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Blackheath, near London, November 1900
Ada’s body had stopped shaking. Blood was smeared across her thighs, dripping out of her in thick clots. No one had warned her the bleeding would last this long, but no one had told her much.
The baby was asleep, swaddled by Mary’s, the housekeeper’s, experienced hands. She stared at the wrinkled forehead, the little mushroom nose, the pert lips – the only visible features from under the mounds of cloth.
“My darling,” she pressed her face against the wooden slats of the crib and stroked his trembling cheek with her finger.
The boy whimpered; at least she knew he was alive.
It had been over eight hours since the final push. Eight hours since she had bitten down on the leather strap for the last time, and willed herself to keep breathing through the searing pain. After the head, his body had slipped out like an eel slithering onto the banks of the Thames. The cord cut, Mary had placed the babe onto Ada’s bare chest and a profound joy had coursed through her spent body.
The boy’s eyes opened, as a wail escaped his pale lips. He must eat.
Ada picked him up and tried to coax him to her chest; if only she could catch her breath after nine dreadful months. Pushing a corpse out of her body, becoming one herself; these thoughts had crawled about her mind for weeks, worming their way into her soul as her belly expanded in the sleepless nights.
The wind ripped across Blackheath and the rain beat down on the roof. Rocking the babe in her arms, she stroked his matted tuft of blonde hair. The boy quietened at her touch. Blonde, like his father. It was funny to think that he was Robert’s son, that they had created this life together, when they were such strangers. They had been man and wife for three weeks before he left to fight the Boers. The marital duty had been performed perfunctorily every night; from his correspondence, he seemed pleased with the fast results. His most recent letter had instructed Ada to call the child William if it was a boy. The letter did not include any stipulations for a female child, such frivolous matters were beneath the dignity of a captain in Her Majesty’s army.
William squirmed in her arms, too hungry to sleep. Ada would write to Robert in the morning, once the boy had had his first feed, then she’d tell her husband his son had been born.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Ada pulled down the front of her sweat-drenched nightdress. “Come on darling, eat.” She placed his mouth over her swollen breast.
Arching his back, William’s head wobbled, as his tiny mouth butted against her sunken flesh. Rooting around her useless chest, his face bright red, he howled at her failure.
“The poor lad.” The housekeeper stood in the doorway clutching a boat-shaped bottle filled with a creamy liquid. “Perhaps, he will take this ma’am? Mr. Gibson at the Chemist said Nestlé is the very best.”
“Anything,” Ada took the bottle and shoved the rubber teat between his tiny lips. “Please, eat.”
A moment of silence descended on the room as the milk poured down his throat.
“There you go ma’am,” Mary smiled for the first time that day, “he just needed some help-”
Gagging, William arched his back, spluttering and groaning as the milk came gushing out of his lungs.
Ada turned to the housekeeper, “he can’t drink from it.”
“Calm him down, try again ma’am.” Mary sat beside Ada on the bed, “Mr. Gibson said the Hygienic Feeder is the best there is.” She looked at the boy’s skinny legs, “try again ma’am, he must eat.”
“I can’t do it.” Ada held the teat to the baby’s lips, but he twisted his face away, his wails growing more desperate. “Please take him.”
Ada’s eyes followed them around the room as Mary sang to her son. The housekeeper sought again to get the boy to suck from the bottle. Hope rose in Ada’s chest as his lips wrapped around the teat, but within seconds he was squalling and spitting milk.
“Give him to me.” Ada ignored the throbbing ache in her back as she took the child and pressed him to her chest. “You’re safe; you’re safe.”
The clouds hung thick over the heath, masking the last lingering light of dusk. His skin, which had been a violent red mere minutes before, now looked pale in the half-light. The creases under his eyes were wet from tears; how terrible to suffer so much, so soon in life.
Ada cradled the whimpering baby and drank in the smell of his unformed skull—the scent of love itself. “Forgive me, please forgive me.” The boy squirmed and cried out in pain. “I cannot care for him.”
Mary lifted the baby out of Ada’s arms and placed him back in the crib. The cries stopped as the boy’s strength seemed to drain away. Afraid to touch him, Ada looked at his fragile chest struggling to take in each rasping breath. “Please God, let him live.”
The old Irish woman’s mouth was set in a grim line, she fastened the clasp of her woollen cloak. “I’ll get us help ma’am.”
Ada could hear the chimes of the grandfather clock from downstairs. The wind had died down; William wasn’t making much noise now. She knelt beside the dwindling fire. The boy’s eyes opened and seemed to follow the shadows on the wall.
“Please God, let my baby live.” She stared at the shapes on the wall, which looked like long-fingered demons waiting to snatch her son away.
Ada had begged her father not to make her get married; she wasn’t meant to be a mother. She wasn’t built for it. She looked at the inverted skin on her chest, where nipples should be, two tiny caves concealing the milk. Digging her fingernails into the purple flesh she clawed at herself, but it wasn’t enough to break the seal.
William’s lip quivered; his cheeks were cold to the touch.
A corkscrew, a fork, a butterknife—none of them would work. Ada didn’t notice the iciness of the kitchen tiles on her bare feet as she tore open drawers and searched for an implement that would let her feed her baby. The carving knife had a patch of dried blood from last week’s Sunday roast on the blade, Ada wiped it on her nightdress and returned upstairs.
Thunder echoed through the bedroom, but the boy didn’t stir. He was still breathing, just. Without milk, he wouldn’t survive the night. The shrivelled skin puckered further inwards as she held the knife against her left breast and began to slice.
“Ma’am, stop it. Mrs Waterton, you must stop!” Mary was grabbing her around the shoulders. “Help me.”
A girl with too red lips took the knife out of Ada’s shaking hands.
“I couldn’t get the milk,” Ada said, as the housekeeper guided her back into bed.
William was screaming. She hadn’t registered it; she couldn’t remember what the house sounded like before he was born. The younger woman picked the baby up from the crib, rocking him in her arms.
“I know you,” Ada looked at the woman who could comfort her son better than herself.
“This is Miss Faye Smith, ma’am. She can help nurse Master William. She worked here in the kitchen,” the old woman couldn’t meet Ada’s eye, “she left just after you and Mr. Waterton got married–”
“Your husband gave me the sack,” Faye’s green eyes met Ada’s without blinking.
Ada looked at Faye’s protruding breasts, the smeared rouge, the absence of a ring. “Put my boy down.” She turned to the housekeeper, “you want me to let her feed my son?”
Faye laid the boy back in his crib, “I only came here ’cause Mary tried to stick up for me after your husband–”
“Please ma’am it’s not easy to find a wet nurse nowadays.” Mary’s eyes dropped to the floor. “Most ladies seem to prefer the milk formula.”
William thrashed and wailed. Ada saw tears in the old woman’s eyes as she stroked the wretched boy’s chest. Faye hovered in the doorway, her eyes also on the crib.
“He’s been a long time without eating ma’am, we have to do something. Faye can help.” Mary took Ada’s hand. “Mr. Waterton will want to see his son.”
‘Don’t tell me how to raise my son.” Ada yanked her hand away. “My husband would not want his son to suck on the nipples of a whore.”
Ada lay back on the pillow. She could see a tear roll down the housekeeper’s cheek as she held the baby to her bosom. William’s skin had taken on a bluish hue; he was quiet now.
“You’ve got to let me feed him, ma’am.” Faye still stood in the doorway. “He’ll die if you don’t.”
Ada turned to look at the younger woman, there was a brittle kindness in her opal eyes. She nodded and rolled onto her side, blood from her chest dripped onto the sheets.
Cradling the boy in her left arm, Faye used her right hand to push her plump nipple into Ada’s son’s mouth.
“Thank you, Lord,” Mary murmured as William started to suck. She handed Faye a pillow to put under him. “The Master will be so proud.”
Ada blinked away tears and turned her attention to the fire crackling in the grate. The wound in her chest smarted with each breath. She forced herself to sit up. “Mary, please fetch me the Laudanum. Open the window and get this bed cleaned up. We will all get sick from this filth.”
“Right, you are ma’am,” Mary said, starting to gather the soiled blankets in her arms.
Propped against the bedrest, Ada looked at her son; she could only see the back of his head and the top of his shoulders – the rest of him was lost in Faye’s embrace. William would love Faye. A child’s love is selfish, commanded by their stomach. If Ada could not meet his needs, he would love the woman that could.
The boy’s head lulled backwards, he started to pant and each exhalation came out as a short cry.
“Can he not suck?” Ada asked, both hopeful and fearful for the answer.
“Milk dried up in that one.”
Faye lay the boy on the pillow and he yelped at the interruption. Ada watched as Faye gently pushed William’s head onto her other breast and his crying ceased.
Ada turned her gaze to the window, the crescent moon casting a silver light on the horse chestnut trees. If she had died in labour, nothing would have been different for him.
“Drink this, ma’am,” Mary said. She knelt down by the side of the bed, pouring the reddish-brown liquid onto a spoon and holding it to Ada’s mouth.
The laudanum tasted bitter. She got up so the housekeeper could change the bed, her legs feeling weak beneath her and she gripped the iron bed post. “Thank you, Mary.”
Faye stood up without causing William to break his feed.
Ada wrapped the woollen blanket around her shoulders, she could feel the medicine working. “Thank you, Faye. You saved his life.”
Faye repositioned the boy on her breast. “Don’t make me his mammy, you know.”
Mary plumped the pillow. “The bed’s ready ma’am, you should get some rest.”
Ada let herself be helped into bed. The movement reminded her of swimming at Broadstairs as a girl; she was weightless, her body fading into nonexistence.
William was still stuck to Faye. Ada placed a hand on her bandaged chest, the cloth was wet. She had tried to be a martyr. Mary had offered her laudanum for the labour pains, but she had refused. Eve’s punishment must be endured; a mother is made in sufferance.
Faye held the boy over her shoulder and started patting his back. “It helps them break wind.”
“Is yours a boy or a girl?”
“Little girl. Emily,” Faye cupped the back of William’s head, he was starting to fall asleep.
“That’s a nice name,” Ada said. There were questions to be asked about who the father was and why Robert had reacted with such little pity, but the answers didn’t seem important at that moment. Her baby boy had stopped crying, he was eating, nothing else mattered.
“Would you like to hold him ma’am? He’ll sleep better after being in your arms.”
Faye didn’t wait for Ada’s response and placed the bundle in her arms. He looked peaceful for the first time in his life. She stroked his forehead with the tips of her two fingers, his hazel eyes closed at her touch.
“Well, I’ll be off then–”
“No Faye, you must stay.”
“I’d best be getting back–”
“Please stay. William needs you.” Ada looked up and met Faye’s softened gaze. “I mean, go home and get Emily, but then come back. Please.” Ada saw a smile flicker at the edges of Faye’s mouth. “Mary, please make up a bed for Miss Smith.”
“Are you sure of this ma’am? We can try the formula again now he is calmer. I only asked Miss Smith tonight because I knew she–” The housekeeper ran her hands down her grey skirts. “I hope you know that I only asked her because–”
“Miss Smith saved my son’s life. I want her to stay – if she’s willing?”
“I wouldn’t want to let the little Master down,” Faye said.
Ada nodded and Mary beckoned for Faye to leave the bed-ridden woman and her son alone. On her way out, Mary bent down and picked up the carving knife.
Ada placed William in his crib, he stirred but didn’t wake at the movement. “Thank you, Mary,” she said. The old woman stopped in the doorway. “We wouldn’t have got through tonight if it wasn’t for you.”
“Just doing my job, ma’am.” She held her hands behind her back to conceal the knife.
“I want you to wake me when he wants to eat,” Ada said.
“He’ll wake you himself,” Faye laughed.
“Best get some rest now ma’am,” Mary said, “he shall want to eat again sooner than you think.”
Once the women’s footsteps had disappeared down the stairs, Ada turned away from the crib and lay flat on her back. The boy grunted in his sleep. Closing her eyes, she focused on her own breathing. Stretching her toes, she rolled her shoulders back and felt her muscles loosen. Her whole life had changed since the sun rose last. She turned on her side to look at her baby boy in his crib. He was alive; she was alive; Faye was here.
Lying on her back, Ada listened to the beautiful sound of her son breathing. She closed her eyes. Her legs twitched; the final spasms of the force that had brought her baby into the world left her body. She must sleep. Mary was right, he’d be hungry again soon.
About Polly Goss
Polly Goss is a writer based in Greenwich, London. She is a graduate of the Faber Academy and has had her work staged at The Tristan Bates Theatre and The Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She is currently working on her debut novel.
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