It was easier said than done. No one around the dinner table knew how to talk about anything else. They ate in complete silence, they squirmed awkwardly on their chairs, and they looked at her.
Had it been too much to ask for? To let her pretend for a single meal that life was normal, that nothing had happened, that soon people would start arriving for this night at Nimis House, and Clyde would be among them, laughing, chivalric and happy. She would be safe, no one would hurt her. She would have a great time, go to bed, wake up, and continue as normal.
Now, with every day that passed, she was realising that she could never return to normal. That even after she had finished this and after everyone had started coming back every night, it would never actually be the same. There would still be a person she would never let back into the house, there would still be the night she would never be able to forget, there would still be the child that had been hers for a few weeks, and there would always be Alfie, and the one time he had chosen to be against her instead of with her, when she had needed him more than ever before. She did not think she would ever be able to forgive that either.
All she had wanted, all she had asked, was to have one last dinner that was normal, if that was everything she would get. And they could not even give her that. They could not even speak, could not stop sneaking peeks of her when they thought she did not see.
Mabel did not think she had been unreasonable. Now she picked at her food and felt tears burn behind her eyes, in anger or sadness or both. Forks and knives clicked against plates and food was chewed. Opposite her Alfie looked up.
His eyes did not look at her the same now. They had always been so loving before, so affectionate and happy. She had never seen them this reproving, this hurt. But it was not his pain, it was not his life, it was not his choice. Why did he think himself have the right to look at her like that?
She could not take it any more. She stood up suddenly and as they all stared at her in shock but no one dared call her back, she grabbed her skirts and ran.
She wanted her bedroom, but her bedroom was not safe. There men could appear behind her in the mirror, grab her on her floor, take her in her own bed. So she did not take the stairs.
Here was the entrance hall, so big and magnificent, the result of many years work. How could she ever have thought it was important? And here was the ballroom, her glory, her pride. In pieces on the floor like the dress she had worn. What was any of it for?
Mabel did not know at what point she started crying, but when she entered the garden her cheeks were wet of tears. She kept running. She ran along the garden path and under the arch, and stopped in front of the dogwood. The flowers would start to die soon. How could she really know they would be back next year?
She dropped her skirts in resignation and went to sit down on the bench again, the bench where she had told him. Closing her eyes, she wound up the clock and turned back time. She never told him. She was still the only one who knew, and she would do it all on her own. She would go to the doctor, have the surgery, return back home, and never let anyone know it had happened. That was the only way to completely erase it. How had she been dumb enough to tell him? Had she always expected too much from him?
There were steps on the path and she opened her eyes. Jimmy stood under the arch with his hands in his pockets. Mabel tried to dry her cheeks with her hands.
“Oh, look”, Jimmy said. “It’s blooming.”
Pretending that she was not crying, he went past her and up to the dogwood tree with his back against her.
“Do you want a flower, Mabel?” he asked.
She snivelled when she tried to reply.
“I’ll pick you a flower”, he said.
And he did, carefully as if it was fragile and precious. He held it out for her like a man on a mission when he turned. She gave up on trying to make herself look presentable.
She took a deep breath and accepted the flower. He sat down next to her and she looked at it instead of him. It was easier that way. The silence was pressing, pushing out from someplace inside her, making her lips shiver.
“He wants us to do it together”, she said when she could hold it in no longer. “But how can he raise a child with me if he can’t even marry me?” With every word she spoke faster. “And yes, I know – he doesn’t think I do, but I want to get married. And it’s unfair of me to expect him to just know it, but if he actually listened to me...”
She had to stop to catch her breath. Jimmy nodded silently.
“I never even wanted children”, she said, voice lower, turning the flower in her hands. “And definitely one I’ll never be able to love. Because I won’t. I won’t ever be able to look at this little child without thinking about him, and it isn’t fair.” She snivelled. “It isn’t fair to anyone. And for this child, to have a mother like me, a father like Clyde and a second father like Alfie, how is that the better option for it? And this is- it’s the only way I can erase it. Or it will stay with me forever.”
She looked up Jimmy, expecting him to have answers that did not exist. He just put a hand on her shoulder and smiled compassionately. There was no need for him to speak.
“Do you understand?” she asked desperately. “Alfie doesn’t, and I just, I just need someone who understands.”
“Mabel”, he said affectionately. “I understand.”
She started crying again, before she could stop herself.
“I already have an appointment”, she pressed out. “It’s in just a few days, and I haven’t- I haven’t told anyone.”
So why was she telling him? It had become too difficult to keep to herself a second longer, and either he had just happened to be around at the right time, or he was special enough to tell.
“I’m so scared, Jimmy.”
He squeezed her shoulder and said calmly, “You shouldn’t have to do that alone.”
She had never made a decision this important or gone through something so big, and when he mentioned it she realised that she would not be able to do it on her own. She would pretend there was no appointment, she would not leave the house, and she would let it go too long. But if someone had to drag her to the doctor’s office in her hair, that was what she wanted done. This was something she had to do.
Then Jimmy did exactly what she wanted him to.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
She could ask Alfie, but she did not want to. And Constance would make it all too big. She had no other option but Jimmy, but she found that she did not want one either.
Mabel nodded gratefully, and it was decided. She dried away some tears from under her eye with the back of her hand and looked back at the flower.
“I think I’ll press this”, she whispered. “And keep it.”
She never did hold grudges, and she always fell in love fast.
The doctor’s waiting room did not look like Mabel wanted it to. It was cramped and moist, with mysterious spots spanning over the bare, grey walls and stains on the floor. There was no receptionist, because there was no desk. There was only two opposite lines of creaky, uncomfortable chairs – some of which looked very unstable – that were all occupied, mostly by women. They were old and young and thin and thick, but they all had in common that they were dressed cheaply, in moth-eaten dresses and jackets with holes. A young girl no older than 20 had coughed the entire time they had waited there.
Mabel and Jimmy, with long coats, nice clothes and hats, looked out of place here. But no one seemed to notice, no one seemed to care. She supposed they all had more important things on their minds. A middle-aged man with a small nose and rosy cheeks patted his round wife on the head as she blew her nose into a dirty handkerchief. Two girls – not even teenagers, girls with braids – held hands and stared blindly in front of themselves. Someone was praying, but there was no other talking in the room. How Constance knew of this place was beyond Mabel, but she supposed Constance always knew about these places, as if she had a full list of them saved for a rainy day.
A door opened and a woman dressed all in black hurried across the room with a hand on her stomach. Had she changed her mind? Before or after? Mabel gulped. She would not change her mind.
The doctor appeared in the same doorway, washing his hands with a towel. He was a short and broadly built man, presumably in his 50’s, smiling happily. All the women turned to him, some expectantly, some horrified. No one seemed ready to have their name called out.
The doctor appeared to know this and just smiled around the room, making the moment last as long as possible. Then he cleared his throat – just a little longer, a few seconds – and said, “Ms Federline?” His voice was as high and squeaky as that of a ten-year-old.
Jimmy turned to a statue beside Mabel. His face was the colour of snow and his eyes the size of saucers when he stared at her. He did not seem to actually be there but somewhere else.
“It was the only name I could think of”, she whispered. “You’re not angry?”
He blinked twice and stood up with a twitch. “No. No.”
She stood up too, clenching her jaw. He held out his arm for her, and she took it and wondered which one of them was the most affected by this. Jimmy looked ready to faint, but she felt very much the same.
When he saw them coming towards them the doctor smiled and disappeared back through the door. This room was even worse. It was the same size as the waiting room, and here the emptiness made it so inhospitable. There was a basin in the corner, and in the middle of the room a bed, a chair and a table with a plate of tools on it. Everything looked old and filthy. On the floor stood a rusty bucket and Mabel stared at it. That was where this thing that could have been her child would end up, instead of in her arms.
“You the father?” the doctor asked cheerily. He was already standing by the table with his hands out.
“Yes”, Jimmy replied with the speed of someone who needed to get the answer out before anyone could claim differently. There was no hesitation.
“You’re paying?” the doctor who did not speak in full sentences said.
“I’m paying”, Mabel said.
“On the table, miss.”
Her hands shook as she opened up her purse and took out a few pennies. The price for saving her life and taking another was too low. She looked around indecisively and handed the purse to Jimmy, who took it as if he was still somewhere else.
Please come back, she thought. Please be with me. I don’t want to be alone.
“The bed, miss.”
She obeyed because she had no other choice. As she lay down on the bed – hard and uncomfortable – she saw the tools on the table. They looked just as dirty and rusty as the rest of the place, scissors, clamps, other things she could not identify. She did not want them inside her.
“Will it hurt?” she asked. She could hear how terrified she sounded.
And here she had thought she would be brave.
“The baby, miss”, the doctor said, slapping on a pair of gloves that he had produced from somewhere at some point.
“But not me?”
Jimmy was suddenly standing by her side. He looked down at her as if it was the last time he would see her. She reached out for him, and clasped his hand when she found it, hard. He squeezed back. It must have been painful.
“I’m here”, he said.
Some sort of mouthpiece appeared in front of her, attached to a cylinder with a tube. It was coming fast towards her face and Mabel felt her panic grow.
“What’s that?” she shrieked.
It was too late to pull away. The mouthpiece covered her mouth and nose, and the doctor held it there firmly.
“Sleep”, he said.
That was the last thing she knew as a soon-to-be mother.