She stands behind the bar and sings to herself: Bring me the used and abused, the battered and bruised, your scars I will follow like train tracks, your clothes as rough as potato sacks. She sings, bring me the broken and the battered, with his wounded heart worn on his frayed sleeve. Bring me the tarnished tin soldiers, the cowboys that cry, the washed-up pirates. Bring me the broken-nosed boxer who says he could have been a contender. Bring me the patient and never the doctor. Bring me the convict, not the lawyer and never the judge. Bring me the worn out, the worked over and the worked through, the win nothing and the lost it all. She sings, bring me the half full and never the half empty.
Fresh out of prison, he goes into The Crown, his first pint on the outside, he spots her a mile off. She works behind the bar and she's just his type, she wants to save the world one man at a time. She’s a tough bird with a big heart of gold. He says, she’s a bit mad, a bit lively, but she’s got spirit. He boasts, if you get your feet under her table, you’ll be looked after, alright, you’ll be well fed and watered, she'll even do you a fry-up and give you money the morning after for your bus home. Bless her.
I don’t know how she does it, night after night, that stinking pub, all those drunks and hard knocks, but she still looks for the good in people, she sees the gold in people. And the worst part is, she thinks she’s the one doing the saving. She wants to be a knight in shining armour, funny that, isn’t it, because right now she’s the one that needs saving most, she’s the one that could use someone being decent for once, and now isn’t that the truth.
She says that life is not about how you fall, it's how you get up, time and time again, its about how you get up. And what don’t kill you, will only make you stronger, my love, what don’t kill you, only makes you stronger. So she gives everyone a chance and a second chance. And she says you’re welcome, come again, just remember to wipe your feet and use a coaster for your glass of beer. But the truth is, she shows you her hand, she plays life so open, it is impossible not to see her cards, to cheat her and beat her.
She wakes up in his strange bed. He sleeps and snores gently. She turns her head and sees his shaved head, the top of his arm out of the covers, his botched blue prison tattoos on his bicep. She gets up, careful not to wake him, and walks to the window and pulls the nylon net curtains aside. Outside she sees the industrial estate, as grey as a pint glass of old dishwater. Pissing it down, just as you would expect in July in Belfast.
I’ll look back at this, one day, she thinks, and I'll wonder what the hell I was doing here. I didn’t just let go of the kite. My kite isn’t just knotted in the tree. Oh no, I snapped the kite string, I jumped off the roof of the world with my kite rope tied to a rock sinking into this black and bottomless lake of trouble. I lost the map and stopped paying attention. I'll keep trucking on in spite of everything, even though I know I am in the wrong place, I know this road will go somewhere. All roads lead somewhere, eventually, don’t they?
She looks at his cluttered floor, then over at the table, a jumble of mugs and beer cans, a debris of crumpled and ripped rizla packets and several full ashtrays. She catches her reflection in the mirror, sighs and says: Jeremy Kyle
This makes her chuckle and think of a one-hundred-and-forty character joke - but she won’t tweet it. She’s wearing his old t-shirt, her big tits bounce and ache, she is pale faced and milky. Today she promises herself she must go to the doctors. She has to get tested, get this sorted. She knows she is not right. She swigs tepid tap water out of a tea-stained mug and waits to stop feeling nauseous.
Then she gives up the morning and climbs back into his bed. She moves her hand down his firm body, strokes the black hairs of his belly, he murmurs sleepily. She strokes his hot balls and feels him get hard, he rolls onto his back and stretches. His eyes closed, his breathing deep. Soon he begins to moan, she touches him, kisses his throat, his neck, his shoulder. She can work two hands, two hands at the same time, one on his fat dick and one on herself. Wet with last nights come on her inner thighs and now a new wetness. She moves down the bed and sucks his cock. He wakes up to feed her and fuck her mouth. He grips her hair, pushes his fat cock into her mouth. She is writhing, bucking, jolting, quickly, she is coming, on her own fingers, she is coming now, and he climbs on top of her and is in her and he is fucking her and he is coming, coming on her, coming in her and with her. She hides her face in his shoulder and neck and cries silently and quickly thinks, this is the last time, she thinks, this is over.
She did ask him if he would come to England with her, and he said he probably shouldn't or wouldn't or couldn’t, she cannot quite remember which, but he isn't coming. She didn't ask twice, she wanted him to insist, to be a man about it, to look her in the eye and to hold her and say, 'Everything will be alright my girl, you'll not go through this alone...'
But he said nothing and she could tell he'd rather not be there.
And one minute she is at Belfast airport and boarding an Easy Jet and the next she is sitting on her own in London in an abortion clinic waiting room and you know what? She would rather not be there either. She would rather be back behind the bar at The Crown, sloshing beer slops and pouring pints, with the roar of raucous football cheers and banter. Laughing with the regulars and smoking out the back. She would rather be bleeding anywhere, than here in this white waiting room. She said I can do this on my own and he believed her. He needed to believe it, that she didn’t need him, so he wouldn't have to do anything to help. She blames him, she keeps blaming him, but the truth is, she is angrier with herself than him. She should've known better. She’s an idiot. A stupid girl. And all of this self-loathing isn't productive, but it floods in epic waves.
While she is in London, she stays at her aunties in Clapham. She sleeps in the lilac box room, its all lavender and lilac, with a single bed, lace curtains and a crucifix nailed on the wall above her head. She must be mindful to tip toe to the bathroom in the night and hide any paperwork or clues. She cannot tell her elderly auntie the truth, her mothers sister is too nice, she is of another generation, the old generation. She imagines how the conversation would go if she ever had the guts to tell her:
Auntie, you know, I've a funny story to tell. So, about a month ago, I went to the doctors with a bit of a tummy ache, they ran tests and said ‘You do know you’re six weeks pregnant don’t you?’ No. I laughed and then I cried. No. Of course I didn’t know. I’ve still been getting my period as normal and I had no idea! Isn't that a funny story!
No. There is no way to spin it. Her auntie would be utterly appalled, she would think it was her own stupid fault and then that God was punishing her. Her auntie wouldn't let her stay in the house if she knew the true purpose of her trip to London. She tells her Auntie she's come for blood tests, she tells her auntie its nothing to worry about. Her auntie is a bit deaf, she nods and says she is pleased to have a visit from her youngest niece.
She gets ready for her first appointment. She's both nervous and afraid. She takes a mini cab and London is all building sites and road works. Her mind isn't on the view though, nor the thick morning traffic, its this thing growing inside her.
She will make no attachments. No. She will not guess a gender, nor imagine it's soft and perfect tiny fingers reaching up to touch her face. No. She will not feel any tenderness. Stop. She will not dream about a small hot fist curling around her thumb. No. She will not. No, she hasn’t. Stop.
At the clinic she takes the abortion pill. It made her feel a little weak and sleepy at first as her belly prepared to become a battleground. At first she could not see for the searing migraine that overtook her, the bright colourful spots before her eyes. The show was bloody vivid red and dark black, cherry juice, burgundy, red wine and liver. She stares down at it all, she is fascinated that that was what all the fuss was about. She feels no horror but a relief. She says goodbye to it all and is allowed to go home. But it's at the follow up appointment the next week the doctor says there is something wrong. It isn't normal. Something isn’t right,
This is not usual, the doctor says, something is wrong, he says something isn’t right.
She waits and waits. She looks around the waiting room at the faces of the other women, women who may be in trouble like her. They look like real women, real adult women. There’s a real woman, a real lady, and look how her husband strokes her back and pats her hand. And there's another, that girl over there, she is a good and nice girl too. When they call her name, Lucy, her partner rises and holds her hand and goes into the examination room with her. Lucky Lucy.
She sits alone and waits. She hasn’t told anyone. She can do this on her own. She will do all this on her own. She can and she will. She repeats these statements as she flicks through a magazine at pictures of kitchen and bathroom makeovers, it makes no sense. She isn’t normal. It isn’t normal. What is wrong with her? What is wrong with the scan? Why do they need another blood test?
At night at her aunties, in the lavender room she has nightmares. She sees a baby boy in blue, gurgling in a cot. Then she dreams she changes his nappy and it’s such a stink she cannot breathe, she collapses from the smell, as though it is a fatal poisonous gas. She dreams that the child inside her is a poison that is killing her.Her days are an endless juggling of pain management and cramps, the bleeding and the dread, an awful fear, and waves of shame. She hides some of her used sanitary towels from her auntie, she wraps them up in a plastic bag, and puts them in a box under her bed and disposes of them outside when her auntie goes out. She sits with a hot water bottle and aches and stares at day time television, twitter and facebook and videos on youtube. She googles her predicament and looks for cases like hers, she isn't normal. What is normal?
Two weeks pass, and then three, she hardly ever leaves her aunties house, she binge watches box sets and cooks nice dinners for her auntie. Sometimes in the evenings they play draughts or cards and have a sherry. Her auntie believes she has the hot water bottle because her appendix is hurting. She takes a mini-cab to her hospital appointments because it is too painful to walk too far.
At the hospital she is sitting in the waiting room, again. She looks out of the window and can see people enjoying the sunshine, laughing and drinking outside pubs, sitting in groups and smiling in the sun. She watches the summer world outside and remembers it has been so long since she rode a bike, she promises she will ride a bike when she is well, one day, she will ride a bike in the sunshine again, with her feet off the pedals and the breeze in her hair.
Then one afternoon she impulsively orders a beautiful dress online. It is the kind of dress a happily pregnant woman would wear. It is the kind of beautiful dress a good girl would buy when she is blushing and blooming. When people might say that a girl is glowing, like an English rose, blossoming. The maternity dress arrives in the post and she goes upstairs to try it on. She stands and stares at her reflection in the narrow hallway mirror. It is cotton, soft and long, it flows all the way to the floor, with lots of room for a bump. It's patterned with blue cornflowers. The kind of dress a nice girl might wear whilst holding hands with her strong, reassuring, loving husband, as they beam and say in unison, we have some good news as they collectively produce a photo of a scan at a summer family barbecue. She starts to wear this dress when her auntie goes out. She wears it in private and in secret, and she daydreams, she imagines what would have happened if things were different, if things were normal. She eyes herself in her dress in the mirror alone and admires her voluptuous shape, her plump breasts, the round belly through the material. But the bump is not normal. The scans and weekly blood tests make no sense. She is still positively pregnant. None of it makes any sense.
There is a new word the doctors use now: Ectopic.
It is lost. She gets lost down hospital corridors. There are forms to fill out. She is asked a volley of questions in the waiting room in front of the other patients. The good girls, the decent and married and normal ladies all stare and listen and she knows they are listening and that they must think she is a slut and that she is bad and she is alone and she did the something wrong and she is not normal. She feels their judgments, she looks down at her ugly, hard, rough feet, jagged and chipped toe nails, in cheap plastic flip flops, dirty feet, dirty girl. This shame is an unbearable heat prickling and creeping up her spine and neck. She sweats, she can feel them all looking and listening behind her.
When was your last bleed?
The nurse asks loud and clear and curtly, holding her cocked biro, she wants to explain she has had a miscarriage but she has been bleeding for weeks. And all the good girls and nice ladies ears prick up. They are all quietly judging her, clocking her broad Irish accent, knowing that she is desperate and vulnerable. She wants to cry and she bites her lip but instead she just mumbles,
I'm bleeding now.
Another week has passed and it is another Wednesday. This time she has been asked to fast for twenty-four hours before the examination. She is nauseous and faint, hot and cold at once, she takes off her jacket as she approaches the reception desk. This time, this nurse, cannot find her name on the list, she stares at the computer screen, blankly. Types and then stares some more. She asks her to spell it out, twice, and then again. Her name is Aoife but people seem to have difficulty pronouncing and spelling it here in England. She wants to shout: A.O.I.F.E.
Seriously now, I promise I am meant to be here, even if I am not on your list, would I make it up that I have an appointment? Do you think I get my kicks by coming here and having a camera inserted into my cunt every Wednesday?
And it has been every Wednesday for six weeks now. Something is wrong, something is very wrong and nobody knows what to do, so they just say come back next week, come back next week, come back next week. Aoife is sick, she is sick of it. She sits in the waiting room and looks at the nice people, good girls and clever ladies with their proud healthy bumps and beautiful children and caring husbands and handsome boyfriends and lovely kitchens and pretty bathrooms and she despairs. Somehow Aoife has got lost, she lost her baby, and is now lost down corridors of bad men and bad choices. Actually there was no choice. There is no father or husband in this picture book. There was a fuck, a fuck happened, some careless fuck with a stupid fuck, but he has gone, stupid fuck.
Aoife said she could handle this alone. And so she does, she goes through all of this on her own and in secret. She doesn’t even tell her mother back home. She is sure her auntie suspects something and she keeps fobbing her off, she tells her auntie that it's blood tests, that its her appendix, maybe a bladder infection. She must get her story straight. Blood tests. Appendix. The bladder infection and kidney stone story sounds iffy and she'll only be lectured. She is twenty-seven years old and she should know better, she works and lives in a pub in Belfast, but she'll always be baby Aoife to her auntie.
Eight weeks, nine weeks pass, and every Wednesday Aoife sits in that hospital waiting room and waits for more results. And every week none make any sense. They scribble things down, notes about notes, her blood results tell the doctors she is pregnant but they cannot find a fetus.
The needles hardly hurt anymore, she won't flinch now, her arm all purple with bruises to prove she is a weekly blood-giving veteran. Each week another blood test and each week she tests positive, pregnant, but with no fetus. And each week more laying back and staring at the white tiled hospital ceiling, legs spread as a cool plastic camera is inserted and each week yet another doctor saying
Just taking a quick look inside, that's a good girl, now this might be cold, this might pinch, breathe out and relax as much as you can...
She laughs about it now, as she makes the same joke, she tells each new doctor that she must be Mary, mother of the holy ghost. You do know that I am Mary? She laughs. Now you see it and now you don’t. Yes. She knows this is blasphemy, but she could have stayed in Belfast for treatment if Ireland wasn't stuck in the dark ages. If it wasn't so complicated. If any of this were normal.
Aoife starts to feel a better, she has made friends and gets familiar with some members of staff. In hospitals you notice the kindest of nurses right away, and God, thank God for them, because this is the stuff they don't tell you about, this is the bit a girl will have to do mostly on her own, this is the loneliest journey any woman ever has to make. This is the train journey that stops at the stations we call:
Split Condom. Missed Pill. Mistake. Abortion. Miscarriage. Ectopic.
At Aoife's last appointment in London the doctor shows her a scan. This time, this doctor, he is particularly helpful and kind. He turns the television screen towards her and shows her a black and white pulsing image. And now suddenly she sees inside herself and she sees something, pale, ghostly shapes, as the doctor explains,
See this shadow, here? Here on the outside, that heart shape, I believe that's where your truth was, and you see, that's all that matters, but here this dark patch, this is where you put blame, and is where your choice was, but other peoples guilt and shame began to grow, its all gone now, but that is what was causing you all that pain, your heart was trying to live on the outside. Your reason and your truth tried to grow outside here, look see, like a wild flower, like a cornflower growing between the cracks in a concrete path. ... You'll be right as rain now.
Aoife returns to Belfast and returns to herself, the pain fades, the memories dim, some of the guilt dilutes. But guilt, that's a choice, you can torture yourself with that for years to come if you choose to stare into the playgrounds of what could have been. And late at night, drinking whiskey in the back kitchen of the pub, you'll hear the girls of The Crown, all laughing and conspiring and whispering to each other and Aoife spills her heart out, pours her story straight, sharing the truth, between sips of mothers milk, she begins
Did I ever tell you what really happened the summer I went to London?
Aoife hugs the new barmaid, she's been crying, she's a girl in trouble with nobody to talk to. Now Aoife makes sure all the girls of the neighbourhood can come to her from now on. Because all over the world, this is the stuff they don't tell you about, this is the bit a girl will mostly have to do on her own, this is the loneliest choice any woman ever has to make, but it is her choice. Women are elastic, how miraculous you are, how the female body swells and grows and then springs back to you, as you come home to yourself.
Aoife wipes the bar top as she sings: What don’t kill me only makes me stronger. Goodbye to the used and the abused, the battered and bruised, scars like train tracks, clothes like potato sacks. Goodbye to tarnished tin soldiers, the cowboys that cried, the washed up pirates. And goodbye to the broken nosed boxer who could have been a contender. She sings, bring me the half full and never the half empty.
It is a Wednesday and Aoife rides a red bicycle. She glides downhill, with her feet off the pedals and the wind in her hair. She sails in a long soft dress, billowing, patterned with blue cornflowers. Summer is done and September arrives with gentle time, with auburn and red leaves, with a soft golden light.
We rise to sing again.
(c) Salena Godden / April 2016
This fiction was shortlisted for the 4th Estate and Guardian short story prize 2016. Then published by Bare Lit and Brain Mill Press in 2017. It is an illustration of the loneliness of abortion, that it can be harrowing enough without it also being illegal. When this was written, it was in response to yet another Northern Irish woman being sentenced to imprisonment after seeking a termination.
Sharing this today, May 2018, following the landslide success of the Irish referendum. The Irish people just voted to allow abortion, breaking decades of oppression -- but unless Theresa May acts now, women in Northern Ireland will be denied the same choice!
Please contact your local MP and make some noise on twitter follow #nowomanleftbehind -
Find your MP here > https://bpas.eaction.org.uk/lobby/nowforNI
We still have such a long way to go to protect women's rights and women's autonomy not just in Ireland but all over the world. This story is dedicated to all people worldwide speaking out, standing up and fighting for the rights of women and for justice for the violation of human rights.
21 | LIVEWIRE POETS | MIDSUMMERS PARTY | CORNWALL
Pessimism Is For Lightweights - 13 Pieces of Courage and Resistance
Pessimism Is For Lightweights published by Rough Trade Books, June 2018, please visit roughtradebooks.com
Film: Pessimism is for Lightweights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjTVyBcJR7I
Salena Godden highly acclaimed ‘LIVEwire’ album out now on nymphsandthugs.net