By Elaine Currie
Terry’s plump fingers pushed the paper across the table to a point where Lisa’s swollen digits could pick it up without her stretching.
“What do you think?” he asked. “A new line we could develop alongside the restoration work? My sister could work on the outfits. She’d love that, researching, resourcing antique lace for the deluxe models, trawling out of the way auction houses for original Christening gowns or running up hand-made fakes.”
“Replicas,” Lisa replied, picking the mail sheet up by crinkling its glossy edges until her fingers got a grip. “Did this come through the door then?”
“Um,” was all Terry could manage around a gulp of tepid instant coffee.
“Have you heard of their company before?” Her eyes were picking over the copy, noting the buzz words. Unbelievably realistic. Perfect in every detail. A marvel of creativity. Sculpted using the latest technical development to provide you with ... Hand finished. Limited availability. Discerning collector. “If the photos are true to the reality then they’re worth looking into,” she grudgingly agreed.
“Each doll has a unique production number and a guaranteed limited run. Hence the price.”
Lisa’s short, bitten index nail scratched down the bill to stop under the price per unit. “Exclusivity assured. At that price it should be.”
“Maximum number of units per purchaser, four. Think of the opportunities for add-ons, Lisa. Toy prams, rattles, little crocheted shawls. Millions of soft toys.”
His enthusiastic tone drew her to look up from the sales pitch towards her partner’s whiskery face. Despite his plump cheeks and unremarkable features, his blue eyes with their pale blond eyelashes were sparkling with amusement. Pale and bushy he reminded her of a blond teddy bear, the visual opposite to her dark sleekness.
“Tease,” she said, her hazel green eyes focused on him alone.
Already he was rising from the table, scraping his chair back to rise, nimbly skirting around the kitchen table to lean down for a brief, vanilla kiss on her cheek, one arm resting on the wooden work surface, one hand spread wide over her blooming belly. “Make the most of me. Our three kids are going to be into everything before too long.”
She smiled into his mouth then kissed him gently. “True, though at least with your sister coming we can look after one boy each.”
“If we can tell them apart,” he said. “Now if you’re ready I’ll drop you off at the hospital.”
Lisa looked up at the chirpy, twenty something nursing assistant, then rested her hands on the chair’s arms and shoved herself upright. The NHS pre-natal clinic was as bright and breezy as its all female staff could make it. Between them they coped with stressed mothers, troublesome toddlers and sheepish fathers, alleviating apprehension and instilling a drop of realism into some of the more naive birthing plans they were proudly shown. Lisa had been here many times, her celebrity status assured as the triplets inside her grew. Other mothers couldn’t help but touch her, as if she was a lucky charm, and even the most experienced Doctors nodded in her direction as they stood aside for her in the old building’s comparatively narrow corridors.
The young assistant beamed at her, prattling on as they glided towards the Doctor’s room. Most of what she said or asked was the usual stuff and Lisa answered automatically. How long till they were due? Did she know if they were girls or boys? How about names? Then, “I’m afraid Dr. Thompson is away at the moment, so you’ll be seeing a new person today. I hope you don’t mind. And you’re usual midwife is unavailable as well. So, two new people to meet. How exciting,” she practically squeaked.
Lisa wasn’t sure that she was, excited that is. Within weeks of giving birth, and older than most women here, she’d been impressed by the grey haired Dr. Thompson’s reputation and years of practice. Putting her triplets into the care of anyone less experienced didn’t strike her as exciting.
Her doubts must have shown on her face as the young carer tried to reassure her.
“Both Dr. Medith and Midwife Jensen are wonderful people. You really will love them.”
Then they were at the Doctor’s door.
“Easy does it.” Terry was handing her out of the passenger seat of their three year old hatchback and into the unusually warm light of the early May afternoon. Lush pink tulips added colour to the post rain grey of pavement, holding their tight formation despite the bright blue sky. Black birds chased each other over the lawn as food became more abundant and keeping warm wasn’t the only thing on their tiny little minds. “Not much you can do if your favourite Doctor has retired and left the country and your midwife is on holiday.” They had been talking about this all the way back in the car. “But you liked their replacements well enough didn’t you? And they must be qualified or they wouldn’t be there would they?”
Between Terry’s grip and the solid back of the car seat, Lisa eased herself upright. How to explain a woman’s intuition that change at this late stage could not be good or at least was unsettling?
“But?” He was looking at her sideways, the logic he was spouting so obvious to him that he couldn’t see what she was objecting to. “And I am going to be there too.”
That was the clincher. “No fainting then.”
“As if,” he exclaimed. “I’ve seen the videos.”
“It’s not the same.”
“I can cope. And it’s you I worry about. You’re so tense.”
“It’s that hospital. It’s so crowded. And I’m so big. Everyone flattens themselves against the walls as I go past.” She made a joke of it, huffing an embryonic laugh into the warmer than expected air. She was going to say that Dr. Thompson would surely have mentioned upcoming retirement, but changed her mind, stopping with her mouth half open, gaping.
“And,” he prompted.
“And this early summer is making me so uncomfortable.”
“Ha. Here we go again. You just want to take up all the bed.” It was an in-joke between them, how he’d turned from being a comfortable, warm bear to hug, into a hot brick taking up too much space.
“Accept defeat, Terry. I’m more than half way there.”
Easing her along the path Terry grinned, recognising a fait accompli when he saw one and knowing that anything he said in reply would be fuel to the fire. “Talking of expanding,” he gave her a squeeze as she narrowed her eyes in his direction, “I contacted that company we discussed this morning. Popped into their head office on the way to pick you up. They’re over at that new Green Pantiles business park. Very swanky.” His key turned in the lock, opening the door to a world of familiar cosiness. “They don’t just produce the merchandise. Their package includes publicity shots, advertising links, off-shore connections to collectors in the States and China would you believe. Win, win scenario, they promote their stuff on our web pages and include our site on their foreign client lists.” He helped her with her jacket, the one she could still, somehow, get into.
“And do they really look like newborns?” she asked, heading for the kitchen.
“Incredibly so.” He turned on the oven, taking a casserole dish out of the fridge and transferring it to the oven. “Chicken and mushroom. Your favourite,” then grabbed a bag of ready washed potatoes. “They were very cagy about intellectual property rights etc. Wouldn’t even tell me where their factory was let alone show me around it. Gave me some chat about 3D printing topped off by hands-on craftsmanship. I got to handle a few examples. Angled to bring one back to show you but they wouldn’t have it. Currently they have a limited range of a girl, a boy and they’re talking of bringing out a set of twins soon. Each doll has tiny unique characteristics detailed in.”
“You sound impressed.”
“I was. Their products would complement our renovation work and be just the thing to boost our business plan.” The potatoes were in a saucepan covered in water by now. “Any accessories we provide will have to be top of the range authentic. We don’t want to cheapen the brand.”
“How do you mend them?”
He was topping and tailing sugar snap peas, “Don’t know but I suggested we could work with them on that one,” while pulling a face, the one Lisa thought of as his thinking face. “Looking forward, Green Pantiles has still got units available. They’re roomy, modern. Access is good and the buildings are set in mature parkland. Full grown trees and everything.” Turning, he stared at her as if seeing her pregnancy for the first time. The enthusiasm leeched from his face and his voice as he said, “I was going to say you should visit their site. But maybe not.” He muttered the last three words while the knife hung small and sharp in his generous sized hands. “They are very realistic, Lisa. The dolls. Maybe at your stage of pregnancy we should wait a while.”
The discussion today was not going Lisa’s way, the new Doctor encouraging her to be practical about giving birth in a hospital environment. “I cannot endorse a home birth, Lisa. Even if you were not a first time mother, giving birth to triplets at home is too great a risk.” She tapped something onto her screen. “I don’t see anything here about aftercare arrangements. Do your parents live nearby?” She smiled briefly in Lisa’s direction. “Three grandchildren all at once. I bet they can’t wait.”
“No. Our parents are long gone. It will be down to Terry until his sister comes back. She serves on a cruise ship.”
The Doctor made polite noises, vague references to ‘nearer the time’. Lisa’s appointment was up.
It was the new midwife who walked her back towards the waiting room. “You look a bit down.” When there was no answer she continued in a quiet voice, “so many women want a home birth, but it’s not safe in this case, you understand that?” When there was still no response her voice sank lower still. “If it’s something you would prefer to discuss in private then you are due a home visit. We could chat then.”
Lisa was opening the door before midwife Jensen was halfway up the path, her tiny, wiry frame bustling towards the house, apologies for her delay delivered in a quick, breathy voice.
“Traffic. This hot weather has got everybody out and about. Now, what can I help you with my dear? It’s natural to be apprehensive, or is it something more?”
As they settled down Lisa let her frustrations go. She was hot and uncomfortable, the hospital was noisy, full of comings and goings. “I feel like an exhibit,” she concluded. “I long for peace and quiet, and privacy.”
“Um.” Midwife Jensen was looking at Lisa as if sizing her up. “Have you considered all the options?” she asked. “I have details of a private clinic that will be able to give you your own room, a personalised birthing plan and professional medical attendance throughout. I’m seconded to it myself. It would charge a fee though. Do you have private insurance?”
“No, but that shouldn’t be a problem.”
The midwife gave a small smile, her eyes briefly skimming over the room and its contents. “Of course.” She indicated her bag. “I have their details on my tablet if you’d like a preliminary look. Then, if you’re interested I could book a consultation for you. They’re newly opened and always happy to show prospective clients their facilities.”
As Lisa looked at the views of generous sized private rooms and specialist facilities, the midwife explained the different options for overnight stays, concluding with a suggestion they could visit that afternoon.
“I’m happy to drive, Lisa. I have no more appointments today. And do call me Pat.”
Two hours later they were back in Lisa’s sitting room, the forms signed and neatly stowed away in Pat’s capacious bag.
“Don’t worry about the hospital,” she said, giving Lisa a tight smile. “I’ll sort everything out. Everyone will be disappointed to miss the birth, but they’ll understand.” She stood, helping Lisa up from her chair then heading for the front door.
On the way out she stopped at one of Lisa’s display cases. Inside the sealed glass a German china doll from the late 1800’s stared through painted eyes. “It’s beautiful. Seeing as you’re a restorer I shouldn’t be surprised that you have your own collection.” She moved on to the display opposite, an American peg doll. “I hope you’re insured for these, Lisa. Your collection must be worth thousands.”
As the sound of Pat’s car faded away, Lisa walked back through the body of the house towards the old granny annex they used for restoration work. There, in temperature controlled rooms, disassembled doll’s parts were spread out on a bench ready for restringing, a shallow drawer of vibrant, glass eyes were set beside the decapitated head of a 1950’s baby doll, paints and glues waited to bring a fragile wax doll’s delicate blush back to life. In her office she unpacked her latest purchase, a tiny felt homunculus that fit snugly inside the palm of her hand. The doll was so finely detailed, so realistic it gave her the shivers. Newborns. They were the latest trend. Terry was right, it was the way for their company to go, and Pat had no idea. Some treasures in Lisa’s collection were worth thousands in their own right. Sitting down she ramped up the laptop, searching for the Green Pantiles estate. The aerial view was impressive, buildings labelled as manufacturing or life science set amongst those beautiful oaks, birches, and maples, all paying court to a stately cedar. She envisaged three young boys loose in her workshop, almost laughed at the chaos they would cause, and decided it was time to hire off site premises after all.
An hour later Terry barged into the sitting room waking Lisa from an unscheduled nap on the sofa.
“Look. This was in the post.” He was waving a two page catalogue at her. “This is far more up-market than their last flyer. Hey, a picture of their new twin range. Korean. Cute beyond belief.”
Lisa struggled to raise her eyes and enough enthusiasm to match her husband’s. In seven days time she’d be 35 weeks in and was booked for induction, if her body was still holding out by then. Multiple births never went to term. The only thing occupying her mind was holding her boys, and getting thinner afterwards. As if listening in her body responded, too gently at first to be noticed.
“Yes, sure, but it will have to wait, Terry. Some of us have other things to think about.”
“Ops,” Terry continued, letting the pamphlet drop so that it drooped open on the floor.
“I can hardly walk,” she snapped before guilt kicked in and she softener her voice. “And this heat is getting to me. There should be a phrase for unexpectedly hot weather in May, something like Indian Summer, but different.”
“Antipodean Spring?” He moved behind her, nuzzling her neck as his hands wrapped either side of her, stretching out to support the smooth bulk of her swollen belly.
“Whatever. I’ve had enough of it.” She leant back, eyes closed. “I went to see a private clinic with midwife Jensen, or Pat as she wants to be called. I’ve signed up for a birthing pool and overnight stay.”
“Well, that was decisive.”
The guilt kicked harder as his voice betrayed hurt at his exclusion.
“I’m sorry, Love, she drove me there, all the way down these country lanes, yet it felt so safe and calm, and cool when we arrived. I’ve got seven days to go before my induction date. We just need to phone if we need to move that forward.”
He moved around to give her shoulders a rub. “If you last seven days I’ll dance naked on the lawn for all the neighbours to see. There, that made you smile.”
“Maybe I should try dancing, it might encourage the little darlings out. When is your sister due back?”
“In ten.” Terry’s hands moved up to the back of her neck. “So tense.” His thumbs rubbed over the knots, erasing the tension as he went. “Just think about that birthing pool, how relaxing that water is going to be.” He froze as her body went rigid.
“Terry, phone the clinic and Pat Jensen. I think the dancing is off.”
Terry was staring out of the window, picking out odd words as behind him Midwife Jensen chatted to Lisa, reassuring words delivered in soothing tones as a nurse bustled in to confirm the pool was ready.
“And are you ready, Mr. Bridman?”
The voice startled him. “Sorry Dr. I was miles away.” He looked away from the stand of silver birch that screened the secluded clinic from the green roofed building opposite. Beyond the ridge tiles the horizontal branches of a Cedar of Lebanon spread out, a deep green/black against a cloud scudded sky. You didn’t see that many of them around and this one must be hundreds of years old. The view was familiar somehow. Familiar and different at the same time. Somewhere he should know, but from a different angle maybe, only there was no room in his thoughts for anything beyond getting Lisa through this day.
“Maybe you would assist by wheeling Lisa into the delivery room?” The Doctor was small and neat, like her glasses, her delicate looking hands and pointed chin. Her hair was as dark as Lisa’s, her eyes darker. “The other members of our antenatal team are already in place and waiting.” Her smile was dazzling, smooth and one hundred percent reassuring.
He nodded. At last, something practical to do. “OK, Darling?” He swept a long strand of hair from Lisa’s face, where it stuck to her overheated skin. Then standing behind the wheelchair he leant forwards to give her a quick, affectionate kiss on the cheek, before releasing the break. This clinic was so different to the building where he’d gone with her to pre-natal classes. Quiet, plush, each room private. Instead of babies crying, soft music drifted from hidden speakers, something classical played on stringed instruments. Instead of harassed mums and fraught dads, fresh flowers enlivened intimate seating areas. It even smelt different. They were guided into a large, pastel coloured room where midwife Jensen was testing the temperature of the larger than expected pool. Incubators waited in a row to receive and cherish the tiny newborns. Gas and air was connected ready to aid Lisa through the pain, a spare cylinder on hand, “In case you need it, Mr. Bridman,” the midwife said, a knowing look on her serious face, before introducing him and Lisa to the crowd of blue gowned specialists.
It all went so well. Lisa delivered each perfect boy one after the other. As each was born it was whisked away into an incubator to keep warm. Both she and Terry were in a daze, tired but happy. It was only when she was being given gas to aid recovery that he noticed Lisa slipping into the pool’s murky waters and the jag of a needle going into his neck. Clutching at Lisa as he toppled over he could see her eyes, unfocussed, pupils blown wide, unseeing. He grappled with her as they both slid down into the warm water, skin to skin, his nerves and muscles failing as Lisa’s cooling body and the pools slippery, sloping sides stretched away, beyond reach. Energy, reaction, were no more than thoughts. “There’s no baby crying.” The thought remained unsaid, his mouth too lax to stop the water from slipping in, his fingers too numb to clutch at Lisa’s legs as she slid beneath him. His one, final revelation being where he’d seen that cedar tree and those green ridge tiles before.
The police had already broken down the Bridmans’ back door by the time Ursula’s ship docked and she’d made her way up from Southampton. She’d confirmed what details they had about Lisa and Terry, asserting that they were the fabled loving couple and that she had resigned her job to join the company, “and help out with the kids”.
“They were expanding a successful business,” she reiterated to the Inspector in the local police station. “Neither were depressed. They both wanted children so much that when the hospital rang to ask why Lisa hadn’t turned up for the induction I was instantly worried.”
“You did right to contact us. It’s not a burglary,” he said, “nothing was stolen. Everything neat as a pin, no locks forced, yet those antique dolls are worth a fortune.”
“But completely unsellable. Every one unique and recognisable to those in the market. It can’t have been a robbery.”
He nodded, a neutral expression softening his sharp boned face. “If you could look through these, see if anything relevant stands out, then we might be able to open another line of enquiry.”
She nodded back, unconsciously mimicking him before picking up the first thing on the top of the heap. It was a brochure, something to do with a new range of dolls. Nothing Terry and Lisa would be interest in, they were strictly into antique treasures and restoration. She put it aside, the last brightly coloured line sticking in her mind for all of three milliseconds as she reached for the next piece of paper: Breathtaking. Announcing our brand new line in triplet baby dolls. Available soon.