« 78 - Tugging Me Back To Oranjemund | Main | "A Woman Of Bangkok" »

Illingworth House: Chance Child - Part One: 64 - Fighting For Breath

..It was a sweltering day when the hospital rang the Gibsons to say Helen was in labour and sinking fast. Would they come at once? They contacted Mary Calow who went immediately and picked them up. It was an agonising drive to Ilkesworth and they rarely spoke, Joe least of all. He stared grimly through the window while the women made sporadic chitchat...

Helen gives birth to a baby boy then fights for breath.

To read earlier chapters of John Waddington-Feather's dramatic tale please click on

After that telephone call from Mary Calow, Abe Illingworth wired his son immediately to let him know about Helen and give him the impression that he had been concerned about her all along. He hoped it would cushion the explanation he would have to give when he met him off the ship.

Mary Calow's remark about Helen's child being his grandchild slowly registered, too. He tried to dismiss it from his mind, but he couldn't, and as time went by, it sank in deeper. Over the years to come, it would slowly dawn on him that the baby was the only grandchild he was ever likely to have.

But just then, his first reaction was that if Grimstone had done his job well and his son's engagement was really off, there would have to be a settlement of some sort, even patrimony. It was irritating but necessary. There was no way out of that, if John admitted he was the father, as he was sure he would.

He wanted no court case, no dragging the family name through the mire. He would buy the Gibsons off, as had always been his way. That had been his way with Mary Calow once.

But if Grimstone had failed and the engagement was still on, what then? He dared hardly begin to imagine how his son would react. The nearer his homecoming drew, the more he panicked. The more tormented he became, for he knew his son had his own temperament and temper. He knew from past experience that he could go so far and no further with John. This time he had gone too far. All he could do now was to meet his son and wait for more news from Mary Calow about Helen, for he couldn't bring himself to visit her.

The vicar was the only person down Garlic Lane who had a phone. He had arranged with Joe to let him know if there was an emergency call about Helen from the sanatorium, and he also offered to run them over. However, Mary Calow left her London home temporarily and came to live with her sister at Oak Cottage. When she visited Helen, she took Mary and Joe with her.

The hospital faced south to catch the sun. It was a large open-air complex of one-roomed chalets and wards, surrounded by grassy lawns and gardens. Bang in the middle was the morgue, screened by a high privet hedge.

The wards opened onto long verandahs, where patients were outdoors in good weather. There were also the rows of chalets, where the less ill and those recuperating lived, sometimes for years at a time. One wall of these chalet apartments opened up to the elements winter or summer to catch the invigorating smoke-free air outside. On the north side of the complex, lay tennis courts and a cricket field. Nearby was an open-air swimming pool, used by staff who lived next to it.

The whole place was reminiscent of an early, bustling, holiday camp, where all the activities were outdoors and the routine was almost military. But a stillness overhung everything here and the morgue was a pointer to its real function. So were the white-coated doctors and nurses going quietly about their daily business.

Separating the wings of the hospital was a network of roads and footpaths, along which patients strolled or were wheeled. At intervals, trees broke the stark outlines of the chalets, which had long splendid views over the surrounding countryside to the moors on the hilltops opposite.

A row of conifers screened the sanatorium from the town below and from the surrounding farmland. The view from the chalets looked over the trees to a row of jagged boulders perched on the crest of the hillside opposite. Among them was the Swastika Stone.

They gave the skyline a primeval look, which extended to the moorland behind, a perpetual reminder of the titanic forces which had scoured out the dale aeons before and made men feel their place. When storms blew up there, as they often did, and lightning cracked the sky, it was as if they came straight from the belly of Chaos, before ever breath was blown to put the universe in order.

It was a sweltering day when the hospital rang the Gibsons to say Helen was in labour and sinking fast. Would they come at once? They contacted Mary Calow who went immediately and picked them up. It was an agonising drive to Ilkesworth and they rarely spoke, Joe least of all. He stared grimly through the window while the women made sporadic chitchat.

They drove straight to the matron's office when they reached Middlemoor. She was waiting to greet them and escorted them to Helen's ward. She was a big-boned woman with closely cropped hair, whose uniform made her look bigger. She had a mannish gait and face, which belied her compassion; a woman dealing always with pain and death.

Her grey eyes had a distant look, the eyes of someone looking beyond this life to comfort those leaving it. She was called Miss Willis and received them calmly, asking them to be seated and pouring them tea before she told them about Helen. When she had finished, she took them to her ward.

The baby had already been born and was in his crib in an adjoining room. Helen was barely conscious and the doctor and midwife were still in attendance. They exchanged glances as Mary Calow and the Gibsons arrived. Then the doctor drew the matron to one side and spoke to her privately before he and the midwife left.

Miss Willis re-joined the others huddled near the door and staring helplessly at Helen. She drew them to one side and whispered what they had already guessed, that Helen hadn't long to live, but her baby, a boy, was well. Then she led them to her bedside and placed chairs for them.

Helen was fighting for every breath. Inside, her room, the air was oppressive and the midwife had rigged up a fan. Outside, the air was thick and the sky had turned the lurid colour which heralds a storm. The light was fading rapidly and they'd switched on the ward lights, making Helen look paler still, almost translucent.

Tight-lipped, Mary and Joe sat close together on one side of the bed, clasping hands. Mary Calow sat the other side, and it was she who spoke first, gently calling Helen's name to let her know they were there. In time she opened her eyes and struggled to speak, staring wild-eyed at Mary to get her in focus. Then she smiled.

"They say it's a boy," she gasped and turned to her sister. "Is he alright, sis? Ask them to let me see him. I do so want to see him."

Mary nodded through her tears, while Joe leaned forward and gently wiped the perspiration streaming down her brow. "Tha mustn't try to speak, lass. Try an' rest. Thi bairn's all reight so don't fret yersel."

She closed her eyes, gripping her sister's hand. By comparison to Mary's heavy weaver's hands, Helen's looked skeletal. The skin looked so tight that it seemed it would burst over the bone. The pallor on her face was ghastly and her coughing came in long violent spasms, which cut through those at her bedside. Suddenly they stopped and they thought she had stopped breathing; then after a moment, the whole agonising process would begin again.

A dreadful rattle had developed in her throat, which filled the whole room. It stayed with Joe the rest of his life. Her dying took away part of him. After one long interval of silence, she opened her eyes and spoke to him, gazing intently into his face. She spoke so low he had to lean forward to catch what she said. "You will look after him, won't you, Joe. He's your son now. Yours, too, sis. Call him...call him John," she whispered.

Joe would have given the baby any other name but that, but he squeezed her hand and nodded. "Aye," he said simply. "Ah will. Ah promise." She smiled wanly and sank back continuing her hopeless struggle for breath. Minutes later there was another of those terrible pauses when time stood still, a much longer pause followed by a quiet release of breath. Then a shudder passed right through her to those holding her hands, and she went limp. Her head lolled to one side.

She was dead.

Joe and Mary were stunned and remained at the bedside still holding her hand, but Mary Calow got up to fetch the nurse. The doctor returned with her and felt Helen's pulse and neck. He glanced at the matron who ushered them quietly away to her office before the orderlies came to begin clearing her bed and to take her to the morgue.

Mary was grief-stricken and wept uncontrollably, supported on one side by Mary Calow and on the other by Joe, who could scarcely hold back his own tears. Her death had come as relief to him, torn as he was, watching her slip away piecemeal.

When they reached her office, Matron Willis gave them some forms to fill in. It was all routine stuff, mundane and dull, yet in its way it began the slow process of healing. The paperwork of death has its own therapy for the living.

It also brought home to the Gibsons that they were the guardians of Helen's baby, and the realisation dawned they were the parents of a child they had dearly wanted all their married lives. They asked if they could see the baby. "Of course," said the matron, and took them to the crib where Helen's newborn baby lay fast asleep.

Their grief was cushioned as they gazed at the baby in awe. Mary Calow murmured, "What a beautiful child." And he was, indeed. It didn't seem possible that the wasted body they had seen only an hour before had nurtured such a sturdy child.

Completely captivated by him, Joe leaned over the crib to touch the baby's head and cheek. The baby stirred and puckered his lips, lifting his tiny fist to his mouth, but keeping his eyes tightly closed. He didn't wake even when a peal of thunder rumbled overhead and rain began drumming on the roof. The storm that had threatened so long had broken, washing away the oppressive heat in a sudden downpour lasting for some minutes. Then the sun broke through, spotlighting the skyline on the moors opposite as storm-clouds drifted away down the dale.

Helen was buried in Keighworth Cemetery in her parents' grave the following week, and Joe and Mary took her baby home to rear him as their own. When he was baptised, Mary Calow and her husband Robin became his godparents. Abe Illingworth heard all about these events but kept well clear - and his son had to grieve alone.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.