She would never say where she came from/ And yesterday don’t matter if it’s gone/ And while the sun is bright / Or in the darkest night no one knows/ She comes and goes/ Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday/ Who could hang a name on you?/ When you change with every new day/ Still I’m gonna miss you
Ruby is Afric’s daughter, and this is Afric’s story. She didn’t know her baby was a girl until the Friday she had the scan, 23 weeks into her pregnancy. She and Luke didn’t want to know. They’d agreed to wait for the surprise, and not even discuss names until then. But sometimes Afric talked to her inner companion, addressing her bump as “baby”.
Luke was away on business that Friday. Mary, the sonographer conducting the scan, was taking a long time at it. She tried again and again to find the back of baby’s brain on the screen. Finally she told Afric it just wasn’t there. The medical term is absent cerebellum, Mary said.
She wrote it on notepaper for Afric, and urged her to go home, rest, and come back to see the specialist consultant that afternoon.
Driving home Afric turned on the radio. Mick Jagger was singing, a song she knew but couldn't name. She switched off to talk to baby about the scan.
“Mary is a silly, silly woman . . . do you know, baby, Mary needs to go to Specsavers – I’d say she needs glasses.” For a while Afric distracted herself composing a script for the ad.
The specialist consultant was straightforward. Mary's diagnosis was correct. The baby was a girl, he told Afric, a girl with a strong heartbeat, and a foetal abnormality that was fatal.
A test would be required of course, amniocentesis. But he had no doubts. There was a ritual expression for this girl's condition: "incompatible with life, Afric."
The bump was never “baby” again. Afric often called her “angel”, but that was an endearment, and later perhaps a hope and wish, but not a name.
It wasn't until after she'd heard the song again – the radio station was celebrating the Rolling Stones that weekend – that Afric knew she had a name she could hang on her baby: Ruby, who had come and would go.
She made the decision and began the journey, overwhelming grief with love, imagination, fantasy, and sometimes a desperate touch of humour. When she rang the hospital in Liverpool on Saturday and was assured there was an "Irish package" available, Afric wondered if she'd phoned the wrong number and got through to a plastic-surgery clinic.
She’d seen those ads in the English papers urging Irish women to come over and “get a whole new you”.
She had one last chore to do before she packed. Ruby needed an outfit. She searched the shop to find the smallest babygro and baby hat.
Tales of younger days
On Sunday Afric decided to drive around Dublin before the flight, to point out favourite places and tell Ruby tales of her younger days, of escapades on holidays, stories about Luke and herself, how they'd met, how they loved swimming, why he worked so hard. Luke was a bit insecure, Afric said.
He was also inclined to take sadness very badly, which is why she was not yet going to tell him that she and Ruby were on their way to the Merseyside Women’s Hospital.
Jane, who had arranged everything on the phone, met them in the hospital’s Foetal Unit department. Jane liked Afric’s name. All the nurses loved the Irish names, she said. Jane liked Ruby’s name too. A kind woman, Afric thought. More kind people were to come – at one point Afric mused on the possibility that the hospital had a factory somewhere churning them out.
Monday was a long and quiet day. Afric was still talking, explaining why they are there: “Ruby, it would be cruel for me to bring you into the world when you don’t have a brain. You could never have your own thoughts. You would never have your very own wishes and dreams.”
She'd brought her wedding picture to show to Ruby, identifying family members, telling family stories that Ruby would have heard in years to come if she'd been compatible with life.
My little angel
She talked of the future: ". . . You will always be with me, no matter where I am or what I am doing. My little angel will be with me but only in spirit. Ruby, you and I are going to do things a little differently: you're going to look after me instead of me looking after you. We're doing it the other way around-arseways, I suppose." Finally she took the tablets Jane gave her to induce labour.
Ruby was born on Tuesday morning, “delivered with the same care, dedication and dignity as all other babies – nothing different – except she was perfectly still when she came into the world.”
The kind lady present at the birth took a photo and greeted Ruby by name.
All that day of the last farewell, Afric held Ruby, swamped in the very small babygro and even more so in the cap, as Ruby had no back to her head. Jane visited to sing Ruby’s song; she’d printed out the lyrics.
On Wednesday Afric took the photo and went home to Dublin alone, to tell Luke, to succumb to the torturous nightmares the kind people had told her would come for a long time but would eventually fade away.
This tender and tragic novel is not about women’s choices and reproductive rights.
It is about a mother intent on creating an identity for her brain-dead child before she withdraws nature’s life support system, as is accepted medical practice in many humane jurisdictions.