From the larger stores along the high street, carols wailed and jingle bells jingled, compulsory joy.
It rained heavily. There was a lot of flu about.
Rachaela had given in her notice at the Pizza Eater and left just as the free balloons began to be given out and Christmas pudding appeared on the menu. Children had knocked over the tree of green and red glitz, and everyone was picking it up; that was her last image of the restaurant.
Emma Watt came out of her door like a cuckoo from a clock.
‘I’ve bought a bottle of really nice sherry, and some wine. Will you come down and have a drink with me? To toast my little tree. I always have one. One must. Christmas is so important, it’s important to salute it, even if, well even if you’re on your own. Are you going anywhere for Christmas?’
‘just quiet by yourself. Yes, you must get all the rest you can. Anyway, do pop down. About six?’
‘All right,’ said Rachaela, to shut her up.
Rachaela had never bothered with Christmas. It had only meant one more day of privacy. She heard distant bells ringing and the strange silence of the streets. The radio had Christmas music which often she did not like, huge oratorios and quasi-religious peculiar plays. Once she had listened to a Christmas service out of curiosity. She knew the hymns from school days, the tunes at least.
Her mother had believed in celebrating Christmas too. There had been a dinner cooked, turkey or chicken with sausages, roast potatoes and stuffing. It had entailed much the same fuss and anger as the now-and-then Sunday dinners: Rachaela recruited to peel vegetables, make crosses on the thousands of sprouts. One Christmas her mother had scalded herself on the turkey fat.
Neighbours would come in for a drink and boxes of chocolates and handkerchiefs would be exchanged.
After the neighbours and the dinner and the Queen’s speech, depression would set in from the rich food and the gins and tonics.
Her mother gave Rachaela sensible presents, a new blouse or shoes that pinched. Once there had been a fairy costume from a neighbour. Rachaela had played in it for hours, she was six, it had been oddly magical. But somehow the wings got torn, like a symbol. Her mother scolded her and made her ashamed.
Rachaela did not mean to go down to toast Emma Watt’s tree. So far she had avoided the interior of Emma Watt’s flat.
Rachaela sat in comfortable misery before her electric fire, her back wedged with cushions, sipping a glass of her own wine. Her back was excruciating and she had also taken three paracetamol. Despite the pain she began to go to sleep.
She was woken by bright little squirrel knocks on the door: Emma Watt.
Best go to the door and tell her she was not feeling well, could not come down, an early night and so on. Left unanswered, Emma Watt grew anxious and knocked and called; it had happened before.
As Rachaela got up something seemed to tear inside her all the way down, between her spine and stomach. In puzzlement she stood there, waiting for some sequel, but nothing happened.
She reached the door and opened it.
‘Are you all right?’ asked Emma Watt. ‘Oh my dear, you look dreadful.’
‘Yes. I’d better not come down,’ said Rachaela.
A pain like the worst toothache clutched her vitals. She felt herself wither.
‘What is it?’ said Emma.
‘Just a pain.’
‘What sort of a pain?’
Dazed, Rachaela told her. She had to hold the frame of the door. For the first time in months she felt very sick again.
‘Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom.’
She made it. Her body emptied itself in all its chambers. She came out shaking, and Emma Watt was still there of course, standing in the middle of the room.
‘My dear,’ she said, ‘I think you’ve started.’
‘Your baby’s coming. Oh don’t be frightened. This will soon be over, and then the marvellous part begins.’
Rachaela sat down. The pain came again, griping her hollow guts, twisting her body like a cloth.
‘Must you be so stupid?’ she said.
Emma brushed this aside.
‘Say anything you like,’ she said, ‘call me names. I know this bit isn’t particularly nice. I’ll phone for you. The hospital—is it St Mary’s? What’s your doctor’s name?’
‘Oh, that,’ said Rachaela. ‘No doctor, no hospital.’
‘I haven’t been seeing anyone. That was just your happy little fantasy, Emma. Nobody knows.’
‘But my God, my God,’ said Emma. Panic took her all apart, and then she gripped herself together again. ‘Never mind. I’ll get an ambulance.’
Rachaela watched her, smiling. She took a mouthful of wine, but it came straight back up. This time she did not make the bathroom.
‘Don’t drink that,’ said Emma through a white blur. ‘Take my hand. That’s it. They won’t be long.‘The pain came and crushed her away. ‘My God,’ said Emma, ‘they’d better be quick. Just hold on. Hold on, darling. It’s going to be all right.’
‘Now push,’ said someone, some mad woman. ‘That’s it. Push. Good girl.’
Were they speaking to her, these lunatics?
She lay on a scarlet beach and Uncle Camillo bent over her. He hauled the crimson obstacle from her womb. She felt it go as if her body had been disembowelled.
So this was the abortion. The pain was terrible. Much worse than that girl had said.
‘One last try. Push.’
She could not push. What did it mean?
A fearful rhythm like galloping horses—stopped.
It was so quiet.
There was so much light, but growing darker.
‘You can rest now.’
Who were these people, so many of them, crowding round her in a white hedge. Had she fallen in the street?
The pain had ended. There was another pain, but it was different, slow and closing.
Something cried like a savage animal in the wilderness.
It was alive.
The thing had been got out of her, and it lived. It made noises, horrible and unhuman.
In a sort of aperture she saw a white baby hanging upside down from a nail of light. A single, blood-red ribbon marked its back, shining.
‘A girl. You see? She’s quite perfect.’
* * *
Emma Watt sat by the bed. She was bright-eyed and faintly flushed. She had brought pink roses and a bottle of apple-juice, and grapes, and sweets in coloured wrappings.
‘You’re not to worry about a thing, Rachaela,’ she must have found the name out from a nurse. ‘I’ve seen to it all. Everything. We can sort the money side out later, but I don’t want you to worry about that either. It really doesn’t matter. I have more than enough, my old love saw to it I was comfortable. And I know, well—let’s not talk about it now. The baby clothes are pink, of course. That’s one good thing about not getting anything until we knew.’ Emma hesitated. ‘They’ll be along soon, won’t they.’
‘I can’t wait to see her again. Oh, Rachaela, don’t you feel clever? A gorgeous little girl.’
‘I don’t feel anything.’
‘Well that can happen. Have you told them how you feel?’
‘It isn’t any of their business.’
‘But Rachaela, it is. They can help you to feel better.’
‘I feel all right.’
‘But you said—’
‘Emma, I told you. I didn’t want this—baby.’
‘But she’s here now. And she’s yours.’
‘Are you wishing,’ said Emma cautiously, ‘that he—’
‘No. He wouldn’t be any more interested than I am.’
Emma looked away. After a moment she said, ‘Have you been luckier in feeding her.’
‘Luckier? Do you mean can I breast-feed her yet? No I can’t. Apparently I haven’t got much milk.’ Rachaela fought down her disgust. ‘I find it repulsive. It’s bad enough with the bottle.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Emma.
‘Emma, you’ve been more than kind, but you don’t understand.’
‘No. I’m sorry about that too.’
‘It’s all right. I can’t do anything about it. I accept that I can’t.’
All those months swelling up, the pain and weight, and pretending it did not exist. But it had arrived and was actual. The pain had taken on a form, which cried, and dribbled from every orifice. A white hospitalized package smelling of faeces, urine and sick. Something she was expected to love. Aliens might have placed it in her, it might have burst out of her body rending her—it had done so. It had enslaved and damaged her. Now it was to rule her life. Why should she love it, this demon?
The nurses were coming with their Father Christmas sacks of snivelling and screaming babies.
‘Here you are, Emma. Your moment.’
And Emma’s unhappy face had freshened. She was not however indiscriminate. She rose and took Rachaela’s child from the nurse with a gliding ‘May I?’, a sort of sleight of hand. Emma held the baby exactly as it should be held.
‘Hallo, precious. Hallo, my sweet.’
Emma loved it. But dutifully she passed the bundle down into Rachaela’s cold white arms.
Rachaela peered into the gnomic face.
It had lived in her, used her, but it was not hers. It was theirs. The Scarabae.
She could even see it in this thing, the pallor of it, the fine dust of jet black fur. The eyes were dark already, not yet focused, but questing. No teeth yet. Not yet.
Rachaela glanced about her. The ward was full of fulfilled and cow-like women waiting to give their udders to their young. In the wings waited the proud husbands, boyfriends and parents. The nurses on the ward were strict but applauding.
The room rocked with the howls of babies now being put to the breast, stilled. Rachaela had seen. The small mouths avid, the hands punching and grabbing. Tiny vampires, all of them. But this one, this monster, would have to make do with a bottle.
‘You don’t like it, do you?’ she said to the monster as it sucked. ‘Bottle or go without.’
She hated it. When it cried she stared on it remotely. She who had been its suitcase.
The room had altered. There was a cot. She could put the baby into this miniature prison and it crawled there in the trap.
Sometimes she had to lift it out, feed it, and change its nappies, thick with excrement.
The room stank. She kept the window open and the fire on. As the weather eased she left the fire off.
Emma came in and out. She arranged the feeds, trying the temperature of the milk. She took the baby out of the pen, and played with it. She had bought it blue and pink fluffy toys. The baby watched the toys with increasingly beady eyes.
‘Isn’t she pretty?’ said Emma, perhaps to encourage.
The baby was not pretty. It was a baby. Primeval and unfinished, crawling about like a busy white slug.
All night the baby cried.
Rachaela got up and fed the baby. She rocked it roughly, loathing it, and the baby grew hysterical. It was strong. With every day its voice got louder, its punches and kicks more hefty.
Rachaela touched it as little as possible.
In the end she left it to cry.
It screamed for hours, probably waking the entire house. Near morning it burned itself out.
Rachaela got up and looked at it. Its bluish-black eyes seemed to focus on her for the first time. It had learnt something.
They took the baby for rides in the pram, to the shops, and up to the tiny park with its three or four flowerbeds and margin of trees. Cold winds knifed at them but the baby was snug in its portable bed, the blue and pink rabbits bobbling between its face and the real world.
‘Lucky she wasn’t born on Christmas day,’ said Emma. ‘She’ll still miss out on presents, poor little sweetheart.’
The baby now had a name. It was called ‘Ruth’.
‘Rachaela and Ruth,’ said Emma, and to the baby, ‘Whither though goest, I will go.’
Emma had actually named the baby, reeling off name after name, pausing to assess their merits, recommending, persuading, until at last to stop her, Rachaela assented.
It sounded like a Scarabae name. It was unavoidable, Biblical. Ruth, daughter of Adamus.
‘You must be getting awful cabin-fever stuck in all day,’ said Emma, as they pushed through the lancing wind. ‘I know what it’s like. My oldest nearly went mad with Richard. She used to ring me up, just to hear an adult voice that could talk.’
Rachaela thrust the pram between the bare trees.
‘So if you want to go off on your own for a bit, and you’ll trust me,’ said Emma, ‘I can look after Ruth.’
‘Thank you,’ said Rachaela. ‘But what I really need is to get a job. The money’s run out fast.’
‘But you can get assistance, Rachaela, and you must.’
‘It’s foolish to try and manage on your own.’
Rachaela had not repaid Emma for the plethora of pink clothes, the blankets and toys, the pram and cot.
Emma had told her several times she did not wish to be repaid. Ruth was payment enough. Her ‘share’ of Ruth. They connived together: Emma taking a little more of Ruth at intervals; Rachaela gladly giving a little more.
‘I need space to think,’ said Rachaela.
‘Let me have her, then. As I say, if you can trust me... I’ll look after her if you want to go back to work. Only if you’re sure...’
‘Yes. I’m no good with—her. You’re marvellous,’ she added stonily, a meaningless accolade.
But Emma flowered in the winter park.
‘Well, I’ve had three. And I did see a little of Pauline, when she was small, just enough to remind me. She’s lovely, Rachaela. You know I’ll take care of her.’
She had already seen the new bookshop. It had opened in the high street. ‘Isis Books’. Feminist tracts and slim novels lined the windows. It already had a tatty, dusty look that reminded her of Mr Gerard on Lizard Street.
She went in and bought a novel set in India, whose prose appealed to her, and the heat and dust and cinnamon smells of somewhere else.
A soft fuzzy girl was at the till.
‘I’m looking for work. I used to work in a bookshop before I had my baby.’
‘Oh a baby,’ said the assistant. Women were the mothers, protected of Isis.
‘I’m wondering if you need an extra person.’
There had been three girls and a woman at first, now there was only this one.
‘Well, with your baby.’
‘A friend looks after her.’
‘Oh is it a girl? How nice.’ The fuzzy one gave Rachaela her change, correctly. The till was not computerized. ‘You need to see Jonquil. She’s not in today. She’ll be here tomorrow morning. Why don’t you drop by and have a word with her.’
In the morning Rachaela returned, leaving Ruth in her pen in Emma’s crowded flat.
Jonquil came from the back. She was about thirty-seven, tall and spare, with spiky grey-streaked hair. She wore jeans and a large jumper, cowboy boots, one stainless steel earring.
‘OK, I can certainly give you a job. Denise is here to all hours. We don’t pay top rates, can’t afford to.’ Her eyes were a pale, thin grey, her face weather-beaten. ‘This is about women. If it helps, then that’s good. We don’t employ men.’
The wages were indeed low. But it was money. And Emma would take care of the child. The child would spend all day with Emma. Emma was already expertly weaning the child. At night the child would sleep in the same room as Rachaela, that was all. Some nights Emma would keep the child.
Jonquil showed Rachaela round the bookshop.
Every book was by a woman.
‘And you’ve got a baby? Swine left you, I suppose. Never mind. She’s a girl. She might have a chance, things are changing.’
Sometimes men in mackintoshes stared in at the bookshop windows as if building up to a flash. Usually nobody came in.
Rachaela sat by the counter and read, making herself coffee. At lunch-time she closed the shop for an hour or longer, and shut up at five-thirty.
Jonquil came in every few days.
On Thursday and Saturday, Denise joined Rachaela, Denise was fallen. She had a live-in boyfriend to whom she devoted most of her time and energy. She confessed she could not wear red as Keith did not like it on her.
‘You want to tell Keith to take a running jump,’ said Jonquil.
Both thought they knew Rachaela’s life and so did not ask many questions.
When Rachaela was late in the mornings to open up, no one was there to see. One morning Jonquil had got there first. ‘Baby hung you up,’ said Jonquil. ‘No sweat.’
‘She can walk,’ said Emma, rosy as if tight. ‘She really did it. I know you’ve only just got in, but come and see. I’ll make some tea. It ought to be champagne.’
Emma’s flat was chaos.
To the fat chinz chairs and divan, the second divan which changed into a bed, the clocks and ornaments, old dolls, and skeins of photographs, fresh flowers and coloured-glass paperweights, was added now the parked pram and the pen, the fluffy toys scattered, a great teddy-bear, the baby, The baby would not walk for Rachaela.
She flatly refused.
Her smooth black eyes were vague and innocent. She sat on the floor.
‘Oh, you naughty thing.’ Emma picked her up and dandled her. ‘You bad sausage. Not to show Mummy.’ And Ruth laughed, as with Emma she often did. ‘I’m sorry. It really happened. I didn’t imagine it.’
‘Well, I suppose she will eventually. Walk, I mean. And say words.’
‘She should be saying things now. Oh, I don’t mean anything’s wrong. Pauline was slow. It’s just how their temperament goes.’
‘She doesn’t speak because she doesn’t need to,’ said Rachaela. ‘Telepathically you anticipate all her demands.’
‘Do I? Do I, sausage?’ Emma asked the chortling baby.
When its face screwed up with laughter it looked very old. Scarabae-old.
Rachaela put on the kettle and made tea for Emma and coffee for herself. She was used to Emma’s flat by now.
‘You ought,’ said Emma softly, ‘to spend more time with her. Oh, Rachaela. You’re missing all the best parts.’
‘Is she a nuisance? Do you want me to take her off your hands?’
‘Rachaela, you know she isn’t. I love her.’ Emma held Ruth close, protectively, possessively. ‘I only meant—’
‘It doesn’t interest me.’
‘Oh Rachaela—you don’t know. You haven’t tried.’
‘I had to carry her. I had to birth her. That was enough.’
‘If only I could make you see how wonderful it is.’
Rachaela said, ‘If I could see that, Emma, I’d cling on to her the way you do. You wouldn’t get a look in. We wouldn’t be here now.’
Emma went white. Her face crumpled, straightened itself out with difficulty. She swallowed.
‘Yes. You’re absolutely right, of course.’
‘If I loved babies.’
‘If you loved Ruth I wouldn’t have been able to—I wouldn’t have looked after Ruth as I have.’
‘And you do love her.’
‘Yes I do.’
‘So it’s lucky,’ Rachaela ended pitilessly. ‘Lucky for me, and lucky for you.’
‘Yes,’ said Emma.
She sat down and put Ruth on to the floor with her toys and the soft blanket.
Emma sat looking at Ruth.
Rachaela drank her coffee, and presently left Emma and Ruth alone together, for Emma to give Ruth her revolting gooey tea.
On Sunday they went up to the common, a performance; lifting the pram, Emma still insisted on for the sake of Ruth’s spine, into and off the tube, the escalators.
Rachaela did not know why she had participated.
The trees were umbrellas of leaves and brilliant poppies dotted the grass. Where had the year gone? It was as if she had spent it underground, the hibernatory flat, dusty Isis Books.
‘She’s enjoying it,’ said Emma. ‘Look, Ruth. Tree. Doggy. Say ‘doggy’, Ruth.’
Ruth stared from her eldritch eyes, Anna-eyes and Uncle-Camillo-eyes. Not the eyes of Adamus. Too old.
They wheeled the pram up the paths. The sun was hot and the common flooded by people. Dogs charged about grinning, plunging into the green pond, emerging to shake off volleys of water.
At the caf'e on the common they had coffee. There were red horses in a field. ‘Look, Ruth. Horsey.’
‘I don’t think she cares,’ said Rachaela.
‘Of course she does. It’s all bewildering and new.’
Rachaela thought they must look a very normal family group: Emma the fond grandmother; Rachaela the mother with her black-haired baby. She wondered how many of the other normal-looking groups were also fakes: that man perhaps with the glasses, a wife-and-child-beater; the two lovers with their shared ice cream, brother and sister. But it was crazy to expect oddness from the day to match her own. Her child should wear a notice round its neck: Conceived from my father while he drank my blood, suspected of being a demon.
Obviously Ruth was not a demon.
Emma did not think so.
There was no need to trouble about it anyway. Emma had taken charge.
They wheeled the pram over the golf course.
When Rachaela had control of it, the child’s black eyes went to Emma for reassurance. Who was this stranger moving her along?
Emma encouraged Rachaela with little inanities.
‘She knows it’s you.’
‘She doesn’t like me,’ said Rachaela. ‘Why should she? I was just an envelope.’
An intense golden light blared from the sky. It was five o’clock and they began the trek homeward. The tube was full of tanned and excitable travellers going home or en route to inner London. A sort of pollinated bloom was on them of dust and sun. The air smelled of deodorant and skin. A man in a bowler hat helped Emma with the pram.
When they returned to the house, they went into Emma’s flat.
Emma took the baby out.
‘My goodness, aren’t you hot, you poor little thing. You shall have a nice cool bath.’
While Emma bathed Ruth, Rachaela sat on the chintz sofa looking at the Chinese statuettes and blue glass animals. In pride of place above the electric fire was a paperweight of a giraffe on which inappropriate snow fell when you shook it. Pauline had sent this last Christmas.
The splashing from the bath ended.
‘She really is very hot,’ said Emma. ‘I think she’s a bit feverish. They get these little things. It’s nothing to worry about.’
‘Better not move her, then,’ said Rachaela.
‘No, I’ll keep her down with me for the night.’
The child kicked off her sheet fractiously. Her usually pale face was red. Perhaps she had caught the sun.
Upstairs Rachaela put on a tape of Brahms and laid out some leaves of lettuce and slices of tomato, a cold chicken leg from the deli. She ate without hunger, absorbing instead the music.
Later she sat and watched the golden sky turn to ruby over the roofs, the distant trees of the park blacken and fade.
This is my life then. It amused her. She did not let herself think of the Scarabae. She had become adept at avoiding them. Avoiding him. She would pick up the thought and put it outside her mind. When it came back, she removed it again.
She turned on the radio and listened to a Greek play which she did not understand but liked.
At about ten-thirty when she was running a long bath, Emma knocked on the door.
‘Please don’t be worried,’ she said at once, ‘but I think I’d better phone the doctor. He won’t be there, of course, but they’ll have someone. She’s terrifically hot and she keeps crying. You know she never cries. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I want to be sure.’
‘All right,’ said Rachaela. ‘Do you want to bring her up here?’
‘No, no. And I can phone from downstairs. I’ll come back and tell you what they say.’
When Emma was gone, Rachaela got into the bath. She shaved her legs and underarms, and shampooed her hair. Emma knocked again. Rachaela went to the door in a towel, and with a second towel wrapped round her head.
‘Someone’s coming out. They said about an hour.’
‘You’ll come down, won’t you,’ said Emma.
‘If you think I should.’
‘Yes you must, Rachaela. She’s your child.’ Emma looked pale and distraught.
Rachaela said nothing and Emma went away.
Rachaela rinsed her hair and wrapped it up in another towel. She dressed and put on her shoes and went down to Emma’s flat.
Emma held Ruth in her arms. She sat down and fanned the baby gently with a Japanese fan. Ruth looked like a radish, as if her blood were slowly boiling. She snivelled weakly, on and on.
They said nothing, but sat facing each other.
The rest of the hour ticked by.
‘It’s Doctor Chatterjee,’ said Emma at last. ‘I’ve never had to call him out, I don’t know what he’s like. Poor man, he must dread these late calls. Doctors have a very rough time of it.’ She fanned Ruth. ‘You should have taken her to the clinic, Rachaela,’ she said, without accusation. ‘You never did.’
‘She would have had regular checks, and any shots. They give them so much protection nowadays. But Ruth hasn’t had any of it.’
‘She’s strong,’ said Rachaela. It was instinct which made her say it.
‘Of course, of course she is. Silly old Emma getting in a state about nothing. Poor sausage, poor pretty.’
The baby was feebly sick on herself and Emma’s cardigan.
Emma rose without flurry or distress to clean this up. She spoke to Ruth, explaining what they were doing.
Rachaela sat on the chintz chair, and asked herself if she felt anything, any pang. But nothing was there in her. It was as if Ruth were truly Emma’s child and for some reason Rachaela had had to come down and witness this scene. The baby’s sickness turned her stomach, affronted her. Ruth had frequently sicked up her bottle milk, as if on purpose, like the endless stinking miasmas of the wet nappies.
While Emma and Ruth were still in the bathroom, the door sounded.
Rachaela got up and answered the phone, pressed the button and let in Doctor Chatterjee, who presently arrived in the flat.
He was a small, fat Indian with a fussy manner and clever eyes.
Emma brought him Ruth and he examined the baby carefully.
‘Yes, you did right to call me,’ he said, to Rachaela. ‘This is a very sick child. I am recommending that we take her to the hospital immediately.’
Emma exclaimed in horror.
Doctor Chatterjee looked from one woman to the other.
‘You are the mother, yes?’ he said to Rachaela.
To save time we will go in my car.’
‘Thank you,’ said Emma humbly.
She wrapped Ruth up too thoroughly in her fear, and the doctor loosened the blanket a little.
Rachaela took her damp hair out of the towel.
Emma brought two of Ruth’s favourite fluffy toys.
Outside the night was hot and compressed, waiting for a storm. Chip papers strewed the pavement and a buckled can of Sprite lay by the back wheel of the doctor’s Sierra.
They drove fast but wisely to St Mary’s, the great brick facade like that of a prison, the chimney of the incinerator.
As Ruth was admitted, Emma’s eyes disgorged two tears. She controlled herself sternly, forcing her face into a puffy obstinate shape.
They sat for a long time on brown plastic seats in a white corridor.
Nurses busily went up and down, sometimes pausing to exchange words and careless laughter. A trolley was wheeled past by two brutish-looking orderlies chewing gum. This was a disconcerting contrast to the chambers of sickness all about, the bodies lying in white bleached wards with pieces of themselves cut away for ever, the hidden grey figures struggling in the last embrace of life.
Rachaela cringed at the hospital. She had never liked them, perhaps taught by her mother’s obsessive fear. People did not go to a hospital to be cured but to be killed or maimed.
She wished she might go home, leaving Emma to watch and wait. But this would be beyond all bounds. It was not possible. She, Rachaela, was the frantic mother. She must stay and try to play her part.
What did she feel? Nothing, nothing.
It was like Ruth, to bring her to a place she hated and loathed, and make her sit here for hours with wet hair.
The Scarabae were never ill.
Was Ruth then not true Scarabae after all?
The sister came in her evening blue.
‘Hallo, Mrs Day? We’re doing all we can, but she’s a very ill little girl I’m afraid.’
She hesitated for Rachaela to scream, weep or swoon. Emma obliged by bursting into tears.
‘There. Please try not to be too upset. We’ve got a good chance.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Emma apologized, as if her tears put them all in jeopardy. ‘I’m being silly.’
‘I expect you’d like a cup of tea. We’ll see what we can do.’
‘Thank you, that would be lovely,’ said Emma. When the sister had gone she said, ‘They’re all so kind. These people are saints. I’m sure it will be all right.’
Later, they let Rachaela, alone, go to look in on her baby.
The room was full of apparatus, empty of doctors. Then one came in, looking harassed.
‘You’re Ruth’s mother? That’s right. Well I’m going to be honest with you. We’re rather concerned. We’re going to try some further measures to get the temperature down and they may have to be a little drastic.’
‘I see,’ said Rachaela.
Probably he took her nothingness for the numbness of shock. She hoped so. She did not want the hostility of these people in their robes of snow.
He told her some more, including complex words she could not follow and which she was sure she was not meant to. In the hall of the magicians she was supposed to remain a novice.
Afterwards she went back to Emma and gave her an expurgated version.
Emma was ashen. She had not been able to drink the tea, although she had tried, so as not to be ungrateful.
They waited through the night in the white corridor.
At five am, the harassed doctor appeared and came towards them slowly.
Emma stood up and reached convulsively for Rachaela’s hand.
The doctor frowned. He said that the latest measures had been a success, that Ruth’s temperature had dropped and her breathing loosened. In half an hour Rachaela would be able to go and sit with her.
Emma cried again. She thanked the doctor so earnestly his mundane face lit up with the impatient awareness of a saviour.
Rachaela was shepherded into the room to sit with her pale, saved child. She sat down. She had wanted and hoped that Ruth would die. There was no reason to lie to herself. Is this what her own mother had wanted? Had she looked at the living Rachaela as now Rachaela looked at Ruth?