The Memory of Us(7)

by Camille Di Maio

“What is her condition?”

“She’s bleeding. She always does, but not like this.”

“Let me see her.”

She tapped lightly on the door of the adjacent room, then pushed it open. The room was lit by a single low lamp at the head of the enormous iron bed in its center. The bed was covered by several quilts that were now tainted with a sea of bright crimson. Mr. Campbell knelt at the side of his wife, one hand holding hers and the other clutching a rosary.

He looked up when I entered and nodded in acknowledgment, but his lips continued to move without sound as he prayed repetitively.

“Mrs. Campbell,” I said. Her eyes flickered, and I could see that her usually pale skin was now spectral in its whiteness. I stepped close and stroked her face, which was burning with fever. “Emily,” I said without looking away, “get cold towels for her head, and prepare warm ones over the fire for the baby.”

The mother let out a weak cry as a contraction waved inside her. Her back arched in pain. I pulled away the blankets and her nightgown to see that the baby had already crowned. It had a full head of hair, matted by blood. Another contraction began. I put one hand on her belly and pressed down, willing the baby to come out quickly.

“Push,” I said, although the mother had no energy left. The task was left to me, and I worked my hands with every contraction until the miniature face revealed itself. My finger swept its mouth, removing the sludge of birth. It let out a hearty howl, and I saw a glimmer of relief on Mrs. Campbell’s face.

“Almost there. The head is the hardest part.” Not that I needed to tell her that. Three more pushes, and the shoulders slipped out with ease. Well practiced, Emily brought me a pair of shears to cut the cord.

“You have a girl.”

Mr. Campbell paused in his prayers and looked up. I expected him to be troubled, both at the condition of his wife and at the thought of another mouth to feed. Instead, he looked at his daughter with a radiance that I couldn’t comprehend.

I wrapped the baby in a clean towel. Born several weeks early, she seemed to weigh nothing, but she surprised me with her apparent health. It was my routine to bathe the baby before presenting it to its parents. But the mother clung to minutes that faded with each breath, so I handed her over straightaway.

She pulled down her nightgown to reveal an engorged breast, the blue of the veins especially prominent against her chalky skin. She suckled the baby into a calm stupor. What a sweet scene it could have been in other circumstances.

“Thank you,” she mouthed, the strain of the words possessing the rest of her strength.

“I did nothing. I—I can’t do anything.” I paced the room, searching for something that could spare the family this tragedy. I could feel the foundations of my cultivated indifference begin to betray me.

The oldest boy cracked the door open, and Mrs. Campbell covered herself with a blanket. He put his head in. “The priest is here.”

The husband left the room to greet him, leaving the door ajar.

“Mr. Campbell?”

I picked up a towel, freshly heated.

“I’m Father McCarthy.”

Chapter Three

My hopes for an opportunity to talk with Kyle again were not realized. Miss Ellis told me that his father’s health was declining, so he did the work of two men rather than see the old man dismissed. I watched him from Charles’s window as he manicured the rosebushes, then cut the lawn in diagonal lines that revealed the dark and light shades of the grass in crisp, alternating bands.

Miss Ellis slipped in and proudly disclosed the further results of her voluntary reconnaissance as we watched him wipe the sweat from his brow with his shirtsleeve and return to work.

“He lives in Liverpool, dear. In fact, he works there during the week.”

“Doing what?”

“Same thing. His father has jobs there most days, and only comes out here on the weekends.”

“I’ve never seen him in town.”

“Well, it’s not likely that you would, is it? Being that he’s doing double duty right now. He probably hasn’t seen the inside of a pub or a cinema in weeks.”

My heart raced at the thought that he was nearer to me every day than I had known. “Anything else?”

“Only that he came from Ireland with his father when he was just two years old. If he has a mother, I don’t know anything about it.”

She left when her break was over.

That was to be my last time in Bootle for a while. The increased IRA activity on the coasts required more attention from Father, and in turn, he expected more of my help at the warehouse. It was no secret that he wanted me to follow him into business, overseeing the shipping empire that had elevated our family for three generations. It didn’t seem to matter that I was a girl. He grudgingly acknowledged my intention to become a nurse, hoping, perhaps, that enough exposure would acclimate me to the idea of working alongside him. “It’s all yours, Julianne,” he’d say, “since I have no son to leave it to.” I loved my father, but it pained me to hear him deny the existence of Charles so effortlessly.

Mother made demands upon my time as well. The annual Ladies’ Society festival was close at hand. She was chairing it this year and had tasked me with management of the booths. So far I had deftly avoided any outings with the “nice young men” with whom she was more than willing to arrange social engagements. Her ambition was for me to be the wife of a prominent businessman or politician, replicating her own position in the coterie of the upper class.

I doubted very much that she wanted me to follow her into the private despair that kept her closeted in her rooms with scotch when evenings turned into midnights. But as with the existence of a brother, I wasn’t supposed to know about that. I thought of our family, sometimes, as a tapestry: a perfect blending and weaving of colored threads that produced an enviable picture on our surface, while underneath we were a tangled maze of knots and stitches, colliding and separating in our own directions, united only in the mandate to keep the outward appearances lovely.

Whenever I could steal away, I went out with Lucille. We loved catching matinees at the cinema, our favorite being the grand Trocadero, with its curved screen and glossy white Wurlitzer. The Movietone reels’ boring bits, like a review of Neville Chamberlain’s first month as prime minister, were occasionally offset by good ones like the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Father would ask me when I returned if they had shown any updates on the Gestapo or other concerns out of Germany, but Lucille and I usually used that time to take turns visiting the lavatory or purchasing a sweet. There was no way that we would miss a minute of Cary Grant, that celluloid enchanter whose magazine photos adorned each of our closet doors.