Meagan France has a BA in Politics and Philosophy and is currently completing a few postgraduate papers in Creative Writing at AUT. She plans to begin her Masters in Creative Writing at Auckland University in 2017. She lives on Waiheke Island with her partner and two young children.
“‘Good’ writing is painfully satisfying. I think that’s why we do it.”
Thomas will be here any minute now. The first thing he’s going to see is the blood and me in the middle of it. The sheets around me are white and crumpled; the blood soaks the mattress and drips down the wooden frame of the bed. The colour against the white sheets shocks me, obscene and beautiful, it reminds me of the flame trees of my childhood. Branches like pale body parts, splashed with bright crimson blooms, spreading into winter sky.
I force myself up and stagger towards the bathroom for a towel and another warm rush of blood pours out of me. Falling in red thick waves down my legs, I see that my body is cavernous; it is as if I am a deep well of fluid and nothing else. I shove a towel between my legs to avoid blood falling onto our new carpet and lunge back towards the bed.
I wait for Thomas and think about Leo asleep in the room across the hall. He started primary school two days ago. I remember the teacher pulling him off me, his frightened face and the sudden loss of his warm little hand.
Hot rubbery wheels skid against the gravel on the driveway, a heavy door slams, running steps pound the stairs. Thomas kneels beside the bed. He reaches out and puts his warm square hand on my bare leg. I watch my thigh tremble under the weight of it and look up at him.
He tells me to breathe, but the panic in his voice doesn’t match the calm solemnity of his words. I smother a distressing urge to laugh hysterically at his anxious earnestness, try to rearrange my expression to suit the carnage of my position.
When I was in high school, I learnt about the fight or flight response. Animals in danger revert to one of three primitive survival responses. Either they fight back viciously, desperately try to run away or lie still and pretend to be dead. Other than my hands, which shake involuntarily, I lie perfectly still, frozen, but so alert I can feel each eyelash.
I watch Thomas look at me on the bed again, see his eyes flicker downwards, assessing the blood loss. He reaches into his pocket for his phone and starts throwing things into a soft black bag.
“Hi. Yeah it happened,” he says quietly into the phone, turning his back to me.
“Looks like about a litre, maybe one and a half, I can’t be sure though.”
Now they all seem to come at once. The paramedic, the bra-less midwife and my mother in her slippers. I watch the midwife, her old breasts swinging under her t-shirt as she walks towards the bed. She takes my hand then starts rummaging through her bags for gel.
“It’s ok, you’re alright. Take some deep breaths. Baby and you are fine.” She briskly wipes the gel off my stomach and packs up the monitor that picks up the foetal heartbeat into a neat black box.
The paramedic checks my vitals, then talks to Thomas in a faraway corner of the room. My mother and the midwife huddle together exchanging frightened glances. I can hear muted logistical details being discussed between everyone.
Two hours earlier there was a storm. The rain and the wind slashed our big house and bent the trees into distorted angry limbs that swished around like giant shadows. Outside, the black figures continue their subdued, dark dance through the window.
“Do you think you can walk down the stairs to the ambulance?” the paramedic asks, pulling me back inside.
“Yes,” I reply quietly, thinking again of Leo in the other room, imagining him waking up and seeing me like this.
“Please look after him?” I say, holding my mother’s watery gaze. I’m certain she hesitates before nodding her head in silent assent.
Engines roar, artificial wind whips at my face. The night sky leans over me, vast, weighty and full of silver stars. Two paramedics hoist me into the helicopter on a stretcher wrapped in plastic. Thomas sits beside me, gripping my hand as the paramedic puts the first line into the soft inner fold of skin at my elbow. I feel the hard sharp prick of the needle going in and then the dull weight of it resting there, dormant. The helicopter comes to life like a giant insect, hovering and buzzing for an instant, before it charges into the air.
I surrender myself to the power of the machine that holds me and listen to the pilots reel off rehearsed jokes that are meant to put me at ease, obediently laughing in all the right places. When we near the city, Thomas takes a photo with his phone of the bright-lit looming skyscrapers, all angles and lines and shining upside down windows. He looks excited. I recall what our therapist said to us recently about excitement and anxiety being not so dissimilar states of mental emergency.
“I’ve always wanted to go in a rescue helicopter,” I hear Thomas say cheerily beneath the mechanical drone of the rotor blades.
Eventually I am released from the emergency room. They make me sit in a wheelchair and instruct a Polynesian orderly to push me through countless white corridors to Ward A. Hospital policy, the doctor says apologetically, aware that I am capable of walking. When we reach a sparse, unlit room, the midwife turns the light on and pulls curtains around us.
“You can stay if you like and sleep on this chair,” she says to Thomas pointing at a steel chair with ripped, stained lining.
“Thanks, but I have an office in the city, I think I’ll stay there.” Thomas replies, looking at the chair then back at me.
In the middle of the night another midwife comes in and wakes me. She’s younger than me, just a child really, her voice is sickly sweet. In sugary tones she tells me to lie on my side then lifts up my hospital gown and pulls the disposable, padded knickers aside, so she can inject the steroid. The doctor from the emergency room warned me this would hurt so I carefully construct an image of the sea and just as the needle pierces my skin and the cold liquid shoots into my butt, I dive into sparkling green water. The midwife leaves and I lie in the dark, letting my face burn and wondering how long it will take before the baby feels it.
Green and yellow checked curtains form a ring around me. I look down at my two lines. One in the inner fold of my elbow, the other in the back of my hand. The thin skin on the inside of my arm is purple and hurts when I try to sit up. The sight of the exact point where the needle meets and enters my vein fascinates me. I flex my arm over and over again so that I feel it, searching the needles limit, deriving a strange new pleasure from the discomfort.
Thomas arrives and we wait for the doctors to do their morning rounds. He looks at me under the hard fluorescent lights and lets me cry into his shoulder. He appears uncharacteristically dishevelled, hair moving in all directions, clothes from the night before crumpled and oily. He picks up his phone and starts fiddling with it, avoiding my gaze.
I look at the breakfast Thomas has bought me: toasted sourdough sandwiches wrapped in white greaseproof paper, cheese and bits of rocket poking out the sides, takeaway coffees in fashionable recycled cardboard cups. And despite everything, I’m hungry. I eat propped up in the single hospital bed and look around the room: ripped faded curtains, stained chairs, basic white clinical furnishings, labelled buttons for assistance, lino floors.
We hear the procession of doctors doing their rounds in the corridors before they enter the room. Abruptly the curtains are pulled open and ten people stand in a circle around my bed. One of them reaches over and pulls the curtains closed again. Thomas sits on the stained chair next to my bed, stretching and tensing the tendons through his forearms and hands. I pull myself upright, checking that my hospital gown covers everything, smoothing my hair.
“I bet you’re pretty scared, Mary?” A pretty female doctor with black ringlets says rhetorically, smiling.
Ten strangers with clipboards stare down at me. The curly headed doctor continues.
“With this type of bleeding, well it can be like turning a tap on. I don’t want to frighten you, it usually stops, but there have been cases where it doesn’t and things happen very quickly.”
“The bleeding has stopped now though?” she asks me, pen poised.
“How many pads have you soaked since last night?”
“Two. It’s only spotting,” I say.
“Good. And you’ve got two lines in for a transfusion.” She pauses, makes a note and looks up again.
“I see you’ve consented to have the steroid injections, that was a good decision, it will make a difference if baby is pre-term. How many weeks are you?”
“Good, that’s viable. But thirty-four is the magic number!”
“Listen, we understand you both have a lot to take in at the moment. I think the best thing to do is to keep you in hospital until the end of the week and if there’s still no bleeding you can go home.” She finishes up smiling with perfect white teeth.
Almost in unison, the team behind her tuck their pens into their clipboards and make to move on to the bed next to mine.
“Wait. I can go back home, to the Island?” I ask.
“I don’t think you can go back to the Island,” a tall man in a starched white shirt says sternly. “You really need to be close to the hospital now. The chances of this happening again are high. Do you have anyone you can stay with for a few months?”
“No, we don’t,” Thomas replies for me. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say. If this is so high risk then shouldn’t she stay in hospital?”
An uncomfortable pause follows. The tall man in the white shirt asserts his position and steps forward.
“I understand you’re upset, but Mary could get an infection if she stays, and unfortunately we just don’t have the beds to keep her in here for the next eight weeks.”
Thomas looks like a cornered animal, the type that might start hissing and showing its claws. Tired lines stripe the area from the corner of his eyes to his temples. Dark circles pull his handsome face down and make him look older than he is.
“This is bullshit. What are we supposed to do? We have lives you know. I have a business to maintain and Mary has another child.”
I continue to sit upright, saying nothing. The horror of what is happening sits and burns shamefully in my throat. I can’t speak. I look from the doctors to Thomas as the argument goes on.
“I don’t want to stay in here,” I say, not looking at Thomas as my throat continues to burn.
“We’ll send the hospital social worker to see you,” the curly headed doctor says as an after-thought, rubbing her hands with sanitizer and they move on to the bed next to mine.
When I’m alone again I recognize the ugly voice of shame creeping in. You, with your deficient, bleeding body, you must have done something to deserve this. My mind flashes with images of a young pregnant peasant girl in the Middle Ages, bleeding in a field, alone but for a midwife who desperately shoves her bare hands into the girl trying to wrench the placenta out of the way, so the baby at least, will survive. A small child stands behind them at a distance, watching in stunned silence.
Leo will know that I’m gone now. I imagine his small figure in the hall, hear his feet padding softly across the carpet to my bedroom and see the look of surprise in his blue eyes when he finds his grandmothers head on the pillow.
I keep the yellow and green curtains firmly closed around me until I have to creep out to use the bathroom. I hazard a look around, it is vacuum packed in here, nothing quivers or sings other than the infinite hum of the air conditioning.
Hours pass. I huddle over a book. There is a rustling of sheets from the bed next to mine.
“Hi,” a female voice comes from the other side of the closed curtains. “I’m Angela. I heard you come in last night. Are you ok?”
“Yeah I’m ok. My name is Mary. Why are you in here?” I ask from behind my side of the curtain divide.
“Oh. I’ve never heard of it. Do you mind if I open the curtains?”
I get up and pull the curtains open along their circular rail. Angela lies in a hospital bed identical to mine in a gown identical to the one I now wear. She has smooth brown skin, tight curly brown hair and large brown eyes. She is hugely pregnant. There is a can of Diet Coke and a New Idea on her sliding tray.
“This is my fourth kid,” she says wearily. “I’m 39 weeks so they’re not too worried. They want to do a c-section tomorrow. Where do you stay?”
“I’m from the Island.”
“Aw, it’s nice there, huh?”
“Yeah, it’s beautiful.”
“What’s wrong with you then?” she asks.
I begin to explain, being careful to control the quiver in my voice as I go. Angela looks mystified and confused when I finish.
“Far out, that sucks. I’ll be leaving the ward tomorrow. You can have the window seat.” She laughs and goes back to her magazine.
Two hours later I hear a groan from Angela’s side of the room.
“Are you ok?”
Another muted cry.
“Should I get up and press the button for you?”
I get up and press the emergency button on my side of the bed and pull the curtains open. In less than a minute the room swarms with midwives and the curly headed doctor I spoke with earlier.
“It’s not me, it’s her.” I tell them pointing to the other bed.
The group swarms to the other side of the room and one of them quickly draws the curtains. I hear their stressed instructions as Angela is rushed out of the room, a team of people in blue tunics following after her, yelling something about theatre; hospital equipment dragging along behind them.
I sit on my bed, feet dangling over the sides, listening to the empty silence and look over at Angela’s side of the room. A cleaner comes in with a stainless steel bucket and mop. She cleans the blood off the floor and remakes the stained bed with starched white sheets with the word hospital stamped in red down the seams. When she’s finished, she pushes her bucket out through the door into the corridor. For a short time I hear the rattle of the wheels on the bucket rolling along the floor, then it’s silent again.
It’s probably the air conditioning but I feel myself shivering. I dig through the bag Thomas packed for me, and pull out his Italian bathrobe. It is the colour and feel of a pedigree cat. Wrapped up in its familiar warmth I climb back into bed and close my eyes. I can almost see myself at home now standing next to the sink, looking out at the cherry tree. In spring it is a haze of delicate white flowers, and now that winter has come the green leaves turn bright yellow and fall, making a radiant thick carpet that cascades down the sloping section. From the window I watch as Leo picks up the golden leaves one by one, inspecting them with silent awe.
“Mum!” he yells from outside. “Look at this!” He waves his hand through the golden leaves, making them fall to the ground, his face lit with the pleasure of simple things.
On day three I wait curiously for the lunch run. A Polynesian lady pushing a food cart approaches my room.
“You want lunch?” she asks me roughly.
With heavy limbs she pulls a tray out from her conveyer and slaps it on my retractable table. I remove the foil that covers the tray of food and look down at it. White bread sandwiches, plastic slices of cheese, processed ham. A tub of tinned fruit. A slice of white sponge cake filled with cream. I cover the tray with foil again and put it to one side. I get up and make my way towards the kitchen and end up lost amongst the patterned carpet and multiple corridors that all look the same. I ask a midwife on the reception desk for directions.
“Go through the Whanau Room, it’s on the opposite side. Do you know where that is?”
The Whanau Room is in the same corridor as my room. I trace my steps back, looking at the posters on the walls as I walk. The dangers of smoking while pregnant. Diabetes and pregnancy. And a chart of foetal development week by week. I stop and study the chart, find the thirty-week mark. ‘Your baby now measures more than thirty-nine centimeters. Her lungs and digestive tract are almost fully developed; she can see what’s happening inside the uterus, she responds to light.’ There is a diagram, a cross section of a woman’s pregnant stomach, the baby all neatly tucked inside, placenta firmly hovering at the top of the uterus. I continue walking down the corridor and wonder at the anomaly of my placenta, and how that one strange, throw-away organ has fed humanity forever and connects us all together somehow.
First published takahe 86