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The Cornish Midwife’s Christmas Present by Jo Bartlett

Izzy dropped the copy of the Three Ports News on the table, as she hurried into the kitchen at her grandparents’ house. She hadn’t even realised she’d scooped it up with the rest of the shopping, when she’d taken it out of the car. She’d got into the habit of buying it when she was looking for a house to rent in Port Agnes, just in case there was something listed that she hadn’t seen online, but the idea of moving away from Redruth was on hold now. She needed to stay in her flat, close to where her grandparents lived. Although, just lately, she was spending more nights at their house than her own.

‘That’s one of my only regrets, you know.’ Nonna didn’t look up, as she spoke, her face half hidden by the open newspaper as she turned one of the pages over.

‘What’s that?’ Izzy kept her tone light, even as her heart seemed to constrict in her chest. Nonna had never once felt sorry for herself, not even after the latest prognosis had suggested this could be her last Christmas, but the thought that she might be mulling over a list of regrets and all the things she’d never get to do, meant that Izzy was already blinking back the tears.

‘I wish we’d moved to the Atlantic coast, got ourselves a little cottage in Port Agnes or Port Kara, where we could see the sea every day.’ Nonna reached out for Izzy’s hand. ‘And I don’t want you putting off the decision to move to Port Agnes for any longer than you have to.’

‘There’s nowhere suitable available at the moment, that’s all.’ Izzy crossed her fingers on the hand that Nonna couldn’t see. Now wasn’t the time to tell her that Bobby, one of the other midwives at the unit where she worked, had offered her first refusal on the place he was renting. It was tiny, but it was going to be available soon and it was within Izzy’s budget, which – as Nonna would have said – was as rare as hen’s teeth.

‘I don’t like the idea of you putting your plans on hold because of me and I don’t like you having to drive all that way to and from work, especially when you’ve had a late shift.’

‘It’s fine and the drive home gives me a bit of a chance to unwind.’ Izzy still had her fingers crossed. ‘But there must be some other things you want to do, with Christmas coming up.’ There was an unspoken phrase hanging in the air: in case it’s the last time. Izzy couldn’t even bear to think about it, let alone say it out loud. The doctors hadn’t actually mentioned making a bucket list, but they had said she should do the things she wanted, whilst she was still feeling well enough.

‘I just want to spend time with my two favourite people, that’s all.’ Nonna smiled and then peered at the newspaper again. ‘Although, there is a notice in the paper that’s made me think of one other thing I’d like to do.’

‘Whatever it is, I’m sure we can arrange it.’ There were always coach trips advertised in the Three Ports News and if Nonna wanted to visit Devon, Wales, or even London for a few days, Izzy would do whatever it took to make it happen.

‘I want to see you sing again, like you used to when you were little.’

‘Oh no, I don’t thinkꟷ’

‘It could be fun, it says in the paper that they’re having a community sing-a-thon at St Jude’s church in Port Agnes on the twentieth of December, to raise money for charity. I bet some of the other midwives have already signed up, it would be a good way to get to know them better.’

‘I’m having some of them over for a Christmas party on the twenty-third and they’re all really friendly, but there’s not that many of them I can imagine joining in with a sing-a-thon.’ That wasn’t strictly true. Gwen would almost certainly be up for anything that involved a performance and they were always getting involved in things that supported the community, but there was no need to tell Nonna that.

‘I’m really glad you’re settling in so well and hearing all about it is like getting to be a midwife myself after all.’ It wasn’t the first time her grandmother had said that. Nonna had put her own dreams of being a midwife on hold to take a job in a hotel, after her father lost his job in the late sixties and the money she could earn waiting tables and changing beds was more than she’d get as a trainee midwife. ‘Hearing about your day is always the best part of mine.’

‘I wish you’d had the chance to be a midwife, you’d have been so good at it.’ Nonna was kind and calm, but even with everything she was going through, she’d never lost her sense of humour. They were the qualities that would have made her such a brilliant midwife and Izzy had always dreamt of sharing that moment with her grandmother, when she had her own children. Now that was never going to happen.

‘I wouldn’t change a thing about my life. If I hadn’t taken that job at the hotel, I wouldn’t have met your grandfather and we’d never have had you.’ Nonna smiled again. She might have skimmed over the part that Izzy’s mother had played in all of their lives, but in some ways it was such a small part – especially for Izzy – that it wasn’t worth dwelling on. Especially not when it caused so much pain. It was the one thing her grandmother seemed to find it hard to talk about and some things were definitely better left unsaid.

‘Pops is a lucky man, but I’m even luckier to have you both.’

‘You know where you could give thanks for that luck, don’t you?’ Nonna dropped a perfect wink. ‘At St Jude’s when they have the community sing-a-thon.’

‘Anything for you.’ Izzy put an arm around her grandmother’s shoulders, giving them a gentle squeeze. It was true; she’d do anything for her grandparents, who’d made so many sacrifices for her, and time was running out. Even if she made a total fool of herself at the sing-a-thon, it would be worth it to put a smile on her grandmother’s face and make another memory to hang on to when she was no longer around.

* * *

Izzy had pinned a copy of the article from the Three Ports News about the sing-a-thon to the noticeboard in the midwifery unit, but none of the other midwives had mentioned it yet. The unit was starting to look very festive, though, and there was a Christmas tree in reception, decorated with strings of baby booties. There were lots of themed ornaments too, everything from building blocks to bath ducks, and there was no getting away from that fact that it was already a busy time of year for everyone.

Izzy had a horrible feeling that persuading any of her new friends from the unit to join in with the sing-a-thon was going to turn out to be a challenge, but maybe it was just as well that none of them would be there to see it. Her grandmother might be under the illusion that her singing was something worth listening to, but holding a note was about as good as it got. Hopefully the rest of the community in Port Agnes would embrace the sing-a-thon and Izzy would be able to hide at the back for as long as she could last out. The event was supposed to last four hours in total, with audience members coming and going to the church and making whatever donation they saw fit. The singers could get sponsorship too and all the words would be displayed on a big screen in front of them, so there was no excuse to opt out. Not that Nonna was going to let her anyway.

Izzy was running one of the antenatal clinics and her last appointment before lunch was a new patient, who was registering with the unit quite late in her pregnancy.

‘Hi, come on in Abigail and grab a seat, I’m Izzy, one of the community midwives.’

‘A seat, now that sounds like a good idea!’ Izzy’s new patient had a good-sized bump, even for thirty-five weeks. Although the notes on the system suggested that the pregnancy had been fairly text book so far.

‘An antenatal appointment is as good an excuse as any to take the weight of your feet for a little while. Are you starting to find it tough going?’

‘I think deciding to move back to Port Agnes at this stage of the pregnancy probably wasn’t the best idea anyone’s ever had, but I’m far less stressed now I’m here and can keep a proper eye on dad. Someone’s got to!’ Abigail smoothed her jumper down over her bump and sighed. ‘Since mum died, he’s thrown himself into work at the church and doesn’t seem to realise that he’ll be no good at taking care of his parishioners, if he doesn’t take care of himself first. He needs both knees replacing, but he won’t take the time off and so I’ve made it my mission to try and convince him, while I’m back in Port Agnes.’

‘I didn’t realise you were Reverend Sampson’s daughter.’ Izzy had seen his name in the article about the sing-a-thon from the paper, but she’d never met him and she hadn’t put two and two together, because the surname wasn’t that unusual. Abigail already sounded worn out from trying to get her father to see her point of view and she needed to remember to look after herself too. ‘Hopefully your dad will realise he needs to get fit so he can run around after his new grandchild.’

‘Hmmm.’ Abigail bit her lip and then a single tear rolled down her face, quickly followed by another one. ‘Sorry, I promised myself I wouldn’t do this.’

‘Don’t be sorry, if you want to talk about it, I’ve got plenty of time. I’ve got a break after this, so there’s no need to rush.’

‘Thank you.’ Abigail wiped the back of her hand across her eyes and Izzy passed her a tissue. ‘It’s just that Dad hasn’t really come to terms with the baby, it’s not how he wanted it to be.’

‘My grandmother has this saying, that babies have a way of bringing their own love with them, once they arrive.’ It was something Nonna had learned from experience, when Izzy’s mother had fallen pregnant with her while she was still in her teens, and it hadn’t been what her grandparents had envisaged either. Abigail might be well into her thirties, but she still had her father’s surname and her records listed her as a Miss. Izzy guessed that it might be hard for a vicar to come to terms with his daughter having a child without being married. It might seem hugely outdated to most people, but Abigail’s father had based his whole life around his beliefs and that couldn’t be easy to let go of.

‘I got married at twenty-one, because I’d met someone I wanted to be with and that’s the way I knew it would have to be for Dad to accept our relationship. But once we were living together, I realised I barely knew him and he didn’t want any of the things I did. I tried really hard to make it work, probably more for Dad than for me, but when my ex started his second affair in as many years, I just couldn’t live like it any more. The worse part of all of that – the divorce and everything – was knowing how much I was disappointing my father.’ Abigail sighed again. ‘It made it easier to move away and I went to work for a charity overseas, it’s where I met Kobe. I knew he was the one I wanted to have a family with, but I only planned to get married again if it was with Dad’s blessing, otherwise it felt like it would just be making things worse, and he’s made it clear that it’s not an option for him to marry us. So here we are, I’m five weeks off giving birth, a divorcee with no intention of marrying my baby’s father. Poor Dad. Never mind his knee, I think all of this has broken his heart.’

‘You haven’t done anything wrong.’ Izzy was fighting to keep her tone even. Reverend Sampson could do with a damn good talking to, but that would definitely have been overstepping the mark. All she could do was support Abigail, as best she could.  ‘Unfortunately, we can’t change other people, but the one thing you can control is prioritising your own health. Getting stressed about things isn’t good for you or the baby.’

‘That’s what Kobe keeps saying and he thinks I’m mad to have taken over organising this sing-a-thon up at the church.’ Abigail shook her head, as if she couldn’t quite believe it herself. ‘But Dad’s in no fit state to do it and, if I’m being really honest, I wanted to do something that might actually make him proud of me for once.’

‘I’m sure he’s proud of you for lots of things.’ Izzy battled with the urge to give her new patient a hug. She understood that feeling only too well – knowing that nothing you ever did, seemed to make the one person you wanted to impress proud of you. Thankfully, she’d always had her grandparents, who were hugely proud of every tiny thing she achieved, which more than made up for her mother’s lack of interest. But Abigail had lost her mother and all of that would feel heightened too, now that she expecting a child of her own. No wonder she was feeling so overwhelmed.

‘I wouldn’t bet that Dad’s proud of anything I’ve done in the past and I’m having a lot more trouble getting people to sign up for the sing-a-thon than I thought I would. I can’t sleep for worrying that it’ll all be a massive flop. Maybe it’s too close to Christmas and we should have had it earlier in December… but it’s too late to change that now. If this is a disaster, Dad will convince himself that he can’t loosen the reins at the church even a little bit, so that he can get himself properly well, and coming home to look after him will have been pointless.’

‘I’ve been planning to sign up for sing-a-thon and I’ll see if I can persuade some of the other midwives to join in too. Most of them are more local than me, so they should be able to persuade other friends and family from Port Agnes to get involved.’ As the new girl, Izzy had been a bit hesitant about asking the others outright if they were going to sign up, especially as everyone had been so busy, since Anna had reduced her hours at work. But, if it helped Abigail, she was willing to risk rejection and there was a good chance that at least a couple of them might be persuaded to join in.

‘You don’t have to do that. I wasn’t planning to offload any of this, let alone end up telling you my whole life story!’ Abigail was smiling through her tears now and Izzy was glad that she’d been able to help turn that around. Nonna had always been her go-to person, whenever she felt things were getting too much, and it felt good to be following her grandmother’s lead.

‘It’s not a problem at all and I haven’t been at the unit for very long, so it’ll be a great way for me to get to know more of the community in Port Agnes.’ Izzy smiled. ‘Now shall we get you checked over and see how your baby is doing?’

As Abigail nodded, Izzy made a silent promise to do whatever she could to help make the sing-a-thon a success. Her grandmother might never have been able to become the midwife she’d dreamt of being, but the things she’d taught Izzy over the years had made her the person, and the midwife, she was determined to be. If she ended up being one tenth the woman her grandmother was, then Izzy would be happy.

* * *

Gwen was wearing a deely bopper headband with two Christmas trees swaying to and fro, complete with working lights. If she squeezed the tree on the right-hand side it played Jingle Bells. It was still only the first week of December, so Izzy couldn’t even imagine what she’d be wearing once it got closer to the twenty-fifth. If anyone was going to be up for taking part in the sing-a-thon, it would be Gwen.

‘Are you free on the evening of the twentieth?’ Izzy had decided to grab her opportunity, while a few of the other midwives were in the staff room for their break. There were no labours in progress and the clinics had finished for lunch. Izzy had promised Abigail that she’d do her best to round up some participants for the sing-a-thon. She might still be a bit reticent about pushing herself forward, but she’d seen Abigail’s eyes fill with tears when she’d talked about the relationship with her father and she’d recognised a kindred spirit. Christmas always heightened those emotions for Izzy – seeing other mothers and daughters doing things together. Just a glance at Instagram was enough, the latest post she’d seen was from one of Izzy friends and her mother, wearing matching festive jumpers out at a Christmas market.

Izzy had never had that sort of relationship with her own mother, but Nonna had always tried to make up for it and they’d developed their own Christmas traditions over the years. They’d always make Christmas biscuits and every time they went on holiday, before Izzy moved out of her grandparents’ house, they’d buy a new Christmas ornament to hang on the tree. Decorating the house and the tree itself, on the first weekend of December, was another tradition she loved. Seeing all the memories of their trips, hanging on the tree, meant they’d always spend more time reminiscing than decorating and it was probably Izzy’s favourite part of the run up to Christmas. She had no idea whether Abigail and her father had any of those sorts of traditions, but she’d bet everything she had that Christmas made the absence of Abigail’s mother all the harder. So Izzy would do whatever it took to make the sing-a-thon a success.

‘By the twentieth, I’ll probably be swigging Baileys out of a pint glass and sticking all the grandkids presents in bags-for-life, tied with a knot of tinsel.’ Gwen winked. ‘I always start off with such good intentions. This year, I’ve bought brown paper printed with candy canes, and recycled green paper bows. Festive and environmentally friendly apparently. They should be, every bow costs two pounds. It’s all great stuff, but when you’ve got a family as big as mine, all those good intentions end up going down faster than the Baileys!’

‘You’ll probably be too busy then.’ Izzy swallowed hard, she’d never been the pushy type, but this wasn’t for her benefit and somehow that made it easier to do. ‘It’s just that there’s a sing-a-thon at St Judes and they’re raising money jointly for a school in Tanzania where Reverend Sampson’s daughter used to work, and for some repairs to the church. I thought it might be nice if some of us could get involved.’

‘I love singing, but I’m terrible at it, so my Barry says.’ Gwen grinned. ‘Which means they might need to sponsor me to stop, but I’m definitely up for it. What about you Toni?’

‘I’d rather eat my way through a bowl full of glass Christmas ornaments.’ Toni rolled her eyes. ‘But I’ll sponsor all of you, as long as I don’t have to actually go and listen to Gwen’s caterwauling.’

‘I’m on call, but I reckon I could persuade Brae.’ Anna looked at the roster on her computer as she spoke. ‘I’ll sponsor you all too and come along to watch, at least until I get called out. Bobby’s on call too and I know Jess is spending most of her evenings preparing for her fostering assessment, but Ella’s not working. I’m sure if she’s not busy with something else, she’ll be there and she’ll probably rope Dan in too.’

‘I think I’ll be able to persuade Emily to join in, if she’s free, so that will make six of us. Abigail will be really pleased with that.’ Izzy breathed out. It would mean she’d be able to grant another of her grandmother’s wishes too, assuming she was well enough to sit in the cold of the church and watch the sing-a-thon. But even if she could only manage a little while, it would be worth all the effort for Izzy. Hopefully it would be for Abigail too.

* * *

There hadn’t been much in the way of rehearsals for the sing-a-thon. Abigail had explained that the whole point was that anyone from the community was supposed to be able to join in, and what they sounded like mattered a lot less than just taking part. The lyrics would all be projected on to a big screen too, so there was no need to actually learn the words and the only purpose of the rehearsals was to make sure that the majority of singers had at least heard the songs before. The four hours of singing would be made up of carols and other well-known Christmas songs, with the plan to repeat all of them at least twice before they reached the end of the concert. Nonna and Pops would be coming to the second half of the sing-a-thon, which in theory should be an improvement on the first, and there was no way Nonna could do the whole four hours. Abigail had reserved seats for Izzy’s grandparents, as a thank you for her efforts in recruiting more singers. Not all of the midwives had been able to join in, but they’d spread the word, and Brae had offered a free fish and chip supper to anyone taking part. That had done more to grow the numbers than anything Izzy had tried.

‘Ooh.’ Abigail grimaced and placed a hand on her bump, just as she was lining up the members of the sing-a-thon choir, ready for a quick warm up before the concert started.

‘Are you okay?’ Izzy turned towards her, any nerves about performing instantly forgotten.

‘It’s just Braxton Hicks that’s all, they’ve been coming and going for the past week or so and sometimes they make me catch my breath.’

‘It’s just as well you’re not performing Abs.’ Kobe, Abigail’s partner, put his arm around her and she leant her head on his shoulder, looking like she was probably regretting trying to organise a charity Christmas concert this close to her delivery date.

‘I’m just really glad I didn’t end up going into labour early. It would just about have finished things for Dad, if I hadn’t been able to pull this off.’ Abigail glanced towards her father, who’d positioned himself by the Christmas tree at the front of the church. She’d told Izzy that he still put the angel her mother had made at the top of the tree every year, although someone else must have climbed the stepladder to do it this time. Reverend Sampson was using two sticks to get around now, but that hadn’t stopped him interfering with the plans for the sing-a-thon or telling Abigail there were better ways of doing things. Izzy suspected that, deep down, he was doing it because he cared about his daughter and wanted things to go well for her sake, but he was doing a pretty good job of hiding it and Abigail clearly still felt like she had a lot to prove.

‘Just promise me, if you even think it might be more than Braxton Hicks at any point, that you’ll tell me.’ Izzy raised her eyebrows and Abigail smiled.

‘I promise and, if the worst happens, I couldn’t have asked for more, having three midwives in the choir. I feel like I’ve got all bases covered!’ Abigail laughed. ‘Now let’s get ready to start the show.’

There was something about the atmosphere inside a church which always made the hairs on the back of Izzy’s neck stand up, and the sound of voices rising up to the vaulted stone ceiling only heightened that sensation. Izzy wouldn’t have described herself as religious, but there was a sense of something other worldly in the air all the same, as if magic was about to happen. The voices filling the air might not be pitch perfect, but there was a real feeling of community when she looked around her. At the first rehearsal, introductions had been made, and there were local business owners, fisherman and farmers amongst their number. Ella’s parents, Jago and Ruth, who owned Mehenicks’ bakery in the harbour, were providing refreshments when the sing-a-thon was over. They’d be offering Cornish fruit cake, mini chocolate logs, Ninemaiden’s mead and some soft drinks, in exchange for more charity donations.  The few rehearsals they’d held, had focused mainly on practicing for the two least well-known songs which would mark the end of the concert. Abigail felt it was important to include sea shanties to celebrate Port Agnes’ location and history, so they’d be singing the Sailor’s Carol and Christmas at Sea, just before they all tucked into the treats from Mehenick’s bakery.

There was some swapping in and out of the choir at various points during the night. After all, not everyone could sing for four hours straight, without needing a comfort break at some point. Abigail had been on her feet for the whole thing, though, the only time she’d stopped was at the halfway point, when they’d all had a brief break. It was an opportunity for any audience members, who wanted to escape, to leave without feeling embarrassed about going. It also allowed for some new audience members to come in and watch the second half. Izzy had caught sight of her grandparents, during the choir’s rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman, the first song they’d performed after the break, and Nonna’s face had been shining with joy. Kobe had done a great job of making sure the lyrics appeared on the screen, so no-one had the excuse to just mime, and Izzy had found herself enjoying the night far more than she’d expected to.

‘I just wanted to pause for a moment before we perform the last two songs.’ Abigail addressed the audience, as the concert reached its finale. ‘I’d like to thank you all so much for coming along to support us tonight, to my choir of sing-a-thon heroes, and to Ruth and Jago Mehenick for providing all the refreshments tonight. So far, with donations and sponsorhip received in advance, we’ve already raised over three thousand pounds. A third of all money raised tonight will go to the church restoration fund and the other two thirds will go to the school in Tanzania where Kobe and I met, which provides free education for local children who might not get an education otherwise. Seeing the community pull together for this event, reminds me just how much I love Port Agnes and why I’ve missed it as much as I have.’

A big cheer went up from the crowd and Izzy fully expected Reverend Sampson to add his thanks to his daughter for all her hard work, and to Kobe for helping organise such a successful night, but he didn’t even attempt to get to his feet and his face was emotionless. Izzy was about to go completely against type and lead the thanks to Abigail and Kobe, but then the strains of the Sailor’s Carol started and the moment was lost. Abigail looked as if she might be trying not to cry, but she never wavered from her focus and the sound of words reverberating around the walls of the church made Izzy shiver all over again.

By the time they’d finished singing Christmas at Sea too, there was barely a dry eye in the church. It seemed to encapsulate all the emotion of being far from home at Christmas or missing those who weren’t around anymore. Even Reverend Sampson had dabbed at his eyes and, if he wasn’t proud of Abigail after this, the sad truth was that he probably never would be. Izzy couldn’t believe he could be anything other than proud of his daughter, though, and she just hoped he’d get past whatever was holding him back from admitting that, by the time the baby arrived. She might have stopped believing years ago that she’d be reconciled with her own mother, but that didn’t stop her hoping it could happen for someone else.

* * *

‘This is the perfect way to end a brilliant night.’ Nonna had just polished off her second mini chocolate log, while Izzy’s grandfather went to get the car and bring it closer to the church, now that almost everyone else had gone. There was nothing much left on the table of cakes that the Mehenicks had provided and the rest of the midwifery team had headed off to Penrose Plaice, to take up Brae’s offer of a free fish and chip supper. There were a few stragglers still inside the church and Reverend Sampson was holding court with some of the older audience members, who Abigail had said were part of his regular congregation.

‘I’m so pleased you had a great time and I’m really glad you persuaded me to join in, it’s been great.’ Izzy planted a kiss on her grandmother’s cheek. ‘I just want to go and find Abigail and say goodbye, before Pops gets back.’

The words were barely out of Izzy’s mouth, before Kobe came sprinting down one of the aisles and skidded to a halt next to her.

‘Thank God you’re still here.’ He looked up to the ceiling of the church for a split second, as if he was sending a direct message up above. ‘I think Abs is in labour.’

‘I’ll come and take a look. Will you be alright here for a minute Nonna, until Pops gets back?’

‘Can you both come?’ Kobe’s eyes were open so wide that Izzy could see the white all the way around the irises, as he turned to look at her grandmother. ‘Abs has been saying that all she wants is her mum and I think it might help having you there. I feel like I’m being worse than useless.’

‘I’m happy to come, but if she doesn’t want me around, I’ll come straight out again.’ The three of them hurried back down the aisle, with Nonna going as fast as she could manage to try and keep up. Izzy was keeping everything crossed that Kobe was panicking over nothing and that, even if Abigail was in labour, they’d still have plenty of time to get to the hospital. Reverend Sampson hadn’t even looked up from his conversation, so at least Izzy would have a chance to assess the situation before gossip could spread around the whole of Port Agnes about what was going on.

‘Oh Izzy, I’m so glad you’re still here.’ Abigail was definitely crying now, fear and pain obvious on her face.

‘Don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay, I promise.’ Izzy laid a hand on the other woman’s arm. Abigail was lying on a sofa in the vestry, a room shut off from the rest of the church, to the left of the chancel. ‘Have you been having regular contractions.’

‘Uh huh.’ Abigail’s face twisted into a grimace as she spoke.

‘How far apart.’

‘They’re almost constant now and my waters broke during the break in the concert, but the contractions weren’t a lot worse than the Braxton Hicks and I thought I’d still have ages.’

‘Why on earth didn’t you say something?’ Kobe took the words right out of Izzy’s mouth and she could have guessed the reply, before Abigail spoke.

‘I didn’t want to let Dad down, but it was like the baby was waiting for the concert to be over and then everything seemed to get a thousand times more intense. Now I’m not sure I could even try and stand up.’

‘Don’t worry, whatever’s happening it’ll be fine, but I need to examine you to see what our options are.’

‘Are you sure you don’t want me to leave? I can let your father know what’s going on.’ Nonna was already edging towards the door, but Abigail shook her head.

‘I don’t want to tell Dad anything until we know whether the baby’s really coming and I’d like you to stay, if that’s okay. I kept catching sight of you during the concert and you remind me so much of my mum. I said that to Kobe when I realized this was really it. I wish she was here more than anything, but, with you around, at least I can try and pretend she is. As long as you don’t mind?’

‘You’re kidding aren’t you?’ Izzy exchanged a look with her grandmother. ‘Nonna’s dreamt about being a midwife all her life and now she’s got her chance. Let’s take a look at you and we can work out a plan.’

Two minutes later, it was obvious to Izzy that their options had been narrowed down to one. It didn’t matter what any of them did, this baby was coming and it was coming soon. It would be almost impossible to move Abigail to the vicarage, let alone get her to the hospital, so it looked like the baby was going to make its appearance right here, in the church.

Izzy called Anna and quickly explained what was happening, and Anna agreed to call an ambulance in case they needed it and then head straight over. It was a relief to know that reinforcements were already on the way. Then she texted her grandfather to explain things and to ask him to take Reverend Sampson to one side and let him know what was happening. Abigail had already grabbed hold of Nonna’s hand and Izzy had brought a chair over to the sofa, so that her grandmother could sit down. Nonna was whispering words of encouragement to Abigail and her face already looked less pained than it had when they’d arrived. Kobe had been dispatched to collect some emergency supplies from the vicarage next door to the church and he would have given Usain Bolt a run for his money. He might have been quicker than anyone would have expected, but even in the short time he’d been gone, things had already moved on.

‘I want to push!’ Abigail was gritting her teeth and dropped her chin to her chest as she spoke, her whole body tensing. She barely had time to pause for breath before the urge to push took hold again. ‘It feels like my tuppence is actually on fire.’

Izzy exchanged another look with her grandmother. Nonna was the only person she’d heard refer to that part of the anatomy as a tuppence and she’d have bet anything that Abigail’s mother had done the same thing. Whatever it was that had put her grandmother in Abigail’s path on the day she gave birth, there certainly seemed to be some serendipity at play.

‘The reason it’s burning is because the baby’s head is crowning.’ Izzy shot her what she hoped was a reassuring smile, but being the sole midwife in charge of a delivery with no equipment to hand was making her heart race. Abigail wasn’t the only one who was relieved to have Nonna around. Izzy just hoped Anna wasn’t going to take too long to arrive. ‘If you’re happy for Nonna to keep holding your hand, Kobe can brace one leg. I’ll do the other one and we should be able to persuade this baby to put in an appearance sooner rather than later.’

‘I’m really glad you’re both here and the vestry was always one of Mum’s domains, sorting out the choristers’ robes and all of Dad’s. We’d all sit in here together too, sometimes, after the Sunday services were over, and talk about the week just gone by and the week to come. It feels like I’m closer to her, just being here.’ The last word was extended as another contraction took hold. Two more like that, and Abigail and Kobe were really close to becoming parents.

‘Baby’s head is out now, so you just need to listen to your body and we can get the shoulders out with the next one or two contractions. Once you’ve done that, the rest is all plain sailing.’ Izzy was still half listening for footsteps and Anna’s arrival, but this baby wasn’t going to wait for anything and so far – apart from being born in a vestry – it was almost the perfect delivery.

‘That’s exactly what it was like when I had Izzy’s mother, the shoulders were the last bit of effort I needed to make. You’re nearly there and you’ve done so well.’ Nonna brushed the hair away from Abigail’s forehead as she spoke and some of the tension instantly left her face.

‘You really are doing amazingly, Abs, and we’re going to have our baby any minute.’ Kobe stroked her leg and Abigail looked as if she was going to say something in response, but then another contraction took the words out of her mouth.

‘That’s it, the shoulders are out, you’ve done brilliantly.’ As Izzy looked at Kobe, she could see tears pouring down the new father’s face. He wasn’t the only one. ‘Okay, one big push and that should be it.’ Izzy was supporting the baby’s head and shoulders, as Abigail gave it everything she had for one last time.

‘Oh Abs, it’s a girl!’ Kobe didn’t need to wait for official confirmation, or even for Abigail to discover the baby’s gender herself, as Izzy lifted their newborn daughter on to Abigail’s chest for skin-to-skin contact, covering the baby over with one of the towels that Kobe had bought over from the vicarage.

‘She’s beautiful.’ Nonna had moved her chair back from the new family, her cheeks wet with tears as she looked at them.

‘She is and we couldn’t have done it without you two, thank you both so much.’ Abbie was half-laughing, half-crying as she looked down at her daughter. ‘Welcome to the world Noelle.’

‘That’s a lovely name, especially for this time of the year.’ Izzy breathed a sigh of relief as she checked that Abigail’s uterus was continuing to contract, exactly as it should during the third stage of labour. Everything still looked like it was going to plan and, when Anna finally got there, they should be able to cut the cord. There was no reason why Abigail and the baby would even need to go into the hospital, if they didn’t want to.

‘Noelle was Mum’s name and it would have been her sixty-sixth birthday last week, so it seems really fitting.’

‘I’m here!’ Anna suddenly burst through the door, carrying the bag she took on home deliveries, her own twin baby bump probably the only thing stopping her from breaking into a run.

‘You’re too late.’ Abigail beamed again as she spoke. ‘Luckily Noelle and I had the two best midwives possible in Izzy and Nonna, although I think my Mum had a hand in all of this too.’

‘I’m almost certain she did, my love.’ Izzy’s grandmother smiled. ‘And I won’t be asking for anything for Christmas now that I’ve finally had the chance to be a midwife, even if it was only as an assistant and just for one day.’

‘I just hope Noelle’s grandfather is as thrilled by her arrival as everyone else.’ Abigail leant back against the cushions on the sofa, suddenly looking exhausted. If Izzy hadn’t known the details of her own birth, she might have found it impossible to believe that anyone could look at Noelle and not fall instantly in love. Izzy’s mother hadn’t even wanted to hold her and she’d told her as much, years later. Babies might bring their own love with them, just like Nonna said, but the people whose lives those babies arrived in needed to have big enough hearts to accept that love. Izzy just hoped that Reverend Sampson wouldn’t let his daughter or granddaughter down, but it would definitely be his loss if he did.

* * *

Izzy’s home visit to Abigail was the last of the day on Christmas Eve, after which she’d be heading straight to her grandparents’ place to spend Christmas with them, just like she had every single year of her life. Anna had taken a photograph of Izzy and Nonna with Abigail, Kobe, and baby Noelle on Abigail’s phone. She was hoping Abigail would be happy to forward it on to her, so that she could get it printed out for her grandmother.

Nonna hadn’t stopped talking about how amazing it had been to witness a new life come into the world. She might have given birth to a daughter of her own, but this had been such a different experience for her grandmother and it was clearly one she wouldn’t have traded for the world. It had reminded Izzy just how lucky she was and she was going to try and channel the feeling she’d had – sharing Noelle’s delivery with Nonna – at every single birth she attended from now on. Abigail’s family would always be special to her and she couldn’t think of a better to way to finish work for Christmas than by visiting them.

‘Oh this is brilliant timing!’ Abigail opened the door to the vicarage, looking amazing for someone who’d only given birth four days before. ‘You’ve caught us just before Dad heads off to do the Nativity service in the church, then he’s got a few hours break before Midnight Mass. Although it’s just as well that work is calling him, otherwise Kobe and I wouldn’t get a look in with the baby. Come on in.’

Izzy followed Abigail down the hallway and into the drawing room, where Reverend Sampson was sitting in a high-backed armchair in front of the fireplace, staring down at his new granddaughter. There was already a stocking with her name on it hanging up above the fireplace and it wasn’t just the flickering of the flames making her grandfather’s face glow – it was obvious that he’d fallen in love.

‘Can I get you a cup of tea or coffee? Or I make a mean hot chocolate?’ Kobe turned towards Izzy as he spoke.

‘I probably shouldn’t, given the amount of chocolates and biscuits we’ve had in the staffroom lately, but I’d love a hot chocolate, thank you.’

‘No problem, it’s the least we can do for our wonderful midwife. In fact a round of hot chocolates for everyone is called for to celebrate, I think.’ Kobe disappeared to make the drinks and Reverend Sampson finally tore his eyes away from his granddaughter.

‘Thank you so much for everything you did. I still can’t believe that Abbie struggled on through the sing-a-thon and didn’t tell any of us she was having contractions.’

‘Me neither!’ Izzy shook her head, most women going through labour left everyone around them in no doubt of what was going on.

‘I thought they were just the Braxton Hicks until my waters broke and then I thought it must just be early labour. It was nowhere near as bad as I expected.’

‘The funny thing is her mother said the same.’ Reverend Sampson smiled at the memory. ‘It’s how Abbie ended up being born upstairs, in mine and her mother’s bedroom. Noelle just thought it was the early stages of labour and the midwife only just made it in time.’

‘You’d better warn baby Noelle to err on the side of caution when she’s old enough to have her own children, it sounds like it’s a family trait!’

‘I hope it’s just one of the things that Mum has passed on to her.’ Abigail looked towards her father. ‘But she’s already the apple of her grandpa’s eye.’

‘That much is obvious.’ The warm sensation enveloping Izzy had nothing to do with the temperature in the room. Whatever bridges there had been to build between Abigail and her father, Noelle had built them the moment she’d arrived. ‘How are you feeling? Is the feeding going okay?’

‘She’s taken to it like a pro. They all have and I couldn’t have asked for a better partner for Abbie than Kobe has been.’ Reverend Sampson answered before his daughter could even get a word in. ‘I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to see that he’s perfect for her.’

‘I think we all just needed to adjust after Mum died and I know it was hard for you to see my marriage break down, but I didn’t handle things as well as I could have done either.’ Abigail waived away her father’s attempts to protest. ‘Mum was always the one who found a way to see both sides and to help us do it too, but I’ve got a funny feeling baby Noelle is about to pick up where Mum left off.’

‘I’d say she already has.’ Reverend Sampson looked down at his granddaughter again and then up at Izzy. ‘I’m going to have to get ready for the Nativity in a minute but I’m finding it harder and harder to tear myself away from this little one. I’ve got a lot to live up to at the church, though, after the sing-a-thon. Abbie raised all that money on the day and there’s even more rolling in now, especially after the newspaper article. Her mother definitely chose the right name when she picked Abigail. It means father’s joy in Hebrew and I can honestly say that being a father has been the best thing that ever happened to me. Now I get to be a grandpa too and I can’t thank you enough for making sure Noelle arrived safely.’

‘You’re getting mushy in your old age, Dad!’ Abigail might have tried to laugh it off, but there was a catch in her voice that told the real story about how much his words meant to her. ‘Let me take Noelle and you can get going. I’m sure Kobe will come over the church to give you a hand as soon as he’s finished making the drinks.’

‘I don’t doubt it, he’s a good man.’ Reverend Sampson got to his feet with the aid of his walking sticks. Hopefully having a new granddaughter around would give him the encouragement to finally get the operation he needed too. Given what the little girl had already achieved in her family, if anyone could, it was Noelle.

‘So, is everything going as well as it seems to be?’ Izzy turned to Abigail, after her father had gone. There were things she needed to check and she’d have to weigh the baby too, to make sure that the breastfeeding was really going okay, although Noelle certainly looked content. And the one question she wanted Abigail to answer before Kobe was back, was how she was feeling. Izzy didn’t want her to have to edit her response for anyone else’s benefit.

‘If I hadn’t seen for myself how everything’s changed, I wouldn’t have believed it.’ Abigail shook her head. ‘The moment Dad set eyes on Noelle, it was like all the tough times between us just melted away. He went from saying that he’d never be able to marry me and Kobe in the church, to planning a joint wedding and christening, but only if that’s what I still wanted. He and Kobe have been bonding over what life as the father of a daughter is going to be like and they even have private little in-jokes now. I can’t quite get my head around that fact that she’s only been here for four days and she’s already changed our family beyond all recognition.’

‘It’s so lovely to see it, but if that change ever feels overwhelming, you can always talk to one of the midwives about it, or your health visitor when they take over.’

‘I will do, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.’ Abigail stroked her daughter’s head. ‘I thought I might resent the fact that it took Noelle’s arrival to make Dad see things from my point of view, but I’ve realised that it’s not about us thinking the same way about things. He’s got his beliefs and I’ve got mine and he’ll probably always carry some level of sadness that I went through a divorce. But I think Noelle’s helped us both see that, even when we’re coming at things from a million miles apart, it’s always possible to find a middle ground. So there’s no point in me dwelling on the past, when the present is such a gift.’

‘Well, you guys have definitely made my Christmas and my grandmother’s come to that.’

‘Oh that reminds me, there’s something for you both, in the gift bags on the end of the sofa. Could you grab them for me please? You can open yours now, if you like.’ Izzy did as Abigail asked and pulled the picture frame out of the gift bag with her name on it. There was a framed newspaper article inside, with a headline saying ‘Port Agnes Midwives Deliver the Perfect Christmas Present.’

‘It’s the photo Anna took.’ Izzy was still trying to process it all, Reverend Sampson had mentioned a news article, but she’d assumed that it was just about the sing-a-thon.

‘I thought it might be a good idea to contact The Three Ports News and that way we’d get some more publicity and a few more donations for the church and the school in Tanzania. They put the story straight into the Christmas issue of the Three Ports News that came out this morning and they said it might even make some of the national newspapers online. I sent Kobe out to buy ten copies, so we’d have copies for his family and mine, for Noelle when she gets older, and for her two wonderful midwives.’

‘Nonna is going to love this more than any Christmas present she’s ever had. Thank you so much.’ Looking down at the picture, Izzy had to blink back the tears yet again. Abigail was so right. There was no point trying to change the past and even less point in trying to control what the future might bring. What mattered was the present and, no matter what happened in the year to come with Nonna, this would always be the Christmas when they’d shared an unforgettable moment at baby Noelle’s birth. The headline might say that they’d delivered the perfect Christmas present, but it was Izzy who felt like she’d been given the biggest gift and she couldn’t wait to share another Christmas with her favourite people in the entire world. There’d never be a more perfect present than that after all.

Message from the author:

I hope all of my wonderful mailing list subscribers have a fabulous Christmas this year and get to spend it with the people they love most in the world, just like Izzy. You can discover a little bit more about Izzy in book three of The Cornish Midwife series, if you haven’t already read it, ‘A Winter’s Wish for the Cornish Midwife’ and much more in book four ‘A Spring Surprise for the Cornish Midwife’. In book five of the series, Izzy will be the midwife taking centre stage.  Thank you for all your support with the series so far and I hope you’ve enjoyed this short story written just for you. Jo xx

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