Your son. Emily swallowed. ‘May we . . .?’
‘Yes, Alice has gone to get him. I thought you would want to meet him before we—’ He held up a thick folder. ‘Paperwork. Tedious.’
She couldn’t sit down. She held tight to Robbie’s hand and tried not to float away. Tried to stay here and now, in this room which could be anywhere with its drapes and its plants, with the scent of Honeywell’s cologne. Robbie was beside her. He was solid and real beside her, the only real thing there was.
‘We’re doing this together,’ he whispered into her ear, and then the door opened and a woman walked in with their son.
He was wrapped in a white waffle blanket and all she could see at first was his tiny outline and a bit of fluffy blond hair. The woman who held him was wearing a nurse’s outfit but to Emily she was a blur. Emily went to step forward, and then she checked herself. Staring and hungry.
Babies. She had seen hundreds of babies. Thousands of babies.
This one could be hers.
‘It’s all right, you can hold him,’ said Honeywell. Robbie let go of her hand. Slowly, she held out her arms and the nurse put the baby into them.
He was a warm, sweet weight. He was awake; his eyes were blue and they looked up into hers with that serious, intent expression that babies had sometimes. His hair was longer in front and formed a sort of soft quiff. His breathing was quick, like a bird’s.
‘He’s small,’ she said, surprised to find her voice sounding almost normal. ‘I’ve held newborns who were this weight.’
‘He’s lost some weight since birth,’ said the nurse, ‘but he’s started putting it back on again. Two ounces since his last weighing.’
She touched his cheek. It was soft as thistledown and he turned his head towards her finger. It was instinctive rooting behaviour but it felt like a gesture of trust and she had to blink back sudden tears.
‘He’s beautiful,’ murmured Robbie, behind her. ‘Look at him, he’s looking at you like he knows you.’
‘He does know,’ said the nurse. ‘We often see it. Babies seem to know their parents.’
She couldn’t take her gaze from him. ‘What about his – his birth parents?’ she asked. Though she had been told the facts already, she wanted to hear them again. She wanted to check that this could possibly be real.
‘She was an unwed mother,’ said Honeywell from the side of the room. ‘She knew she couldn’t raise a child on her own and decided to give him a better chance. It’s a hard decision, but the kindest one.’
‘Do you know . . . how old she was?’
‘She was very young. She was no more than a child herself. Not old enough to be a mother.’
Emily had seen these girls. These young girls with swollen bellies and varying expressions of fear. They came to see her because they had to. Consuela Diaz, she thought, because she always saw Consuela Diaz in these girls. But Consuela had not been frightened, and these girls were. The babies went to grandparents, mostly, or aunts or older siblings, but she knew that some were adopted. She rarely saw the girls again. If post-natal care was required, they avoided her eye.
She could have delivered this baby herself, to a young girl who knew she could not keep it. The girl could have been seemingly indifferent through labour, or crying with grief. She’d seen both. The mother might have asked to hold the baby, or requested that it was sent away immediately. She’d seen both of those, too.
In all of these cases she had been focused on the present, not the future. Working for a safe delivery and a healthy baby. She had never thought that perhaps the future of one of these children might rest with her.
‘I know your mother didn’t want to give you up,’ she whispered to the baby, who looked back at her with those grave blue eyes. ‘Who would want to give you up? She had to.’
‘He’s got a new mother now,’ murmured Robbie, close to her. ‘He’s got you.’
‘He’s got us.’ Hardly able to believe it was true, she raised the baby and kissed him on his forehead. He smelled of baby powder and milk and when she lowered him he squirmed, screwed up his little face, and began to cry.
‘It’s nearly time for his feed,’ said the nurse. ‘I’ll go get it.’
Emily put the baby on to her shoulder and rocked her body back and forth, patting his bottom. His crying settled to a grizzle.
‘You’re a natural,’ said Honeywell.
‘He knows,’ said Robbie. ‘He knows who his mommy is.’
His voice was awed. Emily caught his eye and she almost burst into tears again.
The nurse returned with a bottle and a square of muslin and Emily sat in one of the chairs, cradling the baby in the crook of her left elbow. She touched the nipple to the baby’s lips and he immediately began to suck.
‘See, he’s a good feeder now,’ said the nurse. ‘It took a little while. Sometimes it does. Put the bottle farther in; that’s it.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘He doesn’t have an official name,’ said Honeywell. ‘You’ll decide that yourselves.’
‘You’ve got to have called him something, though.’ She tore her gaze away from the baby to look at the nurse.
‘We call him Adam,’ the nurse said. ‘We go through the alphabet, and we were back to A again.’
Again. How many children came here nameless?
‘I like Adam,’ said Robbie. ‘What do you think, Emily?’
‘I think that names are important,’ said Emily. ‘And if he’s heard himself called Adam for the past five weeks, then we should keep on calling him Adam. And I like that name, too.’
‘Perfect,’ said Honeywell heartily. ‘Well, I’ll go and make out the paperwork and leave you two alone with your son.’ Emily heard the door swing, and then it was just the three of them in the room.
‘Your son,’ repeated Robbie softly, and he sat on the chair beside Emily. He put his arm around her; he held out his finger to the baby. Adam curled his tiny hand around Robbie’s finger and Emily saw the awe on the face of the man who she loved.
‘He’s our son,’ she said.
Robbie had one photograph of William, the one in his wallet. The edges were soft and the print was scratched. William James Brandon, forever four years old, squinting at the camera and smiling a gap-toothed, crooked smile. His teeth would have come in by now, his hair grown and cut dozens of times. Every time Robbie looked at the photograph he was reminded that William, unseen, was becoming different from the person captured in it.
He bought a Polaroid camera. Each photograph, pulled out and shaken in air, developed instantly. The clothes had no time to date, the sunny weather had no time to fade. Each moment was experienced and almost immediately captured, magically appearing in a square of gloss, framed in white.
He captured Emily bending over baby Adam so that her loose hair formed a veil around his face: Madonna and child. Emily, sleepless and feeding Adam in their bed at 3.30 a.m., half-lit by the bedside lamp. Adam in a high chair: his first taste of mashed banana. His first taste of mashed avocado. His first taste of ice cream, his eyes wide in shock.
Adam crawling across the coarse grass of their lawn. Adam dwarfed by a stuffed Mickey Mouse that Robbie won for him shooting ducks at a carnival. Adam and Emily both asleep on the sofa mid-afternoon, the electric fan trained on their flushed faces. Adam had his hand on Emily’s cheek.