Visiting hours on the maternity ward are pure bedlam. A nice bedlam, but a bedlam all the same.
Balloons float above each cubicle, every few seconds there is a flash from a camera or a semi-serious discussion about whose turn it is to hold the baby. Grandmothers queue to hand out knitted cardigans, new-borns cry from being handled too much and the ward is drowning in baby-grows. Baby-grows with bumble bees and Disney characters and cute little logos:
“I love my mummy”
“I love my daddy”
“I’m just perfect”
There is just one more baby to check. One more little life to be sent into the world.
I have to fight my way through the chaos, to get to a side room along the corridor.
To anyone who glanced in, the room would appear to be empty. Quiet, clean and still. But lying in the cot, in faded clothes which are worn from too much washing, a new life is waiting for his turn in the world.
There are no balloons here. No one is fighting for the chance to hold him. There is no mother waiting for my words of reassurance. She has left to resume whatever life she had before. Lost in the crowd. I don’t know her reasons, nor is it my place to find out. But it will always be my place to wonder.
The midwives feed and hold him, but they must smell of uniform and NHS and other people’s families. A different midwife for each bottle. A different voice. A different family. The other mums have wandered in to speak to him, but were quickly drawn away by the pull of their own babies, before he even knew they were there. One mother has left a toy for him in a corner of the cot.
A little, soft, grey elephant who watches over her new charge with solemn, stitched eyes.
There is no one to wait anxiously whilst I listen to the beat of his perfect heart. No one to congratulate. No one has taken his photograph and his first few hours on this earth were never recorded. He lies still whilst I look into his eyes. He makes no objection to being turned or moved and when I examine his hands, tiny fingers curl around mine for comfort.
He passes his baby check with flying colours. He’s perfect. He doesn’t need a baby-grow to tell me this.
The baby reaches into the space above his cot, for a cuddle which will never be there. Little legs kick underneath the borrowed blanket and his eyes dart around the room, trying to make sense of a world which has already rejected him.
The elephant watches.
Someone will come for him. In an office across the town, there is a filing cabinet full of the names of those who wanted him even before he existed. He will be someone’s precious gift. I comfort myself with the knowledge that he will never remember. He will never think back to a ward full of balloons and cameras and excited voices.
I look down at him and say he’s perfect, even though there is no one to tell. I pick up the elephant and hold it in front of his eyes because it’s the only thing here which has any connection to him.
He is too young. These moments will be lost. I know the first memory he makes will be a happy one, yet I am surprised by how difficult it is to leave. I look into the room one last time and the elephant stares back at me, with solemn, stitched eyes.
The elephant and I have an understanding.
All the way down the corridor, I tell myself that it will be fine. This time tomorrow, he will have baby-grows and hand knitted cardigans and a new life all of his own. He will grow up and go to school and make friends and one day he will have his own family and visit this ward with balloons and cameras and excited voices.
He will remember none of this.
But an elephant … an elephant never forgets.