Lancashire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Kaye McGann
Features Writer
3:00 AM 4th February 2023

Immaculate Conception Part 2

I’ll always remember the day I became a grandmother. It was the day I fell in love.

It was a Tuesday, and one of my days working at the charity shop in the town I’d moved to a few years ago. I’d only lived there a couple of weeks when I’d seen the advert in the shop window: Volunteers needed urgently. I’d volunteered, and here I was, all this time later, sorting and pricing the myriad things people brought in. Sometimes we’d get an item the donor would regret having given, and they’d come in, wanting it back. Usually it would be something we’d sold straight away: when things are donated soon after a bereavement, people aren’t thinking straight.

That day, I was supposed to be working with Pat and Judith. We got on well enough, and although I knew a lot about them – they talked incessantly about their families – all they really knew about me was what I’d chosen to tell them, which was not very much – and none of it true.

Even the name I was using was a lie.

I was calling myself Carol Connor – I liked the alliteration. I said I was widowed, and had one son who lived in Australia, and no other close relatives. The truth was that I was Coraline De Courcy, a name I’d always hated, and had never married, and never wanted to. I had seen enough of my parents’ marriage to put me off for good. My sister Evangeline was ten years older, and as far as I knew lived on the Isle of Man, though I’ve no idea why. We hadn’t been in touch for many years. The last I’d heard from her, she was changing her name to Angela Ellis, which was what had given me the idea in the first place.

I’d gone through my early life being the butt of what other girls thought of as jokes, called Reefer for a ‘laugh’ because of Coral, with no regard for its connotations. I was a plain child, with straight mousy-brown hair and pale skin. I was no good at games. I couldn’t even throw and catch a ball, and was always the last chosen for teams. When I was eight I started to wear glasses, the only child in my class to do so, and had to get used to being Specky-Four-eyes as well. I was a lot more intelligent than most, but became adept at being average, after a particularly unpleasant teacher, when I’d queried her statement that the River Thames rose in Wales, had said to me, “No-one likes a know-all.” Not that it made much difference, being average. Although I made a few friends as I got older, I was no-one’s best friend.

When I left school, I trained as a shorthand-typist, a job which no longer exists, though it’s what a lot of girls did then. I got a job in an office, did my work quietly and efficiently, ate my sandwiches at lunchtime at my desk, and went back to my bickering parents’ house every night, where I read or watched telly. That changed, when a couple of ‘girls’ in my office asked me if I’d like to join them in a house-share. I knew it was my money they wanted, not my company, but nonetheless I accepted with alacrity.

So began a better time for me. Although my working life went on much as before, occasionally Sarah and Samantha asked me if I’d like to go out with them for a drink in the evening, and I did, and saw a world beyond the narrow confines I’d erected around myself. At their promptings, I got my hair cut into a style, and started to use a little make-up when we went out. Of course, they were much more glamorous than I was, and they had a confidence I lacked. I was awkward in company. Sometimes we’d join a group, and there’d be young men who tried to talk to me, but I found it difficult. I could think of nothing to say. Usually they were happy just to talk about themselves, and I got by with, “Yes”, or “No”, or “Really.” If I was asked about myself, I became utterly tongue-tied.

I was content, though. I’d have been happy to go on like that indefinitely, but then Sarah got married, and of course moved out. Samantha put an advert in the newsagent’s window for someone to share the house, and after that we had a succession of young women, none of whom lasted very long. Meanwhile, I’d been saving. I thought it was just a matter of time before Samantha got married too, and then I’d have to look for somewhere else.

One night Samantha confided in me. She’d been involved with a married man for three years. He’d been to our flat, but I’d had no idea he wasn’t single. He’d kept promising he’d leave his wife, but somehow the time was never right. Then Samantha had found she was pregnant. In her naivety she’d thought he was sure to leave now. Instead, he’d given her money for an abortion at a private clinic, and another three thousand on top for her silence, and told her it was over. Samantha was heart-broken. Then she steeled herself. She didn’t have an abortion. She didn’t have the baby. She took a massive overdose of paracetamol and died. I was the one who found her. I was the one who had to break the news to her parents. I was the one who rang her lover to tell him. And I was the one who heard his reaction – “My wife mustn’t find out.” No word of sorrow. I decided there and then I would never, ever, have any sort of relationship with a man which might lead to being taken in by someone like him. As I was unsure of what the warning signs would be, I found it easier to, as they say, ‘keep myself to myself.’

I couldn’t stay in the house any longer. It felt haunted by sadness and despair. I had my savings – and I had all the money Samantha’s paramour had given her. I gave a thousand to her parents for the funeral costs, and kept the rest, even though it was blood money.

That was when I decided to re-invent myself. I took legal advice, and changed my name by deed poll, and my National Insurance, health details, and driving licence were changed too. Then I moved away, to a place I knew no-one, and no-one knew me – Banbury, because I liked the name. I invented a whole new backstory for myself. It couldn’t have been better if I’d been in a witness protection scheme! I had become Mrs. Carol Connor, widow of Eric Connor. Somehow I seemed to have gained in confidence. I started a new job, and as time went on progressed to P.A. of the boss, a pleasant, happily married, middle-aged man, and no threat to my plans. I bought a small flat, and began to save in earnest. By the time my boss retired, I had enough saved to retire as well. I did some research, and realised I could buy a house in the north of England for a lot less that I could sell my flat for, and so I’d have money left over to do whatever I wanted with. I could see a bit of the world, before I got too old. And after all, I had no emotional ties to Banbury.

So I took early retirement, and spent much of that Autumn trawling round some of the towns in the Pennines. I eventually settled on a quaint little place called Moorside Bridge. It had everything: a pretty river running through, with ducks swimming about, some good shops, a cinema, and surprisingly good travel links. The only fly in the ointment was that the centre was prone to flooding, so with this in mind I looked for somewhere away from the centre, on raised ground. This wasn’t hard, as it’s quite hilly. I was lucky to find an attractive old cottage at the far end of a terrace, where the road petered out. It had thick stone walls, and long low windows, a small strip of garden at both the front and back, and a courtyard at the side, ideal for a small car. I put in an offer on the spot, bought it, and was ready to move in by the middle of February.

What I hadn’t factored in was how much harsher the winters were than in the south. I had to spend quite a lot on sturdier footwear and warmer clothing, but at last I was settled in, and by Easter was ready to begin another chapter in my life.

I was at a bit of a loose end, really, after that. By the time I‘d got up, was washed, dressed, and breakfasted, the day stretched ahead. I couldn’t just sit around reading or watching television all the time, and though I took a walk every day, I found the hilly terrain very daunting. I needed something to keep me occupied. That was when I saw the sign in the charity shop window, and that was when I began my new life, and re-invented myself all over again.

I was still Mrs. Carol Connor, widow of Eric, but now I had acquired an adult son, Greg. Greg was living in Australia, I told my new-found friends, Pat and Judith, and it was doubtful he’d be back any time soon. I got the job, and settled into my new life as a volunteer. I joined a U3A group, and went on a few outings with them, on one occasion to the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford, and another on a day trip to York. And so time passed.

After a year or so I thought it was time ‘Greg’ got married, so I announced I was going to Australia for a month, to be at the wedding. I took time off from the shop, and went to Torremolinos in southern Spain, to make sure I came back with a convincing tan. I had become a very accomplished liar – and it was to stand me in good stead. I even managed to shed a few tears when I told Pat and Judith the photos I’d taken of the wedding hadn’t come out.

Life went on – but a year later it changed forever.

I will never, ever, forget the day it happened. It is etched in my memory. I was getting ready to go into town to do my afternoon stint at the shop, when I heard a noise outside. It sounded like a baby’s cry. I dismissed it at first, thinking it was in all likelihood a cat. Normally it is almost preternaturally quiet where I live, as my neighbours are out at work all day, but the Sutcliffes at the other end do have a ginger cat, Felix. I assumed it was him. Anyway, when the noise came again, I opened the door, to see if Felix was all right. There outside was a buggy, and in it was a baby, and by the side of the buggy was a holdall, and attached to the holdall was a label saying, ‘For Mrs. Carol Connor, with love from your son Greg.’

I just stood there. I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. I became aware it was starting to rain, and as the rain became heavier, the baby’s cries became more urgent. I got hold of the buggy, and manoeuvred it into the living room, then fetched the holdall in, too. The label on the bag was encased in a plastic envelope. I removed it, and drew out a letter.

This is what it said:

‘Dear Mrs. Connor,
You don’t know me, and I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of me even, but here is your grandson Peter. I have left all you need for him in the bag, and from now on he’s all yours. I don’t suppose your waste of a son will want him, and I can’t be saddled with a baby. That is not to say I don’t care about him. I do, which is why I’ve sought you out. I’ve had a hell of a job to find you. There are a lot of Carol Connors, and it was just lucky I found one – the only one – who has a son Gregory aged twenty-nine, and lives in Yorkshire. People talk, and everyone knows someone who knows someone else, who in their turn knows someone who knows you. That’s how I’ve found you.

Peter’s birth certificate is in the bag. You’ll see my name as Donna Rose Macfarlane, but you won’t find me under that name anywhere. Greg stuck around long enough to register Peter, which is how it comes to give Gregory Michael Connor as his father. He didn’t tell me anything about you, other than you live in the back of beyond somewhere in Yorkshire. He couldn’t stand Peter crying, so he just took off. I’m not cut out to be a mother, so I’m off too. I hope you do better. Try not to think too badly of me. I do love Peter, in my way, but this is for the best.

I sat there, utterly numb. This couldn’t be happening. Peter was not my grandson. He couldn’t be. Greg was an invention. He couldn’t have fathered this child. I looked again at the baby – and he smiled at me; and I was lost. I fell in love.

I undid the harness, and lifted him out of the buggy, and held him to my breast; and I was filled with a joy and tenderness I had never known. I had never had a lover, never married, never had a child; but now I had a grandson as a gift. I put Peter back, and unpacked the bag. There at the top was his birth certificate, with the names Donna had said, and Peter’s name, Peter Eric Connor. The irony! The place of birth was Peterborough, which may have given his parents the idea for his name – but Eric, the name of my imaginary late husband. I felt as if a ghost had walked over my grave.

I suppose I should have put the wheels in motion to trace Peter’s parents, but I didn’t. I carried on unloading the bag. I got out some bottles, and a couple of packs of formula milk, some Pampers, two vests, and a Babygro. There was also a tiny teddy bear; and that was it.

It was a good thing the Pampers pack had instructions, or I’d have been clueless. There were directions, too, on the milk formula. I made a start on being Peter’s Granny.

It was a shock when the phone rang, and it was Judith asking if I was all right, as I hadn’t arrived to help at the shop. I hadn’t had time to think about what I’d say, so I just said something urgent had cropped up, nothing for them to be worried about, and I’d tell them all about it on Thursday, my next duty day.

After his feed and nappy change, I put Peter back in his buggy, and walked the half-mile into town, where I bought more nappies, more formula, and two more vests and babygros. I also got him a cardigan and a fleece thing, so at least he had enough clothes for now. I found the walk back up the hill exhausting, pushing the buggy with the shopping, so when I got in, I decided I needed to buy a car seat, so I could drive down with Peter, to save the walk back. First, though, I needed a cot for him. I got out the local paper, found one in the For Sale/Wanted column, and rang straight away. I said I’d pay to have it delivered, and asked if they’d any bedding to go with it. By six o’clock I had everything in the house, and the kind young man who’d brought the cot got it set up. It felt strange when I said, for the first time, that Peter was my grandson. I asked the Scott, the young man, about car seats, and he recommended the shop they’d bought theirs. In the morning I rang the shop, and arranged for a same-day delivery. Again, the young man who brought it was very helpful, and got it all fixed firmly in place. By Thursday morning I had everything ready, Peter warmly wrapped and in his new car seat, and I drove – very carefully – down into town, parked in the big carpark, loaded Peter into his buggy, and made my grand entrance into the shop.

“Hello, girls,” I said, “this is my grandson, Peter. He’d going to be staying with me for a while.

Pat and Judith were astounded. There was a moment’s silence, and then they rushed over and started cooing over Peter, while I looked on proudly.

“You’ve kept that very quiet,” Judith said eventually.

I’d used the day before to think, so I had my story ready.

“I didn’t know myself,” I said. “Greg hadn’t told me his marriage had broken down almost immediately. “Donna left him, (at this point I hoped they wouldn’t remember I’d called his wife Arlene before), and the first thing he knew about Peter was when she came back and said she wasn’t cut out to be a mother, so she was giving up all rights.”

“Oh, how awful. What a terrible thing to do” Pat exclaimed, with tears in her eyes.

“Well, as you know, Greg has a very high-powered job, which entails a lot of travelling – to the States and so on – so after a lot of heart-searching he decided the baby would be better off with me for the foreseeable future. As he said, ‘who better than his own mother?’ He didn’t give me a chance to say no, not that I would have done. After all, he’s my own grandson. Anyway Greg just turned up out of the blue on Tuesday, got me everything I’d need, and flew back yesterday. The poor man must be exhausted! And here we are!”

I smiled happily at them, and I thought, ‘If you believe that, you’ll believe anything.’

They swallowed it whole. Jonah’s great fish had nothing on them.

Thus my life changed, and darling Peter’s with it. I took him to the charity shop when I did my shifts, and thus he acquired ‘Auntie’ Judith and ‘Auntie’ Pat. No-one else ever questioned me about his origins; and no-one ever came looking for him.

When he was three I took him to Playgroup, and then when he was old enough he went in to the Nursery class at the local primary school. He made lots of friends, and after that moved on to Secondary School, where he’s doing well. Through him I’ve expanded my own social circle as well. When he asked me about his parents, I told him his mummy Donna loved him very much, but had poor health and couldn’t look after him, and then she’d died. I told him I wasn’t sure where his daddy was, as he worked somewhere in the Australian outback, and couldn’t get in touch. At some point soon, ‘Greg’ will have to die as well. I can’t have Peter wanting to go to try to find him. If everything ever unravels, I don’t know what I’ll tell him, but knowing me I’ll think of something. Until that day, I’ll live each moment as it comes, with the greatest gift of all, and the greatest love I could ever have. I hope with all my heart this will last, and my tangled web will never break.