Men seldom understood her point of view; she could tell her independence made them nervous. Women – older ones, at least – often did.
Stella picked with her fork at the crusty remnants of potato clinging to the side of Iain’s fish pie dish. It was almost June, a warm evening, and they were sitting on the tiny balcony of his third-floor, red-brick Hammersmith flat. It overlooked the Thames if you craned your neck far enough over the balcony railings and squinted right, past the plane tree and the mansion block that actually fronted the riverside.
Iain turned his light-blue eyes on her, his expression concerned. ‘Are you and Eve really going to rub along together for two whole months in the same house? With her pregnant and worried about this problem she has?’ He paused. ‘It could get pretty tense, no?’
Stella was irritated. She was allowed to admit that her relationship with her daughter, Eve, was less than perfect, but even Iain, her live-round-the-corner partner of seven years, was not wise to highlight the problem. Although he was right, of course.
She sighed. ‘I don’t have a choice. Eric is stuck in the frozen wastes of Antarctica . . . and you know Arthur. I can’t leave her struggling with him.’
The thought of her nearly three-year-old grandson brought a smile to her face. He was so dear to her it some- times felt as if he’d actually invaded her heart, taken up residence in her emotions with a force that amazed her. It had taken her completely by surprise, that first day of his life, when she’d stood in the hospital room with a little bundle in her arms. He’d looked up into her eyes, he’d seen her, completely understood her – or so it had felt to Stella, a woman with a famously defended heart, not given to fanciful notions of this kind.
Her closest friend, Annette, had become a grandmother the year before Stella, and she’d had to steel herself to get through their regular coffees. Annette was usually the toughest, least sentimental person on the planet – some would say scary with her large frame, loud laugh and total lack of bullshit. But faced with her granddaughter, she melted. Stella was forced to endure endless adoring monologues, phone-photos and five-second videos: Molly smiling (pooing?), Molly in her rabbit babygro, Molly with organic pear puree dripping from her chin, etc., etc. She’d had to find a way to ride out Annette’s tedious obsession without actually stabbing her. Now she understood. Although for Stella, the love she felt for Arthur was a very private thing, which she hugged to her- self like a warm secret and which gave her a happiness she’d never thought to experience again.
‘Shouldn’t Eric come back?’ Iain asked, interrupting her train of thought.
‘Well, of course he bloody well should, but Eve’s being ridiculous. She won’t tell him there’s a problem. Says his research is “too important” to him. That’s why she didn’t even mention she was pregnant till he was safely ensconced nine thousand miles away. She knew he wouldn’t go if she told him.’ She shook her head. ‘Stubborn as the day is long, my daughter. Anyway, she says he’ll be more use when the baby’s born.’
Iain looked uneasy. ‘So this placenta praevia thing means what, exactly?’
Stella couldn’t help smiling. Iain, a landscape gardener by trade, was so at home in the natural world. Apart from his extensive knowledge of plants – wild or cultivated – he could fix a bird’s broken wing, was cosy with bats and handled snakes with confidence. He was also at home, he claimed, with spiritual practices. But when it came to the mechanics of the human body, he was surprisingly squeamish: the mention of illness made him wince.
Deciding to spare him, Stella replied, ‘Hers is only partially covering the cervix; they’re hoping it’ll resolve. It might not mean anything serious.’ She didn’t mention the possibility of ‘haemorrhage’ or ‘emergency caesarean’. That might send him over the edge. ‘She just has to be very careful for the rest of the pregnancy.’
He nodded slowly and looked away towards the river. Stella gazed at his profile. He was not quite a handsome man, but he had a presence that people noticed, a confident strength in his broad-shouldered, muscled body and open, tanned features, his shock of thick, white-blond hair – not quite blond any more, at fifty-six, and not yet white, either. People trusted him; she trusted him. Not enough to suggest he move in with her – which Iain had never pressed for, despite his obvious frustration with the back and forth nature of their arrangement – but she trusted him to love her.
Stella lived ten minutes away in a ground-floor flat in a street near Brook Green, west of Shepherd’s Bush Road. It was a two-bedroomed garden flat in a brick Victorian terrace with a white portico where she had lived since she and Jack separated – nearly twenty-four years ago now. It was Eve’s home, growing up. She had never really seen how her life, or Iain’s, would be improved by his moving in. They met up regularly, they socialized and holidayed together, they did all the things cohabiting couples did, but had the bonus – as Stella saw it – of their own space. Men seldom understood her point of view; she could tell her independence made them nervous. Women – older ones, at least – often did.
‘I hope you’ll come at weekends,’ she said now.
‘Stay tonight, then, if you’re going to be away for so long.’ Iain reached across for her hand. ‘It’s such a beautiful evening, we could walk by the river.’
She didn’t answer at once, thinking of all the things she had to organize before she drove down to Kent in the morning – what in God’s name do you take for so long? But she didn’t want to leave Iain tonight. Although she didn’t choose to articulate it to him, she was anxious about this trip to look after her daughter. The peace between her and Eve was new – since Eric, really, and Arthur. She didn’t want that upset, didn’t want a return to the bad old days of her teenage years and beyond, where they’d sniped continuously at each other.
‘I disappoint you,’ Eve had said to Stella on more than one occasion. ‘You want me to be someone who gets A stars, goes to uni and gets the perfect job at the BBC. But that’s not me, Mum, it’ll never be me.’ Stella had always argued that Eve could never disappoint her. But it was true that she hated seeing her intelligent daughter flunking her exams and working for peanuts in a pub.
And later, when Eve began her challenging job as a key worker for a children’s charity, Stella knew she had not been clear enough about just how much she admired her daughter. Because by that time the damage was done – Eve had left home and they were not in touch nearly enough.
‘I don’t have to be up too early tomorrow,’ Iain was saying.
She grinned and raised an eyebrow. ‘Define “early”.’