I shoved the last of my clothes into my carryon bag, not bothering to fold anything. It was only seven o’clock, a relatively early time for me to be up on a Saturday. Chris had said he’d come by at eight, leaving me enough time to eat breakfast in the hospital before I go home. Nurse Lloyd had come in with my tray earlier this morning, her kind face moulded into that smile that was meant to make me feel better but just made me cringed at the pity beneath it. The breakfast tray lay cold on my table, the scrambled eggs barely touched and the brown toasts still perfectly placed on the plate. I reached over to the bed stand to jam my bunch of cards into my overfilled bag, and ate the last of the shortbread so that I could throw the box away. By the time I managed to brush my hair and shove my feet into a pair of Converse, it was quarter past seven. Forty five minutes until I have to be back here.
I padded my way down the hospital corridor, my feet tapping out a soft rhythm on the vinyl floor. New mothers were just stirring in their rooms, their voices still full of sleep as they cooed to their babies. A thin cry escaped from one room, mingling with the warm voice of a woman singing a soft lullaby in an attempt to soothe the child. A full throated cry burst from another room, accompanied by frantic footsteps and murmurs as the new parents tried everything to ease the sobbing. I walked past them, my frenzied heartbeat my only companion, and headed to the forbidden place.
The SCBU was a world of calm as I stepped over to the glass partition, the children all asleep in their respective incubators. There was a lone nurse patrolling the area, her pale hands coming up frequently to rub against the darkening bags beneath her eyes. Acting on a spur of the moment, I left my usual spot pressed up against the window to walk into the SCBU.
“Excuse me, may I see Jacinta Montgomery?” I asked the nurse, Delia’s other name sounding strange on my tongue.
“What relation are you to her?” she asked me, her tired eyes turned to face me.
“I’m her mother,” I said.
“Now, unless if you had drastic plastic surgery between yesterday and today, you are definitely not Jacinta’s mum,” she told me, “No can do.”
“I’m her surrogate mother,” I added, not wanting to give out this little bit of information at all.
“The answer’s still no,” the nurse said, “I’ve been requested specifically to not let you in here.”
“Please,” I pleaded, “They promised that I could continue to have contact with her.”
“Well did you really think they’d let you do that?” she asked, her voice bitter, “Any self-respecting mother would never share the title of mother with another woman.”
“Please,” I repeated, “Just this once, just to say goodbye. You can look away and pretend this never happened.”
“No thank you,” she told me.
“Well, what would you do if you were in my shoes?” I raised my voice, “You don’t understand how much I need this.”
“You’ll be surprised at how much I do,” she told me after a long silence, turning her back to me and pacing away.
“Thank you,” I whispered, grabbing this godsend opportunity with both hands.
I walked down towards Delia, my feet taking me on the path that I’ve often travelled with my mind. She was sleeping still, her small chest rising and falling in a peaceful rhythm. I reached a tentative hand through the hole in the incubator, my fingers feeling the compelling shock of her presence long before I touched her. Her skin was just as I’d imagined, as soft and smooth as Mika’s skin had been when I’d given birth to her three years ago. I trailed my fingers over her downy cheeks, touching the tiny pink curve of her lips and the fine veins under her eyelids. She stirred beneath my fingers, squirming slightly. I laid my palm on her chest, rubbing it gently and feeling the amazing beats of her heart. Her eyes opened, their bright blue pupils fixed on my face. Her fists swung up, their minuscule fingers reaching out for something. I moved my hand towards hers, enveloping the pink fist inside my own cool palm. She wriggled her hand out of mine and grasped onto my finger, holding on so tight that I thought maybe it wasn’t just me who couldn’t let go.
“You should go now,” the nurse said over my shoulder, shocking me out of my skin, “It’s nearly seven thirty, visiting time and all.”
I squeezed Delia’s fingers and let go, having to pry off her grasp so that I could take my hand out of the incubator. She started to wail, her thin cries breaking my heart. I reached for her again.
“I’ll do it,” the nurse said, reaching for Delia with one hand and pushing me gently towards the door with the other.
I looked at Delia once more before sprinting out of the SCBU. Her tiny face was scrunched up and dotted with tears, her mouth wailing with what must’ve been infant-speech for “Don’t leave me behind”. It was all my fault. I ran down the spotless corridor, trying to lose myself in the slapping beat of my shoes hitting the floor. My face was soaked by the time I arrived at my room, and I hurried past my roommate with her twin boys to collapse on my bed. That was how Chris found me a few minutes later, sprawled on the bed with my face drenched in tears and a novel in my hand to disguise the reason for my grief.
“Reading already Ms Bonnie Conry?” he asked, coming over to sit down beside me, “They ought to make early reading of depressing novels illegal, because you’re blubbering away at seven thirty!”
“I thought you weren’t coming until eight,” I said, wiping a hand across my teary eyes.
“Couldn’t really sleep last night,” he told me as a mean of explanation, “Plus I remembered that you hate scrambled eggs and since that’s on the menu today, maybe we could go out for a regular cafe brekkie?”
“You know me too well,” I said, trying for a smile, “Mad Hatter’s Cafe?”
“Yep,” he said, squeezing my shoulders in a hug, “Mad Hatter’s and a nice big plate of waffles, an espresso and whatever else you want.”
“Home afterwards?” I asked, looking into his gray eyes.
“Like always,” he told me.
Like always. Except this time it wasn’t.