A Preview of Crocus Fields
Through a half-open door at the back of the office Harriet could see a young woman in her early twenties sitting at a table strewn with papers and writing briskly.
“Ah, Christabel, this is Miss Loxley. She has come to find us and now she has.”
Harriet recognised Mrs. Pankhurst’s apple cheeks and dimpled chin in her daughter, but in higher definition, a look that gave Christabel’s features the appearance of a child verging on becoming a woman, or that of a woman whose features were destined to pass directly from unblemished flush of youth to soft middle age without the handsomeness of early womanhood between. She had her mother’s strong even bows of eyebrows, too, and her neat shell-like ears, all under chestnut hair piled fashionably but endevouring to escape its pins any way it might. But when Miss Pankhurst got up to extend her hand in greeting Harriet put aside any thoughts of childlike features. She rose in a movement at once graceful and formidable, as if able to quell the distance between them by force of personality. Her poise was perfection itself and her first words flew with animism and enthusiasm.
“Miss Loxley. Delighted. You have come to offer your talents? What are they?”
Harriet had never before experienced such directness, stripped of social nicety, in a woman. She declined to answer directly. That had always been the way to avoid the traps laid by her argumentative brother.
“What is your strategy, Miss Pankhurst?”
“If you ladies are getting down to brass tacks I will excuse myself,” Mr. Pethwick Lawrence interrupted. “May I send for some cool water for you, Miss Loxley.”
“Yes, please. That would be very nice.”
“And for me too, please. Fred. Hammering, Miss Loxley. That is our strategy. Hammering away. Hammering away until we get the vote.”
Then the pregnancy had happened. And then the pregnancy had become obvious and the clerk had stopped sending cases her way. She had regressed to the occasional bail hearing on another lawyer’s behalf, like a pupil. And now she was on her way to a meeting with the head of chambers.
Shirl, they had always called her back at school in Nottingham, Storkleg Shirl. She remembered this with bitterness, as she strode across Lincoln’s Inn’s Fields, those implausibly bright green lawns tucked between Kingsway and Lincoln’s Inn, strewn, as they were every sunny lunchtime, with the pasty white torsos of office workers toasting themselves into an alternative skin colour. She remembered how, when taunted at school, she’d stuck her fingers up and carried on walking.
The pregnancy had been a mistake, a big mistake. The sex had been a mistake. Not getting an abortion while she had had the opportunity had probably also been a mistake. But she’d let the signs pass. Next month, she’d told herself, her period would turn up: she’d never been very regular and he’d always used a condom. Once she’d truly realized, she stopped answering his calls. He was her charming curly haired boy, had a joke for every situation, and they had fun together but she could never marry him. And she shouldn’t be having his child, but somehow the child had failed to go away, and now it was too late.
Dread is the moment before you know that what matters most is over. Horror creeps out from behind, where it has been quietly accumulating evidence, and the howl waiting in the watches of the night finally seeps into the spaces where occupation has ceased to occupy. This moment before, this dread, caresses you, reminding you that there is this thing you are loosing. And then you know.
Cassandra Brown closed the consulting room door behind her, taking care to make it slip into its frame soundlessly, the space ahead sibilant with focus on magazines and I-phones. The rows of happily smiling new parents in their brushed aluminium frames were presumably smiling still, where she had left them, before going into her consultation, but she couldn’t see them. She concentrated on the rectangle of sunlight at the end of the hall and held her neck rigid.
She had reached forty-two a month ago. The natural progression of the years had dropped her chances of success from in vitro fertilization down to one in seven. Which meant never.
“Mrs. Cricket. The pregnancy test is ninety pounds please.”
Cassie stared at the shadow behind the glass window, the heavy weight of never pinning down her mind. I’m not Mrs. Cricket. That was Jim’s name. James Cricket, her bright, bouncy, find-a-way-round-everything, husband. Who wasn’t here. Who couldn’t be here because he had to collect the pay cheques on Thursdays, and the person she’d explained all that to, possibly this shadowy person right here, wouldn’t change the appointment. It had only been a flimsy strength she had wrenched into a bundle in order to get as far as the car park. Now, clerical obsession, running doggedly onward, was going to uselessly consume her stored energy. If she was deprived of that precious energy she might sit down on the ground, right here, with her back to the corridor wall and her head on her knees and contemplate her sorry little story: no longer the hopeful mother about to soar forward with the help of all powerful science, just an unhappy middle-aged biology teacher who wasn’t sure she dared to go home.
She stood still until the blood stopped pounding in her ears, walked the four paces to the window and whispered, “Send me a fucking invoice. You know my address.”