NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 12 (then)

There are moments which you never forget, or forgive for that matter. They linger in your consciousness for the rest of your life; like a bullet that didn’t kill you but the medical profession decided was too risky to remove. The pellet is stuck somewhere inside you balancing on the brink of being harmless and life-threatening at the same time; like a souvenir of a nasty accident that you managed to survive but never completely put out of your mind. And every time you think of it you relive it and your body immediately fills with fear and takes you there again, but with the difference that this time you might not have a lucky escape.
On a hot August afternoon when Nina was already a three-year-old toddler with a lot of dark hair and a shy smile, Sophia opened the door and we realised that she was pregnant again. Time flies so quickly and it looked like yesterday that Nina had been born and I had held her dreamily in my arms while Sophia had a shower.
“Oh hello!”
“Come in…come in…!” She waved us in. The background was a noisy banging of glasses and plates, kids with high-pitched voices running around with their cars and dolls and an unidentifiable melody from the CD player; just another typical BBQ at Sophia’s with her usual set of friends.
“Oh wow, you didn’t tell us your news…” I said timidly touching her tummy.
“Well…” Sophia was obviously trying to avoid that sort of conversation with me. Not with anyone else, just me. (She had the best intentions, I thought, she didn’t want to hurt me, but she should have told me, as by not telling me she just made it worse, not better. I was happy for her. I was not cross with every expectant woman I met - I was furious with Mother Nature.) “It was an unexpected surprise actually… When we just thought Nina was enough for us this happened, but then you can’t plan these things…can you?”
That’s so right, Sophia, you can’t plan it. You can’t plan anything in life anyway.
Sophia introduced us to their new neighbours; a very green couple of University lecturers who didn’t stop talking about their soon-to-be teenage kids (and they couldn’t possibly be any older than us), their vegetable patch in the garden with organic tomatoes and potatoes, their recycling offensive and their determination to make a greener world for the next generation, for our children. Their optimism and drive were overwhelming and irritating at the same time. It was inspiring to know there were people out there who still truly cared about the planet and its future, but also frustrating because Jason and I had lost that kind of driving force; the passion that helps you to get out of bed in the morning and fight your way through yet another stormy day.
Driving back from Harrow, at a time still higher on hope than desperation, I called:
“Jason…”
”Yes…”
He was falling asleep after an afternoon fuelled with just a burger and far too many lagers. We were inhabitants of a completely different dimension to the one of Sophia and her blessed-with-kids friends. For them we were that sad childless professional couple working in the city with a fine bank account but who didn’t actually know what real life was like, while for us they were sad individuals who thought having kids was their only mission in this world, who forgot they had existed before their offspring appeared and who talked smugly about how much their little ones slept, ate and poohed. And we still envied each other.
It was a dry and crisp summer evening. We managed not to get lost around Wembley for the first time ever and the North Circular Road was extremely quiet.
“We could always adopt… If nothing works…”
Pensively and sleepily Jason nodded his head.
“I wouldn’t have any problem adopting a child… Kids are so likeable anyway. Look at how much we like Nina! And…I think it’s such a human thing to do. You choose to make someone’s life nicer… What do you think, Jason?”
“I think I would still prefer my own child…”
said Jason after a short pause. And I could feel myself breaking inside into a thousand and more pieces. Then and there - in the middle lane of the North Circular Road.


***


It was a quiet and damp Tuesday morning at the beginning of November and Jason was on a last-minute must-attend meeting, when I went to see the consultant at Whipps Cross. Shops were full of boxes with tacky Christmas cards, wrapping papers with designs of Santa, Rudolf and cute houses on snowy hills, all to a soundtrack of Jingle Bells and tunes from Christmases past.
I had taken a day off as I didn’t fancy going back to the office regardless of the outcome. I’d booked it weeks in advance when Jason was still coming with me and I thought we might celebrate or commiserate together, hug under the gloomy sky and go for a lunch in a café. Then he was summoned to a meeting and I just didn’t bother cancelling my day off.
The consultant read through my medical history again, looked at my notes, my test results, his computer screen, then again at my notes and test results, he looked everywhere except at me. His forehead frowned as he grabbed a pen and started his questioning. Just to recap…
Another recapitulation of unsuccessful years and of one obsession. His medical assistant didn’t close the door and I could hear people chatting in the waiting room and as the volume of their voices increased, mine turned into an almost inaudible whisper.
“Ok… All results both for you and your husband are absolutely fine…but Clomid still didn’t work… These things are sometimes a mystery to the medical profession…Hmm…”
Then he took his notebook of referrals and wrote our names on the waiting list for the clinic of the artificial hope.
I disliked the word artificial, the sound, the meaning, the implication of being just a poor imitation of something real. Nonna Lucija always had a small vase with artificial flowers in her bedroom. Mother insisted on putting it on her grave and every year on All Saints day, the two of us visited her resting place with a new bouquet of artificial flowers. All the other graves were covered with big displays of white and pink chrysanthemums while our one had a small and tasteless vase of red artificial flowers. She had died thirty-odd years before and I couldn’t remember when last I visited her resting place. As the consultant was updating my records I felt a painful need to buy the best-looking – if that’s possible at all – artificial flowers, pack a small weekend bag and go to visit her grave. Nonna Lucija got that vase with artificial flowers from her loved husband Eugen and always said: “you kill fresh flowers to enjoy them for a few days and you can enjoy plastic flowers forever”. They didn’t look pretty, but she liked them and often cleaned their dusty leaves and petals with a piece of wet gauze.
The pain hit me as I walked towards the car park and raindrops nestled in my hair. I did have my umbrella with me but finding it in my bag and opening it seemed an exhausting task. I looked at the watch. I couldn’t phone Jason as he was still in his meeting. Maybe I could phone Sophia. She was at home expecting her second baby in a few weeks and preparing for her move to Lincolnshire, to be closer to her family. She had too much on her plate – resigning from her job, selling in London and buying up North, packing, looking for schools for Nina and thinking of names for the new baby. It was not the time to trouble her with my own everlasting frustrations. The clash of our two worlds seemed painfully unfair.
The raindrops were getting larger and heavier. So was the traffic. There always seem to be a connection between worsening weather and worsening traffic in this city. I drove slowly around the crowded roundabout outside the hospital, turned right to Wood Street and oozed behind a rubbish collecting truck. Driving relaxed me. It made me feel in control. A fake and temporary control, but at least some kind of control. Artificial control. Again. By the time I reached Forrest Road I did not have a clue where to go or what to do with the remains of the day.
Mobile phone rang. What a relief. I couldn’t possibly answer it when driving. I didn’t want to answer anyway, but at least I had a good excuse for myself. Maybe I should phone my mother, I thought. But I never discussed this kind of things with her. In the most emotional moment of our lives she told me I was the best mistake of her life. But – I was still a mistake. It was her mother who never wanted a bastard in her Catholic family. Maybe I should finally go to see her and visit nonna Lucija’s grave. It would probably do me good; in a cathartic way.
Then I decided to find some artificial flowers. And that all of a sudden gave purpose to a wasted day. I indicated left at the traffic lights and headed for the centre of Walthamstow. My mobile phone rang again. Oh, just stop it! Just fuck off. Whoever you are. I don’t want to talk to anyone. Not right now, anyway. Maybe later, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, next year, sometime in the future. When I feel better, if ever.
Walthamstow High Street was full of shops selling artificial flowers of all sizes, colours and shapes. How come I never before noticed huge buckets full of them in front of the shops? I thought artificial flowers were things of the past and difficult to find. How wrong I was … The raindrops were getting stronger and sharper and my hair was sticking to my face. In Wilkinson’s I bought an armful of plastic flowers – rosebud bushes in cream and red colours, a bush of white carnations, a few red gladioli and red gerberas, a couple of pink peonies and paid less than twenty pounds for all of it. All the vases on display were too modern and chunky and nonna Lucija wouldn’t have liked the look of any of them. I wished I could travel through time and give her all these flowers.
Jason looked at the huge batch of plastic flowers scattered all over kitchen table.
“Why did you buy so many…fake flowers?” He was obviously looking for the right word. “I would have bought you a bouquet of real ones…you should have just told me!”
“I don’t like flowers anyway…They die quickly…”
I said not answering the question and Jason not insisting. I would have to tell the whole story and he wouldn’t understand it anyway. I just need to find a white porcelain amphora-shaped vase with a kitsch relief of angels, arrange the flowers and put them on the windowsill in our bedroom.
“OK!” He said and cuddled me on the sofa for the rest of the evening.


***


A few weeks later, shortly before Christmas, we went together to the clinic of artificial dreams for the initial appointment. High on hope and expectations, Jason held my hand all the way through and his hand made me feel strong after all the years of corrosive weakness. The consultant was useless anyway, these people are specialists and they know what they are doing, we will get lucky this time. I was telling myself. We were given a detailed explanation of what the procedure consisted of, what the success rate was for people of our age and how we might (or might not) feel. The room was large, white and clinical.
The specialist, an attractive woman in her fifties with long blond hair and tanned complexion, enquired about our full medical history. I found it easier to talk to her than I did to Mr Gupta; maybe because she was a woman or maybe because I had repeated it so often over the last few years that it no longer felt like a painful private tale, but someone else’s sad life story. Then she explained to us all the stages of the procedure, possible side effects and what our chances were as we had just stepped into the fifth decade of our lives and the forecasts grew gloomier by the day. Jason and I didn’t look at each other and only our holding hands tried to close the vast abyss that had formed over the years.
This is it. This time we will be lucky. We kept repeating to ourselves. This is a new chapter in our lives and at the end of this rocky and winding road through the unknown you will be our reward for hope and persistence, for fighting when it was so easy to give up and believing against all odds.
“You can start next month! Your appointment is on the…”
As we walked out of the hospital filled with a new wave of optimism we noticed a few shy snowflakes landing on our hands. I was sure one of them was you announcing your imminent arrival. Cheerfulness came back to us and we rediscovered laughing over a bottle of wine on Friday night, with Jason making an effort to come home earlier and cook. He would forget to put sour cream in the Stroganoff or cook the three-cheese pasta bake with only two cheeses, but we both looked forward to our weekends.
Five days before the due appointment, I got a letter from the hospital informing me that the specialist was away, so we needed to phone to reschedule another date. I rang the number but got through to the answering machine telling me that the booking office was only open from 8am to 12pm.
“Don’t get stressed about it…” said Jason finding me curled on the sofa surrounded by a pile of used tissues and my eyes the size of apricots. “We’ll get an appointment next month and everything will be alright… And what’s a month in a life time?”
An eternity, Jason, an eternity…
You could smell spring in the air by the time we finally got our appointment after another cancellation. Every morning on specific days I was to inject myself in the thighs with prescribed medicine.
“Are you scared?” asked Jason.
“I don’t know…” I lied.
I was scared, I was very scared. Not of the procedure per se or of medical science in general, but was scared that I wasn’t mentally or physically fit for it. I felt drained and needing a proper rest, but my age was letting me down and desperation to see you, hold you, cuddle you, squeeze you was stronger than anything else.
“It will be alright!” said Jason with a distant and detached voice. He was tired and fed up and agreed to go through it because of me, as he always had a strong sense of duty, but I could read him like an open book by now and knew that he wished he could walk away from this never-ending nightmare. And from me, probably. But – he felt obliged to stick up with me, till the end. Jason felt responsible for all that happened to me since I moved to London to be with him over a decade ago. I would often try to explain to him that it was my decision after all; it was me who wanted to do it, that it was not an irrational moment of passion and infatuation but a rational decision and that I honestly believed in the “they lived happy ever after” fairy tale ending and saw us growing old together and spending summers in Lovran with grandchildren. By now I should have known that life never works out the way you dream.
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to take time off to come with you with all the appointments…”
“Don’t worry…as long as you come to the ones you have to…”
“Of course, of course… and more than that hopefully. I would like to be there with you as much as possible!”
The specialist looked at my notes and then at me.
“Hmm… According to the scan, your body gave a poor response to the first round of injections…”
”Is it so bad?” I asked shyly.
“Oh no no… It happens sometimes… We’ll have to increase the amount of drugs…And then see how it goes… You’ll now have to administer an injection in the morning and one in the evening…” She handed me the prescription to pick up at the hospital pharmacy down the corridor. I rushed to the nearest toilet and after a projectile vomit I started kicking my abdomen, fighting back tears and depression. Why, why, why, why are you not responding? You completely and utterly useless thing. Ok, ok, ok, now calm down.
Next moment someone impatiently and loudly knocked at the door.
“Occupied…” I shouted in annoyance, hoping to hear their steps going away, and not pacing in front of the door.
My abdomen swelled in no time and all my clothes became too tight; even my largest jeans could not be done up anymore, jersey dresses could not be stretched any further and before long I was one stone heavier and heading to Marks and Spencer’s for generous size shirts. My breasts became soft, heavy and painful, my waist and thighs got covered with layers of fat. But – Jason was reassuring me – it didn’t matter and he still found me attractive. And the thought of holding you in my arms at the end of this gave me the strength. I could see your tiny and squashed face and perfect bluish hands and feet between my legs on the delivery table at the maternity unit and I screamed from joy, not pain. What the hell a few kilos were compared to that?
I cried and I dreamed. I cried because Jason was 15 minutes late on the Friday night and I thought that something had happened, that he had been beaten to death by the criminals on bikes from the local council estate and that I would never see him again. I cried because my mother didn’t answer the phone for a couple of days. What if she had had a heart attack or stroke and was lying helpless in her flat with no one to check on her? I cried because my legs got heavier and my calves painful. I cried because the old chap down the road died after two years of abuse from the five Lithuanians camped in the house next door with a recycling box full of empty bottles of J&D’s and no one did anything. I cried when Jason told me that his young colleague needed dialysis after suffering from an inexplicable kidney failure and his fiancée had left him as she couldn’t cope with a life of nursing him. I cried watching a documentary on British monarchs and learning that prince consort Albert died at the age of 42 leaving queen Victoria on her own for another forty or so years. I cried because a 5-month old girl was mauled by a fox that strayed into her bedroom by the back door looking for food and I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever take my eyes off you. I cried after reading the news that an estranged husband killed his two daughters and then himself in front of their mother who had asked for police protection but nothing had been done. I cried at news of earthquakes and floods that left people homeless all over the world and on reading statistics of how many children live below the poverty line (Oh God, why are you doing this?) I cried listening to You don’t bring me flowers anymore by Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand and couldn't go further than You hardly talk to me anymore / When you come thru the door / At the end of the day. I cried if a movie had a happy ending. I cried if a movie didn’t have a happy ending. At the end I just cried, without any reason or obvious trigger.
Vivid dreams took over the short moments of sleep during my restless nights. One moment I was in the middle of a dark and humid forest. I was holding you in my arms when the rain came down in torrents. We hid in an old wheel-less and rusty coach. In the next image we were living there, the sun was out and I was hanging the washing on the line, most of it was your pink outfits, tiny dresses with patterns of flowers and bunnies, and a blanket. The following night I was meeting people I had not seen for decades and we were still young and partying.
On the day of the egg collection I was given another injection to ripen them. Them – meaning eggs, as if I was a hen. Jason was there, but I wasn’t. I drifted back in time. Fabian’s grandmother lived in the countryside just outside Lovran, in an old stone house, and nonna Lucija and I visited them occasionally. They kept roosters and hens and Fabijan and I would take a basket and go to fetch eggs. Fabijan would point out nests just left by shrill cacklers. We had to be careful not to break any, and Fabijan carried a stick to protect us from the red rooster that showed signs of aggression towards anything that moved. We also learned to prepare feed for the chicks, mixing cornflour with some water.
I was not allowed to eat or drink on the day and we also got struck in the traffic on the way there. We can’t possibly be late for this! I was crying in the car. The next morning I woke up feeling sick and in pain; my abdomen didn’t belong to me and the ache spread to the lower back.
Two agonizing weeks later the test was negative, my exhausted body needed a period of recovery and thousand of pink lines occupied again my dreams.
Time flies when you are having fun, they say, and it also flies when you are not having fun at all; days come and go, weeks are crossed out in our diaries, pages and pages of months taken off the wall calendar, seasons melt into each other and years pile on our shoulders as a life-threatening burden. We didn’t want to discuss it at work and instead were taking days or even weeks off, as we have to do stuff around the house. We avoided giving more details - stuff should be good enough. Jason and I felt like castaways who had just finished the last drops of drinkable water and were not sure how long they could survive. Hugging and cuddling without taking, holding onto each other without looking into each others’ eyes, we tried to encourage and calm each other at the same time as if our lives depended on it. And to a certain extent they did. The second and the third tries were the same. Negative. Spring came and so did our last appointment.
“That’s it…” Said the specialist. “There is nothing else we can do. You can go private but it doesn’t guarantee you more success, unfortunately… Some things just remain inexplicable even for the medical profession…”
“We tried it all… Time to move on… Life has to go on…” Said Jason and made me promise that I would try my best to close this chapter and find other things to fill up my time and engage my mind. I nodded with torrents of tears still ploughing down my cheeks.


***


Summer came and went. It rained most of the time and the temperatures were unusually chilly for the season. We didn’t care anyway as all our days off were used up and we hadn’t planned any holidays. Instead we concentrated on work. Our special Friday nights with a bottle of wine soon became a thing of the past. I was on autopilot, with emotions suppressed and rationality taking over. My body was still melting and hormones were raging. Instead of getting better, my breasts were getting softer and agonizingly painful. The tiredness was unbearable and I was struggling to get through the day. My stomach was turning at every smell and taste and I could hardly eat anything. I blamed it all on the months of therapy and all those morning and evening injections into my thighs and was trying to convince myself that it took time to erase the scars of those final 18 months of mental and physical torture, and all of that after a decade of other torments. Drinking plenty of liquids should detox the body, I was told, but I found the taste of water disgusting. “Did you take a pregnancy test?” asked my large and unhealthy looking GP who I hadn’t seen for years – as I had been being looked after by the hospital specialists - after reading through screens and screens of my medical history from Whipps Cross. “No… It never crossed my mind that something like that could be possible…after all these years and unsuccessful therapies…Could it really be possible?” I felt goosebumps running through my veins all the way up to my neck. “Of course it could! Actually I heard of many stories where this is exactly what happened! After going through the IVF, some couples just give up and then it happens just like that…” He clicked his fingers. “I’ll send you for an urgent blood test and will see you in a few days…” I run to the closest pharmacy to buy a pregnancy test, not the one with pink lines that often appeared in my dreams, but the new era digital invention that also tells you how many weeks you are pregnant and hid it at the bottom of my handbag. I ran to work. I would do it later tonight, would wait for Jason to come home. I was too impatient though. I was tempted to hide in the disabled toilet during the lunch hour and take it. Or sneak to the local pub or the shopping centre. I was desperate and frightened to find out. When I finally got home in the evening I grabbed a glass in the kitchen and run to the bathroom upstairs with my coat still on and high heels killing my swollen ankles. I threw the coat on the floor, rolled my skirt up, thighs down and weed in the glass. Maybe I should have waited for Jason, maybe we should have done the test together and cuddling while waiting for the life-changing result to appear on the small screen. Then again; I didn’t know what time he would be home and couldn’t suppress my impatience, with the shiver accumulated during all those years of hope, expectations, dreams and anguish running up and down my body. The shout came out of my mouth as soon as Jason opened the door shortly after eight. We didn’t say much, just squeezed each other as hard as we possibly could, feeling happiness, excitement and anxiety, all at once. A week later the results of my blood test came in and I had a scan, and surprisingly hospital things moved quickly and smoothly. The operator rotated the screen towards us and we could see a tiny bean with a ferocious heartbeat. “Is everything OK?” I asked. The young Indian girl in the blue hospital gown smiled, turned towards us and said gently: “Everything appears normal! There is not much we can see yet, but here is the heartbeat and heartbeat at this stage means that there is 97% chance that this is going to be a successful pregnancy! Congratulations!” We didn’t ask for a photograph as it seemed too early and apart from the heart beating furiously that you couldn’t see on the print anyway, nothing else looked like you just yet. We’d get the photo on the next scan! By then you’d have legs, arms, head and all other organs, not just a tiny hopeful heart. Seven weeks and two days, showed the scan. It was fun calculating it back to the evening you finally decided to come. That chilly evening your little soul chose us. I couldn’t stop rubbing my chubby tummy as if I was cuddling you. You were a three centimetres long chickpea that would grow and grow and in no time I would be holding you in my arms trying to establish who you looked like. You would have cute puffy cheeks and closed and sleepy eyes and we would spend evening cuddling on the sofa waiting for Jason to come home. I would let you sleep on my chest for first weeks and months and spend the night listening to your breathing and days staring at your beautiful minuscule face. “Why don’t you take some time off?” suggested Jason.
“You need to be relaxed and rested now!” “Don’t worry, Jason. I’ll be alright. I can take everything now…knowing that our little girl is on her way!” ”Girl? What makes you think it’s going to be a girl?” “I know it, I can just feel it...”