Birth stories. Like listening to other peoples’ dreams; the details may be colorful, compelling even, but they all lead to the same resolution – ‘…it was alright in the end.’ Not all? Of course not all, but those for whom there was no happy ending do not end up sitting in Starbucks at 11 o’clock on a Friday morning, comparing ultra-personal notes with the rest of the pre-natal class. They are at home, caring, managing, or grieving.
As a financial risk manager, I dwelt neurotically on the uncertainties of child-birth. I did not want to be a sad father, privately re-living those critical moments in the labor suite that were to prove hinges of fate. Our pre-natal teacher sensed this stream of morbid pessimism in me, and suggested that Julia and I hire a doula. An experienced, calm, occasionally assertive presence, there to reassure the novice couple and, where necessary, mediate with the birth team. I put the idea squarely into the naturotherapy, hypnotherapy, aromatherapy, foot massage box, but Julia said we should go for it. More for my sake than hers.
We went to her house. The atmosphere was Bohemian; numerous rugs, home-made stained-glass panels, African masks, half-burnt joss sticks sticking in Victorian perfume bottles… but she was professional. In fact, she made an ill-disguised pitch, referring tangentially to her ‘statistics’. The percentage of successful deliveries overseen by her was significantly higher than the national or local average. She had not had a ‘bad outcome’ for twenty years. This I could relate to. She had me.
Her name was Maggie Russell. Sixty-five years old, thin and light as a bird. White hair pulled back from veined temples into a six-inch ponytail. Short nails, practical hands, testament to her previous role as a midwife. Green eyes that did not find much amusement in the world. But bloody good at seeing anxious couples through the adventure of childbirth.
There was not much for Maggie to do. The midwife was thoughtful and anticipated Julie’s needs. I was relatively calm. Maggie fetched cups of coffee. And then it got very medical, very quickly. I sensed tension between midwife and obstetrician well before they started to explain that there might be a problem. My chest closed up; I started to sweat. These are the details you do not want to hear, but in the end it was about minutes and seconds… time, time without oxygen.
Maggie extended a pale hand and rested it on my forearm. I closed my eyes and prayed, the atheist’s prayer, which goes something like, ‘I do not believe, by if there is any higher order, any overseeing consciousness… then please know this, I will give anything, ANYTHING, to see this baby safely into the world.’
And then it was over, and Freya cried her heart out… as I did mine.
When Freya was two I grew ill during a business trip to Hong Kong. I attended a clinic as soon as I got back, my guess being that I had picked up a bug, but the doctor was baffled. The muscles that I had tried to keep toned in the gym melted away, leaving flaccid skin under my upper arms. Further tests were arranged. Dragging myself out of the x-ray department one afternoon I spotted Maggie Russell in a corridor, heading towards the maternity unit. The single grain of humor left in me joked, ‘Good old Maggie, business still booming… for doing nothing!’ She must have heard my cheeky thought, because she turned and threw a glance at fifty yards, and nodded… as though there was an understanding between us.
I weakened further. I lost my job. Freya grew used to me staying in bed. Julia compensated without complaint. I was too fatigued to care. Then, during an effortful stroll along the river on a beautiful Sunday morning, Freya looking out on the world from her buggy, we met the couple from across the street – who were expecting. They were interested in a doula, and had heard about Maggie Russell. I attempted enthusiasm but my heart was not in it;
“Final analysis,” I said wearily, “…not worth it.”
Next evening Maggie stood on my doorstep, over a foot and a half shorter than me but icily determined, suggesting that we – just she and I – go for a short walk. I told her I didn’t feel like it, but she insisted, pressing a firm thumb on my wasted shoulder. As we trudged off into the leaves of Autumn I apologized for failing to provide a more positive reference.
“Never mind that,” she snapped. “You need to ring them, or knock on their door. And tell them to trust me. It’s important, there are complications, with the baby… and they need someone… experienced. I do not ask for me, but for the baby. You know my results.”
I made the call. And… the birth turned out fine. Julia heard that it was touch and go at one point, as the little thing needed a cardiac procedure several days into its life, but that was all in the hands of the consultants. I imagined Maggie sitting quietly in the corner of the birth room, being ‘reassuring’. What a con.
Then, barely a month later, we were attending his funeral service. The father’s. Him across the street. A rampaging tumor. Julia supported me by the elbow as we walked away and talked into the wind about the poor child’s fatherless future.
“We are lucky,” she said, pecking my cheek. “There are so many young widows around this part of London. It’s the jobs, my friends think. High income, high pressure, city life…” I chafed at this, as I was no longer working. Give me the stress of a multi-million pound deal over daytime TV any day of the week.
Maggie came round, to ‘close the circle, on my old clients…’ she explained. While Julie changed Freya upstairs, Maggie took the space next to me on the sofa and said,”I don’t always do this Stephen. But I like you, and I want you to have the knowledge. You are paying slowly. That’s how it happens sometimes. So make the most of the time, and prepare yourself, your affairs… be unstinting in your expressions of love. That’s really all I have to say.” Julia appeared at the doorway, only a hint of bemusement in her expression. Then it was time for Maggie to go.
Enigmatic people have always annoyed me. Vague statements, mysterious looks, fuzzy edges, obscure backgrounds. My job was to detect dishonesty in the markets, to pick out the frauds, to identify the risks. So, from the comfort of my duvet, I turned on the laptop and made Maggie my project.
I found an archived newspaper report: Manchester Royal Infirmary, June 1975: Margaret Russell, aged 24 (so born 1951), a highly promising junior midwife, dismissed for grossly unethical behavior. Struck permanently from the midwifery councils lists.
Follow-up. Three grieving couples; ‘We would never have agreed to such an inexperienced midwife if we had known…” Known what?
Date 1966: Hot summer. A fifteen-year old girl from Macclesfield is found in a copse, animals suspended from the trees around her. Rabbits. Birds. A cat. A dog. What is her explanation? She was dissecting. This does not explain the ritualistic arrangement of sticks, leaves and flowers under each animal. On closer examination, organs are found to have been transposed, lungs swapped from rabbit to pigeon, feathers pasted onto to decaying hedgehog. The young lady will be referred to a specialist. She has not actually broken any laws.
I closed the computer, and gathered my strength.
The front door, strung with tiny bells that had charmed me at our first visit, was locked. I peered through the half closed shutters and caught a trailing foot as Maggie left the front room. I guessed she had gone out back, into the overgrown garden. The side door was ajar, and I entered the kitchen; I crossed the line, from curious ex-client to trespasser. There she stood, kettle in hand, facing me.
“Hello Stephen.” She was not surprised. I stood, hand on the door, as though there was still an option to leave. “”How are the researches going? Silly question. You wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
“How many fathers have come here Maggie?”
“Oh, a few. You are not the first.”
“What have you done to us?”
“Exactly what you asked. Come upstairs.”
I followed her. The walls exuded an aroma of stale incense, or whatever it is joss sticks let off. She showed me into a large spare room, and I watched her open a long cabinet. Inside were rows of glass jars, the size of demi-johns, the stoppered containers my parents used to make wine in at home. Maggie brought one out, struggling slightly with the weight of it. She let it down on a low table with a sigh.
“So hard, nowadays. With the restrictions, the regulations. But in the 60’s, the 70’s…”
“When you were a midwife?”
“Yes, and a damned good one.”
“And you stole these?”
“I took them. They were not missed… physically. Spiritually yes, of course, but there was not the… sentiment… that we see today…”
I was appalled, and showed it. But she scoffed,
“Oh spare me Stephen, you were as desperate as the next father for things to turn out well. That’s why you hired me. To be sure.”
“What do you mean? What did you do?”
“I found a way to make those promises real Stephen. The tragedies I witnessed as a young midwife overshadowed all the joy, and sickened me. But what sickened me more were the empty pledges… from men like you, impotent bystanders… yes, you know what I mean. While Julia struggled you made a pledge, you said a prayer of sorts, I saw you muttering… you promised anything, ANYTHING, to guarantee Freya’s safety. Empty words.”
“I meant them. I would have.”
“DON’T YOU SEE. I TOLD YOU. YOU ARE PAYING NOW! “
“Don’t feign ignorance. Freya was fated to die! She was not supposed to survive. I’m not talking about the birth… that was risky but she was always going to make it… But later, now. She should be fading, dying. She has a condition, a disease. You are paying for her survival. She borrows life from you? That is my gift.”
“And the others. My neighbor? The tumor?”
“I have no control over the details.”
“You are sick.”
“No Stephen. You are sick… And you will grow sicker.”
I took the jar, heavy in my weakened arms, and glimpsed the bird-like bones of a forty-year old new born revolving in the sealed space, as I brought its weight into the side of Maggie’s head. Her eyelids widened in genuine surprise, then life left them, and she fell to the floor, the impact softened by a rumpled kaftan. The effort had drained me. I sat back heavily, my feet inches away from her cooling face. The connection was broken. The evil was sundered.
My amateur forensic sweep seemed to work; no clues, no police visits, no statements. Her address book was full enough to occupy the police for years. And what grudge could I have had against her… with my healthy, thriving child?
I recovered my health too. The muscles came back. And Freya… she’s good. I took her to a pediatrician, just to be sure, and faked a story about there being a disease in the family history, could she check her out? This morning I went back for the results. Nothing to worry about, probably, it’s just, the doctor said, her bones… they look very dense on the x-rays, like the bones of a forty-year old… as though there’s an older person in there. But looking at her, I’m sure, everything is going to be alright.
Philip Berry‘s short fiction and poetry has appeared in Headtstuff, Bunbury Magazine, Metaphorosis, Spelk, Ellipsiszine, Hypnopomp, Deracine and Liars’ League among others. He lives in London. Twitter: @philaberry Web: philberrycreative.wordpress.com