Blackwater

       Alison Williams / History & Fiction / Romance & Love
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Chapter 10

Lizzie awoke to the familiar cool touch of her mother’s hand on her forehead. Maggie was smiling down at her.
‘How are you feeling today, my lovely?’
Lizzie struggled to sit up, her breath ragged as she did so, but the pressure on her bladder made her desperate as it did every morning. Maggie lifted her slightly and passed her the pot.
I’ll be back in a little while with some chamomile.’
Lizzie nodded and waited for her mother to pull the drape across, before she relieved herself. Then she sank back down onto the straw mattress, her heart pounding with the effort. The spot where Samuel slept was still warm and Lizzie placed one hand there and the other on her endlessly growing stomach. The baby was due any day now and she was so glad that they were finally in their own home.
They had not settled in Halstead. While Lizzie was gaining some strength, Maggie and Samuel had found a tiny cottage to rent in the nearby village of Coggeshall. Maggie did not want to take any business from Hannah, and Coggeshall had no cunning women, only one midwife, who Hannah had heard was not very proficient. So, a month ago they had moved their belongings here on the now mended cart. Maggie and Samuel had worked hard to make it a home, and with the fire lit and the cauldron bubbling, it was cosy, if even smaller than their home in Eversley. There was no upstairs room; Samuel and Lizzie slept in this curtained-off area while Maggie took the settle by the fire. What would happen when the baby came, Lizzie didn’t know, but she hoped that Samuel would soon find work and that they may eventually find somewhere with more space.
Lizzie had been unable to help with moving to the new house as the illness that had struck her on her journey here had not yet passed completely. She felt weak a lot of the time although Hannah and Maggie had nursed her to the best of their abilities, and she knew from their concerned faces that she had been lucky to survive.
She could hear Samuel now, working away in the tiny yard. He was building a house for their new chickens. Maggie had just had her first success; she had provided a local woman, Agnes Halliday, with some meadowsweet to help her with the terrible heartburn that was plaguing her pregnancy. In return the woman’s grateful husband had promised them two chickens and a rooster. It was a generous gift, but the woman had been suffering so much and eating so little that her husband was in fear for her life. Coggeshall’s resident midwife, Annie Everard, had apparently tried everything, with no luck, and the Hallidays seemed rather in awe of Maggie. As they should be, Lizzie thought, for she was a wonderful healer, if only people would trust her and let her help.
Maggie came back through the drapes now, clutching the draught of chamomile. Lizzie took it gratefully, enjoying the soothing taste. Once Maggie had seen to the pot, she sat next to Lizzie, taking the girl’s hand in hers.
‘You’re looking rather pale again today. You must try to eat some breakfast this morning. Did you sleep well?’
Lizzie nodded, swallowing the truth that had risen to her lips. For she had not slept well. In fact she could not remember the last time she had enjoyed a decent rest. Most nights, like last night, she lay awake for hours after Samuel had drifted off, and Maggie’s gentle snores came through the drapes. Then she would fall into a deep, troubled sleep just as the sun rose, only to wake again a scant hour or two later, feeling unrefreshed and fuzzy headed.
That exhaustion would stay with her throughout the day, and she hardly ever managed to leave the cottage. Occasionally she would poke her head outside to see what Samuel was doing, or she might even sit by the fireside for a while and attempt some mending. But those days were becoming fewer in number, and, although Maggie tried to reassure her, Lizzie knew that it wasn’t just the late stage of her pregnancy making her tired; after all, she had known plenty of women that worked in the fields up until the moment they gave birth.
‘Can I get you some pottage, Lizzie?’
Lizzie shook her head. The thought of any food made her feel like vomiting. She could usually manage something in the afternoons and occasionally a few mouthfuls of the evening meal, but in the mornings she couldn’t generally stomach anything.
‘You should really try. You are awfully pale.’
‘Please, stop fussing. I’m fine.’
‘You need to think about the baby.’
Lizzie frowned.
‘But the baby will be fine. The amount of kicking it does, I’m sure it’s strong.’
She put her hand down to her stomach and let it rest there waiting for the familiar movement, Maggie sitting beside her, stroking her hair gently. After a few minutes, Lizzie turned to her mother.
‘Do you think something’s wrong? Normally the baby moves all the time. But it hasn’t moved at all while I’ve been laying here.’
Maggie placed her hand on Lizzie’s stomach, her face thoughtful.
‘Well, you know, it is quite normal for the baby to quieten a little, just before it is born. It may mean that your child is on its way.’
Lizzie gasped. Of course she knew this day would come, that she would hold her baby in her arms, but now that it actually might be happening, she was filled with anxiety.
‘But I’ve had no pain, Mother. Nothing. Surely there will be more warning?’
Maggie stood.
‘Everyone is different. You should know that. Now, like I said, it’s normal for the baby to be quieter, but it still should move sometimes. Let’s get you up and moving. That should wake him up.’
‘Or her,’ Lizzie chided gently.
Maggie smiled. ‘Indeed. Or her.’
Lizzie lent on her mother’s arm and lifted her bulk from the pallet. As she did so, a sharp pain stabbed through her, from her diaphragm down to her bladder. She winced.
‘What is it?’
Lizzie made to answer, but the words were knocked from her by another pain that bent her double. Maggie placed an arm around her shoulder, while Lizzie caught her breath.
‘There now, Lizzie, what did I tell you? I think the baby may well be coming. Just stay here while I go and start getting things ready. I want everything to be just fine for you.’
Lizzie nodded, then lay back down on the pallet, placing a hand on her stomach as her mother bustled away.
‘Please, baby, please,’ she muttered under her breath. ‘Come on, show me you’re alright.’
She waited, eyes closed, hand on her belly, willing and waiting, her heart thumping. Nothing happened. Lizzie could feel tears welling up. Was it all for nothing? The struggle to get here? The sickness, the worry? And then it came. So slight, she thought for a moment she had imagined it. But no, it happened again, a slight flutter under her fingers. Lizzie could have wept with relief.
‘What are you smiling at?’
Maggie was back, her face softening at the smile Lizzie gave her.
‘It moved, Mother, the baby moved.’
Maggie beamed.
‘There, I told you it would be fine.’
Lizzie struggled to sit up, bracing herself for more pain. But when none came she turned to Maggie.
‘I think I may get up.’
Maggie’s brow furrowed with concern.
‘Are you sure now?’
Lizzie nodded, and shifted her weight to the edge of the pallet, swinging her legs over the side. She shivered for a second as the chilly air of the cottage touched her bare legs.
‘Come and sit by the fire,’ Maggie said. ‘Perhaps you’ll even feel like eating something.’
Supported by her mother’s capable arms, Lizzie slowly made her way the short distance to the settle. Just as she was about to sit down, another, smaller pain caused her to wince and then a great gush of water poured down her thighs, splashing into the clean straw of the cottage floor. Stricken, she tried to squeeze her thighs together, to stop the flow. Maggie was beside her.
‘Your waters have come, Lizzie, the baby is on its way.’
Lizzie looked at Maggie with fear. It was happening then, she was actually going to have this baby. For a second, panic clouded her mind. She couldn’t do it, she couldn’t go through that. She had been at enough births herself to know all about the pain. She had held women screaming in agony as contractions tore through them, had witnessed them tearing and bleeding as their babies had come rushing into the world. Or lying there, slack and barely conscious as she and Maggie had pulled their children from them, a savage and brutal start to life for one and the end of it for the other, for she had seen them die too, passive and defeated, or writhing and sweating in their last agony filled moments. She felt sick with the fear of it, of what might happen to her.
‘I can’t do it, I can’t.’ She clutched at her mother with beseeching, clammy hands. ‘Please don’t make me do this.’
‘I’m not making you do this. But you have to do it. You have to. Try not to be afraid. Yes, it will hurt, I can’t lie to you about that, you’ve seen it yourself. But it is a natural pain. It is not an illness or a disease; it is just how it is for us. We must bear it. And you will bear it, and at the end of it you will hold your child. I promise you, I will keep you safe.’
Lizzie held her mother’s gaze for a moment, trying to steady her breathing, to calm herself.
‘Come on, my lovely. Let’s get you settled. Then I’ll clear up this wet straw. Oh, and I had better let that husband of yours know too. Though he will be of little use. He’s best off carrying on with that hen house.’ She smiled brightly at Lizzie, and Lizzie felt some small comfort, allowing herself to be guided back to her pallet, where she sat and waited for the pain to begin.

Lizzie screamed as the latest contraction ripped through her. They were coming thick and fast now, with barely any respite between them. At first the pains were sharp but bearable; it had felt as though someone was squeezing her insides, kneading at them with narrow, sharp fingers. It had hurt, yes, but she had even been able to speak to Samuel when he had appeared, red-faced and terrified at the cottage door. Maggie had shooed him away, but he had kissed Lizzie gently on the forehead before he had left, told her how much he loved her. She could hear him still, banging about in the yard as she held her breath, fearing the next pain. For the pain had grown steadily worse, as she had known it would. Now those same cruel fingers were vice-like, crushing her, wrenching her to pieces. And each respite was marred by the horrible truth that another, perhaps worse, seizing would soon come. Maggie had given her a tincture of buttercup, to try and ease her suffering, but Lizzie knew that the effects could only be minimal. She had to withstand this, however excruciating it became.
The room was intolerably hot, the fire roaring in the grate. Sweat slicked down Lizzie’s face; she was sticky with it. She could feel moisture running down her back, pooling between her breasts, slithering across her thighs. Her throat was parched, sore from screaming and dry from the heat. Maggie came over to her, a damp scrap of clean linen in her hand. Lizzie closed her eyes as he mother mopped her brow, then wiped the cool cloth around her face, shoulders and the top of her back.
‘Do you think you can sit up?’
Lizzie shook her head, the movement sending flashes of light across her eyes, making her temples throb.
‘Lizzie, listen to me. It will help if you can sit up. If you can get to the chair. If you are upright, then you will birth the baby more easily.’
Lizzie knew that this was the best thing to do – lying down made it harder for the baby to pass through the birth canal. She and Maggie always encouraged women to sit in a chair or on a stool, supporting them as they pushed, Lizzie often, as the smallest, having to duck down and catch the baby to prevent its head being smashed onto the floor. They only allowed women to give birth lying down if they were too weak to sit up. The irony was that this often made the birth more difficult and caused more trouble for the woman. Lizzie nodded weakly. She wanted this done as soon as possible.
‘Are you strong enough to lean on me? Otherwise I can get Samuel in to help.’
Lizzie shook her head vehemently, regretting the action instantly as pain exploded across her temples. She could not let Samuel see her like this. No, she could manage to walk to the chair. If she took it slowly. Maggie pursed her lips, and then reached an arm underneath Lizzie. Lizzie wrapped her own arms around Maggie’s neck and her mother pulled her upwards. Lizzie managed to manoeuvre her feet to the floor, the straw prickly under her bare feet. Then another, more painful, contraction wrenched at her, and she squeezed her fingers into Maggie’s arm, causing the woman to cry out herself.
‘Breathe, Lizzie, nice and slow. It will pass, it will pass.’
Her mother’s voice was soothing and Lizzie clung to the sound of it, focussing on the air rising and falling in her lungs. Then the pain subsided, and Lizzie fell into her mother’s embrace, tears of fear and frustration dampening her already sweat-streaked cheeks.
‘We need to get you up, Lizzie. The way these contractions are coming we don’t have much time. The baby will be here soon.’
Lizzie caught her breath. It hardly seemed real. She had been so caught up in the agony, fearing each next bloom of pain, that she had not thought of the baby. But soon she would hold her child in her arms. She would see the child that she had been talking to, singing to, dreaming of through these past difficult few months. She felt a sudden rush of love, almost choking in its intensity and a flutter of excitement in her aching stomach. She hauled herself to her feet, leant heavily on Maggie, and took a tentative step forward.

Lizzie wondered for a moment why she was lying on the straw. Sharp strands of it were digging into her face. She could see the hearth from here, the dull stone wavering with dancing shadows from the high flames that flickered above it. There were two pairs of boots close to her head, one pair small, neat and tidy, tied precisely; the others large, covered in sawdust, laces askew. The boots wavered in her line of vision for a few seconds then one pair vanished. She felt a cool hand on her face, and twisted her head to look up into her mother’s face. Maggie’s lips were moving, but Lizzie could not hear her. Then Samuel’s dear face appeared. What could have happened to make him look so terrified? He was holding his hat in his hands, scrunching the brim. He shouldn’t do that, it would be ruined. Lizzie opened her mouth to warn him, but found she couldn’t speak. Samuel was crouching down next to her. That was better, she could see him more clearly now. Was he crying? Why would he be crying? Didn’t he realise their baby would be here soon? Alice. That was their baby’s name. For she was a girl, Lizzie knew. A daughter. Lizzie couldn’t wait to see her. But first there was something she must do, she knew, but she couldn’t think what that was. Her mind fogged over for a moment and all she was aware of was the prickling of the straw at her face, irritating her skin. She moved her head agitatedly away, then remembered. She was supposed to be going to sit in the chair, to have her baby. So why was she on the floor? That couldn’t be right. She looked up again at her mother and at Samuel. They were talking to each other. Then they moved round to her head. Lizzie felt a hand grip her under her arm, first on one side, then on the other. Then she was being lifted up. Her body bent forward and another searing pain broke through her, making her cry out at last. Her arms flailed, she was aware of her fist making contact with something soft, then the gripping sensation eased and she rested her head back down. The straw didn’t seem so prickly now, perhaps she would just stay here, with the straw beneath her head.
Her mother and Samuel were still talking. Why was Samuel here anyway? She did not want him to see her give birth. It was not proper. Why didn’t Maggie tell him to leave.? She would tell him. She gathered up her strength and tried to force his name from her lips.
‘Samuel.’ It was barely a whisper, but Samuel heard for he came rushing to her side, kneeling in the straw, his hand on her face.
‘What is it, Lizzie? Tell me.’
Lizzie tried to speak again, but her words were torn away by yet another terrible pain. It took her breath from her with its intensity and she suddenly felt an intolerable need to bear down, to push the baby from her. Maggie was there, her voice clear in the heat of the room.
‘You need to push. As hard as you can.’
Lizzie did so, for she had no choice. The urge was overwhelming, unquestionable. She screamed with the effort of it, then lay back, breathless, sweating, exhausted.
The relief was brief. Another searing contraction, another push, and then again, and again until Lizzie felt that she must have expelled her guts, but no baby had come yet. She began to grow agitated. Would this ever be over? She was so hot. Why did the fire keep burning? Suddenly she was consumed with a fierce longing to be by the Blackwater, her toes in the cool mud, the water trickling between them, soothing her. Samuel would be sitting beside her, his toes next to hers, shimmering in the glistening water. The sun would be hot, just like this fire, but they would find relief in that cool, cool water. She wondered briefly about the river here. It was the Blackwater too. She had not seen it yet, had not been strong enough. She would go there soon, would take Alice with her. With her and Samuel. All three would dangle their feet. She had a clear picture of it suddenly, Samuel’s big hairy feet, his toes chunky and solid, then hers, delicate, white and slim. And in between, tiny toes, perfect and pink. Alice. When would Alice be here? It was taking so long.
The pain came again, ripping away the image of her family, of the river. She pushed again, then, as the pain subsided, saw Maggie smile.
‘I can see the head, Lizzie. She’s almost here.’
Lizzie gasped. She turned to Samuel who was at her shoulder, holding her hand, stroking the skin. He had tears running down his face. Then Lizzie was screaming and straining, pushing through the agony as their daughter, finally, slid into the world. With that final push the world exploded before Lizzie’s eyes, and she sank back, bewildered, into Samuel’s arms.
Lizzie was dimly aware of the sound of the baby crying, then she was being propped up on the floor, a bolster behind her head. Maggie was kneeling next to her, a bundle in her arms. Lizzie looked at her mother, and then managed a thin smile. Samuel placed an arm around Lizzie’s shoulders and she leaned into him, then Maggie placed the baby in her arms. Lizzie looked down at her child.
She was perfect. Her face was red and puckered, her eyes scrunched up against the unfamiliar light. Her head was covered in a mop of curly brown hair, wet and slick still, matted with blood. But she was perfect. Lizzie bent down, her head throbbing at the motion, and placed a gentle kiss on her daughter’s head.
‘Alice,’ the words were a croak. The baby opened her eyes and stared up at her mother, and Lizzie caught her breath. She was captivated by those eyes, unaware that Maggie was at her feet, pushing her legs up and apart. She was only vaguely aware of a niggling soreness and pain, and a dampness around her thighs. She held on to Alice, focussing on those blue eyes, everything around them growing fuzzy, and fading. She could hear her mother’s voice, shouting something at Samuel. There was a panic in those words, an urgency that registered at some level, but their meaning seemed to float from Lizzie, to flutter just beyond her grasp. Samuel was moving, placing her head gently on the bolster. The baby lay at her breast, her head resting at the nape of Lizzie’s neck. Lizzie let her head drop, nestled her face against the baby’s bloody head. She breathed in. Under the metallic tang of the blood, she could smell her daughter. She wanted to tell her things, but she couldn’t seem to get the words out. A slight stir of fear twisted in her gut. She needed to tell Alice things. She needed to tell her things now. Maggie and Samuel were shouting. She could just see Maggie’s head, and her arms then, as she pointed at something on the shelves, gesturing for Samuel to pass it to her. Her arms were red, Lizzie noticed. Red right up to the elbow. Was that her blood? She shivered, then looked down at Alice again. It didn’t matter. She had her baby. She would sleep now, with Alice here, curled on her chest. She closed her eyes.
‘No, Lizzie, don’t sleep.’
Samuel was shouting the words in her face. The baby began to whimper. Lizzie struggled to open her eyes, Samuel swum into view. He shouldn’t shout like that, shouldn’t frighten the baby.
‘Lizzie, please, keep your eyes open. Talk to me, Lizzie.’
She tried to smile. Did he not understand? She was so tired. She would just sleep for a little while, then she would talk to him. She began to close her eyes again.
‘Lizzie, Lizzie, no, please.’ Again she fluttered her lids apart, but it was hard to focus. She made a huge effort and Samuel was there, his face looked odd though, red-eyed and puckered from crying, just like the baby’s. Then his hand was at her forehead, stroking the scarred skin there, a look of such tenderness in his eyes that Lizzie wanted to cry too.
‘I’ll look after her, Lizzie, I promise. I’ll look after Alice for you.’
Lizzie smiled faintly. Of course he would look after Alice. She knew he would. She didn’t know why he was crying. She was so exhausted. The wetness below her was sticky and clammy; it seemed to be completely underneath her now. She could feel it on her back, her thighs, her legs. It was making her cold. In fact she was shivering. She wished Maggie would clean it up. She would just sleep a while, sleep with Alice here on her chest, and when she woke up she would be clean and dry and warm. Holding her daughter close, Lizzie smiled again at Samuel and then closed her eyes, letting the darkness soothe her to sleep.

*****

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