He normally avoided the pub on Mondays, but he’d had a good day. In fact, an exceptional day, still buzzing after completing a lucrative deal, long and complex negotiations with tricky Middle Eastern clients that afternoon. A swift pint was definitely in order.
He saw her on his way to the bar. He bought a drink and as he made his way to a small table by the door, she saw him, her eyes momentarily holding him, quickening something inside him.
From behind the Evening Standard crossword he watched her, waiting for a bolder, less ambiguous signal. A nod. A smile, perhaps. A statement of intent. When she stood up, slipped out of her coat and glanced over at him, he bought another pint.
Thirty down – meant to be – beginning with ‘s’ – ending with ‘y.’ He smiled and filled in the small square boxes – serendipity – writing in ‘y’ just as her friend stood up, put on her coat, and smiled at him. Then, unexpectedly left.
The following day lunch involved three bottles of Barolo wine. Cancelling afternoon appointments they stumbled from the restaurant, wandering along Charing Cross Road giggling like children. In a bookshop basement they kissed, and in Trafalgar Square ran up the steps of the National Gallery to roam aimlessly hand-in-hand through its galleries. Afterwards in a pub they drank more wine then checked into the Charing Cross Hotel.
In July she moved in, at Christmas they married, and by Easter, four months pregnant, she was putting the finishing touches to a new home, a smart semi-detached in High Barnet.
In Zurich on business a month before her due date, he unexpectedly received a call from her mother.
“Severe complications,” she spluttered, “ambulance … hospital … in labour.”
Within hours he was at her side, tears welling in his eyes as she cradled a beautiful healthy girl.
Two years later they were in Hildersham, a village in Cambridgeshire, picture-postcard pretty, quaintly English – teashops, colourful hanging baskets, and an ancient flint church, its spire visible from surrounding counties. Village life they decided, was much to their liking, and so three months later they moved into a modern barn conversion, just in time for a new arrival, another perfectly-made little girl.
Father Francis, the vicar, was captain of the village rugby team. Well over six feet tall and with huge globing shoulders, this big burly Scot, a formidable presence on the altar, delivered clever and witty sermons about generosity, joy, and the importance of loving one another. Despite his impressive physique and jovial disposition, his most striking feature lay on his head – a thick and wavy Celtic mop, rich glossy ginger curls that quivered when he laughed.
And he laughed a lot.
He greeted the new parishioners with warm handshakes, tickling the new-born’s chin, picking up the toddler up and rocking her in his arms. After Sunday services the congregation met in the village pub for lunch, and here he welcomed them to his flock, introducing them to other parishioners and providing a brief history of the eight-hundred year old church. When he discovered that before starting a family she’d worked for a prestigious city law firm, he suggested she volunteer, and a month later, from an office next to his, she was overseeing various local projects and running a small team of community volunteers.
Best of friends, the girls grew quickly. Barely into their early teens, they were gifted musicians, one a cellist, the other a flautist, both members of the National Youth Orchestra, often spending weekends with their grandparents in Muswell Hill and attending concerts at the Barbican, Wigmore Hall, and their favourite venue, the Royal Festival Hall.
One lazy weekend while they were away, their parents spent Sunday afternoon between knotted sheets in warm embrace, watching dusk draw in, unaware that swirling undetected in the glow of whispered pleasantries, menace was at play.
“Do you believe in God?” she asked, quite unexpectedly.
He didn’t, he never had, and she knew it. The question disturbed him, but with church affairs now an integral part of her life, he responded gently, diplomatically. “There must be something,” he lied.
A strange, lingering silence followed. A pause too long, too awkward, his disquiet aggravated by what she asked next.
“Shall we have another child?”
He released her and sat up, his back taut against the backboard. He drew in a deep breath – rejection required delicacy.
“With you, the girls, we have everything, we need nothing more. Why change something so complete, so untroubled?”
Of course he was right, he normally was. His rational, considered approach to life were qualities that had drawn her to him in the first place. They had it all – splendid lives, two beautiful girls, always happy, already accomplished musicians, both about to begin making their way in the world.
“You’re right,” she declared, “just nonsense talk. Probably a ‘woman’ thing,” she admitted, nestling up beside him and kissing his cheek.
In the following days and weeks, creeping through him slowly like a queer disease, dark and harrowing thoughts haunted him. The unshakeable, impenetrable trust he had always known, felt, that they had always shared, had been fractured, and in its place, lurking, a constant, invisible threat about to rise up and destroy his family, shatter something so precious and beautiful.
Waiting in the reception of the Harley Street practice he felt ashamed, foolish, embarrassed. The doctor shook his hand, offered him a seat, then ran through some preliminary questions.
No, he admitted, his wife knew nothing of the appointment. Yes, he understood the ethical implications of keeping her in the dark. No, he required no further time to reconsider – candid responses that registered no perceptible reaction in the doctor.
With routine questions complete, the doctor described the surgical nitty-gritty – very quick, simple, his tone, however, shifting as he offered cautionary note – that once done, the procedure was irreversible.
“That” he replied, “is exactly what I want.”
The doctor brought the consultation to a close, handing him pamphlets outlining details of the operation, again suggesting he take a few days to think it over, adding that the earliest appointment was in a fortnight.
Two weeks later a five-day business trip to Frankfurt allowed sufficient time to recuperate from the minor physical discomfort the doctor said he might experience after the procedure. Fortunately, on his return to London he felt no discomfort whatsoever, his only worry – that all parts of him were still in sound working order, a concern dissolving as she rolled off him the following morning, remarking his performance reminded her of their honeymoon.
A year or so later, as a part of a season celebrating Bach, the National Youth Orchestra played the Royal Festival Hall, the girls giving stellar performances. They normally took the train to London, but that morning, quite unusually, their mother had insisted on driving. During dinner after the concert she declined even a small glass of wine, her abstinence, however, doing little to dampen her high spirits, teasingly whispering to her husband over dessert that she had a “little surprise” for him at home.
Exhausted after a long day, the girls went straight to bed. In the kitchen he placed two glasses on the counter and opened a bottle of wine.
“OK. So now, what’s this surprise?” he asked.
“Well, let’s just say, I won’t want any of that,” she said, nodding at the wine.
“I don’t follow,” he replied, taking a sip from his glass.
“I’m pregnant,” she announced.
A sudden, searing revulsion plummeted through him, the glass slipped from his hand and shattered all around them.
“What is it? What’s the matter?” she said, rushing to him, the soles of her shoes crunching the splintered glass.
But he couldn’t look at her, rushing past her into the bathroom, locking the door, doing his best to resist punching holes in the wall, pounding in his ears the incompetent doctor’s words, arrogantly claiming after the procedure that “all had gone as planned.”
Tapping softly at the door she whispered his name. He felt wretched, embarrassed, his selfish, shameless rage reducing what for her was a moment of maternal wonderment.
She tapped again, gently whispering to him, the strain in her voice only crushing him more.
He threw water in his face, drew in a deep breath and cracked open the door to see eyes glazed pink with tears. He forced a smile and pulled her to him.
“I’m sorry,” he stuttered, “I guess I was just a little shocked. This is terrific news, it really is,” he said holding her close, but from the wild knocking of his heart she knew he was lying.
The doctor avoided eye contact. Reviewing his patient’s notes, his blank face showed no flicker of humiliation for such grand ineptitude. Finally, he closed the file and gently cleared his throat.
“I’m afraid I have some really unfortunate news…”
But before he could finish his sentence, the patient was on his feet expelling air from his lungs, strangely comforted the operation had failed, ridding himself of a dark and disturbing thought that had allowed him little sleep since learning of his wife’s pregnancy.
“Thank Christ for that,” he mumbled as he sat back down, whispered an apology and nodded for the doctor to continue.
Tapping his pen on his lower lip, the doctor looked up at him, and leant forward.
“You see,” he stammered, “the operation was a complete success. This is a very delicate situation, but, Mr…”
Skipping through traffic he ran in no particular direction, on and on, until he could run no more, collapsing in a doorway, surging through him a truth he would never consider, never accept.
Cancelling meetings in Munich and Paris, he checked into a central London hotel, and for five long days in a lonely hotel room, over and over again, he kept telling himself the doctor had made a terrible mistake. The science, at best, still uncertain. Vasectomies fail. Women routinely fall pregnant unexpectedly, such accounts frequently in the news.
On Friday evening he went home, hesitating before he opened the door, momentarily reflecting on how the doctor had got it wrong, he was the father, and taking a deep breath, he smiled, and stepped back into life, seemingly content with this tidy little lie.
The baby arrived. He took a taxi to the hospital and hurried to her room. He didn’t go in immediately, but rather lingered outside gazing through the small glass window in the door to see Father Francis at his wife’s bedside holding her hand, his flaming red hair glistening brilliantly under the harsh overhead lights.
He opened the door and the vicar dropped her hand, offered a listless handshake, a weak congratulatory nod, and left hastily.
Feebly, she smiled up at him. In eyes gleaming with tears, he noted something unfamiliar, in that moment a look he couldn’t read. Anxiously, he stepped towards the cot, peering in at the baby, asleep, hidden below a blanket. He looked at her again, then carefully lifted the baby out of the cot. Slowly, he pulled back the cover to see a thick, deep red swirl, lighter, softer, but without doubt, like that of Father Francis. Only then did he recognise that unfamiliar look in her face – betrayal – and as she slid below the blanket and began to scream, her wail lingered in the corridor long after he’d fled the hospital.
She woke. At the bedside, her mother, father, and two policewomen. Her eyes followed theirs to the television, to a news report coming from the lake just outside their village where they’d spent many happy summer afternoons, the caption running along the bottom of the screen detailing the accident, the reporter solemnly confirming that though unclear at this stage of the investigation, police believe there are four fatalities, the driver and three others, believed to be two teenage girls and a new-born baby.