In the best traditions of Christmas, I’ve written a ghost story. The subject matter is very delicate so I think it only fair to issue some trigger warnings.
If you have suffered from infertility, miscarriage or SIDS, you may find the following distressing.
The Perfect Family
Joe had left her after the second baby. Two kids under three could be a handful, she acknowledged that. But being pregnant was so wonderful; to feel another being growing inside you, to watch your body change over the months, to experience the awe and magic when the baby arrived. Besides, being a mother was all that she knew how to do. It’s all she ever wanted.
While other girls at school dreamed of their futures they’d mention pop stars and actors, but they’d also talk about work – Carly wanted to go into medicine, Viv wanted to be a vet nurse, Hannah saw herself as a police officer. Grace usually kept quiet, ashamed that all she ever wanted was a family of her own.
Marrying Joe had seemed like the start of the life Grace had always wanted. They bought a small 2 bedroom semi in a child-safe cul-de-sac and Grace got a job in the local supermarket, a job she’d immediately resign from as soon as the little pink line appeared on her pregnancy test. She was happy and hopeful and saw the future in a rosy hue.
Then they’d found out she couldn’t have children.
They both grieved for a while, each in their own way. Joe had started staying later at work, Grace continued to knit for the baby she’d never have.
After a few months, Grace’s periods stopped. She said nothing at first, assuming she was stressed, her body reacting to the disappointment. Then her belly started to swell. Slowly at first, not more than a gentle rounding. But as the weeks passed her abdomen expanded and her breasts became larger, areolas darkening, veins becoming more prominent.
Joe took her to hospital where they gave her an ultrasound and there, in the cavern of her uterus, they found… nothing.
A phantom pregnancy, they said, not uncommon, and told Joe to take her home with reassurances that now she knew she wasn’t pregnant, the symptoms would disappear.
But her belly didn’t shrink. In fact, it continued to grow and she told Joe she could feel their child move inside her. Joe didn’t know what to and retreated to work and the pub.
One night, when Joe was out, contractions started, so sudden and fierce that Grace fell to the floor. The pains came faster and faster and after an hour or more, she recognised a need to push. Grace kneeled on the carpeted living room floor, straining and forcing and pushing with all the effort she could muster. After what seemed like an age she felt a head push out between her thighs, followed shortly after by soft shoulders and a wet, long-limbed body.
Instinctively she brought the baby to her breast where it began to suckle, hungrily, and she gently sang to him, for it was a boy. She was still sitting there, back against the sofa, when Joe came home. He saw his wife, nightgown opened, arms loosely crossed in front of her, cooing to nothing as her arms were empty.
Despite his protests, Joe could not stop his wife from taking care of her imaginary baby. She’d wake in the night, claiming to hear his cries and change his nappies every few hours. One night he awoke to find his wife gone and sleepily stumbled to the nursery where, for just a moment, he thought he saw a small wriggling creature attached to Grace’s nipple. He blinked and the apparition disappeared.
The doctor gave her anti-depressants and sent her for counselling. Grace listened to their advice and learned to give them the answers they were looking for so she could get home to her baby.
A few months passed and Grace began to feel the tell-tale signs again. Her breasts engorged, butterflies danced in her expanded belly and another trip to hospital once more showed darkness where her baby should be.
The doctors offered more counselling and increased the dosage of her anti-depressants. Grace agreed to take the pills but each morning she flushed a tablet down the loo lest the drug damage her unborn child.
This time Joe was there when she gave birth. He watched her strain, heard her scream and stood in shock as she smiled down at the new babe at her chest. As he stared at the woman he thought he knew, a baby, smeared in blood and meconium appeared to flicker in and out of existence.
Joe packed a bag and left without looking back.
That was 18 months ago and now, at Christmastime, Grace knew she was ready to have her third child. She smiled as she watched her first two, playing on the rug with a wooden train set. They didn’t have much, but somehow, they managed. The boys seemed to thrive despite not eating and never seemed to miss not going out to play with other children. They had each other and they had Grace and that was enough.
Secretly, Grace hoped for a girl this time but really, she wasn’t different from any other mother: so long as the baby was healthy, she’d be happy. And she somehow knew that was something she’d never have to worry about with her children.