The first time I spoke to Louise was the morning I misplaced my baby. I had seen her before, of course, sitting next to her own incubator.
There were dozens and dozens of incubators in Special Care Nursery. All clear plastic, like those used to hatch chickens, only bigger. Each one had a little red changeling inside. Mewling for milk and then sleeping like opium addicts with uneasy dreams. Mothers sitting alongside, elephant-grey with exhaustion.
Louise was more colourful.
Her hair was a margarine yellow, as sallow as her son’s skin. Benjamin had a bad case of jaundice, among many other ailments, and was being kept under bili lights, stretched out in only a nappy with sunglasses on his head. Beside him, Louise, thin as a blade, wore full make-up and a blood-red manicure, yet she had the wan smile of a woman being stretched too far.
That particular morning when I first spoke to Louise, I had four bottles of expressed milk with me. I’m a good milker. Not many mothers with premature babies are. Judy was in the dairy, a cavernous sterile room with fridges and freezers, unlocking the medicine cabinet. She was starting her day shift.
‘Liquid gold,’ Judy said, and it was like getting a badge saying ‘Good Mother’ despite my placenta packing up and my baby being underdone. So I was smiling when I went to say hello to Colm that morning, only I couldn’t find him. Instead, there was an empty nest waiting for the next egg. My first thought was that he had died and they had forgotten to tell me. It had been the constant fear lingering in the back of my mind, like a headache that wouldn’t shift. My heart splintered into a hundred pieces as I stood there. He wasn’t even supposed to be born yet and should still have been safe inside me. My badge slipped off and I was no longer a mother, good, bad or indifferent.
That’s when Louise called out to me. ‘He was moved this morning. Next row and around the corner. They always forget to tell you.’
She stayed where she was sitting and didn’t come any closer, which was kind because I had started crying fat hormonal tears for Colm, my morsel of skin and sinew. I sniffled thanks and she told me, ‘You’re closer to the door now,’ and gave me one of her melancholic smiles, because she wasn’t.
Getting to the door was the goal. It meant you were free, discharged from Special Care Nursery. At the end of your pilgrimage. Setting off to find what I had lost, I passed Judy walking the other way, a baby under one arm. Polishing its head like a spinner shines a cricket ball, Judy was waging a one woman’s war on cradle cap. I gave her a sideways look, but wasn’t brave enough to say anything. You don’t get closer to the door by giving out to the nurses.
I had already spent days sitting next to Colm, who was tethered with tubes and bandages so he wouldn’t disappear if I turned my back. So small, a gust of wind could have sent him up like a kite. I only held him for a moment, the night he was born, and then the next time I saw him he was covered in wires with an oxygen hood, cuffs and bandages, hooked up to a machine with more lights than a Christmas tree.
That first day it had been hard to look at him without crying, and I had asked to be wheeled straight back to my room where I found my husband listening to his mother on the phone. Helen has a penetrating voice. She was fleeing the Melbourne winter in Port Douglas and was affronted that Colm had arrived at a time inconvenient to her. She searched for a scientific justification to blame me. That glass of champagne at Christmas.
Had I been eating potatoes, smoked salmon, soft cheese? I remembered my folate, surely. Perhaps I should have left work earlier. She said it in a way that rendered the ‘perhaps’ redundant.
‘Shame he isn’t a girl. Girls are better fighters when premature.’ Her voice crackled into the room as if she could pin that one on me as well.
‘Don’t cut short your holiday,’ my husband told her. ‘We’ll need your expertise when he comes home from the hospital.’
I didn’t have the energy to argue with this but Helen wasn’t listening to him anyway. She was too busy complaining about the name we had chosen (which she would deliberately misspell as Colin on the postcard she’d send us the following week). When Helen finally asked to talk to me, I pretended I was too tired, leaving Frank grimacing and then apologising for me. ‘It’s her first grandchild,’ he told me later. ‘She’s concerned, that’s all.’ But I was attaching myself to a noisy electric breast pump and acted like I couldn’t hear.
Weeks passed in our twilight world of almost babies and mums with L-plates. I began to forget about life outside and my place in it. The universe revolved around wet nappies and feeds. Like anorexics and boxers, my life was defined by weigh-ins. Baths were a nerve-racking experience. I was convinced that Colm would disappear down the plughole if I let him go. That trusting plush neck on my wrist. The flutter of his heartbeat, visible in his chest, matched the racing gallop in mine as I circled his bicep with a finger of steel to keep him safe.
The boredom of each day was punctuated by the new arrival of red tadpoles, all heads with bodies as afterthoughts, and saying goodbye to the pink babies heading out the door. Triplets arrived one afternoon. Three wriggling jellybeans. I caught Louise’s eye at the sight of the shocked mother following them and I think both of us offered up prayers of thanks that we had only the one. Louise had connived to get Benjamin moved next to us. The nurses weren’t convinced, even though his jaundice had improved, but Louise was set on it.
Colm graduated from drip to bottle. We attempted breastfeeding once he developed the ability to suck. It was a comedy of errors where neither of us knew what to do. He snuffled, trying to find the nipple, cracked and cratered, but once found, he only licked it and slid straight off. He lay there, eyes closed, with a lolling tongue that seemed too big for his head, expecting the milk to come to him.
Frank was coming in each night after work to pick me up. ‘Put your tongue in, little fella,’ he would say, as he took another photograph. ‘This one’s for grandma. She’s coming to visit soon.’
Poke it out further, I thought.
Louise’s husband, a suited business type, visited only occasionally, but then some people aren’t fond of hospitals. He never held Benjamin and would occasionally look at him as if assessing a profit and loss sheet. Most of the time, he stood there absorbed by work calls, even though there were signs at every entrance saying no mobiles allowed. Something to do with the machines. One day Louise told me that they had been going to get a divorce but then she had fallen pregnant.
Gathering moss on uncomfortable chairs, worn out from the mothers who preceded us, Louise and I talked and talked to pass the time. I tried to laugh about the day I’d lost my baby and assumed the worst.
‘An unexpected visitor,’ Louise called death. ‘You never know when he’ll turn up.’
I wasn’t the only one panicking. The noise of the machines and the chatter of nurses covered up the prayers, spells and incantations of new parents making bargains to keep their babies. A bulky bear of a Greek Orthodox priest arrived one day, bearded and in black. He blessed us all. I found it comforting but Louise was dismissive.
‘Just words,’ she said. ‘Pagans had the right idea. A proper gesture. Offering death a genuine alternative. Sacrifice a life for a life.’
It was a bit over the top, but I had to make allowances for someone who hadn’t slept in a month. Besides, I had my own superstitions. A watched pot never boils, a watched baby doesn’t die. I never admitted it to anyone, other than Louise, but it’s what I thought every day I sat there. An eye on Colm, the other on all the babies in my row. I focused a lot on Saffron because her mother lived in the country and couldn’t be at the hospital as often as the rest of us. Round, dimpled, with wispy blond hair, she was the oldest baby in the nursery.
‘Full term,’ Amber explained to me. Amber was the youngest nurse on the ward. Just looking at her pert chest and flat stomach depressed me. A giggler by nature, she didn’t smile when she looked at Saffron.
‘Dropped on her head,’ she whispered. ‘A home birth.’ But then a baby started crying in the next aisle and, distracted, she left before she could tell me more.
Louise had lots of opinions on the nurses. ‘Not one of them has had a baby,’ she told me. ‘Not one. They don’t know what it’s like at all.’ She had caught Judy swallowing a dose of the babies’ strengthening medicine, dreadful yellow stuff that smelled of petrol and pineapple. Even when heavily diluted with milk, the babies hated it.
‘If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me,’ Judy told her.
‘As bold as brass,’ Louise said. ‘And all subsidised by the taxpayer.’
We knew that lovely laughing Amber was carrying on with the handsome Dr. Lee who did the rounds most mornings. Louise saw them spring apart when she walked into the nurses’ lunch room to use the microwave, even though patients weren’t allowed in there. ‘Much too young for him,’ she said, and then asked if I had noticed his strong hands. I’d noticed the gold band on his fourth finger but when I mentioned it, Louise shrugged as if that was neither here nor there. That’s when I realised that Louise wasn’t wearing her wedding ring.
We both disliked Agnes. A squat square woman, she considered the babies to be her property. Mothers were to be ordered around, bovine-like, as she saw fit. Full of advice for others, she didn’t do her own job properly. She never filled in the charts and often forgot which baby had been fed.
‘She leaves the medicine cabinet unlocked,’ I told Louise, trying to keep up my end of the conversation.
‘Really?’ she replied, and her expression was surprised and calculating, all at once. ‘There are dangerous drugs in there.’ When she smiled there was a serrated edge to it. Louise had once worked as a pharmaceutical rep. She knew about these things.
Louise was there the day my mother-in-law Helen came to visit, straight from the airport, sun-tanned and full of the self-importance of a woman who had produced three full-term children. Ten pounders each, she told anyone who seemed interested and quite a few who were clearly not. ‘Never even been in Special Care before,’ she said proudly. ‘Never had the need.’
Then she turned her attention to Colm.
‘What have you done to him? You could make stock with bones like that. He needs to be on formula.’ She poked him with a gnarled finger, like a witch from a fairy tale.
I thought of all the feeds we had attempted together, the bottles I had expressed in the middle of the night with only a photograph of him to keep me company, and felt deflated.
Helen had already moved her focus on to Benjamin, looking at him appraisingly, weighing him in her head and coming up short. No smile from Louise today. Instead, she stared hard at Helen, willing her to take a pot shot at her baby. A guard dog with its hackles up. Even Helen sensed the hostility and decided to move towards Saffron, whose mother was safely absent.
‘Now that’s what I call a baby. Couldn’t you just gobble her? Round as a peach. Not like these skinned rats.’ She waved her hand to dismiss the rest of the cots. ‘She’s just like my babies.’
‘Did they have brain damage as well?’ Louise asked.
For one moment, the only sound was the steady beep of a nearby monitoring machine.
Helen’s face tied itself in a sour knot. Frank stood there open-mouthed. I pretended I hadn’t heard anything but when I passed Louise to put a dirty nappy in the bin, she winked and I couldn’t supress a smile. Whether Helen saw this, I can’t be sure, but when I returned her mouth was like a prune. She said nothing more to me until it was time for her to leave.
‘I’ve decided that I should move in with you when you come out of hospital. I’ll stay in the spare room,’ she said. ‘Someone needs to take proper care of that poor wee thing.’
It was my turn to gawp as Frank said that would be lovely. By the time I had recovered enough to murmur something about taking care of my own baby, she was ordering my husband to carry her suitcase out to the car and pretended not to hear.
Dr. Lee was on shift the day we left. He signed the documents to discharge us, wedding ring still on his finger. New babies filled the rows now. Most of the ones I had watched over had made it out the door. Saffron had gone the week before, but only after the nurses checked that her parents had a proper baby seat for the car.
The nurses loaded us up with measuring droppers, medicine and lots of advice. I was given contradictory information on how to drink wine and breastfeed at the same time. A necessary skill, the nurses all agreed. A local sewing group made little blankets for the special-care babies to receive as a memento. I chose a blue one with ducks on it for Colm.
Amber was looking peaky that morning when I handed out the thank-you chocolates. She turned a little green but then Colm needed a nappy change. I don’t think she should have come into work because she cut short her goodbyes to us and ran quickly to the bathroom. Maybe she needed to dose up on the strengthening medicine like Judy.
I almost didn’t get to see Louise because she wasn’t sitting in her normal spot. I had left that farewell last of all, because I knew how hard it was for her to look at healthy babies. Benjamin was sick with a virus and had not put on any weight in three days. As I put the good luck present I had bought, a small teddy bear, on her feeding chair, I saw her emerge out of the dairy. There was a quick glance, almost furtive, as she closed the door behind her.
‘You’ll be okay?’ I asked her. ‘I’ll call you.’
‘We are going to be fine,’ she answered. And then my husband came in with the carrier for our baby and as I took one last look at the nursery, Louise was sitting there, just like when I first noticed her. Razor sharp. Keeping watch.
It was over two months before I caught up with Louise again, in one of the few cafes that could accommodate two prams the size of small cars. I had sent flowers when I saw the news in the paper and called her as well. We had spent all this time protecting our babies only for death to come for someone completely different. He had looked like such a strong man as well. Still, Louise was composed when we spoke. I said something about the circle of life and she agreed with me.
I had meant to bring a lasagne or some biscuits for her, but I didn’t have the time to make them. We’d had our own troubles. Not Colm, he was thriving. Smiling now. Almost chubby. No, it was Helen. A stroke right in the middle of the ladies’ weekly golf game. We came out of hospital and she went in.
‘Like ambulances passing in the night,’ I said to Louise. ‘At first Frank thought she’d recuperate with us but I’ve found a lovely convalescent home.’
I fished out a copy of the brochure I had stuffed into the pocket of my pram.
Louise flicked through it with one hand, patting Benjamin with the other. It was nearly feeding time and he was a little grizzly.
‘Expensive?’ she asked.
I tried not to complain but it was looking like a permanent arrangement and our finances were tight. Helen was refusing to contribute one cent.
Our conversation moved on to the boys’ developmental milestones and our lack of sleep.
‘Can I keep this?’ Louise asked, after I had paid the bill and we started negotiating the obstacle course of cafe chairs to get to the footpath. She held out the brochure. ‘I might drop by. I need an excuse to get out of the house.’
‘You’ll visit Helen?’ I asked, confused. ‘Shall I mention it to her?’
Louise gave me a switchblade smile. ‘Let it be a surprise,’ she said. ‘Old people love an unexpected visitor.’