Memory. This is a memory. I think.
I am in the shower. I tilt my head back to wet my hair. Steam gathers on the glass, fogging my view. Along the landing is my daughter, watched by her father. Her downy head and greedy mouth. I find parts of my body I used to know and wash them tentatively as though they are someone else’s: I fit together differently from before.
I play with the squelch of the tiny bubbles that have blocked up my ears, dip my head into the water and watch foamy rivers run down my arms, between my engorged breasts, pooling in a stretched belly button.
I am in the shower but I’m not there at all.
I am on my back in a surgical gown, ankles pushed into stirrups, my great moon of a belly convulsing and contracting. I moan like a cow with its throat half slit.
“Get me a fucking doctor,” I scream.
They’re there, eventually. Loads of them – eight, nine? Jade of surgical scrubs, snap of latex. Hats tied at the back, plastic aprons. A brown face, big kind eyes. A rubber mask over my mouth and nose and I’m being told to breath gas and air. My body objects with violent nausea and I push it away.
I’m hooked up to machines and a cannula is shoved messily into my vein, jabbed repeatedly.
Metal flashes, steel slots into place, flesh rips.
Now I’m on a ward. Rows of beds, TVs on flexible arms. Safe. Unsafe. The girl across from me talks loudly into her mobile phone. Paper cups of pastel pills are brought round, the yellow balloon of liquid bulges. My baby stirs but my legs are lead. I press the red button and wait.
I’m in the hospital but somehow I’m back on the floor of our shower. The plastic tray pushes into my knees. Water washes over my back and my hair hangs in matted chunks. I am still there, but I’m not. I want to be cosseted, wrapped up, swaddled.
“Sam!” I call.
He doesn’t hear and I pull myself to my feet. I stop the water and I am cold, goose bumps push through my skin.
“Sam,” I shout as I move the door back.
I am angry. I asked for the doctor but the midwife didn’t get him. She sits at her computer, smiling blankly. She can’t hear me – she mustn’t because I’m asking and I was promised. I am lying in a bed under heavy blankets like those lead aprons they put on you at the dentist when you have an x-ray. I can’t move.
Heavy footsteps approach and I am on the bathroom floor. He comes in and puts his arms around me. Safe.
“Don’t leave me,” I say into his chest.
“What do you mean?” Sam says, placing his chin on the top of my head.
“You can’t go to work today – you can’t leave me.”
The Tight Red Rope was submitted as part of the Skin to Skin exhibition at The Python Gallery, Middlesbrough. Skin to Skin is a collaboration between artist Clare Hansford and writer Carmen Marcus; the exhibition uncovers the loneliness and intimacy experienced by parents during the first three months after a baby’s birth, known as the fourth trimester. As part of the project Carmen invited submissions of prose, poetry and micro-memoir from parents and writers on their experiences. We are sharing this work at the exhibition in Skin to Skin The Notebook and online to open new conversations about this emotionally vulnerable period and #maternal and #paternal #mental-health.
About The Bath by Clare Hansford
The painting accompanying Emily’s piece is by Clare Hansford and was created for the Skin to Skin exhibition. Clare says ‘I created this painting feeling deeply the bond between me and my baby. Even being in another room felt like a huge stretch to the invisible umbilical cord, that to us was still there.’ Materials used were #Derwent pencils and #Posca markers on paper.
Emily Tempest is a novelist and short story writer, as well as a teacher and a mum. She wrote her memoir, The Tight Red Rope, after being diagnosed with PTSD following the birth of her second child. Extracts from the memoir were shortlisted for the @fishpublishing memoir prize 2019 and her short fiction story, Medusa – another take on motherhood – made the shortlist of the InkTears short story competition 2018. Emily lives in South London with her husband and two children and teaches English to secondary school children. She holds an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths University. @emilytempest