Where life begins and ends, by Katherine Collins

This essay was originally published by Oxford Writers' House.


The pain began at 5am, after a night of fitful rest and vivid dreams. In bed, lying on my left side, facing the white lacquered built-in cupboard lined with shiny green and pink 1980s wallpaper. The cupboard is too narrow to be useful but we can’t change it, it’s not our cottage. Later I sit bolt upright on the sofa, like a suspect in an interview room. Please state your name for the tape. Where were you on the afternoon of the twelfth of November? By that time I was on the way, travelling to the place where I was born. 

Unlike me, my mother was born at home, at the centre of everything, in Nanny Roberts’s front bedroom at Haig Place. My grandmother, Rita, was born at home too, in the Roberts family’s tiny cottage in Llandough. And her mother, the woman who became Ivy Roberts, was born in Queen Street, Barry Island. Ivy was so tiny that she had no hair at all, not even eyelashes, and she could be bathed in a jug. Her hair never really grew properly, and to cover its sparseness she often wore a red beret. When she nursed wounded soldiers at Llandough hospital she wore a white cap as part of her uniform, but Ted Roberts, who spent months in a mustard gas coma with shrapnel lodged in his spine, would always tell his daughters he first saw 17-year-old Ivy wearing her red beret; he called it her ‘berry’. That Ted Roberts, Ivy’s mother called him. The broken soldier who could only shuffle, fifteen years older, who married Ivy when she was already four months pregnant. That Ted Roberts.

But twenty-five years ago – give or take a few weeks – I was born here, in this hospital. On the outside it hasn’t changed at all; an ugly concrete slab slapped onto a steep hill. Hobble down grey concrete steps, across the ambulance bay, through double doors to find a sweeping curve of reception desk that matched the Scandinavian style laminate floor, a basement swarming with a strip light buzz. Phones ringing, feet bustling, pop music from the speakers. The oily smell of waiting room chairs with base notes of sickly floral disinfectant. Lying on my back on a high, hard bed with a plastic mattress, knees dropped, dignity a tattered flag, to discover how many centimetres dilated I am. Too few. Go home. We can’t help yet. Try a warm bath. 

Warm baths are soon cold, and anyway the prone position is wrong for the pain. Wrong for the tiny fingers inside, clinging to the spine like ivy growing up a fence, the weight of a thousand tendrils crushing it to splinters. Back on the ancient sofa, lemon yellow with tiny green flowers. It’s not mine but it sags in the middle in just the right way to make it bearable, as if I’ve always sat here like this. A visitor, unwelcome footsteps clack across the floorboards we sanded and varnished a few weeks ago. I sit upright, chin lowered to chest like a stubborn toddler, and stare at her sensible, low-heeled pumps. She’s said nothing, done nothing, and yet I resent her intrusion with the throbbing deep red of treacherous muscles: the furious colour of my insides. My unblinking eyes scorch her shoes until they are dry and burning and the shine fades to a dull glow. Maybe she feels the heat. I don’t look up, the shoes move out of my vision, and I hear the soft swish of the front door pulled shut. 

Hours more, it must be time to go again. Back up the motorway, wincing and gasping at every bump. Down the treacherous sharp-edged steps again, across the yellow hatchings of the ambulance bay, again, and through the double doors. The oily chemical-floral smell, the hard-backed chairs upholstered in hairy blue, lining the endless corridor in which we wait. Rhythmic music. Flashes of perception… I don’t know who you are, but you must be some kind of superstar... We are ushered into a different room with the same high metal bed with the plastic mattress. I just want to know, I’ve got no frame of reference for this, I explain. It’s my first time. Will it get worse than this? I just need to know, so I can prepare. I’ve already been awake for 15 hours with these pains every five minutes – I don’t think they believe me about that – and I just need to know.

Rita had her first son in Nanny Roberts’s front bedroom, during the war. Not in the Blitz, when Cardiff residents would cringe from the sound of the balloon barrage on Ely Racecourse and the growl of Henkel bombers looking for the Currans factories where Rita stitched aircraft wings, but just after the Normandy landings. Jim was an officer in the RAF and he would talk to Grandpa Roberts, by now confined to his wheelchair. He would confide in him, and only him, about the horrors he witnessed, and those he caused. Like the time they shot down a German bomber somewhere off the south coast and circled while the aircraft and crew were mired, helpless before the tide. Jim wasn’t supposed to talk about it, of course, but his father-in-law understood as few others could. Understood these young men, always so close to death, who took uppers for missions and downers so they could sleep afterwards. 

It does get worse, of course it does. The shift changes, my new midwife is older. I tell her I haven’t slept for more than 24 hours. She tells me in her lilting accent that guidelines advise against it, it makes the baby drowsy, but if I want she can give me a shot that’ll help me sleep for a few hours. I want. I lie on my side; she strokes my hair back from my face and tucks the sheet around me. I can still feel the pain in my back, just a dull roar, like an ocean from behind the dunes. But the line between dream and reality blurs, shapes move around the dimly lit room, whispering. I think someone’s trying to sleep leaning against a birthing ball. The squeaks of discomfort become an inflatable dinghy swept out on the tide, riding the swell. 

Memories become damaged footage, connecting tissue dissolved, each new scene introduced with the click of a dusty slide projector. I’m in another room, with the same bed. How did I get here, did I walk, was I wheeled… Lighter here, perhaps day time. I don’t know time: it bounds forwards, I scamper to catch up. Another shift change. The new new midwife is slight and blonde. It’s been a while now hasn’t it, perhaps I’d like to consider an epidural. I would. We’ll have to monitor you; you’ll have to be still. That’s fine, can’t move anyway. We wait for the anaesthetist. I can’t believe they’ve left you like this for so long. It’s just the two of us; I’m perched on the edge of my high bed, leaning forward. She doesn’t get it quite right on the first attempt, has to pull the needle out and try again. It’s just another kind of pain, nothing special, if anything the variety is a relief. 

When Lizzie Roberts, mother of That Ted Roberts, was a midwife there was none of this. If I’d lived then, I would have died. Lizzie had a pony and trap, and off she would go, down the lanes into the countryside. Although she died when Ted was in the trenches, Lizzie was still remembered when Ted’s daughters were youngsters in the village; she had delivered lots of people, or their parents, or their grandparents, and they remembered. Midwives like Lizzie – handywomen, women you called for – learned from experience and from older women. They delivered babies, nursed the sick, and laid out the dead. For working class women, a midwife was often the only help they got, if they couldn’t afford the doctor’s fee. Midwives like Lizzie were stamped out by middle-class reformers like Alice Gregory, the daughter of the Dean of St Paul’s, who saw the properly trained midwife as a holy crusader against the Devil’s emissaries: superstition, dirt, germs that bring disease; the superficiality and carelessness of the nurse; the ignorance and laziness of the mother.

I think the baby’s in distress, the midwife says, his heartbeat is slowing right down with every contraction. The registrar turns up the audio and as the needle sketches out the jagged mountains of a contraction I don’t feel, the heartbeat changes from a quick patter to a pat… thud… silence. My breath swoops in response, but as the contraction’s peaks give way to rolling hills, the heart’s burbling resumes. He needs to come out now; we’ll top up the epidural and take you to theatre. In theatre is music, kind eyes above surgical masks, laughter and jokes. A sweep of a mint green curtain hides my stomach, a huge clock says ten-to-midnight. What day is it? It’s the thirteenth. Can you wait until midnight, so he’s not born on an unlucky day? By the time he’s out it will be the fourteenth, a muffled voice reassures me. 

We’re pushed from recovery to the ward. They’ve wrapped him in blankets and tucked him into my side, but I know I’m too weak to hold him properly. I’m afraid I’ll drop him, I tell them. You won’t, they reassure me. But I might, I can feel the slipping. Alone in the ward I dream that black and white birds, four for a boy, scream at me from twisted branches, warning, there’s something I’ve forgotten. I’m poised between awareness and unconsciousness, delirious from lack of sleep and codeine, afraid to let go in case I dive too deep and drown from sleeping. There’s something to remember. My neck is cricked but there’s a reason not to turn my head: this tiny, silent creature nestled in his plastic tank. If I stare at him, if I don’t turn my head away, that’s enough mothering, for now. 

The second time was different: harsher, more urgent. 30 minutes after we arrived, I thought the rushing sensation must be my waters breaking, but it was bright blood, a bow wave down the crisp sheets to knees, then ankles. Don’t think about what would have happened if we’d waited it out at home, like last time. They ran down the corridor to the theatre, pushing me in my metal bed with the plastic mattress. The shock of a blown cannula in my right hand, unable to communicate this new bright pain through the anaesthesia mask. An image, one I thought would be the last thing I saw, of someone putting her arm around my midwife’s shoulder as her shock dissolved to tears, reassuring her, she’s going to be alright you know.  This is it, I thought, and fixed my 3-year-old son’s face in my mind, until everything faded. 

Rita could hold the new baby, sitting in her chair, arms propped up with cushions, her elegant, once skilful arthritic fingers cradling the tiny creature. I have a photograph of them together, where life begins and ends.