“I have a brilliant idea,” says my husband.
It is Sunday night and that means certain things in our house. One of them is, never argue. That’s the agreement we’ve had since spending Sundays together. Never argue on a Sunday, the precious day of rest and family time.
“How brilliant?” I ask.
My husband looks at me for a few moments without blinking. It’s a habit I used to find irresistible because it made him look so focused, so intent on understanding whatever I was saying at the time. But tonight there is a challenge in it.
I explain, “Brilliant as in theory of relativity? Or more like when I remember an old dish and say ‘Brilliant, I know just what to cook for dinner’?”
“Brilliant as in, it will make us lots of money. That sort of brilliant.”
“Wow,” I say.
I am sitting on the big bed with my hands folded on my belly. I love this room and its soft evening mood, the glow of the pebble lamp on the plants and the book shelves stacked with volumes about personal development. I do often wonder, what is there to develop, really. You are either a person or you’re not. Stay away from my books, says my husband when I start to wonder such things out loud. The pebble lamp is orange, throwing a dim amber light on our surroundings, and it makes the room look like a cave lit by the glow of the dying fire. While Ana was still sleeping in here with us, I used to feel like we were the primeval family, huddled in the cave for warmth and safety, in the comforting nest of each others’ bodies.
But Ana is upstairs now, in her own room, on her own floor. How will we live in this house, I asked my husband when we came to view it – how will we live here and raise children and have dogs, when the entire house seems to be made of stairs? Stairs going up, stairs coming down, stairs at angles dangerous for pregnant women or tiny feet. You could live here for a day and already lose count of the number of floors, none of them big enough to hold more than just one room and a landing. Exhausting journeys to supplement forgetting what is where, in this house. Wanting to make a cup of tea in the bedroom, trying to find your shoes in the study. Endless migrations up and down, in search of keys, clothes, boxes of tissues and all those other things that are never just accidentally by your side when you need them.
But my husband stood at the very bottom and looked into the vertiginous space above us, spiralling up and up, and said he felt like he was gazing at heaven. A heaven that’s pretty hard to reach, I said. Per aspera ad astra, he replied. Maybe the slow way up will teach us how to get to our destination, he said, and then the house became ours, and we became the climbers, even more than we’d already been.
The small monitor by my side keeps flashing red and passing on the sounds of Ana’s restless sleep. If she is asleep at all. Sometimes I walk into the room and find her sitting up in her cot. Silent, unafraid, just sitting there in the sticky darkness, like a porcelain doll on a shelf in a shop after closing time. “Why are you up sweetheart?” I ask her, but I know the answer already. She reaches out with her little arms towards me and, as soon as she can nestle her face into my neck, she is asleep again. One day soon she will learn to talk. What will she say to me? Sometimes I wonder if the understanding we share is delaying her speech. She doesn’t need to talk. We look at each other and I know. It’s mummy’s job to know. It’s one of mummy’s many jobs.
“Here’s another brilliant idea,” I say to my husband. “Get a job.”
This doesn’t bring out the response I want. I can feel angry tears gathering in that place of no return, somewhere below the throat, towards the heaving chest. I know now is not the time, but tomorrow will be worse, much worse.
“The world is changing. Jobs no longer offer that security you long for,” my husband says seriously, but with particular patience, as if to mark the fact that we’ve had this conversation before. “Profits are better than wages,” he quotes.
His face is earnest and I know he means it. I just don’t feel it any more. I change the subject.
“My mum said she will come and look after Ana any time we want her to. Want being the optimistic bit,” I say with a snort.
For a brief moment, we both giggle. This moment of camaraderie bounces back and forth between us like some quantum particle, invisible to all except the most sensitive instruments, but still critical in the running of life.
My husband looks industrious, all of a sudden. He gets up from the bed, slaps his thighs like he always does when he’s getting ready to make a list, and pulls out a pencil and a scrunched up piece of paper from the bedside table. There are pens and notebooks, somewhere, but stairs are blocking the way to them.
“A list, then,” I say, recognising the symptoms. “What are we listing?”
“Tomorrow is Monday. Let’s split all the household chores tomorrow. I am around a fair bit.”
“Don’t you have any clients?”
Another quantum event – a barely detectible pause, but I do notice it because I am looking for it. I am the scientist observing, measuring, hoping for an outcome that would prove my theory, afraid of the outcome that would prove my theory, because who wants to be right in things like this.
“Rescheduled,” he says simply. “When is your appointment?”
“Then I will drive you, before taking Ana to nursery.”
“No,” I say.
“You don’t want Ana to go to nursery? You will need rest, when you come back.”
“No, I don’t want you to drive me.”
“Of course I will drive you. Why would I not?”
“Because you don’t want to.”
“I’m not in the habit of doing things I don’t want to,” my husband says.
If I asked you to tell me three important things about yourself, that one would definitely make the list, I almost say, but I hold my tongue. I want a fight, but not that sort of fight. It might hurt too much. It might not end. I did ask him, when I met him, to tell me one important thing about himself. It seemed like a smart and witty question. The in-or-out, ‘let me show you that you’re dealing with a clever woman’ sort of question. He simply said ‘I’ll make a great father one day.’ But I should have asked more than just the one question.
“Fine, you do want to, but only because you want to talk me out of it,” I say, and hug my arms across my belly a little tighter. He glances at it, quickly, but I know he can’t see it, there is nothing to see yet.
“I know I can’t talk you out of it. All I can do is look on,” he says, suddenly sombre. His face doesn’t show what I was hoping for. I wanted pressure I could push against. I wanted guilt I could reject. But he just looks sad.
Before I can answer him, while I am still looking for some retributive idea, some sharp spike I could make him lean into, he speaks again.
“Do you remember when we were choosing the name for Ana? We went through so many, because I always like the ones ending with an ‘a’ – they sound so feminine – and you always like the boyish sounding ones. Like Maddison. Do you remember? Who ever calls a girl Maddison in this country? But boys’ names, we agreed on them easily.”
“Don’t,” I say.
“It might be a boy. And if it’s a girl, well, Maddison it is. In fact, even if it’s a boy, call him Maddison, if you like. That’s how much I beg you to reconsider.”
“You just said you wouldn’t try to talk me out of it.”
“I was talking about tomorrow, in the car. That car journey won’t be a good time to talk. But tonight is the right time. The only time, in fact.”
He looks at me without blinking again, and for a moment I feel the force of that appeal from the past, before it all changed for us. He sits down on the bed again, his closeness an open threat to my strength to do this.
“I beg you to think about it again. Nothing has happened yet. There’s time for things to change, they are not set in stone,” he says.
“I have made my decision,” I say. But I can see that he has made his decision, too. Ultimately, whose decision is it? It is my body. It is his child. We are one family, a knot of emotions and genetics, the proof of it asleep on the floor above us. For once, I am glad she is up there and I feel the stairs are protecting her from our simmering fight. At least for now.
The quantum theory suggests this idea that an observer might influence reality.
If something could be something or something else, the very act of having an onlooker somehow helps to determine it. Even if we think the result should already be fixed – at the end of the day, something is either something or something else, and it should really know what it is even if we don’t – but somehow, somewhere, both metaphorically and literally, it hangs in the balance until an outside force pushes it to settle in one, henceforth permanent, state.
“I am thinking about quantum physics,” I say suddenly.
“Oh. Not again,” he says, feebly attempting a smile. I don’t know where he finds the courage.
“I can’t help it. It just pops into my head.” At least I can pretend to speak in that same tone as he does, joking as if you could actually joke about something like this.
“That’s it! I’m banning books. I want your library card back. You should really try watching some reality shows, like all the normal people,” he says.
“Or my brain might explode from all this knowledge.”
“It would serve you right, you thinker. You lover of quantum physics.” His mouth is smiling, but his eyes aren’t following the party line. They are telling the truth, bit by horrible bit. I look away, my eyes are searching the shadows of the room for a clue of how to go on.
“I never said I loved it. I just seem to get it. Even the really abstract bits,” I say, and without meaning to, find myself shuffling closer to him on the bed. “Make room,” I say, not quite whining, but in that frustrating tone which makes me sound like less than a fully-grown adult.
“That’s what attracted me to you in the first place, you know,” he says. I look up. His face seems more drawn in recently, but then, what did I expect.
“What did?” I ask.
“You always got even the really abstract bits.”
“Don’t,” I say again.
“You are smart and clever and you understand the inunderstandable,” he says.
“That’s not a word. And I am not smart.”
“What are you then?”
“I am just . . . average.”
“No you are not. So don’t do average things. Don’t make average decisions. Make really good ones, outstanding ones, ones that are big and brave, that could only be made by a big brave person like you.”
I jump up.
“So, I’m big and brave then?!”
There is a tremor in my voice that tells me that the moment in which I could hold back, just maybe hold back a little bit, is now gone. There is no holding and no back, there is only rushing forward with fury into what has to be said and done, and God help us tomorrow.
I start to shout.
“And what are you? What are you then? Because, let me tell you, you are neither big nor smart! You are not smart in the slightest, if you think I am going to bring another child into this poverty we live in!”
“We don’t live in poverty,” he says, shocked, face grey like a slab of stone.
“We do live in poverty, because worrying about paying the mortgage every single month is poverty, and switching the heating off in Ana’s room is poverty, and owing your parents all that money is poverty! Being chased by loan sharks is poverty! Not being able to celebrate birthdays! Not being able to afford the dentist! If all that is not poverty, please tell me what is.”
He is looking at me with something close to compassion. I cannot stand it, I look away again, but I still hear his voice.
“Not having clean water, or a roof over our heads. I’d say that would be poverty. Homeless people are, clearly, very poor. Most people in Africa are poor. We are not poor, we are just between projects. And we are privileged, by comparison. You worry too much,” he says.
My shock is so great that for a moment I am speechless.
“Forgive me for not wanting to bring another child into this chaos that you call our life,” I finally say.
“I know you’re scared,” he says.
He’s done it now. He’s started to speak in that Kofi Annan voice he uses when he needs to placate me, but I can’t be placated, the entire United Nations couldn’t make me calm down. The Kofi Annan voice starts its impossible mission, once again. “I know it all seems uncertain, but all the books say, if we just keep our vision – if we just keep the positive thinking when times are tough, very soon we will see – ”
At the mention of the books, my chalice is suddenly full. My chalice spills over in a relentless mess. There were so many tears in my chalice and they now extinguish the fury, gone, gone, all wet and drowned, and all I can do is sit on the bed and sob.
“It is not our vision,” I say. “And very soon is too late because I am going tomorrow, and you can’t stop me.”
The silence that grows between us feels like something that’s crept up from the bottom of the sea. It smells of algae, it sticks to everything it touches, I can see I’ll never be able to wash its smell of off my hands.
My husband speaks again, the Kofi Annan voice is gone, his normal baritone seeps in through the seaweed.
“I know I can’t stop you. But is there anything I can do to that would change your mind? At least tell me that. It’s not like it’s just your baby,” he says.
“It’s not a baby. It’s just a condition that I am in. And speaking of owing, you really owe me to look after our family,” I say. “Get a job. Get a job, get those wages that are not as good as profits but they’re better than no profits. Stop telling me about your clients. I know all their disappearing acts. I know who’s gone, and why. We can’t go on like this.”
Ana’s monitor suddenly springs to life with a loud, shrill scream. The sound is so unexpected it makes us both jump. My husband puts out his hand to signal that he will go to her. I can hear him climbing the stairs two at a time, in a breathless run, rushing to his daughter. A moment later I hear his voice through the monitor. “Shhhh . . . sleepy Ana, sleepy.” he whispers. There’s a passionate comfort in his voice, I can almost feel her relax in his arms. “Shhhh . . . sleepy poppet. Come on now, daddy’s here.” Words follow, hushed and whispered for her, words she won’t remember when she grows up but which still shape her every time she hears them, every night she can’t sleep, every day she is with us. I can hear the floor boards creaking, I know he’s walking with her, rocking her. I know her face is tucked into his neck now and I know the smell she is breathing in, I know that smell so intimately. I am almost asleep too, adrift, with the rhythm of his steps.
Forcing myself to stay awake, not wanting the night to run out yet, I start to dry my face and weakly contemplate making a slice of toast, if I can only make myself get up off the bed. I think of the kitchen, but it is so far. The stairs between me and the nourishment just seem too much.
My husband walks back into the bedroom and I can see that something has happened in him while he was up there.
“We broke the Sunday night rule,” I say, like I am announcing some big news, something vital he hasn’t noticed. His look puts me in my place. Less of the trivial, my husband has a habit of saying with mock sternness, when I look for a hiding place in some banalities of speech. But right now his face is expressing neither tenderness nor humour.
“She has a fever,” he says to me. “I will sleep with her tonight. She’ll need to be checked every couple of hours. You get some sleep in here.”
I open my mouth to speak, I tremble, I try to make a sound that will anchor me to something before it all changes again. The sound comes out, at last.
“Let’s talk some more,” I say, but not looking at him in case my courage falters. “Please, let’s talk some more before you go upstairs.”
My husband kneels down and puts a hand on my abdomen, his palm wide and warm like a nurturing cradle. He exhales and shuts his eyes tight like a child squinting from the sun.