It is halfway through Karl Jenkin’s Palladio that he makes his decision. Somewhere in between the Largo and the Vivace, when the tempo steps up and the strings saw through the air, raising goose bumps on his arms, he decides that he will leave her. At that moment as if she can hear his thoughts, his daughter Olivia catches his eye above her bow. The expression on her face is an echo of her mother’s, caught halfway between pride and a question.
He drops his gaze to the floor, irritated that this resolution has interrupted his listening. It is always during music that he makes the important choices – in the middle of Barber’s Adagio for Strings that he chose medicine, in the closing quavers of Chopin’s Nocturne No.2 that he decided on Oxford. Later, when confidence coloured him in and the years had thinned his hair, the decision to propose to Marie. Dinner at Carluccios, Debussy’s Clair de Lune straining against the candlelight, the notes curling around the ringlets of her hair. The perfect tune for the imperfect choice. When he looks up Olivia is no longer watching, her eyes fixed instead on the music teachers face. Fifteen years and she’s never looked at him that way, admiration glossing her eyes and flushing with pride as the teacher smiles at her. Fitting that Palladio was inspired by an architect of the same name, whose designs Jenkins admired for their harmonious proportions; ironic when his own home is off-kilter.
And now, nearing the end of his daughter’s dress rehearsal at this school that charges the equivalent of a huge mortgage payment each month, beneath the thirty-foot Christmas tree and canopy of lights and warmed by the mulled wine, he realises that this can go on no longer.
In the car, after they’ve praised Olivia and said goodbye, he shifts into third gear. The engine growls as they gather speed. Olivia boards at the school, though they live only ten miles away. Marie’s choice, arguing the benefits to her boarding – socialisation, integration. The perk that went unsaid; time gained by sending a child away. Hours that Marie filled with coffee mornings and gym visits, shopping trips, long lunches and bored flirtations whilst he worked. Married to your job, her accusation. He regrets it now, this amongst the many decisions that he has allowed. He would have liked Olivia to be at home, to coexist. She was sad to leave at the start of term, at first. Space has flexed its way between them now. It seems insurmountable. When did he step back?
The high beams illuminate the black country lane and he takes the corners hard, a twist of excitement in his stomach as the car clings to the road. He hasn’t decided when to tell Marie that he is leaving. He indulges for a moment in his secret. The power of a decision! She doesn’t speak, he does not expect her to. The silence they arrived in protects them and he will not remove it. There is power too in this. He will preserve its perfect shape until she is forced to say something, anything. A ‘sorry’ would not suffice now, too understated. The word has never left her lips before, and he knows that it will not do so now. Ironic though, if she used it here, too late. He imagines how it might be said, meekly? I am sorry for my indiscretion? No, too submissive for Marie, too childlike. Dishonest too. I am sorry for my indiscretions? More honest, but still too weak. No matter now anyhow – the act of deciding has liberated him from her power. Funny how words can mean everything or nothing, depending on the listener.
He smiles as he joins the main road, seventy miles an hour through the dark and now the snow comes, drifting down like white sawdust. Beside him Marie shifts, unwilling to voice her discomfort at his speed. She raises an arm and reaches for the grab handle.
Gravel splays as he swings into the driveway, the tasteful white Christmas lights laced through the trees like ribbons. How he longs for those gaudy multi coloured lights of his childhood, a flashing Santa perhaps, upon the roof. Years of studying and mounting debt, followed by years of work; reducing debt proportionate to his promotions, the letters after his name. All to become this – a highly acclaimed surgeon; a house the value of a small island, a daughter in one of the most prestigious private schools. A philandering wife and Christmas every year without the multi coloured lights that he so loves.
He enters the house, throwing his keys upon the counter. He heads straight to the drawing room where he turns on BBC Radio 3. Vivaldi’s Summer Presto enters the room and his shoulders relax. A scotch from the cabinet, just the one. He thinks forward to tomorrow, the surgery he has scheduled. It’s tricky, controversial, ground breaking even. He’ll be the first surgeon in England to perform this surgery in utero. He imagines the cut as he slices through the mother’s skin, the softness giving way to muscle; the scalpel shuddering firm in his fingers as her body first resists and then yields to the blade. He puts the glass down on his desk, scotch forgotten as he replays the surgery – that moment where the fetus is exposed, forced to face the light before its time, no bigger than the voles that his dogs hunt. The way he will reach in and with the precision of a sculptor correct the congenital defect of the spine, reverse the permanent and life impacting damage of spina bifida that will otherwise render the infant disabled. His blade, his intervention, the only hope.
Marie has forgotten the importance of tomorrow. Even before their argument, when she declared this most recent act of infidelity, throwing it into the room like a rag, she had forgotten. By the time the Christmas meal with his colleagues comes around two weeks from now, she will have remembered and swotted up on the detail of the procedure to impress them with her knowledge. Delighting them with her ravishing smile, her wit. Each of them going home a little envious of his wife who has everything, who supports him so.
He hears her in the bathroom. Clicking off the lights he closes the drawing room door. In the bedroom he changes into his pyjamas, navy flannel hemmed with burgundy trim; remembers her disapproval at this show of middle age the day he bought them. She’ll expect him to go to the guest room, but he will not grant her that escape this time. When she returns from the bathroom smelling of mint his book is put down, his light switched off; his back to her side of the bed. She will be frustrated by the fact that he ignores her; is not forced to acknowledge her firm breasts that pull tightly against her night vest, her long legs. He can tell as she pulls the cover towards her that she is thrown, angry even, by this usurpation of the usual routine.
At breakfast he does not look at her, does not know if she looks at him. He pours his coffee, she eats her cereal, back turned. He reaches for the muesli and she, now forced to watch him, rises from her stool towards the sink. When he reaches for his briefcase, she puts a hand upon his arm.
‘Why this reaction, this time?’ she asks.
He shakes his head and glances at his watch. It’s late and he cannot afford to get stuck on the outskirts of London on a day like today, the mother waiting anxiously for his arrival.
‘I’m late,’ he says, and grabbing his briefcase he is at the door, driving away from the tasteful white lights in this still dark morning towards the station.
When he’s left her, he’ll move, it’s ridiculous living this far from the hospital. He’ll get an apartment, Marylebone maybe, with high ceilings and cornices on the walls. He’ll have a sixty-two inch television and surround sound, mahogany furniture and Christmas lights all the colours of the rainbow.
At Paddington he berates the rush hour crowds, time ticking against his wrist now. He’ll tell her later. The tube is packed, his vest sticks to his back. He drops his newspaper and a woman bends to pass it back, fingers lingering against his hand as she does so. He thinks only of the surgery ahead. In hospital the chlorinated smell fills his lungs and his shoes squeak against the lino. He changes into scrubs and meets the mother, barely in her twenties, face ravaged with fear and something else, excitement? She understands the risks, the dangers of operating on a fetus outside of the womb. She’s been told that any future pregnancies must be by caesarean. The anaesthetist enters and as he turns to leave, she grabs his hand.
He is un-nerved by this premature gratitude and nods. ‘You’ll be fine.’ The words stick against his dry lips. He considers that he has spoken only a handful of words since yesterday afternoon.
He makes the incision in the abdomen and partially separates the uterus from the body; amniotic fluid is drained from the uterus. The hysterotomy is done. There is more blood than he’d like and he staples the perimeter of the incision to reduce it. The monitor pulses, tracking the mother’s uterine contractions and her unborn child’s heart rate. He works fast and soon he places the tiny fetus back into the uterus and seals the abdominal wall, replacing the amniotic fluid before the last stitch. It has gone as well as expected. The mother when she wakes is weak and grateful.
He would like to stay in the hospital to be on hand for post-operative care, but Olivia’s Christmas performance is tonight, the real thing. He can’t miss it. On the train home he logs his surgical report, emails his colleague a summary, and turning his face to the window closes his eyes.
In the shower he scours his body with the soap, in between his fingers, his toes. A glass of wine waits on the counter and he ponders whether to accept it would mean defeat. A whiff of perfume and Marie is beside him, long dress hugging her hips. He’d planned to tell her now, before the show, but his phone is ringing. He takes the call, wedges the phone between jaw and shoulder whilst he struggles into his coat and takes a swig from the wine. She drives.
The school looms across the parkland, driveway lit by iron lights. The buzz of the performance is palpable, nerves fizz in the air. Olivia greets him warmly, no trace of yesterday’s expression in her face. He sits beside Marie and drinks the mulled wine too fast, accepts another.
Palladio again and as the strings soar he realises his error of yesterday, mistaking the pulsing beat and increasing tempo for a symbol of freedom. They are merely echoes of the symmetry of their inspiration; La Rotonda, Palladio’s house. The repetitive sawing of the notes is oppressive, uninspired. The mathematical precision of the piece bothers him. How could he have mistaken this for anything but the mediocre melody that the critics shunned? He loosens his collar, unbuttons his coat. He looks at Olivia, her eyes closed, fingers dancing the bow. Perhaps it is enough, to have formulaic music played reasonably well; to endure a marriage despite its problems. Perhaps it would have been enough for the child to be born untampered with. A future for the child at least, of kind. To die at twenty-three weeks, no hope at all. Survival was impossible once the amniotic fluid leaked. His colleague’s call.
Show over and in the car again beside Marie, who turns now, placing a hand upon his thigh.
‘I am sorry, you know,’ she says.
He places his fingers over hers, his thumb against her wrist where he can feel her pulse beating.
Hannah Persaud has been writing fiction for three years and short stories are her guilty pleasure whilst editing her first novel. This year she won the InkTears Short Story Contest in 2017 and will be a judge for them in 2018. She also shortlisted for the Cambridge Short Story Prize recently. She was runner up in InkTears Short Story Contest in 2016 and won the Fresher Writing Prize in 2016, judged by Francesca Main and Madeleine Milburn. Hannah is represented by Laura Macdougall of United Agents and hopes very much to be able to introduce her novel to the world soon.