Life in the Deadwood

by Katherine Ahl

Most people thought that things had just gone back to my not being pregnant. There was going to be a baby, and now there wasn’t. People couldn’t grasp that there was a body to bury. I needed to talk to someone who had been through it and could say I know. I know! So, a month after my daughter died, I was pleased to be introduced to Harriet, who had also suffered the death of her first baby in childbirth.

We met at the Park Theatre Café, and Harriet was old. Possibly as old as me. She had coarse, greying hair and craggy skin, and when she smiled, she revealed a tangle of discolored teeth. I was relieved that she wasn’t one of the young, peachy-skinned mothers I’d met at my antenatal classes, with fragrant hair and Breton striped tops in organic cotton. But then, those women had all had healthy babies. Harriet and I had not.

I bought a cup of tea and sat down, and Harriet looked at me earnestly before asking, “Would you like to tell me about your daughter?”

This was a polite convention in baby loss circles—and there are “baby loss circles”: communities online, of people who sometimes refer to themselves as “the baby lost,” who speak of their dead children as “angels” and their subsequent, living children as “rainbows,” and who periodically produce guidelines about how to support someone whose baby has died. Often these guidelines are presented on YouTube, in that format that became popular in the late 2000s, distantly inspired by Bob Dylan via Love, Actually, where the protagonist holds up cue cards with handwritten phrases, and whisks through them, unspeaking, while blinking into the camera.

The people who uploaded these videos may not have been so much younger than me, but they had grown up with the internet and all that entails. I tried to remind myself that these women were suffering, even as they fluttered doe eyes and tossed their hair to a plinky, plonky soundtrack of ukuleles and glockenspiels. Presumably they thought they were helping.

The words on the cards the babylost women held up read along the lines of:

Things not to say

To a bereaved mother

“Everything happens for a reason”

“Time is a healer”

“You can always have another baby”

Things TO say

To a bereaved mother

“Tell me about him”

“Congratulations on becoming a mother”

Congratulations on becoming a mother?

Was that a fucking joke?

It added to my bitterness and alienation, this sense that big-eyed millennials were colonizing my grief with positive thinking, saturating the internet with scripts of condolence that ensured everyone I met would say things to me that seemed at best inane, and at worst sarcastic.

“Would you like to tell me about your daughter?”

What did people expect me to say? Surely the whole tragedy was that I knew nothing at all about my daughter except that she wasn’t, ultimately, alive.

I wondered whether the “tell me about your baby” question was a tactful way of asking “did your baby have some sort of deformity?” And I think for many people it is. But it became clear that this was not what Harriet was asking. She was asking about my daughter’s spirit.

***

Everyone is a bit mad after a traumatic bereavement. Everyone will do what feels natural to them and feel affronted when others do things differently, as it’s another way in which the world doesn’t make sense—another way you’re isolated in your own impenetrable world of horror.

I was in touch with a woman on Facebook whose first child was stillborn, and when I told her that it had taken me three months before I could face putting all the baby gear in the loft, she was appalled. “I couldn’t have done that. I couldn’t have lived with it there. Not at all.”

That was the end of our correspondence.

So I suppose my inability to take down the cot and put away the clothes was a version of what Harriet did when I asked if she’d like to tell me about her daughter as we sat over our cups of green tea in the Park Theatre Café.

“Oh, she was fabulous!” Harriet gave a full-throated chuckle. “She was so outspoken.”

Harriet was gazing at me with relentless frankness and a broad, straightforward smile.

“She spoke to me, during labor. We had decided not to find out the gender beforehand, and she told me that she was a girl. I think she must have spoken just as she was dying. She had a strong, clear voice. It was unmistakably her.”

***

A few years ago, I took my cat to the vet in a taxi. The driver was a large, bald, Lithuanian man, and we’d been chatting for a few minutes when he gestured to my cat and asked, “Does she listen to you?”

“Only when it suits her,” I replied.

“But does she understand?” His mirrored shades sought my eyes in the rearview mirror.

“She understands her name, I think.”

“That’s all?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Huh.”

We spent the rest of the journey in silence. It made me think that we might have much, much less in common with one another than we think we do.

I have a friend who is unusually sensitive to magnets. He feels physical discomfort when he holds them. I used to think it was an affectation, but I’m no longer sure it is. When I was doing my MA, other students on my course said they struggled to work in the British Library, as they were too distracted by the sexual tension.

“What, in the reading rooms?” I asked.

“Yes! The air was thick with it!”

“Any particular reading room?”

“All of them!”

The next time I went in, I looked around me. At the next chair over a chubby man in a tricorn hat had fallen asleep with his face on a pile of books. Opposite me, a hollow-cheeked woman with rosacea peeled strips of skin off her fingers with her teeth. I sniffed the air, and all I could smell was fear.

Other people may have mutually comprehensible conversations with their pets, for all I know. Other people may be permeable to atmospheric lust or enfeebled by magnets. They might converse with the dead, or with the unborn, as a matter of course—they may hear their voices, literally, physically, through vibrations on the eardrum, and this may be part of normal life for them.

Harriet said that she felt her daughter’s spirit with her all the time. She said she didn’t feel she had lost her because she was so palpably still there. “You know?” She asked with a wide smile.

No, I didn’t know. I felt confused and slightly hostile. I couldn’t tell whether this conversation was going the way of interactions with mad, shouting people at bus stops, or of the jostling for dominance that had happened among the expectant parents in my antenatal classes where everyone was keen to point out the subtle ways in which their pregnancy was better. Was Harriet claiming a superior quality of grief? Or that her loss was not really a loss? Was she trying to cheat the system?

“I know one of the stages of grief is depression,” she said, “but it just doesn’t feel like it’s going to happen for me. I feel pain, but, you know, all pain is healthy.”

I suppressed an impulse to split hairs about this. I was tired of people telling me what pain was and was not. What was healthy and what was not. An NHS consultant had told me with a straight face that he considered me to have had a “successful” pregnancy. Perhaps this was Harriet’s view, too—that death was just one of a variety of positive outcomes. I couldn’t get my bearings in our conversation. I couldn’t work out what language we were speaking.

But I envied Harriet, in the way I used to envy the girls at school who believed what the Ouija board told them, when I knew (or thought I knew) that they were pushing the hand piece themselves. I envied the comfort the baby lost women took from the idea that their babies had become their guardian angels—that the horror of death had been transubstantiated entirely, efficiently, without any loss or spillage, into a spiritual protection.

I couldn’t believe this on my own account. Also, I wasn’t sure I would take comfort from the idea that my infant daughter was still there somewhere, alone. The idea filled me with terror and yearning. Whereas the idea that she simply wasn’t there anymore, except as bones in a woodland burial ground, at least meant there wasn’t anything she needed from me.

***

I was entitled to maternity leave; that was at least something. My mother flew home the day after the funeral, leaving our cupboards stocked with American comfort foods, and Barry started a new job the next day. That hadn’t been great timing, even when it looked like things were going to go according to plan. But it was particularly bad timing now.

In the first days after we got home from hospital, Barry had run out of contact lenses. He ordered new ones, but they were sent in error to his former workplace, and he had to go there and get them, wearing a pair of old glasses that were held together with Sellotape. Barry’s former workmates all cheered when he came in and asked if his baby had been born. Yes, he replied. They congratulated him. What’s her name, they asked?

“Penelope,” he said.

But we had never named her.

The day after I was discharged from hospital, we had to travel to Enfield to register her stillbirth, which meant sitting in a registry office waiting room alongside brides and grooms and other new parents registering the births of their living babies.

The clerk we were assigned to was a doughy woman in a lavender cardigan. She asked if a colleague could sit in on our appointment, for training purposes. We agreed. He was a thin man in a suit, who remained standing in the corner of the room for the duration of the appointment.

“What is your occupation?” the clerk asked.

“Psychotherapist,” I said.

“And how are you spelling that?” she peered over the tops of her glasses.

We were in the office for about half an hour, and in that time neither she nor her colleague offered us their condolences. I kept waiting for it, but it didn’t happen, and I was blindsided by how powerfully humiliating it felt.

This was not an uncommon experience, in those early weeks and months. At precisely the times you assume people will be kind to you, when you need people to be kind to you, some of them aren’t able to. They withhold it. They can’t help it. And then, often, they feel angry with you for their inability to be kind. They behave as though you’ve evoked an unkindness in them that wasn’t there before, and they resent you for it. I don’t understand it. But as I say, it happened a lot.

She asked what our baby’s name was, and we said she didn’t have one. We had been planning to wait, I said, until we had met her.

“So, what do you want me to put on the form?”

“What do people normally do in this situation?” Barry asked.

“Well,” she glanced at her colleague in the corner, “I can’t say I’ve handled a lot of these cases, but I imagine most people have thought of a name by this stage.”

“Do we have to give a name?” I asked.

“There needs to be a name on the form. They need to double check it against the coffin.”

“I don’t want to name her just for a form,” Barry said. “I don’t want to name her just for a coffin.”

The name that eventually went on the form, and was embroidered on her woolen coffin, was Baby Sims. The only people who know her as Penelope are Barry’s former colleagues, who still don’t know that she died.

The morning Barry started his new job in Canary Wharf, I ironed his shirt for him, and we were both trembling when I kissed him goodbye at the front door. I went upstairs to watch him from the bedroom window as he walked down the street and out of view.

And then, suddenly, I was alone.

I spent a good deal of time walking. The weather had turned wintry and I couldn’t bear to be cold. I bought a padded coat, thermals and woolen socks and big hiking boots, and with my hood pulled tight around my face, I trudged across Walthamstow marshes. On a clear day, I could see the towers at Canary Wharf, and it comforted me to think that Barry was still within my sight. I walked until I nearly reached Springfield Park, and then turned back, the little café on the hill there being a popular destination for mother and baby groups.

On one of those first days, returning from my walk to an empty house, feeling the chill of my terror, I opened the kitchen cupboard and took down a can of Heinz Chicken Noodle Soup that my mother had left for us. It was not something I would have chosen for myself, as I hadn’t eaten meat for nearly a decade. But it was the promise of sustaining warmth. It was home, and my mother’s love.

The broth was thick, fatty, and yellow. There were tiny chips of carrot and little pink cubes of chicken, fuzzy round the edges and spongy from long suspension in liquid. I wondered how many chickens, or parts thereof, were in this particular can of soup. How many individuals had been rough-and-tumbled into these reconstituted chunks?

When they had died? A month ago? A year ago? How long could you keep a can of soup? How long until the flesh disintegrated completely?

I felt very ambivalent about eating the soup. How could I bear to be complicit in any more death? But by the same token, I wondered whether I was coping so badly because, at the end of the day, I was just a squeamish vegetarian, unwilling to face the cruel facts of life.

Maybe ingesting a little bit of death everyday built up your immunity to it, like a vaccine. Or maybe it was like consuming “friendly bacteria”—taking in something you’d normally be at pains to avoid, because in some forms it’s beneficial. While your own death is unequivocally bad for you, someone else’s death can offer a multitude of health benefits. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I went around and around this, madly.

A thought that was always there, pressing in at the edges but too horrible to take shape in words, was that my daughter was meat. Whatever was left of her. I did manage to say to a friend once, “When will she just be bones? How long does it take?”

“You have to not think about that sort of thing,” she replied. “Just shut it down.”

But I couldn’t.

I wanted to look it up on the Internet.

Several times I opened up an incognito window but couldn’t think how to phrase the search question. When would she just be a skeleton? What about her clothes? What about her little woolen coffin? How long until there was nothing?

I did begin to eat meat. Sometimes, when I did, I felt kind, as though I were making a home for someone else’s death. I was taking in their substance as part of my own, acknowledging that I was meat-in-waiting, myself.

Other times, when I ate meat, I did so angrily. Fuck you, cow. Cow, who died in an abattoir, after no kind of life. Fuck your suffering. Because who’s to say the same thing won’t happen to me? Won’t happen to us all? Fuck you, hope. Fuck you, compassion.

So, for a while, I was no longer a vegetarian. I was a thanatophage. A sarcophagus: a flesh eater. I took a ghastly delight in how apt this felt. I had, after all, contained a dead person. I also held within me the death of a mummy.

***

“I really don’t think people mean to be hurtful,”

“Oh, for God’s sake. I’m not a fucking idiot.”

Silence on the other end of the phone.

I can’t remember what it was that sparked this particular conversation with my mother, or this version of it—we had countless conversations along these lines after my daughter’s death, and the miscarriages that followed. Presumably someone had said something tactless and I had decided again that I couldn’t stand to leave the house because it made me too angry to have to placate these people with their lucky lives who kept telling me that at least I hadn’t had to raise a disabled child; that they just knew I’d have another baby; that I could always adopt; that they knew someone who had a baby at 46, and that just goes to show that it was never too late.

My poor mother was in many ways the worst culprit, because I spoke to her most often and she ran out of the usual platitudes and had to find more inventive ones: “Having children doesn’t necessarily make you happy, you know. Some people hate their children.”

When I mentioned the difficulty in answering the question, “Do you have children?” my mother said, “I don’t get it. Just say no. You don’t have children.”

But I had been pregnant, and I had gone through labor, and I had held my baby, and I was standing there with a wrinkled belly and a scar like a shark bite, and my joints still discombobulated with pregnancy hormones, and it was baffling to claim I didn’t have a child. At best, it felt dishonest.

“Do you have children?”

People ask this question for reasons of their own. Most often it is in the expectation that you’ll find some common conversational ground—teething or toilet training or secondary school choices. It’s generally women who ask, or older men. When you answer no, they make a decision about where the conversation will go next, sometimes with disappointment, as they can’t think what to talk to you about now that you don’t have the easy thing in common. And at the same time, they may feel a little lump of discomfort with you. Why don’t you have children, at your age? Have they struck a nerve by asking? Are you going to get shitty with them now? It’s hardly their fault, whatever it is that’s not right with your life.

And all the while this was going on for whoever had asked me, a chasm opened up, and I fell through it into memories of the child I did have. The coffin, the raw ground of her grave.

***

Our daughter is buried near Epping Forest, in what is known as a “burial park”—that least festive of themed parks.

When we were at the hospital it hadn’t occurred to me that we could bury her. The leaflets they handed us—in duplicate, triplicate, quadruplicate, because most of the midwives were too backfooted by our situation to be able to communicate in anything but leaflets—gave the impression that her body was clinical waste to be disposed of responsibly by the hospital.

We were told we were entitled to a cremation, with the possibility of a group service of remembrance in the hospital chapel, to be held at some unspecified time in the future, presumably when enough babies had died to make it worth the chaplain’s while. I imagined my infant daughter tossed into an incinerator alongside amputated limbs, excised appendices, tonsils, and tumors. Had anyone thought to offer assurances that her body would be treated with respect, I wouldn’t have believed them; my own body had not been handled with respect, after all, and I was not only alive but American, and potentially litigious.

The bereavement midwife, a pockmarked woman who wouldn’t meet my eyes, was the seventh person to hand us the same set of leaflets. “We’ve already got plenty of these,” I said, fanning out the pile beside me on the hospital bed.

“You must take them.” She said, and tapped a checklist on her clipboard, the first item of which was “offer leaflets.”

“But we have them.” I said.

“It is my job.” She jabbed the checklist again. “You must take them or I have not done my job.”

Our whole experience in hospital was peppered with incidents like this. Gems of absurdity so dark and awful that only we could dare pretend to find humor in them. The jobsworthy bereavement midwife. The visit to the mortuary where our daughter’s tiny body was presented to us covered in pink pancake makeup, in a ruffled Moses basket patterned with teddy bears. Occasionally, people we told about these things did laugh, and I was not able to forgive them.

A neighbor of ours, Sian, was pregnant at the same time as me, with her third child. The day before my daughter was born, I was chatting to her, wondering if the odd feeling in my abdomen could be the start of labor. Sian said waiting for birth was quite like she imagined it would be to wait for death—looking at every symptom and wondering if this was it, the beginning of the end.

Sian was still heavily pregnant when she stopped by to see us after our daughter’s funeral, and asked, over a cup of tea, “Do you think it was the right thing to do?”

I didn’t understand.

“Having a funeral. Was that the right thing to do?”

“I think so,” I said, and changed the subject.

But when she left, as I closed the door behind her, I went cold from the base of my spine.

Could it have been the wrong thing? What would have been wrong about it? Was she inferring something about the souls of unbaptized babies?

A few months later, when I told Sian I had requested a copy of my notes from the hospital, she asked again, “Was that the right thing to do?”

I said I couldn’t stand not to know everything there was to know about what had happened that day.

She nodded and said, “I think I’d feel the same way.”

With that, I realized that Sian’s preoccupation with “the right thing” was nothing to do with her assessment of my choices, but a reflection of her own temperament. She was simply asking me the question she relentlessly asked herself: “Was that the right thing to do?” It was an anxious person’s version of condolence—a neurotic translation of “may you find peace.”

I found that the people who instinctively knew how to be kind to me during that time were themselves depressed, traumatized, chronically sad. People who had come to an accommodation with “negativity” in all its forms: rage, bitterness, envy, sorrow, horror, the terror of disintegration, the desperate desire to die. These people met me without fear. They didn’t always say the perfect things, but it didn’t matter. When they hit a wrong note, it was in the right key.

The people whose presence was jarring and wounding were the anxious, the fastidious, who came armed with advice and questions and an oblique sort of aggression. They were the people—and there were so many of them!—who suggested, “why don’t you run a marathon?”

When you are so eviscerated by misery you can hardly stand up to put the kettle on, that is when people want you to run a marathon. People want you to embody the triumph of the human spirit, not the suffering and loss that await us all. Upcycle death into something positive. Run a marathon!

Or maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe you need to earn your way back into civilization through feats of endurance. Prove your utility. Prove you’re not for the cull. Run a marathon.

***

The morning of the funeral, I remember harrying my mother and Barry. Nobody was doing what they were supposed to do. I wanted cuttings from our garden to put on her grave. I wanted a bouquet from the florist’s down the road. Nobody was getting these things quickly enough. I kept repeating what needed to be done, and it seemed to me that everyone else was inert, unhearing, unmoving, as though trapped in jelly.

Then there were three sharp raps with the knocker on the front door, and dread went through me like icy water.

One of the terrifying things about that period of time was the sense of death skipping around in time, jumping between people, snatching and swiping at us all from unpredictable angles. A fear that my daughter, already dead, was going to die again. That I had died instead of her. That Barry seemed alive but had actually died. That death lurked secretly in the living, and the past could attack me again from the future.

The knock on the door sounded like the noise in my mind when I looked at the ultrasound screen in the labor ward. Someone must have pushed a panic button, because the room had suddenly filled with medics, and a midwife indicated a still point on the screen and said, “there are the four chambers of the heart.”

Nobody would say it, so I had to.

“Her heart’s not beating.”

I heard a crack—a crack like an axe chopping my life in two. For months, I couldn’t recall that moment—I couldn’t even approach the possibility of recalling that moment—without an echoing guillotine sound splitting through my brain.

Crack crack crack.

I opened the door and our vicar was there in his robes. Beyond him, a little hearse. Our daughter’s tiny white woolen coffin on the seat in front. Two mutton-chopped undertakers in top hats.

Barry had the plants from the garden. My mother had procured the little bouquet of pink roses and—the irony—baby’s breath. It didn’t feel ironic at the time. It felt wounding, macabre, and terrifying.

My heart pounded as I sat in the back of the hearse, conscious of my daughter’s coffin on the seat in front of me. The car smelled powerfully of air freshener, and I found myself concentrating all my energy on trying to detect—and simultaneously desperately trying not to detect—a smell underneath it, of rot, of thawing refrigerated flesh.

The vicar, in his robes, walked in front of the hearse to the end of our street. I hadn’t expected this, and was tremendously moved. The dignity and solemnity of the ceremony gave me a startling feeling of pride—the automatic, sentimental awe that strikes at weddings and graduations—and that was frightening and grotesque, as well.

It was a long drive to the woodland, and I trembled and hiccupped and felt the panicked leaping of my heart, convinced that this was my own funeral, that I was dying, that I had died, that I was suspended forever in an endless, terrifying moment of death.

We had been to select a burial site a week earlier. There were particular areas reserved for children and babies, around trees designated “snowdrop trees,” and the plots were marked out around the bottom of the tree trunk. That day we had been given a stake to put in the ground where we wanted our daughter to be buried. It felt a sickening thing to do, sticking a piece of metal with a blue plastic tag and a serial number on top, leaving it there. Deciding that we would leave her there felt like deciding that she would remain dead, that we were committed to making it so.

The tree itself was not remarkable. It was a tall pine tree, in a ferny bit of woodland. There was a bat box nailed to its side. There were no other graves there yet, as the tree had been newly “opened”—made available for new burials. By the first anniversary of her death, the snowdrop tree was ringed with nine new memorials, including one for a baby brother and sister who died two months apart. The tree had a red marker on its trunk that meant it was at full capacity.

After Barry had plunged the spike into the soil, we were desperate to leave. It was habit that made us stop to look at a small informational plaque by the side of the path, of the type you might see on wetlands or in nature reserves, providing descriptions of the local ecosystem illustrated with old, amateurish line drawings of insects and flowers and fossils, and a grainy photograph of a bearded conservationist. I think we had hoped to see something consoling—that this was a haven for an endangered species of plant or animal, perhaps. That at certain times of the year a migrating bird stopped here en route from Africa.

I approached, and stopped short when I saw that the sign was entitled “Life in the Deadwood.”

I couldn’t make myself read beyond the title. I couldn’t stand the word “dead.”

I still don’t know what is written on that informational plaque. If I were of a different temperament, I might invent something. A poignant description of a wily woodland creature, going about its business with no idea that in doing so it is spinning human death into rapture, weaving all of our horror and sorrow into a redemptive and transcendent message for us all. If this were a pithy short story about people I’d made up, what a gift of a narrative device that plaque would be.

Katherine Ahl lives in the UK where she works as a psychotherapist, after a first career in publishing. Her writing has been published in Mikrokosmos, where she won the 2020 prize for fiction.