art by Emmanuel Laflamme

by Connla Stokes

The thought first struck Frank during Nora’s pregnancy. Suddenly, he caught himself thinking, “Maybe the child isn’t mine…” He had no actual reason to believe Nora had slept with another man – or that she had ever even contemplated having a bit on the side. But she could have. That is to say, it was a possibility.

It was just a wild, capricious notion. But as a writer and a compulsive daydreamer Frank’s imagination often latched onto such hypothetical scenarios – no matter how ridiculous – and ran riot. He was lazily ensconced at home when this fantasy first reared its head. The telly was on but he wasn’t really watching anything. Nora was stretched across the couch with her legs draped over Frank’s thighs. She was blithely flicking through the pages of a glossy magazine; Frank’s left hand was resting on her implausibly large stomach, and initially his thoughts had been of the small child cloistered within, but his mind was soon elsewhere. He started picturing the day of the delivery – or ‘D-Day’ as Nora liked to call it. He could see himself in the hospital’s maternity ward, dressed in O.R. scrubs, eagerly clasping Nora’s hand and whispering carefully-chosen words of encouragement. He’s so busy egging Nora on, at first he doesn’t realise that the baby now wailing in the midwife’s arms is clearly the fruit of an African man’s loins. An awkward silence engulfs the room as Frank finally spots the newborn babe. It’s a tumbleweed moment as everyone stares at Frank staring at the baby. Eventually, the doctor and nurses click back into gear and take care of the formalities. The umbilical cord is snipped. The baby is cleaned up and wrapped in a towel before being tenderly placed in his mother’s arms. The whole time, Nora doesn’t utter a word to Frank and more distressingly she doesn’t even seem surprised, as if having an affair with some random Senegalese guy nine months ago was a trifling matter that had just slipped her mind: “Sorry Frank, didn’t I mention there was only a fifty-fifty chance the baby was yours?”

Interrupting this reverie, a tiny limb nudged into Frank’s clammy hand through Nora’s stomach and he told himself – not for the first time – he was being utterly ridiculous. But his own imagination wouldn’t let him off so lightly. Over the following weeks this needling anxiety came back to haunt him again and again. It didn’t matter where he was or what he was doing. He could be walking to the shops, waiting for a bus or sitting on the toilet, and he’d suddenly catch himself thinking, “But maybe the child really isn’t mine…”  

And if he wasn’t the father, who was? An old flame that had resurfaced via Facebook or a wandering silver-tongued Lothario, who perhaps Nora met while buying a phallic schlong of chorizo at that farmer’s market she was always so suspiciously keen on… once you let the imagination go, the possibilities are endless.

But at the heart of Frank’s paranoia was an unsettling detail. He and Nora had spent some time apart, roughly 10 to 11 months before Sam was born. Their lives had been filled with frustration; sales at Nora’s art gallery had abruptly nosedived as the Irish economy fizzled. Frank had been working as a freelance writer, reviewing films, books and plays for various papers and magazines, while ultimately hoping to find a publisher for his children’s novel, but all at once work dried up as editors’ were forced to tighten the budget strings or magazines folded. Frank and Nora had always been sweet and easy-going lovers. They weren’t used to having fights, let alone hurling insults at each other. During their first – and only – blazing row, foolish things were said and neither of them had thick enough skin to forgive and forget. Nora was so upset she packed a bunch of bags and drove to her sister’s. Frank was left to brood alone at home and for a few weeks there was total radio silence – no texts, no calls, no emails, nothing. But, in a sense the sabbatical worked. They both cooled off and reassessed. Frank eventually used his free time productively, rehashing the structure of his novel and securing a deal with an American publisher. Nora soon returned home, refreshed and upbeat over plans to get back to teaching art and painting more. A month and a half later, they discovered she was pregnant and it seemed like a whole new chapter in their lives had begun.

Perhaps, Frank pondered, she’d had an affair while they were separated and had still been seeing this other man even after she moved back in with Frank. One last dalliance is all it would have taken.

When the baby boy was born, Frank examined him from top to bottom. He was pasty, pudgy and squidgy much like most Irish babies he saw. He had brown eyes like his mother and blonde hair, like neither of them. Frank, who had webbed toes on both feet, ran his fingers along the baby’s 10 toes and feigned a smile when he looked up at Nora.

“He’s really blonde…” he said.

“Yeah, I was fairly blonde as a little girl,” replied Nora, who had mousy brown hair, not unlike what was left of Frank’s receding mop. “So I guess it’s in the family.”

Frank’s mother chipped in with a tentative observation, almost as if she instinctively sensed her son needed reassuring: “I think he has your nose.” But Nora dismissed that claim. “Nah – it’s too early to tell with that button nose.”

Of course, Frank wouldn’t have cared if the baby had an otter’s nose, just so long as he knew he was the father. But he did feel as if he needed some kind of indisputable, physical proof so, like the drowning man clutching at straws, he said, “What about the ears? I think they’re like mine…” Both his mother and Nora erupted in laughter and they were still giggling a minute later when he toddled off to his study feeling like an utter dolt.

Over the next few months, Frank concentrated on trying to ignore his groundless uncertainties. But as fate would have it, one night, when the baby was about six months old, a documentary show came on the telly about the very subject that plagued Frank’s mind. The not-particularly-comforting-premise was that women with steady partners may still be tempted to sleep around – especially when they’re ovulating. The matter-of-fact BBC narrator claimed as many as one in every ten kids around the world was being raised by a man, who didn’t even know he was not the father.

“One in ten?” snorted Frank incredulously, but Nora just shrugged in response, as if that didn’t sound so shocking.

The narrator continued: Women’s life-partners might be a better bet to bring up children and support a family, emotionally and financially, but another man might carry genes that produce healthier, stronger children. The tragic example was a cuckolded widower from Texas, who found out his youngest son had cystic fibrosis, a horrendous lung disorder caused by a single faulty gene. Both mother and father must carry the gene to produce a cystic fibrosis child, so the widower duly went for a gene test to confirm he was a carrier only to discover that he wasn’t – that meant he couldn’t be the child’s biological father. His life further unravelled when subsequent DNA tests revealed that he had fathered none of his three sons. Now, wouldn’t that guy feel pretty stupid, thought Frank, if everyone had been saying for years, “Oh yes, young Chad’s definitely got your nose…”, “And isn’t little Tommy junior a chip off the old block…”

“Jesus, the poor bastard, how could he not have known?” said Frank, but Nora again said nothing.

It crossed Frank’s mind right then to confront her but he pictured himself saying, “Nora, just for the record – are you sure I’m the father of your child?” and he decided he’d either look like a complete madman or utterly paranoid, or both – unless, of course, she had slept with someone when they were separated…

But it just hadn’t been that kind of break up – at least in his mind. He would have to admit that he’d come within a whisker of having a drunken tangle with a Spanish student in Temple Bar. It had been in the middle of week number two of the break up. He hadn’t spoken to Nora and he feared the worst. Rather than call her and try to smooth things out, he’d gone on an all-day drinking session with his old friend Malcolm, who was most commonly single, and the kind of guy that always loved chatting up girls, even if he had a girlfriend on-the-go. If you were out with him, you either had to follow suit or drink in shy silence and sure enough they ended up sitting with these Spanish students and soon everyone was ordering shots – Jägermeister, tequila, sambuca, B-52s – and not long after that everyone was four sheets to the wind. In Frank’s defence it was the frisky Catalonian who followed him to the back of the bar and tried to initiate the canoodling. The devil on his shoulder was screaming, “Do it! Shift her! Take her home and shag her rotten.” But he mustered enough poise to walk away.

From that day on, he threw himself into his work and he did his best to forget about that brief, lecherous lapse. About a month later, Nora moved back in and, another eight months or so further down the track, Samuel Ethan Hanrahan was born on a cold December night. They chose the name Sam as it was Nora’s late father’s name and Frank had always been a Beckett man so he was grand with that. He was slightly more sceptical when Nora suggested Ethan for a middle name as she had always harped on about how sexy she thought the actor Ethan Hawke was. Taking a leaf from Sigmund Freud’s book, Frank figured that this could be seen as an admission of Nora’s subconscious desire for infidelity. But he didn’t protest. He never did. So the name stuck and life just rolled along.

By the time Sam was nine and half months old, his nose still showed no signs of morphing into Frank’s. The jury was still out on the ears, too. Would Frank spend the rest of his life staring at Sam’s features, wondering, if any of them could be attributed to his bloodline? On one occasion he had contemplated taking Sam for a DNA test to put his mind at ease once and for all. He was on the verge of doing it; he even had the car keys in his hands. Then Nora came in the door.

“Oh, are you two lads off to the park?”

“Yeah,” said Frank. “I thought we’d go see the ducks.”

“That sounds great – hang on for 20 minutes and I’ll come along. I just need a quick cuddle with Sam first… and maybe a cup of tea.”

That was Frank’s cue. He took off his jacket and filled the kettle.

“And maybe some of those ginger snaps,” Nora called out from the living room.

Frank threw the bags in the teapot, prepared a plate of biscuits and stood by the window waiting for the kettle to boil, staring at the apple trees Nora’s grandfather, Samuel, had planted in 1995 when they’d first moved in. Had it really been thirteen years? The trees were well over four metres high now and the Cox Orange Pippins were in rude health despite the long wet summer. On the thickest branch, a fat stray cat sat smugly, gazing at Frank with an air of greedy expectation, as if he expected the tea and biscuits were for him. From the living room he could hear Sam chuckling with glee and Nora saying, “Aren’t we clever making such a cute little baby?”

As Frank poured the boiling water into the teapot, he was thinking, “Now, who exactly does Nora mean when she says “we”?” He even pictured himself strolling in with the tray and saying, “What’s this ‘we’ business paleface?” but then, if he did, Nora wouldn’t have a clue what he was on about.

Or would she?