It makes me gag when I think back to that moment, that to an outside observer would have seemed frivolous, but was filled with the weight of decades of responsibility and years of regret. The single spin that spawned a monster.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“What about your parents? Do they want another grandchild?”
“Let’s not do it for other people.”
“What about your mum?”
“I don’t know. Plus you just told me we shouldn’t do it for other people.”
“Yes but I thought that if she really didn’t want another one then it might help us.”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll call her.”
I called her. I made noises here and there, and nodded my head. I hung up.
“Well?” she said.
“She’s not sure.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake.”
I walked the familiar white corridors where you could taste the bleach in the air, weighing up the pros and cons, as we had been doing for weeks. I stared down at my feet, the blue Crocs, blue for a boy, and then I looked at my red scrub top, red for, well I wasn’t sure. For a girl, I guessed. Close to pink. Anyway, why stereotype from infancy?
Northwick Park Hospital was packed full of babies. My home wasn’t. It had one in it, sometimes, when my wife and I weren’t at work. It was ours. Its name, her name, was Freya. Named for a Norse goddess of love and fertility, so I’m told, although truthfully she was named after a knowing glance between my wife and I as we perused “Most Popular Girl Names 2010” on the laptop that sat on one thigh each. We shared everything like this, including our current ambivalence. We always had, since we shared our first kiss. We loved each other. We didn’t have much time for anything else, besides our jobs, and Freya.
Did we want two? We didn’t know. Did we have a duty to have two? I felt as paralysed by indecision as some of my patients were, except they were mostly paralysed by damage to their spine. I would see it on the screen and make notes on the x-rays for the surgeons and doctors. My colleague Lynn was also a radiographer, but she specialised in perinatal sonography. And she was childless at forty. Should I take the hint?
I called Beth and as her phone rang, prayed that she’d had a revelation one way or the other, but no, she’d been watching Peppa Pig for most of the morning and wasn’t in the right frame of mind for such insights.
I walked over to maternity while we talked on the phone about Freya’s attempts at reading, and I peeked in at some of the babies, tight little packages in plastic troughs at bedsides. Some of them were unbelievably cute. Some were, frankly, ugly. One was on its front. I called to one of the midwifes. “This baby’s on its front. Is that OK?”
“Oh my gosh,” she said, and buzzed over to it, flipping it gently. “Now how did that happen?” She looked at me suspiciously. My eyes flicked over to the new mum—her eyes were vacant. She was exhausted. I remember this moment, and mostly, I remember these words: vacant; exhausted. I remember them nightly, because I have no idea why the image of that poor woman, completely drained to the point of not knowing what she was doing, didn’t put me off the idea of another baby.
Instead, I saw my patients and scribbled my notes. I unintentionally visualised our spare room with a cot in it, and felt a pang. Then I saw an image of myself, up in the night cleaning up sick from a cot mattress, and I had the opposite of a pang. Then I found my car next to the pillar on Level 3 as usual, and drove home on autopilot, where I found Beth, smiling, padding down the stairs, freshly showered, Freya napping. I must have looked highly determined or confused, or just utterly manic, because a little ‘o’ formed where her smile had been, and she said, “Charlie, what’s wrong?”
I shook my head and put my hands on her shoulders. I said, “We have to decide. I can’t think about anything else.”
She nodded gravely. I waited for her to say something, but she was happy to see where I was going with this, the coward.
I took a two-pound coin out of my pocket. Weighty. She was taken aback, and I scrutinised her, but with her amazing diplomacy skills, she quickly got it together and assumed an impassive look, while inside I screamed.
“I guess it comes down to this,” I said, with the coin clasped in my fingers, and my thumb poised.
“I guess,” she said, but looked tentative. “Well, we can always change our minds.”
“NO!” I cried, and we were both surprised at the volume and forcefulness.
I cleared my throat. “No. I mean, it’s making me nutty. We have to commit to this decision.”
She looked crestfallen and I thought she might talk me out of this lunacy. But she simply said, “OK.”
“You call it.”
“Jesus, do I have to do everything?” I hollered.
“Excuse me?” she asked, but it was really a statement, and I immediately staggered back and apologised.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean that at all, not in the slightest. I don’t even know why I said it.” I felt possessed by some malevolent energy. “Here, let’s choose heads for a baby, like a baby’s head.”
She nodded. My breathing was shallow as I psyched myself up. The house was silent, and just as I was about to flip the coin, Freya murmured. Distracted, I reeled backwards and put my hand to my head.
“Oh don’t be so dramatic! Just do it!” Beth said. Before then, I could count on one hand the number of times she had ever insulted me.
I gritted my teeth, then relaxed my jaw, took a breath, and flipped. The coin span in the air for about a month. I slapped it against the back of my hand with the other palm.
We stared each other down, Beth and I. We looked deeply into each other’s eyes.
Then she tutted and was about to yell at me again, so I took my palm away, and saw the Queen’s head, about the size of one of the presidents at Mount Rushmore.
Beth’s back throbbed throughout the pregnancy. I had sympathy pains. She laughed at me as we walked up to collect Freya from nursery, both of us with one of our hands massaging the small of our backs. She had morning sickness. I felt like I had Lyme disease or lupus. Sometimes I would wake up in the morning and feel flattened, and I would be groggy throughout my clinics. I could barely think straight.
This time the thing we couldn’t decide upon for months was a name. After seeing Lynn for the second scan, we found out the sex of the baby—a boy. We were ecstatic, but I remember a strange look on Lynn’s face. I dismissed it as the result of a complicated mix of emotions she might have been feeling, seeing the joy on her work colleague’s face, despite her choice to be childless. Or maybe it wasn’t a choice as such. We’d never spoken about it, and I would never ask. But it would explain her curious expression. I’d describe it as a mix of concern and a fear of the unknown.
After weeks of rejecting perfectly serviceable boy names, and many arguments about it, which was new for us, this angsty state, and difficult to take, Beth thought of the perfect name. “Damien”, after her favourite actor, Damian Lewis. We didn’t realise there was a discrepancy in the spelling until after he was born and registered. That whole time was a blur, and not a good blur. I remember saying, “Fine, Damien. Why not?” like a two-year-old might have said during a temper tantrum.
Labour with Freya was nine hours and ended with a natural birth and a beautiful, otherworldly ambience. Damien had to be removed by excision after 36 hours. He came out kicking, and he came out with something extra. They termed it “vestigial”, but that was misleading, suggesting that it was atrophied or unusable. On the contrary, his was prehensile.
We swaddled him tightly as we showed him off to our colleagues at work, both of us haggard from a lack of sleep, since he only slept during the daytime. Lynn gave me that same worried look as I passed him to her, before she felt the tail through the blanket, passed him back, and ran out of the room with her hand to her mouth. I had a sickening realisation about her original expression after the last scan at that moment.
When we took him down to see my friends in Orthopaedics, Harry, who never delved into speech that might be termed ‘politically correct’ or even ‘empathetic in any way’ said something troubling. He had an incredulous grin.
“Yes, Beth chose it. What’s wrong with Damien?”
“How long have you worked here?”
“Fourteen years almost.”
“Did nobody ever tell you The Omen was filmed here? Part of it anyway. Seems like an odd choice.”
“What? I’ve never seen it. What’s the issue?”
“Come on Charlie, I know you’re not one for pop culture, but you must have heard of Damien from The Omen.”
“Vaguely I suppose.”
“He’s the Antichrist, Charlie!” Harry lit up with a huge, roaring laugh. He woke up Damien, whose unfocused eyes seemed to bore through him.
Harry stopped laughing and looked uneasy. Damien’s tail burst from its tight package and cracked like a whip in the air between us.
We hurried out, and I took a month off of work, paternity leave, rather than the week I had planned. I was too tired to work, Damien screaming all night, and knocking things off the shelves with his tail.
He’s three now. Freya is flourishing at school. Beth is doing better, and we’re learning to live with each other again. She finds solace in her work, and the comparative tranquillity of her office, in central London, right above Victoria coach station. I quit my job to look after the children, in particular, him. My hair turned white in a matter of months.
It’s me who mostly has to deal with him. Every evening I steel myself for another night of it, after I get some sleep in the evening when Beth is home.
It’s constant. I had to use the toilet while we were at the soft play area in the early morning—I wait and wait for these places to open, always first in, desperate for a change of scenery— so I asked a kindly-looking mother nearby to keep an eye on him for a minute. He seemed happy enough, hanging from the low ceiling of the ball pit.
When I got back, sixty seconds after I heard a scream and cut short my toilet break, there was a flurry of activity and a lot of eyes on me, accusing eyes.
I have no idea where he would have got a lighter from. And the girl would be fine. It only singed her hair.
The place reeked like sulphur. The mothers were talking about me, shaking their heads and tutting. I scooped Damien up after fending off a few attacks from his tail. I paid, and we left. I only pay with notes and cards. I won’t accept change. I don’t carry coins. I won’t allow them in the house.
Simon Pinkerton is your Expecto Patronum, but he comes out in the shape of the animal you find most abhorrent and then stares at you for an hour. He writes fiction and humor for many excellent mags like Entropy, Queen Mobs, Word Riot and McSweeney’s, and is polishing his first novel ready for sale/dissemination/pulping. Find him @simonpinkerton.