Short Fiction by Ellie Stewart
It’s spring, and the sunshine has arrived. I put on a black cotton dress I haven’t worn since last summer. It pulls tight as I button it up at the front. My breasts have swelled; they are at least a cup size bigger. I’ll need to buy bigger bras soon.
For my daily walk I go to the lake on Wimbledon Common. The lake has beautifully painted mandarin ducks; splashes of colour on the faded water. In the middle of the lake a mother swan sits on her nest. Her feathers are bright, and she preens.
When I found out, I sat on the bedroom floor with the plastic stick in my hand. My back was against the side of the bed, my legs laid out in front of me.
‘I can’t process this,’ I said. ‘I can’t process this.’
James took a photo of me sitting on the bedroom floor not processing it.
In the morning I eat one piece of dry toast. I walk down the hill to Southfields in the warm air. A man in a high-vis vest collects rubbish from the grass and waves at an elderly couple walking by. They wave back.
The magnolia petals peel away and fall in creamy pink slices onto the ground. Each house on this street is the same: 1940s mock Tudor. But each house is different. One has a basketball hoop in the front garden. One has woven crosses in the window and a Green Man face on the wooden garage door.
In one garden there are red tulips with yellow yolk centres and black anthers. These are my favourites: we had them in the garden when I was a child. Right now I’m only twenty minutes away from the house where I grew up. My body tenses when I remember being small in that house. When I remember not feeling safe.
I touch a tulip petal. These are not the same tulips, I tell myself. And each one is different.
By the time I reach the bottom of the hill my stomach feels hollowed out. By Southfields Station there is a Marks & Spencer, a Sainsburys and a Tesco but I am afraid to go into any of them. Afraid of brushing past someone – of breathing in their damp lung air.
I don’t have any money on me anyway. I don’t need it anymore when I go outside.
When I get back to the flat, I eat two boiled eggs, another piece of toast, dried apricots, fruit loaf, a Brunch Bar. I feel full and content and not too long after that – a little sick.
My mother is dead, so is my father.
I don’t know how my mother would feel about my news. She died of cancer when I was 14. People sometimes say: ‘Your mother would be so proud of you.’ And I think: would she? She didn’t seem proud of me then, why would she be proud of me now?
I just smile, so they don’t feel bad.
My father would say: ‘You don’t speak ill of the dead.’
He died 18 months ago, of cancer too. I wrote to him once: ‘Don’t you want to repair things? Me and James are going to have children soon. I’m sure you want to be in your grandchild’s life.’
But to James I’d say: ‘I will never let him and Angela take care of our child.’
When I imagined how this would be, long before we’d even heard of the virus, I thought I would be telling people face to face. I thought I’d be hugged when I told them the news. Would have arms pressed around me and feel contained.
Instead we sit on the sofa and make video calls. We see faces gasp on the phone screen. And I leave long voice notes to friends, feeling the need to explain why I’ve been a out of touch.
‘I’m a bit spaced-out,’ I tell them. ‘I’m worried, I guess it’s normal,’ I say.
Everyone seems very happy. A baby feels like a new start. I think it will be a while before I feel happy, and not everything else.
I wish I had everyone close to me, tending to me. I wish I had flowers woven into my hair and sage burning. I wish my friends and family would kneel around me and speak soothing words, brush my hair, offer their blessings, kiss my forehead.
‘I feel lonely,’ I tell a friend as I lie on my bed. ‘I want to gather everyone around me.’
My stomach aches.
‘I wish I could hug you,’ he says, down the phone. ‘I can feel it. It’s as if you’re here. I can feel I’m hugging you.’
I am a little breathless.
I have an app that shows what the baby looks like. In week 6 it looks like a prawn, or a baby dinosaur. I send the picture to people and say ‘Look, we’re having a dinosaur baby!’
I hope that next week’s picture shows it looking more human.
I get a letter saying my first scan has been booked at Kingston Hospital. They also send me several pages of information about hypnobirthing classes and pregnancy yoga. This must be stuff they were sending out before lockdown. I can’t go to any of the classes.
I am relieved that they include a note to say that one person can accompany me (but absolutely NO children). I had thought I might have to go in alone, and set James up on an iPad. So he’d be looking at his baby on a screen through another screen, and I’d be lying there crying with no one to hold me.
Before all this, I went to a shaman. She was a Brazilian woman with long dark hair who lived in Clapham, off Northcote Road.
I lay on the floor under a blanket and she burned herbs and chanted. She told me to imagine entering my vulva, travelling up my vagina and into my womb.
She said: ‘What do you see?’
I said: ‘It’s dark like a cave. Blue and black.’
‘And what does she say?’
‘She says I’ve been ignoring her.’
‘Yes,’ the shaman says, and chants some more.
I decide that I am craving:
- Tomato soup
- Orange juice
- Mini gherkins
- Chinese noodles and dumplings
- Opera cake
- Fizzy sweets
It may be a coincidence that I always crave the foods I’ve just seen on YouTube.
I suck on a sour fizzy fish and think it’s the most exquisite thing I’ve ever tasted. I could have a fucking orgasm from this fish. I nearly have an orgasm thinking about eating dumplings. My body quivers at the thought. Glistening wet wobbly dumplings – oh my god.
We get Chinese takeaway that night for the first time in years. They taste good but I realise that the pleasure was all in the desire.
They’re spiritual, I decide – the cravings. Evidence of a deeper hunger, a deeper need. They have nothing to do with YouTube.
I read a chapter in the Gentle Parenting book about children needing a champion.
‘As children grow older, their need for a champion grows stronger. When they venture into the territory of friendship issues and struggles with teachers, the need to know that there is at least one person they can rely on is huge. When everyone else gives up on them, the knowledge that you still believe in them is invaluable.’
I remember going back to school two days after my mother died, and being left alone in a room for a while.
I don’t remember ever being asked how I was feeling.
I do remember my father asking me why couldn’t I just accept his girlfriend Angela who he met 18 months later. Didn’t I want him to be happy?
I whisper to my baby: yes, I will be your champion.
One day I feel like I’m glowing with light. I am being transformed. I’m becoming brand new.
‘I need a new name,’ I say to James, sitting cross-legged on our bed. ‘A new last name. I don’t feel connected to the male line anymore. I’m becoming a mother. I need a new name.’
And I’m filled
filled up with light
like I am a new sun.
And another day I am heavy and dark and give in, and lie on the sofa. I watch YouTube videos of people trying foods from different countries. I get hungry.
I sign up to the newsletters of women, doulas, who have rediscovered old wisdom. One email has a link: Shamanic Drum Journey into Your Womb to Meet Your Inner Goddess.
This time there is an explosion of light as I enter the womb. Then it crackles away and I’m in a glittering disco of colours and motion. It is alive and sparkling. I see the baby up above, stuck to the walls with a little cord. I float upwards and stroke its back and my inner goddess is there too. She is smiling and says: ‘I’ll look after them’.
And then the womb starts to spin, and I spin round and round inside it.
At 7 weeks the app says the baby is growing 100 new brain cells per minute. It says it’s the size of a blueberry. I put blueberries in my porridge in the morning and I hold one of them in my hand. It’s got a little weight to it.
I wonder: if I had a miscarriage, is it big enough now that I’d see it in the toilet? And would I try to take it out, separate it from the blood, hold it in my hand?
If things were normal, I might be doing all sorts of interesting things: sitting on the train to Waterloo, eating dinner in New Cross, discussing writing in a workshop, sitting in a dark cinema, driving to the Lake District, playing with a friend’s little boy, putting my toes in the frothy sea, marvelling at ferns in a hot house – all sorts of incredible things but
for many hours
it’s just me and my seasick body.
Lying on the sofa reading. Lying on the sofa watching clips of Malcolm in the Middle. Putting the washing on. Making food. Watching an episode of Friends. Taking the washing out. Eating a snack. Moving from that room to another room and back to the first room.
And in every room, I’m pregnant and not much else is happening.
Is this what depression is like?
I wish it could kick, so I’d know it was really there.
I dream about baby elephants forced to run in a parade.
I walk to a city square.
I hear a sobbing sound – a human sobbing sound – and it’s the baby elephants on the grass. They are crying and rocking. I try to comfort one – stroking it, whispering to it – but it keeps crying.
I raise my head and scream at their keepers, who are all young women: ‘Why have you done this? Why have you taken them away from their mothers?’
I have my scan in five weeks and I’m worried that there will be nothing on the screen. I’m worried there will just be a dark space and no baby.
I’m worried I’ll wake up one morning and the sheets will be soaked with blood.
I’m worried I’m not pregnant, and I’ve made the whole thing up.
I’m worried that I’ll be shut inside for the whole nine months.
I’m worried I’ll have to give birth without James.
I’m worried they’ll tell me I can’t do it, that they’ll fill me with drugs, force metal inside me, cut me open without my consent.
I’m worried I’ll turn into my mother, after the baby’s born.
I’m worried I’ll scream in its face and call it horrible and vile.
I’m worried I’ll blame it for my unhappiness.
I’m worried I won’t be able to work.
I’m worried I’ll decide that all I want to do is be a mother, and everything else will fall away.
I’m worried that I shouldn’t be worried about any of this. That I’m being ungrateful. That my thoughts are wrong and bad.
I’m worried I’m worried I shouldn’t be worried.
On the lake the mother swan sits on her island nest. She stretches her white wings. With her beak she carefully rearranges the twigs about her. I wonder how much rearranging the nest really needs but I suppose, sitting on her eggs for hours, it gives her something to do.
She seems OK about it. Perhaps she’s thinking: well, this is where I have to be for now. All I can do is move these twigs about, and sit on my nest, and wait. This isn’t forever.
This is just for now.
 Sarah Ockwell Smith, Gentle Parenting (Piatkus, 2016)