My son was born in Würzburg, Germany, at nine seconds past midnight on the first of January, 2002. Two and a half months later we boarded an aeroplane at Frankfurt, one that would deliver us home. We had been living in Germany for four years and we were looking forward to seeing our families, and introducing them to our only child.
The journey, of course, was long and tiring. I nursed Harry, Alex changed him; we took turns walking up and down the aisle. Somewhere between Bangkok and Sydney Harry started crying and for an agonising half hour nothing we did would calm him. Then, suddenly, he fell asleep.
The aeroplane made a stop at Sydney before continuing on to Auckland. We filed into the transit gate-lounge and as I queued to go through the metal detector a passenger from our cabin approached me, placed her hand on Harry’s head and, speaking calmly, said, “Suffer and die.” I recoiled but, thinking I had misheard, asked her to repeat her comment. This time she looked at me, and in a steady voice said, “ I hope your baby suffers and dies.”
I can’t even imagine what my face looked like but my expression was enough to bring the security guard over, and I think I must have managed to convey what the woman said because the guard got angry. And then Alex got through the queue, asked what was wrong and called the passenger an old trout. She said something to the effect that babies shouldn’t be allowed on aeroplanes. All I was really aware of was the complete and utter fear and dread that flooded through me.
Harry was born by caesarean twenty-six hours after I went into labour. Shortly before things started going wrong, I was asked, “Do you want to have the last baby of 2001 or the first of 2002?” My immediate response was “the last of 2001” as that seemed the quickest option. When Harry was born the doctors rushed him away. They didn’t hold him up above the blue surgical screen for me to see and so I had no idea what he looked like. I saw him for the very first time when he was fifteen hours old. Two reporters from the local newspaper wanted to visit as my son was the first baby born in Germany that year. Moments before they arrived a junior midwife brought Harry to me and pressed his mouth against my nipple. The photographer took a snap.
When the passenger said “Suffer and die” my exhausted brain scrambled to make sense of her remark. And the answer was clear. I hadn’t asked the doctors if I could see my son when he was born. I had simply lain there while they stitched me up and then remained with my head on a pillow as they wheeled me into the recovery room. At that point, it was enough that Alex knew our son was okay. I didn’t insist on seeing him, and then later, when I wanted to see him, I was too intimidated by the German-speaking nurse to ask for help to get out of bed. The curse was punishment for not having a strong-enough mothering instinct.
If you had asked me two hours ago if I was ‘over’ the curse I would have said, “yes”. But writing this piece, I keep seeing that woman’s face. She looked like a middle-aged university professor, or possibly an engineer or a doctor. I watch her resting her hand on my precious son’s head and I hear her voice, and I shudder.
Laurence Fearnley is a novelist and non-fiction writer whose tenth novel, The Quiet Spectacular, was recently published by Penguin Random NZ. Laurence lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.