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Authors: Catherine Alliott

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“Nonsense. Eleanor was sweet about it. Said there weren't many people who could claim a baby born impromptu in the master bedroom; said she'd dine out on it for weeks.”

Yes, she had been sweet. Had run around finding a clean nightdress and a toothbrush for Hannah to take to hospital and had shoed all the gawping men out of the room and given me a big hug: said how exciting it was. Terribly sweet.

I cleared my throat. “Mum, you know when you went to get Eddie from the aviary?”

“Yes?”

“Was Alex there too?”

“No, he and Eleanor went inside when the rest of them headed off there. She wanted to show him something upstairs. She'd redecorated one of the bedrooms, I think. In the west wing.”

“Ah.”

So that explained why they'd appeared through the dressingroom door. They'd obviously heard the shrieks and Eleanor had led them there via a different route. Yes, that was it. I swallowed.

“And are you all right, my love?” Mum leaned across the table. She reached up and took my hand away from my throat. “Don't do that. You're scratching your neck to bits.”

I put my hand back in my lap. She looked at me, concerned.

“I know this has taken it out of everyone, but you've been unsettled all day. Is everything all right?”

I smiled at her. Nodded my head. “Everything's fine. Couldn't be better. Come on, let's go and see Hannah.”

***

The doctor was just leaving Hannah's bedside and swishing back the curtain when we got there, assuring Eddie that she was in very good shape. Eddie stammered his thanks, relieved, and hurried to resume his position by her pillow. He took his wife's hand, seeming almost to swoon with love as he sat down and leaned over her, beaming broadly. Hannah looked tired.

“Where's the baby?” I asked as I sat down beside Eddie. “He's got a bit of jaundice, so he's under a light in the nursery,” she explained.

“Ah.”

“That's quite normal,” said Mum quickly, sitting down too. “You were a bit jaundiced, Imogen.”

“So was Rufus, actually. Oh, Hannah, how wonderful, a baby!” My eyes filled up again. I couldn't help it.

She smiled weakly, looked all in.

“And the proud father.” Mum patted his arm. “How does it feel?”

Eddie's chest, which was skinny and bony—pigeon, even—seemed to swell to gargantuan proportions. “I can honestly say,” he began portentously, his glasses steaming up, “that aside from the day when Hannah agreed to marry me, this is the happiest, proudest day of my life. I feel—well, I feel I could do anything. Take on the world, slay dragons, scale mountains—with my beautiful wife and my newborn son beside me.”

“Oh, Eddie!” It was no good, my eyes were brimming over now. “And have you got a name yet?”

“Not yet. I've got millions—Eureka's top of my list—but Hannah's still thinking about it, aren't you, darling?”

Hannah gave a weak smile. She didn't answer.

“Would you like to see him?” Eddie asked eagerly.

“Oh,
please
!” Mum and I groaned ecstatically.

We stood up as one, and went to follow Eddie out of the room, when I glanced back at Hannah. Her head had rolled to one side, away from us. She was staring blankly out of the window.

“I'll catch you up,” I said quickly, as Mum and Eddie went on down the corridor. I hastened back to the bed and took her hand.

“What's wrong?” I said, sitting down again.

“Nothing.”

I regarded her anxiously. Her face was inscrutable. “Hannah, this is marvellous, isn't it? The most fantastic thing that ever happened to you, surely?”

“Of course.” Flatly.

“And—and it doesn't matter—”

“What?” she interrupted sharply, her head coming back from the window. “Doesn't matter that I was walking around for nine months with a baby inside me without the faintest idea?”

“Of course not! God, it happens all the time, Hannah, much more than you think!”

“Yes, to teenagers on sink estates, maybe, but not to someone like me. Not a middle-aged woman, a parish councillor, a teacher, a pillar of the community—albeit a fat one. I feel such a fool!”

Tears sprang from her eyes and slid sideways down her face on to her pillow. I was shocked.

“Hannah, so what?” I shook her limp hand. Tried to shake some life into it. “So what? Surely it's the outcome that matters, a healthy baby, a
miracle
baby, what you've always wanted! Just think of that: how you'll be a proper family now, how it'll change your life!”

“But that's just it,” she blurted out suddenly. “It will change my life, and I'm not sure I want that. Not sure I can cope!”

I was stunned. My bossy, larger-than-life sister; domineering, slightly scary, always judgemental, who juggled Sea Scouts with teaching and cake-making for fêtes, and parish council committees—couldn't cope?

“He's so tiny,” she whispered in a voice I didn't recognise. “So fragile—I—I'm scared to touch him! Oh, Imo, I'm not sure I can do it!”

I saw the fear in her eyes.

“And Eddie,” she tumbled on, “Eddie's brilliant. He's just a natural, just picks him up and cuddles him—you should have seen him in the ambulance. It's all so quick, so unexpected, and everyone expects me to be so thrilled and just adapt, but I'm not sure I can!”

“Of course you can,” I said staunchly, horribly worried. “Have you fed him yet?”

“No.” She turned her head away, back to the window. “He has to be under the light, you see. I've told the nurses to give him a bottle.”

I nodded. “Right.” I swallowed. “Hannah—I—I'm sure this will all be fine. This is all hormones, you see, racing round your body, and—and the shock. You'll be a brilliant mother, simply brilliant!”

“Will I?” she said bitterly. “I'm not so sure.” She turned her head back from the window. Her eyes were dead. “I'm not sure I want him at all.”

I stared at her, dumbfounded. I didn't know what to say. At length, I took a deep breath.

“Hannah, I'll be back, OK? I'm just going to find Mum and Eddie, but I'll be back.”

She nodded wordlessly, disinterested, detached.

I scuttled away, my heart pounding. I found Mum and Eddie in the day nursery, leaning over a cot and cooing over the tiny naked baby, one of three in a row under a bright, ultraviolet light.

“You can pick him up,” a nurse was advising Eddie. “He doesn't have to be under there all day, just for a few hours at a time.”

“Right.” Eddie looked nervous, but nonetheless picked him up, wrapped him in a blanket the nurse gave him, and cradled him adoringly in his arms, his eyes shining.

“Hello, son,” he whispered. “Welcome to planet earth.”

He cooed over him, gently kissing his nose, and after a minute, handed him proudly to Mum for a turn. The baby gave a little whimper and she rocked him expertly, holding his head in her hand as she walked him round the room.

“Eddie.” I took his arm and drew him into the corner as Mum walked across to the window, crooning and soothing. “Eddie, I'm a bit worried about Hannah.”

“Why?” He looked startled. “The doctor said she was fine, didn't even need stitches or anything. Said he slipped out a treat.”

“No, it's not that. It's just…well, she should be in here, with him.”

He looked doubtful. “Is she allowed?”

“Yes, look.” The mothers of the other two babies were in their dressing gowns, leaning over the cots, watching their babies under the lamps. One was stroking her baby's toes.

“She's only just given birth, Imogen. Maybe tomorrow?”

I nodded. “And—and see if you can persuade her to feed. It does make a difference, builds up their immunities, that sort of thing.”

“But it doesn't matter, does it? I mean—a bottle's fine?”

“Oh, yes, a bottle's fine,” I said quickly. “It's just that—well, I think it would help her. Help Hannah.”

He frowned. “Help Hannah what? I mean…surely that's her department, Imo. I can't tell her what to do.” He looked worried. “And I certainly can't tell her to feed if she wants to give a bottle.”

“I know, I agree, but you could—you know—encourage her, Eddie. Take a deep breath and maybe…give a lead. Tell her you've heard it's a good idea. She won't know. She wasn't expecting a baby, hasn't read up on it.”

“A lead?” He looked at me in astonishment. This was uncharted territory for my brother-in-law.

“Yes, you know, be a bit authoritative. She's had a terrible shock, Eddie. Her body's in turmoil. She needs you to help her.”

Eddie looked anxious. I turned to the nurse. “Um, excuse me, can we take the baby to the ward for a bit?”

“Sure you can,” she said in a soft Irish lilt as she mixed formula for a bottle feed. “Just bring him back in an hour or so. The mum can come too.”

“You see?” I whispered.

Eddie hesitated. “I'll try.”

I grinned. “Good man.”

This was all very new for them, I thought. Very new. I didn't want to push it. He went to go to Mum by the window, to relieve her of the baby and take him to Hannah, when suddenly, he turned. Came back to me. He looked anguished.

“Imo,” he said in a low voice, taking me to one side, “just one more question. A terrible question, actually.” He swallowed avoiding my eyes. “This jaundice the baby's got…”

I looked into his fearful eyes. Smiled. Then patted his arm reassuringly. “No, Eddie, relax. It's not catching.”

Chapter Twenty

When Mum dropped me back at the cottage later that evening, I pushed through the front door and saw Alex coming down the stairs towards me. He put a finger to his lips, letting me know he'd just put Rufus to bed: that he'd call out for me if he heard my voice. I was too tired to go up so I nodded and followed him mutely into the sitting room, shutting the door behind us.

“How is she?” he asked.

“She's fine.” I peeled my coat off wearily. “And the baby?”

“The baby's fine too. Healthy, if a bit small. The doctors reckon he was a few weeks premature, so he's only six pounds.”

“But not in intensive care, or anything?”

“Oh God, no, nothing like that.”

“Good.”

I threw my coat on a chair. My shoulders sagged as I looked at him. “I'm sorry, Alex.”

“For what?”

I raised my hands from my sides; let them fall in a helpless gesture. “For my sister giving birth, I suppose. For it all being so awful and embarrassing, in Piers's house. In the frigging Tudor Room.”

“Don't be silly.” He came across and held my shoulders. “As long as Hannah and the baby are fine, that's all that matters, isn't it?”

“Oh, darling,” I flooded with relief and rested my head on his chest as he took me in his arms. “Thank you. Thank you for that.”

“What?” He stepped back, his eyes searching my face. “You think I don't know that? That that's all that matters? Everyone knows that. Everyone was—well, euphoric, almost, after you'd gone. Eleanor rushed off to get some champagne from the fridge and proposed a toast to the baby. It was very jolly.”

“Really?” I brightened. Yes, I could imagine Eleanor doing that; taking the lead, saying, “Isn't this exciting? A baby born in the house, a first, maybe! Let's celebrate.” Good for her.

“And Piers?”

Alex's mouth twitched. “Piers's rapture was slightly more modified, it has to be said.”

I snorted. “I bet it was!”

“He got Vera stripping that bed pretty damn quickly, but Eleanor forced him to have a drink when he came down from his room inspection. Your father was flying, of course. Did a little impromptu waltz with Dawn on the terrace.”

I groaned and sank down weakly into an armchair. “Will I ever grow out of being embarrassed by my parents?” I massaged my forehead with my fingertips.

“Doubt it,” he said cheerfully, going out to the kitchen where I could smell Bolognese sauce bubbling away on the hob. “Certainly not your father, anyway. Eleanor thinks they're both terrific incidentally, particularly your mother.”

Oh, so that was all right then. If Eleanor thought so, she must be. I rested my head back on the chair and watched through the open kitchen door as he buzzed around getting supper, draining spaghetti at the sink in a cloud of steam.

“And I have to admit,” he was back a few moments later, bearing a tray, “she does have some amusing ideas.”

I made a space on the coffee table and unloaded the plates of pasta as he went to switch the television on.

“I thought you always said Mum was whimsical and wacky? On a different planet?”

“Oh, yes, she's all of those,” he poured me a glass of wine, “but she's still rather fun.”

Eleanor talking again. Oh,
stop
it, Imogen. God, he's made supper, put Rufus to bed, what more do you want?

Alex settled down in the armchair opposite and turned his attention to some celebrity reality show. I picked up my fork and toyed limply with my pasta.

“She thought she might pop in and see the baby tomorrow, if that's OK,” he said, twirling spaghetti on to his fork, his eyes glued to a page three girl about to eat maggots in the jungle, her artificially enhanced breasts jiggling in a black bikini. “Christ, that's enough to put you off your pasta.” He popped in a mouthful and chewed hard. “You know, take a present or something. Some flowers.”

“Great,” I nodded. “Hannah would like that.”

He glanced down at his plate. Made a face. “Too much wine in this.”

“No, it's good.”

“Should have boiled it off a bit more. Oh, and Kate rang, incidentally, while you were out.”

“Oh?” I looked up.

“Apparently I'm moving into their basement flat next week.”

I flushed to my roots. Put my fork down. “Oh, Alex, I'm sorry. I meant to tell you. I asked Kate last week because—well, I thought you'd be so uncomfortable in Charlie's poky attic room. And Kate and Sebastian have that lovely flat just sitting there, and I know I should have consulted you first, but Kate was going to talk to Sebastian so I thought—well, I'll wait till she gets back to me before—”

“It's fine,” he interrupted, laughing. “Stop worrying. You were quite right. It'll be much nicer to have a flat of my own, much more grown up. It was just a bit of a surprise, that's all. Kate said to pay whatever I was going to give Charlie.”

“Did she?” I glowed with pleasure. Of course, I should have known she'd say that. They didn't need the money and were doing it purely as a favour, but they'd been sensible enough to charge a nominal rent so as not to embarrass Alex.

“Oh, darling, I'm so pleased, aren't you?” I glowed.

“Of course. The lap of luxury as opposed to a grotty old flat in Chiswick, but—why are you so pleased?” He eyed me beadily.

“I…don't know.” I reached for the bottle of wine on the coffee table, topped up my glass. It was quite full already though, so a bit spilled over.

“I suppose—well, I suppose it means when I come and meet you in town, I get to see Kate too,” I said brightly.

“True,” he nodded. “And meanwhile I can keep an eye on those pesky tenants of ours across the street. Make sure they're not trashing the place.”

“Exactly!” I agreed jovially. My smile was very ready now, my heart lighter. Oh, thank you, Kate. Thank you.

“I told her about Hannah. I hope that's all right.”

“Oh. Yes, fine.” I realised I was momentarily disappointed that such a momentous piece of news had been dispatched to my best friend via my husband, but then Alex could hardly have avoided it.

“Sorry.” He made a face. “I had to say where you were.”

“Of course you did. And I can ring her later, give her all the gory details.”

“Gory's the word,” he shuddered.

“Was she staggered?”

“Totally! God, everyone will be, Imo. You do realise that?”

“I know,” I said, putting my fork down. “And Hannah's really worried about that.”

“I mean, why the hell didn't she know?” He boggled at me. “I know she was fat, so what's a few more pounds—blimey, six, a mere bagatelle in the scheme of things; she must weigh about thirteen stone anyway—but surely a woman knows her own body a bit better than that?”

“For complicated reasons, Alex, she didn't,” I said shortly, scratching my neck. “And yes, she is feeling extremely foolish. She's worried everyone's going to think she's a complete idiot. As you clearly do.”

“She could always pretend she knew but wasn't saying anything,” he suggested. “Pretend she and Eddie wanted to keep it to themselves?”

“What—lie?” I looked at him.

“Well, only a little white one. Just say she wanted to surprise everyone and it came a bit early, that's all.”

“Lie,” I said again. “Be economical with the truth. That's what you'd do, is it, Alex?”

He laughed. “Well, if it meant getting myself out of a corner, yes, anything to save face. Eleanor and I were both saying that's what we'd do, just say—
Shit
!”

A plate of spaghetti narrowly missed his ear as it flew past him and smashed on the wall behind him. I was on my feet.

“Is it!” I trembled. “Is that what you'd do?”

He stared at me, open-mouthed. Behind him, broken china, spaghetti and Bolognese sauce slid slowly down the magnolia paintwork.

“Jesus, Imo,” he breathed. “What's with you?”

I stared at his bewildered face. His wide astonished eyes. My fists were still clenched, and my whole body felt as though it were about to go up in flames. About to spontaneously combust. With a strangled sob, I turned and fled upstairs.

***

About an hour later, when he came upstairs, I was lying way over on my side of the bed, facing the wall, curled up in the foetal position. I'd heard him downstairs cleaning up: wiping down the wall, sweeping bits of china into a dustpan, chucking it in the bin, then going into the kitchen to wash up. No dishwasher in this tiny cottage. I heard him go out and shut the chickens up—my job—then lock the door and come upstairs. Slowly. Heavily. I listened to the sounds he made as he shuffled prosaically around, brushing his teeth, blowing his nose, using the loo: the sounds of a husband. Then he came into the bedroom and got undressed in the dark. He shut the curtains carefully at the top where I'd pulled them hastily together and where a carrot of moonlight still shone through, and got into bed beside me. We lay there in silence. I could hear an owl screeching far away in the woods. At length I spoke.

“I'm sorry,” I whispered.

He slid across and put his arms around me from behind, resting his chin on top of my head. We lay there like spoons, facing the darkened window. It was very quiet.

“It's OK,” he said softly.

I gripped his hands around my waist. Held on tight. Ask him, I told myself fiercely. Ask him now. Outright. I took a deep breath. Nothing came out. Just a shuddery gust of air.

“You're tired,” he said, listening to my erratic breathing. “It's been a long day and you're emotionally strung out. It's not every day your sister gives birth unexpectedly.” He squeezed me affectionately.

“Yes,” I whispered, acknowledging this was true. Even so. Ask him. Stop this aching inside of you. This terrible, visceral gnawing. Ask him to tell you the truth.

“I'm fairly shattered myself,” he yawned. “Could quite happily throw some pasta.” He sighed and hugged me again. “Night, darling.”

My mouth opened impotently in the dark and my eyes widened to the wall.
Ask him,
my head screamed.
Ask him now, you coward!

“Up at six thirty,” he groaned. “No peace for the wicked. Still, could be worse. Could be moving into an attic room in Chiswick tomorrow—how gloomy would that be?” He nuzzled into the back of my neck.

Still my voice wouldn't come. Fear was strangling my vocal chords. I wanted to know, but didn't want to know. I wanted to talk, but didn't want to talk. Instead, in desperation, I twisted round. My hands reached for him in the dark. I held his face in my hands like a precious vessel, and my lips found his. I kissed him, tenderly, precisely. And again. I ran my tongue over his lips, slid it in his mouth. We never slept in anything, Alex and I, and I ran my hands down his bare back, over his bottom; pulled it towards me.

“And you, my little one,” he murmured in my ear, patting my bottom, “have had a very stressful day. You need to get some sleep. And you need to get some cream for your neck too, incidentally. Your eczema's come back.” He turned over and reached for the alarm clock. Sighed. “Better set it for six fifteen, I'm afraid.”

I stared, wide-eyed and mute, into the darkness as he set the clock and replaced it on the bedside table. Pulling the duvet over his shoulder, he turned away from me.

“Night, darling.”

I gazed at his hunched form in the gloom, at his back. Eventually I heard his breathing, heavy and rhythmic; saw his body gently gather momentum as it rose and fell. I felt tears gather in the back of my throat and fall silently across my face on to the pillow, trickling slowly into my ear. My nose filled up and I wiped my face with the duvet, trying not to sniff, trying not to let him know I was crying. Clutching the duvet like a child with a comforter, I held on tight as though everything I had was about to slip from my hands. The last thing I expected was to fall asleep, but often, when the system's taken a battering, it's the body's only defence. It was for me, that night.

The following day I found I was almost relieved when he left for London.

“See you on Friday,” he whispered in my ear, leaning over the bed, his tie tickling my face.

As I opened my eyes, I remembered. Felt sick. Heavy. But then, the weight dropped off me. Yes, go, I thought. So long as he was away from her, I reasoned, it was fine. I was fine. And Mum had let slip yesterday, on the way back from the hospital, that he would be. Away from her. That he and Eleanor, geographically at least, would be miles apart.

“Louisa Latimer's going to be in London next week,” she'd said casually as she'd turned the car down my track. “Going up for the Chelsea Flower Show. We thought we might meet up.”

“But…Eleanor's using that flat next week,” I'd said, turning to her. “She's working in London.”

“Yes, but it's only got one bedroom, you see. And Louisa wants it. So that's rather that. Eleanor's going to have to work from home. From Stockley.”

“But she isn't going to the Flower Show every day, is she?” I'd said, my mind racing.

There was a pause. “I think Louisa thought she might go up all week,” Mum said lightly. “Do some shopping. Anyway, we thought we'd have a spot of lunch. She's a nice woman.”

I'd got out of the car, marvelling at Mum's capacity to get on with anyone from Dawn to Lady Latimer, and in my exhausted state hadn't really thought any more about it, but as I got out of bed now, I blessed Lady Latimer from the bottom of my heart for inadvertently scuppering Eleanor's plans. Yes, I thought, pulling on my dressing gown; knowing they were miles apart meant I could breathe again. Take a break from my demons. Take a break from losing touch with reality.

Later that morning, when I'd taken Rufus to school and hung out the washing—humming even, I was surprised to note, as I pegged away—I made a coffee and rang Kate, thanking her profusely.

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