Harvey House, Redmond

K'port

October 10th

Dearest Heart,

It's four in the morning, I haven't slept for twenty hours or more yet I know this letter will be the easiest I will ever write. I'm so happy right now, as though I could leave my body and fly out my window and meet you in that sky I dream about. Instead I'm sitting on my bed with this page pressed against a chem. text book and enjoying the breeze ruffle my whiskers. It's a strange sensation, and I look even stranger. I peer at myself in the shaving mirror and wonder who is the fellow looking back? I feel changed, Anne, as if I have shed an old skin. I'm gleaming and new and there's no returning to the old Gilbert. After the letter you wrote me, after the night I've had, I will never be the same.

I saw a baby being born tonight. I was there in the room with the young woman, her mother, and Mrs Guy, who is something of a midwife in Old Town. She was supposed to be at a meeting with Professor Reid in order to provide him with some live birth statistics in the slum districts. He called me out of pathology class because he'd heard that I was familiar with "that part of Kingsport." At first I was confused, thinking he was referring to my connection with the Blakes, but I reckon now he meant all those wayward boarding houses his pet pupil used to lodge in.

It's true I've walked those streets on many a night and it wasn't long till I tracked her down. Her house is only a block from Patterson Street. The door was flung wide and there was a mother and daughter; the daughter labouring in Mrs Guy's parlour, her hands clasping the dining table, bellowing like your Dolly. I never learned her full name, she was only ever called Reb. And she was astounding, Anne. There were times I forgot my instructions, her ferocity and strength so astounded me.

Mrs Guy pulled me into the room and had me press my hands on Reb's lower back. Hard. I kept saying, "I'm going to topple her, I'm going to hurt her!" And all they would say was, "Harder, hard as you can!"

I haven't yet determined the biological reasoning (though you can be sure that I mean to discover it) but from what I observed, it appeared to provide some relief from the pain. Reb's voice indicated as much; when I would forget to press firmly, when my hands grew tired, she would make these mournful cries. But once I perfected the movement the room was filled with deep, low sounds that I have never heard a woman make before.

We passed four hours this way, me pressing on Reb's back every time a pain would come on, her mother wiping her brow or her legs. Mrs Guy for the most part sat and knitted (I later came to understand why) and every so often would remove herself from her chair by the hearth and replace the towels and rags under Reb's feet, or check the baby's movement by placing her cheek to Reb's belly.

There was only one moment when I grew afraid, when the sounds Reb made became anxious and desperate. She kept saying she could no longer do it. I was looking to her mother and Mrs Guy, expecting them to step in and administer some sort of technique to help the labour on. Yet all they said was, "Nonsense girl, you are doing it!"

After that, Anne, something unexpected happened, the labour seemed to stop. Street urchins and neighbours were peering through the front door, Reb shifted over to a divan that had been covered in sacks and sheets, and her mother went to the back steps of the kitchen and took a few pulls on her pipe. I went to Mrs Guy who was resolutely unperturbed and continued to check on the width of the sweater she was making.

I stood there impatient, almost angry, wanting her to tell me what to do next. She kept shushing me while she counted each stitch – I swear Anne, I wanted her shake her. Then she slowly hauls herself up and splashes some water over her hands, wiping them on her apron as though she was going to set out the tea things.

"Eight stitches between her rushes, each one fifty stitches long, child should be along any time now."

In the next moment Reb slid to the floor, announcing to the entire street that she had to push RIGHT NOW. I remember looking at the soiled rags at her feet thinking a brand new baby was about to land upon them. And then, I can't quite recall how it happened, Mrs Guy had me sit behind Reb and clasp the underside of her thighs, pulling her knees up toward her shoulders. I was sure she would split in two, the sound she made told me as much. She was soaked through and so was I, my ears rang with her groans and my arms ached. Reb's mother began busying herself with pots and baskets, while Mrs Guy knelt between Reb's legs and coaxed the baby into the world. With one last almighty holler, so loud I was convinced the constabulary would burst into the parlour, little Polly-Jean was born, looking as waxy and buttered up as a new born foal.

The baby was swaddled in the basket, the old pot caught the afterbirth, and in ten minutes Reb was settled on the divan devouring a bowl of mutton stew. Mrs Guy rinsed her hands and removed her apron, then she looks at me and asks whether it's too late to attend the meeting with Professor Reid.

I said, "Mrs Guy, it's long after midnight."

"In that case," she said, sitting down again, "I'll bid you goodnight. Much appreciated, Mr Blythe. Nice set of hands, you've got. Good and strong."

She sent me on my way and I stood in the street under the stars not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Reb's perspiration drying on my shirt, your letter burning in my pocket, feeling like the luckiest man in the world.

I could never have written this account, dearest girl, if not for the letter you gifted to me. I've never been certain how much of the real world I should hold away from you; how much you can bear to see. All those fears I've had, that my need for you is unnatural in it's strength; that however much you proclaim your desire it could never match my own, they've gone. I feel new, Anne, as new as that baby girl. My love for you feels new, too. I've always had the notion that for as long as we've known each other it's been me endeavouring to catch up to you, or you attempting to catch up with me. But now, though we are miles apart, I feel that we have arrived at the same place. Stand at the same place, together.

If you knew what I am being taught about the female sex, how unstable and prone you are said to be. If you knew how I struggle to square what I know about you, about my own mother, about Reb and Rachel and the Pye women, with what I am told to believe. I've felt wretched being lectured by eminent physicians who tell me that a man should "ration his contact with his wife lest she becomes barren". That women who enjoy the touch of their husband have a sickness of the brain. Even The Fox, who once lived the life of a libertine, now scolds me on the "inconstancy of the weaker vessel."

Anne, he is so changed this term. Yes, we laugh, take wine, debate and argue as we always do. But there's a hardness – more, a coldness – I've never seen before. There was always a hint of envy in his tone when he would catch me re-reading your letters. Now whenever he sees an envelope in my hand he mocks me, calls me a dupe who is under the thumb, that this fiancee of mine mustn't be too mindful of her reputation if she sends such brazen correspondence.

I'm afraid that last slur is my fault. There is an illicit copy of The Pearl going round the Halls, and I was foolish enough to boast one evening that your letters are more exquisite, more meaningful to me than a hundred of those magazines. It is no defence to say the fellow goaded me, I should have bit my tongue and let him think what he will. It's only that I can't bear to have you diminished in any way. I didn't think an earthbound man could feel what I feel, never thought I could love you more than I do. I don't know how else to explain it except to say you are my heart.

If not for the birth I witnessed tonight I think I would have at last followed through on an idle threat and gone to you. To read your words, to know your dreams, to live in your world. One moment I am sure I will dissolve away, the next I am rigid with want, as though my flesh hung on a frame of steel not bone.

You tell me, sweet world, you tell me you want to stand in front of me and feel my eyes on your hidden places. And I don't know how to respond except to speak the truth. I don't have any hidden places. I can't hide what I feel for you. Can't hide how I want you, what you do to me, what you have always done to me. And I think, I don't care, so be it, I've waited for you half my life. To hell with the lies they are teaching me in class, and The Fox's moods, and endless ache I pretend I can box away with your letters. I'm not going to be parted from you for another minute. If Phil can marry a penniless preacher, if Priss can follow her heart to Japan, then let me go to Summerside, let me have my wife.

Then this little mossy haired brat is born right in front of me and I know I was born for this life. I was meant to be a doctor. I can't give it up anymore than I can give you up. It would be like you deciding to give up writing in order to marry me. You'd never do that, would you? Not my Anne-girl. Not a woman who can write like that.

Your letters. There are days when I want to burn them all and beg you never send another. And then there are nights I want to plead that you only ever write about the dreams you have of us. They are my dreams too, Anne. I want to hold you so close I don't know where I begin and you end. I want to feel your hair fall over my chest, I want to taste every part of you the way I tasted your wrist.

When we stood face to face in the cavern, I don't deny I wanted you. The strength of will it took to take my cap and never let myself touch one hair on your head. But before that, when you entered the cave and I realised that the bare legged girl with red earth dusting each breast was my darling Miss Shirley, the first feeling that went through me was simply one of friend. Of home. If it all seemed so easy, Anne, it's because it was.

I'm so tired now. The sky is grey and I smell of blood and sweat. I'm going to wash up and fall on my bed and think of you. Summon your words and your world and as I am a lucky man meet you in my dreams.

...

* The Pearl was an infamous Victorian mag that was banned for obscenity

* 'tasted your wrist' refers to chapter 2, The Windy Willows Love Letters