She’s my Ten [2437 words] His mobile rang twenty minutes after he’d put his head on the pillow. ‘Hospital. Now,’ she panted. ‘I’ll bring the car,’ he replied, groping for keys and then, stupidly, ‘Are you all right?’ She screamed. He was with her in the living room six seconds later, his hand on her belly – tight, glistening – her pubes sticking out from knickers a month too small, her legs curling froggishly. He wonders how many babies kill their mothers before they’re even born. She’d begged him to sleep. ‘Rest while you can. You’ll need your strength.’ ‘My strength? What about yours? ‘You sleep! I don’t have a choice!’ So he’d grabbed twenty minutes, the first in forty-eight hours. Twice he’d driven her to the maternity hospital. Twice they’d refused to admit her. ‘You’re not at three centimetres yet, sweetheart. You’ve got to dilate to three before we can give you a bed. Why not go home and have a nice relaxing bath? Light some candles? You’re not in labour yet, my darling.’ What? If she’s not in labour, why the fuck is she in so much pain? He didn’t say it of course. He wouldn’t dare question the midwives, the priestesses of womanhood’s temple. He was small in their presence, grateful father-to-be, pathetic but tolerated, grudgingly received in the feminine sanctum. ‘We haven’t got a fucking bath!’ she spat as they made the long drive home. Nine months before, it’d been a different story, backpacking in the Philippines, racing a typhoon to Hong Kong, the little lady at the airport who barely came up to his waist. In Hong Kong they’d had a bath. ‘You people go to Kowloon? Hong Kong Island?’ They’d laughed at her zeal. Airport lady laughed right back. A month with a backpack had made them both tramps. ‘You go straight to hotel. Read warnings. Category eight typhoon! You stay indoors if hotel tells you!’ They arrived as the palm tops bent to sweep the streets. She’d blagged them the room like she’d blagged them the flights and the meals and guest-list nights. She could talk her way anywhere, talk up a storm in the middle of a drought, talk her way smiling all over the world. The typhoon beat at the windows of their white and chrome room on the thirty-fifth floor. They didn’t care. They twisted and writhed as the storm crashed around them. She was a wild one, which made him a beast. It had never been better, nine out of ten. It would have been perfect except for his fever, but the tropics had never agreed with him. ‘How do you rate this?’ she wheezes through huffs and puffs as they race through the night to the hospital. ‘One out of ten. Zero. Minus a fucking million. Are you all right? Breathe, baby, breathe. It’s going to be all right.’ He’s never felt so useless. The monitors beep, beep, beep. She’s in the chair. She’s standing. She won’t let him touch her. Are they going to give her a bed? She’s crying. Two days of torture. Everyone cracks in the end. Is she going to die right here in the monitor room before she can even lie down? ‘I can’t,’ she moans to the midwife. ‘I can’t any more. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.’ Do something! he screams in his mind. Help her! Help her, you cold-hearted bitch! They’re alone. Beep, beep, beep. She’s tearing off the sticky patches plastered to her stomach and running for the toilet at the end of the ward. He’s right with her when she vomits, holding the hair from her face as she sprays the wall, the floor and him. He waits a thousand years. Ten minutes by the clock on the wall. The midwife came and ushered them quietly to the delivery suite, bubbling soothing words all the way, an angel of peace manifesting before them. He helped the midwife get her onto the bed, strip off her clothes and arrange the tubes and the mask for the blessed gas and air. The midwife left them. They enjoyed themselves for a while. He set up their laptop and speakers, put on the tunes they’d selected. They took a shower together. It was like the photos in the baby magazines. The perfect modern couple. She was off her tits on Entonox, flicking vees for his photos, telling him she loved him. He had a blast of gas every time she got sick of it. Nitrous oxide and air, fifty percent hippie crack, he’d done his fair share of that. Sitting with a mate in the dark of the morning, still flying but with the runway in sight, his mate – father of two – had shared some wisdom, firing off words with a jab-jabbing finger. ‘She won’t remember the pain. Women don’t remember. If they did, they’d never have any more. It’d be one woman, one child. Their brains protect them. They forget the pain. They blank it out. But you, matey of mine, you won’t forget a thing. Full HD, widescreen, surround sound, fucking 4K, my friend, high-def, headphones on, eyes stuck open, never to be forgotten, dude, all the time you’re still breathing. Close your eyes, you’ll see it like yesterday.’ His mate had grinned widely, finger poised for the next round. ‘Shut up,’ he’d mumbled, ‘idiot. Give me the joint.’ She’s broken again. Nitrous oxide isn’t enough. He doesn’t blame her. How could he? It’s been fifty-five hours. He can’t take her pain. They went to the pre-natal classes, did the visualizations, held hands and said beautiful words to a room full of strangers. What a bucket load of shite, that was. She’s begging, weeping, crying out, dripping wet, crawling from the shower to the safety of the bed. He’s got her, one hand holding her up, the other dragging the Entonox tank on its squeaky fucking wheels. He’s not there. He’s not in the room. He’s far, far away, staring out from some unfathomable distance at the nightmare unfolding. How the fuck did they end up like this? He’s never been desperate for kids, never been more than five out of ten on the scale of moving to parenthood. Before she got pregnant neither had she, six at the most, he’s sure. She’d hated kids when they’d first met, outside the jazz club all those years ago, but she’d climbed up the scale as her belly had grown, all the way to ten. He’d dropped off the bottom, past zero, into the panic of negatives. She screams. He’s back in the room, reaching for her, clawed hands ready to strangle her pain, to smother it, to watch while it dies and she finds release. She cries and shoves him away. He wants to heal her, to make things all right, to suck out her agony and hold it for her, hold it tight to his breast in the dark in a place where she’ll never have to see it or know it or feel it. Why can’t it be him? Why does she have to suffer like this? ‘It’s okay,’ says the angel midwife, called by the prayer of the red panic button. ‘I’ll bring the anaesthetist. We’ll get you some pain relief, sweetheart. An epidural will set you right.’ They sent him out when the anaesthetist came. He didn’t understand why. They told him to go for a coffee, he must be tired, bless him, poor lamb. He stood outside the door, fidgeting and walking in circles, until they let him back in. She was a princess propped up in bed. They’d put a gown on her and turned down the sheets. The analgesic drip stood guard by her side. A screen underneath showed a heartbeat that wasn’t hers. She was smiling. He buried his face in her neck and poured his tears on her welcoming skin. ‘It’s so good to see you not in pain!’ He gulped air and heaved out his sobs till he choked. She stroked his hair. Rachmaninoff played on the laptop. He was calm after that. ‘You’ll be a good dad,’ she said. ‘You’ve got so many things to teach him. He’s going to love spending time with you.’ He couldn’t see it. He’d never been able to see it. He was too selfish, too volatile, too prone to seeking the hedonist’s cure. ‘And you’ll be a wonderful mum.’ What else could he have said? He wondered what she was thinking as the pain relieving drugs drip-dripped into her spine. Drip. Drip. Drip. ‘We’re going to have to move things along, my darling.’ The midwife’s smile was as bright as always but her tone had an edge that hadn’t been there before. ‘It’s been a long time, sweetheart, and you can’t go on like this forever. We’re going to move things along.’ He stayed while they fixed the cannula and hung the bag of oxytocin next to the analgesic. He’d been wiping her arse when she needed it ever since they’d consigned her to the bed. That had earned him brownie points with the nurses and the midwife. He wasn’t squeamish. He wanted to help. They were more welcoming after that. They didn’t ask him to leave. Drip-drip. Drip-drip. Drip-drip. He could hear them sharpening the knives. If they were going to cut her, they’d kick him out. She’d be alone, and so would he. Birth partners were welcome at programmed caesareans but not at emergencies, not here. ‘How do you feel?’ he asked. ‘Tired. I just want it to end.’ The bags were almost empty. No more analgesic. No more oxytocin. Sixty-four hours since the adventure began. The midwife eased out her probing fingers. ‘Nine centimetres, sweetheart. We’ve got to get you to ten. Let’s have another look.’ Fingers back in. Midwife does something, screws up her face, wriggling her arm and closing her eyes, performing her eldritch art. He knows something has happened. She’s oblivious, delirious, sixty-four hours and still hanging on. ‘It hurts,’ she mewls. Midwife smiles. ‘It will do, sweetheart, but you’ll be all right.’ He looks at the empty bags. They’re not going to change them. Midwife leaves. A moment of quiet. It’s dark outside. It’s always been dark. He knows there must have been light. People outside have lived through a day. In here it’s always been night. She gasps – not a cry, not a scream, but a guttural blast from the pits of her lungs. ‘Something’s wrong. I feel bad… Oh God, it hurts! It hurts! Call someone! Get someone!’ His blood is ice. He leans across her and presses the emergency button. The little light blinks. He manfully watches it flash. She’s gone pale. No more blood. There’s no more blood in her face, just beads of sweat and empty veins, empty eyes, imploring. ‘Get-someone-get-someone-get-someone!’ At the nurses’ station, on another planet, they’re drinking coffee, reading the paper, chatting about somebody’s aunt. ‘Help,’ he whimpers with the hell of many labours ringing in his ears, a floor full of women yet so few staff. He’s nothing to them. ‘Help, please, my wife’s in a bad way, very bad way, please.’ They look at him with stones where their eyes should be, and he realizes their faces are masks. ‘Midwife’s with a lady, dear. She’ll be along in a minute.’ He slinks away, a scolded child alone in the storm. ‘The midwife!’ she shrieks. ‘Where’s the midwife?’ He’s never heard her panic before. She’s in her own place now. He can’t follow. ‘Something’s wrong, something-something’s wrong.’ She’s shaking. ‘Wrong-something’s-wrong.’ Her skin is grey. She’d wanted a natural birth with candles and music – a pure rite of passage. He’d been proud of her wishes, his ancient-modern-earth-mother girl, embracing her womanhood. They don’t tell you how much it’ll hurt. Midwife arrives, puts on a light, arranges herself, arranges her and him, sweeps up the blood and the fear and the fright. She’s calmer now, legs apart – preparing herself, moaning, chanting, growling? He can’t tell. ‘Look,’ says the midwife. He looks. Deep inside her there’s some hair and a scalp. ‘Push,’ says the midwife. She breathes. She pushes. She roars. He is gone. He is history. He is absolutely no more. There is only this moment, collapsed to a point. He becomes I. Now is the death of my past. She won’t let me touch her. She won’t let me speak. I am her water carrier, bringing plastic cups between each heaving contraction. They don’t sate her. Nothing can sate her. She roars ferocious snarling wolf clawing bear feral animal wild free screaming shouting pumping veins in her neck eyes about to burst. She is the day, the night, the oncoming storm, the rush, the light, all women back to the beginning of time. She is fierce. She is mine. She’s my woman. Look at her. Fear her. Bask in her glory. ‘Get it out! Get it out! Get it fucking out!’ I hear her words. I see her face. I see her pain. I hear her cries. I see her rip. I see her bleed. I hear her screams. I feel her howls. I feel her… I feel her… I feel her… She is my ten. She is my ten out of ten. Perfect ten, one love, all love, she is everything. I don’t care if the baby dies. I only care about her. Make it stop. Make-it-stop-make-it-stop- make-it-stop. Make her live. The baby bursts out on a wave of blood and shit and liquid and green. Baby cries with his legs still inside her. He’s up on her breast. I’m crying. He’s crying. She’s smiling. I’m crying so hard my head will explode, my heart, my lungs, my mind. Midwife whispers in my ear. ‘Be a dear and push the emergency button, will you?’ Everything stops. I’m sharper than I’ve ever been. Never more present. Never more clear. The midwife, nurse and gynaecologist take forty minutes to stop the bleeding and stitch her back up. She’s oblivious to it all, nursing baby on her perfect breast, staring at him with perfect eyes, loving him with her perfect heart. I stroke her hair and fall in love all over again. Midwife touches my arm. ‘Relax, she’s going to be fine. They’re both going to be fine.’ I don’t have any more tears. My knees give out and I hang on the bed like a dead man. Baby turns to me, a squashed up face and two squashed up fists raised at me in defiance. He’s so small, so helpless, so utterly innocent. It takes me six months to learn how to love him.