Lydia’s new therapist is all corduroy trousers and flat-heeled sandals. Hair pulled back in a ponytail as if it has been slicked with starch. Brown-rimmed glasses that melt into her face. Mousey, as if she doesn’t want to be a distraction to the Healing Process. She has none of Heidi Spellman’s bangles and colour. Karen, her name is. A neat sort of name, its edges trimmed; no loose threads hanging. Karen operates from a basement room on the Kentish Town Road. It is like an underground cave; windowless, dark and lit by a single bulb that dangles unshaded from the ceiling like a warning. Lydia imagines flies buzzing against it, then falling, fried and sizzling onto the threadbare carpet. The whole place has the feel of a World War Two bunker, with stained magnolia walls and dank corners, in which other people’s secrets have slipped into the shadows and stayed there. Lydia lays upon the couch in the middle of the room. She shudders as if she is naked, and pulls her sleeves over her hands as if to prove that she is not. She has a feeling of transparency, like all her thoughts are seeping out of her and are anyone’s for the taking. Be in the moment, Karen says. Go through it, not around it. Lydia lets her thoughts slip backwards. She lets her mind float away, up the creaking stairs and out of the low-ceilinged room with its mildewed edges.
Heidi Spellman’s room was so bright and airy. Lydia and Amy always sat by the large windows, the warmth of the sun on their backs, drinking green tea from cardboard cups.
‘I can’t wait to see the back of this pond scum.’ Amy’s nose had wrinkled as she brought the tea to her lips, the freckles blurring into each other.
‘Pretend it’s prosecco.’ Lydia replied.
‘That’s quite a pretence, Lydia. I just want one bloody glass of wine. It’s my only weakness.’
‘This time next year your only weakness will be your bladder.’ Lydia rested her hands on the mound of her belly.
Amy took a gulp of tea, then closed her eyes and winced, spilling a drop of tea on her white T-shirt. She tutted, and wiped at the stain with her hand. ‘Any thoughts of names?’
‘Bobby, if it’s a boy. You?’
‘Oh God, don’t ask.’ Amy ran her hand over her abdomen, tracing small, apologetic circles with her fingertips. ‘It was conceived in India. Now, if it’s a girl, Pete wants to call her Goa.’
Lydia snorted green tea from her nostrils, which prompted Heidi Spellman to glare in her direction, blue metallic eyeshadow wrinkling over her eyes like closing shutters. Lydia hastily arranged her features into a mask of perfect concentration.
‘Now, ladies, settle down please.’ Heidi said in her tinkling-stream tones. She held her hands out in front of her, palms facing forwards, as if she was paying homage to an unseen deity, or else stopping traffic at a busy junction. Her bright wooden bangles clanged against each other. ‘As we do our breathing exercises today, I want you to imagine your birth canal as a rosebud blooming.’
Amy sniggered into her hand. ‘I can’t see my rose bud, never mind wax it so there are quite a few thorns growing down there and it is most definitely not blooming.’
Karen doesn’t talk about rosebuds. She does talk about deep breathing though. Exhale, Lydia. Blow away your sadness.
An hour after descending, Lydia emerges from the basement, blinking against the light. After the dinge of the basement, she half expects to find that there had been a nuclear apocalypse, or that everybody has turned into zombies. It is with a sense of disappointment that she finds the world to be quite intact.
She walks a few steps down the street, to the Turkish café on the corner. She orders a coffee, and a glossy pastry topped with too many almonds. She takes her tray to the tables outside and lowers herself into a seat. Her phone buzzes, and Amy’s face flashes up from the screen. Amy calling. In the photo, Amy is wearing a pink tiara with two spring-coiled penises jutting from the top. Lydia’s own face peeps from behind her shoulder. A barely recognisable version of herself. Smile lipsticked on. Pink feather boa wound round her neck like it is holding her head on. Amy’s hen do, two years ago now. Before everything happened. A smiling ‘before’ shot which oozes with an eerie unawareness. Lydia thinks of the faces of victims that smile lopsided and gappy from newspapers and TV screens and lampposts, staring into the camera with unknowing eyes. She looks at the photo on the screen, into her own eyes, bright with cheap booze and happiness.
I know what will happen to you.
The phone flashes and buzzes. From the screen, the girls raise their glasses in an eternal toast. Amy calling. Amy calling. Lydia reaches over, cancels the call. She hugs the coffee to her chest, likes its warmth, likes to imagine it mending something broken. Bobby. She turns the word over in her mouth as if she might find something new there. But it is just as it always is, the slow softness, then the cut of its edges on her tongue.
She drinks a sip of the coffee, then heaps up the almonds from the pastry, forming them up into a little funeral pyre. On the table in front of her, the phone flashes again. A message from Amy. Asking her to visit today. She rubs her temples, making small circles with greasy fingers. She can’t ignore her forever.
The hospital looms from behind the carpark, huge, monstrous, blocking out the light. The misery of the place hangs in the air like toxic waste. Lydia walks along the pathway on trembling legs. She passes the memorial garden, with its withered rose bushes and overgrown grass. Just inside the garden, a woman sits on a bench, drawing deep on a cigarette, staring into space as if longing alone can conjure up a lost relative from between the dandelions and the daisies. Lydia feels the familiar ache deep inside her stomach. Something writhes in her chest, clinging stubbornly to her insides as an oil slick coats a beach, suffocating her from the inside. She wraps her coat tighter around her waist and picks up her pace, wishing that she were back in her bunker, breathing out her sadness.
She enters through main entrance, greeted by the shit-and-disinfectant hospital smell. The foyer is thick with people. A porter pushes a wheelchair with fervour, scattering the crowd like skittles. A skeletal man wearing green pyjamas pulls a drip-stand behind him as if it is an accomplice. People hide stricken faces behind bouquets of flowers. They move this way and that, heads down, legs moving, scurrying along like helper ants. The mass throngs and swirls, as each person pushes towards his destination. Lydia feels the weight of the crowd against her chest. She ebbs along its edges, her hand skimming against the wall, until she tumbles into the hospital gift shop.
The gift shop sells an assortment of out-of-date chocolates that most of its inhabitants are too nauseated to eat. Newspapers stand on a display, screaming bold-print headlines of other people’s hell. Soft toys sit with wide, vacant stares, as if they would rather be anywhere else. Lydia selects a blue teddy, ‘It’s a Boy’ sewn upon its chest in lewd gold letters. One of its eyes is crooked, fixed in a permanent wink. She takes it to the till, where a lady with gnarled fingers punches 4.99 slowly into a rickety cash register. Lydia hands over a crisp five pound note, and watches as the twisted fingers slowly wrap the teddy in brown paper. She imagines the teddy, his nose pressed to the paper, drawing panicked breaths against the darkness of the packaging.
She picks up the parcel, and submerges herself once again into the crowd.
Washing up by the lifts, she presses the call button with a shaking finger. Fifth floor. A pinging noise as the lift arrives, as if it is nothing more than an egg cooking or water boiling. She steps into the lift and the doors close, cocooning her inside its metal shell. The lift ascends and her stomach is left behind before being yoyoed back up on a piece of elastic. She starts to sweat.
Out of the lift, she stops and smooths her palms down the front of her shapeless dress. She walks slowly down the corridor which leads to the ward. Her footsteps echo, as if someone is following her. Either side of the long passageway, closed doors conceal dingy rooms. Rooms with musty air and cold-jelly probes and leather couches that stick to your skin. Rooms with black-and -white machines that nonchalantly spew out bad news, as if it is nothing more than a weather report. Lydia keeps her eyes on the floor.
She reaches the entrance to the ward. In front of her, a man with a boiled-egg head holds an ‘It’s a girl’ helium balloon in one hand and carries a car seat in the other. The pink shiny balloon bounces off the ceiling, then bobs against the wall, quivering around the place in jubilant excitement. Lydia wants to pop it with a pin.
Her vision breaks into wavy lines. She leans against the whitewash wall, and closes her eyes, trying to calm her breathing. Only a few minutes, she promises herself. The man in front sets the car seat on the floor, then reaches over to ring the buzzer by the door. Simon Harris, he says, here for Laura Harris. The door swings open like a drawbridge. He catches it, and turns to Lydia. Looking her up and down, no doubt taking in the shapelessness of her, the nothingness of her, he holds the door open and beckons her through.
A pit of snakes squirm inside of her. A few minutes, and it will be over with. Ahead of her, a long corridor traverses the length of the ward, and two bays jut off to the left hand- side. The midwives station is positioned to the right, an L-shaped desk scattered with pens and baby bottles and coffee cups and other such items deemed essential to the procurement of human life. Behind the station, a midwife sits bent over the desk, writing on a piece of paper so furiously that globules of ink form on the page. She doesn’t glance up as Lydia walks past. On the wall behind the desk is a whiteboard, on which names of mothers and babies are scrawled in red marker pen. Lydia scans the names. Laura Harris, Amina Begum, Kelly Robinson. The whiteboard blurs, and the letters merge together. Lydia holds onto the edge of the desk, and forces her eyes to focus. Amy Bonnerman, Bay 2, Bed 4.
Walking towards the back of the second bay, Lydia raises the corners of her mouth into smile. By the window, Amy is sitting up in bed, a bulging blanket held tightly in her arms.
‘Thanks for coming. I really appreciate it…’ Amy smiles. Her hair is matted against her bright skin, and her eyes are candles gleaming out of her face .
Lydia nods, thrusts the package towards Amy, who opens it awkwardly using just one hand.
‘Aw, thanks.’ Amy places the teddy on the bedside table, next to copy of Woman’s’ Own and a pair of tiny booties. She looks down at the bundle in her arms and smiles like a 3 year old whose painting has just been pinned to the fridge. Peeping from inside the blanket, a small wrinkled face squints against the daylight. Scrawny. Puckered like a raison. Too much hair. He looks like a baby chimp.
‘He’s beautiful.’ Lydia’s lips curl around the words as if they are a foreign language.
Amy touches the baby’s cheek. ‘Thanks. Got Pete’s hair’
Hopefully not Pete’s pug nose as well. ‘Yes, very thick and dark.’
Lydia puts out her hand to stroke the baby’s head, then draws it back and lets it fall limp at her side. It seems too intrusive, somehow, too invasive. She clasps her moist hands together tight, as if they cannot be trusted.
Amy wraps the blanket tighter around the baby, swaddling him in a shield of wool, and pulls him closer to her chest. Lydia allows her gaze to skim over the bay. Three other women sit upright in their beds, wide-eyed and bewildered, clutching new-borns to their chests. The tinny smell of blood reaches her nostrils, mixed with something softer, the rice-water scent of baby skin. Next to Amy’s bed, a high-backed chair rests in the corner, strewn with tissues, a dressing gown and a pack of nappies. Lydia could clear it, put the tissues and nappies on the bedside cabinet. Drape the dressing gown gently over Amy’s shoulders. Make a little space to sit down next to Amy. But she doesn’t. It is as if the items intrinsically belong exactly where they are, and it is she who needs to be moved, tidied away to somewhere more appropriate. She remains standing at the end of the bed, hands in front of her, picking at her nails.
‘How are you feeling?’ she asks, allowing her gaze to return to Amy’s flushed face.
Amy shrugs her shoulders in a quick, jerky movement. ‘Like someone has taken a meat cleaver to my genitals.’
‘Was it bad?’
‘It was like shitting out a watermelon.’ Amy curls a finger inside the curve of the baby’s palm. ‘Worth it, though…’
The words hang heavily in the air. Outside the large window, the grey winter sky is becoming an inky black. The moon gurns down, casting the bare-branched trees in its hazy half-light. Neither of them speak. Lydia feels the silence pressing down on her as if it has its boot on her chest. She fumbles with words, trying to find the right ones amidst all the wrong ones.
She swallows. ‘How’s Pete?’ she asks, her voice as bright as neon.
‘He’s fine. Besotted. Wants to call him James Dean on account of the hair…’
Lydia makes a humph noise in her throat that is supposed to be a chortle, but when unleashed it sounds too high, too sharp. Too disgruntled.
Amy looks at her. ‘Lydia, I’m really grateful that you came. I know it must have been difficult for you to…’
They hold each other’s gaze for a second, then look away. One down at her baby, the other at the floor.
Time stretches like worn-out elastic. The walk towards the exit feels eternal, and Lydia’s feet are boulders on the ends of her legs. She reaches the door and leans against it, facing back into the ward. Just before the door, the first bay opens out from the corridor. It is empty except for one woman, whose bed is next to the walkway. The woman is sleeping peacefully, her belly bulging beneath the sheets. Her yellow-straw hair erupts from her head like a pineapple, and the black lace of her bra strap has slipped down over her thin shoulder. Her hand rests on top of the sheets, a pale, bony hand with blue veins and chipping red fingernails. Her features are slackened in the softness of deep slumber, except for her mouth, which remains taut, pressed into a funny little half-smile.
Next to the bed, something wriggles in a plastic crib. A small hand pokes out of a blue blanket. A grizzling begins from inside, the soft and slow sound of a kitten purring. Then it gains momentum, becoming a full-on roar. Still, the woman sleeps.
Lydia tiptoes towards her, feet squeaking lightly on the polished floor. The woman doesn’t stir. The label on the plastic crib says ‘Baby Boy Robinson.’
Lydia watches the no-name baby, the way his tiny fists roll into balls. The creases of his closed eyes in his pink face. The fine down of hair over paper-thin ears. No name. She looks back at the woman. This woman who carried him, felt his flutter in her belly, saw the flicker of his heartbeat on the scan. This woman who has not named him.
The midwife at the desk is still entrenched in her paperwork. The corridor is deserted. The chatter of the mothers, the beep of machines, the mew of babies all fade into a distant echo.
Bobby, Lydia mouths. She reaches into the crib.
Sarah Frances Armstrong (Fran) started writing about ten years ago, after a weekend course at City Lit had her hooked. Last year, she completed her Creative Writing Master’s Degree at Birkbeck University. She has read at MIR live, as well as being published on MIR online. Her story ‘Love thy Neighbour’ was featured in INK anthology, and she proudly participated in ‘100voicesfor100years’- a writing project to celebrate 100 years of women’s votes.
Her writing draws on her experience of working in the NHS, as well as from being a mum, partner, sister and daughter. She is especially interested in telling women’s stories.
She was short-listed for Wasafiri’s New Writing Prize for her short story, ‘Bobby.’