For Meg there was only one consolation to nine months of feeling only half alive. At least she could stay on her own side of the bed even if she couldn't sleep.
She was huge, had been since the third month. In the novels she read women had a mystic glow about them during pregnancy. What lies! There was no romance in being sick and wetting yourself every time you coughed. She both longed and feared for the pregnancy to be over. All pride in her appearance had gone. She didn't want anyone to see her.
"Shall we tek a walk round the forest?" Ken, her husband asked one fine Sunday morning when she was in her seventh month.
"Oh yes, I can't think of anything better than showing myself to the world in this state."
"I thought a walk might do you good, a bit of fresh air like."
Meg gave a snort of derision, "You've no idea, have you? How would you like to be carrying this lot? She touched her bulge. I can't walk, I can't sit, I can't stand," tears rained down her face.'
"Oh suit yourself then. I don't know why you make such a fuss you're only having a baby for Christ's sake." With that he walked out.
Meg went to her Mother for food and sympathy.
Louise, her mother, shook her head sadly. "It's not good to quarrel. How can a man understand?"
Meg struggled with her knitting in between going down the yard. Her bladder constantly troubled her.
Later as Louise set the table for Sunday dinner, which her daughter and her husband were to share, she kept glancing anxiously at the clock.
"We'll not wait," Papa said.
No one contradicted him. He was the master of the house. His word was law.
They ate in silence and afterwards Meg went home to lie on the bed. She was asleep when Ken returned. He shook her, "You'd best get up or you'll be tossing and turning all night and keeping me awake."
"I feel sorry for you."
"No you don't Meg, you only feel sorry for yourself."
"You're drunk, talking to me like that." Until now he had shown only patient care. The smell of ale on his breath gave the source of his impatience.
"Appen you're right but I've to go to work in the morning so come on I'm taking you a walk round the block even if I have to drag you." He lifted her from the bed. "Don't fight me Meg. It's for your own good duck"
When he was in this mood she couldn't defy him. Later, in bed he said, "We'll go a little walk every night when I get home."
She forestalled him by walking the block with her sister just before he arrived home from work. He took to going out to the pub leaving Meg to the tender care of her Mother or sister.
At last the waiting time was over. Ken had called on Louise to ask if she could visit until he came home. Meg was peeling potatoes when pain gripped her, she clutched the sink. "Mamma" she cried but the spasm passed before Louise reached her.
"It will get worse before it gets better," her Mother sighed.
All day Meg had spasmodic contractions and then when the time came she was full of terror. Louise lit a fire in the bedroom grate.
Pain! Unbelievable pain.
"Push," Louise urged.
Meg screamed, "Help me, Mamma help me. Oh God stop it. I can't, I can't."
The afternoon sun slowly sank. Hour after pain filled hour dragged by. At last Louise went down the stairs and across the cobbled street to fetch the nurse.
Nurse Bennet, the local midwife and layer out of the dead, roused Meg to fresh efforts with smelling salts and gin but in vain. She turned to the little black skirted figure sitting quietly beside the fire. "I can't do no more. The doctor will 'ave to be fetched."
Louise nodded, picked up her black shawl draped it cowl like over her white hair, and left. Her footsteps echoed on the bare wooden steps as she made her way down the stairs of the two up, two down, terrace house.
The gaslights hissed and flickered as she made her way through the quiet streets. Little John counted out the hour. Eleven o'clock!
A woman answered to her frenzied knocking. She was reluctant to disturb the doctor but he came of his own volition Louise explained her daughter's need, the long hours of her labour.
Dr. Carter was brusque. "How long?"
"Since eight hours in the morning."
"So long? I told her husband to let me know. Oh well I'll be there as soon as I can." Louise Clement shrugged and adjusted her shawl. It was all very well for doctors they didn't have to face the alternative of paying the doctor or the rent man. Meg's husband was in work but for how long?
The doctor cycled passed her. She looked up at the clock over the haberdashers; it wanted thirty minutes to midnight. She didn't hurry back. Now the doctor was there she could do little to help and she hated the sight of his instruments. It was against nature to haul a baby into the world, almost like roping a calf. She had seen calves hauled into the world in her childhood days.
Back at the house she settled herself by the fire until at last Dr. Carter came downstairs. "You have another grandson. How many is that now?" He asked pleasantly.
She used her fingers to indicate seven.
"Splendid," he said. "And now a cup of tea for Mother and the nurse."
Tea, faugh! These English and their tea. She had never taken to the taste of tannin, neither had Charles but her daughters had acquired the habit which was as well considering the price of coffee. They had all had to drink tea during the war, and that had been hard come by. Charles had made do with beer with his meals.
She thrust a poker into the dying embers of the fire. Most of the burning coals had been carried up on a shovel to the bedroom when Meg started her labour, for though it was April the rooms were still cold.
She blew on the embers until they glowed, added some small lumps of coal and replaced the blackened kettle that had been kept full all that long day.
Dr. Carter washed his hands at the stone sink. The smell of carbolic mingled with the lingering odour of the tripe and onions Louise had cooked earlier for Ken's supper.
Ken, Meg's husband, was a good lad even though he was a socialist. If only he didn't rant on so about politics and Unions. Poor Meg! Ken worshipped her, although he tried not to show it, if only Meg would be more affectionate perhaps he would not have taken up with this union business. Even now while Meg sweated out her labour, Ken was at a union meeting.
"I'll call tomorrow to put some stitches in." Dr. Carter hesitated, squared his shoulders, "She wasn't built to have babies."
Louise shrugged. She had not mastered spoken English well enough to answer him. And even if she could speak, what would she say? If God willed a woman to have babies, what could she do?
"Baby will need a bottle for a day or two. Give her boiled water."
Louise nodded. She wouldn't wait for Ken's return. There was little enough of the night left and she had to be up early to get breakfast for her own family, and that gross nurse would stay and she didn't brook any interference.
Nurse Bennet heaved herself up from the rickety chair standing beside the fire in the bedroom, as she heard Ken's footsteps clumping up the stairs. She held out her hand. "Two bob," she said. "Doctors just gone."
Ken grimaced. "Who sent for him? Couldn't you manage it yoursen?"
"No I bleddy well couldn't. It was forceps job. It's a wonder the gel didn't die. You've had your fun now pay up."
He felt in his pocket and held out a shilling. "It's all I can manage," he said.
"Till pay day then." She put the coin in her apron pocket and prepared to leave 'Tomorrow?" She asked.
He shook his head, "No need, her Mam will be in."
"Ay the poor old sod has three homes to run 'stead of one. It's about time some of you blokes learnt when to tek your pipe out and spit!"
"Get out you foul mouthed bitch." He didn't tell her there might not be a pay day. The vote was for strike.
Meg stirred. Nurse Bennet's words penetrated the fog of her mind. That was a laugh, that was. He had sworn they would have no babies for five years and when she had asked how they would manage he had used those words. He was so cock sure. But for all the care he took, she still caught. How she had hated it! Getting up in the middle of the night to flannel herself at the kitchen sink and yet unable to wash away the consequence. Marriage wasn't a bit like she'd expected.
"You all right?" He asked.
She made no answer but turned her face to the chest of drawers where her child lay in a drawer pulled out and placed on top. There was no room for a cot beside the double bed and no money to buy one.
He raised the candle to looking at the sleeping baby in its flickering light he saw only a small bundle. "Have you counted his fingers and toes?" Receiving no reply he added byway of an apology. "The meeting went on a bit."
Her eyes were closed. He put the candle down on the washstand beside the chipped china bowl. Emptying his pockets of their woodbines, matches and few coins, he dropped his braces and removed his blue serge trousers. Carefully he straightened them and easing up the mattress, slipped them under.
"Shall I dowse the candle?"
Receiving no answer he removed his stud and put his collar on the wash stand. "Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day." The brave words echoed in his mind but the twist in his guts made Ken wonder where they would lead. The Miners' Federation had issued strike notices. From April 30th. the miners would be out and it was on the cards that the T.U.C. would back them. It was the following morning before Ken really saw his son. His face expressed his agony as he looked at his child. "Dear God," he said. "Have I to take that through life with me?"
Meg hugged the baby to her. Her son, her very own son disfigured by the forceps but hers to love and care for. She was a tigress at bay, snarling, spitting as she railed at her husband. "I'll never forgive you, never. Get out!" Her tears fell on the baby's head as she whispered, "You're mine and I'll always love you."
Within a few days the baby's eye left the middle of his forehead and took its normal place. His mouth that had been cruelly stretched up the side of his face also reverted to that position above the chin and he was able to feed normally.
Ken, renouncing all manly stance took over the household tasks except for cooking and bathing the baby. He relied on his Mother-in-law for those. There was only so far a man could demean himself.
Meg stayed in bed for three weeks, Allowing herself to be carried downstairs in the third week. Her determination not to speak to her husband weakened. They had to continue to live together but in her heart she never forgave him for that unguarded cry of horror. He was never allowed to forget those few fateful words.