My name is Cassandra X and I want to tell you my story. Well, actually, that’s not true. I don’t really want to tell you my story at all. I’m only doing this because my family thinks it will be good for me. Better out than in is what they say to me, as if anxiety can be ejected like projectile vomit. But it’s not that easy, is it? Myself, I would much rather curl into fetal position and pretend that parts of this story never happened. But no one listens to me; and that’s the whole problem right there, you see. That’s it in a nutshell.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not what you might call a sad story, although a hell of a lot of stress came out of it before some kind of conclusion was reached. And maybe that’s how life has to be, a cycle of domestic dramas interrupted by the occasional joyful moment just to keep us coming back for more. The story concerns my daughter, Jasmine, who I have long suspected of being accidentally switched at birth with a similar-looking newborn twenty-five years ago. I can tell you for sure that she bears no similarity to me apart perhaps from an impressively deep streak of stubbornness. Let me sum up a few of our more obvious differences for you – she’s tie-dyed rags and I’m resort wear; she’s tattoos and painful-looking piercings and I’m understated make-up and plucked eyebrows; she’s a throwback hippie and I’m a post-apocalyptic survivalist; she thinks it’s the dawning of the age of Aquarius and I will kill any stranger who looks funny at my family. You get the picture. Generationally speaking, not so much a gap as an abyss.
From an early age Jasmine determined to travel the world. As an adolescent she had a chart on the wall listing all the countries she intended to visit; the list incorporated much of Europe, most of South America and the more life-threatening and politically unstable parts of Asia and Africa. If I had to pinpoint the exact moment at which I lost any semblance of control over my daughter it would be when the she turned to wave goodbye to me at the airport on her first trip to Europe. She was eighteen years old and wearing an oversized backpack and an enormous, delighted grin. It was as if something wild that had been held fretting in captivity was finally being released back to its natural habitat.
Over the next few years Jasmine passionately embraced the backpacker lifestyle and the backpacker lifestyle reciprocated by wrapping itself around her windpipe and throttling her right back. She was hospitalized with pneumonia in Brazil, robbed at knifepoint by drug addicts in Argentina, fined and threatened with deportation for busking without a permit in Paris, burst a couple of blood vessels in her eyes whilst bungee jumping in Thailand; she even had her backpack not only stolen in Cambodia but also returned intact the next day – I can only assume that after examining the backpack contents the thief concluded Jasmine was even more impoverished than he was. And that’s just the stuff Jasmine told us about; God only knows what else happened to her out there on the hippie trail; well, God, various Australian consulates and maybe Interpol.
Jasmine sailed through it all with joy de vivre or, to put it another way, suicidal recklessness. Yet somehow she would always return in one piece and invariably bringing what she liked to call ‘little goodies” for us. These mostly comprised of items of badly made Indian clothing or the sort of tacky silver jewelry that turns green almost before your eyes, leaving ugly skin rashes. And then one year she totally outdid herself in the little goodies department by bringing back a man. And not just one of the common or garden locally grown variety; he was a Frenchman. Quelle exotique! How she got him through customs I’ll never know. He was dressed in baggy harem pants, cheesecloth t-shirt and a waistcoat festooned with glass beads. Oh, and Moroccan camel leather slippers that curled up at the front. Let’s just nickname him Aladdin and be done with it.
She introduced Aladdin as her boyfriend and casually informed us that he would be staying with us for a while. Later we discovered that the phrase “for a while” translated as until he found a job, a place to stay, an education, a career, a life direction. Basically then, the idea was we were going to adopt him for the foreseeable future. And we didn’t say a word of protest. Which is preposterous, right? The only way I can explain it is that Jasmine has always had this knack of reassuring anxious older people with a few soft words, a smile and reassuring hug; she’s like some kind of horse whisperer for skittish parents. I should point out that she had a long history of bringing stray, mangy young people home for meals but this was the first time she’d moved a fully imported one into the house.
Mind you, I could see the attraction; once you got past the tattoos and piercings Aladdin was unarguably cute with dark sticky-date brown eyes and then of course there was the accent. I think we can all agree a French accent is the most irresistible mating call of any species, domesticated or feral. Then again, I suspect my husband wouldn’t agree at all. The continental cuteness and the sexy accent appeared to have absolutely zero effect on him.
I haven’t introduced my husband to you yet, have I? Well, let’s face it, he’s pretty much peripheral to this story anyway. All you really need to know is that he wears sensible cardigans and a tweed flat cap; that just about sums him up right there, say no more. Mostly he spends his days reading dusty old books and mumbling about the decline and fall of western civilization. We’ll call him Mr. Grumpy for no reason that springs immediately to mind. After introductions had been awkwardly made at the Arrivals gate the Grump-meister didn’t say much but his face was cast into a kind of lugubrious death mask that did not bode well. I could tell his tortured mind was swirling with dark thoughts about family dishonor and garlic-reeking foreigners; not just any foreigner, either, but one of those cheese-eating surrender monkeys, you know the ones, from that country with a notorious reputation for seduction and romancing the pants of innocent young girls. The drive home from the airport was a tense affair, let me tell you.
When we showed Aladdin to the guest room and led him to understand that he was expected to sleep there on his own, he stared at us incredulously. I was a little incredulous myself, I must admit. I mean, to assume these two healthy, attractive people of prime mating age were going to sleep separately under the one roof was just plain naïve. Although Mister Grumpy liked to pretend otherwise, I doubt whether Aladdin set a camel-leathered foot in that spare bedroom ever again after that first night. And so somehow we found ourselves in the bizarre situation of consenting to a strange man we barely knew shacking up with our daughter in her bedroom; a strange man, incidentally, whom she barely knew too if you discounted a few weeks of holiday romance.
Six months later Aladdin was still squatting in the house, or the commune as we now pointedly referred to it. The sarcasm was entirely lost on our squatter. I don’t know, maybe French people don’t do sarcasm; probably too busy doing seduction, I suppose. By now we were resigned to the wafting clouds of incense, Arabian Nights dress code and the endless meals of lentils and brown rice; in short, the ambience of peace, love and flatulence had become our way of life. By this stage Aladdin was working casually as a waiter in a restaurant whilst spending most of his free time with Jasmine in her bedroom. They certainly were inordinately attached to that bedroom; what they found to do in there for so long I really cannot say. Anyway, as far as we could tell the only people showing any signs of discontent with the living conditions were Grandmaster Grumpy and me. We put up a good front but the truth is the bohemian values were getting to us; the countercultural untidiness, the careless dribbling of candle wax over expensive furniture, the stench of Moroccan camel leather slippers; and yet so comfortable were Aladdin and Jasmine with the arrangement that it seemed as if we were living with them rather than the other way around. We almost expected to be asked politely how long we intended to stay on for.
One day we received an intriguing phone call from our surrogate son, Aladdin, requesting that we meet him for coffee that afternoon. This struck us as odd given we had all been drinking coffee together around the communal table earlier that morning and were in all probability destined to be sharing a communal meal and accompanying beverages later that evening at home. Clearly, the boy has something other than communal coffee drinking on his mind.
“This is it,” Mister Grumpy predicted, “they’re taking over. He’s going to ask us to move out of the house and never darken our doorstep again.”
We met in Aladdin’s lunch break and whilst we sipped our coffees he informed us with a proud smile that he was going to ask Jasmine to marry him. Mr. Grumpy took a sharp intake of breath that resulted in his cappuccino being inhaled into his lungs; for a while there we were distracted by the need to revive a distressed middle-aged man who appeared to have abruptly lost the will to live. When things settled down again we returned to the subject at hand; I tactfully suggested to Aladdin that as he and Jasmine had known each other for a mere matter of months there was surely no hurry. His liquid eyes sort of glazed over in a way I’d seen before whenever anyone declared an opinion that he didn’t agree with and didn’t want to hear. That was Aladdin’s modus operandi – he would never argue; he would simply ignore.
Mr. Grumpy was not to be fobbed off so easily. He regressed to his savannah hunter-gatherer antecedents and got down to the nitty-gritty.
“And how, pray tell, do you intend to provide shelter for a family? How will you put bread into the mouths of your children?”
But Aladdin had already thought this through.
“I have a plan,” Aladdin said, “I’m going to juggle fireballs in the streets.”
Awkward pause here. A case of lost in heavily accented translation, perhaps? Whatever did he mean? Mr. Grumpy was the first to grasp Aladdin’s new career direction.
“Are you talking about busking? People throwing money? Fireball juggling for small change as a career? That’s your plan? That’s seriously your plan? Dear God, man, have you given thought to a plan B?”
“Oh, yes, I have a back-up. The plan B, as you say – I will also to learn to swallow fire.”
Another awkward pause, this one pretty much lasting until Mister Grumpy and I got home and could wail and gnash our teeth and cover ourselves with sackcloth and ashes in the relative privacy of our share-house. Eventually we rallied and regained perspective. It wouldn’t be so bad; we could get night jobs stacking supermarket shelves; the future lay bright and clear before us – we’d spend our lives supporting Jasmine and Aladdin and God knows how many of their future brood until we drew our last labored breaths.
Oblivious to our somewhat agitated reaction to the marriage idea, Aladdin ploughed on at full steam ahead. He proposed, Jasmine accepted; soon after we held an outdoor wedding reception like no other I have ever attended. There was vegan food, which Mister Grumpy sarcastically described to our family guests as coming from the planet Vegas. Unconventionally dressed young people writhed ecstatically to pounding tom-tom drums; a pungent haze that smelt nothing like nicotine wafted over an unusually large group of smokers. Even our aged family members grooved along, arthritis permitting, with the harmonious vibrations. It was the Woodstock festival all over again but with awkward-looking old people in formal attire sprinkled amongst the hippie revelers. Aladdin, in a moment of irrational exuberance even juggled his fireballs for our entertainment. It happened to be perilously close to a canvas canopy, which was quite heart stopping for those of us who felt legally responsible for the safety of our guests. I waited with dread for the canvas to shoot up in flames at any moment, thereby incinerating the slower, more elderly family and friends; fortunately collateral damage was limited to the odd singed hair and scorch marks, all of it on Aladdin who was too deliriously happy to care.
Another three months passed. Little had changed. We were still sharing digs with a couple of unreconstructed hippies from the Summer of Love era. One day Mister Grumpy and I were sipping cappuccinos in our regular café when Jasmine rang me. After I got off the phone Mister Grumpy noticed I was unusually quiet.
“Well, what did she say?”
“I’m going to tell you, but first I want you to stop sipping your coffee.”
“Just do what I say. Put the cappuccino down and step away from the cup. Then, I’ll tell you.”
Mr. Grumpy put his cup down out of harm’s way.
I took a deep breath and said, “Our daughter…”
“Yes, yes, our daughter what? Get on with it.”
“Oh my God. But how…?”
“How do you think, you idiot? They’ve been humping away every night in that damn bedroom of hers.”
Mr. Grumpy winced. I think the idea of his daughter humping anyone was too much for the poor man. “Whatever happened to self-restraint? What about a bit of planning? It’s just irresponsible, that’s what it is.”
“Oh, don’t be bloody ridiculous. They’re married, aren’t they? They’re being fruitful and multiplying. This is what married people do when they’ve got time on their hands. Obviously they’re far too cool to watch prime time television like the rest of us.”
“But they’re still living with us,” Mr. Grumpy said in a whiny tone of voice. “It’s not fair. Not only are they not moving out, they’re reproducing. They’re breeding inside our house. Where will it end? Ten years down the track we’ll be forced out due to the population explosion. Culled from our own house to keep the numbers sustainable.”
My own response was not quite as hysterical but no less anxious. I felt excitement of course and also a kind of sadness too; I knew something Jasmine didn’t know, something she was about to find out – the crazy recklessness, the exuberance, the spontaneity, the self-indulgent fun, all that was going to be set aside and the time of responsibility for a tiny little life had begun. As for Grandpa Grumpy, after he got the moral outrage out of his system he became strangely calm; maybe even fatalistic, although a clue to his frame of mind lay in the manner in which he insisted on referring to Aladdin from that point onwards as The Impregnator.
There’s nothing like a pregnancy to concentrate the mind. Everything seemed to change very quickly. Within a matter of weeks Jasmine and The Impregnator took us by surprise when they moved out of our home. All of a sudden we were no longer living in a squatters’ commune. I have to admit it felt eerie and empty for a while. I even kind of missed the incense but not the flatulence that tended to precede it. Meanwhile we had something else to worry about.
Of course Jasmine’s new abode was never going to be a conventional one in the suburban heartland; that was just not their style. Despite marriage and the pregnancy they were still stubbornly grooving somewhere in San Francisco circa 1960s with flowers in their hair. We knew this and accepted it. But did they have to move to a house on an island that was only accessible by boat? There were no roads, no bridges and the ferryboat service cut out in the early evening. Most of the island locals relied on their own small vessels, a motely fleet of weather-beaten, barnacle-caked, old tubs. God help them on a stormy night with choppy waters. All this was gleefully related to us by Jasmine and Aladdin. They were relishing the challenge and rejoicing in the lifestyle compromises; after all, it was the closest they could get to third world living conditions and still be just a ferry ride away from the nearest organic farmers’ market.
I saw things a little differently. To me it was like the opening scenario of a formulaic thriller movie. All the corny ingredients were there – isolated home cut off from the mainland, vulnerable young pregnant woman, local island community populated by alternative lifestyle eccentrics and a generous sprinkling of drunkards and nut jobs. But wait, it gets worse. Precisely at the moment in a thriller where they introduce that last fatal plot ingredient, Jasmine obliged with a twist of her own. She made a decision so loaded with potential catastrophe it would have had everyone in a movie theatre covering their eyes with both hands and issuing a collective groan of despair – Jasmine decided to have a homebirth on that isolated little island.
Mister Grumpy and I took the ferry over to the island in a last ditch attempt to talk some sense into Jasmine. The Impregnator and Jasmine proudly showed us around their new home. Apart from the dampness, some rodent droppings and the encroaching jungle-like vegetation I considered the house was almost bearable and perhaps even habitable.
Jasmine could not be dissuaded on the homebirth. She had lined up a midwife and all arrangements had been made. Mister Grumpy interrogated The Impregnator on the preparations.
“What happens if the baby comes in the middle of the night? Have you considered how you will get the midwife over here? And what if, God forbid, something goes wrong and there’s an emergency? In short, do you have a plan?”
“But of course. I have a plan. I even have a plan B as well, just the way you like.”
The Impregnator was making with the quirky continental humor but Mister Grumpy was not amused.
“O.k., what’s the plan?”
The Impregnator pointed a finger to the house opposite. “Our neighbor has agreed to bring the midwife over at any time of the day or night. He and his boat are on standby for us.”
He pointed another finger to the left. “The neighbor a few houses down will pick the midwife up from the jetty with his jeep and bring her to the house when she arrives.”
The Impregnator smiled and placed a reassuring hand on Grandfather Grumpy’s shoulder, which is never advisable, as the Grumpy One has been known to bite off people’s fingers. Do not pet the mangy, ill-tempered animal.
“And what about your plan B?” Mr. Grumpy asked.
The Impregnator shrugged and pointed a finger vaguely upwards. At first I thought he might be referring to God and some sort of divine intervention, but then he said, “Elroy.”
“Elroy? Who’s Elroy?”
“Oh, he lives up the top of the mountain,” Jasmine said. “He’s a bit of a recluse. We don’t see much of him but he said he’d come if we need him to drive the midwife here.”
I could tell Mister Grumpy was less than impressed with plan B. I think we were both picturing Elroy as some wild-eyed hillbilly off his face on moonshine and cabin fever.
“Oh for God’s sake, stop worrying,” Jasmine said, laughing at us. “People have been doing this in their own homes for thousands and thousands of years. Everything will be fine.”
Mr. Grumpy began to speak but I cut him off mid-flow. I could see he was about to lecture us all on newborn mortality rates over the last two hundred thousand years of human history, a subject he had been researching intently recently.
As the date of the birth neared I left Mr. Grumpy back home and moved in with Jasmine and Aladdin on the island. At night I felt so much anxiety I could hardly sleep. Every morning I was hugely relieved to know that the ferry service had resumed and with it our regular link to the mainland. Nothing seemed to bother Jasmine and The Impregnator. Not even when the baby was well overdue and the midwife recommended relocating the birth to the mainland. I begged Jasmine to move back in with us and have the baby at our house but she had set her heart on a birth in her own home on the island.
A week later I awoke to the sound of something mechanical roaring upstairs. I ran up and found The Impregnator using an electric pump to inflate the wading pool in which Jasmine intended to have her baby. She emerged from the bathroom at that moment and I will never forget the look in her eyes, a mixture of shock and panic.
“I can feel the head,” she said, clutching her groin.
I couldn’t come to grips with that. I’d had children. I knew how the whole thing worked. They don’t just pop out and announce, “Surprise! I’m here!” There’s a procedure, God damn it; it takes hours and there are stages of labor and birth protocols, breathing and panting and so on, that must be observed.
“You can’t be feeling the head,” I assured her, “ You’re barely in labor, right?”
Jasmine looked almost apologetic. “Actually, I think I slept through the labor bit. I felt really uncomfortable when I went to bed.”
She slept through it. Of course she did. Why would she do anything so conventional and conformist as to have a normal birth experience? That’s when I felt the thrill of dread rippling through me. The possibility that a baby was going to pop out of her at any moment yelling, “Surprise! I’m here!” suddenly seemed alarmingly less remote.
At this juncture I realized that I was living my nightmare, the situation I had feared the most. It was two am. We were isolated on an island, about to have a baby and the only person in the house not looking dazed and confused was me. To be honest, the only reason I didn’t look dazed and confused was because I was preoccupied being completely beside myself with fear and stress. So there we were, standing in a bedroom with that ridiculous purple wading pool, candles and incense sticks at the ready, missing only a midwife or someone who had the least idea how to deliver a baby.
Jasmine doubled over and emitted a scary, deep-throated moan that would not have been out of place emanating from the subject of an exorcism. She staggered over to The Impregnator and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck, which was awkward as he had a lot on his mind at the time. At the height of every contraction she constricted his throat like an anaconda and screamed, “Get off the phone! Help me! You have to help me! Get off the phone!”
The reason she was shouting about getting off the phone was because The Impregnator held a mobile in each hand and was attempting to dial both one handed.
“What the hell are you doing?” I asked him.
“The neighbors. I’m trying to ring them. No one’s answering.”
“The midwife. Have you rung the goddamned midwife?”
He could only nod in reply given that Jasmine was simultaneously experiencing a strong contraction and throttling the life out of him.
I ran downstairs to get my phone and rang the midwife, just to ensure she was on the way. It’s not that I didn’t trust The Impregnator…oh who the hell am I trying to kid? At this stage I had absolutely no faith in anyone, particularly the entwined couple upstairs helplessly transfixed by contractions and constrictions.
The midwife was driving through the night at a mad pace to get there but she wasn’t happy at all.
“I told them to leave yesterday. She’s fourteen days overdue. She should be somewhere more accessible. When I heard they were still on the island my heart almost stopped.”
From this statement you could reasonably conclude that the midwife was panicking. And if the midwife was panicking that was surely the signal for everyone else in the delivery room to commence shouting incoherently and running around in ever decreasing circles. Right about then my heart was threatening to go one better than her heart and come to a screeching halt.
Back upstairs The Impregnator was still working the phones like a Mumbai call center operator on crack cocaine, but no one was picking up. Jasmine was intermittently moaning and yelling, ‘It’s coming, help me, it’s coming.”
At this point I knew I had two choices: I could take control and deliver this baby or break down into a panic-stricken, blubbering mess. Obviously I broke down into a panic-stricken, blubbering mess. Hey, be not quick to judge, delivering babies is complicated; people spend years learning how to do it right. I was out of my depth. We needed to get that midwife onto the island.
I went into the bathroom, splashed cold water on my face and spoke to myself in the mirror – “Cassandra, stop hyperventilating and get your shit together.”
This seemed to work. I rang the emergency line and asked for an ambulance. Then I remembered I was on an island and cancelled the ambulance and asked for the police. Then I remembered I was on an island again and cancelled the police and asked for the Water Police. Bingo. They agreed to pick up the midwife and drop her at the wharf. Now we needed to transport the midwife and her equipment to the house. Not as simple as it sounds because there were very few vehicles on this island; all the residents had their cars parked over on the mainland. And where were all these residents when you needed them anyway?
Around ten minutes or so later there was a polite knock on the front door. Thank you, God. I ran to the door and flung it open. A nice-looking, neatly dressed man stinking of strong liquor apologized for missing The Impregnator’s phone calls. He had been at a party on the other side of the island and had neglected to check his mobile. He looked nothing like a wild-eyed hillbilly but we had got the bit about being off his face on moonshine absolutely right. It was Elroy. Plan B had been activated.
“Elroy, thank God. Where is everybody else on this God-forsaken island? No one’s answering their phone.”
“They’re all at the party and mobile reception is a bit patchy on that side of the island. Can I help?”
“Elroy, you don’t happen to know how to deliver babies do you?”
“Good Lord, no. I work in IT. I’m afraid the best I can do is offer transport. I’ve got my car right here – no, actually, it’s just over there, against the tree. Must have rolled forward. I seem to have left it in gear.”
“Elroy, have you perchance partaken of a glass or two of alcohol tonight?”
“Pissed to the eyeballs, I’m afraid.”
“I did not hear you say that, Elroy.”
I rang the midwife back and told her we had lined up the Water Police and also a drunk driver to give her a lift to the house.
“O.k. I’m at the wharf. I can see the lights of the police boat. How’s Jasmine doing?”
“Well, she says she can feel the head.”
“You mean the contractions.”
“No, I mean the head. With her fingers.”
“Don’t panic. Keep calm. I won’t be long. When the baby comes, keep it warm.”
“O.k. See you soon.”
Hey, wait a minute. Did she just say the words ‘when the baby comes’? Note the critical conditional distinction. When, not if. Oh my God. Even the midwife thinks she’s not going to make it.
Back to the bathroom. More face splashing. I stared at my reflection and sternly told it to stop looking so goddamned terrified. We were going to deliver a baby and that was that. No more whining. I walked into the bedroom and right back into the middle of the exorcism with Jasmine intermittently growling and pleading for help and The Impregnator standing in the wading pool holding a hose.
“What the hell are you doing, man?”
“I’m filling the wading pool.”
“Forget the wading pool. You don’t need a wading pool right now.”
“What do I need, then?”
“An exorcist. No forget I said that. Get some towels. Clean ones. Jasmine, what are you doing?”
“I’m getting into the pool. I’m having this baby in the damned pool just like I planned and no one’s going to stop me.”
She said it with so much determination not to mention snarling ferocity that I knew this was no time to argue. I went to find the towels whilst The Impregnator climbed back into the pool to support Jasmine.
And then everything happened so quickly and so suddenly, just as the major things tend to do in this life. One minute there were three of us in the pool and then there were four as we were joined by a tiny head popping almost bizarrely out of Jasmine’s vagina. The creature from the amniotic lagoon. I felt like blurting out – hey, what’s that doing there? – so strange and miraculous did it seem that life should grow out of life inside my daughter in such a fashion. As the rest of the body slid out the midwife ran upstairs. Elroy stumbled and staggered right behind her under the weight of several bags of equipment or possibly he was just blind drunk. And everybody was so happy and relieved, And everybody cried, even Elroy. And it was one of those rare moments in your life when you are able to say, ah yes, then, at that precise moment I was utterly, unequivocally happy.