Alive, Alive-Oh!

Diana Athill

She thought of herself as a rational woman, but while she could sleep alone in an empty house for night after night without worrying, there were other nights when her nerves twitched like a rabbit’s at the least sound. On the many good nights and the few bad the chances of a burglar’s breaking in were exactly the same: the difference was within herself and signified nothing which she could identify. And she had always been like that over the possibility of pregnancy.

For several months it would not occur to her to worry, and in another she would be convinced, perhaps as much as a fortnight before the month’s end, that this time it had happened. The anxiety seemed in itself an indication: why this sudden fret if there were no reason? She would start working out how to find the money for an abortion, or whether she was capable of bringing up a child single-handed, and when the anxiety proved groundless she would feel foolish as well as relieved.

This last month had been an easy-minded one. She happened, for once, to know the date on which, in this sense, it should have ended, having filled an idle moment by marking little crosses in her diary some way ahead; but although she was often a few days early and never late, she was so far from worrying that she hardly noticed when the day came and went. Six more days passed before she said to herself: ‘Hadn’t you better start acknowledging this? The curse is six days overdue and your breasts are hurting.’

Rational? How did she square that with the fact that in spite of the fluctuations in anxiety she had taken no precautions against pregnancy for almost two years? From time to time, at the end of an anxious month, she had thought of it: ‘If I’m let off this time I’ll never be such a fool again.’ But she never did anything about it. ‘Not today’, ‘Not this week’, ‘Another time’, or even, ‘What’s the point? I’ll only put the damned things in a drawer and forget to use them.’ The mere thought of it seemed too tedious to bear. Although she had twice become pregnant in the past, that was now such a long time ago and surely she had reached an age when it was less likely? After all, month after month had gone by to confirm her optimism.

If anyone had said to her: ‘There can be only one reason for an unmarried woman in her early forties to ignore good sense so stubbornly: she does it not from an optimistic belief that she will not conceive, but because of an exactly opposite subconscious optimism; deep inside herself she wants a child,’ she would have answered, ‘Of course she does. I do know that, really. I suppose I must have been choosing to ignore it.’ But although she had not been able to prevent her subconscious from undermining her reason, she saw nothing against putting it in its place. She had overruled it twice before and had felt no ill effects. ‘All right, so you want a baby. Who doesn’t? But as things are you can’t have one – I’m sorry but there it is, too bad for you.’ Neither time had it put up any fight. It had accepted its frustration placidly – and placidly it had resumed its scheming.

She had once met a man who had been persuaded to consult an analyst about, of all things, his constipation. He had found the experience interesting and beneficial, and summed it up in words that delighted her: ‘It is fascinating to learn what an old juggins one’s subconscious is.’ That was what she now felt: what an old juggins! What a touching and in some ways admirable old juggins! She saw her subconscious plodding along, pig-headed, single-minded, an old tortoise lumbering through undergrowth, heaving itself over fallen branches, subsiding into holes full of dead leaves. Sometimes, no doubt, the obstacles had been almost too much for him and he had lain panting slightly, staring up at the sky and blinking in apparent bewilderment, but then a blunt foreleg would begin to grope again, his toes would scratch for purchase and on he would go. The question was this: did she slap her subconscious down again by finding the necessary cash and the obliging doctor from the past (if he was still taking such risks), or did she capitulate and have this child?

The reasons against it were these: she was unmarried, forty-three years old and had no private income. She lived comfortably on what she earned, and could do things she enjoyed, such as travelling, with the extra money she had recently begun to earn by writing which, at present, was well within her energies. She would like to preserve these conditions.

The reasons for it were these: if she did not have a child now she would never have one, and she loved its father.

This child’s father was married – well married, to an admirable woman who had done him no wrong and to whom he owed much. He had begun an affair simply because he had been married for seven years, was no longer romantically in love with his wife, and was polygamous by nature. He had come to take the affair seriously because the two of them suited each other in every way, one of their strongest bonds being that neither of them was possessive. He might have been described as sitting pretty, married to a good, dependable wife without whom he could not imagine himself, and in love with a good, dependable mistress to whom he could turn whenever he wished. But it was more complex than that. She was nine years older than he which, together with her nature, had given her a certain authority over the situation. He saw her as having chosen this form of relationship rather than having been persuaded or manoeuvred into it, and he was right: there was no reason why he should develop a sense of responsibility towards her except in their own terms of honesty and tenderness. It was a perfect situation for him, since he had no money and was trying to live by writing; but that one partner is well suited does not necessarily mean that the other is ill-used. She herself might have condemned some other woman’s lover in a similar situation, but she knew him and herself too well to condemn him. He was what he was: the person with whom, being as he was, she was most at home. What, then, would be the point of wishing him otherwise?

And could she make him otherwise, if she wanted to? No. And she didn’t mind that because she was perfectly willing to accept that they, as they both were, were each other’s unexpected bonus from life. It was this that had established so much ease and sweetness between them. If, when she told him she was pregnant, he were to offer to leave his wife and come to her, she would be quite as anxious as she would be happy. She would not, whatever she decided, try to make him do that. Perhaps this was cowardice – a fear of actually facing a lack of success which she thought she could envisage with equanimity. Or perhaps it was vanity – a desire to go on representing freedom, pleasure, stimulation, all the joys of love rather than its burdens. Or perhaps it was really what she would like it to be: the kind of respect for another person’s being that she would wish to have paid to her own. But there was no doubt that, if she was pregnant, life would be a great deal easier if her lover and her love were otherwise than they were.

So it would be sensible to have an abortion. In her experience it was not a profoundly disagreeable thing to have. The worst part of the operation, performed under a local anaesthetic, was the grotesque position into which one is trussed on the table. The last time she found that she could see a tiny but clear reflection of herself in the globe of the lampshade above her, and at that she almost lost grip but screwed her eyes shut instead. There is this humiliating ugliness, and there are sounds, and for a few moments there is a dim sensation of pain. If the doctor is businesslike and kind, treating one (as hers had done) like an ordinary patient, there is no sinister or shaming atmosphere to contend with. One is simply having a quick little operation for a sensible reason… So it was odd that she should start to shiver slightly as she thought about it. No, she did not feel that murder is committed during that operation. She would go so far as to say that she was sure it was not: no separate existence, at that stage, was being ended, any more than when a sperm was prevented from meeting an egg. But that old juggins, the pinheaded, pig-headed tortoise behind her reason: he was tough, he was good at recovering from setbacks, but at the prospect of yet another of them he was showing signs of turning into a porcupine. He wanted her to have this child.

Having acknowledged the situation, she found herself no nearer a decision, only slightly more aware of reluctance towards either course. It was still early. She could have an abortion, if she so decided, at any time within the next three months. So the best thing to do seemed to her to be nothing: go blank, drift for a week or so, think about it as little as possible and see what happened. Perhaps she would wake up one morning knowing what she wanted to do.

The next two weeks dragged. She managed to keep her mind on other things for much of the time, but the fact of pregnancy was always there, lying in wait for any unoccupied moment. It seemed common sense not to begin worrying again at least until she had missed her second period, but long before that date came she felt that her condition had endured for months. Each morning, when she awoke, she would lie still for a minute or two trying to overhear her state of mind, but all she picked up was irritation and depression at being in this quandary. About ten days after the start of her ‘truce’ she spent a weekend in the country with her mother, and the depression increased: supposing she had the child, how appalling the family explanations would be, how impossible it was to imagine the degree of consternation Such a decision would raise in her mother and the rest of the family. In the train on the way back to London she looked up from her book and bumped, as usual, into ‘What am . I going to do?’ Oh god, she thought, I do wish it would all go away.

Well, she thought next morning, if that’s the best I can do I suppose I had better make it go away: get the money in, anyway. There was a sum waiting for her in New York, where she had planned soon to spend a holiday. If she used half of that, would there be enough left for the holiday? Probably not. Resentment and disappointment were added to the depression, but she told her agent a story of unexpected bills as a result of moving house, and he cabled her the money at once. That done, she had only to call the doctor — his number, on a grubby scrap of paper, discreetly minus his name, still lurked at the back of a drawer in her dressing table after all those years. ‘I’ll do it soon,’ she thought. ‘Next week, perhaps. I’ve got the money and that’s the Main thing.’ She spent a couple of days in a rage at missing her first chance to visit New York, and a couple more arguing that she needn’t miss it after all: if she spent only three weeks there instead of four, and lived very cheaply, she could manage. If that were so she was not only being sensible, but was not going to suffer for it, so there was nothing to be depressed about any more.

It was on the fifth morning after the arrival of the money – a morning in April – that she awoke congratulating herself on living in her new flat and opening her eyes in her new bedroom. It was the top floor of a house which might almost be in the country, the last house in a short street which projected like a little promontory into a park. All the windows looked on to trees and grass, and her bedroom window had gardens as well, the long range of gardens behind the houses of the Street at right angles to hers. Cherry and pear trees were in flower, and a fine Magnolia; daffodils and narcissi twinkled in the grass. Soon the lilacs would be out, and the hawthorns, and the irises – it was a galloping spring after a mild winter. The sun shone into her bedroom window, and the birds were singing so loudly that they had woken her before her alarm clock went off: each garden seemed to have its own blackbird. She got out of bed to lean out of the window and sniff the green smells, and found herself saying, ‘What a morning for birds and bees and buds and babies.’

This sentence was still humming in her mind as she walked to the bus stop, past the walls of more gardens, not high enough to conceal the trees and shrubs behind them. During the previous winter, before moving into the flat, she had thought as she walked this way: ‘This will soon be my part of London – I shall see that pear, that crab apple tree in flower, and then heavy with dusty summer green, and then with hard little London fruit on their branches – they will be familiar landmarks.’ And here they were, going into their spring performance with abandon against a brilliant blue sky, part of her daily walk to the bus. ‘It is a lovely place to live,’ she thought. ‘I suppose I am going to have this baby after all.’

She was late, she had to run for a bus, those words evaporated and no thought of her predicament disturbed her morning’s work. Then her business partner came into her room, to spring on her a discussion of long-term plans for the firm. Someone might be persuaded to join them and, if he did, shares would have to be reallocated, certain changes of status would have to be made. ‘It concerns you, too,’ he said, ‘so you must think it over.’ She had a slight sensation of breathlessness and could feel her face flushing, but she made no decision to say what in fact she did say: ‘I don’t know that it will concern me. I may not be here then. I’m going to have a baby.’ And inside saying: ‘Oh lord, now I’ve done it!’ – but the dismay was a laughing dismay, not a horrified one.

Perhaps her mood would not have held if her news had been received differently. As it was, her partner, a very old friend, said, ‘You mean you’re pregnant now?’

‘Yes.’

‘Have you seen a doctor?’

‘Not yet…of course it may be a mistake, but I’m sure it’s not.’

‘Well then, are you mad?’ he said, sitting down on the radiator, frowning. ‘How do you think you’re going to support the child if you don’t stay on here?’

‘Oh somehow – people do manage. And I thought it might be a bit embarrassing in the office…’

‘Good God! If anyone’s embarrassed they can bloody well get out!’

Then, dropping his poker face, he asked if she had really thought he would expect her to leave, and she answered that of course she hadn’t, but it had seemed that it would be such an imposition…each of them slightly awkward at being pitched so suddenly into full awareness of their long and usually taken-for-granted affection for each other, and she the more so for having to produce thoughts which she had not yet formed on the practical side of this pregnancy. Then he kissed her and said that he was happy for her, and she was left grinning across her desk like the Cheshire cat, established in her full glory as an Expectant Unmarried Mother.

After that she was happy. She was quite often frightened too, but on a level superficial compared with that of the happiness. The birth would be easy. She could take as much time off as she needed, drawing her salary all the while, and for so long as she could stay at home all would be simple. The house in which she had her flat was owned by a close friend who herself lived in the rest of it, and who, from the moment she knew of the pregnancy, was eager to help. Neither woman had much money – she herself had to let one of the rooms in her flat to help pay its modest rent – so she was anxious not to become a financial burden on her friend, but it was reassuring to know that if the worst came to the worst she would never be chased for the rent. But she could not take advantage of that reassurance for more than a short time, and didn’t want to do even that. And in addition to her usual living expenses she would have to pay for someone to care for the child while she was working, and for its food and clothes, and for its education – no, it would go to a state school, of course, there was a good one near by – but for its bicycle and its roller skates and its holidays by the sea… Year after year of financial strain stretched ahead. Financial strain and, to start with at any rate, physical exhaustion: office all day, child for every other minute – would she ever again be free to write? Not for years, anyway.

And no less frightening was the thought of the gap in the child’s life where a father ought to be. Material considerations could be smothered by ‘I’ll manage somehow – people do’ – of course she would manage when she had to. But the argument advanced by her more sober-minded friends, and by her own mind as well, that one has no right to wish this lopsided upbringing on any child – that was less easy. Surely only an exceptional woman could reasonably expect to steer her child comfortably through the shoals of illegitimacy, and could she make any claim to be exceptional? To this question she could make no answer. She could only say: ‘Whatever happens, whatever the child itself may one day say (and there probably will come a time when it will say “I never asked to be born”), I believe that it will prefer to exist rather than not.’ But the real answer was not in those words, nor in any others that she might think up. It was simply that now it was beyond her to consider an abortion. When she tried to force herself to think about it she felt as though something physical happened in her skull, as though an actual shutter came down between the front part of her brain, just behind her eyes, where the thought began, and the back of her brain into which it would have to go if it were to be developed.

The biggest immediate worry was how to tell her mother whose outlook would make it very hard for her to accept such news. She veered between a desire to get the worst over by writing at once, and a longing to put it off for ever. Her lover advised her to put it off for a month or so, just in case something went wrong, and finally she agreed, though her itch to tell made her write in advance the letter she would send later, choosing a time to post it just before one of her visits home so that her mother could get over the worst of the shock before they discussed it. She enjoyed writing that letter: putting into words how much she wanted a child and how determined she had now become to have this one. She found her letter so convincing that she couldn’t believe her mother would not agree.

The longing to tell everyone else was strong. She scolded herself, arguing that when she began to bulge would be soon enough; people did have miscarriages, and no discreet woman would announce a pregnancy before the fourth month. But as each day passed, discretion became less important, jubilation grew stronger, and she had soon told everyone with whom she was intimate and some with whom she was not. Almost all her friends appeared to be delighted for her, and their support gave her great pleasure. Sometimes they said she was brave, and she enjoyed that too, in spite of knowing that courage did not come into it. The interest and sympathy that seemed to surround her was like a good wine added to a delicious dinner.

The child’s father was, in a detached way, pleased. The pregnancy made no difference to the form of their relationship, but it did deepen it: his tenderness and attention were a comfort and a pleasure. She wondered, sometimes, what would happen about that once the child was born: would an ‘uncle’ in its life instead of a father be a good thing or a bad one? They would have to see. She knew that if it proved a bad thing she would have to lose her lover – would lose him without hesitation however great the pain – but for the present having him there was a large, warm part of the happiness which carried the anxieties like driftwood on its broad tide.

She felt gloriously well, hungry, lively and pretty, without a single qualm of sickness and with only a shadow of extra fatigue at the end of a long day, from time to time. ‘Well, you seem to be all right,’ they said to her at the hospital clinic which she began to attend. During the long waits at this clinic she watched the other women and thought that none of them looked so well or so pleased as she did. At her first visit she kept quiet, half anxious and half amused as to how her spinsterhood would be treated by the nurses and doctors, but once she discovered that it was taken not only calmly but with extra kindness, she relaxed. One of the other expectant mothers, very young, was like herself in having suffered nothing in the way of sickness or discomfort, and the two of them made an almost guilty smug corner together. She contrived to read details about herself over the shoulder of a nurse who was filling in a form about her, and glowed with ridiculous pride at all the ‘satisfactories’ and at ‘nipples: good’.

However simple and quick the examination itself, the clinic proved always to take between two and three hours, so she arranged to see her own doctor regularly instead. As she left the clinic for the last time she happened to be thinking about the problem of the child’s care while she was at the office, when a man leaned out of the cab of a passing truck and shouted at her, ‘That’s right love – keep smiling!’ She may have been worried, but there was still a smile on her face.

Those weeks of April and May were the only ones in her life when spring was wholly, fully beautiful. All other springs carried with them regret at their passing. If she thought, ‘Today the white double cherries are at their most perfect’ it summoned up the simultaneous awareness: ‘Tomorrow the edges of their petals will begin to turn brown.’ This time a particularly ebullient, sun-drenched spring simply existed for her. It was as though, instead of being a stationary object past which a current was flowing, she was flowing with it, in it, at the same rate. It was a happiness new to her, but it felt very ancient, and complete.

One Saturday, soon after her last clinic, the child’s father came to see her at lunchtime. She had got up early and done a big shop, but not a heavy one, because a short time before she became pregnant she had bought a basket on wheels (was it coincidence that several of her purchases just before the pregnancy were of things suited to it: that basket, the slacks which were rather too loose round the waist, with the matching loose top?). She left the basket at the bottom of the stairs for him to bring up, because strong and well though she felt, she was taking no foolish risks. They ate a good lunch, both of them cheerful and relaxed. After it he was telling her a funny story when she interrupted with, ‘Wait a minute, I must go to the loo – tell me when I get back,’ and hurried out to have a pee, wanting to get back quickly for the end of the story. When she saw blood on the toilet paper her mind went, for a moment, quite literally blank.

So she got up and went slowly back into the sitting room, thinking, ‘To press my fingers against my cheek like this must look absurdly overdramatic.’

‘I’m bleeding,’ she said in a small voice.

He scrambled up from the floor, where he’d been lying, and said,

‘What do you mean? Come and sit down. How badly?’

‘Only a very little,’ she said, and began to tremble.

He took her by the shoulders and pulled her against him, saying quieting things, saying, ‘It’s all right, we’ll ring the doctor, it’s probably nothing,’ and although she didn’t know she was going to start crying, she felt herself doing it. She had not yet been able to tell what she was feeling, but suddenly she was having to control herself hard in order not to scream. ‘The important thing,’ he said, ‘is to find out.’ He went to fetch the telephone directory and said, ‘Come on now, ring the doctor.’

The telephone was near her chair, so she didn’t have to move, which she felt was important. The doctor was off duty for the weekend, but a stand-in answered. Any pain? No. How much bleeding? She explained how little. Then there was nothing to be done but to go to bed at once and stay there for forty-eight hours. ‘Does this necessarily mean a miscarriage?’ she asked. No, certainly not. How would she know if it turned into one? It would seem like an exceptionally heavy period, with the passing of clots. If that happened she must telephone again, but otherwise just stay lying down.

Her lover ran out to buy her sanitary towels, alerting her friend downstairs as he went. During the few minutes she was alone she found herself crying again, flopped over the arm of her chair, tears streaming down her face, saying over and over again in a sort of whispered scream, ‘I don’t want to have a miscarriage, I don’t want to have a miscarriage.’ She knew it was a silly thing to be doing, and when her friend came she was relieved to find that she could pull herself together, sit up and talk.

They put her to bed, and there she lay, the bleeding almost imperceptible, feeling perfectly well. They reminded each other of women they knew about who had bled during pregnancy with no ill effect, and she soon became calm. During the next two days the bleeding became even less, but it did not quite stop, and over the phone her doctor repeated his colleague’s words: no one could do anything, it was not necessarily going to be a miscarriage, she would know all right if it became one, and she must stay in bed until it stopped. She was comfortable in her pretty bedroom, reading Jane Austen almost non-stop for her calming quality (she reread the whole of Mansfield Park, Nortbanger Abbey, Persuasion and The Watsons in four days), listening to the radio and doing a little office work. By the fourth day her chief anxiety had become not the possibility of a miscarriage, but the fear that this slight bleeding might tie her to her bed not for days but for weeks. A bedridden pregnancy would be bad enough for anyone, but for her, entirely dependent as she was on friends who all had jobs or families… How could they possibly go on doing as much as they were doing now?

She was lucky in one way: anxiety, fear and certain kinds of misery always had an almost anaesthetic effect on her, making her mind and feelings sluggish. Under such stresses she shrank into the moment, just doing the next thing to be done, and sleeping a lot. So those four days passed in a state of suspended emotion rather than in unhappiness – suspended emotion stabbed every now and then with irritation at the absurdity of having to fear disaster when she was feeling as well as ever. It was ridiculous!

During the night of the fourth day she came slowly out of sleep at three in the morning to a vague feeling that something was amiss. It took her a minute or two of sleepy wondering before she identified it more exactly. Not since she was a girl had she suffered any pain during her period – she had almost forgotten what kind of pain it was – but now…yes. In a dim, shadowy way it was that old pain that was ebbing and flowing in her belly. When it ebbed she thought, ‘Quick, go to sleep again, you were imagining it.’ But it came back, its fluctuations confirming its nature. More numb than ever, barely awake, she got up, fetched a bucket from the kitchen and a newspaper to fold and use as a lid, and a big towel from the linen cupboard. She arranged all this beside her bed and went to sleep again.

When she woke an hour and a half later it was because blood was trickling over her thigh. ‘This is it’: dull resentment was what she felt. She hitched herself out of bed and over the bucket – and woke with a cold shock at the thudding gush, the sensation that a cork had blown. ‘Oh god oh god,’ she thought, ‘I didn’t know it would be like this.’ Blood ran fast for about half a minute, then dwindled to a trickle. Swaddling herself in the towel, she lay back in the bed, telling herself that no doubt it had to be fairly gruesome to start with.

After that the warning trickle came every ten or fifteen minutes, out over the bucket she went, terrified that she might overturn it with a clumsy gesture as she removed and restored the newspaper lid. The gush was never as violent as the first one, but each time it was violent and it did not diminish. She tried not to see the dark, clotted contents of the bucket – it was only when she saw it that she almost began to cry. There was a peppery smell of blood, but if she turned her head in a certain way she could catch a whiff of fresh air from the window which lessened it. It was already light when she woke the second time, and soon after that the first blackbird began to sing. She lay still between the crises, watching the sun’s first rays coming into the room and trying to make out how many blackbirds were singing behind the one in her own garden.

Her friend would be coming up to give her breakfast. She usually came at eight – but it might be later. ‘If she doesn’t come till late…’ she thought, and became tearful. Then she decided to wait until seven thirty, by which time the bleeding would surely be less, and telephone her – with the towel between her legs she would be able to get to the sitting room where the phone was. The thought of telephoning the doctor herself was too much because if his number were engaged or he were out she couldn’t bear it, her friend must do it. Time was going very fast, she noticed, looking at the alarm clock on the corner of the chest of drawers. That was something anyway.

She had come out in a heavy sweat after the first flow, and at about six-thirty it happened again. The sweat streamed off her and she was icy cold, and – worse – she began to feel sick. The thought of having to complicate the horror by vomiting into that dreadful bucket put her in a panic, so when the sweating was over and the nausea had died away, immediately after another violent flow, she knew she must get to the telephone now. She huddled the towel between her legs, stood up, took two steps towards the door, felt herself swaying, thought quite clearly, ‘They are wrong when they say everything goes black, it’s not going black, it’s disappearing. I must fall on to the bed.’ Which she did.

The next hour was vague, but she managed to follow her routine: use bucket, put paper back, lie flat on bed, wrap dressing gown over belly. She began to feel much iller, with more sweating, more cold, more nausea. When she heard her lodger moving about in his room next door she knew she had to call him. He knew nothing of her pregnancy – thought she had been in bed with an upset stomach – and they were so far from being intimate that it had not entered her head to call him earlier. Perhaps she had even forgotten he was there. Now she tapped on the wall, and called his name, but he didn’t hear. A little more time passed, and she heard him in the passage outside her door and called again. This time he heard, and answered, and she told him to go downstairs and fetch her friend. ‘You mean now?’ came his startled voice through the door. ‘Yes, quickly.’ Oh that was wonderful, the sound of his feet hurrying away, and only a minute or two later her door opened and in came her friend.

One look and she ran for the telephone without saying a word. She caught the doctor in his surgery, two minutes before he went out on a call. He arrived so soon that it seemed almost at once, looked into the bucket, felt her pulse, pulled down her eyelid and left the room quickly to call an ambulance and alert the hospital. She felt hurt that neither he nor her friend had spoken to her, but now her friend said could she drink a cup of tea and she felt it would be wonderful – but couldn’t drink it when it appeared. The relief of not having to worry any more would have been exquisite, if it had not given her more time to realize how ill she was feeling. The ambulance men wrapped her in a beautiful big red blanket and said not to worry about bleeding all over it (so that was why ambulance blankets were usually red). The breath of fresh air as she was carried across the pavement made her feel splendidly alert after the dreadful dizziness of being carried downstairs, so she asked for a cigarette and they said it wasn’t allowed in the ambulance but she could have one all the same and to put the ash in the sick bowl. One puff and she felt much worse, so that her friend had to wipe the sweat off her forehead with a paper handkerchief. There was a pattern by then: a slowly mounting pain, a gush of blood, the sweating and nausea following at once and getting worse every time, accompanied by a terrible feeling that was not identifiable as pain but simply as illness. It made her turn her head from side to side and moan, although it seemed wrong to moan without intolerable pain.

The men carried her into a cubicle in the casualty department, and she didn’t want them to leave because they were so kind. As soon as she was there the nausea came again, stronger than ever so that this time she vomited, and was comforted because one of the men held her head and said, ‘Never mind, dear.’ A nurse said brusquely, while she was vomiting (trying to catch her unawares, she supposed), ‘Did you have an injection to bring this on?’ Her ‘No’ came out like a raucous scream, which made her feel apologetic so she had to gasp laboriously, ‘I wanted most terribly to have this baby.’ The man holding her head put his other hand on her arm and gave it a great squeeze, and that was the only time anyone questioned her.

Her head cleared a bit after she had been sick. She noticed that the nurse couldn’t find her pulse, and that when the doctor who soon came was listening to her heart through his stethoscope he raised his eyebrows a fraction and pursed his lips, and then turned to look at her face, not as one looks at a face to communicate, but with close attention. She also noticed that they could never hear her answers to their questions although she thought she was speaking normally. ‘They think I’m really bad,’ she said to herself, but she didn’t feel afraid. They would do whatever had to be done to make her better.

It went on being like that up in the ward, when they began to give her blood transfusions. Her consciousness was limited to the narrow oblong of her body on the stretcher, trolley or bed, and to the people doing things to it. Within those limits it was sharp, except during the recurring waves of horribleness, but it did not extend to speculation. When a nurse, being kind, said, ‘You may not have lost the baby – one can lose a great deal of blood and the baby can still be all right,’ she knew that was nonsense but felt nothing about it. When a doctor said to someone, ‘Call them and tell him he must hurry with that blood – say that he must run,’ she saw that things had gone further than she supposed but did not wonder whether he would run fast enough. When, a little later, they were discussing an injection and the same doctor said, ‘She’s very near collapse,’ she thought perfectly clearly, ‘Near collapse, indeed! If what I’m in now isn’t collapse, it must be their euphemism for dying.’ It did, then, swim dimly through her mind that she ought to think or feel something about this, but she hadn’t the strength to produce any more than, ‘Oh well, if I die, I die,’ and that thought, once registered, did not set up any echoes. The things which were real were the sordidness of lying in a puddle of blood, and the oddness of not minding when they pushed needles into her.

She also wanted to impress the nurses and doctors. Not till afterwards did she understand that she had slipped back into infancy; that the total trust in these powerful people, and the wish to make them think, ‘There’s a good, clever girl,’ belonged in the nursery. She wanted to ask them intelligent questions about what they were doing, and to make little jokes, provided she could do so in not more than four or five words, because more would be beyond her. It was annoying that they seemed not to hear her little mumblings, or else just said, ‘Yes dear’, looking at her face as they said it with that odd, examining expression. She made a brief contact with one of the doctors when he told them to do something ‘to stop her from being agitated’. What she wanted to say was: ‘Don’t be silly, I can’t wait for you to get me down to the theatre and start scraping,’ but all that came out was a peevish ‘Not agitated!’ to which he replied politely, ‘I’m sorry, of course you’re not.’ The only words she spoke from a deeper level than these feeble attempts at exhibitionism were when someone who was manipulating the blood bottle asked her if she was beginning to feel sleepy. It was during a wave of badness, and she heard her own voice replying hoarsely: ‘I’m feeling very ill.’

She had always dreaded the kind of anaesthetic one breathes, because of a bad experience, but when she understood that they were about to give her that kind and began to attempt a protest, she suddenly realized that she didn’t give a damn: let them hurry up, let them get that mask over her face and she would go with it willingly. This had been going on much, much too long and all she wanted was the end of it.

The operation must have been a quick one, under a light anaesthetic, because when she woke up to an awareness of hands manipulating her back into bed she was confused only for an instant, and only as to whether this was happening before or after the operation. That question was answered at once by the feeling in her belly: it was calm, she was no longer bleeding. She tried to move her hand down to touch herself in confirmation, and a nurse caught it and held it still – she hadn’t realized that there was still a transfusion needle taped into the back of it. Having moved, she began to vomit. She had a deep-seated neurotic queasiness about vomiting, a horror of it, and until that moment she would never have believed that she could have been sick while lying flat on her back with the bowl so awkwardly placed under her chin that the sick went into her hair, and felt happy while doing it. But that was what was happening. An amazing glow of relief and joy was flowing up from her healed belly. ‘I AM ALIVE.’ It was enough. It was everything. It was filling her to the brim with pure and absolute joy, a feeling more intense than any she had known. And very soon after that she was wondering why they were bothering to set up a new bottle of plasma, because she could have told them that all she needed now was to rest.

So if she were pinned down to the question ‘What did you feel on losing your child?’ the only honest answer would be ‘Nothing’. Nothing at all, while it was going on. What was happening was so bad – so nearly fatal – that it eclipsed its own significance. And during the four days she spent in hospital she felt very little; no more than a detached acknowledgement that it was sad. Hospital routine closed round her gently, isolating her in that odd, childish world where nurses in their early twenties are the ‘grown-ups’, and the exciting events are visiting time and being allowed to get up and walk to the lavatory. When it was time to go home she was afraid that she would hate her bedroom, expecting to have a horror of the blackbird’s song and perhaps of some little rusty stain on the blue carpet, but friends took her home to an accompaniment of flowers, delicacies and cheerful talk, and she saw that it was still a pleasant room, her flat still a lovely place to live.

There was even relief: she would not now have to tell her mother anything, and she would not have to worry about money any more than usual. She could spend some on clothes for her holiday as soon as she liked, and she saw that she would enjoy the clothes and the holiday. It was this that was strange and sad, and made her think so often of how happy she had been while she was expecting the child (not of how unhappy she was now, because she wasn’t). This was what sometimes gave her a dull ache, like a stomach-ache but not physical: that someone who didn’t yet exist could have the power to create spring, and could then be gone, and that once he was gone (she had always thought of the child as a boy) he became, because he had never existed, so completely gone: that the only tears shed for him were those first, almost unconscious tears shed by her poor old tortoise of a subconscious rather than by her. ‘I don’t want to have a miscarriage.’ Oh no, no, no, she hadn’t wanted it, it was the thing she didn’t want with all her heart. Yet now it had happened, and she was the same as she had always been…except that now she knew that, although if she had died during the miscarriage she would hardly, because of her physical state, have noticed it, the truth was that she loved being alive so much that not having died was more important to her by far than losing the child: more important than anything.

I lost that child forty years ago. Much has changed since then. Nowadays, if you want an abortion it is not necessary to know of a doctor willing to risk his career by breaking the law; and although the mother of a woman in her early forties would be unlikely to rejoice on learning that her unmarried daughter planned to have a child, she would be less shocked at such news than mothers used to be. The surroundings of the event would now be different. But the event itself – that would be the same.

After the miscarriage, I scribbled some notes to rid my mind of it and forgot all about them. Recently, when I was hunting for something in a rarely opened drawer, I found them under a pile of other old papers. My sense of recall as I read them was sharp, yet the woman to whom this happened, though not exactly a stranger – I knew her well – was no longer me. Retelling this experience in the third person is my way of acknowledging the difference between ‘her’ and me.

I think now that, if the child had been born, my lover would have been a devoted father; over the years I have seen how much he enjoys children. As for me, I suppose – I hope – that I would have loved the child wholeheartedly; but the truth is that in forty years I have hardly ever thought about it, and never with anything more poignant than painless speculation as to how it would have turned out.

A Religious Conversation
Eight Pieces for the Left Hand