Read time: 12 mins

The Stars and the Scars

by Penny Woods
10 October 2022

There is an object on the floor. I am not sure what to do with it. I would like to tidy it away, in a box perhaps, lined with blankets. I would like to know it is secure and safe, but I would like not to have to see it. 

There are processes which were once familiar to me that I can’t now remember how to complete. 

When you wash yourself, this is what happens. You take off your clothes and stand in the shower. You switch it on, and while the water is still cold, you wash away the hairs that are stuck to the bath to make sure they are not spiders. The hairs must not come alive. When the water is warmer, you spray it over yourself or hook up the shower head and stand under it if you are washing your hair. If people say you need to wash your hair. That is called a shower. 

And you must be quick because someone is watching you. Waiting for you. Demanding you. 

Sometimes I worry it is a spider waiting for me. I worry there is a spider in the box with the blankets and the thing. Or a spider in the room. I do not sleep before checking every corner of the cornicing for spiders, and sometimes I do not sleep even then. I am always thinking about spiders. This is called anxiety. 

I am a FALSE parent. 

There are geraniums on the windowsill of the room called a sitting room or a living room or a lounge. I am not sure what I called it before, but I know I used to sit here and feel happy. The flowers are wet and drooping and sad and remind me of smokers outside a pub deepening their drags so they can come back in. I should fetch in the geraniums. But they are so sad. 

I saw my psychologist today. He asked me how I was. I thought he asked who I was, and I could not think of an answer. He asked me how my baby was. I was surprised, having put out of my mind that I had a baby. What baby? The one in the buggy in front of you. 

Is it a buggy or a pram? I must try to find out. 

This is important. This is not important. If it is important, I write it on my list. If it is not important, my psychologist crosses it out. 

My psychologist has given me homework. He has asked me to write a list of questions. He will judge me for the questions. He says he will not judge me. I read out some of the questions. 

Am I mad? 

Will my baby die? 

Is everyone else happy? 

Why do I feel so blank and empty and hollow like a body of snow? 

He leans back in his chair and softly sighs. It is like the wind itself has given up on me. 

I tell him I read the baby’s birth certificate over and over again. And every time I read it, I am shocked to see my name there, listed as her mother. It is authentic; it has been signed by a Superintendent Registrar in black ink, real ink. It is a FACT. I cannot escape it because it is real, and my husband has put it in a frame surrounded by pink teddy bears and balloons and which I want to smash. 

Every Monday, my phone beeps with a notification. It is from a New Mums! group. I know they are out there. I know there are people who go to cafes and take up all the space with their buggies and chat and have hot drinks that do not scald the babies and share stories of sleepless nights and laugh and arrange to meet up again soon. I know these people exist because I have seen them. 

One week, my homework was to go to a baby group. I wrote down everything I needed to take, and there were 37 items on the list. I worked out a way of getting there that avoided going on the bus. I walked there and was 10 minutes early, and I walked past the cafe and kept on walking for five hours. I was very tired. I have never known fear like that before. I was very, very scared of going into that baby group. I am very, very scared every day. There is nowhere for my head to go, no safe place, no nice things to think about. While I was walking, a leaf fell on the buggy. A large leaf, as big as my head and heavy. Perhaps from a fig tree, but figs would never ripen here. I watched it fall, but when it landed, it startled me. Could a leaf suffocate a baby? I add it to my list of questions. 

I remind myself, in case someone asks, the baby is called Charlotte; the baby is called Charlotte; the baby is called Charlotte. 

I am allowed to bring the buggy into the clinic where I see the psychologist. Most visitors have to leave their buggy outdoors and carry their baby in, but they thought I wouldn’t cope with that. I take notes in my sessions with the psychologist, and this helps me through the week. 

Note: my perception of reality is not the reality; it is a reality. 

What colour are your baby’s eyes, the psychologist asked. They must be brown like mine or blue like her father’s, I answered. It is all to do with recessive genes. That is interesting, said the psychologist. You know a lot about recessive genes. I was pleased when he said that. But what colour are your baby’s eyes? What colour are Charlotte’s eyes? They must be brown like mine or blue like her father’s, I repeated, knowing I had got the answer wrong and not knowing quite how. 

I have a sling. We try the sling. The baby screams and screams, and I am scared for us both. I want to wrap ourselves up in the sling and never ever wake up. 

Today I parked the buggy on the pavement in the shadow of a hedge overflowing with leaves and litter and a cat hiding from the rain, and I walked into the road in front of a car. 

I made sure the brake was on the buggy. 

That is why I am in this hospital. The driver thought I had run into the road to pick up a dropped teddy. He was upset. He kept saying, ‘Thank God I was only doing 20.’ 

He sobbed. I did not cry. I understand now why I have failed. It is because there is something I have to do first, and when I find out what it is, it will all be OK. 

I do not like feeling like this, and I do not know how I feel. 

The cat hiding under the hedge looked like Slinky Malinki. My aunt has given me the whole set, and I have read them all. I like the rhythm. Pittery pattery. 

I read them to myself, and I read them to the baby called Charlotte. She doesn’t say anything. 

Sometimes I make up the rhymes. Slinky Malinki, Mummy needs a drinkie. The baby who is mine does not smile. 

There are many nurses, caring everywhere in every way. They say, gently, do not shut the viewing window on the door. It is to keep you safe. Do not sleep with your baby because the drugs may make you drowsy. We are keeping you safe. Do not leave your baby unattended. We are keeping you safe. 

It is nearly Christmas, and we are putting up decorations, paper streamers, a star on top of a tree and gel snowmen on the windows. No tinsel. No scissors. We are keeping you safe. 

The snowmen are considered a choking risk, and it is discovered they contain alcohol. I am sad to see them go and stare at the sticky residue they leave behind on the glass. 

In the hospital, there is a book called The Dictionary of the Mind, full of fascinating diseases and conditions. 

In Zimbabwe, the word for depression is overthinking. 

Mental illness is a social condition as much as it is a physical one. 

Cardinal Richelieu had a sister who would not sit down because she believed her buttocks were made of glass. 

There is a patient who says she is so lucky to have a contented baby that never cries, speaking loudly over the baby’s crying. I know now that I have a baby too. I am a mother. I have a to-do list that says things like put baby in cot and then shower. 

Feed baby from both breasts. 

There is a woman who is worried that she will not be able to change her baby’s nappy because her baby is on the ceiling. There is a woman who does not believe that the baby in front of her is hers; she believes the babies were switched in the hospital, and this baby who scratches her breasts and screams incessantly is a devil, and her real baby is still in the hospital, and she must get to her quickly. There is a woman who knows that any minute now the baby will die because she accidentally left it on a table and it rolled off, or she accidentally suffocated it or accidentally walked in front of a bus with the buggy because she was so scared of failing. That woman is me. 

I am given a full health review. ‘Look after the Charlotte baby,’ I say as I am taken to a different part of the hospital for my checks. Look after her; don’t leave her alone for one minute because she may die. 

I spend an hour with a GP. In some places there are scars. ‘These may not fade,’ the doctor says. 

‘What is a scar?’ I ask the doctor. 

‘It is a deposit of fibrous tissue on the skin,’ the doctor says. ‘It protects the skin while the cells underneath repair themselves.’ 

‘Do brains scar?’ I ask. 

She looks at me. ‘That is an interesting question,’ she answers, ‘but I am not a surgeon or a neurologist.’ 

I say, ‘Some days I can’t find any love inside me to give any out. There is fear and no room for love.’ 

She makes a note of what I have said, or perhaps she just writes a note to buy bananas on the way home. 

When I return to my ward, the baby is not dead. ‘She missed you,’ says the nurse, and I think this makes me smile. I think I can see happiness, but it is not here yet. ‘Slinky Malinki,’ I say to her. I take her into my room and cry on her, and I think she swallows some of my tears, but babies are not supposed to have salt. 

There is an organ in my head, and the notes never stop hanging even though the music finished a long time ago. Sometimes they play piano music in the ward because it is unobtrusive and soothing. Nobody knows the composer when I ask, but Azaz, one of the nurses, finds the CD cover for me. I am grateful and I cry. 

I do not like pianos, but I do like the way the music stops with a final tidy chord and does not haunt my head like an organ does. Stop. Silence. There is no hum like a radiator waking up and becoming alive in the sitting room. Yes, I remember now; we call it a sitting room. 

Me and the baby called Charlotte who is mine are taken to the sensory room where there are disco lights and cushions made of different fabrics and gentle drums and rattles. 

Azaz comes in with us and says things like, ‘Why don’t you tell your baby what colours you see?’ I tell Charlotte that I can see red and orange and blue, and the nurse says well done to me. Or perhaps to Charlotte. We learn things like tummy time and eye contact, and I touch Charlotte’s hands to help her sit. Her fingers are like tiny snakes that coil so tightly around my fingers. ‘She trusts you,’ says Azaz. 

Then Charlotte becomes tired, and I become tired because I have had my shoulders hunched for months now. We go into our room to rest until a nurse comes in and says gently, ‘You must not sleep on the bed with baby.’ 

If I followed every piece of advice given to me as a mother, I would go mad. I think about God as a mother and wonder if he would ever get ratty with his baby in the middle of a sleepless night, or if he would always be zen. Come to me all of you who are weary, and I will give you rest. Perhaps he got the Holy Spirit to babysit. 

It is a blustery day, and outside the window I see umbrellas sucked inside out. The clouds play chase amid the blue, and I think, I don’t know if there is a heaven, but if so, isn’t the sky a nice place to put it? 

I receive a text message. ‘The days are long, but the years are short! Thinking of you. Xx’. 

Am I faking it? Is it fake? If I just walk out into the road and don’t look, that’s not suicide. It’s only if I look and see a car coming and walk out; that’s suicide. 

I make pacts with myself. 

I am very tired. Heavy rain keeps up a metallic mutter on the windowpane. My skin feels too tight for me, and I am deeply aware of things that I should only be semi-conscious of: my shallow breathing, a persistent need to clear my throat, my extremities—toes, earlobes, nose. My eyelids seem to scratch my pupils as I drag them open and shut. A fridge door in the nurses’ kitchen opens, then eases to a close. I hear the fizz of a can opening. 

It’s strange to think I will always be a mother. If someone asks me if I have children, I’m afraid I’ll forget and say no. Everything sounds like Charlotte crying: seagulls, crows, a radio played by the builders outside, other people’s babies. 

A nurse pops her head into my room and says, ‘All OK? Baby OK?’ I leap up and rush to the cot and lift Charlotte out and say to the nurse quick quick she’s not breathing help me. And the nurse says to me, ‘She is sleeping; look, see how her little chest gently rises. She’s smiling with the angels.’ And it’s true, a tiny crescent-moon smile flashes across Charlotte’s face and disappears as if behind a night cloud. I stare at her fingers, tiny like matchsticks, and her toenails like grains of sugar. 

Sometimes, in her sleep, Charlotte shudders and raises her arms, then settles down again. This is called the startle reflex. The nurse sees her doing it on the ward and says with a smile, ‘That one would be startled by angel’s wings, she would!’ I think I smile too because I would also be startled by an angel’s wings, great beating things like a pterodactyl bearing bad news. 

There is a small garden outside the eating area on the ward. We cannot go into it, but someone has put a bird feeder there, nailed to a toppling walnut tree. I stare out of the window as Charlotte sits in a bouncy chair beside me, her specific little fingers reaching out for colourful balls on a string in front of her. 

Suddenly I see a song thrush on the grass, battling to get a snail out of its shell by hitting it against a rock with its beak. I am awed by the architecture of the thrush’s throat, and I lift Charlotte up to the window and point out the thrush. ‘That is your first bird sighting,’ I say. ‘Birdies sing!’ Charlotte looks out of the window, and I think she is watching the glassy raindrops accelerate down the pane, not the bird. 

The nurse says I am allowed to leave Charlotte in my room when I go to the toilet instead of carrying Charlotte into the cubicle and holding her awkwardly. 

‘You don’t need to do that,’ she says. ‘Baby will be fine. All you got to do is leave a little piece of your heart in here with her.’ 

The next time I need the toilet, I ask the nurse to wait in my room until I come back. It is strangely wonderful to wee with my hands free.  

I have not counted the days, but I know it is a lot of days. The doctor, smiling, hands me a piece of paper titled ‘Discharge and transfer notification’. 

On my last evening in the hospital, I spend a lot of time watching Charlotte’s chest rise and fall. It is soothing, like watching the waves tickle up the shore but knowing you’re not in danger of drowning, that the tide will never fully come in. I fall asleep watching her, and, in the small hours, she stirs and does not want to sleep again, and so we open the curtains and admire the realness of the moon and the stars as we wait for the sunrise. 

Photograph © Megan te Boekhorst

About the Author

Penny Woods

Penny Woods writes short and flash fiction. Her work appears in the Manchester Review, Litro, Mslexia, East of the Web, and Reflex Press. She lives in London.