Monday, 10 January 2011

The leaky bottle

4.30am. I am woken by the thudding of footsteps in the hallway. Thud thud thud down towards the bathroom and a moment later thud thud thud, back again. The baby is crying. Her cry is the mewling of a newborn, seven weeks old, mouth persistently wide. My husband is on duty, but from behind the closed door of the spare room, maternal instinct rouses me and I stumble from bed. 

I almost collide with my husband, who’s standing just outside the doorway, holding a muslin in one hand, an empty milk bottle in the other, his hands raised in announcement. 

‘Something is wrong with this bottle,’ he says. ‘I’ve already been downstairs once to fill it again because the first bottle has soaked the baby, now this one is doing the same. I don’t know how it’s happening.’ He speaks as though there are gremlins at work.

I reach for the bottle and unscrew the top. No collar in the neck.

‘No collar,’ I say and move towards the crying baby in the basket, next to her father’s side of the bed.
‘No I’ll do it,’ he protests, ‘there's something else you need to do. Something's wrong with Pip, he's on the sofa and there’s a pool of blood on the floor.’ Now I’m rushing down the stairs, leaving the ‘waaa’ of my tiny daughter behind me, through the child gate, into the sitting room. (Well, our furry babies were here before the human-kind arrived.) There is Pip, paws folded under his chest in regal feline pose, neck compressed and head upright but eyes rolling back. He’s wet around the neck. I touch him, feel the remnants of a sticky substance on his fur. I try to inspect him, but he winces in retreat. 

I leave him, worried eyes trained on him as I back out. The kitchen is in full brightness and on the floor is a dark, glossy substance, pooled in a thick, liquid blob as big as a side plate. I’m hesitant as I bend down to prod it with some kitchen roll: dense, coagulated blood, like deep crimson jelly. Towards the cat flap is another smaller pool. He must have just managed to make it home, then once through his door sat and bled.
Back with Pip, I can find no source of the bleeding. His sticky front has been licked clean. Then I realise by the slight crust on his tabby-white beard, the blood has come oozing from his mouth. Back in the kitchen the kettle has boiled again, and my husband is heading upstairs with a fresh bottle of milk for the still crying baby. 

‘I'll ring the vet,’ I say, and I call the emergency number. The vet sounds half asleep, says I should bring him over now. I’m scared to lift his body into the basket for fear he is broken. I rush upstairs, listening for the baby, who at least is now quiet. I grab my jeans, pull them over my pyjamas, poke my head around the bedroom door and see my husband sitting on the bed with the baby sucking peacefully at last. ‘I’m going,’ I whisper, and I go.

In the basket, Pip’s quiet and still. There is no protestant wail, none of the usual outrage at a car journey to the vet. It’s January and outside the darkness is defined by frosty highlights. The streets are silent and the unlocking doors echo so loudly I feel the whole neighbourhood will wake.

By the time we arrive at the vet, it’s gone 5.30am. I leave Pip in the car, ring on the bell and wait, but no one answers. I knock. No answer. Everything begins to happen in slow motion and I wonder if I'm actually asleep and dreaming. I pace back, look up at the windows, venture round to one side, then the other. ‘Hello?’ I call, and knock harder. It takes nearly ten minutes for the vet to appear. When she opens the door, I am close to crying with first despair, then relief. The vet immediately gives him a painkiller and various other drugs to treat this undiagnosed emergency. She opens his mouth to look inside and bids me take a look. From between his top front teeth, disappearing down his throat, is a deep, red, raw gash. His palate is split in two – probably the impact of a car bumper with his head. One eye is enormously dilated and he'll need observation. He's in safe hands now and I have to go, I explain, I have an appointment.

Back in the car, there’s no sign of dawn but the world is waking up. Beams of headlights light the sea mist along the coastal road. By the time I pull up outside our house, the birds are just beginning to sing. In my mind, I see Pip’s dark shadow sloping across the road, into the path of an oncoming car. How he escaped with his life now seems like a miracle. How fortuitous, the leaky bottle. What chance my husband went downstairs to refill it, saw the evidence, found the cat. Inside the house, there’s a precious baby waiting for me. And an anxious husband too. My night of enforced rest in the spare bed was cut short, but we’re tougher these days, made of sterner stuff.

The baby sleeps as I shower. And then back in the car – all three of us this time, quiet and contemplative all the way to the hospital. Today it will be my sixth round of chemotherapy.

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