I’m brushing my teeth when I hear the crunch of tyre on gravel. Kyle looks startled when he opens the door.
‘Hi honey,’ he says. He tries to kiss my cheek.
I lean away. ‘You’re late.’
‘Sorry. Got stuck in an operation.’ He locks the door and bends to take off his shoes. ‘How’s bub?’
‘Why didn’t you ring?’
‘Sorry.’ He puts his shoes in the shoe chest. ‘I didn’t get a chance.’
He starts heading towards the living room. ‘Something smells nice,’ he says. ‘What did you have for dinner?’
I throw the toothbrush at him. It misses and hits the stairs.
‘You want to know what I had?’ I yell. Fine flecks of toothpaste foam fly from my mouth. ‘One little square of cheese. That’s all.’
‘What are you brushing your teeth for then?’
I let out a scream of frustration. I go over to pick up my toothbrush.
‘Hon, what’s the matter?’ He holds out his hand to help me up. I ignore it. I point the toothbrush at him.
‘You can make your own dinner. I’m never going to waste time on you again.’
I storm back to the bathroom.
‘Honey.’ He’s right behind me. I slam the door in his face.
I’m all sweaty now. I undress, turn on the shower and get in. I close my eyes and breathe out as the water hits my cheeks.
By the time I’ve gotten out and into fresh PJs I feel calmer.
I find him at the table eating a bowl of instant noodles. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t call,’ he says with his mouth full.
‘Well don’t do it again,’ I say, pulling out a chair and sitting down.
He chews and swallows. ‘What’s with the fancy plates and candle?’
‘I had this crazy idea that we could have a nice sit-down dinner together,’ I say. ‘You know, one last celebration where it’s just the two of us.’
‘I’m really sorry,’ he says, staring into his bowl.
‘It’s not your fault,’ I say, rubbing under my ribcage where it’s burning. ‘I guess you can’t help it if you’re stuck in an operation.’
He tips his bowl back and drinks the juice.
‘Is she okay?’ I ask.
‘The patient you were stuck with,’ I say. ‘What was it, a cancer operation?’
‘Something like that,’ he says. He gets up and goes to the sink.
‘Do you want anything else?’ I ask.
‘No thanks.’ He glances at the clock. ‘I’m going to have a shower and then go to bed.’
I stay sitting while he washes his dishes. My hands are itchy. I feel queasy. My head is starting to throb.
‘Was it ovarian cancer?’ I ask.
‘The case you were stuck with. Was it ovarian cancer?’
He reaches for the tea towel. ‘Actually it was a couple of Caesareans,’ he says, his back turned to me.
I’m confused. And headachy. And tired. And nauseous. And over it.
‘What were you doing on labour ward?’ I ask. ‘I thought you were still doing your gynaecology oncology rotation.’
‘I am,’ he says. His face looks flushed. ‘One of the consultants asked me to assist her though.’
‘That’s not fair,’ I say. ‘Why wasn’t someone else rostered on to help her?’
He opens the fridge and takes out a bottle of water. He takes a long swig. I’m standing glaring at him when he closes the door.
‘Were they private patients?’
‘Why?’ I’m yelling again. ‘You know why! You promised you wouldn’t do any more private assisting.’
‘Settle down, Bunny.’
I jab him in the chest. ‘Don’t you “settle down” me! I spent hours in the kitchen making a nice dinner and you let it go to waste.’
‘Look, I’m sorry. I wish you’d told me.’
‘So it’s my fault, is it?’ I yell. ‘It’s my fault you’d rather spend time at work than with your family.’
‘I never said that,’ he pleads. ‘Anyway, I didn’t look for private assisting okay? She just rung up and asked me.’
I stamp my foot. ‘Then why didn’t you say no?’
‘Look, I’m sorry.’ He’s sounding impatient now. ‘I’m going to have my shower.’
He’s halfway up the stairs when he turns back. ‘Why do you think I said yes?’ he says. ‘There’s a little thing called money, you know. You use it to buy things like food and electricity and clothes and stuff. If you earned some for once you’d know what it is.’
He keeps heading up. By the time I scream out ‘Arsehole’ he’s disappeared.
I’m sweaty again. My body feels like it’s been stuffed in a barrel and thrown over a cliff. I need to lie down.
Upstairs in our bedroom I curl up on top of the doona. I feel so miserable I can’t lie still. I get up and go down the hallway to the nursery. As I walk past the bathroom door I kick it.
I sit in the recliner couch. I shut my eyes and count my breathing. A whirring ball of sharp panic is growing in my chest. I scratch and scratch my palms until I force myself to stop. I open my eyes and focus on the stuffed toys. I look at Paddington, I look at his wellington boots, his red hat, the note pinned to his coat. ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you.’ Please look after…Please…Please…It’s not working. I look at the jumperoo instead. That doesn’t help either and now I feel like crying. I give my bump a jiggle and wait.
I am crying when Kyle comes in, dressed in his tartan boxers and Bonds T-shirt. He comes over and sits on the recliner’s arm rest and runs his fingers through my hair.
‘Why do I keep doing it?’ he says.
I wipe my nose on my sleeve. ‘Doing what?’
‘Being a cranky arsehole.’
Despite myself I smile. I reach and take his hand.
He squeezes my fingers. We don’t say anything for a while. I look at the empty picture frame waiting for our photo. I start sniffling again.
‘Hon.’ Kyle kneels down in front of me. ‘What is it?’
‘I’m scared,’ I say.
He rests his hand on my bump. ‘Try not to be,’ he says softly. ‘I won’t let anything happen to the two of you.’
He leans forward. He kisses the bump. He rests his head against me. ‘Only a couple of days to go,’ he says.
I smile. I stroke his hair. I run my fingers over where it’s thinning.
We stay like this for ages.
Eventually he looks up.
‘Bub’s having a snooze,’ he says.
I frown. ‘I know,’ I say. ‘I’ve hardly felt any movement all afternoon.’
The lights in the room are dim. Outside the night sky is black. The midwife’s half-turned away from me. Her shoulder-length brown hair casts a shadow across her face. I lie still, holding my breath. As we all stare at the CTG I’m desperate for a sound other than the distortion and the static.
Suddenly there’s something else. ‘There!’ I sit up and point at the machine. ‘There!’
‘Please lie back down.’ The midwife puts pressure on my shoulder. ‘Let me check your pulse.’ She fumbles for my wrist. Her name’s Nikki. She’s young, mid-twenties. She shakes her head. ‘No, that’s your heartbeat.’ Her eyes are wide. She looks scared and out of her depth.
The CTG squeals as she squirts more gel on the probe. She tries listening above my belly button this time. It still sounds the same—hisses and pops, like white noise from a TV. My throat feels tight. I’m almost at the point of screaming.
I look up at Kyle. He’s dressed in the crumpled work clothes that he fished out of the laundry hamper before our quick drive down to Mount Surrey. His forehead’s furrowed. ‘Let me have a go,’ he says. He reaches for the probe. Nikki snatches it away and clutches it to her chest.
‘I’m not allowed to,’ she says.
He folds his arms and glares at her.
I close my eyes and try counting my breaths. I feel Nikki pressing in with the probe, waiting, angling, waiting, moving on to another spot. Nothing matters except hearing that heartbeat. My own is deafening, the blood surging through my ears.
‘Oh for fuck’s sake!’ Kyle shouts. My eyes fly open. He storms over to the window and slaps his palm against the glass.
Nikki stands up. ‘Look,’ she says, her hands trembling. ‘I understand you’re worried but you need to calm down.’
‘And you need to know what you’re doing!’ Kyle yells. ‘If you can’t work the fucking machine then go get someone who can.’
Nikki looks like she’s about to cry. She turns and hurries out of the room.
‘Why can’t we hear the heartbeat?’ I say. My voice breaks.
Kyle comes over, turns the CTG machine off then back on, turns the volume up and replugs the probe’s lead. He’s pressing it firmly into my belly when Nikki comes back. She’s got another midwife with her.
‘My name’s Helen. I’m the midwife-in-charge,’ the other midwife says in a firm voice. She’s much older. Around sixty. Medium height, solid build, short curly grey hair. Kyle ignores her. She taps him on the shoulder. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ she says.
He looks up briefly, lips thin. She reaches for the probe. He pushes her hand away.
‘Don’t,’ he says. ‘I know what I’m doing.’
‘I’m not debating that,’ she says. ‘But you know you’re not allowed to treat family.’
‘Ssh!’ He holds his finger to his lips. He keeps searching.
Helen reaches over and switches the machine off. Kyle turns, face livid.
‘I’ll call security,’ Nikki says, poised near the door.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ Helen snaps. She turns back to Kyle and speaks gently. ‘You need to pull yourself together,’ she says. ‘You’re upsetting your wife.’
He looks at me, eyes wild, he looks at her, he looks back at me. ‘Where’s Dr Auburn?’
‘He’s coming,’ Helen says. She touches his shoulder. ‘Now come on, take a seat. I’ll have a listen but you need to try and stay calm.’
Kyle nods. Eyes on the ground. I’m so scared I feel like retching.
‘Now first things first, sweety,’ Helen says. ‘Sit up for a sec.’ As I lean forward she plumps the pillows behind me and asks Nikki to go check on room seven.
When it’s just the three of us she switches on the machine. The screen flickers, then glows a faint blue.
She squirts gel on the probe. She looks up and tries to smile.
‘Now let’s see what we can hear.’
‘I need some water,’ I murmur.
I’m slumped over the beanbag. Kyle’s rubbing my neck. ‘Here hon.’ He brings the straw to my lips.
I can feel another contraction coming. A tight excruciating cramp. It starts in my belly and spreads all over. I close my eyes and rock back and forth on my knees. I bury my face in the beanbag and groan. I take in a deep breath and push.
‘That’s the way,’ Helen says behind me.
My arms are shaking. I gasp and push again.
The contraction is starting to ease. I pant, open my eyes. Focus on Kyle’s jeans.
A heavier hand rests on my back. Dr Auburn’s bent-down face comes into view. ‘That last push was very good, Sara,’ he says. ‘We’re starting to see some hair.’ I nod. I’m out of breath.
Dr Auburn steps away. Kyle strokes my cheek. ‘I’m really proud of you, honey.’ I reach up and squeeze his hand. He squeezes back gently, avoiding the needle in the back of mine.
I let go when I feel another contraction building. I bite the beanbag. It tastes like vinyl and soap.
‘That’s it.’ Helen’s voice. ‘Let your body tell you what to do.’
I bear down. I strain so hard I see red. It’s burning. It’s stinging. I take a shuddering breath. The urge is still there. I push again. More pain.
After it’s gone I lie there sobbing.
Kyle wipes my forehead. ‘It’s okay hon,’ he says. ‘You’re almost there.’
‘Do you want to try another position, sweety?’ Helen asks.
I shake my head. All of a sudden nausea hits me. I lean forward and vomit.
‘I’m sorry.’ I start crying again. Drool runs from my nose.
‘Don’t be silly,’ she says. ‘I’ll just get you to sit up.’
Kyle helps me to turn around so I’m sitting upright on the birthmat. He supports my back while I hang my head between my knees. I hear Helen wiping up behind me.
Another contraction is coming. I start to panic.
‘Don’t waste your energy,’ Dr Auburn says. ‘Push!’
My body takes over. Pain and pressure roll forward. My teeth clenched. Eyes shut. Chin on my chest. Every muscle fibre straining. There’s so much pressure now. I feel myself give way.
Helen’s kneeling between my legs. She looks up at me.
‘That’s it, sweety,’ she says. ‘The head’s nearly out.’
Later that morning there’s a soft knock on the door.
I’m sitting in the armchair. Kyle’s on a chair facing me. Benny’s in the cot between us. We’ve been like this for the past hour. Not talking. Just looking. Not really knowing what to say.
Kyle goes and opens the door. It’s Dr Auburn. He’s in a fresh white shirt and clean pants.
‘How are you feeling?’ he asks.
I don’t say anything.
‘I’m sorry.’ He stands there, fingers fidgeting, like he’s not sure what to say next.
‘I need to ask you two a difficult question,’ he finally says.
‘Is it about an autopsy?’ Kyle says.
Kyle’s hand tightens on my shoulder. I sit here. Nothing seems real.
‘Have you examined him?’ Kyle asks.
‘I did earlier,’ Dr Auburn says.
‘There’s nothing obvious. Though it’s hard to tell when…’ He stops and studies his thumbs.
‘When do we have to decide by?’ Kyle says.
Dr Auburn glances at Benny. ‘No rush,’ he says. ‘Tomorrow morning will be fine.’
I look out the window at the grey sky.
‘I don’t want to stay another night.’ My voice is hoarse.
‘You don’t have to,’ Dr Auburn says. He sounds apologetic. ‘But I’d prefer if you did.’
‘I’d like to see some improvement in your liver and renal function profile first.’
I close my eyes and lean my head back.
‘Plus it will give you a chance to see the social worker,’ I hear him say.
‘To help you with the forms and funeral arrangements. And also to provide you with options for counselling.’
‘I’m already seeing a psychologist,’ I say, my eyes still closed.
‘Okay.’ There’s a pause. His shoes squeak. ‘Is there anything you wanted to ask me?’
I count my breaths.
I shake my head.
‘Once again I’m terribly sorry for what’s happened.’ His voice rises. ‘I’ll see you later then.’
‘Thanks,’ Kyle says. I feel him lean forward. I imagine them shaking hands.
‘Good bye, Sara,’ Dr Auburn says. His footsteps head towards the door.
‘Why didn’t you induce me?’
‘Honey.’ Kyle squeezes my shoulder. I ignore him.
Dr Auburn stands still, face straight, with his hand on the doorknob. He comes back over and sits down on the edge of the bed.
‘I can understand your anger,’ he says.
‘I’m not angry,’ I say. ‘I just want to know why.’
‘When I saw you in my rooms last Wednesday,’ he says cautiously, ‘there wasn’t really an indication.’
‘What do you mean there wasn’t an indication?’ I yell. Dr Auburn recoils. ‘What about being alive? He was still alive!’
I drop my face in my hands and cry. And cry. Kyle strokes my hair but I barely notice.
Eventually I slow down. I take a handful of tissues and blow my nose.
‘Now look.’ Dr Auburn leans forward and touches my knee. ‘I’ll come back and talk to you later this evening, okay?’
He stands up again. ‘Now try and get some rest.’
After he leaves Kyle squats down in front of me.
‘How about I pop out for a couple of hours,’ he says. ‘Give you a chance to nap.’
I look at our son lying there. His little face peeking out between his red pompom cap and his blanket.
‘I want to hold him again,’ I say.
‘Honey.’ Kyle squeezes my hand. He looks into my eyes. ‘How about later. Have a rest first.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I can rest for the rest of my life. But I’ve only got Benny for today.’
This is a reprint of work originally published in Verandah.
Suvi Mahonen holds a Master’s degree in Writing and Literature from Deakin University in Australia. Her writing has appeared in a number of literary magazines and online in Australia (Island, LiNQ, Verandah), the UK (East of the Web), the United States (Drunk Monkeys), Canada (All Rights Reserved) and Chile (GringoLandiaSantiago). She has also worked as a journalist in Australia and Canada and has published many feature articles, reviews and travel stories. More of her work can be found at http://www.redbubble.com/people/suvimahonen.