An Extract from Afterwards
I dragged her down the stairs, trying to use my body to shield her from the heat and smoke. I wouldn’t think how badly hurt she was. Not yet. Not till the bottom of the stairs. Not till she was safe.
I cried to you, silently, as if by telepathy I could summon you to help us.
And as I dragged her, step by step, down the stairs, trying to get away from burning heat and raging flames and smoke, I thought of love. I held onto it. And it was cool and clear and quiet.
Maybe there was telepathy between us, because at that moment you must have been in your meeting with the BBC commissioning editors about the follow-up to your ‘Hostile Environments’ series. You’d done hot, steamy jungles and blazing, arid deserts, and you want the next series to be in the contrasting frozen wilds of Antarctica. So maybe it was you who helped me envisage a silent, white acreage of love as I dragged Jenny down the stairs.
But before I reached the bottom, something hit me, throwing me forwards, and everything went dark.
As I lost consciousness I talked to you.
I said, ‘An unborn baby doesn’t need air at all, did you know that?’ I thought you probably didn’t. When I was pregnant with Jenny I found out everything I could, but you were too impatient for her to arrive to bother with her prologue. So you don’t know that an unborn baby, swimming around in amniotic fluid, can’t take a breath or she would drown. There aren’t any temporary gills so that she can swim, fish-like, until birth. No, the baby gets her oxygen from the umbilical cord attached to her mother. I felt like an oxygen supply attached to a tiny, intrepid diver.
But the moment she was born, the oxygen supply was cut off and she entered the new element of air. There was a moment of silence, a precipitous second, as if she stood on the edge of life, deciding. In the old days they used to slap the baby to hear the reassuring yell of lungs filled with air. Nowadays they look closely to see the minute rise of a baby-soft chest, and listen to the whispering – in and out – to know that life in the new medium of air has begun.
And then I cried and you cheered – actually cheered! – and the baby equipment trolley was wheeled out, no need for that now. A normal delivery. A healthy infant. To join all the billions of others on the planet who breathe, in and out, without thinking about it.
The next day your sister sent me a bouquet of roses with gypsophila, known as ‘baby’s breath’, sprays of pretty white flowers. But a newborn baby’s breath is finer than a single parachute from a blown dandelion clock.
You told me once that when you lose consciousness the last of the senses to go is hearing.
In the darkness I thought I heard Jenny take a dandelion-clock breath.