IDA’S LAST BABY
After that, Len and I gave it another try. This baby was breathing when they took him from me, and I saw him, silent but alive.
‘Henry,’ I said. ‘His name is Henry, after my father.’
They midwives bundled him in a towel and hurried from the room
They cleaned me up and wheeled me back to my room and I waited for them to bring him to me for his feed. I heard the other babies crying as they were taken to their mothers, and towards evening, as tight and sore as I was, I pulled myself out of bed, donned my dressing gown, and walked down the corridor to find him.
As I passed the matron’s office, I overheard her saying, ‘… and Baby Bushell has just died.’ I stopped in the doorway as she clicked the phone back on its cradle.
She startled when she saw me and her face blanched, before she pulled herself straight and smiled. ‘Mrs Bushell, I didn’t see you there.’
I stared at her. ‘I want to see him,’ I said.
She rose from behind her desk. She was pale, so pale she was almost transparent. Her face, her veil, her dress, all blended into one, and melded into the cream wall behind her. I could barely see her as she glided towards me, as pale as ice.
Then she cleared her throat. ‘Come back to bed now, Mrs Bushell.’ Her voice came from the air, and a creamy hand reached out and caught my elbow. ‘It’s late. Doctor will see you in the morning.’
‘No,’ I said and pulled my arm away. I pressed my slippers into the floor as if to cement myself there and looked down at her from all my height. My mouth felt dry and my breath came faster. ‘I want to see my baby.’
My other babies had been whisked away as soon as they took their lifeless bodies from me. I never saw them, not a glimpse. Never saw the colour of their hair or who they looked like. In the back of my mind I’d always wondered if maybe they’d got it wrong. Maybe they’d mixed my baby up with somebody else’s. Maybe my baby was still alive and out there somewhere, in another mother’s arms.
I stayed where I was. ‘Take me to him.’
She reached for my arm again, but I shook it off. I turned and took off down the hallway towards the nursery as fast as my soreness would let me. My dressing gown splayed open and my slippers swished against the linoleum of the corridor.
Matron’s heels stuttered behind me, and her voice echoed around the empty space. ‘Mrs Bushell … Mrs Bushell …’
I kept striding down the hall.
‘Mrs Bushell … Come now … Don’t do anything rash …’
I reached the nursery and glanced through the window at the rows of babies in their cribs. Nurses with veils like yacht sails leaned over them.
I threw the door open.
They turned towards me and their veils lifted as if caught by the wind. One headed my way, shaking her head, her arm outstretched. ‘No, you can’t come in here …’
‘Where is he?’ I said and stepped in further. ‘Where is he?’
They didn’t answer.
I stepped closer to the lines of cribs. ‘I want to see him … Where’ve you put him?’
‘Call the doctor!’ Matron cried from the doorway. ‘I think she’s hysterical.’
I began to dash up the row of cribs, reading each label and peering into each baby’s face. Some were sleeping, some were howling. None were him. I moved further along the row, searching for the one that looked like mine, the one named ‘Henry’.
‘Where is he? Where’ve you put him?’
The nurses were still now and I could feel them watching me as I passed along the rows, studying each baby, willing one of them to be him. When I reached the last crib, I stopped, and looked up.
The nurses stared back at me.
My breath came fast. ‘What’ve you done with him?’
They were still except for their eyes, darting about under their lashes, glancing at each other and Matron.
‘Where’ve you put him?’ My voice was high and harsh. ‘I’m not going anywhere ’til I’ve seen him.’
Matron held out an arm and stepped towards me. ‘Calm down, Mrs Bushell. This is not good, upsetting yourself like this.’
‘I will not calm down ’til I’ve seen him. He’s mine.’
There was silence, then Matron said, ‘I’ll take you.’
I strode towards her and when I reached the door, she said, ‘Really Mrs Bushell, I don’t think this is wise.’
‘I don’t give two bloody hoots what you think. He’s my baby, and I want to see him.’ I stared at her. My cheeks trembled but I didn’t break her gaze.
She led me, heels tapping, down the corridor to the doctor’s office at the end.
I followed, slower, muted.
Matron entered the darkened room and pulled the cord to the electric light. It clicked on and a circle of light fell on the doctor’s desk.
I lingered at the doorway, in the shadows.
Matron shifted around the desk and over to a crib standing alone against the wall on the other side.
I stepped carefully into the room, as if the floor might give way. It was cold. I walked around the desk and towards the crib.
I could see him—a mound under the sheet, completely still. I lifted the sheet and uncovered his head. There he lay. Eyes shut. Cheeks smooth. Lips pursed. Looking like any other sleeping baby.
I leaned down until my cheek touched his mouth and waited, hoping to feel his breath, hoping to hear him. Hoping it was a mistake.
But there was nothing. No swish of soft breath. No warm air against my cheek.
I turned to look at him and my nose brushed his. He didn’t flicker or twitch. I lifted my lips and kissed his cheek. He was cold and still.
I raised my head and shivered. ‘He’s cold,’ I said. ‘Can we get him a blanket?’
Matron nodded and left the room.
I lifted him into my arms, stroked his skin, and burrowed my head into him and inhaled. He smelled of soap. And of birth. And of me.
Matron returned with a blanket, a blue one, and draped it over him. I gathered it around him and tucked it under. We stayed like that and I held him while the clock on the doctor’s desk ticked.
Matron waited until I looked up, then she took him from my arms and I let him go. She laid him back in the crib, folded the blanket in half and spread it over him.
I looked at the label at the head:
Baby of Mrs L. D. Bushell
b. and d. 17th September, 1945
There was no mistake.
Louise, at first there seemed nothing I could say, except ‘Ouch!’ But I love your writing, even if it makes me cry. And I long to know more about Ida, can’t wait to find out what makes her so brave in the face of that bloody matron and the nurses who were blocking a mother’s child from her. As I read, I could smell the linoleum polish, Dettol and newly delivered women. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks, Maureen. This is fiction but is based on my grandmother’s experience. She had three stillborn babies, although the third lived for a few hours. She found out that he’d died when she overheard the matron telling the doctor over the phone. Reading your ‘real life’ story a few weeks’ ago, reminded me of this scene in my novel.
Yes, Ida has a bit of feist, a bit more than my real-life grandmother, I think, who I doubt would have stood up to the matron like that!
Thanks for sharing Louise – its really good. Such a raw scene.
Thanks, Lisa, that’s encouraging to hear!
It was so real! I am so looking forward to reading this Louise. How horribly sad for your grandmother. I truly can not imagine anything much worse. Those poor mothers back in the day. Thank you for that small glimpse of your book 🙂
Thanks, once again, for your lovely words, Pinky. This is based on my grandmother’s experience of three stillbirths before she had my uncle and father by caesarian. It’s fictionalised, of course, especially as I doubt my grandmother would have argued with the matron in order to see her baby.
The other experience that has always stuck in my memory and which I drew upon to write this scene was when as an intern doing gynaecology, I was out the back with the files, and noticed a crib with a baby. As I wandered towards it, I wondered what a baby was doing out the back. It looked so peaceful, as if it was sleeping. Then I noticed that it didn’t seem to be breathing. No chest movement, no movement at all. I leant down to see if I could feel its breath, kind of like Ida did above, and there was nothing. It turned out that the baby was stillborn and its mother had been moved to our ward, away from the maternity ward and the other mothers and their crying babies. I will never forget the look of that baby and how it appeared to just be sleeping.
Louise, this is beautiful. If I had to find a physical metaphor, I would say this writing is like glass. It’s clear and shiny and fragile and in the wrong hands it can cut if handled carelessly. And yours are definitely the right hands. Yes, I’ll be lining up for a copy. Wonderful excerpt.
Thank you, Rashida, they’re very kind words. I’ll add you to my list of orders—I think I’m up to about ten copies now!
Louise this heart wrenching, powerful, real. You can add me to the list for a copy. I can’t wait to read it.
Thanks, Tricia, thanks. The encouragement means a lot. I’ll put your name on the pre-order list!
Oh wow, you clever clever woman, your words are magic, thank you xxxxx
Thanks, Rae! I’m so pleased you enjoyed it. Thanks again for this encouragement.
your writing, as usual, is beautiful and straight to the point. Something you might consider is adding a bit more emotion to Ida. She struck me as too accepting of the loss of her child. Having lost an adult child myself, I found her reactions a bit cold. But again, well done.
This is just a chapter taken from the novel, Betty, with more that came before and to come afterwards. Having said that, I’m all ears for how to improve the story. PM me if you have any suggestions …
Oh Louise I just love your writing. This scene as painful as it was to read was gripping and illuminating and so incredibly well written. As Rashida said, like glass. I so felt for Ida and felt all her responses were spot on. You’ve managed I think to recreate the era perfectly. Well done! Please add me to your list for a copy, too!
Thanks, Marlish 🙂 It’s hard to capture an era from before you were born, as writers of historical fiction know. I’m glad you think this piece works …
You’ve captured that scene so well. It’s moving, but with a slight sense of detachment that seems to mirror Ida’s emptiness.
Thank you, Monique—that was the aim. It’s also a chapter taken out of the novel, so there is more that came prior and to come afterwards. Who knows what an editor might one day say? They might think it’s completely out of whack!
I am haunted by this chapter the image of Henry seemingly asleep in the bassinette; of Ida shuffling down the corridor pushing through her physical and emotional pain, but what stays with me the most with me is the smell and feel of a baby’s skin what Ida would have sensed.
I wish I could have been there as you read this chapter at OOTA I imagine there was a moment of silence before the applause began. A silence created by the power of your words. How amazing and worthwhile that moment must have been.
Beautifully done Louise.
Thanks, Penny. After I read this, there is always silence before anyone comments. Sometimes, they don’t clap. The first time I read it, I didn’t know if it was because they didn’t like it and didn’t know what to say, but then people came up to me afterwards and said it had made them cry and they were too moved to speak. I love it when I can move people with my words.
Thanks again for your kind words—they always move me, too.
What a stunningly poignant passage Louise. I think Ida shows a stoicism apt for a time when pregnancy and perinatal loss was much more common-place yet beautifully contrasted with her not accepting the customary handling of the situation. I can’t wait to read the rest of your novel! The snippets you have shared promise a wonderful journey.
Thanks, Jacquie. Likewise, I can’t wait to read yours. How’s the writing going?
Deepest apologies for the delayed reply – not sure how I missed yours Louise but have just seen it! Too busy editing perhaps – have just finished a couple of rounds of editing on first novel and one on second but still a bit close to the latter having only finished it recently … It’s always hard to put one’s work “out there” but feedback is very welcome – let me know if you’re game to read!
No worries about the late reply! It’s lovely to receive your comment.
I’m more than happy to read your novel. I have two to critique at the moment, so just send it when you’re ready. Do you have my email address? I’ll send it to you via FB or Twitter or … somehow!
I do have your email and will be in touch! Exciting!