Strip: Chapter 4
Isobel lowered her novel and, a little irritably, picked up the phone to check the caller display. She didn’t recognise the number. It would be for Harvey, but he was settled in for the evening in his studio at the back of the house. He could pick it up on the extension. He didn’t of course. He routinely ignored the phone. It drove her crazy. The calls kept coming, a whole bunch more since Harvey’s television interview a month ago. Would he please speak to the cardiac team here, the stroke unit there, the Country Women’s Institute, the golf club, Young Nats, a Labour Party fundraiser, the Greens’ Health is Wealth policy announcement. Everyone loved Harvey. As it rang on, she reminded herself she wasn’t his PA, but her resolve broke an instant before the phone clicked over to voicemail.
Later that night, lying in bed unable to sleep, she relived the conversation. It had a car-on-skids unreality to it. It wasn’t that Isobel had forgotten the adoption register, it was more that she’d archived the idea. It had been four years since she’d last heard from that woman, and back then she had been pretty much stuck on one message: ‘Forget it. Unless you want to try international.’ Now her same stolid don’t-get-your-hopes-up voice was saying, ‘We think we may have a baby for you.’
Then the floaty sensation started, and Isobel was up above the swirling details, grasping at facts as they slid past. She heard herself tell the social worker all manner of rational things, such as needing to think, needing to talk to Harvey, and confirming that meeting tomorrow at nine was perfect. Then she stumbled through to Harvey’s studio, where he was bent over his desk, drawing.
She couldn’t find the words to start. She leaned on the door jamb until he looked up.
‘My god, Izzy. Are you all right?’
‘Yeah. No. Yeah. I mean. I don’t know. That was … that was the social worker. There’s a baby, Harve. A little girl.’ She was somewhere between tears and laughter. She looked at him for a signal. Any signal. He was looking at her, no signal forthcoming. Then he put the cap on his pen, laid it on the desk, swivelled his chair and opened his arms.
Isobel walked across the room. The floating feeling had vanished. Now she struggled for forward momentum; she was wading through mud. When his arms went around her, she could not at first lean on him, not fully. Her leaden self might crush him. Dear Harvey, her prop, her scaffold. He pulled her closer.
‘Cup of tea, then,’ he said.
‘I guess,’ said Isobel.
He brought the tea into the lounge, and Isobel shifted her legs off the couch to make room for him. It was the same old couch they had sat on to discuss Isobel accepting her new job and Harvey ditching his old one. It was the same old living room; the same small orderly pile of Isobel’s books on the coffee table; the same large and disorderly chaos of Harvey’s various piles of various objects – his keys, a selection of fine-nibbed pens, a couple of medical journals, a skew-whiff mountain of back copies of The New Yorker given to him recently by a friend. What was different, thought Isobel, was the atmosphere: something in the air itself had changed. The barometric pressure had lifted, or perhaps dropped. Which? It was difficult to say.
She was like a woman tapping on the case of a broken dial. Tap, tap … nothing. She couldn’t read Harvey’s face. She couldn’t read herself, so swiftly did her reactions replace one another and run on. They were both grasping for the response they had thought they’d feel, and – Isobel realised – neither felt it. Shouldn’t they be delighted? It dawned on her that what she really felt, now that the first shock was subsiding, was dismay. Which was appalling. She sat up straight. She would admit it if he would admit it. Cautiously, she said, ‘What are you thinking?’
‘Well, it’s fraught, isn’t it? More fraught than usual, wouldn’t you say? They found her on the church step, is that right?’
‘On the porch. In a cardboard box. Wrapped up in a towel. With a blanket. Not many hours old, they think.’ She fiddled with the tassels on the rug thrown over the back of the sofa. She plaited them together and unwound them, plaited them again. A soft blanket? Was it soft, mohair, like this one? Or was it a worn-out harsh woollen one, rough and scratchy? Or not even wool. Cotton, nylon, polyester? Who could leave their baby in a box? Wouldn’t she change her mind, the mother? The image of a newborn without the cradle of maternal arms – it slayed her. Right down in her guts she felt a kick. Hostile womb, how dare that man use that term! If he could feel what she had endured for years! Never hostile. Painful, yes. Days and nights of ache, of yearn: to be pregnant, to give birth, to breastfeed, to hold her baby, coo to it, rock it to sleep, lift it gently, warm and waking, from the cot. All that stuff. She thought it had stopped calling to her, but god, feel that, that stirring. Save me, save me, as if from the bottom of a well.
‘I think it’s got to be your decision, Isobel. I will back you up, whatever.’
He was giving her an out. She twisted the rug tassels tightly, released them. ‘A baby,’ she said, cautiously, although her heart was pounding. ‘But my job. What would I do about my job?’
Harvey shrugged. ‘We’d work it out.’
‘A baby, Harvey. We’re having a baby.’
‘Could have a baby,’ he corrected her.
Yes, yes, I understand, she thought, I have to remember it might not come off. The birth mother might come back. Of course she knew that, but louder than that ugly bureaucratic tick-every-box thinking was the song, overpowering in its sweetness and intensity, deep in her belly. Not really delight. More wonderment. But she had said out loud what she’d thought would never be said.
We’re having a baby.
She rode a swell of something forceful and entirely right, a pent surge that had suddenly found release. She abandoned herself to it, and to whatever lay beyond. For the first time since Harvey had sat down next to her – no, she thought with a start, make that for the first time in months – she looked him fully in the eye. It made her realise how far apart they had become. It made her realise that something had unravelled between them, something that appeared to have its roots deep in her own self. She knew this only because she could feel it, whatever it was, knitting itself back together. Warm, warm. She breathed out, still holding Harvey’s eye.
‘Do you want to take it further?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ she said. And there it was, sheer and utter: the delight.