Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

Barbara Comyns

November 5, 2015 
The following is from Barbara Comyns’ novel, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. Comyns (1909–1992) was born in Bidford-on-Avon, in the English county of Warwickshire, and began to write and illustrate stories at the age of ten. She wrote her first book, Sisters by a River, a series of sketches based on her childhood, in 1947. Among Comyns’s other books are the novels The Skin Chairs (1962) and The Juniper Tree (1985).

On Easter Sunday we had shepherd’s pie for supper, and I felt rather sick afterwards and went to bed early. I usually slept alone in the bedroom now and Charles on the divan in the living-room. I couldn’t shut the door properly, because there was only a handle on the outside. The knob on the inside had gone even before we came, but we did not like to mention it because we were behind with the rent so often.

I felt very tired and soon went to sleep, but was wakened later by the noise of a great wind that had come. The windows rattled and the door banged and my tummy ached quite a lot, so I thought it would be a good idea to go to the lavatory, but when I reached the door found it was jammed to; then, of course, I wanted to go to the lavatory twice as much. I had to call Charles and ask him to open the door from the outside. He was rather annoyed at being woken in the middle of the night, so I went sadly downstairs, but as I was leaving I noticed some blood on the floor, and felt quite sure it had come out of me, so remembering what it said on the instructions, I went and woke Charles again. He was really angry this time and said I was always imagining things, and even if it was the baby I would have to wait until the morning. I went back to bed feeling rather in disgrace. Before I went to sleep I remembered about the beastly door, so got out again and put a chair there so that it couldn’t shut again. The door banged against the chair, the windows rattled even more fiercely, and everything was grim, but I dozed off eventually.

Then I awoke with a start and felt dreadfully frightened. I thought there must be a ghost in the room that had startled me, so I listened and I heard a queer little popping sound that seemed to come right out of me, and suddenly I was all flooding with water. I went to the living-room and wakened Charles again. I told him I was sorry to be such a bother all the time, but this time it really was serious. I’d grown so fat I had burst. He could see I wasn’t imagining things this time, and he looked quite worried as he got out of bed. He said he would go out and get a taxi to take me to the hospital. Then he looked in his pockets and only found ninepence, so I told him about the five shillings in the case. When he opened the case, there was the pink card from the hospital saying I would not be admitted unless I was in labour. We didn’t know if all this water was labour or not, but Charles said the hospital would have to admit me now I was all broken, so he went off to try to find a taxi.

When I was alone I began to feel dreadfully frit again, and my teeth chattered, but there was not quite so much water coming out of me now, so I went into the kitchen to boil a kettle so that I could wash myself, but suddenly a most enormous pain came and doubled me right up. Just at that moment the kettle which had a whistle in the spout started to boil and whistle away. I tried to get at it to stop the piercing shrieks it was making, but the pain was so fierce I could hardly move. At last it left me and I was able to throw the wretched whistle part of the kettle away; I never wanted to hear it again.

I quickly washed and dressed before another pain could get me, but my clothes became all messy and I had to dress all over again because I didn’t want to be disgraced at the hospital. In spite of several attacks of pain I managed to dress, do my hair and even make up my face, but it was rather smudged because my hands shook so much.

When Charles returned, he was most relieved to see me looking almost normal, but he found it rather difficult getting me down three flights of stairs, because I had become all doubled up. When we had got in the taxi the pains began to come much quicker, but I discovered if I said “Along the bridge Lord Marmion rode, etc.” very quickly over and over I could bear the pain much better, so I did this for the rest of the journey and it was a great help.

When we arrived at the hospital, we went down the familiar steps to the basement and found it all locked up, then we went up the steps and through the front door. The door man touched his hat and I felt proud, as if I had graduated to the sixth form. We spoke to an elderly nurse who appeared from somewhere, and I was taken to a dreary room with a lot of dark brown paint all over the place. I was given a bundle of hospital clothes and told to undress and fold my clothes up neatly for my husband to take home. I didn’t like parting with my clothes. It made it seem so prison-like. I couldn’t escape if I wanted to without any clothes.

The hospital clothes were a very poor exchange for mine. They were simply awful – a grey flannel shirt, pink cotton dressing gown, and some really frightful white cotton stockings. I tried to leave them off, but the elderly nurse appeared again and made me put them on. Then I had to lie down on a kind of bed arrangement and she brought Charles in to say goodbye. I felt so ashamed for him to see me wearing those ghastly clothes, and as soon as he saw me he started laughing and said, ‘Darling, if you only knew how funny you look!’ I did, and hoped I wouldn’t die, in case he always remembered me like that. When he had finished laughing, he kissed me, and the nurse told him to come back in the morning. Then he had gone, and I felt dreadfully alone.

After he had gone, such a lot of things happened. I must have been in at least seven different wards and beds before the baby came. They kept me on the move all the time, and the only thing I wanted was to be left alone in privacy. I must have given up the famous pink card and been examined by a doctor, but I can’t remember quite when that happened. The next thing to Charles leaving was being taken to a nice, tiled bathroom and being told to have a bath. In my hand was the suitcase with the teapot and clean night-dresses. When the nurse left I made several attempts to get in the bath, but I was so doubled up I couldn’t manage it, so I just took off the hateful clothes and made some wet marks on the cork mat with my hands to make it appear as if I had had a bath. The nurse came back and caught me in this deception. She said I was a dirty woman to be afraid of water, and stayed in the room while I crawled into the bath. I was getting very discouraged by this time.

The next thing I can remember is walking behind a nurse and carrying my suitcase in my hand. We came to a room or ward with two nurses in it, and some rather high beds without sheets. There were not any people in the beds. I had to climb into one, and they asked me some questions and filled in forms. Every time I went into a new room this happened. When they had finished asking questions one of the nurses shaved me. This was a bit difficult, because the pains kept coming and it was difficult to keep still. When she had finished, she put very strong disinfectant on me. This smarted a lot, but it was almost a relief to have a different sort of pain. Then they gave me an enema, the first I had ever had, and it shamed me a lot, but the next thing they did was even worse – a large dose of castor oil which made me dreadfully sick for hours.

After this I escaped from the torture chamber and was taken to a room called the labour ward. There were other women there that had not actually started their labour yet, but were expected to have difficult confinements. They were talking quite cheerfully, and it made me feel better to hear them, because all the nurses had been so grumpy and impatient with me. I had begun to think it was a disgraceful wicked thing to do – to have a baby.

I lay in bed for about an hour and kept shivering. The pain did not seem quite so bad now I wasn’t being disturbed all the time. Unfortunately, a maid came with some tea and bread and butter on a tray. I took one look and was sick all over the bed. The nurse in charge of the ward came and looked at me disgustedly and asked why I hadn’t asked for a bowl to be sick in. I was taken out of the labour ward and put in another room, all by myself. I carried my horrid case, which appeared every time I was moved, although it disappeared each time I got into bed. Two nurses came and examined me. I heard one say it would be about two hours before the baby came. Two more hours seemed an awful long time. The pains got much worse again, and I tried saying ‘Lord Marmion’, but they told me to be quiet. I longed to cry out, but knew they would be angry, so bit my hands. There are still the scars on them now. My hands seemed to smell of Grapenuts and I remembered a white dog we used to have when we were children and she kept having puppies all the time – I felt very sorry for her now. They gave me a bowl to be sick in and I managed not to get any on the bed, but without any warning the wicked castor oil acted and I was completely disgraced. The nurse was so angry. She said I should set a good example and that I had disgusting habits. I just felt a great longing to die and escape, but instead I walked behind the disgusted nurse, all doubled up with shame and pain.

The next ward I went to had a toilet behind a curtain. There were other women in this ward and I did so hope I wouldn’t disgrace myself again. As soon as the nurse left, I crawled behind the curtain. The pain was terrific now. It seemed like the end of the world, but I was determined I would not make the bed dirty again. There was just this great agony and a white curtain and a shining brass rail.

Suddenly it changed and I was on a kind of trolley. The next place I found myself was a brilliantly lighted room, with two doctors and a nurse. As soon as I arrived in the room I could tell they were going to be kind. I was lifted off the trolley on to a very high kind of bed-table arrangement. I looked round the room and saw there were two little cots, and in one was a baby that had just been born. I could hear it making queer little noises.

I explained to the nurse that I kept being sick all the time, but she didn’t seem to mind. Every time I had a great pain she made me pull a twisted sheet that was fixed to the head of the bed in some way, and she would say, “Bear down, Mother.” I tried to explain I wasn’t a mother, but couldn’t get it out. In between the pains they asked me questions so that they could fill in even more forms.

I looked for Dr. Wombat, but he wasn’t there. I did not mind, because the doctors that were there seemed kind and so was the nurse except that she kept hurrying me up. There was one dreadful thing – they made me put my legs in kind of slings that must have been attached to the ceiling; besides being very uncomfortable it made me feel dreadfully shamed and exposed. People would not dream of doing such a thing to an animal. I think the ideal way to have a baby would be in a dark, quiet room, all alone and not hurried. Perhaps your husband would be just outside the door in case you felt lonely. Once the baby had arrived I would not mind how many nurses and doctors came in attendance.

One of the doctors stood by my head and said he would give me something to put me to sleep in a minute, and the nurse kept urging me to bear down and I could feel everyone trying to hurry me up. Then I was enveloped in a terrific sea of pain, and I heard myself shouting in an awful, snoring kind of voice. Then they gave me something to smell and the pain dimmed a little. The pain started to grow again, but I didn’t seem to mind.

I suddenly felt so interested in what was happening. The baby was really coming now and there it was between my legs. I could feel it moving and there was a great tugging in my tummy where it was still attached to me. Then I heard it cry, so I knew it was alive and was able to relax. Perhaps I went to sleep. The next thing I knew was the doctor was pressing my tummy, but although it hurt, it didn’t seem to matter.

I asked the nurse what kind of baby it was and if it was perfect. She said, of course it was, but I asked her to make sure it had all its fingers and toes. She laughed and said it was a lovely little boy, rather small, but quite healthy.

I couldn’t help crying when I heard it was a boy, because I knew there wasn’t much chance of Charles liking it, now it was a boy – he particularly disliked little boys. I longed to see the baby, but they said I couldn’t yet. It had stopped crying and I was worried in case it was dead. So I cried about that, too.


From OUR SPOONS CAME FROM WOOLWORTHS. Used with permission of NYRB Classics. Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Comyns.

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