Day 0, 23.37
Nine months into exile on the living-room sofa, five days past our due date, five minutes after head hitting pillow and all of sixty seconds after slipping into something on the way to sleep, it begins. There is a clunk as the bedroom door is opened and there is the familiar slap, slap of Ellie’s bare feet on the creaking pine of the floorboards as she paces purposefully down and around the L-shaped corridor, but I’m barely disturbed. There is a pause in the pacing and a steadily rising moan resonates with sudden violence around the kitchen. It carries an unmistakably animal register, and I am wide awake. We are in labour.
I use the word we here, the pronoun (first person plural) used by a speaker to refer to himself or herself and one or more other people considered together. But this we is a particular we. This is the we that’s beloved of expectant couples, the we that’s been used across the breadth of the English-speaking world for generations now. It’s the we that we’ve all heard, even if we’ve never used it ourselves. As in ‘we don’t know what we’re having, but we think it’s a boy’, or ‘if it’s a girl, we’re thinking Edie’. It’s a cuddly we, a cosy we, sometimes a cute we, more often a vomit-inducing we. It’s an exclusive we, an almost royal we. It is the we of the couple with child.
But this is a we used through habit alone, because tonight in this South London flat there is no we, there is no us. There is me, and there is her, and there is our unborn child, now only hours from life.
It’s a child that was planned, wished and hoped for, a child conceived well into the eleventh year of our relationship. ‘Our relationship’, the one that broke down irretrievably three months into the pregnancy. “I want to have this child with you, but I don’t want to be in a relationship with you anymore” was the official line. Those carefully chosen words have jagged and rattled ceaselessly inside me since, but now at last the time to mull on them is ending.
With a shared sense of endeavour is swiftly established, a plan hatched on the back of six weeks of antenatal classes is promptly enacted. Ellie rocks back and forth on the Adidas ball, grasping the kitchen worktop and sucking in air as the waves of contractions mount. As the language approaches the industrial we decamp to the bedroom, the first time in months my presence here has been deemed appropriate. Ellie takes to the bed on all fours, and we are instantly plunged into darkness. Without power or time to wonder where it’s gone I reach for my iPhone and fumble for the app I intend to use to time the ever-quickening rush of contractions. Downloaded on the breezy recommendation of cheery midwives, we’re soon cursing both my app and hers, unable to credit the conflicting timings we’re presented with. With power and light now restored we kneel side-by-side between contractions, and realise our attempts at timings are futile – the animal in Ellie is now running the show, and our child is hurtling towards us and into life…
I lose the following hour and a half in an ecstasy of multi-panicking, Ellie’s regular and full-lunged cries of ‘MOTHERFUCKER!’ now reverberating around the flat. I bomb between bedroom, kitchen, living room and bathroom. I fill a bath that won’t be sat in. I fetch the largest available bowl to receive Ellie’s projectile vomit as our fast-emerging child displaces her dinner in its struggle to begin the journey from the womb, around the u-bend and out into the world . I carry out last minute checks on the hospital bag, ensuring Ellie’s home-made flapjacks aren’t forgotten. I phone through to the midwives, only to discover that our designated midwife is laid low with food poisoning, and her back-up is unable to leave a nearby home-birth. Shit. Ellie and child are now hurtling forward into the future like a steam train, and I’m mentally preparing for the drama of an unattended birth – by candle light and on the old brass bed, hot water and towels at the ready as the midwife makes her way thought the night from the drama of one home birth to another.
A call through to the desk of the maternity ward receives exactly the response that at this moment I can have no time for. They are patient, kind, understanding, and entirely unconvinced that we need to make our way up to them. Doubtless they are mindful of the number of couples sent home tails between legs, convinced they were on the verge only to learn that labour can last a long, long time. But they needn’t be in our case. I need only hold the phone up in the general direction of Ellie, and the now familiar bestial cry of “Aaargh, MOTHERFUCKER!” can be heard down the line. “We’re having this baby NOW,” I add by way of barely needed clarification. End of conversation, and the next call is for a minicab.
With the cab on its way up to us, the window of opportunity between contractions shrinks still further and I’m at a loss as to how I’ll be getting Ellie from bed to cab. As it pulls up I sketch the scenario to a perturbed driver, and issue detailed driving instructions to ensure a smooth and hopefully birth-free journey. “Is her waters break?” I am asked. “…no?” I reply. A shame to have to insist that he takes us, but I’m forced to, convincing myself as I do that waters broken in the back of a black cab would more likely be a source of pride to the driver.
The cab’s upholstery remains dry, and Ellie is soon assuming the familiar position on the floor of the reception area. There’s now no question of a return home without child, and we’re duly ushered into a room facing the Houses of Parliament, with a stranger for a midwife and strangers to each other. We are on the verge.