I pressed End Call on my phone and dropped it in to my pocket, having finished a conversation with one of my sisters that two weeks previously I’d never given any thought that I would have. Pulling my black raincoat around me against the cold winter wind of 2005 as it whipped round the building – the coat that this sister said made me look frightening to old ladies and children as it billowed out like a cloak as I marched along – I walked back through the automatic doors, pausing out of a recently-acquired habit to squirt anti-bacterial gel on my hands, and made my way to the lifts. As I stood waiting for one of the four to arrive, it struck me that none of the people bustling around me knew, they had no idea what my story was, why I was there.
The lift doors opened and I stepped in after a few others, people who took no notice of the black-clad woman standing amongst them. Just as I pressed the button marked 8, the doors started to close and a woman appeared in the quickly decreasing gap holding a carrycot. I held my hand against one of the doors which hesitated then slid open again. She stepped in, wafting further cold from outside into the lift. “Thank you” she murmured.
The doors closed and the lift ascended, various people chattering, carrying flowers, a balloon, bags. There was a ting, we halted, doors opened and people stepped out. Once the doors closed again, it was just myself and the carrycot-holding lady left as we began to slowly drift upwards in our box. I looked downwards, vaguely glancing at the contents of the carrycot. Babies don’t normally hold much interest for me but, at that moment, I wanted something to focus on. What I saw shocked me. Nestled amongst the white blankets and under a pink, beribboned woolly hat was a face, a perfect little face – two closed eyes, symmetrical half-moons of dark eyelashes, a small bump of a nose and a rosebud mouth. Slightly pink-tinged cheeks. It was a tiny, tiny face, her whole head seemed little bigger than an orange.
“How old is she?” I blurted out.
“Six days” the lady answered. Her voice sounded small, she sounded tired, she sounded worried. Her face was pale, her hair frizzed by the cold and rain outside. “She’s a bit small” she continued. “She was a bit early. My first, I’m rather terrified by her, I didn’t think she’d be this small”.
“How much does she weigh?” I asked, my disbelief that a human could actually be so small and live – breathe in and out without the need of being surrounded by starched uniforms and bleeping machines.
“I’m not sure what she weighs now but she weighed 5lbs, 3oz when she was born”. I laughed out loud. The frizzy-haired lady looked at me quizzically, clearly laughing at her baby’s lack of baby-bouncing weight was not what she expected.
“I was 5lbs, 3oz when I was born” I explained. “At six days old, my mother apparently put me outside in my pram to get some fresh air. It was winter and she told me she’d had to brush the snow off my pram before she brought me indoors”. The lady audibly gasped and almost mouthed “My God”, my reaction having been exactly the same when my mother told me what she’d done with her newborn fourth child. Both myself and the new mother looked down at her child, undoubtedly musing on the idea of putting something so small, so tiny, so vulnerable and precious outside in the snow completely shocking. “You were fine” my mother had said at my outraged shock at her more than blase behaviour “You had lots of blankets, you had a hot water bottle wrapped up with you. Did you no harm”.
“Clearly did you no harm” said the frizzy-haired lady and I was conscious of her looking at me, really looking at me, starting at my shoes and slowly upwards to my full height of 5’9″.
The lift tinged again, slowed to a halt and the doors opened at floor 8. I gave the mother and child one last look and with a small smile stepped out, caught in a throng of people who’d just spilled out from other lifts as they hesitated to look at the signs pointing ways, signs I had no need to look at and signs I would not see again.
“Thank you” said a voice behind me. I turned, not sure if the words were directed at me. The frizzy-haired lady stood in the lift holding her tiny baby girl in her carrycot in one hand, her other hand holding the lift door open. “Thank you” she said again. She smiled. She looked brighter. “I feel a bit more reassured having seen you. Thank your mother as well for me”. I opened my mouth but there was nothing there. What could I say? How could I explain?
“I will” I said just as the doors closed on her and she disappeared. I turned and went to join my eldest sister who was gathering up various belongings so that we could leave once and for all, leave the hospital where we’d watched our mother draw her last breath half an hour ago.