I spent the winter of 1999-2000 in an old Tuscan farmhouse with my pregnant girlfriend, Kate. We were down a mud track, about a mile from the nearest village. There was a villa close by, with a working farm run by an Australian sculptor. It felt like the middle of nowhere. At night it was so dark you couldn't see your hand in front of your face.
We found a hospital in Poggibonsi. It was an hour and a half away by car, but the doctor was kind and knowledgeable, and she spoke English. Our baby's due date was confirmed: 2 February, 2000.
The house was cold, and there were problems with the wiring. We could only switch on one electrical appliance at a time; if we needed the washing machine, we had to turn off the radiator. Though we sometimes wondered if it was reckless to be having a baby – our first – in a foreign country, there were days of sunlight and blue skies, and life was full of the most unlikely laughter. We walked into the post office before Christmas, Kate heavily pregnant and wearing a headscarf. The local Chief of Police was leaning against the counter in his smart black uniform. "Oh look," he said. "Joseph and Mary."
On 31 December, during the late afternoon, I took photos of Kate in the upstairs bedroom, her naked body lit by the last sunlight of the century. That night we danced in a medieval square. Later, we let off fireworks on the flat land outside the house. A huge lopsided moon hung above the trees. We had a month before the baby. Except that Kate's waters broke at 5am on 17 January.
We set off for the hospital, stopping for a coffee near Poggibonsi. The men in the bar were drinking red wine. I said I was about to become a father. They shook my hand and wished me luck. Later that day, I stood outside the operating theatre, staring at a statue of the Virgin Mary in the garden. At twenty-five past two I heard a cry. Not long afterwards, an orderly wheeled a baby out into the corridor. He smiled. "She is pretty," he said. "She is yours."
We called her Eva.
On Friday, Kate was allowed to leave the hospital. She'd had a Caesarian; it was crucial that she rested. As we drove back to the house, it began to snow. I had a crawling, metallic feeling on my skin.
I turned to Kate. "I think I'm getting flu."
"You can't," she said. "I need you."
By the time we reached the house, I was aching all over. I remembered hearing news reports of an epidemic sweeping the country.
A footballer had died in Rome. I called the hospital and described my symptoms.
"Get the baby out of the house," the nurse said. "Get her out of the house. It's very dangerous." I sat on the step that led from the hallway to the living-room and began to cry.
There was only one thing to do. I rang the sculptor who lived down the track. He took Kate and Eva in. I crept into bed. One moment I felt I was in a furnace, the next I shook with cold.
My T-shirt was so drenched with sweat that it slapped on the tiled floor when I took it off.
Kate brought me soup. She was having trouble breast-feeding, and had hardly slept. She thought she'd torn her stitches.
One afternoon, I heard her call my name. I dragged myself over to the window. She was standing in the snow, by the almond tree, looking up at me. "You have to get better," she said. "I can't do this on my own."
"I'm trying," I said.
But was I, really?
I wondered if the flu was psychosomatic, if it was my way of saying I couldn't be relied on. I had looked after my two younger brothers when my mother died suddenly. I was only eight then. At some deep level, perhaps, I felt I'd already had children, and couldn't face all that responsibility again. Or perhaps it had nothing to do with the past, and I was just frightened of fatherhood.
After five days, and only a matter of hours before Kate's parents were due to arrive, the fever lifted, which seemed curious, even to me, but it was safe for Kate and Eva to move back in, and I felt well enough to collect Kate's parents from the station 15 miles away.
When Kate's parents walked into the house, the rooms were aired, and there were sprigs of almond blossom in vases. Kate was upstairs, snuggling under a clean white duvet with Eva. There was no sign of any illness or terror. On the contrary. It looked as if everything had been under control, right from the beginning.
Rupert Thomson is the author of 'Secrecy', published by GrantaReuse content