JESS WAS PANTING. When I got her into the creaking Holden Nova her contractions were three minutes apart; I knew because I’d been monitoring the hands of a broken watch on the burst-spring sofa.
It was a big moment for Julie, seeing her daughter in pain, saying ‘breathe’, sinking into the sofa. Jess was sitting between us on the hard edge, oo-oo-ing. I was mid-cushion, staring at the watch, going under.
The sofa had belonged to Simon’s parents, and lived in his and Julie’s kitchen-diner; Jess and I owned nothing in Australia, and lived in Julie and Simon’s living room.
A woman the rental agency referred to as Ms Crowhurst lived in the dream-apartment we owned in Glasgow; her rent, after fees, came to less than our monthly mortgage. The financial crash had rolled across the Atlantic and washed into the walls of our first big investment.
We didn’t want to sell: it was a safety net for me – we could return; it was still possible – even if I didn’t put it in those terms to Jess. But I could have been persuaded to sell if the price was right. I tried to show an expected-as-much face when the agent told us it had plummeted in value in the three years since buying it and would cost somewhere in the region of holy-fuck to sell it. We were subsidising a stranger’s life in ou furnished former dream-home even though I was jobless, and Jess hadn’t earned anything for ages.
Standing orders, direct debits and insurance policies were lodged like hookworms in our bank account. Our meagre savings had all but petered out and nothing was coming in.
Jess and I slept on a borrowed mattress on Julie’s living room floor; Kolya, light of our lives, slept a few feet from us, in a cot Julie had bought on eBay. His nineteen-month-old body needed little space and there was hardly any to take up.
His unborn sibling would lay claim to some more in a few hours, assuming she or he arrived, as he or she seemed destined to, on Christmas night.
Jess had started cramping during the festive barbie, sitting in a director’s chair on the decking outside Julie’s kitchen window.
There were eleven of us with party hats and sated appetites. The barbecue’s coals had gone flaky white. A few limp, oily vegetables swam in a ceramic serving dish. Remnants of mashed potatoes clung to the walls of a pan.
We’d eaten a lot. Jess and I agreed that her discomfort was probably indigestion.
‘Like cramp,’ she said.
‘Like a stitch.’
I thought the bubba was coming. Jess was nearly two weeks overdue, as she’d been with Kolya. We had hoping-for-it-to-happen fatigue.
Jess said it could have been the shrimps, although she called them prawns. Everyone in Australia did, except Paul Hogan: he’d said ‘shrimp’ in the 80s because that’s what Americans call prawns – and then everyone thought Australians did, too.
I was cramping for different reasons. Just before Simon’s pavlova was served, Jess’s older brother Ben called everyone to attention and handed me a card stuffed with $50 notes. I saw and smelt the yellow wad before snapping the card shut. We needed the cash, no question – but the gesture hit me right in the guts.
A fortnight earlier, Julie had told Jess we’d all donate $50 each towards an as-yet undecided group gift rather than buying individual presents.
I told Jess’s siblings they shouldn’t have bothered, that we’d been told something else was happening with the cash.
‘We lied,’ said Ben, laughing – and it was true: they’d lied, right to our faces.
Kolya was excited by the excitement. Simon lifted him from his high chair; he waddle-walked to his Uncle Ben, who lifted him into the air, squeezed him. I could have reached for the butter knife and thrown it with force into Ben’s abdomen, but I smiled instead.
I handed the money-stuffed card to Jess. She made a show of studying the messages inside before thanking everyone again on our behalf.
They’d all gone by the time we were sure the cramps were contractions. Julie and Simon were at a party in Ringwood; Simon’s two twenty-something kids, Edwina and Richie, were out with friends; Kolya was out cold in his cot, surrounded by new toys and teddies.
I had the number for the Mercy Hospital in my wallet but couldn’t call. There was no landline in Julie and Simon’s house, and our borrowed mobile phone was out of credit after ringing Paul, Jess’s dad, to offer festive greetings. Paul was still recovering from a stroke some years earlier; Jess had spent her first Christmas back home not with him but with Simon, her stepdad, who’d played no part in raising her.
‘I love you too, Dad,’ she’d said, teary-eyed, then, ‘Shit, we’re out of credit’.
I’d assumed, without thinking about it, that Julie and Simon would be on hand with their mobile phones when Jess was ready to pop. I’d assumed that Edwina and Richie would be in their rooms watching TV, as they were most other evenings. But no.
I Skyped the Mercy on Julie’s new laptop, which she’d left in the kitchen. Becky, the duty receptionist, sounded further away than the half hour it would take us to drive to Heidelberg.
She suggested Jess take a warm shower, and we hung up. Julie and Simon had an ensuite shower in their bedroom but the one Jess and I used was the one Edwina and Richie used. It had issues no one had dealt with – blisters and chillblains were less than a millimetre apart on the tap. Getting it right involved reaching into the shower cabinet several times to gauge the heat, using the glass door as a partial shield. Some of the water followed a conventional route from the nozzle, but a split in the joint between the hose and showerhead sent molten-frozen jets in all directions.
Jess groaned and gripped my shoulder. ‘Can you hurry up?’ ‘Can you just be patient?’
I made micro-adjustments to the temperature tap as my arm burned and froze.
‘On you go,’ I said. Jess shuffled in.
In the kitchen, I flicked through a Marie Claire someone had left lying around and noticed I was hyperventilating. In Julie’s ensuite, I flushed the toilet twice while peeing.
I crept into our living room house to check on Kolya, light of our lives, curled up in the darkness: he was still out cold, and that was good. When he woke, he’d have a sister or brother, unless it was the shrimps.
I minced to the kitchen and Skyped Julie. She had to come home, I said, to watch Kolya.
‘Right now?’ she said.
‘Yeah, it’s happening, yeah, hurry.’
She was rubbing Jess’s back on the burst-spring sofa by the time I Skyped the Mercy again. Jess could barely speak; Becky said to come in straight away.
Which meant, of course, straight away.
Our living room house was dark, silent but for Kolya’s night breathing; it was difficult to find what I needed to find straight away. I rustle-crumpled on this, crumple-rustled on that, felt like punching myself in the face.
For as long as I could remember, I’d been able to near-levitate. My dad’s sensitivity to noise, particularly my noise, had long since seen me adapt my manner of getting from A to B: I was a ball-of-the-feet walker, a furtive stalker.
I found my wallet and camera in less than a minute but not my birthing shorts.
I heard Jess hissing ‘come on’, through gritted teeth from the kitchen, and I hissed back that I was looking for something. I heard Julie telling Jess to keep breathing, and tried to calm my own ins and outs.
Leaving without the birthing shorts was a no-no.
During our orientation tour of the Mercy, a veteran midwife called Sue had run through the centre’s home-birthing-in-a-hospital philosophy, showed us where the biscuits were kept, and how to work the TV in the chill-out room. The set-up, she said, was deliberately low-key.
A couple of midwives would be on hand – a couple more during full moons, as they sent women into labour. I slid into a daydream about sea turtles, saw Jess emerging from briny water, dragging her limbs across sand to lay eggs under shivery moonlight. And then I noticed Sue was staring at me and I hadn’t been listening. Was I losing my mind? It was possible, probable even.
There would be no epidurals or Caesareans, said Sue, except in emergencies, but the centre was attached to the main hospital by a corridor. Doctors would be waiting at the other side during labour, greasing their chainsaws, slivering at the prospect of surgical intervention.
Thankfully, Jess had been happy with the Mercy’s approach. We’d arrived in Australia when she was nearly thirty-six weeks pregnant – the Mercy and Julie’s living room were our only options.
In our first few days, we’d called receptionists at several Melbourne hospitals to secure a berth, only to be told we’d missed the boat. Most were incredulous we hadn’t booked anywhere, and sounded exasperated when we said we’d just arrived from the UK.
Sue made a hoo-ha about birthing shorts for dads. As with other midwives I’d come into contact with, the way she said ‘dads’ sounded condescending. ‘Playful,’ Sue might have said if I’d lodged a formal complaint at the Office of the Health Services Commissioner. There were two other men on the orientation tour; I knew none of us would snitch. Midwives helped mums deliver living babies; the quid pro quo was a subtle, ongoing ribbing of the dad for being a man.
Sue led us into an ensuite shower area in one of the birthing rooms and told us most women gave birth under one of the two showers, both of which looked better than the one at Julie and Simon’s.
Dads were strongly encouraged to get involved, she said. That could be as simple as holding their partner’s hand, or as difficult as dragging the baby out headfirst, depending on the moon.
Birthing shorts were important, she said for a second time. And then, as we were leaving, she said it again. ‘No one wants Dad to get wet trousers,’ she said, but the subtext was more sinister: nobody wanted to see Dad running down the corridor in the buff, junk slapping around, screaming ‘baby, oh shit, baby, baby…’
I found my bargain-buy shorts under a suitcase in Julie’s living room, under a backpack that was under another suitcase. I held them aloft and silently punched the air.
En route to the Mercy in our creaking Holden Nova, Jess panted calmly, the bag with my birthing shorts at her feet. Things were under some sort of control. Control was an illusion. Julie was minding Kolya, light of our lives; I was following other people’s tail-lights like stars of the East, wondering where they were going on Christmas night. It was cloudy and hot. I hoped there wasn’t a full moon.
My parents were 17,000 kilometres away in Spain, oblivious. Because of the time difference, their Christmas day was just beginning – they’d be eating breakfast, expecting our Skype call any minute. My dad might already be adjusting himself with jittery hands and pill-deadened eyes to make sure only half his head was visible on the webcam – an unnecessary procedure, too common to seem like chance.
He made jokes on good days, which were few, but they often fell flat. Words had always tripped him, trapped him. They came out too big, grown fat from underuse.
They were plumper versions of the peas that tumbled from my fork as a child under his glares, shouts of ‘Clumsy little…’ He was better at communicating physically: when his fingers clenched into a fist, the skin on his hands and arms would tighten; his Navy tattoos – a thistle with a woman’s head on his left forearm, an eagle with spread wings on the right – would ripple.
In terms of speech, nearly nothing was expected of my dad. Four years earlier, I’d been sitting with him in silence at Alicante Airport, waiting for my boarding call, when he said: ‘I’ve not always been the best…’ and nothing else: six words that felt like 6,000; a rag of a sentence, enough to wipe the slate clean.
Maybe we’d soon be toasting the baby’s arrival at a distance, over Skype, but not with alcohol – not my dad.
Jess groaned. I sank the accelerator.
I skidded the creaking Holden Nova across the emergency bay, and ran round the car to get Jess. I helped her shuffle through the sliding doors and started banging the door of the birth centre. I was about to start thumping again when Becky opened the door.
Fairy lights winked on the ceiling; tinsel wound its way round lampshades on the wall and circled cardboard Santa heads, ready to garrotte them.
An unseen woman’s birthing screams ripped holes in the muggy air.
We were taken to a room that looked identical to the one we’d seen on the tour – a double bed with a floral quilt, some fertility art on the walls, French doors leading to a small balcony with a wooden table and chairs. The rubber floor and a Swiss ball were the only things differentiating it from a three-star bed and breakfast.
The shower-room light was on, the door open. I couldn’t help looking forward to an evening primal-screaming with Jess under the steaming jets.
I lifted her legs onto the double bed, did everything she asked in the order she asked it – mostly that meant rubbing her lower back, with running commentary from Jess.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Oh, that’s it. No, not there. Ah, yeah, oh, that’s better, yeah. No, not there. No, up a bit. No, up. No, up. A bit harder. Yeah. Oh, no, yeah, yes, yeah, that’s it, oh, yeah, there, a bit harder, yeah.’
My wrists were going numb: I momentarily eased the pressure – until Jess said ‘fuck’s sake, ah, no’, and I ramped it up again.
How dilated was she? She didn’t know. Was the baby imminent?
‘No. I don’t think so. Wait… no.’
I’d noticed a sign in the emergency parking bay warning drivers their cars would be towed after fifteen minutes, no exceptions. It had been at least twenty-five.
I left Jess and ran, jumped into the car, nearly reversed into an ambulance, screeched down the helter-skelter ramp, swerved maniacally into the hospital car park.
It was full, or very nearly. I circled rows of parked cars, punching the steering wheel, shouting ‘fuck’s sake’.
I prayed to the Ghost of Arseholes Past that someone would get in their car and skedaddle, and someone did, eventually, just as I was approaching.
I swung the creaking Holden Nova into the space and ran to the lifts, where an elderly couple were waiting. They said Merry Christmas; I said Merry Christmas back, affecting a casual pose, nostrils flaring.
Ten minutes had passed since I’d seen Jess, maybe more. She could have had the baby already; they could be ready to go home.
When I skidded back into the room, Jess was in the shower making noises. I’d just started whipping my jeans off when a midwife came into the room and introduced herself as Julia, our helper for the night. She stood on the inside of the shower door and asked Jess if she felt like pushing.
‘A bit,’ said Jess. ‘Aaaah. I don’t know.’
I crouched at the other side of the door, slipping my jeans and boxers off, climbing into my birthing shorts. I didn’t want to come across as a flasher.
Julia left the room; I rushed to Jess’s side. There was more steam than I’d anticipated. She was bent over, one hand gripping a steel rail that ran along the white wall tiles, the other guiding a showerhead back and forth across her belly. I wondered what might come out of her.
She told me to grab the other showerhead and spray her lower back. The water felt too hot to me, but Jess insisted it was fine. I strafed her slowly, methodically.
Through the steam I could see some staining on the rubber floor where babies had slurped into life. I wondered if any had been born on the loo and fallen in.
A few minutes later, Jess said she was sleepy and might doze off. ‘Just for a minute,’ she said, slurring her words.
I tried to say something meaningful about how adrenaline would kick in, but failed. My own adrenaline was flowing unobstructed, my adrenal gland raw. My brain was okay, it wasn’t, it was. I wasn’t my dad, shut your hole.
‘Maybe you should take a nap,’ I said. It sounded ridiculous. On the hospital tour, Sue had shown us a birthing bath and told us it was allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.
Jess stifled a yawn, said: ‘Can you see if the bath is free? Hurry.’
After jogging down the corridor in my dripping birthing shorts, I introduced myself – needlessly – to Becky, who said she’d fill the bath for us and let Julia know what was happening.
When I returned to the shower, Jess was hunched over, groaning at the wall. Julia poked her head through the steam to say that the bath would take about ten minutes to fill; in the meantime, she wanted to check Jess on the double bed.
Together, we bundled Jess from the shower. Julia held a dinky monitor against Jess’s bulge and squeezed her in several places; we took her under the arms and dragged her back to the shower room.
Julia retreated, a gorilla through the mist. I continued spraying Jess from side to side, eager to pace myself. We could be in situ all night, I thought – maybe longer; we’d be prunes by morning. Or we could be seconds away from emotional and physical devastation.
My family, like many others, had form in this area.
My sister, Caireen, had lost one of the twins sharing her womb in recent years – my niece Daisy, now a toddler, had persevered.
When Caireen was a baby, my mum had been pregnant with a boy called David. While she was in hospital, in the early stages of labour, my dad had rushed home to get things ready for the new arrival. I didn’t know what things he got ready because we’d never discussed what had happened on that day or any other.
In my imagination, he’d unpacked some new sheets and stretched them across the mattress in David’s cot. There would have been a new teddy or two to place on top.
On returning to the hospital, he might have circled rows of parked cars in the car park, punching the steering wheel, saying ‘fuck’s sake,’ before standing, nostrils flaring, at the lifts.
When he got to the ward a nurse told him that David was dead.
I’d never known what to do with this information as a child. I was born two years after David, who’d been intended as the last child; it was hard not to feel passing gratitude.
Jess snatched the showerhead from my hand, shouting no, no, no. She showed me how she wanted to be sprayed; then she grabbed the showerhead even harder and showed me again. I followed her instructions as faithfully as I could, and felt overcome with the urge to sing.
Sons And Daughters came to mind – the Melbourne-based soap from the 1980s with dowdy sets and awful lighting. I found myself trying to remember the lyrics to the theme song, singing what I could remember of them in my head:
Sons and daughters, love and laughter, tears of sadness and happiness…
As I sprayed Jess, I was thinking: wasn’t there something in that song about love being very strange? I was tempted to start belting it out but Jess’s noises grew feral, sending a chill through my shaking bones – primordial shrieks, way beyond the realm of personality. It was a noise I hated, a noise I loved.
There had been no such noises with Kolya, light of our lives, born in a fug of pain relief in Glasgow after ten hours of hard labour. His heart-rate had slowed; the doctor thought she’d have to operate. Jess was unhooked from assorted machines and wheeled to an operating room.
A nurse said it would be better if I stayed outside, just for a moment; it was a tough wait, a lonely while.
‘His heart rate…’ she said when she came to get me, handing me a green gown and surgical mask. ‘His, eh… oh here – that one goes like this.’
She helped me ping the mask against my unbreathing mouth.
‘His… oops, no, it criss-crosses over like this at the back, not like that.’
She turned round slowly to demonstrate, held the cord of her own gown, tied an unhurried bow.
‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘It takes some getting used to.’ She started laughing.
‘Is he okay?’ I said. ‘The baby.’
‘Oh aye,’ she said. ‘The baby? Oh aye, yes, he’s fine.’
Jess was lying on a table in the operating theatre, top-lit and motionless, calves in plastic stirrups, a green sheet over her knees. I was told to sit on a stool next to her, away from the business end. There were four or five people in scrubs looking dramatic, ready for showtime.
A few feet away, a male doctor held prongs that looked like salad servers; he seemed to be rehearsing how he would toss the lettuce, turn the tomatoes, slap in the Caesar sauce.
‘She might not need surgery,’ he said.
‘No, maybe not,’ said someone else.
They’d give something else a go first, with the salad servers. A middle-aged nurse held the back of Jess’s head, asked if she could feel anything.
‘Not really,’ Jess said, smacked-up on morphine, pumped full of epidural. She’d been drifting in and out of conscious-ness all night.
‘Just imagine you’re having a shit,’ the nurse said. ‘When I say push I want you to pretend you’re squeezing a stiff one out as hard as you can.’
At the Mercy, Jess was drug-free and losing it. Julia returned to say she’d stopped running our bath. I thought she meant it was ready. She meant that Jess was. I was about to stand and hoist Jess up when Julia rolled up her trouser legs, unfurled a rubber mat and unzipped a surgical tool kit. I saw scissors, gloves, a small rectangular mirror: no frame, just the glass and four sharp edges; a health and safety hazard, surely – a report of some sort should—
She told Jess to stay on her knees, which she did, her face against the wall, half-holding, half-leaning on the metal handrail.
I hunkered down, rubbing Jess’s back and welling up simultaneously.
Julia squatted, fed instructions into Jess’s ear and held the mirror between her shaking legs. My head music returned with a vengeance:
Love is very strange, it can come and go. It can happen when you are young or old. When it comes, it comes from nowhere. When it comes, it changes your life…
Kolya had arrived of his own accord, without surgery; it had changed our lives, then they told us he might not be healthy and it changed our lives again.
In the hospital ward, whenever Jess tried to feed him, he’d latch onto her shredded nipple, then immediately pull away again, screaming.
The midwives didn’t seem concerned the first day but by the second they were. By the third morning he’d still not stopped crying and we were told to take him down to neonatal.
Two doctors prised his arms apart on a table and conducted a series of tests. The younger asked if Kolya had always been jittery and I said: ‘Maybe, I’m not sure, he’s only three days old.’
The craggier doctor said Kolya was shaking more than he should be, asked Jess if she took drugs or drank lots of coffee.
‘Neither, for a while,’ she said, looking at me.
They said they’d need to do a lumbar puncture and would take Kolya to intensive care.
When I called my mum in Spain she said, ‘Oh no, not again’. Her diminutive David had died, and one of my sister’s twins, but our Kolya, the light of… what was she saying? She and my half-headed dad would come over from Spain, she said; they’d be with us in a day, two at most. On calling, I’d not thought the situation was urgent; by the time I hung up I’d started thinking it was.
For three visits a day I bounced Kolya on my chest, careful not to disturb the cannulas in his hands and feet. When visit-ing time ended I was asked to leave but didn’t want to.
My parents arrived from Spain, sat in our kitchen, came to some of the hospital visits, cuddled Kolya. My mum wondered out loud what the problem could be, talked abstractly about meningitis, the wintry weather. My dad sat with his arms crossed, tight-lipped and anxious.
On the eighth day, they drove to Aberdeen to stay with my mum’s parents for a week. On the tenth day, Jess and I were sent home with what felt like an apology.
‘Do you want to make a formal complaint?’ said the chief pediatric doctor.
‘About what?’ I said. I shouldn’t have bothered.
I heard ‘Staphylococcus… typical… samples… antibiotics… mix-up… staff rotation,’ but the words were in a jumble, my brain couldn’t cope – the only bit that registered, that I cared about, came at the end, when she smiled and said: ‘A healthy boy.’
Jess screamed and the room filled with an aroma I knew I’d never forget – a kelp smell, the tang of sea. Her broken waters mixed with the shower water and circled down the drain.
Her shrieks grew louder still, as did my supposed-to-be-calming voice: ‘You’re doing well,’ I shouted. ‘Come on, keep breathing, deep breathing…’
‘It’s too painful,’ said Jess. ‘It’s really hurting.’
… tears of sadness and happiness… We will find out our sons and daughters are what, we too, were once about…
Julia told me to switch off the showers as Jess’s screams intensified.
Little pushes, big pushes, panting, pausing. Something was coming. Something big.
Against my wishes, I peeked between Jess’s legs, saw what looked like a coconut. Little pushes, big screaming – Jess’s not mine.
A strangled head appeared, its shoulders still to come. Another woman arrived at the shower door to watch the show. Jess was convulsing life through her vagina; the more witnesses, the merrier.
It can happen when you’re young or old; when it comes, it comes from…
My ears crackled in response to Jess’s screaming; the room seemed to tilt backwards. Out came baby, plop; blue, grey, wrinkled, heavy-light, looking up, lying flat on a rubber mat.
A blue-grey penis.
A boy. Another boy.
Was he breathing? No, he wasn’t. But he coughed and began. Was he of sound mind? I hoped so. Maybe he’d grow into madness like my dad, like me, no—
Jess was shaking. I helped her up, blood streaming down her unsteady-foal legs, a grey-blue still-pulsing cord attaching her to her baby.
When it comes, it comes from nowhere; when it comes it changes your life...
We were led dripping to the bed, without concern for the floral bedspread.
‘10.42pm,’ said the watching woman. ‘A Christmas baby.’ ‘Hallelujah – and thanks,’ I said.
Julia and the watcher left the room, pulling the door gently behind them; we sat on the bed, bloody, with our brand-new boy, Finn.