Heartbeat: a short story


Outside, the iron sky was a colourless canopy, crossed only by the trails of planes. The womblike interior of the room was situated so that the outside world seemed inconsequential. The dim lustre of the stained-glass, that chronicled the lives of men who had achieved great things or been attributed glory through time, the only marker of life outside.

It seemed a relic of a time that had been lost in the process of modernity. The roof curved like the bones of a longship, an immensity of noise reverberating at the slightest movement. An imposing statue of christ on the cross hung above the alter. His face peaceful. Rose had always imagined that it would have been an anguished grimace and was taken aback at its expression. A shaft of light from a domed skylight shone on it, dust particles moving in waves, only seen in the narrow beam.  It was a room that demanded reverence. More and more these days, she felt that reverence was dangerous. She had worshipped people, ideas, abstract notions she barely understood, for the majority of her life. Life seemed too scattered, imperfect, nihilistic, to have the potential for something to have such worth. The more you looked, modernity had indeed taken hold. Awe and beauty obscure, but clear enough, markers of time were apparent: glowing fire safety signs and clumsy extinguishers sat alongside plastic the electric candles that had replaced votives. They seemed lost in the mass of wood and marble, dressed in their gaudy colours. 

Her palms were sticky. A salty residue that she wiped against the material of her jeans in rough strokes. It seemed to cling, like the guilt she vainly attempted to wash away in the shower. After is happened, she felt so sick with shame that she showered five times in one day. Yet, in the dark, she could smell it, musky and rank, mingling with her damp breath, her skin, her hair. She had been sitting on the bench for close to an hour, back collapsing as she she rested her head in her hands. Palms cradling her jaw, fingers reaching and smoothing under the thick heavy hair, to were the bottom of the cranium dips and meets the sensitive spot at the back of the neck. Her fingers restlessly soothing the skin. Countless times she had been told she was lovely in the past. But recently, she had to taken to standing at the mirror, searching for clues that she in any way resembled who she knew. Herself. Her hair, usually obsessively straightened, hung bedraggled. Crimson lipstick had run to the lines of her mouth, bleeding into the white of her skin.  


Before entering, Rose paused, gulping in air to brace herself against the weight of the shame that pressed against her skin like lead paint. A girl of seventeen, tired and bloated, lounged against the rough pebbledash. Arm bent, wrist tight, she grasped a burning cigarette and pressed it against her lips. Her mouth was filled with smoke. Her gaze flickered over, and their eyes caught. Neither speaking, nor evoking any expression, a shared understanding that they, in many ways were on the same path exchanged in the black space of their pupils. The same path neither had wished to consider. Looking away, she drew a final gasp of smoke and dashed the cigarette against the concrete, orange sparks a forming miniature firework display before dissolving into ash.

The laminate floor of the surgery was tacky, Rose’s shoes performing a sticky tattoo as she picked her way across to the reception area. At the desk, a woman whose beige scrubs matched the pale brown of her hair, skin and eyes, rested her soft chin in her hands and gazed out at the window of grey. Her eyes were soft and sad as they probed her for information. Rose’s explanation caught in her throat. ‘I. I think I might be… pregnant?’ her statement, one she had repeated in her head for the last week, lifted and formed a question as it escaped her lips.  ‘Take a seat in the waiting room, the doctor will be right with you’, the receptionist replied without hesitation, her age and current situation an everyday occurrence.

The waiting room was damp and filled with people, the air moist with their breath and sweat, windows frosted with the condensation of a thousand exhalations. Each sat with curved backs, expressions bored or  pensive. The clock was loud. She was highly aware of the sound of their bodies, the sounds of scratching, tapping and breathing was punctuated by the wet percussion of coughing and sneezing. The room was a stained, discoloured green. The precise shade of the putrid pea soup she was ladled at school. The colour of hospitals. She had read somewhere that green was supposed to be calming, but instead it felt like nausea.

Across from her, a young mother sat with her baby curved like a comma round her shoulder. Her eyes were sunken with months of no sleep, clothes clearly chosen for the ease in which they could be cleaned. She could feel a pulse in the pit of her stomach as she watched the mother sigh and press her hand against the curve of her child’s head. The mother had to be only a few years older than herself.

At precisely ten to three, the nurse called her name and she dragged her numb body off the crackly vinyl and followed her into office. The doctor greeted her with a professional smile that meant no more than what his job entailed. His voice, intensely controlled, a half whisper. He asked her questions in a soft, hushed tone in the same manner as one would tell a secret. She answered his questions in short, monosyllabic sentences. She had pictured the scene countless times. In each, the doctor was horrified and judgemental of her young age, but in reality, it appeared she was no special case. ‘Do you have anybody to help you with this? A parent or friend?’ He asked at the end of the appointment. Her answer was a sharp shake of the head. Handing her a card he explained that there was a helpline for people like her, as well as other online support. The test results would be ready in a couple of days.

She didn’t come from a  damaged home, in fact her parents were hard working and loving, if perpetually absent. Yet, the very idea of admitting what she had done and what would occur in a few short months made her nauseous, her heartbeat rise. She had a clear picture of her mother when she was a child. In her minds eye she was rosy cheeked and smiling. She had carried her, strapped to her front, and showed her the world, and then when she grew, had held her hand and lead her through the obstacles of  childhood. How could she do the same? If this experience had taught her anything, it was that she had not the slightest notion of how to handle situations of responsibility. She had been given a hamster as a child, a small ball of fur with a heartbeat so fast it seemed to vibrate against her fingertips. It had lived less than a month under her care. It had escaped the tight confines of her grasping fingers and sprung, with valiant determination, onto the floor, snaking its way under furniture until it finally burrowed its way behind the fridge. She had pleaded with her father to move it, but he had dismissed the notion, explaining that it would have already found a hole and escaped into the network of walls in which their flat was built. Two winters later, her parents renovated the kitchen. Behind the fridge was a collection of minuscule bones, picked clean.

She had composed a letter, written widely spaced in her clumsy childish hand. With statements. ‘It’s not my fault’ she had headed it, the same mantra she had repeated over and over as a protection against her shame. Before she left, she had stood before it and crushed it in her palm, stuffing it into the deep pockets of her jacket.

Her life, looking back, had amounted to little, with almost no consequence. She would sit in her tower block cell, gazing out at the concrete landscape, topography formed out of manmade blocks of grey. A  jagged, geometric skyline. At night each window would be illuminated, a gigantic dollhouse, each window frame encasing a world. At seven o’clock Mr and Mrs O’Connor would close their net curtains and crawl into bed, to wake up again at 5 in the morning. The gigantic family of seven children, an eternal source of entertainment with their arguments and tireless toddlers. Her favourite thing was to catch the occasional moments of peace, where the parents would visibly sigh and blissfully sink into the cheap leather sofas. Televisions cast colourful shadows across walls, gigantic screens taking up entire walls. Some curtains were never opened, even in day. Shaky silhouettes, backlit by fluorescent bulbs, would perform a plotless play. And the boy. The boy she pretended not to notice.

Everyday she walked past the church on the way to school. It stood, with graceful stature in between two rows of tenement housing. Its sandstone tower pointing to the sky. Wasn’t church the place where people went when they were lost, a place where you could see a picture bigger than yourself, that placed you and your small life in the chronology of time and god? She had been brought up without religion. People in her life worshipped things and people. She had a friend who was Muslim, and she had always been jealous of her faith. She rarely discussed it, but she seemed to posses an inner quality which held her upright.

She would walk past and imagine the  ceremonies held within. What she had heard, seemed mystical, enigmatic, a series of rituals only important to those who understood their value. At a loss of where to go, or who to be, all she is certain is that she must leave. After the blank walls of the hospital, she needed something that had meaning. The church seemed to was a space where she could think and begin to understand the sheer weight of this moment, her situation.

The moment that had started this mess, she thought, seemed in comparison, miniscule. Rose remembered the feel of his weight, and the sensation of his breath, damp and warm in the crook of her neck. Over in the matter of minutes, in a state of blind drunkenness with a boy she barely knew, entranced by the rhythm of the music and the unfamiliar sensation of wanted. She had finally committed the act was always described as being a turning point, a vast discovery, by the girls at her school and the books and television she consumed. After, she felt dirty, walking home with a unshakable feeling of having done something wrong. And she was rewarded with this, a seemingly irrevocable change she handed landed had landed herself in the matter of minutes. She had become a statistic. A point of data which showed the problem areas, the future of the poor and underprivileged. She had wanted, no, expected, so much more for herself. Now she felt like a caricature of her background, a laughable result of society.

A confessional box sat in the corner of the church, nestled in between two balustrade. In books and films they were a space of redemption, to spill the unknown that gnawed at the flesh. Pulling the heady weight of the door, she put faith in its power and pressed herself into its depths. It felt coffin tight. Unexpectedly dark, claustrophobic and judgemental. The light filtered only through the cracks in the wood paneling and the strange mesh panel that would form a blurred profile of the person on the other side. She sat, breath caught with expectation of the priests arrival. She imagined the conversation with the priest and what he would say. His voice in her head was deep, firm and wise. He would listen and then tell her what to do. She rationalised what she would say, laying out the details in straight, ordered lines.

It wasn’t just a baby, it was a potential child, teenager, adult. What could she possibly offer this tiny, blank minded creature? She could seriously fuck it up, ruin its life, turn it into a murderer. Its personality traits would be formed out of a of her genetics and her upbringing. There were girls from school who had babies. Plump, pink balls of flesh with large eyes and downy hair. They pushed them round in gigantic prams, shopping bags hanging clumsily from the handles. Kitted them out in matching outfits with tiny hats and socks. The very idea of being pregnant creeped her out. Something growing and feeding from inside of her, suspended in a sac of fluid. She had watched the film Alien two winters ago and the scene where the alien burst from the stomach of one of the main characters had become a prominent image in her perception of pregnancy. She had been told that you can feel and even see the babies hands and feet as they pressed agains the skin of the womb.

She was aware that she was part of something bigger and more important than herself. From a distance, destroying this, thing, seemed inhuman, inconceivable. She pressed her fingers against the soft flesh of her belly and imagined a tiny heartbeat, a human that was half way hers. It was a difficult feat to even form a picture of what it could look like. Decomposition in reverse. The tiny, bird small bones would form, ivory pale. Cells splitting and multiplying to form a complex network of bones and muscles, with paper thin skin, stretched.  The process of life was something she had only seen in the depictions mapped out in her biology textbooks. The stages of development after conception – already begun.

‘What do I do?’

The empty silence of the confessional box gave her no answer. The bench was cold and hard.


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