This short story was my first and highlights the importance of perinatal mental health support, particularly for women and their families suffering from loss, PND or post-partum psychosis.
I watch the police officer numbly as she gently prises the knife from my bloodied hand. I wonder how long I have been holding it for, time seems to have lost its meaning whilst I’ve been held captive in this hideously beautiful room. I must have been here for at least six months because my womb is now empty and I can hear her crying. She is safe though. The other lady, the one with the police officer, is holding her close, all wrapped up in a blanket.
‘Do you understand what has been said to you?’ The policewoman’s voice is gentle and I nod when she informs me that I need to go with them to the police station. I mean – it’s obvious, really isn’t it? Discussions about coffee and phone calls and lawyers all happen when we get there, and then finally I get the chance to tell my story.
‘Jennifer, in your own words, please tell us what happened on the evening of the twenty third of October last year.’
I hold my breath, One, two, three, and try to sort through a thousand memories as they all come thrashing through at once, like a wrecking ball of torment.
‘It was the first time in months that I had finished work on time.’ I begin. It’s important to start at the beginning. So I force myself back there.
Its eight pm and I have, for once, finished work on time. I hug myself and look forward to actually having time to eat before surrendering to the call of my bed. It’s freezing outside though, and now it is ten past eight. Patrick is late picking me up and my feet feel as beaten up as they always do after a 13-hour shift on the maternity ward. I strain my eyes towards the pick- up point to look for a battered silver Fiat and wish that the hospital would invest in some decent outside lighting. At last I see headlights approaching.
Plonking myself unceremoniously into the passenger seat and dumping my bag on the floor in front of me, I sigh heavily and launch into my usual post-shift bitch-fest about no breaks and not enough staff. I know he’s heard this all before and I finally turn to him to ask how his day has been. And then my moaning really does stop.
‘ooops …. you’re not my husband, are you?’
‘I don’t think I am love, no.’
He is laughing and actually, so am I. Embarrassing as this may be, it is sooo the sort of thing that I would do and Patrick will find this hilarious when I tell him.
‘In my defence, you do have the same car.’
‘Well, yes I actually do.’ He grins back but his eyes are not joining in with the smile and something isn’t right.
A cold stab of panic slices through my gut as the sharp edge of the knife held against my abdomen threatens to do the same. The clunking sound of the doors being locked does not surprise me as I begin to recognise my driver. I never forget the faces of parents whose babies I have helped into the world, and his will be forever hotly branded into my mind. I stay silent. As before, there is nothing I could say that could possibly help. My phone starts ringing. The cheerful tones of S club7 reaching for the stars and climbing mountains higher sound so insane in this once-familiar car that I actually have to resist the urge to giggle.
‘That will be your husband calling about your stolen car.’
I try to remember his name but my mind is full of fog. I don’t need to be told not to answer my phone so I leave S club singing merrily away in my pocket as the car pulls further away from the hospital grounds and into the dimly lit streets of Leeds. I may not be able to remember his name but I do remember Caitlin. A beautiful 7lb, 6oz baby girl who had never taken her first breath. Bile begins to rise in my throat as the car turns sharply around a corner and I instantly know where we are going.
We pull up outside the terraced house in which I had conducted my last ever homebirth before begging for a permanent transfer to work on the wards. The man – Ben! Says nothing as he opens the passenger door and we walk in silence to the house.
The carpet feels slimy beneath my crocs and the closed curtains are thick with grime and dust. I may have been here before but this is a completely different house to the one I left over a year ago. Claire is sitting at the kitchen table. Her hair is limp and greasy and her skin looks pale and sallow. Exactly how I would expect a grieving Mother to look except that she is smiling and her eyes are too bright. She actually looks pleased to see me. My pulse begins to settle and I remember how to breathe. Claire and Ben probably just want answers. I would too if it were me, but I probably would have just made an appointment.
‘You came!’ Claire is now positively beaming.
I nod wordlessly, completely unsure if I should smile back or not.
‘You’re not even showing yet.’ She sounds disappointed and is frowning at my middle.
Then I do vomit. Right there on the kitchen floor.
‘How do you know?’ I manage to croak once the heaving subsides.
Claire just keeps smiling but doesn’t answer me. She had been amazing during her labour. Strong and in complete control, she had managed with just gas and air. Everything had been going so well until the final six minutes. Six minutes of trying desperately to birth a baby whose shoulders were inextricably stuck behind her pelvic bone. Ever since that night, managing a shoulder dystocia at work has filled me with dread.
‘Oooh, let me show you around, Jennifer.’ Her voice is bright but my name sounds like ice on her tongue.
I follow her through a door. It’s all I can do all the time that Ben is holding the knife to the back of my shoulder blade. The staircase is steep and it feels like a long time before we reach the bottom. The room should be described as beautiful. I force my eyes closed for just a minute and try to breathe but the sickly stench of patchouli nearly overwhelms me. There are no windows in this converted cellar but the pastel lemon walls make it look bright and airy. The plush double bed to the right of the room is sporting a yellow duvet covered in daisies. The same daisies are dancing across the cot bedding that is lying prettily on the white crib in the opposite corner of the room. The crib has an adjoining changing table piled with nappies, wipes and fluffy yellow towels. I want to go home.
‘What is all this?’ My voice comes out as a whisper.
‘Well, we weren’t sure if you were having a boy or a girl.’ Claire is explaining to me in patient tones, as if speaking to a child. ‘So yellow seemed like the obvious choice.’
The room is spinning violently, and I can no longer feel the knife against my shoulder so I sit clumsily on the armchair that is facing the rest of the room.
‘I knew that you would feel at home in here! It’s for a little longer than we had planned for, we had thought that you were further along, but I am sure we can make it work – these things can’t be rushed, can they?’ Claire lets out a little giggle that sends a shiver down my spine.
‘I’m sorry about Caitlin.’ I blurt out and her smile disappears.
‘I know you are.’ She is speaking slowly now and not breaking eye contact. ‘And I know that you want to give back what you have taken from me. We both truly appreciate what you are doing for us.’
I look behind me at Ben. He won’t look at me and I see the exhaustion beneath his eyes. He is still carrying the knife and I realise that his hands are shaking. He stands there, staring at the floor whilst Claire instructs me on how the en-suite shower works, where the kettle is and the times that my meals and pregnancy vitamins would be brought to me. Anyone watching the scene would assume that I am checking into a hotel room. If I was in a film, I would now be asked if I want a wakeup call or a morning paper. They probably won’t suggest that I use the mini bar though on account of me being pregnant. I feel like giggling again and silently beg them both to leave so that I can give into the building hysteria.
Then they do leave but I only have the energy to change out of my hospital scrubs. We are not really allowed to wear them home and I notice a large amniotic fluid stain on my sleeve. Lovely. I search for my phone that I already know has been removed from my pocket by Ben on the way down the stairs. I check the integrity of the door and hunt for convenient trap doors in the ceiling. The sharpest object that I have on me is a hairclip which I doubt is sharp enough for me to tunnel my way gradually out of the room before the baby is due. No sleep arrives for me.
It’s odd that Claire has the manners to knock before she enters and walks down the stairs, given the circumstances.
‘Please…I really do need to go home.’ I try to keep my voice level but I can still hear the desperation in it and I am sure that she can too.
Her eyes narrow and in an instant, I know that this is not a disturbed woman who I can reason with. The hate she feels for me is palpable and I pull the duvet higher around myself. It’s then that I realise that Ben is the only way. The fear in his eyes the night before as he had looked away from his wife had told me everything I needed to know.
It is twenty-five days before I see Ben. I have had twenty-three breakfasts and twenty four dinners and that is the only way I can tell.
‘She’s not well today,’ he explains, as he hands me my lasagne.
I raise an eyebrow but decide not to comment. I need him on my side and I am sure he must be aware that she is probably ‘not well’ most days. He puts down my tray and goes to walk away.
‘Have you tried to get her any help?’
He rolls his eyes and chuckles.
‘A couple of counselling sessions after months of waiting and a ‘mood diary’ to write in – does that count as help?’ He is moving back towards the stairs.
‘And how about you?’
‘Me? I never even wanted any pain-in-the-arse kids,’ he is snarling now and his pain hits me like a tsunami. ‘But I’d got used to the idea. Claire was happy. She trusted you, you know? We both did.’
I want to scream at him that I am sorry. To make him see the months of tears and self-torture as I read the birth notes over and over with my supervisor, desperate to know that I had done the right things. The weeks that I had off sick because I had lost faith in myself. But the words won’t come and I know that it won’t help.
‘She was so beautiful.’ I whisper. ‘And such a pretty name. Was she named after anyone?’
‘My Mother.’ His face has softened and he sits gingerly on the edge of the bed. ‘She would have known what to do with Claire, she was good with…stuff.’
‘I can help, Ben – please let me try? I just need you to get me out of the door.’
He looks at me for a while. I can’t work out what the expression on his face means. Then he shakes his head slowly and he is gone.
I can’t swallow the lasagne. Since I have been here, I have devoured every meal. It’s the only thing to look forward to each day. The thick slabs of pasta stick in my throat as I try to shake off the memories of the night of Caitlin’s birth. I throw the plate and fork across the floor and watch the tomato pasta sauce splatter up over the freshly painted walls. But I keep the knife.
My belly is now swollen and decorated with delicate silver and purple ladders. The flutters have become kicks and I am running out of time. I can hear her in the kitchen. Screaming at Ben, laughing and sobbing. She only does that when she drinks vodka. This means that it will be Ben that brings my breakfast in the morning. This means that I have around twelve hours. The cramps are coming every eight minutes, increasing in strength and duration. This along with the puddle on the beige carpet tells me that there is a chance that Daisy may get here in time. I just need to stay quiet. Really quiet.
I gasp silently as my tummy tightens and swells. Wave after wave crashes over me and I have a new respect for the crazy women that do this more than once. I flip around so that my knees are on the floor and clutch onto the cot side for support as I bear down. The carpet is pricking my shins as the sweet smell of birth floods my nostrils. A primal strength fills me and elation envelops me as I realise that I can do this. Alone and silent, but not afraid.
‘Hello beautiful one.’ I whisper through my tears.
Her newborn squeals of protest at being expelled into the cold, harsh world are a welcome sound but I hold my breath for several seconds and strain my ears for noises overhead. Nothing. Daisy has stopped crying and is looking at me through squinted, inquisitive eyes. My hands shaking with relief, I wrap her tightly in a yellow towel and hold her close. After boiling the kettle to sterilise the knife, I cut the cord, grateful for the sterile plastic clamp I had in my scrubs pocket. I don’t have very long now. I build a fortress of towels for my princess inside the shower cubicle, hiding her from sight of the door.
Then the footsteps begin. Adrenaline pulses through my veins, but I am no longer that scared little girl under the duvet. I am a Mother in a dressing gown splattered with blood and I will do what I need to do. The knife is still slick with blood and difficult to hold in the palm of my hand but I hold fast to it as Ben creeps uncertainly down the stairs. I let out a low moan. I have heard enough labouring women to know what they sound like. He looks a bit pale.
‘How did you manage to alert your husband Mrs Reynolds?’
I must have stopped talking for a while and the police officers are looking at me expectantly.
‘I faked labour pains, then slipped Ben’s phone from his pocket.’ It had been surprisingly easy. Almost as if he had wanted to be caught.
‘Can you tell us what happened to Ben and Claire Bainbridge on the day that you contacted Mr Reynolds?’
It’s nearly told. It’s nearly time for me to hold my baby again. I take a sip of the bitter coffee and go back again.
‘Is it…happening?’ he is gesturing vaguely at my lower regions, his eyes darting up at the ceiling as if asking for guidance from his wife.
I let out another gasp and clutch at my abdomen. He comes a little closer.
‘What should I do?’
I grasp onto the pocket of his hoody and pull it down towards me with my free hand. He stands still and noble probably feeling that his is ‘doing his bit’ by letting me maul at him while writhing in pain. And then I have his phone tucked into my hand.
‘Water?’ I croak, ‘could you get me some please? Don’t get Claire yet though. I think it will be a long time yet and I don’t want her to get anxious.’
He hesitates but then he is nodding and scurrying up the stairs. I curse my fat, pregnant fingers as they stubbornly refuse to hit the right keys. I know without looking that I won’t have the bars I need to make a call but a text should send once the phone manages to grasp onto some signal.
‘False alarm!’ I try to sound apologetic when he arrives with my water.
Relief floods his face. But then it happens. I had been willing her not to make a sound but her indignant cries mean that I will probably have to move to my plan B. He moves quickly and gets to the shower before me. He crouches over the cubicle and I tense my hand, the one that is holding the knife. Inhaling deeply, I close my eyes tightly. When I open them, I see that Ben’s shoulders are heaving heavily. He is staring tenderly at Daisy through a cascade of tears. My hand relaxes and the knife clatters to the ground. My knees drop to the floor beside him and I hold him for a long time as he sobs into my shoulder.
Just as I begin to wonder how long it will be before Claire wakes up, I feel that all – too familiar blade on my back. I hadn’t heard her arrive. My stomach twists painfully and I let out a guttural grunt as I birth the placenta. Claire just stares at it, mesmerised. The metallic smell of blood and afterbirth permeates the room and everything around me appears to slow. I hear shuffling behind me and a sharp inhalation of breath.
‘I’m sorry Claire.’ Ben sounds so different. Stronger.
I glance behind me and see that Ben now holds the knife that is around Claire’s pale throat. Daisy begins to cry and I ache to hold her but I don’t dare to move. Claire darts forward without warning to scoop her up and Ben tosses me the knife. I stare at it then look back at the crazed woman holding my baby. I wonder for the second time this morning what I am capable of.
‘And that is when we arrived?’
I look at the red-haired police officer and smile gratefully. I will never know for certain what would have happened next. But I have my Daisy. Ben and Claire are safe now and we can finally go home.