Updated: Sep 13, 2021
The Ugly Baby
A, for arseholes. For antenatal, too. I’m sure the two have been confused. After all, they function in a similar way. You go in thinking it’s not going to be that bad. You come out damaged, a little ripped up, and wishing there hadn’t been so much shit.
A for the ants that scurried on the other side of Mother’s open window on Friday evening, when she first got an achy feeling between her hips. She wondered whether the ants were a bad omen and hobbled towards the landline. She rang the hospital..
‘I think I’m getting contractions.’
‘Could you hold on till Monday? It’s bank holiday weekend and the maternity ward is full,’ reception said.
They told her to take a nice hot bath and wait it out. I’ve never been particularly considerate of the proletariat and I couldn’t hold on. Mother had to get a taxi to a hospital an hour away. The flat was owned by her friend’s Finnish boyfriend. There was no way she was staining the carpet.
Mother regarded my birth as one of the more interesting events of 1987. She once called me from her landline to tell me this. She sounded drunk. What follows is mostly a gabled account of a story she’d told every Christmas since, although I’ve allowed myself to fill in the gaps. It is my birth, after all.
The labour ward found her a small room and put her on gas and air. The pain dulled and between the punches of contraction she found herself able to think, as if her thoughts formed bubbles of consciousness. She could hear other people through the walls, a tired hum of moans. The midwife lifted the umbilical cord when it got stuck around my neck. The rest of me was out by half past eight.
After being placed on Mother’s chest, covered in gunk, I was whisked away for a wipe down and a vitamin K injection. The midwife dressed me in pink clothes from Mother’s overnight bag.
‘The placenta is an amazing thing, Annabelle, it’s worth having a look at,’ the midwife said. At some point, the midwives had changed. The haggard one had finished her night shift and a morning midwife had come in, all perk and pizzazz. Her eyes were bright and her moves swift.
Mother nodded vaguely. A dark bloody thing was being thrust under her nose, while she lay there with her knees up and legs spread. She was not entirely immune to the stink of the night spent. Then the midwife left, and a nurse sat on the edge of her bed. The room was a pale yellow, empty save for the bed and three plastic chairs. Outside, the clouds hung low, feverish. Mother glanced over at the plastic bassinet. There I was. Her daughter: a white blanket and a small grey hand.
A doctor strolled in, the midwife by his side. He was a small man with round glasses and clean-looking skin. They smiled. The doctor peered down at me and cooed. His forehead creased like a used napkin. The midwife nodded. Mother looked over at the colour of the curtains and asked whether anyone had thought about ordering new ones.
The doctor turned his smile from Mother to the curtains and back again. He told her they’d have to run a few tests as standard procedure. Mother thought he was talking about the curtains. How complicated decision-making was in hospitals, she thought. She looked down at her fingernails. She’d had them varnished red on Wednesday. Without really being sure if she was happy or sad, she started to cry.
‘Annabelle, I don’t want you to worry about anything,’ the doctor said.
‘I’m not worried,’ she gulped.
Mother wished she’d painted her nails pink instead of red. Pink would have looked demure and motherly.
‘We’re going to make sure everything is alright.’
A nurse brought her pudding. I was transferred to a Special Care Baby Unit. To the midwife’s surprise, all my test results were normal. They put me back in with Mother and exclaimed in singsong voices how sweet I was.
A name had to be chosen for my birth certificate. My mother had wanted to call me something dainty. Like Lily or Daisy. But the ephemeral nature of flowers worried her. She thought of Anne, which was sturdy, or Joan, but decided on Ruth, because the Ruths she’d known were good, independent women.
Grandma drove down to see me. She struggled to hide her disappointment. She joked I was the runt of the litter, like a puppy left behind. But Grandma was sure I’d be alright. ‘She’s bound to grow out of all this,’ she said, gesturing at me. ‘Runts always end up tougher than you think.’
Mother wasn’t sure what it was I was supposed to grow out of. Her newborn was everything she’d expected it to be. I weighed six pounds, looked a little like an old man, bit her tits and shat strange substances. The hard part was over, she thought. The baby had been birthed and her life, her real one, could begin.
She allowed herself to be shipped back to Suffolk. Grandma had a house near Aldeburgh, close enough to the sea that from time to time its salty breeze made the leaves tremble in her green thumbed garden. She had bought the house with her late husband, Andrew, whom I never met. The house had dark brown beams running across white ceilings, and a stairway that creaked whenever anyone needed a wee in the middle of the night.
In her childhood bedroom, Mother spent a few more days watching me feed and sleep and open my eyes. Spring sunshine poured through the open windows.
A, like air, a breath fresh of it. The basic principle is to ingest it, convert it. She thought I was a marvel for having understood this, and gazed as my lungs filled and fell, anxious that I might forget what she couldn’t understand how I knew. She watched me so closely that it wasn’t long before she noticed that the peach fuzz on my skin was white and growing thicker.
She had been washing me in the sink. Patting me dry, she contemplated my soft belly and was tempted to comb it. I was softer and fluffier than the towel she’d just dried me with. Running her fingers over my arms and legs, she noticed the hard knobs of my knees, the lumps on my shoulders. Her palms flattened against the base of my crooked neck.
Calling the hospital, she asked for the doctor with round glasses. Mother explained she was sure I was hairier and my bones seemed to have extra lumps. On his recommendation, she took me back to the hospital. A paediatrician ran scans and took blood. Again, all of my results were normal.
But then the news got out. The doctor gave the game away, because it was the eighties and the concept of publicity was still attractive for a man’s career. I was placed in an incubator for show and tell. Researchers asked if they could take photographs. A doctor, who had a PhD in studies of infancy, left London for three days to come up and have a look at me. He based a research paper on me. Child malformation. Pictures of Ruth H. were splashed across medical journals, which Grandma liked until she read the articles.
When Maureen from the village said to her: ‘Annie, there was the funniest looking baby in the papers this morning, and it’s got the same surname as you.’
She said: ‘Oh, is there? I don’t read the newspaper these days, they print the letters too small.’
Maureen told her then, leaning over the fence, that it was a marvel. Grandma said she was sure it was but she had to go to the shops. She went into every newsstand, where she bought every paper with my name on it.
Newspaper sales having gone up, more stories about infant development were printed across the nation. Mother would always say she had read every line written about her daughter. She’d recite that I was an infant with an abnormal integumentary system, my connective tissue disorders seemed concentrated to my pilosity, skin, ligaments and joints. While these would normally have been associated with significant disability and life-threatening complications, I had tested negative for any known dermatosis disease. My white and red blood cell counts were normal, oxygen levels good and I had forty-six chromosomes. I had no trace of bacterial or fungal infection, mineral and vitamin levels deficiency, I had no hypersensitivity and presented no allergies, there was no gland inflammation or irritation.
I was a newborn baby and no one could find anything wrong with me, which suggested that there was nothing wrong with me. Is this simply the exception that confirms the rule? one writer asked, in an article entitled “Darwinian progress: no biological explanation for an infant’s affliction”.
Mother decided she wanted to go back to London at the end of her maternity leave. Before everyone began to publicly compare me to a chimpanzee, Mother had been sharing a flat with a girl she’d met at secretarial college. Nicola had dropped out to become an airline hostess. Onboard, she’d met aristocratic Andreas, an aviator. Mother had asked Andreas and Nicola whether they’d be my godparents. Neither of them, thank goodness, ever read medical journals.
They came up one Saturday to see the baptism. When they saw me lying in my cot, they took my mother aside. Hovering at the entrance to my Grandma’s kitchen, they asked in hushed tones, as if afraid I might hear, what was wrong. Mother offered them eggs and bacon and blamed my ugly useless dad. Andreas and Nicola smiled and asked if she had anyone else in mind for god-parenting.
That afternoon, Nicola told her they were about to move to Finland. Andreas would propose, she said, in a year’s time. Nicola offered to help Mother find someone else to share the flat with.
‘No one is going to want to share with a baby.’
‘I’m going to ask,’ Nicola said.
And she did. Amid shopping and packing, Nicola asked her friends, her boyfriend’s friends, she asked everyone, whether anyone wanted to rent a shared flat in Greenwich with a young single working mother and funny-looking baby.
When Andreas announced he was willing to sell, a friend called Arnold became interested. He said he would gladly welcome having Mother as a renter.
‘You remember Arnold.’ Nicola smiled through the phone.
‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’ Mother said grimly. She thought Arnold was a bit of a simp. She heard Nicola laugh on the other end.
‘You could always move somewhere else?’
But Annabelle didn’t want to move somewhere else. After that, she telephoned Arnold and asked what the rent would be. He gave her a discounted rate and Mother was delighted. She booked me in for daycare and bought a new suit for her imminent return to the working world.
Arnold fancied himself a luckless actor and that was as close as he ever got to having a line of work. It was always in his destiny to fail, he used to say. Arnold openly admitted he was too arrogant to attend any auditions, unless he heard Mark Rylance was being considered for the part. He spent most of his days wandering through the park and drinking coffee out of tiny cups.
Arnold had read History at Homerton College, Cambridge. He had done so with no intention of finding any kind of employment thereafter. Homerton had just been a natural progression from boarding school. Once his older brother graduated, Arnold stopped attending lectures and spent a majority of his time down in London. Arnold had entertained theatre crowds in his brother’s flat with superfluously large amounts of champagne and vodka. There, a stranger to sobriety, he’d been promised countless roles by RADA graduates in exchange for favours. The favours were always given, for Arnold was generous to a fault. His parents hadn’t minded his lack of graduation—he had got into Cambridge, which was all that mattered. They were happy to extend their holiday in Switzerland.
When he bought the flat from Andreas, it had been twenty years since he’d failed to graduate. He wasn’t really into property, but for appearance’s sake, he thought it would look good to be interested in something other than himself. Besides, he’d been assured by someone somewhere, he had forgotten who, that property value would go up in the Greenwich area. Besides, he was curious about the infamously ugly baby.
Mother soon found out she hated her job, not because she minded being a secretary—that part she liked—but because her boss had so obviously hoped she wouldn’t come back. Several evenings a week, she burst into tears from exhaustion. Arnold offered her wine and petted me, before going on long weekends in the Alps and the Lake District.
Otherwise, the two of them amiably minded their own businesses—and me. Things got better, the way they did in the nineties for the right people in the right place at the right time. Mother was promoted at the bank, which meant she started coming home late. Once the boss who didn’t like her was out of the picture, she was barely ever home, and always blamed the commute. Arnold began to pick me up from daycare. Most days, he bought me a chocolate bar or an ice cream.
Weekdays flew by, I doubled in size and remained a little ball of fur with an old man’s face. Saturdays and Sundays were spent strolling through the park, taking turns to wheel the pushchair. We would usually head to a bakery, though once there, I doubt Arnold touched anything except espresso. Mother guzzled back litres of anything frothy and eyed up the other couples and their children.
‘They’re all looking at her,’ she once said to Arnold.
‘They know she’s special.’
But soon they learnt to take the stares for granted. It would have seemed odd if I had gone a day without it.
It was Arnold who kept mirrors away from me. He hid the one in the bathroom under newspapers and magazine pictures of ladies with no clothes on. He told my mother that mirrors in bathrooms were both awfully bourgeois and terribly lower-class—neither of which my mother wanted to be. She laughed at him, but kept mirrors out of my reach, too.
When the daycare centre made comments about how much hair I shed, Arnold suggested I stop going. He promised he would keep me company. Mother called up one of her friends for an objective opinion. The friend was a school teacher. The school teacher was invited to tea. She had very curly, coiled hair and a dress covered with purple and orange flowers. She is one of my earliest memories.
She buttered a crumpet for me and said to Arnold and Annabelle: ‘She’s so much smaller than the other children, I’m afraid they’d trample her.’
Arnold gave her the rest of the Victoria Sponge, which he had bought specially for the occasion. Annabelle said she seemed to be better at managing other people’s money than managing me. She got another promotion at work.
Thinking back to my early memories, I don’t remember ever being particularly worried about mirrors or lack thereof. There were many interesting things to look at. Traffic lights, dogs, people’s coats. My mother fussed over her appearance in private, so it never occurred to me to fuss over mine. Arnold only emerged from his room as Arnold. He was not required to fabricate a daily persona.
Arnold was relaxed in his care-taking duties. He read plays and smoked a pipe, and stuck me in front of soap operas. He bought the block letters of the alphabet but never actually bothered to teach me their order. I learnt the most through watching the people inside the television. I noticed they all looked the same. The women had pale unblemished and hairless skin and wore similar clothes. The men had straight noses and square foreheads and short hair. I also realised that everyone seemed to pair off. Most men were talking about girls, and most women were talking about men. After two people in the box got married, I asked Arnold why he wasn’t. He told me he had never met the right woman.
We were eating shepherd’s pie, which Arnold had bought from a corner shop. My mother told me I shouldn’t bother Arnold with such trivial matters. I asked who my father was. My mother drank more wine.
This exchange led Arnold to believe I was an exceptionally bright child. Which I was, since I’d only just turned three. He began to sit down with me and gossip for hours. Arnold was a ruthless gossip. He said Annabelle had met a man when she was twenty-five.
My father was eight years older than her and a stockbroker. He took her on weekends away in Kent and Dorset. He was bald, and Arnold had never seen him without a pair of sunglasses. They had broken it off shortly before Annabelle found out she was pregnant. When she told my father she was expecting, he asked her how she could be sure it was his.
So you see, this chapter was only ever about arseholes after all.