Iris Holden, District Nurse

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`Love's mysteries in souls do grow,But yet the body is his book.'

God would have been hard put to recognize his Children in them. It wasn't just the dirt --You saw so much of that you didn't see it. But when time pried away the grip with whichThey held their tattered privacy about them, The flannel and the filth peeled off and bared --Bodies you couldn't call them, no, they were stones, Coursed by hard water. Strain bowed men's backs;It veined their arms and necks, and pressed the women Flat as flint. No tears: they kept a stone's pactWith their pain, and when they cracked they broke clean through. Then fifty years of love or hate poured outThe way the waters yield in childbirth: old Briggs, His heart full of some poaching grievance thatNo one else in the village could remember, Smashed a deal table with a hand too weakTo hold a spoon. Or Mary Girling, creased and Frail as a teacup, standing braced to bakeChristmas puddings for friends she knew she'd never Share with again; when I cut into mineMary was gone, but nestled in the pudding Was a gold sovereign polished till it shoneOne with the candles on our Christmas table. Something holds on, and a rare death can leaveThe feeling of a birth, of ripe fruit offered And well taken. Not that babies alwaysCome away apple-easy. One night long past -- It was an April night; I was just upTo making calls after we'd lost our Amy. The name lives. We'd have called her Amy ifShe lived. But here, I'll tell you about this night: Rain fell so thick my acetylene lampBarely could cut a path to the cottage where The woman lay. A barn! -- children asleepOn the floor, on straw, huddled under greatcoats; The mother restless, wrapped up in her painOn a bare bed, the father nowhere in sight. No light but a wood fire: back to the rainFor my cycle lamp, then set to work by it, The baby coming strong. I dipped some freshRainbarrel water and boiled it in a tin -- No kettle, the pots caked too thick to clean --And ripped up an old shirt to wrap the baby: So we made do. But then the fetal pulseFell off like a sail slacking when the wind fails, Shy of the port, as if it lost all heartFor being born. It kept falling, the baby Caught in straits you dared not wait for natureTo pull it through; so I made a cut to free Its head, and found the cord tight round its neck.I plucked the cord off, easing the baby out: A figure of a girl, well-formed, but still.I raced to wake the life I felt might still be Sleeping in her. Each second fell heavyWith all the deafening rain until her cry Broke like morning over the storm -- and wokeThe other children too! I bundled them up Into the kitchen, poked the fire to warmTheir wide eyes back to sleep, then washed and tidied Mother and baby. My acetyleneGave enough light to see which of their needs the Painful abundance of our house could fill.Then I set them in a neighbour's care, and gave One quick look at the nursing pair to checkTheir pulses -- steady both. I can see them now, The hair on the baby's head like peach-bloom,Gold in the morning sun, the mother smiling Over her pain and knowing more to come,But smiling. Perhaps because it is so frail, New life makes you take heart in your own lights.

© Reibetanz John