by Anne Summerfield
You never forget the first time you see your baby.
For a moment, before anyone noticed she had woken from the anaesthetic, stillness cooled around her. One breath, two, then the bustle began, nurse, partner clutching bright roses, baby wheeled over in plastic box. Here you are. We have a boy. I’ll put him close to you. I got you yellow, they don’t do blue. She looked at the bat face. A nice thatch of hair. Don’t be surprised if it falls out. Look at his tiny hands.
His claws, she thought. Such long fingers, thin, joints showing nubs of bone. A new-born should not be so sharp, should not be all angles. Corners, folds, nose pointy as a fox.
They didn’t expect her to pick him up, which was a relief. She had no idea how to hold a bat. After a time her man kissed her on the forehead, told her she needed to sleep. She slipped into some quiet place like sliding into warm water. What she experienced wasn’t exactly sleep, but drug-soaked oblivion.
In the room where the mothers are sent to eat, she is forced to watch television, a time when they could talk, but EastEnders intervenes. The others’ attention is consumed by the screen, up from their food, away from real people, the stories of real dramas. The picture is grainy, faces seen through snow. She has no idea who any of the characters are. She has so many questions.
She doesn’t eat meat but there’s egg and chips, bright red ketchup even. The food tastes good, but one of the nurses comes for her, says the baby’s crying. She’s so hungry she could cry too, but she’s heard what the nurses say about the mothers who don’t go straight away. She knows she’s failed already by having to be fetched back. She should recognise the bat cries, surely. She should know the distinctive piping tone.
When the baby is done with her, she goes to find the remains of the meal but everything has been cleared away.
That night someone suggests leaving the bat in the nursery. She says “yes.” Another failed test.
In the early hours, a nurse comes to fetch her. The bat won’t settle, he’s waking everyone. She almost falls from the bed and the nurse puts out a hand. Her feet are bare and the floor is ice cold. The nursery has a line of plastic cots. She can’t see him anywhere or hear his shrieking.
“Sorry,” says another nurse. “He’s quietened down now, come and see.”
She’s led over to a cot. There’s a baby in it, sleeping. She wants to say, what’s this? But the baby is wearing the right clothes so it must be him. And as she watches he reaches out a tiny hand to sweep the nightmares away, keeping his wings folded tight.
Anne Summerfield was brought up in one of the most boring towns in England, which may explain why she’s always written stories. Last century she had short stories published in Virago and Serpent’s Tail anthologies, in Mslexia magazine and on Radio 4. More recently she won the Exeter Writers Short Story competition, was shortlisted for the first Exeter Novel Prize, has had flash fiction included in several National Flash Fiction Day FlashFloods, in Shooter magazine and the Refugees Welcome Anthology. She tweets infrequently as @SummerWriter.