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.