He looked the same: irresponsible, well rested. His skin was unlined. His nose, twice-broken, formed a hard line of smashed bone down the centre of his face. The nose had seemed to speak to each of the nine women Alex had slept with of some quality of vulnerability they found attractive.
Very early in the morning on a Saturday, Sara was peeling open a pack of photographs. She took them out and shuffled through them with the same dexterity she used playing poker, until she selected one and slid it across the kitchen counter. Alex picked it up and looked at it. He was hot and hung over and some kind of clear scum floated on top of his coffee, formed contours and shapes like islands.
'You don't have to show me photos,' he said. They were sitting on the high stools in Alex's kitchen. 'I just saw her this week.'
'Last Saturday,' said Sara.
'Okay, last Saturday. What's she done since then?'
'I'm sorry,' Sara said. 'I keep forgetting how incredibly dull our child is.' She always said our child in this sort of sanctimonious way like she was pretending to be somebody else. Okay, there was the new version of Sara, remade, reordered, who suddenly seemed distant and unfathomably wise—she'd quit smoking and knew about nappy rash, spoke to Alex with gentle condescension, and had books about breastfeeding mixed in with her physics textbooks; but he knew there were still minutes of the baby's life she didn't care about missing, like probably most of the hours it slept, or cried.
Alex squinted at the photo and hoped Sara didn't notice the slight tremor in his hand as he held it. He needed to eat, needed salt and carbohydrates and warm, flat coke. 'I thought we said ten,' he said.
'It's half past nine,' said Sara. He looked up at her. She rested her chin on her hand and looked unsurprised.
'Yeah,' said Alex. 'Because I thought we said ten.'
'It's half past nine. I'm half an hour early. Mum can only take her until eleven. It's not like I was supposed to come for Christmas and turned up for Halloween. Deal with your life, Alex.'
Conversations always seemed to quickly escalate into deal with your life, Alex. Nice weather today, deal with your life Alex. Your shoelaces are undone, deal with your life Alex. Alex was pretty sure that when the baby was old enough to go to school Sara was going to write a self-help book for young single mothers and it was going to be called Deal with Your Life, Alex.
He'd made this joke to his own mother and she had told him that he was exceptionally naïve and self-involved. Deal with your life, Alex.
'He's got a baby,' his friends would say at the pub, trying to impress girls. The maturity somehow reflected back on all of them. Alex would look serious for a moment, take a sip of beer, put the glass back down in a manner he would describe as thoughtful.
'Yeah,' he'd say. 'Yeah. Little Emily.'
Later, carrying Steve home because he couldn't take his drink, dragging him through the streets like a body they were trying to dispose of, stubbled and smelling like lager, smoke in their pores, Steve's body a hot dead drunken weight, mumbling into his chest about the girlfriend he's cheating on—
Alex would think about the night he met Sara. Like he could trace a line from the moment she handed him a Stop the War flyer to the moment she handed him a very small and unknowable person with a still-soft skull and blue eyes.
They had slept together only once. She was two years older than Alex. Now they would probably still know each other when they were old and the baby was a grown-up and knew that she had been accidentally conceived in an ill-considered if only slightly drunken one night stand.
Sarah had left in the morning and Alex had pretended to sleep.
When the baby first saw him, she was three days old, and looked doubtful.
'I know,' he'd said to it. Her. 'I'm sorry. You probably could have done better.'
'She seems disappointed,' he'd said to Sara, standing next to him, still looking washed out and exhausted from the effort of producing this new person.
'Yes,' Sara said, in a tone that said yes, Alex. Women do find you disappointing.
He looked back into the crib. 'Hi, baby,' he said, and the baby looked back at him.
He had tried to make a space for her in his flat, a place for the crib and the pushchair and the changing mat and all the other accessories she seemed to come with, all the well-made and expensively branded stuff that someone else had paid for, Sara or Sara's parents. He thought it could stay at weekends. But there wasn't any space. The flat was already cramped with one person and the TV and the piles of unread newspapers, shoes, albums, empty beer bottles waiting to be recycled. A rugby ball signed by all his teammates, balanced on a bookshelf.
He had given up rugby when he started his degree, in geoinformation and cartography. This was a degree programme he had seen advertised somewhere, and he had liked the word cartography. His mother had said Alex, if this is what you really want to do.
At first he didn't think he had the basic maths proficiency they asked for, he'd wasted his school years on the sports field, but somehow all the equations he'd been doing when he caught a ball, all the angles he'd had to calculate by instinct, doing that over and over, it seemed like it had carved out paths in his brain that he could reuse. If you throw a ball, there is weight and velocity. Its curve across the sky is calculable and the place in which it will land and at what speed is knowable; the trajectory of an object in the sky can be anticipated.
He and his fractured bone and thick shouldered teammates drank cheap continental lager and crushed up the cans and in the morning on the field ran backwards, looking up, wrote maps on the sky. If they could do that—
'Half an hour,' Sara repeated. 'I've really thrown your whole day off course. I know how finely calibrated your schedule is—'
'I have to write essays,' Alex said, and quickly, before she could greet that with ridicule, he said, 'I was going to tidy up. I would've tidied up before you got here.'
'You don't need to tidy up for me,' Sara said. 'You need to tidy up if she's going to stay here.'
'I know,' said Alex. 'I thought I was being auditioned. That's why I was going to tidy up.'
'You need to clean,' Sara went on. 'You need things to be safe, it's like this whole world of stuff you haven't even thought about, all these stupid little things—' Sara broke off, shook her head, and then smiled self-consciously. 'I'm not obsessed with domesticity,' she said. 'I'm still an interesting person.'
'You shouldn't get to be this interesting, funny person who draws maps and I just start talking about Domestos and baby food.'
'I know. I know that. I'm not interesting or funny.'
'Okay, well, that's true.'
Sara started to put away the photos. Behind her was a mirror, and Alex saw his reflection, his square head, ruined nose. He wasn't good looking, but he looked like someone honest. Women had told him this.
His flat was hot and unclean.
When he looked at the photographs he felt blank and expectant, felt that he was waiting to be rewritten. Sometimes, now, in the mornings, he woke up and wanted to cry.
And he talked to himself sometimes, lips moving, a soft incantation of half-formed thoughts, practising ways he might say to her one day, you were intended, you were meant, I saw you coming and I was ready for you.
Before she became, like Sara, a tough and wise woman who saw only the ruin and not the complicated ways in which he could heal, the complicated ways in which he could get better.
'I can get better,' he had whispered to the baby when he first held her. Imagined that she might one day see the good in him. See that his arms, at least, were very strong, and that he had learned the equations for a falling body and that he could look at the sky, running.
BIO: Catherine Barter is a bookshop assistant and research administrator. She studied American literature at the University of East Anglia and lives in Norwich, UK.