by Bec Zugor
From the moment I clapped eyes on Ben, I knew he was The One. Only he wasn’t. Not exactly. Life is never that simple, is it? One sunny Saturday four weeks ago I realised we were approaching a turning point in our relationship. Simple? Never again.
“What were you thinking of, Josh?” I kept my voice calm that day, when really I felt like yelling.
“Sorry, Sophie.” The boy, small for his six years, was still on all fours where he had been scrabbling away at the earth. He reminded me of a cat, with his wiry ginger hair and green-blue eyes. I didn’t like cats in my garden either, but at least they didn’t go into my shed, take out a trowel and dig a hole in the middle of the lawn.
“I thought I saw something shiny sticking out of the grass,” Josh mumbled. “It might have been treasure.”
Of course. I thought back to the day Ben had introduced me to his son. “This is Josh,” he said. “He wants to be an archaeologist.” Josh said nothing, just looked at me in a way that made me feel like I’d just come into a job interview. Or just failed one.
“Give him time,” Ben said. “He’ll get used to you.”
That was a year ago, and I hadn’t managed to get to know Josh very well in all that time; he hadn’t really spoken much since his mother died. A car door slamming interrupted my thoughts and Josh’s digging.
“Your dad’s back.” I smiled at Josh. Thank goodness, I wanted to say. A couple of hours’ babysitting on a Saturday morning had been more stressful than a whole week typing letters for my grumpy manager.
Josh ran to the car. Ben scooped him up.
“Time to take you home, young man.” Ben turned to me. “I’ll be back at eight. My sister’s watching him tonight.” When I leaned forward to kiss him, he whispered, “I need to ask you something.”
He was grinning as he drove away, but I found it difficult to smile back. My mind was fast-forwarding to the evening. I’d have to tell Ben the truth.
The restaurant was perfect, with gentle ballads playing and softly glowing candles. I wore my favourite green dress because Ben liked the way it brought out the deep red tones of my hair – and showed just the right amount of cleavage.
Ben proposed after the Raspberry Sensation as we started on the coffee and chocolate mints. The ring he held out was the sort I would have chosen – a small emerald-cut diamond set in a plain gold band. It was simple and uncluttered, just like my lifestyle.
“Ben, I love you, I really think you’re The One.” I tried to sound kind. “But you’re not one – are you? I mean you’re one, plus a child. Children complicate things.”
He took my hand in his. “You’re wondering how you can take the place of Josh’s mum.”
“It’s more than that. I don’t think I can be a mother – to anyone.” I braced myself for his reaction. “The truth is, I’m just not maternal. I never have been. I’m not sure I even like children.”
“I didn’t know you felt like that.” Ben tousled his fair hair, the way he always did whenever a conversation became serious. It gave him that just-got-out-of-bed look which always electrified me.
“When you have a child to look after, it’ll be different.”
“That’s what people said to my friend Liz.” I suppressing the urge to run out to a cheap motel and tousle that hair myself. “So she had a baby and discovered she had no more desire to spend all day with a child than she had before. She felt trapped.” I laid the ring box on Ben’s palm. “I don’t know if I’m ready. I’m sorry.”
He was silent for a moment, staring into his coffee. “Maybe you do have maternal instincts, deep down, but you don’t realise,” he said finally. “I never thought I wanted to be a father, but once Josh arrived…”
“It would be a big commitment. I like things the way they are – you get a babysitter, we date, and I see Josh at the weekends.”
“He’s part of my life.” Ben put the ring back into his pocket. “Look, it’s his birthday in two weeks’ time. Let’s concentrate on that before making any final decisions.”
“That sounds like an ultimatum.”
He didn’t answer.
During the fortnight leading up to Josh’s birthday, my mind was in a whirl. I always thought you’re either cut out for motherhood or you’re not. I was definitely in the latter category. Maybe that’s why I put off buying his present – my gift might be just as unfit. When I did go shopping at last, finding a present for Josh was as difficult as I’d expected. It also led to further complications, which I hadn’t anticipated. I wandered around the toy shop for half an hour, feeling embarrassed whenever any buggy-wielding mums looked in my direction in case they could tell I was a beginner and hadn’t a clue.
They’d have been right.
Finally, at the back of the shop, I saw it – the perfect present! Why hadn’t I thought of it before? I took it down off the shelf and looked for the till, giddy with relief and an irrepressible satisfaction yet trying to look nonchalant at the same time.
“Didn’t know you had kids.”
I spun ’round. “Andy! Er, I haven’t.”
“Great. No ties. That’s why we were so good together.”
“A long time ago.” I hoped he couldn’t see my pupils dilate as I appreciated his close-cropped dark hair and tight-fitting designer tee-shirt. He would never have chocolate stains on his clothes. “Are you buying toys?”
He laughed. “No chance! I spied you through the window. Thought I’d surprise you.”
“You always were one for surprises.”
“Remember those spur-of-the-moment romantic weekends?”
I smiled. “Florence, London, Venice, how could I forget?”
“We agreed,” he continued, “no kids, no responsibilities, just fun and romance. Fine times. Don’t know why we split up, really.”
I remembered. “It had a lot to do with the fun and romance you were having with Tiffany when I was away looking after my bedridden mother.” I tried to sound stern, but it was hard. Five years is time enough to forgive, and he looked as fanciable as ever.
He stroked my cheek (I always loved him doing that!) and looked serious. “I never stopped loving you.”
“We could take up where we left off.”
Something stirred inside me at the memory. When we were together Andy always put me first. Well, until he met Tiffany. We didn’t have to fit our lives around a child’s needs. I’d never thought of Andy as The One, but we were carefree, just the two of us. Maybe that’s what I really wanted?
“I’ve got to get back to work.” He pressed a piece of paper into my hand. “Here’s my new phone number. Think about it.”
A few days later, I watched nervously as Josh unwrapped my present.
“A metal detector,” he said without the enthusiasm I’d expected.
“Well, an archaeologist needs the right tools,” I said, feeling anxious; children change their minds so quickly. “That is what you want to be, isn’t it? An archaeologist?”
“I’ll take you past the beach on the way home, Josh,” Ben said. “We’ll hunt for treasure there. We can’t have you digging up Sophie’s lawn again.” He shot me a look that said, Josh told me all about that.
Scores of butterflies began a rave party in my stomach. I retreated to the kitchen to fiddle with the birthday cake, but I kept glancing across to my address book. A small piece of paper was sticking out. I wondered which exciting place Andy would travel to next, and with whom. It could so easily be me. There was no doubting his feelings. All I had to do was pick up the phone.
That evening Ben rang me. “He’s a bit tearful,” he said. “We walked on the beach for an hour and although the detector beeped several times we only found tin cans.”
“Poor Josh.” An idea began to form. “Give him a hug from me” I looked out the window at my tidy, beautiful garden. My blissfully child-free garden. “And tell him to bring his detector here next weekend.”
When Josh came round on Saturday I felt nervous. What if he didn’t find anything? He would be even more disappointed. “I don’t mind you hunting for treasure at the end of the garden,” I said, leading the way. “Just along there, by the fence.” I ignored Ben’s puzzled look. “But not the lawn, okay?”
“I won’t find anything, anyway.”
I went back into the house, keeping an eye on Josh through the window. Ben steered him away from one of my rose bushes.
Minutes later there was a yell and I watched as Josh lifted up a dull bronze jug. He handed it to Ben and sunk his trowel into the soft dirt again. Later, they came in smelling of earth and sweat. Josh’s cheeks glowed pink with excitement, fresh air and exuberant childhood. I couldn’t help feeling a tinge of pride and a little satisfaction.
“Look at all these, Sophie,” he gasped, holding out the jug, a coin, two rings and a tarnished silver chain. “Your garden is the best!”
“I know,” I laughed. “You’ll have to check the borders too, to see what else you can find.”
He looked hesitant. “What about your plants?”
“I’ll help you,” I said quickly. Best to keep the budding Indiana Jones on a tight leash, as far as my garden was concerned.
When Josh went off to the bathroom to wash his precious treasure, Ben stayed behind. “What was all that nonsense about ‘no maternal instinct’?” He held out the Oxfam carrier bag and receipt, plus an old silver St. Christopher pendant. “I know you never wear this sort of thing.”
“I meant to hide that.” I quickly stuffed it into a drawer so Josh wouldn’t see. “The jewelry and stuff didn’t cost much,” I said. “And he looks so happy, Ben. Did you see his face?”
“I can’t believe you actually buried that treasure for him to find.” Ben shook his head. “That’s the sort of thing a mother would do.”
“Well, I don’t know about that.” My cheeks felt hot. I decided I’d better not tell Andy about this. He’d never let me hear the end of it.
Ben gently pulled me close. “You can do this, you know. Josh isn’t the only one making discoveries, is he?”
I felt the familiar contour of Ben’s slight paunch beneath the sweater his mother had made, and thought of Andy’s sexy, athletic-cut clothes and gym-honed physique, and that he wanted me! Yet, Ben touched something in me Andy, romantic weekends away and the threat of the next Tiffany could never reach.
We turned as one, Ben and I, as Josh came in looking nervous and holding out my once pretty bathroom towel – the lavender one with the lace binding – which was now covered in mud.
“I tried to clean the things I found…”
I groaned inwardly, but managed a smile. How much extra washing powder would I need to buy from now on? “I suppose mothers get used to that sort of thing.”
“Does that mean…” Ben began.
“Whoa, steady,” I laughed. “I’m not accepting your proposal, not yet, anyway. But I was thinking you could both move in.”
“Does that mean you still think I’m The One, even though I’m not – just one?”
“We’ll see how it goes. I can’t promise more than that.”
“Then you’d best wear this on your right hand,” Ben said,. “Until you’re ready for the left.” He fished the little box out of his pocket and handed it to me.
Somehow I knew that little box had been tucked in his pocket every time I’d seen him in the last two weeks.
“I’d like us all to live together, Sophie,” Josh said, hugging me with his muddy arms. Funnily enough, I didn’t mind too much, even though I made a mental note to keep some of my favourite clothes out of his reach in future.
“That’s settled, then,” Ben said. “To celebrate, let’s go to Paris for a few days.”
“Just like that?”
“Just the two of us. My sister likes having Josh to stay. I’ll arrange it.”
So here I am, looking out from our hotel balcony towards the Eiffel Tower, with a rock on my finger – right hand for now – and Ben at my side. I did phone Andy to tell him the news. He explained that the day before he saw me he’d had a row with his pregnant girlfriend Laura – about him avoiding his responsibilities. He’d since proposed. “I kind of fancy being a Dad,” he told me, with what sounded like a mixture of embarrassment and pride. “Though I don’t know anything about babies.”
Ben nuzzles my ear. “And what did you tell him?”
“I told him he must have fatherhood qualities, but that they may be buried.” I smile. “And that he may need to do a bit of digging.”