It was an odd year, in the end. Annie was clearly settled entirely into her new life, and each time I saw her she seemed somehow shorter. I realised she was like my forearms, that tell Siân was always so quick to spot. As she caught life up after so many years of pursuit, the tension was leaving her body. Even though she was like Alice in her devotion to heels, her physical presence diminished as her personality was finally allowed out to face the world.
We spent more time over there once her friend Dennis was back on his feet, and we spent a lot more under our doctors, literally some of the time as it seemed to involve a lot of beds with stirrups. We had discussed all the differing methods at length, and in the end what seemed to speak to us was insemination rather than in vitro.]
I obviously don’t mean in the, ahem, conventional way, as not only would Sarah have killed all three of us (well, at least two of us) but while I can’t speak with certainty about another’s feelings I am almost free of any doubt on my wife’s opinion on sex with a man, and it is like my own. I don’t hate men, and never have, but I find them and their anatomy profoundly foreign. I had been pestered at school, having to punch one or two of the more irritating little hormonal bastards, but in most cases it was their willies doing the thinking for them, not their brains. I only ever had to hit them once, though.
No, I didn’t hate them, and examples like Dad and my uncle, Kev and Tony, not to mention Eric Johnson, bore that out. I just had no desire to become intimate with them in that particular way. So, while we were going for insemination, it would be by way of a different conduit. That was part of our fun and games with the doctors, because neither of us wanted to risk multiple pregnancy using fertility drugs, which meant that they needed to find just the right time, mood, season, phase of the moon, whatever, to give us the best hope for conception. That again raised an issue, for if we weren’t both dancing in time, we would end up giving birth at different times, and we really wanted to do it all together, like everything else in our lives and life together.
Christmas came round again, and Sarah was on the phone a month or so beforehand.
“Got a proposal for you, Lainey”
I laughed at that. “You’ve already had our proposal, chwaer fychan! Has he, you know?”
She laughed, raucously even for her. “Oh yes indeed, all packaged up, chilled down and sent on its way! We… Let’s just say the collection of the necessities wasn’t exactly unpleasant”
“You are a strumpet, Sar!”
A simpler, cleaner laugh. “Nope, just a very happily married woman with healthy appetites that are shared by my hubby. Trust me, it didn’t involve work, but rather a lot of heavy breathing did take place…”
She drifted off for a few seconds, and my mind showed me the old Sar, broken so badly I thought she must die. Anthony Hall, you are a life saver as well as a life giver.
“What you up to at Christmas?”
“Both of us have it off, Sar. I mean, I’m off shifts, and Siân’s pulled some swaps. What do you have in mind?”
“That vicar, Simon, aye? My little boy’s been stirring, and there’s a couple of nights camping, charity do, music”
“Beer and food?”
“Oh yes! Devious little sod’s already been on to Alice and the rest. You on?”
I nudged my wife. “Sar’s asking about Christmas. Just say yes”
I turned back to the phone. “Aye, that’s us in. Mail me directions, just in case, aye? Got to go, wife’s poking me in the ribs”
I hung up and turned to my red lady. “Ow! That hurts!”
“Well, I agree with you on general principle, but that doesn’t mean I always trust you, Lainey! Speak and divulge!”
“Tony’s done the necessaries, and Sar’s, well, I suspect, sod it I bloody well know it was a joint enterprise”
“You mean she, er, had a hand in things”
“I suspect it wasn’t just a hand, cariad. Anyway, what you agreed to was Christmas. Trip over that way”
“No, Horley. That vicar, aye?”
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“Ah. That means shopping. You seen the state of that tent?”
Argument would have been a waste of time, so our next afternoon off was spent at the big outdoor shop in town, where she settled on a solid little dome/tunnel hybrid. By ‘little’, I mean it was a three-person tent by description, with a decent porch at each end.
“Sleeping bags, cariad?”
“Nope. We’ll take duvets and proper pillows. Couple of those thermal blankets’ll do for rugs, though… ah. This is what we want, eh?”
Thermal underwear. Wonderful. Thanks, Sar; I am turning into a crumbly. In the end, we couldn’t resist a new fleece jacket each, and a couple of silly hats to go with them, and some fleece gloves, and, well, that was the pub and the Italian restaurant avoided till after Christmas.
The car knew its own way after so many trips, but we were in convoy. No surprise at that one, for any event in my sister’s life could never be complete without Arris’ presence. I was in full philosopher mode by the time we took a break at Leigh Delamere to let smaller people stretch their legs and larger ones to relax their bladders and top up their tannin levels. The tea was die=re, and I wondered what the car park attendants would say if I simply sparked up our camping stove in the car park. Arris’ brood was bouncing, each of them too full of energy to have been comfortable for any longer. I realised how ole they were getting, their own clocks ticking—no, stop that. Arris caught me staring.
“Aye, not kids any more, but always my babies. Do me a favour, and help keep an eye on Ali when Jim’s about”
I gave her the eyebrows. “Dark horse, that little man. Bit like his dad, very deep”
She nodded. “Very serious about things is Jim. Thinks a lot, but not too much, if you get me. He’d make a great accountant, eye for detail that he has”
I laughed. “Or a copper, aye?”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. He doesn’t have the cynicism, or the edge you have, you or his Mam. He’s more like his Dad”
Thank you, Alison Barraclough, for such casually-spoken acceptance of my sister. I kissed her cheek in thanks.
“Stop that or you’ll confuse Steve! No, on second thoughts…. Confuse him all you like so I can de-confuse him later!”
She was even worse than my sister.
Back on the road, dreary motorway finally ending, round the end of the airport, down the little lane and of course the people we wanted to see most were all in the bloody pub. That meant I had to join them, and that meant a pint, and THAT meant self-control because one of us had to get the tent sorted. I was only slightly surprised to find my devious old uncle had somehow managed to secure a room in the pub. At Christmas. He should play the lottery.
Tent up, bedding arranged, tea from an urn run by Annie’s cousin Merry, who seemed to be somewhat focussed on the vicar Simon, and then rounds of so many people I either knew or knew of. Annie, of course, was the person I most wanted to see, and when I found her she was with her Geordie friend and his wife, and of course their own child, together with that lad Darren and a young girl so much happier than when I had first met her.
It was a different feeling, now. Things were moving for me and Siân, there was a door opening for us, just as it had for Chantelle, and the sight of mothers and children no longer sliced me to the bone but raised questions. What did they do when…? How did they handle…? I realised I was studying them rather than envying each woman with pain and bitterness, and life was now there for all of us. I realised I had something that just had to be done.
“Annie? Can we have a chat? Private, aye?”
She looked a little worried at that, so I gave her a better smile, and I walked with her over to the military-style gravestone that sat in a sunny corner of the churchyard.
“Boy seems quite attached to you, Annie”
She grinned “Sons and mothers, Elaine”
“Adopted, now, aye? Very proud of him, I am. He saw it before I did, and he had the strength of character to show us both where we stood”
I laughed. “Funny, that. I look at you now, born to be a Mam, aye? And I think back to when we met”
She grinned. “Good actor I was back then!”
“Too good, girl. Look… Oh, there’s no easy way to say this. Do you remember a girl, PC, went to CID, Diane?”
The smile went, out like a match dropped in water. “What are you telling me, Elaine? Who’s hurt her?”
I put a hand on her arm. “No, not hurt, woman. Nothing bad, nothing at all. Remember when we met?”
“Aye, you were doing that diversity stuff”
“Aye indeed, but I followed up with that project, special team, aye? She was one of my girls”
Annie gave me a very prolonged stare. “You mean one of your team, not one of your, you know, girls? Shit, sorry, I know you’re not like that, just, well, bit sideways with hearing that name after all the stuff that’s gone on since. I thought she was going to ask me out, once”
I nodded. “She was, girl. Very fond of you, she is”
There was a ton of meaning in that one syllable. I took her hands in mine.
“Annie, my sweet woman, she knows all about you, and she still loves you, just not that way, aye? Told me she understands now why you two got on so well”
“Good job she never actually, you know…”
“Indeed. Married now, she is. Kid”
I had some pictures of Rhodri Adam on my phone, along with Diane and Blake, of course, from our holidays, and Annie’s face worked in little twitches as she scrolled through them. I took the phone back, and selected the picture of Eric’s smile I had snatched at their wedding.
“I showed her this one, among others”
She was weeping now. “Elaine, what did she have, boy or girl?”
“Boy, Annie. Rhodri Adam”
I don’t think she was collapsing, but the cuddle was necessary, my fleece taking her tears.
“Lainey, that’s two kids with that name”
“Well, take it as it was meant, woman”
“Could I…no. Should I?”
I understood, and dialled the number, putting the phone on speaker mode. Diane’s voice was thin but clear.
“Lainey? You OK?”
“Aye, Diane. I’m over in Surrey, with a friend. Phone’s on speaker mode”
I heard her breath catch. “Adam? I mean… Annie?”
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