LAURA MARSHALL

 My daughter Laura is pregnant. I wouldn’t mind, but she’s only two years old. Her little girl stomach is distended with the weight of her baby inside; she only started to walk nine months ago, and now she’s having to prop herself up clinging to the walls, otherwise that big bulge in her tummy will topple her over. My wife is so happy about it. She’s over the moon. She’d always wanted a child, she told me that clearly on our very first date – I’d asked what she was interested in, expecting her to come out with a hobby or her favourite TV programme, and she said just one thing – “Breeding.” And now she gets to have a grandchild too, and she’s already knitting it socks and booties. “I’m going to be a nanna,” she says, “I’ll be the best nanna in the world. It’s a blessing.” I’m not so sure. I wonder whether a family can be just a little too blessed.

 My wife had loved being pregnant. She would show off about it to all her friends, and wear clothes that emphasised her swelling bump. And she was fascinated by the way her body would change daily; I’d come home from work sometimes and she’d be waiting for me, standing in the hallway, naked, all the better to show the latest instances of her metamorphosis, she’d point out the darkening of the areolas around her nipple, or the way her belly button had pushed out. And she’d delight in her glow; “Look, darling,” she’d say, “I’m glowing, can you see how much I’m glowing?” Laura hasn’t got the vocabulary to express herself properly yet, but it’s clear she’s not enjoying her pregnancy quite so much. She sighs as he heaves her bulk around her little playroom, sometimes she’s in tears. My wife tries to be supportive, and is full of good advice about what to expect in the third trimester, and ways Laura can best nurture the foetus – but for all her good intentions, she often gets impatient with her. “You don’t know how lucky you are!” she snaps at her. “Why, all around the world now there are women just begging to conceive, they’re trying all sorts of unnatural methods with frozen sperm and sieves. And here you are, and it’s fallen into your lap. And look at how you glow!” Sometimes my wife gets so angry with Laura she won’t speak to her for days. Once I even saw her slap her. It wasn’t too hard, though, and it was only across the face – she wouldn’t do anything that might hurt that little baby within.

 We didn’t realise Laura was pregnant for a while. Try as hard as we can, we’re not expert parents, and when at first our little daughter ballooned in weight we just thought we were feeding her too much. It wasn’t until the morning sickness took hold of her that my wife recognised the symptoms; she had been taken exactly the same way, her daily vomiting both loud and copious, and how she’d gloried in it, her face rising up from that toilet bowl at me all full of smiles, “Darling, you’re going to be a Daddy!” Laura would wake up each morning and have to toddle to the bathroom and throw up, and her mother would be there, pulling her hair back so it wouldn’t get caught in the effluence, and stroking that hair, and telling her that she was going to be all right, and telling her how lucky she was. I’d suggested we take Laura to a doctor, but my wife was dead set against that – this was an unusual thing, we both knew that, and they’d want to run lots of lab tests on Laura like a lab rat, they’d take her away from us. “And this is our miracle,” said my wife, “this is all ours.” We hid Laura away. It wasn’t as if it were that hard. Laura attended playgroup on Thursday mornings, and we merely cancelled that, my wife thought the other little girls there would be jealous. And it wasn’t as if anyone ever visited, it wasn’t as if we had many friends left, most of them had got bored with us when my wife had been expecting.

 I suppose one of the first things I wondered about was who the father might be. After all, it wasn’t as if Laura had much of a social life, I couldn’t see there could be that many contenders. And I asked myself some searching questions, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t me; I was able to reassure my wife on that score. Certainly, I loved Laura; I hadn’t felt quite as involved with the whole pregnancy thing as my wife had been, truth to tell I’d been a little ambivalent. But when I saw my daughter for the first time – in that hospital bed – all bald and squalling – oh, I felt such a sudden rush of love for her, and I just wanted to pick her up in my arms, and the nurse gave her to me to hold, and I was terrified I’d break her, fragile little thing like that, and the nurse laughed and said she was stronger than she looked. And I’d held her tight then, and I’ve held her tight since, whenever that rush of love came over me I’d lift her out of her cot and give her the biggest cuddle – had I made her pregnant doing that? Had my love been too much? My wife thought it was unlikely, but I couldn’t help worrying about it. The only alternative I could see was that it might have happened at the playgroup. There was a woman in charge of the playgroup, and all the assistants at the playgroup were women too, and only mothers ever collected their children from the playgroup, fathers were too busy – really, it was wall to wall women at the Shillingthorpe Nursery, I can assure you. But some of the toddlers left in care were boys, and I was a boy myself once, I know what naughty tricks boys can get up to. And I went along to the nursery one morning. I stood outside and watched them secretly through the window. None of the little boys seemed sexually boisterous, but I suppose you never can tell. I wondered whether Laura had led them on a bit, had she been flirty, had she flaunted herself, had she been a bit of a tramp?

 But my wife had another, better explanation. “It’ll be a virgin birth,” she said. “You know, like that one in the Bible.” And it was funny, because she’d never been a religious person before, we’d got married at a registry office at her suggestion. And there was that time my mother came over, and all she’d done was ask whether we were going to get Laura christened, and the way my wife had shouted at her, had told her to mind her own business, it had reduced my mother to tears, and I’m quite sure Mummy meant no harm. “No, I’m not having it,” my wife said when I asked her to forgive my mother, “it’s too late for her now, she had a child once and she’s had her chance, she’s not going to ruin my baby the way she ruined hers.” But now my wife would study the Bible, looking for some way to make sense of this unexpected blessing bestowed upon us. “It stands to reason,” she told me. “The first virgin birth was out of the stomach of a grown woman, in the sequel God would want to make it harder.”

 And one of the great joys of my wife’s pregnancy had been choosing Laura’s name together. We’d lie side by side in bed, and try different ones out for size, and we’d laugh at them all, we’d laugh so much back then. “Mary Marshall, Moira Marshall, Mattie Marshall.” And we chose Laura in the end, because Laura was the name of my wife’s late mother, and my wife’s mother had died very young and my wife had never known her well but she was certain she’d had loved my wife very much, and she wanted her mother to be commemorated somehow because she thought it’d have meant the world to her. And because it was the name of the very prettiest of my ex-girlfriends. Though I didn’t share that information with my wife. And, no, we didn’t christen her, but how proud I was when we signed her name on the birth certificate, that name somehow made her real, it turned her into a person. And I had hoped that now there was a new baby in our lives we could do the same thing; we’d lie in bed, we’d say names, we’d laugh. But my wife wasn’t having any of it. “He already has a name,” she told me. “He’s Jesus.” And that did solemnify the mood somewhat, it was hard to laugh in bed when you knew that the messiah was growing inside your infant daughter’s belly in the room just across the hall.

 I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that my wife wasn’t kind to Laura, because she was, quite often; and she’s the one who had to spend all day with her, after all, I got to go to the office, I got some escape from it. And Laura does moan too much. The way she complains about her cramps, you’d think no one had ever been pregnant before! You’d think her own mother herself hadn’t been pregnant, and she’d had the cramps too, she was bent double with them, but she’d smiled through them, she’d welcomed them with open arms. But I feel sometimes that my wife doesn’t talk to Laura very much, she just talks to the foetus inside her – and even when she addresses Laura by name, tells her to clean her teeth or pick up her toys, it’s the bump she’s looking at. And me too – I still pick her up, I still hold her in my arms, but I feel I’m faking it, I no longer quite get that rush of love, I try to, I look for it, but it’s just out of reach. I hold Laura in my arms, and I can feel her little heart beating, but now I think, is it her heart? Or is it Jesus’s? And it troubles me. Laura cries so much, and my wife feels no sympathy, she tells her she should be grateful to be the vessel of the Living Lord. And I don’t know, I think there might be a less spiritual reason for this pregnancy, but I admit it, I can’t feel much sympathy either. Because she’s my little girl, and she’s hurting, and I wouldn’t want her hurting for the whole wide world – but deep down I wonder whether she might have brought this on herself, that she might just be a cheap slapper.

 The cramps were so bad this morning. Laura came to our room, and she was crawling along the floor, it was as if she’d regressed all the way back to a one year old. And there was blood. I insisted we take her to the hospital, and at first my wife refused, but I could tell she was scared, and I was able to convince her to do the right thing. And the doctor inspected Laura. He took X-rays. And even then I wondered whether we’d got the symptoms wrong, that Laura wasn’t pregnant, that our daughter was merely a fat kid who threw up. But no, he was amazed; he said he’d never seen anything like it; “Mr and Mrs Marshall, your little girl is with child.” “Yes, yes,” snapped my wife, “but what of the baby, is He all right, is He going to be okay?” The doctor smiled through his medical bemusement. “Everything’s all right,” he assured us, “the baby’s fine. You’re going to have a healthy granddaughter.”

 My wife didn’t say much in the car, and Laura didn’t either, she could tell her mother was cross. I tried to be cheerful. I said that maybe it’d be okay, or maybe the doctor had made a mistake. Until my wife retorted, “It’s not going to be okay, Jesus wouldn’t come back as a girl, would He? That’s just ridiculous.” So I said nothing for a bit. I then said, that maybe if the baby wasn’t Jesus, we could all have some fun thinking up another name for it instead? But my wife said she didn’t care, and Laura was still being quiet, and I had to admit I couldn’t think of anything appropriate.

 But when we got home there was a message on the answering machine. It was the doctor. And he sounded excited, and that wasn’t a surprise, he’d sounded excited from the start, he hadn’t had the time to get fed up with the pregnancy like we had. I nearly turned the message off, but my wife stopped me. And the doctor said they’d examined the X-rays of the foetus. And it was incredible. It was incredible, there were no words for it, it was incredible. Because she was pregnant. Not Laura – well, yes, Laura, but not just Laura – the foetus, the foetus inside her. The foetus was pregnant. Inside that little lump of life growing inside our daughter was another living lump littler still, not even a lump, no more than a speck, but it was thriving, and it was getting bigger, and it was human. And the doctor said he couldn’t tell the gender of the speck for sure, but he thought it might have a penis. A new baby. A new miracle. And my wife standing there listening to the news, and tears rolling down her cheeks – and my daughter, feeling at her stomach involuntarily, tears streaming too – and I thought I knew why they were both crying, there was despair on my daughter’s face, and I looked at my wife’s, expecting only to see relief and awe, but no, no, that was despair, I think she had a new despair of her very own. – And I have to be honest, I felt a bit emotional as well.

 Laura’s still cramping badly, but we’ve given her painkillers, and we’ve closed the bedroom door so we can’t hear her. And my wife and I are alone. And my wife has put on perfume, and she never wears perfume, not now. She’s come to me, and she’s smiling again, and I see the smile is made of lipstick. The smile is meant to be seductive, or maybe it’s trying to be happy, or maybe it’s just trying to look shy and awkward, and shy and awkward is its best bet. “I love you,” she says. “I love you.” And she kisses me, and we haven’t kissed for a long time, and I’m a bit taken aback, I don’t think of her as anything other than a mother any more. “We’ve still got it, baby, haven’t we?” comes the whisper in my ear. “We’ve still got it?” And she asks me to make love to her. “Fill me with your baby juice, we can be special too, can’t we, we can be special too, tell me we can be special.” How she glows. And it seems wrong, that we’re competing with our own daughter like this, but my wife wants a baby of her own, and whatever she wants, that’s what I try to give. And I do my best. I really do. I strain inside her and try to think baby thoughts, I try to will something new to life. But I keep thinking of my grandchild on her way, and of my great-grandchild too, and all the descendants that may be following after, and I’m sad to say, I can’t help it, I droop a little, I droop, I feel so very old.

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