Big Words

"Don't be silly, Martin. We'd have to cut your legs off before you'd fit on my sofa."

"A sofa would hardly make a proper recovery bed for a paraplegic."

Louisa glanced up at him through her fringe.

"Exactly," she said wryly, and finished strapping the baby into a clean new nappy. She chucked the soiled one briskly into the bin and snapped a burping cloth over her shoulder. "So, you can sleep in my bed, then. We're both adults."


He sounded unconvinced, and his eyes had that peculiar pained squint he wore when a patient started crying or a child misbehaved or somebody told a joke he didn't understand. And suddenly Louisa discovered how remarkably easy it was to speak her mind after giving speedy birth sans epidural on a lumpy pub couch in the middle of a moor.

"Look. Martin. It's the first night with the baby, I'm tired, and I don't want to be alone. You're the father, you're here, it seems perfectly logical to me. But if you'd really rather not-"

"No, no, of course, I'd... like to be there for-"

"Good, okay. Just be there, then. Be here. With us."


And he stopped squinting and made her some tea.

Later, after Penhale's brief and terrible visit, while Martin was shut in the master bath getting ready for bed, Louisa laid the baby in his cot and began rummaging under her bed. Once she found what she was looking for, she put on her pajamas and climbed into bed. Then there was nothing left to do but wait for Martin in the dim light, and the tears for Joan came hot and fast.

She was blowing her nose when Martin emerged, wearing what appeared to be a full suit cut from baby blue flannel. A helpless laugh met a leftover sob in her throat and threatened to choke her.

Martin frowned when he saw her face and he paused in the doorframe, back stiffening in confusion.


"Nothing." She turned toward her nightstand "Erm, in case you were worried..." She held up the little package of of Snore-No-More nasal strips.

Martin stared.

"Those are the ones I bought you."

She pulled out a strip and unwrapped it.

"Yeah, well, haven't really had occasion to use them since... then."

She opened its adhesive tabs and applied it to her nose.

"But you kept them."

"Erm. Yeah."

He made no further comment, and climbed into bed with great care, apologizing when he jostled the mattress and again when his leg accidentally brushed hers. Louisa supposed it should have felt more strange than it did, Martin lying in her bed like a statue, apparently determined not to shift, roll, or breathe any more than was absolutely necessary. But again, the experience of giving birth seemed to have put things in perspective for her - or maybe she was just too exhausted to care - and in the floaty moments before falling asleep, Louisa let go of her worry and grief, and let herself fully enjoy the simple physical comfort of Martin's solid, warm, good-smelling weight lying beside her.

Just before sunrise, Louisa sat on the edge of the bed, nursing the baby and singing to him softly. She faced the window, looking up occasionally from her son's drowsing face to watch the pre-dawn glow as it slowly warmed the drawn curtains.

"...One for the master, one for the dame, one for the little boy who lives down the lane. Baa, baa, black sheep..."

She paused, her senses tingling, and turned to look behind her. She could only just make out Martin's outline, but she could tell he was watching her.

"Oh, Martin. Did I wake you?"

"Er. Yes."

"I'm sorry."

He didn't reply, and as her eyes readjusted to the darkness, she felt the sting of tears again as the expression on his face came slowly into focus.

Please talk to me, she wanted to say. Tell me what you're feeling. How long have you been watching us? Isn't our son beautiful? I'm so sorry about Joan - about everything. It will be all right. I'm here.

"Are you okay?" she finally managed.

He tilted his head.

"I didn't know you could sing... like that."

"Well, I don't do it much anymore. Go back to sleep. We'll be quiet now."

"No, I - keep singing. If you like. You should sing more often, in fact. For... the baby. It obviously soothes him and there are several studies which link parental singing to early language acquisition, and..."


She smiled encouragingly at him.

"And... regular singing has been shown to improve muscle tone of the soft palate and pharynx, and thereby significantly reduce snoring."

Martin Ellingham, vascular specialist, held his breath as he lifted the carved face off the old clock, exposing the intricate brass movement inside. He had already carefully removed and filed each pivot, so he set to work widening the corresponding bearing surfaces with his steel broaching tool. He was dabbing oil onto the tip of the smaller smoothing broach when he heard a soft knock at the door.

"Come in," he said, and began filing and chamfering each expanded hole. He glanced up at the visitor and then returned his attention to his clock.



The neurosurgeon closed the door behind him. He had a sneaking suspicion that his colleague was glad to see him - though one never knew for sure with Ellingham. What he did know was not to wait for an invitation to sit; he made himself comfortable and observed Martin for a moment, his dark eyes keen but kind behind round-rimmed spectacles. At length he gestured to the mechanical viscera arranged neatly on the broad, black desk.

"Well, this explains everything. You had another, more urgent patient to attend to."

Martin huffed out a curt sigh and laid down his chamfering tool.

"This clock is not a patient."

"No? Then why are you here, operating on it, and not in theater four, operating on Mrs. Murdock?"


"Abigail Murdock, your carotid endarterectomy. You left her open, lying on the operating table."


"Yes what, Ellingham? What on earth happened?"

"I don't know."

"You'd better figure it out. Fast."

"I'm trying."

His big hands balled into fists on the desk surface, and he stared searchingly down into the exposed, half-finished movement of the clock. Johar waited quietly. Eventually Martin relaxed, and slumped back into his chair.

"I think, perhaps, it was her family."

"Her family?"

"They were so frightened, but she kept smiling at them, and then there she was... spread out and unconscious and cut open - right down to the artery, and it was pulsing, so alive, and the blood-"

Martin broke off and held the back of his hand to his mouth.

"The blood bothered you?" Johar eyebrows pushed up toward his hairline.


"And so did her family's... emotional display?"

Martin scowled at him.


Johar leaned back in his chair.

"That's... not like you, Ellingham. I've worked with you for eight years, and when it comes to patients - to people - you are the coldest fish ever to wear a white coat."

"Thank you."

Johar sighed.

"Well, that'll do for now, I suppose. I've spoken to you. Nobody else felt quite up to it, tell you the truth. The board will be in touch, of course; what do want me to tell them in the meantime? Shall I mention the blood... thing?"


"What then?"

"Tell them... that it was a moment of irrational anxiety brought on by overwork. An anomaly. An isolated event. That won't happen again."

Martin picked up a gear train, fitted it between two brass plates, and tested its spin. Perfect, smooth rotation.

Johar watched him for a moment, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.


Louisa sat at one end of the kitchen table, marking year four's history essays. At the other end, Martin buckled James Henry into the highchair and donned an apron over his dark blue suit. There was an easiness in his movements, a loosening of the stiffness that so often intensified his very correct posture. His voice was conversational as he spoke to their son.

"Now then. Tonight we introduce fish into your diet. Just a taste, in case of allergic reaction."

Martin pulled a paper package from the refrigerator and turned on the sink tap. James observed quietly, his forehead slightly wrinkled in concentration.

"Always rinse fish, or meat, with cold water immediately before preparation. There."

Martin wrapped a paper towel around the tail fins for the quick transfer from sink to a cutting board on the table, practically at James' feet.

"This is a bass. A European, or common, seabass. Notice the perciform body, the pronounced lateral line, the separate spiny-ray and soft-ray dorsal fins. Quite distinctive."

Martin held up the big silver fish for his son's inspection. One of its bulging yellow eyes glinted in the lamplight. James sucked in his breath, transfixed.

"Bass. Can you say, 'bass'?"

The baby blinked.


"Very good. With small fish, we fillet from tail to head. But this is a large fish. So we begin with a deep incision just behind the gills..."

Louisa looked up again from her marking. Martin gave James Henry a running commentary as he butchered the fish with surgical precision. The baby looked on with the quiet, rapt attention he reserved for his father's voice.

"A seafood-rich diet is associated with many health benefits, including lowered blood pressure, improved brain function, and prevention of rheumatoid arthritis."

He portioned the fillets and laid them on the oiled broiling pan.

"Additionally, some studies suggest positive effects on physical appearance." Martin cleared his throat and swallowed, seeming to square his shoulders. "Clear, smooth skin, for example. Healthy, lustrous hair."

Louisa rolled her marking pen between her fingers, unsure of where this was going, and fixed her gaze on Martin's stoic profile. He cleared his throat again and paused in his preparation of their meal.

"Of course, one must be careful with such studies not to succumb to the fallacy of the consequent. Your mother, for instance, exhibits these external qualities regardless of fish intake."

He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, pepper mill in hand, and she smiled at him before returning to her work, surprised to find herself blushing.

Martin returned to seasoning the portioned fillets with an air of great satisfaction.

"Though I do suspect we have our bi-weekly salmon to thank for the improved regularity of her bowel movements."

"Here's to the 95th percentile."

Edith raised her glass of fizzy orange squash and Martin followed suit. She drained hers in one go and smiled across the table as he took a cautious sip and tried not to grimace.

"Right, I've supplied the non-wine. Now what's for supper, Ellingham?"

Martin lifted the lid off the cast-iron nabemono pot to reveal noodles and sliced beef simmering with vegetables in a hot, scallion-spiced broth.


"Gesundheit," said Edith, her eyes sparking. She knew Martin didn't care for beef, and she also knew that he knew that she loved it.

"It's not quite authentic, I'm afraid. Sainsbury's Oriental selection is rubbish and the traditional raw egg sauce is, frankly, unsanitary-"

"Stop apologizing for your cooking - it's bad form - and show me how to work these things."

She indicated the antique lacquered chopsticks that he had inherited from his grandfather, who had been a ship's surgeon in the British Pacific Fleet during the war.


He picked up his set and raised his hand to demonstrate.

"Cradle the midpoint of one chopstick between the base of the thumb and the adductor pollicis, and anchor it further down between the middle fingertip and the third phalanx of the ring finger. Then pivot the second stick between the pad of the thumb and the tip of the index finger."

She smiled and lifted her own, imitating his grip. He reached over to correct her fingers, and her attention wandered to the surface of the low coffee table where they sat, cross-legged, on the floor. Aside from the shallow pot on its warming plate, and their glasses and two Asian-style porcelain spoons, the table was bare.

"And where are our plates, by the by?"

Martin cleared his throat, still trying to fix her hand.

"Actually, nabemono dishes are traditionally eaten from a shared pot. You don't mind?"

Edith shrugged. "Anything for you, love," she said carelessly, and immediately cursed herself when his fingers tightened around hers and she looked up to see him swallowing heavily while a soft glow - something which had begun appearing lately with alarming frequency - warmed his eyes.

"Many Eastern Asian cultures consider regular nabemono meals necessary to maintain close familial relationships and to promote... intimacy."

Edith refused to break eye contact, but her mind raced in pursuit of a remark to break the unexpected, unwanted heaviness of the moment. Mercifully her stomach suddenly growled, loudly, and spared her the bother.

"Ellingham," she rapped out. "Teach me to use these bloody sticks, start feeding me yourself, or fetch me a fork."


He was all business again.

Fifteen minutes later she was adequate, if not proficient, with the foreign utensils. The food was, predictably, very good and in her hunger, more than a few bites ended up falling by the wayside en route to her mouth. Martin watched her with what she suspected was amusement, and she was quite happy to eat and entertain - and flirt - until he decided to ruin everything.

"If such a simple performance of manual dexterity is beyond you, perhaps you should rethink specializing in surgery."

"I beg your pardon, but did I or did I not just receive the same exceptional score on my qualifying exam as you did?"

"Actually, your score was fourteen points lower."

"On a twelve-hundred point examination!"

"Written, not practical."

"Watch it, Ellingham, or I'll have your appendix with these chopsticks. I'll give you a practical surgical examination, by God!"

"Look, if you simply adjust-"

He reached for her hand again and she tried to wrench it away, her grip tightening in a fit of stubborn pique and then somehow, inexplicably, there was a loud snapping sound and four sad half-sticks clattered onto the tabletop.

"You broke my chopsticks."

Edith met Martin's gaze reluctantly, but there was no anger in his face. His expression was one of naked childlike surprise, grey eyes uncharacteristically round, the lamplight shining red through his ears. She felt oddly moved, and the hot guilt in her belly quickly shifted into a surge of determined intent.

She leaned forward and captured his open mouth in a kiss, reaching up behind his head to pull him lower, deeper. Her hands snaked slowly down his shoulders and arms until her fingers tangled with his. Then she tugged him to his feet and led him toward the bedroom.

Afterward, Martin took her hand again, and lay quietly for a long time before whispering, "I accept your apology."


Louisa slid her hand lower.

"Latissimus dorsi."

Martin's voice was low, slightly muffled by the pillow.

"Gluteus medius. External oblique."

He lay on his side, facing away from her toward James' cot. Under her hand his back was warm and relaxed beneath the thin fabric of his pajama shirt. She shifted direction, working her way back up along his side.

"S-serratus an-anterior."

"Hmm. Bit ticklish?"

She ghosted her fingertips threateningly along his ribs.

"Elevated sensitivity in that area is not uncommon."

"I see."

Returning to the interior of his back, she thumbed firm, smooth circles around his shoulder blade.

"Rhomboid. Teres major and minor. Infraspinatus."

She traced his spine up to the nape of his neck and held her fingers there, just under the shallow V of his hairline.


"You've said that one already. Farther down."

"It's an extensive muscle."

He sounded drowsy. Soon he would want to roll onto his back. James had been ill, and had been up all the night before - along with his doctor. She stroked his neck for a moment before running her fingertips up into his hair, pushing against the grain and then smoothing it down again.

"Hmm. The epicranius... is a musculofibrous layer that covers the entirety of the upper vertex of the skull... it's divided by the... the galea aponeurotica..."

"Martin. Shush."

He obeyed, sinking deeper into the bed. Her fingers stilled, pressing gently against the top of his head as she leaned over and kissed him behind the ear. Resting her cheek against his clean, cropped hair, Louisa looked toward the dark corner of the room. Through the bars of the cot she could just see James' face, his cheeks rosy from sleep.

He was a year old now. Louisa kept expecting Martin to say it was time to move the cot into the spare room, but he hadn't yet.

Martin stirred at the sensation of moisture in his hair, and rolled onto his back to look up at Louisa. She waited patiently for him to sort through the conflicting impulses: Ask her. Don't ask her. Should I already know? Will it make things worse? Touch her. Do nothing. What does she want?

Now the process didn't take him nearly as long as it had, once upon a time. At length his look of stony perturbation softened and he lifted a hand to her face, swiping at a tear with his thumb.

"Louisa. Why are you crying?"

She smiled through her tears and shook her head.

"Oh. Probably just a touch of premenstrual hormonal fluctuation."

Martin Ellingham, age eight and one-third, was hurrying toward the bathroom at the end of the hall when he heard the voices. Angry voices behind his mother's dressing room door. He stopped and tilted his head, deliberating. If his parents were angry, it was quite likely his fault. An ear against the door would give him information: what he had done wrong, and possibly what he could do to fix it. Or, he could ignore the disturbance and walk on.

Martin did neither.

The argument grew louder, snatches of the exchange now audible even from a safe distance, his father's voice gruff, his mother's shrill.

"-drag me in here...ridiculous accusations-"

"-rather front of the boy. Clever of you-"

"-being hysterical-"

"-why else would you send for him?"

"...obviously the bloody gin talking...completely irrational-"

"-I want her name, Christopher!"

"I won't stand here and listen to - hullo!"

The door was open, Christopher Ellingham filling its empty frame. Martin stepped back in alarm, tripped over himself, and fell. His father smiled and turned to look over his shoulder.

"Margaret, dear. Your performance has attracted an audience."

He turned back to the child crouched in the hallway.

"Don't stare, lad. You look like a startled carp."

He winked and reached down to pat Martin's head and, without noticing how his son winced under his hand, stepped over him and walked away.

Margaret Ellingham sat at her Sheraton dressing table. She glanced at Martin over the rim of a nearly-empty lowball glass.

He scrambled to his feet.

"I'll go to the cupboard."

"No. Come here."

She crunched a mouthful of ice as he entered the powdery, perfumed air of the small room. He could see her jaw working, the vibrations traveling out to the loose ends of her hair, which was uncharacteristically disheveled. He paused four feet away from her. She looked him up and down.

"Listening at doors. My son, the... spy."

A ray of late afternoon sun slanted through the window, lighting up her face and reflecting painfully off her teeth and the icy glass. Martin looked at her cosmetic collection instead.

"Then again, I probably shouldn't be surprised," she continued, and gave a snorting laugh into her glass. "With ears like that."

She set her drink down and picked up the nail scissors. Sheffield steel, 19th Century, hand-carved to resemble a crane - and very sharp. Martin had secretly used them for school projects, reveling in their balance and precision and the perfect smoothness of their silver-washed handles.

Martin's mother beckoned him closer. Her cheeks were flushed and her strange smile reeked of gin. Pointing the scissors at his ears, she snipped the air twice, smiling.

"Suppose I gave them a little trim, then. Would that stop you sneaking, spying, popping up where you have no..."

She trailed off and refilled her glass.

"No, of course it wouldn't. You're always, always there, aren't you? Even when you're three hundred miles away."

She laughed again, tapping the scissors against the cold marble tabletop. The blade screw, carved and dyed to resemble an eye, blinked at him in the sunlight.

"So tell me, my brilliant son. What would happen if we began whittling you down a little - starting with those unforgivable ears?"

Martin tried to swallow the lump burning in his throat. He could feel the familiar liquid pressure in his groin, the familiar panic, and he writhed in a silent struggle to control his body first, and then his mind. He looked up at the ceiling and put his hands behind his back.

"The cartilage of the auricula would be difficult to cut with scissors so low in closing power and torque," he began. "But the earlobe is made of softer areolar and adipose tissues, dense with capillaries. Like scalp wounds, injuries to the earlobe release an unusually great volume of blood." He paused for a breath. "But they are also unusually quick to heal."

He kept his eyes on the ceiling. When his mother finally spoke, she sounded very tired and he could tell from her voice that she was no longer smiling.

"Go away, Martin. Go away."

He obeyed, closing the door very carefully behind him, and then he walked calmly, his back very straight, to the bathroom.

Louisa reached inside Martin's suit jacket, rifled through his inside breast pocket, and pulled out something which she held up for James Henry to see.

"And what is this called?"


"Well done."

They were in the downstairs sitting room, Louisa by Martin's side on the leather sofa, James on the floor amid a mess of toy animals, tools, and cars - all of which he had already accurately named. Martin was supposed to be reviewing patient notes, but he found himself becoming more and more distracted by this game of words.

Louisa replaced the thermometer and drew out something else.

"And this?"

"Skip-shun pad."

"Yes, indeed!"

She tucked the pad back into the pocket and patted it into place. Then she pointed to very special something, still hanging from Martin's neck. James didn't wait to be asked.

"Sef-scope!" he hollered.

The stethoscope was James' favorite. He clapped his hands and Louisa clapped hers too, nudging Martin to join in. Then she pressed her hands to her chest.

"James Henry, who's this?"


"That's right! And who's this?"

She tickled him under the chin.

"Dames Henny!"

"Oh yes! And who's this?"

She touched Martin's shoulder.


"Yes, well done! But is he your daddy as well?"


The boy's eyes were again fixed on the stethoscope. He reached toward it with both hands, opening and closing his fingers. Martin slipped it from around his neck and handed it to his son.

"Oh Martin, we'll never get him to say it now."

James gurgled and rolled onto his back, eager to touch the shiny, floppy plaything with toes as well as fingers. He laughed and pointed at Martin.


"What else is he called?" Louisa pressed. "James, can you say, 'Daddy'?"

"Doc, doc, doc, doc - sef-scope?"

The boy sat up and lifted his shirt, patting his round little belly and looking up at his father, who understood at once.


Martin hooked the rubber earpieces in his ears and warmed the chestpiece carefully with his breath before setting it against his son's soft skin. He listened to the quick, light heartbeat for a moment while James grinned proudly. Then the boy wrapped his small fingers around Martin's thumb and pinky to lift the chestpiece to his mouth. His snuffled breathing was immediately amplified in Martin's ears.

"Heart?" he whispered.

"Yes," Martin whispered back.

Louisa barely heard James Henry's next words, but to Martin they rang loud and clear.

"Love you... Daddy."