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November 2008
LOU THE DESTROYER

Morag McDowell
On the first night, her mother comes to visit at 3am. She stands there in her best suit, the apricot one with box pleated skirt and mother of pearl buttons that Louise gave to the charity shop two weeks after the funeral.

She’s wearing her favourite Coral Pink lipstick. It glistens as her lips move. The room starts to hiss. Louise leans forward, says, ‘I can’t hear you.’

The baby shifts in his cot. Louise turns to him and when she turns back her mother is gone. She rubs her eyes, looks at her son who has howled and puked his way through his first day of life. A plump, blonde woman with a badge on her left lapel saying Nurse Becky Donovan took him in the afternoon to give her a rest. When she brought him back later she’d held him calmly at arms length while a stream of vomited milk hit her dress and white shoes, saying, ‘Isn’t he gorgeous? Not all squashed like the rest.’

She’d helped Louise attach him to the left nipple, watched closely while she fed him, changed him, fed him again, then she’d placed two sleeping pills and a glass of water on the bedside table, saying, ‘You’ll know if you need to take them.’

Louise lies back on her pillows and gazes through the wide tenth floor window as a summer storm blows purple and orange across the sky outside. When they bring in someone new at 4am, she pretends to be sleeping and hears a nurse’s voice say, ‘You just pop her in the cot, Mum.’

‘It’s not mum, it’s Kali.’

‘What a lovely name dear.’

At 8am Louise shuffles over to the breakfast table where all meals are served, clutching the throbbing scar on her stomach with one hand. Every time she tries to straighten up, it feels as though she’s about to burst open again, but she’s been told it’s imperative to keep moving – and to get plenty of rest. Kali is at the table eating a bowl of cornflakes. She has streaming red hair dyed pink at the tips and instead of a nightdress she wears an oversized faded green T-shirt. As Louise sits down, Kali smiles and says, spitting cornflake crumbs, ‘I’m Kali. I’m a white witch.’

This is Brighton, home of the Gay Pagan Society and Mothers Against Globalisation, so Louise smiles, ‘Hi’. She counts Kali’s freckles, thinking she could look like Elizabeth from the Waltons if she plaited her hair.

Kali leans close, saying intimately, ‘How was it for you?’

‘How was what?’

‘The birth.’

‘Oh, very mystical.’

Nurse Donovan comes in and Kali starts to argue with her about why her baby shouldn’t have Vitamin K injections.

• • •

The second night, Louise changes, bathes, and feeds the baby, feeds him again, settles him in his cot, watches the blue-black not quite human eyes fall shut. She falls back painfully onto the pillow, feels a warm wave of sleep rolling in, then hears a sound. She’s halfway out of the bed before she realises it’s just a hiccup or a cough and he’s still asleep except for the rhythmic spidery twitch of his fingers, but it’s too late, she’s wide awake. She looks out the window, hears distant thumping music and sees searchlights sweep across the sky from a party on the beach.

Jonathan comes to visit, as he does every morning. He’s on his way to the airport for a three day conference in Glasgow. He sits beside her bed in his crisp pressed suit, smelling of discreetly expensive aftershave, his black laptop bag on the floor beside his chair. ‘How’s Mum?’

‘I’m not sleeping very well.’

She’s not sure if he’s heard. She watches him gazing at the cot, his face soft and dopey looking. At the opposite end of the ward, Kali drifts out through the swing doors and into the corridor, ‘That’s Kali. She’s a white witch.’

He glances over his shoulder, gives a knowing smirk.

‘Goddess of dissolution and destruction — fearsome in appearance, Kali wields a bloody sword and wears a belt of severed heads. Doesn’t really look the part does she?’ He slips a hand under the blankets and runs his fingers up her thigh, whispering, ‘Now I can see you in your metal bikini and your belt of skulls — laying waste. Lou the Destroyer.’

She blinks at him absently, ‘I’ve forgotten what it’s like to wear shoes.’

He sighs, moves his hand back down to her knee and pats it reassuringly.

Nurse Becky tells her later that the baby is slightly jaundiced and it will be best to stay put a day or two, let the doctors keep an eye on him. Kali leaves that afternoon with her boyfriend. As he walks out carrying his child protectively in his dragon-tattooed arms, Kali comes over to Louise’s bed and touches her hand. ‘May the Goddess be with you.’

After they’ve gone Louise paces around the ward, exhausted and restless while the baby sleeps. She has acquired a bent, shuffling walk that comes from towelling flip-flops on linoleum floors and the deep pains that still spasm through her from her contracting womb. She wants fresh air but they’re not allowed open the windows. She needs to get out but posters everywhere warn her not to leave her baby on his own, even for a short time. She has to tell a nurse when she goes to the toilet.

• • •

On the third night the room starts to spin sluggishly away every time she closes her eyes, so she keeps them open and listens to the chat and laughter coming from the nurses station along the corridor, watching the swing doors to her ward move gently back and forth, wishing her dead mother would walk through them again, just for the company.

It’s a relief when they bring in and settle a new mother and baby at 3am. The baby starts to cry at 3.30.

It’s ignored until a nurse comes in and hisses, ‘You have to feed her, Gemma.’ The woman in the bed huffs like a sulky adolescent and does as she is told.

When mother and baby are finally asleep, Louise watches the headlights from the cars in the street below sweep across the ward ceiling. She counts fifteen different shades from yellow to titanium blue before breakfast.

The next morning, Gemma tells Louise over scrambled eggs and toast, ‘I’ve already got three but I wanted a boy for their Dad. When I called him on the mobile and told him it was a girl again he hung up.’

The baby starts to cry.

Gemma continues to eat. When the crying doesn’t stop, Gemma lifts her and shoves a bottle in her mouth. The skin on the small pinched face is patchy red and flaking. ‘Looks like a skinned rabbit doesn’t she?’

Louise protests, ‘No, no. I think she’s lovely.’

Gemma lets the baby lie on her lap and continues to eat her scrambled egg, holding her fork in one hand and the bottle in the other until the baby starts to choke. She puts the fork down and swings the baby over one shoulder. The arms and wobbling head flail out of control for a second until the hands find the towelling edge of the dressing-gown and fingers squirm open and shut like dying amoeba, trying to grip.

When she has finished her breakfast, Gemma takes a dummy out of her dressing gown pocket, licks it clean and sticks it in the baby’s mouth. She looks at Louise, sees something in her face, ‘This your first?’

Louise nods silently.

‘Thought so.’

Gemma’s boyfriend comes to visit in the afternoon. He’s just had a haircut. There is a band of pale soft skin just below the hairline on the back of his otherwise sunburned neck.

Louise pulls the curtains round her bed, ‘Think I’ll have a sleep.’ They look at her silently.

When the curtains are drawn, Louise feeds her baby, changes it, feeds it again, places it in the cot, then lies on the bed and closes her eyes.

The conversation going on outside the curtains is an exchange of short hissed monosyllables that finally become distant and weave themselves into the fabric of her dream. She is standing in the bedroom of her mother’s house. Her mother is lying on the sofa in her apricot suit. Her eyes are shut, which is just as well, because Gemma’s boyfriend is there with his baby, rocking it, then lifting it up high in the air, laughing and swinging it around by its thin red arms until it almost hits the fringed lightshade.

Louise shouts at him to be careful and the sound of her own voice wakes her up. The hot afternoon sun is shining directly onto her bed, sweat pours down her face. From behind the curtains, she hears a cough. Gemma’s boyfriend whispers, ‘What’s up with her?’

‘Doesn’t know she’s fuckin’ lucky.’

‘Shut up.’

‘You shut up.’

• • •

On the fourth night, they open a window very slightly at her request but the swell of clammy heat fills her nostrils with talcum powder, baby oil, disinfectant, shit and floor polish. When she closes her eyes the white noise of the hospital is in her head – footsteps, conversations in distant corridors, trolleys rattling, someone crying, someone saying shush, shush, the beep of the lift bell and Gemma snoring gently in the corner. She feels like a conduit for every sound and smell that’s ever existed in this place. The gravity of exhaustion presses her flat to her bed while she waits for dawn.

In the morning she has a shower and decides to put on some make up. She gazes into the mirror and sees her face is still oestrogen-plump, the eyelids fleshy and heavy, cheeks fat and apple red. She guides the mascara and lipstick round her eyes and mouth with slow care as though they were someone else’s and the contours unfamiliar. Nurse Becky Donovan comes in to weigh the baby. Louise wonders if she’s dyed her hair and something’s gone wrong. It shines a brassy orange white. Louise pretends not to notice, partly because she’s not sure if she’s imagining it or not.

The sun shines in through the slats in the blinds, picking out the fluff underneath the bed. There is a stain on the floor which has been there since she arrived. She imagines dust, blood, the excretions and effluvia from thousands festering away in every corner, while staphylococcus rages round the building like a medieval plague.

‘Louise, are you alright?’

‘I’m fine thanks.’

‘Did you take the sleeping pills?’

‘Not yet.’

‘We could take the baby to the nursery – just for one night to give you a break.’

Gemma had asked for her baby to be taken to the nursery and they’d refused.

‘No thanks, I’d rather keep him with me.’

Nurse Becky smiles, ‘Good girl.’

Gemma leaves that afternoon. She’s dressed her baby in a satin dress the same colour as Nurse Becky’s hair. Louise says, ‘Good luck.’

Gemma shrugs. Her boyfriend is waiting at the ward door, holding a giant pink cross-eyed rabbit.

• • •

On the fifth night she is the only person left on the ward. At first it’s a relief. The baby wakes up. She feeds him, changes him, feeds him again until he sleeps.

At tea-time the auxiliary hurriedly gives her steak pie and mashed potatoes, tells her there is a situation going on at the far end of the corridor. At half past nine the auxilliary comes round with a tea trolley, gives her weak black tea and three shortbread biscuits. Louise drinks the tea, eats the biscuits, feeds the baby, bathes him, changes him, feeds him, lays him down.

The ward goes silent. No chatter from the nurses station, they’re all busy with the situation.

She watches the baby until he’s asleep then she ties the cord on her dressing gown and walks to the swing doors. The corridor outside is empty. The lift pings. A nurse comes out pushing a trolley with a machine on it, and runs down the far end of the corridor. The lift doors start to close. Louise steps in and presses the button for the twentieth floor. She remembers hearing one of the auxilliaries talking about a roof terrace somewhere at the top, where the staff go to smoke.

She thinks of being alone, in the fresh air, with space around her. The doors open and she steps out, not realising until they close that she’s on the wrong floor. The nurses station here is quiet. There are no people, no boxes of chocolates, thank you cards or flower bouquets piled up.

On the wall above the beechwood expanse of the deserted desk, a bank of monitor screens flicker. She turns away from them and walks down the corridor.

Instead of the flaking yellow emulsion of the maternity ward there are discreet wall-mounted lights, oak panelling and a brass plaque with the name of the dead rich person who has paid for it all. Every few metres, smoked glass doors with brushed metal handles give onto dimly lit rooms with single beds. The people in them are barely visible behind monitors, drips and machines of every size and shape blinking in different colours. The air throbs with an electronic buzz like the drone of a beehive.

As she passes each door she catches her reflection floating across the dark glass. Her nightclothes and dressing gown are crumpled and grubby, her unwashed hair hangs lank and greasy, and yesterday’s make-up lingers in forgotten smears of lipstick and black crumbs of mascara. She looks like shit, she realises, as she drifts along the corridor until she sees what she’s looking for — a solid unmarked door that she hopes is an exit to the stairway. She looks behind her, pushes the door open and slips round it silently.

She isn’t in a stairwell at all, but another intensive care room. There are the usual machines, but most of them are switched off. There is a drip, a monitor bleeping irregularly and, connected to it by a plastic line, a man lying flat underneath a single pale blue hospital blanket.

He’s stick thin but his face is plump like a baby’s, years of wrinkles puffed out of existence by his medication leaving only a fine tracery of white lines on his cheeks and forehead. A thick shock of still dark hair grows healthily from his head, unaffected by whatever has wasted the rest of him. Where the drip line goes into the back of his hand there is a bruise, purple red and yellow like an exotic flower, spreading from his knuckles to the jutting bone of his wrist.

His eyes open and he looks at her. She says, ‘Sorry, I…’

She stops as his lips crack into a smile of recognition and she knows he’s seeing someone else, not her. She opens her mouth to apologise again but before she can speak his head moves minutely in response to some event deep inside him. She’s frozen, caught by the slowly expanding pupils of his eyes. The monitor pings like a light bulb going, an alarm sounds and behind her there’s a rush of air as the door opens.

‘What the hell are you doing in here?’

The nurse looks angrily at Louise, pushes past her and presses a red button above the bed.

‘Sorry, I was looking for the roof, I got lost…’

The nurse pulls the tube roughly out of his hand, rips open a polythene bag with a needle in it, pulls the blanket down and unbuttons his pyjama top. She says to Louise, ‘Get out.’

Over the nurse’s shoulder, Louise sees the man still smiling. He’s looking up at the ceiling now, as though he can see right through it.

She backs out of the room and hears the lift doors open. A crowd of people come tumbling out, an orderly pushing a trolley, two nurses, a doctor fiddling with a pager clipped onto her green cotton hospital trousers and saying into her mobile phone, ‘Got to go.’

Louise presses back against the wall while they run past her and disappear into the room. She steps into the lift just as the doors are closing and presses the button for the maternity ward.

No one seems to have noticed her absence. She looks at the clock, sees it’s quarter past ten and realises with surprise she has only been gone ten minutes. Her sleeping baby looks bigger, plumper, less yellow.

His mouth opens as though he’s about to cry, she reaches out and touches him. It feels habitual, the resting of her hand upon the small body, the humid warmth coming off the cellular blanket, the infinitesimal rise and fall of his chest. She lies down on top of her bed, slips her feet under the pale blue hospital blanket, closes her eyes and falls asleep.

• • •

When she wakes up the next morning, Nurse Becky Donovan is standing by her bed holding the baby. His face is deep red and creased into an expression of fury. He opens his mouth and starts to bawl the same head-splitting shriek that he gave on the night of his birth.

‘There you go Mum, I think he’s hungry.’

Louise pushes herself upright in the bed. For the first time it doesn’t hurt. She looks at the clock and realizes she’s slept for ten hours. Nurse Becky picks up her chart, ‘So you took the sleeping pills. Fancy going home?’

Louise smiles and nods.

‘Good. We need the bed.’

Louise feeds, bathes, changes the baby, feeds him again. She puts on her clothes and shoes then sits and watches while the auxiliary strips the bed down to its plastic cover then goes to get fresh laundry. The flowers she has been sent are distributed to other wards, the cards from well-wishers are packed away. All evidence of her stay is removed, except for the two sleeping pills which sit side by side on the corner of the bedside table.

She thinks about taking the lift back up to where she was last night, but has no idea what floor she was on and she suspects the room will look just like this one, stripped bare and ready for someone else.

Louise opens her handbag, switches on her mobile and rings Jonathan. His voice is faint, almost lost in the din of traffic, car horns, the outside air roaring past like a hurricane, ‘Lou?’

‘I’m ready.’




© Morag McDowell 2007
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