‘Fine, fine,’ he said to me. ‘There’s somebody about to have a baby this minute.’
At the door of the delivery room stood a thin, stoop-shouldered medical student Buddy knew.
‘Hello, Will,’ Buddy said. ‘Who’s on the job?’
‘I am,’ Will said gloomily, and I noticed little drops of sweat beading his high pale forehead. ‘I am, and it’s my first.’
Buddy told me Will was a third-year man and had to deliver eight babies before he could graduate.
Then he noticed a bustle at the far end of the hall and some men in lime-green coats and skull-caps and a few nurses came moving towards us in a ragged procession wheeling a trolley with a big white lump on it.
‘You oughtn’t to see this,’ Will muttered in my ear. ‘You’ll never want to have a baby if you do. They oughtn’t to let women watch. It’ll be the end of the human race.’
Buddy and I laughed, and then Buddy shook Will’s hand and we all went into the room.
I was so struck by the sight of the table where they were lifting the woman I didn’t say a word. It looked like some awful torture table, with these metal stirrups sticking up in mid-air at one end and all sorts of instruments and wires and tubes I couldn’t make out properly at the other.
Buddy and I stood together by the window, a few feet away from the woman, where we had a perfect view.
The woman’s stomach stuck up so high I couldn’t see her face or the upper part of her body at all. She seemed to have nothing but an enormous spider-fat stomach and two little ugly spindly legs propped in the high stirrups, and all the time the baby was being born she never stopped making this unhuman whooing noise.
Latter Buddy told me the woman was on a drug that would make her forget she’d had ay pain and that when she swore and groaned she really didn’t know what she was doing because she was in a kind of twilight sleep.
I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind. doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.
The head doctor who was supervising Will, kept saying to the woman, ‘Push down, Mrs Tomolillo, push down, that’s a good girl, push down,’ and finally through the split, shaven place between her legs, lurid with disinfectant I saw a dark fuzzy thing appear.
‘The baby’s head,’ Buddy whispered under cover of the woman’s groans.
But the baby’s head stuck for some reason, and the doctor told Will he’d have to make a cut. I heard the scissors close on the woman’s skin like cloth and the blood began to run down – a fierce, bright red. Then all at once the baby seemed to pop out into Will’s hands, the colour of a blue plum and floured with white stuff and streaked with blood, and Will kept saying, ‘I’m going to drop it, I’m going to drop it, I’m going to drop it,’ in a terrified voice.
‘No, you’re not,’ the doctor said, and took the baby out of Will’s hands and started massaging it, and the blue colour went away and the baby started to cry in a lorn, croaky voice and I could see it was a boy.
The first thing that baby did was pee in the doctor’s face. I told Buddy later I didn’t see how that was possible, but he said it was quite possible, though unusual, to see something like that happen.
As soon as the baby was born the people in the room divided up into two groups, the nurses typing a metal dog-tag on the baby’s wrist and swabbing its eyes with cotton on the end of stick and wrapping it up and putting it in a canvas-sided cot, while the doctor and Will started sewing up the woman’s cut with a needle and long thread.
I think someone said, ‘It’s a boy, Mrs Tomolillo,’ but the woman didn’t answer or raise her head.
‘Well, how was it?’ Buddy asked with a satisfied expression as we walked across the green quadrangle to his room.
‘Wonderful,’ I said. ‘I could see something like that every day.’
I didn’t feel up to asking him if there were any other ways to have babies. For some reason the most important thing to me was actually seeing the baby come out of you yourself and making sure it was yours. I thought if you had to have all that pain anyway you might just as well stay awake.
I had always imagine myself hitching up on to my elbows on the delivery table after it was all over – dead white, of course, with no make-up and from the awful ordeal, but smiling and radiant, with my hair down to my waist, and reaching out for my first little squirmy child and saying its name, whatever it was.