She remembers their discovery of this little patch of city woodland, five years now, the thrill of finding it beyond the gate in the garden wall, like an ancient secret kept by the four surrounding rows of houses. Philip’s eyes had met hers, and he’d crouched, his fingers curled around a tiny rare fern. And she’d been drawn to this oak, which must have first sprouted when the city was still just a settlement, before shipping routes circled the earth; lucky, somehow, to have been left in peace, in place.
As Philip digs, Katherine incants to herself the name of each tree silhouette. ‘Poplar, rowan, ash.’ Her fingernails pierce the bark. ‘Yew, holly, pine, pine, pine.’
As Philip digs, her belly cramps again, but all that quickens is a sadness. She holds the tight bundle closer. She feels like all the soft parts of her are turning hard, hard parts soft. Her womb becoming rock, bones to butter, her throat rough as sand. For distraction, she runs through what she’ll need when they return to the house. Arnica, chamomile, ignatia. For steadiness, she breathes in the woods, the tartness of bramble and bracken.
Philip’s face, his kind, patient face, is stiff with concentration. She tries to forget the prickle of betrayal at his midnight begging, Please, Katherine, let me fetch a doctor. Instead, she watches how he inhabits the pattern of push, shovel, push. Always been a man of rhythm – she knew from the outset, from the three sturdy knocks on her mother’s door all those years ago, as he passed by, lost. But the years have shown her how much he loves the swell and ebb of daily life, the beat of logic and of the law and of love. For each of their daughter’s first words – fern, papa, book – he’d made a ditty they’d sing over and over, until Lucille’s next word came along, like a bubble through water. I disrupt him, she thinks.
Love disrupts us all.
Eventually, the edges of the sky turn sallow, and Philip props the spade against a tree. His eyes connect with hers and she steps forward.
But she’s not strong enough to lay the basket, the two bundles, into the hole. She’s not strong enough to lift the magnolia, though it’s only a sapling. She’s strong enough only to cast a handful of soil around its roots, once Philip has lowered it into the ground.
It is not wrong, what they are doing. It does not feel wrong.
She, of all people, knew all a doctor could do was nothing. All a doctor would do was take away the too-early babies, arrange a burial with a cold, dead stranger. No. This way, she can watch over them herself. From the green room, she’ll see the magnolia grow and bloom.
Philip takes her hand, grit between their palms. ‘Will you stop your work now?’ he asks. ‘Surely that will be too much for you. After this.’
‘No,’ she says, and his hand stiffens. Perhaps it is us who disrupt love. From Lucille’s open window they hear her begin to whimper. Katherine waits for the pull that her daughter’s cry exerts on her, one of so many invisible threads between them. It doesn’t come. She takes a step back towards the disturbed ground, her hand slipping free from Philip’s.
‘What is it?’ He frowns.
Lucille’s wails grow louder. Katherine shakes her head. ‘Nothing.’ As she walks, her legs seem to work against her. When she lifts and pushes the rickety gate, it leaves a splinter in her thumb, but she barely registers it – a whisper compared to the aching clamour elsewhere. When she reaches the red- brick path that runs between the glasshouses – Philip’s green, rampant fernery on the left, the old, bare tropical glasshouse to the right – he takes her arm gently.
‘There—’ His voice is low, soft. ‘Listen. Esther is attending to her.’ Their housekeeper’s voice is clear, singing one of her lullabies. Still, Katherine feels nothing.