It was worse than ever that morning as you climbed out of the duvet cocoon, its comfort superficial but desperately appreciated, and the despair hit straight away. A tidal wave – no, too clichéd, you preferred to think of it as a syrupy, dripping liquid which seeped further and deeper into your pores with every movement, rapidly enough to overwhelm you in an instant but languidly enough to make you feel its burning stickiness creeping over and permeating every muscle and cell.
You couldn’t remember the last thing you’d eaten, the last thing you’d done before you went to bed. Had you brushed your teeth the night before? Who knows. But you knew how many of the little pills you’d taken, and the length of time their uplifting effect had lasted. Not as long as the last time. And not really that uplifting either.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, you whispered to yourself, half-conscious, nauseated and lacking the energy even to smirk, that they’re called ‘happy’ pills. ‘Slightly-less-bloody-suicidal’ would be a bit more accurate.
Your shoulders ached, your head hung like a beach ball filled with lead upon them and your legs struggled to support the weight of gloom which filled your whole body, despite your fragile frame and protruding ribs.
You’d shed the baby weight like a snake on speed. Initially you’d sympathised and nodded as your loquacious Lamaze-class colleagues and fellow graduates lamented their chubby ankles, heavy thighs and inflated tums, and smiled as they clucked around you asking how you managed to be such a goddess.
‘I didn’t even look like that before I got pregnant!’ they’d laughed, and you’d laughed too, initially. They hadn’t asked if the baby was feeding properly, if you’d washed him right or if he was gaining enough weight – all the questions you’d accuse yourself with daily, hourly, through the tears. They didn’t care about repeating the mental interrogation which you’d conduct, sobbing and gagging in a pile on the floor in front of the cot, after you’d checked and checked again if he was still breathing.
You’d shed the baby weight; you were a goddess. For them the conclusion naturally followed. You must have it all together. You must be doing it right. You knew what you were doing. You didn’t need any help, you’d never need any help. You were a success. You’d shed the baby weight.
Rubbing the eyes which had eventually yielded to your bawling pleas at 4am that morning and closed, offering some little respite, you treaded softly across the beige carpet, neglecting to dissemble the duvet cocoon and make your bed. You might be needing it again soon, you thought.
Cold running water was soothing at first, until you began to let your thoughts wander upon the sleepless night and the agitated nightmares which infrequent, snatched rest had brought. The shampoo still clung to your sodden hair as you stepped out of the freezing water and stood shivering for the four minutes which it took to extract yourself from the dazed reflective state and turn the dial to warm. You didn’t have the energy to bother with conditioner and hugged the damp towel around yourself as soon as you’d rinsed the last of the suds away.
Thinking about breakfast only increased the paralysing nausea; you soothed your spinning head with a hot, black coffee, no sugar. Your breasts ached, throbbing with the weight of Tommy’s milk, so you forced down the remainder of the thin liquid and began pumping into the little, blue, clear plastic bottle. He took the bottle much more easily than the breast, which had panicked you at first – but the nurse had reassured you that it was completely normal.
‘The two of you just have to do what works best. Everyone’s different!’
You screwed the lid on tightly – you hated the thought of spilling any onto the soft grey sleepsuit which he seemed to love so much – and marvelled, as always, at the tininess of the teat which his miniature lips would close around.
Your journey up the stairs was as tentative as possible, you didn’t want to disturb him if he wasn’t hungry yet. Never wake a sleeping baby, the nurse had said.
‘Let him do his thing!’
But what if he carries on sleeping, and I can’t ever wake him up? You hadn’t dared to ask.
You eased the door open slowly and whispered his name as you treaded gently into the room with its duck egg blue walls and ‘day-at-the-zoo’ border paper. Nick had helped you to paint it, in the week after your third ultrasound scan, when you were both so excited that it was boy. You shared his elation, knowing that’s what he’d been hoping for, expecting. You’d done a good job.
You’d had to finish the skirting boards yourself, once he wasn’t so enthusiastic anymore.
Now you tiptoed over to the cot, closing the door lightly behind you, and leaned down to lift up the bundle of blanket, aqua coloured and spotted with little beige paw prints.
Then you remembered the army of falsely smiling faces which had followed closely upon the social worker’s call for back up. No ifs, buts, whys or hows – they knew what they were doing and it was best for everyone. You remembered fragments and phrases, distorted sentences, ‘Mrs Daly, we’re just going to…Tommy…looking a little pale…’
It’s Miss, not Mrs.
Miss, not Mrs, you’d mouthed to yourself, hissing it softly over and over. ‘Nothing to worry about…a few days at the hospital…taken good care of…’ – you remembered their words drifting over you as you repeated the mantra to yourself, that blatant statement and exposure of your loneliness. They’re scheming, judging, you remembered thinking, fixing them with a piercing stare from underneath your heavy eyelashes, watching their lips move as they tried to justify themselves in sweet voices and soothing hushes. Lonely, inadequate, incompetent, incapable, neglectful – that’s what they’re thinking. You remembered that that’s what they were trying to convince you – that you were alone, so this was bound to happen. You remembered their false comfort, disguising their conspiracy for control.
You remembered them taking the baby.
You remembered the card which the smart grey pantsuit and clip-clopping nude court shoes had left on the kitchen table.
‘Postpartum depression has an incidence rate of 10–15% among new mothers, Mrs Daly – you really don’t need to worry about getting in contact with us. We can help.’
You remembered the number which her pen had scribbled on the back, above the address. You remembered the date and time which the black biro had printed at the bottom. Three weeks ago today.
‘Call this number the day before to confirm your appointment, just so we can check we’ve got your records to hand and everything ready.’ The grey, painted nails tapped on the table. The pen made a note in a small black appointment book.
You remembered dialling the number the night before, just like the glossed lips and straight teeth had advised. You remembered pressing each button with care and checking that it was right on the screen before pressing Call. Three rings, and an automated voice menu. You remembered pressing 2, to speak to an operator. Unfortunately the monotone on the other end of the line didn’t seem to understand that you wanted your baby back. You remembered wondering whether the machine had really put you through. You couldn’t understand why your message wasn’t being received. You kept pressing 2, but the same sickeningly colourless voice kept responding. Eventually hanging up made it a little better; but then you were left again engulfed by the emptiness of the small flat which had taken advantage of the additional troops when the army of nurses arrived, and triumphed; prevailing, a smug victor, ever since.
You were sighing, sobbing, screaming, retching; your heart wasn’t just breaking, it was being worn away by a coarse, digging pumice stone, relentlessly destructive with the force of the one thing which you remembered, couldn’t stop remembering, couldn’t help remembering freshly every morning: they had taken the baby.