When he left me, he took that dream away. That was the story I told myself. The truth was rather more complicated. Because I (forty, irregular cycle) was quite unlikely to conceive, wasn’t I? And if I had, and that baby had come, that wouldn’t have made him stay, would it? But our plan, to try, at least to try, he threw that out the window of the Gatwick Express, along with the text to me. His clear, unapologetic words flew through the ether and whipped our dream baby from my arms. I cried for three hours straight and then drank myself to sleep with the aid of a half bottle of rum. Dreams stitched love to loss in a patchwork of misery and I woke to my period and a sick hangover.
Sitting on the toilet floor and retching, I clutched my phone against my heaving, empty belly. Then I re-read his text – over and over – looking for meaning that wasn’t there. He was on the plane to the Canaries now. I opened the notes on my phone and read through the long list of Christmas Eve jobs that I’d written a week ago. His initials were beside half of the tasks and mine by the rest. It was going to be our first Christmas together and I‘d wanted to introduce him to all the nicest of my family traditions. Instead, he’d had this EastEnders plot planned all along. I knew I should ring a friend. I should ring and tell them what had happened and let someone loving sweep me into the arms of their family Christmas. But the thought of being the tragic last-minute addition was mortifying. No, if he’d ducked out of our Christmas, of my life, then I was going to do the same. I drank half a pint of water and slept a heavy, dreamless, exhausted sleep. When I woke it was dark outside and I was hungry. As I passed the front door I scooped up a half dozen pieces of junk mail from the mat – and one Christmas card. Through the frosted glass I could see a dark shape on the doorstep – the veg box delivery. Fuck the celeriac, I’d leave it there.
I made scrambled egg, toast and coffee and chewed slowly, gulped the hot liquid. I had a vague memory that the island of Tenerife had a volcano. I hoped it would erupt. I thought of his controlled features distorted in fear and then I felt guilty. Season of goodwill. Fuck. As I put the milk away in the fridge I thought I’d better pop to the corner shop. I could buy crisps, chocolate, beer. And then I could lock the door for two days. So I showered and dressed in old, comfortable clothes. I was taking care of myself – after a fashion anyway – but the tears kept coming.
The wind was gusty, like it was holding its breath and then gasping, huffing. The leaflet in the top of the veg box was flapping. I bent to tuck it down. I supposed I’d have to take that box in. Maybe tomorrow, or the day after, I’d make some soup or something. As I reached out my hand towards the box, something moved underneath the broad leaf of the savoy cabbage. In my mind’s eye it was a rat – but I found the courage to pull back the crinkly green. I thought it was some sort of squash underneath – probably a butternut squash. But then I realised that the beige bundle had a little face.
I didn’t lift it out – the baby. I’d only handled half a dozen babies in my whole life and I was scared. Instead, I lifted up my veg box and carried it into the warmth of the house. The baby wasn’t crying, just blinking up at me with blue, steady eyes. I put the box on the kitchen table and started to lift out vegetables. The cabbage was huge, then there were four large carrots, beetroot, a brown paper bag of dodgy tomatoes. And there, wedged up against the side of the box, was the swaddled baby. I had no idea how to judge the age of a baby but it seemed to be looking at me in a watchful way that made me think it wasn’t new born. It was wrapped in a beige, fleecy blanket – a yellow woollen hat on its little round head. I dipped in. I held the bundle firmly in both hands and lifted the baby up, out of the dusty box. It never took its eyes from mine.
I took the baby to Tesco. As I filled the trolley with nappies, wipes, bottles, little cartons of formula milk, it just carried on watching. I looked at dummies and chose one. If there was crying then it might be worth a try. I wondered if they worked for grown-ups too – and that made me laugh out loud. A man looking at baby wipes looked anxiously at me. I tossed my head and went to the checkout.
“Fourteen pounds seventy two, please.”
I handed over some money.
“He’s a lovely little one. Or, um, is it she?”
I just smiled and left.
It was he. I turned up the thermostat and undressed him on a folded towel on the bathroom floor, watched him kick his little legs as I ran a bath. The thought of dangling him over open water and managing his soapy limbs was too scary, so I took off my clothes and climbed into the water holding him in one arm. Maybe it was risky. I knew nothing. But lying back in the lukewarm bath, ladling palms of water over his silky back, I realised that I could learn. We can learn anything if we want to.
His hair was blonde and so fine – rising in a spiky halo as it dried. He’d cried as I dressed him, but then, sucking steady and slow on the bottle, his eyelids dropped, lifted, dropped. The sucking slowed and stopped. As I eased the teat from between his lips, a little trickle of milk ran down his chin. I wiped it away with the cuff of my shirt. The doorbell didn’t wake him. Even when his mum snatched him up, sobbing and shaking, he slept on.
I make veg soup every Boxing Day. He eats anything. He’s never been a fussy boy when it comes to food. Viv says that he particularly loves my cooking but I know that’s just Callum. He’s the same when I take him to the park café. He’s eaten his way through every cake on the menu. He yomps through egg sandwiches and spinach pie. We run it all off afterwards – playing football.
This year we eat the soup and then he eats the whole selection box I’ve bought him. When he’s plugged in to his i-phone again, Viv leans over to me.
“I told him the whole story this year. I told him to just talk to you if he had questions.”
We walk up the canal and Viv stops to take a photo of the boats, little huffs of smoke from wood burners and condensation on their windows. I go on with Callum, under the low brick arch of the bridge. He has to stoop and I realise he’s taller than me now.
“Mum said you met one Christmas when she left me in your veg box.”
“Um, that’s right. It was just for a few hours. She was very desperate, Callum.”
I wonder if that was too much. He offers me chewing gum and I take it. It feels like the wrong place to stop talking.
“I was having a really shit Christmas too, actually. You were a bit of a blessing for me that day.”
“No, but better than a butternut squash.”