Clare watched as the young woman passed her in the corridor. First-timer, definitely: excitement and panic were etched on her pale face as she made her way slowly down the hall, dragging the IV on its wheels beside her, legs bent and shoulders hunched, shuffling in girlish slippers bought for this special day. Her glance at Clare said, "Help me. When will this be finished? When will he be here?" Probably came in half a centimeter dilated -- when she'd fiddled with her TENS machine at home for a while, then called her mother and repacked the holdall with all the impossibly small, impossibly white sleep suits, scratch mittens and hats like egg cozies.
The double doors behind the woman swung open, and a big, dark man went to her, put one hand in hers, the other round her shoulder. He handled her gingerly. He was paler than she was. A Type X, Clare thought. They were copers, the strong ones. Type Ys barely made it through the epidurals without crying. They were a few decades too late -- would have been happier pacing the corridor with a cigar behind each ear. Clare liked the Type Ys better.
Elliot was probably an X. Or maybe the hybrid: Y masquerading as X. They were okay unless things got scary. Who was she kidding? She had no idea which type he'd be. Not that it mattered. Not anymore.
The girl moaned, leant forward. Clare answered his imploring look. She never felt detached. Still, each story that played out, each life that started within these walls pulled her in. Still.
"Okay, hold on, let's give you a hand. What's your name?"
"Okay, Lynne. We'll get you back to your room. You probably need a bit of a rest. Who's looking after you?"
A colleague appeared from behind the same double doors. "Sorry, Clare. Hang on, Lynne. We've got you. Got it from here, Clare. You're off, aren't you?"
"Have a good night, then."
Tonight, thank God, she had a reason not to be at home, not to see Elliot. She'd probably be out again before he got back from college, and he'd be asleep by the time she made herself climb into bed beside him.
And that girl, Lynne, would be holding her baby in her arms.
As usual Harriet climbed the stairs with a teetering pile of single socks, discarded sweaters, stray toys -- the flotsam and jetsam of the day. Down was usually a mug or two, plastic cups found under beds, read newspapers and sticky plastic medicine spoons. Up, the aforementioned. Still, she supposed, with a fairly twisted smile, variety was the spice of life. Ha, ha. Domestic bliss reminded her of that silly film she'd seen once, Groundhog Day, where this guy was compelled to repeat the same day over and over again, never quite getting the girl because he couldn't change what happened. And slightly higher up the cultural scale, wasn't there that guy in mythology -- Sissy something . . . Sisyphus, was it? -- sentenced by the gods for some transgression to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a big hill only to watch it fall straight down again, and on, and on. At least pushing a big boulder up a hill would soon sort out these bat wings she was developing beneath her upper arms, Harriet thought. Sweeping the flipping kitchen floor four times, loading and unloading the washing machine three times and answering forty-two questions about why there aren't any more dinosaurs, and if there were, how big their poos would be, wasn't doing much for hers.
Upstairs, all was quiet for the first time since 6:00 a.m. Harriet followed the sound of Tim's voice to their bedroom. He was sitting on the sofa under the window, having been allowed by his kidnappers to remove his shoes and jacket, and loosen his tie. The children, damp and clean from their bath, were huddled, one under each arm, listening to their story. Tim was reading slowly, ascribing to each character his or her own voice, occasionally making animated gestures. Harriet felt a twinge of habitual guilt. She usually chose the shortest story and speedread it: her children might be forgiven for thinking that every character in literature had been raised in the middle-class South, for all the effort she made with her inflection. Still, it was easier, wasn't it? Coming in at the end of the day, when the snot and the pasta sauce and the tears had been wiped away, and the fight over the toothbrushing, and the frantic shoving of toys into too-small cupboards had all been done. Easy to reward the exuberant greeting with warmth and affection and a story reading fit for Radio 4. The kids had spent their energy through the long day, and Harriet had absorbed it. Now the fight had gone out of them: they were passive, gentle. And she was catatonic.
Harriet hovered at the doorway, not wanting to go in and disturb the perfect tableau, the circle of love. Somehow, she didn't fit into these moments. Instead, she deposited her bundle on the guest bed and went into the bathroom. Studiously ignoring the bubble scum around the bath, the toothpaste squeezed carelessly across the washbasin tap, she poked ineffectually at her mad hair in the mirror and flicked some powder across her nose and chin. She hastily drew a line of lipstick on her upper lip, then rolled her lips together in concentration. (Not for her the liner-brush-blot prescribed by glossies she only saw every three months in the hairdresser's.)
Tim appeared in the doorway, carrying a slumped, sleepy Chloe. "Say ‘Night-night, Mummy.'" Thumb firmly plugged in, Chloe waved her plastic beaker of warm milk vaguely in Harriet's direction.
"Night-night, sleep tight, darling." Harriet smiled.
Behind Tim, Josh asked, "Are you going out, Mummy?"
"Yes, I am, sweetheart. Daddy's going to look after you. I'll be home again later, though."
Excerpted from The Reading Group © Copyright 2005 by Elizabeth Noble. Reprinted with permission by Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.
The Reading Group: A Novel
- paperback: 429 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
- ISBN-10: 0060760443
- ISBN-13: 9780060760441