We agreed it was time for a baby and went for it. All too soon we started to get anxious, as you do, even though from the earlier pregnancies it was clear we were both fertile. This time, dammit, when we were ready, the tot-to-be wasn’t. Six months on, and still his seed and my egg couldn’t get it together, in spite of our energetic attempts to make it happen, night and day. I came home around 4.00 most days and we jumped straight into bed for another round, and another. Mary Blaschko, innocent as milk, often asked why the floor creaked quite so much and if the planks had come loose. If so, old Mr Somerset, the carpenter, would come in and fix them. Sometimes, at peak moments, her kind voice called out on the landing just outside the bedroom, ‘Is anyone in? Hugh and I are going for a walk by the river. Want to come along? I can make extra sandwiches. I have some fish paste left over and elderflower water…’ Sounding as false as thieves, we would mumble excuses – colds, coughs, late nights…
The weeks went by without fruition; I got weepy and felt guilty about casually ridding myself of the previous two children I might have had. Every month as the blood came, dark and malevolent, I cried in the small, windy attic bathroom with its dodgy water heater and rusting enamel tub. Rhiannon-of-the-dreams had blonde hair now, and her face was lined. I was still only twenty-seven but at that time thirty felt really, really old. None of our Oxford mates seemed to be in that much of a hurry to reproduce. Maybe it was yet again the anxiety of exile, the need to set down properly and have children who would have a nation they could claim as theirs by right of birth.
After seven months I realized I had missed a period. Two weeks later I allowed myself to believe I was possibly pregnant, after hourly looks to see if it was yet another false alarm. When you try for a baby, your body plays these wicked tricks on you all the time. Three long days after I excitedly took a urine sample on a bus to the clinic, the pregnancy was verified over the phone by a nurse with a warm Caribbean voice.
Happiness like a multitude of butterflies danced around me in the light, yet beyond them, in the shadows, shivered unseen qualms. I imagined all those things that could crush the possibilities ahead. I played Joni Mitchell’s
Blue, my best-friend album, always good on the dark side of life, to contain the breakout of excessive joy, which refused to be contained. By the afternoon of that day in May 1977, I had stuck up notes on the walls, doors and windows, pinned them on to towels and the cork message board in the kitchen, announcing the news again and again to myself and all who came in.
Nabil, my beloved Lebanese student, was the first to know, and he rushed out to buy me my favourite Cadbury’s milk chocolate (one and a half glasses of full-cream milk) and then wished me a healthy, bonny boy: ‘No, no, no, no, Nabil. It will definitely be a girl, I know it, and she will be named Rhiannon from the song by Fleetwood Mac.’ ‘Why you want a girl? They are too much trouble. A boy will take care of you when you are old. Girls go to their husbands, no good to you.’ TL hugged me so hard I thought my ribs would crack. Joy passed from me to him and back again, and we danced. The Blaschkos were delighted; our families were too. My mother-in-law, Khatibai, was the most elated. TL was her pride, her handsome fourth son whose devotion to her was unwavering and unconditional. Over the years, she and I had bonded too, so closely that we could only ever bawl on the phone, tears drowning our words in the vast expanse between here and Toronto. I so wanted her to be nearer so she could spoil me now that I was with child.
Khatibai sent me a bright new
tasbi and food parcel with Bill, our Canadian friend at Linacre, a Voltaire scholar. He was like a super-tall skinny latte with a gentle, easy way. The plastic box contained khari puri and gund pak, an impossibly rich sweetmeat with raw gum copal, to strengthen the back for pregnancy and reinforce the fragile womb, a kind of edible adhesive you could say.