Monday, March 28, 2011

a painted wall

The moment Frank puts his hand on the latch of the gate, a monstrous dog rears up behind it, slamming into the wooden slats, barking viciously.
‘Jesus Christ!’ says Frank, jumping back. ‘The size of it!’
The dog stops barking just as suddenly, and presses its piano-sized head up against the top, breathing hard and looking at us with a cold, shark-black eye.
There is a brief stand-off as the dog – surely the bastard offspring of a Shetland pony and a wolf – stares at us, gauging distances, thicknesses. Then it starts again, coming at the fence with every ounce of hatred in its body. The pine slats shudder.
‘Fuck me.’
Just then, a woman appears in the yard. She strides up to the beast, slaps it on the nose and takes its place at the fence, peering at us over the top with much the same expression.
‘It’s only Jessie,’ she says. ‘But come round the front if you don’t like dogs.’
We pick our way along the alleyway, past car parts and carrier bags, and meet her at the front door.
‘Julie’s upstairs.’
The house would feel crowded if you wore a jacket; as it is, every surface and corner, shelf and recess, is comprehensively junked-up, an accumulation of stuff in settled, dateable layers. We pass a sitting room given over to a wall-sized TV screen and a white leather sofa whose three occupants seem to have absorbed the hue and form of the cushions they lie amongst. They barely look up as we pass.
From the top of the stairs we can hear the anguished groans of a young girl.
‘Baby’s coming,’ says the woman, following behind us.
‘Can I ask what relation you are?’ I say to her. If she had said Great Grandmother I’d have believed it; she has a coarse, desiccated look, a pulling in around the mouth and eyes, and a hint of ash when she shakes her pony tail out.
‘Her mum,’ she says. ‘Jake’s the father. He’s up there.’
We go on into the room of a young teenage girl, fluffy, white, heart-shaped photo frames on the wall, My Little Pony figures on the window-ledge, and a crowd of Care Bears and cuddly Disney characters set four deep along the top of the chest of drawers, jostling for position like some nightmarish audience ready for the show. A small girl is lying on her left side on the bed, her legs drawn up to her swollen belly, her arms clutching her knees. Her eyes are closed, and her damp yellow hair has fallen across her face. Jake, her partner, is sitting on the edge of the bed, one hand draped on her leg, a mobile phone open in the other. He looks up as we come in, and springs away to the side as if we’d caught him cheating.
‘How often are your contractions, Julie?’ asks Frank.
‘I don’t know. It just hurts. Mum!’
‘It’s okay Julie. Listen to the man.’
‘Has everything been normal up till now?’
She groans.
She still has on her tracksuit bottoms. They look dry.
‘How long has she been like this?’
‘I don’t know. Since about six?’
I know Frank is thinking the same as me. Delivering a baby in this cramped little room would be less than ideal. And taking into account all the variables - the partner, the dog, the people in the room downstairs - the chances of an uncomplicated delivery seem remote.
‘Let’s ride this one out and then we’ll get you down to the ambulance,’ he says. ‘The hospital’s only round the corner.’


‘I’m glad we didn’t have to deliver that one,’ I say to Frank in the cab, clearing the job off the screen.
‘It would’ve been all right,’ he says. ‘We could’ve used one of those Care Bears as a pad.’
Another job comes up immediately.
‘You have got to be kidding.’
Birth imminent, the other side of town.


The other side of town, and even though it’s only five minutes away, for all the differences there are between the two places it may as well be the other side of the world. Whilst the streets of the first estate were set close like the high-sided runs of some penal colony; the feel here is of light and air and space, the sun smiling in an arc across the neat grass verges and gardens of Spring blossom.
Mrs Jessop is on all fours in the bedroom, naked from the waist down and panting to avoid pushing and delivering too fast. Mr Jessop is by her side, rubbing her back and whispering encouragement. We break open the maternity pack. She declines Entonox. The baby’s head bulges out slowly, then after a moment or two the rest of the body follows. She turns and takes the bloody infant on her breast, sobbing and laughing; we help her clear the baby girl’s face; she swaddles her, and lays her on to suckle.

Half an hour later, the midwives arrived and in charge, we’re sitting in the kitchen as a family friend makes us tea. The Jessops have only just moved here. The place is stripped out, back to bare board and plaster. The basics of the kitchen units are in, but everywhere else there is a sense of a bright new home being worked up from a sound base. The main wall of the kitchen is covered in writing – a happy graffiti to be painted over soon and worked into the fabric of the house like domestic white magic – all by the friends and relatives who’ve stopped by to help over the last few weeks, making everything ready for the baby.
‘It’s going to be a lovely place,’ says Frank, looking out into the sweet little garden and sipping his tea. ‘Good choice.’
I look over the graffiti wall again, the signatures and messages, the cartoon flowers and smiling faces. I wonder how many babies will be born today, across the world. And I wonder what’s been written for each of them, and what’s been done, in the days and weeks and months before they came.


Corinna said...

Sweetness. Delivering a baby that is and will be loved.

Baglady said...

Another fab piece of writing Spence. Such great material to have those two back to back, as it were.

OKinUK said...

Dear sweet jeebus... It never occurred to me that people in your profession encounter women in the various throes of delivery. Gah!

I always learn something when I read your posts.

BB said...

I preached birth control to my son and he had 2 babies by 21. I don't know how you get through to these young kids. The girls do it to stay connected with the guy is my theory.

Spence Kennedy said...

Corinna - It's a great feeling. One of the best.

Baglady - At the time it just felt we couldn't escape our fate - to deliver a baby at home that day. The contrast between the two environments couldn't have been starker, though.

Mollie - We seem to pitch up to pretty much everything. Birth is one of the nicer ones (when it goes well - as it does, more often than not, and so far so good for me...). I never really go into the technicalities of the jobs I write about, because I'd rather focus on the human interest . But I suppose I run the risk of seeming gung-ho or something!

Bouncin' Barb - That's an excellent tack - and one that we'll be following with our children. I think having a baby in your teens is a tough call. Certainly in this case, the girl (or the family) didn't seem prepared or even clued up. But then I don't know the circumstances. Maybe she'd only recently come back from somewhere. A difficult situation, whatever the specifics, though.


Thanks v much for your comments! :)

jacksofbuxton said...

Just want to follow up on Bouncin' Barb's comment.

We seem to have a very poor attitude to sex and children in this country.We should be teaching children at an early age all about sex.Not only the mechanics of it,but birth control,love,parenting,the sacrifices parents have to make,everything.Maybe we wouldn't have such a high teenage pregnancy rate in this country.

According to a customer of mine that has researched this another thing teenage pregnancy is linked to is class.Middle class families want their children to have careers,go to University etc.So a baby will only get in the way,whereas poorer families don't have these aspirations and a child will get them other things,a council flat,money and so on.

It's a very British thing to ignore children in general any way.How many places have crap children's food menus,no children allowed after 8pm etc etc.Mainland Europe encourages children to take part more.

Little bit of a rant,sorry.

Tom Hakkinen said...

Great story Spence, I really appreciated the different worlds that you described. I'm always amazed at the different facets of humanity that you describe in your blog posts.

Spence Kennedy said...

JoB - I think I'm right in saying we've got one of the worst rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe. Not an enviable position, and you do wonder why. I know there's been a move over the past few years to make PSHE focus on all those other relationship aspects, from sex to self-awareness, respect, economics. But despite it all we still do badly. I think class is def an issue.

I do think other European countries have a more inclusive, enlightened approach to children generally. Restaurants are a good example. Here, kids are seen pretty much an encumbrance.

BTW : I like your rants!

Akseli - Thanks. You do see lots of variety in the ambulance. 'Access all Areas'!

MetalDog said...

A lot of the lower class young mothers I've heard from and spoken to seemed to have babies because they just wanted more love in their lives - from their partners, from their baby, to their baby. Unwise, often, but understandable.

It's a shame that we can't all have nice, bright, stable homes to live in. I think there'd be a lot fewer gits around if everyone had it at least halfway nice.

But then I'm just an old hippy at heart.

Spence Kennedy said...

I know what you mean, MetalDog. But what struck me most about the contrast here wasn't so much the economic difference between a sink housing estate and a cosy suburb - although it is a big difference of course - but more that in the first household there didn't seem to be much preparation, or even basic concession to the imminent birth. It was a cluttered and hostile environment, whereas the second had much more of a community feel, not just the parents, but the friend helping out on scene and the drawings on the wall of people who'd help make things good.

Life's undoubtedly harder on the estate, and I def agree that places like often have a brutalising effect on the population. It's easier to feel sunnier and more optimistic if the environment reflects that.

I have been to a home birth on a tough estate that was just as life-affirming and just as well considered as the second of these, though. So it's not utterly dependent on the location.

Looking back over this piece I think I'm guilty of over-egging the pudding a bit - the 'penal colony' descript. is a bit much, as is the Teletubby like stuff about the suburb. It's all too leading - so I'll probably tone it down a bit! The fact remains that the two places are very different - the first run-down, the second well-kempt. I should probably just try to be a little more clear headed / even-handed about it!

Thanks for the comment, MD. I appreciate it.

Unknown said...

What a contrast of situations. I may just show this to my two teenaged daughters, you know, just a little hint in the right direction.

tpals said...

Are home-births the usual thing there? The vast majority go to the hospital here. It also seems odd to call for an ambulance; I drove myself back in the old days. :) One of my sisters was born in a car on the way to the hospital.

Loved the post; two slices of very different pies.

Chaz said...

Strangely enough, I just experienced my first call where we actually delivered a baby last night. 3 AM call for a woman in active labor, and sure enough, she delivered right as we walked in. Great to read your perspective on it!

Spence Kennedy said...

Nari - Let's hope they don't just get a taste for care bears and big black dogs...

tpals - Home births are still in the minority, unfortunately. Of the two I wrote about, only the second was planned for home.

For normal labour, with plenty of time to go, if someone calls for an ambulance to go to hospital here the nickname is 'maternataxi' - no reason they shouldn't make their own way.

chaz - Congrats for the job last night. May you have many more like that.

Cheers for the comments! :)

Mrs M said...

What a fabulous birth to be at, Spence. I hope I never stop feeling awed at the sight of a woman just getting on and having her baby with us midwives (or you boys in green!) just having to be there to bear witness.

As for your first young woman... all the reasons she probably ended up there, unprepared and frightened are so complex. But yes, it always depresses me just a little when I visit a mum and baby and she's little more than a child herself, teddies on the bed making way for baby equipment and an equally confused teenage boy hanging about then sloping off for a cig as soon as the scary midwife types arrive and start asking about bleeding and stitches and bowels.

Spence Kennedy said...

I've been so lucky with births up till now. Actively helped deliver four - but all of them problem free. The two that were problematic, a midwife was on scene to handle things (and in both cases never have I been so impressed by their level of skill and all-round capability, and never have I felt so relieved to have an expert on hand!)

The contrast between these two births couldn't have been more extreme, in all areas. And you're right about the boy / father. He was hanging around the periphery, and didn't even look as if he thought he should get on the ambulance. I tried to include him in events, but he just hung back looking guilty!

Thanks for the comment, Mrs M.