What Alice Forgot
A “cheerfully engaging”* novel for anyone who’s ever asked herself, “How did I get here?”
She was floating, arms outspread, water lapping her body, breathing in a summery fragrance of salt and coconut. There was a pleasantly satisfied breakfast taste in her mouth of bacon and coffee and possibly croissants. She lifted her chin and the morning sun shone so brightly on the water, she had to squint through spangles of light to see her feet in front of her. Her toenails were each painted a different color. Red. Gold. Purple. Funny. The nail polish hadn’t been applied very well. Blobby and messy. Someone else was floating in the water right next to her. Someone she liked a lot, who made her laugh, with toenails painted the same way. The other person waggled multicolored toes at her companionably, and she was filled with sleepy contentment. Somewhere in the distance, a man’s voice shouted, “Marco?” and a chorus of children’s voices cried back, “Polo!” The man called out again, “Marco, Marco, Marco?” and the voices answered, “Polo, Polo, Polo!” A child laughed; a long, gurgling giggle, like a stream of soap bubbles. A voice said quietly and insistently in her ear, “Alice?” and she tipped back her head and let the cool water slide silently over her face.
Tiny dots of light danced before her eyes.
Was it a dream or a memory?
“I don’t know!” said a frightened voice. “I didn’t see it happen!”
No need to get your knickers in a knot.
The dream or memory or whatever it was dissolved and vanished like a reflection on water, and instead fragments of thought began to drift through her head, as if she were waking up from a long, deep sleep, late on a Sunday morning.
Is cream cheese considered a soft cheese ?
It’s not a hard cheese.
It’s not . . .
. . . hard at all.
So, logically, you would think . . .
. . . something.
Lavender is lovely.
Must prune back the lavender!
I can smell lavender.
No, I can’t.
Yes, I can.
That’s when she noticed the pain in her head for the first time. It hurt on one side, a lot, as if someone had given her a good solid thwack with a baseball bat.
Her thoughts sharpened. What was this pain in the head all about? Nobody had warned her about pain in her head. She had a whole list of peculiar symptoms to be prepared for: heartburn, a taste like aluminum foil in your mouth, dizziness, extreme tiredness—but nothing about a hammering ache at the side of your head. That one should really have been mentioned, because it was very painful. Of course, if she couldn’t handle a run-of-themill headache, well then . . .
The scent of lavender seemed to be coming and going, like a gentle breeze.
She let herself drift again.
The best thing would be to fall back asleep and return to that lovely dream with the water and the multicolored toenails.
Actually, maybe someone had mentioned headaches and she forgot? Yes, they had! Headaches, for heaven’s sake! Really bad ones. Fabulous.
So much to remember. No soft cheeses or smoked salmon or sushi because of the risk of that disease she never even knew existed. Listeria. Something to do with bacteria. Hurts the baby. That’s why you weren’t allowed to eat leftovers. One bite of a leftover chicken drumstick could kill the baby. The brutal responsibilities of parenthood.
For now, she would just go back to sleep. That was the best thing.
The wisteria over the side fence is going to look stunning if it ever gets around to flowering.
Ha. Funny words.
She smiled, but her head really did hurt a lot. She was trying to be brave.
“Alice? Can you hear me?”
The lavender smell got stronger again. A bit sickly sweet.
Cream cheese is a spreadable cheese. Not too soft, not too hard, just right. Like the baby bear’s bed.
“Her eyelids are fluttering. Like she’s dreaming.”
It was no use. She couldn’t get back to sleep, even though she felt exhausted, as if she could sleep forever. Were all pregnant women walking around with aching heads like this? Was the idea to toughen them up for labor pains? When she got up, she would check it out in one of the baby books.
She always forgot how pain was so upsetting. Cruel. It hurt your feelings. You just wanted it to stop, please, right now. Epidurals were the way to go. One epidural for my headache, please. Thank you.
“Alice, try and open your eyes.”
Was cream cheese even cheese? You didn’t put a dollop of cream cheese on a cheese platter. Maybe cheese didn’t actually mean cheese in the context of cream cheese. She wouldn’t ask the doctor about it, just in case it’s an embarrassing “Oh, Alice” mistake.
She couldn’t get comfortable. The mattress felt like cold concrete. If she wriggled over, she could nudge Nick with her foot until he sleepily rolled over and pulled her to him in a big warm bear hug. Her human hot water bottle.
Where was Nick? Had he already got up? Maybe he was making her a cup of tea.
“Don’t try and move, Alice. Just stay still and open your eyes, sweetie.”
Elisabeth would know about the cream cheese. She’d snort in her big- sisterly way and be precise. Mum wouldn’t have a clue. She’d be stricken. She’d say, “Oh dear, oh no! I’m sure I ate soft cheeses when I was pregnant with you girls! They didn’t know about that sort of thing back then.” She’d talk on and on and worry that Alice had accidentally broken a rule. Mum believed in rules. So did Alice actually.
Frannie wouldn’t know but she’d research it, proudly, using her new computer, in the same way that she used to help Alice and Elisabeth find information for school projects in her Encyclopedia Britannica.
Her head really did hurt.
Presumably this was only the squidgiest fraction of how much labor would hurt. So that was just great.
It was not as if she’d actually eaten any cream cheese that she could remember.
She didn’t even really like cream cheese.
“Has someone called an ambulance?”
There was that smell of lavender again.
Once, when they were undoing their seat belts, Nick said (in answer to some fishing-for-compliments thing she’d just said), “Don’t be ridiculous, you goose, you know I’m bloody besotted with you.”
She opened the car door and felt sunshine on her legs and smelled the lavender she’d planted by the front door.
It was a moment of lavender-scented bliss, after grocery shopping.
“It’s coming. I called triple zero! That’s the first time in my life I’ve ever called triple zero! I felt all self-conscious. I nearly called 911 like an American. I actually punched in the nine. There’s proof I watch too much television.”
“I hope it’s not, like, serious. I mean, I couldn’t, like, get sued or anything, could I?”
Was that talkback radio she could hear? She hated talkback radio. The callers were always appalled by something. Alice said once that she’d never been appalled by anything. Elisabeth said that was appalling.
“Alice, can you hear me? Can you hear me, Alice?”
Sultana, can you hear me? Can you hear me, Sultana?
Every night, before they went to sleep, Nick talked to the baby through an empty toilet roll pressed to Alice’s stomach. He’d heard this idea on some radio show. They said that way the baby would learn to recognize the father’s voice as well as the mother’s.
“Ahoy!” he’d call. “Can you hear me, Sultana? This is your father speaking!” They’d read that the baby was the size of a sultana by now. So that’s what they called it. Only in private, of course; they were cool parents-to-be. No sappiness in public.
The Sultana said it was fine, thanks, Dad, bit bored at times, but doing okay. Apparently he wished his mum would stop eating all that boring green shit and have a pizza for a change. “Enough with the rabbit food!” he demanded.
It seemed the Sultana was most likely to be a boy. He just seemed to have a masculine personality. The little rogue. They both agreed on this. Alice would lie back and look at the top of Nick’s head. There were a few shiny silvery strands. She didn’t know if he knew about them, so she didn’t mention them. He was thirty-two. The silver strands made her eyes blur. All those wacky pregnancy hormones.
Alice never talked out loud to the baby. She spoke to it in her mind, shyly, when she was in the bath (not too hot—so many rules). “Hey there, Baby,” she’d think to herself, and then she’d be so overwhelmed by the wonder of it she’d splash the water with the flats of her palms like a kid thinking about Christmas. She was turning thirty soon, with a terrifying mortgage and a husband and a baby on the way, but she didn’t feel that different from when she was fifteen.
Except, there were no moments of bliss after grocery shopping when she was fifteen. She hadn’t met Nick yet. Her heart still had to be broken a few times before he could turn up and superglue it together with words like “besotted.”
“Alice? Are you okay? Please open your eyes.”
It was a woman’s voice. Too loud and strident to ignore. It dragged her up into consciousness and wouldn’t let her go.
It was a voice that gave Alice a familiar irritated itch of a feeling, like too-tight stockings.
This person did not belong in her bedroom.
She rolled her head to one side. “Ow!”
She opened her eyes.
There was a blur of unrecognizable colors and shapes. She couldn’t even see the bedside cabinet to reach for her glasses. Her eyes must be getting worse.
She blinked, and blinked again, and then, like a sharpening telescope, everything came into focus. She was looking at someone’s knees. How funny.
Knobbly pale knees.
She lifted her chin a fraction.
“There you are!”
It was Jane Turner of all people, from work, kneeling next to her. Her face was flushed and she had strands of sweaty hair pasted to her forehead. Her eyes looked tired. She had a soft, pudgy neck Alice had never noticed before. She was wearing a T-shirt with huge sweat marks and shorts and her arms were thin and white with dark freckles. Alice had never seen so much of Jane’s body before. It was embarrassing. Poor old Jane.
“Listeria, wisteria,” said Alice, to be humorous.
“You’re delirious,” said Jane. “Don’t try and sit up.”
“Hmmph,” said Alice. “Don’t want to sit up.” She had a feeling she wasn’t in bed; she seemed to be lying flat on her back on a cool laminated floor. Was she drunk? Had she forgotten she was pregnant and got deliriously drunk?
Her obstetrician was an urbane man who wore a bow tie and had a round face disconcertingly similar to that of one of Alice’s ex-boyfriends. He said he didn’t have a problem with “say, an aperitif followed by one glass of wine with dinner.” Alice thought an aperitif must be a particular brand of drink. (“Oh, Alice,” said Elisabeth.) Nick explained that an aperitif was a predinner drink. Nick came from an aperitif-drinking family. Alice came from a family with one dusty bottle of Baileys sitting hopefully in the back of the pantry behind the tins of spaghetti. In spite of what the obstetrician said, she’d only had a half a glass of champagne since she’d done the pregnancy test and she felt guilty about that even though everybody kept saying it was fine.
“Where am I?” asked Alice, terrified of the answer. Was she in some seedy nightclub? How could she explain to Nick that she forgot she was pregnant?
“You’re at the gym,” said Jane. “You fell and knocked yourself out. Gave me an absolute heart attack, although I was sort of grateful for the excuse to stop.”
The gym? Alice didn’t go to gyms. Had she woken up drunk in a gym?
“You lost your balance,” said a sharp, jolly voice. “It was quite a fall! Gave us all a shock, you silly sausage! We’ve called an ambulance, so don’t you worry, we’ve got professional help on the way!”
Kneeling next to Jane was a thin, coffee-tanned girl with a bleached- blond ponytail, shiny Lycra shorts, and a cropped red top with the words SPIN CRAZY emblazoned across it. Alice felt instant dislike for her. She didn’t like being called a silly sausage. It offended her dignity. One of Alice’s faults, according to her sister Elisabeth, was a tendency to take herself too seriously.
“Did I faint?” asked Alice hopefully. Pregnant women fainted. She had never fainted in her life, although she spent most of fourth grade practicing, in the hope that she could be one of those lucky girls who fainted during church and had to be carried out, draped across the muscly arms of their PE teacher, Mr. Gillespie.
“It’s just that I’m pregnant,” she said. Let her see who she was calling a silly sausage.
Jane’s mouth dropped. “Jesus, Alice, you are not!”
Spin Crazy Girl pursed her mouth as if she’d caught Alice out being naughty. “Oh dear, sweetie, I did ask at the beginning of the class if anyone was pregnant. I would have put you up front near the fan. You shouldn’t have been so shy.”
Alice’s head thumped. Nothing anybody said was making sense.
“Pregnant,” said Jane. “At this time. What a disaster.”
“It is not!” Alice put a protective hand to her stomach, so the Sultana wouldn’t hear and be offended. Their financial situation was none of Jane’s business. People were meant to be delighted when you announced a pregnancy.
“I mean, what are you going to do?” asked Jane.
For heaven’s sake! “Do? What do you mean, what am I going to do? I’m going to have a baby.” She sniffed. “You smell of lavender. I knew I could smell lavender.” Her sense of smell had been extra strong because of the pregnancy.
“It’s my deodorant.” Jane really didn’t look like herself. Her eyes didn’t look right. It was quite noticeable. Maybe she needed to start using some sort of eye cream.
“Are you all right, Jane?”
Jane snorted. “I’m fine. Worry about yourself, woman. You’re the pregnant one knocking yourself out.”
The baby! She’d been selfishly thinking about her sore head when she should have been worrying about the poor little Sultana. What sort of a mother was she going to be?
She said, “I hope I didn’t hurt the baby when I fell.”
“Oh, babies are pretty tough, I wouldn’t worry about that.”
It was another woman’s voice. For the first time Alice looked up and realized a crowd of red-faced, middle-aged women in sports gear surrounded her. Some of them were leaning forward, staring at her with avid road-accident interest, while others had their hands on their hips and were chatting to one another as if they were at a party. They seemed to be in a small, fluorescent- lit room. She could hear tinny music somewhere in the distance, clanking metal sounds, and a sudden burst of loud masculine laughter. As she lifted her head, she saw that the room was filled with stationary bikes, all crammed together and facing the same direction.
“Although, you shouldn’t really be doing exercise that gets your heart rate up too high if you’re pregnant,” said another woman.
“But I don’t do any exercise,” said Alice. “I should do more exercise.”
“You, my girl, couldn’t do any more exercise if you tried,” said Jane.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She looked around at the strange faces surrounding her. This was all so . . . silly. “I don’t know where I am.”
“She’s probably got a concussion,” said somebody excitedly. “Concussed people are dazed and disoriented.”
Spin Crazy Girl looked frightened and stroked Alice’s arm. “Oh dear, sweetie, YOU MIGHT BE JUST A LITTLE BIT CONCUSSED,” she yelled.
“Yes, but I don’t think that makes her deaf,” said Jane tersely. She lowered her voice and bent her head toward Alice. “Everything is fine. You’re at the gym, you were doing your Friday spin class, the one you’ve been wanting to drag me along to for ages, remember? Can’t quite see the attraction, actually. Anyway, you must have got dizzy, or fainted or something, because one minute you were riding like a madwoman and next thing you were crashing to the floor. You’re going to be fine. More importantly, why didn’t you tell me you were pregnant?”
“What’s a Friday spin class?” asked Alice.
“Oh, this is bad,” said Jane excitedly.
“The ambulance is here!” someone said.
Spin Crazy Girl became goofy with relief. She bounded to her feet and shooed at the ladies like an energetic housewife with a broom. “Right, gang, let’s give them some space, shall we?”
Jane stayed kneeling on the floor next to Alice, patting her distractedly on the shoulder. Then she stopped patting. “Oh, my. Why do you get all the fun?”
Alice twisted her head and saw two handsome men in blue overalls striding toward them, carrying first aid equipment. Embarrassed, she struggled to sit up.
“Stay there, honey,” called out the taller one.
“He looks just like George Clooney,” breathed Jane in her ear. He did, too. Alice couldn’t help but feel cheerier. It seemed she’d woken up in an episode of ER.
“Hey, there.” George Clooney squatted down next to them, big hands resting between his knees. “What’s your name?”
“Jane,” said Jane. “Oh. Her name is Alice.”
“What’s your full name, Alice?” George gently took her wrist and pushed two fingers against her pulse.
“Alice Mary Love.”
“Had a bit of a fall did you, Alice?”
“Apparently I did. I don’t remember it.” Alice felt teary and special, as she generally did when she talked to any health professional, even a chemist. She blamed her mother for making too much of a fuss over her when she was sick as a child. She and Elisabeth were both terrible hypochondriacs.
“Do you know where you are?” asked George.
“Not really,” said Alice. “Apparently I’m in a gym.”
“She fell off her bike during the spin class.” Jane adjusted her bra strap beneath her top. “I saw it happen. I’m pretty sure she fainted. Her head smashed against the handlebars of the bike next to her. She’s been unconscious for about ten minutes.”
Spin Crazy Girl reappeared, ponytail swinging, and Alice stared up at her smooth long legs and hard flat stomach. It looked like a pretend stomach. “She can’t have had her feet strapped to the pedals properly. I do make a point of reminding everyone about that at the beginning of the class. It’s a safety issue,” said Spin Crazy Girl to George Clooney in the confidential tone of one professional talking to another. “Also, I really don’t recommend spin classes to pregnant women. I did ask if anyone was pregnant.”
"Don’t worry, we’ll sue if necessary,” said Jane quietly to Alice.
“How many weeks are you, Alice?” asked George.
Alice went to answer and to her surprise found a blank space in her head.
“Thirteen,” she said, after a second. “I mean, fourteen. Fourteen weeks.” They’d had the twelve-week ultrasound at least two weeks ago. The Sultana had done a peculiar little jump, like a disco dance move, as if someone had poked it in the back, and afterward Nick and Alice had kept trying to replicate the movement for people. Everyone had been polite and said it was remarkable.
She put a hand to her stomach again and for the first time she noticed what she was wearing. Sneakers and white socks. Black shorts and a yellow sleeveless top with a shiny gold-foil sticker stuck to her top. It seemed to be a picture of a dinosaur with a balloon coming out of its mouth saying, “ROCK ON.” Rock on?
“Where did these clothes come from?” she asked Jane accusingly. “These aren’t my clothes.”
Jane raised a meaningful eyebrow at George.
“There’s a dinosaur stuck to my shirt,” said Alice, awestruck.
“What day of the week is it today, Alice?” asked George.
“Friday,” answered Alice. She was cheating, because Jane had told her they were doing a “Friday spin class.” Whatever that was.
“Remember what you had for breakfast?” George gently examined the side of her head while he talked. The other paramedic strapped a blood- pressure monitor to her upper arm and pumped it up.
“Peanut butter on toast?”
That was what she generally had for breakfast. It seemed a safe bet.
“He doesn’t actually know what you had for breakfast,” said Jane. “He’s trying to see if you remember what you had for breakfast.”
The blood-pressure monitor squeezed hard around Alice’s arm.
George sat back on his haunches and said, “Humor me, Alice, and tell me the name of our illustrious prime minister.”
“John Howard,” answered Alice obediently. She hoped there wouldn’t be any more questions about politics. It wasn’t her forte. She could never get appalled enough.
Jane made a strange explosive sound of derision and mirth.
“Oh. Ah. But he’s still the prime minister, isn’t he?” Alice was mortified. People were going to tease her about this for years to come. Oh, Alice, you don’t know the prime minister! Had she missed an election? “But I’m sure he’s the prime minister.”
“And what year is it?” George didn’t seem too concerned.
“It’s 1998,” Alice answered promptly. She felt confident about that one. The baby would be born next year, in 1999.
Jane pressed her hand over her mouth. George went to speak, but Jane interrupted him. She put her hand on Alice’s shoulder and stared at her intently. Her eyes were wide with excitement. Tiny balls of mascara hovered on the ends of her eyelashes. The combination of her lavender deodorant and garlic breath was quite overpowering.
“How old are you, Alice?”
“I’m twenty-nine, Jane.” Alice was irritated by Jane’s dramatic tone. What was she getting at? “Same age as you.”
Jane sat back up and looked at George Clooney triumphantly.
She said, “I just got an invitation to her fortieth birthday.”
That was the day Alice Mary Love went to the gym and carelessly misplaced a decade of her life.
“The affecting tale of Alice’s chance for a ten-year do-over.”—The New York Times
“Grabbed me on the first page…a deep and wondrous novel.” —Luanne Rice
“Winning…well-paced, and thoroughly pleasurable.” —Publishers Weekly