She didn’t think doctors could have such rough hands. It is like he has run them across the pavement over and over again. When he touches her, she feels like she is being polished, can see the fibres of her skin float away, encircled by a white fluorescent light. He looks like an old Romantic poet. Pallid skin framed by softly fallen chestnut curls.
‘Lay here, please.’ She thinks of Byron, and wonders if he had rough hands too. Dr. Philips lifts her blouse and places one hand across her stomach.
‘Did I tell you I listened to Schubert?’
‘You recommended him.’
‘Melancholia is proven to create beauty.’
‘I’ve never created anything while sad.’
‘Heartbreak. That’s what drives a man to enlightened thought.’
‘I’ve experienced enough heartbreak.’
‘But you obviously haven’t been in love.’
Her stomach freezes underneath the application of the gel. As the transducer glides over her, she stares up at the ceiling, away from the screen. Dr. Philips isn’t handsome, but she finds it difficult to stop looking at him. The way his pale neck remains in perfect posture. The colour of his eyes changing in the light.
‘Healthy, very healthy,’ he says. ‘You still don’t want to see it?’
‘I think I’ve been in love.’
‘Read Keats’ love letters. Then you’ll realise that most of us have never even come close.’
She hears mutterings of conversation outside the door. The gentle clink of a teaspoon into a mug and the chugging of an old coffee machine.
‘I heard Keats almost became a doctor before he pursued poetry,’ she says. ‘But you did it the other way around.’ The scent of coffee creeps under the door. The screen hums, and he keeps the device still over her stomach.
‘Strong heartbeat, rhythmic,’ he says, nodding his head as if in time to the heartbeat. ‘That’s exactly what we want.’
The device becomes warm on her skin. There is a crack in the ceiling above her head.
‘You ever scared that the ceiling will collapse?’
The phone rings on the desk by the far wall. He twists his neck towards the sound. She has known Dr. Philips for years and has never noticed a slight scar running from his right earlobe and down his neck.
‘What’s the scar from?’
The phone stops ringing and he turns back to face her. ‘A moment of betrayal.’ He smiles. The phone rings again. He puts the transducer into a tray beside him and wipes the gel from her stomach with a soft tissue. Small pieces remain stuck to her skin. He leaves them there.
‘You’re doing well, Nina. Come back in eight weeks.’
She stands at the tram stop on the street corner, holding her stomach from below with both hands—cradling it like a shopping bag when the groceries feel like they might split through the plastic. She listens to Chopin. The intermittent snap of tram wires and the groan of staggering car engines smother the delicacy of past beauty. She glances up, aware of a car slowing down beside her. A middle-aged man in sunglasses hangs an arm out of the window, and slows to a stop beside her. He removes his sunglasses. His eyes remain dark, shielded by the shadows in the car. His lips part slowly before he continues driving.
‘You shouldn’t want to come out,’ she whispers, still holding her stomach.
‘The trick to understanding poetry is not to,’ Dr. Philips begins. ‘Once you start trying to understand it, you lose all sense of emotion, of instant imagery. Poetry is intended to make us feel. Mainly sadness.’
‘Why bother writing about something happy when you are happy? You go out and indulge in your happiness. But when you are heartbroken, mourning, lost, you have nothing else to do but dwell on it.’
‘So the notion of the tormented poet is accurate?’
‘Poets want heartbreak more than a break in their career. What else would they have to write about?’
An eyelash sits on the top of his cheekbone. She wants to breathe softly across his face. To lift it with her breath and watch it drift through the room.
‘And how are you feeling?’
‘Fine. Although yesterday I felt as though I wasn’t breathing. I opened up all the windows. Left the front door open. It was so stuffy inside the house.’
He stops what he is doing to look at her.
‘Do you think Byron felt like that when his lovers left?’ she continues.
‘I heard he had enough to keep his mind occupied.’
‘That’s what I thought. But I wonder if it helped.’
He coughs, retrieves a tissue from the bench next to him and wipes the gel from her stomach. She places a hand on top of his. He takes it away quickly.
‘The baby is looking healthy. This one is looking healthy.’
She pulls her blouse down and stares at a diagram on the opposite wall.
‘Amazing that something so large can emerge from something so small.’ She sits on the edge of the bed, her legs dangling over the side. Beneath the diagram, Dr. Philips’ wooden cabinet is slightly ajar. Several of the books are missing. She locates one – Byron’s Don Juan – closed on his desk against the far wall.
‘I will see you again in eight weeks,’ he says as he turns his back to her. She watches him lather his hands in Dettol before leaving the room.
She lays out several maternity dresses on the bed, some of them old but never worn. She takes her time deciding which one to wear before going downstairs to the kitchen. Her husband is slumped against the side of the couch, and the sirens of a football game reverberate throughout the house. He has shut all the windows again. Her stomach presses up against the kitchen bench as she waits for the kettle to begin boiling. She likes to lift it off its base before the lever flicks to let her know it has boiled, timing it to the second. She fills up a thermos of green tea, breathes slowly as she warms her fingers against the side of the cup. He shouts at a referee, as the house keys sound between her fingers and she leaves through the front door.
‘I think a lot about the things that I’ve lost,’ she says.
Dr Philips rustles around in one of the cupboards. She keeps a hand over her stomach; it radiates heat like a small flame.
‘On the tram over here, a man sat next to me, smelling like piss. He was drinking alcohol swabs in a plastic bottle filled with goon. And at first I was scared. At first I thought I should leave. But then I asked him if he was okay.’
He turned from the drawer. ‘Were you alone?’
‘I was very alone.’
‘He could have had a knife, he could have had anything.’
She nodded her head. Her eyes wandered over the crack in the ceiling.
‘Yes. But I thought of all of the things he must have lost in his life.’
He reaches out and runs his rough palm across her stomach. ‘And what did he say?’
‘He said I was beautiful.’ She begins to laugh. ‘And after, he kissed my hand and he told me I smelt beautiful. That I smelt like gold.’
He smiles at her, lifts her blouse higher above her stomach and stares at it, raising his eyebrows. ‘Look how big you’re getting.’
‘Does it suit me?’
‘Very much.’ He squeezes the gel out over her stomach. It soothes the burning of her skin. She turns to face the wall.
‘It’s always so cold,’ she says.
‘Only because your skin is red hot.’
He becomes silent as he slowly rolls the device across her stomach.
‘The man told me that he was looking for his daughter. I asked him when he had started looking. He said seven years ago.’
Dr. Philips is still silent and it is silence that always worried her the most. Her eyes reach again for the crack in the ceiling. Thinks of how it has grown over the years, and if she will eventually see it split the roof entirely. He stops the device over her stomach, at a point just above her bellybutton. She feels as if her heart is falling. He releases a breath so strong that it pours out across her skin and causes the hairs to rise on her arm.
‘This one is not lost.’ She pushes her body up on her elbows, her neck tensed.
‘Looks like this one will be a pianist. Fingers won’t stop moving.’ He moves a hand to her shoulder, lets the device drop slowly to the edge of the bed. Suddenly, she stops thinking.
‘Do you want to see?’
She turns her head to the screen.
Image: Mahalie Stackpole