Have you ever started the day all bright and chirpy, and then been told something that really knocks you for six?
It happened to me, on what started off as a routine Thursday morning. I was happy. My one-man-and-a-boy painting and decorating firm was doing well.
And what happens? My wife, Sally, waits until I’ve got my overalls on, and checked that I had all the necessary paints, scrapers and other tools, and then she hits me with it.
Really threw me a wobbly, as they say. I hit the roof, and stormed out of the house, leaving her in tears.
A couple of hours later I found something underneath the floorboards of an old house, and that changed everything.
On the way to my job, that morning, I cooled down a bit, and admitted to myself that perhaps I had to some small extent played a part in the event. But I still thought it had been her responsibility to see that nothing untoward happened.
Her despondent figure drooping in the doorway haunted me as I drove to work. She had always looked so happy. All I could see now was the distress in her large dark eyes as I had driven away.
“Danny, darling,” she had trilled, “There’s something I need to tell you.”
“Look, my high-gloss little sweetheart,” I said, slamming the van doors shut. “I’ve got a lot of work to do this morning. I’m already a bit late. There’s a young couple that have just bought an old house, and want it completely redecorated. It’s too big a chance for me to miss.” I gave her a quick kiss, and made for the door. “Tell me when I get back. It can wait, can’t it?”
“It can wait.” She smiled in a smug, feline way. “But only for about eight months.”
That stopped me in my tracks. “What? You can’t be pregnant,” I cried. “ You know that we decided to wait until we could afford a family.” I stared at her in a most accusing way. “What on earth made you decide to get pregnant without consulting me about it?”
“ I didn’t decide,” she said, indignantly. “It just happened.”
“ I bet you forgot to take your pill,” I said. “Can’t trust you to do anything right, can I?”
Her smile faded and was replaced by a look of abject misery. Trembling lips, large tear-filled eyes messing up the mascara, the whole works.
“ Well, I can’t do anything about it now,” I said. “We’ll talk about it this evening.” And I slammed my way out to the van.
Two people were waiting by the rickety gate of the old house when I drew up.
“Morning, Mr. and Mrs. Fowler,” I called out.
“Don’t be so formal,” the blonde young woman, all smiles, patted my arm, engulfing me in a wave of expensive perfume. “We’ve only been married a week, and I can’t get used to being a Mrs. My name is Caitlin.”
“I’m Henry,” said her shiny new husband. “There’s a small bedroom at the back. I’d like you to start on that first of all. That will be the nursery when the time comes for it to be needed.”
Henry doesn’t believe in hanging about, I thought, grabbing my holdall and a couple of buckets.
“We want the whole place stripped and decorated to our own tastes.” Giggled Caitlin, giving the impression that money was no object. “Do you know,” she gave me a sidewise look as if she was about to impart a state secret to James Bond. “That the previous owner was an old lady who had been born in the house, and lived there all her life? Can you imagine that?”
Caitlin’s designer sun-tanned face registered complete disbelief. “Never going anywhere or seeing any other part of the world. It’s hard to imagine.”
Henry moved ahead and opened the weathered front door from which the paint of some undetermined colour hung like dried skin.
“Her only surviving relative lives abroad and had never seen her,” he said. “ The estate agent was instructed to sell the house and send him the money as soon as possible.” He gave me a smug look. “That’s how we got it at a bargain price.”
They escorted me through the musty atmosphere up the stairs to the nursery to be, then departed to organise the mass of paraphernalia they considered essential to maintain their station in life.
“It looks to me,” I said to ‘Rainy’ Day, my dim but willing helper, “That the old lady’s idea of redecoration had been to slap a layer of paint or wallpaper over what was already there. And there’s at least four layers of paper on the walls.”
“Um.” The lad never used a word where a grunt would suffice.
I tried to open the windows, but they were sealed tight with paint. A few sunbeams struggled to penetrate the dust-obscured windowpanes. Dust motes paraded through the rays, like a group of golden ballet dancers pirouetting in the spotlight.
My right-hand man dumped a full can of paint on the floor. The unstable floorboard moved in protest at the sudden burden.
“Careful” I warned as the end of the board lifted up an inch. I put my finger in the gap, and the wood crumbled a little.
“That’ll need replacing,” I said, and eased the board a little more. One end gave a little. The nails had long since rusted away.
A mouldy red and blue carpet held it in place. I rolled the carpet back, and that began to fall to pieces as I did so. The floorboard came up and revealed a cavity thick with dust and cobwebs. Something scuttled to a place of safety as I shone my torch into the darkness.
“Well now. What have we here?” I said as the beam fell on something about the size of a shoebox. It was tucked away in a corner, and I had to lie down and stretch out at full length to reach it. A colony of spiders had their homes wrecked as I fumbled about in an effort to hook the package within easy reach.
“Now what can that be?” I wondered, gingerly reaching down and carefully
lifting the box out of the space. It didn’t weigh much, and when I blew the dust and cobwebs off it I saw that it was tied round with faded pink string and secured with sealing wax.
“Pink for a girl,” I muttered, my mind still being full of the image of babies. “I wonder if Sally will have a girl?”
“D’you think there’s a baby’s body in there?” said Rainy, leaning over my shoulder in a ghoulish manner.
An appalling thought lodged in my mind. Suppose there really was the body of a baby girl in the box?
I remember my grandmother astounding us with tales of her younger days. She loved to chill our blood with tales of the disposal of stillborn babies, or ones that only lived for a day. The cost of a funeral was out of reach for most of her class, and it was the accepted thing to put the tiny corpse in a shoebox, take it up to the nearest cemetery and bribe the gravedigger with sixpence to deposit the makeshift coffin in the next available grave.
“You’d be surprised,” she would giggle, “at how many councillors and the like were sharing their grave with some poor woman’s baby, and none of their toffee-nosed family knowing any different.”
Such a thing couldn’t happen these days, I told myself. There’s too much documentation and medical care to allow such goings on now.
A tremor of doubt started at my scalp and ran down to my knees, making them shake and almost give way.
“Suppose Sally’s baby is stillborn?” I shook my head. “No. Couldn’t happen. Sally’s a young healthy girl. And she seems happy about her condition. Well, she was until we had that row this morning. Then I upset the apple cart by blowing my top. I hope she’s got over that by now. I’ll make it up to her when I get home.”
The contents shifted about and rustled as I gave the box a quick shake.
Gently I placed the box on the floor, and plucked hesitantly at the string.
It gave a little, and I quickly drew back. Could I face what was in the stained and fragile container? Would I be faced with the pitiful skeleton of an unborn child?
How well formed are newborn babies bones? I didn’t know. When I did think about it, which wasn’t often, I imagined a shapeless blob until it dried out and assumed baby shape.
One of the beads of sealing wax had come loose. It might be possible to lift one corner of the lid and discover what lies inside.
“I might be all wrong about this.” I scolded myself for my squeamishness. “There may be nothing more than a young girl’s diary, or secret love letters that she dare not allow her parents to see.”
I stared at the box. “It looks about an hundred years old. And that’s the sort of thing young girls did in those days, didn’t they?”
I wrote love letters to Sally when I was in the army. Did she keep them away from the prying eyes of her parents? Did she regard them as something almost sacred, not to be shared with anyone at all? Is she sitting at home now, reading them all over again, whilst nurturing a tiny scrap of life inside her? I shouldn’t have gone off the deep end like that. After all, getting pregnant at the wrong time wasn’t all her fault. Was it?
‘If it is a baby in this casket,’ I thought. ‘I wonder what difference it would have made to the world had it survived. Possibly none at all, but then again it could have been the scientist who discovered the cure for the common cold. We’ll never know, but I think it should have had a chance.’ I gently laid the still unopened box on the windowsill and stared at it.
“My child is going to have every chance that I can give it, no matter what it costs” I declared, suddenly feeling extremely possessive about Sally and our baby
Suddenly it hit me.
Something that Sally and I had created together.
A precious life brought into the world by us.
Something that we can love and care for, and watch with pride as the child turns into an adult.
We would no longer be just a couple.
We are going to be a trio. Three of us against the world.
“By the WHAT?,” I said to the box in my hand. “There’s a marvellous outlook for us. And we’re going to start enjoying it right away. But first, I must see what’s in here.”
I inserted a finger under the crumbling lip of the box, and began to ease a corner up.
The door downstairs banged open and there came a scurrying of happy feet in the hallway. “Are you there, Mr decorator?” called Caitlin. “Where are you?”
I hurried to the landing. “Up here, Mrs Fowler. I think you two should come up here and see what I’ve found.”
I met them at the halfway point on the stairs.
“I’ll be away for a short while,” I told them. “Be back in half an hour.”
As I reached the front door I heard the woman give a shrill yelp. I guessed they had opened Pandora’s box.
I called up, “I’m going to arrange a slap-up meal at the Copper Kettle, and than phone my wife and tell her to get all dolled up in her best dress. We’re going out to celebrate tonight