I hate being late.
I’m supposed to meet Art at 5 P.M. and it’s already quarter to. I race down the corridor to the staff room. I can’t remember the new code for the door, so have to wait outside until another teacher lets me through. I shove my spare photocopies in my pigeonhole then deposit my attendance sheet in the box. As I reach the exit, Sami, the head of Humanities, reminds me that tomorrow morning’s class is canceled due to building repairs. I make a mental note then fly out of the Institute doors and half run, half jog along Great Queen Street to Kingsway. It’s gray and gloomy, the clouds swollen with rain. There are no cabs. I should get the tube to Oxford Circus, but since the 7/7 attacks I avoid using the underground when possible. Anyway, I’ve always preferred the bus. Art hates buses. Too slow.
I charge round the corner to the bus stop, negotiating several uneven pavements and a swarm of Italian teenagers as I run. Good, I can see a number 8 trundling toward me along High Holborn. That’ll take me to John Lewis. I can race up to Harley Street from there.
Inside the bus I scan my pass against the pad and lean with relief against a post. The woman next to me—young, straggly haired—is wrestling with a baby in a buggy.
“Sit down, for fuck’s sake,” she hisses under her breath. There’s so much anger in her voice I have to turn away and move up the bus.
I arrive at the clinic at quarter past five. Art is waiting by the door. I see him seconds before he sees me—smart and suave in his suit. It’s dark gray, Paul Smith—his favorite. Stylish and simple, he wears it, as usual, with a plain open-necked shirt and no tie. Art looks good in those kind of clothes. He always has. He turns and sees me. He’s tired. And irritated. I can see it in the way he raises an eyebrow as I walk up.
“Sorry I’m late.” I raise my face and he kisses me. A light, swift brush of the lips.
“It’s fine,” Art says.
Of course the truth is that I’m not really sorry and he isn’t really fine. The truth is that I don’t want to be here and Art knows it.
I follow Art inside. He shrugs off his jacket as we cross the entrance hall. The shirt he’s wearing has a tiny nick on the inside of the collar. You can’t see it but I know it’s there, just as I know Art is pissed off with me from the way his arms hang stiffly at his sides. I should feel guilty. After all, I’m late and Art’s time is precious. And I’m aware that this is hard for him as well as for me.
Art stops as we reach the waiting-room door. He turns to me with a smile, clearly making a huge effort to overcome his mood.
“Mr. Tamansini was here a minute ago. He’s very pleased we’re back.”
“You’ve spoken to him?” I’m surprised; the consultants rarely leave their rooms during appointments.
“He just happened to be in reception when I arrived.” Art takes my hand and leads me into the waiting room. It’s classic Harley Street: a row of stiff chintz armchairs and a matching couch. A fireplace with dried flowers on the mantelpiece and a terrible piece of modern art above. Certificates, licenses and awards are positioned in glass frames all around the walls. I catch sight of my reflection in the mirror in the corner. My sweater is wrinkled and my hair looks like it hasn’t been brushed for a week. It really needs cutting: the bangs are in my eyes and the ends are split and dry and curling shapelessly onto my shoulders. Before Beth, I had highlights and a trim every couple of months. I straighten my sweater and smooth out my hair. My eyes shine bright blue against the pink of my cheeks, flushed from running up the road. I used to go to classes at the gym as well. Now I never seem to have the energy.
“He’s on time, but they sent the next couple in ahead of us as you weren’t here.” Art’s tone is only faintly accusatory.
I nod again. Art runs his hand up my arm.
“Are you okay? How was your class?”
I look at him properly. His face is still so boyish, despite the fact he turned forty last week. I don’t know whether it’s the soft curve of his jaw or the dimple in his chin or the fact that his eyes are so big and eager. I stroke his cheek. The skin is rough under my fingertips. Art has to shave twice a day but I have always liked the shadow on his face. It gives him a rougher, sexier edge.
“The class was fine.” My throat tightens. I so don’t want to be here. “I’m really sorry I was late. It’s just … being here again.”
“I know.” Art puts his arm around me and pulls me against his chest. I bury my face against his neck, squeezing my eyes tight against the tears I don’t want to let out.
“It’s going to work this time, I know it is. It’s our turn, Gen.”
Art checks his watch. He’s had it years and the face is scratched and worn. It’s the watch I gave him—my first present to him on his birthday, three months after we met. That evening Art let me buy him dinner for the first time; I’d insisted, seeing as it was his birthday. It was a mild, spring evening—the first warm night after what felt like months of winter and, after dinner, we’d walked along the Embankment and across Waterloo Bridge to the South Bank. Art told me about his plans for Loxley Benson … how all his life he’d been searching for something to believe in, something worthwhile to put his energies into, something to drive toward.
“And your business means all that?” I’d asked.
Art had taken my hand and told me “no,” that I was what he’d been looking for, that our relationship was what he wanted more than anything.
That evening was the first time he told me he loved me.
I pull away now and wipe under my eyes as discreetly as possible. Quite apart from Art, there are three other couples in the waiting room and I don’t want them to see. I sit down and close my eyes, my hands folded in my lap. I focus on my breathing, trying to take my mind away from the turmoil raging through my head.
Art still loves me. I know he does. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have stayed with me through the long, terrible year after Beth. Not to mention the six failed IVF attempts since.
But sometimes I wonder if he really listens to me. I’ve tried to explain how tired I get of these visits to the clinic. The highs and lows of IVF. It’s been nearly a year since our last attempt. Back then I insisted on a break and Mr. Tam—as he’s known on the online infertility forums—supported me. Art agreed—we both hoped I’d get pregnant naturally. There’s really no reason why I shouldn’t—at least not one that anyone’s found. Just as there’s no reason to explain why every single attempt at IVF has failed to produce a pregnancy.
Art’s been angling for me to undergo more treatment for the past few months. He even made this appointment for us. But I can’t bear the thought of another round, and the physical side effects and psychological battering it will bring. I’ve been there too many times: starting a cycle, wasting an opportunity to start one because you’re away, going to the clinic every day to be tested, taking the drugs at specific times on specific days—all only to find your follicles aren’t big enough or plentiful enough, or else that the embryos don’t survive. Then resting a cycle or two, obsessed with when you ovulate, when you menstruate, before you start again. And on and on. And none of it, none of any of it, can ever bring her back.
Beth. My baby who was born dead.
I want to tell Art all this, but that means talking about Beth and she’s shut up in my head in a safe place along with the pain and the grief and I don’t want to go in there and start raking it all up again.
“Mr. and Mrs. Loxley?”
Art leaps to his feet. The nurse smiles at him. It’s hard not to smile at Art. Even before he appeared on The Trials on TV people smiled at him. All that boyish charm and energy. I’m sure that’s half the secret of his success with Loxley Benson, that way he looks at you, his eyes blazing, making you feel special, as if nothing matters more than what you’re about to say or do.
The other half’s a different story, of course. Art’s smart. Shrewd. And completely driven. Mum saw it when she met him. Before he’d made his fortune, when he’d just set up his business—an online ethical-investment company—with no money and no security. “That one,” she said. “That one’s going to set the world on fire.” Then she’d given me that wry smile of hers. “Just make sure you don’t get burned while you’re trying to keep up.”
Mr. Tamansini’s desk is as big as a ship—all embossed brown leather with brass studs around the edges. He looks lost behind it—a small, olive-skinned man with a pointy face and delicate hands. He’s pressing his fingertips together, which he always does when he speaks. He gazes at me and Art sitting next to each other on the other side of the desk.
“I’m going to suggest you try ICSI this time,” he says slowly. “That’s where we inject sperm directly into the egg.”
“See?” Art nudges my arm like we’re in the back row of a classroom. “I told you there’d be something new.”
I stare at Mr. Tamansini’s fingers. Weird to think they’ve been inside me. But then the whole idea of being a gynecologist is weird. On the other hand, I like Mr. Tam. I like his stillness. The way he stays calm even when Art is at his most forceful. He was my consultant for four of the six failed IVF attempts. I guess you could say we’ve been through a lot together.
“ICSI’s not new,” I say, looking up at Mr. Tam. “Why that? Why now?”
Mr. Tam clears his throat. “ICSI is often used in cases where the sperm is of poor quality. Of course, that isn’t the case here, but ICSI is equally useful when couples present with low rates of fertilization and a low yield of eggs at egg retrieval, both of which do apply to you.”
“Won’t that cost more than ordinary IVF?” I ask.
At the mention of money Art stiffens. It’s a tiny movement, but I recognize it well. It’s like when an animal pricks up its ears, listening out for warning sounds. I stare back at Mr. Tam’s desk. The brass studs around the edge are gleaming in the light. I wonder, idly, whether somebody actually polishes them.
“It is more expensive,” Mr. Tamansini acknowledges. “But it will undoubtedly increase the chance of a viable pregnancy.”
“So what does ICSI involve?” Art says. His tone is neutral, but I can hear the steel in his voice. He’s not going to let himself—or me—get taken for a ride.
Mr. Tam smiles. “As far as the two of you are concerned, there’s really very little difference from standard IVF.” He starts talking about the procedure. I tune out for a moment. I already know about ICSI; it was one of the options I pored over several years ago.
“… which works like a cleaned-up software platform,” Mr. Tamansini finishes. “All ready to program a new computer.”
Art laughs. He loves Mr. Tam’s metaphors.
“So what do you think?” Mr. Tam asks.
“Absolutely.” Art looks at me. “We should go for it.”
For a second I’m furious that Art is speaking on my behalf. And then I remember that I agreed to come here, that he thinks I’m up for this, that I haven’t talked about how I really feel for ages …
“I don’t know,” I squirm. “I mean … I don’t know about IVF anymore. Let’s face it, in a few months I’ll be forty which…”
“… is not too old.” Art turns to Mr. Tam. “Tell her, please. It’s not too old.”
Mr. Tam takes a deep breath. His face remains calm and professional, but underneath he is surely wondering why I’m here at all if I’ve got such doubts. “Of course, Mrs. Loxley, you are right. There are no guarantees. But you became pregnant once before, which is a positive sign. And forty is not that old in IVF terms. Indeed, one might say it is not as old as it used to be.”
I stare at him, at his soothing, gentle smile.
“I don’t think…” My voice trembles. “I’m not sure I can cope with … with going through it all again…” My voice breaks and I look down at the carpet. There’s a brown stain by the far desk leg in the shape of a kidney bean.
Why is it so hard to say what I want? How I feel?
Art’s voice is low in my ear, as intense as I’ve ever heard it. “Gen, we have to keep trying. Don’t you see? If you like, I’ll do a full risk assessment on the ICSI stats, I promise, and I’ll work out the odds, and if that pans out then we’ll make it work together, just like we always make everything work.”
I look up. Mr. Tam has walked across the room, to the intercom by the curtained-off area. He is talking to someone in a low voice. Giving me and Art a moment to pull ourselves together.
I turn to Art. His eyes are dancing with this new hope. I hate myself for not feeling it too.
“I know that it’s hard for you, all the drugs and the appointments and everything,” Art continues. “And I know we’ve been through it before five times…”
“Six,” I correct.
“… But it would be worth it,” Art presses on. “Don’t you think it would be worth it?”
I shake my head. I thought that once, maybe, the first few times we tried IVF after Beth. But the pain of trying and failing wasn’t worth it.
Art frowns. “I don’t understand why you don’t want to try again,” he says. He’s trying to sound sympathetic but there’s a note of impatience in his voice. “If the percentages pan out, I mean.”
I take a deep breath. “It’s not the percentages and the risk factors and the drugs.” I look into his eyes, hoping I’ll see that he understands. I lower my voice to a whisper. It’s still so hard to say her name out loud. “It’s Beth.”
His eyes express confusion. “You mean it’s being disloyal to her memory to try again?”
“Oh, Gen. This isn’t being disloyal. If anything, it’s a testament to how much we loved her … that we want so much to … to replace her.”
Mr. Tam is back at the desk now, fingertips pressed together.
Art’s words are still ringing in my ears. I stare down at the kidney bean stain again, blood drumming at my temples.
“I guess we need a bit more time to think about all this,” Art is saying. His voice sounds dull and distant.
“Of course.” Mr. Tam is smiling. I can hear it in his voice, but I’m still staring at the carpet stain. “At this stage it’s just a suggestion. I think we should take it one step at a time.”
I look up. “That’s a good idea.”
Art puts his arm around my shoulders. “Absolutely.”
A few minutes later we’re outside the clinic and heading home in a taxi. Art refuses to travel any other way. He could have a driver if he wanted one, now that Loxley Benson is so successful, but he hates any appearance of elitism. I tell him taxis are just as elitist but he says they’re a practical solution—public transport being so slow and Art’s time being money.
We don’t speak. I’m still reeling. Suddenly I realize he’s speaking to me.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that.” He takes my hand and holds it between both of his.
I look down. The nail on the first finger of my left hand is bitten right down and the skin around the nail is chewed and red raw. I curl it over, out of sight. I hadn’t even realized my finger had been in my mouth.
Art’s fingers exert a soft pressure. “Why did you let me make the appointment if you were so sure you don’t want any more IVF?”
Through the taxi window, the sun is low above Regent’s Park. A perfect burning orange disc against a clear navy sky with no sign of the earlier clouds. I turn back to Art. His eyes glitter in the soft light and my heart lurches with love for him. For all his ruthlessness in business, Art’s fundamentally the kindest man I know.
“I’m sorry about the appointment,” I say. “I know it’s not fair…” I tail off, wishing my thoughts weren’t so confused.
“You know you’re nuts, don’t you?” Art says affectionately.
We stare at each other for a moment, then Art leans forward. “Can you at least explain to me what you’re worried about, Gen? Because I only want … that is, everything I do, it’s all for you, you know that. I just want to understand, because I can’t see how not trying again is the right thing.”
I nod, trying to work out what to say. How I can explain what feels so muddled and fragile in my own head.
“I can’t think in terms of ‘replacing’ Beth,” I say.
It hurts to use her name. But not to say it denies her existence, which is worse. My stomach twists.
“I didn’t mean replace.” Art dismisses his previous word with a shrug. He sits upright. “Obviously we can’t replace her. But we can have the experience of being parents, which her dying cheated us of.”
“I don’t know.”
Art fingers his collar, feeling for the hidden nick in the cotton. “Then let me know for both of us.”
“What about the money?” I frown. “We’ve already spent so much.”
Art waves his hand. “That’s the least of our problems.”
It’s true, though I still can’t quite get used to how much Art is earning. It’s not that we were struggling before: Loxley Benson has been doing well for a long time, but it’s really taken off this year. In fact, right now, it’s one of the fastest-growing small businesses in the UK.
“I don’t mean the amount,” I say. “It’s the whole thing of sending good money after bad and—”
“Jesus, Gen, it’s not that much money. Just a few grand. And me doing The Trials is getting us more work every day. A woman at a client meeting the other day, she’s involved in some government initiative and she wants to talk to me at the Brussels meeting tomorrow about bringing me in. We’re doing really well, Gen, like I told you we would. We’re about to go massive.”
“But…” I stop, unable to say what I truly feel, which is that Art’s business success makes me feel inadequate. It’s not fair, when he works so hard for us, but being pregnant made me his equal. Like I was making a proper contribution to our marriage at last. And now, the reminder that he makes money hand over fist highlights how I have failed to keep my end of the unspoken deal between us.
“You have to want this, Gen. We can do it. I will find a way.”
The words, the set of his mouth, his whole body … it’s all utterly convincing. And, I know from experience, virtually impossible to resist.
“You really want to try, don’t you?”
Art shrugs. “What’s the alternative? Adoption?”
I shake my head. That’s one thing we’ve both always agreed on at least. If we’re going to have a baby, it should be our baby.
“Exactly.” Art leans forward. “I do want this, Gen.” He pauses and his mouth trembles. “But not unless you want it too.”
For a fraction of a second he looks vulnerable, like a little boy, and I see how afraid he is that I will never move on from Beth dying and that our love will slip away from us because of it … because one day I will have to choose between letting go of Beth and letting go of Art.
“I want to do this with you, Gen,” he whispers. “Please try and see that.”
The taxi slows to a halt at the traffic lights separating Camden High Street from Kentish Town Road. Art and I met in Camden, fourteen years ago at a big New Year’s Eve party I’d gone to with my best friend, Hen. Art was twenty-six and in his first year of running his own business. He’d crashed the party with a bunch of his colleagues because he thought there’d be useful people there. I was just up for free drinks and a laugh.
We met at the bar, when one of Art’s colleagues—Tris—bumped into Hen and it turned out they were old college friends who’d lost touch. Of course, Hen introduced me to Tris who, in turn, introduced me to Art. Art bought a round of drinks, most of which I knocked over on my way back from the Ladies. He was sweet about that, immediately buying another round, even though—I found out later—he could barely afford to eat at the time. We got chatting. He told me about Loxley Benson, how he’d set up the business with a good friend just months before, how he wanted to ride the new wave of online trading, how passionately he felt about making sure the investments his company supported were ethical and socially and environmentally responsible.
I told him how I worked for a boring homes magazine, writing about kitchens and color schemes, but how one day I wanted to write a novel. I remember being blown away by how driven he was. How he was prepared to take any risk and suffer any setback to get where he wanted. How it wasn’t so much about making money as making a difference.
Even then, I knew that whatever Art wanted, he was going to get.
I bite my lip. It’s dark outside now, the street lamps starting to glow as the taxi drags its way past the dreary shops and crowded pavements of Kentish Town High Street. If he wasn’t married to me, Art would probably have four kids by now. He should have this. I shouldn’t stop him from having this.
“It’s the hope,” I say. “I can handle anything except the hope.”
Art laughs. I know he doesn’t really understand what I mean. But he loves me and that’s enough.
“Why don’t you check out the ICSI stats,” I say. “See what you think. Then we can decide.”
Art nods enthusiastically and reaches into his pocket. A second later his phone buzzes and I realize he must have had it turned off for most of the last hour. I can’t remember the last time he turned it off for more than a few minutes.
He’s still talking on the phone as we reach Crouch End and walk into the house. Lilia, our Slovakian cleaner, is just leaving. As I shut the door behind her I notice the post piled up by the hall radiator. I pick it up and wander into the kitchen. We don’t use the other downstairs rooms that much. It’s a big house for just two people.
I flick idly through the mail. There’s a postcard from my mum, who’s on holiday with her latest boyfriend in Australia. I set that down on the kitchen table, then take the rest and stand over the recycling pile, chucking the junk mail on top of it. I put aside two bills and an envelope bearing the logo of Art’s attorney. More junk mail follows: magazines, takeout menus … How can we receive so many pointless bits of post in just one day?
Art is still talking on the phone. His voice—low and insistent—grows louder as he passes the kitchen door, then fades again. As I throw a couple of catalogues onto the recycling pile, it teeters and finally collapses.
“Shit.” As I pick everything up, Art reappears.
“How on earth is it possible for us to generate this much paper?” I say.
“They’ve brought forward tomorrow’s Brussels meeting, so Siena’s booked me onto an earlier flight.”
“The meeting’s at ten. I’ll be leaving here just after six, so I was wondering about an early night…” Art hesitates, his eyebrows raised. I know what he’s thinking. I smile. At least it should mean the subject of IVF gets dropped for the rest of the evening.
“Sure,” I say.
We have dinner and I watch some nonsense on TV while Art makes a couple of calls and checks various spreadsheets. My program segues to the News at Ten. As the first ad break starts, I feel Art’s hand on my shoulder.
“Come to bed?”
We go upstairs. Art drops his clothes on the red-and-orange-striped rug and shakes back the duvet. He gets into bed and grins up at me. I lie down and let him touch me.
To be honest, I like the idea of Art wanting to have sex with me more than the sex itself. Our conversation about the IVF is still running through my head, and it’s hard to let go and relax. I move a little, trying to be turned on, but it’s just not happening. Art approaches sex pretty much like he approaches everything else—when he wants it he goes and gets it. Not that I’m saying he’s ever been unfaithful. And I don’t mean he’s bad in bed, either. Just that he didn’t have much idea when I met him, so everything he does now I taught him to do. And he’s still doing it, exactly like I showed him fourteen years ago.
“Gen?” Art’s propped up on his elbow beside me, frowning. I hadn’t even noticed he’d stopped touching me.
I smile and take his hand and put it back between my legs. I will myself to respond. It works, a little. Enough, anyway. Art’s convinced I’m finally letting go and eases himself inside me.
I let my mind drift. My focus turns to the pile of recycling downstairs. All that paper. I know that what really bothers me is the reminder of all the written words out there—the endless magazines and books competing for space on store shelves. And that’s before you include the Internet. I used to be part of it all: I wrote and published three books in the time between marrying Art and getting pregnant with Beth. Sometimes the amount of published material in the world feels suffocating—squeezing the air out of my own words before they have a chance to come to life.
Art moans and I move again to show interest.
It’s not just the paper stuff either. Art’s “Mr. Ethical” and insists we are ultra-green, with separate boxes for everything: aluminum, cardboard, glass, food waste, plastic …
Sometimes I just want to chuck it all in a black bag like we did when I was growing up. My mind slides to a memory from childhood. I’m struggling to carry a trash bag across the back garden, the grass damp under my feet. I’m hauling it toward Dad, who’s on a rare visit home between tours. The grass smells sweet and fresh. Dad has just mown it and now he’s making a compost heap with the cuttings. I want to help. That’s why I’m carrying the contents of the kitchen trash can out to him. He laughs and says most of the contents won’t rot so we make a bonfire instead. I can still remember the smell of the fire, my face burning hot while the cold wind whips across my back.
Art’s kissing my neck as he thrusts harder into me. I just want him to get on with it … get it over … As soon as we’re done he’ll fall asleep and then I’ll get up and have a cup of tea.
Art’s breathing is heavier now, his movements more urgent. I know he’s close, but holding back, waiting for me. I smile up at him, knowing he’ll know what I mean. A minute later, he comes with a groan and sinks down onto me. I hold him, feeling him slide out of me and the wetness seeping out onto the bed. I love the way he feels so vulnerable like this, his head on my chest.
I wait …
Art nuzzles into me, sighing contentedly, then rolls off, leaving just one arm draped over my chest. His breathing deepens and I slip out from under his arm. It’s one of those things that I know, but don’t want to face: our sex life has got into a rut. Unsurprising after so many years, I suppose. And it’s certainly a lot better than during the years when I was obsessed with getting pregnant. I know Art felt under pressure then, having to do it at the right times, and I hated how trying to conceive took all the fun and spontaneity out of it. I stopped checking when I ovulate ages ago but maybe all that history has taken its toll. Or maybe it’s just classic, married sex: predictable, comfortable, safe. I’m not complaining, though. One day I’ll talk to Art properly about it. He’ll listen, I know he will. He’ll want to make it better. Which means he will. I’ve never known Art to fail at anything.
Art’s iPhone rings from his trouser pocket on the floor. He wakes with a start, then sighs as he reaches over the side of the bed to retrieve it.
As he starts talking, I get up and go downstairs.
* * *
I wake up. The bed beside me is empty. Art is long gone, headed to Heathrow. A damp towel lies across his pillow. Irritated, I push it onto the floor.
Half an hour later I’m dressed and spreading butter and Marmite on my toast. The day stretches ahead of me. My normal Wednesday morning class has been canceled and I have no appointments. Not even coffee with Hen. But I have this niggling sense that there’s something I’m supposed to do today.
You could write, says a voice in my head.
I ignore it.
The doorbell rings and I pad to the front door. I’m not expecting anyone. It’s probably just the postman. Still, you can’t be too careful. I hook on the chain, open the door and peer through the crack.
A woman stands on the doorstep. She’s black and plump and middle-aged.
I instantly assume she’s a Jehovah’s Witness and brace myself.
“Are you Geniver Loxley?” Her voice is soft, with a hint of a Midlands accent.
I stare at her. “How do you know my name?”
The woman hesitates. It seems unlikely that a Jehovah’s Witness would have this kind of detail, so I’m now assuming some kind of invasive mailing-list scenario. Still, the woman lacks the bravado of the sales-trained. In fact, now I’m looking closely at her I realize she’s nervous. She’s wearing a cheap suit made of some kind of nylon and sweat stains are creeping out from under the armpits.
“I … I…” she stammers.
I wait, my heart suddenly beating fast. Has Art been in an accident? Or someone else I know? The door is still on its chain. I open it properly. The woman presses her lips together. Her eyes are wide with fear and embarrassment.
“What is it?” I say.
“It’s…” The woman takes a deep breath. “It’s your baby.”
I stare at her. “What do you mean?”
She hesitates. “She’s alive.” The woman’s dark eyes pierce through me. “Your baby, Beth, is alive.”
Copyright © 2013 by Sophie McKenzie