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Authors: A.S. Byatt

Tags: #Fiction

Little Black Book of Stories (8 page)

BOOK: Little Black Book of Stories

Damian went white with pure rage.

Martha said, “Oh, how terrible. And how

Damian said, “Someone call the Police.”

Martha said, “No, wait—”

The gallery manager, one of the black-clad thin women, came and said, “What’s the problem?”

Daisy sidled up from behind the Kali, just as Damian began to say, very loudly, almost shouting, just controlled, that these objects were valuable museum artefacts—well, and body parts—they were relics and should be treated with respect, they were private property, and their display constituted
He demanded, he said, that the object be dismantled
and the Police brought in.

Martha said to the gallery woman, “He’s right. But for God’s sake get photos of it before it goes. It’s good.”

“It’s disgusting,” said Damian. Daisy was standing indecisively, looking as though she was considering the possibility of creeping away through the vestry. He strode up to her and seized her bony little wrist.

“How dare you? How could you? We
trusted you

“I wasn’t stealing. I was borrowing.”

“Rubbish. I suppose you would have sold it if you’d had an offer? I hope I never see you again.”

Martha said, “Can’t we—discuss . . .?”

Damian roared,
“Get the Police!”

The people slunk away. Daisy twisted free of Damian and began to tear down her structure. Damian shouted that she shouldn’t touch the things without gloves, had she learned nothing, she was a little idiot, she seemed to be completely
as well as deceitful and hypocritical and
. . .

Martha put her arms round Daisy, who stood shuddering in her grasp for a few minutes, and then twisted free and ran out of the church.

DAMIAN’S DINNER with Martha did not go as he had planned. He was annoyed by Martha’s readiness to praise Daisy’s artwork. Martha said it showed real pain, a real sense of human harm, and threats to the female body. Damian said that the reason for this was simply the Things from the Collection, of which she had made an opportunistic use—a
use. Damian shouted at Martha as though Martha was Daisy, about the desecration of other people’s dead babies and body parts and suffering. Martha said she thought Damian had said that Daisy had lost a baby. That affected people. Damian said she had wanted to lose it, hadn’t she, and for his part he didn’t think that was why . . . And why does she haunt the hospital, Martha went on, inexorably. Because she scrounges, I told you, said Damian. Why was Martha so keen on defending a compulsive thief? I’m a woman, said Martha, vaguely and sadly. She had wanted him to notice that, this evening, she had dressed carefully, she had had her hair cut.

THE PRESS—luckily only the local Press—got hold of the story. “SHOCKING ARTWORK ‘BOR-ROWED’ FROM GRUESOME HOSPITAL RELICS.” The hospital’s overworked secretariat fended off queries with talk of a misunderstanding, said all was well that ended well, and said that when eventually the Collection was open to the public the public would see the true fascination and information value of the relics.

It was probably because of the Press stories that Dr. Nanjuwany, one of Damian’s colleagues, thought of coming to see him. She was a young woman herself, good with patients, still a little nervous with medical difficulties.

“That young woman you were looking after—”

“I wasn’t.”

“The one who stole the Things from the Collection. She came to see me.”

Damian closed his face into a simple polite listening.

“She wants an abortion. I looked at her records. She asked for one before, and we made a mess of her, because it turned out to be ectopic. She lost an ovary and most of the tubes. She says she was told she couldn’t have any more children and I suspect she
told something of the kind. She worries me. She won’t see a counsellor. I feel bad—since the pregnancy is a bit of a miracle—”

“I’ll speak to her. Do you have an address?”

“Not really. We tried the one we had—which was the one she gave again when she filled in the forms— and they say she left months ago, they don’t know where she is—”

“I want to know when her next appointment is.”

If Dr. Nanjuwany was surprised, she hid it. “Thank you,” she said, as though she meant it.

DAMIAN CREPT UP on Daisy as she sat in the usual long queue in the antenatal clinic.

“I want a word with you,” he hissed, his face rigid with anger. She was sitting with the dandelion head bowed down, staring into her lap. She looked up at him whitely.

“No, thank you.”

“It’s not ‘yes please’ or ‘no thank you,’ Daisy, it’s stand up
and come with me.

“You can’t hit me.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m trying to help.”

“That’s not what you look like you’re doing.”

“That’s because I’m also upset. I’m human. Now, come and talk this over, in private, come into my office.”

SHE SAT THERE in his office, facing him, where all his patients sat. She said:

“I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Well, apart from theft, and unlawful entry, no. I want to talk to you about the baby.”

“It’s not a baby, right. It’s a problem. It’s got no future. We all know that, so just fuck off, OK?”

“Whose baby is it?”

not a baby.
The last one wasn’t, it was a life-threatening
that’s what it was. Nearly killed me.”

“Whose baby is it?”

“Whose do you think it is? That’s all you men care about, nice potent sperm, sod the consequences—”

“Shut up, Daisy. If this is my baby—and it is a baby, it’s a minor miracle—then I can’t just let you destroy it—like that, without thinking.”

“You don’t know if I think or not. You don’t know nothing about me. You can’t call this a
nobody ever pretended it was. It was a bit of fun and it went wrong. So I’m dealing with it in a grown-up way, a
way, to use Dr. Becket-think. It’s not your body, it’s nothing to do with you now. So get out of my life.”

“It’s my baby. It is my body. It’s turning into my flesh and blood in there. You’re not going to kill it.”

“Very nice. And who will look after it, once it’s got here, if it hasn’t killed me and itself on the way?”

“I will, that’s obvious. I’ll support you—whilst you wait—and take the baby—and find a way to look after him. Or her.”

“You would, wouldn’t you? Shit. Get it adopted into a
family, keep an eye on its progress . . .”

“It’s my child. It should be with me. Fathers do love their children.”

“Not unborn ones, in my experience. And I don’t have no father, so I wouldn’t know.”

“They don’t love unborn ones mostly because they don’t imagine them. I deliver them all the time— especially those in trouble—so I do imagine them.”

A generic howling newborn crossed his overactive mental imagery. He said:

“I’m sorry you have no father. Is he dead?”

“I just don’t know who he is. I grew up in a commune. My mother was in a kind of East London ashram thing. All the men were meant to be fathers to all the kids. They weren’t, not really. They all, like, went their own way and did their own thing after a year or two.”

“So you lived with your mother?”

“No, she died. I lived a bit with my gran, but she went a bit crazy and got put into a place where they put crazy people, and I went to one of the other commune women, but she went to India, so I got fostered, like, with a teacher, which was the family I had, but I’m not in touch any more . . . Is this an interrogation?”

“No. I wanted to know. I don’t mean to shout. I want my child to be born. If you can bear it.”

“That’s a joke.”

“It wasn’t meant to be. I can and will look after you—”

“No, but I like my own life, doing my own things my own way . . .”

“Daisy, please. It might be your only chance to have . . .

“Do you think I don’t know that?”

HOSPITAL CONSULTANTS are used to getting their way. Daisy wriggled and argued. Damian simply heard her out and restated his position. She left, saying she would “think about it when you’re not screaming at me.” He said he would write her a cheque to buy food and Daisy enquired what good he thought
would do, since she had no bank account. So he emptied out the cash from his pockets, and put it into hers, as she sat there, sullen and silent. She said:

“This looks pretty disgusting.

“You’ve got to eat. For two.”

“That remains to be seen.”

“Where are you living?”

“Here and there. Nowhere you could find me.”

“Please. Promise to keep in touch. You will need looking after. Properly.”

She said in a tired whisper:

“OK. I promise.”

HE SAID NOTHING of this to Martha Sharpin. He was a doctor, he had taken the Hippocratic Oath, silence came easy to him. But what he was not saying inhibited him from saying anything else. He didn’t call her. Then Martha, like Dr. Nanjuwany, knocked at his office door. They kissed, cool cheek to cool cheek.

“Damian, I’ve had a surprising visit. From Daisy.”


“She turned up very late last night and asked if she could sleep on my floor. So I said yes, and she came in, and just started crying—I’ve never seen anyone cry so much—and it all came out. Or a lot of it. She said you are insisting she doesn’t have an abortion, and she wants an abortion, but she can’t answer you back because you’re so overbearing. And I wondered if a baby was in her interest—was possible for her—really. She’s turned me into a kind of proxy mother. So I thought I’d come and ask you directly—since she’s still on my sofa, and shows no sign of leaving—”

“The baby is in
interest,” said Damian.

“But you are a
Catholic, you said so.”

“Seeing it’s
my baby

He saw, from Martha’s face, that Daisy had for some reason been more discreet, or secretive, than he could possibly have hoped.

“Oh,” said Martha. Damian said:

“I was trying to be kind. I was only trying to be kind.”

He could not read Martha’s expression. Shock, censure, disappointment, puzzlement.

“I found her camping out in the basement. I took her home. She got in my bed. It would have been damnably
somehow to kick her out, somehow. You know. No, you don’t.”

“Oh, we’ve all gone to bed with people because it would have been rude not to.” A little too lightly. “So now what?”

“Well. I—I shall take the baby. She needn’t see it, she clearly doesn’t want it, but it must be
I’m responsible for it. What a mess.”

They stared at each other. Damian, domineering with Daisy, was hangdog with Martha. Martha said:

“She really is miserable. She’s twisting about like an octopus on a fish-hook. What about her—medical problems? Will it be straightforward? She’s scared stiff.”

“Possibly it won’t. Won’t be straightforward. I don’t know. There are very clear rights and wrongs in this matter.”

“Possibly there are, in your head,” said Martha.

“You don’t agree? You don’t see—how I see it— what I feel?”

“Not exactly. I’m an outsider. I see what she wants, and I see what you want. The two don’t fit very well.”

There appeared to be no room at all for what Martha herself might want, or have wanted.

“I need to find her somewhere to live—in a sensible way—or as near sensible as possible. Not your sofa.”

“Not my sofa. I’m not a saint and I have my own life. I’ll put my mind to the problem of lodging.”

“I’ll pay.”

“Oh yes,” said Martha. “I understand that.”

A ROOM WAS FOUND, in a reasonable bed-and-breakfast, not far from where Martha lived, in London Fields. Martha helped in the search for the room and put a glass of freesias on the little dressing-table. She also helped Daisy to move in, in Damian’s absence. She reported back to Damian that Daisy had said almost nothing, and didn’t look well. She seems beaten down, said Martha to Damian. Defeated. She thought for a moment and added inexorably, “Terrified.” Damian said frigidly that Martha was not to worry. It was his problem, and his decision, and he would see to it, and he was grateful for her help, and promised not to bother her any further. They looked at each other unhappily. Daisy now bulked large in both their minds; she had made them into the parents she didn’t have, setting the kind mother against the domineering father, and herself against both. Life runs in very narrow stereotyped channels, until it is interrupted by accidents or visions. Daisy somehow impeded Damian and Martha from becoming lovers as a small child nightly interrupts its parents’ embraces. Damian had this thought rather grimly as he drove to the hospital. He had the further thought that Daisy’s real child— his child—when it was born, would be an even more effective impediment.

HE OVERSAW Daisy’s pregnancy in a manner both cunning and draconian. He knew better than to invade her private life—or work life, whatever that was. But he checked what he knew about. He made sure she kept all her appointments, he monitored her monitoring, he checked the prescriptions, he interrogated Dr. Nanjuwany. He set his mind to thinking what to do with a baby. He did not consult Martha, he did not consult Dr. Nanjuwany. He did have a conversation with the hospital almoner, about what the legal processes were in the case of babies that were to be given up for adoption. This area turned out to be murky and fraught with difficulty. He listened to the almoner about the rights of the mother, the lack of rights of the father, about adoption procedures for a putative father who wanted an unwanted child. The simplest would be to marry, said the almoner. Not possible, said Damian. Damian, naturally law-abiding, and troubled about the legal status of his unborn child, nevertheless decided by default simply to do what was best and sort out a
situation later. He found out about nanny agencies.

HE WAS SUBJECTED, over the remaining months of gestation, to a kind of martyrdom by whispering. Everyone “knew” what was going on, and since neither Damian, nor, surprisingly, Daisy, confided in anyone, guesswork and innuendo flourished and tangled. Daisy did go so far as to report stonily that she didn’t want the baby, and didn’t want to be told how it was getting on, she wasn’t keeping it, it was all someone else’s business, thank you. Damian was present when the first ultrasound pictures of the child, stirring in its fluid bath, appeared on the screen. Daisy turned her face away. Dr. Nanjuwany said, “Do you want to know the sex or not? Some people like to be surprised.”

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