"I hope he's not scarred for life," she says as she brushes her hair in the bathroom.
"What?" He joins her in there.
"Shagging with the baby in the room. Hope it doesn't, you know, send him into an emotional tailspin, turn him into a sociopath."
He knows she's exaggerating. "There's nothing more natural and right," he says. "Plus, he's just a baby. He doesn't know anything but you and me, eating, sleeping, and sullying nappies." He comes up behind her and nuzzles her neck. "And he won't be sleeping in our room forever."
He catches a glimpse of a smile in the mirror. This leads him to study the two of them as he might from an outsider's point of view, and he likes what he sees.
"What is it?"
"Those," he says, nodding in the direction of the mirror, "are some happy people."
She laughs, turns, and hugs him, kissing him just by his ear.
He realises there's been a devastating oversight on his part, one that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. He can be forgiven though, as his attention has been diverted by four and a half kilograms of squirming, giggling, demanding responsibility. He resolves to phone his mother as soon as possible and ask her if she'll finally part with a certain other family heirloom, and if so, could she bring it for their Christmas visit.
When he does call in secret as she's feeding Aaron, his mother informs him she would be all too delighted.
They've already declared that they do not want material things lavished upon them for the holidays. As far as they are concerned, they have everything that they need. The presents they choose for their family and friends, ordered from online outlets for direct delivery, are thoughtful and austere, tokens of genuine affection and appreciation for everything done for them over the course of the last year. They even agree to send a little something to Daniel.
This declaration against too much gift-giving, however, does not stop him from spending perhaps a little too much on a present for her, a platinum necklace, a locket, into which he has a small photo of Aaron placed on one side and one of himself on the other. On the back he has them engrave an excerpt from Shakespeare's Sonnet 75:
You are to my thoughts as food to life.
He thinks it completely appropriate, given the circumstances of his confinement.
Despite their requests, they are almost literally snowed in, by way of post and personal visits, with gifts for the baby. They are quite touched by such a show of generosity. It's Bridget who suggests donating the excess to children's charities.
Their parents arrive in time for dinner on Christmas Eve. It is not a fancy 'do; casual-to-the-extreme shepherd's pie and Irish coffee with which to relax afterwards, except for Bridget, who has drinking chocolate. Mark has already taken care of purchasing the supplies needed to make Christmas dinner the next day. This was done at the behest of both of their mothers, who insisted vehemently that they would prepare dinner. Mark secretly thinks they can't bear the idea of Christmas dinner done in a way they considered improper, and while Bridget's cooking has definitely improved, the story of blue soup, orange marmalade and lost tuna steaks was all too fresh in their minds.
With a smirk, his mother manages to slyly slip to him what he had asked her to bring.
When their parents go to bed for the night—a difficult task as all four of them did not want to be parted from the baby, who was up far later than usual—he has Bridget alone at last. He returns from checking to make sure their parents have everything they need, that the baby is still sleeping too, to find she is standing by the tree, mesmerised by the fairy lights; he knows the tree, the lights and the other holiday decorations represent stability, tradition and comfort to her. Mark and Bridget won't stay there long, because they don't like to be away from Aaron's side. He puts his arm around her shoulders and kisses her on the top of head.
"That went well," he says.
"It did," she replies, leaning into him, putting her own arm around him. "I'm a bit knackered, though, and tomorrow will be a long day."
"You don't have to cook," he reminds, "and your mother will have her way with the gravy."
She chuckles. "You mean your mother doesn't have fanatical tendencies regarding gravy?"
"I think she's a stirrer," he says.
"Well," she murmurs. "It was meant to be, then."
He smiles crookedly to himself. "Yes, I believe she thinks so too, or she never would have let me give this to you."
"Don't say 'what', Bridget." He's got his hand in his pocket, pulls out the heirloom ring, holds it up. "Say 'yes' again."
At once she's got tears in her eyes as she holds out her left hand, which is trembling slightly, and he slips the beautiful silver ring onto the fourth finger. It fits as if made for her.
"God, it's beautiful," she says, examining it closely, her fingernail tracing over the scrollwork encircling the gems. "I don't know what to say except 'yes' again."
He smiles. "Good," he says, then teases, "Well, that takes a load off my mind."
She smirks, wiping the tears from her face. "As if there were any other answer to that question."
"Oh, right," he says. "I do have carte blanche, after all."
It's a joy to sleep in the next day a little, even if it is Christmas Day. Aaron only wakes once during the night, and Mark is able to sneak her wrapped gift under the tree then bring breakfast to Bridget in bed, muesli and drinking chocolate. When Aaron awakes, after changing, feeding and dressing him they dress themselves and head downstairs.
Dinner preparation is in full swing, and the smell of roast turkey absolutely penetrates the main floor. The grandfathers are caught placing and arranging wrapped gifts (far more than necessary) under the tree, and react like children caught nicking a biscuit when Mark and Bridget (carrying Aaron) enter the room. "Well, he is the first grandchild," says Colin Jones with a pleased grin. "Forgive us for going a bit overboard."
Mark notices there are quite a few gifts for the two of them as well.
"Plus, you know, there are so many things to be grateful for and celebrate," Colin adds as Bridget hands Aaron over to him. Aaron's gotten very good with holding his head upright all on his own, and looks around and at the decorated tree with unmitigated delight.
Mark nods in agreement.
Dinner gets to the point where things just need time to finish cooking, so the grandmothers join the little party and it's decided then that the gift exchange should occur. Malcolm plays Father Christmas and doles gifts out according to nametag. Mark's not sure, but he thinks the smallest person there has the largest pile. He and Bridget share a smile.
While there is destined to be no fighting over gravy preparation, there is a bit of tension because there is only one grandchild, after all, and four grandparents. Even Pam Jones can tell that it's getting to her daughter, though, and Pam eventually relents, smiles, and hands Aaron to Elaine. Nearly two months old now, Aaron's absolutely loving all of the attention and cuddles.
Malcolm hands Bridget the box that Mark knows to be her locket, and she screws up her face then shoots Mark a querulous look. He feigns innocence, then smiles. Within a few moments, Malcolm sets a gift down before him that is very obviously from her. He grins. They had agreed not to buy gifts for each other, but had known even as he said it that he couldn't go without buying something special for her; it is their first Christmas together, after all.
And though he had told her that being free from his captivity, having her as his bride-to-be and being blessed with a beautiful child was gift enough for him, in his heart he knew better than to think she hasn't gotten him some token of her affection. He wasn't wrong.
After the final gifts are distributed, Aaron is placed in his seat, from which he has a broad view of the room. He looks from movement to movement with great interest. They leisurely begin unwrapping their gifts one at a time; Aaron dozes and Pam flits away on occasion to check on the bird in the oven. When Bridget gets to her last gift, the one from Mark that she's saved for the end, her eyes go a little moist even before she unwraps it.
"It's not the ring," quips his mother with a smile and a pointed look to Bridget's hand, "so I can't imagine what it is…"
The others smile too. The engagement had been no secret, and obviously Elaine has told them about, showed them, the ring.
In a manner very unlike her, Bridget carefully peels the sellotape back, then takes off the paper. "Oh, gosh," she gasps as he sees his attempt to camouflage has worked, and it's only now she's noticed that within the box is a smaller clamshell jewellery display box. She lifts it up, flips it open on the hinge, gasps again to see what is waiting for her in there. With a single finger she lifts the silky chain, then grasps the heart-shaped locket between her thumb and forefinger. "Oh," she says once more; tears spill down onto her cheeks. She opens the locket, reads the engraving on the back, then meets his eyes before letting wrapping paper and boxes alike fall from her lap as she rises to lean and throw her arms around Mark.
"Do you like it?" he asks tenderly, and somewhat redundantly.
"I love it," she sobs. "I can have my two boys so close to my heart."
"Oh good." He's not surprised, but is pleased all the same.
"Let's have a look," says Pam Jones; Bridget gently pushes away and as she dries her cheeks off with a swipe she gives the necklace over. Even Pam can't hold in tears, and offers him a weepy smile. "Just beautiful."
He then turns to his own gift from her, slips off the paper. It is not at all what he expected.
He has no idea when she had the opportunity to have this photo taken, but she must have because it's a picture he's never seen before of her, hair down and softly curled, holding a joyous Aaron as she looks at him with affection, with pure love. The frame she's put it in is gorgeous and silver, and the bottom has engraving of its own.
We've only just begun; the best is yet to come.
"It's for your office, when you're back to work."
They'll never be far from his mind, the loves of his life, but he is very grateful he'll have something to rest his eyes on when he needs to retreat to a place of happiness. A smile finds his lips and he looks to her. She looks very smug to have made his eyes gloss over with emotion.
"When will we have a family portrait?" asks Pam; he expects that if his mother wasn't so keen to have one for herself, she might have reprimanded Pam.
"As soon as I'm looking a bit healthier," says Mark. He's almost there physically. In his mind, in his spirit, he's more than healed.
"I almost forgot, one more gift," says Elaine, glancing to Malcolm. They exchange a knowing glance before she rises from the sofa and goes to her handbag. Out comes an envelope.
"Right," says Pam, going for hers. A second envelope is produced.
This is something that had obviously been pre-planned between their families. Mark is completely confused, and Bridget looks equally so.
The mothers hand their envelopes to their respective children.
Bridget opens hers first. It's a voucher for two for a weekend at a bed and breakfast in the country. "We know it's winter, and the baby's still young," said Pam, "but if anyone needs a weekend away from it all, it's you two."
"We'll even come down and watch him for you," says Colin. "We all will."
It's a very gracious offer, and while he agrees in principle, he's not sure either of them could truly relax separated from their little one, but he's also sure they'll try given their generosity, and Aaron would be in good hands, after all. "Thank you," she says.
Mark then slips his fingernail under the flap of his envelope. He draws his brows together, trying to work out what it is he's seeing. Logically he knows what it is, but it seems somehow incongruous to see the paper is emblazoned with the name AARON MARK DARCY in a tidy engraver-style typeface.
"This is—" he begins, not knowing how to finish. Too generous. Unexpected. Amazing and appreciated.
"What is it?" Bridget asks, craning to have a look.
"A trust for Aaron," he says quietly.
She blinks rapidly; he knows how she feels about that part of a society he had once blithely taken part of, populated primarily by too-thin harpies with sticks up their backsides and balding upper middle class twits.
"For uni someday," Mark adds.
"More than just that—for his financial security," adds Malcolm, puffing proudly. "It isn't much to start with, but you can contribute to it as well, and the sooner these things get started, the better, I've always said."
The amount with which they've seeded it is by no means insignificant and it will only continue to increase with time. He doesn't know what to say.
"I believe we've rendered him speechless," says Elaine, grinning proudly.
"Indeed," he says, looking at each of them in turn, his eyes getting decidedly misty. "Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart."
Adds Bridget, "And mine—"
Before she can finish, Aaron begins wailing at the top of his lungs. Bridget's off the sofa and to his side like a shot, which prompts her mother to rise as well, first to see if she can help, then with a mild curse of "Godfathers!" Pam hurries out of the room and down to the kitchen, undoubtedly for some forgotten timer.
There are many other assorted small gifts—books, slippers, DVDs and the like—and while Bridget takes Aaron up for a feeding, they spend a little more time looking through their respective gifts. Mark is particularly pleased to see his parents reading the inserts on the classic film discs he'd given to them. He rises, excuses himself, and goes to see how things are with the baby.
She's rocking him in the chair, nursing him, and singing softly to him; it takes him a moment to realise the song she's crooning is Madonna's "Crazy for You"; when he does it makes him chuckle. "Happy Christmas, love," he says, bending to kiss her, then to kiss the baby's head.
Aaron falls to sleep, finishing his feeding, so she puts him in the bassinet for a proper nap and switches on the baby monitor they've tested but haven't had a chance to use, then they head downstairs. As they rejoin her father and his parents, Pam enters and announces it's time to eat.
Quickly Mark and his mother lay out the dining room table as the others bring the food. They haven't gotten too fancy; it's just traditional Christmas dishes. Aside from the roast turkey and the vegetables—parsnips and Brussels sprouts—there are potatoes and chestnut stuffing, not to mention a steaming vat of gravy, which Pam is obviously pleased to present as having been unadulterated by a sieve.
It is a very fine meal indeed in the greatest of English traditions. They all eat slowly, enjoying both the food and the conversation, which is light and yet stimulating. Mark realises that his ability to finish off a full plate of food must be counted as great progress indeed. He also indulges himself in a glass of wine. It makes his head swirl a little, but it's a pleasant swirl.
After they finish eating, Colin and Malcolm declare they will clear the table and bring up dessert. Bridget is distrustful of the baby monitor technology and says she's going to go see how he is. Elaine decides to join her. Mark stands to stretch. Pam, collecting the wineglasses for the next round of dish gathering, approaches him with outstretched arms. The perfume she's wearing assaults his nose as she gives him a big hug. He returns it, though is puzzled by the sudden show of affection; she is not usually the hugging kind. "I'm not really sure I ever really got to tell you how good it is you're back," she says softly, "and I mean that for all the ways in which you're back."
He chuckles deep in his throat then plants a kiss on her cheek. Pam Jones had never made any secret of the fact that she wanted to make a match of him for her Bridget. He will be forever thankful that she just happened to be right.
Dessert appears, a steamed pudding with brandy sauce, as well as an electric kettle full of hot water for tea, though Mark cannot conceive of indulging just yet. Bridget returns with Aaron in her arms, alert and smiling. "He's just too excited to sleep, I think."
"Well, that's what Christmas Day is all about," says Pam.
Mark thinks she is one hundred percent right.
Their parents will be leaving after breakfast on Boxing Day. Aaron's asleep in his bassinet, and Bridget's already under the covers, lying on her side with her cheek on her pillow. When he comes in from their bathroom, she looks up at him; she smiles as he slips under the sheets. Immediately she embraces him, gives him a big kiss.
"This was a very good day," she says, bringing her nails up to comb through his hair.
"This is a very good life," he murmurs, holding her to him. The horror of the desert seems like it happened to another man in a lifetime. He vows he will never take what he has for granted. "I keep resisting the urge to pinch myself."
She giggles. "I could do it for you."
"You could do anything for me," he says, "and I would be a very happy man."
"Do I have carte blanche as well?"
"Absolutely and completely," he says, kissing her, wondering how quickly they could pull together a wedding, because he wants to do so as soon as is feasible. They'd wanted to have an all-encompassing party after Christmas, anyway; he thinks it may as well be a reception. He resolves to ask his mother in the morning.
Her question startles him. "What?"
"Don't say 'what', darling, say 'pardon'," she teases, pecking him with another kiss. "When shall we get married?"
He doesn't know whether he said something without realising, if she's psychic, or they're just on the same wavelength. It doesn't really matter. "Would it be completely cliché to suggest Valentine's Day?"
"Not at all," she says. "Or as I shall think of it from now on: Aaron Conception Day."
At this he chuckles.
As she settles into his arms for sleep, her breath warm as it races across his skin, he ponders that it was only just shy of a year ago that he turned up on her doorstep, that she accepted him into her arms, her life, and her bed; that despite so little time together and how different she was from him, he had known so quickly that she was the only one he would ever want; that something so horrific, something he would not wish even on his worst enemy, was what turned out to be the catalyst for reuniting them and for lasting happiness.
He asks, his voice a little throaty, "Bridget, do you mind, with your parents so close?"
"Do I mind what?" she asks drowsily.
"If I show you exactly how much I love you?"
She opens her eyes and looks at him. She knows exactly what he means, evidenced by the slight smirk on her lips. "Carte blanche, Mark."
Then she kisses him thoroughly.