The Anniversary

A short story, based on personal experience.

She had telephoned earlier that week and arranged for the book to be turned to the right page.  Now Claire sat in the Regimental Chapel, conscious of her heart beat, letting the tears fall.  Near the top left corner of the cathedral, the chapel was a quiet spot away from the noise of the few visitors and tourists wandering in and out.

She sat on a hard wooden chair and gazed up at the stained glass window.  Blue.  Red.  Yellow.  ‘They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old’.  Claire wondered how many people had sat here, thinking of relatives or friends lost.  She thought of her grandfather, Hugh, who had been a soldier in both wars.  As a small child, hearing his story and knowing little of geography or history, Claire had reckoned that being shot in the Dardanelles sounded sore.  Now she wondered what his mother must have felt, waving her teenage son off, not to university, but to war.

Her thoughts were disturbed by the creak of footsteps on the wooden floor, as a middle-aged American couple passed by, with voices too loud for a holy place.  The sound brought Claire’s mind back into the cathedral.  She became aware again of the low hum of distant chatter.  Someone was coughing near the back.  Once or twice she heard the echoing thud of coins, as they hit the bottom of the donations barrel near the door.

Brushing the tears with the heel of her hand, she stood up, glad to move her legs and straighten out her back.  She followed the path of the Americans.  Near the front of the cathedral, strangely she thought, there stood a grandfather clock.  The time was frozen on the clock face at eleven minutes past twelve, and when Claire looked at her watch it was roughly that time.  She studied the clock, looking and listening for signs of life, but there were none and it stayed at eleven minutes past twelve when her watch had moved on.

The Book of Remembrance was on the right side of the cathedral, in a glass topped oak case.  There indeed was the name and date as promised, with five strangers for eternal company.  Here it was – her public declaration.  Baby was here.  Claire thought of the calligrapher and wondered if that was her day job.  It had to be a woman.  What did she think of as she crafted the names and dates?  Did she see children with Christmas morning eyes, or teary reddened faces, or parents falling to their knees beside tiny white coffins?  Claire traced the name on top of the glass with her finger.  She wondered if the anger would leave her now.  The anger that had burrowed deep into her chest like a parasite.

*****

“There are two things not right about this scan” the appropriately named Dr. Love had told them.  “First, the position of the baby – kind of scrunched up.  Second, there is no heartbeat”.  The words were delivered in the kindest, softest of tones, yet Claire felt as if she was under attack.  Open-mouthed, she looked to John for a reaction.  “What?  How?  Are you sure?” was all he could manage.  “Let’s have a look on the big scanner” Dr. Love responded.  Her voice carried none of the hope Claire was scrambling for.

Five minutes later, Claire lay on the couch in the X-ray Department as Dr. Love again squirted cold gel on her now well-rounded, twenty weeks pregnant belly.  The tears had begun now, silent at first, but nobody told her everything was going to be okay.

She knew she had to be strong.  There was so much to be done.  They stopped in town on the way home so she could pick up some things she needed for hospital.  As she walked back to the car, she tried not to think about her dead baby inside her.

Getting pregnant hadn’t been so simple this time around.  They had been trying for nearly a year.  Claire had bought so many pregnancy test kits she could see blue lines when she closed her eyes at night.  Even finding out she was pregnant hadn’t been straight-forward – one positive test, followed the next day by a negative, sent her in panic to her GP, who had confirmed a negative, but gave her another appointment, just in case.  Already feeling nauseous, Claire had returned to hear her GP confirm a positive result the following week.  John rose from his seat in the waiting room to catch her as she flew towards him.  “Yes I am” she breathed, just loud enough for the waiting patients to hear.  That afternoon they had gone to the cinema to see Claire’s favourite musical, Chicago.  When Roxie delivered the crushing line to poor Amos “There ain’t no baby”, Claire had wanted to shout out in pantomime style “Oh yes there is!”

At home, she ironed her two most presentable nightdresses and organised a baby-sitter for Amy.  Amy had just turned five, a peach of a child with a vocabulary way beyond her years.  So her teacher said.  She made mwah noises when she gave kisses and sang special songs with her Mummy at bedtime.  Her hair smelled of outside.  She was never too fond of walking and preferred to dance from room to room.  The plan had been to tell her that night that she would be getting a baby brother or sister and to show her the scan pictures.  The plan had changed.  “Mummy has a sore tummy and the doctor needs to fix it”.

The grandparents had to be told.  Claire felt her heart drop as her Mum’s expectant voice came down the phone.  “Well, how did it go?”  “The wee baby’s gone, Mum.  The wee baby’s gone”.  It didn’t sound like Claire’s voice or Claire’s life.

They were shown into a side ward by a softly spoken, round nurse.  Claire surveyed the room – the hospital bed, bedside locker, meal table on wheels and the TV in the corner.  A door to the right of the bed led into an en-suite shower and toilet.  This wasn’t so bad.  At least there would be privacy.  She thought how hospitals don’t smell like hospitals any more.  This room didn’t smell of anything much, but maybe that was a good thing.

When John left at eight they still hadn’t given her the medication, but he needed to get home to Amy.  The round nurse assured them nothing would happen until morning.

Claire sat on the bed, flicking through the TV channels.  When a junior doctor came to see her, she felt the need to ask to be scanned again, just in case.  The doctor returned some time later with a portable scanner on a squeaky trolley.  “Can you see?  There is no heartbeat” she said gently.  Claire wondered if the baby was in the same position as before, but she didn’t want to sound silly by asking.  The medication was administered.  By ten o’clock she had fallen into an exhausted sleep.  Nothing would happen until morning, they said.

In the middle of the night she was awakened by strong, rolling pains in her belly.  She tried to relax and breathe through the pain, but less than ten minutes later she felt an enormous pressure and staggered into the bathroom.  She knew what was happening.  She reached for the emergency bell, and for what seemed like minutes, but could only have been seconds, she prayed her baby wouldn’t land on the floor.

Three nurses came running in, two she hadn’t seen before, who stood at either side holding her and making reassuring noises, while the third caught the baby.  Claire didn’t dare look.  It had all happened so quickly in the end and she was frightened of what she might see. The junior doctor from earlier arrived as Claire was being helped back to bed.  “Is the baby in one piece?”  The words felt thick in her mouth as if she had been drinking.  “Yes” the doctor told her.

By six in the morning it was all over and Claire was tucked up in bed again.  She asked one of the nurses to phone John and tell him.  The doctor told her to try to sleep.  Claire didn’t know when it had started, but now she realised she was shaking, as though her body was trying to expel the intolerable truth, the way a dog locked out in a downpour tries to shake off the rain.  She was grateful for the extra blanket the nurse had brought her.  She felt her lower jaw quivering and her legs couldn’t rest in the hospital bed.  Her eyes ached but no tears would come.  She crossed her arms around herself, as there was nothing else to hold.

John arrived around nine, after leaving Amy to school.  Claire wondered if he had remembered to pack Amy’s break and tie her hair up properly.  When Dr. Love came, she explained about the forms that needed to be signed and decisions that needed to be made.  Just yesterday, Claire had been   wondering whether to ask if the baby was a boy or a girl.  Now they had to decide if there would be an autopsy, if they would give permission for Pathology to retain tissue and if they would like their baby to go for cremation, as was usual procedure in such cases.  After that there would be more decisions – would they want the ashes scattered in the baby plot at the crematorium, or would they want to collect them.  Dr. Love advised as best she could, but even for her, who had been in this situation many times during a long career, it wasn’t easily done.

The most urgent decision was whether or not to see the baby.  The couple were left to think about it.  To Claire it had all become unreal.  Another junior doctor came in later to check on Claire and asked if they had made up their minds.  The doctor was young, in her twenties, and had maybe never been in this situation before.  She was called Claire too, and had curly shoulder-length hair, the kind that never looks tidy.  She wore a low-cut top and when she sat on the chair beside the bed, Claire could see right down her front.  She felt the corners of her mouth twitch and she fired a quick glance at John, but had to turn away immediately as she knew they were both on the point of laughter.

The curly doctor went through everything again.  “The crematorium will phone you when the ashes are ready.  But it could take about a week before Pathology and the crematorium are finished.  They wait until they have a few of them”.  Claire had no idea what she meant.  Did the Pathology Department wait until they had a few babies before sending them on to the crematorium, or did the crematorium wait until they had a few before cremating them?  Surely that couldn’t be it, she thought.  She didn’t ask.

When John came back with wet eyes from seeing the baby, he told Claire he thought she should see her too.  Dr. Love had already told them their baby was a girl.  A sister for Amy.  The curly doctor carefully carried in a small white box, like a shoebox.  When Claire was ready the doctor took the lid off.  John had said it helped him to see how far from a newborn their baby was.  Claire took in the unusual colour, the miniature size, the tiny eyelids tightly closed.  The nose and the mouth.  Tiny hands that would never clap for Daddy, and tiny feet that would never dance from room to room.  Some but not all tiny nails were there.  She wondered how this could be her baby.  She wanted to shield the box with her arm like a school-child hiding her work from her neighbour – this is mine, you can’t see it.

Claire didn’t know the milk would come.  She thought somehow her body would know there was no need, but the milk came.  She didn’t know how many mornings she would wake up with her hand on her belly before she realised, or how many nights she would lie awake, listening to her heartbeat echoing through her emptiness.  She didn’t know that in the coming months life would lose all its flavour and she would struggle to exist on a diet of misery.

*****

They walked along the beach in silence.  John carried the box wrapped in Amy’s baby blanket.  When they got to the right spot, they sat side by side on the cold sand.  Claire held her baby in her arms for the only time.  It was May but not warm, and windy, so the ashes blew up around their faces as John scattered them.  Spring had ended as abruptly as it had begun, and there would be no summer.  It was important to leave their baby in a happy place.

Claire held the blanket all the way home in the car, but she knew she would have to wash it.  She hadn’t realised how strongly ashes smell of smoke.

*****

Turning away from the book, Claire stumbled on some steps and put her hand out to steady herself.  She felt the cold of a limestone pillar on the flat of her palm.  The chill travelled up her arm and her whole body shivered.

Near the cathedral door, she stopped to have a closer look at a flower-shaped stained glass window.  It was too high to see clearly.  She could make out a man, dressed in crimson, on a dark blue background – was it the sea?  With his arms raised, Claire wondered was the man happy or sad, giving thanks or praying for deliverance.  Luckily, there was a description on a notice board below.  She read the caption “Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale”.

Stopping at the barrel, Claire dropped two pound coins in.  They hit the bottom with more of a clink than a thud.  She took out a screwed up tissue from her pocket, dried her eyes and blew her nose.  With some effort, she retrieved the rickety green umbrella from her bottomless pit of a handbag.  She smoothed her hair and took a few deep breaths, before pushing out through the cathedral doors.  As she walked down the six stone steps, she heard Amy’s toddler voice in her head, counting them.

 

Laura Cameron ©2011

—————————-