The Red Shoes
I watch out of the Clinic window as Mrs. Morris bumps her pram down the wide step. Her head scarf
catches in the wind, whipping up and exposing her pale neck. She reaches down automatically for her
toddler’s hand as she prepares to cross the busy high street.
I can feel my hair sliding out of its bun, and I skewer it roughly back in place. My shoulder always aches
these days. So many babies delivered in awkward places, so much time spent creeping round cramped
rooms, and kneeling over low beds. Some days it feels as though everything aches.
When Mrs. Morris reaches the far side of the road, she crouches suddenly, and I watch her re-fasten young
Daniel’s shoelace. He holds out his foot in its second hand boot, worn through and cracked. How do they
manage? Three already and another on the way. “He’s good to me,” she said of her husband. But her
eyes weren’t saying the same thing.
I send my Pupil Midwife, Julia, out to call the next lady, and bend down to massage my calves. My thick
stockings make my legs itch even on a cold late winter day like this.
“Mrs. Hennessy,” announces my pupil portentously. Apparently she yearned for drama school and took
midwifery as second best. I look briefly at her spidery mascara and her teased up hair. I can well believe it.
Mrs. Hennessy slips off her mac and sits down quietly. It’s her first baby. Her wedding band looks almost
too heavy for her pale finger. There are two streaks of darker fabric on her dress where she has let out the
darts to give herself more room. Even so, as she twists towards me, the side seams pull. I smile at her
and ask Julia to take her blood pressure.
I flick through Mrs. Hennessey’s notes. Born in 1939, just as War broke out, she is barely 21. When I was
21, I watched a woman die in childbirth for the first time. Her name was Mrs. Henderson and she never
spoke a single word to me. I held her baby while she died. I was only really a girl then. Mrs. Hennessey has
chosen another way to grow up. Once upon a time, she was called Marigold Fryer. I delivered her and her
sisters, Violet and Rose. Mrs. Fryer fancied herself as a gardener. I wonder suddenly who she was before
she was Mrs. Fryer. Her daughters are all Mrs. somebody now — she was so proud to see them all happily
married before she died.
Mrs. Hennessey fiddles with her wedding ring as Julia pulls off the blood pressure cuff, and then she leans
forward suddenly as Julia is fiddling with the notes. She asks me if she might have a hospital confinement.
Her husband is in the Army and she has only an auntie near by.
“We’ll see,” I say. “I’ll make the application.”
Julia motions her to the couch, and leaves her to undress behind the screen. While she waits for Mrs.
Hennessey to get ready, she fusses with her hair in the tiny mirror above the sink. Sometimes I could slap
When Mrs. Hennessey has undressed, her skin paler than her worn bra and slip, I move behind the screen
and run my hands across her belly. It heaves beneath my touch. She smiles up at me, “He moves such a
And I smile back, “It feels a good strong kick, and a nice size.”
She nods as well as she can, laid flat on her back in her best underwear. I stand back to let my Pupil
practice her palpation. Her fingernails are really too long for this work — I will need to speak to her about it
when we have a moment.
I wash my hands whilst Mrs. Hennessey re-dresses. I ask Julia to weigh her and go back to my desk. My
head is beginning to ache with a heavy insistence. On the street outside, the lamps begin to flick on.
Sometimes it feels as though winter will never end. I let my head drop briefly into my hand.
At last Mrs. Hennessey shuffles slowly out from behind the screen. Her left hand holds her mac carefully
closed and her wedding ring flashes briefly in the glow of my desk lamp. Her baby will be born in the
summer, when the heat makes the tarmac shimmer and the rose bay willow herb dances in the verges. The
baby will spend each day outside in its pram until the sky darkens to autumn. I remind Mrs. Hennessey to
make an appointment to return in four week’s time, and she nods, a smile crossing her pale face.
Julia lets the door slam shut behind her as she goes to fetch our last patient. I want to kick off my shoes
and warm my feet in front of the fire at home. But I’m on-call tonight, waiting, half-alert for a bang on the
door and a slip-slither in the ice to somebody’s house. I wonder how much of my life I have sat waiting in
other people’s houses. The drama of the birth, the heart-stopping moment as we wait for the first breath,
the relief as the after-birth slides out unresisting. It’s all there, annotated in the birth registers stacked up
on my little bureau. But the waiting, the long moments that don’t get recorded, they are the bits that stay
in my mind. The clock ticking, and maybe the fire crackling. Some women are terrified, some are resigned,
others are powerful. But for me, the waiting is always the same.
I run my finger down the list of names in my appointment book. The pregnancy is just another part of the
game. On clinic days I see an endless procession of women, trapped in hope and resignation. They sit
quietly on the wooden chairs, swathed in macs and scarves, and they wait. And after the babies are born, I
see them in the park, at the laundrette, or in the queue for the butchers and they are waiting still. I
suppose it’s only fair, that whilst they are in labour, someone else waits for them.
“Mrs. Tyler,” Julia intones, waving the woman vaguely to the seat next to my desk, like an usherette at the
cinema. Mrs. Tyler sits down carefully on the flimsy wooden chair. She crosses her legs demurely at the
ankle and I wonder what made her wear red stiletto shoes to see the midwife. Winkle-pickers, they call
them. They look new, still with a fierce bright sheen. Mrs. Tyler’s cheeks are pink, two pin-pricks of fever.
I shuffle my papers and she waits. She came in last Thursday to take a pregnancy test and she has
returned today for the result. I assume she knows the answer already. Most women do. Her eyes do not
meet mine. She keeps her gloves on, and her grey coat pulled tightly around her slender frame.
“Well,” I say. “You’re certainly pregnant, an autumn baby judging by the dates you gave me, Mrs. Tyler..."
All our ladies are addressed as “Mrs.”, as though being pregnant alone confers that honour. Never mind
rings and dresses, tea sets, and honeymoons in Scarborough. You lived your life before all that. I know
that Mrs. Tyler’s finger is bare under her gloves. I look at her, sat so tidily on the spindly wooden chair.
She’s got a trim figure on her — she should be fine until June for a wedding if she is careful with the fabric
I pull a record card towards me and Mrs. Tyler — Joyce — finally looks up. Her eyes are blank. I put the
card down. Suddenly I know that she will do everything in her power to make sure that I don’t see her
again. She won’t play the waiting game. I wonder if she has lost her fella, or whether she never really had
him. She clicks her stilettos on the tiled floor. I’ve heard all the solutions; gin and hot baths, getting your
man to thump you in the belly, pills advertised as safe and effective and taken by the bucket load. And if all
that fails, there are the women, discrete and silent, who will do the deed.
I look back at her, her eyes as grey as the wool of her coat, her cheeks as red as her fancy shoes. Last
week when she came, her eyes still sparkled, and she was almost giggling for shame and shock. Today her
eyes look dead, as though she has seen her life ebb away. The things we do.
“I’ll take your blood pressure,” I hear myself say, “and we’ll need to see you again in four weeks time…”
I pause and she whispers, “I see.”
When she stands up, she belts her coat tightly around her narrow waist. I adjust my hat, catching my
finger on the badge that declares boldly that I am one of the Corporation’s midwives. Mrs Tyler says,
“Thank you,” in a quiet voice. I know that I will not see her here next month. I know that, in her bright red
heels, she will do everything in her power to become Miss Tyler again.
* * *
That night, sitting in my chair, half-alert for a call-out, I dream of Mrs. Henderson. I hear the blood
splashing onto the wooden floor as I see her face, as grey as Mrs. Tyler’s coat. I put my hand to my face
to push my hair away, and realise that the damp streak across my face is blood. I want to scream, but no
sound comes out. There is blood on my skirt and my shoes.
I wake up, my heart pounding. I can still see her face. She was dead before the doctor arrived — her
pulse, weak and thready, simply disappeared. She never opened her eyes and I never heard her speak.
The baby mewled in the corner, and the midwife under whose instruction I was working told me to take it to
a neighbour and make sure I was well-covered in my coat before I went home. Outside it was drizzling and
I splashed through the puddles to try to get the blood off my shoes.
E.S. Parkinson is a writer and historian, interested in, and inspired by, the lives of ‘ordinary’ women. She
has worked as a social historian and as a midwife, and these roles impact on everything she writes, in direct
and indirect ways. She is fascinated by people’s stories; their ways of making sense of their world and their
ways of getting through. She likes cricket, and tea, and old books about cooking and housecraft. She lives
in Nottingham, UK with her partner and teenage children.