It seemed like a good omen. For once, I managed to find a parking space on just my third circuit of the hospital carpark.
‘Maybe this time will be better,’ I said, out loud.
I parked as efficiently as I could. It was becoming harder to fit myself between the seat and the steering wheel, but I hadn’t needed to give up driving yet, unlike the other women in my antenatal group. My due date was in two weeks’ time, but my bump was still only as small as some of theirs had been at six months. After years of trying to disguise a natural pot belly, I now found a perverse pleasure in wearing figure-fitting clothes, as if pregnancy gave me a societal stamp of approval for my shape. I was wearing my favourite top: a stretchy T in red and pink stripes with a crossover bustline, bought with future breast-feeding in mind. This was before dopamine-dressing. These were fighting colours. I was on my own; partners didn’t get time off to come to antenatal appointments back then, even if they were non-routine.
The antenatal clinic was in a prefabricated building. The old hospital had been in a Regency hunting lodge, used for the rehabilitation of long-term patients after the world wars. But it had been deemed no longer fit for purpose, with all those elegant staircases and listed windows that needed expensive repairs. The in-patient wards were closed, and the hunting lodge was sold to be developed into flats. While the NHS tussled for the money to build a brand-new hospital on the site, the temporary building was put up to house the remaining outpatient clinics: antenatal, minor injuries and physiotherapy. It had been there for several years.
Every time I went for a scan, it seemed like I was walking into a submarine. Very few of the rooms had windows, and the corridors were strip-lit with halogen tubes that flickered on the ceilings. The air smelled of stale electrical dust. In a dark room, the sonographer would coat my abdomen with a thick, gloopy gel and probe for life in the murk like an echolocator. An image of my baby would come up on her screen, grey and grainy: the white lines of his bones, the vivid flutter of his infant heart, the jerky movements of his limbs. She would turn up the sound and through the feedback-crackle I could hear his rapid pulse overlaid by the slow rushing of my blood like an ocean around him, as if we were swimming together in the darkness, neither of us sure what was going to happen next. But seeing the delicate shape of his skull, the curl of his tiny spine, made him seem real before I could even feel him move. I didn’t feel protective then, just wonder at the evidence of this small, new life growing inside me, attached to the world and to me by its umbilical cord, sharing the food that I ate and the air that I breathed.
‘Name please,’ said the woman behind the reception desk in the room that was sometimes the antenatal clinic, sometimes physiotherapy. It was the same team whenever I came, but they never seemed to recognise me. I told her who I was.
‘Did you bring a sample with you?’
I gave her the pot she’d given me the week before, labelled with my name. I’d screwed the cap on tightly and put it in the polythene bag she’d provided “in case of spills”. There’s something very exposing about handing over a pot of your own fluids in public. Especially for someone who grew up in the kind of house I did, where bedroom doors were always closed, and bodies never discussed. The receptionist’s expression didn’t change as she put it down; she was handed samples every day.
‘Did you use the pot before you filled it?’
She asked every time. I knew it was because if any traces of sugar were detected in the urine, they needed to know whether they came from me or from the pot. But still, it always made me wonder who used a sample pot for anything else. Or for what.
‘No, just for the sample,’ I said.
It was easier to use the term they did. It distanced me from the yellow liquid I’d produced that was now sitting on the reception desk for everyone to see if they cared to look.
‘And your file please,’ she said. ‘Take a seat.’
She pointed to the rows of plastic chairs arranged in a L-shape beside the low table in the corner. I handed her the folder of graphs and images that I ferried between scans and consultant appointments, sat down and took my book out of my bag. I’d learned from previous visits that the pile of magazines on the low table had been the same since the first time I came, when all this started. The only change was that the covers looked slightly more battered each week, the pages and staples slightly looser.
I didn’t recognise any of the other people in the waiting room. There was a woman in a hijab who looked more pregnant than me and had a little boy with her. Between the hems of her shalwar and her trainers, her ankles looked swollen. Underneath the magazine table there was a woven basket that held the usual toys found in doctors’ waiting rooms: metal cars with the paint flaking off, old books and jigsaws with missing pieces. Here, there was also an abacus, which the little boy was fascinated with. He put it in his mother’s lap repeatedly, as if he wanted her to explain what it was. She held it in both hands, while he played with the rainbow-coloured plastic beads, pushing them back and forth on the metal rods. On the end of the other row a man and woman sat together. He was wearing a brown leather jacket, half zipped up, the kind that looked like it had been bought a decade ago. The woman with him sat with her head on his shoulder, her eyes closed. She barely looked pregnant at all, but then the antenatal clinic was for all stages of pregnancy. Maybe this was one of their first visits.
When it was my turn, I shuffled along the blue linoleum as instructed, to the small room with a sign above the door marked with a large B. My hips had been quite painful recently, but the pregnancy books suggested that was normal. People bought pregnancy books back then. This was before Dr. Google, when the internet was in its infancy.
I’d been expecting to see the consultant, but there was a young woman in the room as well. They had the file I’d given the receptionist and were looking at it together. The consultant was wearing her usual tightly-buttoned white coat and stethoscope and her hair was pinned up. She seemed about the same age as my mother. The younger woman’s hair was black and loose, and she was just wearing regular clothes – a brown top, black trousers and black trainers.
‘On the bed, please,’ said the consultant without looking up.
She pointed to something in the folder and turned the page over. The younger woman looked more closely at the paper.
I knew the drill. I’d been having weekly scans and these consultant appointments for a while. Although it was now September and the weather had turned, I still wore sandals to the appointments because they were easy to slip on and off – my bump wasn’t that big, but it was beginning to make it awkward to bend over to do up shoes. I shucked off my sandals and got on the bed. I’d figured that one out too: bottom on first, shuffle back, then swing the legs round together and lie down. I pulled up the red and pink top to my bra-band, exposing the warm, stretched skin of my belly. It had been ferociously hot in London that summer, and there was no air-conditioning in the office I worked in. The supermarket down the road had very cold fridges and I’d spent most of my lunch-hours pretending to deliberate over which yoghurt I wanted to buy. Now the weather was finally a little cooler. Room B had a frosted tilt-and-turn window that was ajar, and I could feel the outside-air drifting in. I interlocked my fingers over my stomach and waited.
The consultant came over to the bed and put my hands back by my sides without speaking. She never did. She may have been the same age as my mother, but there was nothing in her bedside manner that could be described as maternal – if the word maternal describes warmth or care, that is. There are other sorts of mothers, that’s for sure. She took a measuring tape from her pocket and pushed the elastic panel of my trousers down towards my knickers so that she could measure the full extent of the bump, from the top of my pubic hair to my breastbone. The younger woman stood behind her, watching. By now, I assumed she was student doctor. The consultant’s mouth twisted as she took the biro out of the bulldog clip that attached the paper to her board and marked down the new measurements. She put the stethoscope headset in her ears and the diaphragm on my bump, pushing it into my side. The circle of fibreglass was cold and hard. I knew she had to press it to hear my baby, but it hurt, and my shoulder muscles tightened. The consultant turned and said something to the student under her breath and they turned their backs to me.
The younger woman opened my folder again. The consultant showed her the new measurement and they looked at the graphs I‘d been given at the latest scan.
‘This baby is small for dates,’ said the consultant to the student, in a normal voice this time. ‘Why is this?’
‘Because growth rates vary,’ said the student. She sounded confident, like she was expecting a good mark. They still had their backs turned. It was like I was lying there, beached on the clinic bed, but couldn’t be seen or heard.
‘No,’ said the consultant. ‘This is a small baby. IUGR. Failure to thrive. It must be induced.’ She was speaking to the student doctor, not to me.
Intra-uterine growth restriction. The last time I had seen the consultant she had told me my baby was too small, and that they “liked to keep an eye on small babies”. It hadn’t sounded kind when she said it, more like it was my fault, that I had failed to produce a decent specimen, that I wasn’t giving him what he needed through the placenta I’d grown, although I had done everything I should and nothing that I shouldn’t.
When I got home after that appointment, I had looked up growth rates in my pregnancy book. It had information in the appendix chapters that people normally didn’t need to read. Babies are supposed to grow proportionately in pregnancy, along a regular pattern of measurements; IUGR means the growth-curve flattens off and the baby isn’t developing as it ought to. I had looked at the graphs in the book and the ones in my folder, but the shapes of the lines had looked different to me.
The student doctor looked confused. She looked at the folder with the graphs again, and the tables of measurements. She looked up at the consultant and then back at the notes. I lay there, silent.
A few weeks ago, we had tried out a hypnobirthing class. All the couples had sat around in a circle while the course leader explained how it worked, and how visualisation could help us relax during the birth.
‘Try to imagine yourself somewhere else,’ she said. ‘Where have you been most happy? Picture it in your mind.’
I remembered a perfect day by the lake. The singing blue of the cloudless sky. The water had been so cold I hadn’t wanted to go in, but I sat on the warm sand and watched my partner wade out until he was knee-deep. The memory of him turning around to look back at me with the sun behind him was a clear as a photograph, like a flashback to when things were simpler, and we had nothing but each other to care for or worry about.
I tried to think of that day now, but I couldn’t get to it. It felt like a different world, not just a different time or place. I looked at the ceiling of Room B instead. There was a long crack in the plaster, and I walked my mind along it as if it could lead me somewhere, turning my head as I tracked its fissure.
‘Could it just be a smaller baby?’ the student said to the consultant. ‘The mother is in good health.’
‘The mother is of average size. This is a small baby. To continue with this pregnancy would be dangerous; it may not survive. We must induce.’
She finally looked at me. She added some notes to the sheet on her clipboard and signed it and put the sheet in my folder.
‘Take this to the receptionist and they will book you in for an induction.’
She handed me the folder. I was still lying down. I could hear the traffic in the car park outside. I felt like the boy with the abacus in the waiting room. None of this made sense to me. I still had two weeks until I was full term, and my baby’s head wasn’t engaged in my pelvis, wasn’t ready to come out of me. We hadn’t even decided on a name. My body had betrayed us, and now these women seemed to as well. The only other person I knew who was having difficulties with her pregnancy had been hospitalised with pre-eclampsia, and the doctors were keeping her and her baby alive. I was younger then, and still trusted experts, but my antenatal teacher had warned the class about the medical model and the potential for a “cascade of intervention”, leading inevitably to assisted births or caesareans.
‘Any questions?’ said the consultant.
Trying for dignity, I rolled on to my right elbow, pushed myself up with my left hand and pulled down my top over my still-exposed midriff. I swung my legs round and sat up, facing the consultant and the student doctor. My legs dangled over the side of the bed, into the air.
‘If he’s too small, isn’t it dangerous to induce him?’ I asked. ‘I’ve been told that induced labours are more intense and can cause more difficulties for babies.’
The consultant and the student doctor looked at me in surprise. Perhaps they’d expected me to just lie there, compliant and obedient.
‘The baby must be induced,’ repeated the consultant. ‘Please book yourself in.’
I’d heard that mothers experience a surge of love at the birth of their child. I couldn’t tell you whether or not that’s true. Maybe it is; I was numb from the neck down at the time. What I do know is that the way the consultant spoke to the student doctor as if I wasn’t there, as if my baby wasn’t a person, filled me with a rage I had never experienced before. A cold wave of adrenalin ran down my back, flooding away any residue of doubt, or remaining sense that I should do as I was told. Throughout my pregnancy, I had worried whether I would be able to be a mother, to have the “right” feelings; my parenthood template hadn’t given me much guidance. But on that hard plastic bed with its paper-towel covering, I was suddenly certain that I knew my baby, though we hadn’t met yet. I had felt him dancing inside me for months, from the first odd flurry to proper kicks that kept me awake. I would happily have given him my bones if he’d needed them (although when I bit into a hot potato a few years later, the pain of the cavity in my tooth where the calcium had leeched from me to him, made me question that position. Motherhood is complex).
I moved to get down. The consultant and the student doctor tried to stop me - the bed was still raised - but my legs are long, and I reached the floor easily. I picked up the folder full of paperwork, scans and graphs, thanked them for their time and left the room. Perhaps I should have made a grand statement about patients’ rights or consent, but all I wanted to do was get back to my car and take us away from that room. I walked back down the blue linoleum corridor, passed the reception desk without stopping and went through the main door, into the sunshine outside.
At home, everything was silent apart from the clock. The dog trotted along the hallway from the kitchen, his claws clicking on the tiled floor, and followed me into the living room. I sat on the sofa, legs slightly apart to make room, and wrapped my arms around my belly in the red and pink top. The dog put his head on my knee. We sat there for a while in the quiet, listening to the clock ticking. Me, the dog and my boy.
H.S. Lyon worked in book publishing for several years, before re-training and jumping professional tracks into psychology and teaching. Her short story ‘Buttons and Bones’ was shortlisted in the 2020 Wordsmiths Competition. Another short piece, ‘Overwintering’, was published online in April 2021.