An excerpt from

The Wrong'un

Catherine Evans

I’m just an old bat now, so it doesn’t matter what I think, but I can tell you. Things were never the same between me and George after Bea was born. To have a girl after so many boys. ‘Oh, you must be thrilled!’ people said. People don’t know what they’re on about half the time.

We started our family straight off. He’d sooner have waited, but there was no stopping me. I was twenty-two when Sammy arrived. Sonny came hot on his heels, and was barely three months old when I found out Will was on his way. It was hard, those early days, George scratching a living at Jebsen’s Yard before he set up on his own. There never was any question of me working. Not with two little ones and a third waiting to burst in on the world. Another man would have torn his hair out.

Paddy came to us just before Will was born. He was beautiful. Like a Botticelli angel. He was five years old when we got him. I’ll never make up for those five years. Fair, he was, when the rest of us were dark. He was different in other ways. You know kids. Needy, always looking for attention. Not Paddy. I tried so hard with him. To read him a story or play a game. Paddy liked to look at books by himself and didn’t get excited about games. He was just more self-sufficient, more independent. The only person he was interested in was George, and George didn’t know what to do with him.

I still feel a lurch in my heart when I think about the one we lost. Timmy. I used to panic I’d forget his little face, but I never will. They didn’t want me to be the one to dress him for his burial. They said it would be too upsetting for a woman in my condition. Colin was on the way by then, you see, but who else should have dressed him if not his own mother? I don’t remember much about that time. I went through the rest of the pregnancy in a dark fog. Colin was the smallest of our babies. Forced out early by grief and shock. He helped us to heal. It sounds like we forgot about our Timmy once we had a new baby, but I swear it’s not true. Colin was supposed to be our last.

My brother Jack was staying with us when Timmy died, on leave from the Merchant Navy. George liked Jackie, though he drank too much and had an eye for the ladies. I’d always been fond of my little brother. I’d been like a mother to him after our Mam was gone. Anyways. That all changed after Timmy died. Jack never came back to our house.

Life goes on, so they say, even after the worst kind of disaster. I blotted Jackie from my life and got on with the business of mothering.

We had clever children, George and me. Sammy was the first boy from St Stephen’s to get into Oxford. He got a mention in the local paper. I cried when I saw it. He ruffled my hair and called me his daft little Mam. If I’d known what kind of life it would lead to… being buried in a lab like a gnomish insect. I’m not saying it’s not worthy, whatever it is he does, but he should be married with kids. Newell men tend to find a girl and then stick to her their whole life. Things didn’t work out that way for me and George, and not for Sammy neither. He lost the only girl he ever loved.

Sonny rose like a rocket at Morgan Stanley before he chucked it all in to start a hedge fund. He’s minted, living in New York, married to a Yank with a couple of kids. He takes very good care of his old Mam. Bea too, to be fair, though she can’t take credit for her money like he can.

Will’s third book will be out soon. It’d be nice if this one wasn’t about us. It’s a mixed blessing having a writer in the family, let me tell you.

Colin’s an accountant. His brothers rib him about it, but they lumber him every January with their tax returns.

I wonder sometimes what little Timmy would have been like as a man, but I find I can’t do it. He’s frozen in my mind as a babe in arms.

It was hard on Paddy, surrounded as he was by brilliance, but he was just a late bloomer. The neighbours laughed behind our backs when he went to prison for dangerous driving. Under the influence too. To my face they were all tea and sympathy, of course. Paddy swears the boy came out of nowhere. You know what kids are like. No road sense. The child’s walking again now. I shudder to think what kind of pressure Paddy was under to start taking that stuff. I never thought I’d say so, but prison did him some good. Like a cold bath. He swears he’s off it now. I pray every day he’ll never go back to it. I’m thankful he works for himself as it’s hard getting a decent job when you’ve a record. People are quick to sit in judgment. If they knew the strain he was under... people get a look in their eye when I try and tell them.

So. Coming to Bea. A gifted student, her teachers said. Jack of all trades, I always thought, but it seemed a bit mean-spirited to say that about your own child. George was like a strutting peacock whenever his precious angel did well. Always blind, he was, where she was concerned. So she was clever, but like I said, we had clever children. She writes for some highbrow magazine now. She does the newsy bits. Politics, commentary, stuff like that. I don’t like to say it, but there’s a lot of rubbish printed these days. She seeks out the world’s sob stories, the stuff that people skip over to get to the gossip and the fashion. She could have done any number of things if she’d had a mind. She had one true talent, a golden voice with range and strength, and what did she do? She jacked it in. She should have a kiddie or two. Women these days are obsessed with their careers. They don’t know they’re born. It’s not like David couldn’t support her. He’s a diamond, her husband. She’s lucky to have him.

Anyway, I was saying how things started to go wrong. I was so looking forward to the baby coming, even though I had a clutch already. I loved having babies. Having their warm, milky little bodies snuggled up against me, the need and the love pulsing from them for me and no-one else. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t had a baby. They grow away from you, get a sense of themselves, then off they go. They start not to need you anymore. Breaks your heart. Colin, the next one up from Bea was walking and chattering away like a clockwork toy. A bundle of energy, then he’d crumple up at seven on the dot.

He was a right little man and I couldn’t wait for a new one. I loved the miniscule little fingers and toes, and how the bigger children, even the very little ones dwarfed the newborns. I loved their scrawny matchstick legs and their pinched red faces. Just like angry little baked beans. Their bums. How I loved their little bums. Red and blotchy and dimpled and no bigger than my palm.

It was all different with Bea. The last thing I ever expected was a girl. Which is a really stupid thing to say, isn’t it? Sooner or later it was bound to happen. I wish I could remember the pregnancy, if it was different from all the others, but it was the same as usual, so far as I could tell.

‘A girl!’ the matron announced before she whisked her away. ‘Finally! After all those boys.’ As if I’d kept going till I’d finally hit the jackpot. I felt a tremble in my stomach when George held the baby after she’d been washed and swaddled. He gazed at her like she was the Holy Grail. He cried. Cried, I tell you. Something happened to me as I watched my husband fall hopelessly in love with the wrinkled, wailing creature that he held in his arms. He brought her to me and was just about to lower her onto my breast when I jerked forward and coughed. I couldn’t help it. He was so overwhelmed he didn’t clock it, and the baby stopped crying when he put his pinkie in her mouth. My heart flailed within me as I tried to smile, and the tears came to my eyes too. George couldn’t speak he was that choked up, grinning and misty-eyed, so grateful I’d given him something so precious. As if the boys, each of our beautiful little boys, were somehow worth less than her. He was content to hold her till I was settled, till I’d steeled myself to feed her.

The boys were so easy. They’d all latched on in a heartbeat. Each of them had fused with me, and I’d rock back and forth and hum to them while they fed, first from one side then the other. And it wasn’t just me feeding them. They fed something deep within me, something that just couldn’t be reached any other way. But Bea. She wouldn’t settle. It was a battle to get her comfortable and the two of us would go through a kind of wrestling match filled with vexed frustration all for a piddling result, as what she finally got down her wouldn’t feed a slimming sparrow.

Finally, I threw in the towel and borrowed a pump from the midwife. No shortage of takers wanting to feed her. George had that baby glued to him. The boys fought for the privilege. Smothered with love and affection, she was. Not from Paddy, I grant you. I didn’t express for long. Made me feel like a cow. In any case, it all seemed to dry up. I suppose I just couldn’t produce in the same way for a machine, but no one can say I didn’t try. I switched her to powder.

As for sleeping. The boys fretted in the night from time to time. When they grew older there was the odd wet bed and sometimes a nightmare. Especially Will. Imagination comes at a price, poor lamb. Bea now. Where she found the energy to bellyache the way she did on the rations she took in, I’ll never know. With the boys I’d get up and sort them out. Change the bed or give them a cuddle, whatever they needed. But with Bea, somehow George started to do it. Maybe to begin with it was because he woke up first or because he happened to be on hand, I don’t know. But soon it was just done. He got up for Bea in the middle of the night. Even if he’d worked late or had to get up at stupid o’clock. He never did that for the boys. It wasn’t because he didn’t love them, Lord knows. He slept through it all, and I’d get to them before he even woke up. But with her, it was like he was tuned into the frequency of her crying. Funny, isn’t it?

We were going to call the new baby Albert, after my grandad. In my head he’d become Bertie. It sounds daft, but I had to get used to not having my Bertie with me. Fancy missing a baby that didn’t even exist. We didn’t have any girls’ names ready.

George was shaving one morning before work. He was still at Jebsen’s. I was sitting up in bed trying to feed Bea. She’d been home from the hospital five or six days and we were still calling her ‘the baby’. Sonny was reading Peter Rabbit to Colin at the foot of the bed. Suddenly he stopped, as Peter was pinching Mr McGregor’s lettuces.

‘What’s the baby’s name?’ he asked, looking from George to me.

George laughed.

‘Good question, my lad.’ he said. ‘What are we going to call her? Alberta?’

I was silent. Your brain doesn’t exactly work right after you’ve had a baby. I didn’t want to give Bertie’s name away.

‘What do you reckon, Princess?’ he asked me again.

‘I’m thinking,’ I said.

‘What about Beatrix?’ Sonny asked.

Me and George looked at each other. ‘Beatrix,’ he said. ‘Not many Beatrixes around, that’s for certain. Beatrix. Aye, I like it.’ He looked at me expectantly.

‘Why not?’ I said. ‘It’s not too common, anyroad. Makes a change from Sharon and Karen.’

George laughed again. He chucked his razor in the sink and strode over to Sonny, to ruffle his hair. ‘Nice one, Sonny,’ he said. He kissed me, leaving a bit of foam on my cheek. He cupped the baby’s head with his palm. ‘Little Beatrix,’ he said and bent over to kiss her too.

Colin stood up on the bed. He was nearly two, dressed in red pyjamas, his hair tousled from his bed. He looked delicious as a plum. He could normally put a smile on my face. ‘What about me?’ he said, and jumped into George’s arms. George swung him round, then gathered him up to his chest. The three of them giggled like halfwits.

‘George, you’ll be late for work,’ I said, sharper than I meant. The baby started crying. ‘That’s torn it!’ I cried. ‘Sonny go and get ready for school. Take Colin with you.’

‘But he doesn’t go to school.’

‘Just get him out of here. Clear off, both of you.’

The cry was a particularly pathetic kind of mewling.

‘That was a bit harsh, Princess,’ said George. His voice was soft. ‘They were only having a bit of fun.’

A flash of heat surged in my chest. I was just about to mouth off, when I got a hold of myself. He was right, but I was the more livid for it. I looked down at the baby, and I longed for Bertie. Like I said, your brain isn’t the same after a pregnancy. George quietly turned back to the bathroom and pulled the plug on the water in the sink, no doubt leaving it flecked with foam and stubble as per usual.