‘Have you found the gemstones?’
‘It’s a pregnancy test,’ said Mia, keeping her tone deliberately even. ‘With a clear blue line.’ She was trying to knot her long, curly auburn hair into a bun like Lilly’s, but it was too thick and unruly.
This time there was no ‘Just a minute.’ Lilly looked up straight away, her face a gratifying picture of astonishment. Finally Mia had her total attention. Lilly hastily negotiated a route through the storage crates towards Mia, tripping over her sister’s foot in her eagerness to reach her.
‘Why do you always wear those big black boots?’ she asked impatiently, as she took the pregnancy test from Mia’s hand and held it up to the light for closer inspection.
‘They make me feel strong,’ said Mia, with a shrug.
‘Show me where you found this, Mimi.’
Mia pointed at a large silver tin with llamas embossed on the lid. ‘There’s loads of hippie clothes too,’ she said, holding up a brown suede waistcoat fringed with long tassels. She sniffed it. ‘Smells weird. Sort of sickly.’
Lilly handed back the pregnancy test, removed the lid of the tin and started examining what, in Mia’s opinion, were far less interesting objects, including pieces of torn‑up postcard and a notebook with ‘The Certainties’ handwritten in black felt-tippen on the front.
‘Why would anyone keep a pregnancy test?’ Mia asked, trying to refocus Lilly’s attention.
‘Because it means something. Because it represents part of how you have become who you are. Because it’s your history.’
‘Weird, huh? I’m going to ask Mum about it,’ declared Mia. She stood up and brushed down her bare legs, sending a flurry of dust into the air. Her denim skirt had shifted around her narrow boyish hips so that the zip was at the side instead of the front. She shunted it back and put the pregnancy test into her pocket.
‘Wait,’ said Lilly, abruptly. ‘You can’t do that.’
Lilly frowned so intently that her eyebrows met in the middle. There was a long silence during which Mia tried and failed again to tie her long curly hair into a bun.
‘Because it’s mine.’
‘I found it first.’
‘You don’t understand. It belongs to me.’
For a split second Mia suspected Lilly was winding her up. Then she saw the expression on her face. The last time she had looked so worried was the day she’d got her GCSE results. Even then Mia hadn’t taken her anxiety seriously because everyone except Lilly was certain she would get the highest grades. This, however, was different.
‘You’re pregnant?’ Mia asked. She wasn’t sure what to do. Should she hug Lilly or give her a high five? What did people do on TV? But as she stepped forward Mia accidentally trod on an electronic globe that she had taken out of the box where she’d found the pregnancy test. It started parroting the population rate of different countries around the world: ‘Mexico 132 million. Indonesia 269 million.’ She would have asked Lilly if this was a good example of irony, a grammatical point she was struggling with at school, if she hadn’t been so concerned about what she had just learnt. When Lilly didn’t react, she kicked the globe with her leather boot and it started playing the national anthem.
Mia suddenly felt tearful without understanding why. At first she thought it was the realization that Lilly would always do everything before her and she would never catch up. But it was more than that and worse than that. Mia knew right away that she could never compete for attention with a newborn baby, which made her feel bad about herself. She would be expected to learn to change nappies, prepare bottles, babysit and generally assume responsibilities as an aunt that she didn’t feel ready to take on. And what if Lilly died in childbirth?
‘Past tense. Was pregnant,’ Lilly said. ‘I had an abortion.’
Abortion didn’t feature in David Attenborough or on the school sex‑ed curriculum and at first Mia didn’t understand what Lilly was talking about. It sounded as though she had either hidden the baby somewhere or given it away.
As usual, Mia was playing catch‑ up.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I went to a special clinic and took a special pill so I wouldn’t have the baby.’
This was even more cataclysmic. Now Mia felt regret for the niece she would never know (she had no doubt it would have been a girl) and the ten-year-old aunt she would never be. The baby might have grown up to become her closest friend after Tas. They could have gone on holiday together and taken the train to London to go shopping. A period to mourn the loss properly would be required. As Grace often observed about Mia, being contrary was a terrible affliction.
‘Does Cormack know?’
Unlike her parents, Mia knew all about Lilly’s secret boyfriend. A few weeks ago, after a lot of negotiation with Grace, Tas’s mum had arranged for Mia to spend the day at the Travellers’ site where they lived in a caravan. But after lunch, knowing Grace would be at work, the two of them had caught the bus home to release her pet eel, Elvis, for a swim in the pond at the bottom of the garden. Unusually, they were arguing as they carried the bucket across the lawn. The time when the eels would leave the Fens to swim back to the Sargasso Sea was approaching and Tas thought Elvis should be released back into the wild while Mia wanted to keep him through the winter. ‘That’s cruel,’
Tas argued, as they walked down the garden. ‘And unnatural. Like preventing Travellers from travelling.’
Rationally, Mia knew he had a point but emotionally she couldn’t bear to part with her eel. She had felt weary over this dilemma: the pull between doing the right thing and what you wanted to do in your heart gave her an idea of how it might feel to be adult. Because their voices were raised they didn’t hear Lilly and Cormack, who were lying in the long grass close to the pond. Mia tripped over a bare leg, the bucket tipped on its side, and Elvis slithered over Cormack’s bare buttock through the grass towards the pond.
‘What the fuck?’ said Cormack, jumping up to wipe eely slobber from his leg. The water from the bucket stank of old fish, pondweed and the fear of trapped eel.
Lilly hugged her arms around her bare breasts, while Cormack tried to hide his penis with his hands. Mia was too distressed about losing her eel to worry about their nudity. She ran towards the pond, with Tas in hot pursuit. The dust and the long dry grass stuck to Elvis’s slimy skin and slowed him down. Mia caught him just as he slid into the water. His glassy eyes were full of tears as she’d put him back into the bucket and fixed the grille on top.
‘No. You’re the only person who knows,’ Lilly replied.
‘You didn’t tell Hayley?
‘Hayley doesn’t know about me and Cormack yet.’
‘We want to keep it low key.’
Mia looked up at her older sister and smiled. Lilly had had sex, got pregnant and had an abortion. The distance between them should have been wider than ever but the fact that Lilly had confided in her alone made it feel as though there was a new closeness in their relationship. Lilly smiled back.
‘Not a word to anyone,’ she said firmly. ‘It’s never to be mentioned again.’
‘I promise,’ said Mia. She paused for a moment. ‘Was it awful?’ She couldn’t help it. Strictly speaking, this might be her last chance to ask any questions.
‘Was what awful?’
‘Getting rid of the baby. Did it hurt? What did they do with the body?’
‘It was the size of a tadpole, Mia. I don’t want to talk about it. Ever. Again.’