Our survival kit would be composed of no received ideas, only food, shelter, cleanliness, and warmth (of skin, voice, gaze). I would learn him, and he me.
I was still terrified of being left all alone with a baby, but now I felt determined, and yes, a little excited too. Because hadn’t I done this before, as a child? Sent half of me ahead up the lane, while my other part trekked slow to safety? And mad as it would sound to anyone if they knew, how did it matter what moved me so long as it was felt by my child as love?
I emptied the little nursery of childcare manuals and baby magazines, and restocked it with true stories of endurance, endeavour: books I’d bought compulsively over the years, but never bothered to read, as if just having them to hand would make me braver, by contagious magic. Scott’s diaries. Thoreau’s. Walt Whitman’s
Leaves of Grass: that epic celebration of the body, free love and free-thinking – a set text from long ago that I’d only skim read then, finding it too alarmingly-far from my own cramped sense of self.
Made then a base camp out of blankets and pillows at floor level where I could manage best with my bad back. Carried up a flask, our camping radio, candles, cartons of formula, nappies, changes of clothes, and food rations for me.
Went back down, panting with effort and adrenaline, and asked Nye for the baby.
I need to be alone with him now until I go through my fear and out the other side… The Cure For Sleep
This month’s extract from The Cure For Sleep for
subscribers on Substack looked at a moment of bonding through effort not instinct, and invited readers to share short true tales of their own: a time when they bonded in an unexpected way with a person, place, community, creature. Here are some of those responses.
My tale is one of connection with land, with sand and soil. It is a tale of immersion in water that burns me, in salt and seaweed. And it is a tale of inhaling the sky and breathing out fear.
For years I struggled with a strong sense of claustrophobia that I was somehow experiencing in the middle of nowhere. I missed the soot in my nostrils and grease on my face from packed tube trains. There was an anonymity in the city that could be lonely, but somehow I fitted in, wore the grime as a second skin. But moving into the wilderness, naively expecting the good life, was a different kind of isolation. There were visceral reminders that I was still alive: puckered lips around my breast, tiny nails jabbing my ribs under the duvet and gritty eyes staring with an exhaustion that has perhaps never really shifted. My sense of self was all wrapped up in many babies, and the rest of it was lost to a man who no longer lies next to me.
I would walk the Northumbrian beaches with the youngest strapped closely to my chest, a small girl in each hand and the oldest running ahead on legs that effortlessly pounded the waves as they rolled towards us. We were a tribe. Whilst the children might have felt an innocent freedom on that sand, I was bending down and clutching pieces of sea glass like talismans, desperately trying to find myself amongst the bladderwrack. I began to fill jars with smoky blue shards, rubbed smooth by the tides, translucent milk drops and bottle green nuggets that glowed in my kitchen.
After a long time, I could no longer smell the city on my body. My lips were being kissed only by sea spray, but I could lick them and recall myself in an instant. I started to lean in to the rhythm of the waves, listen to the curlew’s call hanging on the breeze, enjoy the sharp shells under my toes. I have exhaled this air so often, cried so many tears that the sand is soaked, my own salt mingling with the sea. Now I am not sure where the wilderness ends and I begin.
During the early eighties, I found myself working at the Penta Hotel Munich. I was a waitress in room service. We were Irish, English, French, many nationalities. My job was serving food and non-alcoholic beverages to the top two floors of the hotel which catered to citizens of The United Emirates. People from all walks of life — rich, poor, and the sick. They were there for certain medical treatments and surgeries that weren’t available in their country. The two floors were rented by their government for family members, carers, and patients recuperating. It was like another country, a service elevator up to the Middle East.
I loved the job and it was here that I bonded in an unexpected way with a person and a community. The smells of incense and fruit permeated those two floors. I remember bringing pineapples, Biryani Shrimp, rice and oodles of figs and dates — which to me, coming from a diet of stews, meat and four veg, was so exotic. When the lift doors opened, one was in an Arabic village alive with the smells and colours of the East. The sound of a language so foreign to my ears was loud and lively through the corridors I pushed my trolly along.
In room 102 lived Old Saif. He was a delightful and ancient man who had come with his grandson, who was the one having surgery. The trappings of modern day Germany and hotel interior decor were quite lost on him, a man of very modest means from a tiny village somewhere in Fujairah. It was a strange environment for him at first. We got that sorted, and over time, he found his comfort zone, routine, and most importantly, the direction to Mecca. He had no English or German — and I, only English — but we got on like a house on fire. I knew about his family, why he had come with his grandson, his deep faith, and his palpable homesickness. He knew I was not really married and advised me to wear a ring on my wedding finger.
The solidifying of the bond between Old Saif and I was came about after an unfortunate and rather jolting incident one morning when I was bringing breakfast to a footballer from Abu Dhabi. The wedding ring and “No thank you I am married“ did not have the desired effect. I managed to get out untouched and in one piece, but it had been a dance around the room holding a tray of hot tea and bread rolls. I flew from the floor and went to my supervisor, who was Tunisian. We knew if we reported the incident to hotel management it would come down very badly on the guests, so I agreed to a meeting of the elders in the village and the footballer was dealt with in-house! He was only there for another week. When I arrived on the floor, Old Saif and his neighbours would meet me at the lift doors and escort me on my rounds.
We then would leave and wander up the corridor babbling in our made-up language of signs, words, and gestures of kindness and humour. My wonderful Ancient Bodyguards. Yes, a wonderful bond.
Mother & Not-Mother
There were strict instructions. He was to be handed first to her, skin to skin, mother to son. I was the watcher, encourager. Outside looking in. Birth partner, mother of mother-to-be, Grandma-to-be.
Then suddenly trolleys, quick exchanges, gowns, masks, operating theatre, teams, screens, sweaty hands held tight, hearts held tighter.
‘Can you give him to Mum, please. I’m going to be sick.’
And there you were, nothing to plan but everything in order. A tiny slippery bundle, wrapped and delivered.
‘Would you like to cut his cord?’
Channel of life-flow, severed. Surgical scissors slicing through gristle and skin, so hard to break. Automony. Feather-light in my arms, his not-mother. His mother’s mother.
Then it came.
Joy. Such joy. And I was in another city, another time, holding another tiny, slippery bundle, a girl. My daughter. And now I’m bonding again. Bonding to a mother, as I bonded back then. Everything to learn. How to live together as mother and not-mother. Son and grandson.
‘I’m OK now,’ she says, and so I hand him back, as I will again and again. Joy twice over.
He sat alone, one arm across his body while the fingers of his other hand tapped a rhythm on the hand held flush to his chest. He often strained to one side of the chair, pulling at the chest and groin restraints, legs stretched out and ridged, punctuated with a guttural yell of what? Displeasure? Pain? He wore a sweatshirt and sweatpants stained from lunch, and white tube socks. He mashed and gummed his tongue: tardive dyskinesia, a side effect of antipsychotics I’d later learn. I didn’t question his aloneness or the restraints because I was too young and new to the work. It took a year and various personnel changes before I attempted my own relationship with Arthur.
Each night I wheeled him into the dining room and I sat at the table writing my end of shift notes. As I wrote, I talked to him:
It’s my turn to make dinner tomorrow night for everyone, Arthur. What should I make? Would you like to help me? I did this for months, writing and chatting to him and occasionally spooning him butterscotch pudding with his evening medications. Then I started playing music I brought from home—new age piano, Enya, Beatles, classical—even though it wasn’t clear how much he could hear. The right side of his face was perpetually red and his ear deformed, the cartilage mottled and bumpy, cauliflower ear it’s called—a result of him slapping the side of his face and ear.
One night I pressed play for an Irish/Norwegian duo called A Secret Garden, violin and piano. Arthur stopped tapping his fingers, slowly leaned his body closer to the stereo. I wrote and watched him. When I finished writing and began to move away he grabbed my hand. He brought it to his red and mottled ear, and he tilted his head resting it on my hand. We stayed like that for minutes, music filling the space around us. He could hear enough to appreciate music, or at least feel it. And we had made a connection.