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A short story by Katharine Light

My arms are empty short story

As Anna and Rob walked through the art gallery, from one ornate, high-ceilinged room to another, her usual filters were eroded by the beauty that surrounded them, until she felt soft and open. Stripped of her usual armour, she reacted to the Joshua Reynolds portrait of a mother holding her small child in her lap, with a visceral jolt of pain, like being winded. ​

      Lost in their own landscape, mother and child gazed at each other. She sat with her feet crossed at the ankles, the sole of one shoe peeping from beneath her dress, cradling the child, whose plump toes curled over her arm. Anna was sure he was a boy.​

      She glanced at Rob. They’d known each other in their teens. He’d been an enthusiastic puppy, all hair and eyes and long limbs, a well-dressed almost-Goth, head to toe in black, eyeliner filched from his sister. They’d snogged once, during a Saturday night ‘Spin the bottle’ in a draughty cellar, but he was too dangerous, too destabilising. Knowing his butterfly focus would soon flutter elsewhere, she’d laughed off his attention, trying to dampen her hopes.​

      When they’d met again, in their late thirties, at the re-marriage of mutual school friends, he looked just as dangerous, but his attention had steadied. The more she waved him away, the more he stuck. Resulting in this meeting, to look at art, of all things.​

      She shivered in the cool air, and felt Rob shrug off his linen jacket and put it round her shoulders, bringing her back into the room. Her feet were on wooden parquet floor, not the soft earth of a sunlit birch copse. Her arms were empty.​

      Turning away, she felt the scrutiny of his gaze passing from her face to the painting and back again. ​

      ‘Cup of coffee?’ he said.​

      The jacket was warm on her neck, Rob’s faint citrus scent a spur to move as far from the painting as possible. She grasped the edges of the fabric between her fingers, planning to return it the moment they sat down. But the atrium café was unexpectedly cool on this cloudy morning. Instead, she hunched into it further.​

      After they’d ordered—a flat white for her, an espresso and a croissant for him—he said, ‘What did you see in that last painting?’​

      Her eyes flicked away, fingers pleating this way, that way. ‘Which one?’​

      ‘The mother and child?’​

      ‘Romantic sentimentality.’ The words didn’t land as she intended—shrugging sarcasm and a change of subject—rather, the silence stretched across the table, as Rob eyed her.​

       A wave of heat swept over Anna, prickling the skin around her eyes. The overwhelming absence drowned out everything else, a creeping sensation from the instant she awoke until the moment she managed to sleep. She would not put the backs of her fingers to her pink cheeks. She would not speak. She would not look at him.​

      He placed his hand on the table, beside their coffee cups. ‘Nothing else?’

      Her eyes swam. ‘Her arms aren’t empty.’ 

      As she reached for her cup, his hand intercepted hers, lacing their fingers together. ‘Neither are yours.’

      ‘Rob. Please.’ She pulled her hand into her lap.

       He waited. ‘Your arms are empty…?’ 

      ‘I’m thirty-nine. A woman’s fertility drops off a cliff after thirty-five.

      ‘Anna. Why don’t you say what you want to say? What’s the worst that could happen?’

      Her eyes finally connected with his. ‘You run screaming from the room?’

      He laughed. ‘That’s easy. I’ve never run screaming from the room.’

      ‘I read an article by a journalist who was talking about her sadness at not being a grandmother. She’d pursued her career and not missed having children, but now felt bereft. She described physical, humiliating feelings of jealousy towards her friends with grandchildren.’

      Rob leaned towards her. ‘She was describing a particular feeling unique to her. If you don’t have children, you may be entirely relieved not to have snivelling, self-centred grandchildren dumped on you.’​

      Anna sighed, a conscious effort to unclench her jaw, fearing a migraine was on the way.​

      ‘What are you proposing?’ he asked.

      She flinched.

      ‘Okay. Suggesting.’

      She turned her face up to the glass roof, blinking rapidly. ‘I want a baby. I thought you might be the person to help.’

      ‘And apart from the obvious, what do you want from me?’

      ‘You’d be under no obligation. None. You wouldn’t be required to do… to be…’ Her voice petered out.

      ‘How would it work, then? What would you tell your parents, for instance?’

      ‘I’m not expecting anything from you.’

      He pushed himself back from the table and rubbed his jaw. ‘Apart from the baby.’

      Anna examined his face. ‘I’m not looking for more from you—’ 

      ‘What if we hadn’t had this conversation? What if you and I had just fallen into bed together because we were… we got on so well? And you got pregnant? Wouldn’t you expect—quite legitimately—a great deal more from me? Support—financial, emotional, something?’

      ‘Don’t be angry. I shouldn’t have asked you.’ She knew it was an unreasonable request. One she hadn’t even intended to articulate. 

      He leant forward and took her hand. ‘I understand your need. The whole idea of your arms being empty. It’s a very attractive offer. But. I need to think.’​

      Anna blinked. All she could feel was the gentle smoothing of her skin by the warm pressure of his thumb. ​

      ‘If you get what you want, then there’s another human being involved. One we’ve created. There are consequences to our pleasure.

      What had she been thinking? Perhaps it was the semblance of familiarity that prompted her confession, but Rob was altogether unknown. Too big, too male, too real. Her version of the future skated over the physical ramifications of conception, birth and breast-feeding. She’d fixated on the honey-soaked oil painting version of motherhood. She yanked her hand away. ‘Sorry—please forget it. Thanks for the coffee.’

      ‘That’s it? I said I needed to think, and you’re fleeing?

      She shrugged off his jacket and stood up. ‘I’ve got a shocking headache coming on.’


      She couldn’t look at him. She threaded around the tables, heading through the shop towards the main entrance. ​

      If it hadn’t been for the postcard, she might have made a clean escape. Joshua Reynolds, Mother and child. ​

© Katharine Light 2024
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