I recognised that burnished chuckle before I saw Amanda. It had such a perfect veneer of warmth and authenticity that any fool could hear it was fake. It echoed roundly against the chilly flat tiles, drowned out the constant roars and shrieks that rose and fell as the door to the swimming pool flapped wetly open.
I had been slumped on the bench for what felt like an eternity, willing my stolid body to get up, undress, pull on a costume, move through the warm foetid puddles of the changing room and out into the huge bright pool area. I knew that once I was in the water, the muffled roar would soothe rather than scare; I would finally be weightless; the metallic song of bubbles would drown the jangling dissonance of my desperation.
I pulled a huge damp breath into my defeated body. I willed myself to cling to the tattered rags of decency that flapped, like smoke-blackened pennant after a blitzkrieg. The battle that had raged in my own body, leaving me bloody, empty and barren. I steeled myself to see her baby. I would never see mine, there would never be a single one, and that knowledge crushed me in a flat, endless pain. I set my jaw against the howl of anguish that burned at the base of my throat.
She came in with her mother. I recognised her from the baby group, from another life, when I had been happy; but I would have known their relationship anyway. Both thoroughbreds, glossy and rippling, heads tossing, nostrils flared arrogantly. The mother's hair was an uncompromisingly crisp white and Amanda's an artful tawny, but the resemblance was startling. Their laughter was an assault.
"Well, I hope she doesn't jump out of the window once he starts crying for the mid-morning feed. Josh threatened again to sell him to the gypsies. The horror. Three til five he was awake. And we've got the Bishops drinks tonight. I am exhausted."
"They're a great agency. She'll know what to do. Have a little swim, darling and let's see if you can have a massage. It won't matter if we're a bit late. They'll just charge a more, but you do need a break. Babies can be a real pain sometimes. You go ahead, I'll go and find Suki and sort out a little treat."
I sat, a petrified lump of sorrow, as Amanda changed. The soft billows of cashmere and silk, the smooth conker-brown boots, Amanda's spare, beautiful leather jacket. Her bag I recognised from the glossy pages I stared at sometimes in my psychiatrist's waiting room. It was butter-soft and pale yellow. Like spring, like a chick, a daffodil, the sun.
She left it on the bench while she went to tie up her hair in front of the mirror. She was a careless, heartless bitch. Leaving her bag, leaving her baby. She didn't deserve any of it.
It took me less than a minute to stand, my body jotled into action by the shot of anger I felt. I picked up her bag, which hugged my hip with a fluidly sensuos ripple. I strode through reception, past her mother gesturing elegantly at the receptionists; head down and out into the pale winter sunshine. The river was just a few steps away and I stood on the towpath, breathing the smell of decay that rose from the dirty water; the putrefaction of plants and small animals, of melancholoy, of death.
I let the pale, soft strap slide down my arm, hoisted the bag upside down and emptied the perfumed, costly contents into the swirling dun water. With soft splashes, things fell; a blue diary, a black fountain pen, a phone, little leather bags and pouches, a sheaf of polaroids, a single pale blue mitten, as small as a pixie's hat.
I flung the bag out into the middle of the river; the current eddied there, making roiling, confused circles and swells. It swirled in the undertow for a moment then disappeared into the undertow, a brief primrose flash then nothing.