Diary of a birth: `It's started. I think you better get a cab'

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We never really had any big discussion about it. I'd just said I'd be there and we would see how it went. I saw myself as a necessary distraction rather than a "birth partner" and, knowing how boring labour can be, I felt that my friend would need as many distractions as possible. Well that was the way I figured it.

She wanted a home birth even though it was her first baby. He wasn't so keen but we were very reassured that we were so near the hospital if she needed to go in. The phone call came on Wednesday morning. "It's started. I think you better get a cab," he ventured, knowing that even at the best of times my driving could be described as erratic.

"It's good to have children," reasoned the taxi driver, "because then you've got someone to leave your valuables to. Otherwise you end up old and worrying about what you are going to do with all your possessions."

She looked fine. Better than him. The contractions were building up, but there was no discernible pattern to them. All day it went on. We ate and joked and read. She cooked me dinner which she never does and rushed around doing housework. I was anxious to keep her on her feet. So we went to the pub, a nice pub to be in labour in, we agreed. We walked home slowly, marvelling at the children playing in the streets, running in and out of each other's houses and doing all the things we are told don't happen in inner cities any more.

Broadcast News was on. She has always liked Holly Hunter. He hasn't. An argument was had about tuning the new video. I went to sleep in the bunk bed unsure as to whether or not it was me who was in labour, waking up regularly with twinges in my back, floating back into nesting dreams in which we were wallpapering the rooms of their house with fake fur. He woke me early in the morning. The contractions were strong. She was shivery. He was keen to put the plastic sheets on the bed, keen to have something to do. Should fathers be present at the birth? Of course, but they need to be given things to do. Anything really to keep them occupied. Good midwives know this. She was examined and was advised to go into hospital for foetal monitoring.

It was weird going back to the hospital where I had given birth to my first child, looking out at the Houses of Parliament across the Thames. How could anyone ever consider that building as important as this one, I wondered. The baby's heart was strong. It was still kicking away, so off I went again. "This baby has got no respect. It's disrespectin' its parents already," laughed the midwife. Jack Straw should be alerted. We read about the nurses in Saudi Arabia. In fact he read aloud several newspaper stories to us but already the rest of the world seemed very far away. Nothing else seemed to matter but this, this waiting game. While she was trying to rest he and I started talking about death. He about his mother and me about mine. We talked about the waiting for some kind of resolution, how being with a dying person was like this too. I thought of Ruth, my friend, who had died earlier in the week. Everything would be in its own time. The primal connection between life and death had pushed its way to the surface and there was no no wishing it away.

His "birth partner", a clinical psychiatrist, came around. He walked in fresh from sectioning a psychotic. He made cracks about how sex could bring on labour. "But I wouldn't be able to feel anything so it would be the usual waste of time, darling," she said, suddenly herself again. Then she got into the bath because the contractions were coming every five minutes. Her husband slept. At three I called the midwife. We sat in the bathroom helping her breathe through each rush of pain, hauling her around in that peculiar slow dance. Then it was my turn for rest. All night long I could hear the bells of the Tibetan monastery ringing away. Sometimes I could even hear the chanting. When I got up I realised it had been the tinkling of the gas cylinders. But the gas had run out, a new midwife had taken over. My poor friend was beginning to make what I call "cattle noises". "I feel like my dog", she moaned, "when its ears went back and it was just whimpering". He went out and bought some more newspapers. Red meat gives you cancer. How popular is Tony Blair? What role should the Lib Dems be taking? Smog all over Malaysia. Perhaps these things mattered in some parallel universe. It was difficult to imagine.

She hung on until some pain relief arrived. "Can't we go and get it?" I pleaded. "No," said the midwife. "You could be arrested for carrying Class A drugs." This seemed to me a minor consideration. It went on and on, her getting more and more exhausted. "I have nothing left," she was crying. "Get her into hospital. She is too tired." The decision was made.

Once there she was given an epidural. He had to leave the room. "I can't stand all the blood," he said. "It's not blood, it's iodine," I snapped. Immediately she began talking about other things, things she must organise when she got back to work, faxes that must be sent, phone calls. His friend came to the hospital. Some mad woman had tried to kill her husband and he had been dealing with it. I went to phone my children. A man was calling his relatives in Sri Lanka. "Yes, she is OK. They want to bury the baby," he said. I caught his eye. There was nothing I could say.

"How come it's taking so long and you still don't know if it's a boy or a girl," asked my youngest. "There are tests that can be done you know," she told me with all the authority a six-year-old can muster. I overheard the midwives haggling over the equipment. "But my lady is dilated, I need a resuscitator." Oh the glorious NHS, where staff are reduced to arguing over who has the machine that may save a baby's life.

We looked out over London, at the lights and the bustle outside and then, just after eight, it was finally happening. They took him and deftly cut the chord and sucked all the fluids out of him, the doctor's big hands on his little stomach. Then, at last, we heard him cry. And cry and cry. The bubble that we had all been in burst, its membrane stretching across the intense and the banal, the miraculous and the everyday, the sense of life ranging way back behind us and way out in front of us. And, as he cried, this perfect tiny boy, the world which had receded into the distance came back to us and started up all over again. As though it was all just for him.

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