Caroline Mulligan. The name sounded familiar. She mulled over it for a few moments, drifting in a black, warm sea, before she realized it was her name. I am Caroline Mulligan, she thought, images of herself and her life swimming up in front of her, more and more quickly until she burst to the surface of consciousness with a gasp.
“I think she’s awake!” she heard an excited whisper say. The voice belonged to… it took her a few seconds to access the name…Tracy. She felt someone squeeze her hand. Warm, familiar. Jon. She squeezed back and she heard him say, “Yes! She is awake. She just moved her hand. Can you hear me, baby?”
Caroline smiled. Baby. Who else would she let call her that? But somehow when Jon said it, it sounded ironic and affectionate at the same time. Jon. Her husband.
“Yes!” another voice said. Max. “She smiled. Caro, darling, say something.”
Caroline tried, but her mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton wool. She could barely open her lips. They seemed to be stuck together with a bitter-tasting glue. She opened her eyes a crack, but the unbearable brightness forced her to shut them. She formed the thought “Water,” and forced her lips and tongue to say it. What came out was, “grpmf”.
“Guys,” Tracy said, anxiously, “She needs water.” Thank God for Tracy, Caroline thought, smiling again.
“I got it,” Jon said. She felt the cool plastic of a straw pressed against her lower lip, and she tried again to open her mouth, this time succeeding. She eagerly sucked down the liquid, feeling her body awakening and her mind clearing with each gulp.
“Whoa back, there filly!” Jon said. “Easy, girl.”
“Yes, darling, slow down,” Max said, laughing. “You’re going to make yourself sick.”
As soon as Max said the word, Caroline felt it. She sat up, squinting her eyes open, and tried to get out of the bed. Strong hands held her as the room erupted in sound.
“What is she trying–”
“Care, relax –”
“Jon, quick pass me that bed pan, she’s going to–”
That last sound was Caroline, all the water she had just drunk reversing its path and spewing out through her mouth like lava from a volcano. Mercifully, Caroline heard it splash into the bedpan, now resting on her lap.
“Nice save with the bedpan, Tracy,” Jon said.
“Are you alright, honey?” Tracy asked, a warm hand rubbing her back.
“Oh, God,” Max moaned. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Caroline smiled, shaking weakly with silent laughter. “Get over yourself, Max,” she croaked, her voice sounding like Demi Moore on two packs a day. She squinted up at her friends, her eyes becoming accustomed to the light, gradually.
“Darling,” Max cooed. “You can talk. You’re not going to…do you feel sick?” she asked gingerly.
Caroline smiled and shook her head. Max’s face was a study in contrasts – concern mixed with revulsion. Little Thurston was lying on her lap, asleep.
Jon leaned down and kissed her forehead. Caroline inhaled, relishing the warmth of his lips.
“You’ve been through a lot, baby.”
Caroline nodded, though she couldn’t quite remember what. “I’m going to get rid of this,” he picked up the bedpan, “if you’re sure you won’t need it again.”
Caroline shook her head and leaned back against her pillow.
“Great.” Jon edged toward the door. “You ladies hold down the fort and I’ll be right back with you-know-who.”
You-know-who? Caroline thought, closing her eyes. Her hands rested on her strangely spongy abdomen. Suddenly she sat up straight, her eyes snapping open. She remembered it all. The baby.
It had started at about five in the morning. She had been awakened by a sharp pain in her abdomen. She knew it was early, but she decided to call Tracy anyway. Not wanting to wake Jon, she had gotten up and stumbled out of the room, doing her best to avoid the piles of cardboard boxes stacked against the wall. She heard her mother’s gentle snores coming from the spare bedroom. Betty was staying in Dubai for the next couple of months, to help the couple settle into their new flat and to be there for the birth of her first granddaughter. Mimi was at Phillipe’s.
The movers were coming today to transport Caroline’s things to the three-bedroom flat in The Lake Towers that Jon’s new company had provided. As all of the furniture in the Jumeirah villa belonged to the school, she and Jon had gone out yesterday to get the essentials. Beds and matresses. They figured they had at least a month before the baby came. Caroline was looking forward to taking her time spending Jon’s generous housing allowance furnishing the place.
Caroline found her phone on the coffee table. Naturally, it was dead. She’d forgotten to charge it. And all of her phone numbers were stored there.
She slumped back on the sofa. Another surge of pain hit her, doubling her over her belly. Could these be the Braxton-Hicks contractions that Tracy and Max had talked about? They couldn’t be the real thing. She still had nearly a month to go before her due date.
Caroline got up and went to use the bathroom, trying to decide the best course of action. She’d charge her phone, she decided. In the meantime, she’d use the land-line to call Dr. Nawallah on the emergency cell number she’d given her. She had the obstetrician’s card in her wallet, just in case. It was probably nothing to worry about, she told herself, but a strange uneasiness filled her nonetheless.
As she sat down on the toilet, she noticed it. Blood. And not just a few drops, either. A chill ran down Caroline’s spine. She placed her hands on her belly and spoke to her baby. “Please be okay, little girl.” She ran upstairs to wake Jon.
She threw on the clothes she had worn the day before while Jon called a taxi. She debated waking her mother, but Betty had been having such a hard time getting over her jet-lag that Caroline decided against it. This was the first night Betty had managed to sleep through entirely. Caroline quickly scribbled a note and slid it under her mother’s door.
The sun was just starting to creep over the horizon when they got in the cab. Fortunately the morning rush hour hadn’t started yet, and they got to the hospital in a matter of minutes. While the nurses who admitted her didn’t seem overly concerned with Caroline’s symptoms, taking her details and examining her with agonizing slowness, their expressions changed the minute they placed the heart monitor on her belly.
Suddenly it was as if someone had pressed the fast-forward button. Everything was happening at double speed. The details weren’t clear in her memory. They came in flashes. Lying on a stretcher and being whisked into the operating theater. A kind doctor in green scrubs, bushy eyebrows, bald. A kiwi accent. “Jist relex and breathe diply. It’s ol going to be fine.” Jon’s worried face. His warm hand. Floating up to the ceiling on a cloud of breath. Then the warm, black sea.
“Oh my god!” Caroline snapped back to the present, to the standard issue hospital bed, the vertical blinds on the window, Tracy slim and stylish in a navy blue sleeveless shift, Max, holding a tiny blue swaddled bundle, his face soft with sleep. “The baby! How is she?”
“Oh, honey,” Tracy leaned in close, holding her hand, “she’s just fine. No breathing problems, fully developed. Small but perfect. Five and a half pounds.”
“Absolutely, darling,” Max assured her, shifting sleeping baby Thurston on her lap, “She’s a little skinny and yellow, just like her Auntie Maxine.” Max laughed. “Well, how her Auntie Max used to be. How long did it take you to lose the weight, Ta-Ta?”
Tracy frowned at Max. “Oh, you look fine. As Caroline so succinctly put it, ‘get over yourself’!” Then she addressed Caroline. “She’s got a bit of jaundice, but nothing a few hours under the UV light won’t fix.”
“You saw her?” Caroline’s eyes welling up, as she looked at Tracy, then Max. They nodded, smiling.
“She has a tiny tuft of red hair, right here.” Max pointed to the crown of her head. “I tell you, Baby T is going to have a hard time choosing between her and Chelsea.”
Caroline smiled and reached over to stroke little Thurston’s cheek. “And how is our baby T doing?” she asked, fondly.
“Oh, fine,” Max answered wryly. “Drinks like a fish and only needs about six hours of sleep a night, just like his father. Fortunately, he also has Thurston’s habit of dozing off in the middle of Emmersdale, too, so we get a bit of a break.”
Tracy and Caroline laughed.
Caroline noticed that Max had dark circles under her eyes, and her usually immaculate presentation was somewhat less so. Was that spit-up on her shoulder?
“We’re still trying to get him on a proper sleep schedule,” Max continued, stifling a yawn, “but I have to say, it has only been a couple of days. And Holly’s been brilliant. Thurston senior? Well, let’s just say he’s adjusting.”
Just then Jon walked into the room, followed by a Filipino nurse wheeling a cart upon which sat what looked like a tiny transparent bathtub. The smiling nurse brought the cart beside Caroline’s bed, and Caroline looked at her baby girl for the first time . She was so tiny, her delicate rosebud of an ear no bigger than Caroline’s thumbnail. And just as Max had said, she had a little tuft of gingery hair. Curly, she noticed with chagrin and reached over to touch it.
“She’s got a bit of the George Hamilton look going on,” Jon joked. It was true. With the jaundice and the natural thin, reddish skin of preemies, the baby did look like she’d gone overboard on the tanning bed.
Caroline looked up at Jon to see how he was taking this, seeing the baby of his new wife and another man. She’d been too immersed in her own reaction to wonder about his, but this couldn’t be easy for him. But when she looked up at Jon, he was looking at the baby as tenderly as if she was his own, a soft, heart-melting smile on his face.
Max and Tracy had crowded in around the bassinet, ooing and ahing over the baby. “I’ll go get the doctor, ma’am,” Caroline heard the nurse say, “now that you are awake, for your check-up.”
That’s right, Caroline realized, her hand straying to her abdomen, I had a c-section. She wondered why she didn’t feel any pain, and concluded she must be medicated. The ridge of flesh where they’d sewed the incision just felt numb.
She heard a little mewling cry. The baby was awake.
“She’s probably hungry,” Tracy said, knowingly, picking up the tiny bundle and placing her in Caroline’s arms. She felt so fragile, so breakable.
Caroline looked up at Tracy, beseechingly, “Oh God, how do I do this?”
“Oh!” Tracy was surprised. Then she got down to business. “Well, first you need to open up your gown…”
Max rolled her eyes, looking over at Jon who was watching the proceedings, transfixed. She linked her arm through his, resting Thurston IV on her shoulder. “Come on Daddy. I don’t think they need an audience. There’s a Hasta Coffee downstairs. Let’s go get something to drink.”
Caroline concentrated on the task at hand. Fortunately, the baby seemed to know what she was doing, and by the time Max got back, she was fast asleep in her bassinet again, and Caroline had been examined by the doctor.
“Where’s Jon?” Caroline asked. “He didn’t do a runner, did he?” She was joking, mostly.
“Hardly, darling. He only talked my ear off about the baby. Apparently, they had a little bonding session while you were asleep. That man is smitten. He went to pick up your mom and Mimi.” She adjusted little Thurston on her shoulder. He was awake now, his tiny hands clenching and releasing as he attempted to look around the room.
“He looks just like his daddy, doesn’t he?” Tracy smiled, trying to get him to grip her finger.
“I know,” Max said, flatly, “I put in all the hard work, and what do I have to show for it? Not one single feature.”
It was true. Thurston IV had his father’s thin but curvy lips and distinctive downward-slanting eyebrows. Caroline smiled inwardly, thinking, well, at least he can be sure it’s his. Wouldn’t that have been something, she thought, if Louay had unknowing fathered both Max and Caroline’s children?
She and Jon had decided not to inform Louay about the baby. Caroline had no moral qualms whatsoever about putting Jon’s name on the birth certificate. They were doing what was best for the baby, she reasoned. A little white lie.
As if reading her mind, Max leaned in close and whispered, “Darling, you’ve stuck with your plan to keep Louay in the dark, haven’t you?”
“Good.” Max put a copy of The Emirates Times on Caroline’s lap and pointed to a tiny article almost hidden at the bottom of the page. The headline said, “Male Model and Wife of Local Businessman Charged with Public Indecency, Deported.” Caroline read on, though the article didn’t mention their names, she had no doubt it was about Louay and Rania. Apparently, they had been caught canoodling in a public park.
Shocked, she looked up at Max who wore a smug smile.
“They got lucky, if you ask me. Who knows what Rashed would have done to them.
Tracy was on her phone, presumably talking to Nigel. She hung up and slung her bag over her shoulder. “Well, Max, I’d better get home and spend some time with Chelsea before we go out to celebrate.”
Max nodded, bouncing little Thurston, gently, “Me too, darling. I’d like to have a shower and change into something that doesn’t smell like sour milk.”
“Celebrate what?” Caroline asked, feeling bewildered and a little bit left out. Shouldn’t she be involved if they were celebrating the birth of her child?
“Oh, right,” Tracy looked at Max, “She doesn’t know.”
“Well, darling,” Max sat on the edge of her bed. “While you were popping out that little beauty, our Tracy was going through a labor of her own. She met with Rashed.”
Tracy sat down on the other side of the bed. “I pitched our idea,” her eyes shone with excitement. “The Nanny Academy. He loved it. He’s going to be our silent partner.”
“And he promised,” Max added, “in fact we put it in the contract, that this time he’ll be completely silent.”
“He’s giving us three years to turn a profit. Unlimited capital.” Tracy smiled proudly.
“He’s basically writing us a blank check!” Max enthused.
Caroline felt like she was at a table-tennis match, her head turning from one friend to the other. She grabbed both of their hands in hers and squeezed, feeling their excitement.
“That is amazing, guys!” she squealed.
The three friends were silent for a moment, just looking at each other and smiling, their eyes moist with emotion.
Tracy broke the silence. “God, just look at us guys. How lucky are we?” she said.
Caroline nodded. “Who knew? If you had asked any of us a year ago where we’d be now…”
“Six months ago,” Max interjected.
“Three weeks ago,” Tracy added.
Caroline pondered all that they had been through in the past year, all that she had been through. “Um Umar was right.”
Tracy and Max looked at their friend, blankly.
“Remember, guys? The palm reader? She told me that I would go through a marriage, a divorce, a death and a birth all within one year. Well, actually, it ended up being two marriages, didn’t it? I married Louay, divorced him, married Jon. My first pregnancy miscarried – that’s a death. And now,” she looked over at the peacefully sleeping baby, “a birth.”
“Wow,” Tracy’s eyes were wide. “That is kind of freaky, honey.”
Max looked skeptical. But she agreed, “That is a bit…nee nee nu nu,” she imitated the theme song from The Twilight Zone. “Maybe Um Umar could tell us how the Nanny Academy’s going to work out. And there are a few investments in my portfolio I’ve been wondering about…ouch!” she said as Caroline reached over and playfully punched Max’s arm.
Tracy stood up and said to Max, “Come on. We should let Caroline get some rest.” She gave Caroline a squeeze. “Don’t worry, we’ll celebrate again when you’re out of the hospital. We’ll have a triple belated baby shower. Or, in my case, a very, very early one.”
Caroline and Max exchanged glances.
“Yep,” Tracy beamed. “Six months without sex and the first time we do it, bam! We’re pregnant.”
“Well, congratulations?” Caroline said tentatively.
“Or is it commiserations?” Max asked.
“No, we’re happy about it. It’s going to be crazy, but we’ll make it work. We’ve got nine months to prepare, right?” Tracy shook her finger at Caroline. “But don’t you believe that nonsense about breastfeeding as birth-control.”
“Absolutely not!” Caroline laughed. “Now go on, get out of here. Have a great time.”
As Tracy, Max and Thurston were about to leave, Max paused in the doorway and looked back at Caroline. “Oh,” she said, “Do you know what you’re going to call her, darling?”
Caroline’s grin broadened as she looked at the sleeping baby. “Yes,” she said, “I think I’m going to call her Hope.”