A Midwife, My Father and Me

Drama and extreme weather attended my birth.

Mam, aged 20, went into labour on Saturday 31 January 1953. She was at home in Aunt Nell’s house in Port Clarence on the banks of the River Tees. That night a heavy storm was raging in the North Sea, causing severe flooding and erosion to the cliffs along the whole east coast of the UK. Three hundred and seven people died that night, it was almost three hundred and eight.

At midnight my 24-year-old dad was dispatched to phone the midwife. As he closed the door behind him he heard Tony, the budgie, chirping away, ‘’See ya later, ‘See ya later’.  Then a ‘WHOOOSH” as The River Tees burst its banks and water came cascading down the street towards him. Despite being an accomplished athlete and cyclist, he was nervous as he braced himself to face the water and the storm. He was determined to try with all his might to get to the phone but the weather was against him. It was a bitterly cold, night, the streets were deserted, the wind was howling and he was knee-deep in water and sludge. Making progress along the flooded road pushing against the wind and water through the mud and silt was difficult and exhausting.

He decided to climb the railway bank at the side of the road and walk along the railway line. He climbed the bank slipping and sliding, as he went then he scaled the fence. He could see the railway line a few meters ahead and beyond that the angry River Tees. Thinking it was solid ground he dropped down onto the railway side of the fence but found himself up to his waist in mud and river water. Razor-sharp raindrops began slashing across his face blurring his vision. He winced, his mouth opened and filled with gritty stinking water making him wretch. Shaking his head trying to clear the blinding stinging water he grabbed the bank to pull himself up and out but the clump of earth came away in his hand and he fell back down into the clarty wet hole, smacking his head on a branch.

Over and over again he tried to haul himself up but each time more grass sods came away, his hands were turning numb with cold.  Alone in the icy water, in the dark at the side of the railway, with no chance of anyone finding him he was convinced he was going to drown. Nervous and afraid, he gathered his strength and determination, slipping and sliding and swimming around on his belly, flailing his arms, travelling half a meter along the bank he furiously searching for solid ground. Suddenly, he was in luck managing to grasp a secure clump of earth, he clung to its knotted roots with all his might, then wedging his feet against the bank, trembling and icy cold he heaved himself out of the freezing water.  A few minutes later he made his way along the tracks to Haverton Hill and rang the midwife.

Shivering and delirious he retraced his steps home. When he turned into Cambridge Terrace the bedroom lights beckoned him. He hoped all was well and hoped a little son would be delivered soon.

He was flicking the latch on the garden gate when he was relieved to see the midwife clutching her dry bag to her chest whilst being paddled along the street in a canoe.

There were two steps up to both the back and front doors of aunt Nell’s house. The river water had risen up and over the top step, on the ground floor, the furniture that they hadn’t managed to move was bobbing around the sitting room, floating from wall to wall and back again across the room, a little rat was seen swimming between the sofa and the chair. Tony was chirping ‘Who’s a Clever Boy then? Give Us A Kiss!’

My dad and the midwife rushed upstairs. She checked on my mother-to-be, could see things were progressing and turned back to Dad who was shivering, his teeth chattering, in the corner of the bedroom. She ushered him out leaving a trail of filthy river water which began forming a pool on the landing floor. The midwife decided dad required immediate attention. She called my aunt Nell to run a hot bath. While the bathtub was filling, the midwife turned to my dad and stripped him of his smelly wet clothes. Dad wouldn’t even undress in front of the female dog, and here he was allowing a stranger to undress him. The midwife led him into the bathroom and into the bath to thaw out and clean himself up for the arrival of his firstborn.

The midwife returned to mum, to see how she was getting on. Things were progressing nicely. There was a knocking downstairs. Aunt Nell opened the front door and saw a fireman standing on the top step, on his back was 47-year-old Nancy, who was about to become my grandmother, someone who was always there for the important moments in my life.

Having arrived in Haverton Hill, cold, wet and worried, river water swirling around her ankles, Nancy had come face to face with some firemen, patrolling the streets to keep people safe.

Fourteen years later she told me the fireman had said, ‘Hello, where’s a beautiful young woman like you off too on a night like this?

‘My daughter’s in labour, it’s her first child, she’s only 20, I’ve got to get to her.

‘No pet, no way can you walk to Port Clarence, it’s not safe, the river water’s rising.’

‘I’ve got to go. You’re not going to try and stop me, are you? She’s about to give birth. I’ve got to get there.’

‘Eeee dear me, I’ll tell you what, take them wet shoes off and jump on me back pet and hang on tight, keep those wet shoes out of me face mind. Here we go, we’re off’.

And he carried her half a mile in the dark, through the filthy water, so she could be there for the birth of her first grandchild and once she was there, I decided it was time to arrive too.

Neither hell nor high water could stop my entrance into the world I was determined to be born and arrived at 6.30 am on Sunday 1st February 1953, under the star of Aquarius, the water bearer. I had a caul covering my face. Dad was in the next room with a hot water bottle. Having an en caul birth is rare and beautiful, occurring in about 1 in every 80,000 births. The caul is a thin membrane – the amniotic sac. Some babies enter the world completely encased in the sac, in my case it was covering my head and face. Babies fortunate enough to come into the world covered in their caul are said to be lucky, they will never drown, they have a special affinity with water, and may have psychic talents too.

Aunt Nell and my maternal grandmother having waited at the bedroom door for my arrival stayed by my side for the rest of their lives. They remembered every moment of my dramatic birth. Years later when asked, mum couldn’t remember much about it, and dad remembered the midwife’s face, sixty years later he said he could still see her as clear as day but he was too busy thawing out to remember much about the baby. Nothing ever changed. My arrival that night was the first time but not the last that I was a ‘bloody nuisance and caused a lot of trouble.’

“Fancy turning up in the middle of a storm, trust you, couldn’t you have waited a day or two?”

Thankfully dad didn’t drown or I would never have heard the end of it. Imagine, drowning for the birth of a little girl, not even a much wished-for son.

Aunt Nell and Grandma welcomed me, they were pleased to meet their new family member, a robust eight and half-pound rosy-cheeked girl. A girl who 24 hours later contracted gastroenteritis. The floodwater on the midwife’s hands presented me with my first life challenge, preparing me for what was to come. Thankfully that baby was a female survivor, someone who would make her presence felt and achieve her goals.

by Evie Emjay

Evie Emjay joined Bristol Write Club in January 2020 and has been working with Ali Powell and the other writers ever since. In July 2020 she had a piece of work “Lockdown” about her granddaughter coping with her father’s terminal illness during the lockdown, published on Paper Nations website (hosted by The Arts Council and Bath University) and in August 2020 she had a piece of flash fiction ‘Lulu” about her Springer Spaniel broadcast on Radio Wiltshire. In 2021 she read an extract from one of her stories on BBC Radio Tees. During Lockdown she has almost completed a book of short stories based on her upbringing in the North East during the ’50s and ’60s. Born during a storm in the North East of England, she trained to swim the channel,  was accepted into the National Youth Theatre, spent time as a hippy, a Marketing Director in the professional theatre, a teacher, an examiner for Edexcel and a Reiki master.  Today she lives with her husband, ducks and dogs in Wiltshire attending a philosophy group once a week. She hopes you enjoy her work.