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Linda, Toby and Robert Burgess
Linda, Toby and Robert Burgess

BooksSeptember 26, 2018

Toby: an essay by Linda Burgess

Linda, Toby and Robert Burgess
Linda, Toby and Robert Burgess

Content note: this essay may be distressing for some readers.

Years later I read that fighting with your partner while pregnant can cause the foetus life-threatening stress. I remember Fiji, where Robert doesn’t notice that he’s used a $US100 note to buy something. American notes all look the same and he thinks it’s a single dollar.

I rant and scream. I taunt and blame. I am seven months pregnant and I’m going to live on the other side of the world, where almost nobody I know lives, in a country where almost no one speaks my language. My mother has just learnt she has angina. We’re in a small crummy motel and he’s just given some opportunistic person selling – what? A taxi ride? A sandwich? – $100.

He’s going through his wallet, and he realises what he’s done. He’s reluctant to tell me.

I want to kill him.

At the airport the next day, a man, old, middle-aged, in a Hawaiian shirt, as plump round the middle as I am, sidles up to me, comes too close, and says, So you’re having a baby? You don’t look old enough he says, and around me people shift uncomfortably.

1973. They’re constantly on about cot death. They say, You must sleep your baby on its front. You must not smoke. You must breast feed. We conscientiously buy a special sheepskin rug to take to the other side of the world.

Two days after Christmas, two and a half weeks before the baby’s due, I have what I know is called A Show. Robert says he’ll go and tell the team he can’t be there for practice but he tells Lyn, whose husband Ron is also playing for the LOU, that something is happening and she arrives at my door just as my waters break. Her two little boys are revolted.

I’m in a private clinic, paid for by the rugby club. Toby arrives quickly. He’s 3 kg, a good weight, and perfect. It’s winter so you leave your champagne chilling on the windowsill outside. I share a room with Monique. Minutes after birth all she wants to do is her makeup. I just want to shower. To wash my hair. They give me a bread roll and white coffee for breakfast. I want a glass of milk. They’ve never heard of a grownup wanting cold milk. Lunch is something I’ve never seen before. Artichoke. I try to chew the leaves but they taste like tough plastic. Then I watch Monique and she’s pulling the flesh through her teeth.

We have a bald baby. Monique’s little boy has a full head of black hair and the nurses bring him in and they are giggling because they’ve given him a centre part.

Toby is crying and I take him into bed with me. The nurse says, he’s not a doll. Robert visits and I want him in bed with me. He climbs in.

The nurse looks at me, at my body, and says, Hmm… Work! Beaucoup de travail.

I want to breastfeed. The matter-of-fact nurses say, times have changed. Nature has invented biberons! Bottles! Now, women’s milk is water! You have no milk, they say. C’est normal! Beside my bed I have The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. It is so American, in a Californian type of way. I think, I’ll just wait.

I try to ring Robert but I have to go through the clinic’s exchange and my French isn’t good enough. Their phone numbers are different. Ninety six isn’t nine six it’s quatre vingt seize. Eighty sixteen – no, four twenty sixteen. I say chiffre par chiffre? Number by number? Can’t you speak French? the woman on the exchange says irritably. I’m English I say, because saying I’m a New Zealander just adds to the complication.

I’m so sick of looking ignorant that I write it all down. In French. I have university level French, for what it’s worth. They’re impressed, cluster round to read it, and they read my requests for milk and more breakfast and whatever else it is that I felt that I need at the time. I can write French, and if it comes down to it I can probably use the subjunctive. Their attitude changes.

They’re going to give me a lesson on how to bathe him. Just as we get his clothes off someone says there’s a phone call for me so I go to answer it. When I come back the bath has already happened. It hasn’t occurred to me that they won’t wait.

We take Toby home. Robert signs off our – the rugby club’s – responsibility to the clinic while I get into the bright yellow VW Beetle with denim seats that a sponsor of the rugby club has lent us. For their photo in the paper, passing the key to Robert. There’s just the two of us. Where’s Toby? I say and we realise that each has thought the other has him and we’ve left him in his little basket at the clinic’s desk. We run back and get him. This is something we will tell him, we laugh, when he’s grownup. We left you! At the clinic!

He is so bright eyed. Another LOU player’s wife brings her baby to visit while our husbands are away playing rugby and hers is such a pudding. He lies blandly on our sofa, a round flat face and a combover. Toby looks at us as if he knows the way the world is and I think, my baby is so aware.

Bruno is the team’s doctor. He’s an ear nose and throat specialist and sexy in a particularly French way. He is married to Chantal, who has red hair, who is little and runs everywhere, if she’s not driving a Fiat Uno with her feet barely touching the pedals. When she fell in love with Bruno, she was told by his father – same job as Bruno – that a man in his position needs to marry a nurse, who will understand his work. So she trains as a nurse. They have two beautiful children. French children often have thick-lashed dark eyes. They have eyebrows. And they wear classically stylish clothes. Navy. Bottle green. Tartan. Chantal is so kind and she has a strong sense of duty, and even though she has had an awful virus she is worried that I feel lonely and she comes to see me.

I vomit. My bowels open. At the same time. I marvel that I have married a man who will clean up after me. If Toby gets this, I say, it will kill him.

Toby is not quite 11 weeks old.


I’m a bit better. Toby’s fractious so I feed him, then give him some top-up from a bottle, then, because he still seems hungry, some squeezed orange juice. I just want him to sleep.

I’m feeling better enough to need company and Robert’s at Language School so I put Toby in his basket, on his tummy, on his sheepskin, and take him to visit Ron and Lyn, our New Zealand friends in the next apartment block. We put Toby in his bed on their bed. He cries briefly then settles. I’m there for an hour or so and then I go to get him and Ron, Lyn and I look down at him in his basket, and as I say, You can see, can’t you, why when babies are asleep people think they’re dead, Lyn, a trained nurse, is already reaching in, pulling him out, breathing, breathing, breathing into his mouth, pushing on his tiny chest. Ron’s fetched Robert and Robert takes over the breathing then the firemen are there and Toby goes off with them in their fire engine.

When he’s grown up we could tell him, You went in a fire engine!

There’s a tiny white coffin and the other wives weep and wail and howl and I think, sort of amazed, you didn’t even know him.

The rugby club commences the organisation of a move from our flat in the depressing suburbs into a much nicer one in the heart of the city. I’ve been sick, I think, and they’ll see that our flat is a tip. Meanwhile, we stay with Bruno and Chantal and at dinner something makes me laugh and Bruno leans over and puts his hand on mine and says to me that I will survive because I can laugh. His father, whom he had adored and emulated, even copying his career, had the year before been killed in a car crash on the autoroute, driving at 160kph. He was 57. He was my world, says Bruno, but I have survived.

But he wasn’t your baby, I think, and I think, is it wrong at a moment like this to fancy someone as seriously as I fancy Bruno?

Bruno and Linda

They organise a local English vicar to speak quietly to us. Robert, whose father is an elder in the Presbyterian church, impressively knows what to say. I want to say, I don’t believe in any of this shit. But I find myself saying, Please, he wasn’t christened – does this mean…?

Bernard Labeyrie, a winger in the team, a year or two younger than us, a brilliant young man who has just graduated from the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique in Paris says, I will take you to my parents. My mother will look after you.

We drive the yellow Beetle down through the Rhone Valley and across the bottom of France to a tiny village near the Pyrenees. Sorde de l’Abbaye. Bernard’s father had been set to go to university to do Maths but it’s 1939 and the situation changes. Instead he returns to his father’s plot of land, which is just like the ones we used to write about in our French Life and Customs cahier in 4th form French. It is just a few – very few – acres, stretching in a long narrow field behind their house. They are effectively subsistence farmers and going out with Bernard’s mother to watch her force feed geese to make foie gras is like being in a subtitled movie. Ram ram RAM she goes. The geese seem resigned but I watch it only the once.

Bernard’s dad is keen to discuss agriculture with Robert. He can’t believe that New Zealand hasn’t patented the name “kiwifruit”. We can grow them here and use the same name, he says, with a bemused shake of his head.

A neighbour pops in to meet us. The All Black! Her neighbour’s son has a friend who’s an All Black! Do you have any children? she asks and that is impossible to answer and Bernard changes the subject.

Bernard has two brothers and a sister and his mother’s mother lives with them too. She wears a dusty black frock. Her job is to wait on the family. So there are nine of us around the table and Bernard’s father is at the head, we are at either side of him, and Mamie, the granny, is at the kitchen end. She’s pretty silent. She gets up and down removing our plates. Three of us have wine glasses. The young drink lemonade. Bernard’s mother and grandmother drink water.

They are all so proud of their Bernard who is so clever. The one daughter, who has given up her bedroom to us, carries photos of all her brothers in her wallet. One of the brothers is lost to my memory now, but the other is Jacques, who is studying engineering at Bordeaux, but who loves literature. My milk has finally dried up. I am susceptible to falling in love and so is he. Some men love sad, damaged women. Books! we say. Books!

There is a game called Mastermind. We play it. They hide four coloured pegs – out of eight possible colours – behind a little bar at their end of the board. You, the code breaker, choose four pegs and place them at your end of the board. They judge your choice against theirs. Wrong colour. Right colour, right place. Right colour, wrong place. I look at Bernard’s sister, in her last year at high school, who has hidden her pegs, and she is so fresh, so sweet, that I think, green then white then green then white. I put them in. She moves the piece that hides her choice. How did you know that? She says. How did you know that?

Bernard’s mother’s mother is humble, but his father’s mother is very different. She is one of three.

One of them has married a diplomat. One has married a Parisienne jeweller. And one has married Bernard’s father’s father, the subsistence farmer.

He has an extraordinarily merry face. His wife wears the soft cotton pinafore worn by working class women. She has a fine face, haughty eyebrows, beautifully delineated brown eyes, and Robert takes their photo, and the grandfather wears a beret and his eyes twinkle, mocking what he could have been, and her eyes stare boldly. Don’t underestimate us.

Bernard Labeyrie’s grandparents

One of Bernard’s great aunts invites us to lunch. Bernard has told her about Toby, so there are no awkward questions.

There will be so much kindness: no one can make it better, but people are desperate to try. Months earlier I have taught the worst, the wildest, 4th form at Palmerston North Girls’ High. Now they send a card and they have carefully copied ‘with deepest sympathy’ from the front of it and every one of them has signed it. Our friends from home, so many with babies of their own, write letters burdened with guilt for their good fortune.

But there will also be awkwardness. A friend of Robert’s mother sends her sympathy, but she has an aerogramme to fill and being averse to waste she spends two pages chatting on about bowls and their new carpet. The friend of a friend visits us in Lyon three months later and she’s into New Age and she says that sometimes babies just know they’ve been born into the wrong family, and they choose to die. A university friend comes to visit six weeks later and as we walk though the streets of Lyon and I talk and talk about Toby, he says, quite kindly, You’re obsessed. Years later, with children of his own, he’s full of remorse. And about the same time, as we wander aimlessly through spring into summer, we go to spend time with New Zealand friends, and he is playing rugby in the south of France and they take us out for the evening and all night his Basque team-mates sing and dance and I feel that most amazing thing: happiness. And I say so in the car on the way home. I say, I feel happy. And I say, wonderingly, I feel guilty being happy. And he says, Jesus CHRIST woman, if you’re going to feel like THAT…

I don’t want this. I don’t want sadness. I don’t want pity. I want normal. Please, normal. All the time, we look after each other. We respectfully balance the grief: my turn. Your turn. It is because of this, I think, that 45 years later we are still together.

Bernard takes us to Biarritz with its wild seashore and glamorous reputation and we meet his stylish great aunt, the one who was married to a Parisienne jeweller. Simultaneously gracious and distant, she is so careful with us and she takes us to a seafood restaurant with white table cloths and dark red drapes and wine in a bucket and a spectacular view of the sea and I have fish soup and it is unimaginably flavoursome.

Cuddle me. Don’t touch me. Talk to me. Shush.

It is Bernard’s mother, an old-fashioned home cook, round and practical, who somehow just knows what to do. Every day that week we have soup, and we have meat tender in its sauces. We have fowl and rabbit and lamb and beef. We have pasta and rice and potatoes. We have simple green salads. We have taste, we have texture, we have flavour. We have cheese. We have fruit, we have pudding. We sit at the top end of the table on either side of Bernard’s father and he pours us red wine and the grandmother comes soundlessly up and takes away our plates. Slowly, slowly, slowly, something inside me is a little less broken. Bernard’s mother feeds me. Feeds me. Feeds me.

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