Nightjar—Amy Stewart

Joanna couldn’t remember the first time seeing a pregnant woman felt painful. For a long while, they just weren’t relevant; she barely noticed them. When did each belly become pointed in its roundness? The thing with London was that they were everywhere; wearing their self-satisfied badges while waiting for the northern line to Balham, laid out on picnic blankets in Greenwich Park, cradling decaf cappuccinos in corner cafés. They felt deliberately, cruelly placed. She wouldn’t see any in Surrey, because she wouldn’t see anyone at all. 

Two weeks. Press pause. Start something.

The cottage was in worse shape than Joanna had expected. The toilet had a chain that felt a bit too loose when pulled, and she was convinced the roof was hiding a wasps’ nest. It would do, though, this run-down little cottage in the great green mess between Guildford and Godalming. She just needed a place to be safe. To wait. 

When she arrived, Joanna wandered from room to room with her coat still on. The cottage had a near-metallic damp smell and was poorly lit, full of dusty corners and cobwebs. Someone had made a half-hearted attempt to brush them away, but the thin, spongy centres remained. The window seat was admittedly lovely, looking out over a tangled garden fringed by conifers. There was a little shelf built into the seat, holding a predictable selection of inoffensive books: Danielle Steele, John Grisham, Tom Clancy. At the end of the row was a thin, battered hardback: Birds of Surrey. 

Joanna sat down and flipped through it. Out here, she would become the sort of woman who could identify a benign mushroom from a poisonous one, who foraged for wild garlic, who could tell birds apart by their calls. She looked at their little fat bellies and small eyes and read names at random. Firecrest. House Sparrow. Nightjar. 

Her stomach gargled. She hadn’t eaten since leaving Waterloo but she knew it was more than that. She rubbed her belly, fingertips tingling.  

If she was right, and she had conceived the night before, then the little cluster of cells could be forming right now. If she concentrated hard enough, she could feel it there, the fleshy stirring of something beginning. And when she really stopped to think, she did feel a little tired, didn’t she? Some women swore they felt symptoms from the day of conception, though you had to wait two weeks to get either your period, or a positive pregnancy test. She’d read it all on Mumsnet. 

She wouldn’t be checking Mumsnet anymore. It was a promise she’d made to herself. It had almost felt like an acceptable thing until Nell had seen it all open there on her browser; had looked at Joanna as though she’d taken a particularly bad joke too far. 

“You need to stop it, Jo.”

“It’s nothing,” she’d lied, shutting the laptop. 

It was starting to get dark, and Joanna hadn’t thought about food. According to her phone, the nearest shop was a two-mile walk away. She settled instead for the remainders of her train lunch: a bag of Quavers and half of an egg and cress sandwich from M&S. After brushing the Quavers dust onto her jeans, she pulled on her jacket and trainers to get some fresh air. 

The cottage stood alone on the lip of a dense woodland. There was just enough light for Joanna to navigate easily through it – she didn’t think about the journey back – in the direction of the heathland that rose up and down beyond, like something melted. The heather underneath her feet was purple as a bruise. Out on the heath, clouds stretched across the sky like frayed seams. Joanna didn’t know where she wanted to walk, but just kept striding over the heath, relishing the way the cold, sharp air made the shape of her lungs feel defined. She stopped when she reached a solitary oak. From here, she could see a scattering of little villages below, soaked in late, buttery sun. 

It would be nice to bring up a child out here. There was a lot to be said for London – salsa clubs open until 5am, after-work drinks overlooking London Bridge, that sense of being in the beating heart of things – but she was going to have to start being a little more responsible now.

She hadn’t been responsible lately, she realised. There had been too many nights lost to numbness, telling herself she was enjoying it, that she wouldn’t have to do it too much longer. Nell had asked her about it plenty of times over the last six months, under the guise of protecting her, but Joanna was more convinced that she just enjoyed the moral high ground. Nell liked to condemn Joanna having sex with a lot of different men so that she didn’t need to judge herself for having sex with none. 

“I just don’t understand why they all have to be arseholes,” she’d said to Joanna at Lucio’s last week, swirling red wine dregs in her glass. “Steve describes himself as ‘premier league in the bedroom department’ on his dating profile, for goodness’ sake.” 

“It’s sarcastic. He’s really funny.”

“He’s a loser, and you’re settling,” Nell insisted, putting her glass down. She’d been a bit drunk at this point; drunk enough that the careful veneer had worn off her words. “You’re trying to pin down any random prick because you want to have a bloody baby, even though you live in a rented shithole in Bethnal Green, shag men who still live with their mum and put away a bottle of wine a night.” 

They could have had the same argument again. That there was never the right time for a baby (a man who’ll hold your hand in public helps), that love and nurture were more important than fancy things (so the baby would sleep in big house made of nurture, would it?) and that she needed to start thinking about it now (you’ve got a good five years before your ovaries start to shrivel). But Joanna was tired, so she drank the rest of the bottle in silence. 

As Joanna leant against the oak, a bird chittered in the branches above her. Its call was mechanical, as if something with a poor connection were trying desperately to spark into life. It made Joanna feel unanchored. She strode back down the heath towards the cottage, one hand resting gently on her belly. 

The owner had left a bottle of white wine for her in the fridge. Joanna poured a generous glass before remembering she shouldn’t be drinking. She emptied the whole bottle down the sink, filling the tiny kitchen with a sharp, slightly sweet smell. 

The night was hot and stuffy. Joanna couldn’t find a fan, and most of the windows in the cottage were painted shut. She lay on top of the sheets, irritable. Ignoring Nell’s message – How’s the arse-end of nowhere? – she listened to bird songs on YouTube. It took her almost half an hour to find the nightjar’s call, that low, jittering chug she’d heard on the heath. It reminded her of locusts. Of bad dreams. 

Joanna left the bedroom for some water, rolling the cold glass against her head. She collected Birds of Surrey and brought it back to bed with her, flicking straight to the page about nightjars. 

The elusive nightjar, with its near-Reptilian plumage and haunting call, has been the focus of much folklore over the years. It goes by many names. Referred to as the Lich Fowl (Corpse Bird), it also goes by the moniker ‘Goatsucker’. As legend has it, the birds stole milk from nanny goats in the midnight hours, causing their milk to sour and them to go blind. 

Joanna imagined the shrivelled teats, the blind old cows with their huge bellies.

“Just get a dog,” Joanna’s mother had said once. “Some people aren’t ever suited to motherhood, and that’s fine too. It might, just, not be for you?” Joanna still remembered the horrible shock of hearing that; like she’d just banged her head and was waiting for the ringing to stop. She wondered why that particular part of her life, her anatomy – any woman’s anatomy – was so public, so inviting of opinion. She wondered if she’d always feel like a little girl borrowing a woman’s womb, begging to be allowed to do what she wanted with it. 

Joanna closed the book and ran her hand over her stomach. There was a fluttering there. The skin was soft and slightly wobbly, but she imagined it stretching taut, like animal hide over a drum. She wondered whether pregnant women wore the waistband of their leggings over or under the bump. She wondered whether they ever forgot they were pregnant, looked down and questioned why they were swollen, bulbous. 

Joanna woke up clammy and sick. Her hands clutched at the cold toilet seat as she retched. After a few minutes, she leant back against the wall, clenching and unclenching her fingers to bring life back into them. Too early to be a symptom, surely. Twelve days to wait. Twelve days until she could take a test. 

Speaking of which, she needed to buy the tests from Boots. The walk would do her good. She left the cottage and headed away from the heath, towards Guildford. The day was flat and heavy-feeling, wearing its heat poorly. Something felt different in her body – there was a sluggishness, as though it were trying hard to keep up. Part of the route took Joanna along the main road, where there was no pavement. She kept close to the bushes on the left side, holding her breath every time a car passed with a whoosh of warm air. She trailed the bushes with her left hand, cradled her stomach with her right. People passing might think she was already further along. She wondered why they wouldn’t stop, offer her a lift. She would, if she were in their position.

Guildford was busy. Joanna has almost forgotten it was a Saturday. People walked in the road of the hilly high street, and the pub gardens were full to bursting. Joanna smelled aftershave, cigarette smoke. She’d wanted to stroll along the river, not breathe second-hand air, but she needed to pass a few pubs before reaching the bank. One of the men hanging over the metal railing looked like Martin. He had the same close-cropped hair and was wearing a similar white polo shirt to the one Martin had worn a couple of nights’ earlier.

“I was surprised when you texted,” Martin had shouted to Joanna over the loud music of Bamba Bar. She hadn’t been able to stop looking at his mouth. It was pretty and defined – almost like a woman’s. “You didn’t really seem that bothered after we went out before.” 

She hadn’t appreciated him when they’d first gone out. He’d taken a phone call in the taxi back to his flat and it had annoyed her, had smelled faintly of cured meat when the packet’s first opened. He’d refused to wear a condom. But there were worse men out there than Martin – Joanna knew that now. He was at least a solicitor and had joked with her afterwards about the way the hairs were growing back on his shaved chest. He could laugh at himself. It was a good quality. 

“I’ve just been busy,” Joanna told him. They had two drinks at Bamba before she suggested they go back to his. This time, when he said he didn’t want to wear a condom, she’d said she was on the pill. The next day she’d surprised him by hugging him when she left. His bare skin was warm. She probably wouldn’t see him again. 

Back at the cottage, Joanna finished her cheese sandwich – she’d had such a craving for cheese, today – and checked Mumsnet. She’d said she wouldn’t, but there was little else to do in the cottage. It didn’t have a TV, but there was one bar of internet signal. She scrolled through the familiar two days post-ovulation symptoms. The tiredness, the achy breasts, the beginnings of sickness. She did feel tired. And not the muscle weariness after you’ve walked a long way – something else. Something on a blood level. 

She was getting into bed when she heard the nightjar. Its call was quiet at first, then impossible to ignore, as if it were chattering outside her window. Joanna pulled the curtain back to look out. She thought of the fat little speckled bird in the book and laughed at herself for letting it unnerve her. 

She fell asleep easily, not dreaming exactly, but thoughts skipping over words. Goatsucker. Corpse bird.

When Joanna had been at the cottage for a week, she sat out in the front garden on a camp chair, phone in her hand. She wanted to text Nell. She wasn’t lonely at the cottage – because she wasn’t alone, was she? – but the silence felt intense after London’s insistent noise. It hollowed her. She wrote out false starts of messages and deleted them.

I’m alright 

You won’t believe 

It’s quiet here

She looked up when a couple walked past. The cottage sat on a gravel path leading from the woods to Godalming but as far as she could see, was rarely walked. She could count on one hand the number of people she’d seen pass, and they were usually hardy, rambler-looking types with bulging backpacks and proper shoes. This couple had London oozing out of their pores, with their clean trainers and matching topknots. 

The woman was pregnant. Joanna waited for the sting, but it didn’t come. The couple said hello as they passed, and Joanna beamed, placed her hand on her belly. She saw it as though time had slowed; the slight widening of the woman’s eyes, the softening of recognition. The woman gave her a wide smile, a gentle shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, Both me and you, then. The warmness of belonging. Joanna wanted it, she wanted it always. She wanted to love something with the invisible strength and steadiness of sonar under the sea. She didn’t understand why anyone would deny her that. 

Two days left at the cottage, and the heat had broken. Rain hammered the heathland. 

The weather forced Joanna to stay inside. The air was claggy, and she felt restless, penned in. Something about the way the wind rattled the old windows in their frames set her on edge. She was almost relieved when she got a message from Nell.

Can you come back now, please? You’re starting to worry me. We can talk about stuff. I won’t judge (and have prosecco in the fridge). X

Another came two minutes later.

Jo, I know you read my message. Stop being weird. Is this still about the baby thing?

Joanna turned her phone off and went to the bathroom. The pregnancy test had been sitting on the side of the sink since she bought it; there was no reason to hide it here. She read the instructions every time she went to the toilet, though she could already recite them flawlessly.

She was starting to feel it properly now, the sickness. It woke her up in the morning. And by eight-ish every night, after coming home from the heath, she could barely keep her eyes open. At this point, she knew what the result of the test would be; but it would be nice to see it. To be able to tell people and have them not able to say anything, because she’d done it and there’d be no going back. 

She angled the stick in the toilet bowl and weed on it, counting a careful five seconds. Then she pulled up her trousers, put the cap on the test and sat on the side of the bath to wait.

Her mum would be happy about it, once things got underway. She’d buy clothes and impossibly small shoes, even come to see Joanna in London more often. She’d frame photos for the mantelpiece. Nell would help raise him or her, blend sweet potatoes and spinach when it was time for weaning. Outsiders would think they were a happy family. 

After about a minute had passed, Joanna heard it: the nightjar. Its call was loud even against the storm. Shrill, urgent. It made Joanna’s skin feel like the top layer had been peeled off; everything raw, tender. Fragile things exposed. 

Goat sucker. Corpse bird.

Nell could call her irresponsible and selfish. Her mother would demand to know who the father was. One day, the baby would ask.

Joanna wrapped a protective arm around her belly. It was impossible to keep everything together; impossible to block out future voices, stern and disapproving. 

She read the test, placed it in the bin and went to bed. 

Joanna zipped up her case and hoisted it off the bed, placing it near the door. Her taxi was still five minutes away, so she did a final sweep of the cottage to make sure she hadn’t left anything. She’d go to the toilet one more time, before she left. 

As she stood, she saw the smear of blood in the bowl. Brownish, dirty-looking. When she wiped again, there was more blood on the tissue, bright and undeniable, a cyclical stain. She stared at it for a long time, until the phone started to ring because her taxi was outside. Joanna flushed, walked outside and wondered, just for a moment, if the nightjars were watching her leave. 

Amy Stewart is a writer based in York. She was the winner of the New Writing North & Word Factory Northern Apprentice Award 2021, mentored by award-winning writer Catherine Menon. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at York St John University in 2019, for which she won the annual Programme Prize. Her PhD at the University of Sheffield centres around female circus artists and the carnivalesque. She was shortlisted for the Mairtín Crawford Short Story Prize in 2021 and received a Highly Commended Award in the 2019 Bridport Prize. Amy’s work can be found in Test Signal (DeadInk Books/Bloomsbury, 2021), The York JournalAurora JournalBandit Fiction and Ellipsis Zine

photo by Mark Stoop (via unsplash)