For one stomach churning instant, I remained rooted to the spot, in front of one of the reflective ground-floor windows of Muller Finance Building at the end of Rushmore Street. It was only an idle, sidelong, glance, while I was standing there, waiting for Vanessa to come out of the building for her lunch break. I half turned and surveyed the humongous bulge underneath my fine, neatly tucked-in, imitation silk shirt, and I was overwhelmed with dismay. No, bloody way was this thing happening to me. No way would I be carrying a pauper’s wind bag – which was Gary’s mischievous euphemism for an oversized paunch that overhung precariously across the waistline. Considering how hard I exercised and how studiously I watched what I ate, a hanging belly was the worst possible payoff for my diligent effort at keeping fit.
I turned again to get a closer look, and then, suddenly realizing that I was making a spectacle of myself in a public place, I snapped back to attention and marched off towards Blackfairs Station. It depressed me to think that someone on the other side of the glass had probably seen me, and had a hearty laugh at my brief, but ridiculous, display of vanity.
That was it. I wasn’t going to hang around there anymore waiting for Vanessa. She would be really mad at me for standing her up once again. It didn’t even matter that I’d planned to treat her to a birthday lunch that afternoon, and, ultimately, propose.
She’d threatened over and over again that if she didn't get an offer before her 36th, then she’s never getting married. She’d automatically reject any proposals after that date. And, in her own emphatic words, she’d ‘bloody well meant it’, so, this was it. In all of the four years that we’d been going out, at no time did I make any statement that might be considered to be a declaration of intent. Of course, I’d heard tales of smitten lovers, overwhelmed by passion and romance, spontaneously falling at the feet of their fair maiden and blurting out a gibberish plea for her hand in marriage. But that wasn’t my thing. Even if the slightest whiff of such nonsense had entered into my head, I’d have promptly shot it down, and locked it away in the farthest corner of my mind, where other foolish thoughts were permanently piled. But things were different as they stood; I was well aware that she was looking for me to make a commitment, and if I didn't act at once, then I'd blown my last chance. But I could not let her see me the way I was. I didn’t want her to think I’d swallowed the Millennium Dome.
I could not bring myself to contemplate what was happening to me. It was all just too weird. A week earlier, I suddenly found that I’d lost my left eyebrow. I looked in the mirror and it was gone – No prior warning. No farewell speech. No nothing. Before that time, of course, I’d never given much thought to my impressive brows. I’d always taken them for granted, and never once thought there would ever come a time that I would no longer be attached to them. So, my horror (and my disgruntlement) could not have been more profound as I glared at the vacant spot at the top of my left eye. My other eyebrow, strangely enough, remained perfectly intact, and it stood out even more prominently in the absence of its fallen peer. I promptly set out in a futile search throughout my pokey flat, hoping to find it lying forlornly in the corner of the bedroom cupboard, under the kitchen sink or some other arbitrary location. Realizing that it was gone forever, I contemplated the merits of slicing the remaining one in half, and pasting it on the blank spot, just to confer some sort of credible symmetry. But when I considered what it could do to my reputation as a in my clinic, I quickly gave up the silly idea.
In the end, I did the obvious thing under the unfortunate, and utterly bizarre, circumstances – I reached for old Richie’s Occam shaving kit, and wiped off the remaining brow in one swift action. I scrubbed my face with a warm washcloth, and winked at my handsome face in the mirror. Assured by the foolish hope that Vanessa would never notice the missing fellas, I strode out to start the day, with a jaunty spring in my steps.
Vanessa noticed at once, and she was not overjoyed. The look of disappointment that simmered in her eyes was something I'd been seeing more frequently in the past week. She was very quiet initially, but I knew that, underneath, she was fuming, and the real firework was only just round the corner. She remained dangerously sullen for a while, and then I blew it while trying to make light out of the matter by flirtatiously wriggling my invisible eyebrows.
Then she exploded in a murderous rage and screamed at me. ‘What the hell did you do that for? Now you look like an uncharismatic eel, and, frankly, I don’t want anything to do with you right now!’
Nothing could have hurt more, until she demanded that I grew another pair of eyebrows at once. But, when she saw the incredulous look on my face, she relaxed the deadline. ‘OK, latest, by the end of the week!’ Which I thought was, still, both unreasonable and unfair. Of course, we’d planned to go to Portsmouth at the weekend, where I was to meet her parents for the first time, and perhaps she did not think that a distinct lack of eyebrows would project an ideal first impression of a potential son-in-law.
I was still inwardly bemoaning my unwanted baggage when I arrived at Belsize Park Tube Station. It struck me that I'd been on autopilot for the best part of an hour; otherwise I would have avoided that area. That was where my Dental clinic was located, just a few minutes away from the station. Gary would also be at the Bakers Arms, a few doors down, and the last thing I wanted at the time was to run into him. But that was the precise spot that my wayward legs were dragging me.
'So, did you do it?' he asked, peering at me over his ultra-modern designer glasses. His Guinness glass was one third down, but he had a couple of other glasses containing other alcoholic beverages. His skinny elbows rested on a copy of the Daily Mail, on the puzzles page, a completed crossword and a half-finished Sudoku in full display.
I hastily slipped in the chair opposite him, relying on the circular table to conceal my incredible flab from his usually over-inquisitive eyes.
He laughed. ‘Of course, you didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t put a bet on it... What happened?'
I sighed. I wasn’t about to tell him how my tummy had got in the way. ‘Postponed it to dinner time; always thought doing it over lunch wasn’t a good idea anyway. I'll get her some flowers; there’ll be champagne, serenade…the whole works.’
Gary spent all his time at The Bakers, which was his local. He was there from 9am, for breakfast, he read the papers, did his crossword puzzles and watched Cricket on the wide screen TV. He was a polymath, often surprising me even in Dentistry subjects, which was my own area of knowledge. But for all his genius, he'd remained decidedly unemployed for more than four years. He was only in his mid thirties, and he had so much going for him, but he chose to while away all his time at the Arms. However, he was happy and relaxed about life, and he seemed to be better off than most people I'd met.
‘What you need right now, Phil, is a healthy dose of Dutch courage’ he smiled, 'A couple of shots of Jamie Hogarth’s Rocket fuel, and – I kid you not - you’ll be in a fit state to propose to the iron lady.'
‘I don’t want to propose to the Iron lady’ I protested. However, I accepted the small crystal tumbler, half-filled with a fiery yellowish substance, proffered by the Grok, barman. The fierce liquid seared its way down my gullet, and exploded in the pit of my stomach like a truckload of semtex.
‘Shit. What’s that?’ I yelled, examining the glass with deserving respect. The thing was potent. Gary was always trying out stuff. Vanessa was probably right about him being a bad influence. But I didn’t care. I wanted to be badly influenced, anyway. Up till the time I’d met Gary, only a couple of months earlier, at the newspaper stand outside the station, life had been a dreary and joyless plod. His subversive attitude to authority – his blatant defiance - towards established order and conventional wisdom was particularly refreshing. But Vanessa did not share my admiration for the guy, and she loathed him with the same passion that she’d have loathed an obese cockroach with severe ADHD. She made no bones about showing how much she despised him, and she’d forebidden me from seeing him ever again.
True, it was difficult no to see Gary as a pretentious prat, especially once he’d revealed his background. His dad was a Professor of Medicine at Oxford, and his mom was a Chief Medical Officer at the prestigious Oxford University Hospital, and she’d once been on a BBC Documentary. Gary, himself had dropped in the 3rd year of his Medical degree at Kings, although he wouldn’t put it that way. Rather, he’d insist that he’d been too intelligent for the Ivory Tower. Everything they had to offer was so far beneath him - the profound nonsense that they doled out of their imbecile text books, the decorated wiseacres who paraded themselves as distinguished dons. He could not stand the stink of their gold-plated ignorance anymore and he’d hit the eject button – no, he hadn’t dropped out, he’d walked out! I often got the impression that he considered me to be of lesser mettle, since I’d allowed myself to be dragged through five years of Dental studies, without questioning, and, ultimately, rejecting the rotten system.
Gary was always delighted to recount how he’d burnt his bridges with his parents, when he declared his engagement to Angie. When I met his bad-tempered, 76-year old fiancé, I immediately understood why his parents had disowned him. At first I was quite convinced that it was all a big joke when he said ‘This is my Angie. She is the one’ And then he told me that they’d been together for more than three years, and it seemed, nearly to all intents and purpose, that they were a genuine couple after all.
I avoided Angie like a plague of poisonous lobsters. She gave me the creeps. I never got along with her, and she never got along with me. So, I always made my urgent excuses, and hastily vanished from her presence, just to avoid her constant squeaky reprimands and disconcerting glares of undisguised malice. She couldn’t have found me particularly endearing, either, due to the uncontrollable sense of panic and disgust that must have washed over my face every time I looked at her.
Despite Angie’s old age, neither of them made any secret of their efforts towards trying for a baby. They seemed to be only too pleased to launch into completely inappropriate details about what they’d done, and what they were about to do. When she wasn’t screeching at Gary, or any of his friends, she was always rattling on about how she longed to have a baby and what she was prepared to do in order to have one. Having had a glorious career as a prison officer for over 30 years, and a further 27 years as a roofer’s assistant, she was now ready to start a family, and she was happy she’d found the perfect male specimen to do it with.
Initially, it was going to be through natural conception, her obvious state of menopause notwithstanding. Whatever the case, she was determined that she would carry the baby, and surrogates were out of the question. However, it soon became obvious that the only option was IVF. But they could not find any IVF specialist who was willing to assist in getting a 78-year old woman pregnant. Angie was mad at Gary’s parents because they refused to use their influence to get her a consultation at the University Hospital, and they would not stomp out for the cost of any kind of treatment. Although she’d never met either of them, she called them names and launched a fierce campaign of hate against them.
‘We’ve been to see an old bloke in Chinatown who is an expert in fertility magic’ Gary told me about three weeks earlier. I thought he was trying out a new sort of joke that wasn't partiularly funny, and was in the middle of a polite laugh when I saw the look on his face and my laughter instantly dried up in my throat.
‘Surely, you don’t believe in such mumbo jumbo?’
He shrugged, ‘it’s Angie, she wants this baby so badly; she is willing to try anything.’
‘Well, what did this Chineese Juju man have to say?’
‘It’s the most difficult case he’s ever handled, but he’s confident that he can do it. He’s preparing a magic potion. It’ll take everything he’s got, it will probably be his last assignment. He’s very old, this bloke. Once he’s prepared it we’ll take it home, cook it and Agnie’d eat it over three days. During that time we’ll... er...you know.’
‘Eeuuwww!’ I’d cried, certainly not wanting to know.
Back in the Arms, I was jolted out of my reverie by Gary’s gravelly voice. ‘Well, don’t you think you should go give it another try?’
‘I guess so.’ I said, feeling much better after three shots of the devil’s brew. I’d taken the day off from my busy schedule at the clinic for this purpose, after all. I’d bought the ring and I’d and perfected my engagement speech. I only needed to get over all the odd things that had been happening to me. This was probably the last chance I’d get with Vanessa, and it’d be such a shame to blow it. I wasn’t exactly crazy about the whole thing, but we’d been in the relationship for over three years, and I’d come do value it the way one valued a pair of comfortable old loafers. The engagement thing, I’d put if off forever if I had my way but.
‘Right, wish me luck’ I said getting to my feet.
I plucked my i-phone 4 from my top pocket and found that I’d had 16 missed calls, all of them from Vanessa. I braced myself as I thumped on her blonde-headed cartoon icon in the contacts tray. Emboldened by the heady fumes of the shots, still buzzing in my head, I waited for her to pick up at the other end.
‘Phil, I waited for you all day.’ She did not seem angry as I’d envisaged, instead, she seemed rather relieved to take my call.
‘Sorry’, I said, ‘Had a really bad patient at the clinic. But, I’m absolutely determined to make it up to you, so I’ve ordered us diner at The Gaucho Grill, for 8:30.’
‘Hey, that’s just 20 minutes from now!’
‘Well, you’d better hurry up, then’ I chuckled. Relieved that all was forgiven, and only the small matter of the proposal remained, I merrily made my way to the station.
But, half way on, I was stopped in my tracks by a sudden sensation of unrest. It started off as an electric tingling in my scalp, and then it crept its way down my spine, filling my guts with panic, excitement and bizarre, unearthly, warmth. I was sure that it wasn’t the drink. No drink could do that to you. Perhaps it was something my mom would have described as a ‘hot flush’. But that was a totally ridiculous idea. My mind flipped back to the tummy trouble I’d had earlier, and, with discretion and dispair, I reached down to feel my wobbly stomach.
I was terrified, and could not bear to imagine what might be happening to me. Everything started a week before. I’d skipped breakfast and worked through the afternoon to take a late lunch break at 2:30pm. I’d let myself become so hungry that I was starting to see things that weren’t there. I blamed myself for leaving it so late before getting something to eat. It messed with my head and caused me to be vulnerable, angry and desperate. I hated my colleagues. I hated my family. I hated God and I hated myself.
I found myself wandering towards Gary’s flat. The door was open, but there was no in sight. I guessed he was lounging down at the Bakers, and perhaps Angie was somewhere close by. There was an alluring aroma emanating from the kitchen. It led me by the nose to a red earthenware dish with oriental markings, containing what looked like an oversized sausage, covered in spinach and curry sauce, sizzling impatiently in the microwave. I did not have to be told what I was looking at. It had black magic written all over it. Sure, it was the old Chinese man’s fertility potion. But the thing was oozing with ferocious scrumptiousness, and it was hellishly appealing. It transmitted an unrelenting invitation that throbbed in my head like a mad man’s heartbeat: EAT ME. EAT ME. EAT ME. So, in the end, I had, absolutely, no choice. My stomach went berserk with desire and I dug in with the gusto of a starving hyena, licking my finger with every bite. I was utterly possessed, and I did not return to my senses until the whole sausage was gone. Only after I’d washed it down with a glass of cold lemonade from the old fridge did I realize what I had done.
Angie would hate me forever. She'd pursue me, and shriek at me until I went insane. Gary would never talk to me again. He wouldn’t have to say anything. The condemning look in his skinny red face would be enough. I’d been a selfish bastard who didn’t give a toss for anyone’s feelings or happiness. To think how long they’d been trying for a baby; how desperate Angie was, and in spite of all that, I’d eaten the stuff that was to make her pregnant. Well, maybe it wouldn’t have happened, but now there was no way of knowing that. It was all too obvious that I had to get out of the flat before I was spotted. They’d never know that it was me.
I was back in the clinic by 3:30pm, my ravenous hunger and light-headedness now replaced by an overwhelming sense of guilt and self reproach.
The following day, I was met by an utterly smitten Gary. He told me that Angie had been taken to the hospital because she’d had a nervous breakdown. She’d prepared the fertility potion according to the instructions, but it was gone before she could eat it. ‘She only went down the road for a pack of cigarettes.’ He said, almost tearfully.
‘Have you told the old guy?’ I put on my most sympathetic expression.
‘Yes. Unfortunately he can’t make another one. That’s our only chance.’ And then a flash of anger shot across his face. ‘We know it was Joe’s dog. I was going to find that dog, and squash its nuts’, he bared his teeth, they were set on edge and his eyes twinkled with hate.
‘I’m sorry to hear this…’ I began to say, but Gary carried on.
‘The old bloke says we should leave the dog alone. It’d soon get pregnant anyway, and we’d have its puppy to look after …”only trouble…” I told the old man, “…it’s a male dog”. But he said “never mind that, it’ll get pregnant anyways, you just wait and you’ll see”.’
Then I’d started laughing. The whole baby thing was all so freaky, and, Gary saying it with such a straight face made it even more hilarious. But I immediately sobered up when I remembered what he said about Angie being in Hospital and I quietly hoped that she’d get over it and move on.
Days on, I didn’t think it was so funny anymore. I’d been reluctant to associate all my peculiar problems with that infernal sausage I’d eaten in Gary’s flat, but the connection, though utterly incredulous, was beginning to appear inevitable. Those strange eye twitches that were already starting to drive Vanessa mad, the missing eyebrow, the tummy thing, the tingling and the hot flushes…the weight of evidence was no longer easy to ignore.
The Asian shop attendant at the Boots Stores on Weston Road smiled when I enquired about the Clearblue plus pregnancy test kit, and was all too willing to explain how to use it. I thanked her but I did not smile back when she joked that she didn’t think I would need it.
I was in my flat in 25 minutes later, the Boots bag containing the pregnancy kit in one hand, and Vanessa’s flower still in the other.
I didn’t bother to switch on the front room light as I entered the flat. Although, at the back of my mind I could not come to terms with the whole preposterous idea of a bloke taking a pregnancy test, I could not help it as I rushed into the bathroom, ripping open the test kit. I had only minutes to wait for the result.
As I stepped out of the bathroom, still holding the test stick. I staggered and almost fell against the center stool as the front room light suddenly came on. As my eyes adjusted, I found myself staring at the three people I’d most dreaded and least expected to see at the time. Gary was dressed in a black suit and a tie, the person beside him was not Angie, but there was a haunting resemblance. Vanessa was in a dainty red dress and high-heeled shoes, her blonde locks piled up and bounded with a white ribbon. All three of them burst into a chorus of raucous laughter, which, at the time, sounded somewhat distant, because my brain had gone into hyper-drive mode, in its effort to compute a plausible excuse for my strange behavior.
‘C’mon Phil, let’s have a look at that’ Gary chuckled. ‘You didn’t happen to think you were actually knocked up, did you?’
They all laughed again. Vanessa came over and hugged me, and then she kissed me on the forehead. ‘You’re a real sport, you are!’
‘Meet the new improved Angie…’ Gary declared as I stared in profound stupefaction at the familiar looking stranger. ‘…Drama theater impresario and Technical Special Effects specialist, she set this whole thing up.’ Angie smiled and waved at me.
‘You bastards’ I finally found my voice. I suddenly realized that I was no longer feeling any of my curious conditions. My tummy was no different from what it had been two weeks before. All that stuff I was feeling were purely psychological. I felt as if a ton of elephant dung had just been taken off my shoulders. I was more relieved than any time in my entire life.
I realized that I’d fallen on one knee and was holding Vanessa’s hand. Tears of joy peppered my eyes as I heard my own trembling voice, ‘Vanessa, will you marry me?’
Due date: 20 Aug 2011
Working Title: Farewell, cruel world
Jim Guliano has just bagged an exciting new job as an events organizer after over a year of unemployment. He is determined to impress his new employers as well as his increasingly sceptical girlfriend.
However it is not long before he begins to see the challenges of his new occupation - especially when he learns who his first clients are going to be.