Making your mind up, p.7

Making Your Mind Up, page 7

 

Making Your Mind Up
 



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  When Cressida woke up to find Robert weeping silently at her bedside, she knew her life was over. Their longed-for child was gone and, along with it, any chance of motherhood.

  Cressida wanted to die too. They had tempted fate, and fate had been tempted. Would this have happened if they hadn’t bought all those things for the baby?

  It was a possibility too horrible to contemplate. The more people told her that of course she hadn’t caused it to happen, the less Cressida believed them. Awash with self-recrimination and grief, she sank into a depression so deep it was as if all the happiness had been sucked out of the world. She was trapped at the bottom of a well, its sides slippery and black. Nobody could help her to feel better because there was nothing that could make her feel better. People talked encouragingly about adoption, but Cressida wasn’t ready to hear them. Everywhere she went, she saw pregnant women proudly displaying their bumps, parents out with their children, mothers holding newborn babies, and fathers playing rambunctious games of soccer with their sons.

  Sometimes she saw frazzled housewives losing their tempers and yelling at their toddlers. That was when the knifelike pain ripped through Cressida’s stomach all over again, and she had to rush away before she could do something stupid.

  But at least, as everyone was forever telling her, she and Robert still had each other. Their marriage was rock-solid. Together they would gain strength and get through this.

  In fact, their marriage was so rock-solid that eleven months after the night their lives had changed forever, Robert changed them again and moved out of the house overlooking Hestacombe village green. He told Cressida he wanted a divorce and Cressida said fine. Compared with the loss of their baby, losing Robert paled into insignificance. It barely registered on the scale of her grief. Besides, how could she blame him? Why would any normal healthy man in his right mind want to stay married to a twenty-four-year-old wife with no womb?

  If she’d been physically capable of divorcing herself, she’d have done it too.

  That’s not to say she wasn’t hurt by Robert’s next action. But then again, men were thoughtless. Having by this time moved into a rented apartment in Cheltenham, he embarked on a whirlwind romance with a fiercely ambitious young sales rep called Sacha, who had just moved down from Liverpool to join the company. Cressida and Robert’s divorce went through, and four months later Robert and Sacha were married. Six months after that, Robert arrived on Cressida’s doorstep one day to tell her that he and Sacha had just put in an offer to buy one of the houses on the new estate on the edge of the village. Taken aback, Cressida said, “What, you mean this village?”

  “Why not?”

  “But why?”

  “Cress, my apartment’s too small. We need somewhere with more space. I like Hestacombe and this new house is perfect. OK, so we’re divorced.” Robert shrugged and said reasonably, “But we can still be civilized toward each other, can’t we?”

  Her heart heavy, Cressida said, “I suppose so. Sorry. Yes, of course we can.” She felt ashamed of herself. Robert had been through the mill as well. She should be glad that at least one of them was managing to rebuild their lives.

  Robert looked relieved. Then he said, “Oh, and I suppose I should tell you that Sacha’s pregnant. That’s another reason for the move, so we’ll have room for the baby and an au pair.”

  Cressida felt as if she’d been plunged into a vat of dry ice. Her tongue was sticking to the roof of her mouth, but she managed to stammer, “G-gosh. C-congratulations.”

  “Well, it wasn’t exactly planned.” Robert’s tone was rueful. “Sacha really wanted to concentrate on her career for the next few years, but these things happen. I’m sure she’ll cope. As Sacha’s always saying, women can have it all these days, can’t they?”

  It was as if he was stabbing her with a long gleaming blade, over and over again. Struggling to breathe, Cressida somehow fixed a bright smile to her face. “Absolutely. Having it all, that’s what it’s all about.”

  Stab stab.

  As if realizing he might not have been too subtle, Robert shoved his hands into his pockets and said defensively, “I’m sorry, but you can’t expect me to go through life not having children, just because of what happened to you.”

  You, Cressida noted. Not us.

  “I don’t expect you to do that.”

  “I’ve met someone else. We’re having a baby. Don’t make me feel guilty, Cress. You know how much I wanted a proper family.”

  She nodded, wanting him to leave. Badly needing to be alone. “I do. It’s OK, I’m f-fine.”

  Relieved, Robert said, “Good. That’s that, then. Life goes on.”

  Now, lying back in the bath, Cressida studied her orangey-pink painted toenails and gave them a wiggle. Life had indeed gone on. She had thrown herself into her work as a legal secretary and in her spare time had redecorated the entire house, because any form of activity was better than sitting down and thinking about the family she had lost.

  Five months later she heard that Sacha had given birth to a seven-pound baby, a girl. That had been a hard day. Robert and Sacha named their daughter Jojo, and Cressida sent them a card she had made herself, to congratulate them.

  Another milestone survived.

  When Jojo was two months old, a nanny was hired and Sacha went back to work. Astrid, who was from Sweden and far more of a fresh-air fiend than Sacha, could be seen every day pushing Jojo in her Silver Cross stroller around the village. Keen to practice her English, Astrid stopped to chat with everyone she saw, which was how Cressida, arriving home from work one afternoon, found herself trapped into discussing the weather.

  “The clouds, up in the sky, they are like major white pillows, do you not think?” Having been instructed that all English people loved to talk about the weather, Astrid always made this her opening gambit.

  “Well, yes. Like…um, big white pillows.” Cressida was lifting a supermarket shopping bag out of the car.

  “But I believe there may be raindrops later.”

  “Rain, yes, probably.”

  “I am Astrid,” the girl said proudly. “I am working as a nanny for Robert and Sacha Forbes.”

  Cressida, who already knew this, tactfully didn’t say, “Hi, Astrid. I’m Cressida Forbes, Robert’s first wife.” Instead she said, “And I’m Cressida. It’s very nice to meet you.”

  Astrid beamed at her, then turned the stroller around and said brightly, “But I must not be forgetting my manners! I have also to introduce you to Jojo.”

  Cressida held her breath and looked down at the baby lying in the stroller. Jojo gazed inscrutably back at her. Waiting for the familiar stabbing pain in her stomach, Cressida was relieved when it didn’t come. She’d been terrified that she’d resent this baby for not being hers. But now she was here she knew she couldn’t possibly resent an eleven-week-old infant.

  “She is so beautiful, don’t you think?” Astrid spoke with pride, leaning forward to tickle Jojo’s chin.

  “Yes, she is.” Cressida’s heart expanded as, in response to the tickling, Jojo broke into a gummy smile.

  “Such a good baby, too. I am enjoying very much looking after her. And are you having children as well?”

  There was the stabbing pain. She knew Astrid meant do you have children, but this time Cressida didn’t correct her. Clutching the supermarket bag containing her lonely meal-for-one, a packet of cookies, and a single pint of milk she said, “No, I’m not having children.”

  “Ah, well, never mind!” Astrid beamed at her. “You are still young, lots of time to have fun and enjoy yourself first, eh? Like me! We can have our babies in a few years, can’t we? Whenever we like!”

  * * *

  For eight months Astrid had been the perfect nanny. Cressida often thought afterward that she owed practically her entire relationship with Jojo to a moment’s carelessness on the part o
f Astrid’s mother.

  Cressida had been coming out of Ted’s shop one morning with her newspaper and a naughty packet of Whoppers when she had seen Sacha’s company car heading down the High Street toward her. Screeching to a halt, Sacha stuck her head out of the driver’s window and said, “Cressida, can you save my life?”

  She was looking decidedly harassed. On the brief occasions they had met before, Cressida had been struck by Sacha’s air of calm and superefficiency. Her clothes were efficient. Even her hair—neat and short and expertly highlighted—was efficient. Today, by way of startling contrast, there were milk stains on Sacha’s sweatshirt and her hair was uncombed. Strapped into her baby seat in the back of the car, Jojo was wearing a T-shirt and a bulging diaper and was screaming her head off.

  “What’s wrong?” Cressida was alarmed. “Is Jojo ill?”

  “Astrid’s mother’s in the hospital with multiple fractures. Crashed her car last night into a bridge. Astrid’s gone to Sweden to see her and she doesn’t know when she’ll be back because there’s no one else to look after her little brother.” As the words came tumbling out, the volume of Jojo’s wailing increased. Sacha’s knuckles whitened as she gripped the steering wheel. “And Robert’s away on a bloody management training course in Edinburgh, and in two hours’ time I’m due in Reading to pitch for the biggest account of my entire career. If I don’t get there on time I don’t know what I’ll do—”

  “Where are you going now?” Cressida cut in, because Sacha’s voice was on a hysterical upward spiral.

  “The health center! I thought maybe one of the nurses would keep an eye on Jojo for me if I paid them enough. Unless you know anyone who could help? That’s why I stopped,” Sacha gabbled on wildly. “Because you know more people in the village than I do. I went to every house on our road this morning but nobody would take her. Can you think of anyone around here who’d look after a baby for the day?”

  As if Jojo was the school hamster. Lost for words, Cressida gaped at Sacha.

  “Well?” demanded Sacha, increasingly frantically.

  “Um…well, no.”

  “Oh, for crying out loud.” Sacha looked as if she might actually burst into tears. “Bloody Astrid. What have I done to deserve this?”

  Jojo was screaming and Sacha was stuck.

  “Unless…I suppose I could take her,” Cressida offered hesitantly. “If it would help. I mean, I’m not a qualified babysitter, but I’ve done lots of babysitting in my—”

  “You?” Sacha’s eyes widened in disbelief.

  Cressida, who’d seen the film The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, understood completely.

  “No, sorry, it was just a thought. Of course you wouldn’t want—”

  “Oh my God, are you kidding? I can’t believe it! Don’t you have to work?”

  Taken aback, Cressida said, “It’s my day off.”

  “But this is brilliant! Why didn’t you say so before?” Reaching over and flinging open the passenger door, Sacha yelled, “Quick, jump in.”

  And that had been it. Back at Sacha and Robert’s house, Cressida learned that Jojo was only bellowing at the top of her voice because she hadn’t been fed or changed this morning. Normally, Sacha explained, she was a placid, cheerful baby. Sacha, having showered and dressed at warp speed, left Cressida with the keys to the house and a shouted promise over her shoulder that she’d be back by six.

  Evidently Sacha had never watched The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.

  Then again, if Cressida hadn’t happened to come along when she did, Sacha might well have dumped Jojo into the unsuspecting arms of the health center’s receptionist.

  Which didn’t stop Cressida being absolutely petrified when she stopped to consider the situation in which she’d landed herself. For the next nine hours she was responsible for the well-being of her ex-husband’s baby. What if something should happen to Jojo? What if she was sick and started to choke? What if a truck smashed into the house? What if Jojo accidentally drank bleach or fell over and broke a leg or took a tumble downstairs? Cressida blanched at the thought. Oh God, everyone would think she was a deranged child abuser. She couldn’t do this; she just couldn’t.

  Except she had to, because there wasn’t actually anyone else around to take over the job.

  Cressida looked at Jojo, who was sitting on the living room floor solemnly chewing a small animal cracker. After several seconds, Jojo dropped the cookie and broke into a delighted grin, revealing two pearly white bottom teeth. Seemingly unconcerned at finding herself alone in the house with a virtual stranger, she held out her arms to Cressida.

  “What is it, sweetheart?” Her heart melting, Cressida crouched down in front of her.

  Still grinning, Jojo laboriously maneuvered herself into a crawling position before clutching at Cressida’s trouser leg in order to haul herself to her knees. Then she imperiously raised her arms again, like the pope.

  And Cressida picked her up.

  Chapter 11

  “Aunt Cress? It’s me!”

  The back door opened and banged shut, heralding Jojo’s arrival. Cressida, in the kitchen putting together a mushroom risotto, called out, “In here, sweetheart,” then turned and opened her arms wide, keeping them outstretched as Jojo bounced into the kitchen and gave her a kiss.

  “Trying to fly?”

  “Trying not to get onion and garlic smells all over you.” Cressida indicated the chopping board and waggled her fingers. “Good day?”

  “Brilliant. Swimming, tennis, and making cupcakes. I was going to bring you some, but we ate them.” As they both worked full time, Sacha and Robert paid for Jojo to attend a summer vacation day camp run by one of the private schools in Cheltenham. Luckily Jojo enjoyed it. Watching her at the sink as she ran the cold tap and glugged down a glass of water, Cressida experienced a rush of love for the girl who had brought more happiness into her life than any other living person. Jojo was twelve now, with fine, straggly dark hair, her mother’s neat features, and Robert’s long legs. Today she was wearing denim shorts, the sea-green T-shirt that Cressida had bought her last Christmas, and beneath it a padded pink bra she didn’t need but had insisted on buying because when you were twelve everyone at school teased you if you didn’t wear a bra.

  “Are those from the garden?” Jojo had noticed the freesias in a vase on the kitchen table.

  “No. Someone gave them to me.”

  “Oo-er.” Jojo raised her eyebrows. “Man or woman?”

  “As it happens, a man.” Cressida tipped the chopped onions into the frying pan and turned up the heat to maximum.

  “Aunt Cress! Is he your new boyfriend?”

  “I made a card for his mother. He wanted to thank me, that’s all.”

  “But he brought you flowers. Proper ones, from a shop,” Jojo emphasized, “and he didn’t have to do that, did he? So does that mean he’d like to be your new boyfriend?”

  Time to change the subject. Vigorously stirring the onions in the pan, Cressida said, “I shouldn’t think so for one minute. Now are you going to give me a hand with these mushrooms?”

  “That’s what I call changing the subject.”

  “OK then, no, he definitely doesn’t want to be my new boyfriend. And it’s just as well because he lives two hundred miles away. And these mushrooms still need to be chopped.”

  “But—”

  “You know, I had such a lovely time this afternoon,” said Cressida. “I was thinking back to the very first time I looked after you. You were ten months old and you couldn’t talk at all.”

  “Ten months.” This time Jojo was diverted; she loved hearing about the antics she’d gotten up to as a baby. “Could I walk then?”

  “No, but you were an Olympic crawler. Like a little train. You were eleven months before you started to walk.”

  After that first successful day, Sacha had known a soft
touch when she’d seen one. Less than a fortnight later she had asked Cressida to babysit again, and Cressida had been only too happy to oblige. A week after that, Sacha and Robert had been invited to a smart wedding in Berkshire, and Jojo and Cressida had spent a glorious day together, culminating in Jojo taking a series of tottering steps across the living room floor before stumbling triumphantly into Cressida’s arms. That evening, when Sacha and Rob had arrived to pick her up, Cressida had remarked on how active she’d been. Sacha, smiling smugly, had said, “Oh yes, she’ll be walking before long. She’s very advanced for her age.”

  Astrid hadn’t come back. She was replaced by a series of unsuitable nannies and even more wildly unsuitable au pairs. If Sacha had asked Cressida to give up her job in the lawyers’ office and look after Jojo full time, Cressida would have done it in a heartbeat. But that had never happened. Maybe it would have been just too weird. Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that Jojo had once accidentally called Cressida Mummy. Whatever the case, Cressida carried on babysitting whenever she was asked and helped out during emergencies. It was a situation everyone was happy with.

  “What’s the worst thing I ever did when I was little?” Jojo was at last slicing the mushrooms.

  “The most embarrassing, you mean? Probably the time you took your diaper off in the middle of the supermarket and left it in the rice and pasta aisle.” Cressida paused, then said, “It wasn’t a clean diaper.”

 
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