Nine Months (Month 9)

Nine Months

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8 lbs. 1 oz. 20 inches long

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Month Nine

Fiona paced backwards and forwards. I tried to join her but Eddie was making that more difficult with each passing day.

“So, tell me again what will happen if we agree to the plea bargain?” I asked Mr. George.

This was the fourth time one or other of us had asked him this question, yet his calm, courteous manner never changed. I think he knew how difficult this was for us. He said, “He’ll plead to ABH, assault occasioning actual bodily harm. The Section 146 charge (hate crime) will be dropped. He’ll accept a sentence of twenty-four months at a secure training centre…”

“Two years? He almost killed Matt and all he’ll get is two bloody years?” Fi yelled, not for the first time. I saw Matt hunch up. “At a bloody secure centre. Get job training and counseling, the poor dear, so he can figure out why he thinks it’s OK to beat someone near to death…”

“Fi,” I said, rubbing her leg, “let Mr. George finish.”

“I understand, Ms. Walters, I do. But he will be in custody, have no doubt about what that means.”

“But, he won’t be deported,” I said.

Mr. George sighed, “No. There’s no guarantee he will and there’s no guarantee he won’t. I’m sorry I can’t give a better answer than that.”

“What happens if we go to trial?” Matt asked.

Mr. George took a deep breath and looked directly at him. “He’s facing six years at a Youth Offender Centre. He could be out in three years but he will be deported.”

“So what do you think we should do? What would you do?” I looked up at Mr. George as I spoke.

Mr. George took a deep breath and said, “I can’t tell you what to do.” We all looked at him and he continued, “I mean that two ways. First, I can’t tell you because it’s against CPS policy and I will lose my job which I can’t afford right now,” and he gave me a smile. “If you’re asking me what David George, parent, would do, I can’t say either. I’ve been doing this job for fourteen years and what I’ve learned is, for families, you don’t know what you’ll do until you have to do it.”

Fi growled, “You’d want his head.”

Mr. George smiled and said, “Probably, but that’s not what this is about. I can tell you that I think this is one of the stronger sorts of these cases that I’ve had. Matthew and Saffron have consistently told the same stories, the police report and hospital records are consonant with that. This is no fight that got out of hand…”

“But,” Fiona stopped, turned and looked directly at him. Sitting next to me Matt seemed deep in thought.

“But, it’ll be a tough trial. This man has a great defence team and,” he looked directly at Matt, “they will come after you. They will try and destroy your credibility. They will use every resource at their disposal to destroy your credibility. They’ll use anything they can find to show that you provoked them. Facebook posts, tweets, statements from witnesses about anything you might have said to them about you and Saffron...”

I saw Matt blanch. “So, you think we should agree to the plea bargain?” Matt’s voice was quiet.

Mr. George leaned back in his chair, pressing the ends of his fingertips against themselves, “I didn’t say that and wouldn’t. This is your decision. It’s not mine and it’s not your mothers’. I am ready to try this, if that’s what you want.” Matt looked down, his expression was grim.

Back at the flat, we sat around the kitchen table, nursing mugs of tea (decaf for me, obviously)

“So, if he accepts the plea bargain, he has to testify against his friend, correct?” Matt said. I nodded.

Fiona said, “But he won’t get what he deserves and he likely won’t get deported, is what I heard.”

I reached across the table and took his hand, “What do you want Matt?”

“Well, for it to never have happened, for starters, O.M.,” he laughed. He took a sip of his tea, “but I think we should agree.”

Fi did not look best pleased. No, she looked angry and crossed her arms. “I don’t understand, Matthew, why you would want to let him do this.” I reached for her hand to console her and she begrudgingly accepted it.

Matt took a deep breath, “I’m tired. I’m tired of everything. I want this to be over already. It’s all well and good for you to be out for blood, mum, but I’m the one who has to deal with it.” While Andrew Hall had moved primarily onto other topics - how Brexit was the best thing for Britain since “bloody Poles won’t be taking jobs anymore” (I’d love to see his face the next time his boiler broke down) - the kids at school hadn’t let it go, he confided in me. “If this goes to trial, it’ll be all over the news and I’ll be the one to deal with it. Not you or you, me. And, for what, another three years? It doesn’t matter anyway. Two years, five years? What does it matter? I’ll be on my gap year for Uni anyway when he gets out.” Fi gave me a look and a smile. This was the first either of us had heard that he was considering FE college, much less Uni.

Fi started to speak and he held up his hand. “And all this will do is hurt Saff and her family more.”

Fi laughed, a sharp, angry laugh. “Why does that matter? Her mum caused this…”

“Stop, mum! Whatever she did or didn’t do is not the only point. Saff didn’t do anything. Mr. Mitchell didn’t do anything. And they’re getting dragged through this with me. They’re a family, the same as us. I don’t want Saff to have to testify so you can taste blood…”

I took his hand. “Matt, that’s not fair,” I said. “We’re just worried.”

“I know. Sorry, mum. I looked into it. Youth Offender Centres are horrible places. Kids get beaten and raped there.”

Fi stared at him and said, “So what Matthew?” I had never seen her this vengeful. I understood why but was getting worried for her. “Did he care when he beat you? What does it matter?”

Matt shook his head and said, “What does it matter? If he gets beaten, will it take away my scars? Will it go back and take me from hospital? Do you think he’ll hate me less at a YOC? He’ll be away long enough. Maybe he’ll get the help he needs. Maybe he’ll learn something…”

I hadn’t spoken. We were a family, but Fi was his mum. I was O.M., but she was mum. I spoke quietly, “He’s going to get out and probably stay here, in England, I mean.”

He looked at the both of us. “Mr. George didn’t say that. He just said that he won't be deported automatically. Please let's just be done with this. Please.”

“Matthew, please go to your room,” Fi said. He started to protest and she said, “You’re not in trouble. I just want to discuss this with Kelly.” He walked off, mumbling, “it’s my life.”

We heard the door close and Fi said, “What do we do here, Kells?”

I sighed. “I think we agree with the plea bargain.” She looked annoyed. “Hear me out. It’s Matt’s decision. He’s the one who’s had to live with this, who will have to live with it. He’s the one everyone talks about. Amadou will go away for two years and his friend for a lot more. Matt’s right. What does it matter, two years or five? He’ll be locked away. We can just be done with this. Let Matty get on with his life.”

“I hate that he won’t be deported,” she said. “It seems so fucking unfair that he gets to stay.”

“Who knows if he will, Fi? But, come on, let’s let Matty get his life back.”

---------------------------------------------
We met with Mr. George the next day.

“So, the defence has agreed that, upon release, he cannot live within 20km of wherever Matty is living then?” I asked. I had proposed this as a solution to him returning here.

Mr. George smiled, “That was one of the more unusual requests I’ve received but, yes, they agreed. It will constitute a violation of the terms of the plea if he does it. Apparently, he has family in Cardiff he can go to.” He smiled at Matt, “Not planning on living in Cardiff, are you?”

Matt smiled, “No, sir. Thank you, sir.”

He shook Matt’s hand. “You’re a brave young man. I wish you the best of luck.”

We waited in the hallway outside the courtroom while Amadou entered his plea. We asked whether we could see him do it - we wanted the finality - but Mr. George said that, given the delicacy of the proceedings, “her honour has said no.”

I would swear I heard the gavel fall. The door opened and Ellen and her brother walked out. They wouldn’t even look at us, but it didn’t matter. Amadou had been taken to a centre and his friend was in jail awaiting trial. It was agreed that neither Matt nor Saff would have to testify, that Amadou’s testimony would be enough. I was pushing myself up off the bench when Mr. George came over to me.

“A word, Ms. Cooper?”

I walked down the hall with him. “Thank you for everything, Mr. George.”

“You’re welcome. Now that this is over, I can tell you. As a parent, I would’ve accepted the plea.”

“Really?”

“Yes. That boy has been through enough and a trial is an inherently risky endeavour. His attacker will be away for long enough. You all deserve to move on. You will have,” and he gave me a huge smile, “more than enough to keep you busy for the foreseeable future. Best of luck.”

I smiled, “I wish the same to Mrs. George.”

He smiled and shook my hand, “Thanks, I may need it,” and he walked away.

----------------------------------------

The café was next to a park in Dalston. We used to stop here for ice cream when Bill and I were little. I could remember the cold ice cream melting down my fingers as I tried to lick it. They still had the old post box Bill kicked that time his Rocket Lolly broke in half. Now Fiona and I were sitting, looking out at the grey skies as we waited. I could see something was playing on Fiona’s mind.

“Penny for them?”

“Huh? Oh, I was just wondering if we did the right thing…”

I knew what she meant. “I think we did.”

She made an attempt to smile and looked down at her coffee, “What if he attacks someone else’s son, or daughter and we could have stopped it?”

“We’ll never know. What if he was sent down and killed in a fight with an inmate? We just don’t know. We did what was right for Matt at the time. You can’t second guess that.”

She smiled more genuinely, “I guess so.”

I took her hand, “We just have to move on.”

At that moment, the bell above the door rang and we turned around. There they were, two faces I hadn’t seen since Iceland.

“Kelly,” her voice trembled slightly.

“Siggy,” she relaxed as soon as she saw me smiling. I could feel Fiona tensing in the seat next to me. I did my best to get up and hug Siggy and Egon. Fiona waited behind me.

“This is Fiona.”

“I’ve heard lots about you,” Siggy went to kiss Fi on the cheek.

I could see Fi tense up a little. “I’m sure you have.” We all laughed nervously, realising who would have done the telling. I wondered what James would have said.

While Egon and Fiona went to the counter to order drinks, Siggy and I sat down. There were two women with prams in front of them. The prams were massive things that looked like they were made for war, or off-roading.

“Wow you look great! How are you?” Siggy gushed.

“I look like a beached whale in dungarees, but thanks,” I laughed. As hard as I tried to ignore it, the flattery worked. I’d caught an eye of my silhouette in a car window the other day. I could have been a loveable Mr. Men character, Little Miss Spherical.

“Is everything OK with the pregnancy and everything?”

I looked at her open face. The bright, almost glowing skin that made her look younger than her age. Those blue eyes as clear as a glacial ice pool. I remembered her own tragedy. After all that, and after I had everything I wanted, I still had mixed feelings towards her. On the one hand, she made James tell me. On the other hand, she knew and didn’t. “It’s fine, touch wood,” I said, tapping on the side of my head. “The C-section is a week tomorrow.”

“My god, Kelly. How are you feeling about it?” She took my hand. It must have been an automatic gesture as the look on her face was as surprised as I felt. She went to take her hand away but I held it there, squeezing gently.

“I feel great actually. I mean terrified. Obviously. Everything is going to be so different.” I felt her rub my fingers. I hadn’t realised it till that moment, but I’d missed her.

That moment, Fiona and Egon returned with our drinks. Egon placed one of those fruit smoothies I hated so much in front of Siggy. By the way it looked, it was at least part grass. I sighed audibly when Fiona gave me my liquorice tea, only a week to go.

“You in town for the premiere?” I asked Egon, knowing that he was.

“We got back last week for some final edits,” he said. “But that as well.”

“The reviews have been good,” Fiona added. She watched the pair closely as she brought her cup up to her mouth.

“To be honest, I’ll be glad to move on to the next project. Iceland was amazing,” he spoke carefully. I watched Siggy’s face but it gave nothing away, “but it was a logistical nightmare.”

“Not to mention all the other on-set drama going on,” Siggy said, as she took her partner’s hand.

Egon talked for a while about the various falling outs and squabbles. Fiona, despite herself, quickly became engrossed in the conversation. For all of her professional success, I’d still catch her reading OK or Grazia at my doctor’s appointments. My mind wandered. I watched a young mum taking her two sons into the park. I tried to imagine Eddie, how I would dress him, what he would be like. It may be a cliché but I was anxious to meet him. After ten minutes or so of watching them play, I began looking around the table.

Fiona and Egon now seemed like the best of friends. It helped that Egon was careful to avoid any mention of James. Occasionally, he’d bring up spoiled actors and Fiona would beam at him. Siggy was being unusually quiet. I started to look at her closely. Her face. How quiet she was. The smile, content just to listen…

“Oh my god!” Everyone looked around. I clasped my hand over my mouth. I took Siggy’s hand. She seemed unsure what was happening. Perhaps she thought I was about to attack her. “You’re pregnant, aren’t you?” Siggy went bright red, but the smile on her face told me I was right. “How long?”

“It was three months last week.” There was a lot of hugging.

With Egon and Fiona back at the counter, Siggy leaned over and whispered, “You won’t tell James, will you?”

“Why would I tell them? We hardly speak,” I couldn’t hide my annoyance at hearing their name, “Haven’t you said anything?”

She shook her head. “I’ve stopped trying to. He’s running around with a different crowd now. Egon won’t speak to him anymore.”

“Because of what happened? Fiona is going to like them even more.” We turned and watched them laughing with the waitress.

She shook her head again. “That was the start. Then, he began hanging out with a different crowd.”

“Alyssa?”

She looked at me shrewdly, “She was a part of it, yes. The actors, well they are often very self-centred. It goes with the job. They come to expect star treatment. Put them on top of a glacier in the middle of the Arctic Circle and you can imagine how well they took to it.”

We talked and talked. The sky turned from grey to night and the street lights came on. Eventually it was Fiona who brought things to an end. ‘I’m going to need to get Kelly home,’ she told us. ‘Aw mum,’ I replied to laughs.

Fiona was quiet for most of the drive home. When she could, she rested her hand on my knee.

That evening we lay on our bed watching old comedies on iplayer. Matt was out with his friends. He and Saff had come to terms with each other. I could feel Fiona holding me from behind and see the overnight bag we already had packed for the following week. It all seemed so real. But my mind refused to stay quiet. I kept replaying over and over the last meeting with James. How they had made me feel bad for ‘cheating’ on them with Fiona.

James and I had exchanged emails since then, but they had been practical, about dates, money etc. It all left me feeling somehow empty.

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It was three days before I was scheduled to go in hospital for the C section.
“Fi, come in here! Please!” I was in the kitchen, searching the cupboards for something to calm my stomach. I don’t know if it was the baby or the anxiety, but in the past few days, Priscilla and her reflux had come back with a vengeance.

Fi came rushing in, “What’s wrong, Kells?”

I pointed at the puddle on the floor. “I’ve had enough! I can’t wait for Eddie to get here. I’m tired of this.” In addition to my ankles swelling to the same size as my calves, sleeplessness and reflux, I had added incontinence to my list of ailments as well. While Fi and all the websites told me this was normal, I had still had enough.

Fi knelt down, stuck her finger in it and smiled, “Your water broke.”

“How is that even possible,” I asked. “How? I mean, the suit and all? That’s why I’m having a C section, right? That makes no sense.”

The smile never left her face. “You’re a woman, Kells. A beautiful pregnant woman. You saw him in the amniotic fluid, sweetie. This just means Eddie’s ready to come,” she said, giving me a kiss and seating me in a chair. She said later that the look on my face was one of ‘utter incomprehension. Adorable utter incomprehension.’ She went to the door and got my shoes and coat. She knelt down, put on my shoes and tied them like I was a toddler, put on my coat and said, “come on, Kells. We’re going to hospital now.”

Then she called Matt, who was at Saff’s Aunt Ruth’s house, studying. Richard had told me that Saff had begun spending some nights at home. Ellen had agreed that her brother was not allowed in the house as long as Saff was there. Her brother was extremely unhappy but, as Richard had put it, ‘she’s realised what’s most important. I can’t say I miss him.’

“Matt, Kells is in labour. We’re off to Whipps Cross.” She told me that she heard him and Saff cheering. “Tell Saff and Ruth thank you,” she said, laughing. “Put Ruth on. Yes, yes, she is. Thank you. About as well as a girl that age can be,” she said, with a laugh, presumably referring to me. “Well, I apologise for the short notice, but can Matt spend the night with you? Thanks.”

Just then, I felt my abdomen clench very tightly. The best way that I can describe it is, if your abdomen was a wet towel, it was like someone wringing it dry - in an industrial class wringer, I screamed, “Ow, fuck! Goddammit! Fuck!”

Fi smiled, “Yes, Ruth, someone just had her first contraction. I remember it too.”

I glared at her and said, “Get off the phone now!”

She laughed, “I will let you know and thank you.”

She led me to the car, gently rubbing her finger in my palm, “It’s going to be OK, Kells. That just means Eddie wants to meet his mum.”

“It hurts like bloody fucking hell, FI!”

She buckled me in the passenger seat. “I know, sweetie.”

“Sorry,” I said, feeling embarrassed.

“Every mum in labour feels that way,” she said. “And soon you’ll have a beautiful boy. We’ll have a beautiful boy.”

I relaxed for a second thinking about that. “Did you call Dr. Patel yet?”

She smiled, “I called from the flat. I got her messaging service.”

I got nervous. “She has to be there. What if she’s not there? She knows what to do,” I said quickly. I felt my pulse race.

Fi smiled, “I’m sure she will be there.” She told me later that she only hoped she was, that she wouldn’t know what to do if she wasn’t.

“Did you call them?” I asked.

It took her a second. She took a deep breath. “I will.”

“Sorry. They’re the father. They should at least know I’m in labour.” Under her breath, I thought I heard say, ‘least father, right.’ “Please, Fi, I love you but they’re the father. You wouldn’t like if the places were switched.”

She smiled at ‘I love you,’ then laughed, “I would have been thrilled to switch places with John, had it been possible.”

We drove to the hospital quickly but carefully, FI’s hands at 10 and 2, like she was taking her driving test again. I didn’t feel another contraction but kept taking short breaths, three puffs out, one breath in, like I had seen women on the television do it. For whatever reason, it relaxed me like counting sheep to fall asleep.

We pulled up to the emergency entrance and left the car. Fi walked me in and said to the receptionist. “Hi, my wife is in labour.” I smiled at ‘wife.’ Obviously, we weren’t married yet but somehow that felt right. Ms. Fiona Walters and Ms. Kelly Cooper. “She’s due for a C section Friday, but someone decided to come a little early,” she said with a smile.

The receptionist gave the briefest of smiles. I didn’t begrudge her, as I was sure that she saw everything and was thinking about the end of her shift. “Right,” she said. “Do you have your NHS number, National Insurance or post code will do, luv? Backup after the hacking incident,” she said to me. “It’s going to be fine.”

“Please,” I said. “Can someone make sure Dr. Patel - Dr. Priyanka Patel - knows I’m in labour? She’s the one who’s doing my C section?”

The clerk said, “You will be fine. Dr. Richardson is on staff tonight. He’s excellent.”

I wanted to say something about the suit and how I didn’t want to go back but was afraid they’d throw me out. Instead, I had a contraction. I let out a banshee wail. “MOTHERFUCKER!”

That got a smile from the receptionist and the other women in admittance, including a mum with a five year old boy. The clerk turned to Fi and said, “How far apart?”

“About twenty-five minutes. This is only her second contraction.”

“OK, love. Someone will be along shortly.” She handed Fi a placard. “Put this in your window so you don’t get a ticket. We’ll take you in triage shortly,” she said, laughing.

“Fi, please don’t leave,” I said. “I need you.”

She gave me a kiss on the lips, the rest of emergency be damned. “I will be right back,” she said. “I promise.”

The other mum in the room said, “Is this your first, dear?” I nodded. “I was in labour with Nicholas for forty hours,” she said. ‘Is this supposed to help?’ I thought. She took my hand. “What’s your name, darling?” ‘Kelly,” I squeaked “You are going to be fine, Kelly. Your wife will be right back and in the meantime, I’m right here. OK?” I was petrified of another contraction and couldn’t speak. I nodded again and choked out, ‘thank you.’

“So, do you know what you’re having,” she said, sweetly.

“Yes, Eddie. Edward. A boy. For my father. I mean he’s named after my father. I’m having a boy,” I babbled.

She smiled and ruffled Nicholas’ hair. “There’s nothing like a boy,” she said. “Special bond between a boy and his mum,” she said. “Here comes your, er…”

“My wife,” I said, smiling, as Fi sat down.

The woman offered her hand. “Melanie Stoneham,” she said, “congratulations. She was a bit scared.”

Fi smiled. “Thank you. I’m Fiona Walters and this is Kelly Cooper. Thank you for sitting with her. It’s her first, my second” to which they both smiled and nodded. I hated being on the outside but wasn’t ready to be on the inside.

The nurse took us into triage. The word conjured up images of war movies, of soldiers being brought in on stretchers, suffering from gaping wounds. Instead, I was put into a reclining chair with stirrups attached. A doctor came in, a tiny red haired woman. She looked like Livvy, far too young to be a physician but then I realised that, to her, I probably looked far too young to be a mum. “Hi,” she said, looking at my chart. “I am Dr. Connell. I take it you’re Ms. Cooper,” she said.

Fi looked at her and said, “I’m sorry, Dr. Connell, but are you actually a physician?”

She smiled, the smile of someone used to being asked to prove her credentials. “I am, ma’am,” she said, emphasizing ‘ma’am.’ Fi hated ‘ma’am.’ Every time a clerk said it, she called it her ‘daily ma’am-o-gram.’ “I’m in my second year of residency here. Don’t worry though. Dr. Richardson is on tonight. I am, however, qualified to examine Ms. Cooper.”

“Sorry,” I said. “She’s nervous. I’m nervous. We’re nerv…..COCKSUCKING SON OF A BITCH, I FUCKING HATE HIM.” I forgot if Tourette’s was a symptom of labour. “Sorry.”

She laughed, “You’ll have to repeat yourself. I seem to be hard of hearing,” which got a laugh from Fi. “OK, well, Ms. Cooper, you appear to be about 4 cm dilated and seventy percent effaced.”

“Which means?”

She smiled. “It means you’re in labour. It means, and we don’t know for sure, that this baby is coming soon.”

“But, but, I’m scheduled for a C section. There are….complications that they said require one.”

She looked at my chart and said simply, “Oh. Oh yes.” She went over to the phone and said, “page Dr. Richardson to triage, please.”

“What’s oh?” Fi said. “Dr. Connell, what does oh mean? You’re scaring her.”

Dr. Connell said, “I’m sorry, ma’am. It doesn’t mean anything. You asked me whether I was a physician. I am but this is for one of the senior staff. That’s all.”

We sat there for an eternity. The clock said it was only seven minutes, but the clock was wrong. At the end of eternity, an older gentlemen, about 55 years old, with salt and pepper hair came in. He looked out of central casting. I hoped this was a doctor and not an orderly. He looked at Dr. Connell and said, “Doctor, it’s your job to take care of this part. Why are you calling me in? What is so special about this patient?” She wordlessly handed him the chart, he reviewed it and said, “Ah, I see.” I felt mortified and wished I could crawl into a hole. Fi sat next to me and said, stroking my hair, “it’s OK, Kells.”

The older gentleman smiled and said, “I’m Dr. Richardson. So, I see we have a case of tennis elbow, Ms. Cooper.”

I laughed in spite of everything. “It has been bothering me terribly, doctor.”

He turned to Dr. Connell and said briskly, in a manner I only thought was on the telly, but then again I had never been in labour before, “So, what do we have, Doctor?”

“The patient, a female, 25 years old, no prior births or pregnancies. I examined her and she appears to be about 4 cm dilated, with 60 percent effacement. The patient is scheduled for a Caesarean section since she’s, uh…”

“Since she’s what, Doctor? Out with it!”

“Well, the pregnancy is due to a nanosuit and the patient was born male and…”

“And what, doctor? In the time you’ve been fumphing around, there could have been complications. Bloody hell. I apologise, Ms. Cooper.” He looked between my legs and said, “You appear to be about 5 cm and 70 percent effaced now, Ms. Cooper. How do you feel?”

“Scared. Embarrassed.”

He said gently, “Whatever for?”

“The nanosuit. That I’m not what I appear to be. That Dr. Connell is uncomfortable.”

“Dr. Connell is uncomfortable because Dr. Connell knows she should have known better,” he said, glaring at her. “As far as what you appear to be, you appear to be a woman in labour which is good, because that’s what you are, no?”

I smiled, “Thank you, doctor. When can I expect Dr. Patel?”

He let out a laugh. “For what?” I saw Fi stifle a giggle.

“She’s supposed to do the C section? No offence.”

He turned to Fi and said, “Bloody millennials, always so smart. Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve given my CV in here, but I’ve been a practicing OB-GYN for 30 years. I did my training at Cambridge and my residency in Newcastle. I was chief of obstetrics here for 9 years until I decided I was tired of administrative duties. Is that satisfactory, Ms. Cooper?” he said, flashing Fi a glance. She no longer stifled the giggles.

“Yes, doctor,” I said, ashamed of myself. “Sorry.”

He smiled, “Don’t be. As Dr. Connell well knows,” by this point, she was hiding in a corner, “we discussed your case in the departmental meeting. Even if,” and he chuckled, “Priyanka’s not here, I hope you’ll trust me.” Then, he turned to Dr. Connell and said, “Get this woman up to a labour room immediately. Can you do that at least?”

WIthin five minutes, I was in a labour room. Dr. Connell apologized for ‘anything I might have said before about, well, you know. I mean, well. Well, anyway, Dr. Richardson will be along shortly.’

Five minutes later he came in, “How are you Ms. Cooper? Comfortable?”

Just then, another contraction came. Each was more painful than the last. The closest description I had to this was when, in seventh year, I told Violet McIntyre that New Kids on the Block were gay and she kicked me in the groin, while wearing pointy boots. She was on girls’ football. OK, this pain was that if delivered by Wayne Rooney. I screamed, “I AM GOING TO CUT HIS FUCKING DICK OFF!”

He and Fi laughed, while she fed me ice chips. “So, I take it the answer is no.”

“I’m glad you two find this so funny!” I screamed.

FI stroked my arm, “I’ve been there, Kells.”

Dr. Richardson joked, “When my wife was with our first, she threatened to cut my...well...cut it off and feed it to a dingo. I pointed out the lack of dingoes in Newcastle and…”

Fi laughed, “I’m beginning to doubt your qualifications, Doctor.”

He smiled and said, “It was early in residency.” He came over and said, “You’re about 7 cm dilated and 80 percent effaced now.” He turned to the nurse and said, “Call anesthesiology. I need someone up here to give an epidural now, unless you want to go naturally,” he said.

Fi and I both looked at each other and then him. Fi spoke first, “Um, doctor, we’ve discussed the nanosuit.”

“I’m aware of that,” he said. “I’ve done my research as well. Ms. Cooper, you are a woman. You have a uterus, a cervix and a vagina. If you so choose, you can deliver vaginally. Dr. Patel called for a Caesarean section to avoid complications but, given your age and health record, I see no reason why you can’t deliver vaginally, if you so choose.”

I looked at Fi and then him, “And Eddie will be OK? There’s no risk?”

He smiled. “Every delivery has its risks but you’re no more at risk than any other woman.”

I smiled, thinking that I could give birth naturally. That I could experience the full miracle of childbirth.

Whoever called it the full miracle of childbirth has never been through it.

Twelve hours later - “I can’t bloody fucking take this!” I said, squeezing Fi’s hand. She had passed out and woke up to say, “and breathe, 2, 3, 4!” After moving along like gangbusters, my labour had slowed to a crawl. I was still only 8 cm dilated and 85 percent effaced. “Fuck fuck fuck,” I screamed. I looked at my stomach and yelled, “Get out here already!”

Fi smiled, “It’s going to be OK, Kells. Eddie’s on his way. Soon, sweetie.”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP! HE’S NOT HERE YET AND THIS FUCKING HURTS!”

“Do you want the epidural yet?” she asked. I, like an idiot, had decided to do this naturally. Later on, after conversations with other women, I realised that was my male brain. As my friend Beth put it, ‘you know why the women in the rice paddies in Asia don’t get eipdurals? Because they can’t. If they could, they would.’

“YES! NOW! I WANT IT NOW!” The nurse smiled and called anesthesiology. In fifteen minutes, a doctor came up and gave me the epidural. I wanted to kiss him.

Every hour or so, Dr. Richardson came in, “How are we doing, Ms. Cooper.” I thinked he asked out of amusement because I said, after fourteen hours -

“WE ARE GOING TO GET OUT OF BED AND RIP YOUR HEAD OFF, DOCTOR,” then, “sorry, doctor. This really really hurts,” I’d cry.

Fi looked at him and said, “I threatened to castrate my husband. Via his mouth. With a rusty spoon.”

The nurse smiled. “I told my husband I’d kick him so hard his father’s balls would ache.”

Dr. Richardson laughed. “WIth our second, I was told that she would, and this is a quote here, ‘shove a football down my throat and make it come out my arse,’ excuse the language.” Then, he examined me and got serious. “Get an ER prepped, now.”

I started to shake, “What? What? What’s wrong?”

He took my hand and said, “There’s nothing wrong. He’s wrapped up in the cord. We can’t do a vaginal delivery. We’re going to need to do a caesarean.”

“Will he be OK? Will Eddie be OK?” I started to cry.

“He will be fine. This happens all the time,” he said. “He will be fine.” He looked at the nurse, then Fi. “Get Ms. Cooper’s wife a set of scrubs. I assume you’re coming.” She nodded. She looked pale. “OK, take Ms. Cooper in. Ms., uh….”

“Walters. Fiona Walters.”

“You’ll wait in the hall, while we prep her and then you can come in.”

“Fi, don’t leave me,” I cried. “Please.”

She came over and gave me a kiss. “I love you, Kells. It’s going to be OK.”

I lay in the operating room and faded in and out of consciousness. I only had the epidural, which numbed my lower half, but I was so afraid of what could happen and was wondering where Fi was that I could barely focus. I heard, ‘lateral incision above the pubis,’ and ‘pull back the uterine wall.’

Fi came in what I was told was five minutes later. She stroked my hair and said, “It’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK.”

Just then, I heard Dr. Richardson say, “OK, now reach in and gently pull the cord over his head. OK, here we go.” Fi relayed all this to me after the fact. My lower half was covered by a surgical drape. That and, between the epidural and my own anxiety, I was somewhere off in the stars. I only heard, “And here we go. Ten fingers, ten toes. Everything where it’s supposed to be.” Fi said he suctioned the air out of the baby’s mouth and he let out a cry, My Eddie let out a cry, which was good. Because it drowned out mine.

Fi cut the cord and they went to weigh and measure Eddie. 8 lbs. 1 oz. 20 inches long. Perfectly healthy.

Fi walked him over and sat down. “Here’s mummy, Eddie. Here’s your son, Kells.”

I smiled and looked over at Fi holding him, “Our son.”

After 45 minutes of delivering the placenta and sewing me up, they took me to recovery. They gave me enough painkillers so that, when I see the picture of Eddie and me, I have no recollection. We joked that Fi put a cake in my hands and then photoshopped in the baby.

The next morning, I was lying in bed, feeling the effects of the surgery. I wouldn’t have traded a second of it, but it was still abdominal surgery. They had cut a hole in my abdomen and I was told it would take several weeks for me to recover. I had looked on my iPad to see if the nanos would somehow work their magic. They wouldn’t. I was just another mum with a C section.

A nurse came in, “How are you feeling, Ms. Cooper?” Fi was sitting in a chair next to me, holding my hand. Matty was downstairs getting me a bag of Maltesers. I had been so nervous in the days up to the delivery that I had been afraid to eat anything much. When the painkillers wore off, I wanted something sweet.

“It hurts. A lot,” I said.

She smiled, “I understand. Do you feel up to walking?”

“It really hurts,” I whimpered.

Fi smiled, “The sooner you walk, the sooner they can take the catheter out.” Did I mention that, as part of all of this, they had to catheterize me so that I could go to the bathroom. Yet, more proof that god was a man. Or the devil at least. “Come on, I’ll walk right next to you.”

I was negotiating my way to a sitting position when Matt came in. “Is everything OK?” he said.

I smiled, “I’m fine. I’m just getting myself up and out of bed for a walk.”

He came around and offered his hand. “Let me help. Seems a fair trade,” and he gave me a kiss. “I walked past the nursery. Eddie is the best looking baby there,” he said, with a smile. “There’s a baby girl at the back who can’t take her eyes of him. Breaking hearts already.”

We walked down the hall, slowly but surely, Matt and Fi each holding an arm. We walked past the nursery and looked in the window. In a bassinet next to Eddie was a baby that dwarfed him. The card said he was 10 pounds, 3 ounces. Matt said, “Look at him. What is he, six years old?”

I started laughing, which gave me sharp pains. You don’t realise it until they cut you open but you really do use your stomach muscles to laugh (the term ‘belly laugh’ is no lie.) “Bloody hell, Matt,” I said. “You can’t do that to me.” I felt Fi tense up. “What’s wrong?” She just looked down the hall.

That’s when I saw them. Striding along, all confidence, with a bouquet of flowers and a stuffed bear.

They approached. “I got here as soon as I could. I was in Paris doing press. Is everything OK? Is Edward?” I turned to the nursery and pointed to his bassinet. He laid there peacefully. “That’s him? That’s our son?” They were beaming and gave me a kiss. At ‘our son’, Fi tensed again. She glared at them. This was not their son, this was our son.

“Hello, Fiona,” they said.

Fiona stood next to me, guarding me like a Valkyrie. “Congratulations, James. Everything went according to plan.” Left off was ‘not that you were here. Not that I cared that you weren’t.’

James glared back, both of them oblivious to me. “Thank you, Fiona, for being there. You must be Matt,” they said, grinning. “Do you still have that My Little Pony Gymkhana set I bought you for your tenth birthday?” They tried to joke.

Matt shrugged, “I play with it all the time Aunty Jamie. Some things never change.” I wanted to kiss him (and then punch him for making me laugh again)

I had discussed Matt with them last time we spoke, in preparation for just this circumstance. They were surprisingly even-keeled about it, asking only whether John had known.

Matt held out his hand. “Congratulations, I suppose.”

They had become no better at dealing with children since the last time they had seen him. “Thanks. So, how is school? Taking your GCSEs, I suppose? What do you want to study?”

“Yes. I don’t know. Maybe psychology or something,” Matt mumbled, falling into the pattern since time immemorial of adults and teens. How long do I have to stand here before I can leave?

“Uh, that’s terrific. Do you mind if I walk with Kelly a bit,” they asked, as if I were a child to be led.

Fi glared at them and I looked at her, pleading that she at least not make a scene in the hallway. “Fi, I will be fine,” I said. She was not best pleased, but pointedly gave a me a kiss and walked away, looking back the whole time.

They took my hand and kissed my cheek. “So, how are you?”

“In pain,” I said. “Massive pain. But, otherwise, fine. Thank you for coming,” I said.

They looked at me in disbelief. “This is OUR child,” they said, emphasizing ‘OUR.’

I softened a little, realising why they were upset. “He is.” We shuffled back to the nursery and looked in the window. “He’s beautiful, isn’t he?”

James smiled, a genuine smile, the sort I hadn’t seen since long before all of this. “He really is. Can I see him?”

Part of me didn’t want to let them but I realised that was unfair to Eddie. This was his father, after all. “Sure, let’s go back to the room and I’ll have him brought in.” We slowly shuffled back. They were shocked when I told them that I had gone through fourteen hours of labour.

“I thought that...well...you said it was a C section because of…” they said, in a low voice and looking around. I couldn’t decide whether they were stammering because they couldn’t understand or because they were afraid of being embarrassed.

I smiled. “So did I, but no, I could deliver vaginally.” They winced at my matter-of-fact attitude. I wanted to look at them and say, ‘get over it. I have a vagina. Thanks to you.’

“So, what happened?”

“He was tangled in the cord,” I said. They looked concerned. “Apparently, it’s fine. He was getting oxygen through the umbilical cord. I just couldn’t deliver naturally is all. After all that, and I still had the C anyway.”

“I’m sorry,” they said.

‘For what,’ I thought. ‘For tricking me? For leaving me broke and pregnant? For not being here when I gave birth? Which part?’ I chose to deploy a precision weapon. “It’s fine. Fi was here,” I said, with a smile.

They parried back. “I have to thank her for that.”

We shuffled back into the room. Eddie was in his bassinet, having beaten us here. Fi was in the chair, reviewing work e-mails, I presumed. Matt looked at James and me, and then Fi. “Mum,” he said, picking her up by the arm. “Let’s go. Let’s give them some time alone.”

I smiled and gave Fi a kiss. “It’s OK, Fi. We’ll be fine.”

She and James continued their staring contest. James smirked. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for Kelly, Fiona. I’m so grateful.” They were a six foot tall, 180 pound man but, underneath, they were still a bitch.

“That was unnecessary,” I said.

“What? I am grateful for what she’s done in my absence.”

“You know full well what I mean, James. That was not about your absence. It’s about her presence. In my life.”

They sneered. “She’s been a presence in OUR life forever. It’s always been about her. And now it’s impacting OUR life. OUR family.”

I took a deep breath before speaking which was not smart. I winced from the pain in the surgical area.

“Are you OK?”

“No. I am most definitely not ok. I just had abdominal surgery.” They looked confused and I continued, “Yes, I gave birth but it was still surgery. Abdominal surgery. Major fucking abdominal surgery.”

They took my hand and sat me in the chair. “Should I get the nurse?”

“Give me a second,” I said. Just then, Eddie started to cry, hoarse little squeak that sounded like nothing so much as a kettle at full boil. I put my arms on the chair and said, “Hang on a second, Eddie. Mummy’s right here.”

They smiled and said, “Sit. I’ll get him.”

“Do you know how to lift a baby?”

They smiled, “One day as a mum and she’s already decided your dad’s an incompetent, Eddie.“

I laughed. “Stop! It hurts to laugh.”

They smiled. “Yes, I know how to lift an infant,” they saId, carefully lifting him and making sure to cradle his head. “Here’s mum, Eddie,” they said, tenderly.

He kept crying. He didn’t feel wet. “Can you wheel the cart over? I need to make him a bottle,” I sighed.

“What’s wrong?”

I paused for a second, wondering if I should say something. “Nothing. It’s stupid.”

“Nothing could be stupid,” they said. “What is it?”

“I want to breastfeed but I can’t. As good as this suit is, I can’t,” and I started to cry.

They put their arm around me and I remembered the way they comforted me when my father died. Then I looked at Eddie and remembered who he was named for and I cried some more. “It’s OK, Kelly. I’m here,” they said. “I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be here for you and Eddie.”

For some reason, that snapped me out of my sadness. “Please,” I said. “You can’t promise that and I don’t want you to.”

“What? Our son is not even a day old and you’re saying that? How could you?” They said angrily.

“I don’t mean it that way. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You’re Eddie’s father. I want, no I expect, you to be a big part of his life. What I meant was this is your life now. You’ve worked your whole life for this and you’re getting everything you want, everything you deserve.”

“It’s everything WE worked for, everything WE deserve, Kelly. Remember how we used to talk about this? We’d sit on the roof of our old building and talk about my BAFTA and your Man Booker,” they said.

I smiled. “I remember.” I looked at them and realised that my heart no longer leapt. For years, whenever I saw them, my heart would leap with joy at how lucky I was. I no longer felt that way. “And maybe we’ll both get there still. But it’s not going to be together.”

“Stop it! I don’t know what she did but we are still married, dammit. Your place is with me!”

‘MY place is with you?’ The surgical site started to throb which, paradoxically, made me focus even harder. “Just stop it, Jamie. Stop it right bloody now,” I said, as I lifted Eddie to burp him. He made this tiny belching noise that was the funniest thing I ever heard. “I’ll humour you though. How do you see this playing out? You’ll be on set somewhere and Eddie and I will be where exactly?”

James looked at me, with all seriousness and said, “You’ll come with me. He can see the world. Think of the experience.”

I held back from laughing in their face. “Like Iceland?”

“You left,” they snapped at me. “You didn’t have to.” I could see the hurt in their eyes behind the anger and bravado.

“That’s actually not what I meant, James. What I meant was you’ll be on location and we’ll be in a hotel. Maybe come visit you on set sometime. Is that your grand plan?” I said icily.

They looked confused. “It won’t be that way this time. We’ll see everything. Just think of what he’ll get see, that we never saw.”

“And he can do that on holidays and summers, but he needs to be around other children. Not on set being a cross between a pet and an unwanted intrusion.”

“Fine. I won’t take jobs anywhere outside of England.”

I smiled. “That is utterly ridiculous. You told me you were up for a Netflix series in Los Angeles. If you did that, you’d only come to resent us.”

“Fine, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come with me.”

“What about me? What about my career?”

“You can write anywhere,” they said. “Think of what you’ll have to write about.”

I laughed. “Right, caring for my son without my family around.”

They looked at me and said angrily, “I’m your family.”

“No, you aren’t. Not anymore. Fiona and Matt are my family. You’re Eddie’s father and I will always love you but they are my family now.”

“STOP IT! THEY ARE NOT YOUR FAMILY! I AM!” I saw a vein bulge out of the side of their head.

“Lower your voice,” I hissed. “There are women here who just gave birth. They don’t need your drama.”

They lowered their voice. “What can I do to prove it to you? I will give you a check for what I took right now,” they said, fidgeting with their watch and scratching their hand the way they used to, when they were nervous or lying.

“Is that what you think this is about? Money? If you want to return what you took, that would be grand,” I said. “But that’s a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself.”

“You resent me for what I did. Fine, we can take off the suits. We’ll go back to the way we were, before. Will that show you how serious I am?”

“No. All that will do is make you resent us more. You have everything you’ve worked for, James. You’re a successful actor. The reviews were wonderful, congratulations. If you go back to the way you used to be, you’ll just come to hate us. I’ve had one woman in my life who left because she couldn’t deal with being a mum, I will not allow a second.” They started to protest and I held up my hand. “You know I’m right,” I said.

They wouldn’t let it go. “If you don’t agree, you’re leaving me no choice.”

Now I was angry. I put Eddie back in the bassinet. I took care to swaddle him as the nurse showed me. You were supposed to wrap them up tight so they felt like they were still in the womb. Matt took one look and called him ‘burrito.’ I finished and said, “Oh really? What do you plan to do?”

“I will go to court and fight. For full custody,” they smirked.

“On what grounds?”

“You’re an unfit mother. You’re not even a mum,” they said.

If I could have, I would’ve leapt at them and choked them. Instead, “that may be the cruelest thing you have ever said to me, ever. It may the cruelest thing I have ever heard from anyone, you bastard.” I choked back tears and continued, “If that’s what you think you need to do, go ahead. Drag this through the courts. The fucking Sun will have a bloody field day. The great actor’s actually a ‘bird.’ Perhaps you can do a very confusing Page 3 shoot. That’ll do wonders for your career, you fucking arsehole.” I hoped Eddie wasn’t absorbing the hate in the room. I wanted to call for the nurse to take him, to save him from this.

They smirked and looked towards the hospital. “Trans is very in, haven’t you heard?”

I thought about Matt lying in hospital, the tubes running from his nose. And Saff and her mum. And Andrew Fucking Hall. I took a deep breath, pain be damned. “Well, sexual assault isn’t.” I was proud of myself for not yelling.

“Oh, we’re back on that again, are we?”

I smiled. “We are. And more importantly, you’re not that fucking important,” I almost said ‘yet’ but didn’t want to offer anything that might sound encouraging. “Do you really think a studio wants the bad publicity that comes from having an actor who pulled this shite? Maybe I look like a fool for going along, but do you see women falling for an actor who basically conned his poor girlfriend. Who do you want to be, Ben Affleck or Casey Affleck?” All my Grazia reading was paying off.

“His poor GIRLFRIEND?” They said, rolling their eyes.

“Yes,” I snarled. “Girlfriend. You can take off the suit if you want, but this is me. This is who I am. I am not going to yell, I am not going to scream. But I will fight you tooth and nail for that boy,” I said, pointing at Eddie, who thankfully slept peacefully. “And you know what? If you don’t care about me, if you don’t care about you, care about OUR son. Do you want to drag him through the mud? Make him the unwitting star of your little sideshow? Is that really what you want? Think before you speak.”

They slumped. “I want us to be a family.”

“James,” I said, putting my hand on their shoulder. “Is that really what you want? Really? Or is this about Fiona?” They started to talk and I stopped them again. “Seriously, you need to think about what you really want. Do you really see yourself as an everyday dad, changing nappies now and again and nipping off to the store for milk and ‘hi honey, I’m home!’”

They paused. “Do you see yourself as mum? Up all night with the sick baby, making lunch for school and oohing and aahing over some shite mug he made in art class?”

“Yes,” I answered immediately. “Unequivocally yes. I can’t wait,” and I couldn’t hold back my smile, “to get some scribble on a piece of paper and proudly put it up on the refrigerator. Did you notice something, James?”

“What?”

“I answered immediately. You answered my question with your own question. Does that tell you something?” They were at a loss for words. “I love you, James and will always love you. But, do you really see a relationship working that’s based on a threat, do you? Are we going to be Sandra and Lionel?” Those were her parents. Their marriage was, as my aunt Priscilla used to say, ‘made a few steps shy of heaven.’ Priscilla was a caustic old bat, that’s why I named my reflux after her. “Is that your goal?”

“I hate this, you know,” they said quietly, letting down the mask. “I hate that we’re not us and I hate that it’s her. Are you happy now?”

“No, I’m not, Jamie,” I said. “I’m really not. If you want to only work in London, that’s your decision and I’ll support it unequivocally. You can see Eddie as much as you want then, he can stay over every other day if you want, you’re his father. But, we are not getting back together. We’re done.”

“Why won’t you give us another chance?”

I almost laughed in their face. Then I looked at them again and saw that they were sincere. Utterly narcissistic and misguided, but sincere. “If you had asked me six months ago, it would’ve been because I didn’t trust you, but…”

“How can I regain your trust? I love you Kelly.”

“And you probably believe that,” I said. I saw the pain in their eyes and knew I had achieved my goal. “But as I was saying, that’s not it anymore. I love Fiona, I’m in love with her and, like you said in the cafe, not in that stupid moony way I was at Uni. That wasn’t love, that was lust and puppy love and something else. But, I love her. And she loves me, as I am. I don’t expect you to accept that now but I hope that you will someday. And I want you to have that love too.”

They put their head down and started to cry. “I did,” they said. They looked at me. “I don’t know who you are,” they said, “but I used to know a Kelly Cooper and I loved him. And he loved me.” I felt awful. I tried to convince myself that they were manipulating me, but knew they weren’t. I held them in my arms and let them cry.

Fi walked back in and looked at me. I just shook my head. They looked up and looked at Fi, “Congratulations. Treat her right.” They walked over to the table where the teddy bear was and put it in Eddie’s bassinet. They leaned over and gave him a kiss. “Daddy loves you, Eddie. Be a good boy for your mum and Fiona. Try not to bother your brother too much.”

I started to cry. “James, please.”

They looked at me, wiped their eyes and smiled sadly. “I’ll call you and we’ll set schedules. You’ll let me know what days and times work. Don’t worry. I won’t do to him what she did to you,” and he left the room. I wanted to curl into a ball and cry, but then Eddie started crying. I needed to be his mum first.

---

I wanted everything to be perfect. Fi had laughed at me, telling me that Eddie would have no idea what Christmas was for at least another year or two. I didn’t care, this was going to be the best Christmas ever. By the time I was finished, between the decorations and the baby stuff the flat was full.

On the day, we had the morning to ourselves. Bill, Julia and the boys were driving up but wouldn’t be here until afternoon. The rest of the guests would be getting here around 2.

As was tradition in the Walters household, we took it in turns to open our presents going around in a circle one at a time. Matt started, a biography of Bill Shankly from Fi. Then Eddie, sitting on my knee got his first ever Christmas present. A Sophie the Giraffe, again from Fi. I unwrapped it for him and watched as his little hands tried to hold it. His eyes squinted trying to focus. Never before had someone so completely held my attention. Not Jamie/James, not even Fi.

We continued along the same line for the next hour. Fi made us all a bucks fizz, even that small amount of alcohol made my head spin after months of abstinence. Matt clearly enjoyed being allowed to drink in front of his mum.

The only downer was Matt’s present for Eddie. A tiny replica Liverpool kit.

“I hope you kept the receipt, Matt. There’s a misprint. It should say ‘Fly Emirates,” the Arsenal kit.

“Remind me again, O.M., how many European trophies have the London clubs won? Added all together?”

“Hmmm,” I crossed my arms.

After we finished, Fi pulled me away into the kitchen. Matt was playing with Eddie. I watched him suspiciously as he showed Eddie his Bill Shankly book. I wondered what Eddie would make of a legendary Liverpool manager from before I was born. I wondered what Matt made of him. A manager who was a self-professed socialist and who had made his team share their sandwiches with supporters. A different world to today’s premiership.

“I wanted to give you this.” Fi looked nervous.

“You didn’t have to spend anything, “ I could feel my forehead wrinkling. We had agreed on a maximum budget for each other, saving our money for the boys.

“Just let me get this out,” her face had gone pale. “Kelly, when you came into my life again, I was…” she held out a little box. A ring sized box. It was my turn to turn pale. “I was lost Kelly. I didn’t think I could ever be happy again.” We were both crying.

“F-F-Fi, you don’t have to thank me. You’ve done so much for me…” I could hardly breathe, let alone speak.

“No Kells, I do need to thank you. You’ve saved me. Saved us. I don’t know what I’d do without you. It terrifies me to think what Matt and I would have done without you this year. I love you. Should I get down on my knee for this?” I was crying and grinning like an idiot at the same time. I shook my head ‘no’.

She opened up the little box, “Kelly Cooper, will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”

I laughed at the formality of her language. I hugged her close. Much closer than I could have a month ago.

“Is that a yes then?” Fi said half laughing.

I kissed her then nodded.

“About bloody time, mum,” Matt walked in carrying Eddie. He’d make a great dad sometime. “Welcome to the family properly O.M.” He handed me the baby, “I think he needs a change.” Thankfully, fatherhood was still a few years off.

“Right,” I said, holding Eddie up and watching him gurgle, “Leave us alone you two. We have a Christmas dinner to cook.”

I don’t know what possessed me to cook for eight people less than a month after giving birth. Ten if you counted Eddie and me. In future years I’d look back and wince. I guess I just wanted him to be surrounded by lots of people who loved him.

Bill, Julia and the boys were the first to arrive. Bill and Julia came to greet Eddie and me in the kitchen. They both looked tired. Through the dividing bookshelf, I could see the boys tearing about the living room, re-creating a space battle for Matt.

“You look tired Billy boy,” I gave him a hug and a kiss.

“Try spending three hours in a car with two boys high on Christmas chocolate.” Julia laughed, then she jumped, “Kelly! What’s that on your finger? Is it what I think it is?”

I blushed. I smiled. I laughed and cried a little.

“Hey you,” Bill said to Fi as she came in, “Are you finally making an honest woman out of my little sister?”

“Well, you know how I like to help out a fallen woman.” She put her arms around me from behind, as the other two chuckled.

“Stop picking on her,” Julia intervened on my behalf, “Can I help Kelly?” Sweat was dripping of my brow.

“No, no,” I said unconvincingly, “Everything is under control.”

“Right,” Julia said, rolling up her sleeves. “You two take Eddie next door and keep an eye on the boys. We’ve got work to do.”

With a practiced movement, Uncle Bill picked up his new nephew and turned to Fi, “Five boys for Christmas. I hope Lloyd’s gave you a deal on insurance?” Fi laughed, then looked worried.

Half an hour later, while I was checking on the sprouts and bacon, I heard the doorbell ringing and Matt running to get it. Ten minutes later Richard and Saff stuck their heads into the kitchen.

“Hi Kelly,” Richard looked tired but happy.

Saff’s eyes were drawn to my finger. She took my hand and demanded, “Let me see. Let me see.” Laughing, I showed her the ring. “Wow, it’s beautiful! How much did it cost do you think?”

“That’s not important,” Lots, I was sure.

“Congratulations.” They both gave me a hug.

“Right, give us some space. We’re nearly ready. Tell Fi twenty minutes.” That wasn’t entirely true. All that was left to do was to keep an eye on things so Julia and I relaxed with a large glass of white each.

Fiona, Matt and Bill had cleared the living room and set up a large table surrounded by every chair we owned. Including the two plastic chairs from the garden. Bill’s boys were barely able to sit still and, I figured, were heading for a big sugar crash in about hour or two. I suspect that was Bill’s plan, hoping that they would sleep in the car home.

As per Cooper family tradition, we were all wearing the worst Christmas jumpers we could find. Mine had a badly knitted snowman. Bill had a reindeer who’s nose lit up and Matt had a blue and white Doctor Who themed jumper. Apparently the idea the main character could change his (potentially ‘her’) physical appearance had struck a chord in the young Matt.

As we sat down, I watched Matt and Saff sitting at the opposite end of the table. They were crushed in together, arm to arm. Every now and then Saff would lean her head on his shoulder. I also noticed Bill’s eldest glancing in Saff’s direction. They grow up so fast. ‘Give me a few good years first’, I silently prayed to Eddie who, in reply, sicked up a little of his milk onto his bib.

During the break between the main meal and dessert, I noticed Richard slipping into the garden with Bill. I followed them.

“Is that what I think it is?”

Richard smiled, “It’s for my back pain your honour.”

“Sure. Now give me a drag.”

“Aren’t you breastfeeding?” Bill enquired.

“We’re doing bottle. Remember, the thing, Bill?” I couldn’t keep the disappointment and envy out of my voice. He smiled and nodded. “I take it Julia is driving.”

Bill smiled broadly, “that’s the deal.”

“One plus side of having a religious wife,” Richard grinned, passing Bill the joint.

From inside, I could hear Julia, “I don’t care what you think. This is a hallway, not a Formula One track.”

Bill sighed, looking at the joint like a man in the Sahara eyeing a bottle of Evian, then passing it to me, “No rest for the wicked. You’re going to find yourself stringing together all sorts of words you didn’t know went together. A zebra is not a weapon, for example.” He walked in and I heard him yell, “Do we put your brother’s shoes on the bookshelf, Alex?” Richard laughed and then handed me the joint.

I took a drag. “Matt and Saff are getting along well.”

“He’s a good kid. Ellen knows what he did for Saff. She says thank you.” His voice trailed off.

“Really?” I said, perhaps more sternly than I had meant to. “Sorry, that’s not fair.” I handed the joint back to him, “So what do you think the chances are for them getting back together?”

Richard took a drag, “You don’t know?”

I shook my head. “I’ve been a little busy lately,” I laughed.

“She’s already dating another boy. A spotty urchin called Chris, on the rugby team. I didn’t know when I had it good. I think I prefer the boyfriends who have to get their testosterone from the chemist.”

“Does Matt know?” I looked through the window. I could just see Matt sat in the armchair, Saff perched on the armrest as they unwrapped their presents to each other.

“They hang out all the time, so I guess so. I did hear Matt’s seeing some Jewish girl from Clement Attlee Academy. Has he not said anything?” Again I shook my head accepting the joint off him. “I wouldn’t worry. They’re always secretive at that age. Matt’s a very mature boy. You can trust him.”

I knew he was right. “Jewish, hey? Between us, we’re a Labour council’s wet dream.”

After they had left Matt wandered off to his room and Fi and me crashed on the sofa. Bill and Richard had helped us put the table and chairs away. The rest we’d have to deal later. I lay with my head on Fi’s shoulder admiring my ring.

“So, I chose well?”

“It’ll do,”

“Cheeky cow.”

That moment Eddie started to cry.

“I’ll get him,” Fi kissed the top of my head. “Rest. Everything was lovely.”

“Thanks, husband,” I replied.

-----------------

“Happy birthday, dear Eddie. Happy birthday to you,” everyone sang. Eddie laughed along, even though he had no idea it was his birthday, his first. He was just happy to have people around.

“OK, now, Fiona and Kelly, get in close to him, 1-2-3, smile,” said James. He had flown in from Los Angeles. He had got the Netflix series, a police procedural with overtones of horror and maybe a little Sci-Fi. There had been a lot of rewrites and his character had gone from ‘rugged’ to a recovering alcoholic looking for a group of kids who went missing in a forest. When I’d asked him about it, he’d made a big deal about how much more complex and satisfying to play the character was now. I knew he missed the thought of playing the hero though.

I told him that he didn’t need to fly in special, that Eddie would be happy to see him no matter when and he laughed, saying, “it’s my son’s first birthday. I can’t miss this.”

James took the picture and Fi said, “Switch places, James. Let’s get a picture of Eddie and his mum and dad.” James knelt down next to Eddie, who kept pushing on his face. James had moved to California when Eddie was four months old. He called on Skype almost every day, but Eddie was used to us tapping on the iPad so he, ‘can see Daddy.’ Eddie assumed that this was just a bigger iPad and kept tapping on him to see what happened. James played along and made silly noises or faces whenever he did it, which made him laugh.

“OK, now who wants cake?” Fi said, cutting into the chocolate cake I had baked the previous day.

I smiled and held Eddie. “Do you want cake,” I said sweetly. “Do you, my little man?” He gave a big smile. “Dr. Cromwell,” our pediatrician, “gave the OK, right sweetie?”

“Yes,” Fi said, shooting Bill and Julia a look that can best be described as ‘new mum,’ “Eddie can have cake too.” He reached his hand in and happily smeared it all over the new outfit I had bought him for the party, little blue shorts and a white shirt. Well, now brown and white.

Bill and Julia had come up for the day with the boys. Alex and Mikey tried to play with Eddie for about three minutes before looking at him like he was an educational videogame and an uninteresting one at that. They spent most of their time pestering Matt to show them XBox.

“Yes,” Matt sighed, for the tenth time. “We can play. FIFA or NBA 2K17?”

“Call of Duty,” Alex yelled. Mikey seconded, “Call of Duty! Call of Duty!” He had no idea what it was, other than his older brother wanted it.

“NBA, it is,” Matt said, with a smile. He had begun taking testosterone shots in preparation for his surgery. It had the effect of deepening his voice and increasing his muscle mass. He now looked like a shorter, younger John which, although she wouldn’t say it aloud, made Fiona sad. I asked her about it once, and she tried to deflect. “That was then,” she said, kissing me on the lips, “and we are now.” I wanted to tell her she could be then and still be now too, that I was willing to share, but she didn’t want to hear it.

On the plus side, Matt had let his hair grow out. On the minus side, as Bill put it when he came in, “have you taken the boy to the doctor yet, get that growth on his face checked?” Yes, Matt had grown what he called a beard. At its thickest, he looked like he had a small mangy animal crawling on his face.

While Alex and Mikey ignored Eddie, Issy and Lisa were all over him, especially Lisa. Looking at them both, I was reminded of that picture of Peggy dad had kept in his drawer. The one taken at the seaside. As I pondered how alike they looked, Issy turned and smiled, while her little sister edged forward on the carpet towards Eddie.

“Come here, Eddie,” she said, as he blissfully played with a ball that lit up and made noise. The box said it helped with cognitive development, so I bought it. It improved our cognition. Every time it made noises at random, we thought about what a mistake it was to buy it. Lisa scooped him up, under his armpits, and carried him around. He didn’t cry, just looked confused.

Perry had brought Lisa and Issy down this morning. Peggy was supposed to come but, as he said, not acknowledging but not denying reality, “she said she’s under the weather. Sorry,” he shrugged, handing us a present. She had knit Eddie a jumper, baby blue. She still had yet to see him in person which didn’t bother me. It was what I expected. I didn’t care. My sisters were here, Eddie’s aunts. His 15 and 12 year old aunts.

About an hour after cake, I saw Eddie start to zone out, getting what we called ‘nil face.’ As he was most days, he had been up since 6 AM, ready to play.

-----

“Bloody hell,” I said that morning, when I heard his cry. I looked at the clock. “It’s 6 AM. On Saturday,” I said, getting out of bed. I slept in an old t shirt of mine that James had sent over when he moved to the States. It was sort of absurd. Over time, before the bodysuit, it had become tight on me. I had blamed the laundry. The owner had smiled and said, ‘it’s funny. When my customers eat right and exercise, I don’t shrink clothes.’ Now, it swam on me. I walked into his room and took him from the crib. “Who is mummy’s little man? Who is? Who is? Who is mummy’s little vampire,” I cooed.

-----

As Eddie started to fall asleep, I picked him up and said, “I am going to change the guest of honour and put him down for his nap.” I gave him a little kiss on the forehead, I did that at least twenty times a day. He laid his head on my shoulder which, even after a year, made me feel good. It gave me a physical pleasure.

“Mind if I join you?” James asked. I looked at Fi who was deep in conversation with Lauren, James’ new girlfriend. She was a redhead, a script supervisor on his show. She came in with a puzzle for Eddie and a bottle of wine for us, which endeared her to Fi.

“Of course not,” I said. We went into Eddie’s room, with its murals of circus animals on its blue walls. A crib sat where the guest bed used to be and a changing table opposite it. I put Eddie up on the table, making sure to rest my arm lightly on him, so he didn’t fall off. He wasn’t walking yet, but he was crawling and pulling himself up. Fi laughed and said, ‘we need to stop that. Leg sweep him if you have to.’

James smiled, “So how have you been?”

“I’ve been great. Busy but great.”

“I saw the pictures on Facebook of you at Jeremy’s wedding. That was a beautiful dress.” It was a pale green chiffon dress with a jewel neck. “You looked lovely,” he said with a grin.

I smiled back, “Thanks.”

He laughed, “Bloody Jeremy. Married. I would never have guessed that, in a million years.” I told him the story of how he and Victoria met. “Bloody pregnant wingman, bloody brilliant,” she laughed. Eddie started to fall asleep in my arms. I went to get up to put him in the crib and James said, “May I?” I smiled and handed Eddie’s limp little body over. James walked over, singing, ‘who is daddy’s favorite boy? Eddie is. Eddie is.’ He laid him in the crib. I walked over and we both watched him sleep, on his back with his arms stretched out in a ‘goal’ pose. I dreamt of sleeping that peacefully. James put his arm around my waist, not in a sexual manner but that of two people who shared a history. “We did something right,” he said, with a smile.

“We did a lot right, James. We just came to the end. Last chapter, credits roll. But don’t discount what we had.”

He smiled, “Thanks. That means alot coming from you.”
I smiled, “I mean it. The good times outweighed the bad. We just ran the course is all. How have you been?”

“I’ve been great,” he said. “Busy as all get out, but great.”

“That’s terrific. I really like Lauren by the way. She’s really wonderful,” I said. I decided to tease him, “I saw her playing with Eddie…”

He laughed, “Nice try, Kelly. Nah, my therapist made me realise that you were right. I’m not cut out to be a full-time dad, I’m too selfish.”

“Your therapist? What sort of Englishman are you,” I laughed. “What happened to alcoholism and sublimation? It built the empire, you know!”

He laughed. “You and Fiona are doing a great job. He’s a lucky boy to have two great mums. Hell, you and I would have killed for one. Between us.”

“Thanks.”

“It looks good on you,” he said. “You seem really happy.”

“I am.” I could see he was trying to decide if he should apologise again for how we ended up here. I had long since moved past blaming him. We were a movie that had come to its logical end. Did the characters live happily ever after? Time would tell. “Thanks.” I left the rest unsaid and was thankful for it.

“I can’t believe the book. We were in LAX and there’s my Kelly on a giant display. ‘This season’s hot new thriller,’” he said, in a stentorian voice.

“Stop it,” I said, blushing.

“There’s talk about the movie of it. Everyone wants a role. I’ve heard Alyssa’s aiming for it,” he said, with a smile. “She’d make a great corpse.”

“Ouch,” I said, laughing. “So what happened exactly?”

He smiled. “Ah nothing really. She turned out to be a Class A, what did you call them, entitled little millena-twats?”

“Hey,” I said, lightly punching him. “I think I’m one of them now.”

He pulled me closer, “Nah, not you,” he said. “I looked at the book. Thank you.”

“For what?”

“You know what.” I knew what. I had dedicated the book to ‘Fiona and James, the two loves of my life, without whom this book would never have been.’

“I meant it, James. I mean it.”

He smiled, “Yeah, well, thanks. Let’s let Eddie sleep. Everyone’s probably wondering where we are, you know?”

I gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek. We turned out the lights and left the room.

------

I watched Kelly from the sidelines. Next to me was the producer and a 20 something with a clipboard. I could see the back of her head. Her ponytail bobbed up and down as she took a swig of her water.

“Ms. Walters,” the 20-something spoke to me, “would you like something to drink. Tea, coffee?”

I shook my head. I felt so nervous for Kelly I was sure I would vomit anything straight back up.

The screens above us were lit up. On it I could see the face of the presenter, Lucy Macintyre. Looking in front of me, I could see Ms. Macintyre bathed in the studio spotlight. Kelly’s chair was in the dark.

“Hello, today I’m going to be speaking with the hot new crime writer Kelly Cooper. Kelly’s debut novel The Danelaw has been winning rave reviews from almost everyone and there’s rumours Hollywood are sniffing around the film rights.” Hollywood and James. Lauren had let it slip at Eddie’s party.

The presenter turned and the lights revealed Kelly sitting in a chair, with one leg crossed over the other. It reminded me of how she sits when she wants to get me into bed. She thinks her legs are her best assets. They are, or at least one of them. She was wearing a smart blue sheath dress that only added to the effect.

“Kelly, welcome,”

“Thank you Lucy,”

“It’s been twelve months since the release of your debut novel. Have you been surprised by the response?” The presenter speaks with a pleasant Edinburgh burr.

“Very. And delighted. I originally wrote it for myself. I never expected Ingrid to be taken into the hearts of so many.” She tugged the hem of her skirt over her knee, smoothing the fabric down.

“What do you think is behind it?”

“You tell me,” Kelly leaned back, pausing for a moment, “I think readers, especially women, want to see strong female characters. I also think there’s something to say about family. As women, it often falls to us to be the bridge between generations. We are often the holders of the family secrets, the ones who keep things together when everything else is falling apart. Ingrid’s journey is one of self-discovery, but it’s also a journey into her family’s past.”

“Intriguing. Would you say there’s a separation between women’s crime fiction and crime novels written by a man?”

Kelly leaned forward, pushing her fringe out of her eyes, I remembered teaching her how to make her eyes up like that. “Yes. And no. It’s too easy to generalise, there are many male writers who can write complex female characters. As novels, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary spring to mind. What I’d say is that, when you get down to it writing is about empathy. Good writing at least. It’s about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and figuring out what you would do under the same circumstances. Once you start writing, the character leads you.”

“So men can write better female characters?”

“No, of course not. This all comes with the caveat that women have been marginalised for centuries and that we need more women with voices, not less.”

“The right wing commentator Andrew Hall has said that your book glories in the status of victimhood. He says he longs for novels that explore the extraordinary rather than get bogged down in the mundane.”

I saw Kelly smiling to herself; I wondered what she was thinking? “I think that’s rather a lot of syllables for Andrew Hall.”

Lucy laughed. I could see her warming to Kelly, the way most people do.

The conversation changed. Who does Kelly currently rate, what authors is she reading. I tuned out a little. I already knew the answers. What I did do was watch her mouth moving. The soft pink lips. The slight blush in her cheeks from the heat of the studio lights. You could hardly see that shy boy with the crush on me at Uni. But he was still there. The same smile, the same joy when they talked about writing.

I remembered, when I was a student, how I used to work in warehouses over the summers. Standing in line with a group of middle-aged women. All wearing white coats and hairnets.

One summer, I worked at a place that made frozen garlic bread. The sort you can buy in supermarkets anywhere. There were two sizes, the larger one for the deluxe brand, and the smaller one for the ‘economy’.

The same dough went into both. It was the hole it went through that decided its identity.

The interview finished before I realised. The lights on Kelly switched off, plunging her into darkness as Lucy talked about next week. A review of the biography of Florida senator Jessica Silverman and an interview with the northern playwright Jack Sheppard.

I wasn’t really listening. Instead I watched Kelly sitting there, looking forward to when she would return to my side.



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