From ‘Blood, Red Wine, Tomatoes’—the story of a priest, his mistress and child, set in an island off Sicily.
“‘OK there’s audible blood loss down here, get that cannula in and make sure its at least an 18 gauge’ the doctor between Lucia’s legs barked at his junior at her right arm.
Audible blood loss didn’t make much sense to Lucia but she could tell by the trembling hands of the doctor putting in the drip and the pale sweaty brow of her obstetrician that she should be worried.
It was Jan 28, the feast day of St Tomas Aquinas. Lucia was exhausted. It had only been a short labour. She was trying to hang on to what she knew. It was hard to think but she hadn’t felt this bad the last two, no, three, times she had given birth.
There was blood pooling on the floor. It covered the plastic apron of the midwife. The first gush had run down her right leg into her shoe which was now making a nauseating squelching sound as she walked.
The labour room of the provincial hospital outside Genoa was large and well lit with walls and floors covered in a mottled greenish vinyl. There was a pool of dark blood at the foot of the bed and bloody footprints tracking between the bed and the door.
Perhaps red would have been a more practical colour for the lino, Lucia told herself; idle chitchat to distract from the fear. She wasn’t sure what she was scared of and too scared to even want to know. Trying to joke herself out of it wasn’t working. For a while she tried concentrating on the view of the grey winter sky through the strip of windows up near the ceiling of the room. She was shivering and thirsty. No one took any notice of her requests for a drink and more blankets. She gave up asking.
The doctor and midwife stood between her splayed legs at the end of the half bed. At her top end the junior doctor was trying to put in a drip and the old midwife’s assistant was on her left rubbing her hand; it was more irritating than soothing. She wanted at least one limb free.
More people were gathered around the baby’s crib in the corner although she couldn’t see what was happening. Her drape covered left leg in the stirrups blocked her view.
The doctor’s face was pale and grim. His expression was even more frightening than the blood soaking the towels the cleaner was wiping the floor with. The exhaustion must be from the loss of blood.
The baby was a boy; like the two times before; the sons who had stayed with her so briefly. She was sure she didn’t feel as this weak then though. The doctor had been slow to meet her eyes, slow to tell her that the boys were born blue with rhesus incompatibility. They were perfect but their blood could not carry oxygen and they each died in a few short sad hours.
Her first pregnancy had ended with the miscarriage of a baby girl at 20 weeks; then the deaths of one ant then another baby boy. A hollow wave of nausea grabbed her as her the chorus in her head started on about God’s punishment for sex before marriage, even for wanting love at all. Her lust for Guido’s body, the things they had done together; pleasure, abandon; it was wrong, dirty, base. God could see them together; was looking on with disgust. You know its your fault, God knows what you did.
Mostly the grown up, educated woman was in charge but now there was no energy to fight. Each death had wiped out more of her capacity for reason. The three baby souls who had been with her so briefly tore the civilised knowing from her. When she saw a newborn, or in dreams, or in any unguarded moments, the awful knowledge that it was her fault ambushed her, grabbed her and dragged her under.
She was exhausted, there was nothing to hang onto, no strength left. She didn’t have the energy to be rational. Guilt didn’t require any effort. It just was—part of her like the cold and the thirst.
This baby was tiny and six weeks early but he was pink and screaming. The doctor and the midwife still looked frightened though. What was wrong? A new fear started to grow. Surely no one died in childbirth anymore? No, it wasn’t possible; she told herself not to be silly.
‘Listen Signora, listen, the bleeding won’t stop, you’re very weak. Your husband, is he at home? We’ve called Father Bonaventura.’
‘The baby, is he OK?’ Lucia asked.
The fear from the staff confirmed that something serious was wrong. The prickle in her solar plexus was growing to a huge wave of emptiness and terror. The doctor was leaning over her, his face clammy, hair sticking to his forehead. He slapped her hand.
‘Lucia, listen, the bleeding won’t stop, the afterbirth is not coming out; it’s stuck to your womb; that’s why he was born early because it didn’t form properly and now it won’t come away to let the womb contract and stop bleeding.’
‘What …’ she paused; what was he babbling about, ‘but is the baby OK?’
‘Yes Lucia he’s a bit small but he’s healthy.’
‘Why are you calling the priest then?’ It was hard to talk, her lips were sticking together; her mouth felt like cotton wool. She noticed she was shaking. It seemed to disturb the doctor putting in the drip.
Lucia felt something slip from her vagina. There was plopping sound and the nurse jumped back from the bottom of the bed as a large clot splashed into the bucket of blood.
‘It’s starting again’ the nurse called out, her voice no longer disguising the urgency and panic.
The doctor rushed to the bottom of the bed, snapping at the junior doctor who was now visibly dripping perspiration, ‘Get that line in and make sure its at least a 16 gauge.’
‘Sister, find out where’s the crossmatch, and get that anaesthetist over here now; tell him it’ll be no use if he leaves it any longer.’
Lucia felt a sudden pain as the doctor increased the pressure on her uterus. He had one hand in her vagina and one on her abdomen. She was pinned to the bed; unable to even wriggle her hips to ease the pain. The only person paying any attention to her was the midwife’s assistant holding her hand.
‘What’s happening?’ she whispered. They were all so busy. She shouldn’t bother them.
‘The bleeding won’t stop. They’ve called the priest to give you the Last Rites.’
She knew she should panic, everyone else was but she was too tired to pay attention anymore. The voices were distant and it was comforting not to have to listen. She was drifting into a peaceful place where she did not have to think anymore; there were only background sounds: the doctor saying, ‘We’re losing her, let’s get started.’
Then something broke through her near unconsciousness; the piercing cry of a newborn baby. She had to stay awake.
She had to keep alive for her tiny pink boy.
So she made her vow, her desperate bargain with God, ‘If you let me live to raise him I will give him to you as a priest.’
Let me hold him’ she asked as she felt a mask pushed over her face.
She surrendered to unconsciousness before the anaesthetic reached her lungs.”
From ‘Frank and Ruby’—a short story.
“Everyone gathered at the house after the funeral. Somehow there were sandwiches, and madeira cake, whiskey and tea. In a few hours they were all gone. The ladies had cleared up—emptied the ashtrays, washed and put away the dishes, thrown out the dried up crusts and the empty whiskey bottles. The wake broke up quickly once the whiskey was finished.
The blinds were still down from the day Ruby fell ill. A sepia emptiness pervaded the house. Everything had to be dim snd quiet when she had her headaches. Frank hadn’t opened the windows or blinds since she’d asked him to shut them two months ago. He wondered if it smelled bad, smelled of sickness, of the creeping decay of her body before her heart finally stopped. Still he couldn’t open the windows while there were traces of her in the air.
After he waved off the stragglers Frank sank down into the big carver chair at the head of the dining room table. It was his habitual position, the place where he sat every evening to listen to the radio while Ruby cooked. His hands touched the smooth bare wood. The table cloth, the napkins, the silver napkin rings, the cutlery and salt and pepper shakers were gone.
Ruby insisted the table was set for every meal—said they were civilised people not savages. His last meal with his wife was breakfast some two months ago. Ruby cleared everything and reset the table with the proper tablecloth for dinner. She put water glasses with lacy covers on the table. As she turned back towards the kitchen, she moaned and clutched her head and fell to the floor with an animal groan.
In the first week she’d been in and out of consciousness. For comfort Frank sat at the dining table with his legs brushed by damask and starched linen. He turned on the radio and listened as if Ruby were still in the kitchen. The clean smell and the smoothness of starch under his hands soothed him. Any day she would be better. The table stood ready.
Frank ate in the kitchen. There was always a meal between two dinner plates in the ice box ready to sit on a pot of hot water to heat up. Friends of Ruby’s came on a roster to help him look after her and, he supposed, to look after him too. In the day he sat in the armchair in the bedroom and felt in the way while the women bathed and fed her. At night she was his again. He lay beside her and laced his fingers through the fine hair at the nape of her neck. She used to love him to do that. He brushed the soft skin on the inner side of his wrists over her lips and wrapped his body round hers to warm her in the cool of the early mornings.
One day as he walked through the dining room he came upon Ruby’s friend Merry Watkins with the covers off the glasses and the napkins in her arms. He’d been sharp with her. Ruby had things how she wanted them—ready for when she was well. Merry reset the table and it stayed that way till today.
The squad of friends persisted through his gruff disinterest. They assumed a moral right to tell him what to do and pestered him to do things, to go for a walk, to get out of the house, to let them open the windows and freshen up the place. There was no way he would desert his wife. Frank had to raise his voice, shout and slam the bedroom door before they let him alone.
Now the table was cleared. For the wake he supposed. He toyed with being angry but it didn’t matter now Ruby was gone. He ran his fingers across the dappled honey coloured oak—Ruby’s choice. He wanted mahogany and she the gentler oak. So they had oak.
That was the way of their life. Who would tell him about the gentle things now? Who would explain to him what he really wanted?
There was an envelope on the table. Emmeline, Ruby’s sister from Nova Scotia, handed it to him at the beginning of the wake. Inside was a photo. He hadn’t seen it before but he remembered the exact moment. It was from the first day he’d asked Ruby to marry him. Each of them was so absorbed in the other it was no surprise he didn’t remember the photographer. It must have been Emmeline but he had no memory of her on the beach that day. She’d snapped their picture just before he proposed. Ruby had said no but with a smile that gave him hope.
Frank loved this woman. She was irresistible. Her eyes, the exact blue of the sunlit shallows of the bay, were fixed on him. Her lips were bud pink. He couldn’t take his eyes off them as they parted to laugh at his silly stories. The breeze fluttered a few fine curls that escaped the pins of her bun to fall on the creamy nape of her neck.
He had to have her for his wife.
Thirty years ago his business to supply dry goods to the west had just started. He borrowed money to buy the suit he had on. He’d bargained the tailor into throwing in a bow tie and matching handkerchief. He was secretly in love with Ruby from when she was a schoolgirl. She’d been stepping out with him for a year. Once he decided it was time to ask for her hand he was so nervous he couldn’t stop talking. He’d boasted all afternoon about his achievements, all the money he would make in the goldfields, how rich they would be, how important his wife would be. He cringed as he recalled his tall tales of heroism. Things he’d seen in the movies. How he fought off an attack by a grizzly bear, saved a wagon train from marauding indians, reversed a stampeding herd. He knew as they came out of his mouth that they were ridiculous. Ruby’s smile was amused but kind.
When she said no he was driven to show off more. He threw a stick to the dog and they chased it all over the beach. The stick got caught in a crevice and Frank skipped across the moss covered rocks at the tide line to retrieve it.
There were still icebergs in the bay and the water was close to freezing. After a particularly wild leap he slipped and fell right in. He was completely soaked. He scrambled out of the water covered in moss and seaweed and insisted he was fine. His undershirt was threadbare and stained under the arms. His budget hadn’t extended to underclothes. He couldn’t let Ruby see the poverty underneath. He was implacable and insisted on escorting Ruby back to her sister’s cottage. By the time they got there the noise of his teeth chattering together was impossible to control. He refused to stay and change, then walked thirty minutes back to his hotel.
Ruby visited him every day for two weeks while he recovered from the pneumonia.
Much later she told him it was then, during that frozen walk home with the idiot who fell in the bay then gave himself pneumonia to impress her, that she decided she would marry him.”