New Welsh Review

The Hardest Button to Button

Gwen Davies

PUBLISHED ON: 24/10/18

CATEGORY: Editorial

TAGS: abortion, family, height, motherhood, nature, political, pregnancy, steampunk

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The room is way up high. So far that the first time I went, I could send what I saw into nothing, just with the press of lashes to the wrong end of my telescope. Up close now, though: three views, through three glass walls. One, forest with a frieze of pale chapel. Two, a stripe of steel sea and an eyeful of oversized pebbles shifting to stop a red ribbon making its getaway into the dunes. Three, mountains tumbling backwards with the stormclouds till they reach the edge.

I come up the third side, though should I turn to watch the hills darken, my kitten heels would likely slip a rung and I’d be small and splat on the tarmac below. Ladders are dangerous, I know that; not to mention the peril of falling telescopes to passers-by. But it’s not them I lose sleep over, nor the other girls now being sucked to their windows like wan limpets to a glass-bottomed boat.

I’m looking out for my Lea alone. I have the magnifying glass this time, pinched between finger and thumb in midnight calfskin. It’s cold up here of an evening, so it’s not just vanity purring on about these gloves, how they button at the wrist. A swatch of curtain in calico, swished to one corner, is my camouflage: sideway stripes slotting between my ladder rungs (confusing any inside viewer).

My left eye is threefold through its monocle. She’s come so close I can see the self-covered rough cotton buttons popping at her firming chest. Her belly’s swelling too over the offwhite hem tatting her nightie’s bodice. She’s on the bed as ever, legs pulled up and mottled on the ticking coverlet.

The bedstead is iron railings, casting feint rule shadows on the fading yellow wallpaper. She’s forty-five, seven months gone, and hard at work.

The other women are mainly younger. I see them drifting through gauze cells when I lean a little from my perch to light a cigarillo. They’re expecting, too, in labour, or far inside with the baby, absently patting a slump of nubby towelling at their shoulder.

I s’pose the smoke might give me away, but what is grey on grey but a smudge of winter sky? These girls care nothing of outside. I might muse on my other clients, adulterous or adulterating otherwise virtuous lives in the metropolis. Why not give myself away? Swing a pane out into the drizzle and share a snippet of news with an inmate. But not one girl knows I’m here, and this double-glazing’s amazing soundproof: you could smash your fist to carpaccio with only a snail’s trail on glass as witness. She would only turn to tend her baby’s gurgles, fingering flowers at neckline as she tunes into the other station.

But this is not the only reason my sweet and I have never spoken. Her bedstead rungs are not just a strong whiff of hospital. They are a handy post for the rag which stops her mouth. They are a neat make-fast for hands hoicked behind her back and wrung about with hemp rope.

This is how I first saw Lea. A girl she was then, but with swollen woman-features fastened on like pantomime. It was a mild spring morning, and below in the grounds a nurse was coaxing lilies that wouldn’t bloom that year because they’d hardly been planted themselves. Nurse might have seen me pass that day, my extending silvery steps (topped with fretwork perch-stool and fringed canopy) tucked under left arm, right hip bounced about by a new satchel, laced with Moroccan leather. That’s where I keep my paraphernalia. But silence rules that place.

And, gagged and bound as I saw blonde child Lea with child, I too could only swallow down my bile. The police had tipped me the wink, proposing query into why a home for unmarried girls was still thriving into our second decade of accessible contraception and abortion. I was ambitious in the Seventies, all flicked Farrah hair and lolloping lapels. My look is more steampunk today but I’m still streetwise: hardened by some years in a Brummie vice-squad. But the sight of that slight silhouette against the bright-yolk walls, fraying straw plait looped over bedstead, softened my breath.

The shadow of a man at the open door stays my urge now to blow my own cover. She is tied just as she always is. Her body carries on senseless, plaiting bones so that they mesh, flesh out and grow too big for a painless solution. She sits and she grows. But she’s doing a double shift. No hands free to work with but her nose to the grindstone no matter what.

I tuck away the print-powder I brought to dust the sill with, together with all thoughts of a quick chat through the window. I’m in for the long haul.

Originally published in New Welsh Reader 119. Subscribers can browse the archive. Not a subscriber? Sign up now