From THE HOUSE AT SEA’S END by Elly Griffiths, available now.
Two people, a man and a woman, are walking along a hospital corridor. It is obvious that they have been here before. The woman’s face is soft, remembering; the man looks wary, holding back slightly at the entrance to the ward. Indeed, the list of restrictions printed on the door looks enough to frighten anyone. No flowers, no phones, no children under eight, no coughers or sneezers. The woman points at the phone sign (a firmly crossed out silhouette of a rather dated-looking phone) but the man just shrugs. The woman smiles, as if she is used to getting this sort of response from him.
They press a buzzer and are admitted.
Three beds in, they stop. A brown-haired woman is sitting up in bed holding a baby. She is not feeding it, she is just looking at it, staring, as if she is trying to memorise every feature. The visiting woman, who is blonde and attractive, swoops down and kisses the new mother. Then she bends over the baby, brushing it with her hair. The baby opens opaque dark eyes but doesn’t cry. The man hovers in the background and the blonde woman gestures for him to come closer. He doesn’t kiss mother or baby but he says something which makes both women laugh indulgently.
The baby’s sex is easy to guess: the bed is surrounded by pink cards and rosettes, even a slightly deflated balloon announcing ‘It’s a girl’. The baby herself, though, is dressed in navy blue as if the mother is taking an early stand against such stereotyping. The blonde woman holds the baby, who stares at her with those dark, solemn eyes. The brown-haired woman looks at the man, and looks away again quickly.
When visiting time is over, the blonde woman leaves presents and kisses and one last caress of the baby’s head. The man stands at the foot of the bed, pawing the ground slightly as if impatient to be off. The mother smiles, cradling her baby in an ageless gesture of serene maternity.
At the door, the blonde woman turns and waves. The man has already left.
But five minutes later he is back, alone, walking fast, almost running. He comes to a halt by the bed. Wordlessly, the woman puts the baby into his arms. She is crying, though the baby is still silent.
‘She looks like you,’ she whispers.