Graham Bruce Fletcher

Born on the four-dozenth anniversary of Bloomsday in Leeds, his early life was influenced by his Uncle -T S Eliot – who encouraged him to examine life critically, and write about it.

In his teens he contributed to Rave magazine and International Times, and began his – still unfinished – first novel.  Studying English and Drama at Durham University, he wrote for Palatinate – the student newspaper – and Muther Grumble – a local ‘underground’ magazine.  He was Associate Editor of Face North – a regional arts magazine for  the Northeast founded by Mark Featherstone Witty and Eric  Robson.

During his mainstream career in medical marketing and product development, he wrote articles for various specialist periodicals and a handbook about continence care, before becoming head of marketing for Northumbria University, where he ghost-wrote pieces for national press.

He then worked with Healthwise Productions scripting, directing and producing medical TV programs.  The team won the 1991 IVCA Grand Prix for a drama-doc about HIV/AIDS. He became commissioning editor for Lief Publishing in Durham in the mid 90s, and later co-edited Ability Magazine and the Ability Media website.

He began to submit stories and poetry to literary competitions in 2010, and was shortlisted in 2011 for the Bridport Short Fiction Prize. He has read his work at Stroud Short Stories, at the Edinburgh Festival of the Erotic Arts,  the Cheltenham Literary Festival, Durham Poetry Jam, and on Corinium Radio.  He is probably the world’s laziest blogger.


I have chosen two pieces. Home is a short story shortlisted for the 2011 Bridport prize.

Familiarity is a poem performed at the Edinburgh Festival.

Home

She looks like an oak twig bearing an enormous gall. She won’t mind me saying so. Right now, I know, she too sees herself as huge. Something alien is swelling inside her belly. My tiny wife, Alice, has been colonised by a balloon-shaped parasite. To me it might as well be a wasp in there; I haven’t lived with it.

She says she knew straight away when it started to grow inside her, and now she’s come to know this other personality that’s beginning to assert its separate existence.

It’s that old joke; being the husband, I can’t conceive.

It’s a truism. I’ve no idea how she feels.  Not the slightest sense of the new person I’m about to meet.  It doesn’t even help that we’ve been through all this before, although she wasn’t allowed a home birth then.  She had a boy, and assures me this one will be a girl.  We weren’t told – she just reckons she knows.

And now, she says, it’s all about to happen.  It should have been yesterday, but the girl must have decided to keep us waiting.  So I’ve just called the midwife.  She doesn’t seem to mind, even though it’s almost ten-thirty on a Friday night.  I don’t know about her, but I’d been thinking of going to bed soon.  Fat chance now.

I can’t remember how long the whole thing took before in the hospital maternity unit. I wasn’t there until the last bit.

I put the kettle on, remembering the old cliché about boiling lots of water and tearing sheets and towels into strips.  This is for my coffee; I’ve no idea how long I’ll have to stay awake.  Alice said she didn’t want coffee. She wanted to sit on the toilet. I think that’s what she said.

I’m back with her, up there in the bathroom, when the doorbell rings, and I leap down the stairs to let the midwife in.  I tell her she can go straight to the bedroom; she knows where it is – she inspected it to check it was ‘suitable’ on a previous visit – and I mountain-goat back to the bathroom.

The midwife, following calmly, raises her eyebrows.  Probably suspects me of panicking.  I guess I am a little ‘over-excited’.  In the bathroom Alice is on the bidet.  Trying to sound in control, I ask;

‘Have your waters broken yet?’ not being entirely sure exactly what it means, or how she’d know.

‘No,’ she replies, straddling to her feet; ‘I’ll come and see the midwife.’

I take her arm, and she pushes me away;

‘I’m not ill!’ she snaps.

I’m sort of familiar with this.  She had a short temper the last time, in the hospital.  Didn’t want any interference.  Wanted to do it all by herself.  Which, I suppose, is precisely how it is.  I want to help. Partly because I think I ought to, because I’m to blame for this; the consequences of a moment’s pleasure for me, and the cause of months of backache for her. And now this.  She doesn’t seem at all scared.  She doesn’t really remember, she says, the effort and pain of the last one.

I also feel that, as head of the household, I ought to be the host.  I offer the midwife a coffee as we enter the bedroom.  ‘Perhaps later.’ she says, asking Alice to lie down and be examined. I feel ridiculed for suggesting such an irrelevance.

I loiter at the foot of the bed, watching as Alice pulls the billowing cotton nightdress over her head.  I’m just about as useful as the proverbial spare prick.

Her breasts, at other times small and pear-like are now swollen, over-ripe, waiting for the little mouth hidden deep inside her belly, beneath which the luxuriance of her fur is parted for the midwife’s fingers.

‘That’s good,’ says the midwife; ‘we’ve got a bit of time yet.  Do you want to put your nightdress back on?’

I’m not sure whether it’s for warmth or propriety. Screening her from the lustful gaze of the male whose brute instincts got her in this condition in the first place.

Alice pulls the thing back over her head and stands up.

‘Don’t you think you ought to stay in bed?’ I say, glancing at the midwife for confirmation of my obvious good sense, but getting none. Another failure to convince the midwife of my ‘new-man’, caring approach.

‘I think I’ll have a cup of tea.’ says Alice.  Which, properly translated, means; ‘Go and make me a cup of tea!’  I suspect they’ll now go into some kind of arcane ‘woman to woman’ huddle whilst I’m away making the tea. I’m going to miss some part of the secret of all this, because I’ve already played my little part in this process, and I’m now next to useless. I might even get in the way.  I’m here on sufferance.

They’re laughing together as I head downstairs to the kitchen.  At me, and men in general, I suspect.

The bedroom’s deserted when I return.  I hear voices from the bathroom.  Alice is in the bath, the midwife soaping her back.  I feel like an intruder, especially when the midwife says; ‘Did you bring me one too?’ and seeing I haven’t, adds; ‘Would you? White with one sugar, please.’

I stop off at the Drawing Room.  My mother in law is watching the late film.  She’s come to stay to look after our little boy after the new baby arrives.  He’s been asleep for hours in his own bedroom upstairs.

‘How’s it going?’ she asks.

‘Nothing yet, She’s having a bath.’ I reply.  ‘Do you want me to let you know when…?’ I ask.

‘No,’ she says; ‘I’m going to bed soon.  I’ll see you all in the morning.’

I’m relieved she doesn’t want to be there for the actual thing. I didn’t offer her tea.  And I don’t want to miss anything. I almost wish the midwife didn’t have to be there, but – of course – she does.  I don’t know if I could do everything properly if it was just the two of us.  But I do have a lurking feeling that it would be more ‘ours’ if we were as alone together as we’d been when it all started. Less of that clubby female hostility.

When I return with tea for the midwife, they’re back in the bedroom, Alice naked and propped up with a pile of pillows.  She’s looking flushed.

‘Won’t be long now. She’s nicely dilated. Would you like to sit on the bed and hold her hand?’ says the midwife.  I realise they’ve been conspiring, and that’s what Alice told her she wants.  I sit, obediently, and Alice turns her face up to mine permitting a kiss.  Her skin is hot.  The kiss lasts far less time than I wish it could, and I wonder if she too is feeling embarrassed in the presence of the midwife.  Probably not.

She takes my hand and squeezes it wordlessly.  I remember the last time, in the maternity unit. She almost crushed my fingers then.  Unbelievable strength for such a bony hand.  I’ve already told you; she has such a tiny build: she’s like a twig.  Bird-boned.  So small I can touch my elbows together behind her back when I hold her – when she’s not pregnant, that is.  Since we married she’s spent more time demonstrating her fertility than otherwise, if you get my meaning.

She was pregnant when we married in the March, and our son was born in November.  It really didn’t show by the wedding of course, despite her figure-clinging dress.  But she knew, even if the guests didn’t.

We had a false start between him and this one. There were tears.  A shameful, bloody mystery flushed away down the lavatory. She’d felt it was her fault.  Maybe that’s why I feel the midwife blames me for something.

It being May now, this one was conceived on the August Bank Holiday weekend.  So two months after our second anniversary we’re having our second child.  She wants to stop at this one; if she’s right and it’s a girl.  And I reckon she is. Right.  She seems to know.

So I’ll be getting the ‘snip’.  She says I have to.  I wonder what it will be like?  Will it feel different, firing blanks?

I feel her grip tighten on my fingers.  My index and middle finger completely fill her palm.  She’s biting her lower lip and breathing heavily.

‘Do you want to push?’ says the midwife.  It sounds like an enquiry, but it’s probably an instruction.  Alice nods, tightens her grip on my fingers, draws a gasp into herself and heaves her whole body with effort.

I look down at her.  Her skin looks blotchy, patches of red and curious pale yellowish areas where I suspect the baby is compressing her flesh from within. In the cheval mirror I’d arranged at the foot of the bed I watch her for signs of the new arrival. The sheets are suddenly stained as a gush of liquid escapes from her.  I’m glad of the mattress cover we put on the bed a few days ago.

‘Good girl!’ the midwife encourages her.

Alice slumps back against the pillows, her cheeks loose, sweat breaking out all over her face and body.  I brush the hair that clings to her forehead away from her eyes, and she shakes her head, as if my hand is an irritating fly.

She drags my hand down, propping herself up on her elbows and inhales, letting it out again in a series of silent expletives, her lips swollen, forming the word ‘fuck!’ repeatedly as she is evidently pushing hard.

Down beneath the drenched darkness of her fleece the soft flesh begins to pout, and a sluggish brown dribble is expelled from her.  I’m tempted to reach for a tissue to wipe it away.  I don’t want the baby to be born into a mess.  Even though that pretty much seems to be the way life is.

I remember playing Pozzo in ’Waiting for Godot’.  ‘They give birth astride a grave; the light gleams an instant, and then it’s night once more.’  But Samuel Beckett had no children.  What did he know?

With all the effort she’s making, Alice and our baby deserve better than that.  As I watch, the pout swells and splits, oozing blood and fluid, revealing a glistening dark-blue domed mass, framed with stretched flesh, retreating like the lids around a widening eye, the margins almost orange, before the midwife’s hand covers and cups the growing bulge.

It’s like watching a python in reverse. It’s brutal. Obscene.  Nothing feminine about this. She’s far away in a place where I can’t join her.  Her face a little like it becomes when she goes into ’automatic’ when we make love.  It’s amazing she can do this.  She can do this and still be the same person whose body closes so firmly about the comparative insignificance of the flesh with which I enter her.  If she can take all this, how can I hope to reach her?

My mind throws me dark, violent thoughts. I dismiss them.  Is this the reason men used to be expelled to pace corridors, excluded from the birthing room?  Did they develop insane violent impulses?

Alice relaxes her grip for a moment before redoubling her efforts. There’s a squelching sound as the midwife hauls and swings a disgusting mass of wriggling flesh onto my wife’s belly, wiping a creamy, fatty wax from it with a large paper towel. I’m fascinated, but not immediately seized by paternal instincts or emotions.

I watch as the midwife applies two plastic clamps and swiftly cuts between them.  She turns the little wormy-squirmy bundle over to Alice who grins like she’s just won a marathon and puts the child to her breast, pushing her nipple towards the tiny mouth.

In a surge of empathy I almost taste the gush of warm milk in my own mouth, and move closer to look between the baby’s legs.

‘She’s a nice healthy girl.’ announces the midwife, for my benefit, since Alice has known all along.  Perhaps the midwife thinks I can’t tell.

After a while the midwife takes our new daughter away to the bathroom, for ‘a quick wash and brush-up’ and, I know, to examine and weigh her. To pronounce her acceptable.

I cuddle closer to Alice and help her to arrange the pillows.  “How do you feel?” I ask.  ‘Wonderful, but a bit tired.  I just had the biggest orgasm of my life!’ she replies.

‘I’ll have to arrange some bigger ones in future.’ I laugh, feeling rather inadequate.  ‘Orgasms, of course, not babies.’

‘You’re getting fixed first!’ she answers, her fingers miming scissors.

‘I’d better have it done quickly,’ I say, ‘because I can’t wait to have my skinny Sally back!

The dark, almost sadistic thoughts still jostle for attention in my brain. Slugs and snails…

I remember how it had been after our son was born.  I’d asked the obstetrician; ‘How soon before we can resume normal intercourse?’ and he’d replied, glad of the opportunity to trot out an in-joke, ‘A gentleman waits until the afterbirth has been delivered.’

Alice shifts lower in the bed and closes her eyes.  She says; ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to change the sheets; I’ve made a bit of a mess. Let’s go to the bathroom.’ I pull back the duvet with which she’s been covered, and help her up.

A warm moist odour is released from the bed; the reek of a butcher’s shop in high summer. The placenta lies there like the pluck of a game bird, and I flip the bottom sheet over it before helping her to the bathroom.  Some people used to eat it.

She sits on a towel on the toilet-seat lid, taking the baby back to her breast as soon as the midwife hands her over.  ‘She’s fine. Eight pounds four ounces.’ She says.  ‘I’ll help your wife with her bath; why don’t you pop and change the bed. She’ll need a rest now.’

‘What shall I do with the … er?’ I ask.

‘Oh! Already?’ asks the midwife.  I nod.  ‘I’ll take it, if I may; just put it to one side.’

Like I said; in some cultures there’s a tradition of eating it. The afterbirth. I don’t refuse the midwife her take-away. She helps me finish remaking the bed before she leaves.  She seems friendlier now.

The midwife locked out once more, we’re back in bed together, and this time I’m holding our little girl.  Alice watches as I put the Aertex-wrapped bundle into the cot beside the bed.

I glance at the clock as I switch out the light. Light spills around the curtains. It’s four-twenty-five.  I’m tired, and Alice is already dozing.  I switch the light back on and look at the baby.  She’s sleeping too. I wonder if her mother looked like her when she was newborn. Now I feel I have done something substantial, I’m a father of two; one of each, as they say. They sleep, and I watch over them.

I can’t sleep.  I would have slept if all this hadn’t happened.  I lie awake now, wondering how soon I can arrange my Vasectomy.  It will make some difference – the only problem for me with getting back to normal the last time was the fact they’d shaved her before the maternity unit birth. The novelty of seeing her look more naked than usual was soon replaced with the hedgehog-like discomfort as the hair grew back, which made me more cautious than her soon-diminished soreness required.

Together we share a passion mitigated only by my wariness of hurting her. She’s always urged me not to treat her as though she were delicate.  In recent months she’s had to assure me I had no need to hold back; that our love making would not harm the baby.

Well, if I had had any illusions about the frail delicacy of her body, now I’ve witnessed the endurance and stamina of even that part of her from which I’ve always been careful to hold back my strength.  Now that making love will no longer make babies too, maybe we can begin to explore how to do so without compromise.

I no longer believe her to be fragile. No matter how small her body feels in my embrace. Like Dr Who’s ‘Tardis’, she’s much bigger on the inside. In every possible way.

Familiarity

This familiarity of shape
breeds no contempt.
This movement of your body;
this division of hair at your nape
and precisely
this flare to your shoulder
inviting the traverse of a necklace of kisses.

Rather, then, love has charted your landscape;
every contour known by my hand,
its remembered textures linger beneath my skin.
Your body; my road home: my lips trace the path.
my mouth, in the garden, drinks
the aromatic well of your desire.

This homecoming completes me:
the way these hairs curl; this hollow;
the inside of your thigh;
the weight of your breast;
the geography of your bones;
the constellations of your moles.

All I know of you
reveals none of your mystery
for all my navigation.
Your homeliness: the imperfections you prefer to hide
I love the most.
Your hands:
sausage fingers you wish were elegant.
Your feet concealed beneath the sheet.
The gentle fecundity of your belly.

When you’re as unashamed of these,
as you are of those parts you offer,
bidding me welcome,
bring yourself home complete,
to my familiar shape.