sther heard the cry, clear across the scattered fields of Carraig Beag, the voice catching on the iodine-scented breeze blowing in from the wild Atlantic Ocean, and knew straight away that it was her mother, calling her, needing her. Autumn was in the air, and all the scraggy briars and brambles about were laden down with fruit. Her two young brothers were busy scrabbling for blackberries, their hands and faces and knitted jumpers stained with juice, the tin buckets full. She couldn't leave them here on their own, for the boys would stuff their faces with the plump, juicy berries till they were nearly sick.
“Leave the buckets and cans!” she ordered firmly, pulling the tin from
six-year-old Liam's sticky hands. “We've got to get back home!” Running hell for leather, she chased across the tussocks of heavy grass and clumpy earth, sensing their fear as they followed her back down the sloping hill towards home.
Panting and breathless, she raced towards their whitewashed cottage and in through the open doorway, to where her mother stood leaning against the old kitchen dresser, her face clammy and beaded with sweat.
“Help me to the bed, pet! The baby's coming, and I need to lie down.”
“Mammy, the baby's not due for weeks yet,” she pleaded, feeling suddenly scared.
“Stop moithering, Esther, and help me to bed!”
Esther let her mother lean on her as she led her into her parents' bedroom, trying to straighten the mess of sheets and blankets and fix the bolster before her mother plomped down heavily on to them.
She was transfixed as she watched her mother's dress suddenly tauten against her swollen stomach, and saw her mother breathing slowly and deeply, ignoring her.
The boys had arrived, jammed at the bedroom door, eyes wide with curiosity. “What is it?” asked Tom, his freckled face worried.
“The baby's coming early!” muttered Esther, shoving her brothers back outside. Her mam wouldn't want them to see her like this.
Majella Doyle's pain was easing, and she gestured to Esther to help her lift her legs on to the bed. Both feet were swollen, and a trail of stalky veins patterned across her mother's pale skin. “That's it, dote! That's a bit better!”
sighed her mother, closing her eyes and letting her head rest against the wooden headboard.
Relief flooded through the thirteen-year-old; however, a minute or two later, the tracings of pain again shadowed her mother's face as she tried to catch a large gulping breath.
“Mammy, I'll go and get help!” offered Esther. “I'll run down and get Mrs. Murphy.” Maureen Murphy, the local midwife, had attended her mother before, taking total charge when her younger brothers had been born; she had even helped to deliver Esther herself. She'd know what to do.
“No, Esther!” insisted her mother. “You've got to stay.”
Esther was filled with an immense longing to be out of the small stuffy bedroom and away from all this. If only her daddy or her older brothers were here instead of out in the boat, fishing. Majella, as if sensing her thoughts, grabbed her by the hand.
“I need you to help me to birth this baby, pet. Send one of the boys!”
“Tom!” screamed Esther.
Her bewildered eleven-year-old brother came to the doorway.
“Run, Tom! Go and get Mrs. Murphy, Aidan's mother, you know where they live!” He was munching on a heel of bread, trying to swallow it. “Do you understand, Tom? Tell Mrs. Murphy that Mammy's having the baby now and she's got to come straight away!”
Tom looked up at her through those long black eyelashes of his. He could always tell what she was thinking,
and sensed her panic about the baby. Flinging the crust to the floor, he took to his heels.
“Esther, you've got to help me,” ordered her mother breathlessly, slumping down in the bed and pulling up the skirt of her dress; her knickers were already discarded. “The baby's coming!”
“I can't do it, Mammy! You know I can't!” she pleaded. Esther hadn't a clue about what to do. Up to now she had only seen a few sheep lambing in the fields, and old Mrs. Casey's cat having four black kittens, and knew absolutely nothing about birthing babies.
Majella Doyle was making a strange kind of panting sound. Esther watched as her mother's sweat-soaked face contorted with pain. “Fetch a towel or a blanket for the baby, and something sharp like scissors or a knife!” she ordered.
“Liam!” Esther screamed at her little brother. “Bring me the breadknife. Be careful and don't run with it! That's the good boy!”
In an instant he was beside her, his blue eyes almost shut as he passed her the long bone-handled silver knife.
“Out!” she bossed.
“It's coming!” Her mother was blowing and panting and in between shouting at Esther to look between her wide-open legs. Through the stretching purple circle of taut flesh, Esther could see bits of black hair.
“I can see the baby's hair!” she blurted out, suddenly feeling strangely excited.
Her mother was straining, pushing. “Hold the head!” she ordered.
Esther shut her eyes, and almost fainted with the
shock when she realized that the baby's head was through. She held it with her hands, supporting it firmly as her mother began to push again. The baby seemed to almost slip sideways, shoulder first, and slide all warm and steamy into her nervous hands. The baby's skin was smeared with blood and a white greasy kind of thing, but it was the blueness of the strange small body that scared her. The eyes were shut and no sound issued from the tiny purple-coloured lips; a twisted rope of mottled cord lay wrapped around her baby sister's neck.
“Is the baby all right?” demanded Majella anxiously.
“Mammy, it's a little girl, but â¦ the cord â¦”
Esther grabbed at the cord, trying to loosen it and unwind it without hurting the baby's neck.
“You must cut it and tie it off!” stated her mother firmly.
“What'll I tie it with?” asked Esther, frantic, then reaching up to her hair she pulled off the narrow black ribbon used to keep her light brown curls in check.
“Good girl! Do it quick! Tie it close to the baby's belly first before you cut!”
She managed to hold the fleshy rope and, as tight as she could tie it off, close to the baby's sunken belly, she knotted the ribbon.
“Now cut it!” ordered her mother, trying to sit up more to help her.
The bed and Esther's hands were spattered with blood, but the fleshy link between mother and child was severed.
“Is she breathing?” shouted her mother.
Esther could barely look at her. The baby had seemed to move but now was floppy in her arms, and an unnatural
bruised blue-grey colour from top to toe. Out of instinct she turned the baby over, tilting her, patting the small back, then looking again; she wiped the tiny face with the corner of the sheet, opening the mouth with her little finger. It was almost like a sigh, but the baby gasped for breath, the small curving chest moved. Relieved and excited, she wrapped the sheet loosely round the baby, ready to pass her to her mother, realizing only then that she lay, almost passed out, white against the pillow.
“Out of the way, girl, or your mother will bleed to death!”
Mrs. Murphy had arrived and, tossing Esther aside, pushed up beside the patient in the bed, pulling back the bloodstained blankets and sheet. “Get me cloths, towels, sheets, anything, quick as you can, girl!” ordered the stout, fair-haired woman, rolling up her sleeves and fastening a neat white apron over her massive chest and body.
Esther stood mesmerized, holding the new baby.
“Run, girl! We've no time to waste. For the love of God, put that child down somewhere!”
The small wooden crib fashioned by her grandfather had not been brought into the house yet, so Esther placed the small body in an open drawer, wrapping a woolly shawl around the sheet.
“Run, girl! Run!”
Esther was like a madwoman, running around the small overcrowded cottage in a frenzy, pulling sheets off her own and the boys' beds, grabbing the towels in the airing-cupboard and those drying over the range, Tom helping her like he always did. “Tom! See if any of the sheets on the clothes line are dry!” she bossed, sending her
anxious young brothers out in the sunshine. Wouldn't you know it! Little Paddy had just woken from his nap. He'd peed himself and drowsily cried for his mother. “Where's my mammy?” he whined, tufts of soft fair hair standing up on his head, his cheeks rosy, smelling of urine.
“Sssh, pet! Tom and I are minding you for the moment.” She tried not to let him sense her fear and handed him over to a reluctant Tom.
Back in the bedroom, Esther could feel herself getting dizzy as Mrs. Murphy used towel after towel to staunch her mother's bleeding.
“Don't you go fainting on me, Esther,” she warned. “Where's your father?”
“Off fishing with Ger and Donal. They'll not be back for hours!”
“Well that'll be far too late for usâwe've got to raise this bedstead now!” insisted the midwife.
The two of them took a corner each, struggling and pulling, but there was no budging it.
“We need more help and something to prop it up with!”
“Tom!” called Esther through the open window. “Get some blocks of wood and come in here immediately.” Within seconds her younger brothers were standing at the doorway.
“Esther, you and I and young Tom will have a go at lifting this corner and maybe the young lad will be able to lie on the ground and slip a block of wood under the end of it. Now, one â¦ two â¦ three!”
They all strained, lifting the heavy corner till it felt like the very veins in their heads would burst, while Liam
managed to dart in and shove the circle of sawn ash underneath it. The bed was now tilted at an angle, their mother lying lopsided. “Now the other side!” cajoled Maureen Murphy. They repeated the process, though unfortunately one side was slightly higher than the other, but it was the best that they could do.
“There you go, Majella! That's a lot better!” murmured Mrs. Murphy. “Now boys, away out with ye!”
Esther stood watching as the neighbour attended to her mother.
“Let's hope she doesn't get a fever out of this,” worried Maureen aloud. “She's lost a lot of blood, Esther, so we'll just have to wait and see.” Esther nodded dumbly. “A cup of tea would be much appreciated,” suggested Maureen, tidying up the bundle of soiled laundry scattered on the floor and the bed. “I'll take these home to wash for ye.”
Esther lifted the kettle on to the cooker and set it to boil, all the time praying that her mother would survive this. Having babies was a desperate ordeal by the look of it, so why in heaven's name did women like her mother go through it? By the time she got back to the bedroom Mrs. Murphy had made her mother comfortable and she had dozed off to sleep.
“She's exhausted, poor dote,” she murmured, taking a large sip of milky tea from the cup that Esther passed her. “I think Majella might be needing the doctor. I'll send for him.”
“What about the baby?” Esther lifted the baby from the drawer and passed her to Maureen Murphy.
“The poor little creature never had a chance, God be
good to her! Stillborn, they call it, Esther. She was not meant for this world.”
“No!” protested Esther. “She was alive, I saw her move, take a breath when I pulled the cord from round her neck, honest, Mrs. Murphy!”
“You thought you saw, hoped you saw, pet.”
“I did!” she insisted, grabbing the baby back. She was sure and certain that the baby had been alive.
“Don't upset yourself about things that you're too young to understand! I'm only thinking of your poor mother.”
Esther pulled back the folds of the towel to reveal the pale, still, doll-like face.
“Not meant for this world,” murmured Maureen Murphy kindly, trying to rewrap the newborn infant.
Esther pressed her ear against the tiny chest and neck, then, almost demented, pulled the baby to herself, shaking the limp body. Three tiny fingers moved. They both saw it.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” declared the midwife, blessing herself.
“You see!” insisted Esther triumphantly. “She's alive!”
“Give me the child to examine!” said Maureen, unwrapping the baby carefully. “She's born too early and mighty small and far too blue for my liking, and well, there's something not quite â¦”
Esther's blue eyes fastened on the woman, daring her to say anything bad about this new sister that she had helped to deliver.
Ten years working on the wards in a large Liverpool
hospital had helped Maureen develop an instinct about patients, no matter how old or young they were, the ability to sense when things were not right. “Well, I'm no doctor but 'tis God's will!”