Memento Mori

Memento Mori

When she’d pictured this moment in her head, there had been more blood. It would cover his body, spill onto hers and splash over strangers’ hands. Crimson liquid would gather in knuckle creases, pool in cuticles and become fainter as it spread across forearms. There’d be skin, stretched and pink. And a scream. Raw.

But he was grey. Almost blue, actually. And didn’t cry, but gasped, as if he’d been running and running; pudgy arms and legs pumping through fluid. She smiled at the feel of his slippery skin against hers. The water hugged them, a liquid cocoon keeping the others at bay. She rested her mouth on top of his head, breathing in his sweet, metallic taste. Warm ripples lapped at his feet. Hello. Welcome.

“He’s grunting.”

The announcement was a steel-capped boot kicking through their reverie. The doctor, who’d seemed bored as she stood across from Bea’s spread legs just five minutes earlier, appeared at her side. With a tight smile she lifted the baby and walked away, leaving Bea alone in the tub of tepid water.

A switch flicked and light strips filled the room with a buzz; Bea squinted at the midwife approaching.

“There was a lot of meconium before he came out,” she said, weaving a sieve in figures of eight around the water. “They just need to do some tests.”

“He’s swallowed his own poo,” Pete boomed from the corner. He’d followed the doctor to watch her work.

“Why haven’t we evolved more?” thought Bea as she clamped the mask over her mouth. Breathing in again and again and again, she watched the midwife begin to blur and, eventually, vibrate.

*

“My grandmother’s grandmother was hanged.”

As she spoke, Anna smoothed the black silk on each glove, one after the other.

“A dead baby was found at a farm, so the local women were tasked with finding who had been with child.”

She paused to look at Frederick. He stood with his back to her, looking through the window with his head perfectly centred, as if to prove he had no interest in the groundsmen below nor the cloud patterns above, but had chosen this position merely as an alternative to facing her.

“Do you know how they discovered it was my ancestor?”

Frederick made no reply.

“They milked her. Like a cow.”

Frederick turned; Anna’s heartbeat quickened. He moved as if to reply, but was interrupted by a knock at the door.

“Excuse me, sir.” Willis stood in the parlour doorway. “He’s here.”

*

Lying in the bed shielded by a blue concertinaed curtain, Bea followed the journey of the cannula piercing the skin of her hand. Two thick tubes connected it to a plastic bag half full of chemical liquid, which was fastened to a smear-stained metal rod. He had his own little tubes, held in place with two wooden lolly sticks, fastened by metallic tape. She couldn’t lift him. They got tangled and bumped plastic and each time she pictured a jolt of metal ripping through a tiny vein.

“Knock, knock.” A forearm swept the curtain aside, giving way to a navy-clad figure. “How’s baby feeding?”

“Still struggling.” Bea sat up.

“I’ll do it.” Pete leapt from the chair and squeezed past the midwife, lifting the baby from his crib. “You got him?” He tried to meet Bea’s gaze as he lowered the baby into her arms.

Silently, Bea undid her pyjama top and moved her baby’s closed mouth towards her breast, brushing his lips and nose with her milky nipple. Heat started to prickle at her cheeks.

“Do you mind if I touch your breast?” the midwife asked once failure had filled the cubicle. Bea lowered her son into her lap and looked at the ceiling. She felt one hand squeeze her nipple while the other gripped the back of his neck, before the two were brought together with a force that hurt them both. Bodies cooperating. As nature intended.

*

Doctors had an insatiable appetite for baby blood. Vampires in spectacles and scrubs, they appeared at night to perforate his hands until they turned blue, brown, black with bruising. Midwives scraped at his heels. Did they suspect something? Intent on proving that he was real. That behind his soft skin, almost iridescent in peachiness, there lurked blood. But Bea knew. He was The Body now; she, the incidental husk. Together, they’d grown in sync – bloomed – but when he left, he left her sucked dry.

Standing underneath the hospital shower, she tried to scrub away the piss and shit and sweat that caked her skin, being careful to avoid the stitches of her torn vagina. With her head tipped back, eyes closed and mouth open, angry hot darts hammered her hard breasts and pooled in her fuzzy mouth. As she rubbed her scalded skin dry she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her stomach a paunch. Her labia, longer. Tautness replaced with excess, obsoletion. Once an entity in its own right, her body was now defined by his absence.

*

“The importance of posterity sir, cannot be understated.” The photographer bowed his head but kept his gaze up, watching as Frederick dropped the coins into his hand.

“Particularly for a family of such standing.”

Anna had sat with her hands clasped throughout the procedure. Now, as she watched the man’s final performance, she felt her fingernails may pierce the silk.

Once the fee had been paid, the photographer went to take his leave, but then paused and turned to face her. “It’s known as a ‘Memento Mori’, madam,” he said barely above a whisper. “Remember you must die.”

*

“His hands don’t look real.” Bea sat cross-legged on the freshly made bed, cradling the baby in one arm, holding his fingers up to her face with the other. Mornings were the best. She ate two bowls of cornflakes drowned in milk, which no longer turned her stomach. She gulped down coffee guiltlessly and drank in her little boy, each day selecting a new favourite part.

“Mmmm, what?” Pete did his new-born puppy impression, looking at her through almost entirely closed eyes, to let her know she’d woken him.

“His hands, they don’t look real.”

“Yeah.” He yawned. “So tiny.”

“No, it’s like someone’s tried to make them as lifelike as possible but they’re actually made of wood,” she said, picturing her father painting minuscule knuckle wrinkles on little finger-shapes, each attached to a wooden palm with mortice and tenon joins. She mimed pulling his thumb, forefinger and middle finger out. “Pop. Pop. Pop.”

Pete looked at the wife he didn’t recognise, holding the son he didn’t know, and closed his eyes to feign sleep.

 *

“Oh my god, did you not hear?” Nic raised her eyebrows at Bea, her mouth open. “Yeah it was awful.” She tore the packet of sugar and whipped it around her tea.

“I mean, so sad obviously but … I dunno. Do you not think keeping a baby, even though you know it won’t be able to see, hear, eat and whatever else is actually a bit selfish? I mean who are you really doing it for?” She leaned back in her chair and took a sip, working hard to suppress a smile.

“Mmm,” Bea murmured as she spooned milk froth into her mouth. The leather chairs were too far away from the table. It was a bright morning but the café was dark. The daytime crowd – the elderly and new mothers – infused the place with boredom.

“But yeah, it died when Amy was six months gone anyway, but she still had to give birth to it.”

“Oh fuck.”

“I know.” Nic leaned in and whispered, loudly, “But then they got people to come and visit it?”

Bea kept her eyes on her mug.

With a sigh, Nic picked up her phone and started tapping. “It was like a baby bird apparently. All translucent.”

“I guess everyone grieves in their own way.” Bea pictured a fleshy creature with bulbous black eyes in a nappy.

“Mmmm. Turned out it was so … deformed, that they got the sex wrong. Told them it was a boy but it was actually a girl? And—” Nic stopped tapping and looked at Bea. “Mike asked me to photoshop their picture of it, to change the clothes to pink?”

“And?” Despite herself, Bea wanted to know more. How and why had they dressed her? Where had they photographed her?

“I didn’t feel it was right to see it, so I just said I didn’t know how.”

“…right.”

Nic looked at Bea, then down at her mug.

“Well. Anyway, I’m sorry, I feel for them, but doing all that, then the funeral?” She grimaced as she drained the dregs of her cup and carefully positioned it on the saucer. “That wasn’t a life.”

*

“No, I’ve never converted to anything, as you well you know.” Bea’s mother kept her voice breezy as she set down the tray of coffee. “But there are religions I respect and Hinduism is one of them.”

Bea stood staring at the new, metre-tall statue of Varuna that had replaced the TV, wondering when her mother’s need for admiration had reached this level. What would dad have said?

“I think it’s cool.” Pete’s voice was louder than usual. “How was your trip anyway Carol?”

“It was fantastic Pete, we just—”

“Do you know there’s a river in Delhi that’s full of dead babies?” Bea sat down and picked up a cup. No one replied.

“Mmm, normally Hindus cremate the dead to let the soul move on, but if they’re less than three, they think the soul hasn’t had time to attach itself? So they submerge it in holy water.”

“Oh no, I didn’t actually.”

“Strange, isn’t it?” Bea looked at the baby in Pete’s arms. “To put a time limit on when a little body becomes more … significant, or something.”

Her mother didn’t reply and Bea looked back down into her cup, gripping it so that the heat stung her palms.

“Well I think – NONOMNOM – someone’s – YUMYUMYUM – got – NOMNOMNOM – a stinky – YUMYUMYUM – bottom.”

Pete pretended to eat the baby’s feet.

Had she ever been attracted to him? They used to have morning sex that lasted well into the afternoon, he took pains to remind her. But only if a night of grubby pills had come before, she thought. His easiness and charm had been the perfect antidote to her intensity – he was the hug on a Monday morning that stopped her falling apart. But now, when she watched him strap the baby to his chest, she longed for a streak of bad.

“Fancy one?” she’d asked the night before, holding up a pack of silver B&H. He paused from the washing up and looked from the packet to her face, one hand suspended in mid-air.

“Fucking hell relax, they’re about ten years old.” She slammed the drawer shut and turned the radio up.

Later that night, he put down his book and watched her undress for bed.

“You’re beautiful,” he said, as she peeled away her nursing top, her baggy, stained bra, and her two full breast pads. She scoffed and looked in the mirror, staring at her vein-streaked flesh.

“Engorged.”

“Bea.” Pete reached for her as she slid into bed, but she turned and switched off the light. He was so heavily coated in a saccharine cloak of fatherhood, she couldn’t stand his touch. Nor the thought of him exploring the new her. Sex had only ever been the precarious bridge between them, anyway. The baby was just the oblivious train, wrecking the tracks beneath it.

*

Cool down. Soothe. Protect. Feed. Hold. That was all that was needed from Bea now. But her milk wasn’t enough; he was always underweight. A pathetic percentile. She made baths too cold so he cried to be let out. In John Lewis, he screamed in agony as too many layers encased his body in sweat. She left the handbrake off the car, sending him slowly rolling towards disaster.

Once he could talk they could start again, properly. They would devour little worlds together, the ones she used to live in with her father, full of hobbits and snozzcumbers and new words to roll around in. Maybe he would narrativise the minutiae of each day in his head like she did – like she does – before coming home after school and bringing them to life for her, imbuing her day and his with more meaning.

Yet, as with each passing day she seemed to career them closer to destruction, she thanked his muteness for making him her ally.

 *

Anna traced her fingers across the top of the brass frame, letting them bump over the grooves of the gilding as she stared at the photograph. Plump and pretty, with a shock of blonde curls, Charlotte was a cherubim dressed in velvet. Except now, she could see, her daughter’s face was gaunt. The eyes painted on her closed eyelids were garish, and her head was tilted too far back. The wooden sign that read “GONE TO JESUS” was scrawled in uneven lettering.

The door of the parlour opened and she felt Frederick walk in and stand behind her.

“We marked you becoming a wife and then becoming a mother. This is another occasion to be marked, no matter how unpleasant.”

“An occasion. Of when I became—” she turned to face her husband. “What am I now?”

*

“He’s dying, he’s dying, he’s dying, he’s dying.” Pete sobbed down the phone as they stared at the body in the Moses basket. Pale feet with long toes peeped out from navy and white stripy trousers. His t-shirt had little anchors on. Bea sat on the edge of their bed, feeling the cold take hold of the back of her legs, then her neck. Spidery red veins, turning blue. Stiffening as the dread frost travelled through.

Pete crouched over the baby, with both palms flat on the floor. His sinewy body juddered with each sob.

“He’s dying,” he howled.

“He’s dead,” she said. The silverbirch thrashed in a frenzy of flashing blue lights.

*

The bathwater that had seemed too cool at first had managed to work its way through Bea’s body, seeping into her skin before oozing out as sweat beads on her forehead. She tried breathing deeply, but the wet air encircled her lungs, restricting them. Dark grey patterns whorled on top of the water before sinking beneath the surface. Bea submerged her head to watch them gather into dusty piles on the bottom of the tub. She thought back to the woman of that morning.

Please accept my apologies.” Her watery eyes had implored Bea for forgiveness. “I really don’t know how this could have happened.”

“It doesn’t matter.” The lack of emotion in her voice had snapped the woman’s out of hers, and she passed Bea the tiny cellophane bag. “INFANT XXXX?” was handwritten on the label. A pile of dark ash was compacted inside.

Back in the bathroom, an echoey crash brought Bea back into the moment, the heat, the end. She sat up, gripping the edge of the bath and looked at the door.  Another crash against the wall behind her confirmed it was the sound of wood hitting brick as Pete tried to dismantle the cot. His grief had manifested as a mania of productivity. The pram was gone, the nursery was half-repainted, the cardboard box of “Bea’s books” given back to her mother, who had collapsed on top of them, convulsing with sobs of regret.

Bea lifted her toes up out of the water and saw tiny flecks of grey gathered between them. Little eyelids, thick eyelashes, a double chin, pudgy knees, all dotted around her feet and ankles. She stood up, letting the water drip from her body as chunky pale thighs, an “inny” belly button and full, beautiful lips clung to her stomach.

The water continued to work its way through her, spilling out of her eyes and down over her face as she reached down, gripped the plug chain and pulled. Little wooden hands, ankles that folded over feet, fuzzy brown hair that never had a chance to thicken, toes, elbows, neck, ears, nose, life, death, hope, promise, heartbreak swirled around and around and around, dancing with the water nymphs who wanted him back, before disappearing into the black.

Bea lay down in the empty bath, watching swollen drops of rain smash against the window. Varuna cried cold tears of joy to see him again.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *