Nameless, short fiction



Nameless
by Joanna Streetly
The FED Anthology
Edited by Susan Musgrave
Anvil Press, 2003

 

She looks at his hands because they are so beautiful. Too large, but well proportioned. The curve of his fingers against the baby’s head. His hands. Her baby.
“She’s going to be fine, Louise. Don’t worry.”

She stares at this nurse, this improbable angel. Except for the hands he should be playing rugby. His shoulders are as wide as the bed her daughter is lying on – and she, so small, like a seed. The nurse has said that his name is Scott, but Louise cannot think of names. In her head he is the nurse; the nurse in charge of her baby’s life.
Outside in the hallway there is noise: clattering trolleys, snapping heels, the heaving of double doors, and in the distance, the circling whine of a floor polisher. In her head there is a pool of silence. Louise cannot allow disturbance – stones, ripples, waves. Even the nurse’s words float lightly, not penetrating.
She returns her gaze to the tiny mouth, the four pearly new teeth barely visible. Lips slack. Chest moving up, moving down. A mantra. She imagines a seabird, a storm petrel, dipping and flowing over steady grey swells, wings hanging lightly from air.

Louise is willing her child away from death. She has lost to death before. This time she wants a fight. But for now, there is stability. When she first scrabbled through the door, sobbing and incoherent, a thumb tack was blocking the trachea. A silent, rock-eyed baby, mouth like an o, paralysed with confusion.
The nurse was fast. He slapped her tiny back to no avail. Then, grey and quiet, she was on a stretcher, wheeling towards oxygen and other unknowns. They went too fast. The stretcher careened around a corner and slammed hard into the doorway – Bam! – and then the screaming, the baby crying, amazingly breathing. No more silence. Object dislodged, partially.

The baby is wheezing quietly now, not much needed to sedate her. “Doctor’s orders,” the nurse said as he slid the needle in. “If she moves around too much, it might happen again. We have to find out where it’s gone; what we can do.” The look of sedation is ghostly; like a premonition.
Another nurse arrives, grey haired and skirted. White stockings, comfortable shoes. They move the stretcher slowly now, out into the hallway, toward the X-ray department. Louise hovers like a horsefly, ready to bite. She walks distractedly, trying to keep her eyes on the baby’s breathing. She remembers the seabird and wills herself back out to the ocean. The lilt of grey water carries her along.
“Louise!” calls a voice. The cavalcade slows as the admitting clerk, Margaret, hurries towards them, clipboard in hand.
“We need your baby’s name for the computer. We still have her down as ‘baby girl.’ I should have asked you last time, when you came in to have her weighed.”
Louise flushes cold and starts to shake. She loses sight of the seabird. Margaret waits, pen poised, head tilted in sympathy. The pause lengthens. No words emerge. The nurses look at her as they slide away – alert, curious, like deer. Louise looks away from Margaret.
“No name,” she croaks, then stumbles after the stretcher.
Margaret stands, staring, alone between walls, her reflection glowing dimly in the waxed, green floor.

The x-ray theatre whirrs and hums with latent danger. Louise thinks of it as a chamber, as if that name could better convey the sense of malice. She has always refused x-rays, preferred not to know. “Well,” she thinks to herself, “no moral superiority today.” Today is obviously a day for fear and humility. Today she has had to announce, in public, that her nine-month-old baby is nameless. She’s not quite sure why there should be shame attached to this, but there is. As if Sweetie, Missy, Love are not enough. She relives the moment. She should have invented a name and made it easier for everyone.They think differently of her now. Even Scott, with his hands so full of love. It’s bad enough that her baby has swallowed a tack. The lack of a name pushes Louise over an invisible line: normal mother; bad mother.
Louise imagines the tiny bones of her baby’s neck and the angular point of metal. Will the tack be a blur on the x-ray? she wonders. Does it move every time air goes in?
She resumes her watch of the breathing. Steady. She thinks of her other babies, the ones she jinxed by naming them. They never breathed this way. They took air from her body – well, Nina never took very much of anything. She was the first of the never-born babies, and the most short-lived. She passed through Louise’s legs at seven weeks, when Louise was just twenty. Hardly time to get to know her. And then she was blood. And pain. And Louise on her own, in the bathroom at the college library, hoping no one would notice. Hoping that the worst would pass before the library closed and the doors were locked.
January 20, 1989.

In a way it was a relief. She wanted to get her degree and she hadn’t told Stephen yet. He’d always been good to her, but she knew he’d freak at the idea of a baby. He was in the chemistry lab when it happened, one building away, doing an experiment.
She did well in her exams that year, as if the miscarriage showed her what she should want in life: a career, not a family – well, not yet, anyway. She could never explain why she had welcomed that baby so much. It didn’t fit any of her goals. It wasn’t as if she went to university to get pregnant. But from the start she had thrilled with the knowledge of her pregnancy, reached orgasm to the vision of an open cervix, warm womb, sperm meeting egg. Her hands obsessed about the baby they could not feel, sliding over her abdomen, in a constant figure of eight. She never considered an abortion. She never told Stephen. Not even afterwards. “Period pains,” she shrugged. “This month’s a brute.”
Mary-anne was Jeff’s kid. Or would have been. She was stronger, clung on for three months. Louise and Jeff were engaged at the time. Babies weren’t on the agenda, but it was okay. Jeff had a good job, could support a family. He didn’t mind about the baby. But he didn’t mind about the miscarriage, either. Not the way Louise did. He didn’t feel the pain or the hot clumpy blood.
“Are there any products of conception?” the ambulance man had asked her. As if she could respond to words like that.
March 17, 1993.

 

The nurse, Scott chats with the x-ray technician, keeping an eye on the little girl. He keeps an eye on the mother, too. She’s standing by the stretcher with shoelace strands of hair and zombie eyes. Shock. She hasn’t spoken much. It’s normal, but you have to keep an eye out. She could keel over any minute.
Earlier, while he was rushing around, Scott ordered up the baby’s chart. On impulse, he ordered the mother’s, too. The birth chart showed that this was her fourth pregnancy. She’d miscarried all the rest. This baby’s life was a long time coming. He thinks of his own boys, aged two and five, woven into his body fibres. Possessive love flows out of him. It’s easy to love this little girl, too.
Nursing has taught Scott to avoid emotional attachments to his patients, but from time to time the shield slips and he finds himself enmeshed. This is one of those occasions. He feels as if he has slipped into a multi-dimensional world, like a dream, where he cannot separate himself from the players. He is them and they are him. A voice instructs him, tells him how to act. He trusts the voice; recognizes his professional persona.
“You won’t lose her,” he tells Louise. “She’s an old soul. Strong. She wants this world.”
Louise stares at him, pupils slightly uneven.
“I should have told her father.”
“Do you want to use the phone?”
“I don’t know where he is.” Her voice has slowed. She speaks in a questioning tone. Scott wonders what kind of a relationship Louise has with the baby’s father. Love goes wrong so easily.
“You’ll be able to find him,” Scott reassures her. “This will be over soon. It’ll be fine, I know.”
“You don’t understand.”

•      •      •

In a city, worlds away, Jeff escapes from his office. He breathes in the sharp spring air and the sudden exhaust of a passing car. At the coffee shop, Hilda asks him if he wants the usual. He smiles, puts the coins on the counter. It’s good to be a regular.
He takes the cappucino over to the window seat, a plush chair that is seldom vacant. He’s lucky today. His body sags into the chair. Life has changed so much: new town, new job, new girlfriend, new image. He’s a corporate cowboy now, not a frantic, sweaty small businessman. Gone are the baggy sweaters, piles of bills, tiptoed steps around his home office. Living with Louise was like living in a morgue. After the miscarriages, she had never been the same. He couldn’t understand it, really. He wanted kids, too, but a couple of miscarriages weren’t the end of the world. They could have adopted.

Well, kids aren’t really on the cards for him, now. Jessica’s only 24, with a busy life of her own. They meet in the evenings for drinks, movies, the occasional night club.
Jeff breathes in the thick scent of expresso, almost better than the coffee itself. He slurps a mouthful of foam, but a hot splash of liquid hits the back of his throat and sets him coughing. Tears squeeze out of his eyes. He puts the cup down and dabs at his tie, hoping to escape a stain. The coughing fit raises looks of alarm from the other patrons.
“It’s okay!” he manages, between ragged breaths, to the woman next to him. She leans back and continues searching her briefcase, eventually pulling out a sheaf of papers. Something about her reminds him of Louise. Perhaps it is the reading glasses.
He’s breathing normally again now. Not quite ready for another stab at the coffee, but he will be soon. He looks at the woman again. She is radiating some kind of happiness, sureness, calm. He tries to pin it down, but he can’t. It’s how Louise seemed just before he left. As if she had been set to rights. The cloud of depression had lifted, revealing the sweet soul he first fell in love with. He was sure it wouldn’t last.
The woman next to him snaps her briefcase shut. Jeff realizes that it’s time for him to go, too. He’ll fit a lid onto his coffee and take it back to the office with him. He smiles at the woman as he rises and she smiles back, before bending to pick up her briefcase. As she stands, he notices the swell of her breasts and the curve of her belly. He’s amazed he didn’t see it before. She is pregnant, probably about half way through. He tries not to stare, but his mouth drops open.

He sits back down and shifts his eyes to the window. He’ll be late back to work, but, suddenly, he’s got a lot on his mind.

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