Mick has found a way to somewhat compensate his still-existing wish for a child and begins thinking about various aspects of family as some developments take him by surprise.
Elton John: Blessed
Hey you, you're a child in my head
You haven't walked yet
Your first words have yet to be said
But I swear you'll be blessed
I know you're still just a dream
Your eyes might be green
Or the bluest that Ive ever seen
Anyway you'll be blessed
And you, you'll be blessed
You'll have the best
I promise you that
I'll pick a star from the sky
Pull your name from a hat
I promise you that, promise you that, promise you that
You'll be blessed
I need you before I'm too old
To have and to hold
To walk with you and watch you grow
And know that you're blessed
„Look out, Mick!" one of the boys shouted. At the same time, Conrad yelled furiously, „Henry, can't you be careful? You're such a …"
I reached out, effortlessly plucking the errant ball from the air, pointed at my young friend with the other hand and told him with emphasis, „No calling each other names, remember the rules?"
"Ye-es ... but he almost hit you with the ball! He's just a baby, really. Way too little to play with us. I wonder why he's allowed to be here at all", he grumbled, looking to where his brother stood, and yelled, "Come on over here, you little fool! Move!"
I shot him a warning look as Henry came shuffling across our improvised baseball field, dragging his feet, his lower lip pushed out sorrowfully. Conrad dropped his homemade bat, lunged at the younger boy, grabbed him by the shoulder and gave him a rough shake. "Have you got any idea what happens when you get cracked in the head with a baseball? People die when they get hit in the wrong spot! You could have killed him!"
"No, I couldn't have", Henry whispered with forced defiance, but he looked doubtful if his brother's claim might not be true after all, and his eyes brimmed with tears as he cautiously peered into my direction.
"Conrad, that's enough now!" I interfered angrily. "I'm not dead, I'm not even hit, he missed me by half a yard and he wasn't even throwing very hard. No need to make such a fuss."
Conrad pouted a bit but grudgingly let go of his brother.
I clapped my hands. "Come on, boys, back to the game. Who's next to throw?"
"Me!" ten-year-old Walter Franklin shouted with some excitement, took up his position and threw a rather neat curveball. Some of the boys applauded, and Walter, who was short for his age and very quiet but had a rather good command of any kind of ball, grinned shyly when I patted him on the back and said, "Well done, Frankie. Ben, hurry up, it's your turn now!"
I couldn't help grinning when the boy almost tripped over his own feet with eagerness as he sprinted to the plate.
I'd never have imagined I would end up playing the baseball coach, but Conrad and his friends had taken a fancy to the game a while ago and pestered me, the only American they knew, until I agreed to teach them a few basic things. I had never been much of a baseball fan back in the States, but I knew enough about the rules and tactics to instruct the boys, about a dozen of whom came more or less regularly.
I had come to love our practice routine every other Saturday, acting as coach and umpire in one person, but I hated when sibling rivalries erupted on the field, which was no rarity - either it was Conrad trying to get rid of Henry, or it was Jonny Callahan picking on his younger brother Liam, or Ben and Larry, the sprightly Gilmour twins, teaming up against Topher, who was two years older but the least sporty boy I had ever seen – although all of them knew that I was not prepared to let any bad behaviour fly, especially not against the younger kids.
"Boy, I'd never have thought you could be that strict", Conrad had told me once, after I'd sent Jonny home because he wouldn't stop riling Liam even after I had reprimanded him several times. "But I guess you have to be if you're the coach", he had added in an attempt to sound grown-up and very insightful.
I had not been forced to be strict again today. Conrad's skirmish with Henry had been the only brotherly run-in, and even the two of them had made up by the time we were finished and the boys picked up their bicycles that lay strewn carelessly along the edges of the grass, bellowing their goodbyes and waving eagerly as they dashed off home.
"See you all next week", I shouted after them, pocketed the ball one of them had left behind on the field and strolled towards the bus stop at a leisurely pace.
I had promised Evelyn, who had gone downtown for some shopping, to meet her at a café we both liked, and when I walked in, she was already there, tucking into a large piece of chocolate cake.
She gave me a contrite look and said, "I'm sorry I didn't wait for you to arrive, but I was so hungry and I felt I was going to faint any minute if I didn't eat something right away."
"Don't you worry. I love you anyway", I said and sat down opposite her.
"I love you, too. Even with your dirty face", she replied.
When I frowned, bewildered, she pointed at a spot below my right eye and added, "You have a brown smudge on your cheek."
I wiped at it with the back of my hand and remembered that I had helped Larry dust himself off after he'd fallen. I must have touched my face unconsciously afterwards.
No wonder that some of the respectable elderly ladies on the bus had looked at me with a mixture of disapproval and indulgence. I had given them my nicest smile, thinking they were merely irritated by my scruffy clothes – a worn tweed jacket with the baseball making a huge bulge in one pocket, somewhat baggy brown trousers, an old pale yellow shirt without a tie, and no hat to cover my ruffled hair. That I'd had dirt on my cheek on top of everything else made me grin belatedly. I still loved breaking silly social rules and relished the fact that I, being a wounded veteran, could usually get away with eccentric behaviour.
While I had my coffee and apple pie, Evelyn asked about the training and the boys, but she seemed distracted and was untypically eager to leave as soon as I had finished.
"Fine with me", I said. I wasn't too keen on the bustling city centre anyway and liked the thought of spending the rest of the sunny day in the garden or maybe on the beach.
Back home, I threw open the French doors in the living-room and went to sit on the bench that overlooked the sea.
More than three years after we had moved in, I still marvelled at how we had been lucky enough to get our hands on this little gem of a home, if temporarily. I didn't even want to imagine that we might be forced to find something new in a year or two when the Valentines came back from the States. Better not think about it too much.
Wondering where Evelyn had got off to, I glanced back towards the house, and there she was, crossing the lawn, carrying a small tray with two fluted glasses, giving me a reproachful look for spotting her prematurely and thus spoiling the surprise.
I raised an eyebrow as she set the tray down on the bench and sat beside me. "What's this? We've still got two weeks to go until my birthday", I said jokingly.
"This isn't about your birthday." She smiled, a queenly, knowing smile.
"But … we have something to celebrate? Did you get a pay rise, or a promotion?"
"It's not about my job. Not directly. Although I will be taking some time off work, too."
"Take time off? To do what? Write another book?"
She smiled even broader. "Turn a new leaf, more like. Start a new chapter."
I stared at her, trying to make sense of what she was saying.
"We're going to be a family, Mick." She reached for my hand. "You're going to be a father in autumn."
"Dear God." I clutched her hand and couldn't have said what I was feeling. "Is that really true?"
"Of course it is! Would I be telling you otherwise? I've been to the doctor's this morning, and he estimates I'm about two and a half months along."
My head was swimming. I knew I should say something but all I could do was look at her with an incredulous imbecile grin until she raised her glass and said, "Let's drink to our little surprise guest."
I would never have expected this to happen. She had appeared so busily involved with Roy and the university all the time, there had even been some talk about the possibility of spending some time in the U.S. as a visiting lecturer, a prospect both of us had been a little torn about.
Motherhood had been one thing that never seemed to be on her agenda.
We clinked glasses, and I drained half of mine in one go, not speaking for a while afterwards.
Apparently, I was still looking somewhat befuddled, for she asked, "Are you happy, Mick?"
"Oh, yes", I said, although I still wasn't sure what exactly my feelings were. "Very happy. What about you?"
"I am … now", she said a little guiltily. "To tell the truth, I wasn't thrilled when I first suspected something. It sounds terribly careerist and selfish, but the first thing I thought of was this new project I told you about. Roy and I have been working so hard on it, and now I won't be able to be in it until the end. What's more, getting back on the job after a while will be quite difficult, I presume. The academic world doesn't stop turning while you're taking a time-out to raise a child, and it remains to be seen if they'll want me back at all once I'm a mother." She sighed. "And next, I wondered what you would say. We'd never really talked about kids, and I wasn't sure if you wanted any. At first, I was a little afraid to tell you, to be honest."
I took another sip of the bubbly and remained silent.
"But then, I suddenly remembered that night when Conrad was so ill and you were babysitting Henry. When I came back from the hospital, you were holding him in your arms. He looked as if he actually belonged there, and there was something in your eyes I had never seen before."
I had a very clear memory of that evening myself, of the sleeping boy, of my mediocre attempts at singing him a lullaby, and of the craving that had taken hold of me out of the blue.
"I just know you'll be a wonderful father", she added.
I wasn't so sure about that, but I said nothing.
Instead, I hastily emptied my glass, set it aside and bowed my head to kiss her on the lips, seeking reassurance in her familiar embrace.
Yes, I was happy about the news that we would be a family after all, that this old dream of mine was finally coming true, but my joy was not unreserved.
I was also pretty scared, now that it was an irrevocable fact that there was a baby on the way.
Scared of the enormous responsibility a child meant.
Scared of not being up to the challenges of fatherhood, be it because of my disability or of other shortcomings I had.
Scared of all that could go wrong along the way, both for Evelyn and the baby.
I stiffened at the notion and pressed her tighter against me, staring blankly into space over her head.
I knew how dangerous a birth could be, for mother and child. My own mother had almost lost her life when Jess was born, and for the first anxious couple of days, it had been anything but sure that the baby was going to survive.
What was I supposed to do if history repeated itself, with a turn for the worse?
And even if the birth did go well, there was so much you could do wrong as a parent. It was so easy to damage a child permanently without the slightest intention. To burden him or her with too many expectations or to show too little appreciation. To harm a trustful little soul again and again with a harsh word, a slap here, a thoughtless remark, a lapse of temper there.
There was so much else that could happen, too, shattering things that could not be influenced, calamities the greatest love and care in the world could not prevent. Life had taught me that lesson very early on.
I had been a perfectly happy little boy, living in my cosy little world, getting my hugs from Mom and playing games with my dad, the person I trusted and loved and adored more than anything. And then, he went away to fight in the war in Europe, and on a warm summer day when I was not even five years old, I found Mommy sitting in the kitchen, crying over a telegram, and she told me Daddy would not be coming back, no matter how long I waited.
I was older now than both of my parents would ever be. They had been so young when they'd had me, my mother nineteen and my father twenty-one, and still neither had lived to see me reach my twentieth birthday.
My father had been killed in combat, which certainly wasn't going to be my destiny any more, but what if some fateful accident like the one that had claimed my mother's life happened to me while the child was still young?
Or, much worse, what if something happened to Evelyn? What would I do without her? How would I take care of a helpless little baby when I sometimes couldn't even seem to look after myself properly?
"Stop brooding, Mick." Evelyn had gently disengaged herself from my arms, taking my face into both hands, and gave me a long, intense look. "Don't start imagining all that could go wrong."
"I didn't …"
"Of course you did. You don't fool me, Mr. Carpenter. I've known you for long enough." She ran her thumb along my cheekbone affectionately. "Why don't you believe everything will be okay, just this once?"
I smiled wryly. "You know I'm an old pessimist, but I'll try my best." I leaned forward to kiss her on the forehead. She tilted her face up at the same moment, and our noses collided, which made both of us laugh. We were still chuckling softly as we kissed, my hand on her still-flat belly that was now, inconceivably, sheltering a tiny creature sprung from our love.
That she was really, truly carrying our baby remained unreal to me even as a charming little bulge began to show and her skirts and trousers got too tight around the waist.
At home, she took to wearing loose-fitting shirts, which she sometimes nicked from my side of the wardrobe, over pants with the top button left open. Her breasts grew rounder and heavier, her face softer, and I found she was more beautiful than ever.
She tired faster than usual, but apart from that, she didn't seem to suffer from any pregnancy-related ailments and went on with her life pretty much as before. When I asked her to be careful and to make sure she got enough rest, she just laughed. "I'm pregnant, Mick, not terminally ill. You'll see, I'll automatically take things easier and let you do all the work once I get really fat."
I, for my part, kept alternating between elation that I would at last get to hold a child that was my very own and recurring profound doubts and worries.
I was ready to do anything for the little one to be safe and happy, but I only needed to read the latest news from Korea in the papers to start wondering if it was a good idea to have children in a world full of idiots waging wars that killed or crippled their fathers. Or even themselves.
One Sunday morning, something else struck me as I watched her devour her eggs and several slices of toast with a healthy appetite, and I asked her hesitantly, "Evelyn … the baby is okay, isn't it? Everything going according to plan?"
"Yes, Mick. I told you a million times everything's fine. I swear it is. Really."
She sounded a trifle irritated, so I felt compelled to explain myself, even if it wasn't a very suitable subject to discuss over breakfast. "Good. I only thought … well, it seems rather silly now that I'm saying it aloud, but … you've never been sick in the morning, have you?"
"Ugh, no." She laughed. "Fortunately, not all women get morning sickness."
"Oh, really? I didn't … know that." I felt stupid for having assumed all my life that vomiting in the morning was an integral part of any normal pregnancy. "I remember that my mother used to throw up a lot when she was pregnant, at least during the first half or so, and everybody kept telling her that the sickness was a sure sign that the baby was doing fine."
"I know that's what they say, but it's utter nonsense. Thank God. I can do without hugging the porcelain every morning." She made a face and then became serious, studying me silently for a minute before she said, "Did you just say you remember when your mother was pregnant?"
"Um … yes? Why?"
"Mick, you can't possibly remember anything from when you weren't even born!"
Now I was the one to give her a puzzled stare, until I realized that there was something I had never told her, perhaps because I didn't like to think too much about it myself.
"Oh, I see", I said and went on to explain quietly, "I'm not talking about when she was expecting me, obviously. My mother remarried when I was nine, and she got pregnant with my sister not much later. I remember very well how I thought she was terribly ill when I first noticed she was running to the bathroom all the time. I was really worried until they told me I was going to have a little sibling."
Evelyn breathed, "I had no idea you've got a sister. I've always believed you were an only child."
"In a way, that's what I've been for a long time", I replied.
She gasped softly, apparently thinking whatever brothers or sisters I might have had were long dead.
I knew I was being too cryptic, but it took me a long pause and some very deep breaths until I was ready to tell Evelyn of the girls I had left behind when I went away to pursue my dreams and never saw again after Mom's death.
She listened intently as I spoke of Jess and Janie, of how we had loved and adored each other, how I had gone back home to Maine with the promise to write and visit them regularly, and how I had lost track of them painfully soon after the accident that killed my mother when they moved out of town without leaving as much as a forwarding address.
As I relayed how I had followed up what little leads I'd had, to no avail, my voice failed repeatedly, and to my horror, I felt my eyes prickle suspiciously.
"I've never been able to shake the feeling that I failed them", I said sadly. "I promised I would always love them and stay in touch forever, and I didn't even manage to make good on it for more than a year."
It still hurt, two decades later.
I silently vowed nothing would ever make me abandon my child as long as I lived, and I wished I would find some way to locate the girls, who weren't girls any more now but grown-up women in their twenties.
If they would want to see me at all. I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't after such a long time. They had probably given up on me ages ago.
Evelyn reached for my hand across the table and said, "Don't berate yourself, Mick. It wasn't your fault. You did your best, especially considering you were hardly more than a kid yourself at the time. What else could you have done when you were left without any hint where they had moved off to? Who knows, maybe they have tried looking for you, too, without knowing where to start."
I had never seen it that way, that maybe one of them, or both, might have begun to search for me once they were old enough, turning up nothing but dead ends because nobody knew where I had gone after decamping from my quarters above Harry's bar in Portland.
"Yes, who knows", I said, thinking that perhaps I ought to give it one last try.
I made a mental note to find out how to start an enquiry with the Red Cross or some other organisation helping people in search of loved ones.
If it had been possible for me and Evelyn to be reunited, maybe there was a chance that I might find my sisters, too, and that our child would have two aunts who were more to him or her than just a pair of little girls in an old photograph.