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In Bristol, England, Bri's otherwise stressful day of teaching at a noisy boy's school is frequently interrupted by his fantasies of making love to his wife Sheila. When he returns to their home, which is filled with a menagerie of pets and his darkly expressive paintings, he startles Sheila by attaching a student's toy spider to his cheek, and tries to seduce her. Reminding him that their ten-year-old daughter Josephine will soon be home from care and require feeding and a bath, Sheila, an amateur actress, suggests that they ask Bri's mother Grace to babysit, so that he can attend her rehearsal. Refusing, Bri half-teasingly accuses Sheila of having an affair with Freddie Underwood, his best childhood friend and a successful businessman who is in her theater group. After Jo, a severely brain damaged child in a vegetative state, is brought home in her wheelchair, Bri and Sheila pretend that she tells them about her day. As they have done for many years, they make self-mocking, dark-humored jokes, and project onto their child a fictitious personality who is eccentric and willful. Separately, Sheila thinks about Bri's silly pranks and ridiculous accusations and Bri contemplates the attention-getting behavior that marks his desperate need for some kind of fulfillment. He recalls an event that happened ten years earlier, when Sheila was pregnant: In the afterglow of sex, Bri and Sheila discuss previous sexual partners. Bri, who has had fewer lovers than Sheila, teases her about her promiscuity and feels good that she considers him the only man who gives her "real satisfaction." Back in the present, Bri tells Jo about the time she was born: Sheila goes into labor and Bri, because they have no phone, walks to the callbox to ring the midwife to come. The next morning, the chain-smoking Grace arrives, well-meaning but oblivious to Sheila's discomfort. After two days, a young doctor is called, who tells Bri that the difficult labor is due to Sheila's narrow pelvic opening. After five days of suffering, Sheila is taken to the hospital, where labor is induced and Jo is born. Some time later, Bri and Sheila run along the beach with Jo in her carriage, where Bri confides he prayed for Sheila's life during those five days, despite his skepticism about religion. Bri fears that God has taken revenge because he called Him a "manic depressive rugby footballer." In his fantasy, the sea carries Jo and her carriage out to sea, but, in the present, as Bri puts Jo to bed, he assures her that he did not allow the sea to take her away and then tells her how, when she first appeared to be sick, their doctor misdiagnosed it as "wind." He tells her that after she went into a coma, the doctor arranged for her to be hospitalized. He explains: A few weeks later after several tests, an insensitive pediatrician tells Sheila that Jo is a "spastic, multi-plegic epileptic with a damaged cerebral cortex, but with no organic malformation of the brain," and then admits he prefers the term "vegetable," which he pronounces with a "w." In the present, Bri tells Jo about the vicar to whom Sheila confided: Sheila asks if the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty" is about a spastic like Jo and expresses her wish for a miracle. The vicar considers whether God caused disease and infirmity because we misuse the freedom He gave us, or if it exists to stimulate research into disease and infirmity. When Sheila exclaims that she wants magic, not an explanation, the vicar offers to perform a ceremony in which he does his "laying on of hands bit." In the present, Sheila cries in the theater dressing room, as she recalls how Jo's condition improved slightly, until she caught a virus, had a grand mal seizure and completely relapsed. Although Bri lost all faith, Sheila says to herself that she still secretly hopes for improvement. Freddie, who has waited patiently for Sheila, and his wife Pam, who finds Sheila's emotional outbreaks offensive, take her home. There Freddie tries to reassure Bri that he and Sheila are not having an affair, and Bri admits that his false accusations are a way to stir up passion. Bri and Sheila joke about "Joe Egg," and tell the Underwoods it is their pet name for Jo and refers to an old saying Bri's grandmother used to describe idleness. Bri off-handedly mentions that he suffocated Jo, stunning everyone. Although he admits he was joking, Bri asks Sheila seriously if she felt relieved when he said it, but she calls Jo a miracle of life, no matter how flawed. When she adds that Jo is the "life we made," Bri is troubled by the phrase's double meaning, causing him to have a brief recollection of a nun congratulating him that Jo is a blessed innocent who will never know evil. Throughout the night, Freddie suggests repeatedly that they should put Jo in a good, loving institution and move on with their lives. Bri replies that they once tried to institutionalize Jo but the attempt failed. Sensing that Bri has conflicting thoughts about euthanasia, Freddie tries to convince him of its wrongness, reminding him that the Nazis supported it. Pam says she supports state-administered euthanasia and admits that she cannot bear anything "N.P.A.," which is her acronym for "not physically attractive." Anxious to leave, she tells how she is repulsed by Freddie's charitable work with organizations that give aid to deformed children. As they cannot survive in nature, she feels they should not be forced by modern medicine to live in misery. When Pam admits that she cannot manage to love anyone other than her own three children, Freddie forces her upstairs to look at Jo, where, after seeing the sleeping child, she admits Jo has a pretty face. Bri and Sheila resort to their joking to describe Jo's imaginary personality, which they call the "coach tour lady." Outside, carolers are singing, prompting Bri and Sheila to dance with Jo, and Freddie sings along. Grace then stops by to present a new sweater she bought for Jo, which she admiringly says would look good on the child if she were active. Hearing that Jo needs medicine, Pam, anxious to escape, drives to the druggist to fetch it. Soon after, Sheila claims that Jo is ill, and while the others leave to phone a doctor, Bri takes the child outside, from where he can see Sheila frantically searching for them. Looking at Jo, he imagines what she would be like as one of his misbehaving students. Eventually he brings her back, fearing she is dead, and confides that he intended to let her die in the garden, but could not. While everyone, including Pam, scrutinize Jo for signs of breathing, medics, responding to their earlier call, take Jo to the hospital and save her life. The next morning, Sheila suggests that Bri call in sick, so they can spend the day together in bed. Acknowledging they need a second honeymoon, Sheila offers to look for a good residential hospital, where they can leave Jo three or four weeks a year. Bri says he will go to the callbox to ring the school, but instead surreptitiously takes a packed suitcase and departs on a one-way train to London. Sheila, waiting naked in bed for him, listens to the clock tick.