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The second entry of our Top 20 Undiscovered Shortlist is Baby Steps by Louise Cannon
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Over to Louise Cannon …
BABY STEPS (BLURB)
Motherhood was always intended to feature somewhere in the life plan of twenty three year old Charlie Clements. In fact, being a mum was absolutely, definitely, possibly, maybe, up there on her ‘to-do’ list, right alongside majorly mature things like saving for a pension and writing a will i.e. things she’d get round to doing when she’d grown up a bit, fallen in love, bought a house and owned a Volvo.
However, life has an annoying habit of throwing curve balls at you when you least expect it and, sometimes, even the best laid plans don’t quite go to, er, plan.
Falling pregnant just before graduating from university with someone she’d been sleeping with for four weeks (even if the guy in question was the hottest thing on campus) was absolutely, definitely, positively, NOT in any life plan that Charlie had signed up for (and neither, come to think of it, was being dumped by said gorgeous specimen of man along the way).
How will Charlie cope with the reality of life as a young, single mother? Does becoming a mum automatically mean giving up on your own dreams? And what happens when hot guy on campus finds out what she couldn’t bring herself to tell him?
All Charlie knows, is that baby steps seems to be the best approach to life right now, in more ways than one.
READ THE FIRST 3000 WORDS OF BABY STEPS OVER THE CUT
Baby Steps by Louise Cannon
My name is Charlie Clements. I’m twenty-three years old. I had a one-night-stand and now I’m pregnant.
Okay, so one-night-stand is a little harsh to describe someone I’ve been sleeping with for four weeks, but serious, long-term relationship ending in wedded bliss it ain’t. In fact, right now, I’m sitting in Prospective Future Daddy’s dorm room perched on the end of his single bed, doing my upmost not to touch the unwashed bedspread with any of my bare flesh. Personally, I’ve always found the slothful student façade one big, fat cliché. I mean, Christ, there’s a flipping laundrette onsite. Do people really enjoy living like this?
I take a quick glance around the room. Having only been in it in the dark whilst slightly, ahem, inebriated, it is a shocking sight. Empty bottles of beer are strewn across the windowsill like some drunken wall of achievement and a stack of take-away pizza boxes lay discarded next to a stainless-steel bin, sans lid, creating a scene that looks uncannily similar to the obscure art-pieces that I can never be bothered to fathom. A pile of library books are scattered on top of a once glossy, walnut-coloured desk now adorned with ten years’ worth of random doodles and graffiti and I can’t even bring myself to look at the heap of underwear on the floor, let alone distinguish whether or not they are clean or dirty. Gross.
Fortunately, just as my train of thought begins to wander into the toxic possibility of skid-marks, I realise that Prospective Future Daddy has asked me a question and is waiting patiently for a response.
I turn to look at him. Questionable hygiene and housework-related matters aside, he is cute, no point in denying that. A mop of wavy, reddish-brown hair, quite possibly the pictorial definition of ‘bed-hair’; intense hazel-green eyes framed by the darkest eyelashes I have ever seen; delectably bronzed, typically Adonis-like olive skin, and the sweetest pair of lips, the top one curling upwards a little whenever he smiles. Add to that a six foot one inch medium-built, naturally athletic frame and it would be quite easy to understand why he had been voted number one in the official list of ‘Charlie’s Top Ten Hotties’ at the university we both attend (and it still counted, even if the list had been drunkenly compiled by me one night and only intended for the eyes of a handful of other like-minded females to giggle over. Note to self: in future, refrain from using the mass email tool whilst drunk).
I let out an involuntary shudder. I can never, it seems, meet guys conventionally. I have to embarrass myself in spectacular fashion first. To begin with, I was just one in a long line of admirers and hangers-on. Then I’d had the stupendously magnificent brain-fart from which The List had been fashioned, and it’d gone viral, albeit by mistake. Okay, so not viral… campus-wide at least. And then suddenly he knew my name and was, squeal, talking to me and kind of flirting with me a little actually, even if it had all come about under rather humiliating circumstances. But then again, I guess in his mind I was probably a sure thing, being a potential groupie-slash-stalker and all. Either that or he sensed that I have the willpower of a Dung Beetle when it comes to cute men. Him being the dung, of course, and me being completely willing to dive right in.
“Ouch!” I’m prodded out of my daze by a finger being jabbed into my side.
“Charlie! Are you actually listening to a word I’m saying?” Prospective Future Daddy asks.
I put on my best fake-hurt expression. “Of course, Cooper.”
“So… you’re okay with what I said then?” Cooper continues, frowning slightly. “I mean, it’s been real fun and all that, but we’re graduating next week and you live at one end of the country and I live at the other and, well, you know…?”
He stares imploringly into my eyes. I get the impression that he’s unconsciously pleading with me to put him out of his misery somehow. Poor guy. Clearly he finds it hard to break up with…
Shit! He’s breaking up with me.
Okay, so we’re not actually together but Oh My God, I can’t quite believe this is happening. I can feel my cheeks beginning to burn as I slowly grasp the reason why he had invited me over to “talk about things” this afternoon. What an arse. What a …
“User!” I hear a voice say, before realising that it’s actually me talking out loud before thinking once again. Such an annoying trait.
“What?!” squeaks Cooper in a slightly less masculine pitch than before, his forehead so deeply frowned now that I’m afraid it will cause permanent wrinkling. “How am I a user? We met a couple of times a week for sex Charlie, good sex, but just sex. I don’t recall either of us wanting anything more. I’m trying to be mature about this. Don’t paint me as the bad guy here.”
“Oh come off it Cooper.”
I roll my eyes. He’s slumped back into the corner of the bed with his arms crossed. Jeez, even when he’s sulking he’s sexy.
“I’m not painting you as anything. I realise that it was just sex and, I agree, pretty good sex. And I’m not even saying that I want anything else, but I thought we could at least see the term out. I thought we were having fun.”
There’s silence for a moment. I sigh deeply, unconsciously rubbing my stomach at the same time. Oh crap. I forgot about the small fact that I’m pregnant. I look at Cooper. He’s pulling absent-mindedly at a loose piece of thread at the bottom of his slightly greying, Nirvana t-shirt. I can’t help but feel sorry for him. He has no clue. Well to be honest, until this morning, I didn’t either. I always, always practice safe sex. I’m on the pill. How did this even happen? Okay, okay, I know how exactly…
“Er… C… Cooper” I stammer. My stomach starts doing little flutters, as if hundreds of tiny butterflies are dancing inside me. He looks up at me with his hazel-green eyes. Flutter. I attempt to pull a face that very clearly depicts “Cooper, I’m pregnant” without actually having to utter a word, and pray that he harnesses some sort of telepathic powers I don’t know about.
I really don’t want to do this.
“The thing is, well, you see… er, I get the whole we were never serious thing, I do. I guess, well, I guess I just wasn’t expecting it and the thing is, well, I, I…”
I’m stalling, I know I am. I just don’t know how to say it. This is potentially life-changing, for both of us. I snatch a glimpse of myself in the surprisingly clean mirror that’s been clumsily attached to the double wardrobe with Blue-tac and bits of masking tape. I look pale, even for my standard of whiteness. I swear I actually reflect the sun. I’ve been so tired recently, but I’d just put it down to third year uni stress and the workload that’s been thrown at us. My straight, black hair hasn’t seen the end of a pair of scissors in months, either. The choppy layers of my last style have blended into the rest of the hair that’s now trailing down my back in an untidy, fishtail plait. For what it’s worth, then at least I have attractive eyes, or so I’ve been told by a few over-zealous male friends. I would say that they are my best feature. My Granddad used to say to me when I was little that they looked like they’d been painted on, so vividly blue in colour that they are. My Nan used to say that they compensated for my crooked nose.
“You alright, Charlie?” Cooper asks, interrupting my internal fraught dialogue.
“Mmhmmm” I nod.
“I mean, you were in the middle of saying something and then this weird, goofy look came over your face and you just stopped talking mid-flow.”
I open my mouth to speak. I’m not entirely sure what to say to him, the words keep catching at the back of my throat. Cooper shrugs his shoulders, evidently sensing that my uncanny impression of a goldfish means that I’m not going to be particularly forthcoming with the lingo right now, straightens himself up and then slowly leans in closer to me.
I lean in a bit as well, closing my eyes, thinking that he’s going to kiss me, that he does have the power to read minds, he’s figured it all out and he wants it, he wants us…
The kiss doesn’t come.
I open one eye to find Cooper looking at me with a self-satisfied grin stretched across his face and one arm placed on my shoulder.
“I hope we can remain friends.”
Ouch. Way to kick a girl when she’s down.
Three mortifying minutes later and I’m walking briskly across the tarmacked square, the supposed centre-piece of the University of Mid-Kent campus, bordered on one side by patches of worn grass used for impromptu alfresco seating whenever the weather held and the occasional burst of colour from a few, mostly well-tended flower-beds. Fellow students pass me as I walk, chatting excitedly in groups, probably counting down the days till the summer holidays, or, more likely, wondering what hour of the day constitutes a respectable time to start drinking without appearing as if you have alcohol-related issues. After twelve, I’d say. Lone students clutch library books and notepads no doubt crammed full of annotations and revision for the last of their exams. I can see the tension stretched across their faces, as if they don’t dare breathe out until it’s all over.
All that’s going through my mind at this point is making sure that I get as far away from Cooper as possible. I have an overwhelming desire to go to bed, pull the duvet up over my head and pretend that none of this is happening. I’m not really pregnant. It’s just some cruel trick the universe is playing on me and tomorrow, everything will go back to the way it was when my life still had some sort of direction.
I take the short-cut through the ankle-high shrub border that surrounds my building, feeling the scratchy twigs brushing against my skinny black jeans as I pass, and punch in the four-digit code on the pad to unlock the outside entrance. Stepping into the sparsely decorated hall, worn mottled blue carpet underfoot, stairs to my right leading up to two more floors of identikit dorms, and a fragrance of stale alcohol and baked beans that has permeated the buildings soul throughout the years, I fumble around in my pocket for keys.
This afternoon really didn’t go to plan, I think as I push open the grainy, wooden door. I’d intended to be open with Cooper, to tell him that I’m pregnant, then discuss our options like two, mature adults and go from there. But I couldn’t even string a coherent sentence together. What is my problem? It’s not like this is my entire fault anyway. It takes two and all that.
I step through the threshold and go in search of Imogen, my best friend here at uni. I need to tell someone at least, even if it isn’t Cooper. I walk down the short hallway, passing the common room where a few of our other housemates are lounging around on the knackered, grey sofas, devouring the remains of a takeaway Chinese they ordered last night and knock a few times on the door to Imogen’s bedroom.
I push open the door and walk inside after hearing a muffled “Enter” sound from behind the wall. Sweet smelling incense vapours immediately shoot up my nostrils and a couple of wind chimes clink above my head, swaying from the slight breeze coming from the open window and the fresh air that I just let in the room. Imogen is sitting at her desk furiously tapping away on her MacBook, her shock of pink hair tied up messily into a bun on the top of her head. I clock her outfit: an oversized black and white striped cardigan over black leggings, a long, chunky beaded necklace she’d somehow created from other pieces of her jewellery collection and a pair of Doc Martins, deep purple in colour. Even when she isn’t trying, she looks effortlessly cool. I stare down at my own outfit: skinny black jeans, a pale lemon, short-sleeved t-shirt and battered Converse. Yawn.
I flop heavily onto Imogen’s bed, the mattress remaining stubbornly stiff.
I still wonder now, after almost three years, how Imogen ever became my best and closest friend at uni, considering how dissimilar we are. I’ve never met anyone quite like her to be honest. Coming from a smallish town in North Kent, it isn’t often that you encounter people with pink hair and a sparkling wardrobe to match. Apparently she’d got bored of people telling her how lucky she was to have naturally blonde hair and one day, when she was sixteen, had bought a pack of hair dye from Boots and transformed herself into the Imogen I know now.
And creativity is something that girl has in abundance. She paints beautiful and effortless pictures, she sews complicated patterns onto cushions and curtains, she writes gorgeous poetry, and she joined the University drama group with no experience and bagged most of the female lead roles for the majority of their productions. She sees everything so differently to me. Everything is in colour, everything is an opportunity waiting to happen – the world is an exciting place for Imogen. She’s a person things happen to. Why don’t I hate her again?
“So what’s up duck?” Imogen asks after I haven’t spoken for a full five minutes. She stops typing and swivels her seat round to look at me lolling pathetically on her bed. “What did Cooper have to say for his handsome self?”
“He doesn’t want to see me anymore,” I eventually bring myself to say.
Imogen’s face falls slightly. “You what?”
“Please don’t make me say it again Imogen.”
I grab a pillow from behind me and place it over my head.
“Wow. I can’t say I saw that coming. But… then… how could he…? Doesn’t he want…? What’s he gonna…?” she says hurriedly, before taking a deep breath. “Did he say why?”
I can see out of the corner of my eye that Imogen’s right leg has begun to jig up and down slightly manically.
“Just that we were graduating soon and we live too far away and we can still be friends and blah, blah, blah de blah”
“I see.” Imogen lifts the pillow off of my face and throws it to the bottom of the bed. “You, er, okay about that then?”
“Thrilled” I say, deadpan.
I haul myself up so that we‘re at eye level. Imogen is leaning forward on her chair; hands clasped tightly together, a questioning look on her face.
“There is something else though…” I begin to say.
“You’re pregnant,” Imogen interjects before I have the chance to open my mouth again. “I saw the test in your trash. You left your door unlocked,” she adds casually, almost as an afterthought.
I sit there, opened-mouth for a bit, before regaining my composure.
“You… you… didn’t touch it, did you?”
“Are you actually mad, Charlie? Why would I touch something you’ve peed on?!” Imogen forces out a shiver. “I went into your room to borrow a stapler, looked down and there it was, sticking out the top of the bin. If you wanted to keep the news private, then you really didn’t do a very good job did you?”
“Guess not,” I say quietly.
I shake my head a little in disbelief. Imogen is still regarding me as if I owe her an explanation. I know it’s not intentional, but I always get the feeling that she talks down to me, like she’s the teacher and I her unworthy student. You’d never think that I’m two years older.
“Charlie you are infuriating sometimes! What are you going to do now? I mean, now you know Cooper doesn’t want to keep it…”
“Hold on… I never said he didn’t want it.”
“But he doesn’t want to see you anymore.”
“So, I just assumed…”
I stand up, slightly exasperated at Imogen’s assumption, and begin to pace up and down the room for a bit until I realise it isn’t achieving the desired effect, being the size of a small postage stamp. Admitting defeat, I slump back onto the bed.
“Imogen… I… I… I couldn’t tell him” I say at a half whisper, immediately putting my head in my hands, unconsciously trying to cushion the verbal blow I feel sure is about to come. Imogen remains uncharacteristically silent. I glance up to make sure she’s still breathing and hasn’t spontaneously combusted out of pure frustration. Her face has softened.
“Babe, this is gonna be hard you know,” she says tenderly.
“Unwanted pregnancies are stressful on everyone involved. I remember my abortion, just before I started uni. It was the best thing at the time, didn’t make it an easy decision, although the guy being a complete knob kinda sold it to me in the end.” She reaches across and gives me a quick hug. “I’m here for you though hun. I’ll go with you to the clinic if need be.” She straightens her back so that she’s now standing. “Do you want a cup of tea?” she asks, making her way to the door.
“Yes hun?” she replies, turning the handle and propping the door open with her foot.
I take a deep breath and turn my head to look at her. “I’m keeping it.”