“Survivor” by Marilyn Sears Bourbon
There were three women. They all had dry skin, good nails, an ability to gossip and husbands who didn’t know what to say. Marge and Angela wore curlers at night and hair lacquer during the day. They both said that Sabrina should dye her hair a chestnut colour and put on a bit more make-up. Marge was the mother of Angela and Angela was the mother of Sabrina.
I was twenty two; it was 1938, just before the war. It was a smashing time for dancing; I wanted to be Ginger Rogers. I didn’t know much about men, only what I’d learnt from Joan, my brother’s wife. She said marriage wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The wedding dress was as good as it got, it was all downhill after that. Especially once the baby arrived. Boiling nappies up in a large saucepan was what you had to be getting on with, oh and making the hubby’s bread and butter pudding. But we had a nice house, better than most, a proper front garden with a row of standard roses that flowered yellow and red in the summer. I’d been married just over a year the first time. I’d missed a couple of months – I guessed one must be on the way. I was upstairs brushing my teeth when I felt it. Sharp as anything it was. I shouted for Harold, Mrs Bell next door must have heard me.
‘I’m bleedin’ to death,’ I said, as he came up the stairs two at a time.
I grabbed his arm and squeezed so tight it left marks on his skin.
‘You better get me an ambulance fast, I’ve not got much time left,’ I was bent over with the toothbrush still in my hand.
‘Get a grip, Marge. You’re gonna be alright.’
He left me on the stairs and ran down the road to phone for an ambulance. There was only one phone in the street. I bet there would be a queue, being it was Sunday morning. I couldn’t get to that hospital fast enough. Once I was there I wished I was back at home.
The doctor was a bit curt. He stood looking down, with the metal bed guard between us. Acted like he’d catch something if he got too close.
‘You’re probably losing your baby Mrs Dearing. Only twelve weeks so it won’t be too bad. A few days in bed should sort it out one way or the other.’
‘Will it hurt Doctor?’ I wondered what he was like with his wife.
My mam always said having a baby was the worst pain ever. She’d put me off sex telling me that. Even when I married Harold I was a bit reluctant. It took a good year before I got up the courage. Harold was quite patient but even he’d had enough. Everyone kept asking if we’d had any luck. If a baby wasn’t on the way within a year they thought you were having troubles.
‘It’ll hurt a bit, Mrs Dearing, but you’ll be right as rain in a week or two.’ He wrote something on his clip board, nodded at Harold and then went off in a hurry. I lay on the bed and looked at the cracks on the ceiling and took deep breaths as the pains came and went. I felt like I was on a rough sea without any travel sickness pills.
The doctor didn’t tell me I’d bleed for a month, not see the curse until January and that I’d be crying into the washing. He missed out the bit about it hurting like hell too. I didn’t tell anyone about it, not even my sister Nelly.
Angela arrived in the end, after another few goes. She was the bonniest lass, golden curls with blue eyes. I felt like I was right back home looking at her. We’d sit together and imagine we were up in the mountains looking over the lochs. Naughty at times mind, but we had a laugh. I just had the one girl. It never worked out again; though I did my best to try. On the mantel piece I’ve got a picture of the three of us on the beach down at Southend. I’ve got my hair all long and curly, nice dress too, stripes always looked good on me. Just the three of us.
My mother made such a fuss about those sorts of things. She spent all my teens lying down. I was listening to The Beatles in my room and she was listening to The Stones in hers.
‘Where’s Mum?’ I’d ask Dad when I got in from school.
‘She’s got one of her heads,’ he’d shout from the kitchen, where he’d be trying to cook kidneys in tomato sauce. Smelt like someone’s intestines.
She didn’t tell me much and definitely not the facts of life. I found most of it out from books, especially Lady Chatterley’s Lover, everyone got that one. I used to work in a boutique along Oxford Street, as a window-dresser. We had all sorts in our shop, so there wasn’t much I didn’t know when I met Don. Still no one told me you could get pregnant and then it could all go wrong. I knew my great-grandmother had died in childbirth but that was a long time ago – before the NHS.
I was in there for about two months, Bushy Maternity Hospital. It was a small hospital, just forty beds. I’d wake up at six to the smell of porridge and the sound of the nurses pushing round their trolleys. A whole row of us not allowed to move. We woke up in the morning and the first thing we’d do was put on our make-up. I liked to look nice for Don when he came in. Foundation, black eyeliner and lipstick, of course. We’d wait for the doctor to come round. The young nurses would sit on the edge of the bed and watch. They said I was just like Twiggy, thick eyeliner sweeping upwards.
‘I don’t want my ward smelling like the perfume counter at Selfridges,’ the staff nurse would moan, pulling her starched collar up around her loose neck.
We’d all had a few misses and they preferred to keep an eye on us for the last bit. Don visited in the evenings, escaped from Mum who seemed to be delivering a constant stream of steak and kidney pies; even though it was summer and too hot to eat anything but a chicken salad.
I spent most of the time crocheting lurex gloves. The feel of the wool on the hook, calmed me. I’d rather count stitches than weeks.
‘I reckon you’re carrying a girl, you’re carrying low,’ said Eileen, in the bed opposite.
‘I’d like three boys – Don doesn’t mind.’
‘Sounds like hard work.’
‘I’d call them Anthony, David and Michael.’
I had a girl and I called her Sabrina after a French woman that used to come in our shop. The last time I tried I was in my forties. I got to about ten weeks. I was out shopping with Don’s mum and Aunt Lil. We’d just been in Debenhams for a coffee and cake. I felt it start. I didn’t tell them. I left them all having their tea and rushed to the ladies. It was everywhere, I almost fainted it was so hot in there. No windows, just bright red lino and white tiles to look at. So that was it, it wasn’t fair on Sabrina to keep trying, she was getting older. She wouldn’t have wanted a baby in the house.
The waiting room was full of women, large and cheerful, stroking bumps of various sizes. You’d think they would separate us out. There were posters on the wall showing breast-feeding mothers and immunisation dates. A video was playing; you could choose a ‘normal’ birth or one in a giant pool with an inflatable ball. On the table in front of me was a pile of magazines all called ‘Mother and Baby’. Nick put his bag on top, to cover them up.
‘Miscarriages are very common, Mrs Wilson. One in three embryos are lost before twelve weeks. Most women even after three miscarriages are very likely to take home a healthy baby.’
‘My Mum and Nan had one girl each and at least sixteen miscarriages between them.’
The consultant paused and wrote it down in my nice new set of notes.
‘We don’t usually run any tests until a woman has had three miscarriages but……’.
“Well, I better get on with it then.”
I fitted three in within the year. Had lots of tests and eventually got to take aspirin every day until 36 weeks. This one was going to stick.
It was two am on the 29th January 2003, they said heavy snow was due. But there was no snow yet and in the room it was so hot that there was a fan on to thin the air. The bed was high enough that I could watch the night bus taking nurses home to their beds.
I hadn’t expected it to be like this. I couldn’t feel my legs. I’d left them behind hours ago. I was so relieved when the epidural delivered a numbness that meant I could actually concentrate on breathing. It seemed impossible that when I looked down something small and new lay there. I had heard a midwife tell Nick that this helps the bonding process. All those magazines I’d been reading talked about those marvelous first few moments with your baby. All I could think of was numbness, stitches and the fact that my face looked like Tyson had done a good job. I didn’t realise that I’d need any help bonding. Her eyes were so tightly shut, so determined not to let in the light. I couldn’t recognise anyone in that face, not yet. I kept seeing ribbons floating above my head. They were beautiful, multicoloured shimmering slips. They were so far up I couldn’t reach them. Nick stroked my bare arm, talking to me about how I needed to feed the baby.
The room was heaving in its usual way. Women queuing with urine sample bottles in front of the tank of fish. Toddlers being sick in the play area, fathers trying not to look at the woman whose bump was so large, she could hardly fit in a chair. They were playing Take That on the radio.
‘I’m back again.’
‘Everyone comes back. They say they won’t but a few years later I get to see them all over again. Early scans, tests, aspirin, heparin injections, women will do it all. Over and over.’
‘Shall we take some blood then?’ I stuck my arm out willingly. That needle was like sucking treacle from a spoon.
‘I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a sister. I can’t imagine what it will be like for my daughter to be one.’
‘What do you think it’ll be like?’
‘I think it will be like having a sequined shawl when your shoulders are cold.’ She laughed at me, I bet she had lots of siblings.
‘You’re in for a shock then, it’s more like wearing a coat with holes in it.’
‘Shall we check for a heart beat at seven weeks?’
There were two sisters one curly and blonde, the other straight and dark. As they grew up they dressed up in scarves, hats and rows of plastic beads. Amber and Grace argued about who should plant the sunflower seeds in the vegetable patch. Their mother told them stories about girls who got locked up in towers and women who fell asleep for a hundred years. She made sure that when they crossed the road they held hands so tightly there would be no chance of them letting go.
Simone Davy has had her work published in What the Dickens? Magazine and her story Cockle Shells is to be published in the anthology ‘You, Me and a Bit of We,’ Chuffed Buff Books. She aims to create imaginative fiction that explores ordinary life events. She is currently working on a novel set in 1930s Epsom, England, where she lives with her family. As well as writing, she also works as a Social Science tutor with the Open University. You can read her blog here.
Read an interview with Simone here.
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