I didn’t know my son was born until the day after. I didn’t know if I’d even wake up. It was three days before I dared go up to his room. From the first day, Jack had gone to the room our baby shared with ten others like him in the intensive care section of the maternity ward, but I couldn’t do it straight away
‘It’s over 30 degrees,’ the nurse said. ‘We can take them out for a bit. It’s warmer in here than in the incubators.’
It was clammy in the August heat as I watched through the paned door. I didn’t know which baby was mine. I couldn’t hear any of them crying. But the one closest to where I was standing scrunched its closed eyes, stretched out its froglike legs and opened its tiny mouth in a soundless wail. My breasts wept.
I stared as the limp body drew its legs up, then rolled over to one side. A white capillary of milk ran into its nostrils. The nurse looked over to me; she held up five fingers and pointed to the small round watch pinned to her breast pocket. I nodded dully. I watched as she slipped each tiny body back into its Plexiglas box. Then she waved me in and pointed to the incubator by the door.
‘You can touch him,’ she said.
I eased my hand through the hole in the side of the box and with an unsteady finger stroked the down on my son’s head.
‘He’ll be in here till he doubles his weight,’ the nurse said.
And till I heal, I thought, clasping the drip holder that I dragged with me. Maybe longer. ‘Come often,’ she said. ‘Your husband comes every day.’ I nodded and said, ‘I know.’ Then left.
It was all meant to have been so different. After the age it took to get pregnant. Sex more than just pleasure. Sex with a reason. The contortions, the full moon, the food–alkaline, acidic–the gyrations. How we laughed with my legs up on the door of the cupboard next to our bed. We’d tried it all. The thermometer, the stopwatch, timed to ovulation. Then, after we gave up, it happened.
I loved being pregnant. I was never sick. I spent all my money on parenting magazines, read all the books. Jack even quit smoking. Why, I was going to have my baby, our baby. I might even have him squatting in the garden, maybe underwater, like those Russian women. It was all just so perfect. I grew rounder and rounder and everywhere I went I saw women like me– full, juicy, fertile. I sank my teeth into dripping figs and salty fat gherkins and thick oozing cheese. My baby would tickle my insides with the flutter of butterfly wings and I bathed in Jack’s gaze.
My mind drifted to our first meeting in Cannes ten years earlier. The blue sky. The blue water. The sun. The red and white striped umbrellas. I craved aphrodisiacs.
‘Let’s take a week in Cannes,’ I said. ‘Share some of that sunshine? We can eat oysters again.’ ‘You and your oysters,’ Jack said and tousled my hair. ‘Please, let’s go.’
‘The Med’s not the place anymore. Too much slick. Too filthy.’
‘The Atlantic, then?’ ‘Brittany? It’s colder.’
‘Don’t care,’ I said. ‘The oysters are fresh every day.’ Jack stroked my belly. ‘Won’t gherkins do?’
I wriggled under his touch. ‘No,’ I said. Then I smiled at him tenderly. I was in my sixth month.
Jack and I hadn’t wanted a baby straight away. There were so many things we had wanted to do. Wanted to explore. Not that we did all we had wanted, though. Then out of nowhere it was time and we both knew it.
We booked a week in La Baule on the bracing Brittany coast.
We ate oysters. Fresher than fresh. It was heaven.
When we got back to Geneva I was rested and bright. Jack went with me for my checkup. He covered my hands with his as they rested on my belly while we sat waiting for my turn.
Then Dr Lafont called me in. Jack stayed behind. Dr Lafont took my blood pressure.
‘We’ll have to keep you in hospital,’ he said. ‘Do some tests.’
‘But I’m perfect! I feel great!’ I said.
‘It’s for your baby.’ Then he called Jack in. ‘It may be toxoplasmosis.’
Toxoplasmosis? It can’t be. Oh, sure, I’d read about avoiding raw meat, and we didn’t even have a cat. It was all in the magazines.
‘She may not go to term,’ Dr Lafont said.
Suddenly I thought of the oysters, of a colleague who wouldn’t touch them. ‘It’s not because of my religion,’ he’d said. ‘My friend died. They’re filthy.’ How could I have forgotten. I thought of my mother. ‘Only ever eat oysters at the seaside,’ she’d always said.
‘Take her straight to the maternity ward,’ Dr Lafont said to Jack.
They put me in a room by myself. In the first week, several times a day, the nurse would prod my belly with a wooden trumpet, like a primitive hearing aid, to listen for the baby’s heartbeat. A few days later they hitched me up to technology and when I woke every morning the quiet red blinking would tell me we’d gained another day. Then they’d spike my belly daily with cortisone jabs.
‘To speed the baby’s development,’ the nurse said. I raised my eyebrows.
‘The lungs. Once the lungs are OK. Now get some rest.’
I had never rested so much in my life. I was flat on my back all the time. I was trapped and my baby was trapped inside me.
Well-meaning friends would tell stories about siblings born into cotton-wool cushioned shoeboxes. How they were stronger than all the rest. How they were survivors. ‘You’ll see,’ they said. I didn’t believe them.
The magazines spoke of the wonders of childbirth, the attendant fathers, the bonding, the love.
‘It’s not your fault,’ Jack said. ‘We didn’t know.’
‘We should have known. Dammit!’ All those magazines and perfect worlds. Why hadn’t I remembered my colleague’s words? God had his laws. They were laws of hygiene. Why hadn’t I believed him?
When I was at 32 weeks, Dr Lafont said, ‘We can’t wait much longer.’
Jack was home mowing the lawn when they rang him. ‘She’ll be in theatre at six this evening,’ the nurse said to him on the phone.
I went in alone. I wasn’t scared. Somehow I’d stepped outside of it all–the baby, Jack, outside of my life.
When I came to, Jack was by my side. ‘Thank God you’re OK.’
‘Did you see the baby?’ I said.
My voice caught in my throat. ‘But they must have passed you from the theatre…’
‘A trolley raced by. An aluminium bundle,’ Jack said and stared at me. ‘That was our baby?’
‘They say it’s a boy,’ I said as tears ran down my cheeks.
Jack didn’t cry, but his eyes were watery. ‘Our son,’ he whispered and kissed my forehead.
‘I’m scared,’ I said.
‘So am I,’ he said.
We sat in silence, his hand wiping my cheek.
‘The main thing is you’re all right,’ he said. ‘Do you want to see him?’
I shook my head. The tears wouldn’t stop.
‘Take your time,’ Jack said.
Our son weighed one kilo at birth. Jack had weighed five and now weighed one hundred. When they took off my drip, Matthew was still in the incubator.
On the day I left hospital they moved Matthew into a room full of cots. I would come in each day and learn how to change him. I’d bathe him in a washbasin, so small was he.
‘I’m frightened I’ll drop him,’ I said.
‘They bounce,’ the nurse said. ‘Don’t worry. Babies are tough.’
Yes, Matthew was tough. He was so tough that I felt he didn’t need me. He refused my breast.
He’d become used to the liquids dripping directly into him through a tube so I’d pump my milk for him to have in the bottle.
‘You’re not trying hard enough,’ the ward nurse said. ‘You don’t really want to breast feed.’
‘I want to, I want to,’ I said. ‘It’s just that he doesn’t. He cries.’
‘He feels you don’t want to.’
Matthew had to stay two months in hospital, the two months that I couldn’t keep him inside me. I’d healed on the outside, but I’d cry every night. Jack would hold me.
When Matthew came home, I wanted to hold him. I picked him up and he cried. I gave him to Jack and watched as my husband settled down on the couch, our baby splayed over his belly, contented. Soon both were sleeping.
When Matthew was three months old he began to fill out the baby clothes I had bought for our newborn. Jack fed him and rocked him. I went back to work. I missed Matthew, but he didn’t want me. What was I to think when he cried when he saw me?
‘I’ve failed as a mother,’ I said to Jack one night.
Jack cradled my face with his hands. ‘You’re just trying too hard. Don’t think ahead,’ he said. ‘Thank God for each day.’
‘It’s not God,’ I said.
Jack stroked the hair from my face. ‘One day at a time,’ he said. Then he drew me close and rocked me. ‘Let’s bring Matthew in with us. Lay him between us.’
I pulled back. ‘I’ll roll onto him. Squash him.’
‘You won’t,’ Jack said and kissed me.
That night the fever came. We woke to the hot twitching of Matthew’s body.
‘Strip him down,’ Jack said.
I was about to protest, but Jack had already gone to phone the hospital. He called from the hall: ‘They said strip him down.’
I held the naked baby against me as we drove through the dead town. The hospital lights glowed yellow. We rushed through the entrance. Matthew convulsed again. Then he was still.
Jack went home at three and I stayed through the night by Matthew’s bedside, just watching him breathe. With the first light of day our son opened his eyes. I swore he was smiling at me.
‘Take him,’ the nurse said.
I held my son close, held him and held him. He snuggled against me and sighed into sleep. All was quiet and warm. I was still standing there with Matthew in my arms when Jack arrived an hour later.
‘One day at a time?’ I said.
Jack nodded. Then he took us both in his arms.
First published online in The Edifice of Literature and subsequently in Back Burning, IP, Australia 2007, forthcoming in Collected Stories
Vienna born Australian Sylvia Petter trained as a translator in Vienna and Brussels. Founding member of the Geneva Writers´ Group, she is a Humber College Toronto creative writing alumnus, holds a PhD in Creative Writing from UNSW (2009) and is a member of the Australian Society of Authors, Sydney, and GAV and IG_AutorInnen, Vienna.
Her stories have appeared online and in print since 1995, notably in The European (UK), Thema (US), The Richmond Review, Eclectica, Reading for Real series (Canada), the anthology, Valentine´s Day, Stories of Revenge (Duckworth, UK), on BBC World Service, as well as in several charity anthologies, and flash-fiction publications.
Her latest book of short fiction, Geflimmer der Vergangenheit (Riva Verlag, Germany, 2014), includes 21 stories drawn from her English-language collections, The Past Present (IUMIX, UK, 2001), Back Burning (IP Australia, Best Fiction Award 2007), and Mercury Blobs (Raging Aardvark, Australia, 2013), and translated into German by Eberhard Hain, Chemnitz.
She has led flash-fiction workshops in Vienna and Gascony, France. Writing as AstridL, several erotic stories appeared in anthologies in the US (Alyson Books) and the UK (Xcite) and subsequently in her collection of 17 erotic tales, Consuming the Muse, (Raging Aardvark, Australia, 2013.)
In 2014, she organized in Vienna the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English.
In March 2020, her debut novel, All the Beautiful Liars was published as a Lightning Bolt eBook by Eye & Lightning Books, UK, and came out in 2021 in paperback and audio.
In July, 2020, she served on the jury for English-language flash fiction for the Vienna Poetry School’s second literary magazine “Gespenster” issued in October. Her antifa novelette in flash, Winds of Change, was published in April 2021 under her imprint FloDoBooks Vienna-Sydney. Sylvia works part-time at the University of Vienna in education science, and blogs on her website at http://www.sylviapetter.com where there is more on her and her writing.