From the Antipodes to Here- Part 1

Last night, Mrs. Simmons lost another baby.

It was past midnight and I was already half asleep when Lucille threw open the door and told me to get up quick. The electric lights in the hallway had been turned down low, so she had a candle in her hand. I could see by the way that little fire lit up the lines in her face that something bad had happened, and I had a suspicion right away about what it was.

Mr. Simmons was in Richmond again for business, so Mrs. Simmons had been sleeping alone in the master bedroom. I had run downstairs so fast that I had tripped a little and scratched my hand on the bannister. When I said, “What is it, ma’am?”, my mouth still tasted like blood from sucking my finger.

“It’s happening again,” she said. Her pretty cheeks were all sweaty and white. “The bleeding. From down there.”

I told her to lie back and I would send for Dr. Hayes. But he doesn’t have a telephone, so we had to wake up Anthony and tell him to drive the Tin Lizzie around to the other side of Claxton Creek. It took Anthony a half hour to bring the doctor back. The whole time I was running my hands through Mrs. Simmons’ hair as if she were a little girl and me her mama, and I sang her nursery rhymes. My voice isn’t so pretty – it’s scratchy and low, like a gramophone when the needle’s broken from playing it too much – but whenever I stopped, Mrs. Simmons grabbed my hand, all feverish, and told me to keep going. I could tell it hurt something awful, whatever was happening.

All the while, Lucille kept bringing up rags from the kitchen to soak up the blood.

When Dr. Hayes came, his hair was all mussed from sleep, and he wasn’t wearing a tie or a jacket. He shooed me and Lucille out of the room, just as if we were stray dogs. We sat in the hallway for an hour and tried to make out his mutterings. After awhile, we heard Mrs. Simmons start to cry, and Dr. Hayes opened the door. “More rags, please, Lucille,” he said. Lucille hoisted herself off the floor. I could hear the little clicks of her heels on the stairs.

“You sit with her, all right, Ada?” he told me. “The bleeding’s already slowing down. If it starts up again, come fetch me.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. And I remember standing there, my mouth hanging a little open like some idiot girl, waiting for him to tell me if there was hope for the baby. But he just pushed past me. That’s doctors for you. So I dithered for a second, but then I went in.

The good yellow sheets had been bundled up on the floor, and Dr. Hayes had swaddled Mrs. Simmons up in rags. She wasn’t crying any more. Just staring at the ceiling. I dragged the gilt chair over from the vanity table and sat myself next to her. Then I didn’t really know what to do. The first time this happened, I was still at the Thalhimers in Richmond, not working here yet. And the second time, and the third. I only knew it had happened before because Lucille told me once, when I asked her why Mrs. Simmons went to see so many doctors, and she so young and healthy, otherwise.

“How can I help, ma’am?” I said. The room smelled like iron and piss and old meat, and my words sounded so stiff and formal. As if I had never even met Mrs. Simmons before and I was back behind the counter at Thalhimers and she wanted the new style of feathered hat.

“Can you read to me?” she said. Her voice was thready with hurt.

“Yes, ma’am.” I set down the candle, picked up her book – Anne of Green Gables – from the bedside table, and opened it to where a piece of ribbon lay. “Matthew Cuthbert and the sorrel mare jogged comfortably over the eight miles to Bright River. It was a pretty road, running along between snug farmsteads, with now and again a bit of balsamy fir wood to drive through or a hollow where wild plums hung out their filmy bloom…”

At first I tripped over the pronunciation of near every other word, but it got easier. Soon enough, Mrs. Simmons’s breath got slow and sleepy. I kept reading. Next thing I knew, it was morning, and the candle had burned out, and I had a crick in my neck from falling asleep in Mrs. Simmons’ pretty gilt chair. Johnson, the butler, sent a telegraph to Mr. Simmons. It said for him to come home straight away. No answer yet.

Read Part 2