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Coming February 17, 2020

 

Ch. 1 – Butterflies, Interrupted

Poppy

I was in the butterfly house on the day my life imploded.    

Possibly, I should have known better than to venture out on Friday the thirteenth. With two children under the age of five. When I was thirty-seven weeks pregnant. Not that I believed in the idea of bad luck, but still—there you were.

There were a lot of threes in my life, which was supposed to be a good thing, although I wasn’t all the way up on numerology, and I didn’t believe in it, either. I’d always thought that three was a comfortable number, though. A round-looking number, not a spiky one. A welcoming number, with its curved arms open for a cuddle, and those lovely circles for your mind to rest on.

So—yeh. Here I was, full of threes. Thirty-three years old, the second of three children, awaiting the birth of my own third child, which felt like it would never come and like it would come too soon, and, as of eleven-oh-three A.M. on the aforementioned Friday, the thirteenth of September, too restless to stay home.

The sunlight wasn’t what you’d call “tropical” here in Dunedin, on the chillier southerly end of New Zealand’s South Island, at the tail end of winter, but it was there, and it was calling me out of the house. My husband, Max, was out of town, but that wasn’t one bit unusual, and he’d promised it would be the last time before the baby.

I was thinking determinedly positive thoughts on that score, and I wanted to keep doing it. I didn’t seem to be quite succeeding, though, judging by the roadblock I’d hit in my latest Hazel the Hippo book, Hazel’s Sleepover. Hazel’s dad kept insisting on saying unhelpful things to her little brother when he wet the bed, no matter how many times I rewrote the scene, and I didn’t think any parent was going to pay for a book called Hazel’s Unhappy Home. There was tackling real subjects, and then there was just being depressing.

Hamish and Olivia had both come a week or more late, I was sure this baby would, too, and at this moment, I felt like I couldn’t sit around for three weeks more and wait for it. I was lucky to work at home, lucky to have such a wonderful job to do, lucky to have healthy kids and a beautiful life, and I knew it, but still—I couldn’t sit around and wait today, and I absolutely couldn’t stand to have time to think.

I thought, Change of scene, and also, Brain-stimulating environment, closed the metal lid on my beloved box of Derwent drawing pencils, packed my cheerful floral tote with two pairs of training pants and a change of clothes for Olivia, who’d just turned three and was still having the occasional accident, gathered up sun hats and anoraks for the kids to cover all possibilities, filled plastic containers with dry cereal, cheese cubes, and grapes, in case we couldn’t get to a food source fast enough, added a coloring pad and crayons for Hamish, my five-year-old, and a reusable sticker book for Olivia, and loaded the kids into their car seats in the back of the SUV for the journey to the Discovery Centre at the Otago Museum.

You know, the Mum version of spontaneity.

At first, everything went well, other than feeling like I had a bowling ball bouncing against my cervix with every step I took. We had lunch at the museum cafe, where the kids didn’t finish their cheese rolls but did finish my cake, and were watching butterflies land on rotten bananas in a warm, humid pseudo-jungle when I realized that if I didn’t make it to the toilet right now, I’d be writing Hazel Gets Embarrassed.

“Come on,” I said. “Mummy needs to go to the Ladies’.”

“I don’t want to,” Olivia said, bang on cue. “I want to watch the butterflies.”

“Come on, Livvy,” Hamish said. “I’ll hold your hand.” Which had me thinking two things at once. First, that I was a very lucky mum indeed in my firstborn’s nurturing skills, and second, that the situation was getting more than urgent.

We got there and hit a roadblock. School holidays. Educational displays about where the poo went when you flushed, with too many little girls crowded around them, and no way I was getting into a stall. I shoved the wild thought out of my mind that all these kids were about to find out what happened when you didn’t flush, took my own offspring by the hand again, and headed to some more adult-intensive toilets, where I waited in a queue and finally crowded both kids and myself into a cubicle too small to hold us as I thought about my former days of modesty and how far gone they were. And, within about two minutes, realized with a sort of cold, prickly feeling that this wasn’t so much a Toilet Situation as a Baby Situation.

Right. Fine. I’d just get out of here and deal with it. The baby was far enough along to be born safely, I knew how to birth a child, and my water hadn’t even broken. By the time I exited the cubicle and got everybody’s hands washed, though, I was wishing for a bed.

Sit down and rest, I told myself, herding the kids out into the atrium, where Olivia said, “I want to go back and see the butterflies,” wrenched herself free of my grip, and started running.

I took off after her and couldn’t keep going. Another mum grabbed her, brought her back, and asked, “All right there?”

I nodded, because what was I going to say, and asked a group of preteen kids sitting on a bench, “Could you get up, please, and let me sit down?” They did, because they were Kiwi kids, raised to be polite, and I grabbed the sticker book out of my bag, shoved it at Olivia, told Hamish, “Look after your sister, please,” and got out my phone.

I tried Max first, of course, even though he was in Christchurch, nearly five hours away by road and about the same by the time you flew and managed airports, which was what he was doing. He’d be back this evening, but I needed him now. I didn’t get an answer, because he was no doubt in a meeting, so I left a message.

“Hi,” I told him. “Seems the baby’s coming early after all. Pretty . . . uh . . . fast. Come meet me at the hospital when you get in. And come sooner, if you can.”

The last bit was a gasp. He wouldn’t be happy at cutting things short, because he’d told me this trip was urgent, or he wouldn’t have gone. He’d also said again, like a joke that wasn’t, “You wouldn’t want me to be supported by my wife. Have to even the scales, don’t I.” The situation as usual, but right now, I couldn’t care.

 Olivia said, “I want to go see the butterflies,” Hamish said, “Look, Livvy, let’s stick the chickens next to the barn,” and I thought, Mum.

Not me. My mum.

Only one problem. It was one-thirty. She’d be at the gym, starting her kickboxing class, followed by her yoga class. Which was lovely, except when your daughter was in labor. I left a message anyway, rang off, and tried to think. Hamish and Olivia had come blessedly quickly, but it had still been—what? Five hours? Six? I couldn’t remember at the moment, because a boa constrictor was squeezing my insides. I waited for the squeezing to subside, then rang the midwife and explained the situation.

She said, “Go now, and I’ll meet you at the hospital.” I was having the baby at Mercy Hospital, the same place I’d had the other two kids, because that was exactly how predictable my life was. As luck would have it, I was only two kilometers away. Brilliant, right? If I’d stayed home instead, it would have been twenty minutes’ drive, and I couldn’t have driven twenty minutes.

For the present, I decided on an Uber and punched in my information, keeping myself right here, in this blessed little circle of decisive non-emotion. The ride would only take about five minutes and wouldn’t be worth the driver’s time, but what else could I do? I stood up, propped my hand against the wall and breathed as the next wave came and went, thought about whether your kids could be in a delivery room with you, decided the answer was certainly “No,” wondered what the alternative was, told myself that my mum and/or husband would surely have found me by then, and told the kids, “Time to go.”

Olivia cried. Of course she did. I hauled her outside anyway, every step feeling like walking through quicksand, or possibly like a poker was stabbing me from the bottom up, if you catch my drift, and had been waiting at the bottom of the museum stairs for about two minutes when the car pulled up.

The driver got out, which was nice of him. Older fella. Fatherly, maybe. That was good. Until he said, “I can’t take you, sorry, missus.”

“What?” I said. “I know the ride’s too short. Look, I’ll . . . I’ll tip. But I need to go.” I wondered again what I’d do with my kids once I got there, and realized for the first time that I could ring my dad. Why hadn’t I thought of that? He was only a kilometer or so away. Not the most hands-on grandad ever, but capable of taking charge of my babies while I delivered another one into the world. At least until my mum could come.

Or my grandparents could have come. They didn’t drive into the city anymore, but they could’ve taken an Uber and collected me.

“It’s not that,” the driver said. “I can’t take them without car seats, sorry. Against the law. You could ask for a car with a child seat, but I don’t know of any driver who has two.”

I said, “It’s five minutes. Maybe even four. Please.”

I’d sunk down for just a second with my hands on my knees, and the driver was looking fairly wild-eyed, which was an overreaction, surely. I was wearing black leggings and one of Max’s shirts, a red-and-black flannel one that clashed with my hair, but was brilliantly soft and about half of my maternity wardrobe at the moment. I wasn’t exactly beautiful, but I wasn’t displaying any nakedness, either.

“Sorry,” he said again. “I’d lose my permit. Can’t do it. Want me to ring for the ambos?”

“No,” I said. “Thanks.” They wouldn’t let me take the kids in an ambulance, I didn’t think, and what else could I do with them? Also, how long would an ambulance take to get here? My grandparents were out, too, for the same reason, and the same problem. Car seats.

Even if I had time to wait, how could I keep both kids still for that long? Olivia was straining against my hand, talking about going to see the turtles now, and Hamish was looking worried. I needed to do something about both those things.

The bloke left, and I tried my mum again, tried Max again, then called my dad’s number and got his voicemail, which meant his secretary wasn’t there, either. I thought about ringing the firm’s main number and asking somebody to track him down, but it seemed too hard. I’d have to find the number. I’d have to . . .

I’d drive myself. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Except that I’d parked about five streets away, and right now, that might as well be five kilometers. I couldn’t even quite remember which street I’d parked on, even though I knew I did know. Somewhere in my brain, or maybe I’d written it on a sticky note somewhere. It was in the nappy bag, or in my bra. Somewhere. But once I did find the car—what then? When the pain came again, I’d have a smash, maybe hurt somebody else. I’d also have to lean over and buckle the kids into their car seats, and right now, that seemed impossible.

Wait. There was another hospital not even two streets over. Very nearly across the street. Barely five minutes’ walk, and we’d be there. If I needed to rest along the way, I would. And meanwhile, my mum would get the message. They’d let me lie down when I got to Emergency, and I had snacks and games for the kids. It was the closest, and the time to get there was the shortest. We’d be fine.

“Come on,” I told Hamish and Olivia. “We’re going to take a lovely walk.” It wasn’t even raining. Easy-peasy. The sweat was beading on my upper lip and forehead, and my legs were starting to tremble, but that was just labor. You were meant to walk during labor. It was a good thing. I rang my mum one more time, explained the change in plans, asked her to meet me, thought about ringing Max again and didn’t, got the kids across the street, leaned against a tree for a minute to catch my breath, and set out.

It was a few hundred steps, I reckoned afterwards. Five hundred, max, even at preschool pace. I felt every one of them. They sort of . . . stabbed. I was aware that Olivia was talking, and then that she was lying down on the pavement and sobbing, “Want to see the . . . butterflies!” That her fine strawberry-blonde hair was coming out of its pony, and her nose needed wiping, and I hadn’t thought to put her on the toilet while I’d been there, so she was likely to have an accident, if she hadn’t already, because crying made you do that. I was aware, too, that Hamish was pulling on her hand and saying, “Come on, Livvy.”

Somehow, I got her into my arms and carried her. She had had an accident, but that was fine. I had clean clothes in the bag, which felt like it weighed about twenty kilograms. I wanted to hold Hamish’s hand, but I couldn’t. I told him, “Stay with Mummy.”

I thought, I should’ve rung the ambos. I’m not going to make it. Stupid. Stupid. I’d thought my decisions had been rational. Instead, they’d been mad, and what was I going to do? I should’ve rung Nan, at least. Why hadn’t I? We’d passed the School of Dentistry, had crossed the street, and I could see the hospital, all six or seven blocky concrete floors of it, straight ahead of me, then beside me, except that I wasn’t at the entrance.

I could see the sign, red letters on white background, too far ahead. Emergency, the letters said. With a red cross. So close, but I couldn’t get there.

The pain nearly doubled me over. I had to get it out. I had to. Something was bulging out of me, surely. It was happening, and it wasn’t just a problem. It was my baby, and I needed to take care of my baby. I sank to my knees on the damp grass, still holding Olivia, and then onto my side, and told Hamish, who was hovering over me, then squatting beside me, touching my face, starting to cry, “Go tell . . . those people up there. Sitting on the . . . bench. Tell them your mummy’s having a baby, and she needs help right this minute. Run fast, but watch for . . . cars. Be . . . careful.”

He ran, and I thought, He’s going to have to cross the entrance to get there. What if he doesn’t stop and look? What if a car doesn’t see him? Please, God, let my babies be all right. I kept Olivia’s hand in a death grip, closed my eyes, heard her crying, wanted to do something about it, and knew I couldn’t. The pain was too much, I was shivering and sweating at the same time, and the grass was prickly, cold, and wet against my skin. I was bleeding, or my water had broken, one or the other, and I hurt. I needed to get my trousers down, and I couldn’t do that, either.

My babies.

 

2

The Red and the Green

Matiu

My first week at Otago General had been a cracker. I still wasn’t one bit sure my mad shift to the South Island was the right choice, but it was interesting, which tended to loom large in an emergency doc’s job satisfaction. Bird hunting season was finished and wild boar and deer hunting season not yet begun, which meant no hunters excitedly shooting each other in the bum, somehow mistaking a fluorescent orange jacket for a game animal. Still, a tertiary-care hospital got more than its share of trauma, especially of the helicopter-borne variety, besides the usual suspects. Elderly patients with pneumonia, at the end of flu season. Broken bones and overdoses. Fewer drunk holidaymakers than in beachy Tauranga, but more drunk students in this university town, kids who weren’t nearly as clever as they thought they were and paid the price for their miscalculation. An atrial fibrillation, today, that had required shocking, where the patient would go home, and a cardiac arrest where the shocks hadn’t worked, and I’d had to deliver the news to a wife who was suddenly a widow.

Routine, except that in the ED, nothing was ever routine, which was why I did it. That, and incidents like the one I’d been through today.

Five years ago, I’d have sent off the little two-year-old blonde, with her not-abnormally-high fever, her vomiting, and her symptoms of croup, with some baby Paracetamol, even though the mum kept insisting that we “run some tests,” which made the nurse all but roll her eyes.

I almost did send her home, but three things had me thinking twice. First, that the little girl was two. Second, that her wheezing breathing might be croup, and might not. And third, that the family had taken a fun-in-the-sun holiday to Northland last week. I knew that, because I’d thought to ask the question.

And then there was “fourth.” That despite the fact that the little girl was sitting up in Mum’s lap and her temp wasn’t all that high, the mum kept insisting that her baby “wasn’t right.” She seemed sensible, and this was her third child, so I ordered the tests, and when the blood test came back normal, I waited for the urine anyway, even though the little girl was now quietly asleep on the table. No harm in checking.

I didn’t dismiss the tiny trace of blood in the urine, either. Instead, we checked the baby’s temp again and found it was an almost unbelievable 41, and that she wasn’t asleep. She was unconscious. Within minutes, she’d gone from “moderately ill” to “critical,” but she’d done it here, where we could help.

The relief when I got the tube down the tiny throat first time, so she could breathe as her airway swelled, and the look on the mum’s face when the lumbar puncture I’d done came back positive for Group W meningitis. Bacterial, deadly as hell in little ones, and on the rise in Northland. All of which I’d known, because I paid attention to everything, not just things that happened on my patch. That was why the baby ended up in the pediatric ICU instead of at home, and why her parents wouldn’t be burying her. Probably.

That was the worst of emergency medicine, and the best—that you mostly never knew. You diagnosed and treated and sent the patient on—back home, onto a ward, or to the morgue—and you didn’t see them again. But after all this time, there was still the satisfaction that I’d done it right, that I hadn’t taken the easy path, the obvious solution, and that the years and the training had paid off in a life saved and a family that would remain whole. Enough years and training to know that mothers tended to read their kids best, and that to do this job well, you had to shut out the noise and the hurry and listen to your patient, and to your gut.

Doctors weren’t God, as I’d been reminded too many times to count. But sometimes, we got to give him a hand.

Now, I was less than two hours from the end of my shift and two days off in a row, during which time I planned to explore the area and begin to decide whether I could actually become a South Islander, or whether this was some sort of middle-aged-crisis-cum-gap-year that would end in my running back to my familiar, beachy Bay of Plenty surroundings, back to the whanau, back to my comfortable life.

I’d traded shifts with another doc today because he’d had a family thing to do, which meant I’d been locking my front door to come back in to work barely six hours after I’d got home. I was used to my sleep schedule changing, as much as your body ever did get used to it, and after a swim and a feed, I’d be sorted. I’d also be out of here before the Friday-night piss-ups, the fights, and the accidents, and that would be a bonus, this first week.

I’d just finished stitching up a laceration on the hand of a stoical middle-aged bloke who’d had a mishap with some machinery, a situation with which I was completely familiar, and was charting it when I got the call. A woman delivering a baby, around the corner from the Emergency Department. In the grass. With her kids. A nurse and an orderly grabbed a gurney, and I headed out the main doors in the weak winter sun ahead of them at the very fast walk that was the standard ED gait. You didn’t do much ambling along in Emergency.

I didn’t see her at first. Bushes in the way. I saw a tradie, though, a big Samoan in his work boots and fluorescent yellow vest, holding a skinny ginger kid by the hand. A kid with something familiar about him. He was choking back sobs, the freckles standing out on his white face, and the tradie said, “It’s his mum, doc. Back there behind the trees, like, lying on the grass.” He pointed. I still didn’t see the woman, but I saw the crowd that had gathered.

“Show me,” I told the kid, and took his hand. I was going to have to keep track of him as well. He was young, maybe four or five. I asked him, “Ran for help, did you?”

“Yes,” he said, swallowing the hiccupping sob. “My mum said to. I watched for cars. But my baby sister’s there, and she could run in the road. She’s just little.” He was pulling me along like he was taking charge of the situation. Brave enough to conquer his fear, which was the hardest battle of all.

I could see them now. A woman, her long red-gold hair a splash of vivid color against the green grass, one hand somehow hanging onto a toddler who had the same hair. She was a tiny thing in a striped pink-and-black top who broke away, now, and ran toward us. The fast-moving gurney swerved and narrowly missed her, and she threw her arms around her brother, weeping too hard to speak.

The woman, when we got there, had her face practically in the grass and was panting with a sound I recognized. The effort not to push. It was an effort she was losing, because she was keening along with the panting, but her hand was reaching for something. Reaching for her daughter, calling her name. “Olivia. Come here. Come . . . hold my hand.” Practically out of her mind with the pain, and still calling for her little girl.

It all clicked into place. Poppy something. My cousin’s Yank sister-in-law’s new Kiwi sister-in-law, who lived in Dunedin, and whom I’d met a month or so ago up in Tauranga, at the Yank sister-in-law’s wedding.

A convoluted relationship, you’d think, but I remembered this once-removed sister-in-law very well indeed. An extremely pregnant but somehow breakable-looking redhead with a face that was all cheekbones and jawline, freckles on her nose, a warm, wry smile, and big eyes the color of flower pounamu, dark jade with flecks of gold. She’d been wearing a soft pink-and-green dress and a little pink wrap sweater that rode atop the baby bump, along with low heels that she’d kicked off to dance with her dad or her brother or her son or all by herself. Her smile had lit up the room, and she’d been at that wedding without her husband, which had seemed absolutely wrong.

He was traveling, she’d said. Working. If you had a woman like that, though, strong and fragile at the same time, and she was that pregnant and caring for two little kids as well, wouldn’t you do whatever it took to be with her? I’d wondered it, and then I’d let it go, because it hadn’t been my business, even though it had felt like it. Maybe because it had felt like it. And because she hadn’t liked me. Women generally liked me fine, but when she’d looked at me, she’d looked away.

Which was fine. I had detachment. I had it and to spare, normally. It had been commented on, and not in a good way.

I was detached now, anyway. I had to be. I was on my knees beside her, telling the orderly, “Take the kids to Social Services. Tell them what’s happening. They can get it sorted later.”

“Hospital day care,” the nurse corrected me. “It’s for employees, but they can take these two.”

“Right,” I said to the orderly. “Take them there, then. Go.”

The little boy put his skinny arm around the toddler’s shoulders. “Come on, Livvy,” he said. “We have to go wait for Mummy.”

I’d forgotten them already, because they were sorted. I said, “Poppy, I’m the doctor. We’re going to get a blanket under you and take your trousers down.”

She opened her eyes and stared at me, almost but not quite sightlessly. Same green eyes, but not recognizing me, not now. “Help me,” she gasped. “My kids.”

“Kids are taken care of, and I’m here to take care of you.” The nurse already had the blanket in her hands. Together, we got it under Poppy, rolling her onto her side and then back again onto it as she groaned. After that, I told the nurse, “Call for more help,” then got myself gloved up while the nurse took off her shoes and trousers, and there it was. Heaps of blood, because she’d torn badly, and a circle of darkness just visible, because the baby was starting to crown.

“Your baby’s here,” I told Poppy. “Right here. A couple of pushes, and we’ve got it.”

“Are you . . . ready to catch it?” she somehow asked.

“I’ve got it,” I said again. “You’re both going to be fine. On the next contraction, we’ll push. You’re almost there.”

If I’d had emotion, it would have been tenderness. Possibly also wonder, that a woman in her state was still talking. I didn’t have emotion, though, because I couldn’t afford it. Poppy gave a heave, breathed, then gave another one, crying out with pain all the while, and the head was there. Dark curls, wet against the scalp. A little face, screwed up tight. A person.

“One more easy push,” I said. “A gentle one, and baby’s here.”

The baby slid into my hands on another agonized moan from her mother. Her little arms and legs were tucked up around herself, and she was a girl. I said, “You have a beautiful daughter. She’s just fine.”

“A . . . girl?” Poppy was panting, starting to shake. And bleeding too much. I laid the baby on her belly, and her hands came up instantly to cradle her. The nurse toweled the baby off, and I left the cord for now. I needed to get them both inside right the hell now, because there was more going on here.

The baby opened her eyes. Round, blue, and deep as all the mysteries of the universe. She stared into my face as if she saw all the way into me, even though I knew it wasn’t possible, and for just a second, the world stopped turning. Her hair sprang up in curls now that it was drying, and her skin was pink. She was a little thing, not much fat on her. Early, maybe. And, yes, beautiful. She’d cried once, and now she’d stopped, as if she were happy to be here, held by her mother. As if she knew she was safe.

I shook it off and told the nurse, and the medical student who’d run out to join us, “Let’s get them on the gurney. You—Fletcher—hang onto the baby. Get your hand on her so she doesn’t roll off.” Too much bleeding, and the placenta still inside. Something wrong there, I suspected.

We took her to the ambulance entrance, straight back into the ED, at nearly a run, and Poppy held onto that baby like it was the only thing there was, oblivious to the crowd that had gathered to watch her give birth too publicly, the people who were watching now. Wearing a man’s shirt and no trousers, the crimson blood covering her hands and forearms, seeping into the white blanket that covered her.

There was an ambulance in the bay when we arrived, its back doors just swinging open, a gurney coming out. A man’s voice called from inside its depths, and Poppy turned her head and frowned. A woman lay strapped to the gurney, her acres of shiny, straight blue-black hair spread around her like a scene out of a film, where the glamorous heroine has a frightening but easily survivable accident, and you know you’re nearly at the end.

When Poppy saw her, she raised her head, struggled onto an elbow, and said, “What?” A second gurney came out, with a man on it this time, and she said, “No.”

I paid no attention. We maneuvered past the ambulance, were into the doors of the ED, and then into a room, and she was still saying, “No.” Her hands shaking as they held her daughter, her blood still pooling as I clamped and cut the cord and called for the neonatologist and didn’t deliver the placenta, because I’d been right, and it was adhering to the uterine wall, causing the bleeding. I started the process of making that stop. Another thing that had almost gone wrong, but that I could make right. 

Just another day in the Emergency Department. Except that it was nothing like any day before. Or any day after, either.

Friday the thirteenth. The day my life stopped being careful, and stopped being controlled. The day I started to live.   

 

3

One Husband, Slightly Used

Poppy

On another day, this would’ve hurt. Ridiculously. The doctor had his hand and half his forearm buried inside me in a way that would normally make you think of cows in a veterinary program on TV. He was ripping out pieces of placenta, because it was stuck, and “massaging” my uterus from the outside with the other hand, which was nothing anybody was going to be requesting in the spa. This day just kept on giving, I’d have said, if I hadn’t got a baby out of it.

I’m not saying it felt good, but the IV the nurse had started was delivering some painkillers at last, along with medication to stop the bleeding. I was getting a blood transfusion, too, which was either comforting or not, depending on how you looked at it. I was going for “comforting,” because the doctor seemed to know exactly what he was doing. Anyway, compared to when I’d been lying on the grass, with the sensation they called the “ring of fire” burning like the flames of hell, when the baby’s head had been stretching me to the maximum and I’d been trying to hold onto Olivia, dreading the screech of brakes as Hamish ran in front of a car? Compared to all of that, it didn’t hurt a bit, because my kids were safe, and my brand-new baby girl was in capable hands, being taken up to the nursery.

I’d looked at her, touched her, and loved her. How did that happen? It just did. I didn’t even care that somewhere on the ride in, I’d realized that my doctor was, somehow, the impossibly tall-dark-and-Maori-handsome, too-charming-and-knows-it Matiu Te Mana, whose cousin’s sister-in-law had just married my brother, and that later on, I’d probably have feelings about his hand being in my uterus.

Now, he asked me, “Do you have a disposition for the whenua in your birth plan?” The placenta, he meant, and he asked it as if he did this every day. Did he look at all his patients like that, though? His eyes were golden-brown and dark-lashed, and they had so much kindness in them. Like he knew. But he couldn’t.

“Yeh,” I said. On a gasp, because he was right up there inside me. “I . . . want it. The . . . pieces. The cord.”

The nurse said, “Got it,” and kept wiping off my legs, since everything about me was a bloody mess. I would have closed my eyes, but I looked at Matiu’s face instead. It was helping.

This particular placenta wasn’t going to be beautiful, I thought as he deposited another handful onto the tray, and I didn’t care. My baby’s nourishment would be going back into the earth, a tradition as old as human life on these islands. We’d started the breaking-down process early, that was all.

Max thought the whole idea of burying the whenua was disgusting, though he’d gone along with it in a good-natured sort of way with the other kids, while making it clear that I was a little silly. I’d better not let him look at this latest iteration.

The cold went all the way through my body. I’d been shaking already, and suddenly, it got worse. How could I have forgotten?

The nurse touched my hand and said, “I’ll grab you another warmed blanket in a minute, soon as doctor’s done here.”

“No,” I said. “Or—thanks, but—it’s my . . . my husband out there.”

Matiu looked up from his work, and so did the nurse. “That’s good, then,” the nurse said. “I’ll go get him for you. What’s his name?”

Matiu had taken his arm out of me, at least, which was a positive development in my life. He was giving me an injection in a couple extremely sensitive spots, which made me jump, then taking a threaded needle from the nurse. Going to stitch me up where I’d torn, which wasn’t likely to be much of an improvement, pain-wise, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t hemorrhaging anymore, surely, or the atmosphere would have been much more tense. I was fine. Physically. “Max Cantwell,” I said. “He’s not a . . . a visitor, at least he’s not mine. I think he’s a patient. He was in the ambulance while you were bringing me in. I need to know about that. I need to know about it now.”

The nurse exchanged a look with Matiu, and my blood ran, if possible, even colder. “What?” I asked. “Is he dead?”

Matiu didn’t stop stitching. He was cool, and no mistake. The opposite of me, because “cool” was the very last thing I felt. But then, how would you feel, if you’d seen the woman you suspected was having an affair with your husband being carried out of an ambulance, and had heard your husband calling her name, and they were both right here instead of three hundred fifty kilometers away? When you’d just had his baby? When you were hurting, and bleeding, and alone?

You might wish you were dead. If you weren’t me, that is. I was more wishing he was.

But then, I was a redhead.

* * *

Matiu

The next ten minutes were interesting, if by “interesting,” you meant “enraging.”

I was detached. I focused, and then I let go. That was the only way to do this job with compassion, but without burning out. It was why you didn’t treat people you knew, except when there was no choice. For example, when your former Year 10 maths teacher, an unsmiling taskmaster who hadn’t been much impressed with you at the time and had let you know it, turned up in Emergency on a night when you were the only doctor available, with something very embarrassing tucked up his backside. An occurrence that is much more common than the public realizes. “Don’t put it in if you don’t have a way to pull it out” is a life lesson some people insist on learning the hard way.

It hadn’t been a lightbulb, at least. Small mercy. A torch instead, switched on, which had generated some fairly creative humor around the place, the best of which was Galadriel offering Frodo the special light “for the dark places, when all other lights go out.” It still made me smile, but at the time, I’d maintained my poker face, because that was what you did.

  Today, though, it was harder. When the fella came into the room with the nurse, limping, his right arm in a sling and his right eye swelling shut, I was still stitching Poppy up, which gave me an excuse not to look at him.

The nurse said, “You’ve got a little girl. Congratulations.”

Poppy said, “Max,” in the kind of a voice that tells a man he’ll be sleeping on the couch tonight.

Max looked hunted, as much as a bloke with a black eye could, and said, “I came as soon as I got your message.”

Poppy said, “But you had an accident.”

“I did,” he said. “Half out of my mind with worry, is why, but it’s all turned out OK. Everybody’s alive, and everybody’s going to heal. What a relief. And the baby’s come, eh. A girl’s fine. A girl’s good. And quick is better, I guess.”

He took her hand, which still had a few streaks of dried blood on it despite the nurse’s sponging, and she pulled it away. “Where was the accident?” she asked.

“What does it matter?” he said. “I’m here now. We’re both here. Where are the kids? Trust you to get yourself into that scrape. That’s drama, eh. One to tell the baby about later.” He laughed a little, and the nurse stared at him.

“Where?” Poppy demanded.

 He didn’t answer, but the nurse did. “Pukehiki intersection,” she said. “Coming from Larnach Castle.” Perhaps not the most professional response, but she’d seen Poppy looking out for her kids even as she was giving birth. She’d seen the fear on her face, and the courage, too.

“Ah,” Poppy said. “Fifteen minutes from home. Who knew? Coming from Camp Estate, I’m guessing. Where we couldn’t go for the babymoon, because you had too much to get sorted with work before the baby. Where we made the baby, on that mini-break that you told me was a beautiful time. You told me I was your princess, and for once, that didn’t feel like a jokey dig. That night when you kissed my forehead and told me how glad you were that I was yours. Remember that? You promised me everything was going to be better now, and I thought you meant it. I thought we had a chance, and I just had to try harder, because being married to me isn’t easy, and there are two sides to every story. You liked it so well there, though, that you went back again. How is Violet? Hurt badly, is she? Violet Leung,” she informed me. “She’s a director at Max’s firm. Convenient, especially as he does import/export logistics, and she’s fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. Very beautiful, and not one bit pregnant, which is so much more attractive, isn’t it? Long black hair, three of which I found in his car last month. By the time we were done with that conversation, Max had me apologizing to him. Chuckling about how I was hormonal and irrational, but he loved me for my passion.”

Max opened his mouth, closed it again, and looked at me wildly. I considered calling Security, but he didn’t seem violent. Poppy might be another matter, if she weren’t fairly well restrained right now.

“Violet’s arm is broken,” Max said. “And she’s hurt worse than that, because she was knocked unconscious, so she has concussion and who knows what else. I’m going to pretend you didn’t say all this, that you weren’t throwing out all these accusations just because I had an accident after a business meeting that you knew was happening. You’re drugged to the gills, and you’ve had a fright and a bad time, so I’m going to go find our baby, collect Hamish and Olivia, and remember that you’re my wife, I love you, and you need my support just now.”

“Give it up,” Poppy said. “You can’t get back from Christchurch in an hour, the Pukehiki intersection is on the road to precisely nowhere, and you aren’t wearing your wedding ring. Whoops. Where is it? In the glove box? In that designer toilet kit I bought you for your birthday, along with a black lace thong in an extremely small size that you’re keeping as a souvenir?”

Max did some more of his fish imitation, then said, “They had to remove it for the . . . the collarbone.” There was no groove in the skin of his finger, and you didn’t have to take off a ring to set a collarbone anyway, so that one wasn’t true. “It’s cracked,” he went on. “The collarbone. Hurts like hell. Having you go off on me like this isn’t helping much, and what’s worse, it isn’t helping us. I know you don’t know quite what you’re saying just now, but maybe you should stop before you say something you can’t take back, or before I do.”

“Oh, it hurts?” Poppy asked. “I’m so very sorry.” I didn’t smile, but I wanted to. She went on, “The baby’s name is Isobel Rose. You can go say hello to her, and then you can go move your things out of the house. Or go sit with Violet. See if she wants a husband. Slightly used.”

“We’ll discuss it later,” Max said.

She tried to hoist herself up, and I pulled back just in time to keep from stabbing her with the needle in a place that would’ve put a crimp in her future sex life. I looked at the nurse and said, “Security,” at which she nodded, stepped away, took off her gloves, and took out her phone. Then I told Max, who’d be a good-looking fella without the black eye, with dark-blonde hair cut short and a good, if slim, physique, “Your wife hasn’t had much pain medication. There wasn’t time. This is upsetting her, though, and I’ll ask you to leave. She’ll be admitted as soon as I’m done, and she can decide whether she wants you in the room then.”

“I’m her husband,” Max said, a couple patches of red on his cheekbones now.

“But I’m her doctor,” I said. “I’m in charge here, and her safety and comfort are all that matter right now. Please leave.”

“Come on, darling,” Max said, ignoring me. “The baby’s not going to be named Isobel. We discussed this. You’re angry I wasn’t here, and probably that I made the mistake of saying I wanted a boy, which I’m not saying now, because it’s fine, but you’re trying to pick a fight over it anyway. I couldn’t be angrier at myself, but then, we both thought we were weeks away, didn’t we? We’re both here now, though, safe and sound, and so is Charlotte.” He glanced at the pieces of placenta, made a face, and looked away.

“Her name,” Poppy said, “is Isobel.”

Which was when the security guard came in and took him away. Three minutes later, I finished my stitching, charted the whole thing, and headed off to the next patient. And did my best to regather my professionalism, my poise, and my famous detachment.

Not my fight. Not my family. Not my woman.

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