You only ever hear the success stories. The ones about those who gave up and then it happened. Or did it nine times and on the last-ditch attempt, it worked. Because that’s what people want from a story, or so I’m told. Change. Transformation. A different state from beginning to end. But what about when it doesn’t change? When you just have to go on, same as before, day in, day out with no metamorphosis.
You never hear people talk about what happens if it doesn’t work, how you feel then. How you move on, or not.
So, you look around you at the studio. You’ve never been here before. The doctor talks about percentages and years and age, and your husband nods and jots some of it down in the notebook he usually carries to make sketches in. Oh, and did I mention? This is all in another language, because you made a decision, a few years back, in the middle of some kind of early-life crisis, to move to another country.
There are photographs stuck to the wall, everywhere. Photos of babies. So many, many babies. Some of the pictures curl at the corners. Some slant towards the floor. All of them are multiple: in each image at least two or three chubby infants grin down at you.
Two? Three? You’re not even sure you are equipped to deal with one. Twins or triplets are not what you’ve signed up for. The Doctor talks on and you wonder if you could ask him the probability, the likelihood. There was your friend at work, fourth time lucky and then when she went for the scan there were three of them growing inside her.
The Doctor stops talking, and you find the courage to ask. He says, oh, you should be so lucky, eh? At your age. What with all the statistics and low probability rates. Really, don’t be so ungrateful. Think of all those couples who don’t succeed. (But where are their stories? Where are the pictures of them, sitting, empty handed? At the very least there should be a row of ghost-faced, empty frames to balance it all out.)
In the street, you stand and stare at each other. This wasn’t what you’d planned. Sunlight filters through September leaves on the dirt-darkened branches of a sycamore. At the bar – quick shots of bitter espresso – you pick up a free paper. The headline shouts: Pollution Links to Infertility. A little joke from the universe, on this day of all days.
And so it begins. Tablets to shut you down, take you into a dark hiatus. Arid, and old. At work you are tired and irritable. The children in your class more needy than usual. When you get home, you sleep.
Then, the part you’ve been dreading. Injections. You try to do it yourself. Be brave. Pinch belly fat, brace, tense, plummet the needle. After, you collapse with a migraine. When your husband finds you, he holds you, and kisses you and offers to be the nurse next time. Turns out, he’s good at it. So it goes easier for a while.
You tell your family about it, and their responses are what you expected, more or less. Hopeful, far too hopeful, and unaware of what it all entails. Neither do they ask. Close friends too, and here come the tales, the miracles. For some reason you don’t find these stories comforting, in the way they are intended. It seems a lot like pressure. And you can’t imagine having to go through all this, again and again, for years, just to have your own miracle ending.
Only your mother-in-law, unexpectedly, in this culture where the Madonna is revered and babies worshipped. Children, she says, with a roll of her eyes. Sweet when they’re small, she says, pouring a coffee and passing it to you. But then they grow up and really, they’re nothing special. You ask yourself what it’s all been for. More important to be happy with each other.
You wonder how your husband feels about this. He thinks it’s a joke, laughs and hugs his mother, but you feel relieved, send her a small smile of gratitude.
Next phase. Leaves drift from the trees as you stroll to the bus stop. Clouds mass, grey and wet, but you are inexplicably happy. Full of energy, and young again. So brilliantly young. It should be spring, you feeling like this – about to burst with vigour and life, everything so vivid and intense around you.
Blood tests. Early morning, hunger, queue, rain runs down windows. At night, your desire for sex is monstrous – not that you can. Nearly there. Nearly ripe. Nearly time for harvest. It should be summer, with you being so damn fruitful.
The first procedure takes all morning. You are confused. Lonely, when your husband goes off to produce the holy sample. You’ve joked about it often enough, but still, it hardly seems fair.
There you are, on the table, exposed, mildly sedated, not understanding what the staff are saying. The light is too bright. You close your eyes. Pierce, scrape, drag, and when it’s done you are taken to another room, with other women, and left to sleep.
The good news is, the nurse is saying, we did get something we can use. The bad news is, there’s only two of them. You sit up. Apologise. She congratulates your bed neighbour. Eighteen eggs from her ovaries. Well done! You get dressed, find your husband. At the bus stop the first flakes of winter flutter down, settle on your hair, ice the wool of your coat. Snow in December, in this city? It shouldn’t be this cold.
The second procedure is quicker, simpler. By now you are used to the stirrups, the too-bright light, the implements. Frigid metal inside you, faces peer, fingers probe, snap of latex gloves, smear of gel, tubes, needles. Feeling ridiculous with your top hoicked up and your knickers beside you on a chair.
The doctor says, in the end we could only manage one embryo. He has a special, sad voice. Then he perks up. Still, it’s a good one. Very active. Let’s hope for the best. All those eyes stare down at you from his wall, twins and triplets, and you send a forbidden, silent prayer of thanks to a god you don’t believe in. Just one. And suddenly you want this to work, more than anything you can remember ever wanting. For you, for your husband. For your story. You need this transformation.
Two weeks. Your boss tells you she doesn’t want you to come to work. You don’t resist. Days pass, box sets and gentle walks only. You expect messages and calls, but instead pass the hours in silence. Wordless. Others have their own lives to be getting on with. Their own children to be looking after. Or maybe they just don’t know what to say. You try not to examine every last sensation, but the symptoms of success and failure are the same. That little needling pain? The painful breasts? The tears?
Sunday night, in front of the TV and suddenly you know. You walk to the bathroom, take down your underwear and there is the evidence. So much evidence that there can be no doubt. You sit on the loo for a while, not knowing what to do. You don’t want to say it out loud, not yet. You’ve imagined this, and the reverse, so many times, but what surprises you is how little you actually feel. After a while, you shower and change for bed. Walk into the living room, sit down next to him, take his hand.
It didn’t work.
He puts an arm around you and you rest your head on his chest. The television blathers on.
And you too will go on. The same as before. No new life. No new calling. And you think of all your fears. That you were incapable of caring for someone else. The longing that you had, and the utter terror of it too. That you were not good enough. That you will never be good enough. And you think, this is your punishment.
The grief will come later, when you expect it the least. On holiday, watch a mother dip her baby, gummy grins and giggles, in the waves. Visit family and see your nephews cuddled in soft pyjamas under the Christmas tree. On a Monday morning, eat a bowl of cereal, alone in the dark before work. There it is. It carves lines between your eyes. It sticks in your throat, chokes laughter into sobs.
But what are you grieving for, really? you hear them say. Something you never had in the first place? You can’t call that loss.
So, here is your transformation. Now you have a void, where once you had nothing.
And when you try again, your body baulks: no more of this barrage of hormones and chemicals. Enough. It has changed you. It has made you old.
But birthdays continue to come and go, and as the years pass, the significance diminishes. Life trickles in to fill the hollow.
Then one day, you realise.
It should be spring, you feeling like this, so hopeful after a decade in the dark.
Sunlight pours down through fists of blossom.
Justine Bothwick grew up in Kent and Hampshire, and is a graduate of the Manchester Writing School’s Creative Writing MA programme. She has short stories published in Fictive Dream, Virtual Zine, Confingo Magazine, and forthcoming in The Lonely Crowd and with Nightjar Press. Her work was highly commended in the Bath Short Story Award 2020. Her debut novel – In the Mirror, a Peacock Danced – will be published with Agora Books in 2021. She lives and teaches in Rome, Italy.