It was just as Wendy was leaving the classroom where she'd been attending her antenatal class that it finally became too much for her. Throughout the whole class, on whatever it was she'd already forgotten, her mind had drifted well away from the subject on discussion. She envied the self-satisfied expressions on the faces of the other mothers to be. There was just nothing for Wendy to feel smug about. Not for her, a husband or supportive partner. It was going to be left to her, and only her, to take care of her unwanted, but hopefully not to be unloved, future son or daughter.
Wendy burst into tears, unstoppable and unpremeditated, while waddling down the corridor, the weight of seven months or more of gravidity weighing on her as perhaps it had never done before. Her face collapsed into a display of utter despair as she put out an arm against the wall to prop herself up. Her legs, still so slender despite the extra fat elsewhere, weren't enough to take the burden of both a new life and her accumulated misery.
"You all right?" asked a kindly voice, putting an arm around her waist and taking some of the burden off her wobbling legs.
Wendy nodded pathetically and smiled piteously at her guardian angel. It was Woz. God only knows what that was meant to be short for. Another expectant mother, but one who still carried the smell of nicotine about her. So she obviously didn't pay too much attention to her antenatal classes either.
"Well, you don't look it. C'mon! Sit down! There's a bench or summink here."
"You really shouldn't bother yourself..." Wendy murmured unconvincingly, but grateful nevertheless to be guided towards a bench that was thankfully only a few yards away.
The two women sat silently on the bench. Wendy gradually gathered herself together as the onrush of depression and anxiety subsided, while Woz supported her with one arm around the shoulder and the other holding her hand in a friendly and sympathetic squeeze.
"Shall I run along and get your husband to help you?" Woz mentioned at last. "He'll be outside with all the other hubbies, won't he? Just tell me what he looks like."
Wendy sniffed. "There is no husband," she said bitterly.
"Boyfriend, then. I don't give a toss what he is. Just tell me."
"There's no boyfriend, either. There's nobody. Nobody at all!"
And with that confession, Wendy broke down in another explosion of tears. Her head fell forward into her palms, through the fingers of which the tears seeped through and onto the cotton-silk fabric of the outfit she'd spent so long selecting in Pro-Nuptia.
Woz probably bought her clothes in Top Shop or Gap, and they were undoubtedly designed for a much slender woman. But she was concerned more to brush the tears off Wendy's face than off her clothes with the ragged paper tissue she had managed to locate in a zipped-up pocket of her bum-length denim jacket.
"No boyfriend. No husband. Split up then?" she asked, as she daubed Wendy's damp cheeks.
"I don't know who the father is!" Wendy confessed. She placed a hand on her swelling belly. "It could be anyone. Anyone at all."
Woz laughed. "Me too! I don't know who this little bastard's dad is either. Not sure I really want to know, anyway. Probably a right cunt. So, how'd you get up the duff? You don't look the sort to be on the game. You look more like the sort to have an MPV and an account in House of Fraser."
Wendy sniffed and smiled despite herself. "Well, I do have a Scenic. It's parked outside. And I do have a House of Fraser storecard. You're absolutely right!"
"So what's the story, morning glory?"
Wendy frowned. "Sorry?"
"Song title. You don't know it?"
"I don't listen to anything much besides Classic FM," Wendy admitted.
"So, how come you've got a bun in your oven? Where've you been rolling the pastry?"
"You mean how did I get to be pregnant? It was at a party. I got a bit high. I mean I'd taken stuff before, but not a lot. A few pills, a few lines, you know, just before going to a club or something. But I had a bit more than usual and then I sort of had ... I just let ... I just don't know ... Somehow, there were loads of men ... They all had a turn at me ... I don't know who they were..."
Woz chuckled. "Sounds like you had a good time, girlfriend. No gain without pain though. So whyn't you have it ... you know have an ... get it terminated?"
"Abortion? I meant to. I just never got round to it. I was going to. But I didn't want to tell anyone about it. I didn't want my parents to know. Or my employer. Or my friends. Or anyone. I guess I hoped I might miscarry or something. But it didn't happen. And when I went to the doctor at last, it was too late. And now I'm stuck with it!"
And with that confession, a fresh flood of tears broke through the dam of Wendy's eyelids, gushed down over her cheeks, flowed into her mouth, cascaded off her chin and dribbled onto her Pro-Nuptia dress.
"Me too, dearie! Me too!" sympathised Woz, pressing the soggy mass of tissue onto Wendy's face. "So, you staying with your Mum then?"
"No! No! I couldn't face it. My mother still doesn't know. Neither does my father. They've divorced, you know. And I've given up my job, even though I originally got the flat to be near the office. I just live by myself. It's a small place, but it's okay."
"So, you sign on then?"
"No. I've got an allowance."
"Allowance? What's that? How'd you claim that?"
"Claim it?" Wendy was genuinely puzzled by Woz's remarks. But then it occurred to her that Woz came from quite a different social stratum where one didn't have independent means. A stratum where if one didn't work, one had to get money from the state. She shivered slightly as she studied Woz more carefully. She'd always known that Woz was one of the more common women in the antenatal class, not one of those she'd normally speak to at all. There was no subtlety about her at all. Her clothes were both too short and too tight. Her hair was a mess. And her make-up looked like she'd shovelled it on with a trowel. And that voice of hers. Every glottal stop just grated on her. But at the same time, she was genuinely grateful for Woz's show of kindness towards her.
"I guess I'd better be going back. Do you want a lift? Or do you live nearby?" Wendy hoped the last was true. She didn't really want to spend too much longer with Woz (and what was the name short for?), but she didn't want to be impolite either.
"Yeah! A lift'd be fucking fantastic. It's bloody miles to the bus stop and it's not so good getting on a bus when you're preggers. I hate standing. And there aren't many who'd give their seat up for you. Selfish cunts!"
"Indeed!" exclaimed Wendy, staggering to her feet, but feeling a little uncomfortable with the coarseness of Woz's language. She hoped that no one else could hear her using these dreadful four-letter words.
It was a long slow walk to the car park and Wendy's Scenic. Even though Woz was just as gravid as she, her new friend was the much stronger of the two, still taking half Wendy's weight, while also supporting her own weight. And that of her own unborn child. And finally into the car, two huge bellies swelling towards the dashboard. This was getting quite uncomfortable. Next time, Wendy reflected, she'd have to come to her antenatal class by taxi. She just hoped she could find a good taxi firm. Not one of those ghastly ones where the driver smoked while he drove.
It was quite a long journey to Woz's council flat. Or seemed to be, although the mileage wasn't that high really. All those wiggly streets. And those one-way roads that sneaked up on one. And those small roundabouts. And as Wendy drove, everything became progressively rundown: boarded-up shops, houses with cardboard supporting the broken glass of the windows, dilapidated cars parked (badly) on the pavement, gangs of youths hanging around at street corners, a lot more blacks and Asians, rubbish just blowing across the streets and entangling in the wheels of Wendy's car. But finally they were there. A huge block of flats, wider than it was high, with graffiti sprayed on the walls and dogs rummaging around on the rubbish-strewn lawns.
"You wanna come in for a coffee?" asked Woz when the car stopped.
Wendy hesitated. Half of her just wanted to escape from this hellhole. And she didn't like the look of a couple of young black men who were leaning against a wall and smoking what she guessed were probably not cigarettes. But the other half had warmed towards Woz during the drive. She'd never known that there were so many good soap operas on television. That 'East Enders' didn't sound bad the way Woz described it. And these rock groups that Woz liked, Coldplay and Blur and the Gorillaz, maybe there was something worth listening to in music that was less than fifty years old.
"What about the car? I can't just leave it here."
"Course you can, Wen! Those kids are mates of mine." Woz indicated the two young men Wendy had noticed. "They'll make sure no one touches your car. No one would fucking dare, anyway! A friend of mine? No one'd risk it! C'mon!"
Wendy hesitated. But she was actually feeling happier now than she'd been for months. Woz had somehow dispelled the huge cloud that had wholly engulfed her for almost as far back as she could remember. Perhaps back to the first day she knew for sure that she'd missed her period.
"Okay. I'll come. And then I'll have to get back."
However, the pleasure of Woz's company kept Wendy for much longer than she'd anticipated. Although the flat was pokey, it was, thankfully, on the ground floor and no real distance from where Wendy had parked. And after a while, Wendy didn't notice just how tiny the flat was, and even more cramped by having an ironing board and a massive wide-screen television filling up about half the living room. And the other half was jammed in by a huge sofa that had lost most of its bounce a long time ago. But Woz entertained Wendy with an unending series of cups of tea and coffee, spiced with the sort of rich biscuits and cake that, before her pregnancy, Wendy would have considered far too fattening. But now she was pretty fat anyway: no longer the slender Wendy who could squeeze into the tightest skirt and whose legs flattered any brand of stockings she might choose to wear. And somehow pregnancy made these sweet sugary things taste so much better.
"You don't like smoking, do you?" Woz commented, staring at a packet of Marlboro Lights she had on the table. "I guess I oughtta stop too. Being pregnant and all. 'S difficult though. But you done me real good. I ain't felt like a ciggie since we got here. I s'pose this gabbing's taken my mind off things."
"I suppose it must have done," admitted Wendy with a smile.
"I ain't had so much fun in ages, y'know. I'd never thought a posh bint like you, y'know, with your university degree and all, and you having a private income, I never thought I'd enjoy rabbiting with you so much. I mean, I never thought anyone could actually enjoy that classical music stuff. And maybe there's more to theatre and things than I'd thought. Y'know we must meet up again."
"Yes, we must!" agreed Wendy, surprising herself by the genuineness of her response.
"You want another cuppa?" Woz asked, picking up the teapot.
Then suddenly the doorbell rang. It was a tinny clattering sound that Wendy had never before associated with doorbells.
"'Scuse us!" said Woz, setting down the teapot and striding over to the door. As she walked by, Wendy regarded Woz in a more sympathetic light. Under all that thick make-up and those cheap flashy clothes, Woz was probably quite an attractive woman, not as slim as Wendy, but few women ever were. Her hair might be a mess, but those curls were thick and had a healthy shine. And like Wendy, her breasts had swollen as a result of pregnancy, but, unlike Wendy, Woz's breasts had clearly been a reasonable size before pregnancy. And she walked quite elegantly, despite the inelegance of her leopard-skin leather boots.
Wendy could hear a man's voice in the small hallway that was barely big enough to stand a bicycle, but the conversation was mostly "yeah", "yeah" and "that's OK."
Woz returned, bringing the man in with her. He was a tall black man, with what looked like a nylon tea cosy on his head, with 'Tommy Hilfiger' written across it. He was smoking a cigarette and had a sickly grin across his face.
"Hope you don't mind, Wen sweetest," Woz said with an apologetic smile. "But a girl's gotta make a living. You can stay if you like. Trev won't be long, will you sweetheart? But if I know Trev, it won't be very quiet here for you."
"Not if I can fucking help it!" the black man commented with a self-satisfied smirk.
"Should I leave then?" asked Wendy, palpably disappointed.
"You don't have to, but you know how it is."
Wendy wasn't too sure in her mind what transaction was taking place, but she felt sure that Woz's flat was not a place she should stay a moment longer.
"I'll get going then."
"I'll see you to your car, Wen love. You behave, Trev. I won't be long. Get yourself ready."
"You wanna bet, darling. You don't have to ax me twice."
Woz and Wendy walked out together, two huge bellies leaning on each other for support, and spoke hardly at all as they crossed the road and Wendy lifted herself into the car, which, true to Woz's word, was perfectly untouched.
"You don't mind Trev, do you, Wen love?"
"No. Not at all," lied Wendy.
"I know what you think. You think I'm some kind of a tart. You know, a pro. But it ain't like that. It's just a bit of extra cash, like. I've never walked the streets or put cards in phone boxes or nothing. And I really enjoyed chatting with you today. We'll meet up again, won't we? Say yes. You don't know how much I mean it."
Woz looked positively pathetic, her face reflecting a yearning expression that Wendy found oddly appealing. But Wendy had no plans of returning to the neighbourhood. What a slum! And whatever Woz said, providing sexual services for money seemed to pretty well define her as a prostitute in Wendy's eyes. She couldn't very well consort with women like that!
"I will, don't worry!" Wendy said again, meaning it just as little as before, but nevertheless making a mental note of Woz's address.
And it was not too many days later that Wendy found she was already sufficiently missing her long conversation with Woz that she retrieved that address from the recesses of her memory, where it remained remarkably vivid, and called a taxi cab to take her there.
"I don't normally take people to places like this, love," commented the taxi driver as he let Wendy out of the cab. "There's all sorts round here. Real rough sorts. But you're a decent sort of gel. You got a mobile, love? Call us when you want to come back. Here's my card."
Wendy took the card with the telephone number on it, feeling suddenly incredibly alone in the road facing Woz's flat. She could see the hostile stares following her, not knowing whether they were alarmed by her pregnancy or just by the oddity of a woman wearing clothes so well-designed and so well-chosen for her current physical state. She had no choice after the taxi drove off. She strode across the road and pressed the doorbell.
It rang. And there was no response.
She pressed the doorbell again.
Still no response.
And again. And again.
Shit! This meant she'd have to call the taxi back. And so soon! What a wasted journey. At least, she'd kept the card.
Wendy pulled her mobile out of her handbag, a glorious Prada she'd treated herself to on a trip to Florence, and was about to stab in the taxi-driver's number when the door opened. And there on the other side was not Woz, but a totally naked man, white this time, with a penis wobbling with a near-erection.
"Yeah! What is it?"
Wendy gasped, a hand involuntarily going up to her mouth.
"I ... I ... er..." she stuttered.
"Who's there, Baz? It's not the fucking debt collector again, is it?" Wendy could hear Woz's voice from inside the flat.
"No. It's some posh bird. And she's preggers like you."
There was a pause. And then when Wendy heard Woz's voice again, it had an unambiguous tone of delight in it that somehow pleased her more than she would ever have imagined possible. "That'd be Wendy. She's a mate of mine from the clinic. Bring her in! Don't let her stand out in the street, Baz. Be a gentleman for the first time in your fucking life."
"Yeah. Orlright love! You heard the lady. You coming in?"
Wendy nodded, feeling rather dazed. She'd not seen a naked man since ... since ... Well, not since the day she'd been inseminated. And then she'd seen rather a lot of them. Although what she mostly remembered were the smells, the tastes and, most of all, that insistent pounding into her vagina as man after man queued to take her. She was giggling and laughing and hating herself at the same time as she was loving being fucked by so many different men, most of whom she'd never seen before in her life. She followed Baz into the living room, where she could see Woz wrapping a thin red bathrobe around her, the swell of her belly being far too great to be decorously accommodated.
"Hi there, Wen love!" she said, kissing Wendy on the cheek. "I hope you don't mind. You caught me doing a bit of business. You don't mind waiting another five minutes or so, do you? Baz has nearly finished. Ain't you, love?"
"I can't be so fucking sure about that!" Baz retorted.
"Well I can," said Woz in a lower voice. She held Wendy by the arms and gazed at her straight in the face. She had a strangely muted expression, almost like a little girl. "You will stay, won't you Wen sweetheart? I was scared you'd never call back. And I didn't have your phone number or nothing. Baz won't be long. You can make some tea. You know where the kettle is."