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Friday, 10 January 2014

Saturday Story - 'The first is the worst'


THE FIRST IS THE WORST

 


When Tim Thorn first entered Bragg Crater Hospital's antiseptic-smelling room it had appeared to be quite spacious.  Yet now, after he had paced from bulkhead to bulkhead for what seemed like an age, it felt unbearably close, almost claustrophobic.  The sealed windows that offered panoramic views of the moonscape palled very quickly and were of little help.

            He crushed his twentieth cigarette into the ashtray provided alongside the long low polyglass bench.

            Anderson, the only other occupant, eyed the dispenser. He seemed to be continually chewing something. 'Thoughtful of them, don't you think, providing cigarettes?'

            Tim grunted affirmatively and resumed his pacing. His fingers fumbled with his jacket's Velcro fastening; finally, it peeled crisply away from his throat. He wiped his moist neck with a dispenser-issued paper handkerchief, then thrust the soiled thing in the disposal chute. The orifice emitted an asthmatic sigh.

            'I guess this is your first, eh?' Anderson sallied, chuckling as he leaned back on the bench.  Like the rest of him, his cheeks were bloated; the incessant munching sound carried to Tim's ears and grew more and more irritating.

            'Yes, our first.  It takes two to make a baby, so it's not only mine, but hers - Karen's - ours - '

            'No need to get so edgy, feller, I've been through the same waiting game before.'

            'What's keeping them, anyway?' He sullenly eyed the airlock door. MATERNITY THEATRE said the large red stencils: they glowed, indicating occupation. The theatre door stayed shut.

            Anderson sat beside him, far too close for comfort, his sweat and chewing intruding grotesquely. 'Shouldn't be long now,' Anderson said. His bespectacled fresh-faced features - an odd mixture of boyishness and dissolution vying for his physiognomy's topography - remorselessly followed Tim's every move. 'After three, you stop counting. Sort of get used to the waiting bit. Mind you, the first took about ten hours, give or take a few drinks...' Anderson pulled out a hip-flask and gulped back a quantity of aromatic liquor, his Adam's-apple bobbing. 'Ah, that's better. Brandy - I swear by it. Actually, I abstain till occasions like this.' He burped. 'Mind you, I've got to be careful. If I get a taste for it, no telling what the moon's population will be like, eh?'

            'But the Edict - one child per family, how'd - ?'

            'Early settlers, lad,' Anderson explained, patting Tim's thigh. 'The Edict was introduced only after Phase Three Settlement was established. You're Phase Six, aren't you?'

            'Yes...' Tim looked puzzled, head to one side.  'Earlier, did you say your wife was in labour ten hours?' He stood up, paced the floor yet again. He absently registered Anderson's nod. He held the image of Karen lying there, the mound of belly they had both created. 'But the doctors had said it would be painless, they assured me - us, I mean. But she's been gone - been in there - three hours already!' He balled his fists, impotently thumped the utilitarian magazine table. 'Why did they insist on me staying outside?'

            'Moon-base regulations,' Anderson shrugged. 'Mind you, I've never particularly fancied being there, actually there when it happens... 's enough to put you off for life, eh?'

            'They never mentioned this at the colony recruitment centre. Back on Earth - I - I'd be with her now, holding her hand, giving her support, sharing the experience...'

            'Don't worry none, it's a damned sight easier having a kid up here. Something to do with the one-sixth gravity, they reckon.'

            Tim withdrew another cigarette from the dispenser.  Anderson seemed to go on and on, damn him!  Wouldn't he ever stop?  He rasped a match on the box, a memento from an Olde English nite-club in Apollo Crater: it snapped. He struck a second, sucked in the calming smoke, and resumed his metronomic tread.

            Anderson never stopped, though. 'Pretty good, isn't it, up here, eh?'

            He couldn't help but answer: 'In what way?'

            Anderson guffawed. 'Any way you choose, conceiving up here is way out, don't you reckon?'

            Tim turned away, but Anderson was insensitive to any cold shoulder treatment. 'Sometimes,' Anderson went on, 'I wonder if any space radiation we don't know of might get at us, even get through the shields, through to our genes. My wife gets nasty when I think up these silly ideas. Well, I mean, I suppose they are silly, really...'

            Tim, as though sleepwalking, nodded.

            'What do you want - a boy or a girl?'

            What a bloody cliché!  Face suffused now, Tim swerved round. He could sense his temple's prominent vein throbbing insistently. 'I don't care what it is - as long as it's healthy!' he answered, somewhat vehemently.

            At that moment the airlock hissed and the theatre door slid up into the roof.

            Wearing a shiny white trouser-suit, an attractive blonde nurse entered, her face drained, ashen. She seemed to be in shock, falteringly seeking support against the airlock frame.

            'My missus!' Anderson cried, jumping up, his feet unsteady. 'Is she - ?'

            The nurse seemed to collect herself, shook her head, swallowed. 'No, it's Mr. Thorn...'

            Tim's heart pounded, gave a foreboding lurch.  He wanted to ask, but his throat and chest seemed dry, constricted. He paled.

            'Your wife's all right, Mr. Thorn,' she barely croaked.

            Relief surged, strengthened his legs and filled his face; then, jarringly, panic twisted his mouth, clouded his eyes: 'The baby?'

            'It - it isn't a baby... I - I don't know what it is... but it's healthy...'

 

***

 

Previously published in Death Rays magazine, 1981; a rewrite was also published as ‘Pregnant Pause’ in Costa TV Times, 2010. Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.
 
As you can see, the cliché about an expectant father smoking to ease his nerves is no longer viable in drama. Who could have envisaged in 1981 that smoking would be banned from all hospitals and offices? The later version has all mention of cigarettes expunged!

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