This is a short story I wrote about 14 years ago, about abortion. I think it has some good phrases in it but overall it lacks the punch I wanted it to have – partly because of the third person and past tense, partly because I think I was not totally engaged with the subject-matter. See what you think.
The Red Dress
When it came to it, she couldn’t go. The red dress lay on the chair, ready-washed; the towel was in her bag, the alarm clock dribbled off at the appropriate hour. But she lay on her bed doing nothing, only seeming to watch a moth which had become trapped in a spider’s web. Half an hour passed, hearing the sounds of toast downstairs, imagining her mother wrapped in dressing-gown and looking at the clock. She could not move. The room seemed to encompass her, not to let her go. Its very familiarity held her; the chest of drawers her father made when she was too small to notice, though she remembered the painting of it years later, a white which was now a dull cream colour: the old wardrobe which stood in three parts, containing… she could never be sure what clothes she had without checking. She had a vague feeling that as of now, as of today, they were all out of date. Obsolete.
Half an hour passed, and another. The phone rang and her mother’s muffled voice sounded. Then silence, then a shout stumbling up the stairs, over the carpet.
(I am not here.)
Another shout, quavering a little at the end. Then the ting! of the phone. Silence, then the flick-flock of dusters among the guiltless furniture.
(She’ll have to know now.)
The red dress. There it was. No – I hadn’t bought it specially – had I? I couldn’t have known, back then – could I? These things happen by accident. That’s why they’re called accidents. Still it’s odd that I should buy a red dress. Not my usual colour.
She falls asleep. Thinking of tea, how much she would like tea. And some eggs – like when they used to have cod roe on toast when they were children. Sleep… now when the door closes and time sleeps still in the creepy aftermath, an ambulance crosses the road ringing, ringing, when the afterbirth lies down and all organs work together – eject! eject! and alarms ringing sirens going and walls contracting: eject! eject! and after the afterbirth lies down and sleeps criss-crossed with blood vessels that stand out in her brain and two nurses in white come and smooth the pillows leaving sheets of blood behind…
She wakes. TIme? Eleven thirty. Half an hour ago – the appointment was for half an hour ago. Like her mother sucking up the dust downstairs – gloop! and it’s gone like that precious ring we lost one time and reckoned the hoover had taken it. Just one gloop! and it’s gone; sucked away to eternity.
Lucky we don’t believe in damnation any more.
She feels sick. Goes to the bathroom and vomits, in all that Victorian tiling. Vomits and vomits; looks for something to come up. But it won’t come that way. You can’t get rid of it that way.
I must get dressed. I choose something normal. Jeans and a sweater. I go downstairs. She is there, the kettle boiled. Propitious.
Mother dear, I have something to tell you. Let’s have a biscuit with our tea. The tea comes out in a dark liquid stream, swirling around inside the cup. The little black grains collect and swarm in the tea strainer. I take a biscuit. A bourbon: I remember.
All in one go it has to be: spew it all out in one sentence, right there on the table. The words seemed to come out of my mouth unbidden – I don’t remember what they were: just their effect. For a moment, nothing. She holds her cup so tightly it seems she will crack it in two. But then the words settle and it is her face that cracks: one half collapses, is quite folded up like a guttered candle with drips rippling down. It reminds me of something in Dante, I can’t think what. The other side of her face struggles for control. I think of Picasso’s Woman Crying. I have indeed shattered her world.
Well! I detach myself a little from the situation. It’s a smack in the eye for him, anyway. I shall walk down the street defiant, like a sail before the wind, wearing the red dress like a drum over my belly.
(Yesterday I dreamed there was a staircase, an iron staircase, and hundreds of nurses were carrying the babies down, all the way down. I couldn’t see the bottom.)
– What are you going to do? she says, breaking the silence.
I remember when I told him. We were on the canal bank, walking, and out of earshot of the fishermen I told him and he said,
Just one “oh” echoing across the water. He didn’t walk away just then – not just then. But I could feel his retreat like a coldness wrapping me around.
Then later, of course, “What are you going to do?” (Note: “you”). The question seemed to conjure up a vastness of space around us; a huge, cold womb of space.
– I don’t know, I said. Then, after a minute: I’ll get rid of it.
All I remember after that as we walked back in silence, were the squirming maggots in the fishermens’ boxes, the water folding in on itself as they were scattered like seed over the water.
It’s a sunny day; the first of October: not yet chilly. She has her booking; a firm date, an actual time, held in her hand. The doctor didn’t raise problems, merely asked why and had-she-considered-all-the-options.
Yes. Oh yes. I have considered more things than you can imagine. Everything shocks me into considering. Women with babies are everywhere: it’s a conpiracy. they are going to fill up the whole town with babies, women and babies, prams, jingly toys, huge women about to give birth, so big you expect them to do it right there on the pavement. Conflicting emotions swarm in her blood like armies, like platelets towards an injury… At times she can feel instinctively something growing inside, a silent mushroom in the dark. A thousand times a day she touches her belly – it seems impossible. The whole thing – just impossible.
So when it came to it, she couldn’t go. She said nothing to anyone – just didn’t go.
The week before Christmas, there she is, in a pastel-coloured waiting room papered with good intentions, sipping weak tea from a polystyrene cup. She is the only one waiting alone. Nurses buzz back and forth. the tea trickles through her, the time leaks by, half an hour, then three-quarters, past the time of her appointment. Urination is not allowed. Round, pink-faced babies smile at her in rows on the magazine rack.
First baby? the doctor asks, passing the camera over her belly as though reading the bar code at a checkout. Then, like giving her the total, he points out two white blobs on the screen. Two white blobs in a black sea. That’s all you were back then. So easily drowned. But here you are. I remember thinking, “I am the ocean that surrounds you”.
Going back on the bus, I held the tiny photo like a negative – the negative of your life. There were clusters here and there which were your bones.
PS I know! It’s too short. Everything I write is too short. I can’t help it.
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