The early summer sun beams through the front door as I invite Mum into the house, holding my index finger to my lips. “Shhh… ” I whisper, “Arlo is sleeping.” I point up at the ceiling, through to my 9-week-old baby napping upstairs.
She has come for her haircut, despite the fact that I am not a hairdresser. We all know someone who as a kid either hacked their friends’ hair off or was the unfortunate victim/customer. This is an adult version of the same game. We partake in this feminine ritual every few months, inviting child to cosset parent, despite the consistently disastrous results.
We chat about something or other as I work my way around her head, my oldest son Ben playing in the gravel where we should have laid lawn. When I have finished, Mum shakes her head in front of the mirror in the usual attempt to make the hairstyle appear. It doesn’t but she thanks me, we hug and she leaves.
As I carefully close the door behind her, I feel a tiny twinge in a faraway part of my gut. I look up at the ceiling. I will leave Arlo sleeping. I’m surprised he hasn’t woken but this busy new life with two kids has taught me that every second counts.
I open the fridge and as I struggle to come up with anything more imaginative than pasta with dregs for dinner, my gut twinges again, only this time it’s close, it’s Now.
I hear a tiny vibration, not big enough to be a sound. My body is lurching up the stairs three steps at a time, I burst into Arlo’s dim little room. Mind and body separate, my legs refusing to take the final steps to Arlo’s bedside. They have betrayed my mother-self and I unleash her wrath upon them. A primordial sense in me knows there is no time: WALK. I peer into the cot.
I can see the back of his little head, the thin blonde hair, the skin beneath. His arm is twisted behind his back, in the way you see police officers restraining angry men on the telly. His face is buried in a blanket and when I bend over to scoop him up, I see his mouth is sealed to the fleece, like a sucker fish on a glass tank.
As I lift him, he is floppy. Something is wrong but I do not understand. At whichever point I hold him on his body, the rest of him is taken by gravity, like overcooked spaghetti. I flip him over and stare. He looks pale, grey, almost white even. His lips are blue. His hands are blue. His feet are blue. I shake him, just a little, the way you shake a packet of skittles to find your favourite flavour. His eyelids open but his eyeballs roll into his head, his navy irises visible just for a moment.
I fish my phone out of my pocket and call my partner Liam. I tap my foot as it rings once, twice, three times, he picks up. I tell him that the baby is a strange colour and now I wonder if he is breathing. As I say the words, I know what I must do but I say it anyway because my mind and body are not one and what I know in my bones, my head is relentlessly denying. “Do you think I should call an ambulance?” I ask. “YES!!!” Liam screams, “Call a fucking ambulance! I’m coming home, I’ll be there soon.”
Balancing the phone and my grey baby, I dial 999 and remember that I have another child out in the garden. I explain the situation to the call handler, not allowing myself to sound panicked. If I panic, then the situation will become A Situation. Better to stay chipper, for everyone. As I step out into the sunshine, his cold ashen skin repels the warm beams, producing unnatural reflections that make me squint. I bounce around, trying to whoosh air into his tiny body, saying his name over and over. “Come on Arlo, Arlo, come on sweetheart, come on Arlo.” It occurs to me that if our student neighbours come to their window they will see the insane woman who bangs on their wall at night, dancing around the garden with a dead baby. Ben is clawing at the waistband of my trousers, he wants me to pick him up, I think he must shout ‘Mummy! Mummy!’ but I can’t hear him.
I open the front door as I am told to, so that the ambulance knows which of the terraced houses to stop at. They arrive quickly. Quickly enough for me to realise this is indeed A Situation. Their faces and tone and of voice are calm but their movements and actions are urgent. Arlo’s eyes are open again and his eyeballs dance up and down, white, blue, white, blue like those hard, plastic dolls with the long, crispy eyelashes.
His tiny chest rises ever so slightly, perhaps the garden boogie worked? One of the two paramedics kneels beside me. I hear the hiss of gas. A tube arrives below Arlo’s nose, larger in diameter than his tiny little nostrils. The crew explain that their equipment cannot be attached to such a small face.
Time stands still. Like watching urine soak up a pregnancy test. Arlo slowly creeps from ash to peach and with each shade transitioned, the tension eases a fraction and the paramedics ask what happened. Liam is there. I don’t remember him arriving.
During the ambulance trip, the paramedic tells me that Alro would have died had I reached him three, maybe four minutes later. I ask him how long he has been a paramedic, I ask him about his life, his wife, his kids. “Your baby nearly died. Are you ok?” He asks me. “Not really,” I chuckle, “don’t worry, I’ll deal with it later.” Arlo is conscious but silent. He is a different baby to the one I put to sleep but he is pinkish and alive and beautiful.
I am asked to recount the event over and over at the hospital. Maybe the paramedic has told them I was suspiciously upbeat when they arrived. Perhaps they think I will trip up and an inconsistency in my story will prove what they are all thinking. I wish they would just say it; Did you try to kill you baby? Are you a baby killing maniac?
I tell them I put my baby to sleep on his front, I laid him on an extra blanket that smells of me to comfort him. These are the things that I did that nearly killed my baby so I conclude that they are right: I am guilty. Thwarting my mother-self’s desperate defence, I condemn the pleading wretch to suffer an eternity. “You wouldn’t believe how many people this happens to,” the nurse says. I’m not sure whether this is a warning or reassurance or both.
Numb on the inside, chatty on the outside, I present a confusing picture. Nobody asks me why I didn’t perform mouth to mouth but it becomes apparent during the CPR lesson they give us that it would have been more useful than spinning in the fresh air.
I ask Liam if he hates me because I almost killed our baby. He recoils from the question and holds my unfeeling body. “You saved our baby!” He exclaims gratefully, “If you hadn’t gone up when you did, Arlo would be dead. You saved him!”
We are both right; two sides of the same coin. As the nurse said, this is an experience so many see through to the tragic end. I am so grateful for this fucked-up gift of almost knowing how different life could have been had I not gone upstairs the day Arlo nearly went away.