Saturday, 21 January 2012

A Final Story For The Western Sponsors Of The Galle Literary Festival. Extract from the Novel 'Brixton Beach'.

In another part of the island, in Colombo 10, a woman screams. It is an old familiar scream, primeval and ancient, travelling down the corridors of centuries. In this darkening hour, in this brief southern twilight, the woman screams are more urgently. A child wants to be born. Nothing can stop this need, this desire to exist. Nothing, not the Colombo express rushing past, nor the tissue-paper poya moon gliding  across the fine tropical sky. The child is coming before its time; its clothes, lovingly embroidered, are piled inside a shoe-box in the woman’s house. The clothes are small enough to make this possible. Blue; most of these fine lawn clothes are blue as the sky, for the woman is hoping for a son. She has already decided on a name. For months now she has been saying the name to herself in a whisper.
‘Ravi,’ she says, ‘Ravi.’
She speaks softly for fear of the evil eye. But now she is in pain, three weeks too early, and here in the government hospital. It is late. Too late to inform her mother. Or her sister. Her husband has been sent home, told to return in the morning. This is woman’s business, the nurse tells him.
‘Don’t worry,’ the nurse says. ‘Three weeks is only a little early. And Doctor will be here shortly.’
So the husband goes, the sounds of his wife’s whimpers resounding uneasily in his ears.

The doctor is drunk. His breath smells as he squints at the notes the nurse gives him.
‘What?’ he asks in high-pitched Singhalese. ‘You called me in just for this Tamil woman?’
‘She isn’t Tamil, sir,’ the nurse tells him. ‘Just the husband.’
‘Exactly!’ the doctor says, trying not to belch but without success. ‘That’s my point. Why should we help breed more Tamils? As if this country hasn’t enough already!’
Outside, the trees rustle in the slight breeze. Tonight is quiet, no drums, no police sirens, no sudden violence. A perfect night on which to be born.
‘All right,’ the doctor says, bored. ‘Take me to her.’
The woman lies groaning in a pool of sweat. Moonlight falls on the ripeness of her belly. Catching sight of the doctor, she begs him for something to relieve the pain. She speaks in perfect, old-fashioned Singhalese. The nurse bends and wipes her face and offers her a sip of water.
‘Give her some quinine,’ the doctor tells the nurse.
Then he examines the woman. Because he is drunk, because he has driven here in haste, leaving his dinner guests still at the table, he has forgotten his glasses. Roughly he inserts two fingers into her dilating uterus and the woman screams. The doctor tells her sharply to be quiet, and stepping back half loses his balance. The nurse glances at him, alarmed.
‘Sir?’ she asks tentatively.
The doctor does not know that this nurse is still a student. She should not be here alone, but the midwife has been called out on an emergency. The student nurse thinks this is an emergency too, but she doesn’t know what she could say. She is frightened. The doctor prods the woman, ignoring her screams, then, having satisfied himself that all is well, leans over the bed.
‘Do you understand English?’ he asks slowly.
It is important he does not slur his speech.
‘Yes,’ the woman says faintly, in Singhalese. ‘I do.’
‘Good. Then you will understand when I tell you these pains are perfectly normal. They are just called Braxton Hicks contractions. The baby will turn soon and then you’ll go into labour. It may take a few hours; you just have to be patient. Nothing to worry about. It’s a perfectly normal process. You Tamil women have been doing this for centuries!’
And he laughs, washing his hands.
‘The nurse will take care of you,’ he says, gesturing to the nurse to give the woman the quinine. ‘This will calm you down. I’ll be back later.’
The woman, feeling another contraction coming towards her in a wave, tries to ride it and begins to cry out again. The nurse holds her head and she drinks the quinine, the bitterness hardly registering on her. The doe-eyed nurse wipes her face again and follows the doctor out.
‘Don’t bother calling me. I’ll be back in a couple of hours. She’ll be fine till then,’ he says.
‘But, sir, I think it’s a breach,’ the nurse says tentatively.
She isn’t sure, of course, and doesn’t want to look foolish in front of this famous consultant.
‘Nonsense,’ the doctor tells her. ‘Do you think I don’t know a breach when I see one!’
Again he laughs peering at this pretty girl’s anxious face.
‘What’s a nice girl like you doing here?’ he asks.
He has a sudden urge to run his hand across her back and further down. He begins to imagine the places his hand might reach.
‘You should be in my nursing home,’ he says, a little unsteadily.
The nurse, her dark eyes made darker by tiredness, smiles a little.
‘We must see what we can do,’ promises the doctor, thinking how good it would be to have such a lovely face at his private clinic.
And then he goes out into the car park and towards his Mercedes, parked sleekly beside the stephanotis bush, back to his lighted house and his dinner guests.

The woman screams. She is pleading. The baby inside her struggles, it turns and turns again. In the darkness she sees her stomach heave and rise up in another wave. It turns into a shape too grotesque to be normal. The woman is petrified, she doesn’t recognise her own body. It has become something separate from her, dragging her along into an unknown place. She screams, not wanting to go.
‘Please, please,’ she cries.
Even as she watches, her stomach lurches in a landslide movement to one side of the bed. The nurse who has been holding her is terrified.
‘Wait, I’ll get someone,’ she says. ‘Wait, hold on.’
The young, sweet nurse is crying too in great gasping sobs of panic.
But the woman is past listening. Her cries have changed. They pierce the air, becoming something other than despair, sounding inhuman. They are the cries of an unseen child. The child she once used to be, the child inside her, maybe. In the darkness outside, jasmine flowers open, bursting their pouches of scent. Large spiders move haltingly amongst the leaves of the creepers that grow against the whitewashed wall. This is the tropics; insects and reptilian life flourish. A drum is beating in the distance, its regular beat out of step with the cries of the woman in the hospital bed. The spiders and the snakes move relentlessly through the long grass, deaf to the fact that she is pleading for her life now.
In the last hour, the darkest moment of the night, just before dawn breaks, a doctor hurries into the room. He is a different, younger doctor. He too is a Singhalese; a family man, a father. Capable of hiding his feelings under a mask of professionalism. The woman on the bed has bled so much she is only semi-conscious, and the doctor knows he has not got much time. The baby, the girl child, he knows, is already dead. Later he will fill out the death certificate. Still birth, he will write. And although no one will be watching, his hand will have the faintest tremor; his jaw will tighten imperceptibly with anger. That will be all. Later, in disgust, he will apply to leave his wretched country, unable to stomach what he has always known. For he, more than anyone, knows that life is cheap in this Third World paradise. It comes and goes like waves on its many beaches. But all of this will happens later. On this long, solitary night the doctor will do his job and deliver another dead child. He will see the baby’s soft downy hair as it comes out on his hands, as he lifts the body out of this woman. The woman, semi-conscious now, far beyond tears, has one last request.
‘Let me see her. Please, let me see her,’ she begs.
But the doctor, his face softened by pity, his heart filled with pain, shakes his head. The woman sees the compassion in his face in the growing light of the new day.
‘What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over,’ the doctor says.
It is his only mistake that night.

This extract from the novel Brixton Beach is based on a real event that occurred in 1963 when discrimination was already under way. It is dedicated to the memory of NMC a woman of great courage, whose story, discarded for many years, is told at last.

 The images used here are from the series 'Lest We Forget.' by the author of this blog

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