Authors: Maureen Reynolds
To my husband, Ally, and
my family, Alick, George, Steven and Wendy
What a day to have a baby – especially at Lily’s age.
A small group of concerned neighbours had gathered in a tight group in the dim coolness of the damp staircase, grateful to be shielded from the fierce rays of the sun in the July heatwave – a heatwave that had appeared like a golden oasis after weeks of grey, steel-tipped clouds and heavy rain. Now, each day was hotter and more humid than the previous one. Like a furnace being stoked up daily, the build-up of accumulated heat descended on the grimy courtyards of number 30 Hilltown, a densely populated huddle of tiny-roomed flats that saw neither daylight nor sun through their minuscule windows.
But, as I left the tiny one-roomed flat that was home to Mum, Dad and me, the weather was a million miles away in my thoughts. I heard the soft murmur of the women’s voices. Nellie, our next-door neighbour stood with a worried look on her pale, pinched face which was the legacy from living in her dark, cramped house – that and insufficient nourishment. She clutched a small sleeping child in her fragile, stick-like white arms, oblivious to the fact that he had been sick at some point before drowsing off. A milky stain had spread in a soursmelling wet patch down the front of her cheap cotton frock – a frock which, in its heyday, had been a vivid cornflower blue, had now, because it had been washed and worn for so long, faded to a nondescript grey.
‘Ann, is that the baby coming?’ she asked. ‘We thought it was due in August?’
I paused briefly, the sound of Dad’s urgent command to fetch both the midwife and Granny Neill still ringing in my ears. Still I knew that my parents would appreciate the neighbours’ concern so I called out as I dashed past them on the narrow, low-walled stairwell, ‘Mum’s pains have started and I’m away to fetch Mrs Grey, the midwife at Rosebank Road. Then I’ve to go and fetch Granny Neill from the Overgate to come as well.’
Rita, another neighbour, said, ‘Is there anything we can do to help?’
Some of our other neighbours were standing around and they all nodded in agreement.
I stopped, anxious to be on my way but also unsure if Dad wanted any other help. ‘Well, Dad’s in the house with Mum so, if he needs help, maybe he’ll ask for it himself.’
As I turned away, Rita, who must have thought I was out of earshot, turned to her pals with a sad shake of her head. ‘We all know that Lily is a bit old to be having another baby – especially after a gap of fifteen years.’ She stopped, making sure she had the full attention of her small audience. ‘Lily was forty-two on her last birthday and, like the rest of us, she has a man out of work and there’s precious little hope of him finding another job.’
Rita shivered in spite of the heat. She was as plump as Nellie was skinny and her fleshy face wobbled like an unstable jelly. ‘Heavens it’s bad enough going into labour when you’re young and fit. Just think what a trial it must be when you’re forty-two.’
She rolled her eyes and glanced down at the toddler at her feet. Clad only in a grimy torn vest and a yellow, urine-stained nappy, he was playing quite happily with an empty custard tin, oblivious to the drama unfolding around him.
Nellie glanced around the assembled company before dropping her voice to a hoarse whisper. ‘Well, Lily did tell me that she was hoping this might just be the change of life but she was really worried when she knew she was expecting.’
She stopped talking when she noticed the wet stain. Holding the fabric away from her thin body, she said, with a trace of disgust in her voice, ‘Would you look at this? That wee devil Jimmy has been sick down the front of my frock. Kids!! Who would have them if they could help it?’ Still her sharp words were softened by the maternal look she bestowed on the baby’s downy head.
I stood motionless on the stairs. Not only had I witnessed the scene but, because of the arch-shaped construction of the stairs, Rita and Nellie’s words had rebounded off the walls in an amplified echo and to say I was worried was an understatement.
After this brief moment of eavesdropping, I turned on my heels and darted out on to the Hilltown. Running up the steep slope as fast as I could, the memory of Mum’s sharp cries was still fresh in my ears. The neighbours’ words had also put an icy cold fear in my heart and this fear seemed to pump energy into my legs.
I barely felt the heat from the pavement through the thin soles of my well-worn sandals yet, compared to the horde of children who were running around in their bare feet, my worn shoes were a luxury. Their feet slapped noisily against the dry, dusty paving stones and their shrill shrieks of laughter contrasted with my own secret worry and concern.
Mrs Grey the midwife, although now middle-aged, was always busy and in demand. Because of her low charges, she was called out to help deliver most of the births in the neighbourhood. On this particularly hot Sunday afternoon, I found her sitting on a decrepit chair with her knitting in her lap. Tucked in beside the knitting was her cat. A large ball of sludge-coloured wool, the exact shade of the cat, was spiked on to the sharp points of the needles. From a distance, it looked as if the cat had been knitted from the wool like some child’s toy.
In an effort to escape the hot rays of the sun, she had placed her chair in a rectangular shaded spot in the long narrow courtyard, a yard that stretched between two tall tenements. In spite of the shade, she had obviously been too tired for any activity and she was asleep.
Like a demented dervish I rushed up to her, alarming her with my rude awakening while trying to keep the fear at bay. ‘Mrs Grey, Mrs Grey, will you come with me quickly? Mum needs you.’
Bunty Grey opened her eyes in confusion while the khaki-coloured cat shot off into the distance with a gleam of outrage in his eyes. She looked at me over the top of her spectacles. ‘Goodness me, what a fright you gave me.’ She squinted at me before recognition dawned in her pale watery eyes. ‘You’ll be Ann Neill – Johnny and Lily’s lassie from the foot of the Hilltown. Well, just let me get my bag and I’ll come with you.’
I waited impatiently until she appeared. A few minutes later she came bustling towards me, wearing a crisp-looking cotton dress and carrying a black bag clutched in her soft podgy looking hand, a hand that didn’t match up with her wrinkled face.
As we set off down the hill, once more making our way through the scores of noisy, sweating children, I explained my mission. ‘I’ve to take you up to the house then go and get my Granny Neill from the Overgate.’
Thankful when we reached our close, I ran ahead of her up the well-worn stairs and I could hear her laboured breathing behind me.
The women were still standing where I left them. Rita greeted the midwife warmly. ‘Another baby in the close, Mrs Grey – we seem to be populating the entire Hilltown in this wee corner.’
The midwife laughed before heading off down the gloomy lobby to our small flat. When she reached the door, she turned. ‘Go and fetch your granny, Ann.’
When she opened our door I heard the sharp distressing moans echo down the passageway. These were punctuated by Dad’s soft soothing voice, ‘Here’s Mrs Grey now, Lily.’
Now that the midwife had arrived, the women began to disperse – some back to their dark, dingy houses while others made their way down towards the sunshine. They glanced with sympathy at me as I trooped down with them.
‘Now you’re not to worry, young Ann – about your mum I mean,’ said Rita, placing her plump arm around my shoulders.
‘No, that’s right,’ said Nellie. ‘I’ll tell you something. I was in a worse state than your mum when wee Jimmy was born and look at me now – as fit as a fiddle.’
This statement was untrue because she had the emaciated look of a starving sparrow. However I was grateful for this reassurance.
My grandparents lived up the close beside Horatio Leslie’s fish shop in the Overgate. Fortunately for me their window overlooked the street and Granny was seated on her favourite comfy chair which she had pulled over to the open window. A fat feather cushion was draped over the windowsill and Granny’s two plump arms were draped on its surface like two pampered Pekinese pooches.
She didn’t see me standing on the pavement because she was listening intently to her neighbour Alice who sat like her twin at the adjoining window. I hated to interrupt her as it was a well-known fact that she enjoyed this social form of relaxation immensely. There was nothing better in life than a good going conversation on a Sunday afternoon – especially if it included some innocuous gossip or maybe a bit of scandal. Today the sunshine was an added bonus.
As for Grandad, I knew he would be at the far end of the kitchen with his Sunday paper and pipe filled with black tarry Bogey Roll, blowing streams of foul-smelling smog into the cramped room. I often thought my grandparents were like the figures in a weather house – one sitting in the fresh air and the other surrounded perpetually by a thick fog.
I shouted up at the half-reclining figure, ‘Granny, Dad says can you come to the house? Mum’s pains have started.’
Nan Neill turned an anxious face to Alice who also looked concerned. ‘That’s Lily’s baby coming and her not due for another month. Still, some children aye seem to be in a hurry to enter this world.’ She withdrew her plump frame from the comfort of her cushion and muttered, ‘What a time to have a baby – in the middle of this heat.’
Like the midwife, she appeared in a couple of minutes, bustling through the close with a red perspiring face and a woollen herringbone tweed coat draped over her arm. On seeing the look on my face, she explained the coat, ‘Well, it’s like this – babies have a bad habit of arriving in the middle of the night and the sun will not be shining then.’
I was shocked. ‘Do you mean to say that Mum will have to suffer these terrible pains for hours yet?’
She looked worried. ‘Oh, well, maybe it won’t be as long as that. I mind fine when you were born. That was on a Sunday as well but it wasn’t as hot as this – blowing a real blizzard it was.’
On that slightly cheerier note, we headed quickly for home, Granny hurrying beside me while, for her sake, I tried to walk a bit slower. At this pace, we made our way through the busy streets, both of us thinking our own thoughts about the coming birth.
Thankfully we were soon at our door. On entering the house, I saw Mum lying on the double bed that occupied the entire corner of the kitchen, right beside the fireplace. In spite of the fire being unlit, the temperature inside the room was almost unbearable. The heat was caused by the kettle and two pots of water that were boiling furiously on the gas cooker.
Bunty Grey turned when we entered and I was taken aback by Mum’s slim figure on the bed. Streaks of sweat dripped down her face and her dark hair clung in tendrils to her scalp. They looked like strands of wet seaweed. She let out a yelp of pain, like an animal in distress. Her thin body, covered only by a thin sheet, shook fitfully while Dad made a soothing noise. ‘Here’s Granny as well, Lily. We’re all here to help you.’ Although he tried to hide it, a note of anguish was in his voice. ‘And I’ll stay here with you’.
But Bunty had other ideas and as she and Nan bustled around the mother-to-be. She said, ‘Johnny, now that Nan’s here, will you take Ann outside and we’ll let you both know when the baby comes?’
With Dad still protesting, she ushered us both out. ‘Honestly, Lily will be fine and there’s really no room for everybody in this wee room.’ Her sleeves were rolled up, showing strong muscular arms, and she exuded an air of capable confidence.