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Roses & Nettles

Roses and Nettles

Estimated reading time — 28 minutes

Paige woke up at 11pm. Just a second before, her alarm clock had roused obnoxiously from its silence – neon red numericals Vegas-bright in her room. As usual when she woke, she thought excitedly about her babies. Even though she had never given birth, they were still her babies.

On the weekly rota there was only ever her name volunteering for the midnight to 5am shift. Nobody else wanted it, she wanted no other. Some colleagues made remarks behind her back, saying she had no life; she must be a little soft in the head; but they wouldn’t have dreamt of changing things. Her eagerness to work the hours they didn’t want suited everyone. Paige didn’t understand what made most people tick, and they didn’t understand her. But, their loss, she thought.

She’d showered, dressed and headed out for work by 11.35pm, feeling eager to step onto the ward and see her little ones. Her father once gave her a slab of advice – do what you love and it’ll never feel like a job. It was the best gift he ever gave her, and the only one that left no bruise. Only those who love their job skipped into the Neonatal Ward at 11.55pm on a Wednesday evening. Only those who knew their calling were immune to the snide remarks about it.


There were fifteen clear plastic open-top cots on the Jessop Neonatal Wing at Sheffield Northern General Hospital. None of them empty, none of them lacking warmth or affection. Not between the hours of 12am to 5am at least. The cemetery hours, as some of her colleagues had named it.

A lone nighttime security guard held a post outside the doors to the ward during these quieter shifts. It was quite often Jarrod on duty, as it was now. He was a burly haystack of a man with a strong Sheffield accent that she’d heard lilt delicately into a Jamaican patois when he was speaking on his mobile. His accent flattened of all geographical context, she’d noticed, on the rare occasion he had to speak on the hospital landline.

Access after 10pm could only be granted by the security guard, but Jarrod administered his responsibility with lesser attention during these cemetery hours. The football match on his mobile phone was far more worthy of his time.

‘Evenin’ nurse Warner’.

Looking or not, he always knew it was her; just as he did tonight without taking his eyes away from his phone. Or was it just that her ubiquitous presence each night was expected now?

‘Evening Jarrod’, she clipped back as she signed into the log, avoiding looking at him in case she should have to meet his gaze. Her hand shook as she self-consciously scribbled her name in the logbook, using the biro that was attached to the desk by string and years-old, yellowing sellotape.


‘Knee’s feelin’ better nurse’, he boomed, in a bassy baritone.

‘Excuse me?’, she mumbled after settling back into her skin.

‘My knee. I’ve had Verda Silva take a look last couple of days like you said. Got some exercises to do at home ‘n all’, he explained, saying just about as much as she’d ever heard from him. His eyes never left the screen which looked like a kiddies toy in his huge hands.

‘Ahh yep. Brilliant. Good, good. Right. Must get to it. See you later’, she replied back hurriedly. Feeling uncomfortable with the sudden and unexpected attempt at a conversation. She did recall him asking her about a pain in his knee. She’d explained she wasn’t that kind of nurse and he’d be best heading to the physiotherapist – Verda – in Orthopaedics on Firth Wing.

‘Have a good one nurse’.

‘You too Jarrod!’

Once through the doors she sighed and slung her coat on the back of the chair at the nurses station. She dumped her bag on the floor beneath the nurses desk with the same lack of tidiness she showed when she was home.

The ward was a polite pastel yellow. The flooring, a rubberised red material with speckles of white. Overhead lights cast fluffy marshmallow reflections in the floor beneath, and thankfully the fluorescents were set to a discreet low during the late night shift. A white stickered stripe on the floor acted as guide from the Neonatal ward reception to her destination, and her cherubs. When out of the sight of others Paige would feign being a tightrope walker – arms outstretched as she teetered along the line, pretending she were fighting for balance. Once on the ward however Paige had her balance. She had the poise and grace of a ballerina. She were Princess Odette who would be transformed into the beautiful swan.

The cots welcomed Paige once more with their inviting orange glow and bewitching baby scent. Baby number 421 had been born just hours before but was still in ICU having been born five weeks premature (there were daily updates posted to a WhatsApp group set up for the ward – they were looking at a possible record month for deliveries).

With elegance Paige presented herself with a pas de deux before the little petals; they in turn graciously accepted her among them with polite applause and muted appreciation.

The ward was deserted now after the last of the day shift had headed home – thankful for her prompt timekeeping as always. They’d bid her a – “g’night Paige, have a good shift”, before they left. It was just her and the children now, the way she always preferred it. She wasn’t comfortable with the hectic activity of the daytime hours on the ward. She had always preferred her own company and never sought the solace of others – especially the families of the babies who she never felt capable of interacting with. They made her highly uncomfortable, as did people in general.

The only sounds on the ward now were hers – polite squelches farting from the rubber soles of her Skechers while she readied for preliminary rounds – clipboard and pen in hand, happy to get to it.

As was mandatory at the start of a shift Paige checked over the sleeping babies, clipboard pressed to her bosom and pen clicking in and out under her thumb. She did the first count aloud: fifteen little ones, check! As was customary she counted once more, relishing each numerical blessing she laid on their precious heads and hearts. Again, fifteen was the count. All accounted for. All set out neatly and sleeping soundly. Tilled miniature roses of innocence planted in cribs; blankets closeting them like snow-covered peat.

Paige lowered her face to one blessed flower – a yellow-petalled Sunsprite Floribunda Rose – and the smell of his head blissfully unsettled her balance in the world. He was called Hugo and he slept with a podgy hand curled into a fist in front of his face. He was one of only a few children who had coloured blankets – his were a pale sky-blue – while most of the others had white. A filament in Paige’s sternum sparked warm with affection at his sleeping perfection. She gushed over his whorls of jet black hair and almost ladylike eyelashes. She could hear his faint breath slowly toing and froing, toing and froing like an outboard motor off in the distance – cuggghhh-copphhhh, cuggghhh-copphhhh. She held her own breath in order to hear it better, taking in his pure exhales. The peace she felt was more reward than the wage. She was glad nobody else was around to dampen moments like these, and the hushed quiet of the ward galvanised her serenity. Nothing bad could happen here. It was a dreamy bubble that she felt lucky to float in.

A red panic button to call emergency help watched Paige’s tranquil calm dejectedly from the wall near the nurses station. Her eyes never gave it heed, she’d never come close to pressing it or even acknowledging its existence. There was no need for such measures on her watch. This rose garden was her patch, and any mischievous crows would be prudent not to test her dedication to the young crop.

Once happy that all was in order and the flowers were settled, she made her way to the desk to make notes. The desk was stranded in a sterile puddle of gloom. She peeled herself away from the sleeping babies and made towards it. A dark swell of the ward swallowed her up as she reluctantly bobbed there – flotsam cast adrift from the sleeping children. She wasn’t keen on the administrative parts of the job, and she would be quick as could be.

A lamp kept the basin of dark at bay, just enough for her to fill out the charts but not enough to give a fluorescent headache. She was unaware her tongue protruded from her mouth while she wrote. The tip of that tongue however would take a bite into it a few seconds after pen touched paper…

A sudden and tremendous symphony of screaming and bawling erupted from the babies, making her jump and fling the pen into the air. She could taste the brassy claret of blood from her bitten tongue. A bitter acid pool of panic rose in her throat, but she could only think of one thing – the protection of her delicately bedded roses. The shrill sound of baby cries filled the ward from back to front and her soul from top to bottom. The red panic button now seemed to look a little smug on the wall above the desk, poised for a call to arms.

The pained cries injected weapons-grade adrenaline into her body. From the first sound to a response her reaction was almost precognitive. She clattered the clipboard to the ground and bumped the desk forward a yard as she launched herself off the chair, knocking it over in the process. She clonked the lamp with her head, causing a tectonic shift of shadows around her. Her Skechers squelched and squeaked like an amphetamine-spiked squashplayer as she darted to her babies.

Paige feared what she may find. If anybody was attempting to uproot her precious flowers she would rip out their hearts with a turpentine fury. It was only a few yards’ journey from desk to babies but the sludged air she waded through slowed local time. Milliseconds creaked by…
One. By. One.

The glow of the cribs looked warm and placid as she neared them, but the banshee baby screams sounded on, heightening her panic to heart stopping levels. Her movements were urgent and frenzied. She had bolted at a fair speed down the white guideline from the desk but attempted too sudden a stop in front of the cribs, almost losing her footing as her rubber soles gripped efficiently on the grippy floor.

She regained herself with a yelp and turned to her little ones; face ashen, nerves fraught but ready for anything she may find. As she faced the cribs, poised to defend or attack, a sudden anvil of silence dropped to the floor around her; the babies ceasing all sound in a conspiratorial synchronicity.

The perfect quiet carried the dying echo of screams, jarring her senses with a high pitched curtain of tinnitus. All was as she had left it, and she couldn’t comprehend what had caused the hurricane of cries that had volleyed, klaxon-loud, for a few seconds in the ward and then halted just as abruptly.

No babies stirred now. No breathing strained. Not a single child cried or seemed aware of what they had been part of. But she had heard them – screaming in genuine alarm and pain in a way the panic button would heartily approve of. Now all was graveyard-quiet again. But still she was spooked. Her mouth made a moistened klopp sound as she closed it, completely puzzled; unable to concoct an explanation for what had happened.

She stalked on hesitant feet amongst the children, expecting some phantom or hidden upsetter to pull machiavellian strings while she looked the children over. But her flowers, they slept on.

She inspected them one by one while darting quick glances behind her, ready to tackle imagined assailants approaching from behind. She knelt on clicking knees and checked beneath the cribs for hidden saboteurs, but there was nothing and nobody to be seen. No ghouls, phantoms or baby-nappers.

Paige knew unequivocally she hadn’t imagined it. She knew what was real and what was not. She was a daydreamer, she could admit that. Her father would often scutch her round the head – “Oi, cloth-ears. Stop daydreaming and put the tea on”, letting her know full well she liked to play in her own mind at times. This however was not one of those times.

How had such a sudden wave of calm descended so drastically in the midst of the screaming squall? She was tuned to the mood and rhythms of the place, instinctual as clutch control, and she could still feel the remnants of their upset. Nonetheless, all now seemed at peace and the babies seemed unaffected.

With unease pinching at her brain Paige crept back to the nurses station to right the mess there, trusting nothing in her surroundings and beginning to doubt herself just a little even though she was sure she hadn’t imagined the whole thing. She’d never before known the ward feel hostile or foreign but she had to admit she was looking through uncertain eyes now.

This was usually a place for bright optimism and flowering possibilities, not fear or paranoia. But now all apparatus looked to be a killer’s weapon waiting to stab or bludgeon. Malevolent eyes spied from around curtains, waiting for her to drop her guard – ready to pounce. Stealthy figures stirred in the oily shadows in her peripheral vision, scheming and plotting to steal the little ones. She realised the distance between the desk and the children was too large a gulf. It’s no good, she decided to herself, she had to be closer to her babies.

With decision made she paddled her chair from the desolate shore of the desk, through the monsoon of dark and closer to the cribs. She did her best to move the chair noiselessly, not wanting to disturb her sleeping roses, fearing it may start the calamity afresh.

She bent from the waist as she touched down the chair delicately in front of the sleeping children. She watched the feet of the chair meet the floor to make sure she completed the placement with a minimum of noise. She let out her breath with satisfaction at how silently she completed the manoeuvre. All was calm and settled on the ward again, her heart could climb down from her mouth and her capsized stomach could right its posture.

She softly planted herself in the chair facing the babies, the air phiffed out of its soft cushion as she sat. The clipboard was splayed like a kitten in her lap, and she looked towards the children again to check on their safety. What she saw made her blood run cold as the North Sea. Her fine hairs prickled as tardigrades of panic teemed over her flesh, and her bowels struggled to hold themselves in place. She was unaware that a slowly building scream was rising from her as she was faced with all of the babies standing upright in their beds – head’s slightly higher than the cribs, each one watching her intently with a focused unblinking conviction. Stubby fat sausage fingers gripped onto the sides of their cribs, holding on tightly, helping them stay steady on their lumpy scoops of ice-cream legs.

Her scream made little two day old Jacob blink slowly like a dive bar drunk. Fourteen hours old Olivia stared at her with unimpressed eyes like a talent show judge. Lakshmi watched her closely – unblinking with the cold detachment of a store detective. But all fifteen babies stood. Watching. Appraising; as if they had inherited some new-found secret she wasn’t in on.

As her scream faded away, she could hear as well as feel her heartbeat in her ears, it was like another lifeform on the ward. The children remained unmoving but standing on legs that shouldn’t yet be able to bear their weight. They were weeks away from the ability to stand, walk, talk or torment. But here they were, doing at least two of those things. And nobody would believe it. She could hardly believe it herself. It was the stuff of nightmare-plagued nights, fuelled by eating cheese before bed. Her throat felt raw and hot from the sudden furious scream she’d launched a moment ago.

Paige rose from her chair slowly, keeping her eyes on the babies for fear of what they may do next. The forgotten clipboard slipped from her lap and clattered to the floor, making her briefly eke out a stab of scream once more. The babies paid her clumsiness no mind at all. She looked at the clipboard on the blood red floor for a second before turning her attention back to the babies. Their stares were now all the more monstrous for their sheer lack of emotion, or if there were emotions they were unreadable to her. The brigade of eyes never left her. The ward was pregnant with a silent intent but she could hear one set of baby lungs creating colic breaths as they stood.

Paige cagily approached the babies on jelly-weak legs, too afraid to look them in the eyes, but they were perfectly content with keeping their stern focus drilled into her. She wandered through the rows of children. Each turning and adjusting their position in the cribs as she passed, making sure they didn’t break the spell of staring at her, creating a heightening fear in her chest. The weird intensity of the situation astounded Paige’s mind. Never had she felt so scared or alienated by other human beings, even the adolescent torments of her father couldn’t dint her sanity more than this. Still the babies watched on, disinterested in her as a person but seemingly obsessed with her as a specimen to study.

‘What’s happening?’, she said quietly to herself, hoping she would receive an answer or make sense of what she was seeing.

‘What’s happening? WHAT DO YOU WANT!’, she screamed at the babies, fists clenched by her sides. Her composure fractured and panic rising in her gut. Their unwavering fixation on her made her feel increasingly worse, shackling her in a gulag of fear. She could still taste the blood from her bitten tongue. Its taste fit perfectly with the bile rising from her gullet.

She struggled to think straight, unable to make sense of the insanity of the sight before her. How could the babies remain abnormally calm when she screamed at them? How could they stand up? Should she use the panic button after all, she wondered? But for what exactly? What was the emergency? Where was the danger? Who could be hurt or die? In ICU there was constant, real danger, and lives were on the line. People were needed there and she couldn’t call them away. She couldn’t call for help over such a benign situation as this. But it didn’t feel at all benign to her or her sanity. It felt immensely disturbing.

For five years she’d worked on the ward and she’d never heard of anything as weird as this. From all she’d seen in her time here she had no knowledge of babies behaving so schizophrenically. She’d known them get sick, known them to vomit and shit. She’d sadly known many die, taking pieces of the staff with them as they passed away as they gave up life. But all she’d seen was par for the course in a hospital and could be explained as natural. This wasn’t natural.

Perhaps if she’d had a baby of her own – a product born of her womb – she would understand, as a mother would, how to placate them. How to appease them and get them to bed back down as normal babies do. But she could wish all night long. The babies were still coldly staring at her. Unmoving. Unmoved.

‘What are you looking at!’, she yelled, getting angrier and more frustrated by the second. Her discomfort drenched her from head to toe.

Still her explosive anger and shouting had roused no reaction from her audience. They looked on, standing, staring, judging calmly and with maddening patience. But why? Were they waiting for something? Her brain to go into a meltdown perhaps?

‘Pleeeeease stop staring at me. This isn’t normal!’, she yelled, stamping her foot. Tears of frustration fattening in her eyes.

‘Why are you looking at me!’, she screamed in the face of one of the staring babies as she gripped onto the cot in front of him. She knew his name – Sarvesh, just over a day old. She knew all their names. But these weren’t the roses she’d been tending and watering over the last few evenings. Now they were nettles. Single-minded weeds made to look like children, but placed here to send her round the twist. And who knew, maybe she would be making goo-goo-gaa-gaa baby noises before the night was through? The situation shattering her psyche once and for all. She knew now, her roses had gone rotten on the vine.

Baby Sarvesh stood, appraising her with a placid face and cool dark eyes while she pondered the insanity of it all. No laughter from him. No crying. Just staring. All normal behaviour seemed removed from the children. Just objects of mental torture now, getting the best of her with their patient committed watch.

‘Just FUCK OFF!’, she yelled at them in despair. Heartbroken that their love for her had seemingly soured.

She knew now she needed help. Think, Paige think… They’re just babies. Unbelievable, but they are. They’re babies. In nappies. Act like the one in charge for god’s sake. Don’t make dad’s predictions come true, she told herself. His words mocked her now – “You’re just a sad waste of skin. Just like your useless fucking mother was”.

The last thing she needed right now was the spectre of him darkening her mood even more than the babies already were. He was out of her life, thank heavens, but she didn’t want him in her mind instead.

A thought from nowhere sprang into her head – her mobile phone. And Franchette! Franchette was working tonight she was sure. She could help, possibly. She was a doctor in the ER over in Hunstman Building. She could call her and run it by her – ask for her advice. Franchette was her friend, of sorts. They’d shared many a strained lunch in the canteen together. Both as inept as one another when interacting with other people. But they both understood their inherent shortcomings and seemed to get by in each other’s company, allowing themselves to be awkward together.

Franchette was a great doctor who was also very smart. She thought of her patients as no more than actors, she once explained, and the ER was simply a stage where she could play a part. All this she said through stunted conversation. But Paige still thought it quite elegant and interesting. And she understood – she never really thought of the children as people either. Just needy flowers she loved to tend. And that’s why she was usually so happy and comfortable around them. But not tonight. Not now.

She knew she had to get her mobile from her bag beneath the desk. The dark where the desk was buried now seemed less daunting, considering what had been laying siege to her in the jaundiced lights around the babies; a couple of the babies being jaundiced too. But she didn’t particularly feel bad for them now.

She turned away from the babies – ‘Fuckers!’, she spat at them, making her feel a pang of dark enjoyment for just a second. Jurian, two and a half days old, one of the two jaundiced children, blinked almost audibly back at her outburst as if surprised. The only vaguely human reaction she had seen on the ward tonight, she realised.

She let out a stressed breath as she reached into her bag. If she came out holding a severed baby head staring up at her with dead eyes she wouldn’t be too shocked. That was the playing field she seemed to be on now. Nothing was predictable or normal anymore. But she found her mobile, unlocked the device and checked under ‘F’ in her contacts. She scrolled through the names and found Franchette, her possible anchor to a saner shore. As she was about to dial, a smashing of glass over by the babies made her jump; a tiny scream dripped from her throat and a little pee from her bladder too she realised, but she didn’t care. That would come out in the wash. The memories of tonight – not so much.

She stood motionless in the murk, wondering what to do and what had caused the smash. Her throat ached and she realised she had to commence breathing again. Passing out would be the last thing she needed. Her fear and confusion had rendered her unable to think or function in any normal way. She knew she had to investigate what was happening behind the curtains, where the flowers were growing more rotten by the second.

She approached with stealth, looking all around her, trying to second guess what could happen next. As she got closer to the cribs she noticed broken glass on the floor. Had one of the babies gone berserk maybe? Smashing up the hospital equipment in a mutinous rebellion? Three day old Zack had that kind of malevolence in him, she thought. She never did trust his eyes – too close together – like a ferret, and with a similar light walnut coloured hair as vermin fur.

She decided to call out to the babies, or whoever was over there – making her evening the crazed circus show it had become. She began to call out – ‘Hel…’, the word died in her mouth as all lights on the ward suddenly shut off, making her scream and jump. She was suddenly sunk into a black vat of gloom that felt deep enough to drown her. She felt so suffocated and stifled by the utter lack of sight that the only movement she could manage was the forcing in and out of air to keep her from passing out. The bulbs above clicked as they cooled. It was the only feature of the ward now that gave her a bearing of up or down, forward or behind. She looked over to where she thought the desk was, the lamp there though was alo sodden in darkness.


She remained motionless. She understood now the term “scared stiff” was a real phenomenon. Her neck and limbs were stiff as aged wood. Her joints would creak and groan if she attempted to move, she thought. She decided to be OK with standing still for the moment – listening – petrified and quiet, not wanting to make a target of herself in the dark.

Her phone vibrated suddenly, making her jolt and involuntarily scream once more. She forgot she even had it in her hand. Its glow pooled at her feet as a notification was heralded on the screen, its clinical illumination showed the white guidance line go beneath her and fade into the shadows. She raised the phone to see what had happened. It was a default Google calendar reminder – British Summer Time Ends October 29. Tomorrow.

The phone automatically locked again through a lack of interaction, the message having no impact on her as she was still immobilised by uncertainty and fear. She plummeted down into utter darkness again as the phone went to sleep. She had to call Franchette, she knew. Seek her clear-minded advice.

She unlocked the phone with shaking hands and scrolled once more to find Franchette’s number – the phone dazzling her face with its digital furnace. As she looked through her contacts, a sudden flurry of tiny pattering feet ran at her from out of the darkness; fast-moving slaps of naked meat like dozens of chicken breasts hitting plates dashed towards her. She raised her phone quickly, turning it toward the fast slapping sounds. She was too slow. The pattering feet moved around and passed her, dispersing into the blackness, stirring the heavy air around her.

She quickly turned and used the phone to light up the ward where the sounds of slapping meat had sprinted to. A curtain was coming to a standstill as if it had just been stirred by someone or something rushing past. An unseen door in the darkness slammed like a coffin lid, making her jump and yelp. A maniac baby giggle echoed down the ward from beyond where the white line on the floor disappeared into the shadows.

Fear saturated her through to the bone. She wanted to crawl up into a ball on the floor; be left alone by the torments that were assaulting her mind. And it all seemed to begin and end with the rotten nettles that had overgrown her precious roses. The thought angered her.

At the start of her shift the children were blessed and delightful flowers, basking in the sunshine of her presence. Now they were knotweed, growing like an unwelcome infestation between the pavement cracks of her sanity.

The fear in her was great, but just as great was the utter rage their betrayal had flared in her. She felt a blinding anger, the likes of which she had felt once before; as a teenager she’d smashed a plate over her father’s head. His insults, calling her “a useless bitch, just like your fucking useless mother!” It Became too much. Her resolve bubbled over into a lava of fury.

She remembered becoming another version of herself that day, one that had only a singular purpose: to hit back at the one constantly subjecting her to the most vile mental abuse. That vengeful version of her had always been there, she realised. It just needed the red touchpaper to ignite it.

The vivid red blood that ran from her father’s scalp that day felt like liquid victory as it oozed down his unbelieving face. She could picture him, blinking rapidly as blood and fear dripped into his eyes. She calmly held a sharp blade of the smashed plate to his throat, this other version of her took charge of her words and spoke softly to him – “If you talk about me or my mother like that ever again, I’ll cut your throat in your sleep”.

From then on her father had steered clear of anything but muted conversation and minimal time in her presence. She carried on as normal. But it was a new normal, one of her making. Meet abuse head-on. That was her lesson that day. And that was the only option she could think of now. Meet the aggression head on.

With no light on the ward still she crept back toward the cribs and the hateful weeds, using the torch on her phone to create a funnel of light ahead of her. The line in the centre of the ward showing the way toward them like a midnight highway of doom.

She followed the line, the burst of angry courage she’d had a few moments ago leaking away with every step, leaving her feeling cold and shivery as she got closer.

She held her mobile in front of her face – the torch created dancing elongated shadows as she walked. The phone’s bright home screen that faced her showed a picture of her mother who had died when Paige was just two years old. The picture – a mobile phone capture of a printed photo on a matte finish paper, showed her mother stood with friends, posing for the camera, looking achingly young and happy. She couldn’t have been much more than twenty-five, Paige guessed – around the same age she was now. Her mothers hair was cut fashionably short and looked to have been dyed platinum for a group holiday with friends. Her mother stood in a line flanked by two female friends and two males on either end – arms around girlfriends, her mother in the centre with hands folded in front of her thighs. They all leant with their bottoms against a stone wall in what looked to be Skegness on a bright sunny day. She guessed the picture taker to be her father, but she’d never talked to him about the photo or any of the others he kept in a pitiful pile in a cabinet drawer in the living room – hidden away as if he were ashamed of them.

She could imagine him not wanting to be in the photo. Rather choosing to be outside of the joviality of that day, just taking a picture of the happiness rather than live it. Paige loved the photograph. She wished many a time she could walk into the frame, sit and talk to her mother. Laugh with her and her friends, get to know her as she never had the chance to. Possibly her mother, wherever she may be now, could help her from the great beyond? Have a word in the ear of whatever kinds of demons were torturing her now? Paige didn’t know if she believed in anything like that, but she’d take any help she could get, even if it was only imaginary to bolster her courage.

She neared the babies, no idea what to expect now. Would they still be standing, waiting for her return? Would they all be slain like dead flowers starved of water – perished in a blistering sun? The ward at large was in the dark and so was her mind. She felt sick with the impending moment – her imagination making her feel so much worse for not knowing what awaited her just a few yards away.

Her Skechers cracked on the broken glass shards, making sounds like fingers snapping under her feet with each step. The sharp jagged sound was painful to hear in the otherwise silent ward, but unavoidable. Her vision inched closer to the first crib where she knew 36 hours old Mira should be. Just yesterday she had been a Gloriana Climbing Rose, a light tea fragrance emanating from her apricot coloured petals. But now, what would be planted there? A small rotten tree with a gnarled face in the trunk? A triffid with a gaping maw festooned with spikes to ensnare unassuming passers-by? Whatever awaited her could surely be nowhere near as terrifying as the monsters her brain was spawning in her imagination.

She could see now the lip of Mira’s crib bleached bright by her phone’s torch. On the bench the crib stood on petals were scattered around it, looking rotten and dead as mulch. The petals, devoid of attractive colour, looking as slimy as dead brown slugs, good only for the nutrients their corpses leaked into needy living things. But in the crib she saw now, there was no needy living thing. No baby to be seen. There was a delicate imprint in the blankets where Mira should be. She stopped in her tracks, trying to make sense of what she saw. Where was the baby? She instinctively shone the light at the ground in front of her, imagining the child to be crawling slowly to her feet, ready to grab an ankle or paw up at her mournfully. But nothing was there. Of course it wasn’t. Her imagination betraying her once more.

She heard a crack and a groan like the eaves of an old house behind her. She flipped the phone to the location of the sound. Her phone highlighted her coat on the back of the chair, looking like a headless torso as the chair filled out the coat’s empty form. Her bag under the desk now transformed to a brunette head on the floor.

Enough Paige!, she scolded herself. The night had already been too much to deal with, she didn’t need to make it even worse for herself. But her mind seemed to be concocting the very things she’d least wish to see in the darkness.

The lights of the ward suddenly bounded back to life with a shooom!, sound, making her jump and bark a fresh scream as circuit breakers smashed back to life. Their previous state of friendly dim light levels now hideously bright. Paige had to squint as her dilated pupils reacted to the new harsh abuse from above.

A tidal wave of colours and normalcy assaulted her senses. With her surroundings looking as commonplace as any other shift she felt sure everything must have returned to normal, the oddness of the events wiped clean from the ward. Maybe she had even imagined the whole thing. Or was she still at home in bed and this had been just an awful, very weird dream? But the depth of the vibrant colours and the impersonal clinical smell of the hospital cut through and told her that wasn’t the case; the glass still crunched underfoot as she adjusted her posture. She couldn’t kid herself – the world and the situation was brutally real. An end had to be brought to the madness. Or at least see what was to be found behind the curtains where the cribs were.

With fear in her chest she approached the cots. There was no sound or movement that she could detect. Mira’s crib still sat empty, she couldn’t see the petals she swore she had seen in the dark. Just the indent of the missing baby. In the next crib – the same. No baby, just a space where the little one – Sophie, 42 hours old – should be.

She ran to the cribs and laid her hand on the blankets. They were still warm. She lowered her face to them, the floral talcum smell of babies was still there – ticklish under her nose. She felt panic now as if she were stood on a cliffedge and unable to stop herself from taking the deadly last step to smash her bones below.

She looked with dread at the cribs – all were empty. No sounds, no babies, no love or warmth. Only blank plastic vacuums where babies should be. Just as her throat ached and a cry blubbed from her mouth she saw in the furthest corner crib, distorted through all the thick plastic of the other cribs before it, a sky-blue hazed shape with a dark circle at its apex. She ran to the crib, sparks of glass still lodged in the teeth of her trainer soles, crunching as she ran. She peered into the crib and before her unbelieving eyes lay an angelic little flower – almost too beautiful a sight to exist in this vile world. His clean innocent beauty seemed superimposed in the tainted ward that he lay in, sleeping, smiling slightly in contentment, knowing he was safe even while he slept.

‘Oh god’, she cried, looking to the lights above her. ‘Thank you, thank you, thaaaaaaank youuuuu!’ Light spots from the bulbs danced before her vision but she didn’t mind. Didn’t care.

A huge boulder of relief rolled into her heart, plugging a hole that had gaped there while the horrific situation had ram-raided her sanity. Baby Hugo had survived the craziness with her. He hadn’t left her forlorn. He hadn’t betrayed her love or trust and he had put his life in her hands – knowing he would be safe while he slept.

He was the most perfect and priceless sight that she could imagine. Even the crown of his petals were pure yellow treasure. There was no sign of the rot that had made the others wither in this malevolent garden. He had prevailed in the face of an attacking fungus that had spread and bested the other bulbs around him. She knew she had to save him. He wasn’t safe in this diseased place. He had trusted her with his well-being and she was duty bound to protect him against any malice.

She hurriedly scooped him up in his blankets. His warmth made her cry with gladness; knowing she was doing the only thing the universe (and her mother) would expect of her now.

Baby Hugo cooed lightly in his sleep. One balled fist moved to his face, tickling Paige’s neck. She felt a tingle of pure electric joy at his touch. If she had ever wondered why she was put on this earth, this was it. She herself had been planted in the soil and the manure of her life to rescue this helpless little flower before he succumbed to a pestilence that hunted all beautiful living things.

‘Come on baby’, she said to him, kissing his head as he slept in her arms. She moved quickly but as steadily as she could, trying not to wake him.

She got to her desk and put on her coat – one arm at a time while still holding him to her bosom. She bent with him carefully to lift her bag from the floor, his head touching her chin as she did so. Every contact between his skin and hers sent signals of love and trust between them.

She placed the bag on the desk and ever so delicately placed baby Hugo inside, closeted cosily with his light blue blankets padding it out safely. Snug as a bug, she thought. ‘There you go, little one’, she said down to the parcel of flowers, letting him hear her loving voice, letting him know the maternal sound of safety and protection that was here for him now. Would be here for him – always.


She did one last check around the ward, making sure she had her phone in her uniform pocket. Where the babies had laid was now a vacated stage after the final curtain had descended on the show. No actors remained. Only props and memories of the performance that had wowed, amazed and scared its audience.

She wouldn’t miss this place. She had everything she needed now. This was all she’d ever needed without her even knowing it. Paige had never known her mother, but this little one would know her. He wouldn’t have to look at chanced upon photographs, he wouldn’t have to wonder what she had been thinking in a snapshot moment of her life that he could never be a part of. He would now be a part of every moment of her life. He would be her life. And she would be there for him to protect him no matter what.

She made her way to the doors to leave the ward. Baby Hugo safe and warm in the bag. She would have to sign out though, she knew. She would have to pray that the baby would stay quiet as she stood with Jarrod looking on. Hopefully he would be just as wrapped up in his phone as earlier.

She zipped shut her bag, making soothing baby noises down to the baby as she pressed the green button to open the ward doors. They opened on automated hydraulics making swiiisssssss sounds as air was displaced. They seemed to take an age to open for her.

The security desk slowly revealed itself as the doors sweeped opened. She was in luck… The desk was deserted and Jarrod was nowhere to be seen.

It’s meant to be, she thought to herself. She looked down at the bag where Hugo was asleep inside, and made to hurry away from the ward and out of the hospital. She passed the desk and saw the lifts to her right. The safety of escape just a few yards away, she made for them to get to the ground floor.

‘Errr, nurse Warner. Aren’t you forgettin’ something?’

Shit, she thought as Jarrod appeared – calling out from behind her. He must have been in the toilets next to his desk.

‘I’m sorry?’, she replied, turning reluctantly round to face him, trying to sound innocent of any wrongdoing but feeling anything but.

‘You need to sign out nurse, you know that’, he said as he motioned her back to his desk and the log sheet. He held the pen up for her. There was no question that she had to follow protocol. He now seemed as focused and efficient as the King’s Guard, no quick escape for her just yet.

‘Oh… Yes… Course’, she said in a staccato fumble of words. How could her mouth be so dry? Where was her saliva when she needed it?

She wandered back over to the security station, glancing at the lift for a second. She placed her bag and Hugo down on the floor beside her feet – praying that now wouldn’t be the time he chose to wake or cry in his sleep. But he was a good baby. He wouldn’t let her down now. He wouldn’t put his trust in her and then betray her at the last second.

‘Everythin’ alright nurse?’

‘Yes Jarrod, of course. Everything’s fine’, she replied, looking down at the bag while she signed her name noted the time.

‘Ah, OK. It’s just that, it’s still quite early. And the babies…’, he said, motioning to the ward with his head; his eyes looking inquisitive and uncertain.

‘Oh no, it’s fine Jarrod. I’m not leaving. It’s just… I have to pop down to my car for a minute… I’ve forgotten my phone so…’, she said, the best thing her mind could come up with in the moment.

‘But, the babies nurse’.

‘It’s fine Jarrod. I’ll be one minute. I’ll be back before you know it… Honestly’, she said, looking him in the eye, sounding sincere. She touched the back of his hand as she spoke to reassure him even more. The touch of her tiny hand on the back of his goliath one seemed to placate him. He looked almost hypnotised as she spoke to him in a direct but soothing way. How could she be lying when she spoke to him like this? Making eye contact; like he was a baby.

‘Erm, OK nurse. I’ll just be here anyway’.

‘Okie-cokie’, she said while bending to collect her bag and baby Hugo. He’d been a good boy – just as she knew he would.

‘Oh, and I’m glad your knee’s feeling better Jarrod, I really am’.

‘Thanks nurse!’

Jarrod sounded genuinely grateful for that, she thought. And she was glad to know that she meant it too. Feeling pleased with herself for the first time, possibly, in her adult life, as she made for the lift.


Paige had earlier had a Google notification that British Summer Time was coming to an end this week. She now felt it too for the first time.

A slow but constant sheet of drizzle was falling onto her face; soaking her hair, running into her eyes, diluting the tears that she felt sure must be there; chased down her face by the rain. A light breeze with a bite of chill behind it pinched at her hands. Why did the British summer never last long enough? The roses and the flowers could be thinking the very same thing, she thought as she dug with her hands.

She found a meditative peace while she scooped away the dirt, some of it nice and loose, other parts battling back against her hands and fingernails. Her hands screamed in pain from the task, but she didn’t mind that, she’d endured far worse. Her hands had seen much more horror and torment in her life than a stab from the cold earth could give.

She’d survived life with her father. She’d suffered a life with no mother. Now both were gone, but she liked to think that her mother had always been looking out for her, proud of what she had become. Paige had dedicated her adult life to the little ones – those flowers most in need of her tending and pruning. She was sure that’s what her mother would have wanted her to do. She’d not had the chance to raise Paige herself, but through no fault of her own. The pestilence of cancer had laid a deadly hand upon her breast. And now, a pestilence had laid a deadly hand once more on the petals of Paige’s little blessed flower – Hugo. It had laid siege to her salvaged golden rose, and had taken him from her now too, transforming his petals from golden yellow and into a solemn haemorrhaged purple-blue.

A fungused plight had got its claws into him and suffocated the air and the warmth of life from him while he was in her bag. He would never now get the chance to bloom or show off his radiant elegance to the world.

Paige knew this was always a danger with all precious perennials. If she had been charged with his care totally as soon as he was born, she felt sure she could have prevented the disease from ever having had the chance to darken his foliage. She would have dedicated every breathing moment to making sure he grew strong and safe.

She had done her best in the time she’d had – she knew that. Her mother would know it too. And now, she had the perfect spot picked out for him. Not near her father, god forbid. He was over by the shed in the neglected corner of the garden where she kept her compost bin and garden tools. Even that was more than he deserved.

No… Hugo; her golden treasure, would be laid pride of place amongst her other Floribunda and Grandifloras. With her able to look down upon him every morning when the sun shone in through her bedroom window, blessing them both in its holy glow.

Credit: Damien Exton

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