The Libby Syndrome

It started in Merryboom a couple of months ago.  After arriving home one evening to find her bathroom flooded with wastewater, Rebecca Layman contacted a local plumber, Gerald Denshaw, to diagnose the problem.  Further investigation led Mr Denshaw, who two years ago lost his wife to cancer, to a blockage in the main egress pipe, a problem normally contributed to the mass collection of hair, usually that of a dog’s, or disposing of sanitary towels.  Ms Lyman assured Mr Denshaw she had undergone a hysterectomy due to ovarian tumours the previous year, and she had no pets.  The report given in the local paper described the moment Mr Denshaw pulled from the pipe a screaming baby boy as miraculous.  When asked where she thought the baby had come from, Ms Layman said, “God.  God sent the baby to me.”  Ms Laymen and Mr Denshaw announced their engagement a couple of weeks ago.  

Then there was Jerrod Scatti, a construction worker hailing from the east coast, who called the emergency services after he discovered what was described as a “shrimp-like” body while fixing a broken line within a sewage tunnel.  Subsequent reports revealed that Mr and Mrs Scatti had been trying for a baby for years, but due to his low sperm count, their efforts had been unsuccessful. 

Rebecca Layman lived eight doors down from our home, and the sewage line Jerrod was working on was the main effluent runoff that covered our surrounding area. 

When I told my girlfriend, Libby, the details, she was waxing her vagina.  She told me that in her business, the difference between how little hair remained could mean the difference between making it as a successful lingerie model.  Literally, less means more.  She then pulled away the strip of hot wax and winced.  I tell her that both babies are doing fine, and that, aside from being undernourished, the babies, who had spent their gestation period amidst foul sewage water and other people’s faeces did not seem in life-threatening condition.  She asked if such a thing could be possible.  I didn’t say a word. 

There’s a condition, a mental disorder that people get when they are exposed to large amounts of beauty in a short period of time.  What is considered breathtaking can literally rob you of breath.  It is called, Standhal’s Syndrome.   It predominantly affects tourists visiting galleries, areas of natural beauty, and museums of grand importance.  Other symptoms are a rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion, and even hallucinations.  I think I had Libby Syndrome.  She was a jobbing-model and I was an over-the-hill photographer with a healthy reputation but a lagging libido.  Libby changed that.  She said she liked a little autumn in a man.  She said something else about my age, but I missed most of it because she was sitting on my face at the time.  The one thing she was adamant about during sex was protection.   I assumed she was worried about STDs, but she was one of eleven sisters, all of whom had eleven children apiece.  I had to wear two condoms during sex, and even then I was told to finish off in the bathroom sink.  “Even thinking about your spunk could get me pregnant,” she once said while I beat my dick against the cool porcelain. 

When the third baby was found in the u-bend of Grace Hamilton’s toilet, a widower who had lost her only son in the Gulf war, Merryboom had become a hotspot for the infertile and singletons.  No one really questioned the science part, or that an actual baby could grow within such an inhospitable and filthy environment.  No one actually thought about the “hows.”  All the women with twisted pipes and faulty ovaries, all the men who had suffered testicular cancer or had lazy sperm, all the same-sex civil married couples who didn’t want to incur the costly fertility treatment, all of them were bothered about only one thing… the “where.” 

The neighbourhood swarmed everyday with different faces and television crews.  It was Lourdes for the barren and sterile.  You’d awake to find holes in the road, manholes missing, and great fountains of dirty brown sewage water streaming across your garden.  The local council tried their best to cap and fix the damaged pipes, but there was too much destruction happening on a daily basis.  Fearing that the bilge water might bring about a dysentery epidemic, the local children were told to remain inside.  Sandbags were placed at every door.  They supplied us with the full-body white plastic overalls used by forensic officers, which made us all feel like we were mocking the seedless throngs of male visitors for their deficiency because we all looked like sperm. 

Had I not found such ugliness in Libby’s beauty, the town of Merryboom would have remained the tedium of suburban life.  There would have never been construction trucks laden with soil and concrete piping entering and exiting on an hourly basis.  The diesel engines would have never pumped out bluish smoke into the skies and dominated the birdsong.  The local teashops and coffee houses, Bill’s Ironmongers, the twee little gift shop run by Mary Parkinson, Red’s Barbers, the many ale-houses with their traditional fare, they would have never lost trade.  The town would have never been relabelled, “Babyboom.” 

Libby was oblivious to the fact she had brought about Merryboom’s success and demise.  Stretch marks and cracked nipples are the symbols of imprudence.  A screaming child anchors a person.  This is what she would say in exchange for my requests to begin a family.  Even if she had wanted to settle down, it would have never been with me.  I had flaws.  The vices of my past, the drinking, the womanising, the drug abuse, they were not her concerns.  For Libby, she feared the child would inherit my sloping brow, Roman nose, calcified nails, and potbelly.  I was an okay fuck with a decent eye, but as for my gene pool, it was as murky as the waters that collected at our front doors.  Had she not been so insensitive, then I might have not gone to the lengths I did to prove her wrong.

We began to sleep in separate beds when she caught me one day masturbating into the teapot.  Commonsense and biology never played a part in my thought process.  That I wanted Libby pregnant, and was prepared to do anything to make that so, I had little choice but to abandon reason and composure in favour of haste and idiocy.  I followed Libby’s cycle and waited the same time every month for her to finish in the toilet.  I entered shortly after to spread my seed among the spots of red blood that floated in the basin, and the wadding of toilet roll used to clean up any leakage was thrown in the bin, where it festered with the crimson torpedoes with their tails of string.  Had Libby been a little less of a bitch, the very thing that she had precluded from her life would not be screaming in some paediatric ward, awaiting the day they were fit enough to go home with the pious Rebecca Layman and Gerald Denshaw, the humbled Scatti’s, and the lamenting Grace Hamilton.

When the council suggested we all find alternative accommodation to avoid any serious health risk, Libby had already moved out and in with a friend who lived in the city.  She couldn’t cope with the stench and desperation that surrounded her every day, and I wondered how much of that statement related to the sewage and baby-seekers and how much related to me.  While packing her bag, I told her all of this could have been avoided if she’d only listened to me, that even the fusty breath of compassion or the self-pitying whisper of fondness upon my ear would have been all that was needed to close the sluice gate on my uncertainty.  It was all very poetic, and the words of a wretched and broken man, but at the time I was very happy with the way I articulated my feelings without sounding too much like a pussy.  Libby’s response was not so considered.  Instead of warmth and empathy, I received an indifferent kiss me on the cheek and the words, “That’s sounds great, honey.  I’ll call you when I get settled.” 

It wasn’t long after this Libby became a walking cryptogram.  Every time I rang her mobile phone, she would tolerate me enough to justify why we couldn’t meet.  Every excuse was a code, a series of words formed to hide the fact she was having an affair.  It became easy to decipher.  For her to have a pedicure meant she was spending the afternoon getting her toes sucked by some random guy.  Cellulite Control Therapy was another way of saying she was strengthening her quads and buttocks by fucking against a wall.  I feel there is no need to explain what a colonic irrigation and facial meant.  There was no concrete evidence to suggest any of this is true, but you spend enough time on this earth, and the subtext of any conversation becomes a lot clearer.  All the same, I rang her one night, and a man answered, his breathing laboured.  Like a fool, I apologised, thinking I might have dialled the wrong number.  I hadn’t.  I heard Libby’s laughter in the background.  By the time I realised I hadn’t spoken for at least ten seconds, the guy said, “Can this wait, because I’m kinda in-between someone right now.”

Through a camera lens and the miasma of self-loathing, I watched the world around me collapse.   The misfortune of a town sinking into its own filth resonated with me, and so, too did the wretched scavengers searching for a new life to brighten up their own.  I refused to leave the house and barricaded the doors with saturated IKEA furniture.  Men in blue boiler suits and hardhats peered through my windows until I masked them up with spun used from my lighting equipment.  I moved upstairs where the floors were dry and lay in my bed eating from tins.  I emptied bowls and bladder in the empty tins and lined them up against the wall.  I wondered constantly if another baby had been found and if the person would love it as if it were their own.  On the third day holed up, council officials had the police break down the backdoor and remove me from the house, an act of totalitarianism which came as a relief because the stench of my faeces and piss was becoming overwhelming and brought on nausea and the most painful of headaches.  They said the building’s structure had been compromised due to waterlogged foundations, and it was for my own safety.  I was allocated temporary accommodation five miles out of Merryboom in the raucous and overpopulated town of Hanging Lee.  It was a small flat complete with donated furniture and the stench of a hundred lonely spirits, but thankfully nothing else.  I would awake there every morning and flounder like an estranged father who once knew what it was to have family and be loved.

The bus journey from Hanging Lee to Merryboom takes about twenty minutes.  Every morning, I arrive at the twenty-foot-tall steel fencing with my camera in hand and Libby’s prophecy and revelation of her family’s outstanding brood flowing over my conscious: Eleven siblings, each with eleven children.  And there I look upon its sodden ground, conscious that, for a chance to live through parenthood, I had played my part in turning our homes into an uncultivable terrain filled with damaged pipes, barren holes, and ruined dwellings, making it the quintessence of the misery endured by the childless masses.  In my bid to extort life from Libby, I had turned what was once beautiful, ugly.  And yet the expectation of hearing a muffled wail from below the ground, or seeing from one of the many bubbling sewage springs a pale infant hand or foot, is enough to justify my actions and let me believe that one morning I will arrive at Merryboom a broken man, but leave a father.


Craig Wallwork lives in West Yorkshire, England.  After leaving Art College he studied to be a filmmaker before becoming a full-time editor for nine years.  In his spare time he writes short stories and is working on his fourth novel.  His fiction has appeared in various anthologies, journals and magazines.  In early 2012 is short story collection called, Quintessence of Dust, will be published by KUBOA.  Follow his progress via his website:  www.craigwallwork.blogspot.com