I can see my own small pink fingers curling around the handle of my baby walker and feel its smooth, round coldness against my inquisitive skin. This is my earliest memory. And it is a true memory, not one of those false recollections stolen from a tatty-edged photograph or a fondly repeated anecdote.
I have wondered occasionally why this particular image should be imprinted so clearly on my mind. But then, memory is a wilful, feral thing; we can’t always choose what gets stored or recalled. I learned that fact as a schoolboy when I sat in a maths exam trying to remember Pythagoras’s theorem and the only thing my unhelpful brain would produce was the registration number of my grandparents’ car.
The baby walker is still up in the loft somewhere. It bore no resemblance whatsoever to the modern walkers (which would certainly never fit through a loft hatch, for starters) – monstrous plastic structures that bruise ankles, devalue furniture and send even the boldest of pets running for cover, quite plausibly all at the same time, whilst emitting a bewildering combination of electronic sound effects. Thankfully, my walker was conceived in a simpler age. It was a rectangular wooden tray on four wheels that held my wooden building blocks, with a tubular metal handle, painted blue, arching over one end at toddler hand height. I toddled miles with it.
Apparently I was an early walker. I imagine my motivation was the instinctive understanding that walking would mean being able to touch more things more quickly. When my parents moved house after I left home and relocated a load of my childhood junk from their loft into mine, Mum chuckled ruefully over the baby walker.
‘I didn’t have a moment’s peace once you were given that thing.’ She shook her head, smiling. ‘I only had to turn my back for a second and you’d be off. I’m sure you used to think it was great fun having me chasing around after you.’
For me, walking was always associated with happy memories. Sandy beaches on family holidays to Devon and Dorset, trousers rolled up and coats fastened against the wind, looking back to see whether the waves had stolen our footprints. Or walking between my parents through dappled sunlight in the woods near our house, holding their hands and begging them to swing me up off the ground, laughing as my small, wellingtoned feet touched the sky.
Approaching adulthood, walking gave me and my friends a good enough reason to escape college at weekends. Four or five of us would cram into my decrepit little car and drive out into the countryside, where we’d head off with maps and rucksacks to just walk and talk and breathe fresh air and find a half-decent pub for lunch. The conversations we had on those walking trips, the experiences we shared, became the building blocks of lasting friendships.
I may have been an early walker but I was a bit of a late developer when it came to girls. They were a whole different species and I simply had no idea how to interact with them. I was withdrawn and uncomfortable in their presence; unspoken hormonal expectations weighing too heavily to permit fluent intercourse of the verbal kind. With girls who were shy like me, I was painfully aware of far too many deafening silences. Of course there were girls who were confident enough to fill the gaps in the dialogue, but I found their company intimidating.
‘You don’t mind if I bring a couple of girls along this weekend, do you, John?’ Dave was a regular member of our little walking group, and four of us had planned a trip for the coming Saturday. ‘I’ll bring them in my car,’ he added, anticipating my objection.
Dave had been going out with Leah for nearly three months – long enough for it to be classified by college standards as a Serious Relationship. He’d mentioned the walk to Leah and she was keen to come but didn’t want to be the only girl, and that’s how Abigail came into my life.
Abigail clambered surprisingly gracefully out of Dave’s two-door car and self-consciously smiled a greeting at the rest of us while Dave pointed and spoke our names by way of introduction. And then I found myself shaking her hand, my feet having stepped across the space between us unbidden, prompted by something more powerful than conscious thought. I was that toddler again, moving instinctively towards something bright and fascinating that I wanted to touch.
It seemed the most natural thing in the world to walk beside Abigail that day. There was no effort required for our easy conversation, no awkward silences or unspoken agendas. For the first time in my life I was relaxed in the company of a female of approximately my own age.
Three walks later, she mentioned that she was leaving to accept a job offer somewhere up north and then she was gone.
I realised with appalling disappointment that we hadn’t even kissed. There had been a couple of times when I’d briefly held her hand on the pretext of helping her unnecessarily over a stile or a stream. When I’d touched Abigail’s smooth, cool skin I had looked to see if she had felt the same tingling significance. Reflected momentarily in her eyes, I thought I saw the sparks generated by the unexpected electricity between us. But the sparks were gone almost as quickly as they came, much like Abigail herself.
I walked more than ever after that to fill the sudden vacuum created by her absence.
I learned then that walking can be used either to avoid thought or to facilitate it. To avoid thinking, you focus on the steady rhythm of your feet, pushing the unwanted thoughts downwards where they catch in the long grass and stumble over the uneven ground, and you walk just fast enough to leave them behind. To facilitate thinking, you lift the thoughts clear of the weeds and snagging hedgerows, where they can swirl unhindered around your head. I mastered both of these techniques after Abigail left.
However, emboldened by the knowledge that it was at least possible for me to converse with members of the opposite sex, I did have a few two-dimensional relationships over the next couple of years. These were (in varying degrees) physically fulfilling and emotionally entertaining, but the women involved always eventually wanted more from me than I was able to give, and each of them duly moved on when they realised that their talk of love or cohabitation would remain unrequited.
‘Why are you so afraid of commitment, John?’ I was asked, angrily or tearfully, on more than one occasion.
If I had never met Abigail and felt that thrilling fundamental connection with someone, I might indeed have accepted one of these other relationships as being good enough. The trouble was, having once been so moved by the sweet soft music of the flute, I couldn’t bring myself to make a lasting commitment to the pleasant tooting of the penny whistle.
I started work and rented a flat and settled rather uncertainly into life as an adult. I sometimes mourned the passing of the innocent joys of childhood: being swung by my parents through the woods or leaving footprints along a beach. It felt as though I was wearing a suit of clothes that I had yet to grow into, still only playing at being a grown-up. I wondered whether I would ever really feel that I belonged in this unfamiliar new world of commerce and self-reliance and having to think about what to eat for dinner.
One rainy Thursday evening I was on my way out of the local supermarket with my fingers already suffering gradual amputation under the weight of two heavy carrier bags full of milk, coffee, wine and microwaveable ready meals, when someone called my name. I paused and looked around but couldn’t see any familiar faces. This sort of thing happens quite often when your name is John, so I turned back towards the exit.
‘John!’ The voice was nearer this time.
My view in the direction of the voice was eclipsed by a large woman armed with a full trolley, who was glaring at me malevolently because I was blocking her chosen route to the supermarket doorway. I moved hastily aside to avoid being mown down and there was Abigail, brilliant technicolour Abigail, in a world I hadn’t previously realised was monochrome.
She came right up to me, smiling all over. ‘John! It is you! How are you?’ She leaned in to kiss me on the cheek.
I wanted to fling my arms around her but was severely hampered by the full shopping bag in each hand. I might have put them down if I’d been thinking rationally (and if the handles weren’t embedded in my skin). As it was, I ended up kissing Abigail clumsily on the side of her nose whilst simultaneously hitting the back of her knees reasonably hard with a frozen portion of cannelloni (authentic Italian recipe, serves one).
‘Shit, sorry. Abigail, wow. It’s great to… um. I mean, how are you?’ Our reunion wasn’t going quite the way it had in my fantasies.
‘I’m good,’ she said, her eyes twinkling with amusement.
‘Look, are you… can we get a coffee or something?’ I was suddenly desperate not to let her vanish again. She peered into my carrier bags.
‘What about your shopping? Things will defrost.’
I couldn’t have cared less about my shopping, but in the end she walked with me to my flat a couple of streets away and then it seemed silly to go out in the rain again. Abigail made coffee while I rushed around, hastily gathering trainers and empty lager cans and a grubby pair of tracksuit bottoms from the sofa.
We talked as if we’d never been apart. Her job up north had gone really well but she had reached the point where she was getting bored and there were no prospects with that particular company. Leah had stayed in touch and had told Abigail about a local vacancy. She had an interview arranged for the following day, Friday. I dared to hope that, if she was considering working back down here, she couldn’t be involved with anyone. Later that evening we opened a bottle of wine and microwaved the cannelloni (authentic Italian recipe, serves one). The serving suggestion on the label involved a sprig of parsley and some peas, neither of which I had, so we supplemented it with a fisherman’s pie (made with firm flaky pollock, serves one). We got married the following September.
Before too long, we managed to save the deposit for a run-down little house. Together, we did it up and sold it to get the deposit we needed for another run-down little house, but in a better area. This one we did up to keep.
Abigail and I had fun making that house our home. We also had blisters and splinters and occasional disagreements, but all the time we were building a strong foundation of shared memories.
At weekends we sometimes trawled the local junk shops and reclamation yards in search of faded treasures – panelled doors, brass handles, book shelves – which we took home to plane or polish or sand until we uncovered the beauty hidden beneath the tarnish of neglect and abandonment.
Whenever we needed a break from paint and sawdust, we walked. I no longer had to wait for opportunities to touch Abigail’s hand; now it was mine to hold and I relished the feeling of her slim fingers laced intimately between my own.
One day we had climbed to the summit of a hill and were standing among the exposed roots of a wind-carved oak tree while we regained our breath and drank in the views. The breeze was blowing Abigail’s fair hair across her face and I moved to tuck it gently behind her ear, then kissed the chill from her pink cheek. For the millionth time I looked into her shining blue eyes and marvelled that this bright, beautiful woman loved me.
‘John,’ she murmured, ‘I’ve been having second thoughts about the paint we picked for the spare room.’
‘Oh?’ I said, drawing her close and warm inside the front of my coat while I watched a small aeroplane surf the breeze above our heads.
‘We’d better not go for blue, in case it’s a girl.’
I looked into her face and she was laughing and crying at the same time and then so was I and it was more exhilarating than when my parents used to swing me up to the treetops.
Abigail’s first miscarriage robbed us of our carefree excitement. The second took away the casual certainty which we had previously taken for granted.
We had so many unanswered questions. Most of them remained unspoken because we knew that no one had answers to give. Why was this happening to us? What was going wrong? Whose fault was it? Would we ever be able to have a baby? How many tries was too many?
I felt worse for Abigail than for myself because she had to endure the physical experience of the miscarriages as well as the emotional misery. One of the doctors also reminded me that Abi’s hormones were on a cruel rollercoaster that made things harder for her. Yet, when other people focused on her suffering and ignored my own, I wanted to scream selfishly in their sympathetic faces that it was my loss too, my baby too, my dreams that had bled to death, again.
The third time Abi told me she was pregnant we were not elated, we were immediately anxious and careful. I held her close after she spoke the words and I could feel the aching hope pressing us together.
The weeks inched by in slow procession with no unplanned visits to the hospital. The tenth week came and went – a record for us – then the eleventh and the twelfth. We were cautiously optimistic but we still tried not to allow ourselves to fall in love with the fragile promise of this baby.
When Abigail was just over seventeen weeks pregnant, I took her a cup of tea and she looked up at me with tears in her eyes. My heart stopped and I sat down and took her hand, instantly concerned, until I saw that her face was alight with happiness.
‘I felt it move, John! I just felt our baby move!’
It was a few more weeks before I too was able to feel the miraculous movement through Abigail’s expanding skin. The experience was addictive and we would lie in bed at night with my hand across her middle, both of us giggling every time an invisible hand or foot pushed against my waiting palm. For us, this was far more entertaining than anything the television had to offer.
And now my wife looked pregnant for the first time ever. Abi was radiant and we gave up trying to suppress our growing joy and excitement, just as she gave up trying to camouflage her growing belly.
In my wallet, along with a photo of Abigail, I kept one of the grainy prints from the ultrasound scan. My untrained eyes found it impossible to work out exactly what each bright smudge represented (although I’d been told more than once), but in the centre of the image was a clear, perfect little hand. Whenever I looked at that picture, I marvelled that such a tiny hand could so easily hold the hearts and hopes of two adults.
By now the spare room was painted in Primrose Dawn. (Do people have full-time jobs naming paint colours?) We were reluctant to tempt fate by setting the room up as a nursery, so the cot and other paraphernalia that we had bought or been given were simply stacked in there. We were due to become parents in just nine weeks’ time.
At a restless loose end one Saturday, I got my old baby walker down from the loft. I scrubbed and sanded everything carefully and gave the handle two coats of new blue paint (Azure Mist). I oiled the wheels and stacked the play-worn building blocks neatly back in the tray. Then I took the walker upstairs to the spare room and dared to imagine the day when my own child would close his or her fingers around the handle and start exploring the world.
‘Abi? Did you hear me?’ I walked into the lounge. It was a Tuesday evening and I hadn’t long been home from work. Abigail was beached on the sofa with her puffy ankles resting on a footstool. She dragged her attention back from wherever it had been, her pale face still wearing the echo of a frown. ‘I said I’m making a cuppa. Do you want one?’
‘Oh, sorry. Just some water, please.’ She still seemed distracted.
‘Are you okay, honey?’ I asked, perching beside her.
‘I’m fine.’ She forced a too-bright smile. ‘Probably worrying about nothing, you know me. It’s just that the baby’s been a bit quiet today.’
Two days later, our brittle dreams were shattered into jagged reality. Tests and a scan had confirmed that our baby had died in Abi’s womb. My worst fears – the ones that were so hideous and appalling that I had squashed them, out of sight, into the darkest corners of my heart – were suddenly brutally punching the oxygen out of my lungs, rushing in my ears when the doctor uttered words we couldn’t bear to hear.
My poor Abigail had to endure an induced labour, knowing that the only reward for her pain and striving would be the awful confirmation that the nightmare was real. I stayed with her, holding her hand, adding my tears to her own, powerless to take away the unthinkable hurt from the person I loved most in the world. We named our daughter Grace.
Abi and I found ourselves rooted by grief in the centre of a vortex of doctors, bereavement counsellors and well-meaning friends and relatives. We somehow managed to do the things that had to be done: officially registering Grace’s brief existence, holding a funeral for the child we would never come to know. The only hope seemingly left on our shared horizon was that time might eventually diminish the pain.
Abigail built a wall. I could see it rising slowly around her almost as clearly as if she had used real bricks. It protected her from the outside world and enabled her to go through the motions of living but it also shut me out, even though that wasn’t her intention. I wanted to smash it down but I wasn’t strong enough. I tried to breach it one intangible brick at a time but she easily repaired such minor damage. And I did not have the courage to venture inside the wall with her for the claustrophobic fear that I might find myself trapped there, unable to return.
I walked. There was a circular route of just under three miles from the front door of our house along quiet residential streets and a footpath to the edge of town, then through a strip of sparse woodland and finally beside the canal and past some small industrial units to get back home. I wore my grief like a dark shroud and paced out my anger, sorrow and increasing loneliness. Having lost three babies I could now sense Abigail slipping through my helpless fingers. Even when I turned towards home, I couldn’t escape the feeling that every step I took was still carrying me further away.
After a while, we both returned to work and clung to the routines of what was considered normal life. Trying to talk to each other about Grace was like picking at a new scab, so we didn’t do it. Nor did either of us open the door to the spare room. We needed more healing to take place but I was terrified that, by the time it did, Abigail would be too far away for me to reach her. Every day I searched in vain for a chink or a crack in the wall she had built around herself.
She started resenting my daily walks. It was as if she thought I had found an escape route that I wasn’t telling her about. I often tried to persuade her to come with me but she always refused.
One day I put my coat on and we ended up having a blazing row. Her anger broke free of her control and lashed me like a stormy sea. I went to the door several times, tempted to retreat to calmer waters, but I was too afraid of coming home and finding that the Abigail I loved so much had been washed away. So I stayed. And when the stinging rage ebbed she was small and frightened and she let me hold her while she cried. I glimpsed the possibility of solid ground somewhere beyond this violent uncharted ocean in which the two of us had been cast adrift.
The next day she came with me on my circular route. At first we didn’t talk much while we walked but that was fine. She was beside me again and I knew that her defences had started to crumble. Over the weeks and months that followed, Abi and I mended slowly, one step at a time, walking in circles.
Time passed, as time inexorably does, and we went out to work in the mornings and came home to our little house in the evenings and we talked to each other – sometimes about Grace. I thanked my lucky stars, and whatever gods cared to listen, that Abigail and I had survived and that we’d survived together. If we could rise undivided from the ashes of such a devastating inferno, there was nothing that could threaten us.
Well, perhaps only one thing.
When Abi told me that she was pregnant again, it was like staring down a deep, dark well. I couldn’t face the thought of finding myself back at the bottom. I didn’t think that either of us had the strength it would take to claw our way painfully up those treacherous sides again. One or both of us would surely give up and drown in the cold easy blackness that waited in the depths.
But before we could worry ourselves too much about what might face us further down this road, there were new and immediate obstacles to deal with. Abigail suffered terribly with morning sickness throughout the first three months, whereas she had never been bothered by anything more than occasional queasiness in her previous pregnancies. She looked so pale and tired that I became seriously worried, although in the afternoons and evenings she was able to eat. Most days I had to leave her miserably hugging the bathroom sink when I went off to work.
The company Abi worked for were fantastic, as they had been before. Behind their closed office doors they must have despaired when she told them she was expecting again, but they insisted she should take as much time off as she needed and mustn’t worry about her job. She had to reduce her hours to accommodate the morning sickness.
Then, quite abruptly, she felt better and started grazing on food almost continuously. The weather was getting hotter as her bump started to show. The temperature and the belly raced each other, both increasing rapidly until by early autumn Abigail was in constant discomfort. She gained some relief by eating crushed ice, demanding it grumpily by the glassful and crunching irritatingly in my ear. I went for walks to get some peace and avoid losing my temper.
By the time the weather cooled and the prospect of winter sent the weakening sun scurrying to its bed earlier each day, Abigail’s tummy was huge – bigger than I’d ever seen it or imagined it could become. I took photographs of her, safe in the knowledge that she couldn’t move quickly enough to snatch the camera away from me.
Despite the midwife’s assurances that everything was going really well, we fretted more and more as Abi’s due date loomed nearer. We couldn’t help it. And we started snapping at each other over the most insignificant things.
‘I don’t want it to be like this!’ Abi exclaimed violently one evening, having just yelled at me because we’d run out of milk. ‘I can’t keep focusing on what could go wrong!’
‘No, John! We have to give this baby a chance. I feel like we’re killing it ourselves by just not… not trusting it to live.’ Her cheeks were wet with tears.
‘Okay darling.’ I drew her into my arms and kissed her hair. ‘Okay… okay.’
That was when the contractions started.
Christopher was born at quarter past four the following afternoon and he was alive and squirming and gloriously loud. It was the fifth of November.
Later that evening I was awoken from an uncomfortable doze in the ill-designed chair beside Abigail’s hospital bed by the popping of fireworks outside. My beautiful wife was still deep in an exhausted sleep, but Christopher’s eyes were open when I went to gaze at him in his little transparent box at the end of Abi’s bed. He wriggled a bit when I leaned closer. I picked up my son and walked over to the window. We were on the third floor, looking out over the glittering town to the dark hills in the distance. Everywhere, fireworks were blossoming, thrusting their twinkling petals into the night sky, briefly outshining even the stars. It felt to me as if the whole world was celebrating the birth of our baby. I held him in my arms until he fell asleep.
As I watch Christopher’s small pink fingers curl around the handle of my old baby walker, I suddenly see that all the steps of my life have led me in a huge meandering circle to this very moment. And I dare to look ahead to the days when Abigail and I will swing Christopher between us through the woods, and we will make our own footprints in the sand, and we will watch to see where the steps of his life will take him.
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