Charlotte hears the first cry of that future beloved voice and everything else becomes just about irrelevant. She is clammy with sweat from the exertion of labour and the heat that is gathering over Abidjan even before the sun begins to rise. The slow fan of the delivery room churns above her, oblivious to her joy. Her sister passes the baby who will be named Alimatou, wrapped in a hospital sheet. With a thick black pen, the sheet has been marked B 202 – 69. “Oh but she is perfect,” the two women whisper to themselves and one another. They cry, drinking in the small splendour of her. He stands next to the wall, overcome and unable to move.
Charlotte studies the tiny hands, their ancient movements, wondrous in the way of new babies. Relief washes over her, pure gratitude. She wills him to notice, to recognise the miracle they are embroiled in. She hears his shoes on the polished floor, imagines his approach, brimful with emotion. “Look at her miniature eyebrows,” she wants to say “how can they be so delightful?”
But he does not step forward and she cannot beseech him; she is locked on the inexplicable beauty of her daughter’s face. She is speechless with awe. So what can Charlotte do but shrug when she hears his retreat? The delivery room door swings fast and loud behind him. Charlotte straightens her shoulders, coos for the first time in her life. “He’ll be back” her sister suggests. “He’s in shock.”
The day ticks on. Baby Alimatou is taken off to be weighed and bathed. All kinds of perfume waft up from her small body. She suckles and sighs, epitome of satisfaction. Visiting hour comes and goes and yet he does not appear bearing baby blankets or an ill-chosen stuffed animal. His absence is like a poem last recited long ago. Her sister brings fruit and magazines Charlotte has no inclination to eat or read. The fan spins on with a steady determination.
Later, Charlotte and Alimatou are discharged and go home. “He’s too embarrassed to show his face,” her sister insists.
“He’s not here,” Charlotte confirms, having new respect for bare essentials. Her sister stops suggesting otherwise and it is two weeks before he makes his appearance. Of course it is two weeks too late.
Standing in the doorway five decades later, Alimatou considers her options. She knows enough to realise her father still hangs from all the curtain rails, skulks behind her rows of treasured books. He is part of the deep blind anger that bursts between herself and Caspian, the suspicion that laces their arguments. She steps forward and kisses her love for no good reason he deserves. She forgives him and lets him back in, if only for now.