Sunday, 20 April 2008

Short Story

Emily lay naked in deep warm clear water, her back flat against the floor of the bath, her knees raised. An extravagant nebula of russet hair arranged itself in a static swirl around the part-submerged pale face with its faded freckles. Her eyes were closed. She breathed gently, her nostrils just clear of the water.

She lay still, a heavily pregnant Ophelia without the water crowfoot, listening to anonymous abdominal gurgles and the vague swishings of the baby shifting; silkily cocooned, intensely female.

Her hands rested flat against the slopes of her swollen belly, embracing the active infant cavorting within. She felt a pointed elbow, the rounder nub of a knee, the force of a small foot exerting astonishing pressure, then a whole body turn, stretching the mound alarmingly out of shape and, fleetingly, tiny pebble-like lumps which could only be toes.

Fingertips sensed the smooth hard curve of a back, the rounded solidity of a head. She imagined the eyes closed in perfect symmetry above perfect nostrils which had not yet drawn breath and perfect lips which had not yet suckled. A closed and secret beauty but not for much longer.

Could it really be true that she would have to do nothing but bear pain and bear down, down to expel this child? That her body would deliver this child without consultation or collusion?

She yearned to talk to her mother, the one person who would tell her honestly; the person who had felt her move inside her as she now felt this not-yet infant shift and struggle.

That was the dream, anyway; the normal dream. The trouble was, the normal dreams didn't seem quite real. It was the other dreams which were much more real - the dreams which terrified her.

The imagination is wild and imperfect when there is little nourishment for it. When she was young, she had imagined her mother as a pianist, a painter, a lady of leisure, a hard-working bread-maker, flushed and damp in a hot kitchen. But like a painter's palette where colours individually so vivid twist promisingly before merging to sludge- grey, so the images she conjured of her mother melted and fused themselves into a faceless indeterminate creature which only made her sad.

The nuns were her first mothers. When when Emily was ten a thick-set man with a florid cheeks and a thin dark moustache claimed her as his daughter. Heather was grateful for a home at last. Although she did her utmost to avoid his belt, for some reason her quiet convent discipline was never good enough for him.

When she tentatively asked about her mother he would not speak of her at all. It wasn't until four years later, six months after the funeral of her father that she ventured the question to her step-mother Dot, a shrewish, nervous woman. Dot told her that yes, she should know now that her mother was alive somewhere, probably in England, in a mental asylum.

The words had meant nothing to Emily. She scribbled them on a scrap of paper and looked them up later in the library at school. An institutional home for the mentally ill. The mad. The insane. She had been late for double Maths.

The thought remained, shut away in a corner of her mind. She was the child of a lunatic. For the most part, during the days, the thought crouched in its corner but at night it rose chased her through disturbed, boiling dreams.

Just recently, the same thought had invaded her dreams along with another dream of looking out of a bedroom window watching torrential rain drenching a garden. Fingers of thick green fatsia japonica leaves spread trembling under the deluge. A brook turned into a frantic torrent yet a sly flat edge of quiet water crept towards the puddles lying on the uneven old lawn until it merged and spread so that there was only a flat expanse of mud and blood. She woke up, sweating, her own blood pushed urgently through a thumping heart.

So there was always a dread. For some unknown reason she had blurted out the dread to Jenny, the tall chirpy midwife who dressed like a hippie in long patchwork skirts and clanking strings of noisy beads. It was her 24 week examination. The small clinical room smelled of disinfectant. Jenny, bending to wrap the blood pressure cuff around her arm, had asked the usual questions.

“Everything all right with you? Any problems at all?”

Emily should have said “No. All fine” which was the established reply. She could have said “Well, I've been having a few headaches” or “I'm starting to feel a lot heavier” or one of the other responses within the “normal” range.

But she said “I've been having terrible dreams again. Terrible dreams.”

And then she'd told Jenny everything; about her mother, how frightened she was, how no-one knew and how, more than anything else, she wanted to stop the dreams. Sometimes they were about the flood. At other times they were about the baby but in her dreams it was a blind gargoyle which opened its red gaping mouth and screeched because it was incurably insane.

Jenny held her hand and finally put an arm around her, absorbing some of the pain of those shuddering sobs. Reassurances and tissues were all she could offer.

Emily continued to see Jenny for check-ups. Sometimes they didn't talk about the dreams because the time was taken up discussing the practical considerations of being a single-parent mother - the baby's father had indicated his intentions quite early in the pregnancy by moving in with another woman.

At other times Emily couldn't not talk about the dreams. She became convinced the baby did not want to be born, especially when she went over her due date and had to attend at the maternity unit with a small overnight bag at 9am on a Saturday morning to be “started off.”

Emily's friend Mandy, who already had two young children, accompanied her twittering platitudes which Emily didn't hear.

Locked in silence, Emily lay on an examination couch, legs in the air, bare ankles held in stirrup slings, as the doctor's head dipped between them to insert an instrument. Something twanged numbly. Warm fluid, a gush reducing to a trickle. Mandy said she'd have to pop off to give her kids lunch in half an hour. Emily couldn't speak. She was cold; possessed by a recalcitrant lump.

The drip brought agony, as they intimated it would. Waves of agony doubled and re-doubled. Mandy had gone. Emily was alone, clutching the back of a plastic chair, colour returning to her knuckles as the pain diminished and the muscles softened again, just for a few moments.

“How are you doing, then?” The voice was familiar. Jenny. Tall and different; prim even, in her navy blue uniform with her hair fastened tightly in a bun.

“I didn't think...” Emily started, surprised.

“I didn't either but I managed to swap a shift. So I'll be seeing you through to midnight. Plenty of time I should think. Let's have you on the bed and see how things are.”


Jenny laughed later, as a different Emily, a bright-eyed, pink-cheeked, brimming-with-delight Emily sat up in her hospital bed thanking her over and over again.

“Reassurance and tissues - that's all I've given you. She'll give you the rest. You're all she's got.”

Beneath a light, white honeycombed hospital blanket in a clear-plastic crib, the baby rested, a miracle of exquisite construction, eyes closed beneath a suggestion of eyebrows; a smattering of short, dark hairs lying flat against a perfect head.

Everything had gone much better than Jenny expected. She'd warned the team that there might be trouble because Emily's medication had been kept deliberately low during her pregnancy. The baby had been quiet after delivery, moving her arms and legs, flexing tiny fingers and making astonished, quizzical faces in the dazzling light.

Jenny had laid the baby at Emily's naked breast. Emily's nightmares were dashed and broken by the reality of the fresh loveliness, the heart-wrenching vulnerability. The baby shifted and blinked away her mother's salt tears as Emily held her, laughing and crying.

The new-mother euphoria would dissipate quite soon. Heather's feelings would change. Her volatile mood swings would need to be watched closely. Jenny knew all that and she'd already had a chat with the health visitors.

She would stay in touch with Heather for a year or more... just as long as it took to make sure that mum and baby got along.