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Love child

by acwhitehouse 

Posted: 13 November 2007
Word Count: 2550
Summary: A marriage on the rocks, a friendship put at risk, secrets and lies in contemporary suburbia. A 'talking heads' style piece - all dialogue.
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This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.


1. Kat

Our friendship with the O’Callaghans became increasingly important to us since we had kids. We’d known them since we were just Pete and Kat, hanging out with Tom and Nicky – going to the pub, seeing a film – never planning further ahead than the next summer holiday. Sometimes I think we actually stayed together because leaving Pete would have meant losing custody of that friendship. It would have been him that they commiserated with, not me. In the end though, it was neither.

We became families. Us first. We were onto our second by the time they started trying. Collectively we re-imagined ourselves: convinced ourselves that we were no longer children, that we were capable of raising children of our own. We were smug about it too. We were good parents we told each other. OUR kids were never going to be ignored, smacked, ill-fed, under-educated, under-valued, excluded from school, on drugs, pregnant, impregnating others or, in any way, letting the side down. They didn’t chew with their mouths open or swear openly. They were nice kids, from nice families – we were nice people.

Yes, there were Hard Days. Days when I’d get the call from Nicky to go over there and drink tepid tea and moan about our husbands (we’d married within a couple of years of each other – almost sharing the date of our anniversary. Our little Gracie had been their tiny, tottering, bridesmaid. Halfway down the aisle, she had seen me in the third pew and run to cling fast to my leg, dropping her roses without a thought for the florist – a family friend – who was sitting in the eighth.)

Then it all went tits-up. Not overnight; there is a nothing-and-nowhere time, in between ‘fine’ and ‘off’, when the milk is not quite right but you keep pouring it onto your branflakes anyway. Looking back it was very simple: I wanted baby number three; he wanted a vasectomy.

I think we could have got ourselves through that. If the sex had been better. If I hadn’t felt so fat. If either of us had been more successful at work. If money hadn’t always been ‘an issue’. There were times when I looked at my two beautiful girls and thought ‘yes, this is my life, and it is a good life. I am lucky.’ In fact those thoughts were beginning to outweigh the bad ones – the resentful ones, the cruel ones, the ‘if onlys’ – when something terrible happened. Nicky gave birth to her own second child: a ten-and-a-half-pound baby boy.

Something to celebrate, you might say? Well yes, you very well might, if you weren’t five-foot-two and a size ten. Let’s not go into the gory details. Let’s just say it put the poor girl on crutches for a month. Let’s just say that the O’Callaghans had become a family of four and were destined to remain that way. Let’s just say that Tom tried really hard to remain contented and supportive. He tried for three years but in the end it just wasn't enough... for either of us.

Now I know what you’re thinking: we had an affair. It wasn’t like that.


2. Pete

I never really understood why Kat married me. She was gorgeous and I was, well still am, just a skinny kid pretending to be a man. At work I feel like an impostor: how can they really be trusting me to do this stuff, on my own, are they mad? Can’t they see me for what I really am? I’m raising my children on a wing and a prayer, making it up as I go along. Kat’s totally different, she’s your basic earth-mother, she does it all so effortlessly. I always seem to be doing something wrong.

It’s true what she probably told you. Did she tell you? That we did both want a big family in the beginning? I expect she did. I never denied that I’d changed my mind. She changed her mind too though, did she tell you that? Probably not. After Gabby, our second, was born she said she that was it – never again. She said it to me right there in the hospital, I wasn’t the only one who heard it, and now I’M the bad guy!

She said it was like a bereavement, when I had the op. She said that, to her, the possibility of a third child had been alive in her mind – another daughter, with a name picked out and everything – and that I had killed it… her. Ridiculous. She always did have a talent for the melodramatic.


3. Nicky

I don’t really understand why you wanted to talk to me. It’s a bit unusual isn’t it? I mean this is THEIR marriage-counselling thing. I doubt I can add much that you don’t know already.

I did know them both well, yes. I suppose an outsider’s point-of-view could be useful but, to be honest, I think you’re flogging a dead horse on this one.

Okay, well, what can I say? I’ve known them for ten years or so. We first met after university when Tom and Pete were temping together in a call-centre. It took a while for me to really warm to Katherine – she can seem quite intimidating – but we became very close after we’d had children. Neither of us really had anyone else locally because we’d opted to stay in the city where we had studied. Not opted really, you see Tom and Pete graduated first, because Katherine and I had both had gap years, so they started temping while we finished our final years, and by the time we finished too we were all… settled. We’d bought houses (both utter wrecks) and started doing them up. We’d begun to feel like adults. We couldn’t go back home.

I suppose I’m quite reserved. People say that I am. Tom is always making friends left, right and centre – dragging me out with someone he’s met and whose girlfriend he’s SURE I’ll get on with. I usually don’t. Katherine was different. I didn’t really know what to make of her at first. The men went into their usual greeting routine of silly noises and comedy-show quotations: ‘suit you, Sir’ was doing the rounds at the time I remember. I had little patience with it. Standing at the bar, a little way behind and to the side of our men, taking in the dizzying surroundings and still waiting to be introduced, we caught each other’s eye. Katherine made a face – a sort of apologetic grimace – that seemed to say ‘sorry, he’s not really an idiot, despite the fact that he seems to be working pretty hard to convince you otherwise.’ I grinned back: ‘I know. Can’t take them anywhere can you?’ and that was it – a friendship, forged without a sound. It still took time for us to get to know each other but the impetus was there on that first night - the night we both decided it would be worth the effort.

I knew that their personal life wasn’t all she had hoped it could be. She never said much but I knew from the little she did let slip that… brevity… was a particular problem of Pete’s. Maybe she just couldn’t stand it any more. I don’t know. I mean they managed three children in the end so it can’t have been all bad, can it?


4. Tom

I was offered a job in Derry, Londonderry, whatever you want to call it. It was my home so it was natural for me to want to go back. Nicky wasn’t best-pleased about it, I’ll admit that, but she’s coming round. She likes the place we’ve bought. Oh you should see it, it’s a fantastic old stone farmhouse: walls three feet thick, turf roof, the whole shebang, I’m not kidding! Well, we managed to get the new roof onto the main living area just before Christmas - that wasn't cheap, I can tell you - and the inside’s slowly taking shape. My Nicky's got her Rayburn and I’ve finally got my Study – happy as pigs in shite!

Yeah, I was very surprised when you called. I’m sorry they’re having problems but I don’t think there’s anything much we can do to help. We’d have liked to stay in touch with them, you know, have them out to stay once the house is sorted. I expect we will do that, whatever happens. Either they’ll stay friends and come together or they’ll just have to come one at a time with the girls. I just hope they don’t expect us to take sides. Obviously Tom was my friend first but I feel like I have just as much of a connection with Kat and the kiddies and I know that Nicky misses Kat more than she lets on. She is quite isolated here. Anyway, it’ll have to wait until the house is ready – can’t have guests getting rained on in the middle of the night now, can we? I'm sure it won't be long.


5. Kat (again)

There’s no point in going on with this. I don’t see the point in talking around and around the problem. Bottom line: there are things I cannot tell Pete. If I can’t tell him then I can’t ‘resolve the issues’, as you put it. Telling Pete is not an option.


6. Pete (again)

I give up. I think I know what this is about and there’s nothing more I can do about it. I tried everything I could think of to get things moving again. I even bought a sex-sling off a website but she wouldn’t even put it on – ‘that’s fifty quid down the drain’ I said. ‘FIFTY QUID!’ she said, ‘you spent fifty quid on that silly thing when I can’t even do a shop at the end of the month! What the fuck were you thinking Pete?’ – I can’t win. I bought porn, we watched The Secretary together, I’ve started things in unusual places, like the bathroom. I don’t know what more I can do. I expected that there wouldn't be much sex when the girls were little - I mean that's normal isn't it? But as they started to get a bit less dependent on her I assumed things would pick up. Well if things aren’t exciting enough for her; if I’M not exciting enough for her…

Well of course she SAID it wasn’t that, but she was only saying it to make me feel better. You can’t just go to someone and say ‘I don’t fancy you any more, never really did, sorry’ can you? But I know that’s what the problem is.


7. Nicky (again)

More questions? This really sounds very unorthodox to me.

Oh well, I’ll spare you five minutes. Yes, it’s true, she wanted that third baby and he had the vasectomy and I do think that the rot probably started there but she got what she wanted in the end. She should have been happy. She WAS happy, but his being so UNhappy rather spoiled things I think.

I was very surprised when she telephoned, soon after we arrived in Northern Ireland, to announce that she was pregnant again. Not just because of the scientific improbability of his vasectomy failing but because she’d also told me that she couldn’t bear to let him near her afterwards. She said that the idea of love-making was so completely bound up in her mind with the desire to conceive that to do it with no chance of conception made her too sad. She was sure she’d get over it though and she was certainly much happier just before we left.

I’m very sad to think that she’ll be having another baby without me. It was such an amazing experience to share, being pregnant together when I was having my first baby and she, her second. I couldn’t face it again myself. I’d still have liked to be there with her though – to enjoy it through her. It’s such a shame that she’ll be raising the baby alone.


8. Tom (again)

So she told you? Does Pete know? No, he can’t. He only emailed me yesterday and he wouldn’t have done that if he knew.

What can I say? It happened. It was just one of those things. We both knew I was leaving and we were definitely going to be staying in touch. We’re all godparents to each other’s children so, somehow, it didn’t feel that wrong. I know it IS wrong, in most people’s eyes, but it felt right for us – it felt like a solution. It did after two bottles of wine anyway.

Nicky had gone over to my parents’ place in Derry to look at a primary school and to buy a few things we’d need from day-one: mattresses, microwave, an electric kettle. Nothing exciting, just things we’d want to have ready in the house when we arrived, because most of our old stuff wasn’t worth shipping. I was left at home with the kiddies.

Pete was working away and so Kat was on her own as well. I was on garden-leave from my old job so we thought we’d let the kids spend a few last days together, before they had to separate. They were closer than cousins. They really do miss each other. I’d never really talked before about how empty I felt, not having that other child that I’d dreamed of. I didn’t want to upset Nicky.

I wouldn't say I felt guilty exactly. I'm glad it happened and I'm excited about the baby, although Nicky must never know. She wouldn't understand, she'd think I didn't love her and I do - as much as ever.

Look, I don't love Kat and she doesn't love me. It was never about desire, it was about family.

Well, maybe not 'family' in the sense that you or other people understand it, but we're all in it together now, for better or worse. I'm not sure when I'll get a chance to see them though, what with the work on the house and everything...


9. Pete (the final word)

Of course I know that it's not my child. Did Kat really think I wouldn’t go back to the hospital to find out what had gone wrong? Not a little swimmer in sight. Three excruciatingly embarrassing ‘samples’ and not a tadpole in any of them. God knows with whom or when or where she did it. I just hope he was no bloody good. I think I was pretty lucky really, if she hadn't gotten herself pregnant I'd never have known she was cheating on me, would I? She’s made her bed. She can’t expect me to lie in it with her.

I don't want to discuss it.

Well of course I’m bloody lonely. Of course I miss my kids. It doesn’t matter. I’ll be taking them over to my friend’s place in Londonderry soon. A break, that’s what we need, a little holiday. Just as soon as he's got the house ready.

- end -

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Comments by other Members

Brady at 19:32 on 13 November 2007  Report this post
I really like this! Great pace and for the most part very believable dialogue. I really felt sorry for all the characters and was left with a satisfyingly sad feeling at the end which is a way of saying, I guess, that the story affected me which is really, really the aim, isn't it?

Just a couple of niggles that I think would improve it:

There was only one part that didn't flow well for me
Something to celebrate, you might say? Well yes, you very well might, if you weren’t five-foot-two and a size ten. Let’s not go into the gory details. Let’s just say it put the poor girl on crutches for a month. Let’s just say that the O’Callaghans had become a family of four and were destined to remain that way. Let’s just say that Tom tried really hard to remain contented and supportive.

I think it is probably the repetition of 'let's just say' that doesn't seem right especially as it's such a serious think she's describing, and it seems inconsistenet with the easy flow of her narrative up until then. I'd recommend rewriting this paragraph.

souring slowly like milk in the refrigerator -

I love this image but think it's ruined by explaining what you mean by it. Leave it to the reader to imagine what you mean.

Otherwise a great story. Thanks for sharing it :)

Cornelia at 18:46 on 14 November 2007  Report this post
I like the idea of this structuring device - it reminds me a bit of that column in the Sunday Times where they interview first a woman or a man and then get a member of the family to go over the same ground. They are usually celebrities or had something dramatic happen to them.

The voices seemed naturalistic but the characters could have distinctive speech styles, I think. There could also be should be some drama early on, to get the reader hooked. These people all sound a bit too level-headed.

As a less-than-five-foot person who was a size ten before my first child was born, I was a bit puzzled to learn that having a baby could put someone on crutches! It had me speculating as to the cause. Had she fallen off the bed, got her foot twisted in the stirrups or even, horror of horrors, dislocated her hip giving birth to such a big baby? The latter seemed unlikely these days, with surgeons over-eager to perform Caesarians.


acwhitehouse at 19:28 on 14 November 2007  Report this post
That part was true! It happened to my friend just a month ago - it pulled all the cartilage in her pelvis out of place apparently - she's off the crutches but in intensive physio.

jamiem at 11:48 on 19 November 2007  Report this post
I agree with most of the previous comments. I liked the structure of the story. It was well handled and ended well, but that maybe one or two of the characters could have had slightly more distinctive voices.

She’s got her Rayburn and I’ve got my Study – happy as pigs in shite!
- strong voice - need more of this from Tom perhaps

I wondered whether one or two of the character's contributions could become increasingly terse and monosyllabic as the story gets closer to their personal problems. Number 5 is a good example of this. It would provide a good contrast.

the next July fortnight.
- Didn't understand. Why July? is that just a particular fortnight at random?

We were good parents we told each other
- need a comma

there is a nothing-and-nowhere time, in between ‘fine’ and ‘off’, when the milk is not quite right but you keep pouring it onto your branflakes anyway
- like this. I think if you're going to cut it down this branflakes line is better than 'souring slowly like milk in the refrigerator' as it demonstrates the idea more vividly.

I think we could have gotten through that.
- gotten sounds American to me

That we did both wanted a big family in the beginning
- 'did' or 'wanted'?

a friendship, forged without a sound
- this seems a bit poetic for speech - unless she is the florid type

She’s got her Rayburn and I’ve got my Study – happy as pigs in shite!
- strong voice - I'd like more of this from Tom.

Great to read such a clever piece.


acwhitehouse at 13:45 on 19 November 2007  Report this post
Thanks everyone - I'll get right to it and I hope to be returning the favour soon, although I probably won't get a chance until the weekend. Comments much appreciated.

apcharman at 17:00 on 24 November 2007  Report this post
Hi AC,
I thought this was very powerful. While I agree with those who commented above that it would benefit from a) more distinctive voices among the four of them; and b) a little more tension at the beginning, it is still compelling writing and the characters come across as being real and believable. It's actually a bit depressing, possibly because so many so-called friendships really do involve this much self-deception, betrayal and secrecy. The pacing here ios very strong and I really liked the realistic way the characters name names and refere to preferences without lengthy explanations. Moments like "she's got her Rayburn and I've got my study" speak volumes.

I did wonder whether you need the device of the marraige counsellor. Alan Bennet never bothered with a justification for the observer, and by just having them talk to an unknown listener you leave the authorial voice further in the background. Tricky, because you'd still want Tom to keep the secret until Kat told the reader, but I found the counseller a little intrusive (and unlikely). But it is a great way of revealing a complex web in very few words and for some obscure reason I particularly liked the (again) when characters spoke a second time. Great stuff!


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