Don't forget the scan at eleven, I'll meet you there¦ Mike¦! Are you listening to me?'
Mike looks up, his soldier poised over his boiled egg.
'Scan, eleven, I'll be there, stop fretting, you'd think we were the first couple to ever have a baby the way you are carrying on.' He dunks the toast. 'Fuck¦ what do you call this, the yolks hard.'
'You can't trust soft boiled eggs,' Ruth replies, stacking the dishwasher. She straightens and grabs her briefcase from the hall; Mike continues to ram his toast into the hard yolk, mumbling under his breath.
'Bye love,' Ruth says, coming up behind him and planting a kiss on top of his short blond hair.
'Is it too much to ask¦' he continues to mumble into his breakfast.
Ruth raises her arms and mimes strangling her husband, it brings a brief smile to her face, already late for work, she pecks him for a second time and heads out of the door, her briefcase slamming into her leg and laddering her tights.
'Shit, shit, shit,' she says, hopping across the gravel drive as she pulls them off, stuffing the 40 denier disaster in her jacket pocket, whilst praying that no one will notice she hasn't shaved her legs this morning. Ruth mentally runs through her day as her car joins the gridlock, she plays an imaginary conversation with her boss regarding her wishes for maternity leave as her car inches forward. He has just had a baby, so she is hopeful for a little empathy, Ruth can't imagine his wife wanting to give up her career, and anyway more and more women were managing it these days, combining family and careers. But Ruth's plan is a little more radical¦ she can't believe no one else as ever thought of it before, takes a woman that's why, she smiles as her car sprints a whopping 3 feet.
Flying into the office with minutes to spare, Ruth grabs the screeching phone.
'Ruth Myers, Human Resources!'
'You sound a bit breathless Ruth, what you been up to?' Doug's playful voice breathes down the phone.
'Nothing exciting,' Ruth replies flicking through her mail.
'Anyway, just ringing to hear you gorgeous voice¦ I mean to arrange those interviews for the new salesman.'
'Person,' Ruth corrects, 'it could be a woman,' she adds, as Doug chuckles.
'Not on my watch, baby¦ don't get me wrong I love women as you well know¦ but all this going off to bring up babies¦ nah¦ give a man any day, besides men just sell better, they've got the right sort of brain for it.'
Ruth can feel injustice rising in red migraine waves up her face, her wind-up radar befuddled by her imminent maternity leave.
'If you bloody men helped out a bit more, then maybe women wouldn't have to leave their jobs the moment the baby arrives.'
Doug laughs, causing the nauseating waves to transform into steel spikes piercing her skull.
'Hormonal are we?' he smans. 'Besides we are the ones that do all the hard work, it is the least you women can do¦ anyway you're made for it, you've got the right bits and pieces.'
Ruth hangs up before her head implodes, Doug's sexist digs don't normally irritate her, she knows he just does it to get a rise, well today he has succeeded she realises before plunging into the work ahead of her.
At 10:30 she switches on her answer phone and heads across town to the maternity wing. She arrives in plenty of time and finds, unsurprisingly, that Mike has yet to arrive. He turns up with seconds to spare, huffing and panting and clutching his side. Ruth gets up and helps him into a chair.
'You need to take it easy,' she says, as Mike wipes the sweat from his brow.
'The meeting overran, you know what Ian's like,' he replies, breathing heavily.
Ruth nods, picturing Mike's boss, red in the face and permanently fidgeting, heading for a heart attack is her accompanying thought.
'Anyway we haven't been called yet, have we¦' he says raising an eyebrow, 'so what are you mithering about?'
Ruth punches him gently on the arm, then leans in, resting her head on his shoulder, his familiar scent sending her dreamy as Mike strokes her thigh and nuzzles her ear.
'Mr and Mrs Myers?'
Mike gets up and Ruth follows him into the scanning suite. Week 20, this scan would reveal the gender, and Ruth feels her stomach flipping in anticipation. She is soon mesmerised by the movements of their tiny baby on the screen, kicking and wriggling, tumbling and unfurling like a water-baby, in her favourite childhood story.
'Well?' Mike enquires impatiently, 'what we carrying?'
The radiologist presses down hard with scanner, causing a gasp and Ruth to worry.
'Well I am pretty certain it's a girl,' he says, 'there is no mistaking what that is,' he adds, pointing at the screen.
Ruth and Mike both screw up their eyes and peer at the screen, but all Ruth can make out is what looks like a foot or maybe it's an arm.
'I'll have to take your word for it' Mike adds, obviously struggling as much as Ruth.
The radiologist continues to probe and click before finally turning to Mike.
'All done,' he says, removing the scanner with a flourish and slotting it back into its cradle.
Mike slips off of the couch and pulls his elasticised trousers up his legs and over his bump.
'Right,' he says, glancing at the clock above the door. 'I have another meeting to get to, so have to shoot love,' he continues, reaching up and placing a kiss on Ruth's cheek.
'Take it easy,' Ruth says to his departing back.
'He's pregnant not ill,' the radiologist unhelpfully adds, Ruth clenches her jaw and ducks out of the door, not the done thing to hit a man, even an annoying runt like this one.
On her way back the office, Ruth once again runs through her argument with her boss, having just returned from paternity leave, she decides to strike while the iron is hot.
Ruth knocks tentatively on John's door.
'Come in!' his voice trills, vibrating through her hand as she grasps the door handle.
Taking a deep breath she pushes out her chest, drops her shoulders, and smiles.
'Hello Ruth,' her boss says, looking up from his screen. 'I hear congrats are in order, Mike and you must be over moon.'
Ruth notices how his eyes lose focus and a soft smile appears at his lips.
'It is just wonderful¦ Clare and I are just so in love with the little blighter¦ you'll have to pop by the crÃ¨che later and take a peek, Clare says he's got my eyes¦ anyway sit down¦ please.'
He gestures to the chair in front of the desk and Ruth slides into it, this might be easier than I thought, he had already mentioned the crÃ¨che, she smiles broadly.
'I'll pop down there on my way home, Austin isn't it?'
John nods. 'Austin John.'
'Of course,' Ruth replies. 'John Junior,' she adds, taking a deep breath and placing her hands in an open posture on the desk.
'It was the crÃ¨che I wanted to talk to you about, actually.'
'Oh yes,' John says, leaning forward and pushing his lap-top screen down.
'Well I was wondering if we could extend the crÃ¨che, you know for longer, I was thinking from birth to 4 years¦'
John shakes his head gently from side to side. Ruth pushes on.
'It's just that way, you know I could carry on working, not take a 5 year break¦ some women are managing it nowadays¦ though god knows how¦ I could maybe reduce my hours¦ maybe Mike could too¦ it's just¦'
John raises his hand.
'Ruth can I just stop you there.'
Ruth closes her mouth, reddening. John is no longer smiling.
'Have you talked to Mike about this?'
Ruth shakes her head. 'No not yet¦ I wanted to see what you said first¦ you know about the crÃ¨che¦ but I am sure he would agree¦ he knows how I love my job.'
John shakes his head again.
'Listen Ruth, if nature wanted women to carry on working once the child was born, then you would have been made differently¦ you know physically.'
Ruth can feel anger bubbling to the surface once more, her temples throb, but she nods silently.
'I know it's a clichÃ©,' John continues, 'but then there is often truth in clichÃ©s, hence the clichÃ©,' he chuckles. 'But you women, you're designed to be able to handle a growing child, your are physically stronger than us for a start, and without these appendages he grasps his breasts, getting in the way, everything is easier¦' he smiles, 'and well peeing standing up means not having to put the baby down¦ all right I agree that one is a clichÃ©¦ but a child needs it's mother, its natural.'
Ruth leans in further, her cheeks hot.
'But John, that's the point of the crÃ¨che, if its on site then I can spend lunchtimes there¦ and I've said I am happy to reduce my hours, maybe 4 shorter days? If Mike reduced his too, then I wouldn't need to use the crÃ¨che all the time, just when we we're both at work, and I am sure there are other women in the company who would welcome this too.'
John sits back in his chair and brings his fingers up under his chin; he taps his lips with his index fingers.
'Listen Ruth, I will give this some thought, yeah, come and see me next week after I've put it to the Board of Directors, but you don't have to worry about your job, it will be here in 5 years time, and we are more than happy to keep you on full pay¦ and I can tell you, Clare is really looking forward to it, giving up work for a while¦ suiting herself all day, no deadlines to meet.' He looks at his watch. 'feeding time,' he says, patting his breasts. 'You'll have to excuse me Ruth, thank god the little blighter will be 4 months soon, I can't wait to get back to normal.'
Ruth gets up and smoothes her skirt, at least he hadn't said no outright, she thanks him and leaves the office as he heads towards the crÃ¨che. 'Only two more weeks,' he says, slipping into the lift.
Ruth pours herself a large glass of red and a small glass for Mike. Mike rubs the small of his back as he comes to the table.
'I'll be glad to get this thing out of me he grimaces and burps, it is playing havoc with my digestion, and my back feels like it is split in two.'
Ruth murmurs soothing words whilst rehearsing her speech.
'You're not listening to me,' Mike says, sounding wounded. 'You try carrying a couple of extra stone around your stomach, then you might understand,' he adds in a whiney tone.
Ruth looks up and reaches across the table to stroke Mike's hand. 'I'm sorry baby, it must be awful, you poor thing, I've just got a lot on my mind.'
'And I haven't?' Mike gripes, 'in a few months I got to give birth, the worst pain ever¦ you women could never understand what we men go through for you.'
Ruth can sense a my-life-is-harder-than-yours row brewing. She gets up and comes round the back of Mike, leaning over is shoulders and tucking her head into his neck close to his ear.
'I'm trying honey,' she murmurs, feeling the hairs on his neck stand to attention. 'I do understand how hard it is¦'
'And my chest,' Mike continues, 'so sore and tender, you know Debbie bumped into me today and I nearly burst into tears with the pain..' Mike cups his breasts protectively.
'Oh honey' Ruth continues to murmur, in what she hopes is a sympathetic tone.
She drops her hands from Mike's shoulders and begins to dish out the beef stew.
'This will cheer you up,' she says, handing Mike his plate, 'and after dinner I want you to go and put your feet up in front of the football, I'll clear up.'
Mike smiles weakly before tucking into his dinner with gusto.
'Darling?' Ruth begins dipping a piece of French bread into her stew, ' after your paternity leave are you planning on going back to work full time?'
'Of course,' Mike replies mid-mouthful, 'why?' He eyes Ruth quizzically.
'Its just I saw John today, and asked him about extending the crÃ¨che so I can keep working¦ part time of course,' she adds, seeing Mike's face pale.
Mike puts down his fork and spoon and Ruth looks into his eyes, pools of deep blue that she had fallen headlong into 5 years ago, now muddied with tears.
'Is it not enough that I put my body through all this pain¦ isn't it enough that I will have the baby attached to my breasts for the first 4 months, isn't it enough that I have got piles, stretch marks, acid reflux, varicose veins, sore breasts, insomnia and I can't eat cheese or peanuts or get drunk, I can't even put mayonnaise on my salad¦'
'But what does that have to do with whether I return to work or not?' Ruth interrupts, trying to ignore his tears.
Mike shakes his head his tears splashing onto the back of her hand, she hates it when she makes him cry, it makes her feel so mean.
'It is not fair other wise,' Mike continues, 'I have nine months of hell, then 4 months of being a walking refrigerator, then, then its your turn. If you go back to work I'll never be me again¦ you'll expect me to carry on, I'll get no break¦ I lose my identity; I don't want to be just a dad¦ I thought you understood.'
Now it is Ruth turns to shake her head.
'But you expect me to give up 5 years of my life?'
'You do the hard bit then!' Mike attacks.
Ruth sighs, and runs her hands through her long dark hair.
'I'm not asking you to give up work Mike, I'm just asking that you consider dropping your hours to say 4 days a week? If I do the same and we take our day off on different days, then I will only need to use the crÃ¨che 3 days a week.'
'And John's agreed to this?' Mike says, tears forgotten.
Ruth nods and then shakes her head.
'He says he will think about it, but he didn't seem keen, I just hope the Board of Directors are more forward thinking. So what do you think?'
'We will wait and see what John says, first,' Mike replies, checking his watch and getting up. 'Now I really must rest my back,' he winces, heading into the lounge. Ruth hears the chant of the fans as she begins to load the dishwasher.
'Hello love, good day?'
'Yes darling,' Clare says, lifting Austin out of John's arms.
'Two more weeks ' eh love, I bet you can't wait to leave,' John says, winking at Austin.
Clare nods tightly, 'Can't wait,' she says.
'Did I tell you what crazy idea Ruth suggested yesterday, you know my HR manager, she and her husband are expecting their first in a few months.'
Clare shakes her head distractedly as she begins to undress Austin for his bath, his fat legs cycling furiously.
'She said she doesn't want to take her 5 year paid motherhood break, and she asked me if we could extend the crÃ¨che so she could keep working, can you believe it,' John snorts.
Clare slips the nappy off of Austin.
'And¦' Clare says.
'Apart from the fact the Board of Directors nearly laughed me out of the boardroom, it's not natural, is it, I mean the way it is now we all play our part ' its fair, and it is not as if she doesn't have a job to come back to.'
'Maybe she wants more,' Clare mutters, bending and blowing a raspberry on Austin's belly.
'What was that love,' John says, loosening his tie and slipping his hand up the back of his shirt. 'Christ this nursing bra so cuts into my back, bring back my under wire.'
'Nothing,' Clare's says, kissing Austin's feet and pretending to eat them ' he giggles deliciously.
'Anyway the board said no, like I thought they would, it would mean the whole company would have to change, you know how it works ' we fill the motherhood leave with young upstarts and graduates, train them up for a pittance and then move them into key positions further up the company when the woman returns. That's how we get our top level execs, it works perfectly. If the women came back, then where would the training roles come from¦ it would be commercial suicide, no it really is a preposterous idea, don't you agree love?'
Clare lifts Austin up into her arms and buries her head in his soft neck folds, her tears dampening his barrelled chest.
'Preposterous,' she mumbles, as she turns towards the bathroom, John's words tapping like a woodpecker inside her skull.
'I mean what does Ruth want? An executive role? Huh? Women just don't have the brains for it ' multi-tasking is a necessary requirement for a job at that level, and you find me one woman that can do that? Juggling 3 or 4 balls in the air without dropping a single one. No it is a preposterous idea, it's not natural, Clare, Clare¦?'