Romily expects it will be easy to be a surrogate. She's already a single mother, and she has no desire for any more children. But Romily isn't prepared for the overwhelming feelings that have taken hold of her and which threaten to ruin her friendship with Ben and Claire-and even destroy their marriage.
Now there are three friends, two mothers and only one baby, and an impossible decision to make...
Thought-provoking, heart-rending but ultimately uplifting, Julie Cohen's Dear Thing is a book you won't be able to put down, until you pass it on to your best friends.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
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By Julie Cohen
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Julie Cohen
All rights reserved.
A Little Secret
The day before she was supposed to have the test, Claire escaped the music block so she could look again. Her suede boots spotted with wet as she walked across the grass past the pet shed. Two lower-school boys were checking on their guinea pigs, their breath rising in clouds. She raised a hand to them in greeting and headed for the small path leading into the wood that surrounded the school.
On the field a group of girls were playing hockey. As soon as she entered the wood, their cries of encouragement faded. She tightened her right hand around the objects in her pocket and quickened her steps. She skirted rhododendron bushes, pine needles releasing scent beneath her feet, until she reached the rusted iron gates tucked in a corner near the school boundaries. She pushed open the gate and walked into the cemetery.
The St Dominick's students rarely came here. The one time she'd brought half a dozen A-level students, thinking it might give them some inspiration, they'd shuddered and told her that they'd been whispering scary stories about the nuns' graveyard for years. There was a rumour about a crying lady, and another about a swirling mist. But in the light of day, the graveyard wasn't frightening: sunshine streamed through the towering pines above and pooled around the grey stones. They were all different shapes and sizes, some very old, some recent. Although St Dominick's School hadn't housed nuns for many years now, Sisters of the Order who had moved elsewhere were occasionally buried here, where they'd started their lives of service. The newer graves towards the outside were low granite blocks. One or two had plastic flowers in baskets next to them.
Claire moved into the centre of the graveyard. The engraving on the stones here was nearly illegible. In the trees above, a magpie clattered.
She wore a woollen jacket. The left pocket held her phone. The right held two objects carefully wrapped in toilet paper. Claire looked around before she took them out, though she knew that she was alone. Not even a ghostly nun watched her unwrap the pregnancy tests.
She'd seen the blue lines already; they'd appeared almost immediately when she'd taken the tests, but that had been in the staff toilet, where the light wasn't good. She couldn't have been sure it wasn't wishful thinking. Now, she held up the first test and squinted at the lines.
Positive. A clear, dark positive. Same with the second one. She hadn't made a mistake.
She sank onto the grass, ignoring the cold and damp, staring at the tests on her lap.
She should ring Ben. And her mum. She wasn't supposed to take a test yet. She and Ben had both agreed that it would be wisest to wait until she had the proper test, tomorrow morning at the fertility clinic.
But she couldn't wait. All through the school day, through the mild rebukes to Year Seven to pay attention, please, through the rehearsals for the Easter term concert and the department meetings, she'd been thinking about one thing: her tiny embryo, hers and Ben's, the single one inside her, the only one that was good enough.
Please take, she'd been thinking. Exactly as she'd been thinking for every minute of the past ten days since it had been introduced into her womb.
Please take. Driving to school. Brushing her teeth. Washing the glasses in the sink. Please take. Sharing dinner with Ben. The first thought, waking up and going to sleep.
Hold on and live. I want to meet you.
She left her phone in her pocket. Right now, after everything, she wanted to be alone with her secret. To convince herself it was true.
Claire gently laid both of her hands on her stomach. 'Hello,' she said softly.
She lifted her face and let the winter sunshine warm her skin.
* * *
'Only one?' Romily frowned, glancing across the playground at the little girl and her mother who stood there by the gate, waiting. 'I thought you were going to ask more.'
'I decided I only wanted to ask one friend,' said Posie serenely.
'What happened to all the invitations you took into school? With the printed-out maps in them? Didn't you give them out?'
Posie opened her book bag for Romily. Creased pink envelopes lined the bottom.
'You didn't give out any of them? Posie, they took ages to do.'
'I gave out one.' Posie nodded to the girl.
'I thought Amber was coming.'
'You told me last week that she was your best friend.'
Posie started humming. Her heavy blonde fringe was too long; Romily couldn't quite see her eyes. She could see the girl's mother checking her watch, however, so she put her arm round Posie's shoulders and went over. Posie took her friend's hand and the two of them skipped off.
'Hi,' Romily said to the woman, holding out her hand. 'I'm Romily. Thank you so much for letting your little girl come for Posie's birthday.'
'It was a bit of a surprise,' said the other woman. 'She only let me know about it yesterday.'
'Sorry,' said Romily. 'Posie tells me your daughter is the only one coming, so I can take her in my car if you like and bring her back after tea. We're going to her godparents' house, just outside Sonning. It's bigger.'
Romily could actually see the mother weighing it up: having a couple of hours to herself, versus the perils of letting her daughter go off with a relative stranger. She could try pulling out her ID; people tended to be a little more trusting once they saw the 'Dr' before her name. At least until they found out that her doctorate was in entomology, and that she spent her working life among dead bugs.
'Mum,' said the little girl, skipping back, 'it's starting to rain.'
'All right,' her mother said. Hurriedly, she and Romily exchanged phone numbers, addresses, all the usual responsible-adult ritual, and then she rushed off to her car to get the extra seat for Romily. Another look of doubt crossed her face when she saw Romily's Golf.
'I'm a careful driver,' Romily assured her. 'I just haven't washed it for a very long time.'
'I'll see you at seven,' the mother said, giving her daughter a kiss on the cheek and handing her a plastic bag with a wrapped present in it. 'Be a good girl.'
Waiting in the after-school traffic, Romily checked out the girls in the back seat in her rear-view mirror. Posie's friend was smaller than she was, with her hair in neat bunches done up with pink ribbons. She sat with her hands clutched together, looking out of the window while Posie sang softly. Her uniform was pressed, her shoes shiny. Romily couldn't remember ever having seen her before in her life.
Then the heavens opened and Romily had to concentrate on driving around the clogged one-way system and out of town. The landscape opened up as she left Brickham, though the fields were no more than green smears through the car windows. Her best friend Ben and his wife Claire lived on the outskirts of Sonning, a pretty little village on the Thames full of thatched houses and London commuters. She negotiated the tricky right-hand turn into the narrow lane with the ease of long practice, and pulled up on the gravel drive next to Claire's Audi.
'Aw, Ben's car isn't here,' Posie said.
'He'll be here,' said Romily, who had noticed already. 'He sent me a text this morning.'
'Come on!' Posie was out of the car before Romily could unbuckle herself, and running up to the front door of the stone house as if trying to dodge raindrops. She opened the door without knocking and went inside. Her friend followed her, skirting puddles that Posie had run through. Rain soaked through the shoulders of Romily's jumper as she went after them, carrying the box full of party supplies.
Inside, they breathed the aroma of baking and fresh flowers. The air was warm. 'Wow, this is a nice house,' said Posie's friend, gazing at the exposed beams, the living area with its squashy ivory sofas and baby grand piano. Pink and purple balloons hung from the doorways and light fixtures.
'You can put your present here,' Posie instructed her, pointing to an occasional table. 'We can play wherever we want to in the house, but we have to take our shoes off first. Romily, could you please get the animals out of the car?'
'There are animals in the car?' Romily had put down the box and her boots were half off already; her hair was dripping down her neck.
'Yes, I put them in the back seat this morning because they wanted to come to the party. They're in that bag.'
'That bag,' repeated Romily, trying to remember if she'd seen one or not. She didn't feel like going back to the car for an imaginary bag of leopards. She'd fallen for that one before. 'What kind of animals are they?'
'Rita and Lorna and Joe. You know.'
'Ah, yes. Posie, are you sure that nobody else is coming?'
'That's why I brought the animals.'
'Hello, beautiful Birthday Girl!' Claire appeared in the doorway to the kitchen and crossed the living area to hold out her arms to Posie. 'Remind me, how old are you today?'
Posie hugged her hard around the waist and kissed her cheek. 'Seven.'
'Oh dear, how could I have forgotten? Hello,' she said to Posie's friend, who smiled shyly. 'What's your name?'
'Amelia,' said the girl.
'Come on!' Posie bolted up the stairs, her friend following. Claire watched them go. She was wearing slim-fitting trousers and a silk blouse. Her diamond ring sparkled as she smoothed her honey-blonde hair back and turned her attention to Romily.
'Hi,' said Romily, conscious of her own damp and uncombed hair, her jeans with the ragged cuffs that had soaked up the groundwater. She hopped on one foot as she pulled on a boot. 'Thanks for having them, Claire. And for the balloons and everything. I told Posie it was a school day for you too, but she insisted, and Ben said —'
'It's my pleasure. How many of them are coming?'
'I thought she wanted a big party.'
'So did I. Is ...' Romily hesitated.
'Ben had to be in London for a meeting today but he said he'd be home before the cake.'
'Oh – I was just going to ask if you minded if I used one of your umbrellas.' She shoved her foot the rest of the way into her boot and vaguely indicated the antique umbrella-stand near the door. 'Posie forgot something in the car.'
'Of course, help yourself. I'll put the kettle on.'
It had started blowing as well as pouring outside, and Romily chose what was probably the only broken umbrella in the bunch. She struggled to keep it upright as she went back to her Golf and retrieved Posie's bag of cuddly toy animals. As she shut the door she thought she heard tyres crunching on gravel, but when she looked up, Ben's car still wasn't there. Nor had any other parents turned up with more kids. A gust of wind caught the umbrella, tearing it from her hand, and she had to chase it across the flawless lawn, the bag of animals flapping against her legs. By the time she got back to the house she was muddy, wet and even more dishevelled.
Romily took her time removing her boots and straightening her clothes and hair. She took the toy animals out of the bag and posed them by the door, where Posie would see them when she came downstairs. Distantly, she could hear the girls laughing. If she'd known Ben wasn't going to be here until later, she'd have taken a little bit more time at the school. Or maybe thought up some topics of conversation beforehand.
The most awkward thing about being alone with Claire, she thought, arranging Joe the giraffe, was that Claire didn't seem to find it awkward at all. Which meant that all the awkward-feeling fell on Romily.
Romily picked up the damp cardboard box from the flagstone floor. In her stripy socks, she walked across the living area, past the gleaming piano and the antiques tastefully mixed with modern pieces, and into the sugar-perfumed kitchen. 'That cake smells gorgeous,' she said heartily as she entered.
'Thanks!' Claire was putting a knitted cosy on the teapot. 'I actually made the cake last night but I've got some biscuits in.'
'I have no idea how you do all of this.' Romily put the box on the hand-distressed kitchen table. 'Weren't you working today?'
'Oh, I had the cookie dough in the freezer. I made it last week because I knew I wouldn't have time today.' Claire twirled her finger round her head in a self-deprecating way probably meant to denote mild craziness.
Romily opened the box. 'I've got frozen pizza and oven chips here for their tea – way too much for only two girls. And some sweets and some bottles of lemonade.'
Not compared to homemade biscuits and cake, thought Romily. Claire, though, accepted the packaged offerings with apparent enthusiasm before she poured Romily a cup of tea and added two sugars, exactly as she liked it. She then arranged the food on baking trays on top of the Aga, ready to go in, and pulled out the chair across from Romily's, placing her mug on a coaster. 'Only the one friend could come, in the end?'
'I thought she'd invited more. That was the whole point of having the party here instead of at our flat, so there would be more room. I gave her twenty invitations. I thought it was strange that I hadn't had any replies from parents, but I've been too busy to chase it up. I'm rubbish, I know.'
'Of course not.'
Romily sighed. 'Oh well, less washing up, I suppose.'
'Do you have some party games planned?'
'Er, no. I was thinking they could just, you know, play for a while. Then give them their tea, have some cake, a bit of singing, go home. Open presents at some point. I picked up a piñata.' She retrieved the papier-mâché horse full of party treats and her book-shaped gift for Posie from the bottom of the box. They were both rumpled and slightly damp, from either the rain or thawing oven chips.
'I put out some dressing-up clothes upstairs,' Claire said. 'And I thought maybe they'd like to do their nails?'
'That could get a bit messy,' Romily said doubtfully, looking at the pristine kitchen.
'I don't mind. I didn't really want to prepare any activities in case you'd got it all planned out.'
Romily tried to think of recent parties she'd been to with Posie. She couldn't think of one offhand, not since the big one in that church hall with the bouncy castle and everyone shouting. Posie had spent most of the time under the table pretending the other children were ogres. Romily had tried to coax Posie out, but she hadn't tried too hard because actually she thought that was a pretty accurate assessment.
'I think we'll just take it as it comes,' she said.
Claire nodded, and they fell silent.
Romily racked her brain for something to say, something that wasn't that question. Because if Claire was going to say something about that, she surely would have said it right away, wouldn't she?
And was Romily even supposed to know about that? Did Claire know that Ben had told her?
It wasn't as if Romily spent hours discussing personal problems with Ben or anything – they had other things to talk about – but Ben and Claire had been going through IVF for so long, it tended to creep into conversation. And he was so excited about this embryo.
'So ...' she came up with at last, 'how are you? School okay?'
'I'm fine, thanks,' said Claire. 'School is going well.'
Claire had a little smile on her face, as if she had some sort of secret. Possibly she was amused at Romily's ineptness. Maybe she did know that Romily knew about the baby stuff. But Romily couldn't ask that, either.
Romily traced circles on the wooden tabletop. 'Um. So ... been to any good concerts?'
Posie stuck her head into the kitchen. 'Auntie Claire, can we have a tea party for the animals? Can we use your tea set?'
'Of course. I'll put some squash in the teapot for you. Do you want to take the blanket from the sofa and spread it out on the floor? It'll be like a picnic then.'
'Ambrosial!' She disappeared, and Claire gave a clear, lovely laugh that was so happy that Romily looked at her more carefully. She did look good. Maybe even better than usual. Sort of glowy. Romily heard that happened.
"'Ambrosial",' repeated Claire. 'Her vocabulary is getting better every day. I don't know if my eleven-year-old students even know that word.'
'She reads a lot,' said Romily, though Claire already knew that. Posie was their main topic of conversation.
'I'll get the tea set out for the girls. Do you mind putting the candles on the cake?' Claire gestured to the cake, sitting on a high stand on the worktop. It was an incredible thing, towering with pink icing and scattered with delicate pink flakes.
Excerpted from Dear Thing by Julie Cohen. Copyright © 2013 Julie Cohen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. A Little Secret,
2. Sweet Things,
3. The Answer,
4. Pear Tree,
5. The Hangover,
6. An Assignation,
7. A Known Quantity,
8. Building Blocks,
9. Smiley Face,
10. Bombs Away,
12. What to Expect,
13. Rupert or Guinevere,
14. The Mother Theme,
15. Hormonal Madness,
18. A United Front,
19. The Right Thing,
20. Inner Calm,
22. B Flat Major,
25. A Window In,
26. Shifting Sands,
27. Don't Go,
28. Maternity Ward,
29. A Million Times,
30. New Term,
31. Parents' Evening,
32. Funny and Horrible,
33. A Secret Mission,
35. What Could Have Been,
36. All There Is,
37. The Truth,
40. The Question,
42. The Answer,
45. A Piece in the Puzzle,
47. A Window Out,
A Reading Group Gold Selection,
A Conversation with Julie Cohen,
Reading Group Questions,
Excerpt from Where Love Lies,
About the Author,