The ninth entry of our Top 20 Undiscovered Shortlist is Occupied by Neal Doran.
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Over to Neal Doran...
Rebecca and James are pregnant.
As Rebecca’s head fills with dreams of ice-cream and pregnancy yoga, and James actually looks forward to nursery shopping at IKEA, they thought reports of a first grandchild would be the biggest surprise of Christmas. Rebecca’s dad trumped them though, with the news of his arrest -- for cottaging in a tube station toilet.
A pillar of his conservative community, Howard is denying the charges and is pursuing a publicity campaign to clear his name -- a campaign that’s boosted through an unlikely alliance with James's hippy-ish parents and their long history of loudly defending lost causes.
His parents’ talk of organising sit-ins and protest songs for Howard remind James of what it was like to be a child growing up in a house where there was always a cause more important than him, and leaves him doubting he’ll know how to be a good father. And he can’t even talk to Rebecca about it, as a scandal in his own past is threatening his future now.
Rebecca doesn’t know what to believe, and what it means about her dad if the charges are true. It’s almost as bewildering to her as her mum, Penny, who seems more concerned about Rebecca’s old baby clothes making a comeback than her husband’s sexuality and fidelity.
Through confronting their family's exposed vulnerabilities -- and admitting their own fears about the baby on the way -- can the couple face up to the fact that parents are people too?
READ THE FIRST 3000 WORDS OF OCCUPIED OVER THE CUT
Occupied by Neal Doran
‘Well at least the date means the anniversary will be easy to remember,’ James said.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘25 December 2011. The day the romance died. Still, five years, four months and 17 days was a good run.’
‘Oh give over,’ Rebecca replied, ‘I was bursting. Now look away, I’m finishing.’
‘Although even without the romance there’s something about seeing you with your knickers around your ankles...’
‘Shut up and turn around, we’re running late as it is.’
‘I don’t need much time,’ he said, a mouth full of toothpaste.
Rebecca watched as he continued brushing his teeth, and making a big deal of looking away -- staring at the bathroom doorframe, whistling, and occasionally feinting as if he was about to turn around. She grabbed the toilet roll from the top of the cistern, and noticed those cobwebs above the door must have been there for months.
‘And it’s five years, 4 months and 15 days actually,’ she said over the cranky flush, ‘And I saw you wee in the first six months when we went for a ramble in the countryside after a pub lunch.’
‘I remember that walk,’ he said. ‘Did we..?’
‘No. There was a creepy looking guy with his dogs sniffing around everywhere, and I didn’t want to get grass stains on my skirt. And you freaked me out talking about how the creepy guy’s dogs were probably picking up the scent of a murder victim who’d been buried out in the woods.’
‘Ah yeah. You never were much of a country gal.’
She squeezed between him and the shower cubicle and slid her hands into the sink, where he was standing, dabbing dots of her Bright Eyes hydrating crème on the circles under his eyes.
‘Oh really?’ she answered, ‘And who was it that spent half the walk and the entire drive home complaining about getting dog shit on his shoes, Mr One-with-Nature?’
‘Cor, I remember. I loved those trainers. They were virtually brand new then. I should dig them out -- I’ve still got them somewhere.’
‘No you don’t. I threw them out.’
‘Three years ago. They were making the wardrobe smell.’
‘Bloody dog shit.’
‘It wasn’t the dog shit.’
‘Are you sure it’s 15 days?’
‘Anniversary’s the 10th.’
He stared at the ceiling through the mirror while he muttered days quietly to himself, and his thumb counted off his fingers.
‘6th, 7th, 8th... Aha! No, you’re wrong it’s...Actually, no you’re right, you’re right. 16 days to go.’
‘Just as well you haven’t got a job that needs you to be good with numbers.’
‘Ha. Ha,’ he said, his arms around her waist as he stretched to reach a towel. ‘It’s this sort of squabbling we’ll be learning to live with now the romance has gone, eh?’
‘I. Was. Desperate,’ she said, poking a finger into his chest with every word, ‘and we haven’t got any time...’
‘I understand, I understand. It’s your condition. I just thought we had maybe a few more months of carefree unencumbered bliss...’
When had her life become so much about taking a piss? Rebecca wondered to herself. A couple of weeks or so before Christmas, she’d been in their cramped, desperately in need of a renovation bathroom, trying not to pee on her fingers while she manoeuvred a plasticky stick in place. She wanted to make sure she got it while ‘in midstream’ as recommended by the box. She could hear James outside, pacing across the rug on the landing, over the creaky floorboards to the window in the spare room – soon not to be spare room – and then back again. He’d wanted to come in with her then, but she hadn’t let him. The plan had been she’d take the test, get herself back looking composed and presentable, and he’d come in and they’d wait for the results to become clear together.
Before she’d gone in he had studied the box carefully, reading all the instructions about what to do and when, and the small print about accuracy. She could hear him going over the possible outcomes as he paced, making sure he had it clear in his head what was a positive result. He’d wanted to get the digital version with a display spelling out the answer, but then if he’d had to do the test he’d have wanted one with sound effects, and maybe some kind of target to aim for that would tell you the accuracy of your shooting. She guessed they were getting a measure of that now anyway.
The test was lying on the basin while she washed her hands. Results in two minutes they reckoned. James had said something about the possibility there’d be a faint line, and you might have to wait longer. Maybe the digital version would have been a good idea after all. She’d told herself she wasn’t pregnant, she didn’t feel it. Or whatever it was she had been feeling that wasn’t quite right was just the nerves of worrying about whether she might be. Not that she didn’t want to be – she really did – but they hadn’t really started trying yet. The idea was still largely hypothetical. She wasn’t even sure there’d definitely been a time when it could have happened, with her cycle and everything, and it can take months anyway, even when using all those hormone level tests, and they were a bit away from that stage just yet.
No, she wasn’t pregnant she told herself. She just wasn’t sure whether she was going to be relieved or disappointed when she got the confirmation.
She’d dried her hands and was about to open the door when she took a quick glance down at the predictor. She was pretty sure it hadn’t been two minutes, but there were blue lines, bold as anything, one going up, one going straight across.
James was still pacing and she could hear his mantra, ‘Minus means you’ve not done it enough, but if it’s a plus then you’re up the duff.’
She stood there for a few seconds with her hand on the door, before she flicked the latch to see her husband.
‘So you’re still OK about telling your parents, then?’ he shouted over the noise of her hairdryer.
‘I don’t know, maybe we should keep it to ourselves a bit longer. Early days, and we don’t know...’
‘We’re going to be fine. But we can leave it. It’s your mum’s birthday in a month and we’ll have had a scan then -- we can show them pictures. Your dad loves a slide presentation.’
‘God, I can’t leave it that long,’ she said, slumping down onto the bed. ‘And I’m no good at lying to mum. She’ll spot something’s up and then I’ll crack and tell her, and then as soon as we’re gone she’ll crack and tell dad.’
‘It’s going to be bloody obvious the second you step through the door and don’t head straight for the booze.’
She gave him a blast of hot air from her dryer as he bent over his neatly arranged bedside cabinet drawer, to collect his carefully laid out watch, wallet and phone.
‘Steady...’ he slightly yelped as he jumped upright.
‘A sober Christmas with my parents.’ Rebecca slumped even further and looked ruefully at the chest of drawers.
‘Sober for you maybe. I’m the man bringing them their first grandchild. I’ll be on the good stuff.’
‘I’m going to be spending the next nine months driving you home from everywhere pissed aren’t I?’
‘Yes, you are. I’m thinking I might start keeping some cans in the glove box.’
He gave her shoulders a squeeze as he walked past her at the end of the bed. ‘It’s going to be great, isn’t it? Telling someone?’
She beamed up at him. ‘It’ll be fantastic.’
‘You don’t feel too nervous or anything?’
‘No. No, it’s going to be good. Mum is going to dehydrate within minutes.’
‘We’ll bring tissues and bottled water. Your dad’s going to explode. He’ll be trumpeting around the house, singing his songs, telling me it’s about time...’
Rebecca shuddered slightly. ‘No more “Haven’t you got my daughter pregnant yet then?” jokes, thank God. Like he spent a lot of time thinking about our sex life.’
‘He’s just enthusiastic about things. He’ll be all about pregnancy now, asking about your discharges.’
‘James! Yuk...’ she said, squirming on the edge of the bed, ‘And he won’t anyway. He’s a results man, he’ll just want to know when it’s due, and start nagging me if it’s late.’
‘And speaking of being late...I’ll be down in the car. I’ve loaded up the presents.’
James headed downstairs, taking them two at a time, to check all the doors and windows were locked, before heading for the car. It was the best Christmas he’d ever had, all the more exciting for thinking how much cooler still the next one was going to be. A proper family Christmas, and he’d even get his parents to celebrate it next year.
The morning had been spent in bed opening presents with Rebecca, and talking about the future. He’d got up early and made breakfast in bed. Well, tea and toast, but with a beautifully wrapped and bowed packet of ginger nuts for Becs’ present. No morning sickness yet, but he’d thought they might be needed before long. As soon as they’d discovered they were pregnant they’d agreed they weren’t going to get each other expensive presents this year -- they were going to need to be sensible and save up. She’d got him a funny old 1950s pregnancy and parenting manual from the charity shop. He’d got her the biscuits, and a two hundred quid handbag she’d had her eye on. He’d got his shopping sorted out the first weekend of December as usual, so the money was already spent.
There’d been a heavy frost, and so even at this time of day the car’s windscreen needed clearing before they left. It was a sunny day but with the direction the house faced and how low the sun appeared at this time of year, it would barely get the chance to warm up the glass all day. He went to the kitchen to heat up a bit of water in the kettle, and while it boiled he looked around the cramped space with its low ceiling. After three years in residence, he’d finally got the hang of stooping naturally whenever he came in, to reduce the risk of braining himself on a light fixture. He felt a small swell of excitement as he thought about plans for changing the layout – shift the wine rack off the floor onto some kind of wall mount, and the high chair could go in the corner next to the breakfast table. They could all sit around on Sunday mornings reading the papers and eating rusks. The baby’s first words could be something agricultural picked up from The Archers omnibus.
There’d been nothing in his life he’d ever looked forward to more. He wasn’t sure when the change from wanting kids at some point to actually wanting kids had happened, but the last time he and Rebecca had had their hypothetical children conversation, and she’d asked ‘when?’ his answer just popped out, ‘now?’. The thing is he wasn’t sure he even liked them that much. He didn’t dislike them, and he wasn’t one of those people who tuts and sighs at the sight of them in a pub garden or Pizza Express, but he just didn’t know how to get on with a two-year-old. He was ok if they took charge though, and they often did. Being a big guy, and pretty smiley, at friends’ parties or work family days there’d usually be one cheeky toddler that’d see him as some kind of walking climbing frame, and before he knew it there’d be a mob of them piling on to him, squealing and shrieking while he pretended to be a giant. He usually quite liked it, and wasn’t unaware of how it made him look to Rebecca – the cool, modern dad.
It’d been during a weekend in Edinburgh visiting old friends of his, who’d already managed three kids in about the past five years, when it’d happened. The first day they’d been there it had been a beautiful winter’s afternoon and they’d all bundled up and gone for a walk in the park. He’d had a five year old on his shoulders, and was carrying an upside down three year old, while the baby nearly tripped him over and brought them all crashing down by tugging on his leg. Everyone was in hysterics. Then after the kids had gone down for the night they and Si and Jools had tucked into a mountain of fish and chips and wine and had a great laugh talking about how life had changed since he and Julia had been trainees together. Rebecca had come off all her contraception by that point and they were on johnnies until they made a final decision to go for it. That night, they’d figured why wait any longer? By 6am they were hungover, had a Coco Pops-fuelled five-year old bouncing on their bed, and had been woken up virtually every hour on the hour by a screaming baby who apparently was ‘a bit teethy’. They couldn’t even come out of their room to take a desperately needed slash because they could hear Si and Jools having a storming row, outside the door. It genuinely sounded like Jools was on the verge of leaving for a while. They decided they might leave it for a while longer before they started trying after all.
The kettle clicked off, and he picked up the jug and added a burst of cold water before taking it out to the car. Stretching over the windscreen he poured out a thin stream of hot water, seeing how little he could use to clear the whole screen in one pass, without any bits to go back over for maximum points. He finished his first go and saw there were a few bits he needed to give another splash, but not a bad effort. He smiled to himself as he thought about the pregnancy again. He knows it’s not a competition, or test of manliness or anything but still: he shoots, he scores! He checked the time on his watch, they were supposed to have been on the road ten minutes ago. He wondered if he’d get away with a friendly ‘hurry along’ beep of the car horn.
‘Winfield, you swine, my daughter make you late again did she?’
‘Howard! Great to see you. Merry Christmas!’ James gave Rebecca’s father a vigorous handshake while she gave her a mum a hug, before they swapped over. ‘Merry Christmas Penny, your dress looks beautiful.’
‘Thank you, dear,’ she said adjusting the collar of her outfit, ‘trip all right? I wanted Howard to call and make sure you were getting on, but I wasn’t sure who’d be driving, and he wouldn’t do it anyway. Too busy playing games on that blinkin’ phone of his...’
‘I was checking to see if your wayward son was online dear. Thought he’d be missing the smell of your sacrificial sprouts,’ Howard said with a wink, before leaning in to James’s shoulder adding ‘although those Angry Birds aren’t going to propel themselves into those green piggies are they, eh?’
James grinned back and gave Howard a pat on the back. Her dad being a slight, wiry man, watching him and James together often reminded Rebecca of watching an old lady’s Jack Russell terrier strutting about at the park bossing around a big, cheerful family Labrador.
‘Lunch smells gorgeous already Penny. Have you done your potatoes?’ asked James.
‘I did an extra tray, just for you.’
‘What a woman!’
Over the years, it had been while watching him comfortably chat away with her parents that Rebecca had got an idea of what James must be like at work. Comfortable in a formal setting, but able to be relaxed and friendly. Respectful without being fawning. He’d been able to do it since they first met, and throughout the five years since, he’d been able to effortlessly play by their rules. It was a trick she’d never mastered, either at work or with his parents – although they were a bit odd so it wasn’t entirely her fault. She was just amazed at James’s ability to be someone else in these situations. OK maybe not someone else, but not exactly the same as the man who would burp ‘I love you’ after his first bottle of beer and bag of Doritos on a Saturday-night-in in front of the telly.
And it had only taken about eight seconds for her dad to get in his first dig about her timekeeping, she thought. But these things weren’t going to bother her anymore, or at least not today. Today she was going to be a woman serenely with child, and not a stroppy teenager who they just don’t understand.
‘Toot-toot!’ James murmured in her ear with a supportive hand on her bum as they filed into the house behind her folks.