‘Daddy!’ It was almost simultaneous.
I dashed down for the phone, uncoiled what I had once thought were absurdly long lengths of cable, carried the phone up to the turn in the stairs, flipped the cable over the banisters, rested the phone on a tread while darting down again to inch a precious bit more length out under the door, then up again: the phone would go no further than the bedroom door. I dialled, and whilst it was ringing stretched the receiver-cord as far as it would go so that Laura could just hold it. The Brr… brr..; brr.. brr..; brr…brr… went on for ages before a sleepy voice faintly said:
‘Fotheringham 234? Richard…’
‘Daddy, it’s me.’
‘Laura? Laura? What a time to ring! Whatever’s the matter, pet?’
‘Daddy, we’ve just had a glass of fizz here..’
‘What? What? Why? What?: you mean…?’
‘Daddy: you’re a Grandfather; there’s another Conyngham – and it’s a boy.’ The last three words were half-whispered with such joy and pride, I looked at her, trying to visualise the scene at the other end. There was silence. We both pored over the silent receiver, heads touching, trying to make sense of the odd, distant sounds we could hear. Then there was a click and a tearful Lady Conyngham’s voice was audible, not really very coherent, then a reduced Sir Richard came back, puffing, ‘Just been upstairs, woke Ysobel and told her, she’s on the extension (yes, that’s what I’m telling her) and she’s as thrilled as I am (what?).. (Oh, of course)… and you’re all right, Lo?’ ‘Mummy, Daddy, I’m fine: Daddy, you sound as out of breath as I was a while ago. I don’t know who – whom – he looks like but,’ glancing down at the infant, ‘- but I think it’s a contest between Great Uncle Willy and – and Grandma Giles.’ There had been the click of a phone put back during this and then Lady Conyngham came on.
‘Laura, darling, you’re sure you’re all right and the little man is o.k. and we’re not dreaming and oh! this is the best news I’ve had since… and I’ve got to keep it secret but surely there’s someone I can tell… and, you did say you were all right, didn’t you but how marvellous…’
The telephone was obviously grabbed back by Sir Richard at this point.
‘Lo, Lo? Make sure you tell that splendid Padre how good it is of him, you know… I’m now going to take your Mother, and whether she likes it or not, she and I are going to Walz or Polka, or Quick-step or Jig, or Jitterbug even, round this room, if I can remember the steps. Then I shall open something rather nice. Then we shall go to bed. And ask that nice Padre, will you, if it’s all right if we come and visit you tomorrow, but we’ll come by car this time. Grandson; Grandson.’
‘Grandson, base-born.’ She said, wanting reassurance.
‘Grandson, Lo: Grandson. Just Grandson!’
Then we could hear him warbling, not altogether tunelessly ‘I could have danced all night, I could have danced all night!’ He obviously then recalled that he had not hung up, so came back and did so.
Sister Jessop had long since gone, when I got downstairs, long, long before I had come dashing down for the phone. Switching out lights here and there, I clambered back up the stairs. Glancing at my watch, I saw that it was half-past three. I slid into bed, and slept.
I was just dreaming that Bathsheba was in a fight and I was unable to extricate her, because the tom-cat that had got hold of her was lashing out with foot-long claws, when I was instantly wide awake, and could hear the most frenzied crying imaginable: a baby was tearing his lungs out, it seemed, exhausting every atom of breath before gasping in more, and crying again. In pyjamas and bare feet, I rushed into Laura’s room. The bed-side light was on, and I could see her looking wild-eyed and tearful again; the infant was purple rather than red, the tiny face mottled and contorted.
‘I can’t… (sob)… get him… (sob)… to feed. I’m doing…(sob)… everything she said…(sob)…but he keeps crying…(sob) … and I can feel the milk coming and coming… (sob).. but he just won’t…and the more he cries…’
An instinct, a buried memory, or something, inspired me to crook a little finger, and place the knuckle in his mouth: the crying ceased, and with cross-eyed single-mindedness, he began to suck, tiny, hard gums almost gnawing the skin off.
‘Let’s try again’, I said, lifting the little burden up towards her. I could see that she was taut and engorged. Bringing the little mouth closer, I suddenly pulled my finger away; for a second, we both thought he was going to start screaming again, but the tiny face turned from side to side like a minute radar-dish, found something much better than my knuckle, and began to suck that. Laura’s eyes widened to their fullest for a moment, then both she and he visibly relaxed. With eyes tightly closed in bliss, and stomach, no doubt, no longer in pangs, he settled into a steady rhythm. Laura meanwhile seemed soothed by this, and less pained. Her eyelids drooping, she sighed.
‘O.K.?’ I whispered.
‘Mmmm – thank you.’ she said, picking up my hand and lightly kissing the still-wet finger.
‘I shall have to do something about this hand’, I said
‘What do you mean?’
‘A day or two ago it touched your mouth, then it nearly broke your hand, and a moment ago it brushed your …’
There was that infectious chuckle-giggle, and she said, ‘ I shan’t tell. I can keep secrets too, you know!’
At the door, I turned and looked at them, mother and son. ‘All right?’ I whispered.
‘Tu quoque?.’ She asked.
Days passed in much this fashion: I didn’t really get much work done; Sister Jessop had told Mrs. Maggot that there was a probably-not-contagious condition at the Vicarage, and she was keeping an eye on things – the notoriously valetudinarian Mrs. Maggot had taken her cue and kept away. Churchwardens had been told I was having a bit of a crisis, and she was doing what she could to keep things on an even keel, and best not to worry me, but just go on as normal; Parishioners had been told that the Vicar was busy sorting out some difficult problems for someone and to try not to bother him with inessentials. Sister Jessop’s air of antiseptic immunity and military command seemed to do the trick.
Laura’s parents had visited, the Daimler not at all inconspicuous (I suspect Sister Jessop told anyone who queried it, that it was the Bishop). Lady Conyngham had cradled the baby quite tenderly; Sir Richard, among other things, had said ‘…and I led her quite a dance, I can tell you!’ To be stilled by a very pas devant ‘Richard!’ from Lady Conyngham, in the old voice – and even, I’m sure, a faint blush. They had brought presents – baby clothes, a travel-cot, and things for Laura (‘Real presents later!’ Sir Richard had said, swelling with mingled pride and delight). Lady Conyngham had looked at first jealous, but then wistful, as she said to Laura, ‘I don’t think I ever realised, till now, quite what a clever daughter I had.’ Then she had said how she was absolutely bursting to be able tell someone, and Laura had said, ‘…my Godmother?’ to which Lady Conyngham had said: ‘Now that’s not clever, Laura: that’s wise!’ And it was Laura’s turn to look bashful. The infant had been blissfully silent and, apparently, unaware while all this was going on – despite his being handed from person to person, like a pass-the-parcel. I was last-in-line for the parcel, so that familial farewells might be unencumbered. Lady Conyngham seemed to me to be so melted as to be an entirely different person and then, when the baby went plum-coloured in the face and emitted a quite thunderous roar of nappy-filling effort, jolting me out of my no doubt tongue-lolling complaisance, instead of looking accusingly at me, she looked fondly at the infant and just said, ‘Can tell it’s a man: no discretion, or sense of occasion.’ At which, Sir Richard looked at the ceiling.
Sister Jessop had registered the birth, as had been agreed – ‘The Vicarage’ ‘Unknown’; my feelings that I ought to do this had been swept aside, any worry stilled when she gave Laura the Certificate: Laura Conyngham… The Vicarage… correct date… Unknown… informant R. Jessop S.C.M., S.R.N.
One evening, Laura and I were sitting in the kitchen, the babe having been fed, and a peace settling, with Bathsheba curled on the rug and as quiet as he, when she came in. For once, Bathsheba did not stir. She glanced at us with a hushing gesture, before pointing upwards and whispering (for her):
‘I’ll just go up and have a tiny look at him.’ After a few moments, she was down again.
‘He’s all right?’ Laura seemed to sense something in Sister Jessop.
‘Fine, fine: a little burp, turned him on his side…yes, fine. I’m just being a silly old woman. Don’t you get like that!’ – index-finger to Laura – ‘He’s like it already’ – thumb in my direction.
I was slow to get up, and slow to ask whether she would like a cup or glass of anything. She had hesitated, then said ‘No.’ Something was troubling her, I now sensed.
‘Everything all right?’
‘Yes, fine and dandy, thank you.’
‘I’m surprised Bathsheba has slept through your arrival…’
‘Oh, I expect she thinks she’s been doing all the hard work.’
‘You do know how much I – Laura and I –we, and, I’m sure, her parents, are hugely grateful for what you have done, and what you are doing…?’ Laura was vigorously nodding concurrence.
She batted it away with a hand.
‘Stuff! I just do my job: the reward is seeing two fine and healthy people at the end of it.’
Still she seemed to want to stay, and yet still not. Laura said,
‘Why not sit down for a bit, Sister Jessop; if the last few days here are anything to go by, you’ll be…’
‘No, no: very kind. Time I went, time I went. I’ll say good-night.’
She went out of the kitchen, into the hallway, and almost as far as the front door – then came back.
‘You two make me so cross: it’s as much as flesh and blood can bear! How can two intelligent people be so stupid, so dense, so blind? I feel like banging your heads together, not that that would do any good.’
We both flinched uncomprehendingly at this onslaught.
‘Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! You’ve both been through Hell and come out the other side together; you’ve both been through what, despite years of it, I still think one of the loveliest mysteries of human existence: can’t you see you’re absolutely made for one another? – a blind man could see you’re in love – deeply, madly, quite improbably may be – but in love. For heavens’ sake, do something about it, before it’s too late!’
Her voice had risen to a shout loud enough to make the infant stir, even if she had not then stridden out and slammed the front-door.
Laura and I had looked at one another dumbfounded, until persistent crying from upstairs had her up to fetch the infant. Instead of suckling him up there, she had come down with him, sitting across from me – so different, and yet so much the same as when she had first come aeons ago. The babe snuffled and sucked. After a little, she changed sides. Apart from his little sounds, the faint whizz of Bathsheba’s breath, the settling of the range, there was an impregnable silence. The silence developed, deepened, thickened, almost strangling me. At last I managed:
‘Laura, is she right?’
There was another very long pause, before she said, ‘I think she is; yes, I think she is.’ She went on, ‘I knew, absolutely knew, from my side, that first evening here – do you remember?’
‘Shall I ever forget?’
‘No, but there was one word you used that made sense of it all for me…’
‘Close.’ She said.
‘You didn’t say ‘I think this and this is what you will have to do’ or ‘If I were you, Laura…’ or ‘You’ll just have to…’ – No, you said ‘we’, and you kept on saying ‘we’. I knew then that I had been right to come here in all that abject terror and desperation. You had not just taken in my problem, you had taken it, and –not just taken it – virtually taken it away! You didn’t in the least know what might be involved, but you were willing to take it on, risk everything: and you’re still doing just that. And all for a silly little girl… I don’t think I’d have remembered what you’d once said – I’m sure I wouldn’t have acted upon it – had I not felt – believed – known, somewhere, deep down, known that I’d be able to rely on you – fling myself on you, and not be rebuffed. And then I’ve seen the delicacy, your tactfulness, discretion – your fear of overstepping the mark, the familiar way you use humour to defuse things: I know you blanched when I used the word ‘kind’ a little while ago, but this is kind in its full sense – kith and kin kind. Why, you’ve even thawed my Mother!’
I had to counter this:
‘Laura, if I had never said a word, never been involved, your mother, seeing you would have been melted: suddenly and without warning, it would have moved from a furiously indignant ‘my Daughter pregnant?’ to ‘ I’m going to have a grand-child!’. In any case, surely, that maternal instinct to protect and ensure the best for a child would have asserted itself.’
‘But it was you who made it possible: you allowed me to stay here, you who organised Sister Jessop, you who spoke to my father…’
She had the child over her shoulder now, and was unobtrusively covering herself up; he had given one or two cheerful hiccups, followed by a very long belch, and now his head was lolling as he began to sleep soundly. ‘I’ll take him up now.’, she whispered.
‘May I come too?’ She smiled and nodded
I watched as she gently tucked him into the bed.
‘I’d better let him settle.’ She said.
We went downstairs together; somehow, we found that we were holding hands.
In the kitchen – almost echoing still to tears and cries – we stood rather awkwardly for a while. Then I lifted up the hand she was holding and said, ‘What a lot you’ve learned, mane…!’
‘Manus:’ she corrected very softly ‘Fourth Declension.’
Drawing the hands up, I very carefully kissed each of her fingers, admiring the almost perfect ellipses that were her fingernails. Then I kissed the inside of her wrist. Slowly disentangling our fingers ( I could see her look questioningly at me), with infinite slowness, I took her face in my hands, murmured, ‘I think you’re both right.’ and ‘I so nearly did this the other night, so much of me wanted to.’, and we kissed. My arms were round her, and I could feel that she was holding quite tightly on to me; I slid my hands down from her shoulders to the small of her back, then, after holding her there for a little, further still, feeling them curve out gently over her bottom. How long we remained like this, I don’t know, but eventually, we unglued our mouths, I exhaled a slow sigh of happiness, and kissed her hair, which smelled that same sweet, floral smell I had noticed before.
‘I think I’d better say ‘good-night’’., I said.
‘I think we’ve said it.’ she said.
Nevertheless, we went together upstairs, sharing a further, lingering kiss by our respective bedroom doors.
I went to bed, no doubt with an idiot grin still on my face – to sleep: perchance to dream.
It was only just beginning to pale into light when I awoke: something had happened, something was different. I stretched – and bumped against something soft. Sitting bolt upright in near horror, I said,
‘What have I done, Laura, what have I done?’
‘I think you mean whom:’, came the sleepy answer. ‘quam not quod.’
‘I thought it was a dream, a terribly wicked but beautiful dream…’
‘Well, you dreamt, then! – And I had a rather nice dream, too.’ Awakening, she grasped my left arm at this, smiling gently at me, but I buried my face in my hands, overcome with embarrassed confusion.
‘I’ve broken the seventh Commandment!’
‘Adultery? – but neither of us is married…’
‘You should have been reading Law, not Classics, Laura.’ I said, accusingly. ‘I’ve, …you’ve…we’ve… and, do you know what makes it far, far worse, is: no matter how much I try, I have no conscience about it, really; I don’t really feel guilty. How can anything so utterly lovely, be wrong? What happened? I know – in my dream – I half-woke, put out a hand, and encountered something soft, and smooth, and warm, and lovely. Then… but how did you come to be here, in my bed?’
It was getting lighter now, and I could just make out her face – as close to me as it had been last night.
‘I got up and fed tuppence’, she said. ‘Then I put him down, and let him settle. Then I just longed… For one thing, I wanted to give you something in return for all that you have given us… and I couldn’t think… I hadn’t anything else I could give. Also, I suppose, I wanted to know if you really could love me after all this…’ she looked down at her no-longer so swollen middle. ‘‘cause if not, it would be better to know now, than find out later. As I was feeding him, I had felt all warm and snug and nice, and I thought back to last night when you kissed me, and I began to dare to want… So, like Ruth, I crept in under your covers. Then you touched me..’ Her hand ran down her arm, across her tummy, and down towards her right leg. ‘… and I knew you really wanted me.’ The eyes were still wide with something approaching disbelief.
‘It was terrible – dire, I expect…’
‘It was lovely: you not only wanted me – quite desperately – but you were so gentle and thoughtful: you kept asking anxiously, ‘Tell me if I’m hurting, tell me if it hurts’ and when I said ‘No, no!’ you misunderstood me, so I had to encourage you a little (she beamed), and make sure any sounds I made from then on couldn’t be mistaken for pain, and I stopped you talking with a great kiss…and… and – Whooh! And it was lovely to be so wanted, although I did get pins and needles after a while when you were sleeping, but it was delicious ages before we finally parted, and it was all warm, and sweet, and lovely – capable of blotting out … and I was sort of dazed, I suppose.’ She must have heard the faintest of sounds, because she suddenly slipped out of the bed, heading for the door: she hadn’t a stitch on. She came back, several minutes later, still naked, but with the infant, and a long muslin for a semblance of modesty.
‘I’ve never seen anything so beautiful…’ I said, as she clambered in beside me. The babe contentedly sucked away, eyes firmly closed. I watched, entranced. After a bit she said: ‘Oops; mustn’t make even more of a mess in the bed. I think I’ve leaked: I’ve not yet entirely got the hang of this- could you mop me up a bit?’ Indeed, a tear-shaped, creamy drop stood, ready to trickle down, on her right-side; she was offering me the muslin, but I tidied her up in the gentlest, and most effective way I could think of. Laura’s eyes widened again in something like awe, so I took her hand and kissed that. She changed sides.
‘Very smooth gear-change!’ I said.
‘Didn’t you know they were synchro-mesh?’ she chuckled.
I got out of the bed, walked round to her side of it; she was looking a little puzzled, alarmed even, as I dropped on to one pyjama-ed knee and said:
‘Laura, Miss Conyngham, little lady: will you marry me? – Please!’
Her eyes danced with disbelieving delight. First she said, ‘Despite all this – with all this?’ (the baby) I nodded. Then she said huskily, ‘And, do you know, I think if you had asked me that six – seven! – years ago, my answer would still have been yes.’ I puzzled and puzzled over this: at least I understood the ‘yes’.
So I got back into bed with her, hugged her, as much as the small form allowed.
‘But we must be good.’ I said.
‘Yes’, she nodded earnestly.
‘No more dreams.’ I said firmly.
‘No, no more dreams!’ She said, earnestly
‘No: no more dreams!’
© Jethro 2022