The Literal Challenge 2019

Inspired by an ex-colleague and fellow writer, I signed up to The Literal Challenge, in which I will be given a different brief every day in June and will have to write something on the theme.

Here’s my entry for Day One:

A Night At The Theatre

“All the world’s a stage …” is one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, and I am certainly prepped for the performance of a lifetime as I waddle into the delivery suite, well on my way to giving birth.

Okay – I’ve cheated somewhat. This isn’t an operating theatre but a room in which a midwife will direct me in this once-only spectacular that involves me pushing a tiny human out of an orifice that seems fat too small. (More of a variety act than a serious play, then?)

It is 2 am – a bit early for a matinee; a little late for an evening’s entertainment – and exactly one hour since I felt the prompting of an, as yet, unknown actor who will turn out to be the star of the show by the time he or she makes an appearance.

It’s not like I haven’t bothered rehearsing for this: eight weeks of NCT classes have convinced me that natural childbirth is NOT the way to go. Like any good actor, I’ve had breathing classes, practised my moves. The problem is, no matter how prepared you think you are, there will always be an element of improvisation when it comes to giving birth, and that’s because the baby hasn’t read the script.

I suppose you could say I’m in a supporting role, rather than being the lead, in all of this – after all, once this tiny terror pops out, he – or she – will  be a diva to rival any Hollywood star, insisting on her – or his – own schedule and individual dietary requirements and keeping everyone awake with his – or her – hell-raising antics night after night.

Perhaps the media already has some inkling of what’s going on because, after half an hour of sitting here, hooked up to an internal monitor which registers every contraction as peaks and troughs that resemble a mountain range, a bevy of student doctors armed with clipboards appear at the door, wondering if they can ‘observe’. There’s even a guy with a video camera, wanting to capture everything on film ‘for training purposes’.

I wisely decline to give autographs or pose for photos. I’ll have enough on my mind with the midwife they’ve assigned me – an enthusiastic evangelist for eschewing any and every kind of pain relief – without worrying about what I look like at either end.

Jenny, the midwife, regards me now. She’s actually quivering with excitement at the thought of a drugs-free delivery. “Come on, Mel,” she begins in a jolly tone. “Let’s think about how we can tackle this mountain called pain!”

My gut instinct when she says this is to point out that ‘we’ won’t be tackling it at all: this baby is inhabiting my womb, not hers, and I’ll be the only one ‘feeling the burn’ when I attempt to push it out.

(I mentally apologise to my unborn child for calling it ‘it’; however, since I declined to find out in advance what ‘flavour’ it is, there’s not much I can do about that.)

Jenny checks the monitor then does a quick recce below. “You’re about six centimetres dilated,” she tells me. “And your contractions are fine, so I think we can get rid of this monitor, for the time being.” She points to the large, inflated sphere in the corner of the room. “Why don’t you try out the birthing ball? Lots of mums swear by it.”

Did she say ‘swear by it’ or ‘swear at it’? I wonder, trying dismally to work out exactly how this giant space-hopper is supposed to steer me through the still uncharted waters of my labour. Luckily, at that moment, the door opens and a familiar head pokes itself inside the room. My mother has arrived for the birth of her first grandchild.

It’s a testament to my mum that she’s never once complained about the unconventional route I’ve taken to enter motherhood. Not for me the outdated concept of marriage or even civil partnership: my child is the product of a liaison between my own egg and the rather expensive sperm of a private donor. I know nothing at all about the father except that he is intelligent (a Master’s degree in Business) and successful and that his medical records are outstanding. It might not be everyone’s dream scenario for conception, but it’s one that works for me.

Since my one-woman show now has an audience of two, I decide to ad-lib a few lines. “I don’t suppose I could have some gas and air, could I? Only, it’s starting to hurt a lot more than it did at first.”

Jenny looks horrified at my suggestion. “You do know gas and air’s not good for the baby? Or you, for that matter. You need to be fully alert when it’s time to push.”

I thought I was in charge of this scene, not her. Fortunately, Mum comes to my rescue. “Have you got your birth plan with you, Mel?”

“It’s in my bag, over there.” I shoot her a grateful look, aware that, if it comes to a fight, Mum is more than capable of holding her own against this dragon-like doyenne.

Hours pass – well, I say hours, but the clock claims it’s only been fifty-seven minutes. In that time, I’ve tried gas and air and realised, with annoyance, that Jenny is going to get her way after all. I was told to breathe in until I heard a click, then breathe out again. I dutifully breathed in until I thought my lungs were bursting, but the ‘click’ was absent. It is totally mortifying to be told that you are too incompetent to make use of the pain relief on offer.

Meanwhile, Mum has whizzed her way through the quick crossword in the free paper she always carries in her handbag and has picked up her knitting needles. I indulge in a pleasant daydream of her knitting Jenny a straitjacket, but it is not to be.

Speaking of Jenny, she’s feeling my cervix again now. I wriggle uncomfortably, then wince as another contraction rips through my body, taking my breath away with its unexpected ferocity. When Jenny asked me a few minutes ago what I’d like to try next, I told her honestly that I’d like to go to sleep for a few hours and then wake up to find the baby had been born. Her withering response of “Well, that’s not going to happen, is it?” immediately dashed any hopes I had of an emergency caesarean putting an end to the pain.

She looks at me now, her face beaming. “I think you’re ready to start pushing.”

I don’t feel ready; but then, she is the expert, so I close my eyes, grit my teeth and imagine I’m trying to do a huge poo. Nothing happens. I try again.

After fifteen minutes or so of trying and getting nowhere, I feel distinctly bruised, not to mention absolutely exhausted. Jenny looks at me with concern.

“I’m just going to have another feel,” she says, inserting her fingers once more in a manner that reminds me of some of the vets I’ve seen on TV. Her face changes to an expression of abject apology. “I’m really sorry – you’re only eight centimetres. I was feeling the wrong thing.”

What on earth was she feeling, then? It’s not like I have a sideboard stuffed up there, is it? Or as if my vagina’s Mary Poppins’ carpetbag, waiting for standard lamps and all manner of other improbable objects to be plucked from its Tardis-like proportions, decades before Doctor Who was even thought of.

While Mum tuts at her incompetence, Jenny checks her clipboard. “How about a bath?” she suggests. “The warm water will help to relax you.”

It’s the next best thing to the birthing pool that wasn’t available when I checked in, so I nod my head and hope that the bath will do the trick. It certainly relaxes me and both Jenny and Mum are tactful enough to let me do this bit on my own. “Just press the buzzer when you need someone to help lift you out,” Jenny says as she closes the door behind me.

About fifteen minutes later, the water is growing cold around me, so I press the buzzer and wait. Nothing happens. I press it again. Still nothing.

By this time, I’m getting slightly worried. My baby could start arriving at any moment and I’m stuck in the bath – and I mean literally stuck in the bath. I try getting out on my own, but my legs have turned to jelly and all I can do is stand there, starkers, shin deep in rapidly cooling water, shouting “Help!” as loudly as I can.

Finally, I hear the click of heels on the floor outside and a bossy voice saying crossly, “Who’s shouting in one of the bathrooms?” The door opens and I have never been so glad to see anyone ever before in my life.

“I’m sorry,” I say weakly. “I kept pressing the buzzer, but no one came.”

Within minutes, this marvellous midwife has found Mum and Jenny, and I’ve been lifted out of the bath and dressed in the ratty old t-shirt I’ve chosen for the occasion. This time I really am ready to push – apparently, it’s too late for an epidural but after what I’ve been through with being stuck in the bath, I’ve got to the stage where I just don’t care anymore.

I’ll draw a veil over the actual birth – I’m sure you don’t want to hear about primeval grunts and screams, or the scissors they used for the episiotomy, which looked like garden shears; and I know that even the most strong-stomached of readers don’t want to know about me being sewn up with cat-gut. (“Isn’t that the stuff they use to string tennis rackets!” Mum exclaims, before glancing at my face and realising this is not what I want to hear right now.)

No, instead I’ll fast-forward to the real star of the show, the prima donna who kept us all waiting for far too long before she made her appearance. Emma Faith weighs in at seven pounds three ounces (what that is in kilos, I have no idea – but hey! aren’t we leaving the EU anyway?) and has big blue eyes and a fuzz of dark hair. Despite the fact that it’s her debut performance, she knows how to work an audience, batting her eyelids so that we’re all wrapped around her little finger, before opening her mouth and exercising a pair of lungs to rival Mariah Carey.

I’m no longer the leading lady in this drama, but it honestly doesn’t matter. From now on, I’m happy to be relegated to a backstage role so I can let my daughter shine in the part she was literally born to play. In years to come, I’ll be on hand with costumes and props, prompt her when she fluffs her lines and even watch her progress to writing her own script. A star is born – and it’s my job from now on to help her sparkle.

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