The NHS had been hacked to tatters many years ago and what was left of it’s barely breathing corpse was to fend for itself, grasping at funding like a kitten in a bin bag gasping for oxygen. The labour ward at Wythenshawe hospital is on it’s last legs. It is the last surviving maternity unit on this whole God forsaken island. Those too poor - which is most - to afford treatment and assistance during child birth, travel the length and breadth of the country to get here, but most have already resigned their fate - and their baby to be’s - to the home birthing techniques haggled up on by the glorified back street witch doctors. Those that cropped up in the aftermath of the National Health Service’s savage dismantlement. They wave their laminate papers around willy nilly, flashing a glance at their B in GCSE Biology. All this in the hopes of getting twenty quid in their back pocket and a ten deck of richmond superkings to sling smoke ring fingers out from their gaping mouth socket.
The Wythenshawe ward is overseen by Dr. Brian Hope. A noble man with over 40 years in the profession. A man who refused to follow the money and stuck with the people. He remembered his sworn oath. Dr. Hope is one day from retirement and despite constant appeals-cum-panicked pleas, no one has come forward to take over his post. Why would they? 60 hours a week for ‘the living wage’ - no overtime - with people’s lives in your hands each and every day. Without a qualified medical expert at it’s helm the ward will fall, much like all that came before. Today he kneels, in his threadbare office, staring out of the window across the smoggy South Manchester landscape. His palms pressed together and his eyes watering. He prays to a God he does not believe exists. All hope has been depleted, this is what it has come to.
Across the corridor in the waiting area a young man paces with his cap in his hands. He pushes the last lit button on the hot drinks machine as the plastic cup plink plonks down into the holder and rattles to a halt. The machine wheezes and coughs out a dirty gob of something that passes for coffee in this world and the young man stands with his arms crossed waiting for the beep. He shots the coffee and turns on his heel back down the corridor. He turns, entering room C.
‘Get the fuck out!’
‘It’s alright he’s just passing through’
The young man pulls back the plastic curtain, leaving the nurse and the woman who his child does not belong to on the other side. He can still hear everything they are saying.
‘Iya Lou, y’ok luv?’
‘Not bad, got a liccle while... nurse says contractions aren’t no way near close enough yet’
‘Alright mate, well gizza a shout if you need owt ok?’
He winks at Lou and passes through the second plastic curtain leading him into the third makeshift partition of the room usually reserved for one birth.
‘Jono, where’s Dr. Hope?’
‘I’ve not seen ‘im babe, whassup?’
Jono moves in and clasps his wife’s hand, sitting on the chair beside the bed.
‘Summat doesn’t feel right’
Claire is sweating and houghing.
‘It’sall normal luv, it’s ok’
He pushes the hair back, away from her forehead.
‘I think... He’s... Urghhh!’
Jono bolts back through the curtains to the nurse.
‘I think it’s comin!’
‘Go and get Dr. Hope.’
The nurse busts through the curtains arriving at Claire’s side.
Jono leaves room C and crosses through to the office.
Without knocking he pulls the door back and enters.
‘We need ya right now mate!’
Without a word the Doctor gets up off the floor and follows Jono swiftly back toward Claire’s bed in room C.
‘What? since when? The contractions were 8 minutes apart!?’
The Dr grabs his gloves and the nurse sterilizes the forceps.
He positions himself between Claire’s legs and see’s the head emerging.
‘I don’t need the forceps!’
Jono can’t get near, he’s standing watching, helpless.
He can hear the other two patients in the room screaming through the curtains.
A second nurse bursts in.
‘Stay with the women in room B, Craig!’
‘They’re all about to give birth!’
‘At the same time’
‘I’ll be through, GO BACK!’
‘Sarah, I need you to deliver this baby’
She is a senior nurse, smart and capable, she has known Dr. Hope for nearly 30 years. she understands the urgency of the situation.
‘I am leaving you with Sarah, you and your baby will be fine’
‘NO! NO!... FUCCCK-CH-CH-SsssCCCCHHH!’
Dr. Hope pulls back the curtain to leave.
But the sight before him stops him dead in his tracks.
Lou, the young lady from the middle partition is sat upright in a pool of blood staring at Dr. Hope. In her arms she holds her newborn baby, wriggling around in a shiny coat of purple puss-wet.
He tries to speak but no words can come. His jaw judders and he utters a faint sort of noise to convey his disbelief. He cannot hear Claire’s screams anymore. There is a deafening silence ringing in his ears. He is not here right now. What is happening. He looks past Lou and sees a hand wrap around the far curtain. In slow motion it snags each and every hook off the rail, bringing the whole thing to the ground, gentle as a feather. The big reveal sees the first lady stood caked in every bodily fluid imaginable. She looks wild eyed and savage. In her arms too, she holds her new born baby, covered in shit. All he can hear in the room are her desperate breaths, slow, low and deep. A hand is placed on his shoulder and he pivots in the bright light to see Sarah holding a bundled towel. Behind her he can see Claire and Jono smiling through tired eyes. Their arms wrapped tight around each other, recovery.
‘Brian, we need to get this baby to first bath’
‘We need to get them all...’ he mutters, slowly coming round.
‘I don’t... I don’t know’
The room seems to be regaining colour. Craig re-enters caked in the stuff we all hold inside our bodies - a recurring theme it seems, in child birth. He is followed by Nurse Joyce, who was in room A tending to the other women on the ward. Instinctively, they all know what has happened.
Eleven births all occurring in the same hospital at concisely the same moment. This is not normal. This is something else. But now is not the time to make sense of it all. Dr. Hope’s sense of medical duty kicks in. He shakes himself awake from this monumental daze and commands his staff.
‘Take the babies through for first bath and examination. Craig and Joyce, reassure your patients I will be through shortly. I am going to call in assistance from another wing.’
Sarah, rushed from the room with Claire and Jono’s newborn.
Dr. Hope followed and headed straight across to his office as she turned left to the nursery.
The door eased on it’s pump hinge and closed as he picked up the phone from his desk.
He punched the numbers in and waited.
‘Dr. Shilpa Hope, Radiology please’
‘Shilps, I need you here.’
‘Something has happened, I... I need another doctor’
‘yeah, now. Please.’
He slammed the phone down and turned to see Sarah stood on the doorway. That look on her face... She was still holding the bundle.
‘Brian... summat is wrong’
‘Take the baby to the nursery, I’m coming now, Shilpa is on her way’
‘No. You... you need to look at this... I...’
She started to sob.
He approached the towel-wrapped baby and tried to take it from her cradling arms.
‘No, let me hold it... just... look’
He pulled the towel down and the baby craned it’s neck away from Sarah’s bosom, staring straight at him.
At least... He thought the baby was staring at him.
It had certainly aimed it’s face in his direction.
But when Dr. Brian Hope had stared back at the baby, he did not see that usual glint of light, of unknowing innocence. That sky high spark that all new born babies emitted as they took in their surroundings for the first time, in the wake of their wholly new existence.
For in place of this baby’s eyes there was nothing.
Nothing but a stretch of milk-pink skin slouching back into the sockets of it’s tiny skull.
Dr. Hope blinked and looked again. The ringing resumed in his ears and the white light infiltrated his peripherals yet again.
Sarah was shaking. Dr. Hope was shaking too.
‘Something isn’t right Bri...’
‘This is... it’s ok...’
‘Just take it to the nursery, don’t tell the parents yet’
‘We need to do the examinations before all else’
She turned and left and Brian trailed back out into the corridor.
‘What’s happened?’ he heard the footsteps echo and saw Shilpa approaching up the wing.
‘Shilps, I can’t explain it! eleven babies, all... born at exactly the...’
‘What? Do you need to sit down?’
‘No... No... I’m ok, we need to examine them all. It’s...’
Dr. Hope and his staff may have been knocked by this most bizaare occurrence, but they had all been trained to cope under pressure. They went into overdrive, instinctively. They had to work quickly and efficiently. As they always had done.
‘Shilpa, can you go through to the nursery and help Sarah and Joyce with the examinations, I need to visit the parents’
She squeezed his wrist and moved past him to the end of the cut off corridor, into the nursery.
Suddenly, a scream. Followed by more. Craig crashed out from Room B keeled over and vomited all over his knock-off tennis shoes.
‘What the fuck are you doing!?’
‘Dr. It’s... I’m sorry, I... I can’t’
‘Craig what happened!?’
Craig was young and new to the nursing profession. By all accounts, he was still in training. But with what little funding they had, he had been elevated to working tasks above and beyond, before he was ready. There had been no other way.
‘Craig what’s happened?”
“It’s the Manor’s baby, it... it...’
‘Spit it out kidda, c’mon!’
‘IT’S NOT GOT A MOUTH!’
‘Go and look!’
Craig had tears streaming down his face, he was on all fours now, clawing at the skirting board and wretched out in the fetal position. Dr. Brian Hope opened the door of room B and saw the Manor family cornered on the floor, cradling each other. Their new born baby girl lay writhing on the hospital bed, not making a sound. One of the other women was passed out, whilst the lady in the bed closest appeared to be hyperventilating. He turned back around and hissed at Craig.
‘Craig, you have to get up, this woman is hyperventilating.’
‘Do you hear me?’
Through gritted teeth he spat
‘Listen, get the fuck up and help this woman. You don’t have any other choice’
Craig stood up slowly and gained his composure.
Dr. Brian entered the room.
‘It’s ok guys, are you ok?’
‘Wh-what’s wrong with our b-b-baby?!’ stammered Mrs. Manor.
The doctor looked over at the baby. Sure enough, just as Craig had said. The baby did not have a mouth. Eyes, ears, a nose. Check. But where there should be a mouth? Just skin.
‘This is a birth-defect I’m afraid. The baby appears to be breathing fine through it’s nose, but the next thing I need to do is take it through for examination and first bath next door, it’s a necessary procedure with all new borns... In this moment, your baby is fine. Do you understand?’
‘Wh-what did we do wrong!?’
‘Nothing at all. I promise my love. These things can happen, I must take your baby, ok?’
Mrs. Manor nodded and whimpered, her husband lowered his head and squeezed her tighter.
‘Someone will be back shortly. I assure you. Please hold tight’
Behind him Craig had calmed the hyperventilating woman and she was shooting words out between sharp breathes.
She exhaled and wept. The Doctor shot a terrified, questioning glance over at Craig, who was holding the oxygen mask on standby next to the bed. Craig looked across at Brian and nodded gravely.
‘Where are the other babies?’
‘Already in the nursery’
‘Wait here with these people, that lady is passed out’ He said pointing to the middle bed, as he grabbed the Manor’s mouthless baby and exited the room.
He headed down the corridor and into the nursery. Shilpa was waiting for him with Joyce and Sarah. Inside, their were ten babies, all bathed and laying in their incubators. Despite the fact he could quite clearly see they were missing features or limbs, they all looked to be safe and breathing. Dr. Hope handed the baby he had over to Joyce and turned to his wife.
‘What is going on...’
‘Brian... Something has... Each of these babies is missing...’
‘They’re all missing something different...’
‘Limbs or... an organ of some kind’
He turned and counted them again, surveying.
‘Hang on, there is only ten here...’
Shilpa bowed her head and began to cry.
‘One of the baby’s from room A... it... was born without... bones’
‘I delivered it. It was the Callian’s baby... I knew, but I had to take it away, before they saw... It was chaos... It just... It came out and there was no skeleton. I could feel it’s organs just circling round inside... I can’t I’m sorry’
She stormed from the room, the ordeal too much.
Dr. Brian Hope stepped cautiously toward the first incubator and peered in. Inside he saw the baby with no eyes. It appeared healthy otherwise... In a daze he pressed on past each incubator. A baby with no ears. Then no arms. No penis. No vagina. No mouth. No legs. One with no nose, which was breathing heavily through it’s mouth, but was otherwise surviving independently. And lastly, one baby whose arms and legs appeared to be attached directly to it’s neck, leaving it without a body. The doctor looked closely at it’s ankle and saw a faint pulse, it’s throbbing tiny heart still intact and functioning correctly. The last incubator contained a perfectly normal looking baby. Lying motionless. No breathing. No movement. No organs. No life. Nothing at all.
He turned to Shilpa, his trusted companion throughout all of this. By which was meant, not just today, but his entire medical career and of course, life itself. Against all odds they had worked tirelessly to help the people who needed it most. They had been through it all. Their only son had been killed tragically before hitting double figures. They hadn’t the heart to go through it all again. And for all this to happen on his last day, when the God he did not believe in would not even answer his call to find a replacement. That vengeful God spiteful as sin itself, had cursed him with this. What a hand to be dealt. A bad wind blowing through the heart of those eleven families forever more, to cope with this. At best, missing a few limbs. At worst, dead all together. But whichever way, a stigma attached to their existence from here on out. Dr. Brian Hope could not help but think that if his staff and resources had not been spread so thin, indeed if his own mental capacity had not been worn to dust through over exhaustion, perhaps this never would have happened. His thoughts wandered further into the darker, less forgiving, depths of his psyche. Perhaps if these families had tried hard enough in life, they would have been able to afford the private care which would have undoubtedly prevented this all together. Perhaps they didn’t value life enough. Didn’t care for their children even. Perhaps it was all their own fault. Perhaps they actually, maybe, probably deserved this?
Who knew... Dr. Brian Hope was growing angry now. Had he wasted his life helping others who couldn’t help themselves? All that and for what? Nine crippled babies and two in the dustbin. Sickening. He sickened himself. He needed a shit. He left the room and walked toward his office. He entered and stared at his doctorate hanging crooked on the wall in a cheap plastic frame. His name in ink, his oath signed. Fuck it. He didn’t sign up for this. He grabbed the certificates off the wall and smashed the frames over the table. Picking off the shards he shook the papers clean and proceeded to the toilet, happy now to wipe the shit off his own arse with them, so meaningless they now were to him.
He kicked the cubical open, turned and dropped his trousers. Seated on his porcelain throne, he didn’t bother to shut the door. It came suddenly. That satisfaction. No pushing or nothing, it just came right on out of him. Then it kept coming. And he felt the strain, agonizing now. Perhaps he would leave it and try again later, but it wouldn’t allow him. He was glued to the seat. He could feel his sphincter stretching, gaping wide. What was wrong with him? He imagined this is what - dare he even think it! - child birth felt like. The ignorant pig... No man will ever know that pain. He screamed. PUSH. PUSH. PUSH. Deep breaths, he knew the procedure. PUSH. PLOP. DONE.
Quite the ordeal but quicker than most births... It’d been such a long day he hadn’t even noticed how much he needed it. Come to think of it, he hadn’t really eaten in the last two days... There can’t have been that much inside of him? Oh well... Wiping the sweat from his brow he scrunched up the Phd in his hand and scraped the shit from his arse. Just to be sure, he took the oath and did the same with a second wipe, letting them drop down into the bowl. He reached round and yanked the chain. Stood up and pulled his pants up. And then he heard it. What? He shook his head. Long day. Then he heard it again. He knew that sound. Of course he knew that sound... It was intrinsically linked with the job. That gurgle. That utterance. That first note, a calling card singing ‘Hello world! I have arrived!’
He turned toward the sound and peered cautiously down into the bowl. There it was. What IT was, is debatable. But it’s form was sure as shit. For shit it was not. There, curving around the U-bend, smiling, gurgling, babbling and curiously enough - clutching the doc’s papers in it’s tender grip - lay the functioning form of a new born baby. Dr. Brian Hope felt elated when he laid eyes upon it. All pressing, logical questions were erased and some earthly, natural instinct proceeded to take place of his usual pragmatic thought process. Without hesitation he removed his clothes and scooped down into the bowl, gently lifting the creature - babe in nature - to his bosom. He hushed it and held it close. Before holding it up to the light to survey it, dripping toilet water on to the tiles. There it was with all limbs attached to it’s core structure. Eyes, ears, nose and a mouth, a penis and a vagina. All it’s organs pumping and working. He could see the blood coursing through it’s veins wired round the bones, all floating intact and seemingly grounded by it’s own gravitational pull.
Because, for all of the credentials this creature ascertained to pass for a normal, newborn baby, it lacked one key feature... Skin. This creature had it all. Except... Skin. He held the baby close and gently prized it’s soft pink skinless fingers from the pieces of paper it was still clutching. He un-scrumpled them and scanned the text. On the dotted line, where his own name once was, was nothing. A blank space. A clean slate. His signature erased, all formal acknowledgment of his profession seemingly destroyed. He lay the paper’s down on the cold, wet floor and looked at his watch. It was 16.56. In 4 minutes time he would be officially retired. He knew what came next. He knew that his prayers had been answered, though not exactly in the way he had envisioned. He had been heard loud and clear by that God, spiteful and sick in the head. He placed the newborn on the floor and stepped back. He removed his underpants and lastly his wrist watch.
Now, completely naked, he lay back on the floor and waited. It happened slowly at first but became much quicker the more his body adjusted to the cycle. It started at the top. All his hair fell out and then the process truly began. His head pushing through first, cracking and splitting at the seam of skin capping his cue-ball skull. Like playdough pressed through. He departed, squirming underneath the urinals, abandoning his old skin and clawing his way toward the sink. The newborn rolled on to it’s front and gently pushed it’s body weight up using it’s arms and legs. It crawled towards the old skin being left behind, and with every inch it’s muscles, bones and organs expanded, stretching and morphing. It was growing. It reached the bottom end of the old skin and placed it’s hands around them soft and helpful. Holding it in place whilst Dr. Brian Hope wriggled his last inches from the neck, one foot at a time. The new born continued to grow, taller and broader than Dr. Brian Hope’s now old and reclining frame. It maneuvered round toward the hole in the top and began the process again, this time in reverse.
From the sheltering shadow of the sink the Doctor gasped and watched with awe as the creature took on his old skin comfortably, adjusting to it’s new found body. The extra inches that the new born had gained pulled the skin tight as elastic, morphing into a snug fit around it’s features. It was the same skin, but saggy neck and the crows feet, creased around the joints, had disappeared. It looked just like he did on his first day over 40 years ago...
It held out it’s hand to the naked skinless man cowering under the sink. The Doctor took it and let it pull him upright. He eyeballed the creature and then turned and stared back at himself in the mirror. The old skin’s new form bent over and picked the medical certificates up from the floor. It fumbled through the jumble of clothes next to it and found a biro in the shirt’s top pocket. With calm contentment and a considered arch it proceeded to sign both of the papers. It was hard to read exactly what it wrote, it was blurred and scrawled and mucky. The shit stains had dried now, framing the sign-off with a noble, green-brown diligence.
The meek and the bleak huddled in the corner too shy to speak. Torture porn. Poverty porn. Too good to miss so get the popcorn porn. Sworn oath to no one. Under the thumb. Sucking up crumbs from new nooks in gas cookers. Everybody just wanting to get by. In smaller circles we are all just trying to co-exist. When the only chance you have to gain a helping hand is to pray to a God that doesn’t exist; Regardless of what the old skin did before. He was a martyr. So what... No one will remember come December. We revel in the facts, rarely. How are we supposed to know what to believe anymore? Everybody keeps telling us different things. What we see is what we get. The Old Skin. One and the same. Familiarity. It’s nice to know what you’re getting. Some kind of creature. Some kindly creature. The doctor thought about how terrifying the future might be and stared at it. Organ donor. New flesh. Handsome still. The Old Skin. Whatever it was, it was some kind of Hope.