Last stop: Walthamstow Central (short stories)
As soon as Clare Coleman-White had locked the front door and dropped the keys in the side pocket of her worn-out Orla Kiely bag, she was jolted by uncertainty. She quickly grabbed the knob and pushed the door. Definitely locked. With her mind on hormone-triggered leave, persistent insecurity and memory lapses had mashed her brain cells into an irresponsible pulp. Over the previous week she had left Olivia’s scooter in the front garden, the key hanging from the outside lock for the afternoon and the evening and the back door ajar for the night. It wasn't like they lived in the safest area in town. The scooter rolled into the secluded crack between the recycling and the garden waste bins and fortunately no passer-by mistook it for a free giveaway. Tom found the keys at twenty to midnight; and of course it had to be the day he had a late client meeting followed by a dinner followed by drinks. He ran upstairs taking two, three steps at a time to find his two girls utterly oblivious in the marital bed. Olivia was horizontal and Clare fully clothed. She never mentioned the back door.
A sudden pain abruptly jerked her lower abdomen. It was sharp and instantaneous.
Seeing Olivia impatiently balancing on the elevated edge between the road and the pavement, Clare instinctively scanned the road for oncoming cars. The narrow and over-parked one-way street they lived in was frequently used as a race track by enraged van drivers exceeding the speed limits, disregarding road signs and ignoring the recommended use of the pavement.
“Comeon, mummy! Let’s go!”
The unexpected sunny interval amid interminable downpours of torrential rain offered the opportunity for a quick outing; a welcome escape from the extremely loud and cheerful children’s programmes or the miserable news on the biblical deluges in Somerset, Surrey and Berkshire, and a break from Olivia’s unruliness and her own impatience. It felt good to be out after days of restless drawing on the walls, ripping out pages from colouring books, and arranging stickers all over the house. It was one of the wettest Februaries on record and everyone was desperate for spring to arrive.
Just as they were turning into the High Street, Clare’s protruding tummy suddenly descended towards her pelvis and she felt as if her whole body had collapsed onto her puffed-up legs.
In between boarded-up windows and doors, only a greasy spoon, Bev and Sue’s Café, a GP surgery and a minute Co-op still resisted the downward spiral of closures. When they had moved in – a good six years ago – there had also been a solicitor’s, an organic café, an ethnic grocer’s, a pub, an estate agent and three small firms. First the businesses closed down; one company went bankrupt, another relocated to Haringey, the third one outsourced to India. The organic café followed the trend and the date of the pub re-opening was a year behind schedule.
In the almost empty Co-op they bought a bottle of water and a cartoon of apple juice. These days Clare could not quench her thirst. With Olivia she had been ravenous all along; with this baby she could not satiate her constant and consuming dryness.
“Mummy look – a muddy puddle! See how good I am at jumping!”
The cracks in the crumbling road surface formed sporadic patches of murky water. A couple of quick jumps and Olivia was off leaping over the shadows of the trees. The weak winter sunlight turned them into long and slim silhouettes resembling Giacometti’s sculptures.
A middle-aged jogger in tight black leggings and a large grey fleece smiled at Olivia and nodded at Clare. Moving aside she collided with a man in navy blue uniform. He apologised sleepily and rushed off, carting along a cabin suitcase with airport stickers all over it. Clare knew them by sight; they all lived in one of the roads leading to the park and seemed to have irregular working patterns.
Waterlogged ground squeaked under her swollen feet. The council should really do something about it. It should have been designed better. Every rainfall saturates the ground and makes it unusable.
Hardly anyone braved the weather. Clare smiled at the three women in hijabs sitting at the wooden table – their kids, four older boys, played on their own – and glanced at the round woman with orangey curly hair with equally orangey coat and equally curly sprog sitting on the bench next to the spring rocking horse. They often bumped into each other while chasing their disorderly offspring around the playground’s entertainment equipment, but had never exchanged pleasantries or introduced themselves to each other.
A girl in an oversized hooded cardigan, but no jacket, gloves or hat, appeared from the tunnel between the climbing frame and the slide and stood in front of them.
Clare leaned forward, looking into the child’s immensely dark and deep brown eyes.
“Sweetheart, you must be cold like that! Where's your mother?”
No sound left the girl’s full rounded lips; instead she climbed up the slide and threw her arms around Olivia.
“No! Move away. I don’t like it!” screamed Olivia, pushing her off and then sliding down.
“Sweetie, she just wants to play with you!”
“Mummy, I don’t want her to hug me!”
“She isn't a friend of mine!”
“But – she wants to be your friend!”
“And she smells!”
“Oliviaaa! That’s not how you talk to people!”
The girl slid down behind Olivia and stood still next to them.
“Why don’t we give her something from your lunch box?”
Unwillingly, Olivia opened her Minnie Mouse bag, rummaged through the treats and handed out a box of raisins. The girl struggled to open the tiny packet with her cold and chubby fingers and dropped it on the floor.
“Let me do it for you, sweetheart!”
Clare opened the packet and placed it back into the girl's palm, across which she spotted two sharp scars, the kind of marks you get by cutting yourself on glass.
Olivia finished her chocolate biscuit and rushed to the swings. The other girl followed.
“Mum, come and push me!”
As she straightened herself up, the pain shot yet again through her lower abdomen. Could this be it? The due date was over three weeks away and it didn’t feel anything like it had felt with Olivia. The ache eased away and the baby kicked reassuringly as she plodded towards the swings. Both Olivia and the other girl placed themselves behind the swings waiting for her to lift them up. She slowly grabbed Olivia by her armpits and placed her into the basket seat.
“Where is your mum, sweetheart?”
The girl lifted her arms towards her, staring longingly into Clare’s eyes. She was already struggling with Olivia and this girl was older, bigger and definitely heavier than her three-year-old.
Olivia was irritably kicking her legs and wriggling her bottom.
“In a second, sweetheart!”
The pain renewed its unmistakable presence as soon as she opened her arms and leaned towards the girl. This doesn't look good. Not good at all.
A low-flying plane cut across the sky leaving behind a foamy white trail followed by a delayed roar. The tiny playground in East London was directly under the flight path into Stansted.
The women in hijab were engrossed in a deep conversation; the recently-arrived couple in the far corner were absorbed with teaching their wobbly toddler its first steps and the ginger woman was already heading towards the High Street. The only other person in the park was the man on the exercise machines situated opposite the empty building of the Bowling Club. He wore loud purple or green slacks and shapeless trainers and was always there, regardless of the weather or temperature; clumsily enacting workout routines and chatting to kids. Maybe she should ask him? She did overhear other playground mothers airing their suspicions of his weird joyfulness and making a point of their children not approaching him, or vice versa, but to Clare he looked pretty harmless.
“Shall I help you? You know…in your condition!” The voice behind her startled her.
She turned around. A slim woman with drained cheeks and overpowering black eyeliner was smiling at her. Dressed in a beige coat and brown high-heeled boots, she didn’t look like the typical mother bringing her child to the playground.
“Would you mind, please?”
She grabbed the girl from behind, placing her hands under the girl’s armpits and somehow hesitantly – as if she had never before held such a valuable cargo – placed her in the swing next to Olivia’s.
“Push, mummy, push!”
“I can push them both, why don’t you sit down?”
“Oh…that would be so lovely!” exclaimed Clare, embarrassed by her own eagerness.
The pain came back. With a vengeance. And it lasted longer. Oh, baby, don’t come just yet. Give me another week or two. She hugged her protruding tummy. Olivia had been three weeks early, had arrived just around the same time she was now, but she had never been so large. It was true that the second time around your belly started showing sooner and you were larger all over. It was false that the second time around you felt better and knew what to expect. Clare was constantly drained and on the brink of a mental meltdown. With Olivia it had all been happiness and expectations; with this one it was all anxiety and impatience. Shouldn’t it have been the other way around?
“What’s the name of your girl?” asked the woman as she pushed the two swings alternately.
“Higher, higher!” shouted Olivia.
“Olivia, that one is my girl!”
“Even higher please!” Olivia’s commanding voice got louder and the woman obeyed. Both girls burst out laughing; Olivia’s giggles were loud and uncontrollable, the other’s staccato and squeaky. After the swings the two of them ran holding hands towards the climbing frame.
The woman sat next to Clare and opened her lunch box: a cheese and pickle sandwich, a couple of satsumas, and a bar of Galaxy chocolate.
“When's the other one due?” she asked, directing her eyes towards Clare’s stomach.
It was then that Clare noticed that the woman’s grey eyes were somehow uneven. The right one was open extremely wide while the left one looked unresponsive with the eyelid at half-mast. This unbalanced, abnormal appearance made it look as if they originally belonged to two different faces.
“Not for another three weeks! But I think this baby is impatient and is going to arrive sooner!”
Olivia was running around the playground, always ahead; leading or just trying to put a distance between herself and the other girl. Clare was pushing aside any thoughts of what it was going to be like when she had two of them. By autumn Olivia would be at school and she would have some quality time with baby number two.
“This weather is horrible!” said the woman, pointing at the heavy grey clouds gathering on the horizon.
“Tell me about it. We’ve been stuck in the house for weeks and only managed to drive to Sainsbury’s and the mall. Olivia is like a wild animal let out of the cage!”
“I can imagine that!” she said and burst into disjointed chuckles.
“And have you got any children?” Asked Clare.
“Oh no…I don’t have children… I just come to have my lunch here! I don’t like eating in the office.” They sat in silence; the woman peeling her satsumas and Clare sipping her water.
It was already quarter past three and time for them to wobble home.
“Nice talking to you! I’m Clare by the way!”
“Yes, Clare, it was lovely talking to you too!”
“Olivia! Time to go!”
Both girls came running. Instinctively, Clare grabbed the other girl’s hands – they were freezing cold.
“Sweetheart, I think you should go home too. Your mum will worry!” The girl stiffened, pulled her hands away and ran off again towards the slide. The woman with the uneven eyes stretched her legs. Her bag slid onto the ground, spilling out a green passport and some US 100 dollar bills. She grabbed them hastily, before Clare could read the name of the country.
“Good luck with the baby!”
“Thank you. See you around!”
As they walked past the gate, Clare turned around and saw the woman talking to the girl at the bottom of the slide. A raven hovered over the playground, with wings outspread. Only the two of them were left, under a curtain of heavy clouds waiting to burst. And then out of the corner of her eye, Clare saw a lone figure approaching the playground from the other direction.
The dull pain dragged into the evening; less intense but more insistent. If it didn’t stop by the time Tom came back, she would phone the NHS helpline, or the maternity unit at Whipps Cross. Definitely not her midwife. Carole had started her career fifty years earlier in Jamaica, and then practised in the UK for over four decades. “I’ve seen it all!” she kept repeating.
She always brushed her off:
“Everything is fine, Clare! No need to panic at every twitch!”
“It’s just that…”
“All the information on the Internet makes women too jumpy these days. When I started out what a midwife said was – law! These days women question everything, self-diagnose themselves and worry about non-existent symptoms!”
“..something doesn’t feel right!” Clare had voiced her worry at her 36 weeks appointment.
“Are you listening to me at all? Everything is fine: the heartbeat is strong, your blood pressure is normal, and your iron level is better than in many other pregnant women!”
The strong, loud and authoritative voice left no space for a breath of concern.
Clare nodded, grabbed her orange pregnancy folder in one hand and Olivia’s hand in the other. After strapping Olivia in her seat, she sat down behind the wheel, leaned backwards and sighed deeply. Everything is fine. Carole’s voice echoed. Maybe she was just overly panicky, overly emotional, overly exhausted. Too hormonal. She had been nothing like so hormonal with Olivia. Excited yes, thrilled even, slightly anxious as it was her first time, but not such a wreck.
Tired by the fresh and chilly air of the afternoon in the park, Olivia was asleep before eight. Clare collapsed into the armchair. The late pregnancy largeness and the piercing pain in her lower abdomen – somewhere between where her belly bottom used to be and her right hip – made her unable to find a comfortable position. She kept sliding down between cushions and raising and lowering her swollen feet onto and off the coffee table. Her back had been aching for the whole of the third trimester, her insides remained unstimulated and her muscles had got unimaginably painful. That was it – they would not be repeating the experience for the third time. No way.
As soon as Tom walked through the door, he noticed the weird greyness of Clare’s face.
Over the following weeks and months, whenever he described that moment to their parents and friends, close and less close, Tom said he was surprised he did not have a heart attack. Against the dimmed living room lights, Clare's skin was unnaturally grey and her eyes closed. For a few moments, until she shook her head and opened her eyes, he feared the worst.
“Clare, Clare, you don’t look well.” He grabbed her cold and floppy hands and looked into her disorientated eyes.
“I’m not been well all day long…but I don’t think it’s contractions!”
“We have to get you to hospital, now!”
Clare agreed with a nod, her lips and throat paralysed by dryness.
Tom grabbed her black Merrell trainers, squeezed her expanded feet into them, and tied the laces with shaky hands. Still in his suit, he removed his tie and threw it over the banister before rushing upstairs to pick up Olivia. She was obliviously asleep on his shoulder as he covered her with a coat and retrieved the car keys.
“Can you walk?”
Hardly – the massive belly, swollen legs, back ache and pain in the lower right abdomen made her almost immobile.
“Wait here! I'll get the car!”
Tom ran down the road, clutching Olivia.
Unable to button up her coat, Clare left it undone as she leaned onto the front gate. A bolt of cold shot through her chest and both shoulders. She wiped her forehead with her fingers. Fever descended onto her eyelids.
It took doctors a few hours – the few hours Tom was absent, driving to his parents to drop off Olivia – to make the diagnosis. When they figured out that the pain was not caused by the baby ready to pop, but by a burst and leaking appendix, she was whizzed to the theatre. There was no other option but to perform both the C-section and the appendectomy in the same sitting. Her being conscious was no longer an issue.
Little Lily Rose wasn’t breathing properly as she had inhaled some amniotic fluid, and was rushed off to the paediatrics department. Clare had to be cleaned from the residues, stitched up and wheeled into intensive care.
By the time Tom came back Lily Rose was in an incubator – “just for a few hours until the breathing stabilises” the maternity nurse assured him; and Clare was in intensive care. Her face no longer grey, but transparently white and melting into the pillow.
When she came around she kept slipping in and out of consciousness. Through the narrow opening of her eyelids she noticed Tom holding a baby - great, there was a baby after all - before drowning again in the dark vacuum of powerlessness.
Three days later she was well enough to hold Lily Rose. She remembered that the pain had started on the way to the playground. Everything else was just a blur.
Seven days later she was discharged. The plate of spaghetti carbonara left for Tom was still in the microwave, covered with a green layer of mould.
The stitches of the combined appendectomy and C-section were not healing quickly enough. Then the right side of the cut got infected and the nurse had to come every two days to clean the wound and change the bandages. Clare’s legs felt week and wobbly for weeks afterwards. It was completely normal after such an ordeal, her GP reassured her. She asked about Carole, but was told that she had retired that very week.
Clare locked the door, dropped the keys in the bag – a large changing bag hanging from the pram – and then checked the handle. Lock, put keys in the small compartment, check. It was her second week on her own with the girls. After a combination of extended paternity leave and leftover holidays, Tom had gone back to work after four weeks. The two grandmothers took turns for the next four weeks but eventually they also had to head back to their suburban commitments; choirs and churches. Lily Rose was gaining weight and sleeping better as she increased the dosage of formula milk and decreased her own, and Olivia was still undecided between jealously and love towards her little sister. Clare just about managed to pack them all up and head to the playground.
April presented itself with a full-blown spring, giving people the opportunity to put on T-shirts and sunglasses for a stroll around the park. The occasional wave of chill air wafted around the swaying tree branches but was completely failed to register with the sun-starved East Enders.
The pale azure sky was covered with a thin lace of stretched clouds. A woman in long black dress and pink headscarf stood in the middle of the green surrounded by pigeons, feeding them breadcrumbs from a plastic bag. Once she finished the food, she stood tall, hands in the air in a prophetic position and talked to them.
In the two months Clare had not been in the park, the playground had been upgraded. A new surface had been laid around the swings and the climbing frame. The soft carpet of artificial grass was still unworn and unspoilt. Olivia parked her bike next to the gate and removed her helmet. Lily Rose was asleep in the pram, lying on her left cheek with both arms above her head.
The playground was heaving. A father was explaining to his blond, curly-haired daughter how to slide down the pole by the climbing frame. “Again, again, again” she screamed enthusiastically. An East-Asian looking woman with a boy in a Spiderman outfit smiled at her. Clare smiled back, unable to associate a name with the face. The only person Clare recognised was the curvy woman with the orangey curly hair. To her surprise she smiled and waved at her.
“Isn’t it nice to have the playground re-opened after so long!” she said.
“What do you mean, re-opened?”
“Oh you don’t know? A woman was found dead. Just there, under the slide.”
“Oh gosh! Was it someone we knew?”
“No, no, no. No one knew who she was or what was she doing here!”
“Haven’t you seen the posters? She had weird eyes…”
“No, I haven’t seen or heard anything. Then, again, I had plenty to do with this little one!”
Lily Rose started fidgeting in the pram and then slowly opened her eyes and crumpled her face for a hungry cry. Time for her milk. Oh she is so cute! And when was she born? Was it easier this time around? Gosh no, it was horrendous. C-section and burst appendix! It sounds dreadful! I never thought you could have a burst appendix when pregnant. Neither did I and it never crossed my mind that the pain could be anything else but the baby getting ready to pop. You should come around for a coffee sometime. Definitely, definitely.
[London, October 2014]