‘Well,’ the nurse said cheerily, ‘look on the bright side, you’ll meet a whole range of hospital staff you wouldn’t have otherwise.’
The woman was mad. There was no response to this insane gem of glass half-full thinking, so neither Lou or Ed bothered to acknowledge it. They left the hospital and took one of the taxis outside; the tears that were to stream silently down Lou’s face at regular intervals over the next few days, started flowing. The taxi driver (who surely had encountered grief before) asked, ‘Oh dear, not bad news I hope?’ Again, they didn’t respond.
Twenty four hours earlier, the nightmare had begun. Twenty four hours earlier, Lou began counting. Usually she started while doing things like standing at traffic lights, or waiting for the toast to pop. It could be anything, as long as it happened at a designated point in time, and it was beyond her control. The bargain required her to start at ten and count down to zero. The trick was for the traffic lights to change, or the toaster to ping, before she finished. Then she’d succeeded. Her baby was safe.
And the toast popped! Thank god she hadn’t got down to one. Or — it didn’t bear thinking about — zero. She’d made it. But she knew she had been cheating a bit; the intervals between the numbers had gotten longer as she waited for the toaster to complete its cycle. But the stakes were so high, her baby’s life hung in the balance.
Of course, it didn’t, not really. Lou knew that no amount of bargains involving traffic lights would have any affect on her baby’s life. Although, until the previous evening, she hadn’t known it was up for grabs. Her midwife had been on one of her regular home visits. At first all was as it should be. But then there was the silence, the midwife hadn’t been able to track the baby’s heartbeat.
‘It’s absolutely nothing to worry about. Baby is being a bit tricky tonight, moved to a spot where we can’t track Baby down. But just to be sure, I’ll come back in a few days. Perhaps you could see if your partner could be here?’
The phone-call came the next day at work. Lou wasn’t an idiot. The midwife had decided they should skip the next check-up and go straight to the hospital for an ultra-sound that day. Hours waiting — and then finally, proof that the counting hadn’t worked. Her bargains with a higher power had been rejected. She was agnostic anyway, so what did she expect? The baby had gently, slowly, given up the ghost.
It was a Friday and there was an ordinary weekend to get through — feeding a friend’s cat who was on holiday, Indian takeaways for dinner, a birthday party to avoid. Ed held her hand as they walked through Mt Victoria to collect their takeaways at the fast food end of town. A woman glanced at Lou as they waited to cross the road, saw the silent waterfall of tears and couldn’t help taking another look. Crying in public is on a par with walking down the street with your skirt tucked into your knickers, or a traffic accident. They know they should look away, but somehow it’s too compelling.
Lou and Ed turned up at the grey facade of the Obstetrics and Maternity Unit the following Tuesday and took the lift to the 7th floor to report in. Previously they’d only been to the General Admissions level, which hummed with fecundity. Women were scattered throughout the waiting room in all stages of pregnancy, some with snug little bumps, others with enormous, eye-watering bulges — so hugely over-ripe, they looked as if they could squat down and push their babies down to the General Admissions Room floor.
Gynaecology was unexplored territory; there were no pregnant women to be seen. This made sense, Lou thought. Women like her would make them skittish, nervous. She and Ed were ushered into a standard hospital room, grey linoleum echoed by grey/green walls, and asked to wait until a hospital midwife came to see them. When she arrived she had fine red hair scraped back in a pony-tail, white face, small pinched features and she spoke in a Scottish accent. Lou liked Scottish accents, but not this woman’s, it was sharp and hard like the rest of her.
‘So, I understand we have some pregnancy product to deliver today?’
Pregnancy product? It took a moment for Lou to realise that the woman was referring to the baby, still tucked up inside her. The woman spoke in a voice that brooked no silly carry-on to explain the process Lou was about to undergo. Did the woman expect her to break into sobs? Or leap off the hospital bed, pale blue hospital gown tied up at the back, and run down the corridor, butt flashing, as she made for the lift?
She explained how she would ‘pop a couple of pessaries into your vagina’, priming Lou’s cervix for labour and eventually stimulating her uterus to start contractions.
She told Lou to expect some pain, but nothing a few Disprin wouldn’t fix. She couldn’t say how long it would take but ‘you should be home in time for dinner, so that’s something isn’t it?’
Lou nodded and visualised baked beans on toast in their Mt Vic villa. She lay back on the hospital bed, put her heels together and dropped her knees, as requested, while the woman inserted the pessaries with painful jabs.
‘Right, that’s my job done. Now it’s your turn,‘ she said with a quick nod to Ed, who stood mutely in a corner of the room. Half an hour later another nurse had been and gone with no sign of contractions. ‘Don’t worry m’dear, it’ll all happen soon enough.’
The waves of nausea were first. Followed by sluicing diarrhoea; they hadn’t warned her about that. It was about then they decided Lou should be moved to a room with its own toilet. A new midwife appeared — perhaps the red-head had gone off duty, Lou hoped so. This one was young, very young, she looked about nineteen. When Lou looked down she saw that the girl wore sneakers with daisies printed on them. She spoke in a soft, breathy voice and smiled sweetly as she exited the room.
The contractions were strong now but Lou didn’t have time to concentrate on them. She moved into the bathroom and spun to accommodate alternating bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting. It reminded her of traveling through India, except then she had developed strong thigh muscles to cope with the squatty toilets. Her thighs weren’t nearly as strong now, despite walking up the steep slopes of Mt Victoria on an almost daily basis. She paused, sweat on her brow, when she felt a lurch deep within her, an undocking. She just had time to thrust her hands between her thighs and catch her baby as he slid out of her, saving him from falling into the toilet bowl as she did so.
Holding her son against her hospital gown, she stumbled to the adjacent room where Ed was waiting. He summoned the young midwife, who despite being clearly slightly flustered whipped the baby away to be cleaned up. He was returned to her in a fake wicker basket — just like the basket her falafel came in at her favourite Turkish restaurant. Lying next to him in the basket was a carnation, also fake. She hated carnations. But nothing could diminish his beauty. His head was turned to the side and his hands were folded over his chest. The pose was one she often assumed in the mornings when she was trying to wake herself up. Except he hadn’t woken up. Perhaps he’d been preparing himself for a very deep sleep instead.
Ed took photos as they had been advised to. They would be kept with the wooden box containing their baby’s ashes.
Lou didn’t get to have baked beans on toast that night. There were complications, a placenta that refused to give up its grip on her womb, vital signs that dipped dangerously low, dehydration, catheters inserted, monitors attached.
But, looking on the bright side, she did get to meet any awful lot of people.