The Atlantic Monthly

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They are childless. How they wish they were not. They try everything but as the months pass, and the ebb and flow of hope and disappointment takes its toll, they become more remote.

When they first decided to have a child they talked excitedly into the night, planning their future family life. Arguing and laughing about preferred names and preferred schools. Perhaps they will have to move.

Agreeing to quit smoking they buy a Sony video recorder on which they will watch rented films together whilst the baby sleeps. They welcome the responsibilities of raising a child, openly declaring they will make better parents than their own, and privately congratulating themselves over their new found, and they think, uniquely selfless and intelligent attitudes towards their forthcoming parenthood. They are not unlike other parents to be.

They find it incomprehensible when friends with young children complain how hard it is to find babysitters. “So difficult to escape!”. Why would anyone choose to leave the source of their joy for one moment more than was necessary? They look forward to evenings spent together on the sofa, tip toeing to the kitchen for coffee and a sneak look in on the sleeping infant. Once when babysitting for her sister, she had been astonished to discover that whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, she had stood silently over the babies cot, lost in thought in the darkened nursery, for almost a full half hour.

Their optimism continues as they confront the practical challenges of conception and childbirth. Books, calenders and thermometers are purchased. A monthly timetable is drawn up and sellotaped to the kitchen wall. They quickly become internet evangelists enthusing to their friends as every possible on-line resource is plundered for medical articles and advice on improving their chances of successful conception.

At first they laugh off their lack of success. How ironic that having spent teenage years avoiding an unwanted pregnancy, nothing they now try seems to work. A US web site offering some imaginative suggestions results in a lot of laughs and a twisted ankle but nothing more.

After three stormy months they visit their doctor who tells them it is early days and not to worry. After another three they insist on tests and so begin the amusing mercy dashes with a test tube of fast fermenting semen along the coastal road to the fertility clinic at the local hospital. The results, when they finally come, are devastating. Good volume but almost non-existent sperm count. That’s what their hopes are reduced to.

But they will not be beaten. They take comfort in reports of couples with similar experiences who hadn’t given up and now have happy healthy children to find babysitters for. So they reject the diagnosis. They are determined. They will have a child.

The years pass. Their brave faces hide a growing inward anguish. They will not admit this to themselves let alone each other. They agree he is not to blame but secretly he feels otherwise. He seeks comfort in his work and increasingly spends more time away from home, taking foreign assignments when they are offered. It is hard for a marriage to survive the upheaval that children bring. The will never have the opportunity to find out for themselves.

She finds comfort in painting. She can create with paint. Days are spent either outside in the garden or on the beach. She paints flowers or the cold Atlantic and the wet stones beneath her bare feet. When her technique lets her down she joins a local art group and makes friends with a fellow student. After class they go for coffee and discuss their favourite artists. Sometimes they talk for hours. She says she thinks children’s art is best and he agrees.

At home her husband wants to know about her friend. She tells him that his wife has left him because he would not agree to have a child. He had thought he was no longer in love with her. It was the greatest mistake of his life. He realises now that he loves his wife and would have loved their child. Now he has neither. “What a fool he must be”, her husband says. He tells her he has been offered a two year assignment abroad. The money he will earn will allow them to move house and start afresh on his return. She doesn’t want him to go. But he does.

Autumn arrives. From her table by the kitchen window she can look out into the garden and paint what she sees. Flowers are her favourite subject. As the days shorten she picks what she can and brings them inside. She arranges them in an attractive vase and paints them. She takes the paintings to class and seeks the opinion of her friend. He loves them but when one day his praise becomes excessive she suspects an ulterior motive and leaves class early. She loves her husband. Of that she is sure.

 

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Winter arrives. There are no more flowers for her vase. She determines to use her imagination and paint from memory. She paints the vase, puts it aside and then turns her attention exclusively to the paper beneath her brush. To her surprise she finds herself painting with ease and confidence. She becomes engrossed in her work. Her brush moves quickly across the paper in delicate strokes and soon the painted vase is brimming with richly coloured painted leaves and petals seeming to tremble in the evening air. The experience is exhilarating.

As she sits admiring her picture she suddenly becomes aware of a sweet perfume in the air. She looks up from her table and is amazed by what she sees. The real vase is full of real flowers. They are identical to the ones she has painted. She freezes. How can this be? After some minutes she summons the courage to pick the vase up and examine them. They are real in every way.

The next day the flowers are still there, fresh as before. As the days pass nothing changes. Every morning she rises to find them exactly as she first painted them. She comes to accept what has happened.

Soon, in her mind, an idea forms. An idea so terrifying and compelling she catches her breath. Putting the painting aside she begins another. She will create alone with a brush what she cannot with her body. She works for hours on her picture, careful to paint in every detail only what she wishes for. She is afraid to finish but does. With a trembling hand she puts down her brush and raises her head to see. The baby lies asleep before her. He is beautiful.

When he wakes she feeds him. That night he sleeps with her in her bed. He is more than company. He is everything she could wish for. As the months pass she learns what unconditional love is. She is completely unprepared for such overwhelming emotion. She never felt this way about her husband. Of course she will never tell him that. Her previous anxieties and preoccupations seem trivial now. She hasn’t painted since the child ... “arrived”. Her paints and brushes lie unused where she last used them.

A new anxiety emerges. In her letters to her husband she cannot find the words to tell him what has happened. She tries again and again but each time returns from the post box with the letter unposted. They collect in a drawer.

Eighteen months pass and finally her husband is returning home. She clears away her paints and brushes and lays the paintings in a kitchen drawer. She has rehearsed this day in her mind again and again. How will she explain? She still does not have an answer. They wait all day but he does not come. Toward evening she lights a fire and carries the child upstairs to bed.

When he is asleep she prepares a bath and is about to step into it when she hears the front door open. Wrapping a towel around her she rushes downstairs and into his arms. He is overjoyed to see her and her him. She cannot wait any longer. The words rush out. They have a child! She made him! What she paints becomes real! He steps back overwhelmed and confused. What is she saying?

She takes the paintings from the drawer and thrusts them into his face, forcing him to look at them. He becomes angry when she will not stop insisting her story is true. Snatching them away from her he crushes the paintings in his fist and runs upstairs.

When he returns he is quite and for a moment she thinks he has understood. “Did you see?” She says, “Do you understand now?”. “Yes” he says, “I understand. I understand that whilst I was away you and your friend ... ”. In a rage he throws one of the paintings into the fire. It burns to ash. She turns to look at the vase. It contains a handful of rotted stems and is surrounded by dead leaves and petals. She realises what has happened and rushes to block the fireplace before he can burn the second painting. He simply steps to the kitchen sink, turns on the facet and holds the painting of the baby beneath the falling water. She watches terrified as the paint runs and the paper disintegrates.

She turns and runs upstairs. The child lies lifeless in the bath beneath the water’s surface. She reaches in to lift him but her hands slip through his ghost like body. As she watches he slowly dissolves and disappears from view.

© Matt Ottewill February 2001