Delivery had been tricky; the baby had come too quickly and there had been some tearing. She examined her patient while the baby fretted in a carrier on the floor.
‘How are you feeling in yourself?’ she asked, already writing her notes in her head: healing as expected, all normal, advised to finish the course of antibiotics and painkillers, no reason for follow-up visit.
‘I’m all right,’ said the woman. Her name was Sarah. Emily smiled at her, a practised smile of professional reassurance, and left her to put her clothes back on. She checked the clock: it was three, which was eight in the evening in England. Her father would be making a cup of tea, reading a book. Maybe he had the radio on to keep him company. Radio 4, voices, so the house would not seem so empty.
Her parents had been married for forty-seven years. What would it be like to live a lifetime with a person and then, suddenly, to find they had gone?
There would be a space in the house. A blank where that person should have been. You would look up to say something, something normal and boring, an offer of tea or a comment on the weather, and that person would not be there to hear.
The baby grizzled. Her patient emerged from behind the screen and sat gingerly in the chair, rocking the carrier with her foot.
‘Are you getting any sleep?’ Emily asked, finishing up her notes. They’d put in a new computer system for patient records and as far as she could tell, it was about three hundred per cent less efficient than old-fashioned paper. She pressed ‘Save’ and an hourglass appeared on the screen.
‘Well, that’s normal I’d say.’ She smiled again at Sarah, and Sarah smiled back. There were dark circles under her eyes. Emily glanced at her records to try to see Sarah’s family circumstances, but the screen had gone blank while the system tried its best to save a few simple lines of text. If it went down again, tomorrow was going to be a nightmare. She clicked the mouse in irritation, and the baby wailed, and Sarah rocked her more quickly with her foot.
‘Don’t try to do too much during the day,’ Emily said. ‘Sleep when the baby sleeps, that’s the trick. Is there anyone who can come and sit with her while you get a nap?’
Sarah shook her head. ‘No, I’ll be OK.’
‘Don’t be afraid to accept help. You’re a new mother, and you’re healing. You should take all the help that’s offered, and if none is offered, don’t be afraid to ask. What about your mother, is she close?’
It was the standard advice she offered, but Sarah flinched at it and for the first time Emily noticed how thin the other woman was. Her belly was still slightly distended from the pregnancy, but her arms were skinny, poking out of the sleeves of her woollen sweater.
‘My mom died last year,’ Sarah said.
Emily must have looked stricken, because Sarah’s eyes widened. ‘It’s OK,’ she said quickly, ‘it’s all right; it’s just that she loved babies. She was wicked good with babies. People called her the baby whisperer. She could take any baby, and make it stop crying within like a second.’
The baby was full-out crying now, red-faced. Sarah stood and took the carrier in her arms, rocking it back and forth.
‘Well, that sounds like a very useful talent to have,’ said Emily.
‘Especially in the middle of the night, right?’ Sarah laughed nervously over the sound of the infant. ‘Anyway, is that all?’
‘Just keep taking your antibiotics until they’re all gone, and if you think you’re not healing properly, don’t hesitate to make another appointment.’
‘OK. I will. Thanks, doctor.’ She picked up the baby and left, and Emily turned back to her computer, stabbing the ‘return’ key. The machine started to make a whirring sound.
There were times, in the middle of the night, when Emily had wanted her own mother. Adam had been an easy baby, on the whole, but every baby had wakeful nights; every baby got a fever. She recalled one night when he had been hot, inconsolable. Robbie and she had taken turns walking him around the house, holding him, crooning, rocking, soothing. Nothing had worked. His hands were little fists, his face a constant scream. Finally, she had sent Robbie to bed to catch some sleep before work while she circled the house singing every lullaby she could remember. He’d stopped crying as the sun came up. When she touched his face it was cool. Adam fell asleep in her arms and outside the windows the sun was coming up over the bay. Over the ocean that stretched eastward all the way to the country where her own mother was at that very moment. The water that separated them and connected them.
She’d thought of the photographs of herself as an infant in her mother’s arms. There was one in a silver frame in her parents’ house, on a table with several other photographs of Emily as a young child, her sister Polly as a baby and toddler. In the photograph, her mother’s hair was swept up into a chignon; she wore a white blouse with a lace-edged collar, and she held the sleeping Emily wrapped in a crocheted blanket. Emily remembered the blanket. It had been pink. She somehow remembered the texture and scent of her mother’s blouse in that photograph, too, though that was surely impossible and she had made it up because of the picture.
She’d hardly looked at that photo when she was living with her parents. It was part of the landscape, the million details of her childhood home that made it up and were too important to be noticed. But holding her own child in the same way her own mother had held her, she thought of that photograph and she wondered if it still stood on that polished mahogany table. Or if it had been taken away, put away. If all the photographs of her had been put away.
The PC beeped and shut itself off. Yvette, the receptionist, knocked and poked her head through the door, looking harried. ‘Sorry, Dr Brandon, sorry, there’s a system problem again, I’m about to get them on the phone.’
‘Can you hold off for a little while, Yvette? I’ve got a call to make.’
‘That’s fine, it’ll give me a chance to think up a list of really good swear words.’ She disappeared.
Emily lifted the phone, pressed 9 for an outside line, and began to dial. 011 for overseas, 44 for England, and then the number she knew from when she’d been a child, a young woman, ringing from the payphone booth at the end of the corridor of her college in Cambridge. She didn’t even have to think about it; her finger found the numbers by itself, even though she had not dialled them for eighteen years.
But she hesitated over the final button.
What if her father didn’t answer? What if he did answer and immediately put the telephone down? What if she only got a snatch of his voice, and it sounded sad and alone and she could not speak with him?
Emily put down the phone. She sat for a moment, thinking. Then she took out the phone book from the drawer of her desk and looked up the number for International Information. Five minutes later, she had another number with the same beginning. The phone rang twice on the other end, and then was answered by a man with a voice she didn’t recognise, but an accent so familiar it made her eyes water.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I’m sorry to bother you so late at home, vicar, and I don’t think we’ve met, but I wondered if you could tell me when the funeral will be for Mrs Charlotte Greaves?’
Robbie stopped off at the Clyde Bay General Store for a cup of coffee before he even got to the boatyard – the owner, Perry, made pretty bad coffee, but it was the only place open this time of morning, and besides, Robbie liked shooting the shit with the old guys who always hung around the store every morning eating home-made doughnuts from the tray on the counter. In the summer they sat on the bench outside, and as soon as it got cold they picked up the bench and put it inside, next to the old wood stove in the centre of the store. Retired lobstermen, all of them, who’d never got out of the habit of getting up before sunrise, even when they were too old to haul pots. They were good for a few minutes’ banter about last night’s Celtics game. In the summer, it was the Red Sox, and in the autumn, the Patriots. Time around here was measured by sports teams and the weather, everything in an endless cycle.