Many women the wrong side of thirty-five seem to want a baby but not necessarily a man. I am on the wrong side of thirty-five, and all I ever wanted was the man. But it seems that I have got the baby instead.
I sit on the lavatory and cry. How many other women all over the country are also at this moment sitting on the lavatory and crying, either because they are pregnant or because they are not? The pregnancy testing kit is uncompromisingly positive. Good news, it seems to say. You’re going to have a baby!
But I don’t want a baby, I sob. I never wanted a baby. I don’t even like babies! And I’ve always been so careful. Besides, aren’t I supposed to be past my child-bearing best? There seems to be a proliferation of articles and programmes about the ticking of body clocks and the folly of women who Leave It Too Late. My body clock has kept a tactful silence for as long as I can remember, and apart from the monthly (and expected) reminder that I am not pregnant — that one more disappointed egg has gone unfertilised to its tiny grave — I have never given it a thought. But I have made one slip; one tiny slip; and now this. A cruel reminder that behind every sexual act between fertile couples of opposite sexes there lurks a baby waiting to be conceived.
I flush away the evidence and wipe my eyes. Maybe the test is wrong. They can be wrong sometimes. And I don’t feel pregnant. My stomach is still washboard flat, my breasts small and firm, and I don’t feel in the least bit sick. How can a silly little strip of paper be right when my body (not to mention my head) is in denial?
But I am not stupid. I know how these things work. And my oh-so-reliable period is a week late. Barring accident or interference, I am going to have a baby.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time. The orchestra in which I play the violin has recently had to make cuts, and as a lesser player in one of the back desks, I have been ‘let go’, as they kindly put it. This was a blow indeed, although not entirely unexpected, and to cheer myself up, I planned to award myself a belated gap year on the strength of a small legacy from my grandmother. And why not? I have no responsibilities, my mortgage is small and my life my own. My good friend Mikey — solid, dependable and reassuringly gay — was going to accompany me. We were going to scuba dive in the Red Sea, trek at the foot of the Himalayas and visit Petra. We had it all worked out. My small bedroom is littered with atlases and brochures, phrase books and useful telephone numbers. I was going to let my flat (the contract is already signed; a nice young Norwegian couple would look after it and feed the cat as well) and go off with a rucksack and my violin on my back (Mikey took issue with the violin, but as I explained, I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere without it. I could always lock it up in a safe somewhere if we did anything really exotic). I was going to be free from the constraints and expectations of the world of work. I was going to have an adventure.
I spend a sleepless night worrying about my new and unwelcome condition. I know life isn’t fair, and I’ve never expected it to be, but do I really deserve this? I’ve always tried to be responsible, such relationships as I have had have nearly all been long term and monogamous, and I have always practised safe sex. Except this once. Just the once.
His name is Amos (his parents, like mine, are religious) and he is an old friend; a big bearded trombonist with hands like shovels and arms made to hug. I needed a hug — so, it seemed, did he — and this is the result.
Do I tell Amos? Over my second cup of Horlicks, I ponder the question, and decide that I shall not. Amos has his own problems; he has endured a recent and very messy divorce, and he too has lost his job (violinists are not the only ones getting the push). Besides, I know that whatever happens this will tie me to Amos, and I’m not sure this is something either of us will want. This is my pregnancy; my problem. Especially since I told Amos that I was on the pill (by that stage we were in a state of reckless undress, and lying seemed a much easier option than waiting for Amos to ‘pop to the chemist’, as he had kindly offered to do).
By four fifty-three am, having worked my way through the prospect of keeping the baby and, fleetingly, the possibility of having it adopted, I consider taking advantage of the Woman’s Right to Choose. It is not something I have ever given much thought to since I never expected to find myself in this position, but now it seems the least unattractive of my alternatives. I sit up in bed and switch the light on. Yes! I am a woman, and I shall choose. My gap year isn’t lost; it’s merely postponed. I feel faint stirrings of hope, thinking with satisfaction that with a bit of luck they are the only stirrings I am going to feel, for I shall have an abortion. After all, it’s a small procedure at this stage, neither I nor my unborn child will feel a thing, and in a week or so I will be back to normal. Fortunately, Mikey and I were leaving it until the last minute to book our tickets (Mikey likes nothing better than a bargain), so I can allow myself a little leeway. I’m sure the Norwegians can make alternative arrangements for a couple of weeks, and then everything will be back on track.
A week later, having persuaded two doctors that this unwanted pregnancy will seriously compromise my sanity, I am sitting in the waiting-room of the clean, clinical building where I shall be divested of my little problem. I decided to go to a private clinic because they could see me at once, and I thought I would be unlikely to bump into anyone I know. My gap year fund is shrinking by the minute, but I have some savings which will help. Mikey (who had to be told, for obvious reasons) has insisted on coming with me. Mikey is being unusually silent.
‘Are you all right?’ I ask him, thinking that really it should be the other way round. ‘You’re being very quiet.’
‘I feel quiet.’ Mikey turns the pages of a glossy magazine.
‘Nothing.’ He examines the price of a very expensive country mansion, and whistles through his teeth.
‘Are you sure?’
‘You’re behaving like a woman,’ I tell him.
‘What do you mean?’
‘That’s what women do. They say nothing’s wrong when it is, and then get cross if no-one tries to get to the bottom of the problem.’
‘Okay.’ Mikey puts down his magazine. ‘I don’t think you should be doing this.’
‘Now you tell me! Anyway, it’s not your baby, so it’s none of your business.’
‘It is my business. You’ve made it my business.’
‘No I haven’t!’
‘Yes you have.’
A passing nurse gives us as funny look, and it occurs to me that of course she assumes that Mikey is the baby’s father.
‘You insisted on coming with me. I didn’t make you. I didn’t even ask you.’
‘You had to have someone.’
‘No I didn’t!’
‘Yes you did. No-one should go through something like this alone.’
‘So you accept that I’m going through with it?’
‘I know you mean to. But Ruth, have you really considered what you’re doing?’
‘Of course I have.’ This is not entirely true. I have tried hard to push the whole baby thing to the back of my mind and look upon this in the same way as I would a visit to the dentist.
Mikey reaches into his pocket and takes out a small booklet. On the cover is a joyously pregnant woman, her hands smugly clasped round her bump. Inside are graphic illustrations of foetal development.
‘Look at this.’ He jabs a finger at a picture of a seven-week foetus. ‘Eyes and little arms, and a heart.’
‘So?’ The foetus looks like a cross between a seahorse and a new-born rabbit.
‘So, it’s a human being.’
‘You know what I mean.’ Mikey sighs. ‘It has all the potential to be a person. It could be a brain surgeon or a nuclear physicist or —’
‘A chimney sweep?’
‘Mikey, I can’t. Apart from anything else, I can’t let you down. We fly in a fortnight —’
‘Not necessarily. And anyway, a baby is more important than cavorting around the world with me.’
‘Mikey, please. This is hard enough as it is.’
I hesitate. If I’m honest, this hasn’t been hard at all. Apart from when I found out, I’ve been in very successful denial. It annoys me that Mikey is disturbing my comfort zone and putting unwelcome thoughts into my head.
Mikey wheels out his trump card.
‘I would give anything — anything — to be a father,’ he says. ‘But I never shall be.’
‘You could be.’
‘No I couldn’t. I shall never be able to have straight sex, and I certainly have no intention of looking for a willing woman and a turkey baster. I’ve accepted my lot. Perhaps you should accept yours.’
‘Mikey, you’re not being fair.’
‘Neither are you.’ He returns to his magazine, and we maintain a sullen silence. The minutes tick by.
‘Miss Robinson?’ A starched nurse comes into the waiting room. ‘Would you come this way, please?’
I stand up and pick up my bag. Mikey looks up from his magazine, but he doesn’t say anything.
‘Good luck?’ I prompt him.
Mikey shakes his head.
‘There’s nothing good about this,’ he says. ‘But — be safe.’
Fifteen minutes later, I am lying on a trolley awaiting my turn on what I imagine to be some kind of surgical conveyor belt. I am wearing one of those backless hospital gowns, and I feel naked and defenceless. I have been given an injection to help me relax, but all it’s done is make me feel strange and floaty and very slightly sick. I wish very much that I was anywhere but here.
I must have dozed off, because through a drug-induced haze, I can see my small seahorse/rabbit hovering somewhere near the ceiling. Perhaps I have had the operation, and my little embryo is having one of those out-of-body experiences on its way to the hereafter, only with me watching it rather than the other way round. It reaches the window, where it scrabbles hopelessly for a few moments, and then it slithers down in a streak of pink ectoplasm and disappears.
I wake up as the trolley begins to move, and for a few moments I rather enjoy the sensation of being transported somewhere; of other people taking charge and of everything being out of my hands. Someone is pushing me with brisk, business-like footsteps. Soon, all this will be over. I open my eyes, and the ceiling (palest cream, with little decorative swirls. You don’t get those on the National Health) moves backwards above me. We go round corners and someone opens and closes doors. I begin to drift again.
Who was that? The voice sounds panicky and very close. Very like mine, in fact.
‘No what?’ Another voice, soothing and female. The trolley rumbles on its way.
‘No!’ This voice is quite definitely mine.
‘It’ll soon be over, dear. Just you relax.’
‘NO!’ I clutch the edges of the trolley and try to sit up. ‘Let me off! Let me out of here! I want to go home!’
The trolley comes to an abrupt halt.
‘You’ve signed the consent form, dear. Everything’s arranged. Mr. Buxton is waiting for you.’
‘Bugger Mr. Buxton! I just want to go home. You can’t keep me here against my will!’
‘If you’re going to talk like that, I’m sure we don’t want to keep you at all.’ The voice is stern, like that of a very cross nanny. ‘I’ll have to go and speak to Mr. Buxton.’
A minute later, a masked face is leaning over me. I can tell from its eyebrows that it is not pleased.
‘Now then, Miss Robinson. What’s all this about?’ Mr. Buxton’s voice is that of a busy man who is not used to having his day disrupted.
‘I want to go home.’
‘You mean you’ve changed your mind?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Well, have you or haven’t you? We haven’t got all day. We talked this through —’ up to a point — ‘and you had counselling —’ five minutes with a rather bored nurse — ‘You’ve had every chance to think about your decision.’
My eyes fill with sudden tears. Oh, where is the smooth-talking, kindly Mr. Buxton of three days ago? What has happened to the gentle fatherly figure who “understood how hard these decisions are” and who offered me his support, whatever I decided? I didn’t need him then, when I felt strong and determined and grown up. I need him now, when I am confused and unhappy and vulnerable. But that Mr. Buxton seems to have been left behind in his consulting rooms, together with his smart charcoal suit and spotted bow tie, and the peaceful watercolours of lakes and fields and woods on his dove grey walls.
‘Well,’ he continues, ‘if you’ve changed your mind, then that’s that. But of course, there will still be a fee to pay. Someone else could have had your appointment.’
His voice goes on, calm but reproachful, but I am no longer listening. I imagine my little seahorse/rabbit drifting away from its window and snuggling back into my womb, where it belongs. There is the ghost of a smile on its round featureless face, but the smile is grateful rather than smug.
‘Your partner is waiting for you,’ a nurse tells me, as she helps me dress and collect up my things.
‘He’s not my partner,’ I tell her, emerging from the changing room.
‘No,’ says Mikey, who loves this kind of situation. ‘I bat for the other side. Can’t you tell?’ He minces towards us, holding out his hand for my bag. ‘What made you change your mind?’
‘Not you, if that’s what you were hoping,’ I tell him, rather unkindly.
‘I was hoping nothing of the sort.’
‘No. I’m sorry.’
‘That’s all right.’ He pats my knee.
‘I just — well, I just couldn’t do it. That’s all.’ I hesitate. Should I tell him about my vision (if that’s what it was)? No. Better not. ‘You were right. I hadn’t really thought about it. I hadn’t thought what it meant. And when I was lying there waiting, I knew it wasn’t for me. Maybe for other people, but not me.’ I feel unutterably tired, and just want to get home.
‘You won’t regret it,’ Mikey says.
‘It’s okay for you to say that.’
‘I mean it. And I’ll be godfather.’
‘Oh, would you?’ Mikey would make the perfect godfather, and for a moment, I feel quite excited.
‘I’d be honoured. I shall buy it lovely presents for its birthday, and take it to the zoo.’
I have a vivid mental picture of Mikey, hand-in-hand with my seahorse/rabbit, looking at camels and monkeys, and I giggle.
‘I don’t know what they gave you in there, but we need to get you home,’ Mikey says sternly. ‘Before you become hysterical.’