You have the right to a name, and this should be officially recognized by the government. You have the right to a nationality and to belong to a country. – United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
Homerton Hospital, Hackney, London
September 12, 2012
“It’s like having you all over again,” Mum smiles
“You were the same age when you had me,” Violet tells her “What was I like?”
“Oh you were the loveliest, little thing. Smiley, curious. White blonde hair. Easy to spot in the mission hospital. They called you a ghost,”
Violet starts awake and reaches for her daughter Eliza in a hospital crib next to her.
“It’s okay. I am here,”
Eliza nuzzles at her chest and her head bobs. Violet is enchanted with her in the fairy tale sense of the word. The let down of milk starts and Eliza traces a map to it with no guidance. When she is finished, she does not want to go back to her crib, shaking in agitation at the separation. Her daughter clings to her as to life. Violet lets her be and tries herself to sleep but only reaches an uneasy slumber for she cannot turn on her side as she prefers.
We were all in the dark, in the beginning. The tiniest of hearts beating. Our early time spent with eyes closed inside the womb. Our childhoods a hibernation. 13 month old Violet left the land of her birth where a Dutch midwife delivered her in Botswana. She was nearly called after her, Anneke. She was once a turbo crawler, chasing the brown beetles that come after the rains. Holding off the black kittens who charged her with backs arched, swatting her face. Violet often redirected as she makes a beeline for the garden with a swimming pool, where snakes swim. She is so busy one day that she falls asleep in the shade of a tree and is nuzzled awake by a whining dog. Later killed, its stomach ripped open defending the borders of the property. At a house party, baby Violet sees on the patio bench a young man smoking. They freeze as they encounter one another. He is charmed by her silver Mohawk. She eyes him, wary. He is a stranger here. But he comes straight to her and picks her up, bandies her on his knee but she resists and uses his thighs to stand straight. Violet purses her lips and her eyes grow wide, twitching as he assaults her five senses, especially his booming laugh.
“Oh, I’m sorry” he soothes
He was once a high school student from Soweto. He wanted to learn in English and not Afrikaans.
“It’s true,” he tells her in a low voice
Violet reaches out and touches a scar above his eyebrow.
“What’s your name?” he asks her. “You can’t tell me? I think I know what it is. Is it Violet?”
It’s as if an aerial picks up a signal and she beams at him, making him laugh.
“My name is Nehemiah. Tomorrow, I’m leaving,”
Someone calls him from inside and he puts her down. She uses the bench to sidle along. He turns back to wave at her. He misses what he doesn’t know is her first step as she tries to follow him. He is gone.
Morning is coming and Violet and Eliza will soon be discharged. The nurse comes in the early hours to inform her that they need the bed. She is alarmed at first not to see any newborn but then sees her tiny head pushing from under the blanket, on Violet’s tummy. She checks her watch and decides to give them another 30 minutes.
Your name is Elizabeth Ava North. Elizabeth means God’s promise and Ava means little bird. Your last name is from your father and is descended from people in the north of England. It’s a place which was once under Dane Law. We will call you Eliza. Your name has altered already but our names are never gone. I’m keeping mine because there are some things I don’t want to change. Your grandmother’s maiden name was McCallin. A long time ago her people settled in Northern Ireland, crossing the water from Scotland. There is time to tell you of your ancestors who are from these British Isles. Here lies ‘deep time’ and unbroken lines of ancestry. When I was growing up, I was never close to them and I felt but did not understand their absence. I did hear them once in a place called Virginia which is where I was happiest. The good news is that I have had my entire life as a woman to get to know them. Do you know where you are now? You’re in London. It’s known as cosmopolitan, international but first and foremost it’s the capital of England. The writer Peter Ackroyd describes it as the inevitable and infinite city. You will grow up here. I want you to know its streets like the back of your hand. I have many favourite stories which I’ll read to you. The children travel and then come home to process their adventures. That will be your story too.
Two nights before you were born I tossed from one side to the other, so that we were both comfortable. You were still and tight inside me, your head right above my pelvic bone. Your father touched my bump, his hand hot and you moved right towards it. But I couldn’t sleep, my hips burned all through the night. The cats Ruby and Rosie, both black calicos, jumped into my bedroom window. They can do that from an oak tree in the next door neighbour’s garden. They lay stretched out close to my body, purring loudly. I got up, taking careful steps, late in the morning. I soon saw that I’d lost my mucous plug and that there was a bloody show. Very mild contractions soon followed every half hour or so. This continued until late afternoon when my waters broke as I walked in the garden to collect the laundry. I washed in the shower as some more water came and your father prepared for us to depart for hospital.
Once there, I was admitted to a pre-labour room where a male midwife examined me telling me my cervix was 2 centimetres dilated and in a ‘posterior’ position. More waters came spilling over the sides of the hospital bed. The midwife told me we’d be moved to a room where we’d wait it out and allow labour to advance naturally. So away we went. My labour continued. It was like a tight belt or vice being tightened around my lower tummy. Walking or standing brought the only relief. So, that’s what I did, I walked the corridors.
It took 3 days before I was able to meet you. Forgive me, I got tired. I was standing on a fault line.I asked for an epidural. The midwife checked me and had me lie on side with my legs bent slightly. I felt your legs kicking my rib cage as you struggled to reach me. It reminded me of the first quickening when I was 4 months pregnant. Nobody could feel you at that time but me. At 25 weeks, the doctor told me you were a girl. I didn’t care what gender you were but I did want to start calling you by your name. I could feel you descending toward the birth canal but I had no pain. I prayed you down and out. Each time a contraction came I breathed in and then held my breath and pushed. Your father was always in the moment with me and seemed to will you out as well. The midwife encouraged me to reach down and I felt the top of your head. There was a glass covering the ceiling light above me and in the reflective glare I saw you Eliza come into this world. I could see the cord around your neck which was cut quickly. Your father was distraught as this was a moment he’d waited or. He tried to hide it but I knew. Your first cry was when they disconnected us. I was finally able to touch you after 9 long months together but the truth is I’ve carried you always. You were taken away to be checked and cleaned. Your father was with you all the time and he brought you back, dressed in the outfit I’d packed. He spoke to you for a longest time but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I do know that he wanted you so much. I am your mother and this letter is just one of many things you will inherit from me. I will always tell you the truth because the world is big and not small like they will tell you. The first book I ever read was called Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. I guess it holds sway with me as I often felt that my voice was nothing. I have never liked the sound of my voice. People remark on my accent straightaway. I have been told I’m Ukrainian, Swedish, Canadian, South African, and Australian, and the British tell me I don’t sound like them at all. I was shy and inadequate at each new school as my past had no relevance to my peers. Whatever you want to tell me, Eliza, I will listen to every word you say. When I was very young, I didn’t think much about where I was. I filtered many countries through a child’s eyes and the countries and its people looked back at me too. I was contending with all these different mirrors whilst never being allowed to belong. But children are not little adults Eliza. I want you to know exactly who you and where you are. That does not mean dismissing curiosity of a greater world and travelling, but that cannot be more important. I am connected to and love the many countries that built me, but it was impossible for me to be committed to them. That requires time and staying put. My life now has belonging, meaning and purpose now that I hold you in my arms. I will do the best to make sure your life has the same.
This is a chapter excerpt from my novel Traveller in the Dark.