The next chapter in the story of the writing of The White Cuckoo travels back in time to May 1981.
I was 25 years old and pregnant with my second baby. I had spent an enjoyable afternoon at Wicksteed Park with my mum and 10-month old Emily, which was something we did every Monday. I don’t know why I can remember the walk back from the park on this particular day, because it must have been unremarkable and like so many others, but I can clearly recall the pungent smell of hawthorn and buzzing of insects as we strolled along the public footpath that runs alongside Barton Hall. The sun was shining through a lush green canopy of leaves swishing in the gentle breeze above our heads and Emily had fallen asleep in her pushchair. I can remember feeling very happy.
Twenty minutes later I unlocked my front door. On the hall carpet lay a folded sheet of paper that had been pushed through the letterbox. It contained a barely legible scribbled note from my doctor, asking me to telephone the surgery urgently.
I shakily dialled the number given on the note and was put straight through to my doctor. It was probably nothing to worry about, he said, but the AFP (alpha-fetoprotein) levels on a routine blood test had come back unusually high for my stage of pregnancy. He had booked me in for a scan the following week and also referred me to a consultant. “What could be the reason?” I asked. “Twins,” he said. “I think you are probably having twins.”
I was so excited I could hardly relay the news to Mum, who stood next to me by the phone. I had always wanted to have twins and now it looked like my dream might be coming true. Mum didn’t share my excitement, though. She sank down into an armchair, clutching her head in disbelief. “How on earth are are you going to cope?” she said.
I won’t go into the details of the week that followed because it is too painful to write about, even now, all these years later. In those days, scans weren’t performed routinely. My scan the next week revealed that I wasn’t having twins. My baby was suffering from anencephaly. I was the first mother-to-be in the country to have this rare neural tube defect detected by the new AFP test, which had been introduced only weeks earlier.
On Friday, 29th May 1981, the birth was induced. Of course, we did have a choice. We could have continued with the pregnancy to full term. Our little boy might have lived for a few hours or days with this terrible condition, which is incompatible with life. Once the doctor confirmed that the baby would be gently put to sleep in my womb and wouldn’t suffer through the induction, our minds were made up. We couldn’t let our precious baby suffer, and by continuing the pregnancy to full term, he might have suffered terribly during his short life. We named him Michael.
I was quite poorly afterwards, and had to stay in hospital for a while. It was during my time in hospital that I came to appreciate the strength that comes to all women with motherhood. So many women – nurses: patients; visitors of patients; a female doctor and some of my friends and family – came to my bedside with a comforting touch of a hand or a few words of compassion. They infused me with the strength to cope with the loss of my baby in such a horrendous way. I have always been against abortion, and now I had terminated the life of my baby boy with a scribbled signature on a consent form. To this day, I can’t make up my mind whether or not I did the right thing. Sometimes I am proud I had the strength to save him from suffering, and then another day I will be overcome with guilt.
When I got home I was told a heart-rending story by Grandma (Mum’s mum) about a baby boy she had given birth to in 1930 before Mum was born. She was in tears when she told me medical staff had called her anencephalic baby boy ‘a monster birth’ and had wrapped his little body quickly as soon as his umbilical cord had been cut, so that nobody would have to look at his terrible defects. Mum’s mouth was open in shock, because she had never known before about her stillborn brother. My elderly neighbour came round with some flowers on hearing my sad news – she had also lost a baby, seven months into a pregnancy.
I was overwhelmed by all the female love, support and friendship I received. My neighbour referred to it as a ‘unique club’. She said its members would wrap their arms around me and help me through the pain of losing my child, but that I would never forget, because a mother could never forget a lost child.
She was right. Other women did help enormously, but even as I write this now – on 11th June 2012 – the tears are welling in my eyes for the loss of my firstborn son. I loved him with all my heart even though I never got the chance to hold him in my arms, see his first smile or hear him call me ‘mummy’.
Imagination is a truly wonderful thing and daydreaming is seriously under-rated. Through the intervening years Michael (without anencephaly) has grown up alongside my other three children in my daydreams. He has started school; played on the beach with his brother and sister; slept in his bunk in our 6-berth caravan … there are too many occasions to mention. I know what he looks like as an adult. I knew what he looked like at four when, in my dreamworld, he started school. I watched him play football at eleven … be taught by his dad how to use a shotgun at fourteen … start a new job in a suit and tie at twenty …
A brilliant idea came to me. Michael’s life may remain forever unlived, but in the pages of a novel he could be brought to life because the power of the written word would deliver him into the imaginations of his father, his brothers and sister, his aunt and uncle and cousins. Every reader whose imagination I energised with my novel would also know Michael and the man he had now become.
In just a few, short seconds, I had made up my mind. I would write my novel as a tribute to motherhood, and for all the women who would forever mourn their lost babies, and I would bring Michael to life through the written word.
When I write a story or a novel, for me there has to be an element of deliberative rhetoric. I like to give the reader something to mull over in their minds and leave them with a warm afterglow after they have finished reading the story. Using Mum’s analogy in her last words to Emily was going to be important. I knew I wanted to use the family tree as a symbol in the novel and the first, fragile roots of a family tree begin with parental love. I also wanted to satisfy my virtual reader (see Chapter 2).
Although I had already loosely plotted the story, it needed these last, crucial ingredients to make it special. Michael’s short, physical existence inside my womb did have a purpose in my life. I allways knew I would find it one day, nothwithstanding the fact that his sister (Emily) decided to become a teacher of children with special needs and profound learning difficulties because of his brief existence as her brother.
Although I hadn’t yet written a single word, The White Cuckoo had been conceived and all its genetic material was there, ready to form itself into something unique, beautiful and perfect, just like Michael would have been, had part of his genetic material not been blighted by one of my faulty genes.
In the novel, Michael is ‘Harry’ in 1910 and ‘Paul’ in the present day. Here, in this excerpt, the reader is introduced to Harry as a fourteen-year-old. He has just ran away with thirteen year old Jessie, who has been cast out of her family in shame because she is pregnant after being raped by Frederick de Montpelier, the Earl of Fawsden’s eldest son.
Harry felt uneasy as a nagging finger of fear replaced the tight fist of anger in his heart and began to prod somewhere behind his breastbone. It was dangerous for a woman to give birth prematurely; that much he did know. A sudden panic quickened his breathing, as if he had just sprinted through rain sodden, unharvested fields of corn. He couldn’t bear to live without Jessie. They were the best of friends and it had always been so, right from the first day they had played together as toddlers in the grounds of Fawsden Hall where his father was a gardener and her mother was the head cook.
He desperately needed to find them work and lodgings: somewhere permanent to live. What would they do in winter? Where would they end up? He knew that to try and achieve justice for Jessie was futile – no one would listen to the testimony of a fourteen-year-old gamekeeper’s apprentice against that of the well respected Earl of Fawsden and his cunning, devious sons. Nobility was above the law. Nobility had the money to corrupt and poison the legal system; everyone knew that.
Harry buttoned up his trousers and rubbed his eyes, blinking rapidly to focus through the early morning blanket of mist. His gaze fell onto the dull silhouette of a church spire in the distance. He pictured a scene in his mind. The parson’s wife would soon be busy in the kitchen of the vicarage, preparing breakfast. She wouldn’t turn them away, would she? She would know what to do. Jessie needed urgent help and he had no other choice. He closed his eyes and lifted his gaze to the sky. He took off his cap, wrung it round and round in his hands, and then spoke out loud, feeling embarrassed, even though no one could hear him.
‘Dear God. I know I ain’t devout. I know I ain’t never bin to church or Sunday School. But please God, if you’re there and can hear me now, from the bottom of me ‘art please save Jessie and her little baby. Amen.’
Remaining still and silent, Harry kept his eyes tightly shut. He filled his lungs with damp, peaty air and focused on what he knew he had to do to save Jessie. It didn’t matter about himself – as long as Jessie was safe, he would be content.
Next week’s instalment will be published on 22nd June.
(The Anencephaly Support Group www.asfhelp.com is committed to giving parents who have been affected by anencephaly all the help and information they need to come to terms with the ethical dilemmas surrounding this condition.)