The Partridge and the Pelican: Chapter 1
In the summer of 1983, Olivia Conafray and her friend Eve found a baby in a telephone box beside a country road in Suffolk.
It was the last week of August, an empty afternoon. The clouds had finally retreated after a week of storms and the countryside lay quiet and listless under the tepid sunshine. Olivia and Eve had been driving around for hours in the tangle of roads between the sea and the A12, among villages with angular, unpromising names: Theberton, Knodishall, Friston. It went against the grain to admit that they were lost, but when Olivia spotted the phone box, like a red flag against the bare fields, she swerved over onto the verge.
“I’m going to phone James,” she said. She glanced across at Eve, but Eve didn’t respond.
Olivia could taste the sharpness of salt in the air as soon as she opened the car door. The wet grass brushed her ankles, but her eyes lifted above the spirit-level horizon to the pale grey light that hung over the sea. A couple more days, she thought. A couple more days and the holiday would be over: they’d be away from this strange, flat place and away from each other. Six weeks together was quite long enough. She crossed the verge to the phone box feeling light-hearted, almost light-headed.
As she pulled open the door she saw the receiver hanging loose, then the bundle on the floor below, wrapped in an old blue shawl. At first she thought it was a doll, perhaps left behind by a child who’d wandered off while her mother was talking on the phone, but she knelt down to look at it all the same. The way it was swaddled drew her curiosity: a tight, close binding like a shroud. Not the way you’d wrap a doll. She reached a finger to the tiny face, barely visible between the layers of wool, and the eyelids flickered open for a second. There was a glimpse of slate-grey iris and whites the colour of marble; the slightest hint of life.
Olivia felt a shriek rising inside her, but already she was thinking of the baby, of protecting it from noise and alarm.
“Quick, quick!” Her voice came out somewhere between a whisper and a cry. She twisted round: Eve was still hunched in the car, her blonde hair a blur against the windscreen. “Come quick, there’s a baby in the phone box!”
It could only have taken a few seconds for Eve to join her, but it felt to Olivia as though time had stalled, trapping her in suspense while she waited, waited for help to arrive. The long summer behind and the broad horizon ahead slipped out of view as the world shrank to that single moment, the bundle of blue wool the same colour as the washed-out sky and the dizzy flood of anticipation and disbelief. And then the moment passed, the world moved again, and Eve was coming towards her. Eve tall and familiar, wearing the flowered skirt Olivia knew so well, her face still showing traces of the rage that had driven them out of Shearwater House earlier in the day.
Eve squatted down beside her in the narrow doorway and Olivia swallowed, steadying her voice.
“Is it all right?” she asked.
Every detail felt acutely vivid now, as though impressing itself on her memory: the floor of the phone box littered with cigarette butts and sweet wrappers; the smell of urine mixed with something dry and metallic. Her own worn-out jeans and tennis shoes, the same ones she’d worn all summer.
Eve didn’t touch the little parcel on the floor. She shook her head, a quick flutter of denial. “I don’t know anything about babies.”
Olivia shifted slightly to give Eve a better view. The door of the phone box rested against her back, the metal ridges pressing through her T-shirt.
“But you’re a medical student. You must be able to tell if it’s okay.”
Eve’s eyes settled on the baby for a moment, then she rocked back on her heels, pushed herself to her feet again.
“We haven’t done paediatrics yet,” she said.