Lumber: A Short Story by Bethan Roberts

Lumber: A Short Story by Bethan Roberts

It is late summer, and Maxine is thirty-six weeks pregnant, wearing her husband"s waterproof and standing on the top of Foel y Mwnt, looking for seals. Every step up the steep hill has made her pelvis, back, ankles and knees ache and she thinks now, as she often has over the past months, of the word lumbering. She feels like a tree-trunk, that she has the weight and width of a piece of lumber. She supposes this is where the word comes from.

Looking over the grey water, panting still, she sees no marine life, just the odd buoy that occasionally presents itself as a living thing, ducking and bobbing in the waves. On the sands below children wearing cut-off wetsuits play in the cold water, and they do look a bit like black seals, but, she reminds herself, they don"t count. It has become necessary for Maxine to see at least one seal each day for everything, which means the baby, to be all right. If she sees a seal, she will have the home birth she and her husband have planned. After carefully manoeuvring herself into a sitting position so she can wait for the seals to appear, she checks her watch. She has twenty minutes before she must go down and face her mother-in-law, Sonia, who is coming from Birmingham for the weekend.

But she finds herself looking at the families on the beach rather than keeping her eyes peeled for flashes of grey. Parents watch their children from behind windbreaks, surrounded by abandoned buckets, bats, balls, sandwiches, and still unopened bottles of sun-lotion. She wonders if this is what it will be like for her and Rick and the baby: cold, wet holidays on beaches where a towel is no longer enough. She tries, for the thousandth time, to imagine the child; she tries to imagine a being that will grow and talk and hurt and leave her. But all she can picture is a thirsty, fat seal, and she cannot believe it"s possible that it — she knows she"s expecting a boy but she"s still having trouble referring to the life inside her as anything other than "it"— will find a way out of her body and into the world.

Maxine and Rick moved to west Wales six months ago. Rick had always talked about relocating to the country, getting back to his homeland. Rick"s father, who left Rick"s mother when Rick was ten, was born in Aberystwyth, and took refuge there after the divorce. But Maxine hardly believed she and Rick would actually uproot themselves until the removals van pulled up outside their Coventry semi.

As she walks along the front path of their new cottage, having failed to spot a seal, she remembers the squeak and slam of their old gate, how she'd caught her fingers in it once and Rick had wrapped them in a clean bandage. His medical supplies had always impressed her. Since she"s been pregnant, it"s been Rick who"s enrolled them for antenatal classes, reminded her to take her folic acid and made sure she"s had enough rest. She would have liked to have walked along the coast to Cardigan a few weeks back, when they"d had an unusually warm spell, but Rick had begged her not to. "What if you slip?" he"d said. "Or go into labour, right there on the cliff edge?"
Turning her key in the lock, she smells cigarettes. Sonia has already arrived.

"We were just discussing the nursery," her mother-in-law says, holding both suntanned hands out to Maxine in greeting.  As usual, Sonia is wearing a lot of long, floaty layers of fabric in a colour which makes Maxine think of dry soil, but she"s almost certain Sonia herself would call the shade "biscuit".

For a moment Maxine fears she's going to have to get into a discussion about childcare and whether she's going back to work after the baby, but then she remembers nursery is what some people call a baby's bedroom. Trust Sonia to know that. She probably read it on the Guardian blog. She's already sent Maxine several links to useful websites for mums-to-be, which Maxine has added to the file on her computer named "PREG".

Rick kisses his wife on the lips, and she notices how far he has to lean forward to reach her. Maxine's bump has created quite a space between them.  "I've told her," he says, "we're absolutely ready. The room's all done. But she can't see it yet because you think it's bad luck to show anyone before the baby comes." He winks and touches his dense, closely-cropped beard. Facial hair is a new aspect of Rick; he's been working on it since they moved to Mwnt.

"You and your superstitions," laughs Sonia. "Do you know I saw several magpies from the train window and failed to salute a single one of them?"

"Then you"ve damned us all to hell," says Maxine. "Even your unborn grandchild."

Sonia laughs uncertainly. "You look great," she says, touching Maxine's shoulder. "And so does the cottage."

It's true, at least about the cottage. Rick has transformed the place from a gloomy, damp holiday let into a light, freshly decorated home with patio doors overlooking occasionally picturesque farmland. He's found work "improving and expanding the living opportunities", as it says on his website, in several other houses in the area, too, many of them second homes to English families, which has made Maxine slightly fearful of repercussions from the local population. When Sonia had first visited she'd pointed out that the Celts were famous for their fierceness, after all. And not so long ago English-owned cottages were routinely burned to the ground. "Pembrokeshire is one thing, but Cardiganshire – sorry, Ceredigion – is Welsh," she'd said. "Really Welsh. Just like your bloody father." Rick had responded, rather proudly, that Foel y Mwnt was in fact the site of a failed Flemish invasion of Wales in the early 1100s; the Celtic defence had been so ferocious that, for years after, the locals celebrated their victory on what was known as 'Sul Coch y Mwnt' — Mwnt's Bloody Sunday.

Maxine hears the downstairs toilet flush and looks at her husband. "Mum's brought a surprise for us," announces Rick.

A tall, well-built man comes into the living room and scratches his head. "I hope you were talking about me?" he asks. He has the kind of moustache no one has these days: short and thick and straightforward.

"This is Larry," says Rick, as if he can't believe the name, let alone the man, actually exists.

Larry kisses Maxine on both cheeks. She feels the softness of his moustache.

"Wonderful to meet you. Blimey. You're really blooming."

"Thank you," says Maxine, "but the bloom thing is one of the lies they tell women about pregnancy. It's to stop us moaning about weight gain, piles and exhaustion." She smiles.

Larry looks a little confused. His moustache twitches.

"Don't mind Maxine," says Sonia. "Black humour is her trademark."

"Larry and my mother are engaged," says Rick, waving his hands emphatically above his head, something he does only when intensely angry.  "Isn't it… amazing?"

"Thank you Richard, for your enthusiasm," says Sonia, slipping an arm around Larry's waist. The two of them kiss wetly.

After a moment, Maxine manages to say, "Congratulations."

"It's impulsive, but we couldn"t help ourselves, could we, Larry?"

Larry grins. "When's the baby due?" he asks.

"Couple of weeks," says Rick. "It's a boy. His name's Glyn."

Unravelling herself from Larry"s embrace, Sonia puts her hands on her hips and stares at her son.

"After my father," says Rick, keeping his eyes on Larry.

"How nice," says Sonia, with a small toss of her hair.

"At the moment he measures approximately nineteen-and-a-half inches from top to toe," continues Rick. "And we"ve had the nuchal fold test. Negative."

"The baby hasn"t got Down's," explains Sonia.

Larry gives a nervous laugh. "Good. All good!"

"So. We're having a Christmas wedding," announces Sonia. "I thought I'd go for something white and furry. We're thinking of the Hotel du Vin. You know. Low-key but classy."

"Jesus," says Rick, scratching vigorously at the hair just beneath his chin. It's at its thickest there, and Maxine often hears him working his fingernails through it at night, when she's trying to sleep. "Sorry, but — weren't we talking about our baby?"

Larry and Sonia kiss again and Maxine remembers her wedding to Rick, how much she'd enjoyed organising the details: the flowers, the favours, the menus. She realises that she has no memory of actually kissing Rick on the day itself.

"Let's have a drink," says Maxine. "I think we all need one. I mean, we ought to have a toast."

Over a very late lunch of lamb and new potatoes, cooked in long silence by Rick, who disappeared into the kitchen not long after Maxine returned, Sonia starts talking about childbirth.

"The truth is, labour is the least of your worries. It's after the baby's out the real trouble begins. Anyway, the pain is overstated. To me it felt like the usual monthly agonies. Nothing more." She throws a look at Larry, but he"s busy eating his potatoes, his moustache working slowly as Rick lists the reasons they moved to Wales: space. Fresh air. A tangible sense of heritage. The opportunity to grow your own food.

"I bet you'll be like me," Sonia continues. "Watching Coronation Street one minute, holding a baby the next. Honestly, it was such a shock. Poor old Glyn. He was on the phone for the ambulance and I was screaming, It's coming! Right bloody now! And all the time Mike Baldwin was snogging Deidre Barlow." She pours herself some more wine. "And Richard was a not inconsiderable baby."

"I don't watch Coronation Street."

"Desperate Housewives then."

Maxine tries to laugh.

There's a pause before Sonia lays a hand on Maxine's arm and whispers, "Terrifying, isn't it?"

Maxine stares at the clean edge of Sonia's diaphanous sleeve, amazed it hasn't dragged in Rick's thick, metallic-tasting gravy.  "I've told everyone I'm having a home birth," she confesses.

"Out here in the middle of godforsaken Ceredigion?"

Maxine takes a large gulp of white wine. "We went to an NCT class…"

"They have those here?"

"It was in Coventry. Rick wanted to go early."

"He always was very capable," says Sonia. "He made me look a mess, right from the start. Him and his father both."

In order to divert her mother-in-law from embarking upon her usual narrative of Glyn's failings, Maxine says, "A natural childbirth does make sense, I suppose. You're in your own surroundings... with as little medical intervention as possible..." Hearing herself say the words, she knows they are meaningless. She won't see another seal today, and she won't be able to let this baby plop out onto a towel — or whatever it is you do — in the kitchen. She has no idea what is going to happen, and she realises it would be far better to have no idea in a place where someone else might.

"But, actually, I think I'll want some nice drugs," she whispers.

Sonia nods. "And a nice doctor to hold your hand."

Rick looks up from his plate. "Did you say you want drugs?"

"Every woman has a right to an epidural," states his mother.

"I thought we wanted to keep medical intervention to a minimum," says Rick.

Maxine looks at the table.

Rick wipes his plate with a piece of bread. "It's up to you. It's your body. But we want things to be as natural as possible, don't we? That's why we moved to Wales, wasn't it?"

As soon as he says this, Maxine wants to rush outside and look for seals again. It"s six o'clock now. They might be playing in the bay. If she can see the seal, maybe she can go ahead with the original plan: have the baby at home. Tens machine. Selection of favourites on the iPod. Low-lighting. Her own towels. Thinking this, she suddenly realises that she's always imagined the scene of her labour unfolding in their old house in Coventry, with the number 14 bus rattling the windows as it waits at the stop outside, and her own parents living less than a mile away. Not that they would be much help, she thinks. Since she married Rick, Maxine's mum and dad have kept their distance. They say things like, "We don't want to interfere," and, "You've got a new life now, love." She's not sure if this is their way of easing her passage from the nest, or if they're just intimidated by Rick"s public school education.

"If in doubt, have a doctor about."

Everyone looks at Larry in silence.

 "What do you know about it?" asks Rick.

"Got four kids myself. All my wives did it in hospital."

Rick lets out a laugh. "All your wives?"

"Janice, Gloria, Mavis. Gloria died. Mavis left cos she said I'd never get over Gloria. Then I found your mother."

Larry reaches for Sonia"s hand over the table and the two of them beam at one another.

"And what happened to Janice?" asks Rick.

"Richard –" warns Sonia.

"It's all right," says Larry. "I don"t mind. I was sleeping around. I was young but that is ipso-facto not an excuse. She left me. I deserved it."

"You never told me that." Sonia withdraws her hand from Larry's grip.

"You never asked."

"I didn't ask about the others but you certainly told me about them. Especially the dead one."

Rick stands up. "OK. We were talking about birth, not death. My wife was changing her mind about the birth of my son. Can we just establish what her plans are before the two of you have this potentially relationship-splitting conversation? Maxine? Can you tell us?"

"I don't know," says Maxine.

"But you always have a plan," says Rick.

"Yes," echoes Sonia. "Always. Even if it involves magpies."

 "I think I need a lie down," says Maxine.

It is perhaps the only pleasure of pregnancy. Despite spending many hours awake at night, trying to imagine the mysterious reality of her unborn child (what will its fingers be like? Its breath? How will it cry? What will it feel like in her arms?), Maxine finds she can lie on the bed at any time during daylight hours, close her eyes, and she"s asleep almost immediately. Today she reads for a few minutes before no longer being able to resist the sweet waves of drowsiness. It's like a tide rippling across her body, dragging it out of consciousness, freeing her from her lumbered state. As she feels herself going under, she remembers the seals and the children in the bay, their little black bodies playing in the water, slipping effortlessly between sea and shore, as if bearing no weight at all.

She's woken from her dream, as she always is these days, by an urgent need to pee. She hauls herself up and waits a moment, letting her weight settle itself before attempting to walk. Each time she stands, she must find her new centre of balance. It's slightly further back from where it used to be, and her groin already hurts from the pressure. She"s noticed this lately: that she has to move in a different way, to accommodate not only the baby but also herself, the new roundness of her thighs and arms. She keeps bumping into furniture, which Rick says is down to her pregnancy hormones and the universal clumsiness of women, but she knows it's not just these things: it's that she"s a new person, larger and of more definite shape than before. If something is in her way, she just crashes into it now, without even apologising.

Sitting on the toilet, she realises the house is silent. In the living room, the plates have been cleared from the dining table but the smells of lamb and cigarette smoke linger. There"s still a bowl of untouched bread at the centre of the table and Maxine, newly hungry, helps herself to a slice. Then she sees the note: Gone up to Mwnt Head. Back soon. Hope you slept well. R x

Foel y Mwnt, thinks Maxine. It"s called Foel y Mwnt. You"re the one who's so bloody keen on the heritage of Wales.

She walks out of the patio doors. Outside, the early evening sky is beginning to soften. She stops at the gate, runs a hand along the iron railings, calls for Rick. There's no reply. And so she hurries out of the gate and heads down the lane towards the hill, planning to catch them up. The beach will be empty of families by now and the seals might have appeared for their evening play session. If she's quick she could still spot one. Just one would be enough.

Ordinarily this would not be a very challenging walk, she reminds herself. Ordinarily she would stride along the lane, almost skip up the hill, and, once at the top, feel the need to walk further, to push on along the cliff edge to the next bay. But in her current condition she cannot do what she wants. Her body defies her will. Perhaps it will not let her get even half way to the top. But she has to try. She wonders if such rigorous exercise could cause her to go into labour. People say that having sex can cause it, so why not heaving yourself up a grassy slope?

She pictures Rick heading for home and meeting his wife doubled over in pain, biting the earth of Foel y Mwnt as her cervix contracts. At the NCT class, the group leader advised them all to decide early on who was to be their "birthing partner", and Maxine had confirmed that Rick was her only choice. But what kind of birthing partner will he make? The kind who squats on the floor, breathing in tandem with his wife, gasping in wonder as the baby's bloody head emerges? Or the type who turns a cardboardy shade of grey at her first bellow of pain and sits in the corner, furiously texting his mates? Although Maxine knows Rick very much intends to be the former, she wonders if he'll manage it. This is not, after all, bandaging a damaged hand. Rick is careful and prepared, like her. And, all along, she's known that careful preparation will not be enough.

She"s close to the top now, and breathing heavily. Her lungs no longer have enough space. This baby is squashing her organs, stealing her air. It's pressing particularly on her bladder now. Maxine scans the hill for shelter – but there isn't even a bush to squat behind on the scrubby headland. Every step she takes increases the feeling that she's about to burst from her own skin. There's just too much water. She stops and sits on the grass, unable to move. She stares at a stray twig and fantasises about puncturing herself with it, springing a leak and feeling the blessed release as water gushes from her body.

"Maxine!" Rick is striding down the slope towards her, waving an arm.

She watches him come closer, his sweating face redder than a Welsh dragon's.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"Coming to look for you —"

"We were at the top, and Mum said, isn"t that Maxine? I couldn't believe it. You're eight months' pregnant, for Christ's sake. I thought you were asleep."

"I woke up."

"You shouldn"t take these risks, love."

"What happened to Sonia and Larry?"

Rick shakes his head in disgust. "I left them snogging on the top. It"s not a nice feeling, playing gooseberry to your own mother."

"They seem happy."

"She seemed happy with my father. And look what happened."

Every response Maxine could give to this statement would be unwelcome, so she says nothing. In the past, she has reminded Rick that it was Glyn who left the marriage. And it is Glyn who has failed to visit them once since they moved to Mwnt. She knows Rick hoped to somehow become closer to his father with the move, but, despite living less than forty miles away, Glyn has remained a stranger.

She holds a hand out to him and he takes it. She almost says, Once the baby's born, your dad won"t be able to stay away. He won't be able to resist his little Welsh namesake. This baby will give everyone a reason to stay together.

But she doesn"t want to bring all that up. Not now she's made it almost to the top of Foel y Mwnt.

Rick sighs and gives her hand a tug. "Come on. Let's get you home."

"I think I'll stay here for a bit."

"What for?"

Maxine lies back on the grass. The fresh scent of the soil comes up to greet her. "I just need to rest. I'm enjoying the rich earth of Wales, and so is our son."

Rick gives a short laugh. "It's rich all right. Enriched with blood."

Maxine says nothing. She doesn't want to hear about Bloody Sunday again.

"I"m happy that Glyn's going to be born here," says Rick.

"I"m happy that he's going to be born," says Maxine. "Now go and let me rest. I"ll be down in a minute."

He hesitates, but she knows he's made his decision.

"Promise you won't go up any further?"

In answer she looks at the sky, focusing on a smear of pink cloud as she waits for him to disappear. The evening sun is on her face, gentle as a lover's hand. She is glad not to have reached the top, and to be alone. Because when the baby comes, Rick will not really be a part of it. Sonia and Larry will not be a part of it, and neither will Rick"s father, or her own parents. Even the seals in Mwnt cove, the beautiful, mysterious seals, will have nothing to do with it. When the baby emerges — and wherever he does so — he will have only his mother to bring him back to the safety of her body.

The baby begins to move within her. He rolls and flicks himself against her insides, exploring his own space in her centre. He is, she thinks, pummelling his mother until she fits his shape, and a thought comes to her: when the baby is out, it will be no different. Because once a life grows within you, you"re lumbered. There's no out, not really. No escape. There's only in. He is in her, and that is the end of it.

My Policeman by Bethan Roberts is published by Chatto & Windus. Click here to view the trailer.