The story opens with Julie, the pregnant teenager who is its protagonist, looking at herself in the mirror. She is in the London apartment of Debbie, a prostitute who took her in five months earlier, when she ran away from home to hide her condition from her parents. Julie is now in labor, and Debbie, who had promised to help her, is out of the country with a man. Julie is surprised that the other people in the apartment—from whom she has managed to keep her pregnancy a secret—do not seem to notice that her water has broken and that she is soaked with sweat. She leaves a note for Debbie with her home address and gets a bag she had prepared ahead of time. As she is about to leave, she goes back and takes extra towels from Debbie’s bathroom, reflecting on the older woman’s generosity toward her.
According to her plan, Julie takes a bus to another part of town where she knows there is an unlocked shed in an abandoned lot. It is sleeting, and she is in pain. When she gets to the shed, there is a large dog in front of the door. She throws a brick at it, and the dog runs into the shed where she is planning to give birth. She soon realizes that it is a starving stray and allows it to stay with her. She doesn’t know what to do next. She takes off her underwear and calls out quietly for Debbie. She is in agony and feels very lonely. She squats against the wall and soon delivers the baby.
She has supplies for wrapping the baby and cutting its umbilical cord. When she picks up the baby, she is surprised that she feels happy and proud. She examines it, seeing that it is healthy and noticing that it is a girl. She delivers the afterbirth, which she allows the hungry dog to devour. She dresses, puts the bundled baby inside of her coat, and goes out into the street. She goes into a phone booth, puts the baby on the floor, and leaves.
Julie then goes to a nearby pub and uses its bathroom to clean herself up. She watches through the pub’s window as a couple goes into the phone booth, finds the baby, and calls for an ambulance. It had been her plan for the baby to be found and taken somewhere safe, but Julie nevertheless feels sad and empty as she heads back out into the rain. She gets on the subway and heads home to her parents’ house in a nearby suburb.
When Julie arrives home, her father, Len, answers the door. She is surprised by how small and ordinary he looks; her fear of him is what drove her to run away from home in the first place. Len calls for her mother, and they invite her in. Her parents are crying. They treat her politely, promising not to ask her “awkward questions.” Julie asks for something to eat and a bath. She bathes quickly and goes back downstairs to her parents. As she eats the meager sandwich her mother has prepared, she thinks of the exotic and plentiful food that Debbie provided her while she was pregnant. Julie tells her parents she’d been staying with a girl, and they are relieved that she was not with a boyfriend. At this point, Julie reflects back on the single sexual encounter that led to her pregnancy.
Julie feels that she can see her parents more clearly now. Compared to Debbie, they seem repressed and cold. She thinks about Debbie’s situation as a prostitute and her reasons for taking Julie in and caring for her. She remembers spending the night in Debbie’s bed and thinks about the lack of physical affection in her own family. A news item comes on the television. It is about an abandoned baby found in a phone booth, Julie’s baby. Julie is worried that her parents will put the pieces together, but they do not. Instead, her father mentions Julie’s aunt, Jessie, who, he reveals, got pregnant out of wedlock as a teenager and kept the baby. Len cries as he tells the story. He had feared that this was what had happened to Julie and is now relieved because he thinks that it did not. Julie is shocked by this revelation. To keep herself from crying, she excuses herself to go to bed. She first apologizes to her parents, and they accept. She is confused because she realizes that if she had told her parents about her pregnancy, they would not have kicked her out. She wonders about her own future and tries to imagine a life with her baby, living either with Debbie or with her parents. She dismisses both options and starts thinking about moving to London as soon as she has finished high school. As she drifts off to sleep, she tries to reassure herself that she has proven that she can do anything she wants to do.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Doris Lessing, Published by Gale Group, 2001.