Now that the schools have gone back, the café feels like neutral territory again. She reclaims her usual spot in the corner, takes out her book, waits for her coffee.
In the holidays, it gets too loud for her here; the presence of everyone else’s children oppresses, the noise and sudden movements of so many hip-height bodies making her feel under siege – panicky, like a hunted animal. It’s the same feeling she’d get commuting sometimes, if the Underground was particularly crowded and fractious – the aching urge to retreat to one’s burrow.
She’s noticed that they don’t put out the little vases of flowers either, during the school breaks. Too much bother and too liable to get knocked over, perhaps. Today, though, her table bears a cheerful yellow sprig alongside the salt and pepper shakers, and the café is calm, just her and an older couple in walking gear, splitting a scone between them.
She’s been there about 20 minutes when the group comes in. Four of them, today. All with prams that they take their time wedging around the table: a complicated Rubik’s Cube that must be solved so that each mum has a chair and their own baby and buggy in their eye-line. It requires a not-inconsiderable amount of manpower, concentration and pushing away of peripheral tables. Wooden legs squeak and scrape against the tiled floor.
When they are finally done, one group member lifts her baby from its chariot – a snoozing rabbit pulled from a hat – and puts it to her breast. Another – lean of limb, loud of voice – takes everyone’s coffee orders and strides to the counter.
She never can resist watching these women. It’s never the same group, but that hardly matters. The group changes, the age of their babies changes, but the way they make her feel doesn’t.
The effect is always the same. They function as a two-way mirror across time and space. She sees the group as they are now. And she also sees them as they might have been, with herself sitting among them. There she is, jiggling her own child on her knee. There she is, vaguely waving away its pudgy hands, as it attempts to grab cubes from the sugar bowl. There she is, leaning in hungrily to the other women, desperate for adult conversation.
They don’t see her at all, of course, her alternative-universe friends. And she almost hates them for that. She was simply alone before they came in, whereas now she is lonely, too.
Today, the babies, the mothers and the group all look newborn. The first meet-up post-pregnancy, if she had to guess. The woman feeding her baby looks glazed, her stomach spilling over her thighs.
Watching her from the corner, she feels a warm tide of empathy. Things are softer and lower and wider for her, too. She feels it and fears it – this slide into invisibility and sexlessness. Though in her case she has yet to accrue the objects that would explain this softening, lowering and widening to the watching world. Pram, changing bag, toys, wipes, bottles, sippee cup – it all helps you to take up space. It helps people to understand.
Sometimes, when a woman comes into the café with a baby on her own, she can’t help wondering why she doesn’t have a group either. If the woman looks especially tired or the baby is fractious, she might try to smile. Sometimes she even imagines striking up a conversation.
But she never does, of course.
Would they have been friends? On good days, she considers this other solitary woman. Her trick-mirror image. She wonders how she’s finding her maternity leave. Perhaps she hates it. Perhaps she misses her job and the reliable functionality of her pelvic floor.
On not-so-good days she wonders if she is the reason that this other woman is alone; even lonely. Because she didn’t have her baby. Because she didn’t get pregnant. Or because it didn’t stick when she did.
‘Is it all right if we have this chair?’ With a start, she realises the group’s loud, capable, self-appointed leader is standing at her table, hands resting on the back of the unused seat, one hip cocked. Her legs are neatly encased in jeans, not leggings like the others. Behind her, stands a fifth group member, just arrived, baby harnessed to her chest in a sling, its limbs jangling like a marionette.
It is, of course, perfectly all right, but she finds she can’t speak. She wishes she hadn’t noticed the sling; the same one she has bookmarked on her computer, still. Unpurchased.
The back of her throat is dry and her voice feels stuck somewhere deep under her ribs. She nods vigorously, mouth frozen open. She thinks the words quickly, in a rush, but somehow is unable to say them.
It’s fine, take it. I’m quite all right. It’s just me. I’m fine.