Gwen’s handwriting was ridiculously legible, even viewed in the less than ideal light of a dim corner of the wardroom. “…so the probability is 90% or higher that it’s a girl, they said. Darling, I do hope you’re not too disappointed. I know you said you wouldn’t mind either way, but I can’t help thinking of you and your father and all those ships, and I know you’ve got sisters but you’re the oldest…”
Giles closed his eyes for a moment, deafening himself to the noisy argument over who owed whom more in bets going on eighteen inches away, and recalled another very similar time off shift in the wardroom, when one of the petty officers had stuck his head in and called “Radio-telephone for Marlow?” He had gone after the man, hearing his strides echo in the gangway, all the time thinking Pa—no, he’s on leave—Ma can’t be having another baby, surely—the twins, no, they’re never sick any more—a train crash—And then to the plain reality of hearing his father’s voice, crackly with static, telling him about Jon and, in passing, about Trennels.
Eldest son—entailed—all the Anglo-Saxon words which meant a lead weight, a gift you could not return. Even after Rowan had made that amazing leap into the breach and spared Pa’s career for the moment, his heart hadn’t grown much lighter.
He had carelessly omitted to bring writing utensils from his bunk, but the letter took shape easily in his head. “Dearest, I can’t possibly tell you how happy I am that it’s a girl. No lingering regrets, trust me. You’ll have to let me name it—“ a quick mental cross-out—“her after you, to avoid difficult questions about which of my sisters should take precedence…”
Karen was proud of herself, when the test turned pink the third day running, because the first thing she thought was We’ll have to sit down with Rose and Chas and Fob—oh good heavens, Fob—and make sure they feel all right about it. And she was proud of Edwin, when she told him that night, because the first thing he said was “Of course, you know that you’ll still be able to finish your degree whenever you choose to.”
Rowan’s first reaction, after the second month of nothing, was to remember an old American film they’d been showing in Coleridge last summer―Lawrie had adored it and taken to quoting long strings of dialogue at the drop of a hat―and murmur to herself “How could I have a baby?”.
Later, when the whole situation was well known to everyone, she wondered absently how long she would go on bothering to pretend that she hadn’t heard Edwin and Karen muttering about parthenogenesis―or else was too much of a brute son of the soil to know what the word meant. She might, perhaps, point out that unlike Karen, she didn’t choose to drag her entire family wholesale into her personal affairs.
Mrs. Marlow had made clear to her, with such visible discomfort that Rowan had had to remind herself that it could be worse, it could be Daddy, that there were other options. It would be lying to herself, another thing she chose not to do, to say she’d never considered any of them.
In the end, though, it was a bit like the farm. She’d lumbered herself with it for good or ill, and on that basis it was hers and she had every right to find herself fiercely committed. It was her own choice, what responsibilities she chose to pick up, and how she chose to carry them.
Nicola said cheerfully “Just remember it’s not actually a lamb and don’t give it whiskey when it cries in the night,” and Rowan decided that was the first piece of actually helpful advice she’d had.
“Oh no,” Ann protested, shocked to her core as she had not been in years. “No, you know we can’t do that, it’s wrong―“
“But her mother left her with us, it’s what she wanted,” Becky pleaded, and then―reclaiming a fragment of the poised and self-actualized Dr. Pearlstine she usually was―“Don’t you recognize her mother’s agency at all then? Isn’t that a bit, you know, paternalistic?”
“I suppose it would have to be maternalistic,” Ann gasped, trying not to break down into quite literally hysterical giggles. “But she should grow up in a family, we’re just aid workers, we can’t be her parents―you’ve got Geoff and Liz at home―Ranjit, you’re only here for this month―I’ve taken Orders―“
“I don’t mean we would keep her forever. But long enough to find her a family, someone who can raise her the way her mother wanted, give her enough in life—“
“Here? Or back in England? How can we choose?”
“I don’t expect it’s the first time it’s happened, is it? You want to be talking to your Mother Superior or whatever she’s called, get a bit of spiritual direction,” Ranjit advised, putting his feet up on his untidy desk (Becky covered her eyes).
“Sister,” Ann corrected automatically. “We’re not Catholics. But—“ The baby squalled suddenly, a surprisingly forceful sound for something so tiny, and Ann scooped her up hastily from the bassinet. “…well,” she said to the warm grizzling armful, “we do have baby formula and that, of course. I expect we could look after her…just for a few days while we find something…her mother might change her mind and come back, too,” she added conscientiously.
Ranjit rolled his eyes and got up to rummage through a cupboard for the formula; Becky came to introduce a finger into the tiny waving fist. Ann joggled the baby gently and listened to the wail fade to a purr.
Ginty’s memories of the day and night and next day came in flashes, perhaps chronological but not especially linear.
Twirling a curl around her finger absently while Mrs. Eliot talked excitedly at her, ready to use maximum charm on the manager as soon as she put down the phone in order to get out early, somehow, was there enough in her purse for a cab, or would the Tube be faster after all?
“A friend’s here for 203,” in a Jamaican drawl at the nurse’s desk, answered by a Scottish voice saying impatiently “Well, tell her she’ll have to wait. It’ll be hours yet.” And it was.
“He has your eyes,” Monica murmured, looking considerably less practical and collected than usual against the utilitarian pink of the hospital bedsheets. Don’t all babies have blue eyes? Ginty thought. Anyway, that means―he must have had―“Maybe so,” she said, swallowing hard.
After that, for just a moment, a much older memory overlaid--the overtuned tension in the voice and the lips, with their careful lining of maroon lipstick, drawn in severely―people who don’t have any―what had been the woman’s name? How funny not to remember that. The half-memory, a tiny sting, sharpened to acid insistence for an instant and then dissolved into the sweetness of Monica’s caramel eyes.
Peter addressed the envelope rapidly―1st Lt. C.J.R. Selby, HMS Beatrice, HMNB Portsmouth―and took the letter out to glance through it once more before sealing it up.
--one advantage of civilian life, one hasn’t to be several thousand miles away at the relevant moment, although there was a point when I thought I’d be on assignment shooting crofters in the Outer Hebrides or something equally improbable. Fob being Fob, of course, told me it wasn’t as if there was a lot I could do even if I was on the spot, and took care of the whole thing herself―very efficiently so I’m given to understand, although even four hours and a bit seems quite long in the event. Fortunately she didn’t insist on naming it after me, and we managed to avoid having three P. Marlows in one house (fair enough, she’s still Phoebe L. Dodd professionally)―Gregory Charles is what we settled on, with an initial for my assorted masculine relatives and a middle name for her brother. (That satisfied her old man as well, which may mark a new era of understanding in our relations, here’s to toleration between the doting granddad and the addled new pa, eh?) Let me tell you here and now I won’t be sending young Gregory to Dartmouth (unless he demands to go, which for my sins I expect he will). Fob is most pleased with him, herself, and even me, which means that I’m generally satisfied as well―
“Jonathan,” Nicola found herself saying. “Unless―you’d rather not…?” with a complex of thoughts about saint’s days and ancestral Anthonys and the way Patrick said Jon on the rare occasions when he did say it.
He was quiet for long enough almost to make her regret saying it at all; she sat still, with conscious effort, and listened to the faint London noises slipping in through the double glazing.
“It would be an honor,” he said finally, so quietly she had to replay the words in her head to understand.
“I’d better check with Ma and Pa,” Nicola backtracked, suddenly uncertain of her footing. “I mean―I can’t imagine they’d mind―but they ought to have a bit of warning.”
“That seems like a good idea, yes. My father won’t object, I know.” His quick grin turned unexpectedly wicked. “Lucky it’s a boy, though, aren’t we? I would have absolutely had to insist on naming our first daughter Regina, of course―“
“When she comes along,” Nicola assured him. “As long as I can call the next boy Horatio, that is.”
So the moment ended in laughter (although she thought he was quite serious about Regina, and knew she’d have to decide at some point whether that was beyond the pale or a really rather marvelous idea). Jonathan, she said to herself again after that, often, reminding herself of what it ought to sound like, and guessed that when Patrick rested a hand on her belly in silence he was doing the same.
“…and take the shame with joy,” Lawrie said, for the first time bringing a shiver into her voice that left a perceptible silence and made Mark’s “There rest” come out more overwhelmed than soothing. His exit felt rushed—he was working on her timing now, not his own.
“Must die tomorrow!” she went on meditatively, almost laughing at the improbability, and came off stage on a waft of exhilaration which made her feel that even if she did have to die tomorrow, she could do worse.
Poor Juliet with her one hapless scene; well, if the reviews didn’t have something to say tomorrow about newcomer Sophia Lawrence in the role, she’d eat her hat, or Mark’s ducal coronet. And next year she’d be back as Isabella, or…Lawrie let her ambition o’erleap the other…Portia, or Beatrice, or…(As long as they didn’t try to give her Ariel.)
Breathless in the backstage heat, she fumbled under her heavy velvet-and-illusion top to unhook the webbing that kept Juliet’s pregnancy in place. Phew. That was better.
Poor Juliet. Lawrie gave thanks, briefly, that she didn’t live in Shakespeare except when she happened to want to. If she ever did wind up in Juliet’s place—and she hadn’t yet met a Claudio who would be worth it—she’d take the joy and leave the shame behind.