GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS SHORT STORY PRIZE 2018/19
IN THE END, your coming was quicker than expected. A slick knife through and out came you. And though it felt softly jagged when they cut, and a rough hustle pulling you out, the scar is a neat, shining snake. A new skin I’ll never shed.
Your feet were purple. They came out last. The last bit of you curled up inside me, the end of the line of a question mark and as they lifted you higher and higher from me, my body became the question mark’s probing dot. With their excavating gloves, and their exacting tools they – pop - pulled you out. Goggles with flimsy arms across their eyes to protect them from my blood. I lost less than normal. You cried louder than expected.
Raising you over the curtain that separated my top half from my bottom half, like a magician’s saw, I saw your purple feet. They wrapped you in towels, showed me your face, put it next to mine so that I might feel close to you when really, we’d never been more separate. They took you. Put you in a little, clear, plastic box and wheeled you away.
Later on your feet were duck-egg blue. They turned the temperature of your incubator up to thirty-six degrees. Aggressively tropical inside for you. December and snowing outside.
Every time someone says incubator, I think of ducklings. When I was seven we did a project at school which entailed hatching duck eggs. We incubated them in a box with heated lamps overhead. The day they arrived, the teacher left us a sign at the entrance to the classroom; ‘Come in quietly, we have some visitors.’ The class huddled in an excited knot on the carpet as she explained how the six duck eggs would sit in the box with a light keeping them warm for twenty-eight days. And then, once this time had passed, when the lights had done the mother duck’s job, the ducks would begin to crack their way out of the egg having been quietly alive within all that time. Cracking like when now, you and I hit an egg on the side of a bowl and it splinters but instead of the snotty white and that golden yolk would come a slimy duckling. Slimy as if pretending to have been a normal egg all along.
On the ward there are two windows. One overlooks the sea and the other looks out on to a wall. All. Or nothing.
After lunch we look out at the sea and pretend for a moment that this is why we came. Such a good view. How do you get any work done up here? I’d just want to look out here all day. And that grey expanse, supposedly ever changing, is really always the same. Massive and unknowable.
In here, we pretend all the babies are normal. They all have names which we share with each other in in the visitors’ kitchen between the boiling kettles and the cleaning of breast pumps. Names we think suit their personalities. Or perhaps we hope it is who they will be. None of them really open their eyes for longer than five minutes a day. Added up. And I feel terrible if I miss any of those seconds, even though the nurses tell me that you seem to store them up for ten minutes after I leave every evening. I fear that you’re like me; can’t look people in the eye in case they see how sadworriedscared you are. As I pump milk from me into the cold suction cone on the sofa at home each night I try to convince myself that is not the case. That when I do see into your eyes I know that you just need your sleep because nothing has ever looked so new to me. They say baby eyes twinkle but yours stare and stare and have the crisp clarity of still water. What do I do now with something so much like that sea below in my arms? You so tiny. Your life so massive. All of this so unknowable.
We, ‘the parents’ do not speak to one another on the ward. We don’t even really speak of what happened in the kitchen or the visitor’s lounge. We just overhear bits, piece things together and don’t ask. The monitors’ songs and the tubes and whether or not you can see the baby in its incubator from the other side of the room tell us all we really need to know. We talk about pumping, that it is a pain. That sharp sting of its first suck. The waking every two hours even though your baby isn’t even in your house, let alone your room, let alone your arms and you can’t hear it cry out for food, feels like a new form of cruelty. The nurses tell us to imagine our babies as we pump, it helps the milk come quicker but the suggestion reminds me of men in films who take porn to a sterile room to wank out their sperm donation and so instead I make a hot water bottle and lay it across my belly. I feel less like a cow that way.
The only words shared on the ward are between parents and medics. Some light; what are you doing for Christmas? Spending it with my family. I’ll be here. Have you finished all your Christmas shopping? Some not light; he stopped breathing again earlier but his oxygen levels have improved, a little less weight gain than we’d like, I’m sorry but we’re going to have to escort you off the ward, you’re disturbing the other parents. Some said across the room, it’s the same every year; Terry’s Chocolate Orange, some said behind concertina screens as if we can’t all hear what’s said behind. We fill our head with other noises when the screens come out. Out of respect? Out of fear? Out of denial? One mother doesn’t need the screen anymore, her baby has been in here for one hundred and seventy days, (that’s twenty-four weeks, that’s five months), she knows what to expect and that the screen won’t change how she’ll feel about it. I want the screen pulled around me like a cloak.
Signs at the entrance to the ward explain that visiting hours are strict and that 3-4 is ‘quiet time’ for the babies. Only parents are allowed on the ward. All the lights are switched off, apart from those absolutely necessary; the blinds drawn and nobody speaks unless needed. It is the best time and I imagine you can hear everything I am thinking. I tell you about those ducks and I tell you about all the things we will do. It is the worst time and I worry you can hear everything I am thinking, I try to remember the ducks but all I can hear are alarms and so sometimes, I step out. In the ward foyer the lights on the lopsided Christmas tree shine a little brighter and reflect off the colourful wrapping paper of the would-be presents beneath. Really, they are just empty, wrapped shoe boxes. I saw the secretary diligently packaging them.
There is a rush over the Christmas period to get babies home in time for the big day. That won’t happen with you, you were born too late in the Christmas week, they call you our early present and I try to like it. Born five days before Christmas and sixty-five days before your birthday. On Christmas Eve we allow ourselves a drink on the way home. I have an orange juice. Already worried it was the delicious goat’s cheese sandwich or the failed shower sex or the eight-hour hike that gifted us you early to chance a small glass of champagne and the potential leak of bubbles into my milk. My orange juice grows saltier with tears which refuse the auspiciousness of your safety in your warm, little box.
On Christmas day the ward is all but empty. You are in the room where the least severe cases reside and many have been let home for the day, to test the waters, as if to see the lights and try the turkey. Two return the next day, parents not having slept for fear of their baby sleeping too deeply. But the ward is still quiet. Fewer babies. Incubators with their lights off look like giant, empty Tupperware. Much less menacing until the next day when they are still not filled, and the next day neither. Soon we learn that three babies will not return. One will, just for check-ups, thriving on mother’s Christmas-pudding-milk. The other two, in different boxes now. We do not know what happened and we never will. We did not know the parents’ names, only the babies’. We do not know where to send cards of sympathy.
Graduates of the slightly-worse-than-you-slightly-better-than-the-worst-room take the empty incubators and the remaining parents can look at each other again. After a day, one of the fathers comes up to me and says I always know its you coming in cos your boots are so squeaky, they sound like a nest of chicks. You just need to get a pin and prick the soles to get the air out. I try it but it doesn’t work, I think it must be the hospital floor because they are not this loud anywhere else.
After twenty-eight days of watching and waiting, of drawing eggs for art class, learning about ovoids in maths, Jemima Puddle-Duck at story time, Duck-Duck-Goose in the playground, the biology of eggs in science, there was a new sign at the classroom door. ‘Be very quiet now class, our visitors are finally here.’ Hatched, they already stand as if this business of being alive is just water off their backs. But it is clear that they’re not quite ducks. Their heads lollop, too heavy for their long twisty necks. Their wet, greasy feathers do not hide the saggy, see-through skin beneath. On duck-duty at lunchtime I hear a teacher say they look like feathered foetuses but I do not know what that means. I continue squelching small pipettes of mush into their demanding beaks.
After four weeks it becomes habit. Up, pump, leave, arrive, hello baby, check the monitors, how was she overnight, hand over an old ice cream tub filled with little bottles filled with milk, open your incubator hatch, hello baby, wash you with cotton wool and sterile water, shut the door, attach a syringe with milk to a tube that goes through your nose to your stomach and hold it as it slowly drips into you, pump, lunch, look at the sea, feed you again, pump, sit and watch your skin grow slowly less papery. You shedding that baby bird look, your face filling out a little more. Leave you. Cry. Home. Pump. Dinner. Sleep. Pump. Sleep. Pump. Sleep. Up.
This is not so much a story, more a pattern, which feels unnatural, like someone else’s story but becomes second nature.
There are days which throw us off. One day you’re sunbathing in your nappy and an eye cover under a strip of UV light – we thought we’d passed this stage – one day you’re not in your incubator but have been upgraded in hope, downgraded in severity to a hot cot which looks like a school tray filled with blankets and you somewhere beneath. You can wear clothes. One day they need to check your bloods three times, each one just a pin prick, you do not flinch. One day you vomit so much they suggest missing a feed for your stomach to recover. One day they say we can try breastfeeding. And I hold you in my arms, your weightlessness like a heavy heavy rock. You know where your face goes and before your warm mouth, somehow already sour with milk you have never tasted, reaches my nipple I am leaking. It is not at all like pumping. You so intimate with your baby animal body on mine.
We named the ducks. One Jemima, naturally, one Jane after the teacher, one Robbie after Take That and one Josh, after a boy in our class who had drowned the year before. At two weeks old we took them out to the school wildlife garden and released them onto the pond of frog spawn and lily pads and water skaters. The next day Jane and Jemima and Josh had gone. Robbie just kicked around the pond in circles.
Gradually we see that really you have not been that ill. Not ill at all, in fact, just small. Just like all the others in here are or were. But they all have tubes and lines and needles and pins in and in and in and yours are coming out day by day. One by one. Falling slack like limp limbs, pulled out of your skin which is so rosy now as your legs thrust and your hands punch and you breathe out and then in.
In this new winter, the one since the last, my boots still squeak and creak. It was not the hospital floor. The conker brown of them shines up from the dull and bare stones. You wear a similar pair and kick your legs as you laugh at the way the waves come and go, come and go, in and out and in.
For links to the other 2018/19 longlisted stories, click here.
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