Issue 3.1 – Fiction

No Human Error

 

I sit here alone as I have done since they took my baby away. The chair is high-backed, plastic, and the cheap wood of its arms splinters under my nails. Beside the bed is a tatty locker, the door of which swings open: relentless, impotent, relentless, impotent, relent–

A poor tribute to my daughter who lived and died here.

Visitors are two-a-penny since it happened, yet if they’ve seen me, they haven’t seen me. Nurses come and go, their sympathy in the brisk actions intended to create comfort. I don’t want comfort, I don’t want to be comfortable. The consultant can’t explain, nor do I want him to. Other women, I learn, feel numb when this happens.

Good for them.

There’s no value in asking why. Why shouldn’t this happen to me? I’m ordinary, not worthy of a dispensation from tragedy. Perhaps I didn’t deserve a child, but I would have loved her. I will always love her.

*

‘How could this happen? How the hell could this happen?’ Richard paces the waiting room, kicking anything that impedes his progress, and going out of his way to kick anything that doesn’t. The doctor, dishevelled and weary even to the most introverted eye, is watching, running his hands through his hair.

Richard cracks, racked with sobs. ‘Shit,’ he says. ‘Shit. Shit. Shit. This is bloody.’  These virulent tears he can’t yet share with Rachel course down his cheeks; his nose runs into the hands he puts up to shield himself. His mother comes unbidden into his mind, putting a plaster on a little boy’s scraped knee. ‘Big boys don’t cry, Richard,’ she always said, looking over the top of her spectacles.

Fuck that.

The doctor is talking at him again. The bedside voice. Richard wants to grab him and shake him hard, hurt him. ‘Do you have children,’ he wants to shout. ‘Live ones?’

‘…nothing more could have been done, it was nobody’s fault. There was no human error…’

Oh, yes, slip that one in early, Richard’s thoughts snarl; so God or nature had an off-day then, did they? That’s alright then. Just one thing though – My. Fucking. Baby. Is. Still. Dead.

The baby was already dead, the doctor says, for hours, maybe days, before she was born. It happens.

Richard finds that the most grotesque of all. His stomach heaves as he imagines Rachel carrying inside her not their baby, but a decaying lump of limbs and flesh. The room closes around him and he gulps in his need for fresh air.

*

I call her Naomi. The name floats in as I stare out of a bare window running with condensation and I misremember the Bible, the book of Ruth. Then I spend a lifetime deciding to lean over and press the call buzzer. A nurse must have been waiting right outside the door. I make my request in a monotone and she nods and nods, pleased to be able to do something. One day I might feel sorry for the staff; usually they call for the social worker and heave a sigh of relief, but since her big, bulging maternity leave is imminent they won’t.

The chaplain arrives. He’s not the one who blessed my nameless baby. His fingers are stained nicotine yellow when he thumbs through his Bible and his collar is frayed and grimy. He tells me Naomi is a beautiful name; he will light a candle for her. When he says my baby’s name, I vomit green bile onto my hospital gown.

*

Richard stands outside, leaning against the wall, fists in his pockets. He isn’t sure how long he’s been here; long enough to recognise the frantic smokers, whose faces relax as they light up and inhale. Transparent serenity. Richard accepts a cigarette from the next proffered box. He grimaces as the smoke enters his virgin lungs, but perseveres, channelling his thoughts into the act of breathing.

‘Anything serious?’ A short man in overalls, a cast on his leg, is jovial. Richard is saved by a third man in clerical dress, who looks desperate. ‘Hard session administering to the dying, eh, vicar?’ the little man says. Richard stubs out his cigarette, imagining it the man’s head.

Squaring his shoulders – literally – he heads down the corridor towards Rachel’s room. He hesitates before the solid door in front of him; he feels he should knock. Inside, Rachel’s mouth smiles. ‘Go home,’ she says. ‘You need to rest. People will need to know…’

Richard catches a groan; he’s the messenger. To his parents, to Rachel’s parents. He bends to kiss her and Richard can feel her body taut beneath him. She touches his cheek briefly, before her hands return to a clenched ball on her lap.

He drives home carelessly; surely exempt from further carnage. He rehearses his words to the expectant grandparents, hoping repetition will render his horror obsolete. His thoughts are interrupted by a muted banging, something rolling around in the boot. It’s the baby’s car seat. He turns on Radio 1. Loudly. Nobody’s fault. No human error. It doesn’t drown the doctor’s voice.

The house is cold and still, the detritus of fish and chips stinking in the kitchen sink. Richard hurls the Last Supper into a black bin liner and dumps it outside. He eyes the red wine Rachel was saving for . . .  He pours himself a glass of water instead, gulping, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. He turns on the television, the volume low, and concentrating carefully on the asinine sit-com Richard phones his mother-in-law.

*

Common sense tells me to eat, but I just move the lunch mess around the plate. The jelly and ice‑cream is the birthday parties my baby will never have and I throw the spoon across the room. Then pretend I haven’t.

It’s the fear, of the present and the future, of myself. What if I give into shouting and screaming? Perhaps I should, and embrace a sedated oblivion. She’ll still be gone, though, when I come to. And what if I forget, even for a second, and have to learn it all over again? How could I bear it?

It’s our fault. Naomi is lost because we didn’t want her enough. She knew we were confused . . .  a baby so soon. She set me a test and the error warning flashed red; a proper mother would have known something was wrong.

A different doctor comes in whilst I am retching my mistakes into a cardboard bowl. She’s young, much younger than me and she checks my blood pressure and my pulse gently, avoiding my eyes. I imagine the consultant picking on her. ‘Sit down and have a chat with the patient,’ he’d say. ‘It will be good, hard experience for you. Reassure the mother.’ He’s a kind man and an expert, he’d be taking this hard. ‘In this day and age it shouldn’t happen.’ He’d sigh. Then he’d remember what this day and age is like: ‘But remember, we have no medical case to answer.’

Cynicism, where is thy sting?

Instead of running and hiding, this new one is taking her job seriously.

‘How are you feeling?’ She blurts it out.

I capture her flittering eyes. ‘How am I supposed to answer that?’ It’s a real question. ‘Am I supposed to say, ‘Fine thank you, considering’.’

She blushes and apologises. ‘I’ve never been in this situation before.’

‘And you think I have?’ I want to scream. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.’ I could say that, but I don’t.

*

Richard climbs the narrow stairs. He pushes open the door of his daughter’s bedroom. It still has an expectant air. Richard reaches up and sends the mobile above the cot spinning but it’s the little jumble of nappies, wipes and muslin squares that cut him.

Sitting on the floor, he remembers the first time he met Rachel; her blue dress short, her brown hair long. He pictures their snow-driven February wedding, their honeymoon spent in the airport departure lounge. Children were years away. Then, a miscalculation and their world tilted, reset, and priorities shifted. Richard holds his head and heart; time spent wondering whether they could keep a baby has not prepared them for it being taken away. He wonders which is worse, the guilt or the resentment.

He must doze off because he wakes suddenly, his shoulder twisted and sore. He’s been dreaming of his baby’s birth: Rachel sweating, grabbing, body and soul racked with pain. Rachel wheeled away on a sea of green gowns. The joke of being given tea and the news that, ‘she has been delivered.’

‘She.’ Richard whispers it again, now. Yes, he is told, a little girl. Should the chaplain baptise her?

*

There’s no need for a clock in this room, time’s measured in hospital routine. Barely a day has passed, but life outside is a century away. I think about the baby’s . . . Naomi’s . . . room and wonder if Richard is in there now. The paint is yellow and white and the cupboards are neatly folded with doll-sized clothes. I bought her a set of little books last week, Beatrix Potter, still in the wrapper.

Well, she won’t read them now. She won’t walk or talk or go to school, or call me mummy. She’s lying cold on a slab wherever it is they keep the dead babies.

‘Don’t think like that.’ They hush me. They offer to take a picture of her, carefully dressed in a nice crib, as if she’s sleeping. But Naomi isn’t sleeping, is she? She’s dead. Why would I want a photo of a dead baby? The first and last picture I have of her is from a scan when I know she was living.

I did hold her after she was born. Probably all new mothers say their baby is beautiful, and she was. Is. I hugged her to me, as if I could breathe life into her, all the while the chaplain baptised her. Then I told them to take her away. Richard held my hand for a long time. The pity in his eyes was for all of us, but all I can think of is myself.

There’s a tap on the door; more indiscriminate faces as the nursing shift changes. I pretend to sleep. My breasts are full and heavy, beginning to drip milk, and the stitches hurt. Good. I wonder how long Richard will be able to keep my parents at bay. I don’t want their grief when my own is so raw. I feel like a freak. Birth is normal, death is normal, but not muddled up in the maternity unit. I wonder if the others, the birthing mothers, the newly-delivered, glowing ones, know about me. They’ll squeeze their babies tight and count their blessings.

I want Richard.

The nurse passes my phone but I ask her to call. Then she helps me to the loo.

I find clean clothes in my overnight bag but somebody has taken away the baby’s things . . . Naomi’s things . . . and I hear, and hate, the querulous tone in which I demand them back. Now.

Richard finds me clutching a tiny cream vest. He’s carrying white gypsophilia, which he drops to the floor as he reaches out to me.

‘She’s dead.’ I bawl it, over and over, as he rocks me back and forth. ‘Naomi is dead.’

‘Rachel,’ he whispers, ‘Rachel.’

*

I don’t know if I’m ready to say good‑bye to her yet, but I want to be with her. Richard wheels me down to the chapel. We sit in the gloom and he turns to me. ‘We will get through this,’ he says, his voice breaking on every word.

Will we? Why should we?

I see him grit his teeth. ‘Rachel, we didn’t do this. It wasn’t our fault. It was nobody’s fault.’ It’s a strangled recitation. A parody.

Right. So, what?

He takes my hand, and we try to be together in this.

 

Anne Hamilton_Story ShopAnne Hamilton lives in Edinburgh, with her young son. She is a writer, tutor and editor of fiction, and the editor of online magazine, Lothian Life, with a PhD in Creative Writing. Anne’s travelogue A Blonde Bengali Wife, inspired the charity, Bhola’s Children, and she is now working on her second novel. Most recently, Anne won the New Asian Writing Short Story Prize, and was shortlisted for a Fresher Writing Award. She has read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and at the Tarbert Book Festival, where she is also the judge of their annual writing competition.

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