"Bearing Down/Bearing Up" by Hilary Ayshford



Vivienne is pregnant. She shares her news with the office before she's even taken off her coat. People crowd round her. There are hugs and kisses and even some tears.


Sarah calls congratulations across the room but doesn't move from her desk. At lunchtime, everyone goes to the pub to toast the miraculous conception. Sarah goes to the park and sits under the leafless trees, eating her sandwich and watching the children play on the swings.


Vivienne organises a gender-reveal party. The cake has pink icing. Sarah contributes her share towards the present, and eats more than her share of the cake.


The office is full of baby talk – the best type of pram, what colour to paint the nursery, breast versus bottle. Sarah doesn't venture an opinion. People are invited to put their hand on Vivienne's abdomen to feel the baby shift its position or stretch its limbs. Sarah pretends to be on the phone.


Over the next few months, Vivienne and Sarah gradually expand until both are the size of barrage balloons. Vivienne is glowing and healthy, with glossy hair and unblemished skin; Sarah grows pale and pasty, with crusted red spots on her chin.


When Vivienne goes on maternity leave, Sarah buys an expensive gift for the baby, signs the card, and wishes her luck and happiness, even though most of the extra work her absence causes will land on Sarah's desk. Perhaps this is her penance for being less than enthusiastic about the impending birth.


When the baby is born, the office sends flowers and a massive teddy bear. Sarah hopes it doesn't crush the tiny girl or suffocate her in its overstuffed arms. She would have chosen something the baby could hold in her little fists and cling to in the night for comfort.


Vivienne brings her daughter into the office. Cue a further wave of hugs, kisses and tears. Sarah stays seated at her desk. The infant is handed round to everyone in turn to be cuddled and admired. As Sarah passes by on her way to make tea, Vivienne holds the baby out to her. Sarah mumbles something about being afraid she might drop her and turns away.


Instead of the kitchen, she rushes to the toilet and vomits up her desperation.


The baby is screaming. Sarah suspects she doesn't like being passed from hand to hand, or perhaps she is hungry or needs changing. She stays in the toilet, her fingers in her ears to shut out the sounds of distress until she is certain Vivienne has taken the baby home.


When Sarah returns to her desk, she doesn't think anybody has noticed her absence. She eats a packet of crisps and a bar of chocolate, but they don't mask the bitter taste in her mouth or fill the child-shaped hole inside her.




Hilary Ayshford is happily childless, but is currently mother to an elderly Labrador called Morgan.