An excerpt from Mark A Radcliffe’s new novel Three Gifts, published by Epoque Press on 2 March 2023.
When Francis was born, the doctor told his mother that he was very ill and that she should prepare herself for the worst. His mother was an anxious, perennially lonely woman named Rose who had wanted a child more than she believed any woman had wanted one before and she did not know how you were supposed to prepare yourself for the loss of your baby. She thought the doctor must have been mistaken with his advice and she immediately wanted to ask for a second opinion, for someone else to take a look at her constantly screaming new-born. However, it was the 1970s and demanding that cleverer doctors be called upon was not an option for her. Praying was, and so was saying things like; ‘He will not die. God would not have given him to me only to take him away again. God is not cruel.’
Rose was considered quite old for a mother, being three months away from her thirty-eighth birthday, and deep down she still believed herself to be a virgin. She was a short, slightly plump woman with grey darting eyes, and the accumulated sense of always feeling like the odd one out had drawn fear onto her face. It was that fear which people saw first when they looked at her. She had been put into foster care by her widowed mother at the age of six, only to be retrieved by her, a stepfather and a baby sister called Ruby, when she was eleven. She did a lot of childcare by way of thanks and worked hard at being useful but she never quite banished the belief that she would be disposable again if the house ever felt too small. It was a feeling she vowed never to pass on to her own child should she ever manage to have one.
Francis’s father, Percy, was a big, recurrently absent man who liked to drink and had, in his youth, been considered moderately clever and passably handsome; he retained the slightly inflated confidence that those limited gifts had bestowed. He was something of a faded womaniser, seventeen years older than Rose, with thin red veins showing through his cheeks and exhausted, damp eyes. He almost verified Rose’s claims of innocence by openly doubting that he was the baby’s father. ‘Are you sure it’s mine, because believe me that wasn’t sex,’ he had said the day she had told him she was pregnant. She burst into tears and screamed, ‘I have never been touched by another man…how could you even say that?’
Percy was unconvinced. There had been touching, yes, and something akin to intimacy, but his third hand Ford Prefect 100E was a small car with unmovable seats, and he had a bad back. He had offered to drive Rose home at closing time, even though it was out of his way and he had taken the scenic route, along the coast road, where he had stopped near enough to the sea to hear the waves and the wind. Then he put his large, cigarette-stained hand on her knee.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what to do,’ Rose had whispered, longing for ‘knowing’ to not matter.
‘Just do what comes naturally,’ Percy had replied working hard not to sigh.
None of this comes naturally, thought Rose, along with, why do you still have your coat on?, and, where did I put my other glove?
She went straight to bed when she got home, and when she got undressed she noticed her tights were ripped so she hid them at the bottom of her chest of drawers so she wouldn’t see them in the morning.
‘We didn’t actually do it, not properly. Not really,’ Rose told her disapproving sister a few weeks later after finding out she was pregnant.
‘You have to marry him,’ said her sister, a respectable woman married to a bank clerk, who aspired to home ownership and feared that any association with a fallen woman could affect her husband’s career prospects.
‘He hasn’t asked me.’
‘The bastard,’ said her sister, who was called Ruby but wished she wasn’t because she thought it made her sound like a barmaid, even though she actually worked part-time in a shoe shop and had been one of the first people she knew to own Tupperware.
But Rose’s path to the maternity ward didn’t matter remotely after the doctor had delivered his verdict.
‘He has the wrong sort of blood,’ he’d said, or at least that is what she heard.
‘Change it,’ Rose told him, but he shook his head.
‘If only it were that easy,’ he mumbled.
Francis was in the intensive care unit, yet Rose could still hear him from the ward she was recovering on. A rhythmic scream, as if the new-born breathed in fire and expelled it as loudly as he could on the fourth beat of every burning bar. The new mothers, who shared the ward with her, held their own children closer and, out of pity or shame or superstition, tried not to look at her. Rose listened to Francis, waiting for him to stop screaming and be brought to her, she was too afraid to sleep, in case it was only her listening that was keeping him alive, she swore a thousand times that once he was, she would never let him go. After four days of listening, Rose was told she should go home.
Back at the house Rose sat in the kitchen, trying to make sense of what was happening whilst making silent deals with God. I’ll never ask for anything else, she begged, just let him live. She shared a council house with Percy and her widowed stepfather in a village called Birchington. They lived beside a field and on a main road. It had three bedrooms and she had painted the smallest white for when she brought her baby home.
Percy stayed out of the house until closing time and when he came home he crept up the stairs to a bedroom that Rose did not even visit. He was usually drunk and slept late. By the time he was awake the next day Rose had gone back to the hospital.
Her stepfather never spoke to Percy. He was a short, stocky man who had spent the last thirty years loading crates of fruit into a lorry and unloading it at various shops in Kent. There was always fruit in the house, sometimes of a type that Rose couldn’t identify. He knew that there were no words to be said, so instead he would occasionally leave a cup of tea for her on the Formica table, where it would be left to go cold.
‘What if he doesn’t come home, Dad?’ she said distractedly.
‘He will,’ he said, ‘I know he will.’
Rose sat outside the ward where her son still screamed. Four days after she had been discharged, on a gloomy overcast Wednesday, she sensed the screaming had become less frequent, quieter, and she wondered if that was because there was less fight or less life left in the child, she concentrated with all of her might on the sound he made. It is life, she decided, I will him to scream.
Late in the afternoon Percy arrived and announced that he had registered the birth and named the child Francis, despite the fact that he and Rose had agreed that if they had a boy, he would be called Michael. He smelt of beer and she felt a rush of contempt for him then that would never leave her.
It took two more days for the screaming to stop, but stop it did. Rose gripped her hands together so tightly that her nails broke the skin and she stared at the entrance to the ward and begged her God to let her son be alive. Before she had come to the hospital that day she had watched her father limp off to work, he was old now, waiting to retire, his back hurt, his knees hurt, take him, take my father not my son, she had thought and then felt instantly ashamed, not least for imagining that God ran a part-exchange franchise and that someone like her would be allowed to shop there, but also because wishing someone else’s life away was wicked, and she was afraid God might punish her for that. Then she thought, take my son’s father, and she didn’t feel ashamed for that; rather she thought, Percy should offer that sacrifice himself, that is what fathers should do.
When the Ward Sister came out, Rose saw something approaching hope in her expression.
‘He appears to have turned a corner,’ she said. ‘He appears settled, the doctors say he is improving, they say the worst is over. He wants to live,’
Rose thanked the Sister and she thanked her God, choosing not to dwell on how the wrong blood could so quickly become the right blood and as she made her way to see her baby she set about thanking every person she saw between the entrance to the ward and the tiny cot her baby lay in. Part of her continued to thank the world every day for the rest of her life and in keeping with the private bargaining she had done with her God as she had waited, never asked the world for anything again.
When she finally stepped into the ward Rose saw a sleeping baby who had sneaked through a crack in the universe to get to her. He was not red now, not angry, not in pain, and Rose was allowed to stroke his hair and slip her finger into his small perfect hands. ‘I will keep you safe,’ she whispered to the yellow bundle of exhausted flesh. It was her job to keep him alive now, to protect him and guard against any future assault. Rose had purpose and she planned to build her whole life around it.
When she was told that she had to leave, she went home and gave the news to her father, who grinned and said, ‘I told you, see, I told you.’ Then she went to the telephone box on the corner of the street and called her sister, who said in a flat tone, ‘well that’s good news. At least you can relax now.’ Back at the house she sat at the kitchen table and sipped at the cup of steaming tea her father had made for her. Then she wondered where Percy was.
Percy came home two hours later. He still smelt of beer and when he cried, she couldn’t tell if it was the sentimental tears of the drunk or the only expression available to the emotionally illiterate plumber who had been the first and only man she had kissed. He proposed to her that evening and she wondered if a proposal from a man who smelt of beer still counted, but she said yes anyway, thinking that given the fragile hold her son had on the earth, she must never do anything that might even slightly unsettle the natural order or expectation of things. And besides, she had promised to make sacrifices; perhaps this was the first.