Her feet hurt, as if the shopping centre floor were made of shards of glass. She stopped at a convenient bench embedded within a wall of freshly planted council flower display. The smiling purple and yellow pansies giggled at her in the slight breeze, nodding and cajoling each other. She made sure she caught the heads of some as she swept her bags onto the bench. She only had five bags, one Prada – carried on the outside of the stack at all times – and the rest from various high end fashion outlets, but she felt like she’d been carrying a sack of potatoes for the last hour. She placed her hands into the small of her back and stretched. Her huge belly protruded before her, rotund with a joyous small human. A now quite heavy joyous small human. This would probably be the last time Judith could visit her favourite shops before she went into labour. Three days from her due date and Judith was excited to welcome her second little girl into the world. Excited to lose this huge bulge from her front. Excited to fit into her designer dresses once more, after a few sessions on the Abs-Master, of course. She sat on the council bench, pushing her back into its curved comfort and felt the gratefulness soak through her calves and into her feet. She was considering removing her heels, when…
“Room for a few more, love?”
The woman smelled of the underside of a bridge. A dilapidated bridge over a disused canal. Her ragged hair matched that of the two young girls standing with her: a dirty black, more knots than hair. The woman was smiling greedily. Her whole face contorted in on itself as she did so, making her stained teeth brandish themselves forcefully. The two children, pale, with lost eyes, stared. Judith recoiled.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
Glad that her bags were taking up most of the rest of the bench, Judith turned away from the three grubby females towards the comfort of her shopping, bringing a delicate hand to her nose to alleviate its distress.
“Is tha’ any way to treat your fellow kind?” said the woman, holding the two pale faced girls close to her. But Judith did not see her. Instead, she fumbled in her bag, smelling the shop she’d bought her new shoes from within it, hoping to get lost in reliving the experience rather than staying in this stinky reality. As she glided through the aisles of designer shoes she could hear a muttering coming from the outside world. She touched the velvet soft Jimmy Choos, the smell of dead animal skin, processed for her enjoyment, and the muttering faded. She felt a drop of something wet hit her ankle, but when she turned again to face reality there was no rain, there was no woman, no girls. There was just her and her bags, and a damp pool around her shoes.
Twelve hours later, on 23rd May 2016, Judith sat in her hospital bed while Abbey, aged five, had a tantrum on the pale blue disinfected floor. Colin, Abbey’s adoring father, had just finished crying, mostly relieved he’d carried out his perfectly planned emergency birthing procedure and delivered his wife safely to the hospital so that she may deliver their new daughter just as safely. He’d even managed to get a grumpy Abbey to sleep on the plastic chairs in the waiting area some time in the early morning hours, for a bit at least. He just hoped his parents would arrive soon to take the sobbing girl away from what should be this peaceful moment. Abbey needed attention, and lots of it. Colin knew it was only a matter of time before she worked out that she wasn’t centre of attention in this situation. That, along with the disrupted night’s sleep and lack of red crayon, had finally brought about an extraordinary outburst of pent up despair. He was sure he’d get an earful from his mother, having cut their luxury spa weekend short upon his urgent call, but what else could he do? It was part of the emergency birthing procedure. His father would understand that. A tiny gurgle in between Abbey’s gasps for breath reminded him it was all worth it. The brand new little girl looked up at Judith with unfocused eyes. Judith remembered the purchase of her first Chanel handbag, and the kindred emotion of the moment filled her eyes.
Two healthcare assistants were still clearing up around the now family of four, and another large bottomed nurse slipped through the door with a fresh jug of water and a huge bunch of rainbow flowers.
“These are from…” she studied the card embedded within the bunch, “…Barbara and Peter.”
“Oh, my parents are here?” said Colin, hopefully.
“Yes, they’re outside. I said I’d check how you were doing first.”
The nurse placed the flowers in yet another vase. A seemingly endless supply was inside the small cupboard next to Judith’s bed. Abbey, having noted the audience numbers increasing, screamed loudly.
“Good,” said Colin, and almost too efficiently gathered up the scattering of crayons and colouring books, Mr Fluffy the Penguin, and Abbey.
“Looks like Mummy’s not the only tired one round here,” laughed the nurse, who seemed immune to the formidable piecing screams coming from the small child. “I think we all need some rest, hmm?”
The suggestion felt more like an order. The lingering large brown eyes of the nurse confirmed this. Colin was used to decoding those sorts of looks. He kissed his wife and new baby girl gently as if he could break them, and took Abbey to see her grandparents.
The nurses, rosy with a job well done, smiled and left her to sleep. And Judith slept.
When she woke she was sore. To be expected. Except this sore felt different to her last stay in hospital when Abbey was born. The usual soreness was there but it felt like an extra weight was bearing down on top of it all. She pulled herself up, and at once the horrifying lump made itself known. Had she dreamt the twelve hour labour? No. The cards and flowers were still there. The ‘It’s A Girl!’ balloon still bobbed in the corner. And she could still hear the soft breaths of her baby daughter mingled with the dull conversation from beyond her private room. Yet her swollen belly lay before her. Judith prodded it. It didn’t hurt. She smoothed her hand over the mound, pressing slightly in the hope of some escaping wind. Then something from within the lump pressed back. Without taking her eyes away from this horrifying situation before her, Judith hit the red button to the side of her bed. Eventually a nurse rushed into the room.
“All right, Judith, love, you can stop pressing your call button now,” said the nurse; the same large bottomed nurse who’d produced the endless vases. This flash of recognition happened in the back of Judith’s mind, as did the instruction to stop pushing the button. But, unable to process anything else, Judith continued pressing the button until the nurse took her hand from it.
“It’s moving,” struggled Judith, pointing her protruding blue eyes towards her engorged belly. The nurse unbuttoned Judith’s silk night shirt and revealed the lump. She massaged its edges, her eyes wandering about the room. She jumped, then stepped back.
But the nurse didn’t reply.
“Er…” she stammered, backing away. “There must be some internal bleeding,” she said, grasping for the door handle, unable to remove her eyes from what shouldn’t be possible. “I’ll get the doctor.”
The doctor’s face changed from concern to puzzlement as she listened to Judith’s swollen stomach. Without saying a word the doctor hurriedly left the room and returned swiftly with another doctor. This doctor repeated the process and the same expressions adorned her face as the first doctor. They both listened. They fetched another doctor. The echocardiogram machine was wheeled in, the gel applied, and all stared intently at the monitor. There was much nodding, chin rubbing, and exchanged glances with furrowed brows. Just before the third doctor managed to say they’d be right back for the fourth time, Judith broke.
“What the hell is going on?” she snapped.
The first doctor stepped forward. Or rather her colleagues stepped backwards, leaving her exposed for explanation duties.
“Mrs Richards,” said the doctor, approaching Judith nervously, “I’m afraid… I mean, I’m happy to tell you you’re pregnant?” Inflected by the questioning tone, the statement assured Judith that this was indeed an anomaly in the mind of the doctor as well as herself. They weren’t prepared for this. Their three bedroom, two acre home with heated garden room couldn’t accommodate three children’s needs. Their 4×4 only had two back seats with considerable storage space. And they’d only bought a single Armani baby nest travel system. How would they cope?
That night, after only two hours, Judith gave birth to a beautiful daughter. She lay in the cot next to her newborn sister. A confused Colin had managed to deposit a disgruntled Abbey at her grandparents’ just in time for the unexpected happy arrival. The doctor said it must have been twins all along, just didn’t register on the machine at any point during the four 3D or the two 4D ultrasounds or the three abdominal examinations, even though they were paid for privately and done by several different consultants. “One must have been behind the other on every occasion,” the doctor had laughed. Judith and Colin had laughed too.
More cards arrived. More balloons bobbed. More vases appeared. As they explained the situation to the endless stream of visitors Colin and Judith came to believe the doctor’s story themselves. Colin cried, again. He kissed his wife and left to relieve his parents of their granddaughter. Then Judith slept.
She woke with a start and pressed the buzzer immediately. The same fat bottomed nurse had barely stuck her head round the door before her eyes widened and she ran down the corridor to fetch the doctor. The doctor arrived, then the next, and the next. The machines were plugged in, the monitor whirred softly to life, revealing the random blue grey shapes that somehow melded into the form of ten toes attached to two globular feet. Ignoring the impossibility of triplets being missed throughout a whole nine months of pregnancy, the doctors helped Judith through her third labour in three days. After only an hour the soft breaths of a third little girl joined her sisters. When the fourth sister came the next day Judith was moved to a more private private room. Somewhat larger than the other room, this room had no windows, no wi-fi, and no telephone. And after the fifth baby girl arrived Judith understood the cautious actions of her privately paid doctors.
In the moments between births Judith tried to rest. She tried to distract herself by picturing her favourite shoes on the blackness of her eyelids, but she could not get the image of that woman at the council bench out of her mind. Only she remembered something different. The pansies were still there, laughing at her. Her feet still throbbed. But the woman wasn’t smiling greedily as Judith thought she should remember. Instead, the woman was muttering words that seemed to fly into Judith’s body. The contorted face and stained teeth distorted as the murky blackness left the woman’s wide mouth, and invisible spears of her disgusting breath sunk into Judith’s skin, crawling through her. The two pale girls smiled while they watched. They told Judith something with their silent eyes. They would be safe now. And she slept.
A flustered Colin paid for a nanny to assist with the barrage of nappy changing and cyclical feeding schedule. Judith didn’t have too much trouble accepting she wouldn’t be able to breastfeed as all the magazines had told her to, and when the fourth and fifth nanny arrived to join the army of carers Judith happily showed them where the cupboards, later to be rooms, of formula were kept. The next baby arrived, then the next. One a day seemed to be the routine. The doctors considered sound-proofing the rooms on the advice of the legal team, should an unscrupulous member of staff decide they needed some extra holiday money from the Daily Fail. Feeding time was when they were most vulnerable. The 26th nanny suggested Colin invest in some earplugs, which he did, and got a discount for such a large order. One after the other they came. All girls. A new one each day. Another sister, another daughter. More soreness. More pain. Until, on 23 May 2017, while her 365th baby slept soundly, Judith awoke to a different soreness. A lighter one. It was over.
The chorus of hungry babies rang through the concealed hospital rooms as the army of 146 nannies marched into action. Machine upon machine mixed up batches of formula. Boxes of nappies were wheeled in on trolleys. Shrink-wrapped bundles of baby wipes made their way towards toxic bottoms in hurried porter’s hands, and stoic doctors awaited the page that never came. As unbelievable as the situation was, all these people knew these lives were precious. Each baby individual. Each to be someone unique. Each worth the time and effort, the care and love, even if all they could give back right now was stinky gifts. Judith slumped in her bed, her home for the last year. She thought of Colin. She thought of Abbey. She listened to her children’s call and vowed on the life of her Dolce & Gabbana earmuffs to always be nice to strangers as if they were her own. Even ones that smelled of canal.