"Would you like to hold her?”
Carefully, Jenny handed the precious swaddled bundle over to Juliet, who held the baby girl as though she were fragile china.
“Don’t worry, she won’t break,” Jenny told her. “She’s a tough little thing.”
Juliet studied Sara Grace’s sleeping face. She was so perfect. It was hard to imagine how just a couple of weeks before she hadn’t even been outside the warmth of a human body.
Jenny was tired but was otherwise doing very well. “It’s hard to know with a first, but I think she’s pretty easy,” she told Juliet. “She’s feeding well and gaining the right amount of weight. My mom is staying with us so I don’t even have to worry about housework. Or baking,” she added, taking another one of the homemade cookies that Juliet had brought her. Her mother had gone shopping that afternoon and Dan was still at work so it was just Juliet and Jenny there.
“She’s adorable. You’re so lucky.” Looking at the tiny being, long eyelashes resting on a plump pink cheek, Juliet thought of what it might have been like when her own mother held her for the first time, and felt a pang.
She’d never have the same kind of support that Jenny enjoyed if and when she had a child. She wondered how her mother had felt the first time she had held Juliet as a newborn. They weren’t things she would ever be able to ask. “You know I’d give anything to have what you have,” she confessed.
Jenny gave a chuckle. “There are plenty of days when I’d quite happily gift wrap Dan and send him to you.”
“I didn’t mean Dan,” Juliet said, then quickly added, “not that he isn’t really great. I just mean having your own family.” Not being alone, she thought, but didn’t say it. “Having children, being with all the people you love. It’s something I want more than anything.”
Jenny raised her eyebrows. “At your age all I wanted to do was party. The thought of getting stuck and home with kids was the last thing on my mind.”
“Really?” Juliet was surprised.
“I haven’t always been the good little housewife. Not that I’m even that now, as Dan will tell you any time you like. At your age I was the wildest member of Phi Beta Kappa, partying every night and making my parents and professors despair. Goodness only knows how I didn’t get thrown out,” Jenny said.
“I never imagined you like that.”
Smiling, Jenny recalled the past. “I nearly burnt the sorority house down once. The singe marks are still there as a memorial to my wild ways. And now - ” she looked at her daughter, her face softening, ” - here I am with a husband, a home, a job and a baby, living in the suburbs. So much for my plans to be a hotshot Carrie Bradshaw type in New York. No ‘Sex and the City’ for me.”
It didn’t look as though this bothered Jenny. “But you’re happy with the way it all turned out?” Juliet asked.
“Ecstatic. I mean what you want at twenty changes a lot when you’re nearly thirty. Imagine spending every night at a frat party now, with drunken college boys throwing up on my shoes.” She shuddered. “I’d be the oldest person there. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun at the time, but I’ve got it out of my system. But you should do all that stuff, live wildly while you can.”
Juliet was silent, looking at the baby. Then she spoke. “I’ve sort of been there, done that. Much of it, anyway.”
Jenny looked intrigued. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know if you know, if Carl said anything, but I was in and out of foster care when I was younger. I went a bit wild: drinking, boys, sneaking out all the time. When the only thing waiting for you at home is someone who spends most of their time shouting at you or hitting you, you tend to avoid being there as much as possible.” Juliet closed her eyes, remembering the painful times.
“There were a few of us who hung out together, on the street, at older guys’ houses. There were cigarettes, alcohol, other stuff. I was a total mess when my aunt finally tracked me down. Then it was really hard to follow her rules, though the last couple of years have been easier. We got used to one another,” she said.
Jenny’s eyed held sympathy. “I can see why you wouldn’t be into the idea of drunken college parties. With me it was different, I’d led a very sheltered, small town life so I wanted to rebel.”
Juliet was looking anxious. She toyed with the fringe of the shawl that Sara was wrapped in. “Carl knows some of it.” She had managed to tell him about juvenile detention, though he’d heard it from Cynthia first of course. “I told him about some things. But he doesn’t know about all the drinking and everything. And we did some other stuff.” Her eyes held anguish as she looked at Jenny. “Do you think he would think very badly of me?”
Jenny felt her heart well up for the girl holding her baby. “Of course not, you were only a kid! And even if it had happened later on, he wouldn’t judge you.” Seeing that Juliet wasn’t convinced, she tried to explain. “If Jesus were here today, as a young person, whom do you think he’d be hanging out with? Me and my hometown friends, living in our comfortable homes and going to school each day and attending church youth group?”
Juliet could see this childhood in her mind, like a movie. It was all pink and pastel and sunny.
Jenny continued. “Or would he hang out on the streets, with homeless kids, troubled kids, kids doing drugs? Kids who didn’t have any of what I was lucky enough to have, what I took for granted. Because I think I know what he’d do. And Carl - not that I’m trying to say that Carl’s Jesus, though there are times even I find myself wondering - he would be just the same. There’s no way he would ever reject someone for having a difficult past. None of us would. Even if you were going through all this now and worse, we’d be there for you, Juliet.”
Juliet had tears running down her face. One fell onto the sleeping Sara, which made Juliet cry even more. “I’m so sorry, I’ve got your baby wet.”
Jenny laughed and smiled kindly. “I don’t think a few tears will hurt her.” She put her arm around Juliet. “Carl really likes you, you know. I know you’re younger than him but you’ve been really good for him. He’s held back because he’s your teacher and because of all the other issues he has with doing things correctly. But don’t give up. And never think for a moment that anything in your past would count against you in his eyes.”
Carl brought takeout around to Dan and Jenny later that week. Jenny’s mother had gone to the movies with another neighbour.
“You’ll be godparent to this little one then?” Dan asked him. They’d discussed it previously and Carl had readily agreed, touched to have been asked.
Now, actually looking at the small human whose spiritual wellbeing he would be committing to, it seemed a more solemn task than he had previously contemplated.
“Of course she’ll need a godmother too,” Jenny said, casting a sidelong glance at Carl as she fed Sara Grace.
“You’ve asked my sister, haven’t you?” Dan said.
“I have. But she lives far away, and it’s nice to have more than one,” Jenny told him.
Carl wasn’t sure how he could help. Presumably if he had still been engaged to Rebecca they would have asked her. There was a knowing look in Jenny’s eye that unsettled him.
The baby finished feeding and Jenny patted her gently on the back before handing her to Dan. “Your turn. She always needs changing right afterwards,” she told Carl.
“I’ll bathe her too then, given it’s time for her bedtime,” Dan offered.
This left Jenny and Carl alone in the sitting room.
“Your friend Juliet brought some delicious cookies around the other day,” she said. “She’s a very nice girl.”
Jenny had orchestrated this conversation, Carl realised. She had something to say to him. He wasn’t sure if he was going to like it. He suspected he was going to get a lecture about Juliet’s age and his responsibilities as her teacher.
“She is, yes,” he said.
“You two clearly adore one another,” Jenny continued.
Carl tried to pre-empt her. “I know it’s inappropriate, I’ve been wrestling with it. I agree she’s far too young and she’ll be off to college soon. I thought that church would help us both keep it platonic.”
Jenny grinned, her eyes glinting. “You have no idea what I was going to say, do you?”
“I couldn’t blame you for disapproving. It’s completely unprofessional for me to have seen a student outside school.” Let alone to have invited her back to his place, to have kissed her, to have been on the verge of going so much further, he thought.
“Carl, Juliet is eighteen. She’s a young woman not a child. Legally an adult. Except for the school thing which will be over in a matter of months, there’s no issue with you two seeing one another.”
Carl was shocked, having expected Jenny to give him a stern telling off.
“It wouldn’t be fair to hold her back. She’ll be off to college, you know what that’s like.” You of all people, he thought, having heard more than a few anecdotes about Jenny’s wild college days. “She has enough restrictions in her life now. She’ll want to be free, not tied down.”
“Have you actually asked her what she wants?”
“We’ve talked, yes. More or less,” he said.
“If you had a proper conversation with her, you might get a more accurate idea. She told me about some of her past, which was truly awful, poor girl. It sounded to me like the last thing she wants to do after high school is to go crazy and date half of Harvard,” Jenny told him. “The complete opposite of my plans at her age, but then my upbringing - just like yours - was pretty much the opposite of hers as well.”
Carl was silent, digesting this.
“After all, there are loads of people who end up marrying their high school sweethearts. I can’t see that it makes a huge difference if one of them was the football captain or the sports coach, can you?” Jenny continued.
Carl could see an enormous difference, particularly thinking of the sports coach at his own school. A paunchy, middle aged married man who had creeped on female students. He sincerely hoped he was nothing like that. He had spent enough time fending off the flirtations and crushes of the St Gillian’s girls.
Except for Juliet, of course.
But marriage? It was the furthest thing from his mind, particularly after the near-disaster with Rebecca. Now Jenny had put it in his mind he had a flash vision of Juliet standing next to him in church, in bridal white. He tried to push it from his mind but it was stuck there now.
As if the image of her performing in the scanty schoolgirl outfit wasn’t enough to haunt his dreams, he was starting to imagine her in bridal lingerie, lying on a bed, wanting him.
“Think about what I’ve said, anyway,” Jenny told him. “I’d like to see you happy. Both of you.”
Carl was determined not to be selfish. Juliet was his student, she was vulnerable, she’d suffered years of neglect and abuse. Whatever he wanted for himself had to take second place to what was best for her.
He had assumed that they would be saying goodbye at the end of the school year, and even if it wasn’t for his faith, this was a reason to hold off from getting too serious.
But the fact was he felt seriously about her. It was going to be incredibly hard to let her go: to walk away when she went to college.
Now Jenny had stirred up ideas in his head that he wasn’t sure were helpful. He wasn’t even sure how to pray about it, because it felt wrong to pray for something that he wasn’t sure was right.
But how could he pray to give her up?
Once again stricken with doubt and confusion, he found himself inside a Catholic church. The incense and dust and dark wood took him back to the previous occasions. It might not be the same priest this time, but it was the same God.
“I came here some months ago, Father.”
“I remember you, my son.” It was the same man as before. Carl wondered how on earth he could remember him from that one time. “What is it you seek?”
Answers. Guidance. Someone to judge whether what he wanted to do was right or wrong. Fair or selfish.
“How do you know if something is right? If you pray and no answer comes?” Carl wondered why he was able to ask a near stranger this, and not his own pastor.
He could hear a warm amusement in the priest’s voice. “Have you been listening for one?”
Had he? Somehow he had expected there to be a voice in his head. Or some text that resonated with him from his bible.
The priest continued. “You ask me for guidance, but have you asked others? The Lord does not only speak through one voice.”
“You mean I should ask my own pastor?”
“Your pastor, your friends and family. The answer to what is right rarely impacts just one person. Just as those around you are affected by your choice, they may also have answers for you.”
Jenny. He had been trying to reject what she said to him, feeling it was wrong to even think alone the lines she had led him. Now he wondered. Dan too, the conversation that Carl had dismissed some days previously. He also thought of Agnes and her knowing glances.
Were these his answers?
Carl felt a faint flicker of hope in his heart but quickly suppressed it.
Carl, Jenny, Agnes, Pastor Brown, the Priest, Rebecca. Every one of them had given him some kind of response even if he hadn’t sought it. But there was a glaring gap in this list.
Perhaps the problem was not the question, but the fact he hadn’t yet asked it of the right person.