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The man turned the key in the shabby, chipped door. "Here you are love, it's not much, I didn't plan to rent this bedsit out until after I did it up a bit in the new year, but I wouldn't want to see a young girl in your condition out on the streets at this time of year." His face was battered and scarred and he spoke gruffly, but Maz noted that he had kind eyes and a nice smile. "Thanks" she said quietly, tears shining brightly in her eyes. "I'm really grateful, I don't know what I would have done otherwise. I've had a terrible row with my stepdad over this", she indicated her swollen belly briefly. "He's thrown me out. Mum would have stuck up for me, but it's not worth it, he'd just have beaten her up again and I'd still have had to leave." A single tear traced it's way slowly down her cheek. The man cleared his throat, embarrassed. "Not to worry love, you can move your stuff in whenever your ready." He handed over the keys and disappeared down the dark staircase.
Several hours later she hugged her brother as he left after bringing up the last of her meager possessions. Closing the door behind him, she sat heavily down on the tatty old brown sofa and surveyed her surroundings. The wallpaper was grimy looking with brown stains and scuff marks in places, the carpet was faded and had several threadbare patches. A discoloured mirror hung over a fireplace which had more cracked tiles than whole ones and held a double bar electric fire. In the corner sat a green sofa bed and beside that an elderly looking red carry cot on a white metal stand. Inside the cot, folded neatly were several soft blankets, tatty but freshly washed and smelling sweetly of fabric conditioner. Maz shivered, the room felt damp, cold and unused. She hauled her bulky body from the sofa and went to switch on the fire. It sprang into life immediately glowing a cheerful red in the darkening room. She rubbed her hands together and stood before it warming her legs.
Maz decided she felt hungry and taking a tin of soup from the small cardboard box containing the few provisions she had managed to buy, she opened it and tipped it into a battered old pan on top of the two ring cooker. She turned on the ring and as she waited for it to warm up, her mind started working overtime, wondering what the next few hours would bring. She shifted uneasily as she thought about her man, Joe who had been released from prison that day after serving a 3 year stretch for robbery. How was she going to be able to explain her pregnancy to him? She knew his mates would tell him her where she was living and she was looking forward to seeing him, holding him in her arms again after all this time. Surely he would understand she had only done it to help him, to help them both make a fresh start. How could she know that it would all go so drastically wrong? She tipped the heated soup into a mug and sipped thoughtfully.
There was a knock at the door. Her stomach turned over and as if in sympathy, the baby kicked hard several times. 'Maz?" Joe's voice came clearly through the door. "Maz? You in there?" She grabbed the key with shaking fingers and went to let him in. As the door swung open, she could see his beloved face wreathed in smiling anticipation. He stepped in through the door, arms wide open ready to pick her up and swing her round, just like he always did when they saw each other. Then she saw the shock on his face which turned swiftly to horror and then equally swiftly to rage. "What the f....?" he shouted. "What's that?" He gestured to her swollen belly. "How could you do this to me Maz? I thought we were strong? I thought you loved me? How could you go and get yourself knocked up with someone else's brat?" Tears of anger and sorrow coursed down his face and he stook a step back towards the door. Maz could feel her own eyes well with tears. "Wait Joe, please wait and listen to me, you don't understand." "Too right I don't understand you cow. I know I did wrong, I know I wrecked our plans by being so bloody stupid and getting myself banged up, but you knew I only did it to try and get you out of that house, to give us a start so we could get a place of our own. I never stopped loving you and I thought you loved me too? How could I have been so stupid?" The tears were flowing more swiftly down his face now and her heart was breaking at the misery and anger in his eyes."
She reached out and grabbed his hands in her own frozen ones. "Joe, I know this looks bad, baby, but even if you don't stay with me, please, please just sit down for a couple of minutes and hear me out. At least let me explain."
She drew him towards the couch and he followed reluctantly, his feet dragging heavily across the thin carpet.
They sat down on the sagging old sofa, Joe with his arms folded across his chest and hands tucked under his armpits as though holding himself together. Maz shifted uncomfortably back and leaned into the corner, wincing as a pain shot through her back and into her stomach.
"This is the story Joe, and I swear on my mother's life it's true. While I was working in the corner shop a couple used to come in every day about 5 o'clock to buy milk, regular as clockwork it was, They always looked unhappy and sometimes she looked like she'd been crying. Well, they came to the counter one day, he handed over the milk and she just burst into tears, there and then with a shopful of customers watching. I called someone over to serve and took them in the back and made them a cup of tea. She was just crying and crying like she'd never stop." Maz shifted uncomfortably as a pain lanced through her stomach again.
"While they were drinking their tea the man told me they'd been trying for a baby for years. They'd been having treatment at some private clinic, spent thousands on it. Well, they'd come straight from the clinic that day. The doctor told them it was hopeless, they'd never be able to have a baby of their own."
Joe broke in "What do I want to hear about some couple who can't have kids for? I want to know where that one came from!" he shouted.
"That's just it Joe, to cut a long story short they told me they weren't short of a bob or two and before I knew it I'd agreed to have their baby for them." She held her hands out, pleading to him to understand. "I didn't sleep with him Joe, it was all above board. The wife brought round a syringe and I - well, you know." She stumbled to a halt and winced again, rubbing her hands across her swollen belly.
Joe was watching her closely, a mixture of disbelief and hope flitting across his face.
Maz started again, "I thought it would be the end of all our troubles Joe. I fell pregnant straight away, they gave me £500 to buy maternity stuff, booked me into a private clinic for the birth and were going to pay me £10,000 when I handed the baby over to them." Joe looked at her with disbelief. "So are you saying the deal's off then? Have this wonderful couple disappeared into thin air leaving you with their baby?" He shook his head. "I don't believe you" he stated flatly.
Maz reached over to her handbag on the floor beside her. She pulled out a folded, crumpled piece of paper and handed it to him. He opened it and read the newspaper clipping 'Local Entrepreneur Peter Baines and wife killed in M25 pile up.'
"I did it for us babe, I thought with £10,000 we could make a fresh start away from here. I was going to tell you, honest, but I didn't think you'd be out before the baby was born. It seemed so simple, I'd make them happy because they'd have the baby they wanted so badly and us happy because we could move out of here, away from all your so called mates and from my stepdad. We'd be independent with our own little flat and a nest egg tucked away so we could start a family of our own." Tears were dripping from her eyelashes now and falling from her cheeks onto her belly. She shifted again as her stomach cramped and pain wrenched her insides like a vise.
"Oh Joe," she said. "I know you've done bad stuff and I know we can't change the past, but I thought with this money we could change the future. We could have gone somewhere where nobody knew us, where we weren't just scum from the estate on the wrong side of town." Tears were coursing down her cheeks in silver rivulets. "And now it's all gone wrong. I'm stuck in a manky bedsit with a belly full of another man's baby and I'm about to lose the only man I've loved since I was 13."
It was too much for Joe, he grabbed her and pulled her close to his chest. "You're not losing me Maz, I believe you. Why would you tell me a lie now, you've never lied to me ever in all the time we've been together." He cradled her to him, stroking her hair and brushing the tears from her cheeks with his fingers. "I don't say I was overjoyed to see you pregnant and I don't say it's the best start for us, but I do know I love and trust you and want to be with you always, so let's just take it from there shall we?"
They laid back on the lumpy old sofa, Maz cradled against Joe's chest listening to the steady beat of his heart. The last bit of dusk faded gently from the room, the glow from the electric fire disguising the shabbiness of their surroundings.
Suddenly Maz gasped and doubled up, clenching her stomach, her face contorted with pain and fear. "Joe, my waters have broke, I'm having the baby!" Joe shot up off the sofa "I'll call an ambulance" he cried. "No, no, don't go, stay with me, it's too late, I'm having it now!" And there, in a shabby bedsit in the East End of London, with just the light from an electric fire to guide them, Maz gave birth to her baby boy with only Joe to deliver him.
Later, when it was all over and the baby was nuzzling greedily at Maz's breast, Joe put his arm protectively round them both and vowed to love them and look after them for the rest of his life.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Joe got up and moved across the room, opening the door a crack to see who was there. At the door, looking a little uncomfortable stood three men, smartly dressed in suits and overcoats. Behind them, shuffling his feet and wiping his nose on his sleeve was a young lad. scruffily dressed and holding a dog on a piece of rope.
One of the men, he looked like the oldest of the group, stepped forward hesitantly. "Is this where Maz Mater lives?" he enquired. Joe looked suspiciously at the group. "Depends who's asking" he replied. The man said "I'm Rhys Baines and these are my brothers, Paul and Barry. We're Peter Baines brothers." The young lad standing behind the men cleared his throat. "Oh yes" said Rhys, "And this is Rob. He found us wandering around this maze of streets and kindly volunteered to show us the way to your flat." Rob smiled in a slightly embarrassed fashion and shuffled his feet.
Maz called out from inside "Let them in Joe, they are the baby's uncles after all." The three men, the boy and the dog all piled into the tiny bedsit. The men looked around them as they came in, their distaste showing clearly on their faces. "It's all I could find at the last minute" said Maz defensively. "We haven't all got money to burn you know." Rhys held his hands up hurriedly "Sorry" he said, it's just that I know there is no way Peter would have wanted this for you." He walked closer to Maz and gently ran a finger along the rosy cheek of the baby nestled in her arms. "He wanted only the best for both you and his child." he said quietly. "Well" replied Maz, there's not much he can do about it now is there? The poor devil. 'Him and his wife were very kind to me but they can't help me now can they?"
Barry stepped forward and as he gazed at the baby snuggled cosily in the shabby blankets he said "That's why we've come to see you my dear. As Peter's son this child would have wanted for nothing. Peter had made a reasonable amount of money with his business ventures, he was comfortably off. His will left everything to us in the event that his wife was deceased. My brothers and myself are all wealthy men in our own right. We've agreed that Peter's money would mean very little to us, but would provide very comfortably for you and the baby." Paul joined in then. "We have decided to gift Peter's estate to you and the baby" he said. It's what Peter would have wanted and it's what we want too."
Joe moved over to the bed settee and sat down heavily beside Maz. "Hold on a moment" he said "Are you actually saying that Maz is wealthy now?" "Well" answered Rhys, "I don't know if I'd say wealthy exactly, but she certainly won't have to worry about money for a long time to come, and if you'd like us to continue managing Peter's investments, we can ensure a comfortable future for you all and it would also enable us to stay in touch with Peter's son and see him growing up."
Maz just sat, dumbfounded, too amazed to speak. "I'm sure it's rather a lot to take in right now" went on Rhys, "but we'll leave you to ponder on it and come back in a couple of days to see how things are going. In the meantime……" He beckoned to Rob, "Can you bring in the boxes from the hallway?" Rob moved over to the door and brought in 3 cardboard boxes. He placed them on the floor. Paul opened them one by one and revealed a box full of baby clothes, nappies and wash things and two full of food and wine. "We heard of your situation and thought that these might come in handy." "Th..th..thank you" stammered Maz in a dazed fashion. "Don't mention it" said Paul. "We wanted to make sure that you and the baby were short of nothing. We'll be going now then, but we'll be back as promised in a couple of days to make the arrangements regarding Peter's estate."
The three brothers all stepped forward once more to admire the baby sleeping peacefully in his mother's arms, and then they were gone, taking Rob and the dog with them.
Joe and Maz just sat staring at each other in stunned silence. Then each broke into a wide grins. "We're sorted babe" cried Maz joyfully, "We've got our new start!" Joe hugged Maz to him fiercely and stroked the baby's face. "We are that girl," he replied. "We are that." Maz went on "And I'm going to make sure this baby always knows who his father was and that he'll be watching over him from heaven his whole life through."
Joe, Maz and the new baby sat on, encircled in each other's arms, basking in the joy of love and hope. Outside, stars twinkled down from the frosty midnight, Christmas Eve sky and one star in particular, much larger than the others, shone fiercely down on the roof of the shabby bedsit where Mary Virginia Mater and Joseph Carpenter pledged their love to each other and to their new baby son.