© Susan Howe
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(a short story)
I sat on the kerb outside the maternity wing with my head in my hands and the sun scorching the back of my neck. Exhaustion, the heat and my anxiety pressed in on me until I could barely breathe. The moment I closed my eyes, I began to drift.
I returned to the events of the previous night and the unexpected, chaotic dash to the hospital. Caroline’s screams of agony tore through me once again and I winced at the memory. Hour after hour I held her hand, sponged her face and stroked the damp curls from her forehead, uttering feeble words of encouragement as she swore and cried out.
A note of urgency entered the midwives’ steady voices and I watched in terror while my wife’s strength ebbed away. Suddenly the activity became more frenzied. I was pushed aside as the foetal monitor showed the baby in distress.
“Caroline!” I shouted, although no one was listening to me.
The image of an infant, limp and blue, flashed across my vision and I snatched at it, holding it fiercely to me. It was Caroline or the child. That was the choice I had to make and it was shockingly easy. Let the child die - it didn’t matter. I didn’t want it, had never wanted it. I tasted bitterness as hatred rose up inside me; hatred for this stranger who would rob me of my wife and be there in her place, forever.
“Please, save my wife.” The words were almost out when a reedy wail rose into the air and a sigh of relief swept the room. The violence of my disappointment left me gasping.
It seems a lifetime, ago. Daniel and I were so much in love and a family was the obvious next step. All our friends had started having children and we wanted our kids to grow up with theirs. But a year went by, then two, without so much as a false alarm. Hope gave way to disappointment as regularly as the moon waxed and waned. We began to quarrel, over small, silly things at first. The months passed and the friction increased until one or two of my girlfriends began to ask if everything was all right. We’re fine, I said, just have a lot on our plates at the moment - you know how it is...
I looked down at the squirming bundle in my arms. Aware of Caroline’s gaze, I kept my focus on the child. Bleary eyes seemed to rest on mine before screwing tightly shut. The unfamiliar nose wrinkled and a yawn twisted into a grimace. A thin, piercing cry plucked at my nerves. I shuddered.
The nurse, who had been tidying away the post-birth debris, slid me a sideways glance as she transferred the child carefully from my arms into Caroline’s, helping to arrange her nightdress for the first feed. With enviable confidence the baby latched on and I watched as pleasure transformed my wife’s tired face.
“Well done, Caro,” I said, running my fingers through my hair in an effort to look alert. I needed a wash and shave. It had been a long night.
My cheeks felt numb and resisted my attempts to smile. Caroline’s eyes met mine, but I had no doubt the light that shone on me was a mere reflection. I swallowed the lump in my throat, feeling superfluous and alone as she turned back to her new love.
Life went on. We became Godparents several times over, getting through the ceremonies with fixed smiles and breaking hearts as we held the little ones up to be named. At home we were strained and quiet, had stopped making love and started having sex. There was no fun, no spontaneity, and Daniel only wanted to do it when the indicators for ovulation were there. The rest of the time we went to bed in silence, turning away with a swift, dry kiss. I tried surprise candlelit dinners and impractical lacy underwear but he took offence, said he obviously wasn’t enough for me, and withdrew into himself still further.
There was a tap at the door and my mother’s face appeared, eyes sparkling.
“Can we come in, Danny?” she whispered.
Relief washed over me as my parents’ bustling broke the tension. Mum flung her arms about me and kissed me on both cheeks before rushing to admire her grandson, dozing at Caroline’s breast. My father extended his hand and shook mine vigorously in his usual formal but friendly fashion.
“Great news, son, great news,” he said. “Another lad. You and Rob will soon have a cricket team between you.”
I laughed, as I knew I must.
“Rob’ll be here in a minute,” he said. “He’s just parking the car. It’s such a damn great thing, it won’t fit into a normal space.”
Anyone who didn’t know Dad might have thought he was being critical of his elder son, but I knew better. His chest swelled and he seemed a little taller as he mentioned Rob’s name.
He was the perfect son. And although I was sure my parents loved me, I’d always stood in Rob’s shadow, both at school and at home. Not that he wasn’t a great brother - he was the best. He would have done anything for me; I knew that as well.
A mop of dark hair appeared round the door and my father hailed Rob’s arrival with a sweep of his arm.
“Here he is! Come and say hello to your nephew.”
Rob entered the room and immediately it felt smaller. He blew a kiss at Caroline, crossed the room and pulled me into his powerful arms. Then he stood back, held my shoulders and examined my face.
“How are you, kiddo?”
“Fine. A bit tired.”
We both knew what he really meant but this wasn’t the time, or the place.
We were miserable, hating ourselves and each other, and had somehow lost the ability to talk. When we tried, he accused me of not caring, of being only interested in making a baby, and I retaliated by saying he was cold; that he no longer understood me or my needs. He started to mention getting a dog, as if that was the answer. We cold-shouldered each other to the edge of destruction, until somehow self-preservation kicked in and we agreed it was time to be tested.
My mother perched on the edge of the bed and stroked the baby’s head.
“He's beautiful isn't he, Frank?"
Her glance flicked from my father's face to mine, and back to the child.
"When will your parents be here?” she said to Caroline.
“Give them a chance, Mum,” I said. “We weren’t expecting him for another couple of weeks.”
And he’d even stolen those last precious days.
“They’ve got an early flight into Manchester tomorrow,’ Caroline said.
Dad raised his eyebrows at Mum and she nodded.
“We’ll go and pick them up if you give us the details,” Dad said. “Let you get a bit of rest before they get here.”
“I’d be happy to fetch them,” Rob said. “The boys would love to see the planes. You’d be doing me a favour.”
The two of them squabbled in their practised way over who would be the least inconvenienced by meeting my in-laws. Eventually my father deferred, as ever, to Rob’s superior reasoning. I closed my eyes and let out a long breath. I was exhausted, drained by the stress of the last three years. I wanted to go home, have a shower and sleep for a week. Forget everything. Forget the moment I’d caught a glimpse inside myself and seen a darkness that took my breath away.
The tests revealed a problem with us both. My tubes were blocked and Daniel’s sperm were lazy. He took drugs to try and stir them, but three months later there was no change. We decided to use our savings for a couple of rounds of IVF, the first of which ended in disaster. I produced several viable eggs but the sperm failed to rally and we lost the lot. We had no comfort to offer each other and the next few weeks were a debilitating mess of rows and fragile truces, depression and blame. I explained my red eyes by pleading a persistent infection, but Dan’s didn’t look too good either. In an effort to save our marriage, we returned to the clinic to ask about our options.
“What are you going to call him?” Dad said.
As he cradled the sleeping child, a sweet mix of tenderness and awe softened the lines around his mouth. My heart jolted as I watched the old with the new, jealous of the connection between them and of my father’s ability to love so freely. My eyes pricked and the picture blurred. My mother smiled, clearly misreading my thoughts.
“We’re not sure. We haven’t been able to agree so far...” There was a hint of impatience in my wife’s response.
I stared at my hands, twisting my wedding ring round and round, trying to find a bit that wasn’t scratched.
“It could have been a girl,” I said, not adding that I’d hoped and prayed it would be.
A beautiful little girl, the image of her mother. It might have been easier to love a girl.
“Frank’s a good name,” Dad said. He caught my eye and winked, like he used to do when I was young. I recalled the warmth of kinship; of sharing a special moment with my father.
In view of Daniel’s infertility, the consultant said our only option was donor sperm. He gave us sheaves of information and told us to think very carefully about the implications. I could see immediately, by the way his expression closed, Daniel had already decided against it. I clung to the idea, convinced it was my only chance to bear a child. Though I knew it would be harder for Daniel, for me it presented best way forward. Our families had guessed there was a problem and seemed relieved it was out in the open, even offering help with the cost. Daniel and I argued endlessly and whole nights were spent weeping until we had no more tears. We drifted around the house like ghosts, unable to see, hear or feel. Then, quietly and completely, Daniel gave in. I suppose he couldn’t imagine the alternative and neither could I. I felt the blood flow through me again, as though my arteries had reopened to let it pass. For the first time in months we made love and, afterwards, Daniel cried.
“Mum and Dad are coming for lunch on Sunday,” Rob said. “It would be great if you could join us - Sally can’t wait to see the baby.”
“Lunch would be lovely,” Caroline said. “Wouldn’t it, darling?”
“Mmm,” I said. The last thing I wanted to do was visit Rob’s model family in his perfect home. “Are you sure you’ll be up to it?”
“Yes, course I will. I’ll get some sleep when you’ve gone and you’ll be there to help when I get home. It’ll be fine.”
I shrugged. “Whatever.”
A look passed between my parents.
“And we’ll be on call, whenever you need us,” Mum said. “Just say the word.”
“You look tired, son,” Dad said. “Why don’t you nip home and get your head down. We’ll stay here.”
I didn’t need any further encouragement and pushed myself out of the chair. I leaned over and kissed Caroline’s ear as she tucked the shawl around her baby.
“Thanks, Dad.” I said. “I just need a few hours sleep and then I’ll be back.”
I escaped the labyrinth of cream-painted corridors and walked quickly across the hospital car park, shielding my eyes against the strong midday sun as it bounced off the cars in a painful blaze. I couldn’t remember where I’d parked and walked round the perimeter twice, until I realised we’d come by taxi because I’d had a couple of beers.
Daniel did all the right things when we took the baby home, anticipating my every need. He fetched and carried, called friends, accepted gifts and congratulations, but I noticed he only touched our child when it was unavoidable. He moved around as if in a dream; slowly, methodically, disconnected. Each time the phone rang I saw hope spring into his eyes - hope that it was someone from work with a problem only he could solve. But they were too happy for him, too considerate. No matter how much he smiled, it was as though I had drawn a circle round me and the baby, and Daniel stood outside it, alone. All my attempts to reach him failed and eventually I called his mother. She listened carefully and when I’d finished there was a long silence. Don’t worry, she said at last. He’ll come round.
After lunch on Sunday, while Caroline and the baby were asleep upstairs, I stood at the French windows watching my father play cricket on the lawn with Rob and his three young sons. The game consisted of each boy hitting the ball and racing between the wickets, only to be swept off his feet by Grandpa before he reached the crease. In turn, they pummelled his back until he laid them gently on the grass, tickling until they screamed for mercy.
“Your dad’s good with them, isn’t he?” My mother appeared beside me.
I nodded without looking away from the idyllic scene. She put her hand on my arm and drew me gently round to face her. Her features were composed but anxiety shimmered in her eyes.
"Daniel, there's something I need to tell you."
Apprehension prickled my scalp as I lifted my chin in readiness for the next blow. She cleared her throat.
“Frank isn’t Rob’s father,” she said softly.
Several moments passed as her words swirled around in my head. I opened my mouth, but had no idea what to say. I almost laughed, the idea was so absurd.
“It was my fault," she continued. "Your father and I broke off our engagement for a while. I don’t remember why - some stupid argument or other. I was miserable, so a friend took me to a party and I had far too much to drink. I met a chap who seemed to like me... the usual story. It meant nothing - and everything.”
She touched her finger to my lips.
“I told your father when I realised I was pregnant. He was the only person I trusted to help me decide what to do. He was devastated, of course. He asked me to give him a day to think about it, then he came back and said he still loved me and wanted us to get married. In that short time he had changed - grown up - and I knew it was the right thing to do.
"But it wasn't easy. Every day was a battle, especially for Frank. Don’t forget he had to deal with my betrayal at the same time. Sometimes I saw his pain when he looked at Rob and I knew he wanted to run away, but he never did. Instead, he did everything in his power to make that baby his own and, bit by bit, he fell in love.”
I shook my head. What she was saying didn’t make sense.
“Does Rob know?”
“Yes, we told him many years ago. He had to know, sooner or later.”
“But why didn’t you tell me?” I sounded peevish and hurt, even to myself.
“It was Rob’s decision. He didn’t want you to feel differently about him, knowing he was only your half-brother.”
“Why would I?"
She took my hands.
“Perhaps it wouldn’t have changed anything. We’ll never know. I’m only telling you now because I can see you’re struggling with the same problem your father had, all those years ago.”
I watched the family, tumbling about on the lawn, while my mind raced back through the years, trying to spot the signs that might make her story true. It was impossible; there wasn’t a clue to be found.
Her fingers tightened round mine.
“Danny, you have a beautiful wife and a child who needs your love. Think carefully.”
Outside, my father pulled Rob to his feet while the boys hung round his neck, begging to be tickled again. There was a rustle from behind and Caroline joined us at the window, the baby snuffling against her neck. My mother patted my shoulder, then stepped back and slipped away.
We stood quietly, close but not touching, absorbing each other’s presence. Caroline slid her free arm around my waist and smiled up into my eyes, offering me everything I could ever want. But there was something else in her expression; a question, a plea. Holding my breath I gazed at this woman who, crumpled and flushed with sleep, had never looked more beguiling.
I looked out at my father, who caught my glance and waved for us to join them, then back at my wife's hopeful smile. My heart lurched and an almost forgotten desire rippled through my belly. I couldn’t lose her now. Not for anything.
The ache in my chest began to ease. I leaned in and kissed her forehead, inhaling her warm, familiar scent.
“You go out and join the others.” I held out my arms for the baby. “I’ll look after him.”