Hazel and David poured the wine, pulled the coffee table nearer the cream two-seater, and set out the Scrabble set. The standard lamp shone just the right shade of yellow to heat up the late afternoon light. The poinsettia blurted a vigorous red from the corner table. It was warm in the house, cold outside. Hazel had spent the morning polishing the wood; the drinks cabinet, the coffee table and the mantelpiece. She had dusted the books. Things gleamed.
They took seven letters each from the little drawstring bag.
“I’ll start, then,” David said. He took a long time over his first go, feeling the pressure of the blank board.
It became a long game with several dictionary consultations. They knotted up the board and challenged each other with pithy two-letter ideas.
An hour and a half into the game, when the board was dense and unforgiving, David sniffed and sat up tall to take his turn.
“Q, U, O. Quo. Thirty-six. Triple word score.” He looked at Hazel, his brown eyes catty behind his glasses.
Hazel scrutinised the word and David took a large drink. Hazel wasn’t sure of this one. It was so grand, obscure, high-scoring. David clucked in protest as she checked in Chambers.
“It’s not a word. ‘Obsolete’, it says.”
David played indignant, stretching out his hands and shielding his letters when Hazel tried to take them off the board. Her arm grappled too far and her elbow shunted the dictionary and the whole Scrabble board off the edge of the coffee table; letters tripped across the cream carpet. David lunged forward and knocked his wine glass.
They were out of their seats, fixed uselessly in the mess and looking at each other.
“I’m so sorry,” said Hazel.
“It’s definitely a word,” replied David. Neither moved. Their clogged heads took a moment to catch up.
Hazel knelt and began picking letters from the carpet. She had fallen serious. David got down and helped her.
“Don’t worry. It’s only a game. Only a carpet.”
“No, not about this.” She sank to her left hip. Her feet, in flesh-coloured tights, were in the spilt wine. David sat on the carpet, too. They were like two children in a muddle on a nursery floor.
“I’ve never brought enough to our game,” said Hazel.
David swivelled his glass round and round by the stem. “You are my perfect team mate, my love.”
“You’re just being kind, as ever,” Hazel said. “I can’t match you.” She stood up and went into the kitchen. David stayed on the carpet, blinking after her.
“I think it’s all going to be different now, David.”
David managed to stand and go into the kitchen. It was darkening outside now and the silver appliances glinted under small kitchen spotlights. He turned the overhead light on and Hazel flinched, her eyes moving between the worktops, draining board, white walls, away from his face. She took a saucepan from a cupboard and filled it with cold water, then took a bag of potatoes from the fridge. She was moving quickly.
“What do you mean, Haze?”
“Do you want mash or roasts?”
“Mash, I think. What do you mean?”
As Hazel began peeling the potatoes, she said evenly, “I found a baby on the doorstep today.”
David sat down heavily at the kitchen table. He had felt relaxed today. In the morning he had read his book for three hours, feet up in his leather slippers. Hazel had been moving about cleaning but he hadn’t felt disturbed; they coexisted so well, always in the same space in the house.
Now he felt a rising acid in his chest and his back felt tense. He wished he hadn’t drunk so much. He was glad the overhead light was on.
“I don’t think that’s true,” he said.
“It is, David,” came the bright reply. “In a basket on the front step.”
The peeler ripped quickly over the potatoes.
“No, no, no.” The word came out exactly the same three times. David stood up. “I can’t think with that wine taking root.”
He took a cloth and carpet cleaner from the cupboard under the sink and went into the sitting room. On his knees he worked the white foam in circles, drawing up the cream tufting and sponging the liquid into the cloth and over his hand. A wet yarn smell formed.
Behind him, softly, “Leave that and come and see her, darling.”
He turned and saw Hazel, needing him, her face entreating. She was so fair all over, thin-skinned and thick-veined. She could be elegant if she knew how to hold herself; instead she was frail. She was too young to be so insubstantial. Her frame was girlish and straight. She wore quality cotton and jersey, thick fabrics that held her down, and moved about neatly as though conserving energy. David saw the hope in her pale face.
“Bring it here, then,” he said. His heart buckled. “Her.”
Hazel rose onto her toes and took off her apron. She disappeared into the hallway and he heard her go upstairs, the floorboard creaking as she stepped across their bedroom.
While she was upstairs he worked the last leg of the wine stain. He was so weary, drained of reassurances for Hazel.
He went into the kitchen and squeezed the cloth into the sink. He opened the cloth out, then wrenched it up tight again, over and over, watching the wine and carpet dirt expelling thinner and paler with every twist until the final time when the water ran completely clear. He draped the wrung cloth over the tap, gripped the edge of the sink and stayed silent for a moment, looking down into the open plughole.
“Daddy wants to meet you now, yes he does. Daddy’s so excited to meet you, aren’t you, Daddy?”
She stood in the doorway between kitchen and sitting room, holding a bundle of white fleece with pink satin edging. The bundle was neat, sealed, egg-like, and silent. “Here she is.”
David moved towards Hazel. Before he reached her she turned and moved to the sofa, settling down. He followed her, closed the curtains and then sat down.
“What do you want to call her?” he asked, putting his hand on Hazel’s knee.
She looked at him, taking in all his features. “Quo?” she asked, tears forming. “Can she be Quo?”
David moved his palm in a circle on her knee and nodded. “Perfect.”
The next day, in the early evening, Hazel and David and Quo were in the sitting room, expecting Hazel’s friend Christine for dinner.
It was an even colder day, and they had the heating on full in the house. Hazel’s cheeks were pink. She looked beautiful, happy and fleshed out.
“I’ll open the wine,” said David, feeling whole just looking at her.
He went to the wine rack in the corner of the sitting room and selected something good. He drew the cork neatly. Hazel smiled at him.
Quo rested in a wicker basket beside her on the two-seater. This was the basket Quo had arrived in. They had tried her in the bed between them last night but couldn’t get her to ease. They loved staying up with her, waiting for her to fall asleep. They had hardly slept, but it didn’t matter. This was what they had waited for.
The day had been absorbing and busy. They had decided to take Quo out and buy some baby things. With no car seat for Quo, David sat in the back seat and held her tightly in his arms with his seatbelt around both of them. Hazel drove them to the shopping centre. She held Quo close to her as they walked around the shops.
Eventually they bought a pram and a car seat – it was important Quo could be transported properly, they knew. They bought a few cotton babysuits in pink and some booties, a winter hat, nappies and a milk bottle.
Just before they set off back to the car, Hazel became very excited about buying Quo her very own dictionary. They hurried to the bookshop to pick one up, and all the way home discussed the potential for Quo to learn a word a day from now on.
They were ready for Christine and knew that she would fall in love with Quo the second she saw her. David set down three clean wineglasses and the open bottle on the coffee table, just as the doorbell rang.
Christine had felt sorry for them all these years; she would be thrilled that it had finally happened for them.
Christine came through from the hallway into the sitting room. “Hello, darling,” she said as she gathered Hazel up into a hug. Over Hazel’s shoulder she saw the basket and Quo and backed away from the hug.
“What’s this, Haze?” she asked, with a laugh behind her green eyes.
David stepped to Hazel’s side and put an arm around her shoulder, squeezing her close. “We’ve been so excited. We couldn’t wait for you to get here.”
“This is Quo. She arrived yesterday.”
Christine looked from one to the other. David didn’t like the look in her face and turned away from her quickly to pick up the basket. He took Quo into the kitchen.
“You haven’t got an actual baby in there, darling, have you?” Christine asked Hazel. In the kitchen David set the basket on the kitchen table and returned to Hazel’s side.
“Yes. She arrived yesterday. We’re so lucky,” he said.
“A beautiful little baby girl. We just know how thrilled you’ll be for us,” said Hazel.
“David, pour the wine,” said Christine, curtly, and David did.
Christine took a large drink and sat down in the single cream armchair. Hazel and David took her cue and sat down together on the two-seater. Hazel looked at them and her gaze was gentler now. David calmed.
Christine crossed her legs and sat back. She was a broad woman who took good care of her appearance, dyed her long hair a deeper brunette to cover grey, maintained an artistic dress sense that Hazel envied. Christine had quite a few wrinkles, around her eyes especially. She had often laughed about them, saying that each one was etched onto her face by a difficult day with one of her children, two boys, twelve and ten, and a girl, eight. Hazel and David always tried to laugh with her.
“Where did you get her?”
“Someone left her on our doorstep,” Hazel said. They didn’t want her so we’re going to look after her,” she said.
“Hazel, Christine was just enquiring. People will enquire. Weren’t you, Christine?”
“Sorry. Yes. So why ‘Quo’?”
Hazel started on the story they knew they would always love telling. “David wanted to put ‘Quo’ on triple word score, and I wouldn’t let him because it said ‘obsolete’ in Chambers, and we spilled a lot of wine arguing over it, but we just thought it made sense, this happening on the same day that she was left on the doorstep.”
Christine managed a thin smile. Stretching the anecdote a little further, as he always would, David said “Our Quo is worth much more than a triple word.”
They all drank to that.
Christine made a move to rise. “I’d love to see her. May I?”
David stood quickly. “No. She’s asleep. It’s bed time. Hazel?”
Hazel stood, too. “Yes. No. We shouldn’t disturb her.”
Christine sat back in the chair again. “She’s so quiet, isn’t she?”
David and Hazel looked at each other. David read yearning in Hazel’s face; Hazel read devotion in David’s. They all sat down.
Christine smiled. “How about a game of Scrabble?”