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My World

Ordinary Heroes
Helen Womack

My husband’s niece has just had a baby, a boy. Very proudly, the new father phoned up and asked us over to celebrate. Frankly, we weren’t too keen to go. The niece’s inlaws were military people, not our type, we thought. And speaking personally, I prefer children when they’ve grown out of nappies. But family duty won the day and we accepted the invitation.

We took the Metro to the end of the line and stood in the rain, waiting for the new father to pick us up in his car. He didn’t keep us waiting long.

“We’re all going to the maternity hospital together,” he beamed, “but first I’ll take you to my parents’ place.”

The dreaded military people. I expected heavy, ornate furniture, fatty sandwiches, jowly faces, booming voices.

Their three-room flat was smart and comfortable but not excessively luxurious. We sat in leather chairs while the military wife, the new grandmother, poured tea and spoke modestly about how she’d followed her husband from posting to posting all over the former Soviet Union. “I must have packed up our household and moved twelve times in all,” she said.

The new grandfather, the general himself, joined us and immediately launched into a tirade about how the Americans lectured the Russians and always sought conflict.

“Oh God, here we go,” I thought. I wanted to hold my tongue but he provoked me into arguing with him.

It was funny, though. Neither of us was arguing with much conviction. We went through the motions, then laughed, shook hands and decided to be human. We pressed our own little re-set button in mutual relations. We were all there, after all, to welcome a new soul into the world.

Grandfather and grandmother were clearly very excited. “We’ve waited a long time for this,” said grandma.

At last it was time to go to the maternity hospital. We drove in a convoy of two cars to pick up mother and baby.

The waiting room at the hospital was packed with people, all collecting newborns. They had blankets at the ready and bouquets of flowers. The atmosphere was rather like at Zags, the marriage registry office. Now the marriages had all borne fruit. From time to time, a door opened and a nurse brought out another baby to be claimed. It was a bit of a conveyor belt; 26 babies were produced each day, we were told.

On his mobile, new father rang up to the ward and learnt that our niece was still feeding the baby, so it would be a while before she appeared. Meanwhile, other families greeted their bundles, tied with pink or blue ribbons. Some new fathers were painfully young, others middle-aged and obviously experienced. The grandmothers all clucked and chuckled, then gazed in wonder.

“I held a bundle like that seven years ago; hard to believe now,” said new father’s best mate, who had come with our niece’s husband to help calm his nerves. It was a long wait.

Finally our niece emerged, looking pale but happy and showed off her baby. We gave our gift of three white roses and a toy kangaroo.

“Poor little lad,” said the general tenderly, and it wasn’t clear whether he was pitying the child for having such a grandfather as himself or more generally for coming into this world.

Back at the flat, the baby lay like a little star and slept on the bed while we repaired to the dining room for a feast of fish, meat and salads. From the head of the table, the general made the first toast, welcoming the next-but-one in line to the throne and then rather touchingly revealing that the occasion also happened to be his and his wife’s ruby wedding anniversary.

As the meal went on, the atmosphere softened further.

New father told us how he’d been present at the birth, something that wasn’t allowed in Soviet times. “It’s hard to find the words,” he said when his father pressed him to describe the experience.

New father’s best mate revealed that he was now divorced and had limited contact with the child he’d welcomed seven years ago. The separation from his kid was obviously eating at him.

The women round the table admitted that if things were wrong in relationships and society, then women were as much to blame as men. It was all very refreshing.

The general hinted at his fear of how he would spend his time in retirement. He couldn’t help talking about the army but did so in an interesting way. As a young man, he said, he’d laughed at The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek but when he re-read it at the end of his career, it made him cry.

By the end of the evening, we were reluctant to part. The air was full of goodwill, as if at Christmas. And all because of the little boy, still sleeping in the adjoining room.

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