If pressed, Clara would not be able to tell you precisely when the seismic shift in her perceptions occurred, or what triggered it. She would not be able to tell you why her brain suddenly shifted from happily petering along with a sincere appreciation for being childless to determinedly and loudly insisting that her body wanted a child and it wanted it now, but she would be able to tell you that, if you uttered the words “biological clock,” then she would most probably slap you. The two words were, as far as she and John were concerned, entirely banned in their household; not least because they made her uterus sound far too like a ticking time bomb, and she didn’t want to turn into one of those women, whose biological imperatives meant established sex schedules and ovulation charts that took all the fun out of the physical sides of marriage.
All she knew was that, late one rainy September evening while browsing Mothercare with a heavily pregnant Bonnie on the hunt for last-minute baby necessities, somehow Clara found herself stood in front of a display of cuddly toys, trailing her fingers over the soft, brightly coloured materials and sighing with a hint of longing. It’s silly really, she thought to herself. Getting sappy about silly old stuffed toys. But they’re meant to be family-type things, aren’t they? You give them as gifts, and then the child keeps them, and passes them on, and so on, until someone down the line ends up on Antiques Roadshow to see how much the threadbare things are worth. I’ve got someone to give toys to — soon to be two someones. So why do I suddenly want that someone to have my name? Why do I suddenly want to see John having tea parties with a cuddly cat and a doll and a small child?
“Oi,” Bonnie sidled over, laden down with three shopping bags and yet still managing to juggle a basket, a handbag, and a set of reins that anchored Eli to her in the bustle of the shopping centre. “You look… weird.”
“I feel weird,” Clara replied.
“Like, your womb aches in a way that indicates it wants to be filled with an infant who can kick your spine at 3 a.m. kind of weird? Or, like, you’re over the moon that you don’t have to deal with baby shopping and a toddler and the looming threat of two children under three-type weird? Because, really, the latter sounds excellent.”
“Dunno,” Clara shrugged, unable to put the feeling into words. Bonnie had been right with her former assertion, only Clara wasn’t entirely sure about the mention of her womb aching. The feeling was far more localised to her chest, which somehow made her feel even more cloyingly sentimental about the matter. “Just… weird. Like… it’s something I should do, I guess?”
“That’s the patriarchy talking, babe.”
“What the pay… payt… what mummy said?” Eli piped up, looking between the two adults curiously. “Auntie Clara, you look funny.”
Clara resisted the urge to laugh, instead stooping down and picking the little boy up. She wondered for a minute how to explain the matter to him, shifting him onto her hip and kissing his cheek before going with: “The patriarchy is a big system that’s run by men. It’s bad.”
“Because it’s bad for ladies,” Clara watched Eli’s eyes widen in horror as he looked from her to his mum and back again. “But Mummy and I are fighting back.”
“Just like ninjas. We’re the best ninjas.”
He giggled before his expression became more serious. “But why your face all funny?” he asked, chewing his lip. “All red. Ninjas not red.”
“Just thinking about serious ninja things,” Clara lied, turning his attention to the stuffed animals with a wave of her arm. “And when I think about ninja things, I go red. Now, young man, I have an important question for you: if you were going to give someone one of these as a present, which one would it be?”
“Can I have one?”
“No, you have to pretend to give one. As a gift, like when you went to your friend Sammy’s birthday party.”
The toddler thought for a moment, then pointed at a pink unicorn with a sparkly silver horn. “That one. It’s pretty like you.”
Clara grinned, reaching for it and putting it in Bonnie’s basket. “Thank you, little man.”
“Who it for? Want it!”
“Now, baby,” Bonnie said, reaching over and stroking his hair. “What have Daddy and I taught you?”
Eli looked abruptly guilty, dropping his gaze to the floor as he mumbled: “‘I want’ never gets.”
“Good boy. Auntie Clara is probably going to give it to a friend, right?”
“Right,” Clara fibbed awkwardly, then to distract the little boy from asking any more questions, suggested: “What about getting cake after this?”
“Yeah!” he enthused, squirming excitedly in her arms. “Cake, cake, cake! Wa- would like chocolate. Please.”
“Well then,” Clara smiled over at her cousin, who looked less than thrilled about the prospect of feeding sugar to the toddler. “We’d best join the line at the tills.”
“I’m not stupid,” Bonnie said quietly on the drive home, Eli sound asleep in his car seat in the back and surrounded by a multitude of shopping bags. “I know that toy isn’t for anyone else. Is it aspirational?”
“No,” Clara said quickly, looking out of the window in an attempt to hide her burning cheeks. “I mean. Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. I just feel like… I don’t know, like the time is right? Is that corny?”
“Not overly, no. What does John think?”
“Given that I only acquired this feeling about two hours ago, I have no idea.”
“Isn’t he a bit…” Bonnie’s tone was wary. “Look, don’t thump the pregnant lady or anything, but isn’t he a bit old to be dealing with a baby?”
“He’s sixty-one,” Clara said defensively, looking back at her cousin, who splayed her fingers above the steering wheel in an OK, OK gesture. “That’s not that old.”
“Fine, but… babe, are you up for dealing with a baby? I mean, you’re always saying that Eli’s lovely, but it’s nice to give him back at the end of the day-slash-weekend.”
“I guess,” Clara shrugged, looking down at her lap and picking at a hangnail. “I’m just not sure about being pregnant. That’s the big stumbling block. I don’t really like the idea at all… the thought of my body doing stuff and me not being able to stop it and everyone having an opinion on it and just…”
She broke off, hyperventilating slightly as Bonnie reached over and squeezed her hand. “It can’t be worse than that time I peed myself in Marks and Spencer,” her cousin said solemnly. “Or threw up in my handbag at the zoo.”
Clara forced a smile, remembering both incidents with painful clarity: she’d felt amused, sure, and embarrassed on her cousin’s behalf, but also relieved that it wasn’t her, and happy that her body wouldn’t do such things, or betray her in such a way. “Those were both superbly awful. And precisely the kind of thing I’d like to avoid if possible.”
“Well,” Bonnie turned into John and Clara’s street, slowing down as she drummed her hands on the steering wheel pensively. “There’s always adoption, I guess? God knows, there’s loads of kids that need a loving home, and I can’t think of one more loving than yours and John’s. The amount of love contained in there actually kinda nauseates me.”
“That’d be the hCG,” Clara shot back, but she had to admit that the idea made a certain kind of sense. She knew almost nothing about it, of course, but it could certainly be a viable option.
“Nope, that’d be you being more loved-up than Saint Valentine.”
“Bonnie,” Clara raised an eyebrow at her cousin as she pulled up outside their house. “Saint Valentine was beheaded for proselytising.”
“Don’t be such a nerd. My point stands.”
“Come on, you and Will…”
“…Are nowhere near as sickening as you two. Now go on, take your fluffy unicorn and go and discuss your future with your husband. I’ve gotta get this little chap home for tea. Assuming he wakes up in time, of course.”
“And you’ve gotta get this little bub back, too.” Clara leaned over and gave her cousin an awkward hug over the gearstick, before pulling away a little and placing one hand on Bonnie’s bump. “She behaving herself?”
“More or less. I think we’ve tuckered them both out with all the shopping.”
Clara smiled, looking into the back at the sleeping Eli and feeling a rush of love for the little boy. She kissed her palm and then pressed it to the toe of his trainer, the only part of him she could easily reach. He murmured sleepily, but didn’t wake.
“Love you all. You three get home safe, OK?”
Clara smiled, grabbing her newly acquired cuddly toy and assorted other shopping bags before scrambling out of the car and closing the door as quietly as possible, raising a hand in farewell as the vehicle pulled away from the kerb. Turning back towards the house, she found John leaning in the doorway in his plaid trousers and black hoodie, sipping a cup of something hot, one eyebrow cocked in incredulity at the fluffy pink toy Clara realised she was holding with somewhat unnecessary reverence.
“That’s… sweet,” he said with some reticence. “Is it for Bon’s little one?”
“No, ah…” Clara hesitated, trudging up the drive and pecking John on the lips before stepping inside with her bags and kicking off her shoes. “It’s for us.”
“You’re getting soft in your middle age.”
Clara set her shopping down on the sofa, then poked her tongue out at her husband. “Thirty-three-”
“‘Is not middle-aged,’” he rolled his eyes fondly as he finished the oft-repeated maxim. “I know, but you are so wonderfully easy to tease about it.”
Clara tossed the cuddly toy at him, and he caught it deftly in one hand. “What do you think?”
John examined it thoughtfully. “Well, it indicates to children that unicorns a) exist and b) are pink, which would be a massive evolutionary disadvantage, but-”
“John,” Clara interjected, shooting him a look. “I mean… you know, of having someone to give it to.”
“Like a small human being who would live in our home and have our surname and be generally adored, spoiled, and treated like royalty, yes.”
“Are you pregnant?” he asked, furrowing his brow and looking her up and down. “Because-”
“If you’re about to say that I look wider, then no, I do not, and no, I am not. Cease talking if you value your life and your balls.”
“So, this is…”
“A hypothetical idea. Of the, ‘Would having a small human in the house be considered generally acceptable?’ variety.”
“Would you be…” he paused. “Growing the small human?”
“Urm, about that,” Clara wrinkled her nose at his choice of vocabulary. “I’m not keen on the idea. By which I mean: no.”
“Oh thank god,” John caught Clara’s confused look, and took a swig of his drink before saying very quickly: “You can be… touchy anyway — oh Jesus, don’t hurt me for saying that — and you, all pregnant and huge and sleep-deprived… let’s just say I enjoy being alive. And I would definitely not be if you became that hormonal.”
“Fair point,” Clara grinned. “So, would a small human be acceptable if it was… I don’t know, not biologically ours? Or, as you put it, I didn’t grow it?”
“I don’t see why not,” John said after a moment’s consideration. “I mean, I don’t really want to deal with a baby, if I’m honest. Eli is lovely, and I’m sure Bonnie’s new baby will be, too, but it’s nice to be able to give them back and go to sleep.”
“I thought that, too,” Clara agreed, sinking down on the sofa next to her shopping bags. “An older kid… well, an older kid might be easier.”
“How old?” John asked, stroking the cuddly toy with a fingertip. “Cos I feel like a teenager might not be keen on… well, fluffy unicorns.”
“God, not a teenager,” Clara looked aghast. “I deal with enough of their crap at work, I don’t want to have to deal with a moody teenager at home as well. At least, not straight away. I don’t mind working towards a teenager, you know, like raising a kid towards that, but I’m not going straight in with one.”
“That’s fair enough,” John acquiesced, frowning a little as he thought. “So… small child? Sort of… Eli-size?”
“That could work,” Clara pondered the idea, running over the relative merits and disadvantages. “They’re fairly self-reliant by then, and they can walk and talk and do things. Which is marginally more interesting than a baby.”
“I feel like we’re comparing the various merits of a new car,” John quipped, and Clara looked up at him with a bemused expression. “What?! You’re just being very… pragmatic.”
“Well, I don’t want to just go all gaga and heart-eyed at all children and then we end up with one that’s out of our ability or means to deal with, because that’s a bad idea for at least ten reasons. And I don’t want to start looking into adoption without having a rough idea of what we’d like, because god knows, it’s enough of a minefield as it is, and going in blind would not be conducive or helpful to anyone, least of all us.”
“That’s… fair enough, love.”
“I mean, adoption takes a long time, that much I know, and I just… is that something you’re OK with? The thought of having a kid around when you’re a bit… older?”
“Do you want this?” John asked, looking down at his wife with a tender expression that melted her heart. “Is a child what you want?”
“Yes,” Clara confessed in a very small voice. “Yes, it is.”
“Well then,” John sat beside her and took her hand in his. “This is something we can absolutely do.”
Clara meets with Amy to share her news, but Amy has an announcement of her own.
Clara looked down at her snoozing husband with a sense of fond exasperation. Half past ten on a Sunday morning, and he was still mostly asleep, sprawled across the bed with a lazy, contented smile on his face that she found more adorable than she probably should.
“I’m going for coffee with Amy,” she whispered, leaning down and ruffling his hair, before pressing a kiss to his lips with a grin. “I’ll be back later.”
“Mmmf,” he mumbled, his arms reaching towards her instinctively and closing around her shoulders. “Nooooo.”
She giggled, allowing herself to be embraced for a few seconds before pulling away and tucking the duvet around him with care. “Yes. Be good.”
“Will do,” she leant down and kissed him once more, quickly enough to tease, before grabbing her bag and her coat and heading downstairs, thanking her lucky stars that the relentless September rain had finally ceased and she wouldn’t have to attempt to battle with an umbrella in a howling gale. Shrugging on her jacket, she stepped outside into the chilly autumnal air and set off at a brisk pace for the Tube, watching as her breath formed small clouds in front of her nose and amusing herself by trying to create patterns as she exhaled. Once she reached the warm interior of the Underground and found herself robbed of her pastime, she instead whipped out her headphones and selected John’s recently cultivated September Playlist to while away the journey to Balham.
It wasn’t until she’d changed line twice and settled in on the final train of her journey that Clara allowed herself to think about the previous evening, her thoughts tinged — as they invariably were when she went to visit Amy — with a hint of frustration that her best friend had opted to live somewhere as complicated to get to as Balham, and that said somewhere was south of the Thames and thus tended to invoke horror in the minds of North Londoners.
Clara and John had spent several hours browsing through adoption forums, websites, social media pages, and documentaries, both of their laptops open and Clara’s iPad propped up beside her as she took notes on their findings. She’d known the matter wouldn’t be easy, of course — her limited experience of the adoption process came from TV shows and films, and she had discovered that, for once, the media’s portrayal of matters as being stressful, drawn out, and exhausting were unfortunately accurate. There had been a single moment, as she read a tenth consecutive blog post about the long wait between applying to adopt and actually being matched with potential children, when her certainty had wavered, but John had sensed her distress, reached over and offered her hand a reassuring squeeze that had bolstered her courage.
“Still sure?” he’d asked, as they shut down their computers at 11 p.m. and prepared for bed. “After everything?”
“Yes,” Clara had confessed in a small voice. “Yes, I am.”
In the flickering yellow light of the Tube carriage, as Clara watched a young mother tending to her toddler, she felt a pang in her chest and smiled to herself, absolutely reassured that she and John had made the right decision. Today’s plan was coffee with her best friend and then further researching of agencies with John; tomorrow’s plan was to act on their decision come the start of a new week.
Disembarking at Balham and ascending to ground level, Clara headed across the road and into the small café that Amy favoured for their weekly coffee dates. Sinking into a chair, she checked her watch only to find that she was ten minutes early, and thus resigned herself to waiting for her best friend, shrugging off her coat and getting comfortable in the meantime.
Amy, with her usual terrible sense of punctuality, arrived precisely fifteen minutes later, grimacing apologetically at Clara as she did so before her face broke into a wide smile. “Tiny pal,” she enthused. “Have you been waiting long?”
“Oh, about an hour,” Clara quipped, getting to her feet and hugging her former flatmate tightly. “Nah, not really. Coffee?”
“Hot chocolate, please,” Amy said at once, and Clara nodded, grabbing her purse and heading for the counter as Amy dropped into a chair with a small huff. Once Clara had ordered, she returned to the table and took a seat opposite her best friend, unable to contain a grin as she prepared to break her exciting news.
“So,” she began, taking a deep breath. “John and I have been talking, and-”
She was interrupted by the waitress arriving at their table with two servings of carrot cake, and she paused while the girl set the plates down, not wanting to be overheard, lest the news end up in some salubrious gossip column.
“I’ll be over with your coffees in a minute,” the teenager muttered before sloping off back to the counter and Clara fought the urge to roll her eyes.
“The usual girl isn’t that sulky,” she observed drily. “Anyway…” Clara looked over at Amy, pleased to notice that her friend was practically vibrating with excitement. Bolstered by Amy’s apparent enthusiasm for her news, she continued: “So, John and I-”
Before she could get any further, Amy had whipped something out of her pocket and deposited it on the table, where it landed atop Clara’s slice of cake like a bizarre decorative topper.
“Urm,” Clara said uncertainly, looking down at the white plastic stick and waiting for her brain to process what it was seeing. “That’s a…”
She reached for the offending item and dug it out of the cream cheese topping, turning it over and experiencing a crashing sense of realisation as she read the wording on the plastic and noticed the two parallel lines. Her first thought was one of absolute joy, before her sense of reason kicked in and she shrieked, tossing it back to Amy, who snickered.
“OK,” Clara took a deep breath. “So, firstly, congratulations; secondly, oh my god, you have peed on that and it has touched my food.”
“I mean, the pee is dry, but I’ll eat that slice if you’re so bothered by it.”
“Wait, can you eat this?” Clara gesticulated at the icing. “I forget the long list of banned items for pregnant women.”
“I can eat cream cheese,” Amy rolled her eyes, pulling what was formerly Clara’s plate towards her and sliding hers towards Clara. “Don’t you worry.”
“Oh, my god,” Clara sighed happily, her own news temporarily forgotten. “You’re gonna have a baby.”
“It’s about time, right?” Amy stuffed a forkful of cake into her mouth, chewing pensively. “I didn’t believe the test, I-”
The sour-faced waitress returned at that moment with their drinks, and Amy moved her arm to obscure the test from sight, undoubtedly worried she might receive a lecture on the terrible, unsanitary threat it posed to the café.
Once the teenager had shuffled off, Amy took a swig of hot chocolate and then carried on brightly: “Like I was saying, I didn’t believe the test, so I sent Rory out to buy another five, and then I took all of those, and they all said ‘pregnant,’ so I kind of had to start believing it then. That one isn’t the original; the original is staying at home in a box to commemorate the occasion.”
“How did you produce enough pee for six pregnancy tests?” Clara enquired, narrowing her eyes curiously. “Because that is a serious biological marvel.”
“Orange juice,” Amy shrugged with faux-modesty. “Took a leaf out of Juno’s book.”
“Nice,” Clara nodded, impressed, before sipping her coffee and feeling retrospectively guilty that she’d ordered a caffeinated beverage of the variety that Amy could no longer indulge in. “How’s Rory feeling about it?”
“Excited, I think. But also terrified. Think: that bit of Bambi when he tries to ice skate. That’s basically Rory. Panicked and bouncing around everywhere, but fundamentally having a pretty OK time.”
“Sounds about right,” Clara chuckled, taking a bite of her cake and chewing it as she thought. “Have you seen the doctor yet?”
“Yep, went on Friday-”
“Hang on,” Clara interrupted, holding up her fork in an accusatory manner. “How long have you known about this?”
“Since Wednesday,” Amy confessed, her cheeks turning pink as she cast her gaze down to her plate.
“And you managed to not tell me?” Clara raised her eyebrows in incredulous surprise. “Bloody hell, stop the presses, this is a world first: Amelia Williams managed to not tell anyone something. God, you’ll be joining MI5 next.”
“Steady on,” Amy poked her tongue out. “The doctor confirmed it; reckons I’m about eight weeks. We’re having a scan soon, so I guess that’ll tell us more. How’s Bonnie doing?”
“She’s losing the will to live and gaining the will to… well, kill Will.”
“Poor bloke,” Amy said glumly. “Hormonal Bonnie and a toddler. If everyone in that household comes through unscathed, it will be a miracle unlike any other.”
“What about the Divine Conception?”
“Don’t be obnoxious, you know what I mean. Anyway, the advantage to my — for once wonderful — timing is that I might be able to inherit all of Bon’s little one’s things once she’s outgrown them.”
“This is a very good point.”
“Thank you. I make those a lot, and yet people are always surprised.”
“Lies,” Clara teased, before reaching over and taking Amy’s hand, squeezing it gently. “I’m pleased for you, Amy. I know how much you both wanted this.”
Her best friend smiled, looking a touch tearful before recovering her composure and blinking hard to clear her eyes of tears. “Would I be correct in thinking you might have some similarly exciting baby news shortly?” Amy asked, looking apologetic. “Sorry for derailing you earlier.”
“Oh,” Clara cleared her throat a little, feeling that her news was somewhat anti-climactic in comparison to Amy’s. “Urm, we’ve been talking, and we’ve come to the tentative conclusion that we’d like to adopt.”
“Whoa,” Amy’s eyes widened in shock. “Seriously? That’s a big step, wow!”
“I know,” Clara chewed her lip, pushing a cake crumb around her plate with her fork and feeling irrationally embarrassed about the matter. “But, ah… I don’t know, I was out with Bon yesterday and it just feels like it’s the right time.”
“Why not just have your own?”
“In the very nicest and most respectful of ways, I am not up for dealing with a baby, or being pregnant.”
“Fair,” Amy concurred with an easy shrug. “I mean, you’re so tiny that you’d probably end up as wide as you are tall.”
“Hey!” Clara protested, but she grinned nonetheless, some of her awkwardness alleviating. “Good point, to be honest. Plus… I don’t know, I just feel like suffering through a pregnancy would be unnecessarily uncomfortable for me, and then dealing with a baby would be incredibly stressful for me and John, and so… it would be silly to go through all of that when we could just adopt, skip the discomfort, and also help out some kids who have been stuck in the system for however long.”
“Commendable,” Amy said with a hint of awe. “I’m impressed.”
“Thanks,” Clara felt herself blush. “Don’t be, though.”
“Well, I am!” Amy argued. “There’s loads of kids stuck in the foster care system, and they all need loving and stable homes. Not that social services are in any great hurry to help out people who want to adopt, but you know.”
“Yeah,” Clara sighed, feeling a nagging doubt in her stomach at the mention of social services. “The waiting period is… not great.”
“What age are you looking at?”
“Under five but over two probably,” Clara said, pragmatically. “Then they’re fairly sort of… out of the worst of babyhood. Unsurprisingly, everyone wants little ones, so there’s probably going to be a massive waiting list.”
“You know,” Amy tilted her head to the side. “There’s a whole lot of non-white kids that need homes.”
“I know,” Clara frowned a little, unsure what her friend was getting at. “It’s an issue.”
She looked over at Amy, who was giving her a pointed look that she didn’t fully understand.
“Amy,” Clara said patiently, gesturing to her face. “I am not non-white. I am, in fact, very white. Don’t they usually place kids of minority backgrounds with parents of that minority? Where is this going?”
“Just saying,” Amy reasoned, before continuing more carefully: “Wasn’t Danny in care when he was a kid?”
Clara’s heart lurched a little at the mention of his name. It had been three years, yet she still felt an uncomfortable tug on her heartstrings when she thought about him. “Yeah, and?”
“So, given how shitty you felt when he died — and how guilty — maybe adopting a kid of similar ethnicity could be you giving something back to… oh, I don’t know, the karmic balance of the universe, or something.”
Clara paused for a moment, considering the idea. Amy had a point; of the kids that needed homes, a significant proportion were from minority backgrounds. Danny had been one such kid: lost and forgotten in the system, in desperate need of a stable home and loving family, something he had eventually found, in part, in the army. He’d spoken about it with her from time to time: of the optimism he would feel every time potential fosterers or adopters came to look around his children’s home, and then the crashing sense of disappointment when they passed over him in favour of a baby, or a white child, or simply because they didn’t like him. It hadn’t sounded pleasant, and the thought of other children having to go through the same experience was heartbreaking.
“Amy, I can’t just go into an adoption agency and request a non-white kid,” she said. “They’ll think I’m… I don’t know, fetishising race, or something. They wouldn’t approve of it! And what am I meant to say? ‘I owe this to my dead ex-boyfriend’? Yeah, that’d go down so well. Not least with John; I’m sure he’d be absolutely thrilled at the prospect.”
Amy rolled her eyes. “John would understand if you explained it, and besides, all you’d need to say at the agency would be that you wanted to provide a loving home to a child who would otherwise not receive such an opportunity. They wouldn’t think you were weird, they’d think you were commendable.”
“Right,” Clara said, feeling entirely unconvinced by Amy’s logic. “Sure.”
John and Clara meet with an adoption agency, but John is having doubts...
“I’m sorry,” the woman from the adoption agency affixed them both with a wide, staggeringly insincere smile that only served to rile Clara’s nerves all the further. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand. You’d like to adopt an… ethnic child?”
“Should you be saying that?” Clara snapped, and John reached over and took her hand in his, squeezing gently. She tried to take comfort from the gesture, but something about this woman’s demeanour was antagonising her, and she fought to keep her temper in check. “That sounded vaguely racist.”
“Here at Graystark Adoption, we use a variety of terminology to refer to the children we match with potential parents,” the woman reeled off from memory in a robotic tone, but her eyes looked panicked. She knew she’d slipped up. “I’m just struggling to understand your motivations, Miss Oswald.”
“Ms,” Clara corrected automatically, conspicuously rearranging the hand still in her lap so that her wedding and engagement rings were more prominent. “Ms Oswald-Smith.”
“Yes,” the woman looked between her and John, barely bothering to conceal her judgement at the age difference. “Ms… Oswald-Smith. Your previous boyfriend-”
“Was mixed-race, and he grew up in a children’s home which he hated. We’d like to adopt a child of a similar background, because the thought of them being stuck in the system in the same way that Da… my boyfriend was, that breaks my heart.”
“Right,” the woman grimaced, looking at her computer screen and scrolling through… well, Clara wasn’t sure. She probably just wanted to avoid looking at them. “It’s highly irregular. We usually prefer to pair children of mixed backgrounds or non-white backgrounds with parents from similar cultures, you see. It ensures that there is no loss of cultural heritage during the child’s upbringing.”
Clara squeezed John’s hand tightly. “I know,” she said quietly. “But we would be committed to working hard to ensure that their cultural heritage would be preserved and maintained.”
“Please,” Clara said in desperation, tears stinging her eyes as she spoke. “Please, I just… I can’t stand thinking that there are kids out there right now who are stuck in the system and who nobody wants purely because of the colour of their skin. And those kids are going to grow up thinking that they’re not as good as the white kids; they’re going to think they’re second best, and they’re going to struggle. Believe me, I work in a school and I see black kids and Asian kids who have grown up with their own families who still see themselves as being less important than white kids. And they’ve never had to sit in a children’s home and watch other kids get picked by foster parents or adoptive parents; other kids get taken home to new families; other kids get attention and love, while they’re ignored. I can’t help every single child of colour in the system, but if I can help one then that’s one child who isn’t going to grow up feeling unloved and lost the way my boyfriend did. That’s one child who would be adored and cherished and made part of our family. And if you can honestly look me in the eye now and tell me that you would rather that a child stayed in the system and suffered purely because you think two white people couldn’t do an adequate job of preserving their cultural heritage, then so help me god I will walk out of here and I will report you to social services.”
The woman blinked, visibly taken aback by Clara’s outburst, before clearing her throat and getting to her feet in the cramped office. “Excuse me for one moment,” she said icily, edging past John and Clara and out of the door, leaving the two of them alone. Clara let out a long breath, realising she was trembling, and closed her eyes against the tears that burned there.
“Hey,” John said quietly, scooting his chair closer to hers and putting an arm around her. She leaned against his chest, breathing heavily and trying to remember how to not cry. “That was one hell of a speech.”
“Well,” Clara mumbled, blushing slightly. “Stupid bitch, I can’t believe she’d even consider the idea of just leaving a kid stuck in care.”
“I know,” he pressed a kiss to her hair. “I know, love. It’s alright.”
“No, it’s not,” Clara took a shuddering breath, panic beginning to creep over her as she realised the effect her words would have. “She’s going to think I’m a meddling bitch and not want to give us any kid at all.”
“Clara,” his voice was low and reassuring, and he placed one hand under her chin, forcing her to meet his gaze. “No, she won’t. She’ll be impressed by your passion.”
“No, she’ll think I’m a meddling bitch.”
“No, she will not. You care, and that’s the most important thing here.”
The office door opened and the woman — Clara supposed she should probably bother learning her name, but not until she was absolutely certain they weren’t about to be given their marching orders — stepped back inside, holding a stack of paperwork and looking somewhat contrite. Taking a seat again, she looked at Clara and smiled sincerely, a gesture that was so disconcerting at first, Clara could only blink at her in confusion.
“Having discussed the matter with my colleagues, we’d like you to fill in the initial forms and paperwork so that we can arrange a home visit, and other such matters. Obviously, we will require further meetings with you — that’s a given, to get to know you both better — and the home visit is essential because it allows us to assess not only the environment the child would be living in, but also how you both interact and engage with each other within the domestic sphere. In the meantime, if you take these forms home, and fill them in together… there’s a booklet advising you on which sections to complete, and how. If you get those back to us in the next week or so, then we can arrange a home visit for you.”
“Thank you,” Clara said with gratitude, accepting the enormous wodge of papers and stowing them in her handbag with care. “Really, thank you so much.”
“You’re very welcome,” the woman smiled, and Clara got to her feet. “I hope to hear from you shortly.”
“Definitely,” Clara enthused, beaming as John shook the woman’s hand, looking only slightly unwilling to be doing so. “You absolutely will.”
Linking her arm through John’s, Clara headed outside and towards where they’d parked the car, feeling excitement beginning to build in her stomach.
“So,” John began tentatively, obviously still wary that another outburst could be on the way. “That went… well.”
“Right?” Clara looked at him with a smile, before grimacing in pain and adjusting her handbag on her shoulder. “Bloody hell, you have no idea how heavy this paperwork is. God knows how long it’s going to take to do, but I reckon we should get it done ASAP, you know? No point procrastinating, and I kind of want to channel all this enthusiasm into something positive.”
“Yeah,” John concurred, and his voice sounded slightly strange. “After the show, maybe?”
“Good plan,” Clara nodded as they approached the car, reaching into her bag for the keys and trying to dismiss a nagging sense of worry about his lack of overt enthusiasm. Changing tack in a bid to alleviate his mood, she proposed: “Now, shall we stop off for a celebratory cake on the way to work, or not?”
“This is why I married you.”
John sighed, slumping back against the uncomfortable plastic chair he’d found himself perched upon. Rory approached their table holding two grey mugs of what was allegedly coffee, but only the next few minutes and a taste test would verify this claim — hospital coffee was not generally a particularly palatable beverage, at least not in his general experience. Looking out of the window, the yellow lights of the city at night guided his gaze down to the river, before his attention drifted back to his friend.
“Right,” Rory said, putting both cups down and then sitting opposite John. He was still dressed in his scrubs, and they bore an ominous-looking brown stain on one side that John resolved not to ask about. “Remind me what was so urgent that you needed to meet at…” He checked his watch. “Half past eleven?”
“Clara,” John said, shrugging vaguely. She was still tucked up in bed at home, unaware that he had snuck out to meet Rory after his late shift, and he felt a pang of worry that she might wake up, alone, and panic. He should’ve left a note. “Family stuff. That sort of thing.”
“Could we not have picked a slightly nicer venue than, you know, the hospital where I work?”
John affixed Rory with a pointed look, and the younger man looked abruptly embarrassed.
“Oh. Right. Yeah. Sorry. Canteen and coffee it is.”
“Thank you,” John acquiesced, reaching for his mug and taking a sip of the hot drink, finding it to be surprisingly decent. Rory mirrored his movement, looking amused at John’s surprise. “It’s-”
“When you say ‘family stuff’…” Rory hesitated, chewing his lip. “Do you mean the adoption?”
“Yeah,” John mumbled, sighing heavily and picking at a gouge in the tabletop. “It’s alright for you and Amy, you know? Like, you’re having a kid. You’ve made a kid yourselves, from scratch.”
“That’s a distinctly weird way of looking at this,” Rory took a tentative sip of his drink, his expression bemused. “But yeah, I guess.”
“I’m just… how do you even start to bond with a kid someone else made from scratch? I’m not their dad. I’m not their parental figure, end of. I look old enough to be their bloody grandparent, for god’s sake. What if they hate me? What if I raise them and then they turn around one day and go with the old, ‘You’re not my dad’-type shite?”
“John, if you raise them right, they wouldn’t ever consider doing that.”
“I don’t know how to raise anyone right!” John blurted. “I don’t even know how to raise anyone wrong! Or raise anyone, period!”
“Nor do I.”
“But yours is… yours. You’ll automatically be good at it.”
“John,” Rory sighed, running one hand through his hair wearily. “That’s not how parenthood works. God knows, my mum thought the same about me, but she got horribly depressed after I was born because she just didn’t know how to bond with me. There’s no guarantee I’m gonna be Dad of the Year, but there’s also no guarantee that you won’t be.”
“I just…” John looked guiltily from side to side, hating himself for what he was about to say and dropping his tone as he continued: “I’m worried what people will say.”
“Clara’s got her heart set on adopting a mixed-race kid like Danny. Wants to help a kid have a better life and escape the system and be loved-”
“-but… people are gonna ask questions, aren’t they? The kid is gonna ask questions. And I’m no good at shite like that. What do I say to them when they ask?”
“You say that they were chosen and you love them and that you and Clara are Mummy and Daddy and that is the end of matters,” Rory shrugged. “Not difficult.”
“What do I say to other people?”
“‘Hello, I’m John, this is my son-slash-daughter, Insert Name Here.’”
John scowled at his friend, knowing he was right, but still feeling a niggling sense of worry at the thought of other people making snide or downright nasty comments towards their hypothetical future child, or towards Clara. “I just…”
“When you married Clara,” Rory reminded him, narrowing his eyes warningly, “did you not promise that you would stop worrying about these things?”
“Yeah,” John sighed, cupping both his hands around his mug. “I did. I just… I don’t know. I worry about how she’d handle people asking questions.”
“It’s Clara,” Rory noted, raising his eyebrows and suppressing a grin. “Probably with a lot of sarcasm.”
“True,” John chuckled to himself at the thought. “So much sarcasm.”
“Is it really Clara you’re worried about?” Rory asked, looking guilty for even having to ask and then taking a sip of his drink to conceal the fact that his cheeks were burning. “Or is it you? Because if you’re not sure or you’re having mildly racist thoughts, then you kind of need to either deal with that yourself and move forward, or tell Clara the truth.”
“I’m not having mildly racist thoughts!” John said at once, aghast at the very notion. “I’m just worried about what people would say, and whether Clara would be able to handle that.”
“More like whether you would.”
“Stop being perceptive,” he growled, both loving and hating his friend for being able to read his mind. “It’s totally unfair.”
“Nope,” Rory said defiantly. “Look, if you don’t want this, or you’re having doubts, you need to tell Clara now.”
“It’s not doubts, per se. Just… wobbles.”
“The last time you wobbled, you dumped Clara and broke her heart, remember?”
“Sadly, yes,” John muttered, feeling a hot flush of shame at the memory. “That won’t happen again.”
“It better bloody not, or I will be neither able nor willing to restrain my wife from killing you. Do you want a kid?”
“I want to make Clara happy.”
“But do you want a kid?” Rory pressed. “Don’t be all noble and self-sacrificial about this.”
“I…” John swallowed hard, looking down at his coffee and thinking about the matter. He imagined coming home and swinging a little boy or girl into his arms while they excitedly babbled about their day. He imagined being given drawings and handmade mugs and other little gifts and paraphernalia that he could arrange around the house and cherish for its simplicity. He imagined seeing Clara with a little one, finger-painting or cooking or just cuddling, and he smiled at the last image as a warm feeling of longing began to spread through his chest. “I do.”
“Well, then. You’re scared that you’re going to love this kid and they’re not going to love you.”
“How could you possibly…”
“Because that’s what I’m worried about, too,” Rory confessed in a small voice, reaching over and patting John’s hand. “Terrified dads-to-be, unite.”
Feeling somewhat heartened, John met Rory’s gaze and offered a tight, nervous smile. “To fatherhood and beyond.”
John confesses his uncertainties to Clara.
Clara rolled over in bed when her alarm blared early the next morning, expecting to find the bed as empty as it had been the previous night, when she had awoken just before midnight to find herself inexplicably alone in the darkness. She’d immediately panicked, getting up and looking out of the windows as she hyperventilated, before discovering John’s car was still in the drive and that only his phone and his Oyster card were missing, and concluding he had probably gone out in an attempt to get his thoughts in order. Half-reassured, she had returned to bed and curled up in a ball, drifting back to sleep before anxiety could overcome her. But now…
“Mm,” a gruff Scottish voice murmured from beside her, and as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes she found herself pulled into John’s arms. “Morning.”
“Morning,” she mumbled, looking up at him and trying to scowl, but finding herself near tears instead as relief overcame her. “Where were you last night?”
“Needed to get some air,” his gaze slid past her and alighted on the bedroom window as he refused to look her in the eye, and a niggling sense of suspicion started to creep up on her. “Needed some time to think.”
“About the adoption?” Clara asked, feeling herself starting to panic again at the thought. “Or about me?”
“Just about things in general,” he said at once, cupping her face in his hands and kissing her forehead in a way that she would usually find reassuring. “Breathe, love. Breathe for me, come on. I’m not going anywhere. I swear to you I’m not.”
Clara gulped down a lungful of air, still disconcerted by John’s refusal-cum-inability to meet her gaze, and tried to but her thoughts into words in an attempt to allay her fears. “Why won’t…” she began, exhaling and inhaling rapidly. “Why won’t you look at me?”
He met her gaze then, and she saw guilt etched across his features, although whether it was guilt for disappearing the night before or guilt for something else, she didn’t know, and somehow that only made it worse. “Sorry.”
“Leaving you on your own last night. I went to see Rory, and I should’ve left a note, but I was in a rush.”
“You went to see… Rory? Why?”
“Well, us expectant fathers have to stick together.”
She couldn’t help it then — her mouth twisted into a content little smile at his casual use of the phrase. “So, you’re not feeling weird about the adoption?”
“I was a little bit,” he confessed, and Clara’s stomach dropped. He sensed it. “Hey, no, it’s not that I don’t want it, Clara. I was just worried that things might go wrong, or that it might not be easy.”
“It won’t be easy,” she snapped, her defences immediately going up and her fear turning to anger in an instinctive reaction that she knew was unreasonable, yet couldn’t entirely help. “It’s not supposed to be easy, John, or every Tom, Dick, and Harry would be adopters and there wouldn’t be a problem with unwanted kids getting stuck in the foster care system.”
“Clara,” he said gently, brushing a thumb over her cheek and looking at her with utmost tenderness. “I’m not worried about it for myself.”
“No,” she all but snarled, wrenching away from his touch. “No, you’re not doing this. This was an express condition. You swore you weren’t going to do this again — you weren’t going to worry about me.”
“You’re my wife,” John raised his eyebrows, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Of course I’m going to worry about you. It’s basically in the job description.”
“You worry excessively.”
“I know I do,” John sighed, sitting up and leaning back against the headboard as he affixed her with a serious look. “I just… Clara, love, this is going to be a long, slow process. And I know that you are one of the most impatient people I’ve ever met. Are you sure you can wait? Are you sure that you can deal with potentially getting your heart broken?”
“No,” she admitted in a tiny voice, following his lead and leaning against her pillows. “No, I’m not. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? I’ve never had anything before that was worth the wait to this level.”
“What about me?” John teased, tapping the tip of her nose with a playful grin, and she smiled and edged closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder. “You made me wait until Amy and Rory’s wedding, remember?”
“True,” she smiled then, some of her concern dissipating at the fond memory. “Very true.”
“I’ll be here,” he promised, abruptly serious. “I’ll be with you every step of the way, and if our hearts get broken, then we can put them back together and, if necessary, get a dog to ease the pain.”
“Cat,” Clara corrected absentmindedly. “We aren’t getting a dog, they’re too much work.”
“Cats are little bastards.”
“Shut up,” Clara punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Weirdo dog person.”
“Weirdo cat person.”
“I love you,” she hummed, scooting up the bed a little so that she could press a quick kiss to his unprotesting lips. “So much.”
“I know you do,” John joked, then caught sight of her bemused expression and laughed before adding: “And I love you, too, my tiny wrathful teacher wife.”
“That’s better,” she groaned. “I don’t wanna go to work.”
“So don’t,” he wrapped his arms more securely around her waist, pulling her onto his lap. “Pull a sickie. Stay here with me.”
“John!” she protested, trying and failing to squirm away. “I can’t, I’ve got a coursework feedback session, I need to-”
“No, you don’t,” he asserted again, his voice laced with amusement as he held her tighter and pressed a line of kisses down her neck. “Stay…”
“You’re bad,” Clara chided, finally succeeding in evading his grip and scrambling out of bed. “I will be in the shower, should you wish to come and join me.”
“Can we do anything fun in the shower?”
“Not as I need to leave the house in…” she squinted over at her bedside table. “Half an hour, no.”
“Can I just come and stare at your arse?” John asked with a smirk. “And… other parts?”
“Mm, only if you tuck annotated Shakespeare scenes into my non-existent underwear.”
“Most strippers ask for cash.”
“Most strippers don’t have to teach Macbeth to Year Twelve.”
“Good point. I’ll come shave.”
“You’ll come stare at my arse in the mirror, you mean. And probably end up cutting yourself because you’re so distracted.”
“When have I ever done that?” John asked in a hurt tone, his eyes wide and innocent.
“Last week,” Clara shot back. “And two weeks before that.”
“Is it my fault that my wife is more interesting than sharp objects?” he deadpanned. “No, it is not.”
“I am seriously concerned about allowing you anywhere near children,” Clara said with a groan, heading towards the bathroom. “Come on, you. Up.”
Clara jogged through the light September rain towards Radio TARDIS, cursing the changeable autumn weather and the fact she had left her umbrella at Coal Hill. As she approached the building, she was surprised to find Jack stood outside holding an enormous golf umbrella, and, as she drew nearer, he walked over to her and held it over her head in a chivalrous gesture that Clara was deeply grateful for.
“Thanks,” she said brightly, looking up at him and noticing that he seemed rather subdued. “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine, ma’am,” Jack said in a dull tone that was far removed from his usual upbeat manner. “John sent me out here to get you.”
“Is that why you look miserable?”
“No, sorry, ma’am,” he looked guiltily down at his feet, then back up at her with a forced smile. “That better?”
“Not really,” as they entered the Reception area and Jack furled up the huge umbrella, she narrowed her eyes at him and adopted her sternest teacher expression. “Jack Harkness, what’s wrong?”
He sighed heavily, passing one hand over his face and looking more serious than she had ever seen him. “It’s Ianto,” he confessed in a very small voice. “He wants to go out to dinner to discuss something serious, and I think he’s going to break up with me.”
“Ianto?” Clara asked in stupefaction, refusing to belief such an assertion. “Ianto Jones? The same Ianto Jones who legitimately worships the very ground you walk on, and stares at you like you are the most singularly attractive man on the planet? That Ianto Jones?”
“What else would he want to discuss?” Jack asked in a hollow voice, his expression full of fear. “He’s got cancer, maybe that’s it. Or worse. Oh god, what if he’s dying? What if I’m dying? What if-”
“When’s the dinner?” Clara interjected, before Jack could work himself into a state.
“Tonight. We’re going up the Shard.”
“Jack, I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about,” Clara said reassuringly, reaching over and giving his arm a squeeze. “Honestly. Let me know what happens, OK? But I guarantee that he’s not actually going to be discussing anything… but much rather… asking something…”
Jack’s eyes widened in sudden understanding of what Clara was getting at. “No,” he breathed in disbelief. “Really? You think?”
“You’ll have to wait and see, won’t you?” Clara told him, smoothing her hair down and grimacing at the dampness of it. “Thanks for the umbrella, you hero. Text me later, OK?”
Before he could reply, she headed towards Studio 12, a smile on her face at the thought of what Jack’s evening would hold. Stepping inside, she found Amy perched on the edge of John’s desk, grinning soppily as he peered down at something in his hands.
“Clara!” Amy enthused, her face lighting up at the sight of her friend, and she beckoned her over with both hands. “Come and see!”
Clara shrugged off her wet coat and hung it up, approaching the pair with a sense of confusion. “What are we looking at?”
John passed over a small piece of paper; one which bore a picture of the sort that Clara had become an expert at deciphering thanks to Bonnie and her ever-expanding brood. Looking down at the grainy black and white image, she identified a tiny face and hand, held up as if in greeting, and she smiled tearfully, pleased for her best friend.
“Look at that,” Clara said, surprised by the steadiness of her voice. “Saying hello to you. I didn’t know you were having a scan already!”
“I wanted to surprise you both,” Amy confessed with a surprisingly modest shrug. “And besides, little one isn’t just saying hello to me, it’s saying hello to its godparents.”
It took Clara a moment to process this nugget of information, and when she had she looked at Amy in surprise. “Really?”
“Yeah, really. If you both want to.”
“We’d be honoured, but… Amy, we are the least godly people you will ever meet,” John noted in a gruff tone that Clara knew indicated he was pleased. “Just a warning.”
“Oh, come on, Rory and I aren’t exactly religious ourselves, but we’re both only children so we want the little one to have a big extended family. And obviously you’ll be Auntie Clara and Uncle John, but also we want you to have a kind of… official role.”
“In that case, can I be the obligatory bad-influence auntie?” Clara teased, poking her tongue out at her friend before looking back down at the scan photo and pressing her fingertip against the baby’s tiny outstretched hand on the paper. “Please?”
“Oh, definitely,” Amy shot back. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.”
“Excellent. John can be the cool uncle with tragic clothes.”
“I do not wear tragic clothes!” he said with great affront. “They’re funky.”
“John, you wear plaid trousers,” Clara reminded him. “And a hoodie with more holes than a colander.”
“Shut up,” he muttered, looking sulky. “It’s comfy.”
“When you have your little one,” Amy interrupted, before the two of them could start bickering, “it’ll be extra cute because then my little angel will have a… god-sibling. Is that a thing? I’m making it a thing.”
“Angel?” Clara quipped, mainly to distract from the fact that Amy’s casual confidence about the adoption was making her heart race. “Terror, more like.”
“Didn’t you say that about Bonnie’s little one?” Amy narrowed her eyes. “And he’s fairly angelic.”
“Tell that to the poor sod who had to scrub lipstick off the wallpaper at their place.”
Amy snorted. “Fair point. I’ll make sure to keep my makeup under lock and key.”
“Probably a plan,” Clara grinned, reaching over and ruffling John’s hair. “Now, god-husband, we’ve got a show to do, so stop getting heart-eyed over babies and let’s have a look at tonight’s playlist.”
Clara and John are forced to do some unexpected late-night babysitting.
Clara wasn’t entirely sure what time it was. She only knew that she had been asleep, enjoying a wonderful dream in which she had been petting several kittens at once, and now she wasn’t, instead blinking in the dark and groping around for whatever the hell the source of the loud, insistent ringing was. Her hand closed around the smooth metal of her phone, and she yanked it towards her face, squinting at the screen and feeling immediately, acutely awake as she accepted the call.
“Will?” she asked, her voice coming out scratchy and incoherent, and she cleared her throat before trying again. “Will, what-”
“Bonnie’s in labour,” he said, sounding somewhere between exuberant and agitated about this fact. “Our arrangements for Eli have fallen through, can you and John take him?”
“Of course,” Clara said at once, thumping John’s shoulder by means of a wake up and dragging the duvet off him. “Do you want us to come and get him, or…?”
“No, we’ll drop him in on the way to hospital. I… wait, don’t you have work?”
“Yeah, but they can shove it,” she shrugged, swinging her legs out of bed and then leaning over and shaking John more urgently. “Is Bonnie alright?”
Clara laughed. “Sounds about right. See you in a few, OK?”
“See you then.”
Clara hung up and turned her attention back to waking her husband up. “Come on,” she muttered, contemplating the idea of tickling him. “Wake up, you useless man.”
“Don’t want to,” he mumbled, trying and failing to pull the duvet back over his head. “Go ‘way.”
“Bonnie’s in labour and we’re minding Eli, so unless you would like me to feed him a bumper packet of sherbet and then let him bounce on your head, I would strongly suggest waking the hell up.”
John sat up at once, blinking owlishly in the still-dark bedroom and peering at the clock with a sour expression. “It’s five in the morning.”
“Yes, but do try to remember that unborn children have no sense of time. It’ll be fine, Eli will probably still be tired, so we can just let him get in with us and snooze.”
John muttered something unintelligible but got out of bed nonetheless, reaching for his dressing gown and shrugging it on. Clara followed suit, padding downstairs on quiet feet before perching on the sofa with her legs drawn up underneath her, trying not to shiver in the chilly autumn air. Raising one hand to her mouth, she began worrying at a hangnail with her teeth, clenching and unclenching her fingers as she did so.
“Hey,” John said softly, coming over and resting his hands on her shoulders, and she jumped, guiltily ceasing her chewing. “Are you alright?”
“Just…” she puffed up her cheeks and exhaled slowly — a long deflation that became a drawn-out sigh. “It’ll be weird not being there.”
“I know,” he began kneading the tense muscles under her skin with his knuckles, and Clara felt herself begin to relax in response to his touch. “She’ll have Will with her, and, besides, you’re needed here to look after the little one. Not least because I’m not entirely sure I could manage a rambunctious toddler on my own.”
“He’s not rambunctious,” Clara disputed, but she forced a smile anyway. “But I guess you’re right.”
“I’m always right,” John leaned down and pressed a kiss to her hair. “Try not to worry, OK, love?”
“I’ll try,” she took hold of her husband’s hands and squeezed gently, trying not to allow herself to get overly worked up about the situation. “I need to call Coal Hill-”
“I doubt they’ll answer the phone at this hour,” John chided. “Maybe wait until six, at least.”
“Hush, you,” Clara yawned, letting go of him to stretch out her arms in an attempt to wake up a little more comprehensively. “I’ll do it once we’ve had some more sleep.”
“Do you actually anticipate getting any sleep while in bed with a toddler?”
“Not really, but think positive,” she chided, patting the sofa. “Come sit, you’re making me anxious hovering over me like that.”
John plonked down beside her obediently, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and smiling as she nuzzled into his shoulder and yawned. “I’m thinking of this as good practice,” he hummed. “For… you know.”
“Exactly,” Clara concurred, fighting back a second, wider yawn. “Only at least hopefully ours might be a little older, and a little less confused about being up at five in the morning.”
“Mm,” John murmured, and Clara realised he was dozing off. “Shall we… mm… five mins…”
She had to admit that it was an appealing prospect, and so she cosied into him all the more comfortably and closed her eyes, allowing herself to drift into a half-asleep, half-awake state. She was on the verge of falling completely asleep when the doorbell rang and she dragged herself from her stupor with difficulty, getting up and heading into the hall. Opening the front door and trying to look calmer and more awake than she felt, she found Will stood on the top step holding a Wonder Woman-themed rucksack, but she looked past him to where his car was idling on the road outside. Bonnie was visible in the front passenger seat, her eyes closed and her forehead resting against the window.
“Hey,” Will began in a low voice, dragging her attention back to him. “Sorry, I thought I’d bring this in first. He’s pretty tired, so he shouldn’t be any trouble.”
“That’s fine,” Clara took the bag from him and set it down in the hall, shaking her head in fond exasperation at John, who was still snoozing on the sofa. “I’ll come down and get him, if that’s OK? Wanna say hi and good luck to Bon.”
“Sure,” Will smiled then, but she saw the worry etched on his face and knew her own expression was a mirror of his. “I-”
“I know you’re worried,” she confessed in a low voice, putting one hand on his shoulder and squeezing reassuringly. “So am I, but she’ll be OK. She’s done this before, and so have you. You’ll both be fine, I promise.”
Will nodded tightly in gratitude, and Clara descended the front steps and approached the car with trepidation. Clara ducked her head inside the window and grinned.
“Hey,” Clara said as brightly and softly as she was able, noting the sweat on her cousin’s brow and her gritted teeth and wishing there was something more she could do to help. “Great timing, you.”
“I know,” Bonnie chuckled, but the sound was hollow. “Sorry about this.”
“Don’t be silly,” Clara assured her. “It’s fine. We don’t mind at all.”
“On the sofa, still mostly asleep,” Clara admitted. “Is Eli…”
“About the same,” a contraction took hold, and Bonnie’s face screwed up in agonised concentration. Clara waited for it to pass, and when it had her cousin opened her eyes and said in a small voice, “Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Clara said again, smoothing down her cousin’s hair before resting her palm on Bon’s cheek and kissing her forehead tenderly. “You’ve got this, I promise. I love you, and I’ll see you and little one later.”
“Love you, too,” Bonnie mumbled, her eyes drifting shut again. “Thank you.”
Clara straightened up and moved to the back of the car, where Will was unbuckling his sleepy, unprotesting son from his car seat. “Hey,” she murmured quietly as the slumbering toddler was placed in her arms, and he stirred a little. “Shh. It’s OK, little man.”
“Will you be alright?” Will asked, his eyes still wide with concern, and Clara forced herself to roll her eyes dismissively, instead adopting a look of confidence that she hoped was convincing.
“I should be asking you that,” she reminded him, and he bared his teeth in an exhausted approximation of a smile. “Go on, now. Keep us posted.”
“Will do,” he promised, leaning down and pressing a quick kiss to Eli’s temple. “Be good, little man.”
Clara smiled and carried Eli inside as Will closed the car doors and got back behind the wheel and drove away. She hovered on the doorstep for a moment to raise her hand in farewell to Will and Bonnie, before stepping inside and shutting the door behind her. Looking into the lounge, she found John sat up and looking almost alert, and she grinned.
“Bed?” she asked quietly, shifting the little boy in her arms, and John nodded, following her upstairs in silence. Laying Eli in the middle of their bed, Clara slipped off her dressing gown and climbed in beside him, smiling as the boy snuggled into her in his sleep and began to suck his thumb.
“He’s sweet, isn’t he?” John asked, getting into bed on the other side of the toddler and stroking his hair. “Good lad.”
Eli stirred then, his eyes opening, and he blinked up at her with confusion, thumb still firmly in his mouth as he mumbled: “Mummy?”
“Auntie Clara,” she told him, drawing him closer to her. “Go back to sleep, love.”
When Clara next awoke, it was to find a small child sitting on her chest, patting her face repeatedly and giggling. As she opened her eyes, he shrieked and rolled off her, chuckling to himself in a vaguely disconcerting manner as Clara groaned and tried to remember how to breathe.
“Hello,” she said once she’d got her breath back, using as level a tone as she could manage. “Are you OK?”
“Hello, Auntie Clara,” Eli said, going abruptly shy and pulling the duvet over his head. “Me ’wake.”
“I can see that,” she retrieved him from his duvet-cave and sat up, pulling him onto her lap and casting an envious look over at the still-sleeping form of her husband. She felt a small hint of resentment that he hadn’t been cursed with a similar case of chest-sitting. “Are you hun-”
“She’s in hospital.”
“Why she in hostiple?”
“She’s having a baby, darling.”
“BABY!” Elijah promptly yelled at a deafening volume, squirming out of her arms and starting to jump up and down on the bed, and Clara noted with slightly bitter satisfaction that John was beginning to stir. “She have baby now?”
“That’s right!” Clara held out her arms, but the little boy was profoundly disinterested in anything other than bouncing around like an overexcited spaniel. “Elijah!”
“Baby, baby, baby, baby!”
“‘He’s not rambunctious,’” John muttered from beside her, rolling over and affixing her with an unimpressed look. “Do you want to retract that statement?”
“Shut up,” she jabbed her husband in the side with a finger. “Be authoritative and do something.”
John sat up and scooped Eli into his arms in one fluid motion, holding the wriggling toddler against his chest and adopting a stern expression. “Now then, little chap,” he said in a serious tone. “We can’t have all this noise, can we?”
“Why not?” Eli blinked up at his uncle in confusion. “It baby. Baby is ’citing.”
“I know,” John acquiesced. “Babies are very exciting. But when the baby comes home, you’re going to have to be quiet, or the baby will cry all the time and Mummy and Daddy will be cross.”
“Yuck, crying,” Eli protested at once, screwing up his face and shaking his head. “No crying please.”
“Can you be a good boy then?” John asked. “And be quiet like a ninja?”
“Yeah, Uncle John!”
“And can we maybe practice being quiet like a ninja now?”
“Yeah!” Eli beamed, then put a finger to his lips and whispered: “Me most quiet ninja.”
“Good boy,” Clara smiled, ruffling his hair. “Would the ninja like egg and soldiers for breakfast?”
“Yeah, Auntie Clara,” he said with enthusiasm, and she raised one eyebrow at him in a non-verbal challenge. There was a brief, confused moment of silence, then he added: “Please, Auntie Clara. Thank you.”
“There we go,” she nodded and got to her feet, pulling on her dressing gown and grabbing her phone. “John, I’m gonna phone work and start breakfast. Keep this one amused, yeah?”
“Will do,” he gave a mock salute, which Eli promptly copied. “We’ll be down in a bit.”
Clara headed downstairs, dialling Coal Hill’s number as she went.
“Hello?” a voice at the other end asked, and Clara recognised it as belonging to Sylvia, the school receptionist.
“Morning,” she said, crossing the fingers of her free hand and praying that she could get the day off at such short notice. “It’s Clara.”
“Morning, Clara. Everything alright?”
“It’s ah… it’s my cousin. She’s gone into labour and we’ve got to mind her little boy.”
“So, I don’t think I can make it in today.”
“You know, Armitage isn’t going to like this, Clara,” Sylvia warned. “I mean, I’ll go and ask him now, but mark my words, it’ll be a no.”
“Is there no way at all…?”
“It’s the run-up to OFSTED,” Sylvia reminded her. “So, it’s highly doubtful — we need all hands on deck. Can’t you leave the little one with John?”
“I mean…” Clara considered the idea, frowning a little as she did so. “I could do, I guess.”
“Would the two of them be OK?”
“I mean… I don’t see why not,” Clara weighed over the pros and cons. John had looked after Eli before, but never alone. It could either go spectacularly well or hugely wrong, and there was only one way to find out which it would be. “Yeah, he could do. Never mind asking Armitage, I’ll be in.”
Hanging up before Sylvia could make any scathing remarks, she raced back upstairs and affixed John with a breathless, if slightly guilty, look. “Right,” she said brightly. “I’ve gotta go to work.”
“I…” he began, visibly panicked. “You… what? I can’t… you’re leaving me on my own with him?”
“You’ll be fine,” Clara said confidently, stripping off and starting to get dressed for work. “You’ve looked after him before.”
“Yeah, with you! Not on my own!”
“Well, there’s a first time for everything.”
“John,” she said firmly, looking over at where Eli was perched on his lap, iPhone in hand, playing a game that she was sure hadn’t been on John’s phone five minutes ago. “You will be fine. Consider it practice, remember?”
“Fine,” he muttered sulkily. “But if anything gets destroyed, it’s not my fault.”
Clara made it through the day at work with only very minor disruptions in the form of texts from John, usually asking where things were or how much TV was considered an acceptable amount for a two year-old to watch. A more interesting text arrived from Will at noon, announcing the arrival of Poppy Elizabeth Bowman-Ravenwood to the world, and Clara taught the afternoon’s classes with an enormous, excited grin on her face. When the bell rang to signal the end of lessons, she turned to wipe the board as her students began to trickle out of the room in twos and threes, but she was distracted from her task by the arrival of Eli, who charged into the room and attached himself to her legs in front of the dithering sixth form students.
“Hello, Auntie Clara,” he said with a grin, as Clara blinked down at him with a slight sense of confusion. “We come say hello at work.”
“Hello,” she said, bending down and picking him up as the assembled teenage girls present let out an audible aww. “Look, these are some of my students. Say hello.”
Eli looked around at the remains of her class and went red, turning abruptly shy and burying his face in her chest. “Scary,” he mumbled, and Clara laughed, looking across to the door and finding John leaning there, looking a touch apologetic.
“Sorry,” he grimaced. “He got a bit overexcited and ran off.”
“It’s OK,” Clara shifted him to her hip and addressing the little boy directly. “I’m excited, too! We’re going to go and meet your baby sister!”
“Baby!” Eli crowed, clapping his hands together. “Baby sister!”
“But only…” she looked down at him with her best teacher expression. “If you remember to be a ninja.”
Post-babysitting, Clara admits to John that she's not as brave as she feels.
When Clara and John returned home, exhausted but jubilant after having met the newest member of the family, the first thing that struck Clara was the general chaos that had been, when she left the house that morning, a perfectly tidy living room. Looking at her husband with one eyebrow cocked in a silent challenge, she noticed the way he shuffled awkwardly from foot to foot and avoided her gaze, and thus, instead of saying anything, she simply slipped off her shoes and stepped into the lounge, looking around at the assorted toys, art materials, and general detritus that was strewn across the carpet, sofas and coffee table. Whatever she had been expecting in the wake of him babysitting Eli for the day, it had not been anything quite so chaotic as this.
“You know,” she mused, as John leaned in the doorway and studiously examined his hands, at least having the good grace to look embarrassed as he did so. “Maintaining a general sense of tidiness is generally considered advantageous when children are involved. Difficult though it is.”
“S’not my fault,” John mumbled, his cheeks flushing a deep shade of red nonetheless as he continued to avoid looking her in the eye. “He’s got a very short attention span. I could hardly keep up with him.”
“So I see,” Clara deadpanned, approaching the coffee table and looking down at the brightly coloured paintings spread across its surface and feeling a swell of pride as she did so. Several were extremely proficient, and signed with “John, age 61½,” while the others were more abstract and labelled in handwriting remarkably similar to John’s: “Elijah, age 1¾.” As she picked one up, John sidled into the room properly and came up behind her, snaking his arms around her waist and pressing a kiss to her neck as a reconciliatory gesture.
“That’s you,” he explained, indicating the figure on the right of the painting, who had inexplicably bright blue hair and a wide, red smile. “And then I’m in the middle…” he pointed to a tall figure in the middle, who had glittery silver hair. “And the person on the right is our future kid.” There was a small figure beside the representation of John, painted all in green with a rough question-mark shape above its head. Clara felt her heart lurch as she realised the implication of Eli’s depiction, and she side-eyed her husband with a sense of trepidation.
“You… told him about that?”
“Bonnie must’ve. He kept asking questions a mile a minute. He seems really excited.”
Some of Clara’s worry was alleviated, but she still found herself asking: “such as?”
“Oh, let me see,” John sucked in a breath, then said, very quickly: “How old will they be and will they be a boy or a girl and will they like Wonder Woman and will they like princesses and will they be big or small and will they like ice cream and can he play with them?”
Clara raised an eyebrow, bemused.
“That was about the speed he was going!” John protested, holding up both his hands in a submissive gesture. “Bloody hell, that kid can talk. You know, I can’t imagine where he gets that from.”
“It’s a mystery,” Clara said drily, not rising to the bait. “What did you tell him?”
“About four, we don’t know, probably if Auntie Clara has anything to do with it, maybe, probably bigger than him but not big like Uncle John, almost definitely, and yes.”
Clara laughed then, leaning back in her husband’s arms and smiling fondly. “You’re cute.”
“I know I am.”
“And I was thinking…”
“Maybe a girl?” she twisted around so that she was facing him, feeling a touch nervous about how he might respond to the idea. “Rather than a boy? But it’s up to you. We could just take either, but I feel like… I’d like a girl.”
“A girl would be nice,” John acquiesced, much to her surprise. “Not least because I don’t think I could teach a wee lad to play football.”
“You know, girls can also play football.”
“Love, I don’t think I can teach anyone to play football,” John corrected with a snort of derision. “But a wee lad would be far too rambunctious for me, Eli’s proved that. Plus, I don’t really fancy the teenage years of monosyllabic grunting. I’d rather someone we could have a conversation with, even if it was about boys or phones or… whatever.”
Clara chuckled. “Good point,” she concurred. “You know, there are boys in my class who have never used words longer than one syllable in my presence. Or, as far as I know, in anyone’s presence. Not since hitting puberty, anyway.”
“Precisely. I don’t have the energy to deal with anyone that rude.”
“Well, we’ll have to let the agency know,” Clara grimaced at the prospect of having to liaise with them again. “Maybe we could bring it up when they come and do the home visit.”
“Did they get back to us about that?”
“Yeah,” she wrinkled her nose, already dreading it. “Miss Foster emailed to say that they’re coming next month.”
“No,” John gaped at her. “She is not seriously called that.”
“She is! Miss Cofelia Foster. It’s unfortunate, I know, but true. Let’s hope they send someone who’s somewhat less frosty than her, bloody hell.”
“Wow,” John let out a low whistle. “That is… yep, a very unfortunate name. Or fortunate, depending on how you look at it. Maybe she should change it to ‘Miss Adopt.’ Maybe she should also stop being such a total bitch.”
Clara snorted, then pulled away from John and turned her attention to the mess that surrounded them. “Point. But, humorous though you are, this still needs tidying, and cracking jokes won’t get you out of it.”
“Right,” he groaned, then stepped away from Clara and reached for the nearest soft toys, chucking them towards the empty toy box in the corner with a hopeful expression. One landed in the intended location while the other missed entirely, and she affixed him with a stern glare that only elicited another groan. “Fine, no throwing things. Sorry, boss.”
“That’s better,” she looked around the room and began to tidy, circling the coffee table once before groping underneath it for anything small that may have found its way there. “You know, I’m impressed you didn’t get paint on the carpet.”
“I do have some common sense, you know.”
“Really?” she deadpanned. “Can’t say I’ve ever seen any evidence of that.”
“The clean carpet is surely evidence enough of my extremely well-honed common sense. You know, namely the fact I used my initiative and put newspapers down and wrapped Eli up in an old shirt. Voila: clean carpet and clean child.”
“This is a very good point,” Clara shrugged, sweeping crumbs off the sofa and onto the floor and resolving to hoover tomorrow. Shaking out the cushions, she discovered several luridly coloured picture books tucked behind them, and she arranged them into a neat pile and laid them carefully beside the toy box, ready to be taken back upstairs to the spare room. “Did you have fun today? I know it was a bit unexpected, but you seem to have done really well, mess aside.”
“It was…” John thought about it for a moment. “Nice, actually. Had to play it by ear a little, but overall it was good fun. He’s a great kid… I’m just glad that ours will be a little older, and hopefully a little calmer. I don’t think I’ve got the energy to go charging about after a really wee one.”
“He’s a lot of work,” Clara agreed, because while she loved Eli, it was true, small children were, without exception, tiring — she had no idea how Bonnie and Will were going to cope, especially given the arrival of the new baby. “But he’s worth it.”
“He is,” he beamed, looking up from his task with a wide, soppy expression. “We should have him more often. Give Bon some breathing space, and get some more practice in.”
“Steady on,” Clara teased. “Don’t get too carried away, or she’ll be dumping him on you five days a week in lieu of paying for childcare.”
“Yeah, yeah,” John poked his tongue out at her. “Sorry, boss, I’ll curb my enthusiasm.”
They tidied in silence for several minutes, and, when all of Eli’s toys were stowed safely back in their box, John stood up and hefted it into his arms, looking only mildly horrified by the weight of it.
“You know,” he began, looking a touch uncertain as he loitered in the doorway before heading upstairs. “I was thinking we could maybe… decorate the spare room? Before Graystark come to visit, that is, so they can see that we’re really serious about this.”
“I, ah…” Clara plonked down on the floor beside the coffee table and busied herself with arranging Eli and John’s paintings into a pile, before scratching at a tiny droplet of paint on the wood with her fingernail. “Yeah, maybe.”
“Nothing,” she lied, unsure how to put her feelings into words, and John set the box of toys down and leant over the sofa, affixing her with a look she more sensed than saw. She couldn’t and wouldn’t look at him, lest she start crying, because then he’d be concerned and that would only exacerbate the situation. “Really. Don’t worry about it.”
“John, just… don’t.”
“Tell me,” he implored softly, coming over and sitting on the sofa behind her, resting one hand on her shoulder in a careful, reassuring gesture that took some of the tension out of her knotted muscles. “What is it?”
She turned to him reluctantly, resting her chin on his knee and letting her hair fall over her face. “I’m worried,” she began in a small voice, trying her hardest not to cry. “I’m worried that we’ll decorate the spare room and make it beautiful and perfect and then things will fall through, and we’ll have no child but a bedroom full of toys and books and things that will never be, reminding us of what we couldn’t have.”
“Oh, love,” he said softly, stroking her hair back and cupping her cheeks with the utmost tenderness, “I know you’re scared, but I promise you, this will happen.”
“It might not.”
“It will,” he assured her, taking her hands in his and lifting her onto his lap with a practiced ease. “No matter how long it takes, no matter how long we have to wait, it will happen. Why wouldn’t it? There’s nothing wrong with this place. There’s nothing wrong with our marriage. We love each other, and we have a beautiful, empty house that would be perfect to raise a child in. They can’t find fault with that.”
Clara closed her eyes and rested her head against John’s chest, listening to the slow, reassuring beat of his heart and fighting back tears. “But the age gap…”
“If they want to make a big deal of the age gap, and refuse to accept that we can love each other despite the fact that there’s several years between us, then frankly, fuck them. We’ll find another agency. We’ll submit another request. We’ll keep trying.”
“What if…” she chewed her lip, hating herself for the question she was about to ask. “What if they make a big deal over your age because there’s the chance that you might… you know?”
“I might what?”
“Die,” she whispered, her voice cracking on the single syllable. “You might… that, and I’d be widowed and on my own with a kid. That might be an issue for the agency.”
“Darling,” he murmured, his arms encircling her. “If that happens, then it happens. But I can assure you it won’t be any time soon — I’m fighting fit, and can provide both you and them with my medical records if necessary. And, my love, when we have a child, if the worst happens… you’ll be provided for. I promise you that.”
“I know,” she breathed, feeling a fraction reassured. “I just worry. Especially given that… well, things with us were so public.”
“Ah,” John inhaled then, and Clara swallowed in anticipation of whatever he was about to say. “Well, given that fact, they’ll know that we’re back together, and happily married, and perfectly stable and content and loved-up. Besides, if they’re going to take The Sun as empirical evidence, then frankly I want nothing to do with them. They’ll learn what they need to know when they visit. We can’t and shouldn’t worry until then, OK?”
“And in the meantime, maybe we could start off by repainting the spare room,” he suggested. “Because frankly, that yellow shade is getting a little cloying, and we could do with a change. What do you think?”
“That sounds good to me.”
Clara and John meet their social worker for the first time.
Clara took a deep breath, looked around the immaculate lounge, and then continued to pick at her nails with the kind of relentless determination that only a control freak was able to muster. She didn’t know why she felt so anxious about the prospect of receiving a home visit from the adoption agency, particularly as John had pointed out — several hundred times over the past month — that they lived in a perfectly nice house that was devoid of used syringes, frayed electrical cables, dangerous chemicals, or anything else that would pose a hazard to small children, but she was anxious nonetheless.
“Hey,” John said quietly, reaching over and taking her hands in his. “Clara, stop picking.”
“No,” she muttered, trying to pull away from his grip and succeeding for a moment, which was long enough for her to peel a five-millimetre strip of skin off her cuticle. “Shan’t.”
“Love,” John said helplessly, catching hold of her wrists again as blood welled along the raw, exposed skin left behind by her exertions. “Look, you’re bleeding. Come on. Kitchen.”
He pulled her gently to her feet without relinquishing his grip, and she had no choice but to follow him towards the kitchen and the first aid box and the inevitable, enormous, ugly plaster that would no doubt draw the social worker’s attention as they looked around the home. “No,” she complained half-heartedly. “Don’t want-”
“Clara, they’re not going to say no on the grounds that you’ve got a plaster on.”
“How do you do that?”
“Read my mind.”
“You’re a profoundly anxious person with predictable thought patterns,” he guided her to a stool, and Clara perched on it obediently as John affixed her with a stern look. “If I let go, do you promise not to tear any more strips off yourself?”
She nodded mutely as John ducked down and retrieved their first aid kit from under the sink, opening it and holding up several sizes of plaster before settling on one that seemed like it would fit. Clara held out the bleeding digit and John applied the dressing, before raising her hand to his mouth and pressing a kiss to her palm.
“All better?” he asked, and she nodded in silent assertion before he pulled her to her feet and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Sweetheart, I promise this is going to go well.”
“You can’t know that,” she mumbled, turning her head away and trying to fight the tears that burned at her eyes. “You can’t make that promise.”
“This is a beautiful house, Clara. A beautiful, safe house, free from anything dangerous, and full of love.”
“What if they say no?” she asked, her voice little more than a whisper. “What if, after everything, they say no?”
“Then we’ll take on board what they say and try a different agency,” he placed his hand under her chin and tilted her face up so that he could look her in the eyes. “And I will be with you, no matter what happens.”
Clara squeezed her eyes closed, forcing herself to smile before she reopened them and looked up at her husband with a newfound sense of tranquillity as she realised he was right: no matter how this visit went, she knew he would be there on the other side of it to hold her and calm her down and tell her that things were going to be alright. And somehow, that was the only thing that mattered to her at that moment.
“I love you,” she told him, and he smiled soppily, his eyes lighting up at the words that were said to each other with such frequency, yet still never failed to delight them both.
“I love you, too,” he leant down and kissed her forehead, and she felt some of the tension leave her. “Now, shall we put the kettle on for when this mystery social worker arrives?”
“Which is when?”
John checked his watch. “Hopefully in about five minutes, unless they get lost.”
Clara felt a stab of panic lance through her chest, and she struggled to force it back down. “Sure.”
John nodded tersely, and she realised that he was just as worried as she was when he reached for the kettle with a hand that was shaking only a little, but enough to be visible to her. Clenching her fists and taking a deep, steadying breath, she opened the cupboard and retrieved three mugs, arranging them in a precise line with their handles all pointing to the left before taking out the tea and coffee jars and setting them down on the counter top.
As the water began to boil, John reached for her hand again, lacing his fingers through hers and squeezing reassuringly. “We’ve got this.”
“We do,” she said in a voice more confident than she felt. “We have absolutely got this.”
John looked to be on the verge of replying when the doorbell rang, and he and Clara exchanged a fleeting, panicked look before John cleared his throat and offered his wife a tight smile. “Right then.”
“Geronimo,” Clara breathed, letting him lead her into the hall, and together they opened the front door. A dark-haired woman of about John’s age was stood on the top step, weighed down by an enormous shoulder bag that looked to contain yet more forms to fill in, and Clara wasn’t sure whether the prospect of doing so was appealing or appalling.
“Good morning,” the social worker enthused, with a kind smile and far more warmth than they expected, and for a moment they just hovered, wrong-footed by her upbeat tone. “I’m Sarah Jane Smith, I’m your social worker. Can I come in?”
“Of course!” John said, unfreezing and stepping back, before offering his hand to shake, which the woman did. “I’m John, it’s lovely to meet you. The kettle is just boiling, would you like tea, coffee…?”
“Coffee would be an absolute godsend,” Sarah Jane said as she stepped over the threshold and immediately removed her sensible shoes, setting down her bag beside them. “Black, no sugar.”
“Sure,” John nodded and headed back towards the kitchen, leaving Clara and the social worker alone.
“Sorry,” Clara said, feeling reassured by the woman’s warm demeanour, and realising she’d forgotten something. “I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Clara.”
“Lovely to meet you,” Sarah Jane said with a smile, reaching into her bag and retrieving a wodge of papers. “I have to confess, I am rather a fan of your radio show.”
Clara smiled then, some of her panic melting away. “Really?”
“Really. It’s lovely to have on when I’m coming home from work — especially when it’s been a trying kind of day.”
“I can imagine,” Clara gave a nervous little laugh. “Come on through to the lounge. You can spread out some of that paperwork.”
“It’s the bane of my life,” Sarah Jane confessed, following Clara into the lounge and setting the stack of papers down on the coffee table. “I understand you’re a teacher?”
“Yep,” Clara plonked herself down on the sofa. “So, I feel some of your pain.”
“Isn’t it just awful?” Sarah Jane wrinkled her nose. “Honestly, I know that it’s necessary to screen you both as prospective parents, and I know that forms are efficient, but goodness… I think the amount of pen-pushing really puts a lot of people off.”
“I don’t mind a form,” Clara admitted. “They can be quite therapeutic. But some of those initial ones were weird.”
“Stage One forms usually are,” the social worker grimaced. “I always say they’re rather pointless. You’re not exactly going to write down that you’re an axe-wielding psychopath, are you?”
Clara laughed. “No, I suppose not.”
John entered the lounge bearing a tray of hot drinks, and he seemed pleasantly surprised by Clara’s relaxed demeanour. As he set the tray down and settled into the seat beside her, Clara reached over and took his hand casually, letting their intertwined fingers rest on his lap as she looked over at Sarah Jane and felt abruptly calmer about the impending discussions.
“So,” John began, as the social worker reached for her mug and took a grateful sip. “What’s first on the agenda?”
“Well,” Sarah Jane took out a notepad and skimmed through it before setting it on her lap and angling it away from John and Clara just a fraction. “I have to ensure that you’re aware of what this stage of the process entails, really, so there’s going to be an awful lot of me talking, I’m afraid. After that I’ll have a look around, but to me this house looks wonderful, so I doubt that will take very long.”
“Sure,” John nodded in agreement, picking up his own drink and sipping at it in what Clara recognised as a choreographed display of casualness. “Fire away.”
Sarah Jane sat up a little straighter then, readjusting her notebook before looking over at the two of them with a smile. “Right, so, one of the initial parts of this stage which differs from the previous one is that you’ll actually get to interact more with people other than your point of contact at the adoption agency and each other. So, yes, that initially does mean me, but you’ll also get to attend some preparation groups where you’ll be able to talk to other people looking to adopt, and you can share your experiences. You’ll have the chance to chat to some adopters who’ve had years of experience, plus you get to learn some useful skills, particularly with regard to how to look after children who might have had difficult starts in life.”
“That sounds useful,” Clara said, looking over at John and nodding. “Especially the part about how to handle their backgrounds; that was something I was a bit worried about.”
“The feedback we get is that these sessions are invaluable,” Sarah Jane said, taking another sip of coffee. “A lot of people have the same worries you do, especially if the child is coming from a home that they’ve been removed from due to neglect, abuse, or crime.”
“Is that…” John hesitated for a moment, the hand holding his mug shaking a little. “Is that likely?”
“It’s probable. Many children in the system come from households in which one or both of the primary caregivers is involved in criminal activities, which in turn leads to children being neglected — especially in cases of substance abuse — and, in some cases, physically, emotionally, and/or sexually abused.”
Clara swallowed as she considered the implications of Sarah Jane’s words. Beside her, John only nodded mutely. “That’s… fair enough.”
“The sessions are incredibly thorough, and they’ll provide you with activities and materials and the like in order to be able to deal with that kind of thing. I know it seems daunting, but-”
“How did you know?” Clara asked, side-eying her still-mute husband.
“Because John looks abjectly terrified, and so do you. Although you do look fractionally less horrified than him.”
John unfroze then, laughing a little and putting his free arm around Clara. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “It just seems a bit… full on.”
“I know,” Sarah Jane said kindly. “But raising these kids is incredibly rewarding. My own son, Luke, is adopted. His parents just couldn’t cope — he was neglected, but not out of spite or wilful intent to cause suffering. They just didn’t know what to do with a kid. Adopting him and being able to make a difference to his life is wonderful.”
“How old is he?” Clara asked, before realising with a start that she should probably drink her tea before it got cold, and taking her mug.
“Fifteen. He came to me when he was six. He’s a very bright boy — he’s sitting several A-Levels this year. He’s very much into maths, which was never really my metier, but I’m so proud of him.”
“That sounds amazing,” John said. “I’d be proud, too.”
Sarah Jane beamed at them both, before looking down at her notes once more. “Now, while the groups are important, these home visits are going to be a frequent thing as I get to know you both better.”
“Doesn’t listening to the show provide enough insight?” Clara quipped, and Sarah Jane chuckled.
“Oh, it does,” she assured them both with a wink. “But I need to get to know you both behind that public persona. So, we’ll have frequent meetings and chats, and I’ll also meet with your personal referees, who I believe are… Amy and Rory Williams, is that correct?”
“Yep,” Clara chewed her lip, suddenly struck by a terrible thought. “I will warn you though, Amy is extremely sarcastic, and also currently a pregnant, hormonal mess.”
“You’d be surprised at the sincerity that even the most sarcastic people can suddenly draw upon when they’re discussing something like adoption.”
“Really,” Sarah Jane smiled. “I’ve seen people completely transform when it came to discussing their friends or family members becoming adoptive parents. But that’s something we don’t need to worry about just yet. We’ll also talk about your childhoods-”
John groaned, and Clara rolled her eyes, taking a gulp of tea and wondering why he had to be so overdramatic. “Please, no.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t that bad.”
“Ach,” he adopted a put-upon expression. “There were a hundred and sixty of us living in a small shoebox in the middle of the road. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox at twelve o'clock at night, and lick the road clean with our tongues. We had half a handful of freezing cold gravel, worked twenty-four hours a day at the mill for fourpence every six years, and when we got home, our Dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.”
Sarah Jane only blinked at him with bemusement. “That’s a Monty Python sketch.”
“Damn,” John muttered, looking contrite. “Well, we didn’t live in a shoebox or a hole in the ground, but it was Glasgow in the sixties. The deprived end of Glasgow, too.”
“I’m sure I’ll have heard much worse accounts, John,” Sarah Jane assured him. “Now, once we’ve had those discussions, and once we’ve got to know each other properly and talked things through, we’ll hold a panel at which you’ll be interviewed, and they’ll review everything that I’ve compiled. Their recommendation will then be passed on to the agency, who get the final say.”
“And from there…”
“If they say no, you can appeal. And if they don’t… well, we start the search for the right child for you.”
Clara looked at John with a tentative, hopeful smile. “That sounds… good.”
“Yeah,” he breathed, leaning over and kissing her hair. “So, what do we do now?”
“How about showing me around?” Sarah Jane asked. “And we can chat as we go?”
“That sounds like something we can absolutely do.”
The adoption preparation group hadn't sounded fun, but somehow it's worse than expected...
Clara let out a long, weary sigh as she got to her feet, exchanging an incredulous, bemused look with John as she did so. When Sarah Jane had booked them in for their first preparatory group meeting, Clara had envisioned something a little more… well, she wasn’t sure. Just something other than what they had discovered, which had been a small room full of mismatched plastic chairs, warm orange squash, and stale biscuits, not to mention what seemed like several thousand leaflets, most of which Clara had stuffed into her handbag for later perusal. The other assembled prospective parents were by and large either nervous or officious looking, and the latter sort had spent the session casting the sort of judgemental glances at Clara and John’s intertwined hands that only served to put Clara’s back up.
“Excuse me,” Moira, the woman running the session, said snippily while scowling at them both. “You can’t just rush off, we usually like to mingle and have some degree of interaction with adopters-to-be.”
“I’m so sorry,” John said with a nervous little laugh that sounded entirely unlike him. “But I’ve been suffering from a really bad migraine since yesterday and I desperately need to get home before the nausea starts to get too much.”
“Oh,” the sour-faced woman’s expression, if anything, only became all the more bitter. “Well. I don’t see why your wife couldn’t stay.”
“I drove here,” Clara leapt in, eager to get away from the staunch, prim woman whom she had taken an instant dislike to. “So, if I were to stay, I’m afraid John would be stranded here, and you really don’t want to have to deal with him once the nausea kicks in.”
The woman sniffed disdainfully, tossing her hair back and affixing them both with a distinctly bemused look. “Very well. I look forward to seeing you next week — my colleague, Doctor Renfrew, will be giving a talk on the ramifications of sexual abuse in minors under the age of ten.”
“We’ll be here,” Clara lied, taking John’s hand and squeezing. “Thanks, it was lovely meeting you.”
The woman only looked at them both with contempt before turning away, and Clara rolled her eyes as she headed outside with John.
“Wasn’t she a delight?” she asked in a low voice, squeezing his hand. “Christ Almighty, no wonder people are reticent to adopt. I bet she scares half the poor buggers off.”
“I liked the lie about driving,” John said with admiration. “That was very smooth.”
“I liked the lie about the migraine,” Clara arched an eyebrow. “She doesn’t need to know we got the Tube, anyway. It’s none of her business.”
John shrugged an assertion, then groaned quietly as they walked towards the Underground. “Can we change group?” he asked in a somewhat desperate tone. “There has to be others. Ones with women slightly less battle-axe-y. And without blokes that weird. He looked like a mentally disturbed mole.”
“John!” Clara chided, but dissolved into giggles nonetheless. “God, can you imagine him giving a talk about sexual abuse? It’d be a disaster.”
“Didn’t we pick up leaflets on that, anyway?”
“I think we picked up leaflets on every conceivable topic that one can publish leaflets on,” Clara adjusted her bag on her shoulder as she spoke. “God, I need a drink.”
John side-eyed her.
“A caffeinated one! Or a cold, fizzy one. Of the non-alcoholic kind.”
“Well, tough. We agreed to go to Amy’s, and the likelihood of her allowing us anything caffeinated is slim to none.”
As they reached the station and descended the escalators, it was Clara’s turn to groan. “Why did we agree to that?”
“Because it seemed like a really great idea two hours ago.”
“Can we cancel?”
“Sure, let’s cancel on your hormonal, pregnant best friend, who we need to be nice about us or else we’ll fail our adoption panel.”
“I hate you sometimes,” Clara groused. “Besides, I doubt cancelling on her would elicit anything that terrible.”
“You forget, don’t you, that this is the woman who was game to break my legs for a solid few months after we broke up.”
“What does that have to do with adoption?”
“Well, she could actually break my legs, then claim you did it. Or… something,” John caught Clara’s look, and snorted. “Sorry. I just don’t think it’d be a great idea.”
Clara was interrupted as a businessman in a suit shoved past her, and they both scowled after his retreating figure as they approached the platforms.
“Dickhead,” John muttered under his breath. “You were saying?”
“I guess going to Amy’s is a good idea,” Clara mused. “Not least because she’ll have decaf coffee if nothing else, and a house mercifully devoid of idiots in suits.”
“Precisely,” John concurred, wrapping his arm around her waist as they stood on the overcrowded platform. He looked down at her with concern, and she forced a smile. “OK?”
“Yeah,” she grimaced. “It’s just a little too busy for comfort.”
“I propose that next time, we go to a different group, and we drive.”
“Sounds good,” she mumbled, as a train approached and they piled on with what felt like hundreds of other commuters. “Don’t let go.”
“Never,” he promised, drawing her closer to his chest and resting his forehead against hers. “We can show Amy some of the scary leaflets we got today.”
“Mm,” Clara hummed. “Like, ‘Understanding your Relationship: What Your Arguments Say About You.’”
“I’d say that generally our arguments say that you find it annoying when I don’t put my dirty pants in the laundry basket.”
“Ah, but what do I really mean by that?” Clara looked up at John with a faux-serious expression. “Maybe it’s a manifestation of my subconscious urge to avoid representations of overt masculinity.”
“I mean,” John grinned, tipping her a wink. “I would argue that parts of me represent more overt masculinity, and you didn’t seem to be complaining last night when I used them to devastating effect.”
Clara turned a violent shade of red. “Did you just…” she stammered, looking around in wide-eyed horror in an attempt to discern whether anyone had overheard him. “John, people could…”
He only smirked as she continued to blush, hiding her face in his chest and smacking him lightly in the shoulder. “I’m hilarious,” he asserted. “Don’t deny it.”
“I hate you,” she mumbled. “You’re so bloody embarrassing.”
“I try my best,” John grinned, stroking her hair with one hand, and they lapsed into a comfortable silence for the rest of the journey, exiting the stifling carriage at Balham and ascending to the surface as rapidly as they were able, taking great gulps of air once they stepped outside into the overcast November evening.
“This bag is killing me,” Clara complained as they headed towards Amy’s, shifting the strap on her shoulder and grimacing. “Why did we take that many leaflets?”
“‘We’?” John asked with incredulity. “I had nothing to do with it, you were the leaflet fiend.”
“Shut up and carry my bag.”
“Yes, boss,” he mumbled in contrition, taking the offending item and slinging it over his shoulder without hesitation. “Bloody hell. How were you carrying this?”
“I’m not that puny.”
“Sure,” he teased, and she shoved him gently. “Hey!”
“Idiot,” she complained. “I-”
“Do you want this bag back? Because that can be arranged.”
“I’ll be good.”
“That’s better,” John took her hand in his and squeezed. “I wonder when Amy is going to get grilled about us.”
“Oh god, I dread to think,” Clara made a face. “Hopefully, it’ll be a good day for her, and she won’t be experiencing heartburn. Or acid reflux. Or swollen ankles. Or any of the other litany of things she’s so enjoying complaining about.”
“I’m not sure how acid reflux would reflect badly on us.”
“You have met Amy, right?” Clara asked affixing John with a look. “Grumpy, Scottish, tall? Bit like you, but ginger? Smallest health complaint sends her into the foulest of moods?”
“Yeah, alright,” John rolled his eyes. “Point taken. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Arriving outside Amy and Rory’s tiny terraced house, Clara looked up at it in the amber glow of the streetlamps, the building’s usual blue paintwork muted in the semi-darkness. Knocking on the front door, she leant against John and waited for her friend to answer, smiling as the front door opened to reveal Rory garbed in a paint-splattered T-shirt and jeans.
“Hey!” he said brightly, holding aloft a paintbrush in greeting. “We’re upstairs, come on in.”
“Nursery painting?” Clara guessed, stepping inside and kicking off her boots. “Or general redecorating?”
“Nursery,” Rory beamed, as John shrugged off Clara’s bag and set it down before removing his own shoes. “Magnolia. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s less offensive to the eyes than all-pink; we’re going to do the accents in pink instead to give the room some ‘lift.’ Amy’s wording, not mine.”
“Accents?” John asked in bafflement. “How can accents be pink?”
“Accents are shelves,” Rory said patiently. “And windowsills, and things like that. They’re apparently called ‘accents’… according to Amy, anyway.”
“Oh,” John frowned. “That’s a confusing term.”
“Tell me about it. How did your group go?” Rory asked, traipsing upstairs with Clara and John in his wake. “Was it helpful?”
“The woman running it is some kind of actual psycho,” Clara grimaced. “And the bloke was even weirder. I don’t think I learned anything.”
“But we did gain an entire tree’s worth of leaflets, so there is that,” John added. “We might ask to attend a different group next time.”
“Was it that terrible?”
“God, yes,” John shuddered. “Majorly bad vibes from the woman in charge. If she has kids, I worry for them.”
“Not ideal,” Rory led the way into the nursery, where Amy was stood in oversized dungarees and a T-shirt, wielding a paint roller like an offensive weapon. “What are you…”
Amy flicked the edge of the roller and it span, discharging a flurry of magnolia drops at her husband. “Ha.”
“This is why I hate decorating with you.”
“You love it.”
“Of course I do,” Rory smiled soppily, leaning down and kissing his wife, who chucked her roller towards a nearby paint tray with alarming precision. “And I love you.”
“Hello, other people present,” Clara noted, and Amy’s attention swivelled to her best friend then. “Hey, babe.”
“Hey, trouble,” Amy beckoned her closer for a hug, and Clara stepped forwards a touch suspiciously. “Don’t look so scared.”
Clara leaned into her friend’s embrace, and before she could react, Amy had reached down and left a magnolia thumbprint on her forehead.
“Amy!” she complained, going cross-eyed as she rubbed at it. “Meanie.”
“Shut up, you look adorable.”
Clara only frowned and continued dabbing at the paint splodge before realising her efforts were fruitless, and resolving to sneak into Amy’s room and steal a makeup wipe later on.
“Clara?” John asked levelly from behind her in the kind of voice that instantly aroused her suspicions. “Those are your casual jeans, aren’t they? The round-the-house ones?”
“You know they are.”
John stepped forwards and pressed his hands against her arse, and when Clara twisted around and looked down, she discovered two enormous, off-white handprints on her jeans.
“John!” she protested, narrowing her eyes at his now-painty hands. “I have to get the Tube home in these!”
“Yes, and?” he asked with a maddening smirk. “Your point?”
“You know,” Amy interrupted with a fond little smile. “This is why I will be wholeheartedly recommending you both as adoptive parents.”
“What?” Clara’s brow furrowed. “What is?”
“You two being gross. You’re so in love, any kid would be lucky to have you as parents.”
“Are your hormones making you nicer?”
“No,” Amy shrugged. “It’s just a fact.”
“That’s…” Clara struggled to find the words to express what Amy’s sentiment meant to her. “Really sweet of you.”
Her best friend smiled knowingly, reaching for her roller again and dunking it in paint. “You’re welcome. Now, pull up a seat and tell me all about how the meeting went while the boys make drinks.”
“We’re making drinks?” Rory asked, before catching Amy’s eye and amending his question to: “Oh, I mean. Yeah, sure. Clara?”
“Same please. Though I suppose it had better be decaf.”
Rory disappeared downstairs with John, and Clara leaned back against an unpainted wall, her face falling. “Babe, it was a nightmare.”
“Yeah?” Amy looked over at her with a worried expression. “Was it really that terrible?”
“Yes,” Clara groaned. “It was. The woman running it was terrifying, and I didn’t learn anything. I don’t even want to go back.”
“Do you have to?”
“Well, can you go to another one? With nicer people?”
“We’re going to ask,” Clara sighed. “But I don’t know. We can try, I guess.”
“You’ve got this,” Amy assured her, beginning to roller another wall. “I promise you, you can survive this group.”
“I don’t feel like it right now.”
“Did you get anything useful from it?”
“Leaflets,” Clara admitted, miserably. “Lots and lots of leaflets.”
“Well then, it wasn’t a totally wasted experience, was it?” Amy asked in a pragmatic tone. “Now, seeing that your jeans are already ruined, grab a paintbrush and start on the windowsill. Paint is in the tin that’s oh-so-conveniently on said windowsill.”
“But I don’t want to,” Clara whined half-heartedly, poking her tongue out at her best friend. “I want to stand here and feel sorry for myself.”
“Well, tough. Paintbrush, Oswald, now.”
John discusses his childhood with Sarah Jane.
John was doing his best to resist the insatiable urge to pace up and down the lounge as he awaited Sarah Jane’s imminent arrival, thus far resisting by virtue of forcing himself to sit still. Normally, he’d have looked to Clara for comfort, taken her hand or kissed her, or simply held her in his arms, but today he was flying solo at their social worker’s request. Well, their social worker’s request, and Clara’s teaching schedule. Shifting position on the sofa, John clenched and unclenched his fists before lying back with a sigh, stretching his arms above his head and wiggling his fingers in an attempt to distract himself from panicking. He’d consumed three cups of coffee since clambering out of bed that morning, and he felt the acute effects of every microgram of caffeine now working its way around his system, elevating his heart rate and his breathing until he was sure he was hyperventilating, and he couldn’t catch his breath, and oh god, this was-
The doorbell rang and he shot upright at once, taking a deep, shuddering breath and giving himself a stern mental talking to. C’mon, John. You’ve got this, man. It’s just talking to someone. It’s just talking to Sarah Jane, and she’s nice and she’s on your side and she’s not going to judge you for whatever it is you say. Unless you confess to… oh, I don’t know, mass murder or something. Not that you are a mass murderer, but if you were. Oh god, stop rambling. Answer the damn door.
Forcing himself to smile and then remembering that Clara had warned him that that particular expression could be disconcerting to people who didn’t know him well, John rearranged his face into something approaching a neutral expression before heading into the hall and answering the door.
“Hi,” Sarah Jane said at once, beaming at him from the top step. She was mercifully devoid of piles of paperwork this time, but he spotted the corner of her ubiquitous notepad peeking from the top of her bag. “How are you doing?”
“Yeah, fine,” he lied, stepping back to permit her entry. “Coffee?”
“You might as well come on through into the kitchen while I make it,” he said as she removed her shoes and arranged them beside the skirting board in the hall, before shrugging off her coat and draping it over the end of the bannister. “Otherwise, you’ll just be twiddling your thumbs in the lounge.”
“Sure,” she concurred with an easy smile, following him into the kitchen and leaning against a worktop as he took a clean mug out of the dishwasher and flicked the kettle on. “Clara at work?”
“Yeah, she’s teaching Jane Austen today. One of her favourites.”
“‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,’” Sarah Jane reeled off, then wrinkled her nose. “I think men today would be more in want of a decent pub, frankly.”
John chuckled, his nerves easing a little. “I know. She loves it, but even she agrees that some of it is pure bollocks. The film’s alright, though — the Keira Knightley one. Never had any time for the Colin Firth version, all the wet shirt crap detracted from the plot a bit.”
“Just my opinion,” he shrugged, and began spooning coffee granules into her cup. “Clara would beg to differ, I feel.”
They lapsed into silence momentarily, John fixated on watching the kettle boil, and Sarah Jane looking around the kitchen in quiet awe. She’d been in here before, on her last visit, but that had been in a more inspectorial capacity than today. “This is a nice house,” she said after several seconds had elapsed. “How long have you lived here?”
“Oh, twenty years or so. My ah… my first wife and I bought it together.” He felt, as he always did, a small stab of guilt when he mentioned River. Although Clara had assured him repeatedly that it didn’t bother her, he still felt strange discussing his first wife for reasons he didn’t fully comprehend.
“Was she nice?” Sarah Jane asked. “Your first wife?”
“She was,” John said uneasily. “I loved her very much.”
“She died in an accident, didn’t she? The Felman Lux incident.”
“Yeah,” he cleared his throat as the kettle boiled, focusing intently on pouring the hot water in order to avoid getting misty-eyed. It had been just over ten years, but the pain of losing River was still something he tried stoically not to think about, lest the memory overwhelm him. “That’s right.”
“I’m sorry,” Sarah Jane murmured. “I didn’t mean to upset you, I just… I have to discuss that with you.”
“I know,” he took a deep breath. “And we have to talk about… my childhood.” He resisted the urge to shudder at the prospect.
“Yes, we do.”
“Best get on with it then,” he picked up her mug and carried it through to the lounge, taking his usual seat and twisting his hands together in his lap to divert his attention from having to look at the social worker. “Fire away.”
“Give me two seconds,” Sarah Jane got up and darted into the hall, returning with her notepad and a pen. Rearranging herself on the sofa, she looked over at John and offered him an encouraging smile. “OK. Just… when you’re ready, tell me about your childhood.”
John looked down, swallowing hard and wondering where to start. “Well,” he said, figuring that the beginning was probably the best place. “I was born in 1958, in Clydebank. It’s… well, it’s technically not Glasgow itself, but it’s part of the wider Glasgow area, so I tend to just say Glasgow when people ask because it saves time. It wasn’t the worst of areas, you know, but it wasn’t the best — it took a beating during the Blitz because it was full of shipyards, so when I was a lad there was still a lot of rubble and bomb sites to go poking through. My ma used to bend my ear about it, but all the kids did it and we were fairly canny. If it looked like a bomb, you didn’t touch it and you hollered for help, that kind of thing. Sometimes you’d find interesting stuff, but mainly it was just bits of metal that you could take up town to the scrapyard and trade for pennies.”
“What was your mum like?”
“Ach, she’d be called strict nowadays, but back then she was normal, really. Stayed at home, cooked and cleaned and all that. We didn’t really have much of a garden — just concrete, mainly — but she had some pots with flowers in and she was fond of them. She always used to say she wanted to grow her own veg, and later on, when I started getting into art and shite, I used to tell her one day I’d buy her a big house with a garden and she could grow her own until her heart’s content. Da used to laugh, but I think he liked the idea, really.”
“What did he do?”
“The only thing you really could do in Clydebank — worked in the shipyards. He was a fair man, I suppose. Didn’t beat me about like some of the lads I knew’s dads did, and he wasn’t mean. He was quiet, really — used to go to work, go to the pub, come home, eat his tea, and then sit and read the paper. He wasn’t much of a one for being affectionate, like, but, when I got into art school, he told me he was proud.”
“You went to art school?”
“Aye, for a couple of years. Got into the punk scene, though, and the punk ethos didn’t lend itself well to attending classes or fulfilling briefs, so I ended up getting into music, and through music, radio. Moved down south in search of a career, and from that… well, I ended up here.”
“What about brothers and sisters? Aunts? Uncles? Grandparents?”
“This is thorough,” he observed, but with no malice. “Just me. Ma had another little lad back in ’55, but he was a wee thing and he died before he was one. She wasn’t clingy with me because of it, but she didn’t half fret about things like eating my veg and wearing a coat and crossing the road. Typical mum, really.”
“And other family members?”
“I’m getting there, I’m getting there,” he waved a hand. “I had more aunts and uncles than you can count on both your hands, but they were all across Scotland at first, then all across the world. Lots went off to find a better life and just didnae come back.”
“Aye. Some of them were local, though, and I used to play football with their lads in the street after school. We none of us had any grandparents, though: Ma’s parents both went young — but after seven kids, who can blame them — and Da’s were killed in the Blitz. He always hated the Germans after that. Used to spit when they were so much as mentioned.”
“What happened to your parents?”
John felt a sudden surge of sadness. “I moved down to London and was having a fine old time, you know? Working, socialising, the like. Wasn’t all that interested in going home to Ma and Da every weekend, and things started to slip, and the next thing I knew, the phone rang and it was Ma to say that… to say that my dad had had a stroke and passed on. He’d been ill for years — lung problems, from all the rust and the smoking and the smog — but this was sudden and for that, I suppose, I’m grateful. I went home for the funeral and Ma died of a broken heart two days after we’d buried him. They weren’t, you know, demonstrative or anything, but they were devoted, and the thought of that empty house was too much for her, I think.”
“I’m sorry,” Sarah Jane said. “That must have been hard.”
“I tried not to think about it,” John admitted. “Worked hard, and I met River about six months after. Was doing a grand attempt at being alright, but it all came out one night and I cried like a wee bairn. Her parents were good to me, but she lost her mam about five years later, and then her pa’s mind went. Dementia. It damn nearly broke River’s heart the first time we went to the home and he asked her who she was.”
“Dementia is cruel,” the social worker said, offering him a wan smile of empathy. “My mother had it. It sounds callous, but she caught pneumonia in the early stages and that carried her off without much suffering. ‘The old people’s friend,’ that’s what they call it — and it was true.”
“The thought of losing my mind frightens the life out of me,” John admitted. “Looking at Clara and not knowing her from Eve, or looking at our kid — when we’ve got one — and just wondering who they might be. Terrifying.”
“You sound positive about the adoption process, though.”
“Well, I am,” he raised his eyebrows. “Wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. Clara’s gonna be a wonderful mum, and I’ll do my best to be the best dad I can be. I don’t want to be like mine and just not talk about things and be this detached authority figure. I want to actually, you know, get involved, play with them, take them to the zoo. All that shite. I know I might be a bit older and that my joints might not be as co-operative as they might be, but I’m all for grovelling around on the floor with a wee one, making dens and all that.”
“I notice the photos,” Sarah Jane said with a grin, gesturing to the pictures of Eli and Poppy that adorned the sideboard. “Niece and nephew?”
“It’s complicated,” he admitted. “They’re Clara’s cousin’s kids, but to her they’re a niece and nephew — she’s an only child, so her cousin is like a sister. They’re lovely kids; the tiny one is only six weeks old, but the lad is two. Recently, actually, his party was last weekend.”
“Do you see them much?”
“Oh, the wee lad all the time. We love having him; it’s good practice and he’s a great kid. We do painting and such, here…” John got up and crossed the lounge, retrieving one of Eli’s paintings from the side and passing it to Sarah Jane. “That’s his picture of me and Clara.”
“He’s taking after you in the art department, then?”
“Oh, I reckon so. He does me a world of good.”
“So does Clara, from what I ascertain.”
“Oh, yeah. She’s definitely a steadying influence.”
“How does she contribute to factors like staying sober?”
“Ah,” John leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers, looking over them at Sarah Jane. “I was wondering how long it was before that particular subject came up.”
“Sorry,” she gave him an apologetic look. “It has to be discussed.”
“Clara, while an integral part of my sobriety, is not the only foundation upon which it is based,” he said carefully. “I have support groups, and techniques to cope. I have a good relationship with alcohol now; I can be around it at events if I have to be, although by and large I try to avoid anything overly boozy. I didn’t have a stag do; not a traditional one, anyway.”
“I went to Berlin for a weekend with several friends and we explored the city and its history,” he smiled at the memory. “There wasn’t any drinking involved.”
“Did Clara have a hen do?”
“Of sorts. She went out with Amy — Williams — and they had a couple of drinks, but it was nothing like the usual OTT affairs you see on TV or read about in the press.”
“Your relationship with the press seems much better these days.”
“Yes, they lost interest in Clara and I somewhat,” he rolled his eyes. “Once they remembered that things like Brexit were happening.”
“It must be nice.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘nice,’ but it’s much quieter now. They don’t bother us anymore; not unless we do something of note. They were overly interested in the wedding, but we released a couple of photos and the fuss died down.”
“How long have you two been married now?”
“Almost six months,” a fond smile crept over John’s features. “The big day was May the eighteenth.”
“Are you happy?”
“Honestly?” John asked. “I’ve never been happier.”
Clara helps John to cope with his memories of the past.
“Hey,” Clara said brightly as she ducked into the studio, leaning down and pressing a kiss to the top of John’s head before peeling off her winter coat and hanging it on the back of the door. “How’d it go with Sarah Jane?”
John shrugged noncommittally, swivelling his chair away from her and focusing intently on his computer monitor in what Clara recognised as a rehearsed display of evasiveness. If he wasn’t willing to talk about it, that could only signal one thing: the meeting had gone badly, and she felt a corresponding and uncomfortable surge of nausea as she plonked down in the seat beside him and reached over to take his hand in her own. Despite her attempts to keep her composure, her body betrayed her and the tremors in her hand were more than enough to signal her panic to John, who at last looked over at her: her wide, panicked eyes full of unshed tears; her teeth worrying at her lip; and the crestfallen expression on her face, and he visibly melted.
“No,” he said at once, squeezing her hand. “No, love, nothing bad. Hey. It’s alright, try not to get in a state. I’m sorry, I guess I just…” he sighed.
He glanced over at where Andrew was perched at his desk, then over at the clock on the wall. “Why don’t we go for a quick walk?”
John got to his feet, keeping his hand in Clara’s as they stepped out of the studio and headed towards… well, Clara wasn’t sure, but she could feel her worry easing a little now that they were out of the claustrophobic suite of rooms that nominally belonged to them.
“It went well,” he confessed in a low voice, once they found themselves in an unoccupied stretch of corridor, and they came to a halt beside a window overlooking the plaza outside. “Really well.”
“So, why are you shutting me out?”
“I’m not,” he sighed again. “It just… brought back a lot of memories that I hadn’t thought about in years. A lot of regrets. It’s nothing to do with you — not like that, I don’t mean it’s not your business, just it’s not anything that you’ve done or not done. It’s just me being a sap and trying to deal with a lot of uncomfortable feelings I thought I’d buried.”
Clara leaned forward, encircling her husband’s waist with her arms and tucking her forehead underneath his chin. “You never talk about the past.”
“Well, I try not to dwell on it.”
“Because the guilt tends to get to me,” he said simply, one of his hands coming up to stroke her hair and the other resting on her waist. “The fact I wasn’t there when my Da died… the fact I abandoned them for the bright lights of the city…”
“You didn’t,” she murmured. “You didn’t abandon them.”
“But I did,” he stated. “The glamour of London was dazzling to a boy from the washed-up end of Glasgow, and I let myself get dragged in until I lost sight of who I was.”
“But you and I both know who you are now,” Clara told him. “You’re a good man. A kind man. A loving man.”
“My mistake, John, I married you because you’re a total bastard,” she thumped him lightly in the shoulder. “Prat. You’re a good man, you just… you just let the bright lights of the city capture your imagination. We’ve all fallen prey to that; god knows I have.”
“You were a pretty good daughter, from what I can tell.”
Clara huffed in disagreement, grimacing at the recollection. “I dunno about that.”
“You didn’t fall in love with London.”
“No, I fell in love with you instead,” she shot back, raising an eyebrow. “And you’re much nicer than the city.”
“Thank you, I think.”
“But other than that, I did fall in love with… well, with the town, I suppose.”
John looked down at her in obvious confusion. “I’m lost.”
“When my mum died, I just… I went a bit off the rails. Used to go out a lot in Blackpool and get absolutely hammered.”
“Weren’t you only sixteen?”
“It was Blackpool in the nineties, you think anyone really cared about that?” she asked, and he shrugged in a non-verbal concurrence. “Thought it would help. I fell asleep on the beach a few times; scared the life out of my dad. He needed me and I wasn’t there for him. You’re not the only one who hasn’t been around for your parents, John. You’re not the only one with regrets.”
“I just wish…” he turned his head away, and she knew him well enough to know it was to hide the tears in his eyes. “I just wish my parents could’ve met River.”
“I know,” Clara stood on tiptoes and wrapped her arms around his neck. “I know.”
“Not that I… I mean that isn’t to say… and you, of course.”
“John,” she murmured. “I know. I know what you mean.”
“She wasn’t… I don’t mean to…”
“John,” she said again, more sternly this time. “I understand.”
“I just don’t want you to feel like I’m comparing you.”
“I don’t,” she placed her hand on his cheek, meeting his gaze and smiling softly. “You love us both.”
He frowned a little. “How can you know that?”
“She was your wife for over two decades, John. That kind of love doesn’t just disappear.”
“And you don’t… mind?”
“Why would I mind?” she asked. “You’ve never minded the existence of Danny, so why would I begrudge you this?”
“I don’t deserve a wife like you.”
“John, I’m terribly sorry, but I’m exactly what you deserve,” she reminded him. “You were alone for so long, and you were hurting for so long, that it’s only fair that now you have some happiness.”
John looked down at her for a moment and then kissed her gently, pulling away after a few seconds and resting his forehead against hers. “I love you.”
“I love you,” she echoed quietly. “But we do have a show to do, you know.”
“Mm,” he huffed, hugging her more tightly, and she giggled. “In a minute.”
“We’re going to be-”
“My parents would’ve loved you,” he confessed. “And they would’ve loved to know that they were going to be grandparents.”
“They’d’ve been mad keen on the idea, let me tell you. Ma would’ve been beside herself making cakes like there was no tomorrow, and Da… well, he’d have probably been making bits of furniture and odds and sods like that, pottering about in his shed and singing all the classics to himself as he worked.”
Clara smiled, heartened by the mental image. “Well,” she said, “in their absence… I’m sure Dad can attempt to whack together something from Ikea. I’m not sure about Linda’s cake-making abilities, though.”
“That could end badly, yeah.”
“Oh, and John?”
“You know, don’t you, that despite the age gap, as far as I’m concerned, my family are your family?”
“Of course,” she poked her tongue out. “Now. Come on. Nice though this cuddle is… we have a show to do.”
As the two of them sat together on the Tube on the way home, John was surprised when Clara rose from her seat a stop early, tugging insistently at his hand until he had disembarked alongside her and trailed her up the escalator in confused silence. “Urm,” he began, as they neared the barriers. “Not that I’m complaining, but this is miles from home, and I’m not exactly keen on walking that far given that it’s autumn and, like… really cold.”
“We’re not going home.”
“Clara, I’m not being funny, but we have a very nice house. A very nice, warm house. Why are we not going there?”
“Because we’re making a side trip first. It shouldn’t take long.”
“What kind of side trip?”
“One that I feel is a necessity for you.”
John frowned as they stepped out into the chill autumn air, watching his breath form a cloud in front of his face as he huffed in confusion. He knew full well what lay in the vicinity of this particular Tube station, but he was entirely perplexed about why Clara seemed so intent on bringing him here until she pulled on his hand and started leading him towards the one place he had never taken her.
Margravine Cemetery. A quiet, unassuming place, shielded from the bustle of the surrounding borough by ancient trees clad in stems of ivy as thick as his arm, and full of an eclectic mix of Victorian Gothic mausoleums and newer marble headstones. It was also, more importantly, where River had been laid to rest ten years before; a place of sanctuary and tranquillity away from the clamour of the city that they had both so adored, and it was a place where Clara had never before set foot. Not because he had banned her from doing so, and not because there was anything prohibiting her from coming here, but purely because she had somehow sensed the importance of the space to him and hung back from encroaching on somewhere so personal. Until now.
“Clara?” he asked, as she led them across the road and came to a halt outside the cemetery. “Why…”
“You’ve had an emotional day,” she said with a small shrug. “Reflecting on the past, dealing with your feelings. This is the most tangible piece of your past I could think of that’s not in Clydebank, so I thought coming here might help.”
John blinked at her, feeling tears burn at his eyes suddenly. “How could you…” he swallowed thickly. “How could you possibly understand that?”
“Because I know you, John. And I know what this place means to you.”
“I… I don’t have anything to put on her grave.”
“That’s alright,” she gave his hand a squeeze. “I just thought that maybe being here would help. Would you like me to come with you? If not, there’s a pub just up the road, and I can wait for you in there.”
He pondered the situation for a moment. “Could you come with me?” he asked in a very small voice. “Please?”
“I’d be honoured,” she smiled at him in the orange glow of the streetlamps. “You might have to lead the way, though.”
“Of course,” he murmured, unperturbed by the twilight as he stepped inside the cemetery and allowed his feet to carry him along the familiar route to River’s grave. Beside him, Clara fell into step in comfortable silence, keeping her hand in his in a gesture of reassurance he drew courage from as he stepped off the path with her, crossing the slippery, leaf-strewn grass for a stretch and coming to a halt beside an immaculately-kept granite headstone inscribed with black lettering. “Hello, love,” he said.
Beside him, Clara leant her head against his arm, staying quiet as his eyes roved over the stone, trying to check it for dirt or fallen leaves or imperfections in the darkness. A slightly wilted bouquet of lilies, preserved by the cold since his last visit, were arranged to one side of the stone, their blooms concealing half of River’s name, but bringing a touch of colour to the otherwise-monochromatic scene. He knew it must be strange for Clara, standing so literally in the shadow of his first wife, but, to his grateful surprise, she stayed silent for once, her usual tendency of nervous talking being suppressed out of respect for both himself and River.
“This is Clara,” he said quietly, not quite caring how odd it must have seemed to Clara. This was what he did when he came here, and he was not about to break the habit of ten years just because he was not alone. “I know I’ve mentioned her, but this is the first time I’ve… she’s… well, I thought it was about time I brought her down.”
“Hello,” Clara said softly, and he cast her a sideways glance then, surprised that she was not more perplexed by his actions. “It’s nice to be here.”
He slipped an arm around her waist, letting her lean against him as he continued: “Been a strange day. Thinking about things. Thinking about the past, and the future. I guess Clara knows me pretty well, because she thought coming here would help. She was right.” He let out a shaky breath. “I’m just… still getting used to all the people I am, you know? Radio presenter. Rock music fan. Guitar player. Husband — that’s one I never thought I’d be again. A good man — or so Clara tells me, anyway. And a dad. I’m going to be a dad, although I’m probably a bit over the hill.”
There was the soft sound of the wind in the trees, and he smiled then.
“There are a lot of regrets in my past, and not being a dad when I was younger… well, that was one of them. I’m rectifying that now, but it’s just… it’s hard, sometimes, being faced with all the mistakes I made before I knew better.”
Beside him, Clara pressed a kiss against the shoulder of his jacket, but stayed silent.
“You weren’t one of them, River,” he murmured. “And I’m grateful for the time we had together. But as someone wise once said, ‘Forget regret, or life is yours to miss.’”
He bowed his head for several moments, gathering his composure and taking steadying breaths. Clara was right — being here had alleviated some of his feelings of regret about his past, and bringing her to River’s grave felt somehow natural in a way he hadn’t expected; he had always thought such an act might feel like a betrayal, but instead, standing here with the two of them was comfortably intimate. Standing before River’s headstone with Clara’s hand in his, he was able to reconcile his past with his future, and he felt the weight of the day lift from his shoulders as he turned to his wife with tears in his eyes. “Thank you,” he told her, as she placed a hand on his cheek and smiled knowingly. “Thank you for understanding.”
Clara and John celebrate their first Christmas as a married couple.
This chapter is pure silliness. You have been warned.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Despite their previous excitement, and despite their many weeks of planning and meticulous organisation, John and Clara’s first Christmas as a married couple began with something of an anti-climax. The two of them stayed in bed for an unreasonably long time, content with each other’s company and busy opening presents from their stockings, and when they eventually emerged with the intention of commencing their Christmas dinner preparations and unwrapping their main gifts, there was something inexplicable that Clara felt to be lacking from the day. As she stood in front of the oven, feeling the heat radiating dully through the door and waiting until the little orange light clicked off to indicate it was hot enough to put the turkey in, she tried her best to feel festive, but instead found herself feeling oddly… flat.
“Do you feel weird?” she asked John without looking away from the oven, and she was faintly aware of him pausing in his hyper-focused potato peeling. Bollocks, she thought to herself. I shouldn’t have mentioned that, now he’s going to worry.
“I’m gonna need more than that,” he admitted from his position at the sink, setting down the potato he had been stripping of its skin. “What kind of weird? Nauseous-weird? Angry-weird? Sad-weird? If it’s the former, please tell me now so I can peel slightly less than the sum total of all the potatoes in Ireland. Because my hand hurts already, and I’m only four of the buggers in.”
“No, no, not nauseous,” she sighed, turning around and affixing him with a look of resignation. “Just… weird.”
“Clara, you’re really not helping with the clarification thing.”
“I just…” she shrugged, gesturing vaguely with her arms in a way that she knew was unhelpful but didn’t quite care. “I don’t know. Like something is missing.”
“Is it Leonardo DiCaprio?” John asked. “Because I’ve gift wrapped him and left him in the lounge.”
“Sienna Miller? Claire Foy? Gemma Arterton?”
“Sorry,” he reached for a tea towel and wiped his hands off, crossing the kitchen and wrapping his arms around Clara’s waist. “You mean… hypothetical kid, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” she sighed, grateful he understood, but still hating herself for feeling like this. “Does that make me a bad person?”
“Not really,” he shrugged. “Should it?”
“I don’t know,” she leant against his chest. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate you, I just feel like… it’s a quiet Christmas.”
“I mean…” John clicked his tongue, looking down at her with a mischievous look. “Last year, we did have Eli tearing around, so anything after that is going to be quiet. Although I will remind you that he’s coming over tomorrow, so the house will probably feel one hundred per cent less quiet once he arrives. Not to mention one hundred per cent smaller, and quite a lot messier.”
“That’s true,” Clara smiled a little at the thought of the little boy’s excitement, and the prospect of cuddles with her baby niece. “And until then, we can keep busy with food, right?”
“Food and non-alcoholic beverages and Quality Street, yes,” he paused. “And you could always open a couple of your presents while I’m peeling enough potatoes to alleviate world hunger.”
“John!” she protested feebly, secretly relishing the idea. “I can’t open presents without you.”
“I insist. Stay there,” he pulled away abruptly and jogged into the living room, returning with two roughly rectangular gifts and thrusting them into her hands before she could argue any further. “Ta dah.”
Clara shot him a lightly chastising look before pulling up a seat at their breakfast bar and starting to unwrap the larger gift. “This is actually very nicely wrapped,” she said with surprise as she hooked her finger under the paper and slit it open with precision. “Well done.”
“Amy helped,” he admitted with a sheepish grin. “Otherwise, it’d just be in a gift bag.”
Clara chuckled, pulling the wrapping paper away to reveal a glossy hardback book about the adoption process. “Wow,” she said in muted awe, recognising it as a recent release she’d been poring over reviews of on Amazon, wondering if she could justify the astronomical price. She flipped open the cover and skimmed through the pages, admiring the glossy photos and neatly bulleted lists, before looking up at John with gratitude. “Thank you.”
“I figured you needed a sort of… adoption bible, because I know that you love a good informative book. Plus, I can steal it when necessary to read up on things.”
“Nice thinking,” she held out her arms to her husband and planted a kiss on his cheek once he stepped into them. “Thank you, darling.”
“Open the other one.”
“Yes sir,” she stuck her tongue out and turned her attention to the smaller gift, unwrapping it with just as much care and discovering that it contained two books: a blank journal, and a paperback of cartoons about parenting. “You know, if the journal is to hold my drawings as inspired by the cartoons, you will be sadly disappointed. I can manage stick men, but that’s about my limit. Just ask my students.”
“The journal,” John began, rolling his eyes, “is for you to write down how you’re feeling, and what you’re thinking. Because I know you, and I know you like to stew about things.”
“This is very true,” Clara reached for a nearby biro, then opened the journal and inscribed neatly on the first page: Property of Clara Oswald. “Are you sure you want me to start reading-slash-writing in these now, rather than helping you with peeling things and putting the meat in?”
“I can absolutely cope with food prep. Go and sit in the lounge and stick on some shit Christmas music, and try not to stress or feel weird.”
“Understood,” Clara hopped down off the stool, gathering the books into her arms, and headed into the lounge, sticking on the TV and navigating to a music channel in search of festive music videos. A few seconds later, the dulcet tones of Cliff Richard singing Mistletoe and Wine began to play, and from the kitchen John groaned.
“I didn’t mean that kind of shit,” he called, sounding aghast. “I meant, like… Wizard, or Slade. Good shit.”
“Well, 4Music is playing a countdown, so you get what you get. Stop whining,” she shouted back, then grinned to herself and added: “Less complaining, more peeling.”
“Alright, slave driver. Less shouting at me, more reading.”
Clara rolled her eyes, but did as she was told, opting to immerse herself in the enormous hardback guide to adoption and beginning to plough her way through the first chapter. Halfway in, her phone pinged and she groped around for it in her dressing gown pocket one-handed, extracting it and blinking at the screen in consternation for half a minute before her brain kicked in and she snorted with laughter. Amy had sent her a photo of herself garbed in a truly awful maternity Christmas jumper, her bump transformed into a Christmas pudding, and Clara fired back: That is truly hideous, but you’ve let the side down: couldn’t you get Rory in one?
A second later the reply came: Oh, trust me, he’s in one, but he’s in the kitchen being manly and making food.
Clara smirked. Recurring theme this year. I’ve been banished to the lounge with Cliff Richard.
Bloody hell, that sounds like a punishment. I’m eating Ferrero Rocher at a genuinely indecent rate while lying horizontally on the sofa and contemplating whether I’m old enough to start watching the Queen’s Speech later or whether I don’t hate myself that much. Who’s the real winner here?
Clara looked around the lounge with narrowed eyes, then raised her voice and shouted: “Babe?”
“Do we have any Ferrero Rocher?”
That evening, Clara found herself curled up with John on the sofa, flicking rapidly through TV channels in search of a Christmas special that was moderately less depressing than the EastEnders bumper episode. “No,” John said warningly as she alighted on ITV 2’s sixth daily broadcast of Home Alone. “Definitely not. That kid is creepy, and his parents should’ve been done for child neglect.”
“There’s nothing else on,” she protested, holding the remote just out of John’s reach lest he get ideas. “So, it’s this or period drama.”
“Urm,” she opened the TV guide and skimmed across the channel listings. “That Victoria thing. ITV 1.”
“Sounds…” John contemplated the idea. “Tolerable. It’ll probably be less macabre than EastEnders, and less child-abuse-y than Home Alone.”
“God, you’re annoying.”
“God, so are you.”
Clara glared at him fondly, turning the TV over to ITV 1 and leaning back against John’s chest as a snowy landscape appeared onscreen, shortly followed by a plump middle-aged woman trudging across the scene in a black gown. “Bollocks,” Clara muttered. “I forgot that.”
“It’s after Albert died, isn’t it? So, she’s all scary and miserable and grieving. This is not, in fact, going to be less depressing than EastEnders.”
“Didn’t they show a repeat of the old Christmas special a couple of days ago?” John asked, grabbing the remote whilst Clara was distracted and flicking through menus. “A more cheerful one? Yeah, there.”
“If you want to watch a historically inaccurate depiction of Queen Victoria then you’re more than-”
She didn’t get any further in her passive-aggression, because John had clicked on the older episode and it had loaded. “Huh,” John mumbled as the opening titles played. “I forgot that.”
“That the lead actress looks just like you.”
“Is that the only reason you wanted to watch this?” Clara asked, arching an eyebrow. “So that you could think about me as a queen?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“Perv. Also, no she does not.”
“Who even is she?” Clara asked, wrinkling her nose at the screen and the woman depicted there. “Wasn’t she in… oh, that thing. You know. With… whatshisface.”
“Wow, that really narrows it down.”
“Shut up, you know what I mean.”
“You know,” Clara gesticulated vaguely. “That Pride and Prejudice thing. Death Comes to Pemberley, that’s the one. With thingy from Downton.”
“What was his name?” Clara clicked her fingers. “Matthew… something-or-other. Goode. That was it.”
“What matters is that she looks like you.”
“She really does not.”
“No,” John tilted his head to the side and edged fractionally away from his wife. “You’re right, she’s much better looking.”
“Hey!” she thumped him in the arm, feigning great affront. “She is not. I’ve seen her in magazines and online, and she has weird taste in clothes.”
“And weird taste in blokes. Isn’t she knocking about with the bloke who plays Albert? Well, played Albert. Pre-dying a hideous death.”
“Well, I mean…” Clara side-eyed John playfully. “He is rather good looking.”
“He looks permanently miserable!”
“Says the Scot.”
“Precisely, I’m an excellent judge of these things.”
“You think she looks like me!”
“She does! Text five random people you know a photo of her and ask them if it’s you. I guarantee they will say yes.”
“Weirdo,” Clara muttered, but got her phone out nonetheless. Leaning against John’s chest, she opened Instagram and located the actress’s profile, scrolling through it in search of an appropriately Christmassy photo she could steal. Eventually locating one, she screencapped it, cropped it down, and fired it off to several of her friends, then settled back to watch the episode, resisting the urge to comment on historical inaccuracies.
“You know,” John said after several minutes of silence. “I was wrong. She’s not as cute as you; she’s actually kind of scarily posh.”
“I’m scary,” Clara said in the poshest voice she could manage. “Terrifically scary.”
“You are really not doing well at the whole ‘dissuading me that she’s your long-lost twin’ thing.”
“I do not have a long-lost twin,” Clara said wearily. “And if I did… she would not be scary and posh.”
“Yeah, yeah,” John pulled her onto his lap at the precise moment her phone pinged, and Clara giggled, resting her forehead against his cheek as she opened the message. “Well?”
“Amy says, ‘What the fuck, Oswald, since when did you do arty polaroid shite?’” Clara snorted. “OK, I guess you might have a point.”
Clara groaned. “Don’t be smug. Between her and Bonnie, London is getting to be entirely too confusing.”
The photo Clara uses of Jenna is this one.
Toddlers and tinsel make for an interesting mix.
Surprise bonus chapter today because I’m feeling generous! Enjoy!
John had, somewhat naively, thought that he was prepared for the arrival of Clara’s cousin and her family on Boxing Day. All valuable and/or fragile ornaments had been moved out of reach, the Christmas tree had been toddler-proofed, and there was a sizeable collection of gifts stowed carefully in the spare bedroom ready to be brought downstairs at an appropriate point in the day. Upon the actual arrival of the assembled Bowman-Ravenwood clan, however, he had found that he had gravely miscalculated his level of required mental preparation, as Eli zoomed into the lounge on tiny toddler legs and promptly let out a shriek of glee at the sight of the Christmas decorations, and only a lightning-speed intervention from Clara prevented a tinsel-based disaster before anyone could so much as enjoy a cup of tea.
“Right,” she said firmly to the squirming little boy in her arms. “Santa doesn’t bring any presents to children unless they’re nice and quiet and well-behaved.”
The effect of her words was like throwing a switch, as Eli slumped against her and fell blissfully silent, one thumb shoved in his mouth as he beamed up at her with an angelic expression and mumbled: “Yes, Auntie Clara. I nice. I quiet.”
“Good boy. If I put you down, do you promise not to touch the decorations?”
“That’s a good lad,” she smiled and set him down, and he toddled over to the coffee table, where Clara had left a picture book for the express purpose of keeping him occupied. “Right. Will, Bon: tea? Coffee?”
“Tea, please,” Bonnie said, padding into the lounge with a festively garbed Poppy in her arms. “Though, if you tasked John with doing it, you could have a cuddle with this little one in the meantime.”
Clara shot John a hopeful look, and he rolled his eyes in a loving, chagrined manner. “Alright,” he said. “Will? Hot drink?”
“Tea, please,” the younger man said, shooting him a grateful look. “Want a hand?”
“No, urm,” John’s attention was captured by Bonnie passing her daughter to Clara, whose face lit up at once in a way that he hadn’t seen in a while. She gazed down at Poppy in adoration, offering her finger to the tiny child to grasp, and he couldn’t help but smile in response to her obvious contentment as she sat carefully down on the sofa and made a silly face at her niece. “Sorry. No, it’s fine, I’ve got this.”
He headed into the kitchen and switched the kettle on, a warm feeling settling over him as he considered how happy Clara looked when she was with her niece and nephew. She was a natural with them both in a way that he was not always, and she seemed to have an intrinsic understanding of how to talk to them and hold them and play with them in a way that eluded him.
“Penny for them,” Will said, startling John, and he turned on the spot to discover Bonnie’s other half leaning in the doorway and smiling kindly. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you; you just looked a bit spaced-out in there and I didn’t want you to pour boiling water over yourself or something in a zoned-out haze.”
“Thanks,” John muttered, embarrassed that someone had noticed him mooning over Clara and the baby. “I’m ah… I’m alright.”
“You’re having The Realisation,” Will said, in a half-asking, half-telling tone. “Aren’t you?”
“What’s The Realisation?” John asked, turning away and retrieving mugs from the cupboard.
“The ‘Oh shit, I’m going to be a dad’ realisation. I had it with Bon. I reckon I looked about as scared as you do right now.”
“I’m not scared,” John lied automatically, then relented and asked: “Just… bloody hell, how do you do it?”
Will chuckled. “It’s a learning curve,” he admitted. “A steep one. I remember looking at Bonnie about a week before she was due and just thinking, you know, ‘Shit, I have no idea how to look after a kid. I have no idea what you do with a baby. What the hell am I doing?’ But I don’t know… something just… kicks in.”
“I guess I’m just worried that it won’t kick in for me because there isn’t going to be… you know, that traumatic twenty hours of labour and then a tiny little screaming baby.”
“Doesn’t make a difference,” Will shrugged, and John was amazed by his optimism. “Dad skills are just… innate, I reckon. Pre-programmed into us for reasons of survival.”
“What if they’re not?” John asked in a small voice, groping around in the cupboard for a box of teabags to hide his burning cheeks. “What if I don’t have them?”
Will laughed. “Then you have Clara to coax them out of you. Or, if necessary, beat you over the head with a parenting book until you acquire them. I promise you, you’ll be fine; I’ve seen you with Eli and you’re great.”
“I can give Eli back though,” John wrinkled his nose and dropped a teabag into each of the mugs he’d arranged. “I can’t give back a kid I’ve adopted.”
“Well, I mean…” Will grimaced. “I guess you kind of can. But Clara would kill you, so that should incentivise you to make the effort.”
“True,” John sighed. “I don’t know. She’s just… so ready to be a mum, and I’m ready to be a dad, but I don’t have anywhere near as much experience as she does.”
“Yeah but… she is a teacher.”
“Mate, I promise you… I know you might feel a bit lost now, but I promise you, you can do this. I didn’t think I could, and now look at me: father of two.”
John smiled then. “And an excellent father of two at that.”
“I honestly have no idea what I’m doing,” Will confessed with a snort. “I just make it up half the time, and it seems to be going alright. I’m lucky to have Bon to keep me calm and steady.”
“And I’m lucky to have Clara,” John was distracted by the click of the kettle boiling, and he reached for it and began to make the tea. “Not to mention things like the Internet… imagine trying to parent without the Internet to advise you on every little worry. Or TV to distract kids.”
“Christ, I know. Although…” Will lowered his voice conspiratorially, “if I have to watch one more episode of Paw Patrol, I am going to lose what remains of my sanity.”
“Paw Patrol?” Eli asked, sidling into the room and looking hopefully up at his father. “We watch Paw Patrol?”
“No, buddy,” Will said, leaning down and swinging the little boy into his arms. “We’re going to cuddle Auntie Clara and Uncle John and then open presents.”
“Auntie Clara cuddling Poppy.”
“Well, you can cuddle Uncle John once he’s finished making drinks, OK?”
John smiled at the youngster and ruffled his hair before taking the milk out the fridge and finishing up the tea-making, arranging the four mugs on a tray alongside a tin of Marks & Spencer biscuits that Clara had been saving for the occasion. Carrying the lot into the lounge and setting it down on the coffee table, he found Clara still cooing over Poppy and couldn’t help but grin soppily as she fussed over the infant.
“She’s cute,” he noted, passing Bonnie’s drink to her and then sitting beside Clara and allowing Eli to scramble up onto his lap. “Almost as cute as this little chap.”
“No, she more cute,” Eli said solemnly, leaning back against John and looking over at his sister as he spoke. “She more little. More little means more cute. Lots of ladies say.”
“Oh, really?” John arched an eyebrow at the toddler. “That’s very rude, isn’t it? You’re a very handsome boy, and I think you’re just as cute as Poppy.”
“I tell Mummy that. And I tell ladies.”
“He does,” Bonnie laughed. “He gets terribly affronted at playgroup when people fail to take note of how adorable he is.”
“I extra adorable.”
“Yes, darling,” she leaned over and kissed his cheek. “My adorable boy. And Poppy is my adorable girl.”
“What happens if you have any more kids?” Clara asked, looking up from Poppy to grin at her cousin. “Then things are going to get tense.”
“Oh, god, don’t,” Bonnie groaned. “No more. I swear, no more. Two under-threes is enough.”
“Yes,” Will said with relief, sipping his tea. “Yes, I absolutely concur.”
“Shut up,” she shot back. “You’re not the one who had to get all fat and hormonal.”
“This is an excellent point, and I apologise,” he made a face. “I think two is a good number. One per parent.”
“No more babies,” Eli agreed in a loud voice. “Please, thank you, Mummy and Daddy.”
“Quite right, too,” John said with a chuckle. “Poppy is nice though, isn’t she?”
“She sometimes nice,” Eli wrinkled his nose. “She sometimes loud and smelly.”
“You were loud and smelly once,” Clara noted, and Eli blushed. “So, be nice.”
“I nice,” Eli said, his eyes widening as he recalled Clara’s earlier threat about Christmas presents. “I extra super mega nice.”
“Yes, you are,” John assured him. “You’re a lovely lad. Now, when Mummy and Daddy have finished their tea, we could maybe open presents?”
“Presents!” Eli shouted, then clamped both hands over his mouth with a look of abject guilt as Poppy let out a startled cry. “Oh no.”
“‘Oh no’ indeed,” Bonnie muttered, putting her mug down as Poppy started to wail in earnest and reaching across John to take her daughter back from Clara. “Hey! Hey, princess, it’s OK! It’s just your big brother, it’s alright!”
Eli put both his hands over his ears and pulled an appalled face, and John burst into laughter. “I know, lad,” he told the aghast child. “It’s a racket.”
“Yuck,” the little boy said decisively. “No more babies Mummy, they noisy.”
“No more babies,” Bonnie concurred, getting to her feet with Poppy and rocking her gently. “Clara, you’re dodging a bullet, honestly. Several bullets. So many bullets. Not least the maintenance of your… downstairs.”
Clara smirked. “That fact did make it onto my pros and cons list, yep.”
“Will,” Bonnie said in desperation, looking over her shoulder at him. “If we have any more, we’re doing what Clara and John are doing and adopting one. Ready-made.”
“Can’t we get a cat instead?” Will asked, feigning a look of great thought. “They’re less effort, and they don’t wake you up at all hours of the morn- wait, yes they do. Forget that. But they don’t require military operations before leaving the house, and that’s a positive in my book.”
“I dunno, what if you have to put them on a lead?” Clara asked, trying not to smirk.
“We will have none of that lead nonsense,” Will said sternly. “It will be a proper outdoor cat.”
“I think cats before children is a really good life mantra,” Bonnie said, scowling at her still-howling daughter. “Why didn’t we do that years ago?”
“Because we had unprotected S-E-X and ended up with Eli before we could, you know, text each other and go for coffee and think about adopting a cat,” Will deadpanned. “Remember that?”
“See, I may be a hussy,” Clara interjected. “But at least I had the good sense to take reasonable precautions, or I could have been the one with a toddler at this point. Isn’t that terrifying?”
“Please can we not mention… that in front of Eli?” Bonnie asked, looking a touch uncomfortable. “He doesn’t need to know about it.”
“I mean,” Clara looked down at him, still perched on John’s lap with his hands over his ears. “I don’t think he can hear you.”
“Still a weird thought,” Bonnie shot her cousin a look. “Topic shift, please.”
“OK, topic shift: is your child hungry?”
“Good point,” Bonnie acquiesced, shifting Poppy to her other arm and unfastening the top button of her shirt, at which point the little one fell mercifully silent. “You may be onto something here.”
Sitting beside Will and arranging her blouse, her bra, and the baby in her arms, Bonnie looked across to the coffee table where she’d placed her mug.
“Urm,” she began uncertainly. “Will, darling? You know you love me? Well, the faster I feed this one and drink my tea, the faster we get to presents, so… hold my mug while I sip? Please?”
Amy has some bad news for Clara, and John has some worse news...
“Amy,” Clara said somewhat desperately into the phone, rolling over in bed and groaning. “Please god, no.”
“Clara,” Amy replied in a firm voice, and Clara knew that her best friend would be scowling at the phone at her end. “I’m really sorry, the doctor’s given me strict instructions not to do anything stressful.”
“Work isn’t stressful!” Clara protested. “Work is just dicking about with me and John for a couple of hours every afternoon!”
“It’s also a twenty-minute battle on the Tube at peak time, twice a day,” Amy noted. “And, frankly, do you know how many dickheads and foreign students fail to give up their seats to an enormously pregnant lady? A lot.”
Clara sighed. Amy had phoned up on an otherwise blissful Saturday morning to drop the bombshell that, for various medical reasons, her doctor had ordered her to go on immediate maternity leave, and as a result for the last ten minutes Clara’s internal monologue had consisted mainly of the kind of language that would have earned her students a fortnight’s worth of detention. “I’m sorry,” she said after a moment, realising she was being selfish. “It was just a surprise. I know that you need to do what’s right for you and the baby; of course you do, that’s the most important thing. Sorry for being a cow, I was just shocked.”
“You weren’t a cow,” Amy replied, but her tone betrayed her. “It was a bit of a bombshell, admittedly. I may have told the doctor to fuck off out of pure shock.”
“You didn’t,” Clara laughed at the thought. “Poor bloke.”
“I apologised straight away!” Amy sighed. “Believe me, I hate leaving you in the lurch like this, but the back pain is getting worse and I just… Rory and I tried for so long and now it’s finally happening I’m terrified that something is going to go wrong.”
“Nothing’s going to go wrong,” Clara said fiercely, sitting up and scowling at her own reflection in the mirror in lieu of having Amy there to scowl at. “Because you’re going to have lots and lots of rest and focus on growing that little girl inside you into the strongest, angriest, ginger-est human she can be.”
“I’m going to go stir crazy,” Amy corrected. “Stuck on the sofa for two months. Pray for Rory.”
“Praying for Rory,” Clara grimaced. “Poor bloke. He’s survived the first seven months, though.”
“Yes, because, for those seven months, I actually got to have a life.”
“Think about it this way,” Clara reasoned. “How long is your Netflix list?”
“Urm,” Amy said, sounding disconcerted by the change of subject. “Quite long. I’ve been meaning to get through Mad Men.”
“Well then,” Clara beamed, then remembered Amy couldn’t see her. “This is the perfect opportunity.”
“True,” Amy sounded a touch more cheerful. “Very true. Hello Jon Hamm in very nice suits.”
“Hello Christina Hendricks,” Clara shot back with a smirk. “My second favourite gorgeous ginger.”
“Clara Oswald-Smith, you hopeless bisexual wreck.”
“Shut up, you’re still my favourite gorgeous ginger.”
“Good to know,” Amy observed drily. “You’re still hopeless.”
“Look, this hopeless case was going to drag herself down to Balham later and see you, but she could always reconsider if you’re going to be irritating.”
“That would be nice,” Amy said, contritely. “Can we watch rubbish Saturday night telly?”
“Yes, we can,” Clara promised. “And eat… whatever you fancy.”
“Wise move,” Amy told her. “Sorry. Again. For… you know, bailing on you early. Do you have a replacement in mind?”
“Urm,” Clara picked at a piece of lint on the duvet cover. “Not really; we hadn’t started looking at CVs yet. I’m sure John will have some ideas, though, he knows everyone. If all else fails, we’ve got Andrew and he can have a temporary promotion until we find someone.”
“Good point,” Amy concurred. “He’s getting pretty proficient now. It might be a good move.”
“Exactly,” Clara smiled. “I’d better go, hubby is going to be back from Waitrose any minute and I should probably get out of bed and pretend I’ve done something productive in his absence.”
“Might be an idea, yeah.”
“See you later, OK? Be good until then.”
“I’m always good.”
“Sure,” Clara snorted. “Bye, babe.”
Clara hung up and set her phone down, sighing deeply. The thought of breaking Amy’s news to John was not an appealing one, particularly given that he was as stressed as she was due to the looming prospect of their adoption panel meeting, and she felt the usual lurch of panic in her stomach when her mind brushed over the issue. Although she didn’t hold it over her best friend, the timing of the situation couldn’t have been worse.
Downstairs, the front door opened and there was the sound of John stepping into the hall. “Hello?” he called, and she swore under her breath, getting out of bed and yanking on her dressing gown before heading down to meet him.
“Hey,” she said brightly, taking two of the bulging carrier bags he was holding and lugging them into the kitchen with some considerable effort. Whatever he’d bought, it felt like half the supermarket. “Was it busy?”
“Not too bad,” he acquiesced, following behind her and setting the remainder of his bags down on the counter. “The middle class don’t really do early. Not unless they’re dropping Tilly and Oscar off at tennis club.”
“Good point,” Clara began unpacking, focusing on her task and forcing a casual tone as she said, apprehensively: “So, Amy rang.”
“Yeah?” John opened the fridge and started methodically stocking it with his morning’s haul. “What did she say?”
“She, ah…” Clara cleared her throat. “She’s been ordered to go on maternity leave. Effective immediately.”
“Bollocks,” John muttered, and Clara chanced a glance in his direction. He was not, to her surprise, scowling, but he looked wearily resigned about the matter. “Because of her back?”
“Yeah, and because of the stress of rush-hour Tube journeys and such.”
“That’s fair enough.”
“What are we going to do? Amy suggested getting Andrew to temporarily produce until we can sort something more permanent, but I don’t know if he’s really completely ready… he’s good, sure, but he’s not ready to lead.”
“We’ve only really got one choice, haven’t we?” John asked, and Clara looked over at him properly then, meeting his gaze and reading his meaning in their depths.
“No,” she said at once, holding up one hand warningly. “No, no way. Not her.”
“What other options have we got?”
“I don’t know!” she flung up her hands, knowing she was being overdramatic, but not caring. “Not her? That would be a good start.”
“No,” she snapped, crossing her arms and affixing him with a warning glare. “Over my dead body.”
“Hello, dearies!” a horribly familiar Scottish voice trilled, and Clara fought the urge to shudder, slumping down in her chair and trying not to scowl too darkly, if only for John’s sake. “Goodness, it’s nice to be back.”
“Hi, Missy,” John said with far more chirpiness than Clara considered wholly appropriate, getting to his feet and hugging his former colleague in a way that Clara was fairly certain was just to piss her off further. “Just like old times, eh?”
“Very much so,” Missy looked over at Clara, who sat up a little straighter and tried to look more assertive than she felt. “Hello, Clara.”
The use of her name was surprising, and Clara blinked a couple of times as she processed the fact that Missy actually seemed — at least superficially — to be playing nice. “Hello,” she said after a few seconds. “Welcome back.”
“Poor Amy,” Missy made a face that appeared to be of genuine concern. “Being holed up and put on bed rest must be terribly dull. I suppose she’ll be able to do lots of planning.”
“She’s not really one for planning,” John said with a chuckle. “That’s more Clara’s department.”
“So I hear,” Missy smiled, which was entirely disconcerting, and patted John on the arm. “How’s preparing for your little one going?”
“Alright,” he said with a shrug. “Clara’s very much on top of it all. Mainly we’ve just got to prepare for our panel meeting with the adoption agency and social workers and such.”
“That’s on Valentine’s Day, isn’t it?” Missy asked, and Clara frowned, unsure how Missy could know that fact before realising there was only one possible explanation. “Unfortunate timing.”
“I suppose,” John looked a little embarrassed. “But then again, if it goes well, all the more reason to celebrate.”
“John,” Clara said in a faux-upbeat manner. “Can I have a quick word outside?”
“Sure,” he mumbled, and Clara got to her feet and stalked out of the studio, whirling around to face him once the door had closed behind her and affixing him with a glare. “How the hell does she know about the panel date?”
“I, ah,” he shuffled from foot to foot, looking uncomfortable, “I told her about it when I rang her yesterday. Just to… you know… emphasise the urgency of finding someone to fill in for Amy.”
“So, when you phoned up your old bezzie mate — who, need I remind you, is probably still in love with you — and invited her to come back to the show against my wishes, you also decided to share intimate details of the adoption process?”
“Clara, come on, she’s my friend!” he protested. “She already knew about the adoption-”
“Yes, because you rang her and told her ‘in case they asked her for references.’ Jesus, John, they’re not that stupid! They know it’d be a car crash! She didn’t need to know we were adopting and she sure as hell doesn’t need to know about the panel, because I wouldn’t put it past her to turn up and spoil the whole damn thing by bringing up… oh god, I don’t know, but I’m sure it’d be bad!”
“You’re being unreasonable.”
“No, I’m not! Why am I being unreasonable for being fucked off that you told a woman who admitted to hating me because I got to be with you, a woman who said that it was no wonder my boyfriend had decided to die rather than be with me, and a woman who went to the papers and sold you out, is now in my studio, working on my show, alongside my husband, and discussing the intimate details of my journey to have a child? Why on earth would that make me unreasonable?”
“You need to calm down.”
“No, you need to fuck off.”
“Don’t ‘Clara’ me,” she snapped, pissed off by his refusal-cum-inability to listen to her or try to see things her way. “You can bloody well do today’s show with your bezzie mate. I’m going home.”
She turned on her heel and ducked back into the studio, snatching up her bag before heading towards reception, desperately wanting and needing John to run after her and beg her not to leave, but he didn’t. He stood his ground in the corridor and stared after her in mute shock, and in that instant, she hated him. She hated him for not trying; she hated him for telling Missy; she hated him for not understanding why she was so upset. After everything Missy had done, he was willing to just let her back into their lives and share intimate things with her like nothing had happened and she hadn’t betrayed them both. He was willing to forgive and forget, and while Clara knew, deep down, that that was the right thing to do, she couldn’t quite forget the pain that Missy had caused them both, and she couldn’t quite allow Missy’s actions to be swept under the rug.
As she stormed past Jack and out into the bitter February air, she swore under her breath as she realised she had left her coat behind, but instead resigned herself to stomping towards the Tube in the hope her anger and her rapid pace might warm her up, knowing that the Underground itself would be boiling. Clenching and unclenching her fists as she went, she cursed John, cursed Missy, cursed Radio TARDIS, cursed forgetting her coat, and cursed her own stupidity for trusting John not to make the decision he had, and it was with those thoughts that she made her way home.
Curling up on the sofa once she reached the sanctuary of the lounge, she switched on the radio and tuned in to Radio TARDIS, having a perverse urge to listen to the show and see how John floundered without her, but instead she found him sounding confident and self-assured in a way that only made her angrier. Resisting the urge to fling the device at the wall, she instead yanked the plug out of its socket and burst into tears, furious and upset and cursing her husband’s very existence with every fibre of her being.
In the wake of their row at work, Clara makes a confession to John about her past.
By the time John arrived home two hours later, Clara had made dinner, eaten, washed up, cleaned the entire kitchen, and was laid on the sofa, determinedly focusing on a repeat of The Simpsons she had seen at least twice before and making a concerted effort to not look at her husband.
“Clara…” he began, coming into the lounge with pink cheeks and red eyes and a hangdog expression. “I-”
She ignored him in favour of turning up the volume on the TV.
“Clara,” he said again, taking a step closer and removing his scarf as he did so. “Please-”
She turned the volume up again.
“Clara,” he pleaded, more loudly and urgently this time, and he shrugged off his coat and chucked it towards the hall as he spoke. “Love-”
She turned the volume up several more bars, and she would have continued to do so had he not leant over and snatched the remote out of her hand.
“Stop it,” he said firmly, switching off the TV and eliciting a scowl in response. “Please, can we be mature about this?”
“Sure,” she said bitchily, getting to her feet so that he wasn’t towering over her quite as much. “Let’s be mature about you hiring that woman again, shall we? Let’s be mature about all the shitty, awful things she said to us and about us.”
“Oh, she’s sorry? Well, that’s fine, isn’t it?” Clara snapped. “That completely makes up for that time she caused you to dump me. That totally overrides the time she told me that Danny had died rather than be with me because I was such an awful person. That totally makes up for all the fucking awful things she did to other people, like blackmailing them into doing things and manipulating them using their personal lives. You know, she may be a psycho, vindictive, cruel, evil bitch, but that doesn’t matter, because she’s sorry.”
“Clara,” John said quietly, refusing to rise to the bait. “I know it doesn’t make up for what she’s done, but she’s the only person who could fill in for Amy at such short notice. I phoned every single person who sent us a CV. Nobody else could start when we needed them to, and we need a producer. Whether you like it or not, she’s damn good at her job.”
“That’s funny, because we didn’t start winning awards until after we’d fired her.”
“She did the groundwork for us to be award-winning.”
“We could’ve managed with Andrew.”
“We both know that Andrew can’t use initiative or work independently. He needs to be told what to do or he panics.”
“Well, we could have told him what to do,” Clara said in a surly tone. “We could’ve made it work.”
“We need Missy!” John protested. “We need Missy, or else there’s no show. And if there’s no show, then Raz is on our backs. If there’s no show, we lose listenership and we lose fans and we lose everything.”
“This isn’t about Missy!” Clara shouted, tears springing to her eyes against her will. “This is about the fact that you keep overlooking how I feel about her and acting like it doesn’t matter. Acting like the show is more important than the fact that she makes me uncomfortable. Acting like the show is a justification for the fact that you told her private things that I don’t want a lot of people to know, because I’m already bloody terrified that something is going to go wrong and we’re going to lose out because the panel will hate us and won’t let us have a kid and it’ll all have been for absolutely nothing!”
“Oh, love,” John said, his expression softening as he looked at her and finally understood her anger. “They’re not going to hate us.”
“Great, that’s the thing you choose to focus on.”
“Clara, there were a lot of parts to that speech so I went with the most recent bit first. Can you not yell at me for trying to be systematic?”
“I’m not yelling at you, I’m being bitchy.”
“Yes, you are, but to be honest, I fully appreciate why.”
“Of course I do,” he sighed. “I know that you don’t like Missy, and I’m sorry that I arranged this — to a degree — against your wishes. I thought that maybe if the two of you were in a room together you could kind of… I don’t know, have a row or a catfight or whatever women do and clear the air a bit so that you could work together without murdering each other. Obviously, the show isn’t more important than your feelings, and yes, I do respect how you feel, but you also have to respect that she’s been my friend for over thirty years, and yes OK, she did some shitty things, but she was still there for me.”
“Mainly because she was in love with you.”
“Yes, I know,” he said wearily. “There’s not really much I can do about that, but she’s got a new man now and she seems to be moving on, which is why I was alright with hiring her again. Because I felt confident she wasn’t going to fling herself at me the second you popped off for coffee.”
“Let me guess, she pounced the second I left.”
“No, actually,” he told her, and Clara frowned. “She apologised for having caused a problem and offered to resign.”
“Because she respects our relationship and she wants you to be comfortable.”
“Did you let her resign?”
“I said I’d discuss it with you.”
“Well, I’m still mad at her.”
“Are you, though?” John asked quietly. “Or are you mad at me because of the way I treated your feelings?”
“Oh… go away.”
“Why are you so good at understanding me?!” Clara rolled her eyes. “Yes, I am angry at you. Slightly less so now that you’re being all calm and nice and sensible, but I’m still annoyed. And I still don’t trust her. The fact you told her about the adoption panel is…” she sighed. “I’m not happy about it.”
“I wanted her to understand that we needed a producer ASAP because we were stressed about the panel and that needed to be our priority.”
“I know,” Clara mumbled. “I know, just… I don’t want to jinx it.”
“It’s not going to jinx it,” he said softly. “I know you’re scared that it’ll happen, but it won’t.”
“It’s happened before,” she confessed, her voice little more than a whisper. “OK? It’s happened before, and I just…”
“What?” John asked, his brow furrowing as he sank down on the sofa. “What do you mean, ‘it’s happened before’?”
Clara turned away, closing her eyes and perching on the seat of the armchair closest to the kitchen so that she could bolt if necessary. “John, you have to understand that there’s things about me that you don’t know. Things I haven’t told you.”
“What kind of things?” John asked, looking suddenly panicked. “Clara?”
“John… I…” was as far as she got before he crossed the room and crouched before her, his eyes wide and full of concern as he took her hands in his.
“When?” he asked softly, and she felt a surge of gratitude that he understood and she wouldn’t have to speak the words aloud. “With me? With Danny?”
She shook her head, closing her eyes to keep from crying. “No,” she mumbled. “No, it was back in Blackpool.”
John nodded tightly then pressed a kiss to her hands. “What happened?”
“It was… about a year after Mum died,” she took a deep, steadying breath. “I was seeing this guy from school and I missed three periods, so I took a test. And another one. And another one. And then I nicked a fiver off my dad, and took another one. And they all said the same thing, so I went to the doctor and I double-, triple-checked, and then when I was one hundred-per cent sure, I told Karl — that was my boyfriend — and after our initial panic, we got excited. And I couldn’t lie to Dad — I never could, he saw straight through me — so I told him, too, and Karl told his parents, and they were all so excited, you know? I mean, Dad was devastated at first and thought I’d ruined my life, but once he realised I still wanted to do things like go to university and get a degree and have a career… he was so happy and bouncy and enthusiastic, because it was something he could look forward to after Mum. But anyway, Karl and I went out and got a little teddy bear and started thinking about names and living arrangements and making these great long lists and plans and…”
“Hey,” John murmured when she trailed off, kissing her hands again in silent reassurance as she tried to get up the courage to say what she needed to say. “I’m here, it’s alright.”
“And then it was over before it had really begun.”
“Karl dumped me and Dad was just… Dad was like a deflated balloon, really, and I was a mess for a long time.”
“I’m sorry,” John said again, shifting so that he was on his knees and then pulling Clara into his arms. “I’m so sorry, love.”
“It’s OK,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around him and burying her face in his neck. “I’m just scared that we’re going to get excited again and then… it’ll be over.”
“I know, love. I’m sorry I told Missy,” he told her. “But I promise it’s going to be alright.”
“You can’t know that.”
“Clara, I promise you that I will do everything in my power to make sure that it’s alright.”
She sniffed, clinging to him a little more tightly. “I love you.”
“I love you,” he stroked her hair back from her face gently before pressing a kiss to her forehead. “I’m sorry for saying you were being unreasonable.”
“Apology accepted. I’m sorry for getting angry and shouting at you at work and storming out and for shouting at you again here and generally being a cow.”
“It’s alright,” he murmured. “I understand now.”
“Thank you for not being a dick about it.”
“Why would I be a dick about it?” he asked. “You’ve never been horrible about anything that happened in my past.”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged a little awkwardly, as his arms were still around her. “Because I didn’t tell you sooner.”
“Clara, you don’t have to tell me your entire life story, ever,” he reminded her. “You don’t owe me that.”
“I know, but…”
“This is something that’s deeply personal and I have no right to demand such things from you. I’m glad you trusted me enough to tell me. OK? And I’m sorry it happened.”
“You’re…” she hesitated then, pulling away enough that she could see his face. “Very sweet.”
“I try,” he smiled reassuringly, and she let out a contented little sigh. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“And something to eat, maybe?”
“I already had dinner. Sorry. I was trying to be passive-aggressive.”
“That’s OK, I can make myself something,” he kissed her forehead then got to his feet. “Ah… do you want me to accept Missy’s resignation, by the way?”
“No,” Clara admitted, surprising herself. “No, I don’t. You’re right — we need her, and she was actually being nice today, so if she can keep that up, she can stay.”
“Really. We’ve invested too much time in that radio show for it to go under because of Amy’s uterus and my stupid grudge.”
“It’s not a stupid grudge.”
“It is a little bit.”
“Clara,” he rolled his eyes. “It’s not stupid. You’re not stupid. Are you sure you’re OK to work with Missy?”
“Like I said,” Clara said firmly. “If she plays nice, and if her being there relieves us of some stress before the big day, then yes, I can work with Missy. OK?”
Clara and John attend their adoption panel.
Clara’s hand shook as she sipped at her coffee, grimacing at John over the rim of her mug and trying to take slow, even breaths as they flicked through the assembled paperwork that Sarah Jane had given them in a last-ditch attempt to prepare for their meeting with the adoption panel. They’d covered almost every possible question they could be asked; it was just a case now of memorising their prepared answers and being able to reel them off without them sounding rehearsed.
“I can’t do this,” Clara muttered, shoving the notebooks and folders away. “John, I can’t do this; they’re going to say no, and it’s going to be awful, and-”
A wave of panicked nausea overcame her and she bolted to the downstairs bathroom, crouching over the toilet and throwing up violently, her eyes beginning to stream involuntarily as she did so. She was dimly aware of John entering the room behind her and lifting her hair off the back of her neck, but she could only hunch further forwards and shiver, feeling a cold, panicked sweat creep over her as she gasped for breath before being sick again.
“Hey,” he murmured, and a moment later she felt something reassuring cool and damp against her feverish skin and realised with gratitude that it was a cold flannel. “It’s alright, love.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled, inhaling and exhaling shakily. “Stupid body being stupid sick. The coffee might’ve been a bad plan.”
“Probably,” he acquiesced, moving the flannel around to dab gently at her forehead. “Feel better now?”
“Yeah,” Clara said with some considerable surprise, as she realised that she did indeed feel calmer for having been sick. “Is my makeup ruined?”
“I think it’s redeemable,” John flushed the toilet and then helped her to her feet, taking her weight as she swayed a little unsteadily before finding her balance and narrowing her eyes at her reflection in the mirror. “What?”
“That’s… hmph,” she huffed and reached for a square toilet paper, dabbing at the remains of her mascara and thanking god she hadn’t put any lipstick on yet. “Could be worse, but my mouth tastes gross. How did Amy survive doing that every day? How did Bonnie?”
“God knows,” John wrinkled his nose. “Seems unpleasant.”
“Definitely,” Clara shuddered. “I’m going to go and clean my teeth and make myself look presentable again, then shall we go?”
“Are you ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
“OK, I’ll be five minutes,” she gave him a shaky smile in lieu of a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for holding my hair.”
She ran upstairs at maximum speed, skidding to a halt in the bathroom and brushing her teeth while still trembling from the shock of being sick. As she brushed, she tried to tell herself that today would go well, that the adoption panel was no big deal, that there was nothing that could conceivably go wrong. But she knew deep down that there was a lot that they could bring up and interrogate them about, and she dreaded the prospect of standing in front of a panel of experts and having to account for her life choices, or for John to have to do the same. Heading into their bedroom, she snatched up her lipstick from where she’d left it earlier, applied a coat with an almost-steady hand, and then took a deep breath.
“I’ve got it all under control,” she told her reflection in her best teacher voice. “Absolutely everything.”
“My favourite control freak.”
Clara jumped, turning and taking in the sight of John leaning in the doorway with a feigned air of nonchalance. His mouth twisted up into a nervous little smiled as he crossed the room to her and wrapped his arms around her waist from behind, pressing a kiss to her hair and then resting his chin on her shoulder.
“We’ve both got this all under control,” she said firmly, placing one of her hands over his and trying to smile. “We can do this.”
“We can,” he breathed. “But just in case… know that I love you.”
“I know you do, John,” she leant back into his embrace. “And I love you. And that should be enough for them.”
“Why are they taking so long?” Clara asked, getting to her feet and beginning to pace the waiting room in agitation. “Sarah Jane said they would call us in after twenty minutes or so. It’s been hours.”
“It’s been fifteen minutes,” John corrected, shooting her a bemused glance. “And could you please stop pacing? You’re making me nervous.”
“They’re going to say yes, aren’t they?” Clara asked, ignoring his request and increasing the speed of her laps of the room. “I mean, Sarah Jane said that it was probable, but does that mean like… it’s definitely probable? Or that it’s slightly probable? Or that-”
“Clara, ‘probable’ means probable.”
“But there are degrees of probability.”
“Yes, improbable versus probable.”
“Don’t be a pedantic prick,” she snapped at him, then sighed. “Sorry. I just… God, I hate waiting rooms.”
“I know,” John said quietly, and she loved him in that instant for not rising to the bait. “So do I. But can you please, please, for the love of god, stop pacing?”
“Sorry,” Clara said again, taking a seat by him and starting to pick determinedly at her cuticles instead. “I wonder what they’re discussing.”
“Hopefully all good things,” John reached over and took her hand, pulling it into his lap so that she had no choice but to stop destroying the skin around her nails. “It shouldn’t be long, I wouldn’t have thought."
She rested her head on his shoulder. “Feeling a bit sick again.”
“Oh god,” he groaned. “Please aim for the bin, not my shoes or anything important.”
She giggled feebly. “Not going to be sick,” she reassured him. “Just a bit nauseous.”
They both turned towards the unfamiliar voice, finding a tall, stern-looking woman stood in the doorway. Despite her all-black attire and her intimidating demeanour, she smiled at them both with a surprising amount of sincerity, and Clara felt her stomach clench in apprehension of what the woman’s appearance meant.
“Hello, I’m Frances Kovarian. I’m the chair of your panel today. Would you like to come through? We’re ready for you.”
“S-sure,” Clara managed, getting to her feet in a daze and following the stranger through into what looked, for all intents and purposes, more like the weekly staff meetings Clara attended than a panel that was about to decide on their future as parents. There was a bevy of strangers seated around a central table, with Sarah Jane sat to one side, and she beckoned them over with a smile, gesturing to two empty chairs beside her, and Clara sunk into one with relief. John perched on the extreme edge of the other, not letting go of Clara’s hand for a second, and Frances looked between the two of them with an unreadable expression.
“There’s no need to be nervous,” she assured them both in a gentle tone. “Really. We’d just like to ask you some questions, that’s all.”
John nodded tersely and Clara mirrored the gesture, beginning to tremble and hoping that it wasn’t noticeable.
“Alright, so, firstly, introductions…”
Clara barely heard so much as the name of any of the other people in the room, so fixated was she on not shaking or sweating or crying, and when the time came for the first question to be asked, it took a moment for the words to register.
“Now, could you tell us a bit about what you feel your weaknesses as parents might be?” Frances asked, and Clara looked to John in a panic. They’d prepared for such a question, but her mind had gone blank, and all she could think about was the eyes of everyone in the room on her and John, and how this was all going to go horribly wrong, and-
“Well,” John began in a self-assured tone that seemed entirely at odds with the situation at hand. “I would argue that we can both become a little fixated on comparing ourselves with others and taking into consideration the opinions of others. Which, while not always a bad thing, sometimes can be — especially because, in the past, we’ve listened to people in the press rather than each other or to our friends and family, which is never a wise move. So, I feel that our main weakness may be balancing the extent to which we take on board the advice of others while also ignoring or overlooking negative opinions of our family unit that might be based solely on external perceptions of us, rather than being grounded in facts. Obviously, given that we’re looking to adopt children of a non-white background, and given that we have the radio show and we’re fairly well-known, a lot of people are going to have opinions about that, and we need to ensure that we don’t let those opinions harm either our parenting or the day-to-day life experiences of the child we eventually end up with.”
Clara squeezed his hand in gratitude as Frances and several others nodded and jotted down notes.
“Ah, yes. Could you explain a little more about your rationale for wanting to adopt a non-white child?” another panel member asked, and Clara’s eyes flicked to him as she realised that this was a question she could answer.
“Certainly,” she was surprised by how steady her voice sounded. “Prior to John, I was in a long-term relationship with a man of mixed Jamaican-Irish ancestry. He’d spent his childhood — from the age of about two — in a children’s home, and he talked a lot about how he felt being not only in care, but also the only non-white child in the home. When prospective fosterers came to visit, he said that he would often be passed over and ignored, and as such he grew up in the institution without ever having a family unit. He joined the army at sixteen as a way to find a place where he could fit in and have some of that feeling of being part of something, and just… I know how many children in this country are overlooked and similarly lost within the care system, and I want to do something about that.”
“What response would you have if the press condemned you for this decision?”
“I would say that if they want to condemn us for giving a child a home, then that’s their choice, but what have they done to help with the foster care crisis in this country?”
The question-asker nodded sagely. “And what would you say to someone in the street who asked why your child was of a different ethnicity?”
“I would say ‘that’s my child,’” Clara shrugged. “Regardless of their skin colour or ethnicity, that’s my child because I chose them, and I love them.”
“John touched on the issue of the press, so how would you juggle being in the public eye with having a child?”
“Our relationship with the press at the moment is a fairly courteous one,” John began. “They’ve lost interest in us, although we’re aware that with the adoption, they would likely regain some of that interest fairly rapidly. In terms of discussing the child with them, it wouldn’t happen other than to make a statement confirming the adoption — we don’t like the press, we don’t trust the press, and we certainly don’t want them knowing the ins and outs of our family matters. When it comes to the show… well, the child might be mentioned from time to time, you know, if they did something sweet or amusing, but we would never disclose personal or humiliating details. As for photos… we wouldn’t post them on work accounts, and we’d request that the press blur the child’s face in paparazzi shots.”
“You’ve really thought this through,” Frances said, with a pleased little nod. “I’m impressed.”
“Maintaining our privacy is of the utmost importance,” Clara affirmed. “We want to be a normal family as far as possible.”
“That’s understandable, and I’m sorry to have to ask this,” another member of the panel asked. “But with regards to some of the issues in John’s past, can that be done?”
“You mean my former alcohol problem?” John asked coolly, and the interviewer nodded. “As provided in our evidence dossier, I have been attending regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the past decade, and my sponsor is more than thoroughly satisfied with my progress; I believe he included a letter of reference attesting to that.”
“Yes, indeed. We just wanted your take on matters.”
“Having a child is a big change, yes,” John shrugged. “But it’s a positive change, and one that frankly would not exactly facilitate me drinking again — there wouldn’t be alcohol in the house, and in between bedtime stories and such, I wouldn’t have time to sneak off to the pub. I don’t want to break my sobriety. I want to stay strong and be the best possible father I can be.”
“Clara, are you confident of John’s commitment to staying sober?”
“Of course,” she said at once, looking at her husband and giving him a tight smile. “I love him, and I trust him. And believe me when I say, if he fell off the wagon, there would be hell to pay.”
There was a quiet ripple of laughter then, and John returned her smile. Frances looked down at the stack of paperwork in front of her, and then smiled decisively.
“Very well, I think that’s everything we needed to ask you. If you could please wait outside, someone will be with you presently.”
Clara nodded and got to her feet, aware of John doing the same beside her, and once the door of the meeting room had closed behind them, leaving them alone in the corridor, they fell into each other’s embrace, clinging to each other like a lifeline. “That was grim,” Clara mumbled into his chest. “But you were brilliant.”
“So were you,” he told her. “Being all fierce.”
“I shouldn’t have been fierce,” she wrinkled her nose. “Should’ve been calm like you.”
“Well, we did our best,” he assured her, pulling away enough to see her face and meeting her gaze levelly. “And now all we can do is wait.”
Clara swallowed, letting John lead her back to the waiting room, and once there she fought the urge to begin pacing again. Taking a seat by the window, she gazed out at the grey February morning, and remembered with a start what day of the year it was. “Happy-”
She was interrupted by Sarah Jane stepping inside with a wide smile. “I think they really liked you,” she said breathlessly. “They really struggled to find anything to ask that I hadn’t already discussed with you.”
“Really?” John asked, his expression brightening at this nugget of information. “That’s great news.”
“What do you think they’ll decide?” Clara asked, worrying her lip as she looked over to their social worker with a sense of rising panic. “Do you think they’ll approve us?”
“I’m not going to comment,” Sarah Jane said with an apologetic little shrug. “I don’t like to, either way.”
Clara opened her mouth to reply, but John interrupted: “That’s fair enough. So, now we just wait?”
He nodded, taking a seat beside Clara and twisting his hands together in his lap. “I hate waiting,” he mumbled, and Sarah Jane smiled sympathetically.
“I know, but it shouldn’t be long.”
“They always say that,” Clara complained. “And it’s always-”
Frances reappeared, and Clara’s heart stopped. “Would you like to come back in? We’ve made our decision.”
In a numb haze, Clara took John’s hand and followed him back to the meeting room in mute terror. All she could hear was the blood pounding in her ears, and she closed her eyes against the suddenly too-bright lights as she and John came to an awkward halt at the front of the room, his arm around her waist supportively.
“We have decided,” Frances began. “That-”
A decision is made...
I hope that nobody was too traumatised by the Christmas special... or my cliffhanger! Enjoy today's chapter if you were xx
“We will be approving your application to become adoptive parents. Congratulations.”
Clara’s knees buckled, and it was only John’s arm that stopped her falling to the floor as her eyes snapped open and her hearing returned to normal. “What?” she whispered, unable to believe Frances’s words. “Really?”
“Really. We were very impressed by your application, particularly by your commitment to adopting a non-white child and by your extensive preparation and dedication. We’re absolutely delighted to be recommending you as adoptive parents, and therefore allowing you to move onto the next stage, which as you know will be matching you with a child.”
Clara looked up at John, her face flushed with happiness as she beamed at him with wholehearted joy. She wanted to whoop in triumph, but she resisted on the grounds of propriety. “Oh, my god,” she breathed, laughing in amazement. “We’re going to be parents. We really, really are.”
“Yes, indeed,” John replied with a chuckle, kissing her forehead. “We are.”
Frances continued: “Sarah Jane will work closely with you now to match you with an appropriate child. I must say, you’re fortunate to be based in London — we tend to find that adopters here are able to match successfully with a child in a much shorter time period than those who are looking to adopt in outlying regions of the UK, so hopefully the process will be relatively short for you both. I will warn you, however: this stage will still be difficult and emotional, and there might still be some delays, but it’s a very exciting time and I hope that you both enjoy it.”
Clara took John’s hand and beamed. “We look forward to it.”
“I’m glad,” Frances smiled. “Now, I’m sure you’ll both want to celebrate, so we’ll let you go.”
“Thank you,” John said, his voice somewhat hoarse with emotion, and when Frances looked up at him, she was touched to see tears in his eyes. “Thank you so much, honestly, you have no idea how much this means to us both.”
“Thank you,” Clara added, realising she hadn’t said the words. “Like John said, this is… incredible. Thank you so much for giving us this opportunity.”
“It’s our pleasure.”
Sarah Jane led them both outside and then engulfed them in a group hug, practically vibrating with excitement as she did so. “Congratulations!” she enthused, and Clara felt a rush of gratitude to her for having facilitated this. “Oh, this is wonderful news. I knew they’d approve you, they’d be stupid not to! I’m over the moon for you both, this is such a fantastic outcome.”
“So, what’s next?”
“I’ll help you put together a personal profile to send to other agencies and social workers,” Sarah Jane looked thoughtful. “I think I know of several potential matches already just from within the agency, so that should make things easier. It’s just going to be a matter of liaising with colleagues, letting them look at your information, and then seeing what they think — and, of course, you two will be able to learn more about any potential matches. Once everything’s been discussed, and you’re entirely up to date on a potential child’s needs and progress and such, there will be… you guessed it, another panel.”
“Not another one,” John rolled his eyes at the prospect, but the smile on his face betrayed the good-naturedness of the gesture. “Oh well, we’ve survived one.”
“Indeed,” Sarah Jane laughed. “Sorry about that. We’re big on panels in social services.”
“So it would seem.”
“Now, I’ll be in touch on Monday to start building up a profile and letting you have a look through our databases for potential matches, but for now, go and celebrate. That’s an order.”
“We will,” Clara took John’s hand and squeezed. “Thank you so much, we wouldn’t have been able to do it without you.”
“Don’t be silly,” Sarah Jane said modestly, although she dropped her gaze to her feet and her cheeks flushed pink. “Any social worker worth their salt could’ve seen the potential in you two.”
“Thank you, anyway,” John affirmed. “We’ll speak to you on Monday.”
Heading outside, Clara lapsed into mute wonder, hardly caring about the grey weather or the cold as she looked up at John in wide-eyed awe and laughed aloud with joy. “We’re going to be parents.”
“I know,” he beamed, picking her up and spinning her around. “My god, I never thought this would happen, but I finally found someone bonkers enough to embark on this journey with me.”
“Do introduce me to her,” Clara teased, wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing his cheek. “She sounds crazy.”
“Oh, she is,” he deadpanned. “Absolutely so. But I’m crazy, too — crazy about her.”
“God, you’re soft.”
“Oh, always,” he leaned down then and kissed her. “Happy Valentine’s Day, by the way.”
“I thought you’d forgotten,” she made a face. “I certainly had.”
“Well, somewhere between the crying and the vomiting this morning, we didn’t really get a chance to be romantic.”
“Sorry again about that.”
“You were worried,” he said simply. “It was a natural response.”
“Can I take you for lunch now?”
“Of course you can,” Clara frowned as she realised the difficulty of doing so spontaneously. “But won’t everywhere be booked up?”
“We have a reservation.”
“Hang on, did you have this planned?” she asked.
“Well, yes,” he raised an eyebrow. “It would be rather difficult to find anywhere with space otherwise.”
“What if the panel had said no?”
“Then this either would’ve been a commiseration lunch, or we could’ve cancelled.”
“Oh, and I might’ve invited Amy and Rory,” he admitted, running a hand through his hair and looking a touch embarrassed. “We’re meeting them there.”
“Since when did you do double dates?”
“Since there was a pressing need to either have someone to celebrate with or someone to cheer us up.”
As Clara and John walked into the cosy, relaxed atmosphere of the gastropub John had apparently chosen some weeks prior, they found Rory and Amy hovering nervously just inside the doorway, Amy with one hand on her bump and the other arm around her husband. They both looked stricken with nerves, and Clara at once adopted a deathly serious expression in order to tease them.
“Hello,” she told them sombrely, watching their eyes widen in agonised suspense. “We’re really sorry to be annoyingly obnoxious about this … but we’re going to be parents!”
“Oh, my god!” Amy squealed, letting go of Rory and flinging her arms around Clara in a jubilant hug. “That’s wonderful news, I’m so happy for you both!”
“Congratulations, mate,” Rory said at a slightly more reasonable volume, pulling John in for a one-armed hug. “You must be chuffed.”
“Yeah,” he smiled. “Thank you both so much for writing references for us, I reckon it made all the difference.”
“Well, they can’t have read mine,” Amy rolled her eyes. “I wrote all about what a terrible person Clara is, and how she murders children for fun.”
“Hilarious,” Clara deadpanned. “I read your reference, it was very nice.”
“Really?” Amy wrinkled her nose. “It wasn’t too saccharine?”
“No, but I am perpetually holding the words, ‘Clara Oswald is one of the most responsible, kind-hearted and generous people I have ever met’ over you.”
“That’s not very kind-hearted of you.”
“When you two are done bickering, we have a table booked,” John interjected, draping his arm around Clara’s shoulders. “Although, I will echo Clara’s sentiment: your references were wonderful. Thank you both so much.”
“It was the least we could do,” Rory’s cheeks flushed pink. “Really. You’ve been so good to us.”
“Yeah, once you got over the fact we were moving to Balham,” Amy said. “How was it that John described it to us, babe?”
“‘The arse end of nowhere,’” Rory quoted from memory. “They do have a point. And I mean, once you both also got over the fact that you’re both fundamentally quite irritating, and stopped irritating each other and being stubborn for long enough to get together, you really did deserve some happiness.”
“It is the arse end of nowhere,” John protested. “South London. Ew.”
“Maybe if you paid me more, we could’ve afforded somewhere north of the river,” Amy said cheekily, and John fell silent for a moment. “I mean. Sorry. That was rude, I shouldn’t have…”
“No, you make a salient point,” he acquiesced. “I’ll bring it up with Raz for when you’re back after maternity leave.”
“Well, yeah,” he shrugged. “Seems only fair, really. I know you can’t move now you’ve got a mortgage and all, but you might be able to have a better standard of living and some nice holidays and such.”
“That’d be great.”
“Can we please go and sit down so we can order?” Clara pleaded. “I’m starving.”
“Yes,” John concurred, beckoning over a waiter to lead them to their table, and as they took their seats he somehow managed to produce an envelope and a small, neatly wrapped gift out of nowhere and set it down in front of Clara. “Happy Valentine’s.”
“Where the hell were you hiding those?”
“That would be telling.”
“John Smith, international man of mystery.” Clara rolled her eyes, but reached into her bag, retrieving the card and gift she’d stashed there the previous night and passing it over to him. “Good thing I forward-planned as well.”
“Well, you open yours first,” he said impatiently, flapping his hands encouragingly. “Go on.”
“What about Amy and Rory?”
“What about us?” Amy asked, still trying to fit her bump under the table and eventually conceding defeat and shifting herself sideways on the chair. “We opened ours this morning.”
“OK, I feel less bad,” Clara acquiesced, and neatly slit open the envelope with her finger. Extracting a card adorned with an artistic shot of red roses, she read the message inside and turned pink before stowing it in her handbag and moving on to the gift with an embarrassed little cough. “Did Amy help you wrap this, or was her involvement limited to Christmas presents?”
“No, the place where I bought it helped.”
“That’s definitely cheating.”
“That’s being organised,” he shot back, poking his tongue out childishly. “Open it.”
“Alright, alright,” she groused, unwrapping it with care to discover a small black jewellery box, which when opened revealed a simple silver locket. “Wow.”
Clara prised open the delicate clasp, looking inside to discover a tiny photograph of her and John on their wedding day. “It’s beautiful,” she murmured, touched by the thoughtful gesture. “Thank you.”
“I thought you could put a photo of the little one in the other side,” he said pragmatically, as Clara lifted the locket from its box and put it on. “Or a picture of your parents.”
“That’s really sweet,” she smiled at him, reaching over and squeezing his hand. “Thank you, it’s beautiful.”
“Can I open mine now?”
With a smile like a little kid at Christmas, John ripped open his own envelope, extracting the card and reading it with an oddly bashful expression. Setting it down on the table, he then turned his attention to the gift, frowning slightly at how large it was and giving it an experimental shake. “It’s bigger than what I got you.”
“Size doesn’t matter,” she told him tartly, with only very minimal smirking. “It’s what’s inside that counts. Amy, don’t even think about sniggering.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” her best friend said, fighting to keep a straight face. “Not least because I’m intrigued now.”
John peeled back the paper to reveal a plain cardboard box, and he affixed Clara with a curious look before opening that.
“Wow,” he breathed, lifting out a vintage Polaroid camera. “Where did you find this?”
“One of the markets I go to while you’re having a lie-in on Sunday mornings.”
“It’s gorgeous, oh my god,” he turned it over in admiration, running his fingers over the casing and then holding it to his eye and looking through the viewfinder. “Thank you.”
“I thought it would be fun and practical,” Clara smiled, feeling abruptly and inexplicably shy. “You could use it to take pictures of our little one. Or Amy’s. Or Bonnie’s two. Or all of them, whichever. Or me. Or… well, you get the idea.”
“Well, first picture…” John snapped a quick shot of her, ignoring her protests and taking the printout, shaking it to develop it with a smug look. “Is a work of art.”
“Oh, always,” he grinned. “Second picture…”
He held it out and took a photo of the four of them. “Three works of art, and an old master.”
“John,” Clara said patiently as he laid the first photo down in the middle of the table. “While you’re very sweet and all, if I don’t eat something soon, I’m going to keel over.”
“Right,” he looked a touch sheepish. “Food. Food is a plan.”
Clara had never thought that everything would be plain sailing once they were approved, but she hadn't expected this.
Clara scowled down at the glossy, neatly typed printout in front of her, feeling a sudden and irrational surge of hatred for the damn thing and wanting nothing more than to rip the offending item up. Their profile as adopters had been the result of four hours of painstaking work with Sarah Jane, and yet, in the month since they’d carefully selected and worded and enshrined to paper facts about themselves as a couple, what sort of child they were looking for, and a few other key pieces of information, there had been a grand total of zero interest in them as prospective parents. Logically, Clara knew that it was foolish to hope for anything to happen in such a short space of time, but she’d been optimistic about the entire process since the adoption panel, and now she could feel that positivity slowly dying with each passing day. After the first three children they’d put in requests for more information on, and the subsequent three rejections they’d received in response, she was starting to feel bitterly disenchanted with the entire process. She shoved the piece of paper into one of their many plastic folders, slamming it shut and then dropping it on the worktop beside her with a thud.
“OK,” John said from across the kitchen, stirring the sauce he was making before turning to look at her with his arms folded and an expression that Clara recognised as one she used on her students. “What’s that face for?”
“This face is because I’m pissed off,” she confessed, snagging the slim-line file of a potential match for the sake of having something to do while he cooked dinner. “They’ve all rejected us… on what grounds?”
“They’re not going to say it, but it’s the age gap, isn’t it? The bloody ageists, they think that we’re scum and that we’re not worthy of having a child to love just because you’re older than me. I’m sick of it.”
“Clara, it’s only been a month since we were approved.”
“I know it’s been a month!” she snapped, opening the file in front of her with such force that the cover nearly ripped off. “Don’t you think I’m aware of that? Don’t you think I’m painfully aware of the bloody date every time we get rejected and Sarah Jane dumps more files on us in the hope that, you know, this one or that one might be the one? Every single one of these kids would be perfect for us, but their strait-laced bloody social workers aren’t interested because god-fucking-forbid, you’re a couple of decades older than me, and that’s clearly an issue.”
“They haven’t said that,” John sighed, ruffling his hair wearily. “You don’t know that’s what it is. It might just be that they feel the kids in their care would be unsuitable for first-time adopters because of their backgrounds.”
“Yeah, right,” Clara snorted, rejecting the notion outright. “They’re ageists, John. That’s all it is. The tabloids have poisoned the nation against us, and now we’re paying the price.”
“That seems…” he hesitated for a moment, before saying carefully: “A touch paranoid.”
“Oh yeah, I’m definitely paranoid,” she snarled, looking down at the file in her hands and skimming over the information on the first page with a summative glance. Not a word of it went in. “Definitely not making that judgement based on empirical facts.”
“Well, it’s not an empirical fact, is it? They haven’t phoned us up and told us that we can’t have a kid because I’m too old, or because we’re on the radio, or anything else. You’re just making assumptions.”
“It’s not a fucking assumption, John!” she slammed the file shut again, glaring at her husband. “When have people ever not been dicks about us? Hmm? When has it ever not been an issue?”
“Clara, I really think that you need to calm down.”
“How can I calm down when these ageists are going to keep saying no to us?! They don’t even know us, but they’re all too happy to sit in their comfortable little offices and fob us off as soon as they see our names on the profile!”
“If they’re such ageists, then why are we engaging with them at all?” John asked in exasperation, flinging his hands in the air. “If they’re so awful, why are we doing this to ourselves?”
“Oh, yeah,” Clara said in a low, dangerous voice, hating him in that instant. “There it is; the questioning. If you don’t want to do this, you know where the door is. You can leave any time, I’m not stopping you. I know all about your doubts, remember? I know all about your wobbles.”
“Why would I leave?” he asked, refusing to rise to the bait, and somehow that only irked her more. “Why would I walk out on you?”
“Oh, I don’t know!” she shouted, losing her temper in the face of his maddening composure. “Maybe I’d have more luck on my own!”
There was a beat of silence as Clara realised what she’d said, then she clamped a hand over her mouth, her eyes widening in horror.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered almost at once. “John, I’m sorry, I didn’t-”
Calmly and methodically, John took off the apron he was wearing, then stepped out into the hall with Clara racing after him in a panic.
“John,” she pleaded, on the verge of tears as he slipped on his boots and reached for his phone, keys and coat. “John, please, I didn’t mean it, please, I’m sorry…”
Wordlessly, he walked out of the house, closing the front door behind him and leaving her alone in the hallway. Clara sank to her knees and began to sob, silently at first but then increasingly loudly as she realised she had no idea where he had gone, or whether he was planning on coming back. She supposed he would have to — he had nothing on him other than his phone and the clothes he was stood up in — but whether he then chose to stay was another question entirely.
She hadn’t meant what she’d said; of course she hadn’t. Her rage and frustration at the adoption agency had bubbled up and she’d lost her temper at the only person conveniently on hand to shout at. She’d lost her cool and now she’d probably ruined everything; she’d alienated John with her words and she had no idea how to fix things. She didn’t want to be alone — the notion was a horrifying one. She could survive without him when she knew he was coming back and she knew that his love was a constant; the thought of him never returning was enough to make her head spin and her stomach drop uncomfortably, and she didn’t want to even entertain the prospect of everything falling apart after they had fought so hard to be together.
She loved him and she wanted more than anything to be with him, yet strangers still couldn’t seem to see past the superfluous aspect of their relationship: the age gap. Yes, there were two decades between them, but that had never mattered to either of them and it shouldn’t matter to others, but somehow it was all that people could see or comment on. Time and time again, they had come up against outdated attitudes and prejudicial comments, and after now, following each rejection from social workers, Clara’s anxieties and frustrations had compounded, and she’d been on a knife edge for weeks. Treading the fine line between keeping her composure and losing it had been difficult enough, and she’d known for days that a slip-up was bound to happen; she just hadn’t anticipated that slip resulting in her arguing with John. Now she was alone, and terrified, and flooded with guilt, and she had no idea what to do.
Well, she had one. One, although it seemed somewhat unfair on the other person involved. She mulled over the prospect, weighing up the pros and cons, then got to her feet and shuffled into the kitchen, grabbing her phone and calling Amy.
“Hey,” she said quietly when her friend answered, perching on a stool and putting her head in her hands. “I ah… I’ve fucked up.”
“What do you mean, you know?”
“Yeah, he is,” Amy sighed, and Clara blinked several times, realising she must have spent a lot more time in the hall sobbing than she’d anticipated. “What the hell are you playing at, Oswald?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted in a small voice. “I just… I was upset and I lost my temper and I lashed out at him, but I didn’t mean it. I love him, you know I do.”
“Of course I do, you genuinely nauseate me,” Amy clicked her tongue. “But does he know that?”
“I don’t know,” Clara said again. “I thought he did but then if he’s doubting it because of what I said…”
“The problem with you,” Amy began, “is that you worry too damn much about what other people think.”
“I don’t!” she protested at once. “I do not! It was one of the conditions of me getting back with him, remember? Not caring about what others think.”
“Only you do,” Amy told her. “You do, and you also think the worst of them. These social workers might have good reasons for saying no to you. Perfectly valid reasons that have nothing to do with age or anything else. You’ve jumped to that conclusion without bothering to ask for feedback, and, frankly, I feel fucking sorry for John having to live with you at the moment, because you sound like nothing but a pain in the arse.”
“No, you listen to me. You can’t let this take over life. You should base having a child on having a stable relationship, and if you’re obsessing about it to the point that you most definitely are, then it’s not a stable relationship because you’re putting the kid first.”
“Not done. You have the luxury, still, of not having to think about your future child twenty-four hours a damn day, seven days a week. I don’t have that. I can’t do things with Rory — I can’t enjoy spending time with him — because little madam is kicking away at me and making me so bloody unwell I haven’t even been able to get out of bed some days this week; not that you’d know any of that cos you’ve been so fucking grouchy and self-centred recently that you’ve not bothered asking. Make the most of your damn husband and stop being an ungrateful pessimist, or so help me god, there will be an intervention, and it will be an intervention in the form of a-”
There was a brief, indiscernible exchange that Clara could not hear, and then…
“Clara?” John’s voice asked, and she burst into tears again. “No, don’t do that. I’m not letting you off the hook just because you’re crying.”
“Don’t expect you to,” she mumbled, swiping at her eyes with the edge of her sleeve. “I’m sorry, please come home so we can talk about things.”
“You’re sorry,” he said flatly, and something about his tone frightened her. “You’re always sorry.”
“Maybe don’t do anything to be sorry about.”
“You always were impossible, though.”
“Please come home,” she pleaded again. “Please. I don’t want to talk about this over the phone.”
There was a pause. “I’ll come home tomorrow.”
“You wanted to be on your own,” he said coolly. “So, you can have one night on your own to see how you like it, and then I will come home tomorrow.”
“John, please,” she begged, shaking her head even though he couldn’t see her. “Please, don’t do this. I just want you here. I want to apologise and make it up to you and-”
“I will be there tomorrow, and you can apologise then.”
“Your things,” she said in desperation. “You don’t have any clothes or a toothbrush or anything.”
“I can borrow from Rory. I’ll make do. See you tomorrow, Clara.”
He hung up before she could say another word, and Clara blinked down at the phone in her hand. One night. She could survive one night.
Clara awaits John's return. Or rather, she hopes for it.
When she awoke the next morning, Clara realised that she was not overly sure what time John planned on coming home. While she doubted it would be early, she forced herself to get out of bed at eight on the dot, showered, washed her hair, and applied a minimal amount of makeup, then headed downstairs and began to scrub at the ruined saucepan that had contained John’s lovingly made sauce from the previous night. Or rather, it had contained sauce until John had walked out and left the heat on when he went — it now contained a blackened, charred mess, half of which had boiled over onto the stove top and left an ugly stain that offended Clara’s sense of order. Thus, she threw herself into the cleaning with abandon, and when she was done she made herself a cup of chamomile tea using the teabags she’d bought during Bonnie’s last pregnancy, and which she would usually have sworn tasted like grass. Today, however, she was grateful for the odd, but soothing taste, and she sipped at her drink slowly and as calmly as possible, stretching her aching arms out as she flicked through the files she had discarded the previous evening.
Despite her avoidance of caffeine, Clara couldn’t stop her foot from tapping on the floor as she browsed through the details contained within, or her fingers from drumming on the worktop as she drank, and she could feel her heart pounding as she waited for John. When she finished going through the assembled folders, she looked around the kitchen with a critical eye, decided the floor needed hoovering, and shrugged. It was something to do, she supposed, so she retrieved the vacuum cleaner and started on the task, losing herself in the droning noise and the repetitive motions as she battled against an influx of crumbs, tiny stones, and bits of leaf. She’d just finished ministering to the back door mat when she became faintly aware of something in her peripheral vision and straightened up, yelping in shock as she realised that John was stood in the kitchen doorway, wearing the same clothes as the previous day and eyeing her with bemusement. Reaching over, she flicked off the hoover and then stood staring at him in mute terror, clinging to the hose with shaking hands as she waited for him to speak.
“Well,” he said in a surprisingly pleasant tone that only served to disconcert her further. “This is new. Panic cleaning.”
“Urm,” she felt her cheeks burn for no earthly reason and ducked her head, gesticulating vaguely to the draining board and the saucepan she had just about managed to salvage. “The pot needed doing after… urm, well. You know. And so did the stove. Then the… the floor looked dirty.”
“Right. Sorry about the pan. I’ll be sure to switch the hob off the next time I walk out.”
Clara’s head snapped up then, her eyes filling with tears at the casual way he had assumed there would be a next time, and he looked immediately guilty.
“That was a joke,” John assured her, holding up his hands apologetically. “Sorry. Badly executed. Kind of nervous.”
“A joke,” she mumbled, bowing her head again and nodding, before clenching her jaw in attempt to stop herself from crying. “Just a joke.”
“Unless… you want it to not be.”
“Why would I want that?” she asked thickly, twisting her fingers together and starting to pick, as she always did in times of crisis, at her nails. “Why would I want you to leave again?”
“So you might have more luck,” he didn’t sound bitter, just resigned to the idea. “So you might get the child you want.”
She looked up at him then, raising her chin defiantly as she met his gaze and fought to keep her voice even. “We both know I didn’t mean that.”
“Do we?” he asked quietly, and her heart broke. “Because I don’t.”
“I love you.”
“Lately, I haven’t felt like it.”
Clara froze, looking across at him in silence in the wake of his confession. He looked tired and unshaven, and his expression was clouded by something that she couldn’t put her finger on — fear, perhaps, or disappointment. She had caused that. Whatever that unreadable emotion was, she had caused it. She took a guilt-laden step forward, forgetting about the hoover, and stumbled over it, praying as she fell towards the floor that John would catch her.
Please don’t let me fall, she implored, in the split-second before she hit the ground, and she didn’t mean in a purely physical sense. Please don’t let me fall.
His hands closed around her shoulders, stopping her descent, and he set her back on her feet in one fluid motion; keeping his distance but casting an eye over her in a non-verbal assessment of her well being.
“Thanks,” she mumbled, feeling abruptly shy, and she pulled the sleeves of her jumper down over her hands, hunching her shoulders up and half-turning away. “I… John, I don’t…”
“You’ve just been… preoccupied lately, that’s all. What with the adoption and everything.”
“I know,” she sighed, needing him to understand. “But with a kid, that’s the thing… I’m not going to be able to give you all of my attention.”
“Which I get,” he shrugged. “But lately I just feel like… I don’t know. Like you’ve got what you wanted, and we’ve been approved, and now I don’t matter except as just a tool or a means to an end. And then when you shouted at me about having more luck on your own…”
“I was angry,” she said quietly. “I was angry, and I let that get the better of me. I don’t think I would be better off on my own; not in any way. I shouldn’t have said what I did and I shouldn’t have got so carried away with the adoption that I forgot about you. I’m sorry.”
John nodded. “Thank you,” he murmured, looking abruptly contrite. “I’m sorry for walking out last night, but I didn’t know how else to make you understand.”
“No, it’s…” she hesitated over the appropriate adjective. “Not fine, but I know why you did it.”
“How was the night alone?”
“Lonely,” she confessed, her voice little more than a whisper. “Scary.”
“Clara Oswald-Smith, scared of the dark?”
“Clara Oswald-Smith, scared that her husband wasn’t going to come back.”
“Oh,” he dropped his gaze then. “I know it’s not much consolation, but I was always going to.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Don’t be,” she grimaced and stepped away, busying herself with the kettle and trying to put on an air of unaffected nonchalance. “I had it coming.”
“Amy said as much.”
“Amy’s hormonal and ill and not in a great headspace.”
“Well, I don’t even have the excuse of hormones or being ill for having been a bitch, so, I’m sorry. Coffee?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“I’m not,” she shot back, scowling at him. “I just thought coffee might be nice. I’m trying to be reconciliatory.”
“In that case, yes, please.”
Clara nodded curtly and flicked the kettle on, getting out a mug and spooning instant coffee into it. “Did Amy say anything else?”
“She said she was too harsh on you on the phone and that she felt bad about it.”
“Well, that’s not your problem.”
“I don’t know,” he huffed. “I was pretty pissed off when I got to theirs. Kind of vented. Probably didn’t help the situation.”
“Great.” Clara felt sick as she realised the implications of his words. “So now my best friend hates me.”
“No, she doesn’t. She was mad for a little while, but that was my fault; I shouldn’t have done that,” he said in a conciliatory tone. “It was wrong of me.”
“Are you pissed off at me for going to Amy and Rory’s?”
“No,” she said at once, then sighed and amended her statement to: “Yes. I don’t know.”
“It was that or-”
“Yes, I know, that or Missy’s. I’m glad it wasn’t Missy’s. Only now Amy probably thinks I’m a shitty person.”
“Actually, she’s coming over with an apology cake later,” John cleared his throat, looking a touch embarrassed. “She’s making it as we speak.”
Clara’s mouthed twitched into half a smile. “Oh.”
“She did make some valid points, though. I’ve not been the best wife lately, I’m negative as hell when it comes to judging people, and I’ve neglected her.”
“What?” she asked, the word coming out more harshly than anticipated and she added more gently: “Sorry.”
“Is this about…” John took a deep breath. “Is this about the baby? The one you lost?”
She turned to face him, her eyes full of tears. Behind her, the kettle clicked as it boiled, but her previous endeavour was forgotten entirely as she looked up at John. “Is what about it?” she asked quietly, her tone devoid of malice or anger, and her shoulders slumping.
“I don’t know. I should have realised sooner, but with one thing and another…” he sighed. “Those things,” he waved his hand towards the folders in the corner. “Have been getting your hopes up since the panel, but then we’re being told no over and over and it’s reminding you of the past. Combine that with Amy getting her ‘happy ending,’ as it were, and things are just…”
Clara’s face crumpled and she began to cry in earnest as she realised that John understood, as always, with perfect clarity what she was feeling. He crossed the room and wrapped his arms around her at last, cradling her against his chest as she began to sob with relief that the feeling had been put into words; a feeling she’d been harbouring in the depths of her mind since before the adoption panel and which she’d never quite been able to elucidate aloud or understand on her own, afraid as she was that comprehension and consideration might fan the spark into a flame of unhappy resentfulness. As she pressed her face against John’s sternum, she realised that this wasn’t resent or hatred towards Amy; it was self-pity and self-loathing and other things she couldn’t place a name to, and she sobbed all the more avidly as John murmured quiet platitudes to her and let her weep until she was able to talk.
“I’m sorry,” she managed, after what felt like an eternity. “Thank you for just… I don’t know, being you.”
“I try my best,” he said softly, placing one hand on her still-damp cheek and swiping a thumb over her skin. “I’m sorry for not understanding sooner.”
“I’m sorry for not wanting to think about it or talk about it or anything else sooner. And for shouting at you, and for being a bitch.”
“You weren’t a bitch,” he told her firmly. “I probably was for complaining to Amy.”
“You can’t be a bitch, you’re a man.”
“Seems sexist,” he teased, and she smiled a little at that. “Fine, I’ll have to be a bastard.”
“I think we were both a little bit awful.”
“You might have a point there,” she pressed a kiss to his chest. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. I think we’ve both been a bit stressed, and things have just built up and up and up.”
“I think so, too.”
“So, I propose that we both need to make a cup of something hot, and sit on the sofa and just have a quiet day not thinking about the adoption, or Amy, or anything else. I think we need to just spend some time being us and enjoying each other’s company.”
Clara looked up at him then and smiled properly. “I like that idea.”
“I promise not to walk out while making hot drinks.”
“You’d best not,” she prodded him gently in the shoulder with a fingertip. “Though the kettle is less likely to make a mess.”
“That’s true,” John acquiesced. “I promise not to walk out again, period. Not unless you lose your cool and start throwing crockery at me, in which I have the right to escape before you give me concussion.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever throw anything at you.”
“Sure about that?” John teased, disentangling himself from her and holding up his arms in faux self-defence, bobbing and weaving a little as he did so. “Because if I need to start training…”
“You’re daft,” she said fondly. “I’ll be on the sofa.”
She padded out of the kitchen before he could say anything more, curling up in her usual spot and getting comfy. A second later, John’s head appeared around the doorframe. “Clara?” he asked, looking concerned.
“Yeah?” she felt a little stab of panic, until he held up her previously discarded mug of herbal tea.
“Why were you drinking grass water?”
“I have no idea,” she admitted. “Caffeine me up, darling.”
At Jack and Ianto's wedding, Missy introduces her new boyfriend to John and Clara... and he looks awfully familiar...
Pure silliness. Indulge me.
“You know,” Clara noted as they stepped over the threshold of the spacious, glass-walled space that was playing host to Ianto and Jack’s wedding reception, “I can get so much more on board with weddings when we don’t have to plan them. Or host them.”
“I concur,” John said as he snagged a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and offered it to Clara with a flourish. “Madam?”
She accepted the glass. “You know, we should probably go and congratulate the happy couple first.”
“Rubbish,” he scoffed, good-naturedly. “They’d want us to be enjoying ourselves. Now, you drink that, I’m off to find an orange juice.”
“One would almost think you were trying to get me drunk.”
“Not drunk,” John adopted a look of great hurt that Clara knew was entirely for her amusement. “Just merry.”
“I’m always merry.”
“You weren’t last week when we-”
“Yes,” she said firmly, not wanting any more jokes to be made about their argument. “Alright. Go and get a drink, idiot.”
Jock mock-saluted and then disappeared into the throng of guests, leaving Clara free to wander around the enormous venue in search of anyone she knew, taking tiny sips of champagne as she did so. As she circled past a photo booth, the seating plan, and the wedding cake, she was on the verge of giving up on bumping into anyone familiar when she heard someone call her name and turned instinctively towards the sound.
Jack was stood a short distance away, his arms around his new husband and a huge smile on his face. “Hey,” he said amicably as she approached, taking her hand and pressing a kiss to the back of it. “You look lovely, ma’am.”
“Jack, for the millionth time…”
“I’m a traditionalist, what can I say?” he hummed, stepping back and gesturing proudly to the man at his side. “So, you haven’t been formally introduced, but Clara, this is Ianto; Ianto, this is Clara.”
“Hello,” Clara smiled at him, then added in a playful tone: “Congratulations! But… does he insist on calling you ‘sir,’ or is it just me that gets the formal treatment?”
“Oh, he calls me ‘sir,’” Ianto said with a straight face. “But not usually in public.”
Clara snickered as Jack turned a violent shade of red, and Ianto smirked at his husband with fondness. “Well played,” she told him with a grin. “I like you already.”
“I like you, too; you know, Jack talks about you a lot.”
“Does he?” Clara blinked, somewhat taken aback by this revelation, and she knocked back the last of her champagne in a bid to detract from her surprise. “All good things, I hope?”
“Oh, of course,” Jack said smoothly, having recovered from his embarrassment. He adjusted his tie before continuing: “All about how adorable you and John are.”
“Well, I’m sure I can forgive that,” Clara leaned towards Ianto and said in a conspiratorial whisper. “While I’m here, has he ever told you about his pre-engagement panic?”
“His what?” Ianto asked, looking somewhere between amused and concerned, and his gaze flickered between Jack and Clara. “No, he hasn’t.”
“Oh,” Clara laughed. “He thought you were going to dump him because you were acting mysteriously. Well. That you were going to dump him, or that you were dying. I can see why he didn’t tell you, it really was quite astoundingly dense of him.”
Jack, once again, turned maroon. “In my self-defence,” he said, magnanimously, “I have never been proposed to before, so how was I supposed to recognise the signs?”
“Good point,” Ianto concurred. “I wouldn’t dump you, though. Not in a million years, you hopeless wreck.”
“I think Clara and I might have competition,” John interjected, appearing behind Clara as though by magic and slipping an arm around her waist. “Congratulations, you two.”
“Thanks, John,” Jack beamed. “This is Ianto; Ianto, this is the lovely John Smith.”
“Easy, now,” John said, tipping the American a wink as he shook Ianto’s hand. “I’m spoken for, and so are you now.”
“It’s a flexible arrangement,” Ianto said with a casual shrug. “But, I understand you’re not quite as… experimental as we normally like our partners to be.”
“If that’s a roundabout way of saying that the only person in the world that interests me is the one I have the pleasure of being married to, then yes, I’m guilty as charged: a boring old curmudgeon with no interest in experimenting.”
“Sap,” Clara said fondly, leaning into his embrace. “But very cute.”
“Well, we’ve had our share of drama, it’s only fair we get to be sickeningly cute now,” John observed, and Jack looked abruptly panicked. “What?”
“Ah, I might’ve forgotten to mention…” he cleared his throat uncomfortably, shifting from foot to foot. “We invited Missy.”
“Oh,” John blinked at his colleague, looking entirely unruffled by this nugget of information. “Why would that be an issue?”
“Yeah,” Clara said, in the most convincingly calm voice she could manage. “Why would that be a problem? She works with us, she’s entitled to be here, I suppose.”
“She’s bringing her new boyfriend.”
“Why would that be an issue?” John arched an eyebrow. “Her new boyfriend is the reason she’s stopped chasing after me, and also the reason she’s calmed down exponentially. Frankly, I want to shake the bloke's hand.”
“That’s true,” Jack chuckled, some of the tension leaving his shoulders. “I’m intrigued to know who this mystery man might be, she’s been nothing but upbeat and cheerful ever since she started seeing him.”
“Frankly, Missy being upbeat and cheerful is a worrying prospect in itself,” Clara noted. “Anything she has to be happy about can’t be good news for the rest of us.”
“Is she really that bad?” Ianto asked, and all three of them turned to look at him with incredulity. “Oh, OK.”
“Yeah,” John grimaced. “Not to mention that she tends to go for… younger… men. Not like Clara’s age; like twenty year-olds. So, are we hedging bets on how old this one might be?”
“Oh, twenty-one?” Jack suggested. “Twenty-two?”
“Some kind of model, maybe,” Ianto suggested, grinning a little shyly as he got into the game. “Or a musician.”
“Or…” Clara began, then something across the room caught her eye and she froze. “That.”
Missy had just arrived, clinging to her new boyfriend as though worried he might drift away if she let go, and the four guessers found themselves to all be totally, catastrophically wrong. The new boyfriend wasn’t young. He didn’t look like a model, or a musician. In fact, he looked horribly familiar, in a grizzled and Scottish sort of way.
Worse still, he and Missy were making a beeline for them.
“Hello, dearies!” Missy trilled from several feet away, beaming from ear to ear with the kind of grin that would’ve made the Cheshire Cat envious. “Congratulations on your big day!”
“Thanks,” Jack muttered, looking a touch uncomfortable and taking Ianto’s hand. “We’ll be right back, we just have to go and… check the caterers.”
Before Ianto or Missy could protest, Jack had spirited his husband away, leaving Clara and John alone with Missy and the stranger. Or rather, the sort-of-stranger. Clara wasn’t entirely sure how to categorise him, but she was acutely aware of the broiling sense of discomfort in the pit of her stomach, and the growing look of horror on John’s face.
“So, how’s my favourite couple?” Missy asked brightly, the man at her side remaining surprisingly nonplussed. “My, you both look like you’ve both seen a ghost.”
“Not a ghost,” John managed in a strangled tone. “Your… that is… your… boyfriend?”
“Oh!” she enthused, linking her arm through that of the chap beside her. “Isn’t he lovely? And, you’ll be pleased to know, that I’ve quite moved on from holding a candle for you.”
Clara was exceptionally grateful that she wasn’t drinking at that precise moment, because she was fairly certain that the contents of her mouth would’ve ended up on Missy’s dress. “Are you serious?” she asked, raising her eyebrows heavenwards. “Are you actually, totally serious?”
“Of course I am,” Missy’s eyes widened and she feigned a look of mortal hurt. “Malcolm, darling, introduce yourself.”
“Name’s Malcolm Tucker,” her partner said gruffly, and Clara was horrified to find that not only was this man the near-enough visual double of her husband, but he had a matching accent, too. “Missy’s said a lot about youse two.” He stuck a hand out to John, who shook it with the utmost distaste, as though worried about catching something.
“I, ah…” John’s eyes narrowed. “Hang on, I know you.”
“No,” Malcolm said, with what seemed to Clara to be quiet desperation. “No, I don’t think you do.”
“Weren’t you that politician?” John frowned as he cast his mind back, and Clara felt a faint stirring of recognition. “From the Goolding Inquiry?”
Malcolm sighed deeply, twisting his hands together and looking to Missy for… well, Clara wasn’t sure. Moral support, possibly, although she doubted the extent to which Missy was likely to be able to provide that.
“Yeah,” he said after a moment. “Yeah, that was me.”
“Didn’t you get sent to-”
“Yeah, alright,” Malcolm snapped, then looked apologetic. “Sorry. Just… touchy subject. Only got out six months ago, and Missy was the first Scottish lass I had the pleasure of bumping into.”
“That’s…” Clara fumbled around for an appropriate adjective. “Sweet.”
“She’s been a fucking godsend, if I’m honest with you. Putting up with my shite, helping me adjust, that kind of thing,” Malcolm smiled at her adoringly then, which was wholly disconcerting in itself. “I’m a lucky bastard.”
“No, I’m the lucky one,” Missy cooed, and Clara felt a lurch of nausea at the loved-up expression on her face. “Honestly, John… Malcolm has changed my life.”
“I…” John took a deep breath, still looking somewhat shell-shocked. “Can I have a word? In private?”
“Sure,” Missy blinked at him, then pressed a quick kiss to Malcolm’s cheek. “I’ll be back in a moment, darling.”
John shot Clara an apologetic look and then towed Missy away by the arm, disappearing onto the decking area outside and out of sight. Clara closed her eyes and prayed fervently that neither of them would end up in the adjacent river.
“So,” Malcolm began, sounding a touch uncertain, and she opened her eyes, looking over at him and trying to equate the man she remembered from the news — all bluster and bleeped-out swearing — with the man she saw now. “You’re the famous Clara.”
“You’re the infamous Malcolm Tucker. I didn’t have you down as a wedding-guest-type bloke.”
“Honestly, ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been,” he sighed, running a hand through his hair in a manner that was startlingly similar to John. “But then things changed.”
“Things being… prison?”
“Yeah,” he looked wearily resigned to the topic of conversation. “That was one of them. Going from being the crème de la crème of Downing Street to… well, the lowest of the low, banged up at Her Majesty’s inconvenience; that really messes with your head. Learned in there that I wasn’t all that, and tried to improve who I was as a person.”
“Didn’t you used to make people cry? Namely journalists from the Daily Mail, and co-workers?”
“Used to,” he bared his teeth in an approximation of a smile. “But that was a long time ago. More likely to cry myself now; Missy’s made a right sap out of me.”
“She’s…” Clara wondered how to phrase it tactfully, “a complicated woman.”
“Aye,” he concurred. “But she’s a fucking godsend.”
“Look,” Clara took a deep breath. “I’m not disputing that, and I don’t wish to be rude, but you look a hell of a lot like my husband, and-”
“I know,” he met her gaze then, his expression cooler and far more level than she had anticipated. “Honestly, I know… and I’m not stupid enough to think she cares about anything other than getting her revenge on John, or executing some kind of sick game. But I’m willing to try and make this work.”
Clara reached over and gave his arm a quick squeeze, feeling abruptly pitying. “Be careful.”
She arched a single eyebrow at him, and he chuckled. “OK,” he conceded, holding up his hands. “Except when I fucked up the Goolding Inquiry quite monumentally.”
“There we go,” she offered him a shy smile, which he returned. “Shall we go and see if our respective partners have killed each other?”
“Might be an idea, yeah. If I’ve gotta fish her out the Thames, I’d like to get that out of the way.”
Together, they stepped outside and looked around, Clara shivering against the chill March breeze whipping off the river. Looking along the deck, she noticed John stood to one side, looking out over the river and seeming entirely unaware of the world around him.
“John?” she called, and he jumped, before turning towards her voice and smiling. “Where’s Missy?”
He waited until she and Malcolm had drawn closer before explaining: “She went to the bar; said if she was going to put up with both me and Malcolm in the same place then she needed a stiff drink first.”
Malcolm laughed then. “Look,” he said amicably. “If we’re going to keep meeting socially, I’d like to get on, aye?” He once again extended his hand to John in a somewhat formal manner and, after a beat, the radio presenter shook it.
“Yeah,” John said, a touch of his earlier wariness still evident in his tone. “I guess us Glaswegians have to stick together.”
“Rude,” Clara pouted. “Your lovely English wife will be inside, in that case, taking photos to send Amy so that she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out.”
John chuckled. “I’m sure we can make you an honorary member,” he assured her, wrapping an arm around her and pressing a kiss to her hair. “On the photo front though… fancy using me as a photographer and posing up a storm?”
“God, you’re well-trained.”
“Mm,” he asserted with a grin. “I know.”
When Amy goes into labour with Clara and Rory by her side, none of them could have predicted how things go...
Clara looked down at the panting, sweat-drenched woman squeezing her hand and wondered why precisely she had agreed to… well, this. Amy was propped up in the hospital bed in front of her, groaning and swearing at a volume that Clara was certain was loud enough to be heard from Scotland, with the curve of her stomach jutting out from a maternity T-shirt that had been unceremoniously yanked up some hours previously, and was now covered with machines and diodes and god knows what else, all of which were beeping in a way that was probably supposed to be reassuring. Clara wasn’t convinced.
Her best friend was clutching at hers and Rory’s hands hard enough to hurt, the bones crunching together under the skin as Amy clung to them like twin lifelines, panting and cursing her way through contractions and occasionally letting go of one or the other of them in order to fumble for a gas and air tube which she took long, shuddering inhales from. As another contraction hit, Amy dropped Clara’s hand and reached for the pain relief, and Clara passed it to her wordlessly, looking over at Rory and feeling a surge of respect for him that, despite the discomfort he must be experiencing, there was nothing but concern for his wife evident in his gaze.
Clara had agreed to this months before, long before the adoption panel or the rejections or the nights curled up facing away from John and crying silently. She’d wanted to help Amy; earnestly wanted to be involved and to support her best friend, but now she felt numb to it all. There was a crushing sense of… not missing out, per se, but of sadness that her friend was about to get what she and John were being denied, and perhaps a hint of bitterness, too, although she tried to keep that sentiment at arm’s length. She certainly didn’t begrudge Amy the whole miserable process of childbirth, although there was same twinge in her lower abdomen she’d experienced when she had been with Bonnie during labour; an ache or an echo of what could have been, but she tried to push that thought aside and focus on Amy and what she needed.
“Hey,” she murmured softly, reaching down and stroking the hair back from Amy’s forehead. “It’s OK, you’ve got this. I promise; you’re strong and you’re doing amazingly.”
“I can’t do this,” Amy wailed, clutching them both and looking somewhat hysterical. “I can’t. I think I’m going to die.”
“No, you’re not,” Rory said in a pragmatic tone, although his voice wavered a little in a way that betrayed his terror. “Women have been doing this for thousands of years. You can absolutely do this; you’re evolved to be able to.”
“But I don’t want to, though,” Amy protested. “Stupid childbirth. Stupid baby.”
“I think it’s a bit late for that,” Clara noted, biting back a giggle. “Given that you’re already doing it.”
“Piss off,” Amy told her with a gas-and-air-induced grin. “Really, piss off.”
“She doesn’t mean it. She loves you really, Clara,” Rory said, smiling a little for the first time in hours. “Honestly.”
“You can piss off, too,” Amy added, her smile disappearing as she scowled at him. “This is all your fault.”
“It takes two to tango…” Clara raised an eyebrow. “Remember that.”
“I’m not keeping you here so you can be rude,” Amy threw her head back and made a low, guttural wailing sound as a contraction hit. “Quite the fucking opposite.”
“Sorry,” Clara bit back a laugh, feeling chastised. “We’ll behave.”
“You’d better,” Amy let go of both of their hands and folded her arms over her eyes, taking a deep breath. “God, this is uncomfortable. Why do I need all of these machines?”
“They’re making sure little one is alright,” Rory reminded her, checking the readout from one of the numerous devices. “Making sure she’s not in distress.”
“What about me?” Amy groused. “What’s making sure I’m alright?”
“Several of those machines are,” his attention shifted, and he rubbed her shoulder reassuringly. “And, unofficially, I am.”
Amy nodded, moving her arms down to her chest and looking up at her husband with staggering vulnerability. “Please don’t let anything bad happen,” she pleaded. “Please. Promise me.”
“I promise,” he blurted, reaching for her hand again and taking the chance to turn the tables and give it a quick squeeze. “Always.”
Clara turned away, pretending to be fascinated by a nearby poster depicting optimum birthing positions and blinking hard. The thought of losing either Amy or her child was unbearable, and she refused to entertain the notion for longer than half a minute at a time lest she lose what remained of her composure and break down, either clinging to her best friend in a way which would be entirely unhelpful or else bolting from the room.
“Clara?” Amy said softly, reaching for her and taking her hand. “Hey. I’m going to be fine. If anything bad comes anywhere near me, I’ll kick it in the balls.”
“I know,” she said, clearing her throat a little and turning back towards her friend, forcing a smile. “Like I said before: you can do this, Pond. I promise.”
The next few hours were a confused, convoluted haze of cups of terrible hospital coffee, muffled and un-muffled swearing, an alternatingly furious and weeping Scotswoman, and even more hand clutching. Between the exhaustion and the emotion, Clara failed to notice the pain in her hand as finally, in the small hours of the morning, Amy and Rory’s daughter made her entrance to the world, crying loudly enough to drown out the cursing of her mother and making her father laugh in the process.
“A perfect baby girl,” the midwife said proudly, once the squalling infant had been laid on Amy’s chest and ceased exercising her lungs as she blinked up at her mother for the first time. “Congratulations.”
Clara wiped her eyes with her numb hand, beaming down at the little girl and feeling her sadness dissipate as the newborn clung to Amy’s fingertip.
“She’s beautiful,” Amy breathed, shifting a little so that Rory could stroke their daughter’s cheek with reverent awe. “Aren’t you, darling?”
“What are you calling her?” Clara asked, resting her hand on Amy’s shoulder and smiling. “You’ve been so bloody secretive about it, I’m expecting something amazing.”
“Melody,” Rory said, smiling sadly as he did so. “After…”
“After Mels,” Amy finished, looking down at the infant in her arms with overt adoration. “Hello, baby Melody! Aren’t you just the most perfect thing in the world? Hey?”
Melody only blinked up at her mother, before yawning sleepily and closing her eyes.
“Well,” Amy told her with amusement. “Nice to know that after all the work I’ve done, you’re the one that’s tired.”
Rory chuckled, then very tentatively asked: “Can I hold her?”
“Of course,” Amy said at once, handing Melody over and sighing tiredly. “She’s amazing.”
“She is,” Clara concurred, wrapping an arm around her best friend’s shoulders and pressing a kiss to her temple. “I’m so proud of you, you clever thing.”
Amy looked up at her then, opening her mouth to reply with some joke or clever comment, but instead her eyes went unfocused and she slumped back against the pillows, her consciousness slipping away like water.
“Amy?” Clara said in a panic, and the midwife snapped to attention, reaching for a button beside the bed and then gently but firmly moving Clara away. “W-what’s going on?”
“Amy?” the midwife said loudly, patting her cheeks and reaching for her wrist to take a pulse. “Amy, can you hear me?”
The door slammed open and a team of medical staff spilled into the room, one of them shepherding Clara towards Rory, who had frozen where he stood, Melody clutched to his chest as he watched in mute horror.
“Could you please both step outside?” one of the nurses asked, moving them towards the door before they could respond, and seconds later Clara and Rory found themselves stood in the corridor, staring at the door with incomprehensible panic.
“She’s going to be fine,” Clara said after a moment of silence, and she was surprised by how certain and composed she sounded. “She’s strong, she’s going to be fine. Remember what she said?”
“I…” Rory closed his eyes, shaking his head. “I can’t…” He thrust Melody towards her, and Clara barely had time to position her arms before he was striding away, his hands on his head and his eyes closed as he recited something under his breath that Clara couldn’t hear, but she felt a swooping sense of terror that he might be about to leave. He reached the end of the corridor and then turned back towards her, and, satisfied that he only wanted to pace, Clara looked down at the child in her arms.
Melody Williams was looking up at her with enormous, knowing hazel eyes; not crying, not sleeping, just… watching. Clara had the curious sense of being appraised, so she tucked her hair behind her ear and smiled her best smile at the infant. “Hello,” she murmured, tucking the little girl’s blanket around her a little more comfortably. “I’m your Auntie Clara. Your mummy is going to be just fine, I promise.”
Melody’s lip wobbled then, and she began to cry; loud, distressed wails that echoed up and down the otherwise silent corridor. Clara sighed, beginning to rock her, whispering quiet platitudes as she did so and closing her own eyes against the tears that burned there.
“I know,” she breathed. “I know, I’m scared, too. We’re all scared.”
Rory came to a halt beside her, reaching for his daughter with a shaking hand. “Melody-”
The door to Amy’s room opened, and a smiling nurse stuck her head out. “She’s alright,” she said brightly, and Rory slumped against the wall, beginning to sob with relief. “She’s unconscious, but she’s alright.”
“What happened?” Clara asked, forcing herself to be pragmatic as Rory lost the remains of his composure. “Is she going to be OK?”
“She haemorrhaged badly,” the nurse shrugged a little. “It can happen sometimes, especially when the pregnancy has been difficult. We’re giving her a transfusion, but she’s going to need to rest for a week or so when she gets home.”
“We can do that,” Rory managed. “We can definitely do rest. Whatever she needs.”
“Can we see her?” Clara asked, still rocking Melody fruitlessly in her arms. “Please?”
“Like I said, she’s unconsc-”
“Not anymore,” a wonderfully familiar voice groused. “Where’s my baby? She needs me, not least so she’ll stop crying.”
Clara stepped inside without hesitation, bursting into tears at the sight of Amy, propped up on her elbows and looking exhausted but happy. “Hello,” she sobbed. “God, you scared us.”
“Oswald,” Amy said fondly, beckoning her over. “Come here, pass me Melody, and then you and Rory can both weep on me to your hearts’ content. But until then, she's crying, and it's annoying, and she needs me, so give.”
“Right,” Clara mumbled, laying Melody on Amy’s chest and then taking a seat beside the bed as Rory leaned over and wrapped his arms around his wife, still visibly emotional.
“I love you,” he said thickly, and Amy placed her hand on his arm, leaning her head against him and closing her eyes for a moment. “I thought we’d lost you.”
“Not a chance, Mr Williams,” Amy said with a levity Clara knew was for his benefit. “I’m going to annoy you for a long, long time to come, because I love you, and also because there’s no way you could cope with this little one on your own. Now stop crying, you plonker, you’re upsetting her more.”
“Sorry,” he wiped his eyes, taking a seat and smiling shakily at the two of them. “How are you feeling?”
“About as great as could be expected, really,” Amy looked down at Melody, whose cries were decreasing in volume and frequency. “There, hey! Not sure what you were crying for, you got nice snuggles with Daddy and with Auntie Clara.”
“She was-” Clara began.
“I know,” Amy said quietly, looking up and meeting her gaze. “But I don’t want to think about how close that was, so can we please, please just be happy for now?”
“Of course,” Rory acquiesced at once.
“Definitely,” Clara said, taking Amy’s hand and squeezing. “Course we can.”
Clara and John receive a nugget of good news.
Clara looked over at Amy, who was holding a slumbering Melody against her chest with one and sipping an oversized cup of coffee with her free hand as she skimmed over the sheet of paper in front of her. Clara wasn’t overly sure whether she was allowed to be showing the pared-back summary sheets of potential adoptees to her best friend, but she’d taken to doing it anyway from time to time, especially given that Amy’s opinion was usually somewhat forthright, but helpful nonetheless.
“Well,” her best friend said after a moment, looking pragmatically over at her and sliding the document back across the slightly-sticky coffee shop table, “I’ll admit, she seems pretty perfect for you.”
Clara blinked at her in surprise. Amy was not usually so complimentary, especially when it came to prospective matches. “Really?”
“Yeah, really,” Amy gave a casual little shrug. “I mean, from the summary, she doesn’t seem to have an overly challenging background, she’s reached major developmental milestones as expected, and there’s no serious behavioural issues other than general small-child hyperactivity… what’s not perfect about that?”
“Not to mention the fact that she’s cute. Sarah Jane showed us a photo, and she’s got these huge brown eyes.”
“Not that you’d be influenced by anything shallow like that,” Amy quirked an eyebrow, and Clara blushed. “I’m only teasing. She seems like a great match for you two. Have you put in a request for more information yet?”
“No,” Clara admitted shyly. “I, ah… I wanted to run things past you first.”
“Good decision,” Amy deadpanned. “I presume John is at home on standby, waiting for your text of affirmation?”
“Of course,” Clara grinned. “He’s particularly obedient like that.”
Amy rolled her eyes. “Well, you’d better text him then, hadn’t you? Tell him you’ve had approval from the best of the best. Then maybe you could have a cuddle with your goddaughter, not least because I’m losing feeling in my arm.”
Clara retrieved her phone from her pocket as directed, firing off a short message to John before holding her arms out for Melody. Amy passed her over with the utmost care, and Clara smiled lovingly down at the little girl, stroking her cheek with a fingertip and marvelling over how tiny she was.
“I still can’t believe you made this,” she confessed, as Melody made a soft sound in her sleep and nuzzled into her more comfortably. “She’s just… perfect.”
“She is my daughter,” Amy joked. “She was always going to be amazing.”
“This is true,” Clara concurred. “I wonder if she’s going to be ginger?”
“She’d better be, or I’m sending her back.”
“You are horribly irreverent about your daughter,” Clara teased, looking down at the little one and pouting. “Poor little Melody; isn’t Mummy mean to you? Yes, she is!”
“You’d be horribly irreverent if you’d nearly died,” Amy noted, and Clara felt the same icy-cold stab of recollection that she always experienced when the subject was broached — which, given Amy’s general devil-may-care attitude, was often. “Oh, don’t look so weird about it. I am not, in fact, actually dead. Cheer up.”
“I just…” Clara cleared her throat, trying to dispel the overwhelming feelings of panic and distress she experienced whenever she recalled that awful evening six weeks prior. “Sorry. It was… not a good time.”
“I know,” Amy said gently, reaching over and laying a hand over Clara’s, her expression apologetic. “I’m sorry. I try and deal with things through my shitty humour and it doesn’t always work out so well. But babe, I’m here, and I’m… well, I’m not completely fine, but I’m here.”
“Didn’t you have your check-up yesterday?” Clara asked, suddenly remembering something her friend had mentioned some weeks ago and resolving to change the subject. “How’d it go?”
“Well,” Amy said, in the kind of overly bright tone that Clara knew was an attempt to conceal the fact that she was upset, and she felt her stomach sink again. “Melody is most likely looking to be my one and only.”
“Oh, Amy,” Clara reached over and laid a hand over her friend’s, squeezing it gently and feeling her heart break as she tried to find appropriate words of sympathy. “I’m so sorry, I know you always wanted-”
“Hey, at least I don’t have to wreck my downstairs again,” Amy said breezily, but her eyes were wet with unshed tears that betrayed precisely how much the news had affected her. “Which is a bonus, eh?”
“Babe,” Clara murmured. “I’m still sorry.”
“Thanks,” Amy mumbled, casting her gaze down to the table and discreetly wiping her eyes with the heel of her hand. “I’ll adjust to the idea, I’m sure. Besides, it’s not like Melody is going to be on her own, is it? You’re going to have your little one, and then there’s Bon and hers. So, she’ll have a big extended family and people to play with, and if we get really desperate then we can get a dog to be her replacement sibling.”
“Has Rory approved that idea?” Clara asked, wanting to cheer her friend up and knowing that teasing her would divert her attention. “I’m not sure how he’d feel about a dog.”
“He’d love a dog,” Amy affixed Clara with a somewhat more composed look, and Clara felt a little rush of thanks that her tactic had worked. “Let’s be honest, he’s basically the human embodiment of a Labrador anyway.”
“This is true,” Clara acquiesced, looking at Melody. “Besides, I don’t think this little one would begrudge being the centre of your universe, frankly.”
On cue, Melody opened her eyes and blinked up at Clara, waving one arm around sleepily. Clara let her grab onto her fingertip and smiled down at her, making faces and watching the half-awake little girl try to focus on her face.
“I don’t think so, no,” Amy said, whipping out her phone and snapping a quick candid photo of the pair of them. “God, you’re cute with her. This potential daughter-to-be — what’s her name?”
“Orsiana,” Amy wrinkled her nose. “Isn’t there some cruise ship called that? I think Rory’s parents went on it last year.”
“No, you’re thinking of Oriana. I like the name! I think it’s pretty,” Clara said defensively. “Besides, she’s not like a pet; we can’t just change it because we don’t like it.”
“Well, Orsiana is going to be a very lucky girl.”
“If they say yes.”
“When they say yes,” Amy corrected. “Because, seriously, it’s been bloody ages. They can’t keep rejecting you forever.”
“Thanks,” Clara said drily. “What a lovely vote of confidence.”
“Shut up, I’m Scottish,” Amy gestured to herself expansively. “I’m allowed to be blunt.”
“Yeah,” Clara raised her eyebrows. “I don’t think that’s actually how it works.”
“It definitely is. Ask John.”
“Because that won’t get me a biased answer at all.”
“Not at all,” Amy winked. “Now, I give it… oh, two minutes, before madam decides she’s hungry and I have to get my boobs out.”
“To be fair, they’re very good boobs.”
“That they are,” Amy said solemnly. “That they are. But you try having a small child attached to one of yours while in public. I guarantee it’s not an appealing prospect.”
Melody took a deep breath and Amy immediately reached over and snatched her out of Clara’s arms, undoing her shirt with a groan.
“Not even two minutes. Come on, kiddo. Stop showing me up.”
When Clara arrived home, John was sat on the sofa, looking somewhat shell-shocked and staring straight ahead mutely.
“John?” she asked, her stomach dropping and panic kicking in. “John, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I…” he began, looking at her with wide, awestruck eyes. “Clara, Orsiana’s social worker got back to us.”
“Already?” she frowned. “Great, so that’d be another ‘no,’ then?”
To her considerable surprise, John shook his head. “No,” he breathed. “No, it wasn’t a no.”
“She’s coming over on Friday with Sarah Jane to give us more information.”
“She… is?” Clara said faintly, sinking down beside John and reaching for his hand in a daze.
“Yep,” he confirmed, meeting her gaze then and smiling before repeating: “She’s coming over… to give us more information…”
Clara squealed with excitement then and flung herself into his arms, beginning to cry as she understood the implications of his words. This wasn’t an outright no; the first time they hadn’t been rejected immediately, and it could surely only signal a positive outcome to the process. Although she knew that getting ahead of themselves was a bad idea, she couldn’t help but feel excited by the prospect of finally being matched with a child successfully, and she laughed in triumph as she buried her face in John’s neck.
“This is amazing,” she managed, after several minutes of joyful embracing. “Finally… we might actually…”
“We need to be calm,” John said firmly. “We need to not get our hopes up too high.”
“I know,” she rolled her eyes. “But this is just… this is a step in the right direction, John.”
“It is,” he smiled. “It really is.”
“I can’t believe how fast they got back to us…”
“Apparently, she’s a priority case at the moment,” John shrugged. “They wouldn’t say why, but they’re keen to get her settled with a family.”
“Of course,” Clara smiled. “God, this is nuts… I thought they’d take ages and now…”
“Now, they’re super-keen,” John kissed her forehead. “Maybe Amy is our good luck charm.”
“She must be,” Clara said in awe. “God bless her.”
“How is she? How’s my favourite goddaughter?”
“You’ve only got one.”
“To be fair, I’d have two, but Bonnie and Will have disavowed organised religion.”
“So, you can’t have favourites, idiot.”
“It’s a figure of speech,” John said in exasperation. “How are they both?”
“Melody is doing well; growing! And doing lots of sleeping, which is frankly something I could get on board with. Amy had some bad news, though.”
“She saw the consultant yesterday, and they don’t think she’s going to be able to have any more kids.”
John’s face fell. “That’s awful, I’m so sorry.”
“I know,” Clara sighed. “She really wanted Melody to have siblings; but she’s trying to be really chipper about it, so she said that she doesn’t mind too much because of our little one basically being a sort of sister-from-another-mister.”
“She obviously does mind.”
“Oh, obviously,” Clara sighed sadly. “But she wants to be brave and to pretend that she’s coping.”
“I hope Rory is taking good care of her.”
“He will be,” Clara assured him. “He absolutely will be.”
“And she can definitely borrow our little one when we have her,” John said decisively. “And we can go on big cute extended family outings and the like.”
“God, you’re just…” Clara looked up at her husband fondly, feeling a rush of love for him. “Very sweet. And thoughtful. And I love you.”
“I love you, too,” he murmured. “Potential mummy-to-be.”
“What happened to us not getting carried away?”
“I’m allowed to call you cute things,” he argued. “Because you are very cute, and I am very excited for you to be cute with a small human.”
“Only for you, darling,”
“I should hope so, too,” Clara poked her tongue out. “No being sappy at anyone else.”
“What about Orsiana?”
“OK, if that all works out, then you can be sappy at her and make cookies together and do painting and cute fatherly crap like that. And you can be sappy at Melody and Poppy and Eli. But that’s your limit, sunshine.”
“I’ve mentioned that I love you, right?”
“Not recently, no,” John deadpanned. “Not for at least five seconds.”
“Shut your face,” she said lovingly, kissing him properly and winding her arms around his neck, before pulling away and affixing him with her best teacher look. “What’s for dinner?”
“Urm,” John blinked a few times. “A six-course gourmet feast that I spent all day lovingly preparing while you gassed away with Amy.”
“That was a lie, wasn’t it?”
“What’s actually for dinner?”
“Urm,” he thought for a moment. “Beans on toast?”
“God, you’re hopeless,” Clara reached for her bag and retrieved her phone. “I’ll fire up Just Eat.”
For anyone wondering, Orsiana is pronounced "or-shay-nah."
It's the big day: will John and Clara be approved to adopt Orsiana?
Clara was not entirely sure where the last few weeks had disappeared to.
There had been the initial surprise of not being rejected outright by Orsiana’s social worker, and then the nervous, restrained, anticipatory wait of the next few days, as they cleaned and tidied the house, honed their answers to any particular questions that the child’s social worker might have for them, and awaited the impending home visit.
Clara recalled very little of that meeting. She remembered Sarah Jane; as calm and stoic as ever. She remembered John’s hand in hers, clinging on for dear life. She remembered the strange, unknown social worker who had sat on the adjacent sofa and smiled at them over the top of her mug of coffee, firing off buzzwords like “developmental milestones” and “behavioural traits” and other jargon that Clara had been forced to grit her teeth and nod in response to. But, of the actual specifics, she could remember very little. Afterwards, John had summarised everything for her in neat, succinct little nuggets of information, apparently having understood that, in her blind panic, her brain had shut down and refused to process any of the necessary facts. He’d run through matters with her, and smiled, and reassured her that things had gone well and they had been well-liked by Orsiana’s social worker, and that he was almost certain that things would progress positively from there.
He’d been correct, of course. John was many things, and being a — by and large — good judge of mood and character was one of them. After that first meeting, things grew a little clearer; there had been more meetings, squeezed into her lunch breaks and their evenings and their weekends. There had been more information, and more paperwork to read and fill out and send back in enormous, card-backed envelopes covered in ominous warnings about confidentiality.
There had been more evenings and weekends babysitting Eli, who was well into the terrible twos and hell bent on destroying almost everything he touched, which had included — on two particular occasions — an entire cake that Clara had spent some hours baking, and an admittedly hideous vase that John had been gifted many years previously by Missy. Yet still, those sessions had proved invaluable to them both as they discovered their own techniques for dealing with such mishaps — John was gentle and not overly fond of discipline; Clara was firm, but fair. They fell into this routine with aplomb; a “good cop, bad cop” ideology that seemed successful with Eli, albeit comical to the outside world. Bonnie and Will had reacted with great amusement at first, then awe, and finally with begrudging respect, although Clara suspected that a similar system would never be implemented in the Bowman-Ravenwood household.
Somewhere between the toddler-minding and the cuddling of smaller infants, there had also been work. Coal Hill was making increasing demands on Clara’s ever-decreasing time, although she had to admit that their facilitation and acceptance of her flexible needs with regard to meetings and planning and the potentially imminent requirement of adoption leave was wonderful. Yet, somehow, with lesson planning and marking and the impending prospect of exams, Clara found herself more and more harangued as she went from Coal Hill to the Radio TARDIS studios to home, only to then have to set up shop in the study and begin to plough her way through mountains of paperwork.
John had been nothing less than wonderful, taking over her share of the housework so that she could focus on getting the things done that she needed for work. There was no more crying in bed; there were no more fraught evenings of silence in front of the TV with the sting of another rejection eating away at them both; and she was grateful for the snatched moments she was now able to spend with her husband in any form, be it at work or at home or on the phone as she wandered or bussed from place to place. There was a spring in both of their steps for the first time in months, and they were optimistic as they made the necessary mental and practical preparations for their potential future child. Tucked somewhere into that mania had been a brief, but wonderful celebration of their first wedding anniversary, and, while time constraints limited their options for festivity more than either of them would have liked, their joy and optimism had made the pared-back event a success.
But now… now it all came down to today: to yet another panel of anonymous experts and social workers in an anonymous building in an anonymous corner of London. Just like before, Clara found her hand shaking as she went to apply the finishing touches to her makeup, although there was one small mercy:
“Hey,” she said in a sunny tone that didn’t reflect the nerves broiling in her stomach. “At least I wasn’t sick today.”
“Don’t say that,” John said lightly. “You’ll jinx it.”
“Shit,” she made a face. “You’re right. Whoops. Well, I’ll endeavour not to.”
“If you insist on it, can you wait until we get there and not do it in the car?”
“Like I said,” Clara raised her eyebrows and repeated: “I’ll endeavour not to throw up.”
“Ew,” she wrinkled her nose. “Don’t say that, we’re not in a terrible American TV show.”
“Don’t be snappy.”
“I’m not being snappy,” she said with irritation, then made a face as she realised he was right. “OK, maybe I am. Sorry. Just nervous.”
“I know,” John said, soothingly. “But you don’t need to be. We’re going to be fine.”
“What if they say no?”
“They’re not going to say no. They wouldn’t have let things get this far if they were going to say no.”
“You sound very sure about this.”
“Good,” John stuck his tongue out. “Because I am.”
“Little bit arrogant, but I’ll allow it.”
“As well you should,” John crossed the room to her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “By the end of today, we’ll have a kid. I bet you.”
“Mm, let’s not get too confident, yeah?” she implored him, placing one of her hands over his. “Please? I don’t want to tempt fate.”
“Of course,” he pressed a kiss to her neck before stepping back and brushing down his smart trousers for a final time. “Do I look alright?”
“You’ll do,” Clara teased, feeling breathless with nerves, and he smiled, adjusting the collar of his shirt. “Very handsome. Am I alright?”
“I guess,” he shot back, and she raised her eyebrows in mock affront. “I’m only teasing; you look lovely. Although we do both look like we should be selling insurance.”
“Maybe we should,” Clara could feel herself getting hysterical with nerves. “Maybe we should pack in the teaching and the radio show and become insurance salespeople.”
“Mm, it’s a ‘no’ from me,” John said decisively. “And I know it’s a ‘no’ from you as well. Shall we go and get in the car before you get any more worked up?”
“I’m not worked up,” she lied, even though her heart was hammering so hard, she could feel it in her teeth. “I’m fine.”
“You’re practically vibrating. Go and get in the car, I’ll bring all the paperwork.”
She nodded tightly and went downstairs, seizing the car keys from their usual hook and stepping outside. It was strange for it to be a weekday and for her not to be at school; it was strange for her to be dressed so formally; and it was strange to know that, in little over an hour, she would be facing a panel of people who would decide whether she and John would become parents to Orsiana or not.
She unlocked the car and climbed inside carefully, mindful of her dress, and she left the door open and switched on the CD player in an attempt to distract herself from her panic. Beginning to tap her foot to the opening notes of Radio Gaga, she watched as John came outside, a briefcase they’d dug up from the attic the previous day clutched carefully in his hands. Getting into the driver’s side, John passed her the sleek black case and smiled fleetingly at her, his hands shaking a little as she passed him the keys and he started the engine.
“Are you alright to drive?” she asked, furrowing her brow in concern, but he only nodded.
“Yeah,” he said, sounding a touch breathless. “Besides, there’s no way I’m getting public transport like this. No way you are. We’re both so worked up, we’d probably end up killing someone for looking at us wrong.”
“We aren’t worked up.”
“I think we should really stop lying to ourselves and each other about that.”
Clara shrugged noncommittally. “Fine. We’re worked up. Are you definitely OK to drive?”
“It’ll help me focus.”
“OK,” she smiled at him, but added, worriedly: “If you want me to take over, let me know.”
John nodded by way of a non-verbal assertion and pulled out of the drive, turning up the volume of the music to signal that he didn’t want to talk. That was fine with her; she wasn’t up to pretending that she was fine or making light conversation, so instead she propped her elbow against the window and stared at the city sliding past, lost in her own thoughts and fears and hopes. Closing her eyes for a moment, she offered a silent prayer to a higher being of any kind: please, let today go well. Please, let them decide that we can move forward and adopt Orsiana. Please.
The car jolted, hard, and Clara snapped to attention at once, finding John had slammed the brakes on to avoid colliding with the back of the car in front.
“Sorry,” he muttered, his cheeks flushing red. “Was miles away.”
“Do you want me to drive?” she offered again. “Because I c-”
“No,” he snapped, and she flinched reflexively. “Sorry. No, it’s fine, the dickhead in front just can’t drive. I’m alright, really. Are you OK?”
“Yeah,” she breathed, clenching her fists at her sides and then splaying her fingers. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
She closed her eyes again as John eased the car forwards, letting her mind wander once more.
Please, she prayed again. Please, no matter what happens today, please let us be alright. Let John and I survive this, please. I will do anything in my power; I’ll volunteer, I’ll give my salary to charity, I don’t care, just please let us be alright.
“Clara?” John said after what felt like seconds, but must have been much longer. “Clara, we’re here.”
Opening her eyes and blinking hard against the suddenly dazzling sunlight, Clara found that they had arrived at the designated Hammersmith and Fulham Council office; a tall, ugly 1960s building that looked more foreboding than anything else.
“Feel like we’re going to prison,” she mumbled, undoing her seatbelt and gesturing at the hideous grey edifice before them with distaste. “What a dump.”
“Little bit,” John concurred, retrieving the briefcase from the footwell before taking Clara’s hand and squeezing it reassuringly. “We’ve got this.”
“We’ve got this,” she repeated, with more bravery than she felt. “We can do this.”
John nodded, then led the way up a short flight of concrete steps, into a poorly lit reception area which had a colour scheme that seemed to contain a lot of brown. Clara fought the urge to make any biting comments, but she could tell from John’s face that he was similarly less than impressed by initial appearances.
“Hello,” he said politely to the receptionist, who looked as though she’d rather be anywhere else but at her desk. “John Smith and Clara Oswald-Smith, we have a meeting with Social Services at ten a.m. We’re a little early.”
The bored-looking woman clicked several buttons on her computer screen. “They’ll be with you in a moment,” she drawled without looking up. “Please take a seat.”
John moved away from the reception desk, staying on his feet, and Clara did the same, leaning against him and trying to remember how to breathe. There seemed to be a sudden, acute lack of air in the room, and she fought to recall the basic mechanics of inhaling and exhaling in a bid to stay calm.
She had almost succeeded in regaining her composure when Sarah Jane burst through a door on the other side of the room, panting with exertion and looking flustered. Clara’s stomach dropped.
“Clara, John,” Sarah Jane wheezed, looking between them with urgency. “Didn’t you… didn’t you get our messages?”
“What messages?” Clara asked, surprised by how level her voice was when it felt as though her blood had turned to ice. “What is it? What’s happened?”
“It’s the family courts.” Their social worker looked devastated. “There was a last-minute appeal by the family, and the judge has ruled that Orsiana isn’t suitable for adoption.”
In the wake of the devastating news about Orsiana, Clara falls apart.
John’s voice sounded far-off and echoing, even though he was stood only a foot or so to her left. Her brain latched onto the mechanics of the distance as a desperate, diversionary tactic to try and prevent her anxiety from reaching its height, and she gasped for air as she weighed up the relative merits of the imperial versus the metric system. It was unsuccessful, and, as her heart rate spiralled, she closed her eyes against the now-spinning room, fighting to remember how to breathe.
“Clara?” John said again, more urgently this time, and Clara felt her legs give way without her consent, her knees hitting the thinly carpeted floor with a sickening crack. She barely registered the pain as she leant forwards, curling up in an attempt to hold together what remained of her shattered heart. She’d been foolish to get her hopes up. She’d been foolish to believe that things could work out, and now she could barely begin to comprehend the process of starting again. The sharp pain burning across her kneecaps was nothing compared to the dull, heavy ache that had settled over her chest, and she clenched her fists so tightly that her nails carved half-moons into her palms as she pressed her hands against her sternum in a bid not to fall apart.
Arms were wrapped around her then, and she was lifted up, held until she was roughly vertical and then set on her feet with soothing, murmured words she was unable to catch. Her body was betraying her, and, while she knew what she had to do, and she knew how to do it — standing not being an overly demanding action, and one she had mastered many years prior — she found herself slumping forwards again, only this time something halted her descent to the floor.
“Hold onto her,” a quiet voice said, and Clara became faintly aware that her face was now pressed against John’s crisp white shirt, her makeup leaving flesh-coloured transfers on the once-immaculate cotton that she had spent the previous evening ironing with meticulous care. “I think it’s best to hold onto her for now, we don’t want her falling again. Get her home.”
“John,” the same voice said. A distant part of her brain, unbidden, provided a clarification of the speaker’s identity: Sarah Jane. That was Sarah Jane, wasn’t it? Thinking about her made Clara’s chest hurt, as the kindly, middle-aged woman’s words from seconds before played on repeat in her head. Isn’t suitable for adoption. Isn’t suitable for adoption. Isn’t suitable for- “I’m sorry. I had no idea they would do this; I had no idea there was even the possibility…”
“It’s not your fault.”
Even as she could feel her grasp on her surroundings slipping away, Clara could tell that John was feigning his calm, composed tone. He wasn’t lying, per se, but there was no chance of him being this unmoved by the loss of all they had worked for over the past few months. As this understanding dawned on her, Clara couldn’t tell whether she should be worried or grateful for his unshakeable commitment to maintaining his neutrality; whether it meant he would remain this calm or whether the cracks would begin to show once they were alone and he would dissolve into a mess of tears and rage in the small hours of the morning. A small, selfish part of her prayed for the former, but a larger part of her knew that the latter was more inevitable; she could only hope, egotistically, that he would permit her the luxury of regaining her own sense of normalcy first.
“John-” Sarah Jane said.
“I’m going to take Clara home now.”
“Of course,” there was a pause, and Clara thought the conversation to be over, but instead Sarah Jane asked: “Should I come over…?”
“We’ll contact you when things are… less raw.”
Their social worker must have non-verbally acquiesced, because the next thing Clara knew, John was murmuring to her quietly, his attention focused on what they needed to do and where they needed to be.
“OK, love,” he said soothingly. “Come on. It’s not far to the car, we can do this.”
Clara wanted to walk; really, she did. But she didn’t trust her legs to bear her own weight if John lessened his hold on her, so she only knotted her fingers in the fabric of his shirt and shook her head over and over, unable to express aloud her lack of faith in her own body. She dissolved into tears then; silent, hot tears of shame that she was a grown woman who couldn’t even mobilise herself to move in the wake of a tragedy.
“Hey,” John’s fingers were cool against her chin as he tilted her face up, the sight of his sad but warm smile filling her field of vision, and she felt her heart lurch uncomfortably against her ribcage at the thought that her desire for this fruitless endeavour had caused this sadness. “It’s alright, love. It’s OK, I’ve got you. Want me to carry you?”
She began to shake her head, myriad concerns about his back dying on her lips, but he only swept her up with an ease that must surely be feigned, holding her against his chest and resting her head with the utmost tenderness against his shoulder.
“I’ve got you,” he assured her in a low, gentle tone. “I promise you.”
He carried her to the car as though she were no heavier than Eli or Poppy or Melody, opening the car door and settling her on the seat before disappearing for the briefest of moments. As she was about to whimper at his absence, or reach out for him to hold her once again, he reappeared with the thick tartan blanket they kept on the back seat, spreading it over her legs and tucking it around her, before buckling her seatbelt and closing the door. Slipping into the driver’s seat and starting the engine, he extended his left hand across the gearstick and the handbrake, slipping it into hers and squeezing gently.
“I won’t let go,” he promised, and she knew him well enough to understand that he didn’t mean their entwined fingers. “Not ever.”
Clara nodded then, just a fraction, but the minute response to him was enough for him to smile. They drove home in silence, her head resting against the cool glass of the window, and when they pulled into their drive, John sat for a moment, the engine idling, and his eyes on Clara.
“I love you,” he said with staggering sincerity, his eyes growing damp as hers darted around, looking at the familiar lines and contours of his face but steadfastly refusing to meet his gaze. “I just want you to remember that.”
She nodded again, a terse, jerky motion to indicate her assertion, but as he looked at her with eyes full of unshed tears, she understood that a response was needed to begin the healing of both of their hearts.
“I love you, too.”
The side of his mouth twisted into a smile, and he clambered out of the car with new energy, circling around to her side and lifting her into his arms without a word. Ascending the steps to the front door, he dug through a pocket with one hand and inserted it into the lock, stepping over the threshold and kicking the door shut behind them.
“Home,” he said quietly, standing in the hall and glancing down at her. She allowed herself to look him in the eyes then, and she felt some of the tension melt away from his muscles when their eyes locked. “Safe.”
“Mm,” Clara nuzzled into him, closing her eyes against the pain in his expression. “Home.”
She sensed rather than saw John moving, and a moment later she found herself being set down on the sofa, her eyes snapping open to take in the sight of her husband’s retreating form.
“No,” she managed, holding out her arms and feeling a surge of panic at the loss of physical contact. “Don’t…”
“I’m going to make tea,” he called over his shoulder. “You’re in shock; you need hot, sweet tea.”
There was something faintly accusatory about his use of the second-person pronoun, Clara thought. Some kind of weighted accusation that she couldn’t fully put her finger on, but it seemed to lay between them as he disappeared from sight and his presence was replaced by sounds that she knew by heart: the kettle being lifted from its base, the clunk of the plumbing as the tap was twisted on, and then the reassuring click that signalled that the kettle had been set to boil.
“So are you,” she whispered to herself, clenching her fists and then splaying out her fingers, repeating the motion several times and finding herself mesmerised by the small motions. “So… so are you.”
She didn’t expect him to hear her. She didn’t expect him to be able to; not over the muted rumbling of the kettle as it heated up. But, when she looked up, she found him crouched beside her nonetheless, taking both of her hands in his own and looking at her with so much sadness that what was left of her heart broke.
“Yes,” he breathed, leaning forward and pressing a kiss to her forehead. “Yes, I am, but this is my first time… well, losing a child, love. But it’s your second.”
There was a beat in which Clara failed to understand what he meant, and then the crushing memory hit her. The rippling cramps. The shock of seeing the blood. The damning understanding of what had happened.
She whimpered aloud then, curling into a ball, and John’s arms were around her in an instant as she began to cry; great ugly sobs that shook her shoulders and contorted her face in a way she would have found horrifying had she enough of her self-awareness left to care.
“We lost her,” she managed, pressing her face into John’s chest and taking a shuddering inhale that failed to help her breathe. “We were so close and we…”
“It wasn’t us,” John soothed, his hands stroking soothing circles on her shoulder blades as she clung to him like a lifeline. “It was them. They made that decision.”
“But we lost her,” Clara twisted her hands into his shirt, holding him to her in desperation. “We… we were so close, and we lost her, and now…”
“I think,” he said softly, slipping his hands down to her waist, “that now, we need some time to recover from this before we do anything else.”
“I don’t want to do anything else,” she mumbled, looking away from him. “I don’t want to go through this again with other kids.”
She felt him freeze under her touch. “Clara…”
“John, I can’t…” she looked back at him and shook her head. “This is too much to feel now. I can’t… not again…”
“Clara,” he said again, this time with a slight edge to his tone; one that indicated that he was unwilling to continue this debate, and one that conveyed to her that this was the end of the matter. “We won’t make that decision now. We’ll think for a little while. We’ll gather our thoughts. We’ll heal. And then we’ll decide.”
“I won’t change my mind,” she said against her better judgement, scowling into the almost-ruined cotton of his shirt. “But fine.”
“I just don’t think-”
“I feel,” Clara took a deep breath. “Like I’m being ripped apart.”
“Please. No more.”
“OK,” he said wearily. “OK.”
He straightened up, extricating himself from her grip, and she looked up at him through her tear-soaked lashes, not understanding for a moment.
“Tea,” he reminded her in a flat voice, stepping into the kitchen as the kettle reached its crashing, bubbling crescendo.
It wasn’t enough to cover the sound of a single strangled sob, and a mug hitting the wall.
As Clara's heartbreak continues, an intervention is staged.
Clara wasn’t sure how long she had been in bed for. She remembered crawling into the warm, soft embrace of the duvet some hours — days? weeks? — previously, and since then the passage of time had been marked only by John bringing her cups of tea and small meals and trying to encourage her to eat, as well as the rising and setting of the sun outside her window. Today seemed as though it was going to be no different — the sun was up, she was curled up under a duvet that was slightly too thick for the increasingly warm summer weather, and she was blissfully unaware of the date or the time or anything superfluous such as the outside world. Her sadness was comfortably settled around her like a cloak, as it had been since the devastating news, and she had resigned to the fact that this bed would be her home until her sorrow had waned.
Or, at least, she had until the bedroom door slammed open and, instead of John, she found the unlikeliest trio of… well, she wasn’t sure of their precise objective, and thus wasn’t sure of their title. “Meddlers,” perhaps, or “well-wishers.” At the end of the day, as far as she was concerned, the two amounted to the same thing.
“Go away,” she mumbled, rolling over and burying her face in her pillow in an attempt to evade any social interaction. “Leave me alone.”
“Nope,” came Amy’s voice, accompanied by the sound of her striding into the room. A second later, the duvet was yanked away from Clara, leaving her exposed to the tepid air and revealing to the assembled motley crew that she was dressed only in a pair of stained, faded pyjamas. Clara felt a hot rush of embarrassment, and swore under her breath at her best friend, who ignored her. “Not a chance,” Amy said.
“Hey!” Clara protested, trying to grab her bedding. “Give that back!”
“She’s not going to,” Bonnie moved past Amy, grabbing the pillows from under Clara’s head while she was distracted by her best friend, and stepping back with them in her arms. “And I’m not going to, either.”
Shocked and stung by their complicit, well-co-ordinated actions, Clara began to cry, turning her face towards the last member of the trio in desperation. “Dad,” she mumbled, consciously making her eyes inflate with sorrow in search of sympathy. “Dad, make them give them back.”
“No can do, love,” he said softly, approaching the bed and perching at the foot of it to survey her with a pitying look. “John called.”
“He’s worried about you.”
“And we’re worried about both of you.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Clara curled up, clutching her knees to her chest and affixing her dad with as steady a look as she could manage. “Worry about him, he’s not coping.”
“And you are?”
“I’m coping just fine.”
“You haven’t left bed for three days,” her dad reminded her. Ah, she thought to herself. So that’s how long it’s been. “And he’s trying to be strong for you, but he needs your support, because he can’t carry on how he is.”
“How do you even know how he’s…”
“When he phoned me last night, Clara, he was in tears.”
Clara felt her stomach clench. “He… was?”
“Of course he bloody well was,” Amy rolled her eyes. “Babe, you know I love you, but god you can be dense sometimes. He’s just as upset as you are, but he’s having to deal with you falling apart. Which means he can’t actually be upset himself.”
Once she had processed this nugget of information, Clara wriggled over to the edge of the bed, resolving to make things right with her husband. “Where is he?”
“Out,” Amy said, brusquely. “With Rory.”
“What are they doing?” Clara asked, a hint of panic creeping into her tone. “Where are they?”
“They’re not drinking, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Bonnie chipped in. “They’re just spending time together. Being normal. Things John hasn’t been able to do this weekend; not since you took to being Sleeping Beauty, only with more angst and less of a castle.”
“I…” Clara was rendered speechless. “I…”
“You’re sorry,” her dad guessed. “And you want to make it up to him? Well, you can once he’s back.”
“Why are you all even here?” Clara whispered, her voice thick with tears. “Dad I can understand… but you two…”
“I concluded that, after several days in bed, you’d probably need a shower or bath,” her dad said, making a face. “And, as much as I love you, Clara, I think it’d be a bit weird for me to help with that at your age.”
“Also,” Bonnie interjected, “we love you, too, and we’ve been worried shitless, and we wanted to help.”
“Also that,” Dave confirmed with a light chuckle. “Now, Amy, why don’t you start running her a bath?”
Amy mock-saluted by way of response and disappeared in the direction of the bathroom.
“Dad,” Clara said. “You don’t have to do this, you know.”
“I do,” he told her sternly, in a voice he hadn’t used on her in many years. “Because John needs me to, and because you need me to, and because, need I remind you, it is a Monday during the exam season, and you should be at work.”
Clara blanched. “Oh god,” she breathed, beginning to panic. “Shit, I…”
“It’s fine,” Bonnie said quickly. “We called them and told them you’d had bad news so you needed some time to regroup. You’re OK for today and tomorrow, at least.”
“But my students…”
“Clara,” Dave said. “Has it ever occurred to you that, while you are deeply altruistic most of the time, your emotions can make you very selfish?”
“What do you want me to do?” Clara snapped at him defensively, hating herself even as she said the words. “Bury everything like I did after Mum died and then have a total meltdown? Get ill again?”
“No,” her father held his hands up in a placating gesture. “I just think that you need to work on finding a balance between denying your feelings altogether and letting them consume you. Look at what happened after Danny died.”
“You scared me, Clara, when you used to phone me in tears.” A solitary tear bisected her father’s cheek. “I was terrified you were going to hurt yourself. Or worse.”
“I know,” Clara hung her head, remembering her father's soft, soothing words as she had sobbed into the phone. “Dad…”
“I got Amy to check up on you and text updates. I wasn’t… I couldn’t bear to lose you, Clara. It would have killed me.”
“Dad, I… I’m sorry,” Clara reached over and took his hands in hers. “But I promise you… I’m better now.”
“Are you?” he asked. “Because spending a whole weekend in bed moping isn’t normal.”
“I…” Clara searched for the right words, and instead came up short. “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” he said gently. “But it’s not just me you need to say that to, so go and have a bath, and, when you feel a bit more human and John is home, you two need to have a talk.”
“Good. Now, if I can figure out your fancy washing machine, I’m going to stick your bedding in the wash.”
“You really don’t have to do that.”
“Clara,” Bonnie arched an eyebrow. “In the very nicest of ways, it doesn’t smell great in here.”
“Oh,” she felt herself blush. “Right. OK. Urm. Thanks, Dad.”
As Clara sat on the sofa after her bath, her damp hair fanned out over her shoulders and a cup of tea in her hands, she mulled over what she was going to say to John. An apology was overdue, that much she knew, and she needed to explain matters to him, but… she had no idea how to support him. He wasn’t the sort of man to ask for help, but other than providing a hand to hold and someone to talk to, she wasn’t sure how she could alleviate the sense of sorrow that had undoubtedly been dogging him for the past several days.
“Hey,” Bonnie said softly, nudging her in the side, and she jumped. “Penny for them.”
“Sorry,” Clara mumbled, taking a sip of her drink. “Just thinking about how to help John.”
“Not being Sleeping Beauty would be a start,” her cousin teased, then caught sight of her face. “Sorry. I don’t know, just… be there for him, I guess. Let him feel what he’s feeling and make sure he doesn’t feel obliged to maintain a façade of being happy and coping with things in order to keep you from worrying.”
“He doesn’t do it to stop me worrying,” Clara said automatically. “It’s just a defence mechanism.”
“Yes,” Bonnie shot back. “To stop you from worrying.”
Clara blinked at her, suddenly understanding. “Oh.”
“Clara, love,” her dad said quietly. “Also, do remember that he’s a man, and men are not always good at feelings. Especially when those feelings might upset other people.”
“You’re pretty good at feelings,” Clara retorted. “Mostly.”
“When your mum died, I was rubbish,” he reminded her. “I just… learned. I wanted you to be able to talk to me, so I tried my best, and I learned.”
“Dad, you didn’t have to…”
“We only had each other,” he sighed. “We needed to stick together.”
“There was me,” Bonnie noted. “I was there.”
“Yeah, until we fell out and I shagged your boyfriend,” Clara stuck her tongue out at her cousin, who promptly stuck hers out by way of response. “Sorry again about that, by the way.”
“You know, Clara,” Amy observed, dancing into the room with her arms full of freshly dry laundry. “You’re saying sorry an awful lot, and not necessarily to the right people.”
“Well, the right person isn’t here, is he,” Clara observed. “Go fetch him, and I will.”
“I can’t interrupt their blokey day out
“What are they even doing?”
“Urm,” Amy frowned as she thought about the matter. “Crazy golf, I think, and John took his camera, so there’s probably going to be several hundred photos of the city and my husband for you to look at later.”
Clara laughed. “Lucky me.”
“I know, right?” Amy chucked the clean washing onto a nearby armchair haphazardly and then plonked down beside Clara. “Do you feel any better?”
“A bit, yeah.”
Amy wrapped her arms around her best friend, squeezing her tight. “How ‘bout now?”
“Mm,” Clara managed. “Still only a bit.”
Bonnie laughed, joining the embrace. “How about now?”
“Nah, I think Dad needs to join.”
Clara sensed rather than heard her father’s chuckle, sandwiched as she was between her cousin and her best friend, and a moment later he joined the group hug. “You know,” he mused. “Bonnie, I don’t think I’ve hugged you since you were about thirteen.”
“Glad to refresh your memory.”
“Things have changed a bit since then, haven’t they?”
“Yeah,” Bonnie laughed breathlessly. “Little bit.”
“OK,” Clara said after a moment of silent hugging. “Getting a bit sweaty and hard to breathe now.”
The assembled participants broke away reluctantly, with Amy lingering the longest, one hand coming to rest on her best friend’s cheek. “It’s going to be alright,” she murmured. “I know that, whatever happens with John and whatever you decide, it’s going to be alright.”
“I know,” Clara cleared her throat, her eyes filling with tears as she remembered what she’d vowed on Friday. “But I… I don’t think John and I can do this anymore.”
Amy froze. “What do you mean?”
“The adoption process,” Clara explained, and the tension melted away from Amy’s shoulders. “I said on Friday that Orsiana would be the last, because I can’t take any more heartbreak.”
“What does John think about that?”
“I don’t know,” Clara admitted guiltily. “We haven’t really discussed it.”
“And therein lies the problem,” Dave said with a sigh. “You need to.”
“I know,” Clara rolled her eyes. “I did kind of get that that was the point of this intervention.”
“How do you think he feels?” Bonnie asked. “I mean, do you have a rough idea?”
“Not good,” Clara whispered. “He threw a mug at the wall on Friday night, and just… I don’t think he’s doing so well.”
“Well,” Amy said suddenly, and when Clara looked over, her best friend had her phone in her hand. “You’ll find out shortly, because he and Rory are on their way back.”
John confronts Clara about her behaviour.
Clara sat on the edge of the sofa, picking at her nails distractedly as she waited for John to get home. Amy, Bonnie, and her dad had sidled off some five minutes previously to regroup at Bonnie’s, and now all Clara could do was sit, and fidget, and try not to hyperventilate at the prospect of discussing matters with her husband. She had just got to her feet to see whether pacing would alleviate her anxiety when there was the sound of the key in the front door, and a second later John stepped into the lounge, looking both pleased and disconcerted to see her out of bed.
“You’re up,” he said in a carefully measured tone, although his expression betrayed his relief. “And dressed.”
“Yeah,” Clara cleared her throat, ruffling her hair self-consciously. “Amy and Bonnie helped with that part.”
“Ah,” John’s gaze flicked from her to the pile of clean sheets that were still on the chair where Amy had left them. “And that?”
“That was Dad being domestic.”
“Ah,” John said again. “Well, after three days of solid occupancy, they did probably need a wash.”
“Yeah,” Clara concurred uneasily, unsure the extent to which making jokes would be considered acceptable. “They probably did.”
They lapsed into an awkward silence as John slipped off his bag and set it down on the sofa, arranging it so that the seams were perfectly parallel to those of the sofa cushions in a move that Clara strongly suspected was to avoid looking at her.
“How was crazy golf?” Clara asked, desperate to break the silence and engage him in conversation. “And how’s Rory?”
“It was good,” John said, shrugging casually as he brushed off the question. “He’s good.”
“If you’re about to ask how I am, you probably should’ve done that first.”
“Well, sorry,” Clara shot back, her defences going up as she was met with his snide tone. “There isn’t exactly an instruction manual for this.”
“So, use your initiative.”
“I didn’t want to jump right in and ask because then you’d have accused me of not giving a shit about your day out, so I was trying to be polite.”
“Can you not?” she asked, her eyes filling with unbidden tears in response to his coolness. “I actually want to work this out and I can’t do that if you’re going to be a bellend, so just knock it off.”
“I’m the one being a…” his mouth twitched at her choice of word, “bellend for being snappy, yet you can spend three days in bed not talking or eating or moving and I’m expected to just lie down and take it?”
“You did lie down and take it,” Clara reminded him, raising an eyebrow in a silent challenge. “You laid down next to me to sleep, remember?”
“That was less an endorsement and more to check that you hadn’t slit your wrists or anything during the night.”
“Why are you being so callous?”
“Why are you being so pissy?”
The two of them stood there, breathing heavily for a moment, before Clara extended her hand in a silent gesture of reconciliation. John stared down at it as though it were an alien artefact, visibly unsure what to do, but she only held out her hand towards him all the more insistently. After a second’s pause, he seemed to understand, and he took her hand in his, shaking it primly.
“Hello,” she said as politely as she could manage, forcing a smile. “I’m Clara Oswald-Smith. I’m a bit tricky, sometimes a bit up myself, and I did not like my surname before last year, but that’s basically everything you need to worry about.”
“Hello,” John said back, the corners of his mouth twitching in amusement at her formality. “I’m… I’m sorry-”
“Also, I mouth off when I’m nervous and I’ve got a mouth on me. Seriously, it’s got a mind of its own. I’m really worried it wants to go solo.”
“I’d noticed,” John confirmed, keeping hold of Clara’s hand and pulling her gently towards him until she was flush against his body. As he wrapped his arms around her, she felt some of the tension leave his shoulders, and allowed herself to relax in turn. “I like your surname.”
“So do I, now.”
“I’m sorry for being callous.”
“I’m sorry for being pissy,” Clara sighed, pressing her forehead against his chest and closing her eyes. “I’m not good at this.”
“Nor am I.”
“Maybe we should both start by being honest.”
“Yes,” she acquiesced. “And I think you should go first, because, while my feelings are abundantly clear to you, I haven’t given you the chance to express yours.”
John dropped into a seat on the sofa and ran his hands through his hair, Clara sitting beside him and quietly waiting for him to explain. “I’m just as upset as you,” he admitted after a moment. “And angry, too.”
“No,” he said at once. “Never at you. At them. At Social fucking Services, for dangling Orsiana under our nose and then snatching her away at the last second.”
“Yeah, ah. It’s not Sarah Jane’s fault — I gave her a ring yesterday and said that to her, because I wanted her to know — but I’m livid at the system. Livid at her family; the bunch of deadbeats don’t even want her! They just don’t want anyone else to have her! They let us get our hopes up and now we’re both suffering and it’s not fair!”
“What… what did Sarah Jane say?”
“She was worried about you, mainly. Worried you weren’t coping with the news very well.”
“I know,” he smiled sadly at her. “I told her that, and she said that it’s normal to feel like this and normal to fall apart a little. She also said that some people deal with it by renewing their efforts, and others…”
“Others give up?” Clara guessed.
“Yeah,” he dropped his gaze to his lap, shuffling uncomfortably. “So, uh, which camp do we fall under?”
“I wouldn’t like to call it ‘giving up,’ but I think I’ve made it clear that I can’t do this again,” Clara affirmed, closing her eyes against the tears that burned there and instead trying to maintain her composure. “I can’t go through this again, so I think we need to… to stop.”
“But the perfect child might be out there still, just around the corner.”
“I know, John… I just don’t have the emotional energy to keep applying and being rejected, over and over, looking and looking for someone who might not exist,” she murmured. “I wanted to be a mum, and I still do. But I just… right now, this is breaking my heart and I don’t want to carry on. I can’t carry on.”
“We could always…” John bit his lip, his cheeks flushing a little as he continued to look down. “You know. Try the other thing.”
It took a moment for Clara to process what he was hinting at, but, when she understood, she shook her head decisively. “No,” she said at once. “No chance.”
“If seventeen-year-old me’s body couldn’t manage it, why would now be any different?”
“You’ve said it yourself,” John said softly, and there was so much hope in his expression that Clara wanted to sob. “You were partying hard; drinking a lot…”
“John, please,” she whispered, her voice breaking. “Please, I can’t. I can’t… I…”
“Hey,” he breathed, pulling her into his arms, and she trembled under his touch. “It’s OK. It’s alright, love. It was just an idea, that’s all. We don’t have to. It’s alright, I promise.”
“What for?” he asked, beginning to stroke her back soothingly, and slowly she felt the shaking stop. “None of this is your fault.”
“I know how much you loved the idea of being a dad, and now…” Clara took a shuddering, tearful breath. “I can’t even do that for you.”
“Clara, I love you because of who you are,” John murmured. “Not because you have the potential to bring forth life.”
“Which I can’t even do.”
“Which doesn’t matter to me,” John reminded her in a firm, no-nonsense tone. “OK? I don’t care about that. I’m not about to go and… oh, I don’t know, trade you in for a younger model, or an actual model, or anything. I’m not even sure any models would have me.”
Clara laughed a little at that, grateful that he understood that silly jokes helped her to stay calm. “They would,” she joked, her voice little more than a whisper, but growing stronger with each word. “Silver fox.”
“Yeah, well, they’ll have to admire me from afar, because my heart belongs to you.”
“Even though I’m a rubbish wife who can’t provide you with children?”
“Sorry,” she fidgeted. “But do you?”
“I will love you until my final breath,” he promised, his hands stilling on her back. “And beyond even that.”
“Still a little sappy,” she looked up at him, smiling a little. “But I love it. I love you.”
John pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Promise me you’re not going to get hung up on this. Promise me that, if this is the end of the adoption process, we’ll move on and not dwell on things.”
“I can’t promise you that for certain, but I can promise to try.”
“So, promise me you’ll try.”
Clara looked up at him, her hand resting on his sternum and her eyes locking with his. “I promise to try.”
He kissed her and she melted under his touch, her arms coming to rest on his shoulders as she felt a sense of serenity overcome her at his physical proximity. Being near him was always a combination of electrifying and soothing, and, right now, having him in her arms was all the reassurance she needed.
“I love you,” she said again, once he’d pulled away and grinned at her lopsidedly. “Just as a reminder.”
“I love you, Clara Oswald-Smith,” John replied, his hands resting on her waist and squeezing gently. “And I would like to sit here and kiss you all evening, but, unfortunately, I think we have bigger fish to fry.”
“Oh?” Clara said with mock affront. “And what fish would those be?”
“The fish, singular, is the fact that you haven’t eaten properly in three days, and I’m worried about that.”
“So, I’m going to make you dinner.”
“You know, you spoil me.”
“I really do try.”
“What’s for dinner?”
“Spaghetti carbonara, cooked to your recipe, because you know best,” he winked playfully at her. “And I’ve finally memorised it.”
“It’s not like I’ve been making it for you since our first proper date or anything,” Clara deadpanned. “But, still: you’re cute.”
“I know I am.”
“Will there be guitar playing later?” Clara asked hopefully. “If we’re really, you know, going for that authentic first-date vibe?”
“Maybe,” he teased, shifting her off his lap and onto the sofa before getting up. “Now, I will be in the kitchen. Coming?”
“In a minute.”
He nodded and left the room, and Clara got to her feet, simply standing still for a moment and contemplating matters. There was still an uncomfortable, unpleasant sensation in her chest, but it had been alleviated by John’s levity and the reassurance that he loved her just the same, regardless of whether or not they became parents. There was still a sense of unease in her stomach, although she strongly suspected that some of that might be gnawing hunger left over from her days in bed, and thus she wandered into the kitchen, in part in search of a light snack and in part to chat to John. Finding him rooting through cupboards for supplies, she perched on a nearby worktop and snagged an apple from the fruit bowl, biting into it and watching in amusement as her husband ran a finger across the saucepan rack and set the assembled pots and pans rattling, selecting one seemingly at random and putting it on the stove.
“Pro chef,” she teased, tilting her head to the side and grinning as he slung a tea towel over his shoulder, pro chef-style. “Watch out, Jamie Oliver.”
“Yeah, yeah,” John poked his tongue out. “Can I please just concentrate on making sure you don’t die of starvation?”
“And would it be really cliché if I told you that I love you again?”
“Oh, a little,” Clara pretended to think for a moment. “But I’ll allow it.”
John makes a confession to Clara.
Slowly, but surely, life returned to normal for John and Clara. Or rather, it returned to the usual madcap, million-mile-an-hour routine of radio broadcasting, attempting to teach exhausted teenagers, marking variations of the same essay twenty times in a row, chores, date nights, and other commitments that made up the approximate shape of their intertwined lives. For the most part, Clara was happy with that. She kept herself busy helping others: her students with revision, John with cooking, Amy and Bonnie with their kids. For the most part, she tried not to think about the sting of losing out on adopting Orsiana.
She threw herself into every other aspect of her life, and buried the aching, raw sting of rejection somewhere deep inside her chest, resolving not to think about it, nor allow it the oxygen of attention, lest the matter threaten to consume her and drive her mad with sorrow. She and John had agreed to let the matter go, and that was that. It had been a wonderful dream, but they had missed out, and now they had to concede defeat. She made a half-hearted mental note to go over to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home sometime over the summer and look at adopting a cat, but that was as far as her planning for the future got. This was the opportunity to turn over a new leaf, and she resolved that that new leaf was going to involve far more spontaneity than she had ever engaged with in the past.
“Spontaneity” had, thus far, involved suggesting and going on a last-minute minibreak to Berlin with John; attending the opening of a bar that she was really far too old and uncool to even think about visiting regularly; proposing trying new and exciting things in the bedroom that had made John go a violent shade of red before agreeing enthusiastically; and, on one memorable occasion, getting so utterly, spectacularly drunk at an art exhibition that she’d had to be carried home. All in all, not a bad innings.
It was with spontaneity in mind that she came to find herself arriving home from Coal Hill on an arid July day, a leaflet for an inner-city music festival clutched in her hand, only to find John sat in the lounge looking… well, if she didn’t know better, guilty. Her stomach dropped instantaneously as she let her satchel tumble to the floor, and all she could ask was:
“Who was it?”
John frowned then, looking over at her with a look of blind incomprehension that she wanted to slap off his face. “I don’t…” he began, his words quiet and uncertain and somehow only serving to make her all the more panicked. “I don’t… what?”
“You look guilty as sin, so don’t even bother denying it. Was it Missy?”
“Clara, I have no idea-” the penny visibly dropped, and his eyes widened in horror. “You think I cheated on you?”
“Why else would you be sat there looking like that?”
“Because I did something bad.”
“Was that something bad called Missy?”
“No!” he protested, getting to his feet and approaching her with his arms outstretched pleadingly. “Clara…”
He reached for her hand but she jerked away from him, taking a step back and wrapping her arms around herself in a bid to stop herself from falling apart in the wake of… whatever this was. “So, what was it?”
“You have to understand… I never thought…”
“So, I repeat, who was it?”
“I didn’t cheat on you!” he said in exasperation, flinging his hands skywards and looking aghast at the very prospect. “Jesus, why would you even think that?”
Clara shrugged noncommittally, some of her worry alleviating in response to his horrified reaction to the assumption. Perhaps he hadn’t done what she thought. Perhaps things would be fine, and he’d have just done something daft like spending several thousand pounds on a new speaker system, or buying a sports car. “What else am I meant to assume?”
“Clara, I applied for more information on a kid.”
There was a stunned silence that lasted almost a minute, as she blinked up at him and tried to process his words. He had sworn that Orsiana would be the last. They both had; and yet here he was now imparting this fact to her with a look that was saturated in regret and guilt and, yes, just a hint of triumphant glee. He was proud to have gone behind her back. He was proud to have betrayed her wishes like this.
“I looked in one of the last files; the ones we hadn’t opened because we found Orsiana and she seemed like the one for us. And this little girl… she’s perfect, Clara, she’s absolutely perfect, so I just thought I’d take a punt and request more details and… well, they got back to me, and they’re interested.”
“You went behind my back?” Clara breathed, ignoring his words. “You went behind my back when I expressly stated that I didn’t want to do this again?”
“I just thought…”
“You just thought what, John? You know, you were reticent about this to start with. And now… Jesus, now it’s taken you over! Why would you do this?! Why would you go against my wishes and do this?!”
“I wanted you to be happy!”
“I am happy!”
“No,” he said softly, refusing to meet her anger with fire. “No, you’re not.”
“I…” Clara blinked at him, then began to shake her head indignantly. “I am.”
“Clara, I’m not stupid. I know that all of…” he gestured all-encompassingly at the room around them, but she understood that he meant more than just their immediate surroundings. “The spontaneous trips and the events and such… it’s not because you’re happy.”
“It’s because you’re trying to fill a void.”
“I said shut up.”
“If you were happy-”
“Shut up!” Clara shouted, dissolving into furious tears. “Just… shut up! And stay shut up!”
“Clara,” John reached for her hand, and she thought about flinching away from his touch, but as his fingers meshed through hers and he drew her closer, letting her sob against his chest, she realised how much she needed to be held and relaxed into the embrace. “Clara, I’m sorry.”
“I can’t believe you’d do this,” she mumbled through her tears, clinging to the cotton of his T-shirt and burying her face in it to try and hide her burning cheeks. “I can’t believe…”
“I never thought they’d be interested.”
“So, why do it?”
“I wanted you to be happy!” he repeated in a miserable, desperate tone. “I wanted you to be properly happy again, instead of being manic and burying your feelings with… well, everything.”
“For the record, I’m not happy.” She shot him a dark look. “I’m confused, and hurt, and pissed off.”
“Yes, I thought you might be.”
“Do you want me to get back to them and tell them we’re rescinding our expression of interest?” John asked calmly, and Clara realised that she had no idea. While, on the one hand, that was exactly what she wanted John to do — to admit he had made a mistake and take steps to correct it — on the other, she felt a tiny, faint glimmer of hope. There was a potential match out there. There was a child who they could bring home.
“I…” she inhaled sharply, hating herself for the admission. “I don’t know.”
John smiled softly, leaning down and pressing a kiss to her forehead. “That’s OK,” he murmured. “We can work it out.”
“What’s her name?”
“You’re not going to believe this.”
“She’s not called ‘Clara,’ is she?”
“Egomaniac. No, she’s called Amalia, and she’s four.”
“No, Amalia. A-M-A-L-I-A.”
“That’s…” Clara chuckled. “Kind of a sign, really, isn’t it?”
“I think the only way we could have more of a sign would be if she had a big neon arrow above her head saying, ‘adopt me.’”
“Maybe…” Clara chewed her lip, leaning against John’s chest and taking a deep, steadying breath. “Maybe we could give it a go. See what happens.”
“What about your emotional state?” John grimaced as the words left his mouth. “Sorry. That sounded really condescending, but you know what I mean.”
“I guess I could draw on one last reserve of strength,” she smiled weakly. “For you.”
“I don’t want you to feel like you have to.”
“John,” Clara reached up and cupped his cheek in her palm. “John, I want to.”
“I’m just scared that you’ll…”
“I’ll try my best not to.”
“I love you,” John said softly, without the usual light-heartedness that accompanied his uttering of the words, and somehow the seriousness of them made them feel… different, somehow. “You know that, don’t you?”
Touched by his seriousness, Clara skimmed her thumb over his cheek, feeling a surge of love for her husband. “Yes,” she breathed. “Yes, I do. And I love you, too.”
“Even when I do stupid things like this?”
“And do you really…”
“Love you?” Clara blinked up at him in surprise. “Of course I do. I thought you knew that by now, you daft old man.”
“Even when I make bad decisions?”
“John, after everything, do you really think I’m going to leave you over something like this?”
“I don’t know.”
“No, you idiot. I’m not.”
“What’s got into you?”
“Just scared,” he mumbled shyly, twisting away from her touch and looking down at the floor, his cheeks burning in a manner that was wholly endearing. “This whole thing…”
“John,” Clara said in her best teacher voice. “John, look at me.”
With the utmost reluctance, John dragged his gaze upwards and looked her in the eyes.
“I love you. And that will never change, OK? Idiot.”
“Always,” she grinned a little then. “Now. Why don’t I put the kettle on and you can tell me a little bit more about Amalia?”
As John slumbered that evening, Clara found herself unable to sleep as the minutes ticked by. Slipping out of bed, she padded downstairs as silently as she was able, groping around in the darkness and flicking on a lamp so she could see what she was doing. Sinking down on the sofa, she pulled Amalia’s file towards her from its position on the coffee table and extracted the small photo that sat atop the pile of papers inside.
It was a candid photo; that much she could tell. A little girl with caramel-coloured skin was stood in a garden, turning towards the camera with a bright, happy smile on her face. Clara could picture the scene with absolute vividness: a gaggle of children, tearing about in the sunshine, before an unknown adult stepped in with a camera, calling them to attention. Amalia stopping, turning to smile for them in the hopes that maybe someone out there would see her. Want her. Offer her the kind of life she’d never known.
“Could you be the one?” Clara whispered, pressing a fingertip to the photo and wishing harder than she’d ever wished before that things would work out. “Could you be our little girl?”
She didn’t want to get her hopes up. But something about this… something about this felt right. Something about this felt like it was meant to be, and, while she hardly dared allow herself to entertain the notion, there was a part of her that yearned to bring this little girl home, to open up the prettily painted room upstairs that was currently shut up and ignored, lest the unlocking of the door give way to a landslide of emotions she had been struggling to suppress.
“Amalia Oswald-Smith,” Clara breathed, her eyes skittering towards the stairs, and the bedroom, and John. She felt a touch foolish, mumbling to herself in the dark, and yet she continued. “It sounds perfect.”
She gave the photograph one final glance and then slipped it back into the file. “Please,” she prayed aloud, her voice barely audible in the darkness. “Please, work out. I can’t… we can’t… please…”
When John and Clara meet with Amalia's foster parents, they receive a surprising piece of information... one that will turn their world upside down.
John’s voice cut through Clara’s reverie, drawing her back to the present. Staring down at her dressing table, she realised she had frozen with her lipstick halfway to her mouth, her hand trembling a fraction as she blinked at her reflection in the mirror and tried to reconcile her panic about the impending meeting with her optimism regarding Amalia.
“Clara,” John said again, more sternly this time. “Breathe, love.”
“I am breathing,” she muttered, remembering how to move her hand and using this freshly recalled knowledge to apply her lipstick as steadily as she was able. “Mostly.”
“You just dissociated for a solid two minutes.”
“Well, you could have said something sooner rather than letting me sit there like a broken android or something.”
John chuckled a little, his mouth twitching up into a proud smile. “You’re learning.”
He waggled his eyebrows, melodramatically. “The ways of the nerd.”
“You are such a dork.”
“Oh, I know,” he poked his tongue out at her, then turned abruptly serious. “You remember that this is just an informal chat, right?”
“Yeah,” Clara swallowed, the reminder doing little to soothe her panic. “Just an informal chat with Sarah Jane, Alice, and the Arwells.”
Clara was not sure what to expect in terms of Alice and the Arwells. Aside from the dreadful alliteration of their names, she was almost certain that Amalia’s social worker and foster parents would be officious, pragmatic people with no sense of humour, and she was terrified of putting her foot in it with them. She could do serious, certainly, but not when panicked and definitely not when the stakes were high — and, at this present moment in time, they couldn’t be higher.
“Exactly,” John said in a soothing voice, distracting her from her somewhat hysterical inner monologue. “Now, shall we go downstairs and put the kettle on? They’ll be here any minute.”
“Right,” Clara blanched, getting to her feet nonetheless and trying to muster her courage. “Good idea.”
She headed downstairs at top speed, eager to be away from John for a few moments in order to catch her breath, but, as she snatched up the kettle and took it over to the sink, she heard the chime of the doorbell and felt her terror spike in response to the innocuous sound.
“I’ll get it!” John called, as she twisted the tap on and let the sound of the running water muffle the sound of the door being opened and the ensuing chatter coming from the hallway. She could do this. Informal chat? She could absolutely do that. She would be herself, and-
The kettle overflowed, and she swore aloud, grabbing a tea towel and dabbing the sides dry in a haphazard manner. Sticking it back on its base and flicking it on, she sidled reticently towards the lounge, her ears pricked for any hints as to the sort of people Alice and the Arwells might be.
“That’s a Glasgow accent, am I right?” John was saying, and there was a snort of laughter in response.
“Aye, so don’t think about trying anything or I might revert to my roots,” a woman’s voice retorted, and Clara felt herself relax a fraction. That didn’t sound like the voice of anyone too serious, and that boded well for the forthcoming discussion. She could do light-hearted, that was for sure.
Bolstered by the familiar Scottish lilt, she headed into the lounge and looked around at the assembled guests: Sarah Jane, who granted her an encouraging smile; a small, dark-haired woman who Clara assumed to have been the speaker from seconds before; and a couple — a mousy-haired woman and stereotypically good-looking gentleman who were both perched on the sofa and holding hands in an absentminded, but fond manner.
“Hello,” she said as warmly as she was able to manage under the circumstances. “I’m Clara, and I’ll be in in a minute to chat properly, but firstly and more importantly: tea? Coffee?”
The dark-haired woman spoke first, and Clara’s guess was confirmed as she discovered the woman’s accent to be broadly Scottish. “Alice O’Donnell. I’m Amalia’s social worker. Could I have a black coffee, please? The stronger the better?”
Clara nodded a non-verbal assertion, and turned her attention to the couple.
“I’m Madge,” the woman said in a quiet voice, smiling politely at Clara. “And this is my other half, Reg. We’re looking after Amalia for the time being. I’ll have a tea, please; milk, no sugar. Reg? What about you?”
“Tea too, please, but two sugars.”
“Sure,” Clara looked to Sarah Jane with a grin, and deadpanned: “And who might you be?”
“Very funny,” their social worker rolled her eyes. “Clara thinks she’s a comedienne, but in case any of you don’t know — and, frankly, you should, I’ve been emailing you all enough — I’m Sarah Jane, and I’m working with John and Clara as their social worker. Coffee, please; you know how I take it.”
“Be right back. John, in the meantime, please be sociable.”
“I’m always sociable.”
“You’re Scottish, so no, you’re not.”
“Well, us Scots can be antisocial together,” Alice said with a wicked grin. “And the English can chat to their hearts’ content.”
“Gotcha,” Clara said.
She trooped back to the kitchen as the kettle boiled, beginning the laborious task of retrieving decent mugs from the cupboard and trying to recall everyone’s instructions. Once she was reasonably sure she’d made everyone’s drinks to the specified requirements, she re-entered the lounge with the six mugs balanced carefully on a tray, setting it down on the coffee table and then taking a seat beside John.
“OK?” he asked her under his breath, and, by way of response, she took his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“So,” Sarah Jane began, taking a sip of her coffee and looking around at the assembled adults with a bright, professional smile. “We’re all here today to discuss Amalia, and whether we think she could be a good match for John and Clara.”
“I’m all in,” Alice said at once, leaning back in her armchair and grinning at John and Clara. “I mean, from what I’ve seen and heard of you guys — not even from the file, just from your show — I can tell you’re nuts about each other. There was that whole shitstorm a few years back, but you weathered it, and if you can survive that, then I’m more than confident that you can survive adopting a kid.”
Sarah Jane shot her counterpart an amused, but chastising glance. “I think the issue is more the suitability of Amalia for them both,” she said with a barely concealed smile. “But I do second your point.”
“Amalia is…” Madge hesitated for a moment. “Very easy-going, and very loving. I don’t think you’d have any difficulties in terms of bonding with her.”
“But there’s one small issue,” Alice admitted, looking a touch guilty. “And-”
“It’s a big issue,” Reg growled, and Clara felt her stomach drop in apprehension of whatever was about to be said. “I’ve been saying it since they expressed interest; you can’t do this to her-”
“Do what?” John asked, his voice low and calm, and Alice sighed.
“Amalia has a younger sibling,” she explained. “And-”
“And you can’t separate them!” Reg snapped, scowling first at Alice, then at John. “It would destroy them both; they’re all the other has left in this world, and I won’t let you rip them apart!”
“So, we’ll take them both,” John said with casual decisiveness, and Clara blinked at him in mute shock. “How old is the younger sibling?”
“Her name’s Alleia, and she’s not quite three.”
“We’ll take them both,” John reiterated in a more emphatic tone. “I’m not willing to separate siblings.”
“Clara?” Sarah Jane asked, noticing her silence. “Would that be… OK?”
“I…” she swallowed, realising she already knew the answer she would give. “Yes. Yes, of course it would.”
Reg and Madge visibly relaxed. “That would be wonderful,” Madge said brightly, looking up at her husband with a radiant smile. “They’re such happy little girls, it would really be awful to see them split up.”
“Well, we won’t let that happen,” John assured her. “I promise.”
“Do you really think we can do this?” Clara asked, clambering into bed that night and nuzzling into John. “Two kids?”
“We can’t let them be split up,” he said with a shrug, as though that was that and the matter was settled. “That would just be… unthinkable.”
“You know, you could’ve asked before agreeing.”
“I knew you’d say yes!” he protested, looking like a deer caught in the headlights. “We can’t-”
“I’m only teasing,” she soothed, kissing him quickly. “Just… two kids. Two of everything. And just maybe double trouble…”
“With your influence…”
“Hey!” Clara protested, thumping him lightly on the arm. “You’re definitely gonna be the one who is a bad influence, mister, not me.”
“True,” he acquiesced with a playful grin. “But we can definitely manage two. Bonnie does.”
“Bonnie is about one dirty nappy away from a nervous breakdown.”
“Well then, it’ll be a good thing we won’t have to deal with any dirty nappies.”
“You sound very… sure, about all this. What if the panel say no?”
“How do you know that?”
“Because we’ve ticked every box. We’re taking both of them. And, not to sound callous, but… given that both their parents have passed away, I don’t think we’ll be experiencing a repeat of what happened with Orsiana.”
“I just… don’t want to get my hopes up.”
“I know, love,” John murmured, pressing a kiss to her hair. “But maybe if we just think about boring pragmatic things for now, that could help. For example… would they share a room?”
“Obviously. We don’t want to separate them, even just in terms of shared physical space, until they’re entirely comfortable with being here with us.”
“God, you’re hot when you say stuff like that.”
“Mm,” Clara smirked. “Well, sorry to break it to you, but they’re not my words. I looked it up in the book earlier.”
“You’re still hot.”
“I should hope so.”
“I know so,” John hummed, pulling her closer. “Mother-to-be of two tiny tearaways.”
“John,” she complained with exasperation. “Stop sounding so definite.”
“It’s hard not to be definite when I feel very… definitive about this.”
“You mean ‘certain’?”
“Yeah, but it didn’t have the same ring to it.”
Clara laughed. “Idiot.”
“Only for you.”
“Good to know,” she tilted her head to the side then, determined to share a little of his enthusiasm and tease him in retaliation. “You know, you’re going to look adorable at the park.”
“At the park?” John asked, his brow furrowing in confusion. “Why would I be at the park?”
“Well, if I’m at work, you might have to take both girls to the park. And I’ve been reliably informed that small children have the innate ability to run away from their parents in precisely opposite directions. So, good luck with that.”
“Oh god,” John groaned aloud at the thought. “Can’t we just get two of those child leads?”
“Might be an idea,” Clara acquiesced. “Maybe once we’ve been approved, we could make a shopping trip.”
“Now who sounds certain about matters?”
“Oh, shush,” she argued. “I just… I’ve got a good feeling, too. And that scares me a whole lot, but equally… it could lead to awesome things.”
She closed her eyes for a moment, envisioning having two small children zooming around the house after her, both of them demanding her attention and wanting to be picked up, both of them smothering her in hugs and providing her with hand-drawn artwork. It was an exhausting thought, certainly, but a cheering one, and she smiled.
“You’re daydreaming,” John teased, nudging her gently. “Aren’t you?”
“Maybe,” she admitted, letting her eyes flutter open. “We shall see how things go.”
“‘Clara Oswald-Smith, mother of two,’” John said. “Sounds nice, no?”
“Mm,” she hummed sleepily. “Very nice, indeed.”
“No lecture on feminism?”
“Not tonight,” she patted his arm. “Tonight, I’m tired just thinking about two kids. And also, you know it all anyway.”
“I might need reminding.”
“Bugger off,” she told him lovingly. “Please, thanks.”
“You’re so kind to me.”
“Aren’t I just?”
“I love you, too. Can we go to sleep now?”
Clara meets with Amy and Bonnie to deliver some news.
Two weeks later, Clara found herself sat in an overpriced café in central London, a mug of decidedly average coffee sat before her as she looked between the two women she was sharing a table with. Bonnie and Amy were both, for once, unencumbered by babies, or bulging bags of nappies and wet wipes and bottles, and Clara wondered idly whether they’d both agreed to this coffee date as it permitted them a few hours of respite.
“Two?!” Bonnie asked incredulously, ceasing stirring her hot chocolate and affixing her cousin with a look of abject shock. Clara felt a stab of irritation that her cousin was failing to show much enthusiasm for the news she had just imparted, and she resisted the urge to scowl. “You want to adopt two kids?! Have I not been enough of a cautionary tale?!”
“Bon, you make it sound like you’re some poor, set-upon woman,” Clara protested, trying not to sound overly annoyed. “You’re coping just fine with things, so don’t try and act like you’re a useless parent.”
“Well…” she blinked a few times, then scowled at Clara. “I’ve had time to adjust! You haven’t; you’re just going to be flung in at the deep end with two toddlers!”
“Which we can manage.”
“They’re toddlers, Clara,” Amy interjected in a snide tone, and Clara shot her best friend a sour look. “They’re essentially small, destructive tornadoes that trash your house and leave everything they touch slightly sticky.”
“Yeah, which we can deal with. We’ve had practice, remember?”
“Can you, though?” Bonnie asked, and Clara could feel her mood souring with each passing minute. “I mean, Eli is well-behaved, but he’s not a representative sample, because-”
“We’ll have to deal with it,” Clara said by means of a diversionary tactic, before shrugging and reaching for her drink. As she wrapped her hands around her mug, she dropped her gaze and felt her cheeks flush a little as she explained: “Because they approved us adopting the two of them today.”
There was a long, awed silence, broken only by the background noise of the café and other patrons as they went about their business. Clara didn’t dare look up, so she shook her hair over her face and bit her lip, wondering what her cousin and best friend would make of the revelation. She had been so utterly terrified that morning, clinging to John as they approached the same offices where, just weeks previously, they had had Orsiana snatched from their grasp, but the panel had been warm and kind and reassuring, and reached their decision in minutes. A unanimous yes. The best possible outcome, yet Clara felt numb to the good news. It still felt oddly unreal, and she was wary of getting her hopes up, lest there be a final cruel twist of fate and the girls be snatched away at the eleventh hour.
“They…” Bonnie managed after a moment, and Clara chanced looking up. “You…”
“Oh, my god,” Amy breathed, a disbelieving and jubilant laugh bubbling over her lips as she broke into an enormous grin. “You already had your panel?! You sly…”
“We didn’t want to tell anyone about the girls,” Clara mumbled, clutching her mug all the tighter but beginning to grin in the face of her best friend’s enthusiasm. “In case…”
“They said yes,” Bonnie stated numbly, her tone half-asking, half-telling. “They said yes.”
“They approved us, yeah,” Clara gave a casual little shrug, determined to downplay the gravity of the situation. “We’re, ah… we’re off to meet the girls tomorrow.”
“Bloody hell,” Amy let out a low, impressed whistle. “They don’t hang about, do they?”
“Things move faster now, yeah. I mean, within reason; we can’t just bring them home next week or anything. They have to get used to us first.”
“Clara, this is…” Bonnie fell silent, and Clara looked over at her cousin only to find her mute and on the verge of tears. “This is… bloody hell, this is amazing.”
“Why do you look like you’re about to cry, then?”
“Because I’m happy for you!” Bonnie rolled her eyes and edged around the table, pulling Clara into a tight hug. “Oh, babe, it’s finally happening!”
“For the record, I’m happy for you too,” Amy added once Bonnie had relinquished her hold on Clara, reaching over and patting her arm in lieu of anything more exuberant. “Which is good, as you don’t seem that happy, Clara.”
“I am!” she argued feebly, struggling to find the words to explain herself. “Just… it hasn’t really sunk in yet. And we have a lot to do.”
“By which you mean shopping, right?” Amy asked, looking hopeful. “Because, if so, I’ll come. Melody and I will assist.”
“You mean you’ll assist. By which you really mean that you’ll put random crap in my trolley and I will have to take it out again, or pay for it,” Clara grinned.
“Essentially, yes,” Amy grinned. “But it’ll get me out the house, and you can spend quality time with Melody…”
“Don’t use Melody as emotional blackmail.”
“I’m not!” Amy smirked. “…much. But babies are great emotional blackmail, and-”
To their complete and utter consternation, Bonnie burst into hysterical tears.
“Bon?!” Clara asked, reaching for her cousin’s hand immediately and giving it a reassuring little squeeze. “I know you’re happy for me and all, but you don’t need to cry!”
“I c-can’t… help it…” Bonnie stammered, still sobbing and clinging to Clara as she spoke. “Just s-so happy for you, you’re f-finally getting what you d-dreamed of and it’s w-wonderful.”
“Babe,” Clara said in a low, soothing voice, looking around at their fellow patrons and thanking god that no one seemed to be staring. “You really don’t need to be crying, though. I’m not. At least, not anymore. I had a quick happy weep after they gave us the good news, but now I’m OK.”
“Can’t help it,” Bonnie sniffed, swiping her hand over her eyes and seemingly regaining a modicum of composure as she did so. “Hormones.”
“You’re not allowed to use that excuse any more given that Poppy is eleven months old.”
“I am, though,” Bonnie mumbled, looking embarrassed. “Because urm…”
“Oh, my god,” Amy’s eyes widened as the penny dropped for her and Clara. “You’re not…”
Bonnie nodded miserably.
“Again?” Clara asked with incredulity. “What happened to your Christmas resolution of, ‘No more. I swear, no more. No more babies’?!”
“It wasn’t planned!” Bonnie snapped, her expression souring, and Clara felt a stab of guilt. “It just happened and now I don’t know how I’m going to cope, especially as Will is being bloody weird and I’m reasonably sure he’s about to leave me!”
“What?” Amy looked aghast at the very notion. “Will Bowman? The man who is absolutely, disgustingly crackers about you?”
“He’s been weird ever since I told him about the… situation,” Bonnie gestured vaguely at her abdomen. “He doesn’t want another. He didn’t ask for another. But it just happened and now I think he’s gonna walk out, and I can’t say I’d blame him.”
“Why on earth would you think that he was going to leave you, Bon?” Clara asked.
“Because he’s being all cagey and disappearing off for prolonged periods and,” Bonnie took a shuddering breath. “He wants us to ‘talk’ this evening.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Clara said, sympathetically. “Bon, I’m sorry.”
“You do know about this thing called ‘contraception,’ right?” Amy observed. “That might-”
Clara scowled at her best friend, who fell mercifully silent. “Not helping.”
“We were careful,” Bonnie said in a baleful tone, hanging her head and looking thoroughly downcast. “But there was one tiny slip up and… now I’m thoroughly up shit creek.”
“He won’t leave you,” Clara said emphatically. “He’s nuts about you and you can make this work. He’ll come around to the idea.”
“Definitely,” Amy added, looking pragmatic. “If all else fails, you have options.”
Bonnie blinked at the Scotswoman for a minute, before her eyes widened in silent realisation. “I… guess.”
“It’s going to be OK, Bon,” Clara assured her. “I promise.”
“Thank you,” her cousin whispered, her voice breaking. “And sorry, I’ve completely overshadowed your announcement.”
“Don’t be sorry!” Clara smiled at her. “This is big news, and I’m happy you told us.”
“Well, except the bit about Will leaving,” Amy countered, and Clara fought to resist the urge to thump her best friend’s arm. “I mean, I’m glad you told us, but that part wasn’t happy news.”
“Sorry,” Bonnie said again, getting to her feet and dabbing at her eyes with her sleeve. “I’m ah… I’m just gonna go to the loo and get my shit together. Back in a mo.”
Before either of them could say anything, she was gone, leaving Amy and Clara looked at each other with bemused stupefaction.
“Well,” Amy said in a low, amused voice. “We’re going to start needing to socialise at somewhere that has a crèche.”
“Amy,” Clara reached for her best friend’s hand, feeling stung when Amy pulled away. “I know it must be difficult for you-”
“Difficult?” Amy scoffed, but Clara knew that the upbeat tone was intended to mask any trace of sadness. “Not having to deal with more than one lot of toddler and teenage years? What a dream. No more childbirth, no more morning sickness…”
“Plus, it’s excellent to know that Rory and I won’t have any… accidents.”
Amy fell silent then, her eyes wide and panicked as they darted around the room and refused to alight on Clara.
“Amy, just know that I love you and I always will,” Clara said softly, and it was then that Amy finally looked at her properly, her expression becoming calmer as their eyes locked. “Nothing will change.”
“Sounding just a little bit gay, Oswald.”
“Shut up,” Clara laughed, the seriousness of the moment broken. “You’re totally babysitting, by the way.”
“Thanks,” Amy grimaced. “Can you buy me a bigger house first, maybe? Might be handy.”
“So,” Clara said that evening as she clambered into bed beside John. “Parents-to-be. Officially.”
“Mm,” he hummed, tugging at her hand gently until she scooted across the sheets and rearranged herself by his side. “Sounds nice, doesn’t it?”
“Very nice,” Clara concurred, resting her head on his shoulder. “Beautiful, in fact.”
“Just like you.”
“You’re such a sap.”
“Only for you.”
Clara rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “So, I come bearing news from my lunch date with the girls.”
“Bonnie’s having another baby.”
“Bloody hell,” John raised his eyebrows. “Has she not worked out what’s causing it yet? Do they not have a television in their house? Maybe they should get one. Give them something else to do.”
“Shut up,” Clara elbowed him in the ribs. “She thinks Will is going to leave her because of it.”
“Well, did she do it deliberately? Get pregnant?”
“What? You hear about women doing these things…”
“No, she didn’t,” Clara glared at him. “She wouldn’t.”
“So, why would he leave?”
“You remember what they were like at Christmas. Dead-set on not having any more kids.”
“Yeah but… times change, don’t they? And he loves her. God, he’s crazy about her; it’s actually quite nauseating.”
“He’s been weird ever since she told him,” Clara sighed sadly. “And he wanted to ‘talk’ this evening, which is never a good sign.”
“Well, I guess he was in shock. Another kid is a big responsibility.”
“John,” she sighed again. “Just… she might need some sup-”
Her phone pinged on the bedside table and Clara reached for it instinctively. A new message from Bonnie was glowing onscreen:
He didn’t want to talk.
Clara felt her stomach drop, and she chewed her lip, thumbs hovering over the keyboard as she tried to think of a suitably comforting message that she could send back. She’d got as far as typing out I’m so sorry when another message appeared, and she shrieked, nearly dropping the phone in surprise.
“What?” John asked, sitting up and looking instantly panicked. “Has the government all been nuked? Has the Queen died? What’s wrong?”
“It’s…” Clara squealed, picking up the phone again and opening the photo attached to Bonnie’s second message, unable to hide her grin. “Don’t be smug, alright.”
“Why would I be smug?”
“Because Will hasn’t left Bon.”
“Well, that was obvious.”
“He asked her to marry him.”
“And she said…?”
“What do you think?” Clara handed him her phone with a flourish. “Ta-dah.”
“Aww,” John zoomed in on the photo, smiling at Bonnie and Will’s happy expressions. “See, after everything we’ve been through… good things have finally started to come our way.”
“You can’t credit everything good to us.”
“I can and I will. Watch me.”
Clara and John meet Amalia and Alleia for the first time.
“What if they don’t like us?” Clara asked John, staring straight ahead through the windscreen and trying to keep from shaking, hyperventilating, or excessively perspiring. Given the baking summer weather, the last item on her agenda was proving to be a challenge, and she shifted from side to side a little, feeling the skin on her bare arms peel away from the leather upholstery of the car interior. On her lap were two objects, and she clutched them with trembling fingers as she fought to remember how to breathe: one was the unicorn she had bought all those months before, with Bonnie by her side, and the other was as similar a duplicate as she could find. She clung to them all the more tightly, and took a deep breath. “What if-”
“Clara,” John said measuredly, and when she chanced a look at him she noticed how tersely he was gripping the steering wheel, and how wide and panicked his own eyes were as he focused on the road ahead of them. “They aren’t going to hate us. You’re a wonderful person, and I try my best, and we are both good, kind people.”
“But what if they hate us? Like, hypothetically speaking?”
“Clara,” he said again, this time through gritted teeth. “We are not going to operate on ‘what ifs,’ OK? We are going to get there and meet them, and, if they really cannot stand us, then we can contact Sarah Jane and see what she says. Alright?”
“Fine,” she mumbled, feeling chastised, and she turned away from him and stared out the window. “You’re wrong, by the way.”
“You’re not ‘trying your best’ to be a wonderful person, you already are one.”
She sensed rather than saw his mouth quirk up into a smile. “Thanks.”
“Just the truth.”
“Well, here’s hoping it is, because we’re nearly there. This is their road.”
Clara sat bolt upright then, her attention snapping back to the fore as she looked around them at the large red-brick houses that ran up both sides of the wide, tree-lined street. “Bloody hell,” she said in quiet awe. “Makes it look like we’re taking them to live in abject poverty.”
“Yeah, I forgot we live in a hovel,” John deadpanned, rolling his eyes as he spoke. “My bad.”
“We don’t have trees on our road!”
“No, but we have a garden,” he reminded her. “Stop being daft.”
“I know,” John drew the car to a halt outside Number Ten, and looked over at Clara, meeting her gaze and smiling encouragingly. “But we can do this.”
“They’re going to love us.”
“We’ve got this,” John reaffirmed, before getting out the car, circling around and opening the passenger door for Clara with a theatrical flourish. “Milady.”
“Thanks, Parker,” she teased, leaning up and giving him a quick kiss on the cheek once she was free of the stifling interior. Juggling the cuddly unicorns until they rested under one arm, she slipped her hand into his and gave it a quick squeeze, trying to relax and feeling appreciative when he returned the gesture. “Shall we?”
John nodded once, and despite his encouragement a few moments before, his face became a mask of terror, but he led the way up the front path nonetheless, knocking on the red-painted front door with a trembling hand. A second later they were greeted by the beaming face of Madge Arwell, who was wearing an enormous floral apron and holding a rolling pin in one hand. “Hello!” she enthused, with far more cheer than she had exhibited at their first meeting. “Come in, come in! Oh, this is such wonderful news, isn’t it?”
“Mm,” John said noncommittally, in a tone that Clara knew was down to his nerves, and they both stepped over the threshold. “Yeah, it’s wonderful.”
“You both look terrified,” Madge said with sympathy. “Do you want a cup of tea before you-”
She didn’t get any further, because a little girl had raced into the hallway and attached herself to Clara’s legs, clinging to them fiercely.
“Amalia!” Madge protested, looking flustered. “I told you to wait in the conservatory with Reg and your sister!”
Clara was faintly aware of Madge’s husband appearing in a doorway behind her and mumbling an apology, but the majority of her attention was on the little girl clutching her as though afraid to let go.
“Hey,” Clara said softly, prising Amalia’s hands away just enough that she could crouch down, at which point the little girl wrapped her arms around her neck instead. Hesitantly, Clara returned the embrace, and she felt Amalia relax a little as she felt Clara’s arms settle around her. “I’m Clara, and I’m-”
“You’re our new mummy,” the little girl said breathlessly, and Clara’s heart leapt at the casual use of the term. “Aren’t you? Madge and Reg told us you are.”
“That’s right,” Clara said softly, stroking the little girl’s hair as they held each other. “If you’d like me to be.”
“Yes,” Amalia said at once, clinging all the tighter to Clara. “Please.”
With some difficulty, and not before dropping both cuddly toys on the hall carpet, Clara lifted Amalia into her arms and beamed at the little girl perched on her hip. “This is John,” she told her, nodding to her husband. “He’s going to be-”
“Daddy,” Amalia said simply, reaching for him with both arms, and Clara felt a fleeting, irrational sting of rejection before that feeling was replaced with warm affection. “Our new daddy.”
“Hey, little one,” he said with an easy grin, reaching over and taking her from Clara as though it were the most natural thing in the world. “I’m John.”
Clara scooped up the fluffy unicorns from the floor, unable to conceal the enormous grin on her face as she watched Amalia survey him with a critical eye.
“You’ve got lots of hair,” the little girl observed after a moment, reaching up and running a hand through it. “Lots and lots. And it’s silver.”
Clara waited for John to tense up, or look panicked, but he only laughed. “Yes, I do. Do you like it?”
“It’s fluffy. Why isn’t Clara’s hair silver?”
“She’s not special enough to have silver hair yet,” John tipped his wife a wink, and she stuck her tongue out at him. “Maybe one day.”
Leaning forwards, Amalia whispered conspiratorially, yet loud enough for everyone to hear: “She’s really pretty.”
“Isn’t she?” John chuckled as his wife blushed. “I think she has a present for you.”
“Which one would you like?” Clara asked, holding both toys out for Amalia’s appraisal, and after a moment’s consideration she reached for the slightly smaller of the two, clutching it to her chest.
“Thank you,” she whispered shyly, burying her face in it, and Clara smiled.
“You’re welcome,” she told her, reaching over and ruffling her hair “Now, how about you introduce us to your sister?”
“Yes, and I’ll pop the kettle on,” Madge proposed in a bright tone. “Oh gosh, and finish rolling out these scones. If they’re done we could have some later, but well… first, tea?”
“Please,” Clara said gratefully. “John?”
“I’ll have one too, yeah,” he confirmed, nodding fondly at Amalia, who was still clinging to him, limpet-like. “Might need to sit down to drink it, though.”
“Of course, come on through,” Reg said, gesturing for them to follow him, and together they made their way along the hall through a large, brightly coloured kitchen and into a spacious conservatory. Plants lined the windowsills, and there was a motley collection of assorted chairs and sofas arranged around the edges of the space, which was still a comfortable temperature in the relative cool of the morning sun.
“Alleia,” Amalia called in a bossy tone that reminded Clara acutely of herself. “You can stop hiding now, they’re nice.”
Clara looked around the room in confusion, certain that it concealed no children, but then a girl with enormous dark eyes and a mop of curly hair stuck her head out from behind one of the sofas, taking in the sight of John and Clara, before disappearing back to the relative safety of her hiding place.
“Sorry,” Reg said sheepishly. “She’s a little shyer than her sister, and she’s not always very good with new people.”
“That’s alright,” Clara granted him a quick smile, moving away from the group and sitting cross-legged on the tiled floor, a metre or so away from where Alleia was hiding. “Hello,” she said in a quiet, reassuring voice. “My name’s Clara, and I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet.” She held out the remaining unicorn, hoping it would attract the toddler’s attention and lure her out.
There was a long pause, and then a small voice asked: “What it called?”
“Well, I thought you might like to give it a name, because it’s for you,” Clara stroked the fluffy mane of the stuffed toy. “What do you think we should call it?”
“It a girl,” Alleia mumbled, peeking out around the edge of the sofa and affixing both Clara and the toy with a nervous look. “And it called Sparkles.”
“Sparkles?” Clara smiled. “That’s a nice name. Would you like to come and give Sparkles a cuddle?”
Very, very slowly, Alleia crept from her hiding place, approaching Clara with the utmost caution. Clara stayed perfectly still, the unicorn held out at arm’s length, and she was surprised when the little girl didn’t snatch the toy from her, but rather left it in Clara’s hands and stroked it thoughtfully.
“Alleia, stop being silly,” Amalia said sternly from behind her, and the younger girl looked for a fleeting moment like she might take flight again. “Be brave.”
“It’s alright,” Clara said in a calming tone. “You’re being very brave, talking to me.”
“Are you new mummy?”
“I am, yes.”
“You like unicorns?” Alleia asked with the utmost seriousness, and Clara had the sudden, bizarre thought that this was like a very strange job interview.
“Unicorns are the best.”
Alleia chewed on her lip, clearly evaluating the veracity and sincerity of Clara’s statement, before edging closer to her with a bashful expression.
“OK,” the little girl said, half to herself, and she took the proffered unicorn into her arms. “OK.”
“You have more unicorns?”
“At home, yes, we do,” Clara improvised, resolving to buy several. “You could have unicorns in your bedroom, if you liked.”
Alleia nodded, apparently satisfied with this answer. “Good,” she said, sounding oddly grown-up in her certainty and giving a definitive little nod. She looked over at her sister, and some kind of non-verbal communication must have passed between them, because, a moment later, she had taken Clara by the hand and was tugging at it insistently.
“Come on,” Alleia demanded. “I show you my bedroom.”
Clara looked over to Reg for permission, and he nodded. “OK,” she said, getting to her feet and dusting herself down with her free hand. “Are there unicorns?”
“Some,” the little girl gave Reg a withering look. “Not been given lots.”
Her foster father smothered a laugh. “Sorry, Alleia.”
“Good,” she sniffed. “Come on. Show you bedroom.”
Clara allowed herself to be led back through the house and upstairs to a large, pastel-pink bedroom with white furniture and floral decals on the walls. There was a set of neatly made-up bunk beds, and at once Clara guessed that the lower belonged to Alleia: it was adorned with a faded unicorn-print duvet set, and there was a large stuffed one sat next to the pillow.
“This my bed,” Alleia explained somewhat unnecessarily, pointing to the unicorn toy. “She called Princess.”
“Hello, Princess,” Clara said, giving it an obliging little wave, before asking Alleia: “Is Princess your best unicorn?”
“Yes, she most big. Can she come and live with us?”
“I don’t know. Is she yours? Or Reg and Madge’s?”
“Reg give her me at funfair.”
“So, I think she’s yours. She can come and live with us, yes.”
“Good,” Alleia clambered onto her bed, and Clara looked around the room, noticing a framed photograph on their bookshelf. It showed a fair-skinned blonde woman stood beside the Thames, her arms around a dark-skinned man with close-cropped hair, and both of their expressions were identically serene. “That Mummy and Daddy,” Alleia told her, noticing her looking. “Old Mummy and Daddy. You new Mummy.”
“I’m not…” for the first time, Clara felt awkward. “I’ll be your mummy, yes, but that’s still your mummy too.” She pointed at the picture, and Alleia shrugged.
“I no remember them,” she said in a pragmatic tone. “I was very very little when they die. Amalia is sad sometimes, but it silly, she not remember lots.”
“It’s OK to be sad,” Clara told her in a reassuring tone. “But ah… do you think you would like me to be your mummy?”
Alleia surveyed her for a moment, weighing up the question. “Yes,” she said after a moment. “Yes, please.”
Clara and John begin telling people about the girls, but how will the public take the news?
“So,” Amy began pragmatically, shoving her pushchair through the doors of Toys R Us and immediately colliding with the trolley of a scowling pregnant woman. “Sorry. How did it go?”
“Well,” Clara mused, picking up a basket while Amy leant down to check on the still-slumbering Melody. “I think it went well, if I’m honest.”
“They didn’t run screaming for the hills as soon as they saw you, then?”
“I mean,” Clara adopted a serious expression as they headed further into the store with Amy beside her, her best friend looking around herself warily, lest she bump into anyone else. “It might be difficult for them to do that, given that they live in London and they’re under the age of five.”
“There’s Primrose Hill,” Amy argued, shooting her best friend a withering look. “Don’t be bloody argumentative. Were they complete and utter little shits? That’s what I’m getting at.”
A passing couple with a toddler glared at Amy, who only rolled her eyes by way of response.
“That kind of language isn’t appropriate around children,” the mother said in a low, furious voice, resting one hand protectively on her young son’s head as she spoke. “You should be more careful, or your child might end up picking up your foul vocabulary.”
“I’m Scottish,” Amy said brightly, her words coupled with a devil-may-care shrug. “I could swear fluently by the time I was three, and I’m sure my daughter will keep up the good old family tradition.”
The woman sniffed haughtily. “That kind of attitude is precisely why people like you aren’t welcome in this city.”
“Oh, get down off your high horse,” Amy snapped. “Piss off back to your mansion in Kensington with little Hugo or Piers or whatever hell stupid name you’ve given the poor kid and stop bothering people who don’t have sticks up their arses.”
Before either the woman or her husband could respond, their child grinned up at them both and repeated gleefully: “Piss off!”
Clara grabbed Amy by the elbow and dragged her away before either parent could chastise her further, and as they steered around a corner, both women dissolved into laughter at the child’s proud expression, and his parents’ twin looks of agonised horror. “Oh, bloody hell,” Clara managed after a moment, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes. “I bet we end up getting thrown out of here.”
“It’s a shop, they can’t ask potential customers to leave.”
“What if said customers streaked through the aisles?”
“Why?” Amy asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. “Are you having an urge, Oswald?”
“No,” Clara said at once, affixing Amy with a bemused expression. “It’s hypothetical.”
“Sure it is. You know, I’ve not seen you with your kit off since-”
“Anyone would think you fancied me,” Clara interjected, poking her tongue out. “I’m very flattered, you know.”
“Babe, I’ve had the most tremendous of girl crushes on you since we first met. Do keep up,” Amy reminded her. “Now, I believe you dragged me to this overpriced-crap-filled hell-hole because you wanted to search for unicorns.”
“You make it sound like I’m some kind of deluded zoologist.”
“Don’t wind me up in a place that contains large inflatable hammers,” Clara deadpanned. “Or I might have to make use of the available weaponry and hit you with it.”
“You can’t do that,” Amy pointed out. “I have a baby; that basically renders me a protected species.”
Clara looked down at her goddaughter, who had just begun to stir, and before Amy could react, she had set down her basket, snatched Melody out of the pram and rested the little one on her hip. “Ha,” she said triumphantly. “I win.”
The little one looked confused and then pleased about this development, snuggling into Clara’s shoulder and blinking around at the assorted brightly coloured packaging adorning the shelves, while Amy looked unimpressed by Clara’s tactical manoeuvre.
“You know, that’s basically kidnapping. Or blackmail. Or… something,” she groused, before jabbing a finger in her daughter’s direction. “As for you, look less cheerful about being used as a bargaining chip. Whose side are you even on here?”
“Mine, obviously,” Clara grinned, bouncing Melody a little and watching the infant smile in response. “Happy little girl, aren’t you? You love cuddles with Auntie Clara. Come on, let’s leave Mummy here being rude while we go and look at the pretty toys.”
“Excuse me,” Amy protested, as Clara turned away from her and began to make her way along the aisle. “Even if this wasn’t rude, your arms are going to get tired soon.”
“So, you’d best keep up then, hadn’t you?” Clara called over her shoulder as she headed towards where she was reasonably sure the cuddly toys had been the last time she paid the enormous shop a visit. “Or you’ll fall behind.”
There was an odd rattling, rocking noise that Clara knew from experience was the sound of a pram being pushed at speed, and a moment later Amy appeared at her side, looking somewhat put out, but unwilling to complain.
“You haven’t answered my question,” the Scotswoman observed. “About the kids.”
“Oh, right,” Clara blinked, adjusting Melody on her hip and trying to look casual about matters. “Yeah, it went well.”
“Bollocks,” Amy said in disbelief. “That’s all you’ve got to say?”
“OK,” Clara relented, feeling herself blush as she resigned herself to Amy’s inevitable forthcoming interrogation. “It was amazing. They’re perfect, Amy. They’re so cute and they were so accepting; there weren’t any awkward questions or anything uncomfortable, they were just so happy to know that we would be adopting them and that they would have a proper home.”
“What are they like?” Amy asked. “I mean, personality-wise?”
“Amalia is like you,” Clara grinned. “And like me. A bit bossy, a bit headstrong… confident, but she’s hiding her vulnerability beneath that.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“Shut up, we both know I’m right.”
“Yeah, alright. Just don’t shorten her name to ‘Amy’ and replace me, yeah?”
“I’ll do my best. I can’t promise to intervene if she wants to go ginger in her teens, though.”
“Rude. How’s the other one?”
“Alleia? She was a bit more shy to start with, but I think she was just nervous about new people. The Arwells said she can be a bit more hesitant around new people, and she tends to look to her sister to see how she could act… then because Amalia was relaxed and confident around us, she was, too.”
“I guess they’ve learned to rely on each other a lot.”
“Yeah,” Clara cast her mind back to the previous day and smiled fondly at the recollection of sitting with John on the sofa in the conservatory, each of them with a child on their lap and each of them fielding a non-stop volley of questions. “They’re really sweet kids.”
“How was John with them?”
“Perfect.” Clara couldn’t help herself from beaming soppily. “The absolute cutest. They warmed to him straight away, and he didn’t even get weird when they asked about why his hair was grey or anything.”
“Now, that’s saying something,” Amy said with admiration. “Given… well, given his track record.”
“The girls just seemed to totally take it within their stride. They weren’t bothered about it at all.”
“Well, why would they be? As far as they’re concerned, they’re getting a new family. They don’t care what that family is like, and they’re too young to have learned to cast aspersions on you because of the age gap.”
“It was just…” Clara looked down at Melody to try and keep her voice from wobbling with emotion at the thought that the girls were really theirs. “Really nice.”
“When can you bring them home?” Amy asked softly, and Clara felt a surge of gratitude for the change of subject to something more pragmatic. “Is it soon?”
“Not for a little while,” she sighed. “All about building up trust, for now.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Amy wrinkled her nose. “Still kind of annoying, though. You must want them home straight away.”
“I do,” she mumbled. “But also there’s a lot to do before then.”
“What are you going to do about work?”
“Go to part-time, then go on adoption leave once we’ve got a concrete date to bring them home.”
“Are school OK with it?”
“Why wouldn’t they be?”
“I don’t know,” Amy looked awkward and gesticulated vaguely with one hand. “Some places get kind of weird about these things.”
“Well, they’ve been really good. They’re letting me do non-assessed classes — you know, Year 7 to 9 — because we reasoned that, if I started to cover GCSE material or A-Level stuff and then buggered off on leave, it wouldn’t be fair on the kids.”
“Understandable. And the show?”
“Oh, god,” Clara groaned. “I don’t know, can we please just shop? I can’t worry about all of this stuff right now.”
“Sorry,” Amy muttered, dropping her gaze guiltily. “Shopping it is.”
“John?” Clara asked that evening, plonking herself down in her usual chair in the studio and placing her cup of coffee beside her monitor as she reached for her headphones and rested them around her neck with a forced air of casualness. “What are we going to do about… this?”
“Could you be more specific?” he asked, without looking up from the Spotify playlist he was currently curating with the kind of rigour one usually associated with the military. “What’s ‘this’?”
“The show,” Clara explained curtly, then added in a gentler tone: “Our show. I mean, once the girls are with us… we can’t exactly just leave them on their own for a couple of hours every day, or drag them in to sit in the office while we present. Not least because Andrew isn’t a babysitter.”
“I’ve given this some thought,” John admitted. “And the conclusion I’ve come to is that we do three shows a week instead of six, and we pre-record them.”
“How would that…”
“So, we’d come in one day a week and just go through stuff and blitz it. It won’t kill the girls if they have to spend one day a week with Bonnie or Amy or a childminder, if all else fails.”
“In fact, I’d imagine that spending time with Bonnie or Amy would be quite fun.”
“I suppose so.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“Well… how are we meant to explain the change to listeners?”
“By telling the truth,” John said with quiet confidence. “By telling them what’s going on.”
“I thought we wanted to keep things private.”
“We did, and we will, but we won’t lose anything by stating that we’re adopting and we’d like people to respect our privacy.”
“What if the paps come and stake out the house?” Clara worried, beginning to bite at a hangnail as she felt panic creeping in. “What if they start bothering the girls?”
“They won’t,” John said softly, reaching over and moving her hand away from her mouth. “I mean, Chris Evans has kids with his wife, and he doesn’t get bothered.”
“Chris Evans is a bit of a dick, though.”
“Good point,” John grimaced. “But the press know the boundaries.”
“John, they’ve been critical of us from day one. What’s to say that they won’t be interested in extending that fascination to the girls?”
“OK, how about this,” he said patiently. “We just make a nice, calm statement on the show today, let them get all the interest and furore and speculation out of their systems before the girls even move in, and then we can get on with parenthood in peace?”
Clara mulled over the idea, trying to consider the pros and cons of such a course of action. It was appealing, certainly. The press would lose interest by the time the girls were able to move in with them, and they would be able to enjoy their family life in peace. But until then… there would be more scrutiny, and speculative pieces, and so-called “interviews” that were really just carefully rehashed stories spliced together to form a narrative that fit the tabloids’ ignoble intentions. She shuddered inwardly at the very thought, before reaching for John’s hand and giving it a quick squeeze. “Yeah,” she decided, before she could change her mind or overanalyse anything. “Yeah, let’s do it.”
“OK,” John grinned. “Well, we’re live in thirty seconds, so why not make the big announcement to kick things off?”
“Oh god,” Clara groaned, her fear creeping back in. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You’ll think of something,” John assured her, reaching over and placing her headphones carefully over her ears with a reassuring smile. “You always do.”
“Twenty…” he affixed her with a stern look that clearly conveyed the message: do not back out. “Nineteen… Eighteen…”
Clara placed her head in her hands and took deep, fortifying breaths, barely even aware of John counting down beside her. When the screen in front of her lit up with the message LIVE! in lurid red capitals, she steadied herself, adopted the usual upbeat tone she used while presenting, and began:
“So, it’s five o’clock on a scorching August evening and I really do hope that you’re all enjoying this gorgeous weather! If you aren’t, and if you’re struggling to find anything positive about the heat wave, then John and I have a big, big announcement for you all that will warm even the coldest of hearts.”
“It’s massive news,” John interjected, scooting a little closer to her and resting his arm across the back of her chair in a careful, reassuring gesture. “Very exciting.”
“Yes, it is, but don’t interrupt,” she teased, forgetting her nerves as they slipped into their usual banter. This was just like playing a part, was all; it was getting into character and allowing her enthusiasm to consume her. “Now, some of you might want to sit down for this, but… John and I are going to be parents!”
“No, we’re not,” she shot back. “Well, maybe a little. We’re adopting two beautiful little girls, and we’re both absolutely thrilled. If you aren’t equally pleased for us then we’d kindly suggest maybe tuning in to an alternate radio station-”
“-not taking to social media to lambast us-”
“-and not writing articles speculating about our decision. We made a conscious choice. If you don’t like it… don’t tell us. Don’t engage with it. Just move on.”
“Nicely put, love.”
“Why thank you,” Clara grinned. “I’m sure John will echo that sentiment.”
“Yes indeed,” he said brightly. “And now, in a complete deviation from type, but because I’m feeling like a sap, here’s Isn’t She Lovely.”
A trip to the park soon turns into a nightmare for the fledgling family-to-be.
Clara took a deep, shuddering breath, feeling it catch in her chest as she did so, and she closed her eyes, trying to block out what she had just seen. Clenching her fists and shaking her head as though that might help, she concentrated on the events of that afternoon in lieu of what lay before her on the screen of her iPad, and she tried to recall the highlights of the day in order to try and keep herself calm.
“Higher!” Alleia had shrieked gleefully, tiny fists clutching the chains of the red-painted swing as Clara pushed her. “Higher, Clara!”
“That’s as high as you can go!” she’d protested, watching as the little girl swung her legs back and forth to try and gain more height, copying some of the bigger boys and girls. “Or you’ll swing over the top and get stuck.”
“Yeah!” the toddler giggled, entirely undeterred by the warning. “Want do that!”
“No, you don’t,” Clara had told her, stopping pushing her and allowing her to keep swinging under her own momentum. “You might hurt yourself, and then you wouldn’t be able to play on the swings for a while because you’d have to get better first.”
Alleia had considered up this warning for a few seconds, allowing herself to stop swinging and looking over at where Amalia and John were playing on the brightly painted roundabout. “We go roundabout?”
“Sure,” Clara had acquiesced, lifting the little girl off her swing before attempting to set her down on the slightly springy surface of the playground.
“No,” Alleia had said, shaking her head and clinging to her with determination. “Carry me.”
“Clara?” John called, breaking her reverie, and her eyes snapped open as he entered their bedroom and frowned at her. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Clara said, adopting a wide, sunny smile that she hoped would be enough to fool him. “I’m fine.”
“You look like you’re going to be sick.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” she insisted again, rearranging the duvet over herself and moving her arm to cover the iPad from view. “I’m fine, really.”
John narrowed his eyes at her and moved closer to the bed. “You’re worrying me.”
“Again: gee, thanks.”
He lunged without warning for the tablet she had been so carefully concealing, snatching it up and unlocking it before she even had time to protest. Grimacing down at the screen, he held the iPad as though it were something dirty or distasteful, looking repulsed. “Jesus Christ, why are you reading this shitrag?”
The comments section of the Daily Mail was open onscreen, and Clara put her hands over her face as John scrolled up to the top of the page and read the article’s headline aloud in a flat, expressionless tone.
“‘Madonna, Mark Two? Clara Oswald-Smith and husband are photographed in London park with adopted African children and their staff.’” John looked disgusted. “Is this actually serious? This has to be satirical, right? They don’t actually think we’re like that?”
“Urm,” Clara began, feeling guilty for bringing the article to John’s attention, even inadvertently. “No, I don’t think it is satirical. I think they’ve got the wrong end of the stick completely and blown everything out of proportion.”
“As usual,” John muttered, skimming through the rest of the article and looking increasingly pissed off with each paragraph. “Jesus. Jesus. They’re trying to make out you’ve got some kind of… I don’t know, saviour complex…”
“And that you’re being coerced by me into going along with my decisions. Yeah, it’s good, isn’t it?”
“The girls aren’t even…” he swore under his breath, locking the iPad and hiding the bigoted content from view. “They’re from sodding Peckham! We didn’t do like Madonna or Brangelina and go and buy them from some shitty orphanage in Africa!”
“I know, but their team of so-called journalists aren’t privy to that kind of information.”
John looked to be on the verge of speaking again when Clara’s phone rang, and she groaned, checking the caller ID and realising she should probably answer. Reluctantly, she connected the call and put it on speaker.
“Hi, Clara,” Sarah Jane said sombrely. “You’ve seen the article, I presume?”
“Yeah,” she sighed, shoulders slumping. “Yeah, we have.”
“And the backlash?”
“Calling us ‘colonising white-trash,’ claiming that I’m ‘stealing babies from Africa because of my barren womb,’ and hoping that John ‘feels so cuckolded that the scales fall from his eyes and he walks out’?” she reeled off flatly, quoting some of the particularly bitter tweets they’d received, and John — hearing these for the first time — shot her an incredulous look. “Yeah, I have.”
“Did you know you were being photographed?”
“No,” Clara admitted. “It wasn’t… I think it was one of the other parents, not a photographer, because we’d have noticed someone lurking with a camera. You know, it makes me feel worse, actually, that it wasn’t just some bloody pap.”
“Because you expect anyone working for a tabloid to be an immoral piece of shit, but you don’t expect that from other people with kids.”
“Good point,” their social worker acquiesced. “I ah… Reg and Madge are understandably upset, too.”
Clara’s heart stopped as she understood, abruptly, why Sarah Jane had rung. “No,” she said at once, tears stinging her eyes. “No, please no, please don’t do this.”
“Don’t do what?”
“You’re going to say we can’t adopt the girls because of this, aren’t you? That we can’t have them because it’s not fair on them or us to be exposed to this level of media scrutiny,” Clara felt herself beginning to hyperventilate, and she was dimly aware of John setting down the iPad and moving to sit beside her. As he placed his hands on her shoulders and began to massage them gently, she continued to beg: “Please. Please, don’t do this.”
“Clara,” Sarah Jane said with absolute calmness. “I’m not going to say that.”
“The Arwells are upset that this happened, but they don’t blame you. They’re also just a tiny bit ticked off about being categorised as ‘staff,’ but I think mainly they’re pissed off at whoever did this and sold you out.”
“Well, that makes four of us,” Clara muttered, glad, at least, that the Arwells were on their side. “God, the fact the Mail have published this shit so quickly… they’ve still never forgiven us for not cowing to their bloody pressure and breaking up back when we first got together.”
“They’re a tabloid. They hate everyone and everything, Clara.”
“True,” she leant into John’s embrace, closing her eyes and trying to calm herself down. “What do we do now?”
“You both need to stay calm — that includes John,” Sarah Jane instructed. “In the morning, release a statement. For now, though… stop reading the comments, stop looking at social media, stop worrying about what people are saying. Just try to have a normal evening.”
“How are we meant to do that when-”
“Find something to watch on telly, make yourself a hot drink, do whatever is necessary. Just don’t — go — on — the — Internet.”
“I’ll phone again in the morning, OK?”
“Sure. Thanks, Sarah Jane.”
There was a soft click as she hung up, and Clara chucked her phone onto the duvet at her feet. “Great.”
“Did they really say all of that about you?” John asked at once, and she felt him tensing up in a manner that indicated he was on the verge of losing his temper. “All that stuff about you being barren and me leaving you?”
“Don’t forget the bit about us being white trash,” Clara reminded him wearily. “That bit was important.”
“What else did they say about you?”
“I don’t know,” Clara shrugged, not wanting to confess to John some of the awful things she’d read prior to him coming upstairs. “Just… accusing me of following a trend; asking if I was too posh or rich to have kids myself; speculating that we’re adopting because you can’t get it up… that kind of thing.”
“Well, the last one is clearly a lie.”
Clara affixed her husband with a bemused glare.
“As are all the others, obviously,” he added, looking contrite. “But-”
“John, we always knew that this was a possibility. In fact, we knew it was a certainty. We knew people would have issues with our decision, and that they’d be very keen to express their feelings.”
“I know, but I think what counts, though, is that the girls don’t have a problem with it.”
“How do you know that?”
“Someone said something today,” he confessed, looking down, guiltily. “At the playground. While you were with Alleia on the swings.”
“What?” Clara asked, feeling her temper flare at the thought that someone would feel the need to express their bigoted opinions in front of — or worse, to — the girls. “What did they say?”
“It was this stuck-up middle-class white woman, and she asked Amalia who I was,” he ran a hand through his hair and continued in a voice dripping with sarcasm: “Because clearly, you know, older white bloke, mixed-race kid… so suspicious.”
“Amalia said I was her new daddy. Which the woman seemed to take umbrage to, because she then asked why I was white, because Amalia wasn’t. Which is just… a really unnecessarily obvious thing to point out, frankly, not to mention the fact that it implies that-”
“-it was something you made a conscious decision about.”
“Exactly!” John smiled. “But Amalia wasn’t bothered at all. She just said I was going to be her new daddy, and that it didn’t matter what colour I was, even if I was purple.”
Clara laughed. “Purple might be… interesting.”
“It might,” John concurred. “But after this woman had buggered off back to ignoring her kid in favour of gossiping on her phone, Amalia told me that she didn’t mind if people asked; she remembered people asking her mum, and that her mum would give funny answers sometimes.”
“She didn’t say, but I’d imagine they were of the, ‘Oh my god, I’m white? I hadn’t noticed,’ variety.”
“We might have to adopt that tactic.”
“We might,” John shrugged. “But, for now, we’ve got time and we’ll work it out as we go.”
“The thing is…” Clara chewed her lip, wondering how best to ask the question on her mind. “If the girls were out with both of their parents, then surely people would kind of… put two and two together and not think about asking about that. If they’re out with both of us…”
“Then we can deal with what people say.”
“Easy,” John said. “We just say they’re our daughters.”
“As simple as that?”
“As simple as that. Just keep saying it, and people will stop asking.”
Clara said nothing for a moment, instead just looking up at him in mute awe.
“What?” he asked, looking somewhat discomfited. “Why are you doing that look?”
“I don’t know, but it’s extremely disconcerting.”
“I’m just thinking that you’ve come so far from all your worrying about what people would say and what people would think,” she smiled shyly. “It’s… nice.”
“Well, I aim to self-improve,” he said seriously, as though quoting a therapist, then stuck his tongue out. “Plus, it helps that I’ve got an amazing woman at my side who keeps my miserable arse in check and gives me a kick up the aforementioned arse when I get whiny or irritating. Which is often.”
“Not that often.”
“Becoming less often,” Clara pointed out, reaching over and ruffling his hair, “under my superlative influence.”
“Oh, I try.”
“Good,” she hummed, resting her forehead against his chest and closing her eyes before asking the inevitable question: “What are we going to say to the press tomorrow?”
“We’ll furnish them with the facts. What they choose to do with them is up to them.”
“Probably manipulate them awfully.”
“It’s likely,” John concurred with a weary sigh. “But, fuck ‘em.”
“You really are an entirely changed man.”
“All thanks to you, love.”
“Mm,” she smiled, wrapping her arms around him. “Best husband.”
John and Clara are allowed to spend unsupervised time with the girls for first time, but will everything go according to plan?
Clara sighed, putting the lid back on her red biro and chucking it in the vague direction of her dressing table. It hit the wall with a clatter and rolled out of sight under the lip of her makeup organiser, but she decided she was too tired to care.
“Marking’s going well, then?” John asked, backing into the room with a mug of hot chocolate in each hand, and Clara wrinkled her nose at him in silent appreciation of his unprompted domesticity.
“Are you bringing me cocoa?” she asked in a teasing tone. “How old do you think I am?”
“It’s Thorntons hot chocolate, I don’t think that counts as cocoa,” John shot back, crossing the room and placing her mug down on her bedside table, turning the handle towards her for ease of access. She felt a rush of love for him off the back of that simple gesture, and she reached out and squeezed his waist appreciatively, it being the highest part of him that she could reach without jeopardising the mug of hot liquid he was still holding in his other hand. “How’s Macbeth looking?”
“According to one particular essay, it’s a boring play about a boring Scottish king, and why can’t we learn about modern-day kings like Kanye West instead? Kanye is like, the rap king of America.”
“Please tell me you’re joking,” John said with a pained expression, circling around to his side of the bed and setting his own mug down before climbing under the duvet and scooting closer to her. “Please tell me that kid’s not chronically underappreciating a magnificent piece of literature about Scotland.”
“I really wish I was joking.”
“Yeah,” Clara grimaced, rearranging the slew of essays that covered the duvet into an approximately neat pile and then depositing it onto the floor beside her side of the bed. “Not ideal.”
“At least tomorrow will be fun, though.”
Clara reached for her mug and took a long sip of the hot drink, tucking the duvet around her legs and trying to suppress a grin. “I don’t know who’s more excited about the prospect of going to Legoland; you, or the girls.”
“I’m not excited about going to Legoland,” John said at once, with a sense of great affront that Clara knew was entirely feigned. “What gave you that impression?”
“Oh, I see,” she raised her eyebrows with a smirk. “You’re excited about seeing the girls, nothing more?”
“So, why have you been going on about the Knights Kingdom and the pirate ride and the Star Wars area non-stop for the past week?”
John shot her the kind of look that Clara knew meant that he knew he’d been caught out. “Star Wars is cool,” he muttered, dropping his gaze to the duvet and taking a sulky sip of his drink. “And so are knights and pirates and ninjas and everything else there. Don’t judge.”
“Not judging,” she elbowed him very gently in the ribs. “I think it’s cute you’re so excited.”
“Am I what?”
“Yeah,” Clara smiled. “I mean, it’ll be nice when we can take them out on our own, without the Arwells, but, for now… yeah, this’ll be fun.”
“Nice respite from marking and school and teenagers who can’t appreciate Macbeth.”
“And I will win you over to the delights of Lego Star Wars.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Clara rolled her eyes. “Shut up and drink your cocoa.”
Clara raised her hand to shield her eyes from the sun as she looked across the artificially turquoise waters of the lagoon that lay at the heart of Legoland. Small waves were lapping at the edges of the deck she had paused on, as John and the girls raced ahead of her, eager to see everything and do everything before it was time to go home.
“Are you alright?” Madge asked from beside her, and Clara jumped, her companion having slipped her mind. “It’s rather warm, I know, but it’s a nice view.”
“No, warm is good,” she looked over to the middle-aged woman beside her and smiled wearily, already tired out from racing from ride to ride at a frenetic pace. “Besides, sunshine is much better than rain.”
“That’s true,” the girls’ foster mother concurred. “You just look… I don’t know, a bit… spaced-out?”
“I was miles away,” Clara admitted. “I think it’s the whole fake-seaside-town vibe. Takes me back to my roots.”
“It’s certainly…” Madge looked around at their surroundings, her mouth twitching into a fond little smile. “Rather well done, but maybe not designed for people our age.”
“John seems to be enjoying himself,” Clara noted with a grin. “But, then again, that’s my husband for you.”
Madge chuckled. “Reg was the same, the first time we visited. It’s a shame he was unwell today — he loves the water rides. Driving him home is usually an ordeal; it takes days to dry the seats out.”
Clara grimaced. “Can’t think of anything worse than getting drenched,” she shuddered at the thought, her well-ordered mind and inner control freak hating the notion of getting her clothes wet for fun. “I mean, fine, if I’m prepared and wearing swimwear. Otherwise… no.”
“Well, I hope you’re ready for Drench Towers.”
“Oh, god,” Clara groaned, remembering that they would soon be reaching the waterslides and fountains that she had read about on the park’s website the previous evening. “Well… I’m sure the girls will enjoy it. And I’ll get to enjoy the sight of John in swim shorts.”
“Would I be able to leave the two of you to it for a bit?” Madge asked, looking abruptly coy. “I’d like to go and look around some of the shops and renew our annual pass.”
“Oh,” Clara blinked, unsure about the suggestion. “Urm, sure. It shouldn’t be-”
“Clara!” Alleia shouted, running back to them both and tugging at Clara’s hand. “Come on, we want go to waterpark!”
“You’ll be fine,” Madge said reassuringly, ruffling Alleia’s hair. “Go on, you two. Have fun.”
Clara nodded, before diverting her attention to the toddler who was now yanking her arm. “OK, little one! I’m coming!”
Alleia whooped and began towing her back towards John, who had picked up Amalia and was grinning from ear to ear. “Hey,” he called, tipping her a wink. “Cheer up, it might never happen.”
“Don’t know what you look so cheerful about.”
“The prospect of you in swimwear,” he deadpanned. “And also the prospect of water slides.”
“Aren’t you a bit tall for water slides?” Clara asked, arching an eyebrow. “Shouldn’t that be my remit?”
“Maybe,” John shrugged. “But, equally… I do not intend to miss out.”
“Always. Where’s Madge?”
“Shopping. I think she wanted to let us have-”
“Stop talking, please,” Amalia said bossily, squirming in John’s arms. “We’re wasting very valuable time.”
The two adults fell silent, looking at her with amusement before bursting into laughter. “Where,” Clara managed after a moment, “did you pick that phrase up?”
“Telly,” Amalia scowled a little. “Can we go? Please?”
“Yes, love,” John said in a placating tone, setting her down and taking her by the hand. “Come on, then.”
As the four of them headed across the park, Clara couldn’t help but feel a niggling sense of worry. This was their first time with the girls entirely unsupervised, and it could potentially end in… well, any litany of ways, given that water and play structures and strangers were involved. One of the girls could choke. One of them could drown. One of them could hit their head or break a limb. And, worst of all, they could wander off with a strange adult, lured by promises of sweets or ice cream or more exciting rides. Clara shuddered at the thought, resolving to keep a close eye on them, and fighting the urge to give them a lecture on health and safety or stranger danger. She wasn’t going to be that kind of parent — and, besides, she and John would be supervising them.
Taking a deep breath to try and allay some of her internalised panic, she edged closer to John and took his free hand in hers, squeezing tightly.
“OK?” he breathed, and she nodded, but something in her eyes must have betrayed her. “We’re going to be OK, love.”
“Yeah,” she said, with more conviction than she felt. “Yeah, it’s going to be fine.”
Clara leaned back in the lounger she had requisitioned, trying not to feel self-conscious in her swimwear.
“Relax,” John said, reaching over to take her hand and dripping on her only very slightly. He had begged to be excused from playing with the girls for five minutes, and he had been perched beside her ever since, eating a packet of crisps and reapplying sunscreen. “You look great.”
“Enough with the mind-reading, thank you.”
“Well, you do.”
“I bet if I asked a random sample of ten people here, they would agree with my point of view.”
“That or they’d try and take a covert photo of me to sell to the newspapers.”
“That’s a risk, yeah,” John acquiesced. “But please, love. Relax, OK? The girls are having a great time.”
Clara looked over to where the girls were darting in and out of the jets of a flower-shaped fountain, giggling in their matching pink swimming costumes. “Yeah,” she breathed, feeling some of her worry ease. “They are.” And they’re safe, her brain added. That’s what matters. She watched as another little girl approached them both and joined in their game, and she smiled at the simplicity of friendships between small children.
“Want a drink?” John asked, nodding towards the lemon-yellow hut that sat a little way off, doling out cans of fizzy drink and plastic cups of brightly coloured Slush Puppies. “I’m sure they’ll be overpriced, but still.”
“I’m OK,” Clara smiled, reaching into her bag for her sunglasses and slipping them on. “Don’t let me stop you, though.”
“Be right back,” he said, getting to his feet and then leaning down and kissing her without warning, laughing at her yelp of surprise. “Best looking woman here,” he whispered, kissing her neck quickly. “Don’t elope with any of the fit dads before I get back.”
“I won’t,” she stuck her tongue out at him and settled back, closing her eyes as he headed over to get a drink. What felt like seconds later, she felt something ice-cold pressing on her stomach, and she shrieked, sitting up and yanking her sunglasses up to rest on the top of her head. John was sat beside her, a can of Coke in his hand, and she affixed him with a bemused glare. He looked more serious than she expected, and she felt a sudden rush of concern. “What?”
“Where’s Amalia?” he asked, gesturing to the fountain she and her sister had been playing in moments before. Alleia was still there with her new friend, but her older sibling was nowhere to be seen.
“I don’t…” Clara felt her stomach drop, and her entire system was flooded with adrenaline as she immediately began to panic. “I don’t know, I only closed my eyes for a second…”
She stumbled to her feet on autopilot, racing over to Alleia with John hot on her heels and crouching before the little girl. “Where’s Amalia?” she asked, placing her hands on Alleia’s shoulders and fighting to keep her voice low to avoid panicking the toddler. “Where did your sister go, sweetheart?”
“With the man,” Alleia shrugged, and pointed over to the side of the waterpark. “Over there.”
Clara felt a wave of nausea crash over her, and she scooped Alleia into her arms, clinging to her protectively. “What man?” she asked, feeling herself beginning to hyperventilate and fighting to remain calm. “Why did she go with him?”
Behind her, she was aware of a look of fury creeping over John’s face, and for once she didn’t feel the need to tell him to calm down. Someone had taken Amalia. They’d been left unattended with the girls, and she’d screwed up, and now someone had taken their daughter-to-be. They were going to lose the girls. They were going to be branded unfit parents. The press would tear them to shreds, and-
“The red man,” Alleia looked confused by the adults’ reaction. “Because she hurt.”
“She’s hurt?” John asked, frowning, and Clara knew his expression was the mirror of her own as they both tried to work out what she meant by ‘the red man.’ “What happened?”
“She slip,” the little girl who the girls had been playing with piped up. “So the park man came.”
In a flash, Clara understood. “The supervisor?” she asked. “The slide supervisor came to help?”
“Yeah,” the little girl clarified with a shrug. “He help her.”
Just as Clara was about to suggest to John that they go and find the first aid hut, she found herself interrupted by an unfamiliar voice behind them.
In unison, she and John turned to find a park employee, dressed head-to-toe in red and affixing them with a look that Clara didn’t fully understand until she noticed Amalia stood behind his legs, her expression sheepish.
“Are you this little girl’s parents?” he asked, and Clara inwardly groaned.
“It’s… complicated,” Clara began. “We-”
“Because she says you aren’t.”
“We’re-” John began, but he was cut off by Amalia herself.
“They’re going to be,” she rolled her eyes at the unfamiliar man’s lack of comprehension. “I said.”
“We’re in the process of adopting the girls,” Clara explained, fighting to keep her temper in the face of the stranger’s judgement, and she passed Alleia over to John. “Is Amalia OK?”
The employee looked unconvinced, but Amalia sidled over to Clara, sticking her leg out and displaying a colourful plaster on her knee. “I banged it,” she explained. “I got a sweet and a plaster.”
“Were you brave?” Clara asked, picking her up and kissing her cheek.
“Very brave,” Amalia confirming, nuzzling into her neck. “Always.”
“Did you say thank you to the nice man for helping you?”
“Thank you,” Amalia said obediently, affixing the employee with an imperious stare, and after a moment he sidled off with a sour expression. “He was rude, Clara. He kept asking questions.”
“You. He asked where my grown-ups were and I pointed at you and then he asked if I was sure.”
“People… might do that.”
“I know,” Amalia looked from John to Clara. “That’s because people are stupid.”
“You are my grown-ups! And when everything is done, then you’ll be my mummy and daddy. I’m not a liar.”
Clara sighed. “I know, love. But some people won’t understand.”
“Well, they’re silly. Can I have an ice cream?”
“Ice cream, ice cream!” Alleia chanted, bouncing up and down in John’s arms, and the two adults exchanged a look. “Ice cream, ice creammmmmm!”
“Fine,” Clara acquiesced. “But no more running around for either of you, OK?”
“OK,” Amalia said with a pout. “Can I have chocolate ice cream, then?”
Amalia and Alleia meet the family.
“What if they don’t like me?”
Clara affixed her dad with a bemused stare, then cast her gaze sideways to her husband. “See?” she asked, unable to keep a hint of triumph out of her voice as she gestured at her father. “This is where I get it from.”
John only rolled his eyes by way of response. “Seeing that now, yep,” he acquiesced with an easy shrug, before his expression grew serious as he addressed his father-in-law. “But Dave, you don’t need to worry.”
“I know it’s daft, but really, what if they don’t like me?” Dave asked again, looking between the two of them with visible apprehension. “Or what if… you know, the other thing?”
“No, we don’t know,” Clara said impatiently, sighing and pushing her hair back off her face. “Do enlighten us.”
“What if…” Dave shifted from foot to foot, looking abruptly guilty and confessing in a rush: “What if I don’t… I don’t know… what’s the word? Bond with them?”
Clara’s eyebrows shot up at once, and she blinked at her father with incredulity. “Really?” she asked, wrinkling her nose and wondering whether Linda had played any part in influencing her father’s attitude towards the girls. Thank god her stepmother had declined their invitation in favour of attending a hen party. “That’s really what you’re stressing about?”
“Well!” her dad protested, holding his hands up. “I’m just worried that-”
“Dave,” John said, in a tone that his wife knew meant he was speaking through gritted teeth. “I promise you that as soon as you meet them, they will surgically attach themselves to you for cuddles and very intense questioning about your favourite toys, mythical beings, and animals. And I promise you that your heart will melt, just like ours did.”
“But what if-”
“Dad!” Clara snapped, both understanding and resenting her father’s uncertainty. “It’s going to be fine. OK? Stop stressing, because they will pick up on it, and then they’ll worry. And the last thing we want is them worrying, so knock it off. We are going to have a lovely evening as a family, got it?”
The doorbell rang then, cutting Dave off before he could voice any further concerns, and John looked relieved to be able to escape the now-terse environment of the kitchen. “I’ll get that,” he said at once. “You two… stay here and have words. Ideally civil ones.”
Before either Oswald could argue, John had darted out to the hall, and Clara looked pleadingly at her father. “Please,” she implored him, twisting her hands together. “Dad, I know it’s going to be difficult, but please just try.”
“I’m just worried-”
“It’s not about what their skin colour is!” Clara all but shouted, then lowered her voice lest it carry into the hall. “OK? It’s not about that! That doesn’t matter!”
Dave blinked at her in blind incomprehension. “Of course it’s not about that,” he said, his brow furrowing quizzically. “Why would it be? I just worry that-”
“Clara!” Amalia shouted, barrelling into the kitchen and skidding to a halt in front of her. “Hello.”
“Hey, kiddo,” Clara felt the worries of seconds earlier melt away as Amalia held up her arms to be picked up, and she lifted the little girl up and cuddled her tightly. “So, we have a very special someone for you to meet today.”
Amalia looked across the kitchen to where Dave was leaning against the worktop beside the kettle, and Clara could all but see the cogs in her head whirring as she made a silent appraisal of someone who was, to her, a stranger. Dave gave her an awkward little wave. “Hi,” he said, visibly nervous. “I’m Dave, Clara’s dad.”
“Hello,” Amalia said, nuzzling into Clara more comfortably and looking, for the first time since Clara had known her, shy. As she spoke again, she turned her face into Clara’s shoulder, muffling her words. “I’m Amalia.”
“Hey,” Clara said softly, stroking Amalia’s hair. “What’s with all this shyness, hey? Not like you.”
Amalia looked up at her, eyes wide as saucers, and whispered: “What if he doesn’t like me?”
Dave visibly wilted under the force of the realisation that the small child in Clara’s arms was as frightened as he was, before he stood a little straighter, bolstered by the worry they shared. “Hey,” he said softly, his expression shifting to quiet confidence as he stepped closer. “Why wouldn’t I like you?”
Amalia shrugged, her shoulders rising and falling almost imperceptibly as she kept her face turned towards Clara.
“You’re my granddaughter,” Dave said, and Clara felt her heart leap in her chest at his casual use of the word. It was enough to attract Amalia’s attention, and she looked over at him with nervous curiosity. “And I think we’re going to be best pals.”
He extended a hand towards her in mock-formality, and after a beat, Amalia reached out and shook it.
“OK,” she concurred, granting him a smile and squeezing his fingers. “Hello, Grandad Dave.”
“Where’s your sister?” Clara asked, realising that the kitchen seemed altogether too quiet. “Is she OK?”
“She’s with John. She did a painting at nursery.”
John bustled into the room at that moment, an enormous grin on his face. “Clara, look!” he crowed, holding aloft a painting of four approximately spherical blobs that Clara took to be people. He was being tailed by a pleased-looking Alleia, who was all but strutting in his wake. “Our first artwork to go on the fridge!”
“Wow!” Clara crouched down and shifted Amalia onto her hip, holding her free arm out to the toddler. “That’s beautiful, thank you darling!”
“Hello,” Alleia stepped into her embrace and wrapped her arms around Clara’s neck. “Who the strange man?”
“He’s not strange,” Amalia corrected, and Clara sensed rather than saw her roll her eyes. “He’s Grandad Dave. He’s Clara’s daddy.”
“Oh. Where her mummy?”
“My mummy passed away,” Clara said quietly, kissing the top of Alleia’s head. “When I was younger.”
“Like our mummy?”
“Oh,” Alleia considered this nugget of information for a moment. “Sorry.”
“People say it-”
“People used to say it to us a lot,” Amalia cut in. “I think she picked it up.”
“Was Grandad Dave lots sad?” Alleia asked, looking stricken by the prospect. “When she die?”
“I was,” Dave confirmed, coming over and crouching beside Clara so as to avoid towering over Alleia. “But I married a nice lady, and then Clara married John, and I met you two, and I’m happy now.”
“Good,” Alleia said. “Sad is bad.”
“Sad is OK,” John corrected. “It’s always alright to be sad, and you can tell me and Clara if you are, and we will always try to help.”
“OK,” Alleia said, looking thoughtful for a moment. “I sad I not have ice cream.”
Clara laughed. “Nice try.”
“It’s November!” John pointed out. “We don’t have any ice cream.”
“Oh,” Alleia pouted, then added, hopefully: “We get some?”
"Maybe. But we have places to go first, and there might be food there.”
Alleia weighed up the potential merits of this plan. “OK,” she decided. “We go?”
“Yes, we can,” Clara agreed, setting Amalia down and straightening up, quickly pecking John on the lips and grinning at his look of surprise. “Coats, hat, scarves, gloves. We’ve gotta wrap up warm, OK?”
Both girls nodded and darted out into the hall, and John chuckled. “Bless them,” he murmured, going over to the fridge and using an owl-shaped magnet to affix Alleia’s painting in pride of place. “Are you excited?”
“Of course,” Clara grinned. “Bonfire Night is always excellent.”
“Please don’t recount the story again,” Dave protested with faux-seriousness. “The one of you falling in love.”
“It’s a good story!” Clara complained, heading out to the hall and checking that the girls were adequately bundling themselves up before reaching for her own hat and scarf. “Isn’t it, John?”
“An excellent one.”
When the five of them piled out of the car at Bonnie and Will’s, the crisp November night already bore the tang of gunpowder and smoke. The sky above was empty of clouds, and the stars could be made out through a haze of grey; the moon flooding the street with a silvery light that contrasted with the warm amber glow of the streetlamps.
“OK,” John said brightly, taking the girls’ hands and ascending the steps to the front door. “Who’s excited to meet Auntie Bonnie and Uncle Will?”
“Me,” Amalia said at once, her earlier nerves assuaged by her successful introduction to Dave. “Very, very.”
“Excited for sweets,” Alleia said, and Clara bit back a giggle. John shot the toddler a stern look, and she quickly added: “And people.”
“That seems fair,” Dave said with a grin, leaning past John and ringing the doorbell. “Excellent priorities, kiddo.”
A second later, the door swung open, revealing Will, who holding a squirming Poppy in his arms and trying to smile. “Hey,” he said brightly, although there was a hint of exhaustion underlying his tone. “Come on in, before this monkey escapes and gets into the road.”
Clara ushered the girls inside, and the second that the door swung closed behind Dave, Poppy wriggled down from her father’s arms and toddled over to Clara, suddenly placated.
“Hewwo,” she said brightly, beaming up at her auntie with an angelic expression. “Annie Cwawa.”
“Hi, poppet,” Clara said, scooping her up and shooting an apologetic glance at Will. “Have you been running your daddy ragged, hey?”
“Nooooo,” Poppy said, but her cheeks flushed pink and she giggled nonetheless. “No, I not.”
“She has,” Will grimaced. “But she might be better now you’re here.”
“I hope so, because we brought people to meet you!” Clara grinned at her niece, who looked intrigued by the prospect and blinked down at Alleia and Amalia in silent awe. “Now, introductions.”
“Right,” Will looked sheepish, and he turned his attention to the girls, crouching down so that he could make eye contact and beaming at them widely. “You two must be the wonderful little girls that Clara has been telling me so much about.”
Amalia turned a delicate shade of pink, looking pleased by the compliment, while Alleia hovered somewhere between shy and happy.
“I’m Will,” he told them, looking between the two girls. “Now, which of you two is going to introduce herself first?”
“Me,” Alleia said with typical self-assuredness. “I Alleia, and this Amalia.”
“Well, it’s an honour to meet you both,” Will said with sincerity. “Are you two hungry? We’ve got lots and lots of food, and we’re going to need some help eating it.”
“Sweets?” Alleia asked hopefully, and Will laughed.
“Of course,” he told her, and she whooped in glee, shooting her parents a pleased look. “Come on through.”
“Does that invitation extend to us?” John asked, reaching over and ruffling Poppy’s hair. “Or are we limited to staying here?”
“Staying here,” Will deadpanned. “Forever. Ideally with my hyperactive daughter.”
“Such a welcoming host,” Dave teased. “Thanks, pal.”
“My pleasure,” Will grinned. “Come on through, Bonnie’s just putting the last lot of food in the oven. I think we’ve got enough to feed a small army, so I hope you’re hungry.”
“Coats on? Shoes on?”
“I’d say on,” Will clarified. “The fire’s already going, so you can go out and have a look, but maybe take them off the girls before they run around with Eli, or they’ll boil.”
“You heard the gentleman,” John said, and the girls shrugged off their coats and peeled off their hats and scarves as directed. Dumping the lot on the stairs in a haphazard pile, Will then led them through to the kitchen, where Bonnie was somehow managing to juggle a hot baking tray, rest a bowl of crisps on her bump, and corral Eli into behaving.
“Auntie Clara!” the three-year-old roared, his mother forgotten about as he ran over and began bouncing around her legs like an overexcited spaniel. “Auntie Clara, Auntie Clara, Auntie Clara!”
“Why is no one ever this excited to see me?” John wondered aloud, feigning a look of great hurt, and Bonnie laughed.
“Maybe the next one will be,” she teased, setting down the baking tray she was holding and slipping off her oven gloves. “Clara, I see you tamed my daughter.”
“It’s a miracle, isn’t it?” Clara kissed her niece’s cheek. “Speaking of daughters… Bonnie, this is Alleia and Amalia.”
Both girls had fallen silent in awe, their heads swivelling from side to side as they looked from Clara to Bonnie and back again.
“You the same,” Alleia observed in hushed awe. “You twins.”
“Unfortunately not,” Bonnie laughed. “Just cousins. Lucky cousins.”
“How do people tell you apart?” Amalia asked.
“People can’t always,” Clara grinned. “It’s caused some confusion.”
“Why your tummy big?” Alleia asked, pointing at Bonnie’s bump with curiosity. “It all huge.”
“I’m having a baby,” Bonnie explained, gently taking the little girl’s hand and placing it against her lower abdomen. “Can you feel her kicking?”
Alleia wrinkled her nose and yanked her hand away, shuddering. “Feels funny.”
Will chuckled. “See?” he told his fiancée, coming over and wrapping his arm around her waist. “Eli isn’t the only one who thinks that.”
“I think it weird,” Eli said with great seriousness, then enquired: “Who the yucky girls?”
“Eli,” Will said sternly. “These are your cousins.”
“No they not.”
“First I not have cousins and now I do!”
“Well, they’re your new cousins, darling,” Bonnie told him, ruffling his hair. “Amalia and Alleia. Say hello.”
“Elijah Augustus Bowman-Ravenwood,” Bonnie said.
“I still cannot believe you called him that,” Dave muttered under his breath. “Poor kid.”
Bonnie magnanimously ignored his comment. “Eli, why don’t you show them some of your toys, hm?”
The little boy dithered for a moment, looking uncertain about whether to follow his mother’s instructions or continue protesting. “You like Wonder Woman?” he asked the girls after a few seconds of consideration, and Amalia grinned.
“Wonder Woman is the best.”
“Won’er Woman!” Poppy crowed, scrabbling to get down from Clara’s arms. “I play!”
Eli groaned. “Not her,” he begged his mother. “She little and she not play properly.”
“Elijah, you will play nicely with your cousins and your sister. Please.”
“Please,” she implored him. “Mummy is very tired and she needs some time with Auntie Clara so the grownups can talk about grownup things.”
“OK, Mummy,” Eli mumbled, looking suddenly apologetic, and he darted across the kitchen and gave her a quick hug. “We play nice.”
“Good boy,” she said gratefully, leaning back against a kitchen counter as the four of them tumbled out of sight and into the lounge. “And… peace descends.”
“You know, if you need any respite, we can have the kids for a couple of days,” Clara offered, stepping forward and hugging her cousin. “We don’t mind.”
“It’s fine,” Bonnie returned the embrace, resting her chin on Clara’s shoulder. “I’m just tired and hormonal and whining.”
“You could’ve cancelled tonight,” Clara chided. “We’d’ve understood.”
“But the kids were so excited,” Bonnie sighed, stepping back and glowering down at the tray of sausage rolls she had recently removed from the oven. “It’s fine. Really.”
“What can we do to help?”
“Oh, thank god. I thought you’d never ask.”
Later that evening, as Clara stood watching the fireworks with John’s arms wrapped around her waist and his scarf around her neck for the sake of tradition, she became aware of an insistent tugging on her hand. Looking down, she found Alleia trembling, one hand buried in the skirt of Clara’s dress and the other clinging to her gloved hand like a lifeline.
“Hey,” Clara said softly, as a firework exploded in the night sky high above. “Too loud?”
Alleia nodded miserably and Clara lifted her into her arms, removing John’s scarf and winding it instead around the little girl’s head to muffle the noise.
“Cute,” John hummed, pressing a kiss to Clara’s hair, before asking Alleia: “Better, angel?”
She nodded emphatically and mumbled something which the woolly item around her head rendered incomprehensible.
“What was that?” Clara asked, suddenly struck by the thought that the toddler’s breathing might be impeded and moving the material away from Alleia’s mouth. “Hm?”
“I said: better, thank you, Daddy.”
John blinked at her, visibly taken aback. “I… you…”
“What?” Alleia yawned, her interest in the fireworks waning, and she snuggled into Clara. “Mummy, I tired.”
“That’s OK,” Clara managed after a moment. “Oh, my love. It’s OK.”
Clara introduces the girls to her extended family, but things do not go according to plan...
“Mummy,” Alleia squirmed in Clara’s arms, eyeing the enormous plate of biscuits that lay in the middle of the coffee table in Bonnie’s lounge and making a concerted effort to wriggle towards it, despite Clara’s attempts to prevent her from doing exactly that. “Mummy, biscuits.”
“No, darling,” Clara said as firmly as she was able, keeping a tight hold on her and glowering at Bonnie over the top of the toddler’s head in a way that she hoped conveyed her thoughts about her cousin’s sheer stupidity in leaving such an inviting-looking selection of baked goods within easy reach. “Maybe later, but first everyone needs to arrive! It would be rude to eat all the biscuits before people get here, wouldn’t it?”
Alleia weighed up this idea up for a few seconds, furrowing her brow and sucking her thumb as she contemplated Clara’s words. “So,” she said after a minute’s thought, dragging the word out into a long sound, “when they here, then I eat all the biscuits?”
“You can eat some of them,” Bonnie interjected in a voice that somehow managed to be both strict and warm. “But your sister might like some, and so would Eli and Poppy, so you’ll have to share.”
“If you don’t want to share, then you won’t have any,” Clara told Alleia sternly, deciding she needed to be firm about such matters. “OK?”
Alleia blinked up at her with wide-eyed incredulity, before shoving hard at Clara’s chest, the motion catching her by surprise and knocking the air from her lungs in shock. Wounded both physically and emotionally, she let go of Alleia, who immediately seemed to flow onto the floor, liquid-like, before spreading her limbs out and starting to wail loudly on the cream carpet.
“Oh, Christ,” Clara breathed, feeling a mounting sense of horror as she realised precisely what Alleia was doing. “She’s never… I have no idea…”
“Want biscuits,” Alleia bellowed, balling her hands into fists and beginning to thrash her limbs about wildly, pummelling the carpet with rage. “It not fair Mummy, I want biscuits!”
“Bon,” Clara looked to her companion for support, but instead found Bonnie stifling a laugh. Annoyed, she narrowed her eyes at her pregnant cousin, raising her voice to be heard over the sound of Alleia’s escalating tantrum. “What?! This isn’t funny! Help!”
“Hey, you’ve always palmed my kids back off on me when they’ve done this, so, urm… you’re on your own with this. Sorry, not sorry.”
“But what am I meant to do?! How do I make her stop?!”
“Use your imagination,” Bonnie suggested with a shrug, getting to her feet with some difficulty. “But I’ll give you a free hint, because I’m feeling generous: there are two potential solutions here. You’ve just gotta pick which one you think is going to be successful and stick with it. It does vary depending on the kid and the parent and the situation though, so… good luck.”
“What are the solutions?” Clara asked in desperation, looking down at Alleia, who had now begun thumping the table leg with her feet. “Bon, please, c’mon. Don’t be a pain. Please help, before everyone gets here and I look like an incompetent mother.”
“Option one,” Bonnie reeled off. “Try and reason with her. Explain why her behaviour is wrong, and explain that she is causing embarrassment to you in an attempt to make her understand that she cannot behave like this.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” Clara lied, feeling her cheeks flush nonetheless. “Not at all.”
“Sure,” Bonnie rolled her eyes. “So, there’s option two: leave her to it.”
The doorbell rang as Clara was trying to work out which option was more likely to be successful, and she felt a stab of panic at the prospect that her friends and extended family were about to arrive and see her daughter having a meltdown, and immediately judge her parenting in accordance with how she coped with this tantrum. “I can’t leave her to it!” she said desperately, looking down at the hysterical toddler, who was now weeping as well as yelling, and the plate of biscuits on the table was vibrating with the force of the kicks Alleia was administering. “But I can’t… she’s not going to understand this is wrong!”
“Well, think fast,” Bonnie headed towards the hall, calling over her shoulder in a tone that sounded distinctly smug: “And remember: channel your inner teacher!”
Clara felt a sudden overwhelming urge to lie down beside Alleia and join in her tantrum. “Please, kiddo,” she muttered, trying to sound equal parts loving and threatening. “Please, please, please knock it off. Sharpish.”
Alleia, to Clara’s considerable lack of surprise, did not take a blind bit of notice, and continued her assault on Bonnie’s furniture and carpet.
“Alleia,” Clara said more sternly, upping the level of menace in her voice. “Stop it. Now.”
Alleia’s screaming, if anything, only increased in volume.
“Kid, please,” Clara begged. “Come on, please, before-”
Amalia skipped into the room, the wide smile on her face dissolving a scowl as she took in the sight and sound of her younger sister having a full-blown tantrum. The little girl sighed, coming over to Clara and looking deeply embarrassed in a way that only served to exacerbate Clara’s guilt about her inability to calm the toddler down.
“What happened?” Amalia asked, with a level of maturity that took Clara by surprise. “Why is she doing that?”
“Urm,” Clara said, feeling somewhat disconcerted by Amalia’s quiet calmness about the matter. “I said she couldn’t have any biscuits if she didn’t share them with you, which she refused to do, and she, well… lost it.”
Amalia sighed deeply, taking Clara’s hand and squeezing it encouragingly before leaning over to look down at her sister. “Alleia,” she said in weary tone. “That’s enough now.”
There was a long pause, punctuated only with more hysterical shouting, and then, as if by magic, Amalia’s volume level dropped, her limbs falling still as she blinked up at her big sister in chastised embarrassment.
“But want biscuits,” she mumbled, hiccoughing sadly and wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “Want.”
“You have to do what Mummy says and share,” Amalia said in a tone that reminded Clara of the voice she typically used on her most disobedient students. “Or no biscuits, and Eli and Poppy and I won’t want to play with you.”
“No!” Alleia shrieked at once, and Clara felt a surge of panic that she might be about to launch into another tantrum. “No, I play, I play!”
“People don’t want to play with girls who don’t share,” Amalia said.
“I share!” Alleia insisted, getting to her feet and reaching for her sister. “I share, I share!”
Amalia consented to being clung to by the toddler, then looked over at Clara, a self-satisfied smile ghosting over her features. “There,” she said with a modest little shrug, patting her sister’s shoulder until Alleia let go and plonked down on the floor, looking suddenly exhausted. “You just have to be firm.”
“How did you…”
“Kids who do that don’t get adopted,” Amalia said pragmatically, although her eyes glistened. “So…”
“Hey,” Clara said at once, lifting the little girl onto her lap and holding her free arm out to Alleia, who needed no further invitation and scrambled onto the sofa beside them. “You two did.”
“But you might send us back,” Amalia dropped her gaze and fiddled with the hem of her dress, and a single tear escaped from the corner of her eye, bisecting her cheek and dripping onto the checked cotton. “If we’re bad.”
Clara’s heart shattered as she understood, suddenly, why Amalia had been so quick to diffuse the tension. “No,” she said softly, as Alleia squeaked and burrowed into Clara’s side, as though frightened she might have already invoked such a cruel punishment. “No, darlings, we’d never send you away.”
“So, I have biscuits?” Alleia asked hopefully, and Clara and Amalia laughed, the mood lightening.
“Yes, love. But you have to share, and be good. OK?”
“OK, Mummy,” Alleia huffed. “Where Daddy?”
On cue, the door to the lounge opened a few inches, and John’s face appeared through the gap. “We heard shouting,” he admitted. “And we thought it might be best not to overload the culprit’s brain.”
“You mean you didn’t want to deal with it,” Clara deadpanned, arching an eyebrow tartly, and he had the good grace to blush. “I understand.”
“You seem to have matters in hand,” John shot back, refusing to meet her gaze. “Can everyone come through? There’s lots of people and children out here and it’s rather cramped.”
“Lies,” Amy’s voice called, and Clara’s mouth quirked up into a grin. “This hallway is palatial. If only I wasn’t stuck in a poky little house in Balham and wasn’t poor, I’d be after a hallway like this.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Balham!” came Rory’s protesting answer, but before Clara could join in with teasing him from afar, the lounge door had been flung open, revealing Amy dressed head to toe in black and holding Melody on her hip, the little girl looking around with wide, curious green eyes. Behind her, Clara could see John fussing with several bulging shopping bags, but before she could call out to him, she realised that Amy’s attention had been immediately captured by the girls, and her best friend’s face lit up in a grin. Seconds later, however, she furrowed her brow and turned back to her husband, shooting him a dark look in response to his comment.
“There’s everything wrong with Balham,” Amy retorted, striding into the room and eyeing the plate of biscuits with horrified awe. “Bloody hell, Bon, are you trying to give the kids diabetes?”
“I thought it’d be nice!” Bonnie argued feebly, sidling back into the room and plonking herself down in her favourite spot. “I have issues with quantity.”
“Yeah, that and contraception,” Amy muttered, causing a cushion to be flung in the general direction of her head. “Hey! Holding a baby here!”
Rory stepped into the room, lifting Melody from Amy’s arms and sinking into a seat in one fluid movement. “And now you’re not. Bonnie, go for it.”
Bonnie chucked another cushion at Amy, who caught it and threw it back with aplomb. It was snagged mid-air by Will, who was trailed by Poppy and Eli, both of whom looked positively gleeful about the prospect of adults throwing cushions at each other.
“Can we not throw things at the pregnant lady?” Will asked, setting the cushion down beside Bonnie and then leaning down to kiss her, one hand resting atop her bump in a tender gesture of concern. “OK?”
“I’m fine,” Bonnie assured him, pulling at his hand to force him to sit down beside her, and the kids arranged themselves on the carpet at their feet. “Really. Does that mean I have a free pass to throw cushions at Amy without facing any retaliation?”
“Maybe,” Will hummed. “Or… I could be your loyal soldier and batter her with pillows instead.”
“Sounds heroic,” Clara said drily. “OK, now, as you’ve all got loving and defensive husbands-slash-fiancés, where’s mine?”
“Kitchen,” Will gestured vaguely with his hand. “Loading the fridge.”
“Bloody hell, how much did you lot buy?”
“Enough to feed a small army for a year,” Will shrugged. “So, it should last us for about… two hours.”
“Excellent,” Bonnie grinned, before turning her attention to her youngest niece. “Are you feeling less sulky now?”
“Yes, Auntie Bonnie,” Alleia said, her expression and tone practically angelic. “Lots and lots less.”
“Did you say sorry to your mummy?”
“No,” Alleia looked aghast, and her thumb found her mouth as she turned her attention to Clara and she mumbled: “Sorry, Mummy.”
“That’s OK, darling,” Clara smiled, and then realised that introductions needed to be made. “Oh! Right, formalities. This is Auntie Amy and Uncle Rory. Their baby is Melody, but she’s a bit too little for you to play with yet.”
“Hello,” Amy said brightly, and Rory gave an awkward little wave. “Which one of you is Amalia?”
Amalia nervously raised her hand as though she were in the classroom.
“My proper name is Amelia,” Amy said with pride. “But with an e not an a, so really kid, you have a great name.”
Amalia beamed. “We’re name twins?”
“Yeah, I guess we are,” Amy chuckled, holding her arms out to the little girl, who looked to Clara for affirmation that it was OK. When she received a nod of permission, she went over to Amy and stepped into her arms, while Alleia burrowed more intently into Clara’s chest. “So, you’re the brave one?”
“I am,” Amalia said, beaming with pride and then lowering her voice to add: “Alleia is more of a scaredy-cat.”
“She doesn’t need to be,” a familiar voice hummed, and Clara looked up to find John leaning in the doorway with his arms crossed. Her face lit up automatically, and he returned her smile, crossing the room and lifting Alleia up into the safety of his arms so that she could look down at the assembled grown-ups and children. “Hey,” he said softly to her. “You don’t need to be frightened, all of these people are nice.”
“New people,” the little girl mumbled, glancing over to Amy and then back again. “And the new lady is very pretty.”
“She is, and she’s also a very nice pretty lady, I promise,” John told her, stroking her hair and turning so that she could see Amy properly from her vantage point in his arms. “Would you like to maybe say hello?”
“Hello,” Alleia mumbled obediently, then hid her face in his shoulder and tugged on his shirt. “Want play now.”
John looked to Clara, who shrugged. “Let her,” she acquiesced. “She can wander over to Amy when she’s ready; might be less high-pressure.”
“Sure,” he crouched and deposited the toddler down beside Eli, who immediately flung his arms around her. “Play nice, OK?”
Alleia nodded, and a reassured Clara turned her attention back to the adults in the room. “Now,” she said, clapping her hands together and affecting her most teacher-like manner. “I do believe we are here today for the purpose of throwing a mini-baby shower…”
“Presents,” Bonnie said simply, with an unapologetic grin. “We’re here for presents.”
“Cut right to the chase, why don’t you?” Clara groused, rolling her eyes fondly at her cousin. “Well, the presents might need fetching… husbands?”
“I thought feminism was about equal rights,” Will complained in a light-hearted tone, getting to his feet nevertheless. “Which means you can fetch some, doesn’t it?”
“Do I look capable of hefting huge boxes about?” Clara asked sweetly. “Does Bonnie?”
“Good point,” Will concurred. “We’ll be right back.”
“There we go.”
It's a big day for John, Clara, and the girls...
“Do you think they’ll like it?” Clara asked, stepping back and casting a final, lingering glance around the room she had spent the previous two weeks putting the final touches to. Although she wouldn’t have admitted it aloud, she was proud of her efforts: the walls were a delicate shade of pale pink that she’d spent hours applying, and the twin white-painted beds were adorned with matching patchwork quilts that she had spent a small fortune commissioning from a local artisan. The head of one bed was currently covered with several cuddly unicorns, while the other bore a number of pillows emblazoned with superhero logos, their bright colours standing out against the soft pastel décor of the space in a way that managed to be pleasing, rather than jarring. Reflexively, Clara leaned over and smoothed down the quilt on what was soon to be Alleia’s bed, her hands working over creases that only she could see.
“Clara,” John said softly, reaching over and taking her hands in his, separating her palms so that she couldn’t pick at her nails as she was prone to do when anxious. “They’re going to love it. Especially after all your hard work.”
“You helped,” she pointed out, recalling the evenings they’d spent together assembling the furniture; evenings full of muttered swearing and increasingly colourful threats towards Swedish furniture companies, yes, but full of laughter, too. “So, it’s your hard work as well.”
“It was your project,” John reminded her, giving her hands a loving little squeeze. “Your labour of love. And you deserve full credit, because you’ve done amazingly.”
Clara felt her cheeks flush and she dropped her gaze to the carpet, running the toe of her slippers against the weave and fluffing up the fibres. “Thanks,” she mumbled, pleased by his kind words. “Here’s hoping they like it.”
John sighed affectionately, squeezing her hands again in a more chastising manner. “They’re going to, because it’s beautiful, and it was made with love, and you know what else it is? Their new home. A place of safety and love that they can call their own, and will give them the stability they need.”
“Yeah,” Clara hummed, standing on tiptoes and flinging her arms around her husband’s neck. “What time is it?”
John manoeuvred the two of them until he could see the clock, and Clara giggled as he scooted them awkwardly in a semi-circle. “Eleven fifty-two.”
“Oh, god,” the breath caught in Clara’s chest as she was struck suddenly by all the things that could possibly go wrong once the girls arrived. “What if they don’t like it here? What if we can’t handle them full time? What if-”
“Clara,” John said firmly, shutting down her panicked fretting. “They’re going to love it here. We can cope. I promise you, we can cope. Things are going to be fine.”
“And if they’re not?”
“There’s an abundance of books and websites and classes and god knows what else devoted to parenting, so I think we’ll be OK. People have done this before, and we can do it, too.”
Clara chewed on her lip, mulling over his words and weighing them up against her anxieties. “I guess.”
“Have a little faith in me, please,” John said, adopting a look of great affront. “I know about these things; remember, I am all-knowing.”
“That’s my role,” Clara teased, and she was on the verge of speaking again when the doorbell rang. “Oh, hell.”
“Breathe,” John told her firmly, and she pulled away from him, tucking her hair behind her ears and then running her foot over the carpet to smooth down the patch she had previously scuffed up. “OK. Let’s go welcome them and not have any more panic attacks. OK?”
“Right,” Clara nodded, letting John take her hand and feeling a surge of gratitude when he took the lead and headed downstairs with her in tow. “We can do this.”
“Yes, we can,” John reiterated as they came to a halt in the hall, leaning down and pressing a quick, affectionate kiss to her forehead. “I love you.”
He grinned, his enthusiasm and optimism almost tangible as he opened the front door to the Arwells and the girls, all of whom were crammed onto the doorstep and looking a mix of excited, apprehensive, and — Clara was surprised to discover — sad. As soon as she noticed the emotion flickering over their faces, she realised it was only to be expected when they had been a family unit for so long.
“Hello,” John said warmly, immediately crouching down and holding his arms out to the girls, who shrieked in delight and flung themselves into his embrace. “Big day, little ladies.”
“We know, Daddy,” Amalia said breathlessly, almost vibrating with excitement. “New home!”
“That’s right!” Clara felt some of her nerves dissipate in the face of Amalia’s joy, and she reached down and ruffled her hair. “Excited?”
“Yes, but sad, too,” Alleia responded before her sister could, her tone laden with a surprising seriousness, and she looked up at Clara with wide eyes. “We leave Arwells.”
“Oh,” Madge said, and Clara recognised the tone she was using as one that was studiously intended to conceal any hints of negative emotions. “But you’re getting a wonderful new family and a beautiful new home! Won’t that be lovely?”
“You visit?” Alleia asked, edging away from John and wrapping her arms around her foster mother’s legs. “Please?”
“I’m sure we could do that,” Madge promised, looking to Reg. “Couldn’t we, dear?”
“Of course,” he affirmed, shooting a guilty look at Clara. “I mean, if that would be alright? Just until they were settled?”
“That’d be fine,” Clara told him, granting him a reassuring smile. She resolved to ensure that the transition between homes was a smooth one for the girls — one that would not involve a harsh, abrupt end to their relationship with the Arwells. “How are you both feeling?”
“Oh, you know,” Madge shrugged, attempting and failing to look casual. “We know that we shouldn’t get attached, but we always do.”
“It must be hard, not knowing how long you’ll have them for.”
“It can be, but a lot of them keep in touch. And then we’ve got our two, even if they are off at uni now and deeply uninterested in coming home to a house full of under-tens,” Madge chuckled drily. “It’s a good thing to do; that’s why we do it.”
“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” Reg boomed, slipping his hand into his wife’s. “Now, it’s jolly cold out here, so could we maybe come in? And maybe trouble your good selves for a hot beverage?”
“Oh, god,” John said at once, straightening up and looking guilty. “Sorry, of course.”
He stepped back and waved the Arwells over the threshold, shutting the front door against the miserable December weather and then beaming down at the girls. “Why don’t you two go with Cl… Mummy to see your new bedroom, hey?”
“Yeah!” Alleia shouted at once, beginning to bounce around the hallway excitedly. “Want see!”
“Reg, what about their things?” Madge reminded him, and he squeezed her hand.
“I’ll fetch them once I’ve warmed up a smidge.”
“Or I can do it,” John offered, but Reg waved him away.
“Girls, shall we?” Clara asked, holding out her hands with a theatrical flourish, and she smiled as each girl took one of her hands and looked up at her expectantly. Leading the way upstairs, she paused outside the door to their room, feeling a sudden sense of nervousness that perhaps they may not like what lay within, or that they may not want to stay here. Her earlier worries flooded back as she hesitated, uncertainty crystallising around her like the snow that lay outside.
“Mummy,” Amalia whined. “Show us!
“Show!” Alleia ordered, tugging on her hand and then adding: “Please!”
Opting to throw caution to the wind and taking a deep breath, Clara pushed the door open and revealed what lay within; the three of them poised on the threshold of the room as the girls looked around in silent awe.
“Is that… is that my bed?” Amalia asked in dazed wonder, looking up at Clara and then stepping into the room on careful, reverent feet. “With all the superheroes?”
“It is,” Clara confirmed, and Amalia approached the bed slowly, reaching out and stroking a cushion with her fingertip as though afraid to touch them. “And Alleia…”
Alleia, sharing none of her sister’s reticence, raced into the room and flung herself bodily onto her own unicorn-laden bed, the assorted toys flying askew as she bounced up and down in glee. “Unicorns!”
Clara laughed, heading towards Amalia’s bed and taking a careful seat at the end; watching as her daughter lifted the Wonder Woman pillow into her arms and clutched it to her chest like a talisman.
“Do you like it?” Clara asked softly, and when Amalia looked at her she was surprised to find the little girl’s eyes were wet with tears.
“Mummy, it’s lovely,” she whispered, resting her chin atop the cushion. “It’s so lovely. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, darling,” she smiled as Amalia climbed onto her lap, cast the cushion aside and pressed a kiss to her cheek. “We wanted you both to have a beautiful room full of things you love.”
“It’s really amazing,” Amalia murmured, then added more loudly: “Alleia, say thank you.”
Alleia looked up from where she was making two unicorns have an in-depth conversation. “Thank you, Mummy.”
“You’re very welcome. What are your unicorns talking about?”
“Rainbows,” Alleia said seriously. “And sparkles.”
“Very important issues,” Clara nodded with solemnity. “Would you two like to stay up here for a bit, or shall we go and see Daddy and the Arwells?”
“Daddy,” Alleia said brightly, casting her unicorns aside at the prospect of spending time with John. “Want see Daddy.”
“Alright then, why don’t we go downstairs and have something to eat and drink, too?”
“Fizzy?” Alleia looked hopeful. “We have fizzy?”
“No, but there’s juice,” Clara affixed the little girl with a stern look. “Fizzy is for special occasions.”
“Today a special ’casion.”
“This is true,” Clara smiled. “Maybe you could both have some lemonade, then. Do your unicorns want to come downstairs?”
“No,” Alleia tossed her hair dismissively. “They very busy, Mummy. They talk about ’portant things.”
Clara bit back a laugh. “OK, they can stay here and talk about ’portant things. We’ll go and see Daddy and have fizzy. But ah… you two go on ahead, OK?”
Amalia scrambled off her lap and took her sister’s hand, and the two of them disappeared in the direction of the kitchen while Clara looked around the room, feeling a little stab of pride that they had liked it so much. Getting to her feet, she fought the urge to smooth down the quilt, then headed downstairs in search of the girls and her husband.
She found John in the kitchen with Alleia on his hip, the toddler nattering away at a million miles an hour and sipping lemonade from a Disney Princess cup Clara had bought for her the week before. John nodded sagely from time to time, occasionally handing the little girl a cookie from the packet that lay open before him. In between chatting and drinking, Alleia was somehow finding the time to shove the biscuits into her mouth, and Clara realised that there was an impending sugar high not too far on the horizon.
“Hi,” she said casually, leaning in the doorway, and John jumped, spinning around and almost displacing Alleia in the process. He stepped sideways in a bid to conceal the packet of biscuits, and his expression looked so guilty that Clara had to fight the urge to laugh. “What are you up to?”
“Nothing,” he lied. “Just giving this monkey a drink.”
“And cookies,” Alleia said helpfully, taking a long swig of lemonade and earning herself a baleful look from John. “Lots of cookies.”
Clara arched an eyebrow in a non-verbal challenge to her husband.
“It’s a special occasion,” John said weakly. “I figured she deserved it.”
“You’re dealing with the ensuing hyperactivity,” she warned. “Got it?”
He nodded fervently. “Yes. Got it.”
“Where’s Child 2?”
“In the lounge.”
“Is she having lemonade and cookies, too?” Clara narrowed her eyes.
“Maybe,” John looked shifty, then blurted: “Look, I make bad decisions when you’re not present.”
“Evidently,” Clara rolled her eyes fondly. “I see that we’re going to have three kids in the house, not two.”
“Shut up,” he mumbled, turning a violent shade of maroon. “I’m a responsible adult.”
“Sure you are,” she teased. “Sure you are.”
As the two of them lay in bed that night, caught somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, there was the softest of knocks on their bedroom door. The sound was feather-light and fleeting, but it was enough to cause Clara to sit bolt upright, immediately alert to her surroundings and to what the knock might signal.
“Yes?” she called, as John stirred drowsily beside her, and the bedroom door opened a crack.
“Mummy?” a small voice asked, and two small, shadowy figures sidled nervously inside. “Mummy, can we sleep in with you and Daddy tonight?”
“Is everything alright?” Clara asked, flicking on the lamp beside her bed, revealing Alleia and Amalia stood hand in hand beside the door, a unicorn clutched under Alleia’s arm. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Amalia looked down at her feet and mumbled: “Just… want to be with you and Daddy.”
John yawned widely and sat up, looking over at the girls for the first time and blinking sleepily. “Hello, Trouble.”
“We not trouble!” Alleia protested in a shrill voice, before adding more quietly: “We want sleep in your bed.”
Before Clara could say a word, John had beamed from ear to ear and held his arms out. “OK,” he acquiesced. “But only for tonight. This isn’t going to be a regular thing.”
“Sure,” Clara agreed, patting the space beside her. “Come on then.”
The girls scrambled up eagerly, clambering over the two of them and arranging themselves comfortably in the middle of the bed and crawling under the duvet. Clara hissed as Amalia pressed her cold feet against her legs, but the little girl only giggled.
“Sorry, Mummy,” she said breathlessly, cuddling into her with equally cold hands. “You’re warm.”
“You’re not,” Clara shot back, ruffling her hair fondly. “Little ice monster.”
“I’ll be warm soon,” Amalia said sleepily, yawning. “Warm and safe.”
“Safer than safe,” Clara promised, tucking the duvet more securely around the four of them. “I promise.”
“Na night, Mummy and Daddy,” Alleia mumbled. “Sleep tight.”
“Sleep well, darlings,” Clara whispered, exchanging an emotional look with John. “We love you both very much.”
Note for my American readers: lemonade in England is fizzy, and similar to Sprite.
Clara, John, and the girls celebrate Christmas as a family.
Clara groaned and tried to yank the duvet back over her head, keen to burrow away from the sound of a small voice demanding her attention from somewhere above her. To her consternation, however, the duvet failed to budge an inch, and it was then that Clara realised that whichever child was so keen on disturbing her slumber was currently sat on her chest, crushing the air from her lungs and preventing her from reclaiming the warm safety of the duvet.
“Mummy,” the little voice said again as icy hands were pressed against her face, patting at her cheeks insistently. “Mummy, wake up.”
“Nooooo,” she mumbled, tugging on the duvet unsuccessfully once more before attempting instead to duck down and hide beneath the small expanse that remained between her and the small child sat on her torso. “Go ‘way.”
“Mummy,” the same small voice repeated with irritation, getting progressively shriller with each repetition of her demand. The cold hands reappeared, pressed against her neck, and she hissed in response. “Mummy, wake up.”
“What time is it?” Clara croaked, finally relenting to the little girl’s wishes and opening her eyes in the gloom. Whichever daughter was sat on her chest leant forward to look at the clock on Clara’s bedside table, her body weight shifting uncomfortably upwards, and Clara let out a small oof of complaint, which fell on unsympathetic or uncomprehending ears.
“Um, I not know how to read numbers.”
Clara groaned again. At least she was now aware of which child had chosen to wake her up at such an unearthly hour, although that did nothing to alleviate her mood. “Why am I awake?” she asked in a low voice, casting a resentful look at John’s still-sleeping form. He hadn’t been yanked from sleep by being crushed to death by a freezing-cold toddler, oh no; he was still slumbering peacefully in a way that seemed decidedly unfair.
“Because,” Alleia said, and, although Clara couldn’t see her face in the darkness, she just knew the little girl was rolling her eyes. “It Christmas.”
“Yes, darling, it is,” Clara capitulated, flicking her eyes sideways to look at the clock’s digital display and fighting the urge to groan again when she made out the time. “But it’s six in the morning.”
“Yes?” Alleia shot back, as though Clara was being entirely unreasonable. “That mean presents.”
“Not right now, it doesn’t. Where’s your sister?”
“She sleeping. She boring. She say ‘go away.’”
“Well, I don’t blame her,” Clara sat up, and Alleia slid downwards from her chest to her lap. An idea was forming in Clara’s mind; one that seemed somewhat childish, but amusing nonetheless. “Here’s an idea: why don’t you wake Daddy up, while Mummy goes and makes breakfast, hm? Then we can open presents.”
Alleia considered this proposal for a moment, and, as Clara’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, she noticed the serious face of contemplation that the little girl had adopted. “I wake Daddy?”
“Yes, you can wake Daddy. But he sleeps very deeply, so you’ll need to be very, very loud.”
“I be loud, Mummy,” Alleia said gleefully, clapping her hands together. “I be very loud.”
Before Clara could say another word, the toddler had twisted out of her arms, flung herself bodily onto John’s sleeping form and screeched: “Wake up, Daddy!”
Clara smothered a laugh as John sat bolt upright with a yell of terror. “Wh-”
“It Christmas, Daddy! Wake up!”
John let out a long, irate noise of complaint and flopped back into a roughly horizontal position. “What time is it?” he asked faintly. “Clara Oswald-Smith, do not even think about pretending you’re still asleep, or that this wasn’t your idea.”
“Well, Alleia woke me up first, it seemed only fair. It’s six o’clock. Get up.”
“No,” he groused, rolling over to face away from her. “Shan’t.”
“No breakfast or presents for you, then.”
“Daddy!” Alleia squealed, duly horrified on his behalf by this threat, and Clara leant over and flicked on her bedside light, temporarily dazzling the three of them. “Daddy, up! Up, or no Christmas for you!”
“Five more minutes,” he pleaded, attempting to pull the duvet over his head against the brightness. “Please.”
“No,” Alleia got to her feet, beginning to bounce up and down beside John. “Wake up, wake up, wake up.”
“Clara,” John mumbled, sounding pained. “Clara, why are you letting her do this?”
“So that you can share my suffering,” she said with a smirk, reaching over and ruffling his hair. “Enjoying it?”
“Good, best get up then.”
Swinging her legs out of bed before he could protest any further, Clara got to her feet and reached for her dressing gown, slipping it on and then padding on silent feet towards the girls’ room. Knocking lightly before stepping inside, she found Amalia curled up in bed, her eyes half-open and blinking blearily in the semi-darkness cast by their nightlight.
“Hello,” Clara breathed. “Happy Christmas, darling.”
“Happy Christmas, Mummy,” the little girl replied, reaching for her. “It’s really early.”
“I know,” Clara leant down and picked her up, cuddling her close and grimacing as she explained: “I think your sister got a little over-excited.”
“Mm,” Amalia mumbled. “If we’re up, can we open presents?”
“Not until after breakfast,” Clara told her, kissing her forehead. “But we could have breakfast in Mummy and Daddy’s bed, and you could open your stockings?”
“That would be nice, Mummy.”
“Do you want to help Mummy with breakfast, stay in bed, or go and see Daddy and Alleia?”
“Help you,” Amalia’s mouth twitched into a shy smile, as though worried Clara might say no. “Please.”
“OK, princess,” Clara set her down, and reached for the little girl’s dressing gown. “Best wrap up warm, and we can put the heating on when we get downstairs.”
Taking the proffered item of clothing, Amalia slipped it on and then reached for Clara’s hand, following her downstairs in the quiet, still tranquillity of the early morning. When they reached the lounge, Clara fumbled around behind the Christmas tree and flicked the lights on, illuminating the room with multicoloured light, but she realised that Amalia’s attention was captured by something else.
“Are those…” Amalia began, staring open-mouthed at the pile of presents beneath the tree. “Are those all for us?”
“Some are for me and Daddy,” Clara explained, stroking her daughter’s hair tenderly. “But yes, the majority are for you.”
“But there’s so many.”
“Father Christmas wanted you to have a special first Christmas with us, darling.”
“But…” Amalia blinked up at her, and Clara was taken aback to discover her eyes were full of tears. “There’s so many.”
“Hey,” she breathed, crouching beside her and looking her in the eye. “What’s wrong?”
“We never had big Christmases before,” Amalia shrugged, dropping her gaze to the floor and shifting from foot to foot, looking embarrassed. “Nobody ever really cared.”
“Oh, love,” Clara held her arms out, and Amalia stepped into them, clinging on to her as though terrified she was going to be snatched away. “We care, and we love you very much, and we wanted you both to have a magical Christmas.”
“It’s been nice already,” Amalia mumbled, burying her face in Clara’s shoulder.
Clara cast her mind back to the past few weeks: to seeing the Christmas lights on Oxford Street; to going to Winter Wonderland and taking the girls on the big wheel; to going around the big department stores and admiring the decorations; and to watching silly Christmas television together, snuggled up on the sofa.
“Well,” she teased. “You know, we could always ask Father Christmas to take some presents back.”
“No,” Amalia said fiercely, shaking her head. “You’ve been kind and bought us them all, so we should open them.”
“What do you mean?” Clara asked, arching an eyebrow. “Father Christmas brought them for you.”
“Mummy,” Amalia affixed her with a bemused look. “I know it’s you and Daddy. I’m not a baby like Alleia; I’m nearly five. Father Christmas is pretend.”
“Well,” Clara dithered for a moment, unsure of how to respond. “Just… don’t tell your sister, OK? Don’t spoil the magic for her.”
“I won’t,” Amalia promised, miming zipping her mouth shut. “Promise.”
“Good girl,” Clara smiled. “Now, shall we make breakfast and take it up to Daddy?”
“OK, Mummy,” Amalia beamed. “Good plan.”
That evening, Clara lay on the sofa with John’s arms around her, the lounge floor littered with toys, packaging and wrapping paper. The girls had vanished in the general direction of their bedroom, and so they were making the most of the temporary tranquillity.
“I think,” she murmured, “that our first Christmas as a family was a big success.”
“I agree,” John pressed a kiss to her neck. “The girls seemed to enjoy themselves.”
“As did you,” Clara teased, poking one of the miniature sleigh bells attached to his chest. “Despite being made to wear that awful jumper.”
“Suffering for the sake of festive cheer,” he deadpanned. “Very noble and heroic, you know?”
“Mm, very,” Clara laughed, leaning back into his embrace and sighing contentedly. “Thank you for my presents.”
“You’re welcome,” he cuddled her closer. “Thank you for mine.”
“It was my pleasure,” she rolled over with some difficulty and pressed her lips to his. “Best husband.”
“Ewwwww,” Alleia protested, coming back into the room with her sister, both of them garbed in festive pyjamas, and the two adults broke apart, sitting up and attempting to look less like guilty teenagers. “No kissing.”
“Shush,” Amalia scolded, scowling at her sister before smiling at her parents soppily. “It’s cute.”
“Kissing yucky,” Alleia insisted, looking appalled. “Lots yucky.”
“Great attitude to have, kiddo,” John said with sincerity. “Keep that up for the next twenty years and I’ll be a very happy man.”
“John!” Clara rolled her eyes. “Ignore what your father says, girls.”
“Don’t ignore what your father says,” John retorted, adding sternly. “No kissing boys.”
“Can we kiss girls?” Amalia asked, and Clara snorted as John turned a fiery shade of red. “What? Can we?”
“Yes, darling,” Clara assured her. “If you want to, you absolutely can.”
“Why is Daddy all red?” Amalia frowned. “And quiet?”
“Daddy is just being silly,” Clara elbowed him in the side. “He’ll snap out of it soon enough.”
“Weird Daddy,” Alleia said with fondness. “Kissing girls yucky. Kissing boys yucky. Kissing things yucky all time.”
“What about unicorns?” Clara asked, raising her eyebrows. “Or kissing me or Daddy on the cheek?”
Alleia hesitated for a moment, chewing her lip as she thought. “Unicorns need kisses and love to be alive. And kissing you and Daddy OK, I think.”
“Thanks,” Clara said drily. “We’ll keep that in mind.”
Amalia scrambled up beside Clara and clambered onto her lap, leaving Alleia stood in the centre of the Christmas-Day detritus. “Thank you for a nice Christmas,” the little girl said earnestly. “It was the best.”
“You’re welcome, love,” Clara smiled, wrapping her arms around her daughter and cuddling her close. “I’m glad you had a wonderful day.”
“Thank you,” Alleia said dutifully, sidling closer to the sofa and eyeing the space beside John. “Up, Daddy.”
John reached down for the little girl and swung her up beside him, leaving his hand in hers as she rested her head against his arm. “Sleepy?” he asked in a low voice, and she nodded wordlessly. “Bedtime?”
“Five more minutes,” Alleia mumbled, and he chuckled.
“I think we’ve worn this one out,” he said softly, and Clara smiled. “Too much Christmas cheer.”
“The opposite of a problem, really,” Clara asserted. “But, yes, I think bedtime is very much necessary.”
“Noooo,” Amalia protested, but her complaint was accompanied by an enormous yawn. “Not yet.”
“Soon,” Clara warned. “OK? Five more minutes of cuddles, then bed.”
“OK, Mummy,” Amalia mumbled. “Best Mummy. Love you, Mummy.”
“I love you, too,” John added, pressing a kiss to Clara’s cheek. “Best wife.”
“Love you,” Alleia mumbled. “Bed now, please.”
Clara laughed. “Well,” she looked down at their daughters, then over at John, musing on how different this Christmas was to the one before; it was no longer just about the two of them. Now they had a family to make the festive period special for, and Clara smiled down at the two little girls who had changed their lives forever. “I love you all, too. And I think bed is an excellent idea.”
Chapter 37: Epilogue: Six Months Later
The family comes together to celebrate a special occasion...
Clara ducked her head inside the curtained-off area of the marquee, silently thanking god as she did that the summer weather had held and they had not been troubled by any of the rainstorms that the Met Office had predicted earlier in the week. “Bon?” she called, keeping her gaze fixed on the guests mingling, chatting and dancing in the comfortably warm interior of the enormous tent. “Bon, I think your mother-in-law wants you. Although, frankly, hiding does seem a safer bet.”
“She can wait,” her cousin said softly, and Clara turned to look at her, finding her perched on a white-painted chair with her youngest child cradled in her arms. “Someone needs my attention a little more.”
Clara smiled, stepping into the relative privacy of this small part of the venue. “Is she OK?” she asked, looking down at her niece, who was curled against Bonnie’s chest and clutching the soft satin of her wedding gown in one fist. “Hello, princess.”
“Just a little grouchy that Mummy’s attention is elsewhere, I think,” Bonnie stroked the infant’s hair back. “Aren’t you, darling?”
“Hattie-Rose, may I remind you that it’s Mummy’s wedding day,” Clara reminded her niece in a playful tone. “Mummy has to have her attention elsewhere; you are sadly not the centre of her universe.” The infant made a soft sound of complaint. “Bon, if you want, I can take her while you socialise.”
“No, it’s fine,” Bonnie flashed her a quick smile. “I needed a minute or two to myself; it’s a bit manic out there.”
“I know what you mean,” Clara grimaced, taking a seat beside her cousin and relishing the chance to have a moment of quiet. “But a lovely day, nonetheless. Not to mention that fact that it’s about time Will put a ring on it.”
Bonnie chuckled. “I know,” she concurred, tucking her hair behind her ears. “Who’d have thought, all those years ago, that one night would lead to all this?”
“It’s strange how one night can change everything,” Clara smiled, thinking of the night she had first called in to John’s radio show and how she had no idea, back then, of how that one decision would alter her life irrevocably. “Look how much happiness our spur-of-the-moment choices have brought us.”
Bonnie leant her head against Clara’s shoulder, looking down at Hattie as the little girl squirmed contentedly. “I know,” she breathed. “God, I never thought… back when we were teenagers… could you imagine, telling us that all of this would happen? That we’d end up like this?”
“Right,” an irate voice hissed before either of them could reply, and Amy stepped through the curtains and affixed them both with a scowl. “Can someone please explain to me how the hell I have ended up minding five children by myself?”
“Where are the blokes?” Clara asked, getting to her feet and feeling a stab of guilt that she’d burdened Amy with the task of keeping an eye on the kids single-handedly. “Please don’t tell me they’ve vanished to have a cheeky smoke or anything equally terrible.”
“I have no idea,” Amy shrugged, looking somewhat exhausted. “But I’m struggling.”
“Hang on,” Bonnie looked abruptly panicked. “If you’re in here, who’s supervising the kids?”
“Don’t look so worried,” Amy scoffed. “I left Amalia in charge.”
“You left my five-year-old in charge?” Clara asked with alarm, pushing past Amy and heading back out into the main reception space, her eyes darting around in a panic. She located Amalia at once, sat on the floor in a corner with the skirt of her pink party dress spread out around her, the younger children sat around her in enthralled awe, and felt a surge of relief that no mischief appeared to have been had.
“She’s fine, see?” Amy scoffed, reappearing beside her best friend and looking just the tiniest bit smug that no catastrophes had occurred in the interim. “They all are. She’s telling a story about a time traveller, or something equally complicated.”
“Well,” Clara felt some of her panic dissipate. “That’s two of my lot located; where’s my third child?”
“What am I, John’s keeper?” Amy rolled her eyes. “Go and have a look.”
Shooting her best friend a bemused look, Clara headed out of the marquee, blinking in the bright June sunlight and looking around the surrounding landscaped gardens in search of any clues to her husband’s whereabouts. A cloud of unpleasant-smelling smoke rising from behind a nearby bush served as a giveaway, and pushing past it, Clara found Will, John and Rory, stood in a loose huddle and puffing on cigars with a range of expressions: Rory looked horrified, Will looked positivity gleeful, and John… well, Clara was pleased to note that he had the good sense to look somewhat contrite.
“John Smith,” Clara said sternly, adopting her most teacher-like manner. “I warned you, didn’t I? The one thing I told you I would not tolerate today would be smoking. And now here you are, looking like a teenager caught behind the bike sheds.”
“Urm,” he handed the offending article over to Will, who looked rather pleased about this development. “Yes?”
“So, why are you doing it?”
“It was Will’s idea.”
“What are you, eight?” Clara rolled her eyes with equal parts fondness and exasperation. “You can’t use peer pressure as an excuse.”
“Sorry, Miss,” he said contritely, the corners of his mouth twitching as he stepped closer to her. “Would you like an apology kiss?”
“No, I would not,” Clara wrinkled her nose. “You smell terrible, and probably taste it, too.”
“Oh, go on,” John teased. “One little kiss.”
“No,” Clara repeated, but he only edged closer, wrapping his arms around her waist with startling speed and dexterity. “No, John Smith, don’t you d-”
He grinned and pressed an unpleasantly scented kiss to her forehead, chuckling at her look of disgust.
“Gross,” she said with aplomb, wiping her skin with the back of her hand. “You know, the girls aren’t going to want to go anywhere near you if you smell that bad. Please go and find some gum. And possibly aftershave. Failing that, I’ll accept Febreze as a viable alternative.”
“Well, my idiot, we should probably go and relieve Amy of babysitting duty,” Clara held out her hand and John took it without hesitation, squeezing it reassuringly. “Before any of the kids declare war on each other.”
“Mm,” John pulled her closer, slipping his arm around her waist and pressing another kiss to her forehead, although this time Clara refrained from protesting. “We should.”
They headed back into the marquee together, finding Amalia on her feet before her peers and gesticulating wildly as she narrated some fantastical tale that neither parent could hear from where they were stood.
“Well,” Clara smiled. “I wonder where she gets that from…”
“I think she and Alleia are proving to be real chips off the old block.”
“Yep,” Clara concurred, looking up at her husband with a smile. “I really do.”
And so we come to the end of our saga! A huge thank you to everyone who has followed this fic, left kudos, and commented on it, I love you all. Also a massive shoutout to Alex for being my faithful beta reader and providing me with essential feedback!
My next fic is currently a work in progress, and I hope that you will all love that just as much as you have this little universe!