Negative

A day that begins with a negative pregnancy test might continue like this: eating lunch in a little café, with the Captain, let’s call him; a dull Tuesday. Our plates were piled, we were making conversation, when a face went by the window.

I froze, then laid down my fork. The Captain gave a rough and spiteful laugh and slapped the table. He left the café, and I heard: ‘Hey. How’s things? Why don’t we have a word right here, then?’

And: ‘Seriously, get the fuck away from me, back off, I’ll call my lawyer.’

‘Oh you’ll call your lawyer, will you!’

‘Yeah. Listen, man, can I pass?’

What I saw on the street were two men in a confrontation and the reason was myself. But it was disturbing, a sorry spectacle, a teenage fantasy come miserably true. All I could do was smile, and pay for the food we weren’t even going to eat now. Waiting for my change, I thought, well at least. At least I’m not.

For a week or so I’d been plagued by the idea that I was pregnant. If you’ve been in this situation you will know how entirely consumptive it can be, how you lose days to your imagination, to websites and ideas. But that morning I’d taken a pregnancy test, and it was negative so I came into town. I bought a quilted Isabelle Marant jacket at half price, and got a haircut, then thought we could have lunch, though unfortunately in the same place where I’d had lunch with another person some months before. Unfortunately I’d gone other places with that person too.

Now I had to cross two streets and run down an alleyway where the Captain paced around and kicked the graffiti on a shuttered shop, saying, ‘It’s unjust, it’s me who suffers, not you,’ while I regressed, all over again, to a heap of pulpish sentiment, dismay and woolly regret, pleading, ‘But I’m so in love with you!’

The next morning, I did the last test in the pack of three and it was negative. I might have also bought another pack, because I used to take a lot of pregnancy tests. There was just too much of the crystal ball about a pregnancy test, too many stories told in their mini plastic screens to resist an opportunity. It was March 2016, and I was 31, so old enough but by no means satisfied with what I had. I was working for a newspaper, and writing short stories to send away to competitions, and that year I wrote some of my worst work. I lived on a quiet redbrick road beside the old asylum at Grangegorman. The day was punctuated with yoga, Vietnamese iced coffee, loose arrangements, drinking, reading, falling asleep on my desk. And there was the Captain with his two little children in a house across the city, with their teddies and their milk cups and their playroom that resembled a shattered kingdom of Lego.

We had met a year or so before, around the time his marriage fell apart. My sister told me he would never leave her—‘and she’s not going to leave her husband, is she?’—but sure enough they were planning on separating. Then one evening he phoned to say he wouldn’t be coming over. His wife had a sore arm. Days later she had a strange fall. It turned out to be glioblastoma, a grade-4 tumour on her brain that was inoperable and incurable, the most aggressive kind of brain tumour. ‘She has six to eighteen months of life,’ the Captain told me, crying in his parked car.

He would sometimes bring nightmarish news of her deterioration. How she bought all new clothes from TK Maxx to fit her new slim figure, and had a flamboyant custom-made red wig she wore once. How she built a crowdfund page, a blog, and how the Daily Mail journalist who interviewed her misspelled both her children’s names. In the weeks that followed her diagnosis, she would still send her husband to Halal shops for tahini and feta cheese. She would still dance with her two small children. I saw them dancing in a video someone took in their TV room. She carefully places one foot over the next, and hops lightly, guiding each child in a hand, her real, doomed red bangs flowing around her shoulders. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t distraught, crying, thumping fists in this video. She wasn’t laughing either, she was just living, and looked a little tired, same as anyone.

Within a short time, she left the country to be with her parents, to look for new treatments and a medical miracle, and the children stayed with their father. They were four and six then. She was 38.

Positive

That Saturday night I got a late period in the toilets of the Lighthouse Cinema, half way through the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! Scarlett Johannson plays a pregnant Hollywood starlet whose angered studio boss arranges the secret birth and fosterage of her child so she can maintain her spotless image. The part is underwritten, but she plays it with a ferocious discontent. I thought about how pregnancy is always beguiling in films and books, and just about anywhere. The drama is already written, with its threat of savage pain, the story constrained within a set time period. I loved pregnancy in other people. Though whenever I imagined it happening to me I felt terrified. Terrified particularly at the idea of the baby that would be born at the end of the pregnancy. A baby you would be required to take care of, who would grow up into a child—a story unconstrained by any set time period.

Still I was almost wistful the next day as I swallowed my painkiller and saw to all the dreary toilette. Wistful, relieved, resigned, and then, over the following days, confused about something in particular.

Nobody will want to hear about that thing, it isn’t great to read about, or write about to be honest. But for a while I’d been convinced something was amiss and strange in my body. Two weeks before this I had visited my GP, who tested me for pregnancy and then, to my disappointment, chlamydia. The implications were almost unbearable. I cursed my luck; how had I failed to see this wreckage coming, and how had I concealed it from myself? Then the results had come, and it wasn’t chlamydia. It was nothing, blank. Then, on the Tuesday morning following the cinema, I walked to my parents’ house and went straight upstairs to the bathroom, performed another pregnancy test and lay down on the floor. After the three minutes had passed, the stick showed two pink lines.

I climbed in beside my mum in her bed. ‘I’m so tired,’ I complained, hoping she would ask why, though she hadn’t noticed I’d become a different person. The Captain, though, burst into tears on the phone then drove over with a box of multivitamins and some ginger sweets, plus a digital test to confirm the unsettling news. That week appointments were booked, mirrors studied and I went further into my naval, and up my own arse. Pregnant, I thought, standing on the tram. Handle with care! ‘I’m pregnant,’ I told women at work I didn’t know. Did I look different? Did the air taste different? It was something like going to sleep and waking up a queen or goddess. Not everyone would have seen it like that. But I believed they did, I believed they were about to stand in awe and envy at my fortune. The world would hold its breath, reposition its gaze, step aside for me.

The only thing to do was to spend any money I had in Brown Thomas. A loose t-shirt dress. A billowing shirt. Formal shoes to make a good impression because, as was beginning to worry me, I now had only nine months to complete everything and become a published writer.

Six weeks

There is that obstetrical quirk whereby the beginning of a pregnancy is dated back about two weeks pre-conception. So at four weeks pregnant you have completed six, and time now will be packaged into weeks and days, not months or years. Six weeks conferred a certain confidence, and smug fatigue, that St Patrick’s Day, as I walked on Dollymount Strand with some old pals. Later, I thought, I’ll retire to my writing desk and finish the short story—the winning one. The sun shone across the glittering tide but my phone buzzed and buzzed because the Captain was across the city with his two children, entering a state of resentment.

He was more often than not alone with his children, wrapping them up in waterproofs and driving them up mountains, or taking them to Tayto Park or Eddie Rockets. Cancer leaflets were stashed around his house, a new, inexperienced au pair had to be hired and quickly entrusted with delicate responsibilities, meetings with ‘services’ scheduled. They were ‘linked in’ with the services. The children needed to be fed constantly. On a day off the Captain might be found in a car park, buying good quality tracksuits from an Adverts dealer; on a Sunday, the Captain, a tall, robust man, would sit on the floor in a pile of crushed laundry, matching odd cartoon socks. And I’m calling him the Captain not just because has a real way with order, and time, but because he is one, in the Greek Army, a recent promotion in absentia from artillery lieutenant. He’s in the reserves, and still retains his rank.

‘Paddy’s Day is a family day!’ he texted now.

‘Oh, you think?’ I replied, and my phone sparked and raged until nightfall. It wasn’t the first big fight, never the last. Going home that night I got off my bike to search ‘abortion England’, but my phone was getting rained upon. He arrived later with another box of vitamins and the new 4th edition of What to Expect When you’re Expecting. He knelt at my feet with these shining gifts, and the night went silent, and across the rest of the city time hurled everyone on.

Five weeks, two days

One evening at my salvaged hipster writing desk I was looking up mummy forums and other garbage sites when I went to the toilet and stared at a shape of fresh pink blood. My heart dropped. I returned to the mummy forums, then closed up my computer and walked to the hospital.

The waiting room was full of pregnant women I will remember for life. The apple-cheeked woman with the messed up golden curls; the 25-year-old woman in tight jeans, on her fourth baby, his first. They’ll always be pregnant, with that brave and slightly withering look in their faces, like they’ve seen it all by now. I picked up Good Housekeeping, an old Vogue, and Cheltenham, 2016, with a 40-page festival preview, and a jockey on the cover with two long smile lines that looked like fallopian tubes. I couldn’t think straight. A screen on the wall informed us shark meat is forbidden in pregnancy, also liver and any kind of pâté. The Captain held my hand in one hand and played a game of chess on his phone with the other, but nothing could soothe the terror in my lungs, a terror that is special to a hospital, when waiting seems eternity. A terror that comes with self-reproach, thinking how easily all this could have been avoided.

A group of Asian women came in wearing leather jackets over their pyjamas and talking excitedly; a thin girl come out of Early Pregnancy Assessment, crying, with her boyfriend’s arm around her, and then it was our turn.

The doctor put on a pair of Prada tortoiseshell glasses before applying gel to my stomach. I didn’t feel like I was there; I felt I was just a character in a budget drama I’d been watching all my life. She told me the pain sounded normal and some bleeding can happen and she gave me a small smile. Everything else was consistent. The thickening of the womb, that was good.

The next day a second registrar put a wand inside me, and on the screen they found a pregnancy sack with a dot on it, but it was obvious this wasn’t telling her much. ‘You’re at 5 weeks 2 days, that’s nothing!’ this second registrar said and she booked me back in for a scan that Friday week—nine days’ time.

I left with an illicit excitement, then went to the toilet and bled some more. I bled a lot that week, as what was happening seemed to be a miscarriage. A kind and understanding registrar, on the phone, talked me through everything. She sent a doctor’s note. When I walked outside and into town, pregnant women filled the streets, and a friend sent me a picture of her new-born baby. Harsh pains crawled up my legs. I couldn’t be in public anymore so I went home, where I continued to bleed. I sat up in bed, typing out a puff piece about an actress. Pains multiplied and played up and down my side, spread around both hips, stomach, back, the backs then fronts of my thighs. I lay there, listening to new age music on Spotify, and couldn’t eat. I couldn’t talk to anybody. I was still not comfortable with any kind of injury you couldn’t shout about, that didn’t give you some distinction. Now I felt the most obscure kind of sadness, curled on my bed while my sister tipped her 35-week pregnancy between us and ate biscuits.

Zero

It was Easter Week, the commemorations of 1916. Like skeletons at the feast, we went for a drink and to the cinema, and the film was Maggie’s Plan, in which Greta Gerwig falls for her sperm donor having had a disappointing affair with Ethan Hawke. Then I started passing clots. I went to my parents and stayed in bed taking painkillers, coming out once a day to go for a mournful walk by the river, or stare at the television. I re-watched Michael Collins. Later—odd choice—Raising Arizona, when Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter can’t have babies so they steal one. I felt so sorry for myself. From time to time I took out the ultrasound picture and found it pathetic. A mysterious grey morass. It looked like the ghost of a life, or a fake picture of a UFO, a vanity project. It seemed idiotic to get upset over a bunch of cells that would have caused full mayhem if allowed to advance. The day before my scan, the registrar put my name on a list for a D\&C, a procedure under anaesthetic that would come after the scan, only once the early loss was confirmed.

The morning of the scan I was very hungry, having fasted for 12 hours. Peeved-looking pregnant women smoked at the hospital gates, or paced corridors holding giant globes in their dressing gowns. It was April Fool’s Day, and nature had already played her prank, I thought bitterly. Once lying down I asked the nurse if she could turn the screen away—a hot tip from the internet, no flies on me. The Captain held my socked foot in his hand, while the nurse fixed her eyes and moved the nozzle around. ‘This is the heartbeat,’ she said and turned the screen back to me.

*

Six weeks again

It was likely only something called sub-chorionic hematoma. I never asked at the time, it didn’t matter anymore. I rushed out of the hospital with the Captain and the sun burst through the clouds, because we both desperately wanted what we’d thought was lost.

We took the afternoon off. Lunch, iced coffee, a Hungarian film called Son of Saul, set in Auschwitz. Saul is a Sonderkommando, a prisoner responsible for guiding fellow prisoners to the gas chambers, then disposing of their bodies. In the film he comes across a slaughtered boy who is his son, and he takes the body so he can give him a proper burial. There is a prisoner uprising, and an SS chase, but this action feels separate to the film’s main adventure quest. Saul’s hard-boiled and trance-like determination to give his young son dignity in death and this amounting to the greatest love imaginable.

Twelve weeks

And on the Monday that we came out of the hospital with a picture of the baby’s crown and pursed lips in profile it took all my stamina not to brandish it at everyone I met. I told everybody: old friends who couldn’t have cared; my therapist… I also told her about how the Captain and I had been fighting constantly, and about how one of the children kept fleeing from his classroom and the other kept stealing trinkets from shops and houses, and my worries that I would not be able to handle the children. What if I became their step-mother? What if we fell out? What if I became a single mother and the children were left without any kind of mother?

‘Well you might have thought about all that before you got pregnant,’ she said, and we sat in baffled silence.

A friend directed me to a good maternity website, and I filled my basket up. Four hundred and eighty euro: Halterneck polka-dot swimming togs, Kate Middleton black turtleneck dress, workwear—items I would pair with my pregnancy fishnets, borrowed maternity parka and Repeal the 8th badge. I felt intensely special, dignified and modest. The only thing on at the Omniplex was Bridget Jones’s Baby.

Sixteen weeks

On my birthday I complained over the phone about having to carry so many tomatoes across the city in order to make the gazpacho from scratch. And you just couldn’t get commitment when it came to numbers for food. I was so frustrated with everybody. This birthday was my swansong, my send-off, the last chance to be an individual person. The buzzer went, and I ran down with the same skittish happiness I have at every party, only this one was significant, fin de siècle.

I opened the door, and the two children shot past me into the building and up the stairs. The Captain stood there, exasperated. ‘Where have they gone?’ he said.

In my hand they’d left two limp cards, and I read the more legible one: HAPPY BIRTHDAY MY BIRTHDAY IS NEXT YEAR DADDY’S GETTING ME A DEATH STAR LEGO THANK YOU FOR THE PARTY WHAT ARE WE GOING TO EAT.

No question mark, just the blunt request for information. What are we going to eat.

The party was for this child, just as every day, from now, was to be repurposed around this child, around children. In those stampeding moments I knew it absolutely: it wasn’t about us grown-ups anymore. We had our chance, we spent it. I had the feeling that the earth was shifting beneath my feet.

Afterwards I shopped in the maternity boutique on Wicklow Street. Giant pyjamas with a rosebud pattern and unflattering waistband. Then to Arnotts, measured for my triple-the-size knockers. Two quality maternity bras with nursing straps, and some maternity hosiery.

‘Sixteen weeks, you wouldn’t know’, the bra ladies said, and ‘Yeah you wouldn’t know at all, you’re so neat!’

I smiled and shrugged. It was all about me, was it not. No question mark.

Twenty weeks

All this time I’d been working up some pretty voluminous drafts of fictions. Hatchet jobs, dramatisations of mild trauma, or partially veiled character studies. I’d filled thick folders with passionate unfinished manuscripts, having binned all the rest as I produced it, like a reverse production line—fill the page, scrunch it in a ball, throw it in the bin, miss the bin, or get it in and hiss, ‘Yes!’ Then do this again, and again, every Saturday and Sunday. I had big hopes though, great delusions. An ideology I might describe as convenience feminism—people had wronged me because I was a woman, and this could be my special niche, my manifesto. Livid, sexy wrongedness.

I arranged to meet a celebrated writer who had kindly offered to look at my work. He was waiting in his local pub near the coast. Wearing a giant Rosemary’s Baby dress, I collapsed on a chair and produced from my knapsack two folders, bulging thick with flopped manuscripts. ‘I have about sixty stories here,’ I told the writer. None of them are finished and they are all the same story.

I’d never been this close to such a distinguished author before, and was relieved he was unshaven, slightly overweight, with stale coffee on his breath. His words were sensible, unmystical. Workaday, almost. He told me that you couldn’t just write when you felt like doing it, you had to make a schedule. That producing anything was something to be proud of. He wished he had a folder of beginnings. ‘What do you want to write?’ he asked.

I explained that I would simply like to write a story set in a city. ‘But I have to move soon, to the suburbs, There’s so little time, and now’—he followed my gaze down—‘it’s too late. I can’t make field notes. It’s all finished now.’

The celebrated Irish writer said absolutely not. ‘It’s already in you,’ he said. ‘Everyone knows what such and such a city looks like and sounds like. What they don’t know, is how it feels. The emotions you had at that time in that city. No one else knows how it was for you.’

‘So, what are you writing at the moment?’ I asked him. He was making tentative notes for a novel but he couldn’t yet begin it. ‘Because I don’t know the ending yet. I never begin something without knowing how it ends,’ he said.

All the weeks and through the years

The Captain and I seemed to disagree fundamentally and our relationship grew dire. Days and nights were a garbled wasteland of you you you, blablablablablablablablabla. We had no understanding of how to fight other than bitterly and to the end. No known control over what might happen at a given moment. But we were both quite good people, we still thought. We should invest in our happiness. Our first counselling session was set inside in a grey housing estate strung with Dublin football bunting and flags and broken tricycles lying around. Antoinette was a large, breathless woman with static aubergine hair and a mouth she kept carefully screwed up, maybe lest she might smile. She led us up a squeaking stairway to an untidy room with warm grooves in the sofa cushions and half-drunk tea mugs and pieces of paper bluetacked to the walls, saying things like, Self-knowledge burns bright in dark times. After she’d cleaned up, we began.

The Captain explained, ‘My wife, my ex-wife, has cancer. My girlfriend had an affair. She is pregnant.’ The woman’s face dried up with worry.

‘Pregnant by?’

‘By him, by him!’ Overjoyed that this much was true. ‘And it wasn’t an affair it was—!’ Here, I explained why I believed that it was nothing like your typical affair.

‘That is an affair,’ she informed us.

The first session was placid, introductory. In time I would say things like ‘You both have it in for me! Why did you drag me out me here?’ but normally it was just fraught and unpleasant. We mounted those ominous stairs every Tuesday at 6pm and there was always that sense of being led by a stick and penalised, made suffer for the sins of our immoderate passions. I liked Antoinette, the way I used to like those schoolteachers who were afraid of their pupils. I felt she didn’t hate us, she honoured the contract. Though when we started to fight she looked overwhelmed, and flapped her hands.

‘Now, now, it’s all very emotional!’ she’d say and I’d say, ‘Yeah!’

‘She betrayed me,’ the Captain would remind us, and I would glare into nothing and chew my jaw.

Antoinette became just another source of disagreement, a fresh bone to encircle and growl over. ‘I’m never going back to Antoinette!’ one of us would yell, or, ‘Antoinette says don’t do that!’ ‘I’ve suffered enough!’ ‘You’ve put me through hell!’ ‘I’m pregnant!’ I’d type abortion services on my phone, just to spite my face. We’re awful, I’d think, a waste of time.

Then one day Antoinette closed the door behind us and the house receded into the mists and folds, never to be driven by without a shudder. It was impossible to determine what we might have taken from our time with her, other than the knowledge that most counselling sessions are 50 minutes long, not an hour, and most services charge about 80 euro for couples and 70 euro for individuals, although couples’ counselling is infinitely more distressing.

There was one day, however, when I sat on her backside-indented sofa doing the individual session you are awarded if you stay the course—your chance to tell your own side, get the truth out there!—when I suddenly started laughing.

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘This baby is kicking me. It hasn’t done that before. Oh god, it’s feisty.’

‘Aha, must be a boy,’ Antoinette quipped.

What if it is a boy, I thought later, and every day that followed. What if it is a boy?

*

Any given week

We ended up unable, or unwilling, to pass an evening without a fight. Because the bottom line here was I was pregnant. I just wasn’t going to let him treat me in the way that I would comfortably allow myself to treat him. I wouldn’t have it. Pregnant, you were basically a mother. A gentle, loving person. Mothers didn’t cheat and lie and disappoint everyone. Mothers bore the weight of love and nursed it in their arms.

Late for work under my own employment, I lingered in the kitchen listening to two male relationship experts being interviewed by Sean O’Rourke. One expert said that a couple will rarely survive a woman’s infidelity because for a woman there will be an emotional connection. Emotional connection being, I guess he meant, the most egregious betrayal. Meaning a woman has the greater power to destroy what is good.

Later on, in a car facing Sandymount beach the Captain and I both worked ourselves up into tears. I don’t remember everything we used to fight about only that the Captain was often getting phone calls, both to his work and his mobile, from strange numbers with just a person breathing into the line and sometimes saying, ‘hello? Hello, hellllllo?’

The person, his friends, his friends’ friends, could be anywhere. I used to see him in the backs of people’s heads, or find the sound of his name in other people’s names. Or we would go into a wine bar to have an early evening snack and have to run back out. There were streets we couldn’t go to anymore, and pubs and cafés, subjects that were banned.

And people. All the people that we couldn’t see, so that in the end we rarely went anywhere involving other people, unless they were made of celluloid, watched in the darkness of a cinema theatre.

‘What have I done now?’ I’d ask him. ‘Don’t like it, find someone else, you [name],’ I’d rage. I’d think I couldn’t stand myself, the conditions that had made me, the complacency, neglect—it was all my parents’ fault, teachers, classmates, tennis club, neighbours, other kids, relations, sisters, cousins, aunts, that man, his fault, my grades, dyslexia, or attention deficit, asthma, my mother, all her fault, and it was your fault, and my own personal fault too. Did that explain things?

And there was the night I lay in a dismal hotel room looking at the dismal sea in the dismal holiday town we had visited, and I cried and cried. I thought, it’s terrible when things happen that you’re not able to tell anyone ever only maybe one friend, a person you have not yet decided upon. Terrible when there are things you’ve forgotten because you can’t even tell them to yourself. In the dark, on a tear-stained pillow, I bought a gold lamé maternity dress.

That week

One warm summer evening the Captain and I walked down the road from my house eating Classic Magnums. We were just at the part of a combustion when the heat and pressure rise to your face and there is no alternative but that you attack, and I was saying ‘Act your age!’ while he retreated into superior silence. We passed Grangegorman clock tower, the former penitentiary which at one time served as a transportation depot for women required to find themselves a better life in the colonies. The Captain took out his phone, then came to a halt. He stood in the middle of the path, and started mumbling in Greek.

‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Walk and talk.’

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what Facebook is saying.’

‘What do you mean, what’s it saying?’

‘It’s saying that she died.’

That night we sat on the floor of his TV room surrounded by suitcases, folding little shorts and t-shirts, bunching up goggles and crocks and filling straw hats with underpants. They were going on the 7am flight and the children jumped around the room, shrieking, ‘We’re going to Greece, we’re going to Greece!’

She was buried in the churchyard in her small village. While the Captain and children were throwing handfuls of earth into her grave I was in town trying to pass the time. I went into Clarendon Street and lit a candle. Then I went to Mothercare. Three summer Maxi dresses, two long camisoles, a maternity denim miniskirt, all of which would join the bags of her clothes in her old bedroom.

Thirty-four weeks

We flew to Athens for our summer holidays. Mosquito bites protruding from my flesh, we took a boat to Santorini Island, where, shacked up in an old villa, we read our books, and ate sliced figs and white cheese for breakfast. We drove around rocky cliffs and swam in clear water, and ate the fish he had selected from the back kitchens of tavernas. The children, staying with their grandparents, spent nights in A\&E for different reasons. I bought beach dresses from shoreline boutiques; a romper; animal print espadrilles.

Towards sunset one evening, he asked me to go drink a virgin cocktail while he did a message. I made it a spritz and I sat watching the sun dangle in the clouds, luminous like a pinball. Later, we ate fried fish with glasses of beer on a cove, then braced the precipitous roads on foot, alongside trotting donkeys. The idea was to watch the sunset, but it was uncomfortably hot and I couldn’t walk, because of a yoga incident in the second trimester which I have spared the reader. I was in pain most of the time. The Captain was silent, looking at the mountains. We walked until we were really irritable, then found a collapsing hill that led to a little hippy bar mobbed with tourists bearing selfie sticks.

‘You hate it here, don’t you?’ the Captain said, and I said, ‘Yes, it’s truly awful.’

The next day we took a boat to Koufonisia, whose name translates as Hollow Island, because of all its caves. After the expensive hotel breakfast I ran to the bathroom and vomited. It was interesting to feel this bad, nearly eight months along. We spent the day ailing on a beach, then rocked around on another boat. I wanted to lie on the hotel bed and complain, but he wanted to watch the sunset so he said, ‘Come now, quick.’

We walked past the port, up a dirt road, and as we rounded the island, with the Aegean Ccean beneath us and the sun falling into the mists, he pulled me aside.

His face was white and serious. ‘The light is failing,’ he said. ‘I am extremely nervous but I wanted to tell you that I think the life we could have together could be brilliant.’

‘No,’ I said.

I saw then he had a little velvet box in his hand so I said, ‘Okay, but get on one knee.’

He bent down on one knee and put the ring on my finger.

‘That’s my left hand,’ I said. ‘It goes on my right hand.’ He pulled off the ring and squeezed it past the knuckle of my ring finger. A lone woman walking past with her dog stopped to clap and cheer us. My eye fell on the blue stone that sparkled on my finger.

‘Is it a dummy?’ I asked him. ‘It’s not … real?’ I put the ring between my incisors and bit down hard on it.

‘It’s a sapphire from Santorini.’

‘And this?’

‘It’s gold. Nine carat, yellow gold.’

‘How much did you pay for it? Tell me!’

I hated the words I said. But I had just never imagined a proposal of marriage, and so I had never imagined one like this, browbeaten with morning sickness. I had never imagined my material lust could target in its calculations an innocent piece of jewellery. I was frantic.

‘I can’t tell you how much!’ he said.

But he told me, in rough terms, not without pride. I asked him to get down on one knee and do it all again.

We sat together on a bench, with fingers interlinked. The evening sun had left behind the mountains now, it was getting dark quickly, something significant was over.

Champagne, or knock-off, was ordered in the only fashionable restaurant on the island. The Captain requested the cushions to prop me up, and we made a wincing toast and took some pictures, FaceTimed my parents. I pushed away the food, twisted the ring around, stared into its charming angles.

‘Do you like it, really?’ he said, and I smiled at him, and instead of telling him that I liked it or I didn’t like it I took it off and slid it across the table. I gave it back to him. The easiest mistakes and breaches can cause the most lasting damage, I’ve discovered.

There was silence.

He said, ‘I think I just want to go home now.’

The little box was open beside the ring. He said, ‘Go on, put it in the box. Go on, I can sell it on Adverts.’ I put the ring in the box and immediately regretted it. He stood up and asked for the bill.

‘No!’ I said. He paid the bill and left the restaurant.

I was aware of the waitress who’d taken our picture and the people at the nearby tables, watching with a quiet thrill. ‘He’s sick,’ I said to the waitress. ‘Kalinichta.’ I took the half-drunk bottle, left our food and ran out the door, back into the past where this hadn’t happened.

The little streets were lined with jewellery shops and families at tables, drinking beer, children playing, large grandmothers in black. I found him at the small beach and sat by the lapping tide, where he said, ‘Just tell me how much you want per month for the baby.’

He took the room card and walked away, and I sat there by the stones and seaweed and dead crabs. The waves rolled and splashed and lay back on some rocks, alone and swollen, a starfish, or a beached mermaid. I sent emotional texts, and looked up flights to Dublin. I drank the rest of the bottle, and admired my ring with a new poignancy. I love it, I wrote. I love you! The baby kicked and punched me with affectionate reproof.

Back in the hostile little bedroom, he had drunk every one of the bottles in the minibar—orange, rose, mastic, even Bailey’s Irish cream—and scattered the empties on the mattress which he’d separated from mine. I said, ‘Please!’ but he raised both his arms in the air and began to move his body with a sort of grace—he was dancing the zeibekiko, the customary dance of the soldier returning from defeat. I whimpered and looked up articles about foetal alcohol syndrome, the lifelong effects, and went off on a lurid image search. I was certain I had ruined my baby’s life. I saw the future jeer back at us, inflicting hard hits, bad injuries, devastating outcomes that we might not recover from. My head hurt; the Ryanair website was incomprehensible. For hours I said blah blah blah blah blah blah blah—then fell asleep promising my child I would never neglect it. I would take care of it.

The next morning, we attended breakfast together. Afterwards we went back to the same bench overlooking the sea. I wore the ring and we took a better picture, and I texted my mum to say it was back on with the Captain.

We embarked for Pireaus Harbour on a boat thrashed by a vicious storm.

Gifts followed, on our return to Dublin: a bottle of real champagne (lost or stolen in the house move), a 6-cup silver Bialetti (burned apart mid-percolation). The ring was small for my finger, and remained controversial.

Thirty-five weeks

It was the end of October, and the baby was due in a month. I wrote a list of pregnancy symptoms, something like:

Thing 1

Thing 2

Thing 3

Thing 4

It went on until offending Thing 31, and the ink ran before my eyes until it was a sheet of black things.

When weekends came, the Captain met with Adverts dealers, picked out buggies, car seats, a Moses basket, muslin cloths, a changing table and other systems and accessories I couldn’t understand the need for. He went to a parking lot to pick up the second-hand buggy and its obfuscating component pieces. There was talk of a car-seat, special car-seat fixers. Then he wept on the phone, ‘You do not seem to be taking an interest in this new arrival, Maggie. You know what, the other day, I had to put the clothes for the baby into the baby’s drawer, on my own.’

We watched The Witch, a thriller about a family of 17th-century New England settlers cursed by witches as one by one their children die. In one scene the grieving mother dreams she is feeding her dead baby at her breast and when she wakes a crow is pecking out her bloodied nipple.

Thirty-seven weeks

It was time to move in with the widower and his children. I started to empty cupboards and fill boxes of my things and vacate my room for the new girl moving in. My father arrived with a selection of his tools and spent the afternoon patching up the hole in the wall made by the Captain’s fist back on the night that he found out about the thing with the other guy.

‘It was so strange,’ I told my dad as he worked. ‘The corner of a box I was carrying just crashed into the wall and with such speed that the plastering chipped off…’

My dad made no comment; he hadn’t asked in the first place.

‘Not seamless,’ he said, packing up his tools, ‘but they could hang a mirror there, or a nice picture frame.’

The Captain loaded all the boxes in his car, the children played with their Furbies. The last of my possessions were stuffed in the basket of my bike, and there were bangers and bonfire smoke in the air as I pushed down the hill and back up the hill, over the rivers and across the city. I arrived, breathless, to my lover and his sons sitting around the table, with welcome pictures and a square confection made from a Betty Crocker brownie mix, decorated with jellies, or holes where the jellies had been picked off.

Thirty-eight weeks

The day I fell on top of myself going past Trinity College, ripping my new Italian tights, cutting my knees and being helped up by strangers, was the same day a memorial for the children’s mother was held in the Orthodox Church in Stoneybatter. I was upset, hooked up to a monitor in Holles Street, that I couldn’t possibly make it to the memorial. What never occurred to me was that I might not be wanted there. If it had occurred to me that a congregation of her friends might feel uncomfortable meeting another woman at the church, a woman who was heavily pregnant—or worse, that they might be a little titillated by the scandal—it was only a distant rustle that I didn’t hear, not then. It didn’t figure that a new woman, new baby, a sparkly ring, was eyebrow-raising. That what we might be sampling really were the funeral baked meats that furnished forth the wedding table. It didn’t occur to me that I might not be welcome generally, at this occasion or in the wider community, ever again, nor he, nor their children. That our new life was a transgression, and we would need to make it on our own from now on, more or less.

The Captain rearranged his house, did my laundry and made salads. He cleared out half his wardrobe, all her clothes and boots and French cosmetics, gave me a special padded gadget for controlling backache, a clip on my phone to block the radiation that could cause brain cancer. Wedding pictures were taken down. Boxes of her things were hauled out to charity shops. Her bronze and orange costume jewellery, which used to hang by the door, was moved somewhere. Recipe books and some photographs were kept. So was the subscription to the Irish fashion magazine that came through our post box. Did I want to keep the subscription? he asked. I did, I decided, so over morning coffee I read about feasting ideas and inspirational Irish women in business, finding happiness post-divorce. I hid from the children, and I couldn’t look inside the baby’s room.

At 39 weeks, I found that I was wandering Arnotts. I’d been told your feet get cold when giving birth so I bought three pairs of luxury knitted woollen socks, Wolford and Falke, and also a year’s supply of tights. On the way out, I passed the kids’ and babywear and bought the first babygros I saw, white, blue and lemon yellow, €38 euro each. I thought, if I get four more babygros that’s one for each day of the week and we’ll be set to go.

Thirty-nine weeks

The fridge was stacked. Cushions and birthing contraptions loomed inside a special box. I reread my hospital list, which went like this:

Item 1

Item 2

Item 3

Right up to unnecessary Item 18.

I stopped, dismayed at one item. Size 0 nappies. I could hardly stand without pain, or eat an apple, and there were nappies of different sizes? More to the point, I was expected to know about this today? How would I fit everything in my Stork Sack? It wasn’t fair I had to pack for someone other than myself. I read the list again. Size 0 nappies, barrier cream and water wipes. All a source of existential disquiet.

Time edged forwards and then backwards and got stuck. A week after I moved in and late at night, I packed a different kind of bag and said that I was going to live with my parents, getting as far as the car door. Then I went to bed.

Forty weeks

There was no baby, just the lightning streaks that make you think you’re about to give birth on the side of the road. I went to the theatre to review an Oscar Wilde play and also to show off. With this watermelon up my dress, the feeling was rare and extravagant, as if I had rented out some wildly overpriced couture ballgown, and would never be this special and majestic again. The gumption of having something that enormous stowed inside your body, the blazing fertility and voluptuousness of the whole mise en scène.

There were light-hearted raspberry tea comments in the foyer, and make sure you get an aisle seat jokes in the ladies’. As I found my way to seat E15, the artistic director of the theatre boomed across the auditorium, ‘Christ almighty, nothing to do with me, is it?’ His row of friends looked up, and some smiled nervously.

That week I walked in department stores and bought bad Christmas gifts and weird self-gifts—two repulsive faux fur blankets that slid around the house for years afterwards. I used to stuff them behind doors, thinking who let these beastly things in here? Where was I when I consented to buy these?

Forty-one weeks plus two

Another Sunday. I sat splayed out on a bench in the playground while the Captain went to get coffee and the two children ran around, hid in bushes, disappeared up trees. Playgrounds, I thought: they really are the answer to everything. I thought about myself. The baby was more than a week overdue and each morning I would wake and ask myself, will I die today? I worried, looking at the other mothers, because I didn’t find their babies cute. What lack of human feeling did this point to? I had no love for what I was expecting. I’d been miscast here as a mother in the wings.

A shout came, and both children ran towards me, one holding out his arm. Drops of blood fell on the concrete. Mayhem followed, and the narrator is foggy on the details. We stood at the boot of the car while the boy howled and his father barked orders for First Aid, then stuffed us all in the car, the child’s arm bound in toilet roll.

‘What happened? What happened?’ we all said at once. The Captain drove in the bus lanes and broke red lights. He sped through town, through Merrion Square where I saw the reassuring bastion of the National Maternity Hospital flash by, and then we crossed the river to the children’s hospital.

We spent the rest of the day in the waiting room, filling forms and visiting the vending machine. Befriending other children, trying not to look at the open cartilage of a boy in football shorts. Trying not to stare at the mother holding the swaddled baby whose face was turning blue.

A film played above the seats, not quite Frozen, but a short which some research tells me was Frozen Fever. It was tinny, and annoying. Kids watched Frozen Fever or stuff on phones, or cried. The baby kicked impatiently throughout. I thought: it’s just today, right? The kids thing. But I also knew that this was it, our destiny. Accident and Emergency, pens attached with string, crisps and sweets, stitches, dressings, books unread, books unlikely to be written, and no dinner waiting. And women in scrubs asking, ‘How did it happen?’

What happened was he’d been up a massive tree. Something gave, a bough had snapped, a branch drove a gash into his wrist. What happened was unsupervised.

That night, alone again, thank God, I returned to the short story I was working on, and I finished the whole thing, then sent it off in delirious wakeful exhaustion. I didn’t know a thing. Who my friends were, or my family, how to take care of a baby. I didn’t know my story would meet with firm rejection, the first of seven from that magazine alone, and I fell into a deep sleep.