cover

Contents

Cover

About the Book

Title Page

Dedication

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

Copyright

About the Book

After a decade of climbing the career ladder collecting business cards, box files and an assortment of baffling acronyms, Charlotte Moerman leaps off into the great unknown of motherhood.

She gamely enters into her new life and soon can’t imagine a world before Pampers wipes. But without appraisals or targets to guide her along the way, Charlotte also realises there’s an awful lot to learn. Scratching her head over egg-and-soldiers etiquette, the appeal of paper pants, and her instinctive new urge to rock shopping trolleys whether or not there’s a passenger on board, Charlotte also surrenders any last hope of achieving household minimalism, what with submarines in the bath, marbles underfoot and a villainous nappy bin that would give Doctor Who a run for his money.

Instructions Not Included follows the joy and the pain of becoming mum to three small boys, from juggling multiple demands and accepting going to the loo as a group activity, to finding 300 ways to describe being knackered. Charlotte’s days in paid work soon seem distant. So, frequently, does her Dutch husband. Armed with a sharp wit, an encyclopaedic knowledge of children’s literature and a nit comb, Charlotte allows women to celebrate their own uncertainty as she guides them through her experiences of the potential minefield that is motherhood.

Instructions not included

One Mum, Three Boys and a Very Steep Learning Curve

Charlotte Moerman

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For Bram and the boys, of course

Prologue

It’s early Sunday evening. We’re on the sofa. Storm-damaged cushions lie crushed under three pairs of shifting pyjama-clad buttocks and my own more heavily anchored ones. My other half and his besuited buttocks are making their way to Islamabad. It’s just me, our three boys and an ill-judged cup of coffee.

Once the cushions were blue, now they’re a sort of bilge. Spilt milk, furtively wiped snot and the odd little accident before bedtime have all taken their toll. I’ve no idea how, but I could swear that every time I come back into the room the stains seem to have mated.

I occasionally wonder if I might give that Tracey woman a run for her money. How do you get nominated for a shot at the Turner Prize anyway? I’m thinking this could be a real knockout: My Sofa – an installation, consisting of our own dirty and defeated sofa, strewn with used tissues, partly decomposed rice cakes and a couple of leaky felt-tips. Scrawled around the walls would be a list of Everyone Who Has Ever Trampled Here with Their Shoes On 2002–2008.

Sometimes I feel I’m not unlike the sofa. I try my best to be bright and fresh and useful. And I must’ve looked OK at one time because someone chose me. These days though, I often feel a bit sat upon, I’m sagging in places where I shouldn’t and frankly I’m a bit tired, a bit muted but not in a Farrow & Ball stylish kind of way.

I have spent the last five minutes blotting at the armrest with an Aloe Vera baby wipe, wondering who this much-greeted Vera is anyway. The boys had had a disagreement over whose was the comic they were poring over, which led to a shove and a shout and a stray elbow causing warm coffee to seep into my jeans and the arm of the beleaguered sofa. The tussle was over in an instant and the boys fell swiftly silent. I gulped back my wrath, staunched the tears that nearly followed and reached for the eternally handy pack of Pampers wipes. How did I ever live without them?

Dirk left for Heathrow an hour ago. Sunday departures are the worst. Weekends are family time by rights, but our weekends are often interrupted by the distant call of a tannoyed flight announcement. ‘This is the last and final call for passenger Moerman on Flight BA 521 to Somewhere Else. Please make your way to your gate immediately where the cabin crew will be happy to welcome you on board with a newspaper and refreshments of your choice. Please note that in the interests of passenger comfort, namely yours, all family baggage will have been offloaded and left behind at home with your wife. May I take this opportunity to wish you a very pleasant flight?’

He’ll be away until Friday. Before he went, he kissed the boys, asked them to look after Mummy and gave me a peck on the cheek whilst grabbing his codjecar. Don’t be mistaken into thinking my other half is a sad middle-aged bloke pretending to be a crotch-clutching rap artist. I can’t see him with a gold front tooth or sporting that low-slung-trousers flash-your-pants look. That said, perhaps he could rebrand himself as Disappear in a Puff of Pink Smoke Daddy.

Because he does disappear quite a lot, our Puff, taking his battered passport with him. He slips into the taxi and closes the door on his bleary-eyed wife, our flotsam and jetsam of house contents, and the knot of small boys all bleating ‘The batteries have run out Daddy’. And then, in the blink of an indicator, he’s gone.

Codjecar, to remove any doubt, is the term used universally in our house for the trolley-dolly suitcase that accompanies our main, well, only breadwinner, on his globetrotting business travels. It’s one of those toddler-invented words that struck you as kind of cute, so you decide to keep and use it. Sometimes in the presence of non-family, too. It’s a measure of just how addled you become as a parent when all of a sudden you think it’s acceptable to use words like ‘codjecar’, ‘mamalamouche’ and ‘cocklit’ in company.

I bung the browned wipes into the kitchen bin and return to the living room as the phone starts to ring. Billy’s switching on the telly, my peace offering and a bedtime treat for all. The ever-ebullient Pui bursts onto the screen with Chris who today is playing a glockenspiel. I wonder what the difference is between a glockenspiel and a xylophone. I wonder if I should be worried that I instinctively wish that Chris would turn to Pui and clonk her on the head with his glockenspiel stick. I wonder if I’m going to get to the phone before it rings off.

‘Hello?’

‘Hi there. It’s me.’

‘Hi, me. Got there OK?’

‘Slow traffic but I’m in the lounge now, boarding in five minutes. Boys OK?’

‘Fine. Sofa’s less happy though.’

‘Sofa?’

‘Just a little spillage. Want to say goodnight to Daddy, boys?’

‘Mmnph.’

‘I said does anyone want to say goodnight to Daddy?’

‘Good-er-night, Daddy!’ (Sid, with his customary extra syllable for luck.)

‘Goodnight, then. Go get your plane.’

‘Goodnight. Love you.’

The phone clicks into silence.

The boys, unphased, are watching a repeat of Catherine Tate reading a CBeebies Bedtime Hour story called ‘Krong’. None of it’s weird to them: a time traveller reading them a story about aliens in their own living room. Sometimes here in a comfy chair, sometimes there in a deceptively spacious Police Box. Sometimes doing funny voices, sometimes playing it straight. Not unlike Daddy, who’s sometimes here and sometimes there. Or, more accurately, often there and not so often here.

Are they bovvered? Not at this particular moment it seems. Am I bovvered? I slink in beside my clean-smelling, damp-haired brood and pull the nearest one onto my lap.

‘I love you, Mummy,’ whispers Jack.

‘I love you too,’ I murmur. ‘We’ll be OK,’ I add, before realising I’m leaning against the wet patch and shifting myself along a little.

Chapter 1

WE’RE IN THE kitchen. Soup is simmering gently on the stove. The microwave beep-beep-beep-beeps. Dirk squeezes my shoulder. ‘This is it then. Over the top.’ I know this isn’t the most significant part of my pregnancy. And I know I shouldn’t be nervous. But Dirk’s effervescent high spirits are giving me the jitters. I grab the wooden spoon and give the soup a vigorous stir. Hot liquid spatters over the side and fizzes angrily into the gas flame. There’ll be black streaks on the underside of the pan to tackle later on. The trouble is, the more I procrastinate, the bigger the mess I seem to be making.

There’s a fish pie browning in the oven. It’s been there for quite some time and smells promising. I take a peek through the seventies-style sunglass-brown oven door and am reassured at the sight of the nicely bubbling cheese topping. Of course it will leave a ring of encrusted dregs that, like the saucepan, will need a thorough scrubbing later on. But you can’t have your (fish) cake and eat it, so for now at least I blank that bit out.

Dirk’s gone off to the other room, gassing with my parents. It’s evening. Everyone bar me seems relaxed. I glance around the chaotic kitchen: a measuring jug, a debris-strewn chopping board and a clutch of knives lie willy-nilly across the surfaces. My cooking style’s a little muddled at the best of times, but if I keep my fingers crossed it usually turns out all right on the night. Unless I try to do something a bit clever, in which case disaster looms. Tonight, though, the fruit of my labours in the kitchen is the least of my concerns. There are bigger fish to fry.

It’s Christmas Eve, a night of great expectations. There’s a huge Nordic Spruce shimmering in the corner of the room. Its branches are weighed down with both Sally Ann trinkets from the early Christmases of our marriage and more recent baubles picked up locally. The former charity shop trophies are naturally, to me, worth a thousand of the latter. I know better than to let this on to Dirk, having spent a small fortune going to town on this year’s tree. ‘’Tis the season to spend loads of lolly … fa la la la laaa, la la la lah!’

This is our first Christmas in Highbury and in my usual understated way I’ve gone completely overboard. There are tastefully wrapped gifts piled extravagantly high under the tree, upmarket ‘luxury gift’ crackers and a full complement of white fairy lights, most of them working too. There are candles, of course, a bit of holly, and a strategically placed sprig of mistletoe that’s got Dad’s eyes twinkling like the lights adorning the tree.

We’ve also dragged out the faded red stocking that mum made for me as a child. The embroidery thread spelling out my name is a little jaded and cotton wool is coming off in clumps at the top. But Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without it. Twenty-eight-year-olds will be twenty-eight-year-olds, eh? Who needs youngsters to make Christmas magical when you’ve big kids like me and Dad around to fill in the gap?

Christmas would never be the same again.

A few years hence and the tree is no longer colour-coordinated, there are festive steam trains and robots hanging from its boughs and the lights absolutely must flash. Multicoloured is good. We’ve got a chocolate Advent calendar (‘When is it my turn?’), a whole row of expectant stockings and the greenery has been replaced with tinsel. Some days I wonder if I’ve been transported down the Nags Head when I take in the gaudy fronds across the mantelpiece and twined around the pictures as tasteful as Marlene’s dress sense and almost as loud as her laugh.

The pile of gifts of course, is still ludicrously mountainous, though the paper’s all grinning polar bears and penguins in woolly scarves. I still spend the run-up to Christmas spending but in a different way. I pride myself on being a mean hunter-gatherer of 3-for-2 and BOGOF offers, and I am particularly precious about my sale-bargain present drawer. It is my defence against the creeping guilt of frittering away another twenty pounds here and there on more new toys when we already have a houseful anyway. Money that I have not earned. I am now without income of any sort; I am the Queen of Guilty Outgoings.

And then I stroke down the hair of my sleeping boys and I don’t give a toss about the bank balance for at least ten minutes.

For them, I would love to recreate the Christmases of my own childhood: rosy-cheeked, magical. There would be the thrill of nudging the bulging stocking at the edge of the duvet in the morning, the promise of a new Sindy Doll or the long-awaited Mouse Trap game and, before any of that, what could be better than a festive breakfast of Mum’s scrambled eggs, cooked slowly, ever so slowly, to moist perfection and served on meltingly hot buttered toast? Sheer happiness on a plate.

I’d love to cook scrambled eggs on toast for my lot at Christmas, or any time, really. But they don’t do scrambled eggs. They don’t do toast made from the organic honey and sunflower bread I’ve got in the cupboard. And they’re not terribly keen on butter either.

Not sure where I went wrong. I bought the Annabel Karmel book that promised to ‘encourage diversity’ and ‘consolidate good eating habits’. I shopped at Fresh and Wild for the fruit and veg that I lovingly pureed and dolloped into ice-cube trays which had never had it so good. And I even chose a really special melamine dinner set to feed them off, complete with a smart blue tractor, a shiny yellow dumper truck and a forklift, its driver inexplicably hefting off a worried-looking cow.

Perhaps that was the problem. How could they pay attention to the hard-hatted workman in the middle of the plate with his encouraging ‘Go’ sign when their sensibilities were being offended by the sight of a cow on her way to the abattoir? Especially given the driver is sporting what can only be described as a maniacal grin. Goodness, it’s enough to put anyone off their pureed beef gloop. Hard Hat man might have just as well held up a ‘Stop’ sign and had done with it.

But Christmas lunches would be different, I always felt. OK, so scrambled eggs and ground beef remain ‘off’ for a while, but surely a steaming plate of turkey with all the trimmings would go down swimmingly. Surely it would all be wolfed down in a scene of domestic bliss.

I would be Lynda Bellingham, pouring gravy over the spuds. Dirk would be the dad, making festive leg and breast jokes whilst sharpening the carving knife. And the boys would sit rosy-faced and obedient at table, paper crowns atop their heads, turkey being appreciatively put away by hearty young appetites.

Instead we have a set of reluctant diners, guilty streaks of chocolate still smeared around their mouths, self-aware young urbanites who really don’t want to wear those on their heads and half-empty Tyrell Katz plates with a lone chipolata, a couple of token carrots and the bargaining chip blob of ketchup at the side.

It always makes me so pleased to have queued outside the butchers for my free-range, additive-free, but sadly not free turkey. Still, at least I get a measure of satisfaction splodging ketchup over Hard Hat man.

We’re all sitting down at the dining room table, a 2+2 parody of Christmas meals of yore when it was my parents, my brother Ed and me. I’m as quiet as a church mouse. Dirk looks like the cat that got the cream. The steam from the soup flushes my cheeks. Dirk tops up the glasses, all but mine. My parents detect something fishy.

‘What’s there to be nervous about?’ asked Dirk as I’d cut up the salmon earlier in the day. He encircled his arms around me from behind as he spoke, a move he’s perfected with martial art precision: I pull a sharp knife out of the utensils drawer, ready to dice or slice, and nine times out of ten he moves in for a quick spoon on spoon hug. And then he starts to tickle. I thought all kids were taught not to run with scissors. Perhaps we should ensure that not tickling with knives is slipped into the syllabus too?

I shrugged him off, but I knew he was right. This should be one of the most exciting announcements of my life. I was neither in my teens, unmarried, nor about to expose a whoops-here-comes-a-baby, torrid affair. No big dramarama. So why the collywobbles?

‘I don’t know. I just feel something heavy in the pit of my stomach.’

‘Oven. Bun in. Rearrange.’

I glowered at him over my shoulder.

‘It’s just …’ I put down the knife and laid it next to the cold, slippery orange flesh on the chopping board.

It’s just … what? The uncertainty of divulging all whilst still only nine weeks gone? All the books say wait till twelve and I’m not a rule-breaker by habit. The end of the bubble of just us. The terribly British embarrassment about admitting we’d … shh … had sex (seven years of marriage and that’s a heck of a way of converting the itch)? The bad manners of preceding my elder sibling onto the parental starting blocks, especially when I know they’ve been trying? The fear of what I’ll be leaving behind? The fear of the changes ahead? The fear of the unknown? Or the fear that voicing it’d make becoming a mum more terrifyingly real?

‘I don’t really know,’ I said again, verbalising none of my skittering doubts. For a girl with a degree, a Pitman Training Basic Computer Skills diploma and a Cycling Proficiency certificate, I seemed at that moment to not know an awful lot. (Including how to handle split infinitives.)

Denying any further eye contact, I picked up the knife and continued to jab petulantly at the fish in a, to me, particularly satisfying way. To Dirk I must have been quite exasperating. I took no notice. It was going to be no picnic being pregnant and giving birth at the end of all this, not to mention what lay in the murky world thereafter.

Dirk took the hint and left the room. He’s good at that, I thought, leaving.

He seems to be taking things in his stride, of course, my husband. While I, typically, am making a meal of things. He doesn’t seem perturbed by the big change that’s about to happen. That is already happening. My body and my life are already changing irreparably. And there’s plenty more to come. Sure, he’ll be as involved as he possibly can be. But still, there’s no getting away from the fact that, unless something freakily tabloid-fodder has gone on, the male half of the equation does not and cannot experience all the trimmings.

The father of an impending child will not develop a pea-sized bladder overnight and a tonne-weight intrusion pressing onto it in the wee small hours. He will not get sudden heartburn, stretch marks or the threat (and that alone is enough to have anyone running scared) of an episiotomy. He does not do labour. Or transform into a dairy cow. He does not have to sneeze sitting down for the rest of his life if he stuffs up the Pelvic Floor Exercises. He does not have to morph into a new and unknown version of himself. Or agree to spend the foreseeable future with a new constant companion that he hasn’t been able to pre-select from the Internet. He does not have to do any of these things. Or if he does, he must be a pretty unique individual and Max Clifford will ensure that he gets paid handsomely for it.

Make no bones, I am over overjoyed at being pregnant. It’s not the immediate changes to my body that are worrying me either. I don’t particularly mind about those, they are all part of the journey, and I am determined to remain master of my own pelvic floor with plenty of early below-the-belt workouts. It is just that I feel a bit baffled about the future. And who it is that I will be sharing it with.

‘So, what’s all this about then, Chaz?’ intones Dad, ever the softly-softly subtle kind of guy. Mum’s eyes are saucer-wide. I pause and then a grin erupts on my face like I’ve just had a mouthful of Space Dust.

‘Well, I guess it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. You’ve probably already twigged and, um, I’m not sure how to say this but … you’re (coughs) going to be grandparents.’

‘Ooh,’ squeals Mum impulsively, probably wondering why I’d been rambling on to her earlier about inconsequentials like where I’d bought my Brussels this year, or how I planned to cook the roast potatoes. I wonder why I did, too.

Everyone is all broad smiles and glinting eyes. The glow from the Christmas tree now seems comparatively dull. Flushed cheeks, astonished congratulations and spontaneous hugs take centre stage as the spot swings firmly to this end of the room. I feel sheepish after behaving so badly earlier. Everyone is now treating me like a star. I am sitting in my dressing room before a mirror framed in lights, adoring fans flocking to my door with flowers, cards and underpants, just as if I were Tom Jones. I love the reassuring attention, and the pants might come in handy too, now that I’ll be going up a size or two.

‘Well, well, well!’ says Dirk to cover up the gush whilst producing the obligatory bottle of bubbly. Well trained in his humour, I instinctively picture three holes in the ground. I feel bad about shutting him out earlier. This pregnancy’s a shared journey. He’s probably just as scared as me. I’d better stop thinking of myself as the VIP in greasepaint and remember that this one is a double act. Who are we anyway, I wonder, Morcambe and Wise? Cannon and Ball? The Two Ronnies?

There’s a resounding pop, the fizz of champagne and we all toast the impending birth of Christ and/or our first (grand)child in no particular order.

‘So it’s “Cheers” from me.’

‘And it’s “Cheers” from him.’

‘Cheers!’

Once the dust settles, we get on with it. Christmas I mean. And nurturing our baby. Mum keeps giving me twinkly-eyed grins. Dad keeps mentioning the brick wall knowingly.

Having children, Dad has said for as long as I can remember, is the equivalent of having a six-foot edifice of bricks and mortar spring suddenly into your life. To be honest, I’m not really sure what he means. It’s just a standing joke that 1+1=3 and a large brick wall. Perhaps it’s that life, as you’ve always known it, slams to a sudden halt in your face. Perhaps it’s something like, OK, so far you’ve been concentrating on the foundations, now let the real work begin. Or perhaps it’s just a clever crossword clue that I’m too dim to work out. Dunno. Some things you’re just not meant to understand. Like why are blueberries black, like why are clowns so creepy, like what on earth’s the ‘Ning Nang Nong’ poem all about. You just accept these things for what they are and enjoy them. OK, well maybe not the clown with the trousers that keep falling down. He’s for specialist tastes.

Talking of cows that go bong, if I were to cast an actor to play my dad in a film, Spike Milligan would be an excellent choice. Just like Spike, Dad’s a genius of a man but he’s also quite unfathomable at times. Only of course the Goon is no more, so I’ll have to find someone else. Jack Nicholson, perhaps? Yes, I think I’m onto something there. It’s all in the eyebrows.

He’s all right, my dad. I’d give him Best Supporting Dad Oscar any day: ‘Great Supporting Dads have a magical power to transport us to a different time and place. And so, for his unique but sometimes baffling phraseology; for his bottomless knowledge on birds and wild flowers, Bull and Bear markets, Dave Brubeck and King Edward spuds; for his matchless approach to DIY; for his ongoing inventions and projects that one of these days will make him a Del Boy millionaire; for his ability to talk to anyone about anything; and for his palpable devotion and unfailing confidence in his little girl grown big, I give you, My Dad.’ (Wild applause.)

Mum is much more of an open book. And this is no bad thing. She should by rights be played by Marilyn, except that Marilyn, like Spike, has taken her Equity Card to the great casting couch in the sky. So perhaps Julie Christie then? A classic English Rose, tick. Ice-blue eyes, tick. Rapunzel-like blonde hair, oh yes, she’d be just perfect. And then there’s her longevity too. She’s refused to hang up her fur hat ahead of time. She’s dug her heels in, stayed the distance and blimey doesn’t she wear it well? Plus, of course, she’s used to spending time with guys with eyebrows so I’d say she’s made for the job. Sign her up immediately.

Women are complicated. Daughters and mothers are complicated. But I can genuinely say that our lives have been a lot less complicated than an epic David Lean drama-romance-war film. Hand on heart, we seem to have rubbed along OK all these years and she’s not yet taken up her customer right to return me – product damaged, faulty or not lived up to expectations; statutory rights not affected; postage paid at destination under terms of contract – in a brown paper parcel back to the shop.

We’ve shared a lot: puddings, shoes and hotel beds. Shopping sprees. Diets. Revision sessions: me my GSCEs, she her mature student finals at Cambridge. She took me to my first bra-fitting; she took me to my wedding-dress-fitting. She took me to my first ever concert (Paul Simon, Graceland tour) and she took me on a couple of girls-only holidays including a memorable cycling trip around a clutch of medieval hilltop villages in France. As I panted my way towards the promised village fleuri, all ramparts and restaurants and 429 flipping metres above sea level, I gritted my teeth and hummed ‘You Can Call Me Al’ again and again to myself for comfort. I wondered if, on this occasion, perhaps mother didn’t always know best.

You can bet that my faith was restored, though, when we got to the top of the hill and the Lion D’Or, its vine-covered alfresco terrace and hand-chalked blackboard menu beckoning us enticingly to its door. This was the time we shared out first taste of garlic-buttered frogs’ legs together. And as the sun went down over the magnificent view I realised I was no longer hopping mad about the tortuous ascent.

• • •

I will never of course be able to replicate a girls-only holiday in my own capacity as mum. Unless I leave all the boys somewhere and bugger off alone. Appealing thought on some days, I must confess.

We do, as it happens, manage an experimental week one summer with the family splitting off in different directions. Only it’s not me that’s on my tod. The boys and I stay a second holiday week in Suffolk while Dirk hurtles back to London for work. And while he’s gone back to Mind the Gap, my parents have come along to fill the one he’s left. I manage alone a lot of the time, but on holiday I want more than the company of under-fives, thank you very much. This is the life, I think.

‘Sometimes it’s hard to think of what life was like before them,’ says Mum.

‘You can say that again.’

‘Do you think you’ll have any more?’

‘Oh, I don’t think so. It kills me to say it, but three’s enough. Don’t you think?’

‘Then you’ll need to start thinking about what you’ll be doing next, then.’

‘Yes, Mum,’ I nod, smiling in spite of myself, feeling twelve all over again.

‘You can’t put it off for ever you know.’

When I hopped it from the nest and went and got married, of course my relationship with Mum changed. So, my prince came along and give me a smackeroo and I transformed into, well, the grown-up me. And I’m very happy being the grown-up me, thank you very much. But still, it’s nice to go back and hang out in the company of my mum. I feel completely at ease with her. I am me, not needing to hide or create smokescreens. We can luxuriate in being unutterably ourselves and happily fritter away time together.

I can’t recall ever having kept any secrets from her. Well, OK, when I was a child I might have binned the half-full Um Bongo carton from my Snoopy lunchbox, gradually and concertedly picked off the previous inhabitant’s Wacky Races wallpaper from inside my bedroom cupboard, and nurtured a fledgling admiration for the rebellious and much-peroxided Bo Duke. I was quite clearly a wild child.

When I grew up though, I realised Bo wouldn’t have me, and that I probably didn’t want him either. (I wonder what ever happened to him, that cool red General Lee car and Daisy Duke’s very short shorts?) I had my very own Bo with a much better grasp of the Highway Code. Mum was always there at the other end of the phone and we had regular chinwags. We chat a lot. We are like the ancient hanging gardens. We tend to Babylon.

So with a track record of keeping, well, little of any substance from the auspices of my mum, it had been a bit odd to hide such an earth-shattering secret from her. Especially those times when I’d felt a little unsteady, a tad nauseous and not a little like a novice cyclist: a bit shaky and afraid of falling off.

Ill, low or just plain scared – as in the case of my frantic visit to the hospital’s Early Pregnancy Unit, seven weeks and spotting – I’d usually be straight on the blower to share and dilute my angst. With Mum. Dirk being in some far-flung part of the globe with shaky mobile coverage: ‘Please leave a message after your moan.’

Dirk, to give him his due, was in the country when my GP advised at just shy of eight weeks that an immediate hospital trip was wise ‘in case you’re losing your baby’. In case I’m losing my baby? Howl!

Dirk was there to help me through the mire of being boomeranged back and forth between A&E or the EPU with a firm ‘Look, can someone just see us? Now?’ He was there to hold my hand in the waiting room amidst pregnant women with noisy, kicking, breathing, alive children at their ankles. And he was there to grimace manfully when I finally went in for my first taster of the pregnant woman’s undignified lot at the hands of the medical profession. Cold, begloved, invading hands. An internal probe. Octave-jumping, knee-jerk response from yours truly. Literally.

And while I coughed and tried to coax my voice back into a comfortable register, all of a sudden there it was. A tiny but unmistakable pinprick of life. Flash, flash, flashing on the screen. It was a minuscule speck. But it was alive!

‘Aren’t you glad you were in the country now?’ I squeaked.

I shuffled off the bed and the sonographer discreetly pulled a curtain across while I stepped back into my underwear. It was kind of her to pretend she hadn’t just seen me in all my glory, both inside and out.

I staggered off out of the consulting room. I felt like one of those traditional wooden toy animals you used to get, that would go all floppy when you pressed the base it stood on. I had been standing tall on my neat little podium, pleased as punch with what life had thrown my way. And then suddenly, someone had rammed their thumbs up inside my plinth and my legs had collapsed without warning. After a bit of light toying around, the thumbs had eventually been withdrawn. My limbs had sprung obediently back into place. But I was still, to be honest, feeling a bit wobbly.

All this I had kept hidden from my mum. Why? At the time when I needed her most, I’d drawn a veil across our affairs.

Later on, I’d tell her of my pregnancies almost immediately. But that first time, Dirk and I had implicitly agreed to keep a lid on it. Wanting to pull a surprise out of the bag? Not wishing to tempt fate? Wanting to have something secret just for us for a bit?

It reminded me of butterfly-catching as a kid. We had an enormous Buddleia bush at the front of our house that attracted butterflies like boys to a steam train. I was the proud possessor of a long-handled blue nylon net and with it I’d go out on the hunt for Peacocks, Red Admirals and Cabbage Whites. On a good day, I’d capture one or two and incarcerate them in a customised jam jar made homely with a snapped-off leaf and some accommodating air vents. I’d press my nose to the glass of my hostages’ temporary home and try to fight off the creeping feeling that it was a bit wrong. I must have eventually let them free before bedtime as I can’t recall ever having to dispose of a butterfly corpse.

I do however remember once imprisoning a clutch of caterpillars, keen to watch the butterfly life cycle unfold beneath my very eyes. I’d stuffed in some lettuce, furnished the lid with plenty of air holes and stashed the jar expectantly under my bed. To no avail. When I awoke in the morning it was with horror that I discovered my ventilation holes had been too big. The creepies had crawled out overnight. I was both gutted and afflicted by the raving itches. I swear I didn’t sleep for weeks. The butterfly population had wreaked its revenge.

It’s the end of the evening. I yawn. Captive butterflies in jam jars seem distant. If we hang around much longer Santa and his airborne friends will soon be nigh.

It’s been a good night. Full of good cheer and expectation. I wonder how different next Christmas will be. Very, I think. In the meantime, I consider if it would be too bad form to play my pregnancy card. I yawn again and think, well why not?

‘By the way,’ I say, scraping back my chair. ‘Did I mention? All I want for Christmas is my two pans scrubbed. Goodnight!’ And on that note I make a not very decorous run for it.

Chapter 2

CHRISTMAS, BEING CHRISTMAS, only lasted one day, and now here we are swinging into 2002. Usually, New Years are about new hope, new diets and new headaches, courtesy of the wrath of grapes. But as we turn into this one, my head is clear of fuzz, like a puffed-off dandelion clock. I laugh in the face of my usual mind-over-platter January resolutions. And I am full, quite literally, of the hope of new life.

My diary, by comparison, looks ominously light. The Big Event is still miles off of course. D-Day is not till the summer. Pregnancy, I now know, ekes out over forty very long weeks. I know this because I am now in the club. I know that you do not, sheesh, count pregnancy in months. Who does that anyway?

So the months – sorry, the weeks – ahead look fairly blank. This is not because I have no friends, let me assure you. Anyway, nobody ever does anything in January, do they? And even if they are, after negotiating my first pregnant Christmas, I’m feeling a bit thick and tired to be honest. Well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

And besides, at the moment, everything else that is not to do with my pregnancy has dropped off my radar. News, politics, music and gossip all seem to have faded into also-ran insignificance. Who gives a monkey’s about all of that when there’s something far more important to focus on?

I

a m

p r e

gnant. Wh

ich is really qu

ite exciting. Doesn

’t the world agree? Not

that the world knows yet. Not much of it.

My reference points are now, when is the next scan? When is it safe to tell everyone else? When can I start shopping?

Except in reality my life isn’t a series of blank squares you can skip through until the interesting bits come along. The humdrum stops for no one. I still need to drag myself through the short term. To eat, drink, sleep and clock in and out of work. (And when the clock gets hungry I go back four seconds.)

Work. I work at BA under the marketing department umbrella.

Sitting under that umbrella means I have occasionally to shelter from the odd squally jargon spell. Don’t think I find these a problem; there is no such thing as a problem, just a range of fresh challenges. Saying that, I do find it useful having a brolly to hand at all times. I need it as protection against the continual drizzle of irritating phrases like ‘paradigm shift’, ‘cash cows’, ‘low-hanging fruit’ and ‘let’s touch bases offline’. Oh, and of course to weather all the brain storms.

Fortunately, I steer well clear of strategising and anything too technically demanding or borderline nerdy. My corner of the department, production, works on the words and pictures and colour mix on the website, interactive TV and WAP phones. Oh, and we do our bit on the coffee-vending machine, which gets a serious hammering after a team-building night out. When the digital display reads ‘Out of Order’ you know the team is also at risk of serious malfunction if they don’t score a decent caffeine fix soon.

The production team seems remarkably free of anyone with kids of their own. We are all fairly young, we make frequent use of our knock-down flight concessions and our ability to travel at the drop of a hat, and I’d be willing to wager none of us at this point has even heard of Gina Ford.

But the morning after I found out that I was pregnant, that I was now different, all that, for the time being, had to be kept secret. Nobody could know. It was still too early. This in spite of the fact that my demeanour must surely have been a little unusual given that my whole world had turned upside down overnight.

Whilst my body was busy welcoming in its new forty-week guest with a well-stocked minibar, a fluffy dressing gown and a Gideon Bible in the drawer, my head felt as though it was whirling round like the water draining down the plughole in the en-suite next door.

I’d driven into work head spinning, grinning to myself in delight and desperately trying to keep my feet on the ground. It was important to pretend that nothing had changed. I must make sure I act normally at all times. I inched along the Euston Road and wondered how I’d do it. And as I drove on through Hammersmith and down the Great West Road past Chiswick I put together a little checklist on how to get through the day without spilling the beans. It went something like this:

Follow the I’m Not Pregnant, No Really I’m Not Code

As I rolled into the underground car park that November morning, I allowed myself a smug smile. That just about covers all bases. I should be fine. No one will know a thing. I grabbed my bag, locked the car and headed for the stairs up the ground level.

‘All right, Charlotte. How’s it going?’ said a voice over my left shoulder.

‘Oh, all right, Charlie? Fine, thanks,’ I replied with false nonchalance. This cover-up operation is going to be a breeze.

‘A bit in the clouds today are we?’ he went on.

‘No. Er. Why?’ I asked offhand, stooping to retrieve the ID card that had clattered perfidiously to the floor.

‘It’s just that you’ve got your top on inside out. Look. I can see your label.’

‘Sheesh. Easy mistake to make,’ I said, not adding ‘when your head’s inside out too’.

Damn. Two minutes down and I’d already blown my cover.

In those early weeks of confirmed pregnancy, I’d felt … well, confused, frankly. According to my calculations I was now four weeks pregnant. But according to the doctor I was six weeks. How would he know? He wasn’t there!

When I went to the GP to declare my pregnancy I confess I was expecting a little more than I actually got. A small fanfare, a pat on the back, a big fat tick in the box from the guy with the hallmarks of an important person – the medical qualifications, an impressive-looking shiny thing round his neck, his surname printed grandly on a plaque – to confirm that, yes, I was indeed pregnant. In fact, first of all, I got little more than an enquiring silence.

‘How can I help you today, Mrs Moerman?’

‘Well, I think I’m pregnant.’

‘?’

‘Erm, I thought, I mean I’ve read, well, actually, I’ve probably seen on the TV that you need to, erm, go along to your GP?’

‘Well, you’ve come to the right place, here I am. But I just need to establish … am I to congratulate or commiserate?’

‘Oh blimey, yes. I suppose you do, don’t you? Well, yes, this is very much a wanted pregnancy, thanks.’

‘Good, good. Well, we’ll just take down a few dates then and check your blood pressure and then you should get a booking-in appointment letter from the hospital for about six weeks’ time, all being well.’

No fanfare. No back pats. Not even a measly urine test. I’d been hoping for a physical check to prove I wasn’t just making it all up. How impending motherhood has changed me. I actually wanted the doc to ask me to step into the cubicle, remove my lower garments and make myself comfortable on the couch. As if.

But he didn’t and I didn’t. We just had our cosy little chat while I filled in some forms, I had the inflatable cuff velcroed round my upper arm and then I was dismissed.

I went out empty-handed, at best a little crestfallen. OK, maybe I was expecting too much – a sealed-with-wax crested certificate, a herald of trumpets – but at the very least I’d kind of hoped for a dry-cleaning-type chitty to take in and redeem at the hospital in due course. That’d be an idea eh?

Your GP:

An NHS one – won’t take you to the cleaners

Address:

Grotty but serviceable surgery

No. of pieces:

One, soon to be two. Or could be three, who knows?

Item:

Mum-to-be. Plus baby/babies (see above)

Cash:

Nothing to pay today. ’Tis but a matter of time …

Date:

November 2001. For collection … August some time?

Ref:

DS/DD 2 B

Alas there were none of these. Not even a rudimentary check and a verbal confirmation that I was indeed expecting. I’d just have to wait a little while longer, it seemed, for the verification I craved. Though not a full six weeks as it turned out.

The spotting which had plagued me soon receded and I was grateful to no longer have to describe the size of the staining in my pants to people I’d only just had the pleasure of meeting. ‘Five pence, fifty pence or a twenty-pound note, in which case you’re really in trouble.’

I focused instead on coming blissfully to terms with my change in status. Dirk slotted ostensibly straight back into his routine, gadding about all over the globe. I too was entering hitherto unexplored domains, treading new routes through local places I mistakenly thought I knew. I went to the newsagent and discovered a rack of pregnancy mags, which I’d swear were never there before. I went along with my demanding new pregnancy bladder into more public toilets than I knew existed, or ever wanted to know existed. And I became acquainted with a whole new aisle in the supermarket that had never before tickled my fancy. Who drinks fruit teas other than pregnant or breastfeeding women, I wonder? With a cupboard still stashed full of the stuff I’m still trying to find that one out, actually.

Aside from my blind date with the Twinings aisle, I stumbled into an obsessive new fascination with identifying those around me who were, or seemed to be, pregnant. Just as when I’d broken my ankle and suddenly noticed all manner of people struggling around London Transport on crutches like myself, freakily, now that I was expecting, it seemed that half the population had buns in the oven. Well, not half, obviously, or it’d mean that every single female from cradle to the coffin queue was up the duff, but you know what I mean.

I, of course, wasn’t showing at this stage. But I couldn’t help but think that it was obvious to all that, like the accents in the Abba songs or old ladies’ blue-rinse hairdos, something wasn’t quite right with me. This was before the days of ‘Baby on Board’ badges on coats, so Tube seat squatters had to guess if you looked pregnant and peaky, or just fat and hungover.

Compared with some I was relatively blessed as I escaped the curse of morning sickness. Neither did I go off certain foods or suffer slow torture by the ancient method of heartburn. Instead I was afflicted by the raciest dreams you could contemplate (some might see this as a positive boon). I was, naturally, quick to respond to Mother Nature’s ploy to fatten up her newly expectant mum, and I was extraordinarily, unbelievably tired.

This was a special kind of tiredness reserved for early pregnancy, unlike anything I’d ever felt before. At this stage I was a mere novice in the field of different types of tiredness, mind. Later on, there’d be the physical tiredness of being unable to sleep properly with That Bump to negotiate at night, the emotional tiredness of agonising if the unborn baby was OK, and the mental tiredness of batting off this person and that each with an opinion on every aspect of your pregnancy, your lifestyle (‘You’re eating tomatoes!’) and your choice of potential names and/or your decision not to share your list of potential names. It would be exhausting. And then the baby would arrive. And then another. And then another. By the end of three lots of pregnancies, births and baby years, not to mention managing the ensuing rugby scrum, I would eventually mature into an Inuit tribeswoman with 300 ways to describe being knackered.

Inspecting my wan face in the mirror, I wondered how the celebrities did it. The recently delivered Davina McCall always seemed to me to be almost indecently perky and very much awake. When the newly expectant Liz Hurley peeked out from behind her Gucci sunglasses she looked, as far as I could tell, not a bit hollow-eyed or drawn. And the pregnant Jordan? Well she was a law unto her own, but one thing’s for sure, for her looking knackered was always going to be off limits.