We pull into the long drive that winds like a river through this bleak canyon of housing blocks. Rae switches off the blue lights; this is an area you would turn on your cloak of invisibility if you could, an estate we know well, though mostly at night. An area on the map that could well be marked here be dragons, except instead of a coiled serpent there would be a can of lager and a syringe. The message says birth imminent, and Control assures us that a midwife has been dispatched. I point out the doorway with the right numbers, we lock the vehicle, and, watched by a small gang of kids who should really be in school, we give them a nod, ignore their questions, and hurry in with a maternity pack and some Entonox.
A man paler than his tracksuit top opens the flat door to us and steps aside.
‘Come in. She’s on the bed through there.’
I would guess he was about twenty, but with his gelled fringe, his spotted face and his spotless trainers, he looks like he should be outside kicking a ball against a wall. He shows us into an encouragingly warm and bright flat, though, and just before we go into the bedroom – where we can hear groaning – the girl’s mother comes out, a brisk, trim woman with lipstick as bright as her manner.
‘Hello. I’m Trish. I think Sandra’s about ready to give birth. They told us to get up to the centre when the contractions were about five minutes apart, but they started coming on fast and strong when she was on the phone. Her waters have broken and she wants to push. Her last baby was pretty quick.’
She gives us a wide smile and says: ‘I hope you’ve done this before.’
I match the smile and say ‘Hell, yes – at least three,’ which is true, but I omit to say that this was in the capacity of fetcher and carrier. I know Rae has actively delivered a couple, though.
Sandra is naked and on all fours.
‘I can’t do this! I can’t do this,’ she gasps, and grips her mother’s hands when she rejoins her on the bed. Trish kisses her forehead and rubs her back with her free hand. I tell her about the gas and air – she says she had some last time. I hand her the mouthpiece for her to use as she needs, then make things ready for delivery.
After this latest contraction passes, Trish tells us that Sandra already has a little girl of two. That birth went quickly and without problem, and all her current ante natal checks have been fine. But without changing her expression she says that there were some problems the very first time Sandra was pregnant, but only after the baby was actually born. Hours later it had stopped breathing and died. Sandra gasps again and says ‘Don’t’, and her mum grips her hands even tighter. I look over to her partner, standing in the doorway, and he shifts his weight slightly. I think he might cry.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Yeah. I just don’t like to see – you know.’
‘Could you get some clean towels? It’ll be good to have something to wrap the baby in when it comes. Which won’t be long now. Are you okay with that?’
‘Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.’
Sandra starts to cry out with a low-down, animal conviction, and her perineum starts to bulge. The top of the baby’s head appears, its wet black hair a glistening whorl. I place my right hand to control it.
‘The head is crowning now. I don’t want you to push. I want you to pant – like this. It mustn’t come out too quickly or you’ll tear.’
After about three contractions the baby’s head is delivered, slowly squeezing out with an intensely squashed-up expression. There is a pause. I feel round the baby’s chin and ear for any sign of a cord, but thankfully – am I right? – it all seems free there.
‘That’s the worst bit over,’ I say, conscious of the fact that I have no actual idea what any of this might feel like. ‘The rest of the baby will come with the next couple of pushes.’
My words sound typed-out and unconvincing; but despite all this, despite these clunking interactions and interventions, the event advances as it will always try to through time, blindly working out another link in the chain, bloody, pure and remarkable.
I know that we should aim to have the baby delivered within about three contractions, or it might be that the shoulder is stuck. But after just two more pushes the baby slips out in a gloopy rush and I guide it up and out.
Together with Rae we clean it and check it over quickly. It cries, and I realise that I’ve been holding my breath for a little while, too. It’s like breaking the surface after a length underwater.
‘It’s a boy – and he’s absolutely fine.’
Sandra turns onto her back. We bundle him up in a couple of towels, then Sandra receives him on to her breast where he blindly smacks his tiny cupid mouth and waves his fingers in front of his face.
There is a knock on the door. The midwife hellos and enters.
‘How we doing?’ she says. I’m almost as happy to see her as I was to see the baby.
After the midwife has used syntometrine to bring on the birth of the placenta, checked it over and satisfied herself that everything’s fine, she says we can go.
Trish gives us a hug.
‘Maybe we should call the baby Spence,’ she says.
‘Poor little thing! I wouldn’t wish that on anybody,’ I tell her. ‘Congratulations. He’s beautiful.’
Sandra gives us a wave from the bed where she sits suckling the baby; her partner comes over and shakes our hand. ‘Thanks for everything.’
We walk outside with the remains of our equipment and give the gang of kids outside a bigger, brighter and altogether more confident smile than when we went in.
‘What happened?’ one of them says, about eight years old, leaning forward on the bars of his bmx like Marlon Brando in The Wild One.
‘A baby boy,’ I tell him. ‘A lovely baby boy happened.’
‘Ahh. Cute,’ he says. And then one of the girls next to him laughs and tries to push him off.