
“Mum. Listen. It’s OK. I’m going to manage.”
“I’m going to manage.” She didn’t say: I have a plan.
She lay on her back at night, alone in the double bed, and massaged her belly. Picking up the book he had given her in a moment of tenderness, she flicked through from back to front, coming to rest a few pages before the end.
“Your baby is now taking deep breaths of water,” she read aloud. “Don’t breathe too deep now, kitten. Your baby is around seventeen inches long. That’s -” From forefinger to forefinger - “pretty big, huh? The skull is quite pliable as the bones are not yet joined.” She imagined bone slotting into bone like the pieces of a jigsaw, and in her mind, gently eased them apart from each other. Slowly. Slowly now, kitten.
She began to wake in the mornings feeling sharp and hungry, and enjoyed padding downstairs to the kitchen to feast on the foods that had been forbidden. Camembert, melted thickly over toast. For lunch she had liver paté on biscuits, salami sandwiches. Her favourite mushroom omelette, which had made her queasy for months, was back on the menu.
She managed to keep it quiet until, unthinking, she ordered a second large glass of wine whilst out with two girlfriends. They stared at her, first confused, and then when she began to smile conspiratorially, concerned. “Listen,” she said, “I’d better tell you.”
“You’ve decided to give birth to an alcoholic?”
“Come on, you’re always low when he leaves, but he comes back. There’s no need to self-sabotage…”
“No, no, you don’t understand.” She took a sip of her wine, savouring its sweetness on the roof of her mouth. With the words came a sense of confidence, of control. “I’ve made a decision.”
Their frowns deepened. “But surely, surely it’s too late to -”
Ellie waved an impatient hand. “Did you know,” she said, “that doe rabbits can absorb their unborn kittens back into their own bodies?”
They were a little shocked at first, but after she had laid out her rationale they had to concede that it was probably for the best. Eyes wide over their wine glasses, they nodded their sympathy as she recounted his inadequacies, his to-ing and fro-ing, his agonies of doubt over the question that had hung over him for the past eight months. If he couldn’t decide what he wanted, she pointed out, then she ought to simply decide for him.
“And if he’s upset, well, that’s his look-out. He’s had plenty of opportunity to opt in.”
They toasted her single-mindedness, and the night became pleasantly hazy. “By now,” she read, back in her bed with the book open against her belly, “if you shine a light on your abdomen, your baby’s head will turn. The spine is the span of an adult hand. Your baby is around fourteen inches long, with eyes that have just begun to open.”
Sleep, kitten. Sleep.
It was not long before the reduction in the size of her belly became noticeable. With a sense of triumph, she wriggled back into the waist-accentuating tops that she had been reluctantly laying aside. She stood sideways on to the mirror, satisfaction swelling as she ran her hands over the eroded contours of the bump. Builders began to whistle at her again. She called the hospital with a half-formed story about a change of address, and then made another, less straightforward call.
Her mother, who did not understand, came over with a look of great concern and a pair of half-knitted booties spilling out from her handbag. When Ellie answered the door she stared and stared at the diminished bump, seemingly lost for words.
“You’d better come in.”
“When did you say your due date was now, dear?”
The house was so tidy as to be oddly empty. She led her mother through to the living room and sat her down, making sure that there was a cup of tea in her hands before attempting to explain.
“Mum, I told you. Doe rabbits, when they-”
“I don’t know anything about rabbits. What’s wrong, Ellie? Why are you so small?”
She gritted her teeth. “Nothing’s wrong. You know he hasn’t so much as called me for weeks? I made a choice. Why should I split myself in two when he can’t even grow up and accept what’s going to happen? I had to show him.”
Her mother’s eyes were wide, and the tea was untouched. Ellie looked at the newly-vacuumed carpet.
“You mean,” began her mother, “you had an -”
“I didn’t have an anything,” she snapped. “I told you. Doe rabbits -”
The pictures in the book looked more and more like frogs with each passing day. The little amphibian creature was still now, its kicking and somersaulting ceased, its webbed digits little more than stumps. “The first heartbeats are beginning,” she read softly by the light of her bedside lamp. “The arms and legs start to form. Barely even a body now, kitten.” She rested her palm lightly on the slight curve of her belly, and let out a long, slow breath. “She’s upset with us, kitten. But she doesn’t understand. He has to see. He has to know that he can’t mess with us this way.”
She drank a little more than she might once have done, out with her friends, rising from her seat to the crowded dance floor when the night grew late and the music loud. Rhythm pulsed in her like a second heartbeat, and she was lost in a press of bodies, edges blurring and dissolving. Petrified by the sudden sense of her own smallness she tried to elbow her way out, stumbling for the shadows beside the bar where she collided with a man whose pint slopped over the edges of his glass when he saw her.
They stood and stared at one another, mute in the midst of the din. The lights coloured his face red, green, violent orange, then threw it into darkness. Like an animal in headlights he seemed unable to move, his eyes shifting rapidly between her face and her telltale flat stomach. Each flash of light lit a new expression: shock, delight, shame, fear, bafflement.
He mouthed something she did not understand.
“What?” She leaned closer.
He mouthed it again, and someone jostled her from behind so that she was thrown against him, close enough to feel him quivering beneath his damp shirt. Her cheek was against his neck, her unsteady breath mingling with his.
“Every day,” he whispered tentatively in her ear, “I wondered…if you had…”
She began to shake her head, slowly at first, but then violently, until he had to grip her with both arms and hold her to himself to keep her still. “Doe rabbits,” she blurted out. “They can melt their kittens back into their bodies.” In blue light his weak sad sorry face was crumpling. Then it was dark again.
He slid down, still holding onto her, until he was kneeling on the floor. With his fingertips he peeled up the edge of her top and pressed his lips against her skin.
“Come on, kitten,” he whispered, he crooned, and the warmth of his breath on her belly seemed to sink into her through her skin, stirring something. “Please. Hold on in there. Kitten? Kitten?”