WEDNESDAY: Once Upon A Time at Chariot House

BY KATRINA JOHNSTON

Copyright is held by the author.

WHEN I was eight years old, mygrandmother confused me. “Catching babies,” she told me. “Always interesting.” I pictured this: Babies bouncing around like pink balloons. Babies arcing downward from the sky like high fly balls in centre field. Babies running off in all directions before being corralled and then returned to safety. Catching babies?

Grandma Sayella was the midwife. She was the saviour and friend for the region’s expectant mothers. Her kindness and her skills meant that she employed her soft and capable hands. She had extra long digits. Perfect hands. Hands that served her well beyond her own retirement circa 1910. Then, my mother became the midwife. When my mother subsequently retired — and she up and died too young, too soon — I became the third generation to practice midwifery in our scattered and challenged rural community. Childbirth was routinely left to the care and counsel of a midwife. And I assumed this work with energy and joy.

Seems like a lifetime. Long ago. I am dying. My heart is failing. I lie in hospital with wires and technologies keeping death at bay. I doubt that I will breathe into another year. I remember.

Then I dream.

I practised midwifery within the borders of Cedar Harbour. And also around the regions known as the Pallisades and Hollaway’s Bluff. These are still rugged areas: forest, meadows and a few denuded landscapes containing a sprinkling of cabins. There were random squares of checker board farms. The land produced potatoes, wheat, and cattle feed. There were one or two palatial properties up behind Madeline’s Point. All of these residences, from the humble farm houses, to the lofty mansions, especially the one called Chariot House, were at impossible distance from the city. A trip to the hospital still requires a major journey by boat and then onto a connecting ferry. A schedule for a regular transport follows that. But, by God they’ve gotten me here to this hospital. I did not protest.

I am banished like so much furniture, languishing in St. Christopher’s. Here is where I dream, mouldering away on clean blue sheets while blurred images of nurses, technicians, care aides and doctors come and go like ghosts. I cherish moments of lucid memory.

Over the years, I caught babies and I loved my vocation. There were babies who would thrive. Babies to be brought up well. Babies to be reared in stable homes, in rich and poor families. Dozens of babies. Some to be neglected, ignored, abused, adopted, overworked or undereducated. And sorrowfully, some to be buried. Babies to be honoured, tolerated, loved and accepted. Divergent pathways remain a mystery to me. My heartbeat weakens now. My lungs are glue. I must rest.

My mother used to take me along on her birthing expeditions. When I was seventeen, I came to understand the profession as she assisted each woman through the duration of pregnancy and delivery. I apprenticed. At first by observation. I started out soon after, sharing my grandmother’s wisdom and my mother’s skill. If a particular delivery was complex and challenging my mother insisted that I stand and learn. Birth was then, as it always is, unique and awe inspiring. Usually, it was without complication, but not always.

When Sylvia Fitzsimmons was due, I alone trudged over the rocky outcrops to Chariot House. Sylvia’s husband was absent at the time. This baby was to be recorded as their first. The husband, a naval officer; in fact, an admiral, was on board HMS MacDonald, a Halifax frigate patrolling the waters near Indonesia. On board ship, and miles away, Jonathan Fitzsimmons oversaw the deployment to arrest illegal exportation of elephant ivory.

Sylvia began alone, labouring in stoic fashion. But she was scared, her cervix thinly dilated by the time I had arrived. Actually, she was not entirely alone. Her housekeeper, Agnes Braithwaite, was present, but she was fussing around in the kitchen. Someone had to do the clean-up after all. Sylvia’s younger sister was also on the scene and nervously overseeing at the bedside. I remember her name; Margaret Fradly. The sister appeared unsure of the step-by-step process of a normal delivery. Not much assurance or her offering me some practical help.

Sylvia was age 37 at this time. “I can bear it until I almost scream,” she said, squeezing my hand. She whispered: “The pains . . . they clutch me like a vice. No one told me it would be like this.”

She breathed when she was told to breathe. Labour progressed slowly. The baby crowned. Sylvia pushed when she was supposed to push and at 4:47 pm on that grey and unremarkable Wednesday, without much ceremony but with copious amounts of sweat and amniotic fluids; Sylvia was delivered of a healthy baby boy.

I cut the cord. I wiped the child’s little body, swabbed his nose. A thready cry burbled. This was a perfectly formed human being and after the first tentative noises, the tiny lungs let out a yowl that settled into a staccato crescendo of energetic crying.

Now, here’s the complication. Sylvia is a fair-skinned blond. Her husband is ginger-haired and both are extremely pale. This little cherubim was genetically as dark as chocolate. Although it is not readily evident as to race in a newborn babe because they almost always present themselves as red-skinned potatoes, this time I was certain. The child had tightly napped black hair, dark eyes. On examination, he would have full lips and a broad flat nose, especially as he grew into himself.

Yes, definitely. The biological father must be very dark indeed, and obviously not Jonathan Fitzsimmons. Immediately, the sister knew this fact. “The baby is black,” she said simply. “Black, like the African.”

“Shut up,” Sylvia said. “Just shut up.”

I wondered who “the African” was, but I did not ask the question. I’m not sure if the housekeeper, Agnes Braithwaite, clued in at this juncture, or that she even heard our conversation, but when I bundled the little babe into his mother’s arms — Sylvia knew. She just stared. Then her eyes found mine. Without words we took stock, we judged, we worried. I watched as Sylvia unwrapped the blanket. Sylvia observed her mixed-race baby root around looking for nourishment. She looked upon the child so coldly that it sent shivers up and down my spine. “Are you ready to try breast feeding?” I said.

“You must not tell a soul.” Sylvia whispered at me. “Take it away.” She gestured for her sister. “Margaret; take it now.” It was a rough command. “And you . . .” She pointed at me, “. . . must not reveal this birth to anyone. I shall deal with this occurrence efficiently. I had my fears that this might come out just like this.”

Margaret took the child and wrapped him up and placed him in a cradle. I gathered up the towels, tidied this and that and ambled around the room. “Your husband, Jonathan — he needs to know.”

“Huh. Not ever!” Sylvia said. “Unless some idiot tells him.” She sighed. “I had an indiscretion last winter. Over now. No regrets. I’ve already thought this through. I mean, I decided, if . . . if this was . . . well . . . if this was how things went.”

“He’s a beautiful little child,” I said.

“I suppose. I guess. However; I cannot acknowledge this baby is anything to do with me. I will tell Jonathan that our baby did not survive. Stillborn. Yes, that’s exactly right.” She waved a hand like she was dismissing a bothersome insect. “Everyone will hear of it as a sad and grievous stillbirth. Take this away from me. Take it now.”

“That’s a worrisome plan,” I said to Sylvia’s while her sister Margaret lifted the child and tucked the tiny being snugly in a knitted blanket. Margaret said that she must go into the kitchen to locate a bottle and some infant formula. She carried the bundle from the bedroom.

 “How are you going to fool anyone by concocting such a lie?” I asked Sylvia. “This is a healthy baby, not a stillborn.”

“I pay my housekeeper well,” Sylvia said. “She’ll be quiet or she’ll lose her job. My sister knows enough to keep her big fat mouth shut as well. The birth is unfortunate. I cannot have a baby who is — coloured.”

“Who’s the father?”

“You do not need this particular piece of information.”

“And me, why should I not speak of this child?”

“Look into the top drawer by the dressing table. The one on the other side of the room, the one with the crystal candle holder on the top.”

When I looked. I found a wallet stuffed with cash.

“Take all of it. A payment for discretion. You know how to keep a secret don’t you?”

“You are despicable,” I said.

“See, it’s like this,” she said. “I never had this child. The birth was difficult. The pregnancy did not end well. The child did not survive. You understand all this. Never. Get this fact through your skull.”

I looked down at the wallet and the wad of bills. “There must be $7,000 here,” I said. “I charge a midwife fee of course, but not this. I cannot take payment for a lie, or a lie by omission. If you conspire to rid yourself of this baby and pretend it never happened, if you deny responsibility and the care of this child, or you don’t tell your husband, I will speak to the authorities.”

“No you will not.”

“Why not?’

“Take the money or I smother the child. My sister will readily dispose of the body.”

I looked at her in a state of shock. “Ridiculous.” I gasped. “This is human life, a perfect little boy.”

“I don’t care.”

How could this be? How could any new mother embody such cruelty and then consider criminal infanticide? “How could you dare to say such things,” I told her. “Or even think it? This baby is a blessing.”

“This baby is a curse. A badge of shame. If you do not keep this quiet,” Sylvia said to me, her eyes half closed to slits, “I’ll do much worse than simply have it carted over to the orphanage at Cornerstone. I bet it might be welcome there. I’m sure an adoption could result. Let coloured people choose to take and raise a coloured child. So here’s our understanding. This baby lives if you keep my secret. If you let this secret out, I must act. I will do away with this burden and my indiscretions, even if it means I dispose of evidence, just like trash.”

“You would kill an innocent child? Are you insane?”

“You don’t have to know the details of when or how.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“Call it what you will.”

“You’re contemplating murder.”

“If I have to.”

I stared at my fingers, still holding onto the over-stuffed wallet. I cannot remember my actions, but my emotions churned. I went outside and sucked in great gulps of crisp autumn air. My heart pounded. My blood went hot. I was filled with gut-wrenching nausea. If I did not take the cash, or keep quiet, she just might put a pillow over the child, or she’d find another way to end his life. Sylvia Fitzsimmons could and would manufacture any pathetic story to cover herself. She was rich enough to pretend; rich enough to mask her own corruptions. Rich enough to bribe. I leaned against the brickwork of the house.My cheek was wet with tears. How could anyone be so selfish and then so cruel? “Ignorant conniving witch.”

I took the money, hoping that the lesser of the two scenarios, that of abandonment or of murder; the lesser evil would prevail and the baby might be spared. “Do not let her kill this angel,” I wailed at the sky as if God was in his residential tower, listening to my pleas. I wanted nothing to do with Sylvia Fitzsimmons. I left the house with a heavy heart and the blackmail money, enough for a down payment on a new home in the city. I never moved to the city. I never touched a single dollar of that money.

The baby? So sweet. I ran into the housekeeper many years ago. She was not so clueless or so loyal after all. Agnes told me that to her relief (and to mine) that a small black child was admitted in residence at the orphanage just a few months after the time of his birth. “His name is Alexander,” she said. “He was adopted.” But, she didn’t know much more.

Not a child anymore, and Agnes did not know, and neither do I, if the baby was adopted by a kind  and caring family, but we hoped so. I never found out if the adoptive parents were white or black or green or striped. Over all these years, I did hear rumours of the Fitzsimmons’ marriage dissolving into a long divorce. There has been no further news of the little boy’s birth. I asked around but no information has been recorded.

So, when I die, someone will find a wallet stuffed with tainted money. It’s in a shoe box in my closet. I take my secrets with me to the grave. I’ve kept this one. I don’t know why.

All the births I saw and all the births I helped were precious. Most deliveries were not complicated. I never knew what exactly went so wrong on that day at Chariot House. A beautiful baby boy was caught. But then I fumbled. I did not share the story when it mattered most. Not then. Not now. I haven’t shared it yet.

It haunts me.

1 comment
  1. I loved Once Upon a Time at Chariot House. Lots of heartfelt emotions. The story just stuck with me.

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