Teetering on the edge of the apocalypse.
Of course, I fell pregnant in October. I drank too many glasses of bad merlot at a dinner and we were rash and impassioned when we got home. The condom came out of me in the bath the day after, floating in the water like a jellyfish. I screamed but the damage was already done.
Back then I was addicted to those cheap stick pregnancy tests, three for a pound from the bargain shop. My cycle was irregular, so I took one a week as if it had been prescribed. One day you’ll get an answer you don’t want, my boyfriend said, but I ignored him.
The day I did get the result, I thought about how the ugliest feeling I had ever experienced was unexpectedly seeing a baby made by somebody I used to love, in the supermarket. I was buying milk. I left the milk. When I saw the baby I was split with grief.
But that’s my life that you have there, I had wanted to say.
I used to think it felt like an axe going into a tree, but as time went on I realised it was more like the movement in the air the moment before the axe’s hit. That second of displacement, of air itself being rearranged, molecule by molecule.
You can have another, I had said to myself at the time. One day.
I want to keep the baby, I told my boyfriend, who you could describe as long-suffering were you inclined to.
February, March and April teemed with birthdays. The heat of so many candles raised off the earth. They added a new national holiday directly preceding May Day and called it Birth Day. Birth Day was the good twin of May Day, which was dark and pungent with disaster.
You cannot induce before May Day, the stern doctor told us when he checked our dates. Your baby will be too small to survive. You must leave the country before flying becomes impossible. That is the best and only advice I can give you. Anything else is medically irresponsible. His brows knitted. Oh, you silly things, he said.
We couldn’t go away for months at a time because of work. I wanted a pointless job that wasn’t life or death, but instead, perfectly, I was a midwife. I saw babies every day, little buttered radishes deposited speechless into the world. I caught them in my hands and watched their mouths open, knowing what came next.
My job gave me no insight into the act of birth, and how the scream had changed it. It gave me insight into nothing beyond mastitis, tearing, sore breasts, puddling fluids, abruptions and breeches. There was no poetry to the fluctuations of arterial walls and blood pressure, to our tenuous bodies forever on precipices of disaster. What sadist invented this? I asked sometimes to an empty room, or to the interns on my round, who thought I was joking and laughed, though I wasn’t joking.
My boyfriend described the scream as like a dying cat. He was wrong, as usual. It was more like the sweet horror of the babies I held daily, a shared note in the primality. It did not seem beyond possibility that the sound that split the sky on May Day for 12 hours annually came from a place related to the grief that these babies unfurled like a banner, the indignity of being forced into such a world.
It’s worse for women, is how I explained the subjective experience of the scream to my boyfriend, and he threw his arms up as if to say: what isn’t?
During antenatal classes the woman leading the class said that pain was a concept that you could lean into or lean away from. I made the decision that I would be a person who leaned into and into and into it, the kind of person who would stick their face into it as if it were a basin of cold water. I would be the teacher’s pet of pain, and in that way prove myself irreproachable.
Maybe I’ll like childbirth, I suggested to my boyfriend. Maybe I’ll be one of those women who orgasms extravagantly under the hands of the doctors, in a puddle of my own blood.
I had a vision of myself arcane and spectacular, a gory saint anointed in a birthing pool with cartoon dolphins swimming around the edges.
Don’t be vulgar, he said, then gave me a tentative massage on my shoulders, which were knotted all the time with all the tension.
The problem with you is that you lack imagination, I said, and his hands fell away.
It was a sparsely populated class, women of bad luck and irregular fertility and irredeemable impatience. We held yellow foam cushions between our knees. We overcompensated.
We applied to one of the cheapest, nearest shelters for the pregnant and the answer came back within the week: Full! We applied to another, further away. Full! Funding had been cut. It wasn’t deemed that necessary. Most women, better women, were wise to the whims of their bodies. Finally, we received a space in one that was several hours away, too far, but it would do.
How will I get our child into a good school if I can’t even organise growing and birthing the thing efficiently? I complained to my boyfriend, only half-joking.
Don’t call it the thing, he said, but kindly. Call it Baby.
Baby, I tried out, alone, when I was taking my five hundredth pregnancy piss of the day. Baby, Baby, Baby.
During my childhood in the countryside, the dead end of anywhere, I remembered there was a fire at the farm next door and all the horses were led out with their heads covered so as not to spook them. How they came out calm and ghostly, sightless. Our neighbour’s hands on the reins. What you can’t see or hear can’t hurt you, he explained to us.
Will the baby ride horses? I asked my boyfriend. Will the baby eat mashed-up peas and have an aptitude for music and a sunny disposition and grow up to love us?
It’s too soon to tell, he said, patting the bump. Let’s just get through this.
My stomach started to strain properly at my scrubs. I cried at birds cutting a path across the sky, at my lunchtime sandwich when it wilted. I cried when fixing butterfly needles into the veins of the preemies, raw as plucked quails. On the wards themselves, the safely pregnant women were unhurried and serene. They looked at my stomach and asked how far along I was. Do you have the secret? I asked their children telepathically, when I was bathing or dressing them or carrying them to their cot, but no answer came from their alien brains to mine.
In April the hospitals were crammed full of women getting their inductions. I barely slept or came home, delivering baby after baby after baby, until they all seemed the same. But May Day itself was the worst.
That was the day when the women who were not able to reach a shelter in time or who could not afford it, the women whose soundproofing had failed or who had been forced into the sound’s way or who hadn’t realised they were pregnant, they all came to the hospital.
The scream was still audible, just, our thick glass and doors unable to keep it out. On May Day the sound of it combined with the weeping of the women we looked after on the ward, beds which had been empty the night before now filled with expectant mothers no longer expectant. Next to the beds ivs of saline and morphine, cardboard pans for blood.
Quite often I just held these women, though it was against protocol. It was a protocol that nobody was going to enforce. So I held them, and burned my bloody scrubs afterwards, in the garden, though you were not supposed to do that either.
I could be one of them, I knew.
We drove up after my last shift, leaving just before midnight, inching through the last of the Birth Day traffic on the motorway, heading north.
My boyfriend swore at the cars as I clutched at the dome of my stomach, exposed, my sweatshirt rucked up. The conspiracy theorists ranted on the radio. It was like Christmas for them. By the side of the road, men staggered under their placards. I wound the windows up and double-checked the doors, put a mint into my boyfriend’s mouth and slid a cd into the player, delta waves and whale noises. When he complained I shut him down with the inviolate excuse of it’s for the baby! The car horns in front and behind and beside us joined the music. Either they or the delta noises lulled me to sleep. I woke up briefly to find us rushing down now-empty roads, and fell asleep again.
The next time I woke up everything was wrong. We had stopped on the side of the road. The lights had all gone out. My boyfriend had his hand on my arm. We’ve broken down, he said with a performative calmness. We’ve broken down.
Call the repair people then, I said. It was very quiet outside without the noise of the engine. The clock and the radio were both dead. He checked his phone. No signal, he said. I checked mine: no battery. The engine was not working. He tried the key four times and each time it made a pathetic sound and died. It’s three in the morning, he said. We don’t have much time.
The scream could only be something from a godless world, a world forsaken, those same radio stations told us in the evenings and nights. With no other countries suffering under the infernal punishment of it, how could it be otherwise? Secretly we all listened to the conspiracy theorists. The conspiracy theorists were all men, and so exempt from the scream where it mattered. I should have liked the luxury of railing against it. Instead I settled for putting my headphones in and watching my boyfriend’s face across the living room, bathed in cool light from his laptop, and listening to the proclamations of disaster. Publicly, on the street, I side-stepped the placards; I moved away from all that.
Other theories included something in the water supply, an environmental event that had been covered up or which we had not noticed. It could have been our humid and unpredictable climate, solar surges, something released by melting ice. Perhaps our collective badness leaching out of us, a poison. Like all the pain in the world was now uncontainable.
I did think sometimes that there must be a way of broadcasting the intrinsic brokenness of a person, and that I had been doing it, unconsciously, my whole life. What other explanation was there for me?
You’re tough, my boyfriend said to me when we met. It’s like there’s genuinely nothing that can get under your skin, nothing that could hurt or disarm you.
But then he had not seen me on the bad days of the ward, May Day and otherwise, when I carefully laid paper towels down on the floor of the visitor’s hospital bathroom and curled my body up on them and howled. I always chose the colorectal cancer ward, because the visiting hours were very specific and there were never any babies there.
Sometimes when I howled I thought about that stretch of time in my adolescence, my twenties, when I prayed not to be pregnant. I prayed it with my whole self. Then I became newly obsessed with pregnancy the way the ambivalent and the unlucky so often do beyond a certain age, as if you have survived something. When that shift happened for me I grieved, the way I had grieved on that pocked white floor, because I was suddenly a stranger.
I think every woman held their breath a little on May Day. The scream was a signal looking for purchase. Would that day be the day you found out something you didn’t know?
My boyfriend got out and inspected the tyres, opened the back of the boot. I opened the door to let the dark spring air in. Somewhere I could hear an owl, its cry and then the soft chafing noise of its wings as it flew over us into the trees next to the road. I tried in the dark to locate us on the map, the route marked with pen, but I was not able to.
Find signal, my boyfriend told me, so I walked up the road with his phone in my hand, guided by its torch. Evil shadow and the shapes of the hedges, the trees. I held it over my head and waved. When I looked back, I could see my boyfriend doing something to the engine with the bonnet flipped up and his arms bare to the elbow, a torch propped next to him. When I looked at the phone, a single bar of signal flashed up for a second. I froze, but when I dialled the number of the rescue service there was nothing but three bleeps, and then air.
The year before, the scream had felt more significant than ever. I had waited for the blood to come all day, but it turned out that my period was just late that time. Pregnancy had seemed deeply theoretical, an experiment that nobody actually undertook. When the two pink lines did finally show up, months later, I cried so hard that my boyfriend had to brace me against his chest to ground me. I breathed in wool and pepperminty deodorant until I stopped.
I had been cruel about some things with him, such as the idea that he could make a baby happen, incredibly, and yet he wouldn’t be able to protect me from what the decision would unleash.
You’re just so ineffectual, I had said. I don’t mean that in a negative way, necessarily. I just think there should be more hoops for us to jump through beforehand.
Well, I’ll protect you, he said. As much as I can.
My boyfriend was soft at the edges and rang his parents three times a week. Shall we go and see your mother, while we’re up that way? he had asked me when we booked our place at the sanctuary, not pressing it when I said No, we shall not, a small wash of disappointment on his face. There were small, cratered scars near my shoulder that I told him were from measles, and because he had been protected from measles the way he had been protected from everything else, he did not know that the shapes were different.
The qualifier as much as I can got me, hormonal as I was. His sad and ever-forgiving face got me. I was tired of my dangerous body. Love was a sad old dog that kept returning, but it still felt new to me, and so it was difficult to trust or respect it. In the bathroom I sobbed and stuck my head in a cold basin of water. He knocked on the bathroom door. All right in there? he called, never breaking the door down, and I came up gasping.
We sat together in the car. Somebody will come, my boyfriend said. Somebody must come, of course.
Nobody will come, I said. The whole world, asleep and safe in their beds. Nobody will come.
The sky was becoming lighter. It was very cold inside the car by then, so I wrapped my hands in the blanket we kept at the back. I could wrap my head in the blanket, I said to my boyfriend. I could put in the earplugs and wrap my head in the blanket until everything was muffled and nothing was real. I could be the horse led from the barn in the fire.
I don’t know what you mean, he said, and I said never mind.
The baby kicked. It was the baby’s first ever time. I pictured it aqueous and scaled with vernix, dinosaur hands curling, uncurling. I took my boyfriend’s own hand and put it on my stomach and we stayed there like that, very quietly, for a minute or two.
I said to him, You have to do something for me.
In the forest we looked for tools. We looked for green and dead wood. Slim sticks, delicate, but strong enough. A rock we could use as a hammer, if we needed greater force.
What about the sewing kit? he asked, but I shook my head, the needles were too small.
In our first summer together we had stayed in a small woodland cabin away from men with placards, away from work and gridlock and ugliness. We had pulled white linen sheets blooming with damp over our heads, brought our mouths together under them. In that forest I had picked a basketful of mushrooms one lunchtime and then cooked them up in butter and garlic, and he had eaten them without hesitation. How did you know I wouldn’t kill you? I had asked him, and he said I know you wouldn’t, with such conviction that a part of me then wanted to kill him, just to teach him a lesson.
How did you know which ones were not deadly? he had asked in return, and I had shrugged and said that I was a medical professional, and not the obvious, which was that I had a radar for the bad and poisonous.
I could do it with my voice, he suggested now, as our hands rummaged blindly in soil, but I said it was too risky, because I did not believe he could reach the right level of sound. He was not a loud or assertive man. You cannot fuck this up, I said, and a large rush of grief or tenderness went through me like water.
What will you do when you get the answer you don’t want? he had asked, all those months ago, when he came out of the bathroom brandishing another negative test.
But I did want it. I hadn’t told him, because to articulate it would be too hard, too fragile, too much to lose.
I would like softness to unfurl over me like a blanket, I had not said. I would like it for one minute, or for a few minutes in sequence. I would like it very much.
I had heard of women locking themselves in crawl spaces, of using hot wax, using chewing gum. I had heard of women who had suffocated in gaps not meant for them, airless, but at least safely inside the ground.
When I was five years old, my mother had sat me on the counter of our kitchen and had stuck a needle into a flame, then wiped it down with alcohol. An ice cube pressed to the back of my ear until numbed. First she did one, and then the other. The hot swell of my skin. A gold stud in each one. I was the first in my class to have this. The teacher had sniffed when I came in, like she did at my mother’s burnt-looking hair, tops that clung to her body with static. My mother was electric, smelled of cigarette smoke and sweet cinnamon, and every day she washed the lobes of my ears with salt water, a small attention I was unused to. There was a glory in being the first.
Blanketless, the horses of the farm next door sang softly to me in the early morning when I could not sleep. I watched the steam of their breath rise, heard the shuffle of their hooves. They wanted to go from that place, I knew. I could feel it.
The baby of the person I had loved would be five years old now, too. Sometimes I looked the whole family up, as if a happiness that should have been yours still possessed its own residue, a sweat you could lick off.
Masochist, masochist, men had said to me sometimes, pinning the title to me like a badge. I asked for cruelty in all things, though it tasted bad when I got it. Even the residue of happiness tasted bad. It was sour, second-hand love. Only someone who thought that was all they deserved would eat it up.
But having a baby was the purest kind of masochism, I thought sometimes. A masochism you couldn’t go back from or disavow. Didn’t I want to surrender to it?
My boyfriend liked to brush my hair. He had a habit of pushing his face into my neck in the morning and a compulsive need to be stroked, the way that kittens who are not nursed enough in their infancy become fixated and weeping.
Perhaps when I saw the baby made by a person I used to love, a person who had been one of the people to pin the label of masochist on me, what really hurt and shocked was the incongruity of his ability to create and raise and love a child with his ability to hurt me in ways physical and emotional that, up until that point, had been core to my understanding of who he was.
Some woman had been kept safe in order to give birth to the child and then there he was, holding it with one arm, flash of white teeth. Strong legs. Outdoorsy.
Like nothing had ever happened to him in his whole life.
How could you keep someone else safe in that way, and not me? I wanted to say to him. I was weak with fear and desire. I wanted to lie down. I wanted to die. I wanted to be protected from that wanting-to-die urge.
And what if every father is a monster underneath? I wondered after that, watching my boyfriend hum quietly to himself as he poured milk onto three kinds of cereal. My experience till then had backed the theory up, but he was a flaw in my understanding.
Don’t kill the spider, he would exhort when insects invaded the house in warm months. You put the glass on top of it, and then slide the paper under. Do you see?
Yes, I would say. I see.
We took the things we had found, and bags from the car, and we walked rapidly away from the vehicle. One last try, my boyfriend suggested. The sky was starting to turn pink. His watch said it had just passed five.
After 20 minutes we saw a cottage in the distance and ran to it. We hammered gladly on the doors and the windows, but nobody came. He looked inside the glass and tried all the doors, made a half-hearted feint to smash the window in with his elbow, but it was no good, and we would hear the scream inside anyway whatever we did.
Instead we went to their garden, lavish with herbs and roses, where he spread a towel on the grass. I lay down on the towel, sideways, though my bump was large enough that it was already uncomfortable. He kneeled beside my head. He cradled my head with both his hands and touched my lips and my eyelids and the softest spot on my skull. He touched my ears, the sweet shell of them.
Do one and then the other, I said to him, like it was simple.
I’m going to be sick, he said. With one hand he held my face steady and in the other he held one of the slim twigs, pliable, sharpened to a point.
I put a corner of the towel between my teeth.
As children, me and my friends had played under the screaming skies. We had run around and been totally unaffected by it, mimicking its noise with no fear. We had held ourselves under water at the local pool, water that was pale green and scabrous, and noted how the quality of the sound changed when refracted through another elemental body, the way scientists did with equipment, with technician’s headphones pressed close to their heads.
It was not a shaking or even a vibration, but something purer. It only affected the brain, we learnt later on at school. It made the hippocampus of a pregnant woman light up like a Christmas tree. We learnt it when a classmate of 12 was found soaked and ashen in her bed, unknowing as anyone else.
What you hear cannot harm you. That is why I had lived so much of my life like the horse being led from the fire in the barn. That is why I had twisted my thumbs into my ears and turned up the volume on the Walkman given to me by my father until my hearing fizzed at the edges.
The soft pile of the towel underneath my face, my cheek. I tried to be a sedated animal, to be one of those women I handled every day. To lean into the pain. Do this thing right, I said to myself, for the first time in your life.
The baby moved again. The pink of the sky was deepening. His hand above me, holding the tool, was trembling, and I thought about all those other babies in my arms. I thought about how even at five years old I had been able to shut my eyes so tightly and wait for whatever was coming next.
Are you have cruel enough to exist in this world? To live in this world that demands cruelty of you? Will you keep us safe, or will I have to do it all? Will you keep it safe, where it matters?
I wanted to ask him these things, but could not.
Instead I spoke calmly of the glazed and speechless children coming to life all over the world in the last safe minutes, and how small, ultimately, was our place within the terrible dawn.
Do your necessary worst, I said to him, waiting for his hands to fall.
And it was like the dare of our early days, when I had closed the door of my room behind me and looked him in the eye for the first time.
I spoke the way mothers soothe their children, the instinct finally livid, pure, within me.
Do it true and do it quickly, and all will be forgiven.