Chapter Fourteen

The atmosphere in the university accommodation block was by turn tense and expectant. Those survivors who had chosen to emerge from their rooms had gathered in the assembly hall where they sat in silence and waited pensively for something - anything - to happen. It was impossible for any of them to rest or sleep most of the time but tonight it was particularly difficult. Deep in the bowels of the building Sonya Farley was reaching the final stages of a long and painful labour. Her pain could be heard and felt in every corner of every otherwise silent room. The makeshift delivery room upstairs was brightly lit. Bright, that was, in comparison with the rest of the dark building. Several survivors had willingly given up torches and other lights to allow Phil Croft - the only person with any relevant medical experience - to deliver Sonya's baby. He was nervous and apprehensive. He hadn't done this for a while and this was only the third delivery that he'd been actively involved in.

Paulette, the large and remarkably bright and enthusiastic lady standing at his side, had been involved in three times as many. And more than half of those births had been her own children. Croft was pleased to have her around. Having been in Sonya's unenviable position on no less than five occasions, she was essential to the first time mother-to-be's wellbeing tonight. Although Croft knew all the technical terms and he could monitor and react to mother and baby's vital signs, Paulette was able to do something far more important. She could reassure her. She could talk to Sonya. She could tell her when to push and when to relax, when to breathe in and when to breathe out. She could understand, anticipate and explain the pain and tell her how well she was doing and how much more she had left to do. Croft admired her ability to somehow shut out her own personal fear and loss and ignore the devastation beyond the university walls to allow her to concentrate on the young girl lying in nervous agony on the sweat-soaked bed next to her. 'Come on, lover,' she said softly, gently stroking Sonya's forehead and at the same time gripping her hand tightly.

'You've not got long left to go now. We'll have this baby born within the hour.' Sonya's face screwed up in pain as another contraction peaked. Croft crouched at the end of the bed, feeling momentarily redundant and helpless and wishing that he could have used some of the monitoring equipment and painrelieving drugs sitting silent and useless in the nearby hospital. He administered what medicines he could, but they had little effect. Sonya was fully dilated. He could see the first whisps of greasy dark hair on the top of the baby's head. 'Nearly there,' he said quietly. Sonya relaxed momentarily as the pain faded away. Apart from the expected agony and emotion of childbirth she felt surprisingly calm.

This was just how the midwife had said it would be during the pre-natal classes she'd attended. Even though it hurt more than any pain she'd ever felt before, it somehow felt good. It was positive pain, and she knew it was right. Nothing in what remained of her life made sense anymore except this. Her husband was gone. Her friends and family were dead. She had lost her home and possessions and she had nothing left except the precious little person inside her who was about to be born. And it felt so right. For the first time since the nightmare had begun something was happening as it was supposed to. Another sharp contraction. They were becoming unbearable. Sonya screamed out in agony and squeezed Paulette's hand so tightly that the other woman winced in pain. 'Come on,' she soothed, crouching lower so that her face was close to Sonya's. 'Baby's ready to come now.'

Fifty-five minutes later and the moment had arrived. Sonya's incredible pain again built to an almost unbearable crescendo before being dramatically relieved as her baby was delivered in a sudden release of pressure and a rush of activity and emotion. Croft guided the child safely down onto the bed between its mother's ankles and gently wiped blood and other bodily fluids from its face. He clamped and cut the cord and then quickly whisked the baby away to the makeshift crib they'd prepared. His face was a picture of intense concentration as he checked the baby's vital signs and waited anxiously for it to respond. The silence was deafening. 'You did it, lover,' whispered Paulette, kissing the top of Sonya's sweatsoaked head. Sonya watched with unexpected nervousness as Croft worked on her child. When she'd first fallen pregnant she remembered her mother telling her that this was the worst part - the wait for the baby to realise it had been born and to start to breathe and react for itself. She'd tried to prepare herself but it was impossible. Every long second of silence felt like hours. Then it happened. A sudden, shrill and piercing cry of surprise and realisation from the child in the crib. Croft glanced across at Sonya and smiled. 'Perfect little baby girl,' he said.

'Well done.' For a few blissful moments nothing else mattered. With huge, saucer eyes filled with tears of joy and relief, Sonya watched as the doctor wrapped her little baby in a soft blanket and carried her across the room. Ignoring the pain and discomfort she felt, she sat up and took the little bundle from him. Shutting out the rest of the world, she stared down into a beautiful, wrinkled, blotchy blue-pink face. She stroked the baby's cheek with a single gentle finger and revelled in the warmth, movement and noise that the little girl had innocently brought to her otherwise lifeless world. 'What are you going to call her?' asked Paulette, peering over the mother's shoulder. 'Don't know,' Sonya replied quietly. 'We had a few ideas for names but we hadn't settled on anything for definite.' 'Take your time and get it right. I always said it was easier to give them a name once you knew what they looked like. Until then you...'

Paulette suddenly stopped talking. The baby had stopped crying. The room was quiet. The three adults in the room exchanged nervous glances. Both women looked to Croft for an explanation. When he remained silent Sonya looked down and gave her little girl's hand a gentle squeeze. Nothing. And then the baby opened its mouth wide and let out a sudden, rasping cry. The cry turned into a helpless splutter. Then another cough. Then another and another until the high-pitched coughing had become a constant scream of innocent, helpless agony. Sonya held her daughter close to her breast, desperate to help but knowing that there was nothing she could do. Croft tried to help and take the baby from her but she wouldn't let go. They knew what was happening. The deadly contagion still hung heavy in the air. Just minutes after being born the baby was dead.

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