Mary had fallen asleep with her head on his arm, and he lay looking at her tired face, a little less obstinate as sleep relaxed its lines. His arm ached. He feared moving it would wake her, disturb her at the least. It had taken him so long to win back her trust, and he was still being abnormally careful to maintain it.
He sighed, very gently. If he had been a man to whom faith and trust came more naturally perhaps he never would have doubted her preposterous story about the baby. But he was a rational, logical man. Mary was the one to whom angel explanations came easily.
He sighed again. There was nobody to whom he could tell his own fears and anxieties and sorrows. They were packed up in a box, and he only occasionally took them out and looked at them. Now, because the pain in his arm was keeping him awake, he let them out, one by one. He did not want to be heading to Bethlehem to make a fresh start – he had wanted to stay at home with his mother, but that was plainly impossible just now. He was worried over getting enough work in a new town, however handy he was, and however much distant cousins offered reassurances of recommendations. He was worried by the exhaustion written on Mary’s face.
The baby, safe in the bulge of Mary’s stomach, found his accommodating home was resting on a firmer surface. He kicked it, hard. Joseph felt the tiny heels drum on him. He was taken by surprise, and found himself finally looking at the big worry, the one he had successfully avoided for days.
Would he be able to be a father to this child? He had so longed for a son of his own. He had so wanted a spark of his own spark, a son like him to teach and to nurture. His own child, conceived in an act of love and excitement, who carried his line on into the future; that same line that went all the way back to King David.
That imaginary child, the miniature Joseph, was not this live one which was kicking him. Could he be a father to it? Carefully, carefully, he put his warm hand over the bulge, and pressed gently against the heels. There, those were the buttocks, lying up towards her ribs, and now, down, over the back, and that, there, that hard and resisting lump, that was the head. This was a living child, hidden, but there, perfectly formed.
‘Suppose I say, “I don’t want to be your father” – what then?’ though Joseph, ‘suppose I say, “I can’t manage it?” what would happen?’ It struck him that it would be a terrible thing to have a half-hearted father. But suppose that was all he could manage?
His arm ached worse. It seemed that the sweetest thing in the world would be to move his arm. To move his arm, and to have a child of his own body, the sweetest things. He looked down at the determined beloved face, and knew his arm would not move, until she rolled off it. He laid his hand on the little hidden head of the child. So small, so vulnerable to a thousand mis-adventures. Suddenly, as though without his willing it, a great tide of protective love rose in him. This child, this was the child he loved and longed to be father to. Not some imagined, perfect reproduction of himself, but this particular flesh and blood baby carried by his beloved. He suddenly wanted it with a great aching longing, so huge that his earlier doubts seemed stupid.
‘Though I bet you will be just as stubborn as she is,’ he whispered to the bump. Mary sighed and moved her head a fraction, so that his arm hurt worse. Joseph, whose powers of acceptance were great, lay in the huge stillness of night, with a hand over his son, blessing him.