Content warning: Graphic depiction of death by childbirth
Deirdre crawled out from under her bed, where she’d been sleeping for fear of the thing at her window, which now hung from her ceiling to watch her sleep as she did not have a window. She stood up and brushed herself off, and walked over to the cupboard. There was nothing to eat, so she slipped out of the door and into the hallway.
Richard had gone back home after the duel, but Sylvia had continued to use the empty flat as a makeshift opium den. Deirdre worried greatly about her, especially since she’d been in the bad place for the past few days, the place where she was depressed and hopeless. There was no way opium was helping that, but Deirdre didn’t intervene.
As she went to go down the stairs, she was startled by someone coming up them.
“Hello,” Ransom Egerton said.
Deirdre moved to the side, already uncomfortable with his presence. “Hey, Ransom.”
“You seen Marky Mark around here?”
“Not really, no.”
“Eh, that’s too bad. You seen Faust around here?”
“Johann? No.” Actually, that was a lie, he had just left her earlier that night.
“You’re with him, aren’t you?”
Deirdre blushed, and prayed that Ransom couldn’t see it in the minimal light. She enjoyed the attention Johann gave her, and the fact that he didn’t judge her, or try to make her do things that she didn’t want to do, and she would have loved him if he had asked. At the moment, however, neither of them seemed ready for a real relationship, and she was fine keeping it as it was. “Not really.”
“No? Huh, well why don’t I believe that?” Ransom grabbed her arm. “Hey, you’re a girl, you have girl’s parts. You know how to deliver a baby?”
“What? Of course not.”
“Why would I know how to deliver a baby?”
“You know the mechanics, though, right? And what’s going on down there for a woman?”
“Good, come with me. We have to get hot water.”
“My mum’s giving birth!”
“And you want me to help?”
Ransom balled his fists. “I can’t do it all on my own. I’d rather have Marky Mark here, too, but you’ll have to do.”
“Al- alright, I’ll help you.”
She followed him downstairs, to the landlord’s door. Ransom broke the lock, and they went inside the flat.
“He’s got running water there,” Ransom said. “Turn on the tap, and find something to carry the hot water in.”
Deirdre rifled through his cabinets until she found a big bowl, which she placed under the tap. She turned on the hot water, and waited for the bowl to fill. There were some mostly clean rags by the sink, so she grabbed those, too. In previous years, Deirdre might have had a moral qualm about stealing, but she had learned to do what it took to survive.
The door to what might have been a bedroom opened, and the landlord, a man with a long face and fiery red sideburns, came out wearing nothing but a towel. “Wha-”
Ransom pulled out a gun and pointed it at him. “My mum’s givin’ birth. We need your water.”
The landlord put his hands up. “Okay, okay. Just don’t-”
Ransom cocked his gun and stepped closer. “You stand still until she’s done, got that?”
Deirdre tried to ignore it. She didn’t want violence, she was sick of it. Sick of violence, sick of fighting, sick of sickness and death and drugs and poverty and starvation. She just wanted out, but that wasn’t going to happen any time soon, so instead she blocked her ears and was silent.
When she’d finished with the bowl, she picked it up and carried it out of the room. A gunshot sounded mere moments after, and Ransom came running up the stairs.
“You killed our landlord?”
“I killed his pig wife.”
“What made her a pig?”
Ransom shrugged. “Didn’t like the look of her.”
Mark was standing in the hallway in his nightshirt, looking confused and utterly exhausted. In short, exactly how Deirdre felt.
“What’s going on?” Mark asked.
“Help my mum give birth,” Ransom said.
“Because she’s giving birth.”
A woman screamed somewhere in the building, probably Ransom’s mother. He motioned Deirdre forward, and pulled Mark along with them.
To Deirdre’s shock, Mark had planted his feet on the ground. “Actually, Ransom, I don’t think I will help you.”
Ransom’s face was unreadable. “You won’t?”
“No. I need sleep.”
“So you won’t help your lifelong friend.”
Mark hesitated, then clenched his jaw and shook his head. “No.”
“Goodnight, then, Mr Murphy.” Ransom was silent as he led a very impressed Deirdre away.
Deirdre had never been inside the Egerton apartment before, but she couldn’t say she was surprised by what she saw. There was very little furniture, and hardly any light. Mr Egerton was passed out on the sofa, from drink or drugs or genuine exhaustion Deirdre could not say. Two small children, identical in every way save for gender, were huddled under the blankets of the bottom bunk bed. Mrs Egerton and her elder daughter, Clara, were in the smaller second room, the mother lying on a bed with her legs spread apart for birth and the daughter sitting beside her.
There was certainly a look to the whole family. They all had straight, soft blonde hair, lively round faces, and big, watery blue eyes, Ransom especially. The only one who did not follow this trend was Mr Egerton, whose hair was a brilliant red, whose eyes were black, and whose face was sharp and thin. Would the newest child share the same look? It was probable.
Deirdre set the water down on the floor beside the bed. Mrs Egerton screamed again, and squeezed Clara’s hand.
“That’s contractions,” Deirdre said. “That’s normal. I think.”
“Go get the doctor,” Ransom said.
Deirdre took that to mean her, so she dashed out of the apartment and up the stairs to Johann’s door. She banged on the door, and it opened to reveal Johann Faust, who looked like he had neither slept nor eaten in days.
“Ransom’s mum is giving birth,” Deirdre said. “Ransom wants you there to attend to her.”
Johann hesitated, at least, before shaking his head. “I am afraid that I cannot.”
“Why not?” Deirdre was suddenly afraid for this proud man she was learning to love. Ransom was dangerous and unpredictable, he had shown that much by killing the landlord’s wife. He was also known to be spiteful, and she was suddenly worried that if Johann refused he would be in deep trouble.
“Because he insulted me, and because I cannot leave my work at this time.”
“Johann-” How to show him that this was a gut feeling, one that was informed by the past she so desperately repressed? “You have to. Please?”
“I’m sorry, Deirdre, I can’t.” He started to shut the door, so she put her foot in the way.
“Could you kiss me goodbye?” she asked.
“Because I’m scared.”
Johann leaned out the door and kissed her on the cheek, then slammed the door shut and left her standing there, being eaten away inside by fear. She sighed and went down the stairs, and back into the room where Mrs Egerton was giving birth.
“Well?” Ransom demanded.
“He’s not coming.”
“Busy.” That was a good enough lie for now.
“He can’t be busy. This is more important.”
“Not to him, I guess.” She was just digging Johann deeper, she could feel it. “Listen, Ransom, I can help. I think I know what to do.”
“That means you’ve lied to me either here or outside.”
Deirdre shuffled her feet and swallowed hard. She’d experienced people like this before, and she knew what to do. Stay submissive until they get bored of the abuse. It had always worked with the other people in her life who had been bad to her. “It’s a gut feeling.”
“Fine then, we’ll go off your feelings. Come here and help my mum not die.”
Deirdre soaked a rag in water and dabbed the woman’s head. This was something she’d seen people do, but she didn’t know what it actually did. Something good, she hoped.
Mrs Egerton screamed again, and Deirdre saw the head of a baby poking out between her legs. “That’s good,” she said. “You need to push like that again.”
Mrs Egerton did, and more of the baby came out this time. Clara had her hands in place to catch it.
A few chaotic minutes and lots of screaming later, the baby popped out of its mother’s body. Clara picked it up and placed it on Mrs Egerton’s breast after checking the gender. The little wrinkled bundle screamed and cried, but Mrs Egerton didn’t look bothered, and Deirdre was just relieved that both mother and daughter had survived.
“Why is there so much blood?” Clara asked. “This isn’t good.”
Deirdre looked and saw that there was indeed far, far too much blood coming out. She picked up one of the rags to wipe it, but stopped. She bit her lip for a moment, paralyzed by the sheer amount of blood and the fact that this woman’s life now rested in her hands. How long had it been since she’d had to do this? How long since she’d been in this situation and realized that despite that, she was failing?
“Name the baby Alice,” Mrs Egerton murmured. “After the daughter we lost.”
No. She couldn’t do this. She had to get out. Deirdre stepped back and left the room. She couldn’t watch someone else die, especially not this woman who had just given birth. That was one of her failings, that she couldn’t watch someone die, and there wasn’t anything she could do about it.
Of course, her mind immediately went to the most morbid place it could have. When had she last watched someone die? Was it the night she had died? Deirdre did her best to smack those thoughts and memories back into the darkness where they belonged.
Ransom stormed out of the room a few minutes later, and Deirdre knew that Mrs Egerton was dead. “You! You let my mum die!”
Deirdre shook her head. “I- I did my best.” She had. Hadn’t she?
“You should have gotten the doctor.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t try to kill her, I swear. It was just an accident. Misfortune. And Johann, he wouldn’t come, and I couldn’t force him. Please, you must understand-”
Ransom slapped her hard across the face. Deirdre didn’t cry out, even though it stung badly, and she wanted to cry. It was her fault, wasn’t it? She’d messed up somehow, and killed Mrs Egerton. “I can take the baby and find a woman to nurse her.”
“You’d better not kill her, you hear? I hear that anything even kind of bad happened to her, and I swear I’ll beat you bloody. Got that?”
Ransom held out the baby, who was wrapped in a bundle of cloth. Deirdre took her, and went out into the hallway. Mark had an older sister who was nursing a child, didn’t he? She went into Mark’s apartment, and found a woman, a baby, two toddlers and a boy covered in coal dust sitting on the floor.
“Do you need anything?” the woman with the baby asked.
“Are you nursing?” asked Deirdre.
“I am. Does that child need to be nursed?”
“Yes, she does. Her mother-”
“No need to tell me. Give her here and I’ll take care of her.”
Deirdre handed the baby over and went back into Ransom’s flat. Mr Egerton had awoken, and was sitting on the sofa with dead eyes.
“My wife is dead, Deirdre,” he said.
“Is my daughter alive?”
“She is.” Deirdre wanted to add a for now, but she thought it would be callous in the moment.
“What am I supposed to name her?”
“Alice, after a child who died.”
“That’s no good. She’ll be called Anne, after her mum.”
“But it was your wife’s dying wish for her to-”
“I don’t care. Her name is Anne.”
Mr Egerton turned around to look at the two young children on the bed. “Can you take Davey and Eliza with you for now? The boy’s all up in a rage, and I don’t want them getting hurt.”
“I can do that.”
Deirdre went over to the bed and roused the twins. “You’re going to come with me, okay?”
The boy, Davey, sat up and punched his sister awake. “Okay, lady, we can do that.”
Deirdre led them into the empty flat, where she woke up Sylvia. “I need your help.”
Sylvia’s eyes were bloodshot, and when she spoke her voice was hoarse. “What with?”
“The Egerton twins need to stay in here.”
“Mrs Egerton just died.”
Sylvia looked from her to the children. “Okay, let’s make a bed for them, then.”
They went back to their flat to get some of the very little extra linen they had, to make a small nest on Richard’s old pallet for the children to sleep on. Sylvia filled the water bucket from a fountain down the street so that they would have fresh water, and Deirdre set to work twisting the unused rags from their sister’s birth into a doll. All the while, her hands trembled, and she wondered why Mr Egerton had wanted them away. What would Ransom do that they had to be away from? How would he retaliate? Deirdre swallowed hard and set the unfinished doll down. She crossed the hall and climbed the stairs to Johann’s door and knocked.
He looked like he’d been roused from his sleep, but he no doubt had heard Ransom shouting and a baby crying, which probably told him all he needed to know. Deirdre was infinitely grateful when this time, he let her in.