Marriage ought to be golden, a time of comfort and delight. And so it is for us at first. He and I walk the shores of Rathlin until the sun falls into the western sea. We lie all night by the cottage fire and love, love, until a baby grows in me. We walk and sleep, eat cockles and cream, write our names in the sand. It rains more than it shines but we don’t see it. We see green grass, gold light, blue water, silver fish, kisses pink and sweet, lips red salt wind. At night we sleep content, arms tied white on white around each other. We stay on for longer than we planned, hold back the future, and all the while that baby grows. But it can find no foothold. Just as we begin to dream of new life I wake in bed, legs stained with blood.

Hope is a fragile thing and I am young. I cry tears bitter, bitter. My new husband lies beside me, sorrow a stone in his mouth. At night we stoke the fire but feel no warmth. We travel home with ash inside us. London is grey dawn when the coach pulls into Victoria. We ride the tube in silence with the early workers and rough sleepers. In Hoxton he wants to carry me across the threshold of our rented flat. They like tradition where he comes from. I let him lift me because I’m light like paper now. It’s a sweet gesture but there’s no joy in it for us. I am the girl in a painting, draped across the arms of a grieving man. He is the boy in that song about a love lost far across the sea.

Inside the flat we make tea and go to bed. I think it would be nice to sing something to him but I can’t think what so we just lie and listen to the silent room. His black hair is soft against my face. In my mind I see him as he will be when we are grey. Our life runs before me in speed-frame. I say, ‘What if it’s just us?’
He looks into the distance. It’s hard for them, the nurse had said. They have their own trouble but on top of that they have the need to take our trouble away and the knowledge that they can’t do that for us.

The blood runs for weeks. It gathers black in the heavy pads I wear all day, all night. Is it waste or the life of the baby running out of me? I try to keep it all. I think that we could bury the pads in the dirt but we have only our plants on the window sill. I walk the streets and it’s there. No one can see it but him and me. He leaves the house, knowing it’s on me. I feel it as I sit aimless in the library, waiting for books. Strange the books we call down when we aren’t sure what else to do. In front of me is a manuscript written by the first king to reign after four decades of the girl with the golden hair. James I/VI had red hair himself but he was not her son, she died alone. What colour was my baby’s hair? Dark like my husband, black as the Irish sea when the night lies on it.

In 1604, mere months after taking power, James I/VI wrote a tract instructing his new people in that paternal way he had. He told them to resist the new fashion for tobacco. Perhaps I’ve called for this book because I could smoke. I mean, right now I could really chain it until the air is thick around me. And why not? There’s no reason anymore. I want to feel the smoke seep in and stain my heart, to claim me in some way.

I read for an hour, take a few notes. The pad is heavy with blood. In the toilet I wrap it in a plastic bag and fit a new one. The halls are quiet, my bag is light on my back. I walk toward the exit, sunlight bright through the glass door. Outside a cloud of tobacco lifts upward to the sky, all those scholars take their fill. A blonde boy shares his Virginia with me. We stand blinking in the light. I roll it as I used to do. His fingers are soft as he lights it, flame close to my face. He says, ‘You look sad.’ He smiles in that way I might once have kissed without a thought. At home I have a boy who would have been a father, whose promise is forever.

I take the tube to be in darkness. I stand on the platform, taste tobacco in my mouth. James I/VI’s physicians told him that when they cut open the bodies of tobacco-takers they found black lungs inside them. He listened, his new crown heavy on him. His paternal heart beat hard for us. The new king took out his pen. He petitioned his subjects not to open the ‘yawning broad-gate of that black abyss whose bottom boundless is.’ I watch the tunnel as the tube rushes in, a searing London sound we all take comfort in. It pushes air cold and grey before it. Where does all the air come from, so far beneath the surface of the city? Here where all those people lay at night while bombs fell, sleeping on the tracks, singing songs so as not to break in front of each other.

At home my husband has draped a suit on the bed, it’s almost black. For his new job. Tomorrow he’ll stand before a class of children and teach them about the world in his wise way. I must work too but I don’t know how, I don’t know what to do. Perhaps a PhD is all I’m good for. Before any of that, before any future, there’s this bag of blood. It sits in the wardrobe, wads of black-stained cotton sealed in plastic.

In the morning he goes to his job, nervous in his too-new suit. I kiss him at the door then stand by the open window and smoke, London dawn rising slow above the chimneys. Did the king see that black lung himself? Was it summoned as evidence to move his heart? Black lung, black heart.
‘The black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrid stygian smoke of the Pit that is bottomless.’ He had some poetry in him.
‘Will you always love me? This lifeless body?’ I say it in the night, each night. It’s hard for him to show me. How can we fuck when the baby’s life still pours out of me? Instead we lie and talk a lot, the night shines through the windows.
He says, ‘Were they all at it back then – the smoking?’ I imagine the ploughmen and herbwomen puffing on pipes as they worked each moment of daylight and long after too, those tough householders who made everything from the earth with their hands.
‘I don’t think so. It was more a court-rake fashion.’
He puts sweet kisses on my neck. We are young and firm-bodied and no one will interrupt us. It’s more freedom than any king and queen could own.
He says, ‘I smell it on you.’
‘You don’t like it?’
‘It’s not so bad. I mean, you won’t do it forever, will you? But it’s fine, for now. Kind of a turn on.’
‘The stygian fumes of hell.’
‘Steady on.’
I say, ‘I’m not sure the king really understood. It was just one of the things he hated. Like witchcraft and Catholics, though his wife was one of those.’
‘A witch?’
‘A Catholic. He did his duty by her but he preferred men.’
‘What about her?’
‘She spent her days dancing with her women, proud masquers in their black and brown.’
‘Were they in blackface?’
‘Perhaps the queen, but I think her women were real black women – she painted her face to look like them because they were more beautiful than her.’
His face is close to me. Even in my sadness there’s something I need from him. The first time I come after the dead baby I cry hard, too hard. But it’s true my body’s changed – I try to tell him. My heart is dark but I’ve grown and pleasure is more easy. I don’t need to chase it. He’s grown too. He’s a man without a child but he has an income and shiny day-time faces row on row respecting him.

Later that week the blood begins to ebb.
‘It’s time,’ he says and he puts on his suit.
We walk with our bundle, wrapped in the black silk my grandmother left me. The priest is waiting for us in the Lady Chapel. The Lady stands in her stone robes, roses in her hands and a moon beneath her feet. The domed roof above is painted midnight, cut with silver stars. We say the prayers from childhood but we are not children. We sing ‘In The Bleak Midwinter,’ though it’s nearly spring. The priest marks a cross in the air above us then makes us tea with lots of sugar. We sit with him, the bundle on my lap.
He says, ‘What will you do with it?’
I say, ‘We thought a plant pot.’
The priest says, ‘There’s a place under the yew tree in the old Church yard.’
If we bury it there I’ll never be able to leave this place. My young husband is crying. The Priest looks at me as though he knows I need to rest. There’s yet a whole hour before twilight.
We three dig with shovels in the ground beneath the yew until we’re low enough to evade the fox. I put my bundle in the black earth. It sits against the yew roots. That’s a bold dark tree. It grows and grows until it eats itself and keeps on growing.

My baby knew no body. It held the idea of one, the promise of all that might have come – tenderness and heartache, this world’s boredom and wonder. My baby knew no human thought beyond that early dream but it possessed the star dust and the infinite black sky. It knew no breath, no light, but it did know me and the life sustained in my blood fleetingly. It knew the sound of me and beyond that, the farthest whisper of the sea as we walked the shores of Rathlin and dreamed our sweet dream.

Some years later James I/VI wrote again about tobacco. So renowned was his dislike that he no longer speaks of the black lungs, black hearts. He rails instead against the plant which by 1619 was cultivated all over the realm, even encroaching on London. He cannot allow the ‘conversion’ of gardens and fields, of ‘rich soiled grounds’ from ‘roots and herbs fit for victual and sustenance unto this harmful vanity,’ the weed that ‘corrupts men’s bodies and manners.’ He sees the planting of it as an ‘abuse,’ a misemployment of the soil, of ‘this fruitful Kingdom.’
Strong words. As though there was something about tobacco that existed on a different plane – not just a moral plane but something metaphysical. Like the act of smoking, of growing tobacco, had an effect well beyond the material act of digging or inhaling. They saw things differently. The imprint of ephemera on the interior was worrying for them. The intangible smoke settling in the innermost heart of the person. The intangible influence of unknown plants living in the soil of a fruitful Kingdom. They knew disease flew unseen in the air, landing in tender places. It’s why they feared the witch with her objects buried in the ground, her whispered curse. It’s why they feared the poisoner, the sea at night, the dark. They thought a lot about how things gather and grow, spread and fester. Mould and tree roots, pox and hate. The antidote to these unseen forces was always something that was instead very present to the senses: the amulet of herbs, the veil, the golden ring, the candlelight, the silver hymn sung high into the clouds. They fought the invisible with the visible.
Today we see only what can be seen with the eye. We see disease in the tumour but have no language for the broken heart, the sinking weight of sadness, the melancholy of unrequited passion. I know, as James I/VI knew, that these things are real even if they are invisible. Smoke, that drifts to nothing in the air, can lodge in the very flesh of men. Seed spent in love or lust takes root in us and grows into a person like a vine driven with life toward the light. Or dies before it can take root, its canker unseen and unrecorded.
I can smoke and smoke until my lungs burn, I can pour it down on the un-fruitful soil inside me. That’s what death deserves. Death deserves itself.

I stand at the window and smoke until I feel the tearing. It’s 11am. I leave the flat. It’s been a busy night in Hoxton. There’s blood on the stairwell and sick in the lift. I visit the yew tree. No grass has grown over the place we filled in. The dark earth still bears a mark where our hands pressed down. The priest finds me there. He’s Irish but he speaks Swahili because this is London.
He says, ‘There’s a woman in your building you might like to meet.’
I shrug.
He says, ‘I have some paperwork for her – you might take it for me. Her name is Imoinda.’
Am I dreaming? I take his papers. The flat is only three doors down.

Imoinda’s flat is warmer than mine and everywhere are signs of children: toys and clothes, crayons and books. I stand awkward in her hallway but she greets me like she knows me. She sits me at her kitchen table and we drink coffee, listen to Grace Jones. Her older children are at school, her husband’s in Nigeria. Her baby lies on the rug. Imoinda wears a headscarf in red, yellow, blue. Her bracelets are beads of green glass.
She says, ‘Have some of this.’ She pours condensed milk into my coffee. It’s sweet on my top lip and sticky.
I say, ‘How many children do you have?’
‘Here – or there?’
‘I got three here and six there.’ She looks at me and puts her palm on my cheek. She says, ‘You’ll be okay. Drink up. You’ll be okay.’
I say, ‘There’s a famous story about a man called Oroonoko and his wife had your name.’
She says, ‘I know, darling. I’m named after her.’
‘Why? It isn’t a good story.’
‘I know. But she was a queen.’
I watch her as she moves around her flat. I begin to feel so cosy I could sleep.
I say, ‘I’ve been smoking – really hard, until it cuts me.’
She nods and nods like we’ve all been there.
I say, ‘Funny isn’t it. Oroonoko was named after a tobacco plant – the American one with the very broad leaf.’
She smiles at me in an ironic way. She shows me her plant pots, hung from the window sill. She says, ‘Those beautiful plants that grew in the field where Oroonoko buried his queen – these are the same plants here. You know what they are?’ I shake my head. She throws back her shoulders and laughs. ‘Tobacco!’ The flowers, she says, will be white and pink. For now the winter leaves are glossy green. She says, ‘No need to smoke it. We grow it for the medicine.’
‘What medicine?’
‘You look at those leaves, smell them good. You tell me about the medicine.’
I think the sweetness of life cannot hold without the bitter.

Later that month, we’re at a Cure concert. It’s the first they’ve done in a few years so the place is crowded. We can’t see much from the stalls. Robert Smith is a black smear on the stage, his white-face, red-lips float under purple stage lights. Earlier that day I play ‘Disintegration’ to Imoinda and she laughs in my face.
‘You white kids make music like you want to die. Life is short. Let’s play Grace Jones.’
I know she’s worried her kids will be too white. She’s seen the other black teens, moping and selfish like any Londoner. Back home the kids have dignity, she says, grateful for the little they have and proud of their family. Here they abandon themselves, ignore their parents, forget the faith.
I say, ‘It’s the old story: comfort breeds contempt. Which would you prefer – a full belly or a grateful soul?’
She clicks her tongue. ‘Bad decision.’
That evening onstage Robert Smith sings about his prayers for rain. He suffocates, he breathes in dirt and nowhere shines but desolate. I can see in the sentiment all that Imoinda would see: a terrible waste of the good things we have. And yet it is a precise description of me, I cannot spurn it. I hold my husband’s hand in the dark. My body is a dead vine, dried in the dirt and without fruit. I carry in my body his hopes and mine, withered on the stem.

For the king it wasn’t just that tobacco plants would take up space where food crops might otherwise grow. It was for him a fear of the unseen influence that the plant of vanity would introduce into the earth. If the plant’s smoke can so blacken the hearts of men, what will the roots do to the bowels of the earth? The tobacco in Imoinda’s window box looks green and luscious, a pretty thing and without dread. To the king, it was a plant that spread its evil unseen through the precious ground. Like a disease in the blood, smoke in the lung, grief in the heart. He wanted to bring everything dark into the light.

Standing in the concert hall with Robert Smith before us, it occurs to me that life begins in dark places. It isn’t just a thought but a feeling emerging clear inside me. My baby lies against the roots of that tree. My baby is dead but the tree will grow and grow. It feeds the yew as my sadness feeds me.

Later, I try to explain it to Imoinda and she smiles. I try to explain it to my husband and he kisses me. How can I tell them that I think grief might in fact be good for me?

Each day as my husband works, I sit with Imoinda and drink coffee. She says, ‘You’re a good girl.’ She says, ‘It’s time soon for you to do something.’ I go and clean my flat. I cook food and order some books. I write to the university about a PhD. I tell them I will spend my three years in the library. I say there is a story to tell about the history of dirt, about where life comes from and where it goes. Not just what the crown-wearers thought. I tell them there are snatches of the ordinary voices hidden in the archives. Grieving mothers, recipes for women lying blood-stained in their beds. Women who longed to be living vines with ripe fruit, plump and sweet, held in the arms.

At night I hold and love him. It isn’t long before new life takes hold and we live each day barely breathing. We walk London waiting, waiting. In superstitious fear, we listen only to happy songs. I throw out my tobacco. The weeks pass and all the while I sicken. It’s a sign, the midwife said, of healthy growth. Each morning the vein-deep nausea comes. I grip the bed, head at sea. I take it gladly, the possession of my body by symptoms that cannot be medicined because they are at last the bare bold force of life taking root.


The room’s so bright I’ve covered my face. I try to disappear but the light is always there – a plastic kind of light, too white. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done but somehow I’m not doing it. It’s happening to me. The pain is unlike anything else in life but who can really describe it? Electric currents run through everything – blood, thought, flesh, brain, belly. Electricity fucking hurts but it’s not pain. Pain is a broken heart, a fractured wrist. This is me on my hands and knees in a too-white room, shitting and bleeding, holding my husband’s arm in a white-knuckle fist, wishing I hadn’t done it, knowing I can’t undo it. I thought someone else would be in charge but it’s only me. I’m telling that man in the white coat to back off because the baby’s coming now and I don’t like the way he’s looking at me.

When the final moment comes I hide deep in my mind where I see things that don’t exist. Time opens outward and I have chance enough to think slowly about what’s happening. I wonder how it could be told in a story because I don’t think I’ve read enough about this. Why is it that we have a narrative structure for romantic love but we have no way to plot the ecstatic mad-making story of human life arriving into the white light of the world – even though the opening in the veil occurs every day, every moment? It’s happening now, now – but it’s never ordinary. Like love, it comes to us as it has always done, as it always will, but when it does we feel we are the first ever to submit.

I think a lot about that in the long nights that follow. How expert we’ve become at plotting the dynamics of desire in the narrative arc of romance: lovers meet, are kept apart, thrown together again. Desire grows but is frustrated continually until the lovers change, become what they need to be in order to find a way forward together. What stops them? They’re too young, too bound to another, too ignorant of each other or themselves. They’re kept apart by rival families, oppressed emotions, geography. They must overcome their obstacle, their distorted impressions of each other, see the love for what it is, come together, draw away, fight for it, until a final peak of bliss is reached. We’re so expert at that short arc from first sight to third act we can’t see what comes next. What comes next is bigger. New life slips through the fold in the veil between this too-bright world and the darkness from which we all emerged.

Whose life is it? Not mine. The new life is made from me but belongs to itself. The stranger guest, come into our home. How can we tell that story? If not a romance, then a journey. The wanderer on the road. The warrior lost at sea. The work is epic but I’m no hero kneeling on white sheets, blood falling out of me. A child lies pink and creased in the arms of my husband. He’s sitting in the chair beside me exhausted giddy terrified-in-love. I’m not ready to hold the baby. I lie on my back while the nurses stitch me up like a torn dress.

Growing up doesn’t happen in time. It arrives in isolated moments. Suddenly we see the world and our place in it as an older person would. We look back, the past reinterpreted.

Snow lies over London like pearl. It falls at night clean and unmarked before morning brings footfall and smoke. Pearl was the stone worn by those who could afford it when their bellies swelled with life. Portraits hang in the galleries – women with dresses so covered in pearl they’d have creaked when they walked. Pearls are the rare pure life growing from nothing in the darkness of the shell.

What is the narrative structure of new life? In his late plays Shakespeare made growing up a magical experience, something that needed the divine to enact it and which was itself a source of wonder. A Winter’s Tale: lost babies returned, warring households reunited. Shakespeare saw that comedy was too neat and optimistic, tragedy too messy and despairing. He took the tragic opening and turned it inside out to find a comic end. It meant those who started in chaos, in suffering and selfishness, could look around them, come out of themselves, see the world with penitence, with wisdom, say sorry, ask forgiveness, find again the trust that has been lost. Somehow Shakespeare couldn’t make it happen in the merely human realm. He needed magic and fairy-lore, storms and visions, gods descending, prophecy and faraway places.

Is it really that hard to tell the story of this, so hard that we can’t just show it in the ordinary way of things? White milk, rice pudding, no sleep, short-fuse, in love but don’t need to say it quite so much now because we know it’s there in the small things.

Why are babies dressed in white? Why white for muslin cloths? The milk they drink and spill is white but it dries brown and everything is stained. Imoinda comes to the house to see the baby. She has with her a little suit in red, yellow, green, spiral patterns like shells washed on the shore.
‘Like babies,’ I say. ‘Washed in with the tide and taken away again.’
She looks at me closely. ‘Go to bed, you need rest.’
I say to Imoinda, ‘My father in law told me not to take the baby down the high street. Because of the fumes. But how can I keep it indoors where there’s no fresh air?’
She says, ‘Too much thinking. Just feed and sleep now.’
‘I long for green fields.’
‘We all do.’
It’s true. Something in the making and shielding of life puts us in pursuit of purity, whatever that means. It’s an illusion of course. There’s nothing wrong with London babies, raised on buses and undergrounds. Except that girl who died of asthma from the M25.
I lie down and let the baby feed. Her mouth is wide and hungry. She cries like a starling. Outside the window snow falls.

A Winter’s Tale starts with a baby sent away by her father the king to be killed, only the man sent to do it has no heart for murder. He puts the baby in a basket and leaves her for a forester to find and raise as his own. As the child grows she does not know she’s royal and she does not care. The forester is good to her and who would not be happy in a cabin with everywhere enough wood to burn and deer to hunt? As she grows her skin becomes whiter, more luminous, and everyone wonders if she came from faraway but they keep their thoughts to themselves.

There’s two women in the flat with me. One of them is Imoinda watching from the doorway. The other is the health visitor sent by the hospital to weigh the baby. She puts it in a cloth sling suspended from a hook.
‘Not gaining weight,’ she says. ‘Go to A & E.’
Imoinda clicks her tongue but says nothing. They eye each other. The health visitor gives me a tube of cream and packs her bags. Imoinda lets her out but keeps her thoughts to herself. They both know she’s not my mother.
Imoinda says, ‘Go to bed, sleep and feed.’
I’m ashamed to be crying. ‘No milk!’ I say, panic rising like white noise in my head. ‘She’s starving!’
I think of the royal baby, all white skin and thin bones, lying on the forest floor. When Imoinda leaves I watch the phone until my husband walks into the flat.
In the hospital we wait just two hours – babies go to the front of the queue. The woman beside me is bleeding from cuts on her leg. The baby is under my arm, crying. When we’re behind the curtain, the nurse looks at the three of us.
I say, by way of apology, ‘The health visitor told me to come.’ I say, ‘She’s too thin. The baby.’
The nurse is watching me closely. She says, ‘First child?’
‘Why do people keep asking me that?’
She doesn’t click her tongue but I think I hear her sigh. The baby is weighed. A needle is inserted in a vein on her foot but the veins are too small. She’s screaming, her mouth a dark tunnel. I think I will float away. My husband bites his nails.
The nurse says, ‘If it were my baby I’d give a bottle.’ My husband nods his head.
‘But,’ I say, voice rising with alarm. ‘We were told not to do that. The baby will suffer!’
The nurse speaks more softly than before. ‘Do you have your mother near?’
I shake my head. I want to tell her that I think there’s something wrong with me, which is more than I can say even to Imoinda. An infection, perhaps. Or something chemical, an imbalance. I don’t know, maybe it’s just that baby’s hungry.
How that royal changeling must have cried and cried on the forest floor. Or perhaps they don’t cry when they know no one’s listening. Who is that man who can send a baby away? Who is that woman that walks out on her children? My heart beats too fast in the white light of accident and emergency. Did my mother feed me properly? Did she hold me when I cried? I tell the Nurse to untie my baby from the wire. We’ll go home.

I buy a plastic bottle but I don’t use it. I lie in bed and hope my mind will drift. Without sleep the mind is like a tight-rope walker, alert or falling but never at rest. I try to think of other things so my body will untangle and make milk but I can think only of the baby on the forest floor. I keep thinking that in fact all royal babies were abandoned. The moment they were born they went to the breast of another, sometimes travelling long miles to do so. Those hired women made a lot of milk, each stranger child feeding so that she herself could feed. Parents worried they were being cheated, their babies fed on gruel. So many died, so many hired breasts found fault with. Why did those mothers not feed their babies themselves? I had thought it was adherence to class but perhaps they were unable.
Even commoners could not always feed. Their starvelings were left on the forest floor for the fairies because surely a pale withered child could not be real. Real babies were pink and plump, changelings wailed and wailed.
Early modern babies were at the breast until they were two, not so different to today. Shakespeare’s royal baby must have had milk from an unnamed country woman. We don’t meet her but, in another play, one of her kind is given a leading role. Juliet’s Nurse has more influence over the girl than even Lady Capulet because babies listen to those who feed them. Juliet’s Nurse feeds for too long, weaning only at three and on the day of the earthquake. It’s a small detail and strange, but fitting somehow. On that day the child is fed a white breast smeared with gall. She quarrels and stands up on her legs at the very moment the earth shakes. As the earth shakes, she falls and hits her head. Blood pours from the wound. The Nurse makes a bawdy joke about the day when the child will grow and fall again, on her back. Head wound, sex wound. Hungry child, hungry breast. My baby sucks so hard she gets more blood than milk. May it fatten her up. May I sleep, just an hour. Just one hour.
The play in which Juliet and the Nurse find themselves will end badly. The play in which the baby on the forest floor finds herself will end well. But not before the king is penitent for years and years and the miracle of the lost child, now grown, can be revealed. Who is that man that can kill his child? Shakespeare’s king is mad, mad with jealousy at the queen he thinks is unfaithful, the baby his thinks is full of the mother’s blood but not his own. That’s what he says. The child has too much of the mother’s blood. Back then they thought all fluids were the same. Piss, tears, spit, blood, milk. Each one took on its function under changed conditions. The blood of the womb became the milk of the breast through the action of maternal love. Do I have maternal love? Did my mother feed me?
I must have slept. I wake up sweating, the baby curled beside my head. My husband has made tea and left it beside me. He’s fallen asleep in a chair. He’ll be back to work properly soon. It’s been days since I asked after him.

Back at A & E. The health visitor came again with her sling on a hook and said the baby’s not growing. This time when I step behind the curtain I make no sense at all. I try to tell the nurse that the women from the La Leche League came to the house. They had the baby attached to my breast but still the scales show it’s not enough. I’m rambling. I can’t remember the Spanish name for milk. I say, ‘The league has come, it’s not enough.’ The nurse behind the curtain tips my face toward the light. It’s an unprofessional thing to do, which makes it intimate. It makes me want to tell her there is something wrong with me but it occurs to me that if I say that they will take the baby.
Perhaps all that is wrong with me is my blood won’t turn to milk. God knows there was enough blood when the baby was born. Perhaps no one can help me. Shakespeare’s royal baby had her shepherd, her penitent father, the action of divine grace that brought about the miracle of her return. I have a baby, pale-white and hungry. I have Imoinda and my husband. I have no mother. I want to tell the nurse I have no mother.
She says to me, ‘Go home, rest. Try and sleep. The milk will come. It’s natural.’
Outside I tell my husband that I can’t keep coming here. He says, ‘What do you mean?’
‘The baby’s too thin. She cries a lot. But is she dying?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’re afraid. So am I. But maybe these long nights in A & E make it worse.’ I want to go away somewhere but until the health visitor gets what she needs on the end of her hook I can’t leave or they will take the baby away.

Those rich babies sent away to be fed would later return to their high-born mothers. Twice torn. Some of them, when fully grown, sought out the nursemaid again. They came back as grown men and women to the humble house of the tired old nurse, to care for their first carer in her old age. Could the milk matter so much? Plenty of tracts argue so. ‘Natural affection, without doubt cannot be so earnest, either from the mother toward the child, or from the child toward the mother, if she have not nursed him and given him suck. For if she nurse him, he sucks and draws her own blood.’ That’s Jacques Guillemeau in 1612. ‘Without doubt the child will be much alienated in his affections by sucking of strange Milk, and that may be one great cause of Children’s proving so undutiful to their Parents.’ Jane Sharp, 1671.

I look up an old recipe for milk production. It contains breastmilk. The barren-breasted woman must have begged it from her more productive neighbour. The recipe also wants saffron, ginger, sage, honey. I have no saffron but there’s turmeric. I have no ginger but there’s wine. I make a cup of tea with too much milk in it and go to bed.

When Shakespeare’s penitent king sees his lost child again he falls to his knees. She’s grown now, a girl. He must look for marks on her skin to identify her. His sorrow has wrought from him the kind of cloying gratitude that in a tragedy would be unmanly. In tragicomedies men weep, women scold and all is made well.

My husband’s father is sitting in the flat holding the baby, an old Irishman in his sunday suit. Black hair, black suit, alone in this world.
He says, ‘Back home they say babies don’t thrive until they’re baptised.’
He’s brought with him the little white dress with its lace edges, the one my husband wore. I hold it draped between my hands, so small and old, kept in tissue for generations. I try and picture my husband as a baby, it isn’t easy. I love him as a man. The old Irishman drinks tea and I think perhaps it’s time for something stronger. We three make whisky in warm milk. I add some honey, I don’t know why. Imoinda comes over with her eldest child and the five of us sit and drink. We watch the snow falling outside the flat until the baby starts to cry again, loud and hungry.
My child is eight days old, time perhaps for the white dress and the water, the candle and the oil of anointing. My husband and I are eight days parents. White clouds pass over the flat all night, all day. He’s sitting on the edge of the bed. He has something to say to me but he can’t.
I say, ‘You mustn’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with me, not really.’ He’s biting his nails. I say, ‘Do you think your mother fed you?’

On the ninth day I sterilise the bottle. It’s made of white plastic. I fill it with water and powdered milk. The baby drinks deeply and closes her eyes. In just a week she’s fat and pink. I begin to sleep, sometimes four hours together. I dream that her flesh is made not from my flesh but from a machine that makes plastic. She’s not a human baby but something that looks very like it, a little too thin, too white. In the dream I think there’s something strange about her but I will never know for sure if she’s mine because I’ve never done this before.


  • Bonnie Lander Johnson is Fellow and Associate Professor at Downing College, Cambridge University, where she teaches the literature and history from the early modern period to the present. She is senior advisor to the Downing College literary magazine, The Leaves, and sits on the steering committee of the BBC / Cambridge National Short Story Award and Young Writers Award. Bonnie’s academic books include Botanical Culture and Popular Belief in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge University Press), The Cambridge Handbook to Literature and Plants, Chastity in Early Stuart Literature and Culture (Cambridge University Press) and Blood Matters (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her non-fiction has appeared in Hinterland, Howl and Dappled Things, and her fiction has been shortlisted for The Royal Society of Literature’s V. S. Pritchett Prize and The Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prize. In 2025 her first creative non-fiction book, Vanishing Landscapes, will be published by Hodder and Stoughton.

  • Photographs of EastOver courtesy of WM Robinson.