Chapter 1 – 1960
The sky had been dark for hours now and still there was no news. The short, stocky man paced the narrow, dimly-lit corridor, anxiously waiting…
He had been at the hospital for twelve hours, unable to leave Maria on her own, although several times that friendly little blonde nurse had told him gently to go home and try not to worry, because there was nothing he could do. The baby would arrive in its own time.
Of course, he knew that, but he couldn’t help worrying. Wasn’t it only natural when your wife was having her first child at the age of 38?
There had been several earlier pregnancies, but she’d not been able to carry any of them longer than a few months, and both knew in their hearts that if this baby didn’t live they would never have a child of their own. The doctor had warned him that she probably wouldn’t have an easy time and that, whatever happened, it would be most unwise to attempt another pregnancy. So all their hopes – and Maria’s prayers – were pinned on this baby…
John Carter wasn’t a man much given to praying. Any notions he held of God were vague images dating back to his childhood, a distant picture at Sunday school of a holy man with limpid eyes and a saintly expression, surrounded by a pool of light. He loved his wife deeply and envied her strong faith in a real, loving God whom she worshipped with conviction and trusted implicitly. He knew how much she wished he could believe as she did, but somehow he couldn’t bring a ‘real’ God to mind.
Now, though, as he stopped for what seemed the thousandth time at the high, narrow window at the end of the corridor overlooking the garden, he was trying with all his strength to pray to whatever deity was out there…
He stared at the wintry landscape. The leafless branches of a silver birch tree moved restlessly in the wind which whispered sadly against the glass, rattling the ill-fitting old wooden frame.
‘Needs fixing’, his ever-practical mind told him.
A thick border of mature rhododendron bushes loomed blackly against the snow-covered ground, sparkling here and there as the light from a fitful moon struck icy patches. Beyond, a long lawn sloped steeply down to the high wall and wrought-iron gates which defined the hospital’s supremacy, positioned high above the town, and, farther into the distance, points of light winked in the house windows and street lights.
They had moved to Westfield nearly 20 years ago, soon after they had married. Work had been scarce in their home town and he’d felt they would be safer there, farther out in the countryside, with the bombing raids hitting the big industrial towns so heavily.
And they’d expected babies to start arriving soon. Maria was barely 19, but most young couples then dreamed of finding a little home and having a couple of babies to bring up in a peaceful world…
But it was five years before peace returned to wartorn England and homes that weren’t bomb-damaged were hard to find. Eventually they had scraped together enough from his shoe-repairing business (he’d been exempt from military service, much to his chagrin, because of his asthma) and Maria’s nursing auxiliary work to put down a deposit on a tiny cottage. It was only a two-up, two-down with an outside toilet, but it was in the centre of Westfield and it was theirs!
They were able to turn the front room into a little shop where he could work, and he was soon getting plenty of business by recommendation from the people with money who lived on the slopes of the hill.
Through the window John could see the Victorian-style lamp-posts flanking the porch of the square, red brick house of Sir Arthur Brown, who owned the thriving factory which turned out metal parts for almost any household appliance you cared to name.
In those days the factory was producing munitions to help the war effort, and, although Sir Arthur was plain Mr Brown then and some way off making his first million, he was a still a greatly-respected man in Westfield. Choosing John to repair all his household’s boots and shoes had been quite a feather in his cap. In fact, mused John as he stared through the window, it was thanks to Sir Arthur that his business had thrived.
So, by the end of the war, they had their own home and enough money to allow Maria to give up her nursing, and they were confident the babies would follow. But five years passed, then ten, without any sign of a pregnancy. Visits to specialists always ended with the same words: ‘We can’t find anything wrong. Keep trying, that’s all we can say.’
Until Maria turned 30. Then the advice changed. ‘We’re sorry, but it seems nature decided you weren’t to be parents. Best to forget about children and find other ways to fill your lives.’
But Maria wanted a child so much, and John couldn’t bear to see her unhappy. And her 31st birthday arrived with the wonderful news that she was pregnant! Two months later she lost the baby, and, in the next five years she miscarried twice more. To have carried this baby to full term was a miracle, and John knew he ought to believe in a loving God more wholeheartedly.
A scream from the delivery room jerked him abruptly out of his reverie. Another scream, then a third…He couldn’t bear it, what was happening to his beloved Maria in there?
Clenching his fists to control his emotions, he took a deep breath and moved towards the door. At that moment he heard a thin high wail and a joyful babble of voices, and the door swung open to reveal the little blonde nurse, her face beaming.
‘You can come in, Mr Carter – you’ve a lovely daughter!’
He crossed to the bed where Maria lay, exhausted. Her pretty fair hair was plastered dark with sweat against the pillow, and grey shadows below her eyes marred the delicate face. But she was smiling tenderly and lying cradled in one arm was a small-white-wrapped bundle.
He bent to kiss his wife and inspect the daughter for whom they had both waited so long. A tiny crumpled pink face topped with a light fuzz of fair hair was all he could see above the blanket. His throat contracted painfully and suddenly they were both crying and laughing and kissing all at the same time.
At that moment, church bells all over Westfield started ringing, pealing and crashing joyfully together.
‘Happy new year, Mr and Mrs Carter’, the little nurse wished them, smiling. ‘Happy 1960.’
‘A new year, a new decade, and a new life for us.’ John touched the baby’s downy head gently. ‘Welcome, Elizabeth Maria Carter!’