David Hill lives in New Plymouth. He’s been writing full time for 35 years. His novels and short stories for children and teenagers are published in several countries, and his fiction for adult readers has appeared in magazines and anthologies in NZ, Australia, the UK and US.
‘Rites of Passage seem to resonate with most readers. Birth (and parenthood) are obvious examples. Show me anyone who hasn’t been transformed by becoming a parent!’
(Photo credited to Robert Cross and Victoria University)
Alys tells him on a Friday, in the supermarket of all places. “Guess what? I’m pregnant.”
The next seconds will become part of their mythology. Gavin stares at his wife, exclaims “Preg-? Shit! Really?”
Alys turns to face him. She looks…shy. “Shit!” Gavin goes again.
She laughs, says, “I can see why you’re an English teacher.” He feels her excitement, the flicker of fear in them both. But they’re going to do this so well. They’re going to make a great shape of things.
For weeks, months, Alys looks brilliant: hair glossy; eyes bright. Gavin watches as she does her inner thigh stretches, abdominal arches, pelvic floor exercises. “You should try these,” Alys tells him. “Be handy when you’re 90.”
Gavin counts. “When we’re 90, the…it’ll be 64.” They stare.
Through 32..34 weeks, they shape things the way they intend to. They’ve decided names: Andrew or Meg, something calm and quiet.
It’s the decade when parents are reclaiming childbirth. One of Gavin’s colleagues held his daughter as she slithered into the world. “Amazing, mate. Really bonded us.” Gavin hears points being rung up.
Each day of the ninth month, he arrives home wondering if this will be the night. On this Thursday, however, Gavin isn’t thinking about Alys or the bulge they call Hey You. A boy in his sixth-form class has tried to kill himself. Rejection by a girl apparently: something utterly trivial and utterly tragic. He took every pill in the house while his parents were out. He’s in hospital, and nobody knows what damage there might be.
The weather is also preoccupying Gavin. Winds and rain are thrashing; he can feel gusts shoving at the car. The flat has no garage, and their old VW doesn’t like starting if it’s wet.
So of course it’s this evening that he comes in the door and sees. Alys’s eyes are big; her bottom lip trembles. She reaches up to hug him, then winces. “I’m having pains. Since lunch. Every 20 minutes now.”
Her bag is packed, has been for a fortnight. Gavin got twitchy a week back when they ran out of toothpaste, and Alys took the one from her hospital gear. “I’ll buy some more!” she’d laughed. As he holds her hands now, he wants to ask if she’s remembered.
“Make sure you’ve got something to read,” she tells Gavin; He grabs a book – any book – from the shelf.
The rain pounds while he backs the VW as close as possible to the front door. Alys gets in, pretty and awkward in her dark-blue maternity dress. She starts to smile at him, then breathes hard. “I’ll be all right. Just drive carefully.”
He snorts, as he’s meant to. They’re shaping this, after all.
The hospital is squeaky floors and strip lighting. In Maternity, a nurse smiles at them. “Mrs McLeod? You’ve got the place all to yourself. The other babies must be staying home to keep dry.”
“Come and we’ll get you comfy,” she tells Alys. To Gavin, “There’s an office down the corridor. Cosier than the waiting room. Make yourself a coffee. Sorry we don’t have anything stronger.”
She leads Alys away. “Waters broken?” Gavin hears. Alys sounds shaky: “No. I wasn’t sure if I should –” The nurse pats her shoulder. “You did the right thing.” They vanish around the corner.
Gavin finds the office–coffee-room, and sits. He’s breathing deeply, like Alys during her exercises. In through the nose, down to the stomach, out through the mouth. The wind booms; rain thrums on the window.
His book is Aldous Huxley – Time Must Have a Stop – discursive, didactic, a bit dippy. Bon vivant Eustace Barnack suffers a fatal heart attack, and his soul / essence / whatever dithers at some crossroads of eternity, desperate to scrabble back to cigars and brandy and a mistress’s nipples. It’s all over the place. Yet as Gavin reads of “an awareness not yet present, dim but approaching”, his breath catches.
6.14pm. He hasn’t had anything to eat since lunch, but he’s not hungry.
Feet tap along the corridor. The same nurse. “You can come and see Mrs McLeod for a while, if you like.”
Rain pelts on the roof of the small room next to the delivery suite. Alys sits in bed, her dressing gown over a hospital smock. She reaches a hand to him. “We’re underway. All systems operating. Whoops – let’s not say ‘operating’.”
Gavin keeps hold of her hand. “Where are you?” Alys asks, and he gets a fright. “I’m here,” he goes. Alys laughs. “So you are, clever clogs. Where did they put you while you’re waiting?”
“Just down the way. An office. I’ve –” Alys clutches at his fingers, pants. Outside, the wind whams. “That was a – pretty enthusiastic one. Maybe –” she clutches again, grimaces.
“I’ll get someone.” Gavin steps into the corridor and the nurse is coming towards him. “She’s –”
The nurse smiles. “Things speeding up, are they? Don’t worry. Best if you wait in the office while I have another look.”
7.06pm. 7.42pm. He reads p 55 twice.
At 7.58pm, he hears the bed being wheeled out of Alys’s room and into the delivery suite. He starts to stand, Shouldn’t he…the nurse puts her head through the doorway. “The waters have broken, she’s dilating nicely. Don’t worry; these things can take time.”
They do. 8.21pm. 9.13pm. 10.00pm. Eustace’s beautiful young nephew Sebastian falls in love, begins to mess up his life. Gavin thinks of the sixth-form boy. Wind and rain storm around the hospital. Gavin stands, sits.
“You can come and see her.” A dowdy young woman in blue. Nurse? Midwife? Things are edging beyond his control. One door of the delivery suite is open. Light floods out like an Annunciation. Has –
Gavin blinks at the glare. Alys lies supine on the high ironing-board bed. She’s naked from the waist down, knees raised and parted as if for sex. But on the delta of now-shaven groin, someone has fitted a matted dark iris. The baby’s head.
It can’t be right. There’s no way that can get through without splitting her open. His words start to blurt, but four figures around the table are flapping rubber-gloved hands at him, shooing him from the room.
“You’d better come back later.” The young woman in blue makes it sound as if he’s at fault. He returns to the office, stares at the wall.
He reads half a page, part of another. Sebastian betrays the one good person in his life. His uncle’s ghost is gulped into eternity. 10.41pm. 11.22pm. The storm bellows, goes quiet, slams again.
At 11.50pm, he hears the delivery suite door open. Feet hurry towards him. He stares at the doorway. But the figure in green uniform goes straight past. Gavin gazes up and down the corridor. The place feels colder; he shivers.
Five minutes later, as sleet machine-guns the window, he glimpses the nurse hurry back. What’s happening? Why don’t they tell him? The shapes he and Alys have made are crumbling apart.
Thursday has become Friday. Nothing matters now except this being over. At 12.10 am, more footsteps, from the other direction. A man strides past towards the delivery suite. He’s in jeans and black jumper. Who?
More time. And more. Gavin sits, looking at the office wall. Somewhere nearby, a door creaks in the wind. It sounds again, a thin, grating noise. Gavin’s head turns. No. No, it’s too much of a cliché, surely.
A third time, and there’s no doubt. Gavin peers down the corridor yet again. The delivery suite’s doors are closed, but he hears a woman say something, hears the smile in her voice. He watches, sits, stands, waits..
1.34am. The man in jeans and jumper goes past again, slowly. He’s yawning. For some reason that makes Gavin feel better.
Ten more minutes and another nurse is in the doorway. “Hello. Want to come and see your new arrival?”
Gavin’s mouth won’t make proper sentences. “Is it – How’s she –” The nurse is already leading him towards the delivery suite. “She’s asleep. She had a pretty tiring time, but she’s fine now. They brought the specialist in, just to be on the safe side.”
The big bright room is almost empty. The other nurses and midwives are gone. Alys lies on her side, hair lank, mouth slightly open. She looks…OK. He knows the inadequacy of the word.
Beside her is a plastic bassinet on wheels, like a supermarket trolley. Inside, a tiny bolster form lies still. Two steps forward, and Gavin sees the card taped to one end. A teddy bear – in blue. Another step, and he can read the writing. ANDREW McLEOD, Born 1.09 am, 18.06, 7lbs 4oz.Welcome to the world of bureaucracy, mate.
The nurse unwraps the bolster. A small monkey, face like a clenched fist.. The creases of its knees and elbows are still waxy. Between its legs lies the ridiculous little spigot.
“What a clever wife you’ve got,” she tells him. “Congratulations. I’ll leave you to it. She should be waking up soon.”
The doors close behind her. Rain and wind tear past, but there’s a last-gasp sound to them. Outside, the world is settling down. Gavin is glad to have had such weather; he’ll build metaphors from it.
Alys sleeps on. The three of them – hell, they’ll never be a couple again, not for years and years – the three of them inhabit a bright cube of silence. Ten…twenty minutes. He’s happy to just sit there.
The baby (Andrew: he has to start thinking that) twitches and mews, makes that creaking noise. Gavin goes over, looks into the bassinet. Dark-blue eyes open. “Christ!” he breathes. “Shit!” Can see why you’re an English teacher, he remembers Alys saying.
The nurse swishes back in. “Still asleep?” She shakes Alys. “Hello, Mrs McLeod! Wake up!” Alys jerks, her eyes blink open too, she sees Gavin and goes, “What?”
The nurse laughs and bustles off. Gavin grins at his wife. “Someone wants to say hello.” He pulls the bassinet closer. Alys sees the blue teddy bear card, says “Oh, goodness!” She stares at the puppy-sized bundle. The baby is silent again, eyes closed.
“You’re clever,” Gavin tells her. “The nurse said so. She’s right.”
“I’m sore,” she replies. “They had to –” From the bassinet there’s another mew, a creak that grows into a wail, then gutters out in series of snuffles. “Oh, Andrew,” says Alys. “Don’t cry, Andrew.”
An ache of tenderness sweeps through Gavin, so fierce that he has to move. He turns to the bassinet again. “You want to hold him?”
“In a minute,” Alys says. “I feel sick. Must be the anaesthetic.”
Gavin arranges himself beside her, right hand in Alys’s, left hand on the baby. “You had a rough time, kid,” he tells his wife.
“I want…feel him,” Alys mumbles. She starts to heave herself up, sags back. “Think – I might spew if I move. Is he…Is he nice?”
Gavin grins. “Yeah, he’s nice. He’s got…” But Alys is breathing regularly again. Wind rushes outside, then stops.
He sits on. He’s stuffed; you’d think he’d been the one in labour. His hands are getting cramped, where they rest in Alys’s and in the bassinet.
Beside him, his wife gives a little snore. Gavin grins again.
As he sits, the sixth-form boy is in his mind again. He also lies in hospital, in this building maybe, parents by him as Gavin is now. Nothing like that will ever happen to – to Andrew. Gavin vows it. His sleeping wife, the bundle stirring once more in the bassinet: he’ll keep them safe for as long as he lives. He understands how fragile the vow is; how those parents in another room will have made one like it, 17 or 18 years ago.
And he understands that all the shaping he and Alys could wish for waits ahead.