The Favour, a short story by Clare O’Dea
This month’s Hennessy New Irish Writing winning story explores the hidden cost in giving a great gift
I don’t know why the name bothered me so much. Each to his own and all that. I’d be the first to admit Gavin and I pushed the nationalist boat out a bit when we were choosing names for our little heroes. I suppose I thought they’d come up with something Indian, for Sunil’s family. That would have been nice, appropriate. I did google Indian girls’ names at one point but resisted the temptation to draw up a list. Not my place.
Keeping the name secret meant a lot to my sister and that was understandable. Naming is claiming, after all. We were the same with the boys, always kept the name and the sex secret. You want to have something to announce. But I wish now that Leona had tried it out on me first.
Gavin kept telling me I was handling everything so well. The truth is I was happy. Finally I had rescued my life from oblivion. The wrangling with personnel over the maternity leave might have left a weaker woman feeling unsure but I knew my rights and stood firm. My other colleagues were too embarrassed or confused to say anything, thankfully. That left only the busybodies.
There’s an end-of-discussion smile I have mastered for such occasions. I already had it down pat when I was pregnant with Parnell. Let them make their quip about trying for a girl, or “you have your hands full there”, but once they see the smile they back off.
We told Mum when it was already a fait accompli. Leona and I were a great double act that day. We had decided to leave the men out of it, so Gavin and Sunil took the boys off to the beach for the afternoon.
Mum knew something was up when she saw the two of us arriving together. She opened the door in her painting clothes, a spray of fine white flecks on the bridge of her nose like reverse freckles.
“I won’t hug you, girls,” she said, standing back to let us in.
We trailed after her into the conservatory and allowed her to fuss about with cups and saucers as if we were real visitors. At last Mum spread a sheet over one of the wicker armchairs and sat down.
Leona asked how she was and we listened patiently to Mum’s DIY update. Mum always answered a query about her wellbeing with exhaustive news of her activities – her latest trip into town, a new farmer’s market she had discovered, the photography course she was taking. It was hard to wrestle the mic back from her.
“There’s something we’ve been meaning to tell you,” I began. Mum placed her teacup down and sat back with her hands clasped. Her gaze skipped back and forth between us, the only sign of anxiety.
We’d been spending a fair bit of time on surrogacy discussion boards, Leona and I, so we were able to throw all the reassuring counterarguments at her before she got started.
She heard us out and took a long, thin breath through her nose, hands clasped a little tighter on her lap, probably concentrating hard on not looking impressed.
“I don’t care what the world thinks, if that’s what you’re wondering.” She paused. “It’s just that people can be funny about babies. What I mean is, women can be funny.”
Leona and I exchanged a look of exasperation. Not this old line.
Mum narrowed her eyes. “I have one question for you both. You’ve never had a perfect relationship, so why this? Maeve, why are you doing this for your sister? Leona, why are you asking this of your sister?”
My answer was not without pride: “Because I can. I can do this for her, Mum – make the impossible possible – and I want to.”
Leona came in right on cue. “You know how much Sunil and I want to have children. Maeve’s answer is my answer. I could only ask this of someone I love.”
Well, that set Mum off and the moment ended beautifully with the three of us dabbing our eyes and doing the shoulder squeeze that passes for a hug in our family. I got some paint on my jeans and joked that I wouldn’t fit into them soon so it didn’t matter. That got a laugh.
Later that afternoon, when we had drifted into reminiscing about Dad, Mum told us a story about his brother Eamon. When Eamon was a few months old, Dad’s mother, Margaret, became very ill with pleurisy, complicated by mastitis. She was unable to get out of bed for weeks and the baby was sent to her sister-in-law to be cared for. Margaret’s convalescence was very slow, with relapses, and all she could do on a good day was direct the older children of the household in what to do from the settee.
Weeks turned into months and all that time, the sister-in-law, who lived not more than 10 miles away and whose husband had a van, did not come to visit with Eamon. She would phone every Friday with a new excuse. The baby had a cold, she had visitors, her husband needed help with the stocktaking. At first the baby’s father Michael did not protest about Eamon’s absence. He agreed with the unspoken notion that a visit might upset the child but he gradually came to realise that his wife’s suffering was intensified by the absence of the baby and he worried that she might not get better without him.
But it proved to be no simple matter to get the sister-in-law to return Eamon. Her girls were away at secondary school and after five months mothering him she was madly in love with the little fellow. After many excuses and delays, Michael had to conspire with his brother to spirit the baby out of the house while the sister-in-law was busy. Michael was waiting in the lane in a borrowed car with Dad, the eldest, who was then 11 years old. Eamon returned home on his brother’s lap in the passenger seat, perfectly content amid the great entertainment provided by the journey.
The first thing Margaret did was have the child washed and changed into the clothes she had prepared. She did not want to smell the other house off him, she said. Little Eamon, who was at the stage of pulling up, surprised everyone by not making strange. He stood guard over his mother until she got better and they were inseparable ever after. She made sure of that.
It was a pertinent story for us; Mum didn’t have to labour the point. But she never mentioned her reservations again and for the rest of my pregnancy feigned the same level of polite interest as she had the previous three times.
I came close to cracking the day we told the children. Emmet looked at me strangely and I realised he was judging me for the first time, and not favourably. Parnell started to cry when it was clarified that he was missing his one and only chance to graduate from little brother to big brother. Pearse just shrugged and pulled away. He didn’t want to hear the explanations because the subject didn’t interest him. I know he’s only seven, but Christ.
Of course I love my imperfect sons beyond measure, but will there ever come a day when they wake up and wonder how I am, how I feel, how something affects me? I do recognise self-pity when I see it. Mea culpa.
Every pregnancy is different and throughout this one I felt invincible. I started calling her girl, and I liked her company and she liked mine. She was light and agile and no trouble at all. You’re no trouble at all, girl, I would whisper when the boys were tumbling around, half killing each other. The impatience I felt before the boys were due just wasn’t there. I was unusually serene and Gavin was a bit worried, I could see that.
But the day came, as it always does, and it took a while to get over the shock of how beautiful she was. We’d gone for the section because it would all be less dramatic and the new parents could plan their time off. But I’d never asked how long the procedure would take and I’d hardly got my bearings of the ceiling in the operating room before the obstetrician was making the cut. Gavin and Sunil had to wait outside; I wanted it that way. Only Leona could be allowed to see me trussed up like that.
The medical people were all wearing masks and everywhere I turned I saw curious eyes looking at me. Over Leona’s mask her eyes shone with excitement.
In the end convention won out and they showed the baby to me first when she was wrapped and ready. Gloved hands held her perfect, heart-shaped little face up to me and we observed each other for a few seconds respectfully before she was swept away again. Leona left her tears on my cheek when she kissed me, and then she was gone too, and it seemed to take an awfully long time for me to be stitched up in embarrassed silence.
Leona and Sunil had arranged a private room for me and I was glad of that. I was put on the ward with the late miscarriages and stillbirths where echoes of exhausted sobbing hung in the air.
I lay in bed fighting the hormones and talking myself down from a euphoria that didn’t belong to me. Gavin stopped in for a while looking a bit stricken. When he was safely reassured I sent him back to the boys. Mum said she wouldn’t come until all the fuss had died down. After a rest and tea and toast, they came in.
Sunil was carrying the baby and the two of them were trembling, literally trembling with joy, and perhaps trepidation. He handed her over. Girl was sleeping and I held the light bundle against my heart and inhaled the scent from the top of her head.
“You have a beautiful daughter,” I said and made a little speech, repeating the word “happy” too often. Leona took my free hand and thanked me the way a pilgrim would thank a healer.
“We’ve named her Judith,” Sunil said.
If there is one thing I am certain of, girl was never meant to be a Judith.
And that’s when it hit me. Until that moment I had been central and essential to this bold undertaking, the leading lady, if you will, but I had reached the point where my part was cut.
The naming decision and every other decision they would ever make for her in the future stretched before me like an endless line of falling dominoes. I would never have any say. It had appealed to me to be the woman who carried a child for her sister. Who gets to have a memorable epitaph like that? But, distracted by the brightness of my big sacrifice, I had neglected to think about the smaller sacrifices, the lesser stars. That night I cried like the best of them. The giving wasn’t over, it had only just begun.