The Conservatory by Rosemary Doman (Lucent Dreaming Issue 8)

Each day, Emma watched for the large white van pulling up in her driveway. At first, she’d hidden herself behind the thick lounge curtains.

Now she felt bolder, stronger. If her hair straggled in tousled clumps onto the shoulders of her milk stained housecoat, she no longer cared.

When the conservatory walls were being fitted, she had carried the baby to the window to show him the workmen unloading the van of its gleaming cargo. “Unbreakable,” she murmured, turning away from the glare that bounced off each sheet. When roof, lights and other appliances were in place, and the floor tiled, the conservatory would be finished. “It’ll be ready for use in two weeks, as we guaranteed your husband,” the works manager assured her, adding a little nervously, “Assuming, of course, it passes Mr Bryant’s stringent quality checks.”

“That’s good news!” Emma had responded with a smile, feigning an enthusiasm she couldn’t feel. It wasn’t she who wanted this “all seasons” conservatory, or even the extension to her kitchen, although she’d tried to take a professional interest in the drawings. Her mind was still too tired to grasp all the technicalities, but the conservatory looked (from an architectural point of view) to be a fine specimen. Why they needed the extra room in a house that seemed to swallow up all her energies, she couldn’t understand. There were only the three of them counting the baby, and he didn’t yet take up the space of a single kitchen cupboard.

He was growing all the time, of course, despite her terrors when they’d first held him out to her, a bluish pink contortion of tiny limbs, smelling of salty fluids and streaked in blood. Her blood. Little wonder he’d screamed when she stretched out her shaking arms to take him, after twenty-three hours of pain on the unyielding hospital bed. He must have looked into her eyes as she’d forced herself to look into his and seen the panic and exhaustion there.

Robert had been delighted, naturally, a son, whose tiny screwed up features gave him back himself. “Another quality Bryant product!” he’d laughed. It was true. Except for the glint of copper in its downy cap, the child seemed wholly his. “He has his mother’s hair,” Robert had conceded to the admiring nurses, gently laying one honey gold strand of hers onto the newborn head.

This loving gesture temporarily overcame her annoyance that the baby was a boy. Then, taking the child from her, he marvelled again at the diminutive mirror image, as if he, not she, had undergone all the trauma of the birth.

It was as well she couldn’t foresee the sleepless nights ahead. Jonathan lay asleep in his downstairs basket, but it wouldn’t be long before he woke again. She dragged herself upstairs to shower and dress. Last night had been one of the worst since she came home. Every time she tried to put him down, Jonathan had screamed in mockery of the rituals the maternity staff had taught her. Rocking, burping, changing, walking to and fro with him until she was ready to drop – nothing seemed to help. Could he sense her fragility, her unworthiness as a mother?

That hospital doctor had certainly seen through her. How she’d frowned at Emma’s pleas that she was too exhausted to breastfeed her baby! When Emma had asked for a pill to ease the continuing pelvic cramps, the doctor’s vermilion lips curled in disapproval. “You’ve had a perfectly normal birth apart from the forceps,” she’d reminded Emma tartly, “and enough analgesics to deliver triplets.” It was the student midwife who brought her a glass of milk and paracetamol when Robert left – then summoned the doctor back to her bedside when she haemorrhaged.

After they’d removed the last of the placenta, she had slept dreamlessly for hours. Then the kind trainee midwife had encouraged Emma to put her whimpering son to the breast, like they’d shown her and the other new mothers on videos at Natural Birth ante-natal classes. How she’d tried!

She’d been so keen to learn she’d borrowed the breastfeeding video, but the struggle to keep up with her insatiable baby had made her abandon natural feeding within a fortnight of getting home.

Like father, like son, she thought, as she listened to the workmen putting together the final sections of the conservatory, always demanding of her what she couldn’t give, however agonisingly hard she worked at servicing them. When sheer exhaustion prevented her from lovemaking, Robert had sulked and snapped. Jonathan, however, proved easier. After a few frustrated screaming sessions, he’d settled for a bottle. She was glad: it relieved her of some of the burden of caring for him. If Robert was home early enough, he could sometimes be persuaded to feed his son. At night, when she was at her lowest and the baby really fractious, he insisted it was for her to see to the baby, since he had to get up early to work.

She would stumble downstairs in the dark with the mewing child, watch its preying little mouth suck greedily at the warmed bottle, as she had once seen a spider suck the entrails from an ensnared wasp. With increasing desperation, she’d try to settle Jonathan, hoping that the night colic the health visitor had assured her was normal, would resolve itself at last. But as soon as she lay him back in his wicker crib, he yelled as if in agony, tiny chubby knees bent to chin, cheeks puce and creased, his whole infant being convulsed with rage and indigestion. Putting the bloated little body over her shoulder, she’d prowl resentfully round downstairs for the best part of two hours. Finally she retreated to the kitchen, still in the throes of its extension, where she could imagine the conservatory protruding like a transparent growth, obscenely swollen and ready to throb with its gadget-driven electronic life.

Her life had shrunk to an endless treadmill of feeding, changing, winding, so that she dwindled while the baby thrived, grew, despite his colic. She had her share of visitors, but since she was far from her home town, they were mostly Robert’s family or local friends. For these she put on a mask of contented motherhood, so they couldn’t see through to her resentment and despair. With dread she foresaw her life when the Jonathan grew to boyhood, wilful and destructive, with Robert aiding and abetting every unfeeling masculine whim.

At such times she wondered whether she would survive. Would anyone weep and cover her lifeless form with flowers? Would the conservatory become her glass tomb, as if she were the princess in the fairy tale, destroyed by the jealousy of those who feared a superior being as a threat?
Jonathan’s christening was planned for three weeks on Sunday. “We can show off the conservatory as well,” Robert gloated. He’d arranged caterers for their sixty guests. It would be very different from some of the other Sundays when she was on her own with the baby, while he pursued his career. She’d chosen the christening clothes, a silky, white suit with a jaunty cap and soft white shoes, swathed in soft tissue at the top of her wardrobe. Her own outfit hung beneath, a loosely cut Laura Ashley type print which she wished could have been a size smaller. At least, Emma told herself, she had made an effort for an event which for her held out no joy.

“Buy yourself something befitting a company director’s wife,” Robert had insisted, and so she’d again complied, leaving Jonathan with a neighbour while she braved the nearest boutique. The thought of confronting herself in those ruthless fitting room mirrors made her shudder. In the last month of her pregnancy she’d tried to avoid mirrors, hating the tent-like clothes which draped without disguising her swollen shape; hating the flat shoes which didn’t prevent puffy ankles; trying not to resent the fact that the baby, even more than their home extension, had been far more his idea than hers.

She’d have chosen to wait longer and consolidate her working reputation, but Robert had panicked that in three years she would be thirty. “We mustn’t leave it too late, Emma!” he had urged, just after their second anniversary, as if it was his biological clock running over not hers. “Don’t you want our child?” Many days she truthfully felt she didn’t want the baby, her unsought for motherhood sucking away her hopes, her independent life, her very self.

She had been a newly qualified city architect when she and Robert met through a building project. Angered by his dismissal of her visionary design as too costly, she had, despite herself, fallen beneath his spell. Her parents soon followed suit. Disappointed as they were at the rejection of her design, they saw Robert, unlike Emma, kept his imagination tightly reined, his perceptions pragmatic, his outlook firmly down to earth.

It was the week after the conservatory was finished that, without warning, Jonathan fell ill. Seeing the weather change for the worse, she had wheeled him in from the garden . Watching the downpour from the heated glass structure, she was grateful for its warmth enclosing them like a womb, its fragile toughness somehow a support. Rain drummed on the polycarbonate roof, running down the walls in sheets. Blurring the outdoors to a misty dullness, it felt oddly hypnotic and comforting. Though his next feed was due, Jonathan slept on. He lay so still that for a moment Emma felt her own heart drumming loudly inside her, drowning out the rain. Was it fear – or was it hope – that pulsated so powerfully through her, made her feel giddy in the giant glass bowl?

What would happen if there were no baby to christen the Sunday after next? They would have to cancel the service, the caterers, all the invited guests… maybe hold another event instead. She turned the baby on his back, stroked his closed eyes, ran her fingers lightly down his cool, pale cheeks. Then she turned abruptly away, resisting the image of him lying blissfully still for ever. No wonder there were mothers so rock-bottom in despair that they would lay a hand ever so gently over the tiny face, hold it there until… With a start, she snatched her hand back, looking away in horror, as if she saw it reddened with his blood. Something inside her cracked. In rage and terror she began to beat her fists against the nearest pane, wanting to smash through the unbreakable wall, shatter the smug complicity of the domestic structures which kept her bound, weighted down in body and mind. Over and over again she heard herself scream at Jonathan, “I wish you’d never been born!” Sobbing violently, she failed to see the baby had woken: failed to hear his first pathetic, whimpering cry.

As if grieved to the heart by the knowledge of her rejection, Jonathan’s cries became more plaintive, miserably insistent. Guiltily, she seized him, noticed for the first time his pallid, sweaty skin, how limp he was, his fragile little body drooping like a flower on a broken stalk. He continued to whimper as she tried to comfort him, more so in the kitchen when she offered him his feed. She put him back in his pram, biting her lip as he grew paler, more unhappy. His crying was not robust but pleading and high pitched. As Emma bent to pick him up again, she saw his eyes roll wildly and his whole body start to compulsively pitch and toss. She ran into the hall and summoned her doctor. When the ambulance arrived, she was almost too distraught to speak, but she choked out enough to make a neighbour understand that Robert must be rung at once.

Later, during the long watch in the stifling hospital ward, she sobbed hysterically as Robert tried to comfort her. “It’s all my fault if he dies – I wanted it, I cursed him dead!”

Bewilderedly he stroked her hands. “No – no, Emma! You mustn’t blame yourself. It’s a bad infection, like the paediatrician told us.” But as daylight broke, and the baby’s condition didn’t improve, he put his head in his hands and wept. “If only,” Emma prayed desperately. “If only!” In the throes of her guilt and grief she was unable to finish her prayer.

After four days, they were allowed to take their son home. His weight had dropped and he was fretful and still pale, but otherwise he had come through his ordeal. Nursing him through yet another sleepless night, Emma felt exhaustion overtake her joy at the child’s recovery. She listened to the rain strike fitfully against the kitchen window. Then, as Robert gently shook her shoulder, she realised she had fallen into a doze.

“I’ll take him now, Emma love,” he whispered. “You go get your rest.” He carried the baby carefully in his large, tender hands through the kitchen into the unlit conservatory. Half-consciously, she stumbled after him and sat by Jonathan’s pram, dreamily watching as Robert steadily paced the tiled floor with the restless child draped over his strong, broad shoulder. The love which had welled up on seeing her baby helplessly sick and his father grieving so powerlessly resurfaced, dispelling her weariness with thankful tears.

The rain was winding down to a melodious patter as Robert laid their sleeping son in his pram and beckoned her. “Look,” he said softly, pointing up to the conservatory roof. And taking hands they silently marvelled at the big, yellow moon which, breaking free of its pall of cloud, shone like a beacon of gold above them.

Rosemary Doman is a retired Creative Writing and English tutor, who writes poetry and short stories. She has been published in a variety of short story outlets and anthologies and had success in a number of writing competitions.
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