The Sixteen Faces

A short story

IT WAS the neighbour who took her in, just as they’d agreed, him keeping the promise he’d made to her and her husband all those weeks and months beforehand, when that day had felt like a dim and distant unreality.

They had discussed it together for hours, knowing he was their only chance and that, being the kind of man that he was, they would have to offer him something worthy, lucrative, from the very beginning, or risk the kind of negotiations that could leave them in his debt for years to come.

In the end they had settled, perched on the too-small, red plastic chairs that kept guard on their skinny front porch, on a reduced price for six weeks of her husband’s catch because, the neighbour reminded them, it wasn’t only the cost of the petrol that he’d need to cover, but also his time which required the appropriate compensation.

There had been no other way to arrange it, that was the thing. He was the only one of their neighbours who could drive, let alone owned their own car, and he was certainly the only person who could afford to make the trip to the capital and back again overnight, along that vast, curving expanse of highway that linked their tiny village to the city’s neon-flecked, concrete promise.

The car itself was a vast monster of a thing, with five doors if you included the boot, which could easily have fitted half of the neighbourhood children inside, all by itself.

Every weekend he undertook a ritual cleaning of its every surface, spending hours coaxing the green of the metal work out from under the thick, brown sand that unrelentingly coated its roof and windows and doors — an inevitable consequence of living amidst arid hills that were constantly buffeted by coastal winds — always choosing Sunday morning, right before the church service started, to dance a circle around the car’s carefully closed doors with a dripping yellow sponge, before rubbing every inch of it down with a strip of chamois leather he had, or so the rumour went, had shipped in from Europe for almost the same price as the car itself.

She manoeuvred her way over to his house as soon as her waters broke. Her friends had warned her not to arrive too early, told her that if she did the doctors would most likely send her back home, and what would that mean for the fragile arrangement the three of them had set in place? But when it happened, when it started, the thought of trying to wait it out, alone, with the long journey to the hospital stretching out in her imagination, laden with unforeseen delays and traffic jams and wrong turnings, was too much to bear, especially when there were two babies to think about.

It hadn’t made a difference in the end, of course. She had felt the fear on her face when she knocked on his door — the leather straps of the hospital bag forging deep red ridges into her left hand, the skin of her thighs angry and raw underneath her cotton dress in the places where they now rubbed together when she walked, her body exhausted from the extra weight it had been carrying for so long — and recognised immediately that, after looking her up and down, he would be in no hurry to leave any time soon.

“After five children I know how these things work,” he had said, winking and ushering her on to the back seat of the car, on to the strip of dusty grey tarpaulin he had put down for her so she didn’t spoil the seats, before methodically loading up the car with goods to be delivered to assorted relatives on the journey back: bundles of hand-me-down children’s clothes, an old television, two heavy, wooden dining chairs, their legs and frames a riot of dents and scratches, all of which he tied painstakingly to the roof with thick pieces of bright blue industrial string.

“Are you nearly ready?” She had called out just once, hearing an odd flicker of desperation in a voice that she didn’t recognise as her own, wishing her husband was there to drive her instead, or that she could just squat down and have the babies right there, on the uneven patch of scrubland that sat between their two houses, as her body seemed to be demanding.

“You have hours yet, sweetheart,” he had replied, patting the top of her head through the open window and ambling back into the house, cigarette smoke pouring from the side of his mouth. “Hours and hours.”

She had never had the chance to look closely at the car before. But as she waited, searching desperately for any kind of distraction, she noticed he’d covered the dashboard with a long strip of crushed purple velvet which was home to, she counted, fifteen statues of Jesus in a variety of sizes, all of them made from plastic except for one, right at the end, closest to the steering wheel, which looked like it had been carved in wood and then intricately painted, right down to the strands of long black hair and the deep, creviced folds of the maroon robes.

There was another face too, she saw, this one suspended on an elaborate, gold lacquered card that hung from a frayed red ribbon on the rear-view mirror. The face was gentle, benevolent, and she felt comforted momentarily by its gaze, until a burst of hot, dry wind blew in through the car window, entangling the card with a metallic cross that hung from the same spot and twisting it to reveal the image of a topless young blonde woman, her eyes blank and her mouth unsmiling, cut out from a magazine and sellotaped haphazardly on to the other side.

It was early evening by the time they left. The pain was coming quicker by then and the noises spilling from her mouth sounded more like an animal’s than her own. She had done her best to strap herself in where she lay, one seat belt stretched awkwardly around her neck and stomach and the other, although it was of little use, around her swollen, extended ankles.

He turned the radio on and sang loudly as they drove, turning the volume up to drown out the sounds that accompanied her contractions, when they came, and leaving it turned up when they finished. Beneath them, through the gaping hole at the base of the gear stick, she could see the tarmac of the highway being sucked out behind them in running strips of grey.

He didn’t park at the small community hospital on the outskirts of the city. Instead, he pulled up to the front door and levelled his palm on the horn until a harassed-looking nurse rushed to the front door and half-helped, half-dragged her out of the back seat and into a wheelchair.

“Good luck!” He had called to her from the window, his voice half-drowned out by the music as he u-turned the car to go back out through the entrance, and she had decided then, through the pain, that she would never get back into that car again, that she would get a taxi or a bus or find some other way, any other way, to get back after the babies were born, that she would find a way to manage.

She had suspected there were two, even before the nurse had found the second heartbeat.

It was her first pregnancy but she felt bigger, heavier, even in the early stages, than she ever remembered her sister or her friends being.

Her husband was seemingly unmoved by the news but practical, had only ever wanted two children at the most anyway, he said.

“Better to get it out of the way in one go,” he had told her, rubbing her stomach lightly with a curved palm. “As long as they don’t mind being raised on raw fish and fresh air.”

He was staying with relatives in a town further along the coast, something he had arranged months before, although they both knew it clashed with the week of her due date. Not that he would have come to the hospital anyway, not with the boat and his work and their agreement to think about, and his innate fear of anything even vaguely surgical.

At first the thought of his absence, of her own aloneness, had terrified her. But as she had grown used to the idea, it had struck her as somehow romantic that when he left the house there would only be her there, and when he came back he would find three of them, a whole family, waiting to welcome him home.

Inside the small, dark delivery room there were bare breezeblock walls and an unwashed floor. There was pain, extraordinary pain. And then there was the black circling void that the drugs plunged her into, a whirlpool of sticky, seductive nothingness. And then she was awake again, all propped up with pillows and with a strange weight in her left arm which, when she could open her eyes enough to see, she realised was a baby. Her baby. One of her babies.

And then she thought, slowly, groggily, then with a growing urgency, that perhaps they had made a mistake, perhaps there was only ever one baby, perhaps the other heartbeat they had heard had been hers, or maybe this one had two, or one that ran at double time.

But then the doctor had come in, haggard and exhausted and abrupt, and told her there had been a problem, a difficulty, a complication, and then the world had stopped and she had left it again, perhaps willfully or perhaps from tiredness or perhaps from the lingering effects of the drugs, letting the dark pool embrace her once again.

She didn’t name the other baby, not for six weeks. Not until she understood, until she knew for sure, that she could take her home, could care for her, could love her, not quite the same as her other daughter perhaps, but maybe more so, somehow, as a consequence, until she knew that she was ready to take them both home, alone, one on her back and one in her arms, on a cold, hard metallic bus where no-one around her offered up a seat or a word of congratulations or even acknowledgement, where the bus driver looked away from the bundle in her arms as she paid her fare, and again when he deposited her a ten-minute walk from the house she’d grown up in, the house she’d shared with her parents, the house where she wasn’t sure how long it would take, how long she would wait, before she knew for sure that her husband — who had, undoubtedly, heard the news by now — was never coming back. The house where they would, from then onwards, be three.

Photography, text and imagery ©Rachel Crews, November 2018