Tenderfoot

Knowing

Author

Brid Phillips is currently undertaking masters in Medieval and Early Modern studies at UWA while working as an Emergency Management Officer.

She finds doing the masters has been a good excuse to read copiously and recently she rediscovered a love of writing as a means to relax.

She first published a short story at the age of nine and after a long hiatus she hopes to get back into regular writing.

Arriving to uni astride a very tall black bicycle with overflowing baskets is also a pastime as this helps to beat the car-parking crisis.

by Brid Phillips

 

Part One

The dreams I had during my pregnancy seemed more real than this living hell. Too late it dawned on me that hell is an isolated desert of darkness.

While I was pregnant, Patrick and I went away for a weekend – we smiled, laughed, and hugged when we realised it would be our last before we became a proper family and left our couplehood behind. I remember those days as golden and warm, we moved in time with the dancing sea. We walked and kissed, hands intertwined, hips touching, bound in a moment of happiness. As we strolled, we passed an art gallery. We decided to go in, our sliding door moment.

The exhibition consisted of one installation: a vast whiteness encompassing the walls, ceiling and floor. On the ground, right in the middle, lay one small bronze object, like a burnished stone. Peering through the people, I thought that it looked small enough to pick up. We strained and pushed through the crowd to get near enough to work out what the tiny form was. My heart froze and then jumped into overdrive, my mouth dried and my hands became damp with sweat. There was a newborn baby, perfectly formed, asleep in the fetal position, bronzed and still. I didn’t understand. Why was she was on the floor? She shouldn’t have been. Why were all these people walking so close to her? I wanted to kneel down and protect her but Patrick pulled me away, bewildered as tears flowed down my face. Swallowing hard I knew what I was feeling. It was sorrow for something that was yet to happen.

During the last few weeks of my pregnancy, my dreams replayed this scene at lengthening intervals. The image receded until it was just a small blur at the back of my mind, chafing at my happiness every now and then. We made plans for our new life, choosing names, colours, furniture. We were enjoying the young couples’ dream. We immersed ourselves in all that was new. Our life was growing and pulsating in time with the heartbeat of our baby. We jokingly called her Hope; she was full of our hopes for our future, for our new family. In reality though, our hope would not be enough.

My body swelled and stretched until some stirrings began inside. My mind broke free and soared above my breathless body. I watched as Patrick and I arrived at the labour ward, triumphant in our ignorance.

“My, aren’t you glowing!” said the nurse, smiling as she led me to the bed.

I smiled back, blind to the starched and sterile whiteness threatening to smother me. I was oblivious to the cold farm-like implements that would cut and control, bind and deliver.

Patrick and I worked hard together. I grunted and panted while he wiped and rubbed my back. We were eager and close, supporting each other. We were invincible on this journey. I can still feel his hands now if I close my eyes to remember, firm pressure releasing the tension. We were at one amid the noise, loudest of all being the mechanical heartbeat of our baby distorted through the machinery. A relentless urgent rhythm.

The contractions that squeezed and compressed me started to frighten me. Do they frighten the child within me? I thought. Ragged gasps escape in rapid succession. Is my baby also gasping, hungry for air?

And then it happened, that moment when time stood still and each second stretched to last a lifetime. Our baby’s heart was slowing, slowing and we all heard it together. Urgent shouting, but I floated above the mayhem. I saw hands grabbing those cold metal instruments, a sucking noise, then warmth spread over my legs. My waters had broken to herald my baby’s arrival. I should have stifled that joy and realised that I was the conduit for a watery grave as the clear waters became bloodied.

“The baby is out”, someone cried. It could have been Patrick but sound was becoming disjointed and alien to my ears. And then her smell took hold of my senses. She smelt new and yet familiar. My heart jumped with the knowledge that I could identify this person by her smell. I, who had devoured the baby books, had not been aware of this gift, this magic. I must have been distracted by the flooding tide of love for this new being when suddenly the rising crescendo pierced my reverie. The voices were urgent, shouting, the words were all wrong...

“Suction”

“No output”

 “Call a code”

My heart became a tense fist that clenched and tightened in my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I could hear my screams renting the air. Patrick’s white face was next to mine, his hands grabbing me tightly, stifling my chaotic emotions with his stillness. We watched as our Hope lay still and bloodied. A multitude of hands touched her precious body. I think I knew then, I think the knowing was complete in that moment. I watched as the knowledge within me spread through the room, hands became still and voices whisper quiet. The fight was over, the defeat was tangible. The hope that had lived within me was now placed in my arms. I could still smell her, still warm but beginning to fade.

The door opened and closed at intervals, exchanging air and sounds with the clanging corridor, yet barely rippling the fog of loss that surrounded us. I lay inert on that hospital bed as a line of clear plastic tubing dripped life into my dead soul. My baby was very still and very, very cold. I thought if I held her close I could share my warmth but the awful truth became apparent - I had no warmth left to give. All that was inside me had hardened to a frozen black stone.

We said goodbye to our alabaster child having never said hello.

Our home became a house, a negative space, minus and missing. Friends came and cleared away the warmth. They crept in and silently waited before creeping out again, shedding bewildered tears and leaving purged of vicarious guilt.

Each morning, I now have to climb out of a deep black pit to reach daylight. Most of the time I haven’t the will to make that effort, so I sit in the darkness until I am allowed to sleep again. The greyness cushions me from disintegration. Outside of this place, pain is ready to cut me with its razor sharp edge and spill tears of blood oozing the last vestiges of warmth from deep within. I feel my body betraying me, as I don’t want these tears any more, dissolving and drowning. This swirling valley of tears is a river between Patrick and I, flowing fiercely and untraversable. I had believed in Patrick and his promises to keep us safe with his strength, strength which he now uses to keep my scream dead inside me, strength he uses to stop me splitting open and spilling more coldness and poison between us. We are bandaged apart; our souls are mummified. Dead on the inside; muffled and separate on the outside.

 


Part Two

Clare insisted that there were no flowers at the funeral. Family and friends had their own ideas: it was a sign of postnatal depression, it was a natural response, it was selfish, it was unselfish... but they could not begin to understand. The conversations consisted of constant chattering and were feather light. But few, not even her husband, understood Clare’s vehemence because she could not bear to articulate the thoughts inside her head. In her mind, the organic nature of the flowers and wreaths were inextricably linked with the organic state of her daughter. Their natural cycles were entwined and as the foliage wilted and rotted so did her baby... Bile rose and choked at the back of her throat. Cremation would stifle that putrefaction. A holocaust for their baby but no slow dissolve.

 

 

Part Three

The slow dissolve would be Clare’s lot. She needed to be someone who didn’t have a hole of sadness in the head too big to be filled. I knew she often considered ending things to stop the blackness, but she was prevented by another fear that wracked her waking hours. She told me that she feared that the afterlife would be even emptier than the half-life she occupied now. She tried to forget by drinking in a red river of wine but the alcohol was weak and couldn’t loosen the stone that had settled in her chest. It actually seemed to sharpen the edges so that it lacerated and unleashed the demons of depression. Most evenings, when I got in from work, I would find her drunk and disheveled clutching Hope’s urn of ashes. When I tried to wipe her wet cheeks but she just brushed my hand away, puzzled to find it there. She rarely spoke to me anymore but occasionally addressed words to a distant point beyond my shoulder.

I often thought about our dead baby but thoughts began to crowd in about Clare and myself and our relationship adrift in a melancholic twilight. I only stopped these thoughts when I shared Clare’s red soporific. The nightly numbness was nearly a comfort to me now. The early morning headache was a welcome respite from the throbbing in my chest. I was surviving, just, I knew I was but I wasn’t so sure about Clare. She was now just a shadow. She said she couldn’t go to work and she was probably right. It was not like we needed the money; we had saved hard for this most special time of their life. I felt sapped of ideas. I wanted to heal Clare so that I could start healing myself. But I was in a blind alley unable to see a way out.

We needed to lay our baby to rest, I thought, but I knew I would be taking a risk, a gamble with Clare’s mind. I began to plan how it should be, disloyal and guilty feelings crowding my mind. Clare was disengaged so little subterfuge was necessary. I decided to go back to the seaside town we had visited before the nightmare had begun.

The season was different and the sea looked bitter with slate grey waves. We walked to the rain slicked rocks, black and glistening. Clare stood impassive beside me as I withdrew the urn from my pocket. Slowly and silently I removed the lid. I felt as if any sudden movement might frighten her and startle the reclusive wild creature that she had become. I felt her becoming more watchful as the bony dust trickled away and merged with the leaden waters. A sole tear tracked down her face.

I took her hand. It was stone cold and unyielding. But it still fits in mine, I thought, and I curled my warm fingers around hers.