Just as well she never had children. Not particularly maternal. Too self-absorbed. Melinda sat on the end of her bed and replayed the nastiest of the insults in her head. What else had Lou and Aimee said? Not exactly cuddly. Melinda wrapped her thin arms around herself, clutching her tiny biceps, the muscles she trained four times a week to define. Because yes, she did go to the gym, just as she went to conferences and personal development courses and away on work trips, because you had to fill your life with something. It wasn’t selfish, it was practical. She could hardly sit at home twiddling her thumbs, waiting for the husband-and-baby fairy to turn up.
She could see the two of them silhouetted through her gauze drapes, heads close together, completely unaware of their voices floating through the open door to Melinda’s bedroom. Was that really what they thought of her? Was this how they talked about her when she wasn’t around? Melinda stared miserably at her highly impractical, non-child-friendly cream silk rug. It must be. They’d been so casual, so matter-of-fact. Oh yeah, Melinda, not mother material. Presumably they didn’t think she was wife or girlfriend material either. Melinda pressed her lips together. It was one thing for her to worry about her lack of meaningful relationships, but another thing entirely for everyone else to think she wasn’t capable of having them. And it must be everyone, she realized. Because people had stopped asking when she was going to settle down, had stopped teasing her about whether she could hear the clock ticking. Her father hassled her brother, Matthew, about grandchildren, but not Melinda. Worse, he never really had.
Melinda stumbled into her bathroom and ran herself a glass of water. A new packet of birth control pills sat next to her toothbrush; she’d been taking them for her skin since she was thirteen. Handy, she’d thought, not to have to worry about pimples and accidents, to know exactly when you were due. When she’d realized you could skip a cycle, she’d decided to stay on the pill for the rest of her life. “Aren’t you worried,” one of her university housemates had asked—a girl who went on to become a biochemist, no less—“that it will permanently mess with your hormones?” Melinda had ignored her, in love with the convenience of periods-on-demand, but what if her housemate had been right? What if the reason she had no real maternal instinct was that she’d been medicating it away? Worse, what if other people could smell it? The pill mimicked the first month of pregnancy, didn’t it, which meant she might not be giving off some vital ovulation pheromone. Maybe all men got from her was Clarins and Chanel, and not the eau de fertile they were sniffing around for.
Melinda leaned her forehead against the icy cold of the bathroom mirror. She stared down in her black silk vest at her small, stretch-mark-free breasts and tiny pink nipples. Like a teenager’s, Dave-the-married had marveled. You’ve got the body of an eighteen-year-old. But he’d still returned to the generously curved mother of his three children. Melinda had googled her, found a Facebook page full of homemade birthday cakes and fancy-dress costumes. Like a candidate for mother of the bloody year.
“This is not helping,” she hissed at her reflection. “This is negative thinking.” There was a dull ache behind her forehead; her hangover was kicking in. Melinda opened the medicine cabinet and fished out a box of aspirin, knocking her birth control pills into the sink. They stared mockingly up at her in the moonlight, round and cute and peach and pointless. “Fuck off,” Melinda told them, picking up the little plastic strip and flicking it into the bin.
“Melinda?” A male shadow hovered in her bedroom doorway. “Are you in there?”
Because yes, she did go to the gym, just as she went to conferences and personal development courses and away on work trips, because you had to fill your life with something.
Nick. “Hang on,” she called, tidying her hair with her fingers. “Won’t be a minute.” She gave her teeth the world’s quickest brush, silently spitting, before stepping back into the bedroom.
He was inspecting the fifty-five-inch television she’d had installed above the dresser. Curved screen, surround sound. “This’ll keep you company at night,” the delivery guy had joked. Melinda had given him a scathing online review.
“I came back to drop off the cake,” Nick said, tearing himself away from the TV. “Make sure everything was all right.” He looked slightly ridiculous with a Tupperware container tucked under his arm like a football. “What are you doing hanging out here in the dark?” he asked. “And where are the others?”
Melinda quietly pulled the balcony door closed. “Headache,” she said. “Too much champagne.” She forced herself to smile. “Lou and Aimee are outside having a chat,” she continued. “About Tansy. Mum stuff. You know.”
“Ah.” Nick shuffled uncomfortably as his gaze bounced around her bedroom, from her open underwear drawer to the unmade bed. “Bet you’re glad you don’t have to deal with all that.”
For fuck’s sake, had the whole world written her off? She stared icily at Nick. “Actually, I’m still thinking I might.”
“You?” Nick gave a half laugh. “You always said you didn’t want any.”
“Well, maybe I’ve changed my mind.”
“Yes, really,” said Melinda. “I’ve realized I might have been wrong.” She pictured Aimee giggling over her lack of maternal instinct and felt a sudden kick of nasty in her blood. “About a lot of things.”
Nick stared at her, inscrutable in the shadows. “Shame you didn’t figure that out earlier.”
Melinda could take that either of two ways; she chose the safer option. “I’m planning to adopt, actually,” she said, the idea coming out of absolutely nowhere. “So age won’t matter.”
“Right,” said Nick, stone-faced. “Well, good for you.”
It could have been eighteen years ago; the conversation had the same cold deliberateness of their old arguments. Small, pointed sentences, dropped with the precision of heat-seeking missiles. “Thank you,” Melinda said, turning her back on Nick and their shared past, and heading for the safety of the well-lit living room. “I’m very excited about it.”
“Excited about what?” Aimee and Lou were cuddled up on the sofa like teenage BFFs, a tub of melting ice cream between them. “Oooh, is that the cake?” continued Aimee. There was a smudge of double chocolate near her elbow on Melinda’s off-white upholstery. “Thank goodness. Daytime drinking always makes me hungry.” She wriggled excitedly, further griming the ice cream into the couch. “Cut us a slice, will you, Nick? A big fat one, lots of icing.”
Nick opened a drawer in the middle of the kitchen island and pulled out a stack of plates. “Aren’t you going to tell them?” he asked.
Outplayed. Melinda shot him a look. “I’m thinking about adopting,” she said.
“What, a baby?” asked Aimee.
“No, a fucking puppy,” said Melinda. “Yes, a baby. Or a child. Whatever’s possible.” Silence. “Well, you needn’t look so surprised.”
Lou didn’t look surprised. She looked horrified. “But you—”
“Have been thinking about it for a while, actually,” said Melinda. “Ever since I visited the orphanage in Vietnam.” Another solo holiday. Two weeks on her own, taking cooking lessons and village tours, anything to keep herself occupied. “I just think it’s time.”
Aimee eyeballed her. “Right.”
“Yes.” Melinda marched into the kitchen. She grabbed a knife out of the block and began carving up the remains of the cake. “Like I said, it’s very exciting.” She slapped two plates down on the coffee table in front of her friends. “What, you’re not happy for me?”
Lou scrabbled around on the floor in front of her. “I don’t think I can be happy about any baby news right now, to be honest,” she said, shoving her feet into a pair of scuffed mules. She grabbed her handbag. “Sorry, but I really can’t take any more surprise announcements.” She looked around, slightly wildly. “I have to go.”
Melinda waited to feel bad, but she didn’t. There was too much hurt and anger in the way.
“Lou, wait,” called Aimee. “How are you going to get home?”
“Walk,” came the muffled voice from the hallway. The building shook as the front door slammed.
Aimee turned to Melinda. “Oh, well done.”
“You don’t think that was a bit insensitive?”
She grabbed a knife out of the block and began carving up the remains of the cake. “Like I said, it’s very exciting.”
That was rich. “I don’t, actually,” said Melinda. “Tansy’s pregnancy doesn’t impact my plans.”
“No, nothing ever impacts your plans.”
“I’m going to wait in the car,” said Nick, escaping.
Melinda, however, was ready for a fight. “And what’s that supposed to mean?” Come on, say it to my face.
Aimee sighed. “Do you not think you could have waited to drop that particular bombshell?” she said. “Given how upset Lou is about Tansy?”
“I don’t even think you mean it,” Aimee continued. “So why say it? And why tonight?”
“Why wouldn’t I mean it?”
“You’ve never mentioned children before.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in having them,” said Melinda. “Or are you trying to suggest I’m not cut out for it? That I’m too—oh, what’s the word? Self-centered. Too self-absorbed. Not cuddly enough.”
Aimee flushed, her face and chest glowing.
“That was the nastiest shit anyone has ever said about me,” said Melinda.
“I didn’t really mean it,” Aimee said desperately. “I’m still a bit drunk.”
“Oh, I think you did,” said Melinda. “I think you’ve probably thought it for a long time.”
“I’m sorry,” whispered Aimee.
She hated confrontation, Melinda knew. Couldn’t stand arguments, especially if she was in the wrong. But Melinda didn’t want to let her off the hook by telling her it was all okay. Because Aimee got to go home and cry to her nice husband in her cozy farmhouse, with a whole family to hug her and beg her not to get upset. While Melinda would be here all alone in her self-made penthouse with just her high-definition TV for company.
“I’m not really thinking straight at the moment,” Aimee said. She was pulling at the little ringlets at the base of her hairline, a nervous tick Melinda knew well. “This accident, it’s left me feeling a bit unsettled. I can’t focus on anything else, not properly.” She stared at Melinda, pleadingly. “You know how my head can get . . . distracted.”
Melinda did. But she was also a bit sick of how much time they all spent not upsetting Aimee, because of her head. No one ever worried about not upsetting Melinda.
“There’s going to be an inquiry,” said Aimee, who certainly did seem distracted, now the subject of the plane crash was in the room. “I read it in the paper. They’re going to look into what might have caused it, search for clues—”
“Aimee, they have an inquiry when the bloody town loos get blocked.” Melinda’s headache was back; she just wanted to be in bed now.
“I know.” Aimee was clearly debating whether to continue. “But—”
“Aimee. Don’t go there.”
“But they’re asking for witnesses.” Aimee spoke quickly, as though it wouldn’t count if she said it fast enough. “For anyone who might have seen anything to report it. And we did, we saw a flash, and then what must have been the plane, in flames—”
“Aimee!” Melinda slapped her palms down on the kitchen counter. “That’s enough. You’re not a witness, you were half-pissed and on the other side of town. You’re not going to report anything. To anyone.”
“No one. And that includes me.” There was a harshness in Melinda’s voice that surprised them both. “I mean it. I don’t want to hear another word from you about this bloody accident. The subject is closed.”