A nanny for Jacob.
‘Job for me.’ Rob sounded a little nervous.
‘Oh, yes, darling,’ said Rachel. She did try to take her son seriously. She really did. ‘A job for you. In real estate, do you think?’
‘Not sure yet,’ said Rob. ‘We’ll have to see. I might end up being a house husband.’
‘So sorry I never taught him how to cook,’ said Rachel to Lauren, not especially sorry. Rachel had never been much interested in cooking or that good at it; it was just another chore that had to be done, like the laundry. The way people went on these days about cooking.
‘That’s okay,’ beamed Lauren. ‘We’ll probably eat out a lot in New York. The city that never sleeps, you know!’
‘Although, of course, Jacob will need to sleep,’ said Rachel. ‘Or will the nanny feed him while you’re out for dinner?’
Lauren’s smile wavered and she glanced at Rob, who was oblivious, of course.
The volume of the television suddenly increased, so the house boomed with cinematic sound. A male voice shouted, ‘You get nothing for nothing!’
Rachel recognised the voice. It was one of the trainers on The Biggest Loser. She liked that show. She found it soothing to get caught up in a brightly coloured, plastic world where all that mattered was how much you ate and exercised, where pain and anguish were suffered over no greater tragedy than push-ups, where people spoke intensely about calories and sobbed joyfully over lost kilos. And then they all lived happily, skinnily ever after.
‘You playing with the remote again, Jake?’ called out Rob over the noise of the TV. He left the table and went into the living room.
He was always the first to get up and go to Jacob. Never Lauren. Right from the beginning he’d changed nappies. Ed had never changed a nappy in his life. Of course all the daddies changed nappies these days. It probably didn’t hurt them. It just made Rachel feel awkward, almost embarrassed, as if they were doing something inappropriate, too feminine. How the girls of today would shriek if she was to ever admit to that!
‘Rachel,’ said Lauren.
Rachel saw that Lauren was looking at her nervously, as if she had a large favour to ask. Yes, Lauren, I’ll take care of Jacob while you and Rob live in New York. For two years? No problem. Off you go. Have a lovely time.
‘This Friday,’ said Lauren. ‘Good Friday. I know that it’s, ah, the anniversary –’
Rachel froze. ‘Yes,’ she said in her chilliest voice. ‘Yes it is.’ She had no desire to discuss this Friday with Lauren, of all people. Her body had known weeks ago that Friday was coming up. It happened every year in the last days of summer, when she felt that very first hint of crispness in the air. She’d feel a tension in her muscles, a prickling sense of horror, and then she’d remember: Of course. Here comes another autumn. A pity. She used to love autumn.
‘I understand that you go to the park,’ said Lauren, as if they were discussing the venue for an upcoming cocktail party. ‘It’s just that I wondered –’
Rachel couldn’t bear it.
‘Would you mind if we didn’t talk about it? Just not right now? Another time?’
‘Of course!’ Lauren flushed, and Rachel felt a pang of guilt. She rarely played that card. It made her feel cheap.
‘I’ll make us a cup of tea,’ she said, and began to stack the plates.
‘Let me help.’ Lauren half-stood.
‘Leave that,’ ordered Rachel.
‘If you’re sure.’ Lauren pushed a lock of strawberry-blonde hair behind her ear. She was a pretty girl. The first time Rob had brought her home to meet Rachel he’d barely been able to contain his pride. It had reminded her of his rosy plump face when he’d brought home a new painting from preschool.
What had happened to their family in 1984 should have made Rachel love her son even more, but it didn’t. It was like she’d lost her ability to love, until Jacob was born. By then, she and Rob had developed a relationship that was perfectly nice; but it was like that dreadful carob chocolate – as soon as you tasted it you knew it was just a wrong, sad imitation. So Rob had every right to take Jacob away from her. She deserved it for not loving him enough. This was her penance. Two hundred Hail Marys and your grandson goes to New York. There was always a price, and Rachel always had to pay it in full. No discounts. Just like she’d paid for her mistake in 1984.
Rob was making Jacob giggle now. Wrestling with him, probably, hanging him upside down by his ankles, the same way Ed used to wrestle with him.
‘Here comes the . . . TICKLE MONSTER!’ cried Rob.
Peal after peal of Jacob’s laughter floated into the room like streams of bubbles and Rachel and Lauren both laughed together. It was irresistible, like they were being tickled themselves. Their eyes met across the table, and at that instant Rachel’s laughter turned into a sob.
‘Oh, Rachel.’ Lauren half-rose from her seat and reached out a perfectly manicured hand (she had a manicure, a pedicure and a massage every third Saturday. She called it ‘Lauren time’. Rob brought Jacob over to Rachel’s place, whenever it was ‘Lauren time’, and they walked to the park on the corner and ate egg sandwiches). ‘I’m so sorry, I know how much you’ll miss Jacob, but –’
Rachel took a deep shaky breath and pulled herself together with all the strength that she had, as if she was heaving herself back up from a cliff edge.