This is all 44 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story
It is a long read, at 34,043 words.
You know how you start to notice that everyone around you has a baby or a toddler, and it suddenly occurs to you that you seem to be the only one who never got pregnant?
Well, that was me.
It wasn’t that we were trying, you understand. It was rather that we took no precautions, and presumed it would happen.
And then it didn’t.
Not long after I started to notice, my mum noticed too. “You don’t want to leave it too late, Angie love. Get some joy from them while you’re still young enough to make the most of it”. Oliver hadn’t mentioned it, so I spoke to him after dinner one night. Like he was about most things in life, he was casual. “If it happens, that’s great. If not, that’s great too”. Then he carried on watching the football.
I made an appointment with my doctor. She agreed with me that almost four years with no conception was unusual, to say the least. And I had turned thirty six weeks earlier, so she agreed to send me for tests. She also said that it might be an idea for Olly to have his sperm count tested too.
I wasn’t looking forward to that conversation.
That all took a while, and I have to admit that Olly was surprisingly good about taking the test. But the specialist smiled when we went to see him. “Nothing wrong with either of you, I’m happy to say. Just one of those things. I’m sure it will happen one day, just try to relax and not worry. Stress doesn’t help”. I looked across at Olly, who was displaying the textbook definition of someone who wasn’t worrying in the least.
Handshakes and an exchange of platitudes later, we were in the car driving home.
The specialist had been right of course. Not long after my next birthday, I missed a couple of periods, then had that ‘feeling’. I bought three pregnancy test kits from my local Boots, and they all came up ‘Pregnant’. I expected to feel overjoyed, but my first reaction was fear. My next reaction was to phone my parents, and then my brother. I would tell Olly when he got home from watching the match.
I had to wait for him to finish moaning about his team losing one-nil to a disputed penalty, and I followed him out to the kitchen and watched as he got a beer from the fridge. Then I placed the positive test kits on the table, laying them on a sheet of kitchen roll. He put the beer down, and smiled. “Really?”. When I nodded, he wrapped his arms around me, and I had this strange feeling that we were finally complete.
If you have been pregnant, you will be well aware of how it takes over your life. My brother was looking forward to having a niece or nephew, and my mum and dad were ecstatic at the thought of a grandchild to spoil. Olly was already suggesting names before we ate dinner, and suddenly it was the only thing any of us talked about.
Literally the only thing. All other life had stopped, frozen in time.
My colleagues at work squealed like piglets when I told them. Those who already had children began to offer serious advice, and Jan even started to tell me about how baby should sleep on its back. Then Caroline contradicted her, arguing in favour of putting a baby down on its stomach. They had soon forgotten all about me, and the debate continued between them until lunch time.
When I got home, I was amazed to discover that Olly had been shopping. He had bought all sorts of healthy stuff we would never normally eat, as well as a recipe book for expectant mothers. He said I should stop drinking wine immediately, and he would give up his beers to support me. We hadn’t even sat down to dinner before the phone calls started. Mum checking up on me, and Olly’s sister calling from Canada, actually screaming over the phone. “Oh if only mum had been alive, she would be over the moon”. With never knowing his father, and his mum having died before I met him, I felt Olly was missing out on that. So I let his sister ramble on.
That night, I had trouble geting off to sleep. But it was nothing to do with the baby.
Just a feeling of being overwhelmed. I was no longer Angela, the busy proof reader and occasional fun runner.
I was pregnant Angela, and that would take some getting used to.
Olly was driving me mad, right from the start. A man who used to have to be bribed with the promise of sex to run the dry-mop around the laminate flooring had become a clean-freak almost overnight. He was bleaching surfaces constantly, and even cleaning the loo every time one of us used it.
When our flat started to smell something like an operating theatre at the hospital, I had to sit him down and tell him to stop.
And I couldn’t win with the phone calls. My sister in law seemed to forget the time difference, waking me up one night just after I had dropped off into a sweet sleep. I had to tell her to check the fact that Vancouver was eight hours behind us, before ringing my mobile at one in the morning. Olly said I was sharp with her. Well, maybe I was. My mum rang me at work in the mornings to make sure I was feeling okay, then she rang me as soon as I got home from work to make sure I was still okay. If I ignored her call, she rang Olly on his phone, to make sure there was nothing wrong.
Luckily, my brother didn’t ring at all. The novelty soon wore off for him.
The doctor had referred me to the local hospital, and I had to go in for blood tests. They also went through the routine that I could expect; including scans, a chat with the midwife about healthy habits, exercise, antenatal classes, infections, and vaccinations. I got a ‘Maternity Record Book’ that I was supposed to keep near me at all times, and a surprisingly elderly midwife also spoke to me about anxiety, depression, hormone changes, and what she called ‘natural worries’.
I left the appointment with enough leaflets to paper a large wall, and the feeling that I had just jumped onto a rollercoaster ride that was going to last for the rest of my life.
On the way home on the bus, I suddenly realised the enormity of what was happening.
I was having a baby, and nothing would ever be the same again.
The weekend after that, Olly didn’t go to the home match for the first time since we had lived together. He seemed very serious, and said he wanted to talk about moving, as our flat might be perfect for us, but it was totally unsuitable for raising a child in.
He did have a point. When we bought our trendy canal-side flat three years earlier, it cost a small fortune, but we just presumed it would be our dream home. Converted from old warehouses, it had a small balcony overlooking the canal, large windows that let light flood in, and it wasn’t overlooked. We had a lift, an entryphone video system, and all the things we had wanted. Wood floors, two-person shower, separate kitchen with room for a big table, and our own car park space underground for Olly’s ancient Citroen Dyane. It was easy to walk to the shops, and a selection of buses ran down the main road nearby that enabled us to get to anywhere in the city.
But the main room was open-plan. The selling agent called it ‘New York Loft-Style Living’ in the brochure. That meant we spent most of our time in one huge room with a very high ceiling, which was sectioned off according to our requirements. A sofa that was bigger than our car dominated one area, in front of the fifty-five inch telly that Olly loved to watch his football on. Then we had our so-called office space, with two desks opposite each other for our laptops, a printer, and small filing drawers. There was no bedroom as such, just a built-in division of glass bricks in an L-shape. We had our king size bed and two shabby-chic wardrobes behind that.
Olly was right. Top floor, no outside space except a potentially dangerous canal path, and no separate room for a child to have as their bedroom. It might be alright as long as baby was in its cot, but it would be best to think about selling up and moving to a proper house sooner rather than later.
I made the mistake of mentioning it to my mum that Sunday night. Her reply made me turn and look at Olly, sure that there had been some collusion between them.
“Well for what you could get for that luxury flat, Angie, you could buy a house back here, and have a much smaller mortgage. In fact there is a three-bed detached for sale at the moment, only four doors down from here”. I told her I would think about it.
Like that was ever going to happen.
What followed was what I started to think of as ‘the quiet time’. I had a scan appointment to look forward to, which immediately started the debate with Olly about whether or not we wanted to know the sex of the baby, if it was obvious to the person doing the scanning. Olly couldn’t even contemplate not having a son. Someone to take to football, and buy tiny football kits for.
He was an unusual football fan, in many respects. Something of an intellectual, he looked like a nerd, and favoured a duffle-coat for attending the matches. He was in charge of all the non-fiction output for one of the most famous publishers in the country, and when he wasn’t going on about football, he usually had his head in a book. Or many books.
But he had grown up without a father, and I always believed his obsession with ‘his’ team from a young age had given him the feeling of belonging to something. He made no friends in the crowd, and didn’t socialise with any other supporters though. His being a fan was a very personal thing.
We finally agreed not to know, at least until the second scan. But I told him I thought it was just practical to know the sex these days, as people were sure to buy gifts based on gender, whether or not we wanted them or asked for them. And we would obviously be buying things for baby’s room in the new house. I also quizzed him on whether or not he would be disappointed if it turned out to be a girl. He just smiled. “Girls play football too, you know”.
Determined to never live close enough to my mum for her to be able to walk to our house, we started looking at the suburbs to the east, the opposite side to my parental home. Five minutes with our local estate agent left us reassured that he could sell our flat for the inflated asking price in the same day it went on the market. “I have a list of people wanting flats in that building, Mister Woodman. They will snatch your hand off to buy it, and no haggling”.
That meant we could find somewhere we liked the look of, knowing there would be little delay in selling. I didn’t want to end up having to rent while we looked, moving twice in the same year, so I told Olly to decide on an area, and we would choose a house there together.
Names came up next. I didn’t even have a bump showing, and everyone wanted to know what we were going to name what I still just called ‘It’, or ‘baby’. My parents had all sorts of crazy suggestions, ranging from the names of long-dead grandparents, through to some favoured by members of the Royal Family. Olly went all literary on me, suggesting names like Emile, for Zola, and Simone, after de Beauvoir.
I told him we should wait and see what sex it was, and maybe even wait until he or she was born, then see what inspired us. His mother had told him that he had been named Olver after the Swiss actor Oliver Tobias. She said she had a one-night stand with him back in the day, and thought he might be the father.
But she had put it about a bit at the time, and couldn’t be sure.
We got a good feeling in only the fourth house we looked at. It was one of those solid nineteen thirties houses, in a side street where they all looked the same. Bay windows, small garage, and a decent-sized garden at the back. Semi-detached, but even the third bedroom was a good size, as it was built over the garage. I didn’t like the small galley kitchen, but Olly was full of ideas about opening it up into the dining room, bi-fold doors onto the garden, and ending up with a nice open plan family room.
It was cheap, and cheap for a reason. The old lady who owned it had gone into a care home, and nothing much had been changed in the house since the fifties.
Work would be needed. New central heating for sure, and probably a rewiring job too. But it had marvellous parquet flooring throughout, and a stained glass sunburst in the window above the front door. We put in a cheeky offer, and were pleasantly surprised when it was accepted immediately.
Late that afternoon, we put our flat up for sale.
The person who bought our flat didn’t even come and look at it. In fact they didn’t even live in the country, and had bought it purely as a rental investment, so the agent told us. Full asking price, no haggling, and only awaiting legal stuff and a survey. That gave us a possible moving date of six to eight weeks, and as soon as he got home from work the next evening, Olly started stacking up all the books ready for packing.
My mum was less than delighted when I told her that we would be moving almost thirty miles from her, and ended the call earlier than usual, claiming to have to get dinner ready to serve. My comment that both her and dad had cars and could easily drive over to see us hadn’t gone down well. She had snapped back with what I suppose she considered to be a warning. “Wait until you are at your wit’s end with a baby, and need some help. It’s going to take me well over an hour to drive to that part of town”.
That night in bed, we both had something serious to talk about. Olly grinned. “Ladies first”. I wanted to make sure that he was okay about knowing the sex during the second scan. It had suddenly become important to me, though I had no real explanation as to why. He gave in so easily, I wondered what it was he wanted to say. For a split second, I had a terrible feeling he was going to say he was leaving me. That must have had something to do with the hormone changes I had been warned about.
But it was nothing so dramatic, though still reasonably serious.
He wanted to talk about marriage, and surnames. We had always thought marriage was unnecesary. If you love someone, and are committed to them, why the need for some socially-acceptable formalisation? Besides, we knew enough couples who had been divorced already, and national divorce rates were approaching fifty percent. I went back over that old ground in reply, and he nodded as I reminded him of everything we had said four or more years ago. Then he wanted to know what the baby’s surname would be, when it came time to register the birth. Would it be his, Woodman? That wasn’t his father’s name of course, but his mother’s maiden name.
I could tell from his expression and tone that this was important to him. I cast my mind ahead to arriving at school with a child that had a different surname to mine. My surname was Mackie, a legacy of my paternal grandfather originally coming from Scotland. I had few memories of him past a wizened-looking, rather scary man who had a hacking cough every time I ever saw him. Olly was leaning forward like a Heron about to take a fish. He obviously wanted an answer. I settled for the best I could come up with when I was ready to get some sleep. I agreed to hyphenate it, Mackie-Woodman.
It was obvious from the way he turned over and switched off the lamp that this hadn’t been the answer he had been hoping for.
Not long before the second scan, I started to notice a few changes. Some tenderness and fullness in my boobs, though I wasn’t sure if that was psychological. And even though I had not had anything like the morning sickness everyone told me to expect, I was getting hungrier and eating a lot more. The think I disliked most was an occasional bad taste in my mouth, and what felt like velvet covering my teeth. I started to take more calcium supplements, and stopped drinking so much fruit juice.
Then my hair started to get oily and lank. I was never that vain about my looks, in all honesty, but I had always liked my hair. Now it began to look as if I had dipped my head in the deep-fat fryer before leaving for work. And I convinced myself it was getting thinner too. I would end up as a bald mum with foul breath and velvety teeth, I had no doubt.
The cheerful woman doing the ultrasound scan was from Northern Ireland, judging by her accent. She turned the screen around so we could see, and beamed a dazzling smile.
“It’s a wee gurly”.
After a lot of arguments about what to take to the new house and what to recycle to charity shops, Olly decided we would take the lot, and sort it out later. He got some estimates from removal firms, and decided to splash the cash on one that came in and packed everything carefully into boxes. To be honest, that was a relief for me, as I was now getting to the stage of feeling unreasonably tired when I had done next to nothing.
When the paperwork started to come through regarding the sale and purchase, it was something of a revelation. Moving to a cheap house in the suburbs was going to make us comparatively rich. Don’t get me wrong, we were already lucky enough to not only cope well, but live a very comfortable life. But our mortgage was going to be less than half of what we were paying then, a lot less than half, once we used some of the crazy profit from how much our flat had increased in value.
With the move imminent, I was starting to feel a tightness in my clothes, and noticing the considerable bump appearing above my knickers. As well as the natural weight increase allowed for carrying an admittedly tiny baby at the time, I was eating as if the world as going to run out of food at any moment. And with Olly resisting the urge to complain about eating crap like doughnuts and pretzels, I was stuffing myself like somoene heading for a gastric bypass.
Leggings became my friend too.
Once I realised that skinny jeans and pencil skirts were no longer going to cut it, I went down the route of ‘comfortable’ flared skirts and maternity tights. That didn’t last long, and soon I was embracing cheap leggings like a single mum of four on a council estate in Manchester. And then my only maternity craving kicked in, when I least expected it. I thought it had arived too early, but my mind and my mouth both told me it was the perfect time.
Fish and chips. Something I hadn’t eaten for years, and certainly not since meeting Olly. Not only the fish and chips, but the huge gherkins and pickled onions that went with it. Then I covered the whole lot in salt, until it looked as if I had dropped my dinner at the beach. I could scarf the lot down like I was a refugee or something, and it wasn’t unknown for me to add a battered sausage to the order. I was sure our little girl was depriving me of fat and salt, and it was very easy to ignore Olly’s head-shakes of disapproval as he slowly ate a sensible salad.
I didn’t give a shit.
Of course, names came up. My mum was delighted at the prospect of a granddaughter, and knew enough that it would not be named after her. She tried the names of so many relatives on me, I asked if she was just reading them out of her address book. To be fair to Olly, he said he would leave it to me. But only after I rejected his suggestions based on female names in The Lord of The Rings. I wanted something short, and easy to call out. I mean, who do you hear shouting “Stop that, Philomena” in a supermarket? Unless you live in Chelsea or Weybridge, I suppose.
One morning, I woke up, and had the name in my head. Leah. You couldn’t really abbreviate it, and it was easy to say. Not that it was that rare, there were quite a few small Leahs around. But it seemed to me to be perfect. Olly actually liked it, even though he thought it didn’t go with the double-barrelled surname. “Leah Mackie-Woodman, does that work, Ang?”
I replied instantly, in the affirmative. “Works for me, Olly love”.
My mum loved it, Olly’s sister loved it. And my brother couldn’t pronounce it when he saw it typed on a text message.
When the men arrived to start packing up the stuff, they said we could go and leave them to it. But there was no way someone like Olly was going to let that happen. It took hours, and when we were finally following their huge truck into the suburbs, I decided it was time to give Olly the bad news, something I knew he was dreading.
“This Citroen has to go, Olly. It’s just too unreliable”.
I had two days off to cover the house move and had the weekend in between. Olly had taken the whole week off, with good intentions to sort things out. The moving men stacked most of the boxes in the garage, except for the kitchen stuff and some bits we needed left out. The main problem was the sofa. It had come up in the large lift in the flats with no problem, but when we got to the thirties house that morning, it wouldn’t fit through the front door. They said there was no point taking the door off, as it would still be too big.
After a lot of head scratching, Olly gave them an extra ten quid each to carry it around the side into the garden, and bring it in through the old French windows. But from the dining room, it was never going to make the turn in the hallway to get into the living room.
So there it stayed, for the time being.
Olly’s main concern was getting his huge telly inside in one piece. There was going to be a delay getting the Internet and satellite service connected, but once his giant screen was in pride of place at an angle in the front bay window, he was happy.
No doubt most of you will have moved house at some time in your lives, so you don’t need me to tell you how stressful it is. Luckily, Olly is a master of the mobile phone, and was arranging for people to come in and do things next week, even before the removal lorry had left. I had managed to put my parents off coming to see the house on day one, as I could never have coped with them fussing around too. To be honest, I was worn out by it all, even though I hadn’t carried so much as a side-lamp.
Starting back at work the following Tuesday, I had my first taste of proper commuting. Almost fifteen minutes to walk to the train station, then packed in like sardines for the ten stops into the city. At least I could walk to the office once I got there, and didn’t need to take a bus. Olly would have to do that though, and he had talked about getting a folding bike. As I looked around the crowded carriage, I wasn’t happy at the thought of having to tell him he had zero chance of getting a bike in there. And I was also very aware that I would soon be heavily pregnant, with little chance of getting a seat on the way to work.
When I got home that night, Olly ordered takeaway pizzas, and told me that he had agreed for an electrician to start on Thursday, and the new central heating to be installed the week after. We were going to have to leave them a key of course, as we would be at work.
I talked to him about shopping. We had been used to a selection of shops close to the flat, including a decent-sized supermarket, and some nice delicatessens. Now we faced a four mile drive to an industrial estate, where two huge supermarkets provided the only local opportunity for groceries. Alongside a Pets At Home, Toys-R-Us, one car dealership, a tyre and exhaust centre, and two large DIY chain shops.
He agreed that we should go shopping on Saturday, but I could see from his face that he was dreading the big-shop routine already.
As far as me being pregnant was concerned, I did finally have some bloody awful morning sickness that resulted in me not going into work. But part of me had to admit that I wasn’t enjoying the trains, and also not too happy about the fact that my feet seemed to be swelling over the sides of my shoes, and even the cheap leggings were starting to feel tight. How could I have fat feet? My boobs were definitely uncomfortable, and on more than one occasion I had told Olly to forget it, when he had turned over in bed with that glint in his eye.
Then all of a sudden, I got bigger, and I started to pee. A lot. And when I needed to go, I took no prisoners. It had to be there or then, or I would definitely piss my pants. I knew I was supposed to be happy, and feeling broody and motherly.
But all I could think of was piddling, and having stupid fat feet.
If Olly hated his commute to work, he didn’t complain. The work was done quickly on the house, and despite some considerable disruption with the installation of the wiring and new heating system, the worst was soon over. He had given up on the idea of the folding doors, as that involved major reconstruction, but new double-glazed doors and windows had been ordered, and everything was slowly starting to feel like home.
The glazing company claimed that they would replace all the windows and the back door in one working day. I thought that was a boast, but when six blokes turned up at seven one morning, I was amazed to discover that they had fitted the lot before I got home from work. Olly had taken the day off to be around, and he had nothing but praise for their efficiency. Just as well, as it had cost a mint.
And as I got bigger, I felt better. I started to embrace my bump, which we both now called Leah, and to even feel sexy again. That certainly pleased Olly. Mum and dad had been over twice, and I managed not to argue with her about her unwanted suggestions regarding decoration and furniture, The early insecurities were wearing off, and I really felt like a mum-to-be.
Even though I had started to walk like a duck.
The far too big sofa went up on Gumtree, and Olly warned the prospective buyers that they would need a big van and some strong hands to get it around the side entrance. Two dropped out when they realised we were not about to deliver it, but the third couple actually turned up, and bought it for fifty quid less than the asking price. That left us sitting on big cushions until the two smaller sofas arrived four days later. With the dining room empty, my dad came over to help Olly set up the dining table, which had been dismantled for the move. Once we had that back in play, I felt we were finally in a home, and not a warehouse.
I did feel gulty when Olly finally put his Citroen up for sale. But it was over thirty years old, and it had got to the stage that if it started first time, Olly would do a fist-pump with joy. The funny thing was that it attracted a lot of attention, and became involved in something of a bidding war. Olly was very pleased to tell me that confirmed its classic status. He had owned it for almost twelve years, and it sold for twice that he had paid for it.
We got a taxi to the Ford dealership next to the supermarkets. There was a bus, but it was a long walk to the trading estate from the bus stop. I liked a Focus that was an ex-demonstrator, top of the range model. Olly had to admit that the otherwise dull-looking grey car was indeed packed with features that his Citroen could only dream of. Heated windscreen, electric mirrors, reversing beeper, and air conditioning. And that was only the start. Built-in Satnav, amazing fuel economy, and a very quiet engine. I stood back and let him haggle with the salesman, and he was happy once the deal was done.
It would be sorted out for us to collect in a couple of days. On the way home, I asked Olly to add my name to the insurance. Although I had passed my test when I was eighteen, I hadn’t owned a car, and had no desire to ever drive Olly’s Citroen. But I was quite looking forward to running Leah around in the new Ford. When I told my parents, mum insisted on ordering a swish baby car seat that lifted out to become a carry-cot. Olly laughed at the news. “Bloody Ford Focus, and a baby seat in it too. Now I know it’s all over, Ang!”
We had both kissed goodbye to the last vestiges of youth, that was certain.
The decorators that Olly found online were surprising efficient. In the first three days, they stripped off all the old wallpaper using some fierce-looking steam machines, and filled in all the holes caused by the rewiring. When they came back the following week, they started to paint the rooms using the colours we had chosen, and did the lot in ten days. Two coats.
I was even getting used to having to stand on the train journey to work. People don’t give up seats to pregnant women, even those with big bumps. They look at their phones or newspapers, and pretend they can’t see you. One night I got home with a bad backache. Olly sometimes got back later than me, so I decided to go and have a hot bath. As I got undressed, I noticed something in my knickers.
Tiny spots of blood.
Despite the discovery in my knickers, I was surprisngly calm, and decided to enjoy that hot bath anyway. But when the water turned pink, I lost my nerve. I wanted to be sensible. I already knew that such bleeding wasn’t that unusual, so I rang the NHS non-emergency helpline as I sat wrapped in a towel. The young woman went through her prompt screens in a very sympathetic tone, and I managed to answer all her questions without raising my voice. But when a peek under the towel showed fresh bright red blood, I lost it. “It’s starting again! I’m bleeding onto the towel now!”
It was decided to send an emergency ambulance, so I quickly dragged on some clothes and sent Olly a text telling him to meet me at the hospital, but not to worry. How stupid was that? Like he wouldn’t worry reading that text.
The ambulance arrived in less than twenty minutes. The man and woman crew were very nice, but insisted on going over all the questions I had answered on the phone, as well as taking my blood pressure a couple of times before they got a small wheelchair to take me to the ambulance. They had left the blue lights flashing, and I got the first sight of the immediate neighbours when I saw them standing in their open doorway watching the proceedings.
We had met Mariusz, the retired widower who lived on the unattached side, but had never even seen the neighbours in the house attached to ours. They looked to be either Indian or Pakistani. The woman had a veil covering her face, and the man was wearing one of those little white cotton hats.
Unbelievably, I waved to them as I was wheeled up the ramp into the ambulance. Why did I do that?
Before the ambulance drove off, the girl got me to lie flat on the stretcher, then inserted a needle into the side of my wrist and attached a bag of fluid to the connector. “Just normal saline, nothing to worry about”. I was clutching my Maternity Book as if it was a first edition of the Gutenberg Bible. Nothing would have prised that out of my hand. The drive was sedate, no sense of urgency. The ambulance girl wrote all my details down onto something, and chatted amicably on the way. When she asked me if I had ever been to The General before, I suddenly panicked. “No, no. We are supposed to be going to Saint Mary’s. That’s my hospital. Look, it’s on my book”.
She patiently explained that they had to take me to the nearest hospital, unless I was full term, and in labour. The County General was easier to get to than driving into the city, and closer in terms of miles too. Then I got in a flap about Olly, who I knew full well would be heading across the city, and might even be at Saint Mary’s already. I asked if I could send him a text, and she nodded.
When they got me into the Casualty Department and spoke to the nurse in charge, she decided to send me to Maternity, to see a midwife. The ambulance people put me in a wheelchair, and a chirpy porter wheeled me along a maze of corridors until we got to where I could hear women yelling and swearing from behind a row of closed doors. An enormous West Indian midwife came up to me. “Okay, lets go in here and have a look at you, my darlin’”. And she had a good look. Someone else arrived with a monitor that was attached to my belly, and we could soon hear the fast beep of Leah’s heart. The first midwife smiled, perfect white teeth glinting in the bright lights. “Ah, baby’s doing okay, honey”.
They had bleeped a doctor to come and see me, but the next time the door opened, it was Olly who walked in. He looked ashen, and was visibly trembling. “Are you alright, Ang? The baby? Have we lost her?” I managed to calm him down, and listened as he told me how he had actually run all the way to Saint Mary’s from work, before reading my text. He had then stood in front of a taxi to make it stop for him, telling the driver his partner was ‘critically ill’ in County General.
Then I started to sob uncontrollably.
A very tired-looking female doctor turned up twenty minutes later. Reading through some notes, and inspecting the two monitors, she smiled. “We are sure everything is okay, but I am going to keep you in tonight, just to make certain. You must rest, try not to worry, and trust us to look afer you. You will be allowed home tomorrow lunchtime, I expect. I am suggesting lots of rest and feet up though. No heavy lifting or exertion, and avoid driving or standing for too long”. She breezed out of the room before I could ask her any questions.
But I had forgotten what I was going to ask her anyway.
Olly stayed for about an hour, until the big midwife returned and suggested he should leave me to try to sleep. Given all the shouting and toing-and froing outside the room, I doubted I would. Olly said he would phone my boss for me, and take time off tomorrow to come and collect me. I told him to get a taxi home, and not to try to work out what buses he might need.
The same doctor came to see me not long after I had hungrily demolished a breakfast they brought me. The monitors were taken off, and I had another ‘downstairs inspection’, before I was told I could go home as soon as Olly could collect me. I wondered how long that doctor had been awake, and whether or not she had got any sleep during the night. A porter was arranged to wheel me to the main reception, but I had to get dressed in the same clothes I was wearing when I arrived the previous evening. I just wanted a proper sleep, after a much needed shower or bath.
On the drive home, Olly spoke to me seriously, after first asking me not to interrupt. He talked about the possibility of me leaving my job. With the cheaper mortgage, it wasn’t as if we needed the money to get by, and last night had given him such a bad shock, he had been awake most of the night deciding to broach the idea of me becoming a stay at home mum. At least until Leah started school. When he had finished, he looked over at me anxiously, probably expecting me to reply with a flat out no.
If so, he was wrong.
I told him that I had been thinking too. We had already both taken some unscheduled time off, and there was a long way to go until I qualified for maternity leave. I agreed to call my boss that afternoon, and ask her whether or not I could work from home using my laptop. I confessed that I hated the train journey, and being squashed in the carriage with so many people. I couldn’t imagine how horrible it would be once the weather warmed up, and I was much bigger. By coincidence, Olly’s suggestion had provided me with a way out that I hadn’t wanted to talk to him about myself.
Work was not as accommodating as I had hoped. At first, she suggested I go in part-time. Just in the afternoons, to avoid the crush on the rush-hour trains. Olly shook his head at that, so I pressed the work from home idea. She said that just wasn’t suitable, and admitted that if she let me do it, she expected a few others to ask for the same concession. After leaving the call hanging in the air for a while, she dealt her last card. “Maybe you should rethink if this job is something you really want to do, Angela? Why not take a week off, and let me know whether or not you want to come back?”
It had been on speaker, and as soon as I hung up, Olly shook his head. “No way. Just ring her back next week, and tell her you’re resigning. Once Leah goes to school in five years or so, there might be other things you want to do. We can manage perfectly well on what I earn. In fact, we are better off than we were living in the flat, even without your salary”. I nodded, and agreed to think about it.
Becoming a pregnant housewife was a big change, and not something I had ever considered.
I have to confess that ringing my boss and hearing her reaction was very gratifying. She had obviously expected me to roll over and accept her terms, but when I said I would confirm my resignation by email, she appeared to be stumped for a reply. After another pointless attempt to get me to come in from midday to five, she said she would work out any oustanding annual leave, and contact the HR department about any pay that was due, and my pension entitlements.
I would like to add that she wished me well, and asked me to reconsider. But she didn’t.
I wasn’t going to count on much of a reference from her in the future.
Olly threw himself into making sure that I didn’t do anything remotely strenuous. Without even asking me, he employed a local company to send someone in to clean the house. Four hours on Mondays, and two hours on Friday afternoons. It was good to see him being in control for once, to be frank. He had long left almost everything to me, even the bills and paperwork.
The cleaner’s name was Rosa, and she was from Poland, like Mariusz next door. There was quite a large Polish community in the area, as we had soon discovered.
When she found out that I had quit my job, my mum seemed to see that as a signal that she could come over more often. Every time she arrived, she had bagfuls of things. Clothes for Leah, groceries that I didn’t need, as well as gadgets like a baby monitor and a thing that hung over the cot side to play lullabies. I didn’t mind those visits as much as I thought I would. Being at home all day had been fine at first, but only seeing Rosa for a few hours left me devoid of company until Olly got home. I had started to watch too much daytime telly, and stuff myself with unhealthy snacks.
Although I had never kept in touch with most of my friends from my teens, even those few I saw now and again didn’t fancy the drag out to the suburbs to visit. Most of them seemed to be waiting for the birth, when they could show up wth a suitable gift, cuddle the baby for a while, then think of a reason why they had to leave. Mum wanted to arrange a baby shower, but I told her not to bother.
There was every likelihood we would be the only ones there.
By the time I got to thirty-five weeks, Olly had built the cot from a flatpack, and my baby bag was packed and ready by the door. There was a stock of newborn nappies in the second bedroom, as well as a pile of baby clothes. Olly had become an expert shopper in just a couple of months, refusing to hear about me accompanying him, even when I told him that there was only so much rest a person could have.
I was wearing bigger bras, and a size larger shoes. And I was still peeing at an Olympic Gold Medal level.
Some occasional sharp pains had scared me enough to contact the midwife at Saint Mary’s. She rang me back and reassured me that everything was normal, and told me I would know the difference when I was in labour. I told her I couldn’t feel Leah moving around that much, and she glossed over that too. It seemed that whenever I had any doubts or fears, I ended up feeling like a panicky time-waster.
I avoided asking my mum anything, as she would launch into a monologue about how she had me and my brother as easy as shelling peas. I doubted that of course, and knew that she thought she was sparing me the worst in case it upset me.
Olly and I had a talk about not calling an ambulance when I thought I was in labour. I was scared they might take me to County General again, and though everyone had been lovely there, I wanted to stick with my first choice. He said I should ring him first, then ring a taxi. No point him commuting home to take me in the car, unless it happened while he was at home of course.
But when it happened, he wasn’t at home.
My thirty-ninth week got off to an unremarkable start. I had noticed a lot more movement, and a change in position of the bump. It wasn’t anything too drastic, but enough to make me notice the difference. Indigestion had got me up during the night, as well as two separate trips to the toilet needing to pee. Another lazy day followed, spent chatting to Rosa as she did my housework, me flopped on the sofa in front of the telly.
It was remarkable how quickly I had lost any feelings of guilt about another woman being paid to clean for me.
I must have dropped off watching some nonsense afternoon film, when I woke up feeling very thirsty. As I reached into a kitchen cupboard for a drinking glass, my waters broke with a gushing sound. It made me jump, and I dropped the glass onto the worktop. With my leggings and socks saturated, I felt like that time I had been paddling in the sea, and an unexpected wave had soaked me from the waist down. Pushing the pieces of glass away from the edge so they didn’t fall under my feet, I started to peel off my clothes right there, not wanting to drip everywhere on the way upstairs.
The main sensation was one of complete calm. It was happening, and I was ready for it.
After dumping the wet clothing on the floor, I walked slowly upstairs to have a wash, and put on a change of clothes. Still thirsty, I forgot about that for the time being, and rang the hospital. As always, they were completely unimpressed, telling me it could be a very long time yet. But as my waters had gone, they suggested I should come in and be checked.
The guy in the taxi firm was very efficient. “Ten minutes, love. He will sound his horn”. I scrolled down to dial Olly, and got a massive cramping pain across my lower abdomen that made me gasp. They had been right when they said I would know the difference. All the instructions came to mind, and I knew I had to time it. I checked the time on my phone, and started to walk to the door. In my head, I was doing my checks. Hospital bag. Yes. Maternity Book inside bag. Yes. Keys to lock the door. Yes. I hadn’t bothered to turn off the telly, that was the least of my worries.
I was standing behind the front door like someone waiting for a train on a platform, just in case I missed the taxi driver’s sounding of his horn. Then it came again, hard enough to make me bend double, and have to rest against the door to stop sinking all the way to the mat. A voice in my head yelled to me. ‘Too soon!’ Luckily, the taxi turned up just as I had recovered sufficiently to stand up. Blowing the air out of my cheeks, I went out and locked the door behind me.
As I walked to the car, the driver jumped out and ran over to grab my bag. “You okay, lady? Is the baby coming?” He spoke English with an accent that I took to be from the Middle East, judging by his physical appearance. I managed a weak smile, and told him he could relax. It was my first. I didn’t so much as sit in the back, as fall into it. I felt more like an Elephant Seal than a human, as I struggled to right myself. Unlike most cabbies of my experience, he didn’t tell me his life story, or say much at all. But he did say the same thing at least three times, perhaps four. “You go to Saint Mary’s, yes? In the city, yes?
After he had asked me the third time, I got a searing pain in my crotch, and shouted out loud. It made him jump, and he almost didn’t stop at a red light. I could see his eyes in the rear-view mirror, checking me out. He looked worried. Then I made the connection of a worried man, and me having a baby.
I had forgotten to ring Olly.
Pulling my phone from the handbag, I dialled his number. But it was answered by one of the juniors, who told me he was in the afternoon meeting. I asked them to go and interrupt it, and tell them Olly was about to be a father, if they tried to stop him.
When the taxi pulled into an ambulance space outside the hospital, I paid the driver and told him to keep the change. He handed me my bag after I struggled out, then wished me good luck.
It was a toss-up as to who was most relieved. Me for arriving at the hospital, or him for getting me out of his cab.
As I went up in the lift to the Maternity Department, I smiled to myself. The next time I was in this lift, I would have Leah with me, and be starting a whole new life.
The midwife who took me into a room had a strong Irish accent, bright red hair, and those red cheeks you see on people who work outside, or live on farms. Her accent was very strong, but I could understand her well enough. But like most of her colleagues, she was unimpressed, and showed zero sense of urgency. I presumed student midwives must have had a training module called ‘Never act impressed’.
I hadn’t had any pains since that one in the taxi, and I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved, or worried. I was soon undressed and in a gown, and following a brief ‘look’, she ran through a few questions before confirming my preference for a natural birth.
Then she disappeared.
The next pain came five minutes later, and caused me to shout out a swear-word that I don’t think I had ever used before. Then I was grabbing the call-button, and pressing it like mad. Red cheeks came in with a colleague who was wheeling a tall cylinder on a trolley. They showed me how to suck in the gas and air through a black rubber mask, and before too long I felt as if I had drunk a few gin and tonics. As they put a needle into my wrist, I had to suppress a giggle that came from nowhere. Then red cheeks told me her name was Moira, and talked about first babies, long labour, and how I might yet be sent home.
It hadn’t occured to me I might be sent home, and I thought I should make Olly aware of that. But as I was thinking that, he came into the room. They had made him put a plastic apron on over his work suit, and given him a blue hat to wear over his floppy hair. I couldn’t help myself, and started to laugh at him. Moira grinned, and winked at Olly. “Too much gas and air, daddy”. I wondered why she had called him daddy, but was soon to discover that she called me mummy, and would refer to us both like that throughout. I suppose it saved her having to remember a lot of names in the course of her shift.
Olly told me had had sent a text to my parents, and to my brother. He had also told them not to come to the hospital, as he wasn’t sure they would be allowed in anyway. Besides, there was nowhere to park anywhere in the area, as it was in the centre of the city. Then he held my hand, leaned over the bed, and kissed me. Moira spoke to him, explaining most of what she had told me, including the fact that I might be too early to deliver that afternoon.
Then she disappeared again.
When the next pain came, I grabbed the mask and sucked on it like an astronaut running out of air in a space film. I took in so much of the gas Olly thought I was unconscious, and pressed the button. A slim black nurse arrived, her hair braided and pulled back so tight, it made her face look surprised. She told Olly it was normal, and pointed to the fact that I had come round before she had got to the room. Once again, I was left feeling as if I was wasting everybody’s time.
Time seems to stand still in situations like that. I lay there waiting for the next cramping pain, and it felt like two hours before it happened, even though it was only twelve minutes. Moira came back in and had a good feel of my baby bump, pushing and squeezing like she was trying to burst an enormous spot. A quick inspection between my legs preceded another pain strong enough to make me grab the gas mask. Moira grinned. “I don’t think you’ll be going home, mummy. Baby’s in the right position. She’s ready to see the world tonight”.
A monitor was attached to my belly, and it started to bleep reassuringly. I was told to keep calm between the contractions, and use the gas as much as I wanted. Olly’s phone kept going off, and he dismissed two calls from my mum, and one from his sister in Canada.
Then he grabbed my hand and gave me his best serious look.
“It’s happening, Ang”.
People often use the expression ‘That was the longest day of my life’. I used to smile at that, and say that every day only has twenty-four hours in it. But by seven-thirty that evening, I knew what they meant.
Almost five hours had felt more like thirty-five. And the midwives were quick to let me know I could be in labour for another five hours, if not more. The pains came and went, and the gas stopped helping it. Olly looked as if he was going to fall asleep, jolted out of his dozing by the occasional scream from me. I told him to go out and get something to eat, walk around in the fresh air. But he was determined to stay.
And I had to get used to some new faces, once the night duty staff arrived. No longer red-cheeked Moira, or the girl with the surpised look on her face. It was now Tanya, a stunningly attractive young woman who looked more like she should be on the cover of a fashion magazine. The most unlikely midwife I had ever seen.
Tanya had a businesslike manner, and wasn’t about to take any nonsense from me. She was local too, and listening to her accent was like hearing myself talk. When she didn’t come to check on me, Elizabetta did. Short, dumpy, and Filipino, with a big smile and caring nature.
She told me she had three children. I told her I just wanted to have this one.
By eleven that night, I was starting to panic. How long could this take? Surely Leah should be out by now? The pains got so bad, I felt like I had a bowling ball stuck between my legs. I tried getting on all fours, and even got Olly to help me walk around and kneel by the side of the bed. Nothing seemed to help. Leah was happy where she was.
The noise of the screaming and grunting was getting on my nerves too. I was quite shocked when I realised it was me making it.
Olly was getting distressed to see me in such a state, and pressed the buzzer. Tanya listened to him rambling on about my intense pain, and then left the room. She came back with an Indian doctor who was wearing surgical scrubs, and she asked me if I wanted stronger pain relief introduced through an epidural needle in my back. I had been determined not to have that, but felt so exhausted, I just nodded.
When that was done, I couldn’t feel anything below my waist, and became worried I might not know when Leah finally came out. Then I actually went to sleep.
I had no idea how long I had been sleeping, when a strange noise woke me up. It was coming from one of the two monitors attached to me, and I didn’t like the sound of it. As if to confirm my suspicions, Tanya suddenly appeared, looking serious, but her make-up still perfect.
She ignored my panicky questions about what was wrong, then pressed the nurse call button. Olly still looked drowsy, but the urgency around me had made him recover his wits quickly. Elizabetta appeared, and exchanged a nod from the doorway with Tanya. Moments later, the Indian doctor came into the room, and had that same look on her face. I know I was asking all sorts of questions, but if anyone actually answered me, I don’t remember what they said.
The three of them began to rummage around between my legs like a team of mechanics trying to fix a car that wouldn’t start. I only heard bits of hushed conversations.
“Not sure there’s a theatre free”.
“We could do it here”.
“Get the cord off her neck”.
“I’m going to try vacuum”.
With each snippet I heard, I fired a question back. But it was as if I wasn’t in the room.
Only the back of the doctor was visible as I saw her standing in the doorway talking to someone. Then a male doctor appeared, fully gowned up, and holding something that resembled a plumber’s plunger attached to a grease gun. He looked more like he had been disturbed whilst unblocking a toilet, than someone who should be in a Maternity Department delivery room. They all hunkered down between my legs again, and I heard a pumping sound of air, like when you pump up your tyres on a bike.
Moments later, Tanya stood up straight, holding a baby that was covered in gunk, and its skin a funny grey colour. Olly started crying, so I did too.
There she was, my little girl.
Some of the reading I had done told me what was going to happen next. Leah would be handed to me, put to my breast to suckle, and that would help expel the placenta naturally. Through watery eyes, I felt myself smiling, and opened my arms, reaching out to receive her, just as I had imagined I would.
But that didn’t happen.
What did happen was that a worried-looking Tanya walked away into the corner of the room, followed by both doctors. They placed Leah inside a plastic box that was on a trolley, and then turned their backs to me as they started to do stuff. Elizabetta came and held my hand. “Just checking the little one, dear. You will hold her soon”. Despite her reassuring smile, I sensed she wasn’t telling me everything.
Whe Tanya came over to connect a drip to the needle in my arm, she managed a grin that was completely unconvincing. I could hear the sound of air rushing fast, and knew they were giving Leah oxygen. Then Tanya stuck a needle in my thigh, and said, “Just something to help you expel the placenta, Angela”. I asked her what was going on with Leah, and she glossed over that. “The doctors are just checking her over. Won’t be long. I am going to give you a few stitches down below before the anaesthetic wears off, okay?”
It seemed to take forever until they had stopped fiddling around in the corner, though it might have only been ten minutes, for all I knew. Olly started to feel dizzy, and said he had to go outside for a while. The poor man hadn’t had anything to eat since yesterday’s lunch, and only one bottle of water to drink since he had arrived. He checked his phone. “It’s almost three forty-five, I won’t text your parents or my sister just yet, far too early in the morning”.
When Elizabetta brought Leah to me, cleaned up a little, and wrapped in something soft, she looked relieved. “Here she is, your bundle of joy. Be happy, mama”.
That was the moment that everyone talked about. That strange rush of emotion when I suddenly felt undying love for that funny-looking baby in my arms. I ignored the strange shape of her head, which looked like the hats worn by garden gnomes. I ignored her screwed up face, sparse hair, and the mucky white stuff still stuck around her tiny neck. I loved her more than I ever thought it possible to love anything. I would have willingly jumped to my death from the roof of that hospital if it meant she would be alright.
Tanya came over with a small hat that she placed on Leah’s head. “Dont worry about the shape of her head, Angela. That was caused by the vacuum device, and it will go back to normal soon. Get her on your skin, and let her feel your heartbeat”. I pulled up the gown and pressed her to my breast, but she didn’t seem to want to suckle. She was just lying there, tiny green eyes not focusing on anything. In case Tanya decided to disappear, I asked her my questions while I could still think of them. What had they been doing in the corner? Why wasn’t Leah crying? Could someone go and find Olly so he can see his daughter?
“The umbilical cord was tight around her neck, Angela. Don’t worry, that’s not at all unusual. But we gave her some oxygen to help with her breathing, and as you can see, her colour is getting better already. As for crying, some babies just don’t cry. I should know, shouldn’t I?” I didn’t believe her about the crying, but wasn’t in the mood to argue. I couldn’t stop looking at Leah, and finding it hard to believe she had just come out from inside of me.
Olly came back, still crying. Lack of sleep and food had made him more emotional than ever, and when I told him to hold his daughter, he cried even more. Not bad, for a man who had never said he wanted children. They fussed around me some more, and Elizabetta took away a bowl containing the placenta. Then they cleared up all the swabs and dressings, before leaving us alone with Leah.
I stared lovingly at my baby, watching every twitch, and the slight movement of her head.
But I so wanted her to cry.
A different midwife came to see me after the morning shift came on duty. She talked to me about breastfeeding, which I wanted to do, and how a health visitor would come and make regular checks on Leah for a few days. She said I could go home that afternoon, and then asked me if I had any questions.
I couldn’t think of anything, it was as if my mind had gone blank.
Olly looked awful, so I told him to go home by taxi and get some sleep. I would ring him when he could come and collect us in the car.
Us. It felt funny to say that. Before Leah, ‘Us’ had only meant me and Olly.
Before the midwife left me to it, I finally managed to get Leah to feed. The feeling was both weird, and fantastic at the same time. She was hungry too. Although she still hadn’t made any noise remotely resembling crying, she did make some gurgling sounds that reassured me that at least her vocal chords were working. I had told Olly to ring everyone and ask them not to visit the house until the next day, at the earliest.
There had never been a time in my life when I had felt so tired.
Being alone with my little girl mainly made me anxious. What should I be doing? I spoke to her, kissed her and cuddled her, and didn’t let on to her that my belly and my lady bits were still hurting quite a bit. Once the anaesthetic had worn off totally, everything below my hips felt as if I had skidded down a tarmac road naked. Not quite enough for agony, but far more than sore. I hadn’t asked for anymore painkilers, as I didn’t want to ingest any more medicine than absolutely necessary while I was breastfeeding.
By the time I was allowed home and Olly was there with the carry-cot, I had started to feel like a mum. Millions of women did this every day, I kept telling myself. I had to stop over-thinking everything, and making such a big deal of it. We waited in the main reception while Olly went to get the car from where he had parked on a meter.
The cot fitted onto the car seat base in one slick movement, and he looked at me with such a look of pride on his face, you would think he had just constructed the Forth Bridge. I had been walking like John Wayne after a long ride on his cowboy horse, and it was a relief to flop into the seat.
As the car headed off into the early rush-hour traffic, I had a wobble. This was it. We were going home with a tiny baby, and it was all up to us now.
For the rest of our lives.
To give him full credit, Olly had done wonders while he had been at home. I doubted he had slept at all, as he had tidied up, prepared a basic meal for later, sorted out everything in Leah’s room, and had the nappies and wipes all ready downstairs. The machine for expressing my milk was there too, along with the bottles all sterilised, in case I wanted to use them. I thanked, him and told him I was going to try to stick with breast feeding. Then as if to prove a point, I gave Leah a feed while he watched. At least one of us would get some sleep later that night.
With Leah asleep next to us in her carry-cot, we sat and ate together. Olly said he had sorted out the baby alarm, and also the vibrating alarm that would wake me when I needed to feed her. He said he would watch her after dinner while I had a bath. But there was no way I was going to try to sit in a bath, and just stood there with one hand against the wall using the shower attachment. When I came down, Olly was trying to amuse Leah with a stuffed toy that had bells attached. But she wasn’t taking any notice. I suggested he wait until she was just a little bit older, and he laughed, saying he felt silly.
That was such a happy night, that first night at home.
For most of the night, I had stayed awake. Every time I felt my eyes closing, I jumped, trying to wake myself up. The baby monitor was making no noise, and there had been no crying. Olly was dead to the world, but I didn’t need the vibrating pad under my pillow to wake me up.
I went into Leah’s room more times than I can remember now. If she was awake, I sat in the nursing chair and fed her. If she was asleep, I sat staring at her, wondering if she was alright.
When Olly got up to get ready for work, I had just gone to sleep. But I dragged myself up and went to check on Leah. Olly could have probably got away with taking the day off, but they had been very understanding, and he didn’t want to take advantage. He made me a coffee and brought it up to me, tactfully not asking me if I was going to be alright on my own that day.
Not that I had much chance to be alone. Mum and dad turned up just after nine, with my brother in tow. They had made him take the day off to see his niece, and he grinned as I opened the door. “Where is she then?” Mum was carrying two huge balloons, one with ‘Baby Leah’ printed on it, and the other in the shape of a pink unicorn. Dad handed me a bouquet of pink roses, and they both brushed past me in their eagerness to see their granddaughter.
My brother looked over their shoulders, and one glance was enough. He sat on the sofa and said “Tea and toast would be nice, sis”. I told him he knew where the kitchen was.
Mum was already fixating on the shape of Leah’s head, and she was multi-tasking as she told dad to find a vase for the flowers in the same breath. I kept my temper as I watched mum examining my baby as if she was a pedigree piglet she was thinking of buying.
“Green eyes. That must come from Olly’s family. Nobody on our side ever had green eyes.
Does that mean she will have ginger hair? I hope not.
Mind you, she hasn’t got much hair to speak of at the moment anyway.
Does she feed alright?
Did she keep you awake all night? You look terrible.
Why don’t you get some sleep while we are here? I will look after her.
How long before her head looks normal?”.
Her words were tumbling out like the sound of a machine gun, leaving no pause for me to answer. I just sat on the sofa and let her get on with it. Then the smoke alarm went off, because Ronnie had burned the toast. Dad put his arm around me as Ronnie flapped a tea-towel at the ceiling.
At least my dad understood.
It got to almost one in the afternoon, and they showed no sign of leaving. I decided to take executive action, and told them I was tired, so could they go and let me rest. Mum looked very miffed, and pushed her lips together in an expression I knew all too well. But Ronnie was pleased, and took my words to mean he could leave immediately. He was on his feet in seconds, reaching for the car keys.
They managed to drag out the departure for another twenty minutes, Ronnie standing by the front door jiggling the keys as mum made her last checks and asked her last questions. I took Leah up to her room and fed her, stretching out in the new nursing chair, cuddling her close. I hated appearing to be unkind to my family, but if I didn’t get some rest, I would be good for nothing.
I should have known I would go to sleep, and of course I did. It must have been some kind of instinct that stopped me dropping Leah, because when I heard Olly close the front door I was still holding her tight. He had got off early, but I had still been asleep for almost three hours. I thought I should feed Leah again, and Olly sat on the floor of the room watching me, listening to my story of the family visit. He asked if it was alright to call his sister now, and she would be busting to hear the news. I had forgotten about her, and felt guilty that it was all about me, and my family.
I could her her screams of pleasure as Olly told her the news.
The next morning, Rosa arrived at the same time as the health visitor. She got on with tidying and cleaning after a brief look at Leah. “I hold her later, yes?”
Doreen was a smart looking nurse who told me she was originally from Antigua. She gave Leah a detailed once-over, and asked me quite a few questions about how I was feeling, whether I was tired, and how my moods were. She was pleased to hear that Leah was feeding okay from the breast, but suggested that I express some milk later, so that Olly could do some night feeding and I got some sleep. When she measured Leah’s head, I asked her how long it might retain the obvious cone shape.
“Should only be a few days, darlin’. Though some stay like that for a few weeks. This don’t look so bad”. While I had her attention, I asked her why Leah hadn’t cried to be fed. That seemed to interest her. “No crying at all? Not for soiled nappies, or feeding? Not even to be picked up?” I shook my head, and asked her if I should be concerned. She gave me a reassuring smile, and held my hand briefly. “That crying should come soon. Might just be the fact that she had a hard time coming into this world. I will be around to check on you for the next few days, and you can let me know when she has cried”.
When she left, Rosa appeared, excited to hold the baby. She didn’t have any children, but was hoping to once she went back to Poland to get married. She spoke to Leah in Polish, and sang her a little song. Then she handed her back, asking “Why her head like that?” I told her about the vacuum delivery, and she went over to her bag in the hallway, returning with a small box. “This is for her. Good protection”. Inside was a tiny silver cross, on a chain. Olly and I were not religious, but I was touched by this kind gift from someone who was just paid to do my housework.
Mum phoned twice that afternoon. Once to ask about the shape of Leah’s head, and the second time to tell me her friend Barbara knew a woman whose baby had been born with the same shaped head, and was fine after less than a week. I imagined her and Barbara having a good gossip about Leah’s head, but I didn’t let it get to me. She was only trying to do her best to make me feel alright about it. One thing I soon found out was that everyone knows someone who had either a worse time than you, or had some advice about things you hadn’t even asked them about.
After Olly got in that evening, he said he would go back out in the car and get a Chinese takeaway. I had completely forgotten about preparing any dinner, probably because I had stuffed myself with biscuits and cake all afternoon. Or I was already suffering from what my mum called ‘baby brain’. Over dinner, I asked him how it had gone at work. I was very aware that Leah had fast become the only topic of conversation, and I didn’t want that to change our previous relationship. Olly thought that doing the bottle feed at night was a good thing, and said he would go to bed early to make sure he was up and about in time for it. But when the vibrating alarm went off, I stayed awake anyway. Might just as well have let him sleep, and fed her myself.
Doreen’s visit the next day was brief. She was pleased to hear that Olly had done a feed, and wanted to know if we had heard her crying yet. I shook my head, and told her that she made small gurgling noises, but still had not cried. Then Doreen took Leah and checked her hearing. She turned in response to noises made either side of her head, and Doreen wrote something down on the record sheet. Then she checked her eye movement, and wrote something else down. I asked her if it was all normal, and she smiled and nodded. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to believe her.
She had only been gone for thirty seconds, when I felt an overwhelming need to start crying.
When the screaming came over the baby intercom, it took me a moment to come round, and realise it was Leah. I was out of bed in a flash, overwhelmed by a feeling of joy that my baby was finally crying. She shouldn’t have needed a feed yet, so I checked her nappy, which was dry. Holding her close, the noise was incredible. Her face was red, and her back arched in a shape like a banana. I moved her round into the feeding position, but she would not take my nipple, no matter how many times I tried.
And no amount of cuddling or rocking would console her, as the screams continued to increase in intensity.
Eventually, Olly could stand it no longer, and walked into the room, bleary eyed. He was smiling though, as just like me, he was overjoyed that she was crying. He reached out to take her, holding her high up against his shoulder, and patting her back gently as he walked in small circles. He asked the obvious. Was her nappy wet? Did she need a feed? I could hardly hear him above the noise. It didn’t seem possible that such a tiny baby could generate that volume. After a while, Olly furrowed his brow, and gave me a serious look.
“Should she be stiff like this? She is rigid.”
I was so tired, I couldn’t think straight. And I still had a lot of pain down below, as well as occasional cramps as my insides were shrinking. I wanted to go back to bed and sleep. It didn’t hurt once I was asleep. And as much as I loved to hear her cry, it had gone on too long, and was uncontollable. Then Olly made a decision.
“Get dressed, Ang. I think we should take her in”.
Alhough I had visions of being thought of as a panicky time-waster again, I knew Olly had made up his mind. We both threw on some casual clothes, wrapped up the still-screaming Leah, and headed out into the quiet night, probably waking up half the street as we struggled to get her into the car seat. No time to brush my hair, or my teeth. I felt dirty and horrible as we headed for the hospital.
The Casualty Department staff took it all very seriously, no doubt prompted in part by the ear-splitting noise of my baby’s screaming. We were taken through to a children’s area, and told a paediatric doctor had been called down as a matter of urgency. A tiny young woman appeared, dressed in green scrubs that looked too big. She must have been well under five feet tall, and had the body size of a child. But she seemed to know her stuff, and there were soon some nurses around Leah, later joined by another doctor who looked as if he had just been woken up. We sat on the hard plastic chairs in the corner and watched as they did tests, and attached monitors.
One of the nurses appeared to be in charge, and every now and then would turn to me with a question. Has Leah had a rash? Has she been taking milk? How long as she been crying? How long as she been arching her back? I gave her my best estimates, and then sat worrying about whether or not we should have brought her in sooner.
The crying suddenly stopped.
The tiny female doctor turned and smiled. “We have given her some rectal medication to calm her down. She will relax now”. They carried on working on whatever they were doing for another few minutes, and then they all left, except the tired-looking male doctor. He came over and stood in front of us.
“We want to keep an eye on Leah for a couple of hours. No need to admit her to a ward, but I want to see her reaction when the sedation wears off. This may have something to do with the difficult birth. I am not considering meningitis, or anything sinister”. I should have been relieved, but my first thought was to kick myself for not thinking anything like he had mentioned. Olly thanked him, and walked over to look at Leah.
I was feeling achey and sore, so stayed sitting. Yearning for sleep.
While Leah was calm, I managed to feed her. The doctor came back when it was already light outside. “You can take her home now. It might have been that she was too hot, as we can’t see anything that concerns us right now. She has taken a feed you say? Good. Keep an eye on her, and get some rest. If you are still worried later on, perhaps take her to see your family doctor”.
There was no chance Olly was going to go into work that day. As soon as it was a reasonable time to ring anyone, he phoned his boss to tell her about what had happened, and agreed to take the day as holiday. Leah had gone to sleep in the car on the way back, and I decided to break my own rules by taking her into bed with us that morning.
After that scare, things calmed down, and I got into a routine as soon as I was no longer feeling the pain. I had told Doreen about the hospital trip, and she tried to reassure me not to worry too much. Then she was more or less finished with her checks, but gave me a number to call if I thought I needed a visit. Remembering what the doctor had said about seeing a GP, I decided to change doctors. Up to that point I had stayed with the one in the city, but that was no longer going to be practical, having to take Leah with me everywhere.
I found one about fifteen minutes walk from us, and they said they would register us if I went in. The place was packed out with people waiting to see doctors when I arrived, but an elderly receptionist was happy enough to get us registered. Olly was going to stay with his old one, as he was in the city most days anyway. I made an appointment for having myself checked over, and they offered me one seven days later.
Trying to get some order into my day was very difficult at first. Leah had no more screaming fits, but she had stopped crying at all, and that preyed on my mind. At least she was feeding, and sleeping. That allowed me some rest between feeds, and I stopped Olly getting up to bottle feed, so he could go to work feeling fresh. My Mum had been miffed at my asking her to leave, so to build bridges there, we suggested that we visit them every Sunday. At least that way we could decide what time to leave, and not have any showdowns.
The first Sunday visit went well. Mum had prepared a lovely roast lamb dinner, and it was nice to be able to sit and stuff myself without worrying about who was cooking, or having to wash up afterwards. I had to laugh at my dad and brother. When it came time to feed Leah, as soon as I reached under my top for my boob, they both made themselves scarce. Ronnie remembered he had a borrowed DVD to watch in his room, and dad had something he needed to attend to in his garden shed. Leah’s head had changed shape too, even though her forehead looked unusually large, the cone shape above had almost disappeared. That stopped my mum trapping on about her head at least.
Going anywhere with a baby was such a mission. There was the baby bag containing anything I thought I might need, as well as many things I would probably never need. Then the folding wheels for the portable cot, in case I had to wheel Leah around. The carry cot/car seat itself, which looked tiny, but was surprisingly heavy. All that without my own huge shoulder bag, which I still hadn’t got around to sorting through, and emptying out.
On the way home that Sunday, it seemed like Olly was reading my mind. “This car isn’t going to work, Ang. I reckon we need something much bigger, preferably with a sliding door. I will investigate what’s available, and sort it out”.
Late the following Saturday afternoon, he returned home driving a bright red Japanese people carrier that looked more like a minibus than an actual car. It had sliding doors at the back, and a huge hatch that opened up to reveal a space that I could easily lie down in. It had a high roof too, so no bending and stretching. The gears were funny, fully automatic, with a lever on the dashboard next to the steering wheel. In front, the driver’s seat looked like an armchair, and the seat next to it was a double one. After showing me around it, Olly asked, “What do you think then, Ang?”
I told him it was never going to fit in the garage.
By the time Leah was three months old, I felt better physically, although I continued to experience mood swings that often involved crying when I was alone. Sitting on the bed while Leah was asleep, or relaxing in the bath when Olly was watching her in the evening. The tears would come for no apparent reason, leaving my face red and blotchy enough to usually have to explain to Olly that I didn’t know why I was crying.
As for Leah, she stayed much the same. I instinctively knew that wasn’t a good thing, and I had my mum to remind me too.
“She doesn’t pay much attention to anything, does she?”
“Shouldn’t she be holding her head up on her own by now?”
“I know she doesn’t cry much, but have you heard her laugh yet?”
There was nothing mum said that hadn’t already crossed my mind. Not least the fact that my baby didn’t seem to ever look at me, unless I physically turned her face in my direction. She had almost no interest in toys, silly noises I made, stupid faces I pulled, or songs I sang to her. If I playfully pushed a fluffy toy against her face, she made no attempt to push it away. I didn’t like the feeling I had, and told Olly I was going back to see the GP.
The doctor I saw that time was an elderly lady. Like many of my neighbours, she was originally from Poland. She listened sypathetically, gave Leah a good examination, then told me she would write to the County Children’s Hospital, and ask them to arrange an appointment for me. As I was leaving, I must have looked as worried as I felt. She put her hand on my shoulder and smiled. “Early days yet, my dear. She will probably be fine”.
Olly had a lot on at work, with the imminent publication of the supposedly eagerly-anticipated autobigraphy of a famous actress. He had looked at me wide-eyed when I confessed I had never heard of her. I didn’t want to add to his concerns by saying too much about the visit to the GP, so I just told him she had referred us to the hospital for checks. Whether he didn’t want to think too much about it, or he was just overwhelmed with work, he didn’t ask me anything else.
That Sunday morning, something else happened. Olly cuddled up to me, and I realised he was expecting sex. In all fairness, he had been incredibly patient, and did as much as he could to help me when he wasn’t at work. I shocked myself by suddenly being aware that I hadn’t even missed sex, let alone thought about it. I had to stop him though. I reminded him that I had never been on the pill, and that if he wanted to continue, he would need to buy some condoms. There was no way in the world I was going to risk getting pregnant again so soon, even though it was a longshot.
The thought of driving to find a shop open that sold condoms then coming back to take up where he left off proved to be a passion-killer that morning. He said he would get some in the city next week.
Leah was four months old when the appointment letter arrived. She still didn’t hold her head up, or giggle and laugh, or move herself around when I put her down on the play-mat. I was due to see some kind of specialist, in eight days time. I spoke to Olly about it, and his reaction upset me, to be honest. “Will you be alright to drive there, Ang? I can’t keep asking for time off with all that’s going on at work just now”. I wanted to ask why he didn’t care enough about his daughter’s development to come to the appointment. I wanted to get damn angry, and have it out with him.
But I didn’t.
One thing I had to admit, the new jumbo-sized car made life easier. The comfortable seat, high driving position, and not having to change gear made it a breeze to drive. I did the fifteen mile drive to the Children’s Hospital in just twenty minutes. It was so much easier driving in the direction away from the city, than into it.
The doctor was a woman with a strong South African accent that made me have to concentrate on what she was saying. As well as a full examination of Leah, she also watched her on the floor, and her interaction with toys, as well as with me. But there were no obvious medical tests. No blood test, no monitors, no scans or x-rays. After what felt like a long time in the big room, she pressed her hands together and started to tell me her conclusions.
Despite being embarrassed at having to ask her to repeat some words because of her accent, I got the gist of what she was telling me, and when she got to the end of her little speech, I certainly understood what she said then. Accent or not.
“Of course, Angela, we kinnot rool ett Brine Dimige”.
When the doctor asked me if I had any questions, I was still in a daze. I had a hundred questions of course, maybe more. But I just shook my head. She said that I would get another appointment when Leah was six months old, as she would be able to tell more by then.
Sitting in the car in the car park, I couldn’t bring myself to turn the key to start it. I didn’t cry, I just felt numb.
On the way home, I started to think about having to tell Olly what she had said. Then there were my parents and brother, the few friends and former colleagues that bothered to stay in touch, and Olly’s sister in Canada. I decided we should not say anything to anyone until after the next appointment, and that was what I would discuss with Olly when he got home.
He was so casual about it, I wanted to hit him. “Well she said she couldn’t rule out brain damage. She didn’t say Leah has it. Maybe she’s just a late developer? I think we should give it more time, and I definitely agree we shouldn’t say anything to anyone else about this for now”. With that, he turned on the television to watch the evening news, and it was all I could do to stop myself screaming hysterically at him.
I went upstairs with Leah, and sat in her room for two hours, staring at her.
There were two ways I could deal with this in my own head. I could adopt a ‘why me’ attitude, cry about it, feel hard done by, and probably end up resenting my child at some stage. Or I could stay strong, and deal with it. Whatever else happened, I couldn’t love her any the less. And none of it was her fault. I decided I would cope. I would not allow the negative thoughts to intrude on my mind, and would be Leah’s mum, through thick and thin.
The second letter from the hospital arrived sooner than I had expected, and gave me an appointment for exactly three months after the first one. At least they were efficient, and I wasn’t going to have to resort to phoning up to check. I started to do some research too. Meanwhile, I took her in for her booster jabs, and grabbed a few leaflets while I was at the doctor’s.
Two days before the hospital appointment, I had a checklist written down. All the things Leah should be able to do by now.
Roll from her back to her tummy
Sit up with support
Be able to get into a crawling position
Grasp a toy using both hands at once
Reach a small object using her finger and pick it up using her thumb and all fingers
Pick up a small toy with one hand and pass it to the other
Play with her feet when laying on her back
Hold her hands up to be lifted
Make sounds like ‘Da’, ‘ga’, ‘ka’
Squeal and laugh
Like to look at herself in a mirror
Eleven things. Simple enough things that any baby should be doing at six months old. Checking them off against my close observation of Leah made for depressing reading. I could only confirm ‘Making sounds’. Leah said “Gah”. It was all she ever said, and it just came out at random, never in response to anything I was doing with her or saying to her. She said the same thing to Olly when he was holding her, and he had joked about changing her name to ‘Gah’.
I didn’t think that was remotely funny.
Arriving at the hospital for the six-month check, I was forewarned, and forearmed. I had toughened myself up over the last ten weeks, and had a new focus. As expected, the South African doctor went through the motions of assessing those eleven checks, though she did them without telling me what she was doing. Then someone else came into the room, and introduced herself as Polly. She went through much the same routine with Leah after the doctor had left the room, though she spoke to me all the time, explaining what she was doing, and why.
When she seemed to have finished her examination, I came right out and asked. her. Is it brain damage? Was it caused by oxygen deprivation at birth? Can anything be done? Polly looked very sympathetic as she listened to me. Then she told me what she thought.
“It is still too early to tell, Angela. But I think you have to prepare yourself for some severe developmental issues”.
After what Polly had said about Leah, I was stil strong, and determined to not only make Olly face facts, but also to tell the family what to expect. The last thing I was going to need was my mum saying things like “She should be doing that by now”. To be honest, I was rather relieved. Now I could stop worrying about what might have been wrong with my baby, and deal with what was going to be wrong with her as she got older.
Driving home, I pondered the reality of ‘severe developmental issues’. Walking might come late. Speech and communication could be limited. Vision and hearing might be impaired; either, or both. Feeding, safety around the home, all the expected problems were going to be twice as hard to deal with. Maybe ten times as hard. And what about schooling?
I stopped there. I was getting ahead of myself.
Another check-up in three more months, more depressing lists of things that she might not be able to do by then. Strange how I took some comfort from that dire diagnosis. The fact that Leah didn’t laugh, didn’t attempt to communicate, didn’t focus on me, or enjoy play. I had thought that was all about me, that I was doing something wrong. Now I had some kind of diagnosis that exonerated me from blame, I actually felt more positive.
It was all presented to Olly after dinner. I let him enjoy his food first, raging inside that he had forgoten to ask how the check-up had gone. I knew he was feeling that ‘breadwinner’ responsibility, and at a particularly busy time for him at work. But if he thought he was just going to leave everything else for me to deal with, he was very much mistaken.
His first reaction was to well up, and I thought he might cry. But he swallowed hard, and set his jaw. “Right then, Ang. We will deal with that, we can do it. I’m going to ring my sister now, and tell her. But I will leave your parents to you if that’s okay”. I was greatly relieved. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but it hadn’t been him finding his strength again.
Olly’s sister had worked as a trained physiotherapist in hospitals. Now she was semi-retired, she worked privately from home doing sports injuries and back pains, that kind of thing. She was immediately one hundred percent positive, and moments after finishing the call with Olly, she was firing off emails to me, with links to all kinds of organisations, therapists in Britain, self-help ideas, and groups that got together to help each other. It was early days of course, but it felt good to have things to latch onto.
While I was feeding Leah, Olly was online ordering an expensive home CCTV system that he could set up in her room. We could watch it live on a laptop, and record it to watch later too. He thought that being able to see her when we were not in the room might give us some tips on what she did in there when she was awake. He told me to get an email address from Polly too, in case she wanted him to email some footage once it was up and running.
By the time we went to bed that night, I felt better than I had on any single day since Leah was born.
Instead of phoning my parents, I decided to drive over with Leah and tell them the next morning. Ronnie would be at work, so they could fill him in later. But I wanted to do it face to face, as I had to ask my mum something. I was going to ask for her help. For the first time since I had left school.
Her first reaction was denial. “Far too early to say, Angela. Why have they worried you with that, when she is still so young? How can they possibly tell so much from what they have seen? Surely they won’t be able to tell much until she is at least one?” I raised my hand to stop her. Dad put his head in his hands, so I knew he got it. I told mum that she had to listen instead of talking. Her only grandchild was going to have issues. Even at the mildest end of the scale, she had to face facts that Leah was not going to be a normal baby. And in the worst-case scenario, I was going to be needing a lot of support.
My dad walked over and put his arm around me.
Although Olly started to help out more, he also retreated into technology in what seemed to me to be a form of escape. The smaller third bedroom was kitted out like an office already, but he seemed intent on making it into a kind of module like something from a futuristic film. Spending money because he had it to spend, a new Apple computer arrived, with a combined printer/scanner/copier that was placed next to it on the new metal desk he bought from IKEA. The camera that watched Leah in bed was soon replaced by one that had an infra-red capability, so we didn’t need to leave a light on in her room.
As the nine-month appointment approached, I was keeping a diary of what I had noticed Leah could, and could not, do.
Saying actual words.
That was still a definite ‘No’. She only ever said “Gah”.
No. But at least this meant she wasn’t investigating cupboards or switches.
Eating proper food in addition to milk.
That was a ‘Yes’. She ate or drank anything I put in her mouth. But she didn’t hold it if I placed it in her hand.
Pincer-grip with fingers.
She was getting her first teeth, but never seemed to be in pain. She certainly wasn’t crying.
Communication by gesture. Clapping, waving, and so on.
Clinging on to soft toys or blankets for comfort.
No. She dropped anything I gave her.
I gave up after that, as I wanted to stay positive. Her weight was good, she looked healthy, and she slept well. She took her feeds, and rarely cried.
All of those were taken as good signs, and I acted as much like a normal mum as possible. I played with her, spoke to her, sang her songs, and interacted with her whenever she was awake. Even though she never responded in the way other babies might have done, I made the best of my time with my little girl. And when Olly got in from work, he did the same.
At least for a while.
The next appointment was with Polly. I showed her my diary, and we discussed the fact that Leah should be crawling at the very least, and making more sounds than an occasional “Gah”. The general health check went well, so we concentrated on the development issues. Polly tried to stay upbeat, suggesting things might change once Leah passed her first birthday. But she had to agree when I said that would always leave her behind other kids of the same age, whatever happened later on. She didn’t seem very interested in Olly’s idea of sending her CCTV footage of Leah at night. I supposed she had enough to do, without scrolling through hours of that. But she gave me the email address anyway.
That night, Olly had to work late, so I ate alone. When he got home with a pizza, he remembered to ask how it had gone, and showed great interest in Polly being so positive. Nodding enthusiastically as he wolfed down the lukewarm meal.
But I couldn’t shake the idea that he was just pretending to care.
Two weeks later on the Sunday, we made the trip to my parents’ house for dinner. Ronnie was out, and dad winked as he told me, “He stopped over. Got a new girlfriend”. Mum was quick to jump in “Yes, and she’s thirty-four, and divorced”. Her expression and tone let us all know she didn’t approve. Ronnie was twenty-seven, and should probably have left home years earlier. But life was easy, with mum doing the cooking, and his washing and ironing too. He was not a man of ambition. He had left school at seventeen with two ‘O’ levels, and got a job with a big DIY shop chain. But he worked in the head office, in the ordering department, and his main aim in life was to own a souped-up GT car.
Now he had met Lauren, the sister of one of his work colleagues. And he was head over heels in lust. And as for dad saying he had a ‘new’ girlfriend, well other than two weeks with a girl up the street called Emma Thoroughgood when he was thirteen, I think we could rightly say that Lauren was his only girlfriend. I went through the motions of telling my parents some more about Leah’s clinic visit, concentrating on the positives. Mum latched onto that too. “I told you it was too soon to say. You wait and see. Give her time”
In bed that night, I turned over to find an empty space next to me. Wondering where Olly was, I got up and walked out onto the landing. He was standing in the open doorway of Leah’s room, holding a small video camera that I didn’t even know he had bought. When he saw me, he turned and grinned. I walked across to him, and saw what he was filming.
Leah was standing up in her cot, holding the sides for support.
As I watched, tears welling up in my eyes, Leah dropped back onto the mattress. Olly stopped filming, and I ran into the room, scooping her up into my arms. Olly was grinning, his hair sticking up like some mad professor. “I heard her doing some loud ‘Gahs’ over the monitor, and came in to check on her. When I saw her standing, I went to get the camera from the study”. Calling the fitted-out boxroom a study was a stretch, but I let that go, saying she must have been hungry. I sat down in the chair and started to feed her. As I did that, Olly sent his sister a text message telling her.
I couldn’t stop crying. But at least they were happy tears.
At a reasonable hour the next morning, I rang Polly to tell her the news. But I had to leave a message, as she wasn’t in yet. When she rang back an hour later, she let me blab on excitedly, waiting until I finished speaking. “Angela, you mustn’t read too much into that at the moment, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen again today”. Talk about a downer, she crashed my mood with one sentence. But I took her warning seriously enough not to bother to ring my parents and tell them.
The temptation to hold her up in the cot and see if she did it again was overwhelming. But Olly was at work, and I had grocery shopping to do. I got ready, and then loaded Leah into the car seat before throwing her baby bag into the back. I never went anywhere without that bag. Using the parent and child spaces in the supermarket car park was a boon. They tended to be closer to the shop, and the extra width of them made life easier. I had become something of a busybody, very protective of those spaces. If I saw someone trying to park in one when they obviously had no baby or child with them, I would walk over and stare them out.
With the removable baby seat wedged into the trolley, I wandered around the aisles flinging stuff in. I had never been an organised shopper, someone with a list, and meal plans. I just got whatever I liked the look of, and thought about actual dinners later. That meant I normally bought too much stuff, but what the hell.
Fully-laden, and looking for a free checkout, I stood behind an elderly woman who only had a few items on the conveyor belt. She turned to look at Leah, and smiled. “How old is she, about nine months?” I told her she was almost spot on. Then she nodded like some wise sage. “Shame about her, though I’m sure you are coping well”. I would like to have replied with an aggrieved ‘What are you talking about?’ or something similar. But the look on her face told me that she could see there was something wrong with my baby.
I said nothing, and stood with my face flushed until she paid and left.
For some reason, I didn’t want to go home. I took my shopping bags out to the car, grabbed the baby bag, then carried Leah in her seat to the coffee place in the row of smaller shops opposite. I went into the baby changing room in there and changed and fed her. Then I bought myself a cappuccino, and a huge chocolate muffin. I felt a desperate need for some woman to come up to us and compliment me on my lovely daughter. But nobody did, so I stared out of the window until my coffee got cold.
When I had put the shopping away, leaving out the stuff I was using for the meal later, I could resist the temptaion no longer. I picked Leah up off the playmat where she was lying staring at the ceiling, and carried her up to her cot. I stood her up inside, and placed her tiny hands around the wooden railing. She fell onto her back with a “Gah”. I did it again, talking to her encouragingly. She fell again. I thought the third time might be lucky.
But it wasn’t.
Olly got in at a reasonable time, and as he walked through the door, he was beaming. “How did it go today? Was she crawling or standing?”
I told him I was cooking his favourite for dinner, Pesto Chicken.
Olly saw through my bluff of course. Ignoring his question, busy cooking his favourite meal, and a glass of Valpolicella already poured for him. “So what’s happened, Ang?” I told him what Polly had said, and about trying to stand Leah up. About the old woman in the shop who instinctively knew something was wrong with her, and the fact that nobody ever came up to me to say something nice about her when I was out.
People always did that with babies. At least they always did until I had one. I didn’t cry. I was fed up with crying.
“So we get on with things as they are, and stop expecting good stuff. Then we won’t be disappointed. My sister replied by text saying much the same thing as Polly. It might have been a one-off, something instinctive because she was needing a feed. If we have to cope with the fact that life with Leah is going to be different to our expectations, then we will cope”.
Okay for him to say that, he was out at work all day. I didn’t say that, just thought it.
I had to have a conversation with Rosa too. She knew enough about babies to realise that Leah should have been scooting around the floor and getting into mischief by now. But to her credit, she never mentioned anything. I told her the provisional diagnosis, and she crossed herself, mumbling a little prayer thing in Polish. In English she said, “God will have wanted her to be like this. God will look after her”. I knew she meant well, but I almost told her to cut the crap.
A phone call from Ronnie surprised me. He wanted to come over that night, and bring his new girlfriend to meet us. “And I have something I want to talk to you about, Ang. Well, ask your advice on really”. Ronnie had never asked me about anything before, so I guessed it must be something serious. I told him to come after eight, so we could have dinner first. I wasn’t up to preparing a nice meal for four people just yet.
When Olly got in, I fed him something quickly, apologising that Ronnie and Lauren were expected within the hour. He rarely had much to say to my brother. Their interests were very different, and Ronnie didn’t even follow football, so they couldn’t talk about that.
On the dot, the doorbell rang. Leah was awake, and lying on her play mat. Olly answered, and they came in carrying two bottles of wine, and a huge bunch of flowers. That must have been Lauren’s doing, as Ronnie would never have thought to bring anything. I was impressed. Lauren was very attractive. Smartly dressed too, with a wonderful short bob haircut. I could have laughed out loud when I saw Olly trying not to look at the shapely legs protruding from a seriously short skirt.
My first thought was to wonder what the hell she was doing with my hopeless brother. But then siblings rarely see any physical attraction in each other. Too many years of being assailed by the smell of his socks, or arguing about who used the bathroom first.
But really, why did she like him? She was such a knockout, even I fancied her.
They went through the motions of taking about Leah, as Olly got some drinks and put the flowers into a vase. Lauren made the right noises about liking our house, and lamenting the fact that her and her ex hadn’t had any children. She sat next to Ronnie on the sofa, acting as relaxed as if they had been a couple for ten years. Then Ronnie got to the real reason for the visit.
“Lauren and me are talking about me moving in, Ang. Actually, more than that. We are thinking of getting married”. With Lauren sitting there sipping her wine, I had to choose my words carefully. I mentioned that they hadn’t been together long, decided to ignore the age difference, then suggested that maybe living together for a while might be a better idea than rushing into planning a wedding. I reminded him that me and Olly had been together a long time and had a baby, but we saw no reason to have to get married.
Moving her hand on top of Ronnie’s, Lauren looked right into my eyes.
“That’s fine for you two, Angela. But I want some commitment in a relationship”.
I suddenly knew why my mum didn’t like her.
Ignoring Lauren’s comment, I waited for Ronnie to speak up. But surprisingly, it was Olly who spoke next. “Nothing against either of you, but I think even living together is a bad idea. In all honesty, Ronnie, you have got so used to living at home, the transition to being half of a couple is going to be a massive wake-up call. My suggestion would be that you rent your own place at first. You can still see Lauren, but it wil teach you all you need to know about running a home, fending for yourself for once, and little things like cooking a meal and ironing a shirt. If you just move in with Lauren, there’s a real danger you will just expect her to do everything for you, and that won’t work out, believe me”.
I looked over at Olly, wishing I had said what he had just said.
Lauren was nodding too. Maybe she hadn’t yet realised just how hopeless Ronnie was. I pictured him sitting playing a video game in his underpants, or watching one of his body-horror DVD films, all the while paying zero attention to Lauren, until he thought it was time for sex. Lauren caught my eye, and looked at her shoes. I think she had experienced the same thought, at the same time. It seemed as if Olly had saved the day.
Attempting to outline the positives, Olly carried on, appealing to Ronnie’s love of his substantial savings in the bank. “Look at it this way. A wedding will cost you a small fortune, maybe twenty grand. Then if that marriage doesn’t work out, that’s dead money. That’s a decent car, or a lot of Playstations. More to the point, without being flippant, it’s not fair on Lauren. She’s already had one marriage go tits-up, and I am sure she will agree she doesn’t need another like that. Remember the old fable. Slow and steady wins the race”.
Alhough Ronnie was nodding, I knew full well he had never heard of Aesop.
That seemed to be a suitable moment to send them packing, so I invented the need to go and feed Leah. But Lauren didn’t get the hint, and asked for another glass of wine. I mean, who asks for another glass of wine, even if they brought it themselves? Rude. I had to follow through with taking Leah up, so fed her anyway. All the while listening to Olly in his pontificating mode, continuing to explain to my brother why co-habitation was a bad idea.
Ronnie was out of his depth, and outclassed. By the time I had put Leah into her cot and came back down carrying the baby monitor, Olly was explaining to Lauren how my mum smothered my younger brother, and how my dad was so hen-pecked, he let her get away with anything. I had always known Olly didn’t like my mum. I never blamed him for that, as I didn’t like her that much either. But slagging my family off to a stranger was not on, as far as I was concerned.
By the time they left, Ronnie looked downcast, and Olly was smugly pleased with himself. I was pissed off at the way the tone of the conversation had changed, and stayed downstairs fuming quietly after Olly had gone up to bed. I couldn’t face an argument that late at night, especially after Olly had been drinking.
The phone ringing the next morning made me jump. I had fed Leah, then dropped off in the chair in her room. It was my mum, sounding chirpy. She wanted to congratulate me on changing Ronnie’s mind. “I don’t know what was said, Angela, he wouldn’t tell me. But he came home late, in a foul mood. I was sitting up watching a film, and he launched into me about how I had primed you to make him spilt up with Lauren. He made so much noise your dad came down to see what was going on. Now he says he will move out anyway, Lauren or no Lauren. I doubt that will happen, he will probably calm down after a morning at work and realise where he is well off”.
I reminded her that he was twenty-seven, and probably should be living on his own. I didn’t tell her that Olly had been the one to talk them both round, I had no inclination to be drawn into a blow by blow account of last night’s conversation.
It was ten minutes after I had hung up that I remembered she hadn’t asked about Leah.
Rosa came and did the housework the next day, leaving me feeling increasingly guilty about watching someone do that when I was fit and well. I had been going to mention to Olly that it might be time to tell her we didn’t need her, but to be honest I enjoyed having her around. And I also knew she needed the money.
The next few weeks seemed to fly by, making me realise that I now had a routine in place, and that Leah not being active made my life a lot easier than it was for most young mums. Her one year appointment was looming, as well as her first birthday before that. I phoned mum and suggested a small party might be in order. She told me that dad hadn’t been feeling well, and he should probably rest and not get excited. That was the first I had heard of it.
It was settled that I would buy her a birthday cake and mum would give me the money, as well as a shop voucher for anything I wanted to buy her granddaughter. Ronnie had moved out as he had threatened to do, and was sharing a house with two strangers after answering a newspaper advert. He still wasn’t speaking to me, and rarely to mum either. She blamed me of course, saying we had pushed it too far.
On the day, poor Leah only got three cards in the post, and one of those was from Polly at the hospital. The other two were from my mum and dad, and Olly’s sister in Canada. Olly and I hadn’t even bought her many presents, as there seemed to be no point buying toys for a child who didn’t play with them or even interact with us if we tried to play. I had bought her a supermarket cake, and was waiting until Olly got home to light the single candle. Then he rang to say he had to work late. Publishing deadlines, and blah blah blah. I had already tuned out, and just hung up without saying goodbye.
Leaving Leah on her play mat, I nipped into the kitchen to get the cake and light the candle. When I came back into the room singing ‘Happy Birthday to you’, she wasn’t there.
I almost dropped the cake in shock, just managing to get it onto the coffee table before it slid off the plate. That same moment I got a clue, hearing a “Gah” from behind one of the sofas. I looked over the back of it, and was amazed to see her crawling. A crawl of sorts, anyway. Supported more on her elbows than her hands, she was making her way towards the window like a soldier crawling to avoid detection from the enemy. I watched her a little longer, entralled by the activity. She was dragging her legs behind her, and making slow progress. But she was definitely moving.
Deciding not to get too excited, I picked her up and faced her the other way. Off she went again, heading back to the play mat. I broke off a piece of cake, not even bothering to cut it, and blew out the candle as I turned to offer it to her. I was willing her to reach out and take it. Whether she actually noticed it was food, or was attracted by the smell of it, she stopped crawling. I put a tiny piece into her mouth, and she ate it immediately, saying another “Gah”. But when I moved the rest of it in the direction of her hand, she made no attempt to hold it.
So I sat on the floor and fed it to her. No need to be disappointed. She had made huge progress. I wanted to tell the world. But Polly was on ‘leave a message’, and my mum sounded completely uninterested. The best she could manage was a negative. “Well if she’s crawling around now, you are going to have to fit those stair gates and get one across the kitchen door too”. So even though it was still early for her over there, I rang Olly’s sister in Canada. At least she squealed with delight, so I had someone to squeal with.
I always thought that squealing alone was rather too strange a thing to do.
By ten that night, Olly still wasn’t home. I left his dinner stone cold on a plate on the dining table and went to bed.
There was too much else to worry about for me to bother over Olly working late. After all, there was only his salary coming in now, so it was more important than ever for him to keep his job, and do well. We still had a substantial savings buffer with the profit from the flat sale, but that wouldn’t last long if we were both not working.
Polly was there at the next appointment, and did a few of the usual tests. She didn’t seem to be excited as I had wanted her to be about Leah crawling, and of course when we put her down that morning, she didn’t crawl an inch. I was left wondering whether or not anyone believed me. Nobody else had seen her crawl, and I hadn’t had the presence of mind to use Olly’s video camera to record the moment. When I had finished babbling on about standing and crawling, she told me what to expect next.
“Not walking isn’t an issue, Angela. many babies don’t do that for a while after they turn one. But Leah should be standing all the time now. Holding onto things for support, and at least trying to walk. She should also be able to grip small objects, and throw them or drop them deliberately. There should be at least three recognisable words by now, hopefully more. I know you are talking to her and involving her, but her only reaction to anything is that Gah sound she makes. Leah’s height and weight are both good, in fact she is a little heavy, but we won’t wory about that. I think we should see her again at eighteen months. Meanwhile, you should schedule her vaccinations”.
That was it? No brain scan? No specialist treatment or intervention? Had they already given up on my little girl?
All questions I should have been asking Polly. For some reason, all I did was nod.
In the car outside, I was furious with myself for not asking her fifty things. Why did I just tolerate this? Why didn’t I stand up to them? I seemed able to ask myself so many questions about what might be my own failures as a mother, then allow myself to be intimidated by the hospital environment, and the qualifications of someone I hardly knew. So I rang Polly on my mobile, without starting the car. I asked her the three big questions I had thought of, and she gave me a completely pat answer. “All in good time. We will get to that, I promise you”. I said thank you, and hung up.
Then as I was driving home, I slammed my fists against the steering wheel, angry at myself. I actually said thank you. How pathetic was that?
At just after five, Olly rang to say he was meeting an author later, and I shouldn’t cook anything for him. Just as well I hadn’t started dinner, though I couldn’t be bothered to argue. It was at least twice a week that he came home very late now, and he always had excuses about publishing deadlines, meetings with book printers, or agents. I guessed it must be hectic, because he had even stopped watching his beloved football, and didn’t even bother to record the matches so he could watch them later when I had gone to bed.
When he didn’t ask how it had gone at the hospital, I tore him off a strip for not remembering, or remembering but not caring. He stayed quiet as I ranted for a few minutes, then quietly said. “Ang, you are on speaker”. Then he hung up. I felt like shit for doing that. Blaming myself again, and not him.
Microwaving a lasagna was an easy option for dinner. And after trying to get Leah interested in a picture book story for ten minutes, I gave up and took her for her bath. I had not long settled her, when the doorbell rang just before nine. I should have been more wary of late callers, but I had so few visitors, I opened the door without hesitation. It was my brother, Ronnie.
He hadn’t spoken to me since that night we had drinks, and that had been a few weeks now. I had been leaving it, expecting him to come around eventually, and also not being that bothered whether he did or not. Since having Leah, she had come first in everything, and that included my brother.
He walked past me, and sat down. Though he was shabbily dressed, and looked like he could do with a bath and a shave, his eyes were bright and alert, and his face had a strange look on it. My brain searched for the word to descibe it, and came up with ‘Triumph’. Pointing at the sofa, he gestured that I should sit down, then confirmed that verbally.
“You should have a seat, Angie, I have something to show you”.
Ronnie had a new phone, one of those bigger ones people had started to get. I still had a tiny phone, from the days when the whole idea of having a mobile phone was to have the smallest one possible. Then it didn’t get in the way, and you could carry it around on you in any pocket, or in a compartment in your bag. He was grinning like a weirdo, and nodding as if he was agreeing with a conversation in his head.
“Olly working late more often recently? Coming home long after you’re in bed, not home for dinner, that kind of thing?” My relationship had nothing to do with my younger brother, and I wasn’t prepared to get into a debate about Olly. I told him to keep his voice down, because of Leah. He sat down, his left knee jerking up and down like a rock drummer playing at a concert. I hadn’t offered him anything, and I had no intention of doing so.
Holding the phone, he pressed some buttons, and handed it over to me. “Just press the right-hand arrow button for the next picture”. So it had a camera on it, I had heard about those. The screen was small, but the image very clear. It was a house on a new estate somewhere. Not at night, but probably early evening, as some of the houses nearby had outside lights on already. The photo was obviously taken through the windscreen of a car. I shrugged, and Ronnie leaned forward, his voice lowered as I had asked.
“See the next one”. It was a taxi, stopped outside the house. Ronnie hurried me up.
“And the next”. A man standing next to the taxi window, handing over money for the fare. Well not ‘a man’. Olly.
“Keep going, it gets better”. He was almost laughing now.
A woman on the path, smiling. The door left open behind her. Not just ‘a woman’, Lauren.
I carried on with no further prompting.
A kiss on the path.
His arm around her as they walked in.
The door closing.
All the while, Ronnie supplied a commentary. “He got there before six, so much for working late, I reckon he left early. He stayed there until after half-ten, when another taxi turned up outside and he came out and got in it. I haven’t got photos of that, it was too dark. But I know you will realise I’m telling the truth, because I can see it in your face”.
I hadn’t said anything. I just felt numb. Ronnie was clearly disappointed that I hadn’t collapsed in floods of tears, or jumped up and started screaming with rage. He no longer looked triumphant. If anything, he seemed deflated.
“She must have contacted him through his company. She asked where he worked when you were upstairs with the baby. After him slagging me off to her, she must have thought he was a better prospect. Maybe she rang him to ask more advice, anything to get an opening to suggest a meet. This wasn’t the first time either. I know, I’ve been watching her. He’s there now, if you must know. I even use a hire car so she doesn’t recognise my one”.
Looking across at my brother, I could see that the split with lauren had changed him. He looked older, unkempt, and like a different person. I had a mental picture of him spending some of his savings on rental cars so he could mount some kind of surveillance operation on Lauren’s house until he discovered what she was up to. Then I could imagine his sheer delight to discover that it was Olly she was seeing. How he would relish his revenge, rehearse this visit to me once his suspicions were confirmed.
Would he be thinking of violence perhaps? Beating Olly up as he exited Lauren’s small house? That seemed unlikely. He was completely thrown by my lack of reaction. “Did you already know, or are you just not bothered? You’re left here trying to cope with Leah, and he’s pretending to work late and having it off with my girlfriend”. I was pleased he had called her Leah for once, and not ‘the baby’. But I felt the need to mention that Lauren was no longer his girlfriend, and hadn’t been since the night they left here after drinks.
Shaking his head in frustration, he got up. “Well now you know at least. He can’t fool you any longer”. Then he left.
I went up and opened the wardrobe, wondering which of Olly’s clothes I should pack first.
When one suitcase was full, I ran out of steam, and just stuffed a load of underwear and socks into a holdall. Lugging them downstairs, I placed them strategically in the hallway, and left the inside light on. Then I wrote a note on some printer paper and sellotaped it to the front of the case.
‘Ronnie told me about you and Lauren. You had better go. I’m too tired now, but we can sort things out tomorrow’.
Back upstairs I was feeling drained, but unsure if I would sleep. Too many things to consider after the shock had worn off. Mainly the financial side, like how much Olly would have to pay for keeping us both, and whether he could afford that as well as contributing to living with Lauren, or renting another place to stay. Then telling my parents, if Ronnie hadn’t already done that. Then I also had to think about the truth that I wasn’t even that upset. And I sat in bed wondering if I had ever even loved Olly.
The sound of the key in the door tensed me up. I really didn’t want a huge argument that late, and when I was feeling very fragile. The door closed, and I heard Olly’s voice on his phone, speaking softly. Ten minutes later, the sound of a diesel engine stopping outside, presumably a taxi. Then the door closed again.
Leah might sleep for a good few hours without needing a feed. I decided to get some rest myself, and drifted off surpisingly easily.
There was no early phone call from Olly the next morning. I was feeling surprisingly fresh and positive, considering that the man I thought would be my life-partner had betrayed me. I resolved to do some things, and wrote them down in the back of an old diary.
1) Olly would pay through the nose, whatever it took.
2) Unless Leah improved, I would not be able to go back to work. I had to investgate what I could live on.
3) I was going to have to manage without Rosa, unless Olly carried on paying her.
4) I needed some support to deal with the mental impact of Leah’s development issues.
5) I would have to locate and join some kind of group that offered that help.
6) I would get my hair done and a few beauty treatments, while I still had access to the money to pay for them.
7) Olly wasn’t going to get the car. I needed that.
8) I would not blame Ronnie for telling me, and would try to make up with him.
9) I would not expect any help from my mum, whatever happened.
10) I would ask my dad to come over with his tools to fit the stair gates and door guards.
I started with number ten, ringing my dad. He seemed friendly, and appeared not to be aware of anything. My guess was that Ronnie hadn’t blabbed. I decided I would tell dad when he came over later that afternoon to do those jobs for me. Then I sorted Leah out, put her in a play pen, and had a shower. Before dad arrived, I got Leah ready and went to the supermarket to stock up on all sorts of stuff. Then I drew out two hundred from the cashpoint in case there was any stop on the account. That was probably an unfounded fear, but you never know. With that in mind, I also filled the car to the brim with petrol.
My dad arrived on time, and tried to play with Leah as I made him a cup of tea. When he was sat quietly with the tea in his hand, I told him what had happened. He was very calm about it, sitting shaking his head. “Lauren? He’s gone off with her? I never thought she would do something like that. You know, break up a family. Mind you, your mum never liked her, not one bit. To tell the truth, she never cared much for Olly either, love.”
It was clear to me that mum didn’t really like anyone that much, even her own husband and children. I said that to dad, and he nodded and laughed. Then he got up and started to fix the gates across the stairs, top and bottom, then fixed another one across the kitchen door from the hallway. He had been and bought that one on the way, knowing I only had the ones for the stairs. As I watched him working, he looked up and winked at me.
“You’ll be alright, love. I will make sure of that”.
To give Olly credit, when he turned up after work that evening, he rang the doorbell. Leah was sleeping upstairs in her cot, and I asked him to speak quietly. He didn’t try to offer me any lame excuses, or contrived reasons for his infidelity. And he didn’t blame me for any of it, or Leah. He took the responsibility, and stood up like a man. Shame he hadn’t done that about the problems with Leah, but it made life easier that evening.
Allowing him to speak without interruption, I let him outline what he had been thinking about since finding that note stuck to a suitcase.
“Apologies are not enough, I know. I won’t go into detail, but this thing between me and Lauren is more than just an opportunistic affair. We both felt a connection that night when she came round with Ronnie, and when she acted on that, I went along willingly. Naturally, I will continue to pay for everything, and there will always be money in the account for anything you need. As for me seeing Leah, that’s up to you, but I will help anytime you need me. You have the car, and I will also keep paying Rosa so you don’t have to worry about housework when you are dealing with Leah. Long term, things will have to change, I know you realise that, but for now, I don’t want you to worry about anything”.
For some reason, I had small things on my mind. Like who mows the lawn when the grass grows. But I put them aside and instead talked about lawyers. That stunned him, but not being married carried some complications. Both our names were on the house, and the small mortgage, though the car was registered in his name, something easily solved. After the betrayal, I had lost all trust in him, so I wanted something formalised, an amount he had to pay every month for Leah. He was on the birth certificate as her father, so could not escape that responsibility. And what if anything happened to me? How could I trust him to care for her properly?
He thought it over, and his reply made me think twice about what I had said.
“We can do that if you want, Ang. But as I understand it, you would be a lot worse off. They would only make me pay each month for Leah, and that wouldn’t include you at all. You would be left to claim some kind of carer’s allowance, or consider going back to work and paying a child-minder. Getting one of those who can cope with Leah’s issues might not even be possible. With my suggestion, your life can carry on more or less as normal. The house doesn’t have to be sold at this stage, and there will be money for you for clothes and things for yourself, as well as for Leah. But if you go down the legal route, you will open up a can of worms, believe me. I am certain to get the next promotion at work, so finances are not going to be an issue for the foreseeable future”.
Olly had done his research, in a remarkably short time. Typical of him.
It made sense to accept his arrangement for now. I certainly couldn’t consider going back to work, and I needed to find out a lot more about allowances and legal issues before jumping the gun. So I mellowed, and offered him the TV, as I now hardly ever watched it. I also said he should take the Apple computer, as I was happy with the Dell laptop. Then there was the matter of the rest of his clothes and shoes. Not to mention the huge number of books he had around the house, and his football memorabilia stored in the loft. He had thought about that too.
“I have rented a storage unit in that new place near the supermarket, Big Yellow Storage. When it suits you, I will hire a van and come and collect everything. I thought it might be nice if you were out, maybe visiting your parents. So any weekend soon would suit me, if that works for you. I will lock up and put my keys through the lettebox when I have finished. I don’t think it’s fair for me to keep them”.
Neither of us were upset, and that seemed strange. I said I would go and see my mum and dad on Saturday, and he could get in after nine, and do what he needed. That seemed to be the end of the conversation, and he stood up ready to leave, making no attempt to hug or kiss me, which was a relief.
With no sound of a taxi, I suspected that Lauren had brought him by car, and parked out of sight.
Then at least an hour went by until I realised he hadn’t asked to see Leah.
My mum was surprisingly sympathetic, though she didn’t try to hide her pleasure at being right about Olly. “I always knew he would turn out like this. One of those too good to be true types”. She even held Leah on her lap for a while, as dad outlined a plan that they had been discussing before I got there.
“The thing is, love. Let me put it like this. Olly might be saying all that now about paying for everything, and letting you stay on in the house. But what about later on? Who’s to say he won’t change his mind, or that Lauren won’t interfere? So, we had a thought. Your mortgage is small, so you said. I have good savings, and we have never touched your mum’s redundancy money. Why not buy Olly out? Offer him the amount left on the mortgage to give up his share. That will save him money every month, and make him more likely to pay for Leah. If you sold the house, you would have to rent, as you’re not working. And he could only morally claim one-third, as the rest should go to you and Leah”.
To be honest, I was staggered. Not by my dad, as I knew he was generous. But by the fact that my mum was going along with it, and nodding enthusiastically. Dad continued.
“Get the house in your sole name, and then Leah will eventually inherit it. Of course you will get something when we are both dead and this place is sold, but that could be in thirty years or so, and if we have to go into a home there would be nothing left. Either way, you would have to split it with Ronnie. I can get a pal of mine from The Round Table to do the legal paperwork. All Olly would have to do is sign it, then we’ll get the deeds and title amended. What do you think, love?”
There was nothing in my head to say in reply, so I stood up and cuddled and kissed my dad, then walked over and did the same with mum. I didn’t even say ‘Thank You’, just nodded and let the tears of relief roll down my face.
Mum was trying to interest Leah in some face-pulling and silly noises she was making. I never remembered her ever doing that with me, or with Ronnie. I wanted to allow myself the luxury of believing that she had finally come round to accepting her granddaughter, but I couldn’t let my guard down completely. Not yet. Then she turned around and spoke directly to me. “Angela, just because I don’t say it all the time, or make a silly fuss of you, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love you and Leah with all my heart”.
That was it. The dam broke, and I sobbed uncontrollably. My dad was holding me awkwardly, probably wondering if I was going to have a breakdown.
Dad told me not to say anything to Olly. “Let him get the legal papers first. He’s bound to contact you, then you can tell him you think it’s the right thing to do. If he says no, we can tie him up in all kinds of legal shit that will haunt him forever. Believe me love, I am not about to let him get away with so much as a penny, if I have to make it my life’s work. Well, the rest of my life’s work, to be accurate”.
That afternoon, I learned a lot about what it means to be a parent. And I never forgot it.
Back at the house after dark, it felt strange to see Olly’s keys on the doormat, and to know that he wouldn’t be coming home later. Or ever again. The big TV was gone, and though I presumed Lauren had a telly, and he probably didn’t need it, I couldn’t have cared less. The third bedroom looked strangely empty. The desk, computer, and printer had all gone, and the two bookcases were almost empty. Save for the few books I owned that he had left behind. I started to think about using it as a dressing room. Get some hanging rails in there, free up space in the bedroom.
That felt good inside. I was moving on, and quicker than I had thought possible.
Although Leah still never acknowledged me other than for feeding, and she still couldn’t seem to grip a toy, or something edible, she did do something quite amazing a couple of weeks after the visit to my parents.
She stood up, and took a few steps before falling over.
Despite the split with Olly, I was excited enough to text him, and he was polite enough to reply that he was very pleased to hear that news. Later that afternoon, I rang his sister in Canada. I wanted to tell her about Leah’s steps, and also thought it was time we had a conversation about what had happened.
As I expected, she was very fair. She hated what Olly had done, was delighted about Leah, but at the end of it all, he was her kid brother, and she would always support him.
Leaving it that she wanted to be updated on Leah’s progress, and mentioning nothing about Lauren, we hung up as good friends. But in my heart, I had already written her off. She would become the auntie in Canada that Leah would probably never meet. That was the truth of it, and I was okay with that.
It was time for a serious reevaluation of my life. I had a daughter who was unlikely to flourish in the accepted sense, and I might well end up looking after her until I died. I was on my own, though mum and dad were now supporting me more than I could have hoped for. I had to investigate what help was available in my situation, and swallow a lot of pride I didn’t even know I had before all this happened.
Meanwhile, I had to think about Olly’s counter-offer to the buy out deal. He was sort-of alright with it, but he wanted some kind of codicil that gave him a share of the profits in the future, if I ever sold the house. I couldn’t imagine him working that out, and suspected Lauren’s involvement. After a chat with my dad, and a phone call to his legal pal, we decided to accept his changes, as long as Leah wasn’t affected down the line.
I looked around the house after that, realising I would probably have to live here until I died. That was okay with me.
The paperwork went through, with Olly signing away the house, but not any future profits. He also agreed to support Leah until the time she left full-time education. I laughed at the idea of her going to university, and completing any education by the age of twenty-one. If she even got to go to a regular school, I would probably throw a party to celebrate. The stuff about giving me any money was vague. It contained the line, ‘Necessary personal expenses’, which I guessed was something I would have to prove.
After we had both signed, I started to keep receipts for everything.
On the plus side, I now owned a house with no mortgage. Not that this meant no bills of course, but Olly had agreed to cover those, at least on paper. And I owed my parents, big time. I had to sign more papers agreeing that when they were dead, any split of money between me and Ronnie would already include what they had paid to settle Olly, so I would get less than my brother. I signed of course. To not have done so would have seemed like a slap in the face to my dad.
So far, Olly was true to his word. There was money in the bank just like before, and although I didn’t buy luxuries or waste it, I took what we both needed. It didn’t make me feel good, but I could hardly go to work, so it was what it was.
Now Leah was on the move, the gates my dad had fitted proved their worth. I soon worked out that her walking was related to food, and the kitchen was her usual target destination. Just as well she couldn’t get to what she was after, or she would have been seriously overweight. Part of me was so happy to see her moving, I didn’t really care. I actually got a lot of joy from watching her trying to get more to eat.
When everything had been signed and sealed, Olly sent me a text, and asked to come and ‘have a chat’. I had a sneaky feeling he might be trying to water down some of the financials, and that was on my mind when he decided to try to play with Leah, and gave her a lot of uncharacteristic attention. But it wasn’t that at all, as I found out as he was leaving.
“Ang, before you find out from anyone else, you should know that Lauren is pregnant. And it is mine, not Ronnie’s”.
No doubt Olly thought the news of Lauren being pregnant would shock me, but I felt strangely calm. If he expected rage or argument, he didn’t get any. And if he expected congratulations of some sort, he didn’t get those either. It wasn’t until I was closing the door that he turned and hit me with some news that did shock me, though I was proud of myself for not showing it.
“And we are going to get married. Nothing fancy, just the local Registry Office with a couple of witnesses. I wanted to let you know that this won’t affect any of the financial agreements I have signed”.
I just nodded, and closed the door as he walked away. The man who saw no point in marrying me was now happy to get married to someone he hardly knew. What did that say about me? He hadn’t even thought it worth us getting married when I was pregnant, though the minute Lauren missed a period and tested positive for a baby, he was marrying her. I wasn’t upset or tearful, just bloody furious.
Different ways of dealing with the situation crossed my mind, and I settled on choosing to ignore it, and to live life for myself and Leah. Olly could just piss off and make his mistakes, as far as I was concerned.
A phone call to my dad was first. Asking him to source some cupboard door locks, and something for the oven door, washing machine, and fridge. Leah’s mobility was going to be an issue soon, and I didn’t want her to be able to get into anything that might cause her harm. He liked having a project, and said he would be round the next day to fix them on. He also suggested socket covers in case she poked a finger in one, and mentioned a gadget that would stop her lifting the toilet seat.
He had been doing his granddad homework, apparently.
The next morning before he arrived, I used the laptop to check out some of the groups that were available for parents of children with learning difficulties, or severe lifetime disabilities. The nearest one was over twenty miles north, but I liked their web page so rang and made an appointment to go to the next meeting. When dad showed up loaded with stuff, I told him about Olly and Lauren as I made him a cup of tea. He blew on his tea, then looked up at me over the steaming cup.
“Sod him. And her. Let him keep paying, and forget he ever existed. I bet he didn’t even ask for any arranged access to Leah, did he?” I had to admit he hadn’t done that, and I was rather surprised that my dad had already worked that out. Declining a chocolate biscuit I was offering, he gave me a huge smile. “If he doesn’t care about Leah, so what? We do, love”.
The self-help group was called ‘Unicorns’. A bit of a so-so name, but it looked good on the colourful sign above the premises they were using. The car park looked busy, and there were some women chatting outside when I got Leah out the car and into her buggy. The lady who ran the group was called Zoe. A big, plus-size lady with a mane of frizzy grey hair, wearing a dress like a tent, and a pair of thick cable-knit tights on her legs. She welcomed me in, and asked if I wanted to pay. Payment was voluntary, and only ten pounds if you could afford it. It was to pay for renting the large room, and using the other facilities in the building.
After handing over my ten pounds quite happily, I followed Zoe into the bright room full of soft seating, toys, and pictures on the wall. It was very noisy in there, and my first thought was that all the other kids were so much older. Some looked to be in their late teens. In the absence of a formal structure, the idea was to mingle, and chat to other parents. Though there was only one man there, and everyone else seemed to be a mum with her child. Exchanging experiences, offering advice, and telling you how to claim the necessary benefits, or who to contact for essential changes to the house or bathroom.
The two hours of the session seemed to fly by. Leah spent most of it on a play mat in front of my chair, and didn’t interact with any of the others, though many came up to investigate her, and some tried to play too. As I was leaving, I thanked Zoe, and told her I was sure to come back in two weeks for the next meeting.
Driving home, I felt elated. It wasn’t just me any longer.
As time went on, I had less and less contact with Olly. He didn’t seem too interested in either me or Leah, and I had no interest in his new wife, or the baby she had presumably had by then. The money kept appearing in the bank every month, so I could pay all my bills and get any shopping I needed. Dad was a huge help, and came around to do anything I needed doing, and even some things I didn’t. Even mum started to ring me on a regular basis, and never forgot to ask how Leah was.
Rosa acted as if nothing unusual had happened, which was a relief for me not to have to discuss it with her. I asked her once about her pay, to make sure Olly was still paying by standing order, and she assured me he was.
The most recent hospital visit had seen me introduced to a new specialist, an older woman named Maria. She had a vague European accent, but I really liked her direct manner. She had run through the usual tests on Leah, and when it came to summarising what to expect from my daughter, she laid it out without any sugar coating.
Leah would walk, but did not appear to have developed a grip strong enough to keep hold of anything. She was unlikely to recognise me as her mother, to say any proper words, or to respond to hugs and affection. Physically, she would develop, but inside her brain she was unlikley to progress much further than she was now. Toilet training was going to be impossible, and she would be unable to ever wash or dress herself. Although her vision and hearing appeared to be unaffected, she did not focus on objects, colours, or textures, and her main instinct, in fact her only instinct, was to eat and drink.
According to Maria, the truth was that I had a future of caring for a child who would become a teenager and then an adult woman who would need nappies for life, would never recognise a friend or relative, never learn to read, play with a toy, or want to watch a cartoon or TV programme. She could never be trusted to be left alone, and would need close constant care for as long as she lived.
Part of me wished she hadn’t survived at birth.
But I forgot that, and resolved to get on with it. At Zoe’s Unicorns group, there were plenty of women much older than me still coping, and I would use the inspiration of knowing them to get me through.
When I rang my parents to tell them Maria’s gloomy prognosis, mum wanted to talk about Ronnie. She had expected him to go back to living with them, but he hadn’t. Instead, he had a new girlfriend he had met at tenpin bowling. She was only nineteen, but they were already organising a flat to rent, so he could move out of the shared house and live with her. I tried to sound positive about that, based on the fact that she was younger, and had made Ronnie forget about Lauren.
Mum only wanted to talk about how much she was disappointed in my brother.
Sitting at home one night watching Leah sat on her play mat staring into space, I reflected on the fact that I had no real friends. After leaving school to go to university, I had lost a couple of close schoolfriends who started to move in very different social circles to me. And although I made two very dear friends at university, the problem was that people came from all over to go there. Pauline Lam was from Hong Kong, and we were very close. But when she graduated, she got a job in California, and went off to live in America. Janet Deakin was my other close friend, but she returned to the north of Scotland, and I never saw her again.
There were work colleagues I thought of as friends, but they weren’t really. We went out for a pizza or a Mexican meal on their birthdays, and everyone dressed up and got drunk at the Christmas party. But they all had family and friends outside of work, and busy social lives that were never going to include me. That’s probably why I latched on to Olly so fast. He was all I had, at least I thought he was. I thought he was steady, loving, and reliable too.
Well I got that wrong.
Anyway, Richard. I should really move my story on. I can’t expect you to sit through endless hours covering each year, all sounding much the same.
Some things got better, others worse. I got help from my parents to go out occasionally, even if it was only to a couple of socials with the women from Unicorns. I stopped going to them after that, as the only thing anyone ever talked about was their kids, and the varying levels of disability. But mum and dad came over to look after Leah while I went out, and they didn’t complain about having to watch her like a hawk now she was moving around.
The older, fully mobile Leah reminded me of robots in old films. She moved wih determination, at a slow pace, and if turned around, she carried on moving in the other direction. Luckily, she didn’t develop the deductive powers to manage to step over any of the gates barring her way, and when her legs encountered them, she just stopped where she was. I had to reduce her food intake too. She wasn’t running around and playing like other kids of her age, so started to get decidedly chubby.
As soon as she was old enough, I enquired about one of the local Council daycare centres. Someone came to assess her, and he told me she was going to be listed as ‘None to low ability’ and would need one of the centres where constant attention was possible. That meant a waiting list, and I went on it. Or to be accurate, Leah went on it. One thing in my favour was that I could take her, and didn’t need what he called ‘special transport’. And she didn’t need a wheelchair, so that apparently helped speed things up.
Although I couldn’t contemplate going back to work full-time, I started to imagine a part-time job I could do while Leah was at a day centre. I realised I didn’t care what it was, I would happily stack shelves in a supermarket, if it got me out of the house, and talking to other adults. When the letter came from the Council, I had to sit down. It was going to be at least a year before a place became available. That took the wind right out of my sails.
Zoe came to the rescue to some degree, by organising day trips for us to go on with our kids. That could be anything from a visit to a child-friendly farm, to a trip to the local swimming pool, with a reserved time slot. They had to be paid for, to cover the costs of the minibus and driver, but I signed up for every one of them, anything to get out of the house, and to be somewhere different. Leah took no notice of the farm animals, or the rabbits and guinea pigs provided for the kids to stroke. She stood in the shallow end of the swimming pool refusing to move, and on a day trip to the coast, she kept walking into the sea. I couldn’t relax for a second.
But I did it all. I took photos. I made memories.
My next purchase was a set of child reins, specially made for her size. Zoe got me the name of the company, advising me that I would need bigger and stronger versions as Leah grew. But I had to have them, or else be constantly standing in front of her and turning her around. I spoke to Olly about getting the bathroom converted to a wet room. He didn’t mention his child with Lauren, and neither did I. But he agreed to organise things, and sent a company in to do the work by the end of the following month. At least I no longer had to try and get her in and out of a bath.
Then I got approval for the day centre. One morning a week, from nine until one-thirty in the afternoon as a ‘trial’. I told them not to bother, though I later regretted that. Four and a half hours on my own would have been better than nothing.
One good thing about her having to wear nappies still was that when her periods started, I didn’t have to worry about those. I cried that night though, thinking she should have been in her second year of secondary school by now. Admiring pop stars, looking at boys, listening to music, and talking to other girls about periods, and embarrassing parents.
Instead she was munching Jaffa Cakes like an automaton as I fed them to her. Her only interaction with me was to let out a “Gah” because she wanted more.
And when I looked in the mirror, I saw an old woman looking back.
For Leah’s fourteenth birthday, I held a little party at the house. Dad was looking old, and my mum had lost a lot of weight in a very short time. Enough to make me concerned about her.
Mariusz next door had gone back to Poland the year before, and the house was now rented by three Chinese students. But I invited the neighbours the other side. In all that time, I had never really spoken more than a few words to them. They were obviously wary of Leah, but I did the decent thing. The man answered the door, and shook his head at the invitation. “No, no party”. Then closed the door.
Ronnie and his girlfriend were not going to come either. Mum told me he spent all his time with her family and friends now, to the extent that they only saw him at Christmas. They had been together a long time, but were still renting a place and showed no signs of getting married, or having children. Rosa came, and so did Zoe.
Zoe was walking with a crutch now, waiting for a hip replacement. I was very touched that she bothered to get a taxi to the house. None of the other Unicorns mums I invited came with their kids, all declining due to ‘previous commitments’ I knew full well they didn’t have.
I sent Olly a text inviting him. He replied that he would be away for the weekend. He had a courier drop off a card with a printed-off voucher inside.
It was for Top Shop. Like leah was ever going to go shopping for teenage fashions. I clothed her in smock dresses to make life easier.
It was jolly enough, and there was a lot of food left over, which pleased Leah. She had no idea why everyone was there of course, and just sat in her new upright armchair waiting to be fed.
As Rosa was leaving, she gave me some bad news. She had met someone, an English man. He had proposed to her, and she was getting married to him and moving to Southampton. I asked her how she had met him, and she laughed. “Online dating. Everyone is doing it now. You should try, Angela”.
She recommended a friend of hers to take over the cleaning job, Valeria. She was from Spain, and could start next month when Rosa had gone.
When I got Leah to sleep that night, I allowed myself a large glass of Pinot Grigio, and explored that online dating stuff on my half-dead laptop. As it clunked and whirred, I made a mental note to ask Olly to pay for a new one. He had done one decent thing during all this. He had kept his promise to pay out for everything, and no questions asked. I still kept every receipt though, and they now filled three box files.
That online dating thing was a revelation. So many sites, catering for almost any age group, and lots of choices and categories called filters that supposedly directed you to people who would like you, and enjoy the same things. But there were no filters for worn out single mum, or old before her time carer. And definitely none for having a teenage girl who had to wear nappies, didn’t speak, and needed round the clock attention.
I closed the lid of the laptop, and thought about what had been said when Leah was finally handed to me. “Here she is, your bundle of joy”.
Then I decided a second glass of wine was acceptable.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to ask Olly. I mentioned the online dating to my dad, more as a joke about how I had no chance. The next day he showed up with a new Apple laptop, set it up for me, and showed me the differences between that, and my old Dell. I felt guilty, as I had mentioned the performance issues, and it might have sounded like I was asking him to get me a new one. They had been so good to me over buying off the mortgage, I hated them spending anything else on me.
Dad shook off my thanks. “What else are we going to spend it on, love? Besides, you and Ronnie will get it all when we’re dead, so it might as well be of some use to you now”. Then he went up to check on Leah in her room while I explored the dating sites with my new state of the art high speed laptop.
Despite what he said, I still felt guilty. I had never given my dad the credit he deserved.
Before I signed up to a dating website, I went and had my hair done. Leah would sit quietly in a chair at the back as they did my hair, and despite the strange looks she got from other customers, the hairdresser was happy for her to be there. I also got her to give Leah’s hair a trim, as I never did a very good job of it myself. Back at home, I did my make up, put on a nice dress, and took a photo on the webcam to upload to my profile.
What to write about myself? That took some thinking about. I wasn’t about to exclude Leah, so I used the words ‘mother to a disabled teenage daughter’. I listed my occupation as ‘full-time carer’ and told the truth about my age. Then I ticked a few boxes about non-smoking, liking to eat out, and country walks, all the usual stuff that seemed to be on other profiles. Last but not least, I paid my fee for six months in advance, the only option, and clicked ‘Add profile’.
After that I felt strangely excited. Like when I had gone on my first real date at fourteen, which was to meet a boy in the local park and sit there feeling embarrassed for almost two hours, hoping I would know how to kiss him properly. He solved that problem by not trying to kiss me.
The options for my supposedly ideal partner were many and varied. I had kept it simple. A thirty mile radius of my house, age between forty and fifty, children yes or no. Then I sat back and waited for the messages that would have links to the matches they found for me. I could either contact them, or not. No repercussions if I didn’t, according to the dating company.
A phone call from Zoe distracted me from the screen. She had a date for her hip operation, so Unicorns was closing down until she had recovered. She had tried to get a friend to take it over while she was out of action, but couldn’t rely on her. I told her about going on the dating website, and was surprised by her reply.
“You have to be extra careful, Angela. There are some strange men on those sites. Many are attracted to women with vulnerable children you know. That sort of thing happens all the time. And Leah is terribly vulnerable, plus she could never tell you if anything horrible happened”. I thanked her for the warning, and wished her good luck with the operation.
Talk about bursting your balloon. It had never occured to me that any man might be interested in me in the hope of being able to abuse my daughter. This stuff was a bloody minefield. Then again, I had never intended to leave Leah alone with someone I met on a dating site. I would get mum and dad to watch her so I could go out. That was the whole point.
By the time I had fed and showered Leah, got her into bed, and fixed the rails on the sides, I felt worn out. Sitting on the sofa with no TV in the room was really relaxing. When Olly had been around, there was always something on. Mostly sport, but also rolling news, maybe a superhero film, then Newsnight on BBC2 before bed. He liked to watch stuff, said it helped him relax after reading all day at work.
Dinner for me that night was not really dinner. I had a toasted cheese sandwich, followed by half a box of Lindor chocolate balls. I was good though, limiting myself to just one glass of Chardonnay, and not finishing the whole box of Lindor.
When the phone rang, it was past ten, and I wondered who would be ringing so late. I was surprised to hear my mum’s voice.
“Angela, I have something to tell you, and I want you to listen, and not interrupt me. It’s not good news, but you do need to know. I have already spoken to Ronnie. I had some tests recently, and my doctor sent me to the hospital. Because there was going to be some delay for any scans and suchlike, your dad used his health insurance to get me into a clinic this morning. It’s cancer, I’m afraid, and in more than one place. Three places in fact. They have offered me various options, including surgery followed by other therapies. I am thinking those options over, but I have to tell you that either way, the specialist has said I may have less than a year. If I have nothing done, maybe three months. So now you know, okay?”
I sat wondering what to say to her, then realised she had already hung up.
Mum decided to have no treatment. She was more scared of the surgery, chemo, or radiotherapy than of dying, so dad said. And the doctor got the prognosis wrong too. She lasted weeks, not months. By week five she was in a hospice, and dead four days after that. I took Leah to see her, and we had a rather emotional farewell, with her telling me to look after dad, and make up with Ronnie.
The funeral was a dismal affair. Ronnie and his exceptionally skinny girlfriend did little more than nod at me, and I got the impression that she was hiding behind Ronnie because she was scared of Leah. Two women who used to work with mum showed up, and a couple of men from the Round Table came to show support for dad. Thirty minutes in a busy crematorium with a bland eulogy from a female vicar who had never even met my mum. The friends apologised for not coming back to the house, and then Ronnie announced he and miss skinny were not coming back either.
So it was me, dad, and Leah. At least she enjoyed the sausage rolls and sandwiches dad had bought from M&S. He had the luxury of enjoying a few glasses of Scotch now mum wasn’t around to tell him off. When I was leaving, and getting Leah into the car, he came up and kissed me on the cheek. I asked him if he was going to be alright. I would like to have stayed over, but that wouldn’t work with Leah. He smiled as I got into the driving seat. “Of course I’ll be alright, love. I have you, Leah, and Ronnie. I’ll manage fine”.
There had been no point keeping up with the dating website up to then. I could hardly have asked dad to babysit, leaving mum alone when she was so ill. But I had been surprised to get over forty apparent matches. Eleven of those had messaged me, and I had replied that due to family problems I wasn’t dating at the moment. The next time I logged on, some of those had dropped out, which was understandable, but I had five new ones to think about. I wanted to give dad some time before I asked him to watch Leah though.
Although he hadn’t been invited to the funeral, I had sent Olly a text to let him know. He had said he would email me after the funeral. In that email, he began with the normal commiserations, then sneaked in the fact that he wanted me to enquire about being paid Carer’s Allowance. Although he would still pay as agreed, he could deduct that amount from what he paid in to the bank.
Then he had the audacity to tell me he had been promoted to full partner in the publishing house. He must have realised I would know how much of a pay increase came with that, and yet he was trying to reduce what he gave me and Leah.
Still, it made me think. I would try the day centre route once again, see if I could get her into a place so I could go back to work. If I could get a job, I would let Olly know he could pay me that amount less each month, whatever I earned. Sooner that, than apply for an allowance to stay at home day and night with Leah, and never go out.
Things had improved a lot. Two young women came to assess Leah, and didn’t take long to tell me that she more than qualified to attend a day centre. She would start at a child’s centre, and move on to an adult placement when she was eighteen.
I was pleasantly surprised when they told me they could take her in just two week’s time, and that a minibus would pick her up around eight, and drop her off before five. I would still be the only option at weekends of course, but I didn’t want to apply for full residential care just yet. Besides, I knew dad would help if I asked him.
My new cleaner, Valeria, was working out well. Older than Rosa, and living in the country for a lot longer, she took things in her stride. She mentioned that she had a friend who was looking for someone to work in her florist’s shop. I told Valeria I knew nothing about flowers, and she shook her head. “No, she wants someone to deliver the flowers locally, and you have a big car, Angela. I took the phone number, and rang the shop. With Valeria vouching for me, the lady said I could start the same day Leah went to day centre.
I had a job to go to. Things were finally looking up.
When they came for Leah that morning, they asked me to take off the reins. A masculine-looking woman wearing a fleece with a Council logo sewn on it shook her head. “We don’t use nothing like that, lady. No restraints. Don’t worry, we know what we’re doing. She’ll be back about ten to five, so please make sure you’re in, as we have others to drop off after her, okay?”
I found her a bit scary, but I was too excited about the new job to care about her attitude that morning.
Although I had been to the florist’s shop to meet Barbara the previous week, I still felt nervous about my first day. I had my satnav, so should find the addresses alright, but I wanted to create a good impression, even though it paid minimum wage. When I told my dad, he had said I had to upgrade the car insurance for business use. That meant I had to phone Olly, as he did all that stuff. He seemed pleased that I had a job, but less excited when I told him how much it paid.
There was an extra payment for using my car, so much a mile. I had to keep a record of that, and claim it back in cash at the end of the week, so Barbara had told me. She hadn’t mentioned the insurance though.
One good thing was that there was a dedicated parking space behind the shop, so I didn’t have to worry about parking tickets. When I got there at eight-fifteen that morning, Barbara already had the deliveries for the morning sorted out. She gave me the slips with the addresses on them, and each bouquet or box of flowers had the corresponding number on a slip stuck to it.
“Try to work out a basic route, Angela. It’s usually best to do the furthest drop first, then work your way back to the shop. If you don’t get any answer at an address, fill in one of these cards, and put it in the letterbox. Don’t hand them to anyone who just happens to approach you outside the house. That’s a scam we’ve been caught out on before”.
With that, she left me to it, and went to answer the constantly-ringing phone. Her assistant Emily was busy arranging bunches in buckets to stand outside the shop, and she just grinned at me. She only looked about seventeen.
I had put the back seat flat, and the resulting space in my car looked huge. Once it was all loaded up with the flowers, Barbara gave me a big laminated card with ‘Babs The Florist’ and the shop phone number printed on it in pale blue. “Stick this on the dashboard, then you shouldn’t get any parking hassles”.
Pulling out onto the rear service road, I felt stupidly important, as if I had something special to do, and a sign inside the car to prove it. Working from eight-fifteen until four-fifteen five days a week, I could expect to earn just under three hundred and thirty a week. That was before tax and other stoppages of course. I might get the extra mileage pay for using the car, but I would need that for petrol and tyres or whatever.
I was going to have to take this job more seriously too, becuase Olly was already planning to deduct a thousand a month from what he paid, starting on the first of next month.
The morning went okay, but not great. I was lulled into a false sense of thinking it was easy, when the first three drops went smoothly. One man even gave me a two-pound tip. Every delivery had to be paid in advance, either over the phone, or by calling into Barbra’s shop. That meant I didn’t have to take any payments, and that was a relief.
But then someone wasn’t home, so I left a card. Then on the next job a lady said I was too late with the wreath, and the funeral party had already left the house. I rang the shop, but Barbara told me not to worry, and to bring the wreath back. Then I got a bit lost on the dual carriageway, and ended up running across four lanes in a panic to drop off some birthday roses at a house on the other side.
Who knew that delivering bloody flowers could be so stressful?
After two weeks, I had the job sorted, and the routine with Leah was working well. When I had no deliveries left, I used to help out by sweeping up, and taking stuff to the bins. Barbara seemed pleased with me, and Emily appreciated the fact that I got stuck in to non-driving stuff.
The day centre people sent a letter home with Leah’s driver one afternoon, suggesting I either gave her more exercise, or reduced her food intake. She was heavy for her age and build, and needed to lose weight. I knew that would be a struggle, as when she wanted something to eat, she just repeated “Gah” until her mouth went too dry to say it. But the thought of doing circuits around the park with a teenager on a set of reins made me inclined to try the diet.
I also went back to the dating site, and got chatting online to the three men I liked the best. I chose them for their interests, background and location. None of them looked that fantastic, but then neither did I. I finally fixed a date with one of them, after dad agreed to sit with Leah.
His name was Alan, and he was forty-nine, and divorced. I arranged to meet him in a chain pizza place that I could walk to from home. Nothing fancy, and not expensive. I memorised his photo and when I got there, he was already at a table for two not far from the window. He stood and waved when he saw me looking in, and I felt like turning around and going home when I saw him. He did vaguely resemble the photo facially, but that was all. It must have been taken ten years earlier.
But I was there, so went in, determined to be up front about my disappointment. I told him I only just recognised him, and he mumbled something about putting on a little weight since the photo was taken. That left him very much on the back foot for the rest of the time I was there. He talked a lot about his kids, nothing about his job, and didn’t mention the fact that I had a daughter with learning difficulties. But he did manage to steer the conversation around to sex, telling me that he as always very careful, and used ‘protection’.
All those years without meeting anyone had left me out of the loop, that was certain. When was it acceptable to talk about safe sex in the first ninety minutes of a date? I ate my pizza, declined more wine, and told Alan I didn’t think we were suited. I insisted he take twenty pounds for my half of the bill, and left for home leaving him sitting there.
My dad laughed when I told him, and I had to chuckle too.
Two weeks later, I had another try, on a Friday night. Dad did the babysitting duties, and I met Tony in a local wine bar. He was very different to Alan. relaxed, confident, and exactly like his photo. He was fifty-three, and I got the impression he had been doing this a long time. We chatted easily, and he thought my job delivering flowers sounded ideal for my situation. I really liked him, and went to use the toilet, deciding if he asked me out again, I would say yes.
But when I got back, he was already paying the bill. He kissed me on the cheek, thanked me for the date, and then told me I wasn’t really his type.
That shook my confidence a bit, but not enough to make me cry, or be upset. When I told dad what he had said, he grinned. “That man has no taste, love”.
At work on Monday morning, I was driving to a very posh house with a huge bouquet, and suddenly decided online dating wasn’t for me after all. I hated having to rely on my dad. After all, he wasn’t getting any younger, and now he was on his own he had a chance to do things for himself at long last. I had managed on my own for so long, I had got used to it. And as for sex, I wasn’t really that worried about it anymore.
Unless I met the right man.
News came from Olly, in a phone call. They were moving house. And not just around the corner, almost a hundred miles away, to the coast. He was going to rent a bedsit near his office, and travel home at weekends. I wondered why he had even bothered to let me know, but supposed it was to make it clear he wouldn’t be seeing Leah much. If at all.
The real reason came in a long email, two days later. The extra expense, Leah getting older, blah blah. The bottom line was that he wanted me to try to get her into some kind of permanent care facility once she was eighteen. Then he would reduce his payments to the bare essentials she needed, and I could sell the house and hand over his share of the profits.
Lauren must have really been working hard on him.
Part of me wanted to refuse to consider it, just to spite him. Though I really thought it would not only be better for Leah, but for me too. I replied saying I would think about it, and make some enquiries. That kept him off my back for a while.
That Christmas, dad stopped over for a couple of nights. We made the best of it, and Leah enjoyed her turkey and mince pies at least. Ronnie was spending the holiday with miss skinny’s family, and had dropped off dad’s present of a bottle of single malt four days earlier.
Once Leah was settled for the night, I sat chatting to dad as he enjoyed his whisky. He was telling me about the news. Not having a television meant I didn’t really keep up. I heard some gossip around Barbara’s flower shop, but her and Emily mainly talked about soap operas and reality shows. I knew nothing about any of those, and they thought it was really weird that I didn’t own a television. I doubted that either of them had read a book since they had to at school.
Dad was telling me about some new virus that was killing people in China, and turning up in Europe too. He seemed really gloomy about it, so I turned on my laptop and we read the latest updates on some news websites. Dad was nodding, pointing at the screen. “Look love, if we don’t stop people flying in from all around the world, it will be here soon too. There’s no cure for it you know”.
He was a worrier by nature, so I let him ramble on. But It didn’t really concern me too much was was happening in other countries. I had enough to worry about struggling to cope with my daughter.
Then not long into the new year, it was here, and everyone was scared shitless.
After that, I began to check the laptop more often, and everything started to speed up. Barbara told me she might have to close down the shop until it was over. There was some talk about the government paying the wages of people like me who got laid off if that happened. The supermarket was sold out of toilet rolls, most pasta, and for some strange reason, tomato puree. Dad stepped in with a bundle of toilet rolls from the huge stock he always kept in his shed.
But then he told me he had better not come round anymore for a while. If he caught it, it might well kill him, and he didn’t want to take the chance of ending up in hospital even if it didn’t.
The next bad news came from the day centre a week or so later. Because of the dangers to staff and clients, they were going to have to close the facility soon. They called people like Leah ‘clients’. That meant that even if the shop didn’t close, I would have to tell Barbara I couldn’t do the deliveries, as I would now be back to caring for Leah all the time.
I tried to get my head around it all, but the amount of information was both contradictory, and confusing. Washing hands, but no need for a mask. Work from home if you could, and only go out for essential stuff like groceries. But then if you had a job in a supermarket, or you were a nurse, you had to carry on as normal.
Washing Leah’s hands seemed pointless. She hardly used them, after all. But I was soon doing it all the time.
Just in case.
Things didn’t all turn out bad of course. Barbara managed to get my name down for the furlough scheme, even though I had already stopped working there for a few days. She said they would be none the wiser, and that they would pay eighty percent of my wages until it was all over. So I didn’t have to go cap in hand to Olly for more money.
And his move fell through. Someone along the chain of buyers and sellers pulled out, so they got stuck in Lauren’s house for the duration. That meant he had no reason to try to cut my money, or force me to sell the house now that Leah wasn’t attending the day centre. I thought it was a nice twist of fate that this pandemic was changing my luck.
As for Leah, she didn’t seem to be aware of any changes. Sitting in a chair at home was probably no different to being in a chair at the day centre, even if I was washing her hands ten times a day. And she got to go out sometimes, as I had to take her when I went shopping for groceries. I didn’t even attempt to make her wear a mask, and when the staff running the queue outside the doors took one look at me leading her on a set of reins, they just waved me through.
I had tried to get the food delivered by ordering online. But because I wasn’t an existing customer, the delivery dates were weeks ahead. Dad said I should tell them about Leah, so they would make an exception, but in all honesty it was nice to get out, if only to wander round in a supermarket or two.
Dad phoned every day, and said he didn’t mind being at home at all. He only ever came to see me, or went to a few Round Table meetings a year anyway, so he kept himself busy in his shed, with all sort of projects that he didn’t go into detail about. Ronnie had jumped at the excuse not to visit him, saying he was in his bubble with miss skinny and her parents, so couldn’t visit others. Because he worked for a DIY company, he still went into work, but apparently his girlfriend was furloughed like me.
Most early evenings, I would look at the news reports on my laptop, trying to make some sense of the changes, and the way that the medical people seemed to keep altering their advice. Things were getting bad, and a lot of people were dying. But as me and Leah rarely saw anyone else except in a supermarket, and we stuck to the rules, I was convinced we would be alright.
Still, after being out and about delivering flowers and helping out at the shop, I did start to feel more like a prisoner in my own home than ever before. I had hoped that Barbara would keep the deliveries going, but she said most of her business was actually people walking into the shop, and it wasn’t worth her paying the bills to keep it open just for the deliveries. And there was some government deal on deferring her rent and business rates, so she saw it as a long holiday.
Leah had a lockdown birthday, for her eighteenth. Ronnie forgot it, as usual. Dad sent a lovely card, and even Olly made the effort, having a big box of cookies and assorted cakes delivered with a card. Not that Leah needed any more to eat. I had resorted to walking her around circuits of the garden to give her some exercise, but it was only a small garden. I bought her a card of course, but couldn’t see the point of a real present that she would be unaware of. So I ordered a pair of helium balloons from Amazon, numbers one and eight, and stood them in front of her chair, hoping the sight of them might at least give her something different to look at.
Sitting watching her ignore the waving balloons, it felt very strange to know that I had an eighteen year old daughter who didn’t even know who I was. But I didn’t allow myself to cry.
In case I never stopped.
They kept stopping the lockdowns, if only briefly. But that made little difference to me, as my dad was still wary of coming over, and Barbara didn’t bother to open the shop, only to close it again the next time. And the day centre decided to stay closed until such time as there was a vaccine, and everyone was safe.
I sometimes wondered about those essential workers who had children who went there. Other schools stayed open to provide education for the kids of those essential workers, but what about so-called special schools, and places like Leah’s?
There was no point me bothering to find out, as I had no job that was remotely essential, and I was fit and well enough to look after my own daughter. But I did have to deal with the fact that Leah was definitely too fat. Walking around the garden or up and down the street outside wasn’t going to cut it, so I started to drive a few miles to the Country Park, where I made Leah walk with me around the easy circuit that was only three miles in a circle back to the car.
Other walkers gave me a wide berth when they saw me leading Leah on her reins, so unwanted contact was not an issue. On days when the weather was decent, I would take our lunch, and then do the easy circuit again after we had eaten. The exercise was good for me too, even though I hadn’t put on an ounce. But even that soon became boring, so I decided to look for somewhere different.
We were not supposed to be going anywhere more than five miles from home, according to the new rules, but I had always reckoned my chance of getting stopped was slim, and I would try to use Leah as an excuse if it ever happened. So I found a place online, twenty miles east. It was a nice spot, with a picnic area next to a lake, and a woodland walk with a good path. My satnav had stopped working, and I had no idea why. But I wasn’t about to fork out for a new one, not as long as I didn’t need it for work.
I checked the route on my laptop, and it seemed straightforward enough. And it was. I found it easily, and had a nice few hours wandering around the lake including a picnic lunch on one of the tables provided. Nobody checked on me, or asked me why I was there. But on the way home, I had to go around a one-way system that I was sure wasn’t there earlier. I got hopelessly lost, and without realsing it, ended up driving the wrong way along a one-way street.
But then you already know that, Richard. Because that’s how we met.
When I saw the flashing blue lights in front of me, it took me a moment to realise it was a police motorcycle. Luckily, I managed to brake without crashing into you. Then you got off and walked over to my window, telling me what I had done. I just let it all out. Sobbing like some grieving widow, convinced I was going to lose my licence and never be able to drive again.
You were so kind. Calming me down until I was able to drive, and letting me off with a warning after taking down all my details. You didn’t even give me a fine for being so far away from home, and however much I thanked you, it wasn’t enough. You even let me follow you onto the right road, your lights flashing to warn other motorists. But the icing on the cake was when you rang me at home the next day, to make sure Leah and me were okay.
Giving you my email address and asking you to keep in touch seemed very forward. But what the hell, we were looking at a second year of lockdowns, and I was past caring. Then you sent me an email, so I had yours to reply to. I promised to tell you my story, and what had led me to that afternoon driving up a one way street the wrong way.
And that’s what I have been doing, all this time. Laying it all out, truthfully and sincerely, in the hope that we can finally meet when this is all over.
Still, it would be nice if you replied occasionally. I know you are busy of course. After all, you are one of those essential employees. I love being able to write to you and tell you stuff, and I have saved every email. It’s become a journal of my life, I suppose. I just hope you are reading them all.
You are reading them aren’t you, Richard?