Nell Frizzell trades in the London heatwave for cooling east Kent waters. With pictures by Nick Stanton.
Until you have stood, five months pregnant, in a fire yellow vest, on a paddle board, under a 35℃ midday London sun, I’m not sure you’ve ever been really hot. I mean, sure, you’ve been warm, you’ve sweated, you’ve thought idly about peeling off all your skin to let the breeze blow through your ribs. But, I wonder, were you truly hot?
Friends, I was that hot. This month, as I paddled across the brown velvet of a pond in Hampstead Heath, plashing with the slippery bodies of over 100 women, trying to spot who among the liquid figures might be suffering from cramp, I felt hot for the first time in my life. The hidden engine of blood, bones and heartbeats that slipped into my uterus on a night train back from Cornwall this year (I suspect) has made me appreciate heat for the first time in my life. I have become a human incubator. Just as back in my nursery days, aged three, I turned the heated nestbox of duck eggs scored with noughts and crosses each morning until they hatched, so I am warming an egg into life. Only this time I’m doing it 10cm below my navel and can’t skip off at lunchtime to eat cheese and cress sandwiches in the sandpit.
Being pregnant in a heatwave sounds like a lot of fun, I know. Being pregnant, as a lifeguard, standing on a concrete deck overlooking a lily-fringed watery idyll for three days in 30℃ and higher, might sound fun. Waiting with baited breath for someone to dive so badly into the water beneath you that a few droplets might splash your swollen belly and wet your gently frying toes probably sounds loads of fun. And it was fun. But it was exhausting too.
And so this Friday, as the weather broke, I decided to flee from London like an eel. I was taking this baby, this invisible, unknowable rumour of heartbreaking love beneath my skin, and plopping it into the sea. The hum of panic that I had done irreparable damage to its tiny body by effectively boiling myself by a pond for three days would, hopefully, ebb away as I swum out to the horizon. We would both be, temporarily, hung suspended in a warm, salty wash of water. We would have a swim; one in the English Channel, the other in my womb. I’d finished work at 3pm, my partner had the afternoon off, and so we decided to turn our wheels to the edge of the map once more to swim and eat chips at the seaside.
As our train pulled through the flat Kent countryside, cows chewed like 4am ravers out on the cud, swans scuttered over riverbanks like a stag do at kicking out time and windmills turned slowly in the grey distance. I looked across my mercifully cool headrest at my boyfriend’s forehead, at the hairs turning autumn red in the summer sun, and wondered for about the twenty third time what our child might look like. Would it inherit my soft chin, his hard shoulders? Would its feet sink into river silt and its arms ever gather wood? Would it walk with his turned out feet or bounce on its toes like me? It had already been up Snowdon – what other mountains might it climb? What other rain might it lick off its cheek and mud might it flick up its heels?
Broadstairs is just an hour and twenty minutes from St Pancras by the fast train. It is, by far, the most beautiful town I have visited along that coast, with winding buildings overlooking a steep cove, a flat blue sea and a large man-made rockpool heaving with weed. I waded out to my waist through a miso soup of brown water, thick with seaweed, and wondered idly if this baby might churn about to the slap of the sea against my skin. It didn’t. Of course. But, rolling onto my back, the sky was hazy with mackerel cloud, Charles Dickens’ old house looked down at me from a small headland and I managed at last to find some quiet from the worry that I had somehow, unknowingly, unwittingly, harmed my baby. It was probably fine. I was fine. And we were all having chips for tea.
I’m not a mother yet. I have not yet produced a baby. But I am swimming through a process as old a humankind itself; as natural as breathing, I’m told. As long as I can hold onto this small collection of cells and vessels and skin growing in my body – as long as I can just keep on keeping on, then one day I will produce my very own Outsider, from my Insides. As Dickens supposedly said on his deathbed, “Be natural my children. For the writer that is natural has fulfilled all the rules of art.” And I am trying my best to fulfil the rules of nature.