By Isabel Adonis
I am in the kitchen in the basement of the house when my waters break and I call Bob and say ‘take me to the hospital.’ I want to have a natural birth, I want to be natural but I am not. I don’t know what natural means. I guess this is what Africa means to me, a place in my imagination where I feel free of all of the constraints and conditions of living.
In which you are born.
I remember so well the time when you are about to be born in early June of 1991. The days are hot, as hot as the summer is. A small group of ducks is playing together in the river behind our home. I am watching them. I am watching them for a long time. As I watch them I feel delight, I feel joy. The river is low. No more than what seems like a trickle of water runs under the bridge. Stones and pieces of slate are exposed. I watch the colours in the drying slate.
Sometimes from my window I can see children playing under the bridge. They can climb down at the end of the bridge, go under the broken fence and slip down the grassy bank to the high stone wall and from there jump onto the river bed. They are jumping from stone to stone. The trees are almost in full green, the leaves are catching a slight breeze and dancing in the light.
A few children walk across the bridge with their parents to play on the swings. Teenagers now too old for such pursuits hang about in idle expectation. There are of course those people who are neither playful nor expectant who purposefully pass through the woods along the path where they disappear into the trees. I remember a man once telling me that the woods are a place where quarrymen met in secret during the Great Strike. I am fascinated with him telling me this. I want to know more, I want to know so much more. He is a polite man, an old fashioned man who has a Welsh bookshop in the town.
The old men no longer walk to the bowling green behind the playground. The old men no longer crouch down and throw their black balls across the grass made smooth. The old men no longer have competitions there, no longer have competitions for cups and shields. They are not all old men, some of them are quite young. They have gone elsewhere. The boy who brings the milk is one of them.
The wooden pavilion has long been burnt down. I have a particular liking for wooden pavilions. I guess they remind me of lazy afternoons in Africa. I can just make out the old tennis courts and a few tennis players hitting balls where the ground is littered with broken glass. I am familiar with this view from my window, I never tire of looking. I never tire of looking at the woods and the river, I never tire of looking at the people, at trees, at mountains. I am straining my body now to look at the slate tips. I am looking to see if I notice any trees growing there. I think trees growing on piles of slate is interesting and a metaphor for the struggle of living. I like to see the thin and weedy silver birch trees which grow there which struggle to get light, which stand up against the wind.
But now I am watching, watching and waiting, imagining how it might be to have a baby in the woods for it is certainly warm enough. I have been awake for many nights listening to the water trickle down the valley, I have been awake with this new baby which is you inside of me. I am thinking of African women, I am thinking now of an African woman, I am thinking of Africa. I am thinking some part of me is Africa. I am thinking some part of me is an African woman. I want to be free, I am not free. I want to be free like the tree pushing its way through the dark slate and into the light. A tree does not want to be free, but I want to be free.
I watch the ducks from the window dipping in the rock pools. They are furry and quite young. I am thinking the baby in my belly must be a boy; I imagine I need a boy, I imagine I need the qualities of a boy. If you are a boy I am going to call you Sunny or Sonny. Sonny is my father’s childhood name and I am grieving for my father though I am not grieving for him, I am grieving for Africa and blackness; I am grieving for no-one, I am grieving for death, I am grieving for freedom, for nothng at all.
If I have a girl I will call her Megan; I like the name Megan though I do not know what it means. I like Welsh names like Llinos and Heulwen and Blodwen, but I think you are a Megan if you are a girl. My Catherine is six and she is making a baby book for you. I have shown her how to make a book. I show her how to fold plain paper to make the pages, how to hold them together with staples or just with a fold. I have taught her how to use a felt tip pen carefully and to always replace the lid. I have taught her how to write and how to do her letters top to bottom and how to do learn the principles of mathematics with matchsticks. All of these things I have taught her and many more things.
Catherine has no front teeth and her tongue sticks out when she laughs. She wears a blue and white school dress, with a narrow and white plastic belt, though she doesn’t go to school. I don’t like schools much. I spend a little time with her each day doing writing and reading and sums. She likes to draw pictures and play with her dolls. She has made a game which she calls all sorts university for all her Barbie dolls. She has dressed them all and has made them tiny little books. She is tall for six and I often imagine she is older. Her dresses get holes in the front around the waist and she will never wear trousers or tights. Her legs are quite blue in winter though her skin is brown. Her hair is very black and curly.
I am thinking of an African woman as I go down the stairs to the kitchen. A dark and beautiful woman with a broad mouth and a huge smile. I remind myself that Africa is inside of me, that I am descended from an African woman, that probably everyone is descended from an African woman. I am in the kitchen in the basement of the house when my waters break and I call Bob and say ‘take me to the hospital.’ I want to have a natural birth, I want to be natural but I am not. I don’t know what natural means. I guess this is what Africa means to me, a place in my imagination where I feel free of all of the constraints and conditions of living. But I cannot grasp what cannot be grasped. My waters break and Bob takes me to the hospital. He drives me in a green car along a leafy back road where I see the little cottages and the slate tip. I see where the path from the woods meets the road, I see a whole bank of silver birches with their leaves dancing in the breeze.
The road bends and I see the high slate wall and the paint factory. I know a woman whose husband is the manager of the paint factory and we are friends, at least we were. In front of the paint factory is a small field where she used to keep a pony or a very small horse. I see the tall mountains on the other side of the valley. I do not know with any certainty the names of the mountains, I have not climbed these mountains though I have walked up to them. They are beautiful and I feel their beauty as part of me.
I do not like the hospital, like I do not much like schools. I am not comfortable there. I do not care much for institutions and I don’t know why and I can only guess why. I am overwhelmed by such places, I am overwhelmed by places which have policies and too many rules, I am overwhelmed by conformity even while I can understand it. The hospital is called St David’s and it is the place where women have their babies. I look quite young but I am no longer young. To be having a baby at my age is to be an old woman.
I sit in a ward with other women for three days and wait. I am waiting for a birth, for a baby. Three days pass and there is no sign of a baby; the baby is still in my belly. The nurse says I should go on a drip but I don’t want to. The word drip is often used. I do not like them saying drip, it is without romance or love. Just drip. They are all saying drip. I resist drip and her. I say no because in my mind I want to be natural; but I don’t quite know how to be natural. After three days of waiting and three days of offering me drip she says the baby may be born dead. I am lonely and scared. I remember when she says if I don’t have the drip your baby will be born dead. I have heard something like that before. When I was pregnant with Catherine the consultant said something similar to me. He said your baby might be born dead. I wrote him a letter saying I did not like him saying such a thing and so he said he did not say the thing. And this is why I do not like institutions.
The following day I agree. I do not know what else to do. I feel so vulnerable. I feel so afraid. I do not want to feel afraid but I do. I am to have the drip. They - the nurses are always talking about a drip, the drip is what I must submit to. I do not like submitting, but in the end I must answer the call to the drip.
I am not to have anything to eat all day. I am to enter a white room, I am to have my arm attached to a white machine, I am to have my arm attached to the hospital’s newest piece of technology. It is a small box with dials and numbers. It is very important to them, it is not very important to me, I have never seen it before. I sense their relief, I sense their feeling of security, I sense my feeling of insecurity, I sense these two feelings match each other - the secure and the insecure. I wait while the drip, drips into me, though I am not aware of anything.
The room I am in is very white and bare: it looks cold, but it is very warm. It is not at all like the rooms at home. My room at home is red, my curtains are a patchwork of colours, my floor is bare wood and I have a home made sink. Bob has built it especially for me. I do not like this white room where I lie on a wide trolley and look at the white walls. I look at the window which is open but it does not open onto a river or ducks or trees. The air is warm, too warm.
A white machine drips artificial hormones at regular intervals through a tube into my arm. The nurse comes to check the machine every half an hour. I am in a delivery room all day but nothing at all happens. A black doctor comes in and makes a joke. I am rude to him and he goes away. No baby comes despite the drip, no baby comes all day. I hear a woman in the next room call out, I can hear she is having her baby, but I am not having mine. When it is dark outside the window the new machine explodes and begins to emit smoke. I look at it and I smile. I am having contractions now but still no baby comes. I am not having real contractions I am having synthetic ones created by the drip. This is what the nurse tells me.
I think it is funny, though not even that, I think it is mysterious that the drip has not worked, I am relieved it has not worked. I think my resistance has stopped it working and somehow I feel natural now that the medicine has not worked. I am relieved but disappointed and don’t know what to do next. I am wanting to be a natural mother like I imagine an African woman to be, but I have no idea how that might happen. I have eaten the right food, I have done my exercises, I have taken sufficient rest and read the ‘right’ books. Yet the Africa is out of reach.
I want to be alone in my failure. I know that failure can be good; it nourishes the soul. I want privacy and I pull the curtains about my bed and sit at the opening as if guarding my little space. I sit alone quietly and I do not speak to the other women. I feel the space extend before me and I feel a space inside me. When the space extends I feel whole, I feel real. I forget about what the nurses want for me, I forget about this drip, I quite forget about the white room. When the sun begins to sink, I notice the orange sky, I notice the blue and the orange colours all mixed together. I watch the dying rays of light coming through the window, a window which is high above the beds. I see the colours are pink and orange and blue. This is something I always enjoyed in Africa, watching the light. Africa is now coming in the window to me and I feel good.
Catherine comes to see me with Bob. She brings me a teddy. She is beautiful, her brown skin is like my skin, her hair like my hair. She is wearing a pale blue jacket which is far too big for her and her black hair is pulled back. There is a small hole in the waist of her red check dress where the thread has broken around the folds of her skirt. There is a huge white collar about her neck. Her hair is drawn back behind her face and she has a short fringe. She smiles through the gap in her teeth. She has a brown teddy in her hand and she gives it to me. She says, look what I have brought for you mummy. When Bob and Catherine leave I begin to cry; I feel lonely, I feel my isolation, I feel my alienation, I feel my difference, I do not fit, I cannot make myself fit.
I have tried to fit by sitting with the other white women. One of the older nurses or matrons passes me by in the ward and fingers my frizzy hair like a pet dog. I look up to see her smiling to herself as she walks away. I am angry with her but I hold back on my anger. I sit on my bed and pull at the blinds; I am quiet and calm when I feel a slight movement inside of me. I know what that is. I smile because I know it is you, this gentle tapping says I’m coming. I feel joy and relief. A nurse comes by and gives me a mild sleeping pill and I am grateful for it. I sleep beautifully and by the morning those initial soundings are coming with greater regularity. I am happy and excited. I remember a kind nurse saying to me that when a baby is coming it is coming and that there is no longer any holding back.
I go to tell the ward sister early in the morning of June 13 that my baby is coming, but she says I am mistaken. I am not mistaken. As she walks away to her separate room there is a huge movement inside of me and I call out to her in a single cry. She returns only to tell me to be quiet and to say that I cannot possibly return to the general ward where I will disturb the others. The movement in my body does not comply, it has its own rules even while it is about to enter a world of rules, of thoughts, of policies and possibilities. She says you have to go to the labour ward and wait there. She says I cannot return to the bed I am sleeping and resting in.
The way to the labour ward is along a very long and polished corridor it has windows looking out onto a car park. I have asked the nurse for a wheelchair but she refuses to order one for me. I begin my solitary journey and all the while I can feel you inching your way down and down. My body is bent over in fear lest you fall out and mess the floor before me which is shiny and polished by a machine. Another nurse puts me in a room which says Labour room 2 or something like that.
I keep repeating the baby is coming but she is not listening to me as if I were the last person to know about what is happening to me. She is impatient and she tells me to lie on a trolley, to be quiet and not to disturb the younger mothers to be. I keep repeating the baby is coming but she is not listening to me. I am left alone and within one minute I can feel you coming. There is no pushing, there is no labour to speak of, just the pushing. The feeling is sensual and I give in to it. There is no pain and there is no resistance. I haven’t known a birth like that. There is only a long and drawn out whooshing sound like a wave of water approaching. I look up and I see a baby appearing between my legs. I do not know how this happens and it is all a mystery to me. I see your elongated head and your matted hair. I see your mottled pinkish skin.
As you come into the world Bob and the nurse come through the door at just the right time. My baby is being born.
Isabel Adonis is a writer, artist and teacher. She was born in London to a Guyanese father and Welsh mother. She moved to Sudan as a child, and when her father worked in Nigeria, she often spent her holidays there. The main theme of her work is race, identity and exploring how we can really love each other and be creative human beings. She has been published in New Wales Review and Urban Welsh.