The Question

It was a blustery and cold, typical-for-London morning. I was sitting in my favourite spot in the kitchen, on the tall peacock blue bar stools and cradling my white mug of piping hot coffee. I took a small sip and peered through the blinds out to the street that lined our small development.

To my surprise, parked right across the road from my own address – were 2 dusty vans that looked like they’d been painted white several decades ago. On their side in faded red letters, the words “Barry’s movers” were barely decipherable.

“Hmmm” I thought with a smile on my lips “looks like someone’s moving into the Brown’s home” Instantly my thoughts turned to baking, and I speculated which confection I would be whipping up later that day to send over.

As I got up from the stool and made my way over to the sink to deposit my mug, I found my imagination going overboard as I wondered who the new neighbors might be. We were a small town and no one new had moved in recently. Maybe one of the other young families had outgrown their small apartment and were moving here to a bigger house with a sprawling front and back garden.

I meandered through the house picking up strewn items and depositing them in their right places. Sarah’s artwork was duly hung up and Sam’s Lego spaceship was put back in the corner of the boy’s room. As I was picking up a stray white frilly sock it suddenly hit me, this new neighbor was soon going to ask me “The Question.”

My speed picked up and school dresses were ironed with alacrity as my mind raced with possibilities. As much as I dreaded The Question, simultaneously I waited to be asked it and I had yet to find the perfect way of answering. There were so many different ways of answering. I loved answering The Question, yet people only asked it once, and generally the first time I met them. I wanted to make the most of answering to my new neighbor.

I also knew that once I answered, people generally did not reply. Their faces would blanch and they would alternate between a deep blush creeping up their cheeks or a sudden draining of the blood in their face, resulting in a pale, almost ethereal glow.

I had to get it right. To answer in a way that I felt was right, and yet not to get my new neighbor reeling in our very first conversation.

The day sped on with a mix of working on the computer, quickly prepping a simple supper and then hurrying to pick up the kids. Once they got home, I was sucked as usual into a whirlwind of supper, refereeing arguments, baths, drying tears and then blessedly, at 6.30pm (yes, I am one of those mothers) they were sleeping soundly.

As I made my way down the grey carpeted stairs, I wasn’t as tired as I usually am at this hour of the day. Instead, there was a small spring in my step. I entered the large kitchen and averted my eyes from the grand mess that greeted me, instead I focused on the tray of vanilla cupcakes that were cooling on the marble counter.

I placed them neatly on a pretty dish and then wrapped it up with cellophane and a large lemon-yellow bow. With a deep breath I picked up the arrangement and opened my front door. I walked the several steps between my home and the house with the new neighbor’s house with my heart pounding in my chest.

As I stood at the neighbor’s front door, with its peeling paint and ancient brass knocker that they’d avertedly not changed since old Mr. and Mrs. Browns days. I took a deep, very deep breath, and then I knocked on.

The door was swung open almost immediately by a woman whom I instantly liked. She was on the taller side with a ready smile. She was dressed in a casual top and long skirt, with shoulder length auburn hair. She gave me a large smile and then effusively thanked me for the cupcakes. I introduced myself and we made small talk, but I barely heard a word she was saying, it all seemed to pass over my head. Instead, I was waiting, waiting for her to finally ask The Question.

“-And I’m so relieved that we’re so near to the kids’ schools now!” She was saying, she then turned to me and I knew it was coming. I could feel it in the air. The world seemed to hold its breath, as she opened her mouth and asked The Question – “So how many kids do you have?”

No matter how many times I’m asked this question, it always throws me off. I’m always fumbling for the right words; I never have an answer. Words flitted fast through my brain and the words came out of their own accord. “Thank G-d, I have four”

But she didn’t stop there. She took it a step further “that’s adorable! How old are they?”

No matter the pain that every word was causing me, this was my favourite part of The Question. I knew that I’d regret it once I saw her response, but just for now, I was so happy to be able to answer.

Looking at her straight in the eye I replied “Aaron is 6, Sam is 4, Sarah is 2, and then, and then” here my voice faltered a bit. But I plowed on nevertheless, I wanted to continue. More than that, I desperately wanted to continue. “And then is my baby”

My new neighbor, who at this point I knew was called Claire seemed non-plussed, not yet realizing the impact of what I’d just said. “And how old is your baby?” She asked conversationally.

Never taking my eyes off her, I continued, but this time my voice was a notch lower. “He was born 3 months ago, we had 1 day with him and then he was taken to the mortuary”

Instantly she recoiled, with an audible gasp her hand flew to her mouth, as her eyes opened as wide as saucers “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I had no idea, I’m so sorry.”

I gave her a soft smile and told her that it was okay. But by now, with bright red splotches on her cheeks, Claire seemed desperate to get me away from her front door. With a few more meaningless platitudes, she closed the door as fast as was still polite and courteous.

I was left, standing alone in the fast-darkening street with only the painful beating of my heart for company.

Head down, I turned and slowly made my way across the street to my own home. My thoughts whirled a mile a minute. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe I should just have said that I had 3 kids. But deep down I knew that I’d never say that. My baby is a part of my family, even if everyone else wishes they could pretend he didn’t exist.

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