When Florence’s baby was born dead, she found she couldn’t cry. Not at first. She had known for some time that it was dead. She voiced her concern to Doctor Foster just the week before, calling him to the house to listen to her still, silent belly.
“Nonsense, Mrs Morgan. I have never seen a young mother as healthy as you,” he declared.
He would hear no more of it and didn’t even bother to open his Gladstone bag or write anything down. Before he left her house, she heard him talking to George in his study about how women flapped too much at the slightest thing. George apologised for his wasted time.
The baby’s face was squashed and swollen and covered in scratches made by tiny fingernails. It would have been a girl. She would have been a girl. Florence named her Lucy out loud, but in her head she called her Little Lost Lucy. She was tiny and beautiful to her mother, and Florence held her cold, grey body and sang lullabies under her breath until the hospital nurse decided to separate them. One to the morgue, one to the ward. Florence wanted to go to the morgue too. So much. She clung to Little Lost Lucy with the last shred of her strength and determination, and the nurse had to fetch two more nurses to help her.
When her arms gave up her baby, Florence let out a noise like a wounded animal. The noise left the room, travelled down the corridor, and reached into every ward. All eighty-seven patients shifted in their beds, even the very sick ones. All of them knew that a mother had lost a child. It was that kind of noise.
Florence was wheeled into a ward where six new mothers sat cooing over their living babies. She was expected to recover from her grief surrounded by the happiness of others. The mothers did not speak to her because they didn’t know what to say. Nor did Florence speak to them, but that was because she couldn’t speak. She was afraid that, if she opened her mouth, the noise would come out again. It was waiting there, somewhere deep down in the darkness, like a patchwork dam holding back a lakeful of tears.
Doctor Foster visited. He patted her hand and ignored the glare she fixed on him. Muttered something about weak hearts. Florence closed her eyes tight shut and when she opened them again he was gone.
George visited. He said ‘There, there. Never mind’, and Florence wanted to wrap her hands around his neck and squeeze extremely hard. But, of course, she didn’t. In George’s humble opinion, there would be others. Florence was not quite twenty. George was not quite thirty. Plenty of time.
Florence dared to open her mouth at last. “I don’t want others. I wanted Lucy.”
Little Lost Lucy, her heart whispered.
“Lucy? What kind of name is that?” George said. “Not that it matters.”
Not that it matters.
In the night the other babies woke. They took turns at waking everyone else in the ward up. Florence listened to them and thought that, though Lucy had never cried, she would have recognised the sound of it. She lay her hands on her empty swollen belly, so sore and tender. She felt her breasts prickle with wasted milk. She wondered when she would cry.
The morning finally decided to show its face. The new mothers were tired, but still happy. Nurses carried out their rounds, cooing at tiny bawling faces and straightening crisp, white sheets. Nobody came to see if Florence was alright. It was as if losing a baby made you invisible. George did not visit. The doctor stayed away.
Little Lost Lucy, if she lived, would have become somebody great. Florence knew this beyond a doubt, because the one thing she would not let her daughter become was a replica of her mother. Obedient. Shy. Pliable. Scared of angering her husband. A body filled with nothing but apprehension and restraint.
Lucy would have roared at the world and thrown herself into life, eating up all the experiences it could throw at her. A warrior for all the best causes. A fierce tiger of a mother to her cubs. A queen amongst women.
The thought of staying another minute in the ward made Florence feel sick. The thought of going home, back to the dark house with the heavy tick of the grandfather clock, made her feel even more sick. She battled with the tightly tucked sheet strapping her to the bed and freed herself. Swinging her legs out, she stood up, testing the ground with her bare feet, judging the amount of strength she had left. A flood of warm blood leaked from her, a dizziness made her head spin, but other than that she felt strong.
When he was preparing her for the birth, Doctor Foster said: “After the birth you will need to stay in bed for seven days. You will be weak and unable to walk.”
At the time, Florence thought this strange. There were whispers about working women giving birth in all sorts of strange places. By the side of a loom in a busy factory, deep underground in coal mines, out in the fields while bringing in the harvest. They were expected to carry on with their work straight after labour, the newborn baby strapped to their back. They could certainly walk.
When she told the doctor this, he laughed and looked at her as if she was a simpleton. “But those women are like brood mares, stout and resilient, while you are more like a racehorse – delicate and nervous in disposition.”
She agreed with him because he was a doctor, and one never argued with a doctor, but at the same time she wondered if her tight-fitting corset might be more to do with her weakness than a delicate ‘racehorse’ disposition.
As Florence tested out her feet, an Amazonian nurse spied her and approached. “Do you need to pass water, ma’am? There is a bedpan by your bed.”
It would be the scariest nurse on the ward who comes to question me, Florence thought, as she drew herself up and prepared for a fight.
“Actually, I am leaving,” she said. “If you would be so kind as to point to where my clothes are being kept.”
“Your husband has not signed the paperwork. You cannot leave until the discharge papers are signed.”
“I will sign the papers.”
“But your husband will be here shortly and…”
“I will sign the papers,” Florence repeated. “I may just have lost a baby, but I am perfectly capable of holding onto a pen.”
In all the nineteen years of her life, Florence had never spoken with authority to anyone. Her parents, her older brother, the servants, George… She bowed down to them all so low that she may as well have dropped to the floor so they could walk all over her.
Not anymore. This felt good. Terrifying, but good.
The nurse was waiting for her to lower her eyes and submit, but Florence forced herself to keep staring up at her. The nurse was the first to look away.
“Certainly, ma’am. I will return with your papers if you just wait here.”
“Thank you,” said Florence, as polite as could be. “And I wish to see my baby again before I leave, if that could be arranged.”
A hint of sympathy shadowed the nurse’s eyes. “I will see what I can do.”
Florence sat down on her bed to wait, trying to ignore the squelch of blood from her empty womb that would soon soak through the rags that were strapped in place. She hoped the nurse would not be long. She would ask for more rags.
Time passed. The clock on the wall at the end showed twelve of noon, and then the lunch trolley trundled in, trailing a squeaky wheel.
“Would you care for some chicken and potatoes?” the lunch cook asked.
“No, thank you. I am leaving in a minute.”
Florence watched the clock tick through another fifteen minutes as the trolley served the rest of the ward and came back to her.
“You look a little pale. Eat something,” said the cook, handing her a plate and a fork. “Just while you’re waiting.”
“That’s kind of you, but I don’t think I’ll have time.”
“I lost a baby too.”
The sentence cut through any thought of food and leaving and blood and rags. The string of words wrapped tightly around Florence’s heart.
“I understand what you’re going through,” the cook whispered, kind eyes shining in her plump face. “The grief will never go away. But you will learn to live with it. And first you have to cry.”
“I can’t,” said Florence.
“You will. One day you will cry and you won’t be able to stop.”
“I look forward to that day.”
The cook patted her arm and left, glancing back over her shoulder. Florence didn’t want her to go, but she could hardly ask her to stay.
Florence watched the cook push the trolley through the swinging door, and then watched George enter in her place.
The Amazonian followed close on his heels. So that was why she took so long with the papers. They both met Florence’s gaze. George looked exasperated, and the nurse had the decency to look guilty. Florence was betrayed.
“My dearest girl, this nurse tells me you want to leave. Of course, I came as soon as I…”
“I’m not coming home, George.”
He laughed. “There, there, dear girl, of course you are. Where else would you go?”
“I’m not coming home,” she repeated.
His moustache wriggled like a caterpillar when he laughed. Florence hated it. She hated the moustache, she hated the high waistband of his tweed trousers, the way George cleared his throat all the time – huh-hummm. The protruding mole by his ear, the smell of stale pipe tobacco, the way he kept his fingernails so long that they cut into the skin of her arm now as he gripped her. She shook her arm, but he held it all the tighter. And while his mouth smiled, she saw anger in his eyes.
“Not in front of everyone,” he hissed. “I will take you home, Martha will put you to bed, and we’ll hear no more of this. We’ll forget all this ever happened.”
And she knew he didn’t just mean her little rebellion. He meant Little Lost Lucy too. He searched her eyes for understanding and found it. She swallowed hard and lowered her eyes.
“Let me clean myself up first,” she said. “They have taken my clothes.”
George asked for her clothes while she sat back down on the bed, balls of twisted sheet in her hands. Her fast, uneven breaths filled her ears, the sound of blood pulsing through her body and pooling beneath her. The Amazonian brought Florence’s clothes over and laid them on the bed beside her while George waited by the door.
“Is there anything I can help you with, Madam?” she said.
“I think you have done enough,” Florence said.
She picked the clothes up and, finding George watching her, she willed her legs to carry her to the bathroom without faltering. They didn’t let her down.
After locking the door, she pulled off her nightgown and, peering over her still-swollen belly, she examined the rags harnessed between her legs. The amount of blood she found was so alarming and so black in colour that Florence felt her head spin and had to clutch onto the sink to keep from falling. But there was no time to deal with it now. It would have to wait.
Her clothes no longer fit. It looked as if she had borrowed them from a much larger woman. And when she looked about her, there were no shoes. The nurse had conveniently forgotten them. Just in case Florence decided not to exit through the bathroom door.
The sash window was opaque with bubbled glass, tinted green with the garden beyond. Florence unscrewed the window catches until the bolt was loose, and heaved up the window, feeling a fresh gurgle of blood drain from her with the effort. The ground wasn’t too far away. She might twist an ankle, but it wasn’t high enough to break a leg.
Just before she jumped, she realised she had no money. No money, no shoes, nothing to identify her as Florence Morgan. Not even a warm shawl for the cold night to come.
But she jumped nonetheless.
Image from a painting by William Adolphe Bouguereau