The masked embryologist stands at a hatch door in a room beside the operating theater. The window blinds are pulled closed against the bright spring day and the sounds of Hong Kong—taxi horns and bus engines and vast drills boring into ground-rock—are neutered by two panes of glass. I’m anesthetized, naked from the waist down, my legs pulled apart and tied into stirrups. My left arm is stretched out straight and taped to a plinth. I have a breathing tube in my throat and an IV in my arm that is looped to a hanging bag full of saline. I have been hormonally amended, my ovaries leavened by synthetic hormones to grow more eggs within tiny, plump sacs. A wide bore needle is pushed through my vaginal wall and into these follicles by my gynecologist, Dr. Chan, in full scrubs, from his frilled cotton cap down to his rubber boots, sits on a wheeled stool within the gape of my legs. Fingers on the needle, eyes on an ultrasound screen, he’s looking for eggs to lure out of my body with the gentlest of suctions. Eggs far smaller than the dot of an i.
Dr. Chan withdraws his needle and stands up, the stool rolls away from the backs of his legs. He shouts something in Cantonese. The embryologist readies his hands, smooth in white latex gloves. Dr. Chan walks with a squeaking tread towards the hatch and passes through it the vial containing my follicular fluid. The embryologist disappears into his room, where he tips the fluid into a petri dish, applies his eye to a microscope and counts the eggs. ‘Yat, yih,’ he cries. ‘Sam, sei.’ He counts the rest silently and pulls down his facemask, lets it hang loose against his chin. He walks back to the hatch and calls into the surgery. ‘Sap sam,’ he says. Then, for my anesthetized, non-Chinese speaking benefit, he calls it out in English.
I come to in the ward. There’s a green blanket tucked tight under my chin, floral-print curtains around my bed are pulled closed, boxing me in. The woman hemmed into the bed within the cloth cubicle beside mine is vomiting and crying, post-anesthesia. She’s soothed over by a nurse. We are the ‘Infertility Patients.’ We are not sick, but we are in hospital. We have had surgery but we have not been cut. Here for different and varied reasons, we are each linked by some failing or quirk of the body: polyps or fibroids or tumors; cysts or scars or adhesions; slow sperm or age or, as for my husband and me, ‘unexplained.’ For all of us to get here, lying in these beds, we have pretended and lied, bartered and bargained, lost hope. Eventually, we have each given up on Mother Nature—with her old wives’ tales of full and half and slithered moons, of the perils of tight trousers and nylon underpants—and we have come instead to cold, unemotive science.
Here, there are egg harvests, retrievals and transfers; sperm is a ‘deposit.’ Here, that flare of fertilization, of life, begins not in the gloom of the womb
but in a spot-lit dish, witnessed not by God but by a masked embryologist.
Tim walks into the ward, I listen to his voice: ‘My wife is here?’ The staccato response of the nurses, the sound of his feet. He’s been in a room that is familiar to me only in my imagination, with a lock on the door, a wipe-down, faux-leather sofa, boxes of Kleenex and tubes of hand cream. A scattering of pornography on the coffee table. Tim steps through a gap in the floral curtains. ‘Feel okay?’ he asks, touching my feet through the blanket.
Infertility has hoisted a shortness upon my husband and I; we talk in truncated sentences. Adverbs and adjectives and verbs sometimes, have all become a waste of time. Like sex.
‘Did you?’ I say.
‘Yes,’ Tim says, sitting down in the visitor chair. He pushes his glasses up his nose. ‘Horny Babysitters.’
Sperm successfully delivered. Good. Title of pornographic magazine, if I believe him. Also good. I would not have accepted stage fight. Soft, limp, flaccid, that will not do. It—dick, cock, prick—must be hard, bone, stiff. I realize in some closed-off, distant recess of my mind that this thought process is not normal. But what is normal? Fertility treatment has taken Tim and I far, far from the world of candle-lit procreation. Here, on the IVF ward, there are beds and leg restraints, probes encased in condoms and smeared with KY Jelly. Take your knickers off, open your legs, go to sleep. Wank, spunk, jizz. Dirty magazines, dirty movies. There’s an approximate erotica in IVF, involving a lot of other people. She’s nude beneath a backless gown and penetrated by a latexed finger. In the small, windowless room he sees only one other, a woman dressed as a nurse. He knows that she wants him to touch himself.
Maybe this month, porn will bring us a baby. I try to smile at Tim, who’s blowing his nose on his cotton handkerchief. Tim would make a great dad. The thought is upon me before I’ve had a chance to squash it. It’s dangerous for me to story-tell a possible future; hope does not help hormones. The days when I do think about babies—fat wrists and wobbly tummies, gummed, milky smiles—are the days when I can’t get out of bed. My life has split into two, neat as a trouser seam. There’s the ‘possible’ half of the menstrual month that triggers a trilling, excitable mindscape and a puritanical abstinence from alcohol, caffeine, second-hand cigarette smoke. Life is bleak but gluttonous during the ‘crushed’ half of the month: listeria-oozing blue cheese, lightly sautéed scallops, goblets of red wine.
Tim and I have kept this a secret, this thing about us. Marriage has not brought a baby, but a sequence of procedures.
First came love.
Then came marriage.
And then came the creation of zygotes in petri dishes.
Infertility within a partnership must be like alcoholism or drug addiction. Both force secrets, hidden facts. The same denial of reality. The ‘we are fine, we are fabulous’ façade that is publicly insisted upon masks the late-night door slamming, the rage, the sorrow. Next morning’s bafflement. Different, though, is the response to outcomes. Recovery from addiction requires vigilance, a never-forgetting, but a baby born from infertility procedures might never know its provenance. The doors of truth can slam shut on infertility and never be prised open; the success of the treatment never celebrated but kept secret, like shame.
It’s only on the IVF ward, that there’s no denying the truth. All of us in the beds here are somehow broken.
I find it rather relaxing. It’s the only place in my life where I’m not pretending To Be Fine.
The floral curtains are yanked apart and there, at the foot of my bed, buckled back into his business suit, stands Dr. Chan. He attends the women in the hospitals on Hong Kong Island in the mornings, those who have just given birth. He runs his pregnancy and infertility clinic in Central from ten to two. After two p.m. he performs the IVF procedures here in The Sanatorium Hospital in Happy Valley. Frequently, he is called to a woman in labor. You would think his schedule would fall apart given the unpredictable nature of harvested eggs and at-term babies, but Dr. Chan is an acrobat, spinning through the air on the point of a needle.
‘You feel well enough to read?’ he asks me.
I’m reading an Anne Enright novel, the one she won the Man Booker Prize for, with the Irish Catholic family of twelve siblings, just like my mum’s. ‘I’m okay,’ I say, but what I mean is: How many eggs? How many eggs? How many eggs? I look at Dr. Chan and think, twelve? He puts his hand on my leg.
‘Thirteen eggs. That’s about right for your age.’ He looks at Tim. ‘Thanks for the deposit. It’s in the embryologist’s hands now.’
Dr. Chan doesn’t thank me for my eggs. Instead, he goes to the woman in the bed beside mine. I listen for his voice, muffled inside the curtains.
She got twenty-two.
Numbers are auspicious for the Chinese, they matter. Here, two is a very lucky number, two twos doubly so. Unlucky four, because it sounds like the word for death, is a floor that is often skipped in buildings, flats with four bedrooms are rare. But thirteen? My maternal grandmother reared twelve children in rural Ireland, but she had thirteen babies if you count the stillborn buried in the field at the back of the farmyard.
I whisper to Tim: ‘Thirteen does not seem like a good number.’
‘Stop thinking like that,’ he says.
I lie back against the pillow. Thirteen: a baker’s dozen. An extra loaf baked in case one goes wrong.
Thirteen witches in a coven; thirteen guests at the Last Supper.
Friday the thirteenth.
Thirteen letters in a name brings the devil’s luck. Theodore Bundy, Charles Manson, Jack the Ripper.
Thirteen is an all round unlucky number.
Except here, where it’s an auspicious number. Lucky.
Once I’ve gone to the bathroom, I’m discharged. Tim holds my elbow as we cross the Hospital concourse, like I’m an old lady, unsteady on my feet. It’s March, the start of the rainy season, humid and misty. The air is Irish to look at, but hot and deadly on the hair. The smell of damp concrete rising from the sidewalks is the same as London’s rain-wet streets, which reminds me of my mother, but it’s still too early to call home and tell her how the egg retrieval went. We moved to Asia two years ago, left behind my job, my friends, my family, but I’m not sure I will ever stop thinking in terms of prime ministers, pound sterling and Greenwich Mean Time.
A red taxicab glides to a halt and an exhausted-looking mother climbs out, toting her tiny baby in a complicated, portable car-seat. I cannot look at the pair of them, focus instead on clambering into the taxi. When I sit down I can feel through the cotton of my skirt the indent of the baby’s car-seat, and I can’t help it, I think: why does that woman get to have a baby and not me?
I’m a midwife’s daughter, does that fact not offer some advantage? I grew up amidst the paraphernalia of late-stage pregnancy and childbirth: boxes of latex gloves and blood-test results strewn across the back seat of my mother’s car. I used to play with the little doll she used for her pre-natal classes, with a soft canvas body and hard, plastic extremities. From a young age, I knew that babies were screamed into life by their mothers, heard all about the exhaustion, the putting of the butter in the laundry basket and the nappies in the fridge. If the phone rang in the middle of the night when I was a child, it did not signal a sick relative, but a baby’s imminence: Come now, come quickly. ‘Say a prayer for the baby,’ my mother would say, as she stepped from the house into the darkness, birth-bag in hand. I knew too that, before heart rate monitors and ultrasound scans, childbirth was the thing most likely to kill a woman. Breech baby, cord around the neck, blood loss, septic shock, all of this is what a hospitalized birth is designed to discover. Death still strolls through the maternity wards, hands in pockets, whistling and relaxed. Death is fast there, unexpected. Gone in a heartbeat, poor darling. All the times when Mum drove back from the hospital, parked outside the house and sat in her car for a long, long time.
Is that why there’s no baby?
The stories that we tell ourselves. In a future, not too far away, doors will defeat her. She will stand outside them, with the baby in his hooded pram and not know how to get to the other side of that door, into the shopping mall on the western fringes of Hong Kong Island, with the tiny Starbucks and single ATM. The brass door handle, the heavy glass, the pram and the baby, the scar in her belly still hidden behind a wide plaster.
‘I used to be on top of all of this,’ she will say to her mother, the retired midwife, who stands beside her.
Her mother will hold the door open and mother and pram and grandmother will glide through into the wall of icy, recycled air. The fuss about the air-conditioning upon newborn skin. Is the cap over his ears? Is he cold? Always inside the daughter-mother that thrum, that hiccup of the heart: is he breathing? Is he okay? The grandmother-midwife has seen this first-time-mother-anxiety a thousand times before. But this is her first grandchild. She’s slipped a prayer card beneath the mattress of the pram. The daughter doesn’t know it, but her baby sleeps upon the words: Lord Jesus, I trust in you.
March, 2008. The afternoon of the egg retrieval. Nurse Kelly calls from Dr. Chan’s office, with an update from the embryologist. ‘Twelve eggs fertilized,’ she says.
‘Not thirteen?’ I say.
‘Twelve is a good number.’
‘Twelve is auspicious, you mean?’ I say.
‘No, twelve is very good for aged thirty-six,’ says Nurse Kelly. ‘You are lucky.’
We get luckier. The cells multiply.
All of the embryos make it to day five and are given a new name: ‘blastocysts.’ In the scan that Dr. Chan gives me, they look like tiny cabbages.
‘We’ll see if they all make it to tomorrow and if they do, we’ll freeze nine and transfer three tomorrow afternoon,’ he says. There’s a plastic pelvis on the desk between us, with a pop-out, malleable red ball for the uterus.
‘This is all good news, right?’ I say. My eyes are glued to the wall behind Dr. Chan, papered with thank-you cards and photographs of nature-defying newborns and their awe-struck parents.
‘A lot will depend on the egg quality,’ he says.
I snatch my eyes away from the thank you cards.
Eggs. It was the most basic question that was asked of me, back in London, at the beginning.
‘Do you ovulate, Saffron?’
I was sitting in my general doctor’s office, holding up my hair so she could inspect the eczema patches on the back of my neck. On the wall was a faded poster, of a tufty-headed baby, tucked under its mother’s chin, with the slogan Breast is Best.
‘How would I know if I do?’ I’d asked.
‘Vaginal mucus,’ my doctor had said. ‘Yoghurty, sometimes lumpy. But when it’s clear and in strings—’ the doctor had snapped her fingers apart, a scissoring gesture between thumb and forefinger—‘then you are ovulating.’
I had only been dimly aware of the mucus, and had no idea what it meant. Pregnancy, that had so long been an item scrawled on a checklist between ‘write a novel’ and ‘start Pilates,’ was now neatly printed at the top of the list, followed by a tentative question mark.
‘Listen, you haven’t been trying for a baby that long,’ said the doctor. ‘Nothing to worry about there. But I can’t prescribe a steroid emollient for your neck if you might be pregnant.’ She gestured to my Blackberry, which I clutched to my chest in a white-knuckled fist. ‘Work very stressful?’
‘Boris is my closest companion,’ I said.
The doctor frowned. ‘You’ve given it a name?’ She wrote this down in my notes.
My job as a finance lawyer had recently changed. I was now assigned complex deals that I couldn’t make head nor tail of, a world apart from the bond transactions that I always worked on, deals that financed roads or railways in Tunisia or Morocco or Turkey. I’d been told that my promotion to partner hinged upon my spreading my wings and abandoning the vanilla and the safe for the cutting edge and risky. I couldn’t tell if I was dim or just that my attention had dimmed—biological clock trumped career ambitions—but I couldn’t get excited about innovations and insane timetables, any more than I could figure out how these transactions worked. When I started my training contract in 1997, women lawyers had only within the last ten years been permitted to wear trousers to the office. Women were still expected to work like men, men whose family life was dominated by the law firm and abandoned to their wives.
What happened if you were the wife? The fast-burgeoning sense of pointlessness was borne out by the eczema.
Borne. Those ‘b’ words got in to everything.
Barren, belly, baby, bump.
As the rattle from my handbag of failed pregnancy tests grew louder, we moved from general doctor to specialist and the questions grew more complex and the tests more rigorous. Instead of urine to test for ovulation, they needed blood to test for rising estrogen levels. A cold hand pressed against my abdomen was replaced by an internal examination, and then with an ultrasound. My ovaries flickered in the television static of the ultrasound screen. Egg reserve confirmed. Ovulation imminent. ‘See how that follicle is bigger than the others?’ the fertility doctor had said. I stared at the ultrasound.
What the fuck was a follicle?
The Sanatorium Hospital, Happy Valley. The day of the embryo transfer. Tim and I hand over our Hong Kong ID cards, our British passports and—because the archaic system in Hong Kong requires IVF patients to be married—our wedding certificate. A nurse slides the consent forms towards Tim.
‘What will we do with any surplus embryos?’ he reads.
‘Surplus?’ I parrot. ‘If we have the embryos, why would we stop?’
‘We’re not having twelve children, Saffron.’
‘Why would you go through this,’ I point at my stomach, ‘and stop at one?’
‘Do we need to discuss how many children we’re having?’
‘It’s an absurd question to put to a couple who can’t get pregnant.’
‘Choice number one,’ says Tim. ‘We can give the remainder to another infertile couple.’
No, I think automatically. Mine, mine, mine. I can’t imagine myself post- Happy Ending, my story neatly arced, able to give away possible babies. I see that the nurse is listening so I say: ‘I guess that’s the morally correct thing to do.’ The nurse walks away from the front desk. ‘Absolutely not,’ I whisper to Tim. ‘In a hypothetically absurd situation, where we go from having no children to potentially too many.’
Tim nods his head vigorously. ‘We can’t have some kid turning up in twenty years time, calling us Mum and Dad and demanding that we pay for its University education.’
He ticks the box to give our remaining embryos to science.
I put on the surgery uniform: disposable knickers, a checked gown that is open at the back, white knee-length socks and plastic slippers. My essential information is typed onto a waterproof label that is clipped around my wrist.
‘Please drink lots of water. Your bladder must be full so that Dr. Chan can see the womb on the ultrasound,’ says the nurse.
We wait on the IVF Ward. Tim sits beside my bed. His thumbs move across the buttons on his Blackberry. He looks up at me: ‘What?’ I ask him to re-fill my water bottle. He leaves the Blackberry on my table, skew-whiff, like a taunt from my law firm. I think about smashing it on the floor or chucking it in the bin or hiding it in the bedclothes but I decide not to. We’re a single-income family now and Tim needs to work to pay for the treatment.
The operating theatre nurses march into the IVF ward, surround my bed and bark questions from behind their facemasks.
‘Is this you, Saffron Gretta Marchant?’
‘What is your date of birth?’
‘What is your Hong Kong I.D. number?’
One of them places a portable step beside my bed, which I stand upon as another firmly grips my elbow.
I peer at the label that wraps my wrist. ‘How many embryos do we have?’ I ask. My bladder is so full that my stomach is a hard, uncomfortable dome. ‘I think I may have drunk too much water.’ I am ignored.
‘Is this your birth date?’
‘How many embryos do we have?’ I ask again.
Tim and I are escorted through several doors until we are in an office at the center of which is a computer. Dr. Chan is sitting at the desk wearing scrubs, his feet tucked into rubber boots. ‘Here is your embryo, Saffron and Tim.’
There is one brain-textured circle on the computer screen. ‘Did the others all die?’ I say, shrinking within my cotton gown.
‘No you have, let me see,’ Dr, Chan rustles through his notes, ‘twelve embryos. We’ll put three in—’
‘Not four?’ I say. I want unlucky number four; I don’t care about auspiciousness.
Dr. Chan laughs. ‘No, we won’t put you through that. Too high a chance of multiples! We don’t want you going through a reduction procedure. We’ll put three in and freeze the remaining nine.’
My mind snags on the notion of a ‘reduction procedure’—the abortion of the smallest multiple—but then I finally hear the message that all twelve embryos survived. My elastic mood bounces skywards. ‘I have a really good feeling about this, Dr. Chan.’ Tim and the doctor exchange glances.
‘One step at a time, Saffron,’ says Dr. Chan. ‘Let’s do the transfer and then let’s see if we can get to implantation.’
‘Tim’s coming in with me?’ I ask. The blue in Tim’s tie matches his eyes.
‘He’s not scrubbed up.’ Dr. Chan shakes his head. ‘This will only take a few minutes. You won’t be able to see much on the ultrasound anyway.’
The nurses file in, shouting more questions about my wristband. Tim kisses me as my head is squashed into a cotton cap.
Three blastocysts are loaded into a catheter and put back inside me. I watch them on the ultrasound screen. They sail into my womb like tiny, oar-less rowing boats.
Twelve long days of waiting. The hormones. Whore moans. The false-gamete one to make more eggs grow, the false-pregnancy one to make the eggs pop out from their follicles, and now the false-progesterone to make any pregnancy stick. I feel so sick. My chest aches, I have a headache. The hormones are cruel, they mimic early pregnancy: sensitive breasts, tears on the bus, a slouched, fat gut. I look pregnant, three months gone. In Central, I get so cross that I want to bite the office-workers slow-walking in their impassable packs; punch the mini-bus-goading taxi driver; push the smug pregnant woman down the escalator. I attend an Anne Enright lecture at Hong Kong University. She is witty, charming, clever. I bite her too.
Day 12. The day of the pregnancy blood test. An unsmiling nurse wraps a latex strap around my bicep and tells me to make a fist.
‘Will this hurt?’ I ask her, to break the silence. I am in a giggling, amped-up mood.
‘Yes,’ she says, and jams in the needle.
I walk back into our apartment on the western tip of Hong Kong Island, built into the sky on land reclaimed from the sea. The bruise sits beneath the small, circular plaster in the crook of my arm. I pull out some rosary beads and light candles, a small request for help from my mother’s god. There are many gods here in Hong Kong: of the sea and the kitchen, monkey gods, earth gods, gods of mercy and affluence, happiness, justice, long life. Incense purifies the air on street corners and rice and fruit and tubs of fire are offered outside the temples. Joss sticks burn on the ground in small red shrines for the ancestors and at annual festivals great feasts are eaten at gravesides so that the whole family—the dead and the living—can dine together. Cars or microwaves or cigarette boxes made out of paper are burnt so that the deceased can enjoy them in the afterlife.
I have a new god.
My old God was wrathful. He punished me for my sins, He made me barren. Now I believe in the god of the embryo, of the welcoming womb, the Gonal F god. I believe in Dr. Chan and in the alchemy of feng shui, or wind and water, the correct orientation of domestic items to bring the best of luck. In my home, I use pot plants to ward off the barren god, the period god, the god of the miscarriage and the cold uterus. I move the mirror out of our bedroom because it’s bad feng shui for glass to reflect a marital bed.
The afternoon. I sit on the sofa and wait for the phone call from Dr. Chan’s clinic.
My body, like a maiden who will not yield, keeps its secrets, and tells me nothing. No cramps. No twinges. But I do know this: if I am pregnant I will have got to the other side. I will have mounted the hump of infertility and in nine months I will be in the state of Happy Ending. Just an ordinary mother toting an ordinary newborn. I will be frazzled and un-showered and borderline catatonic, with baby phlegm on my coat, like the women who used to ring our doorbell, looking for my mum their midwife. I resolve that I will never forget any of this; never pretend to another woman that my babies just popped out.
I try not to have the story erupt within me: the ‘I first knew I was pregnant with you when—’
But I can’t help it, the hormones that make me soft. I story-tell my Happy Ending.
A bald-headed baby with bright blue eyes eatseast his lunch in a high chair in his home in a Hong Kong skyscraper. Chubby fists slam onto the plastic tray. Bam! The baby startles at an arc of peas. His mother walks in from the kitchen proffering a bowl of home-made organic sweet potato puree softened with freshly-squeezed orange juice, pips and pith sieved. In her other hand is a spoon she just plucked out of a saucepan of fast-boiling water. Her fingertips thrum. She presses the spoon against the inside of her wrist, testing it for heat. It’s still too hot. Behind the baby, the view of the South China Sea has been wiped out by a bank of fog.
This is what I wanted, the mother will realize with a jolt. Never-forget-ever-forget-never, she sings to her baby, scooping up his strings of drool. He grins at her. There’s a slither of white in the pink of his gum.
Your first tooth, she will shriek, and then broadcast it on Facebook.
I startle at the ringing phone. ‘You’re not pregnant.’ Nurse Kelly says. ‘Your blood is bad, there’s no HGC.’
HGC: Human chorionic gonadotropin. This synthetic hormone is the one they use to trigger ovulation in IVF. The real hormone shows a pregnancy.
‘Your period should come now. If it doesn’t by next week, you need to come for more blood tests.’
‘Because if it does not come I might be pregnant?’ I say, clawing for hope.
‘No. It means that the baby is in the tubes. Ectopic.’
‘But I could still be pregnant—’
‘There is no way that you can be pregnant because your blood is so bad,’ Nurse Kelly repeats. ‘I’m sorry. IVF often doesn’t work first time. The body doesn’t know what to do.’
I call Tim and tell him.
‘Shit,’ he says softly. I listen to him breathe. I shouldn’t have called him at work, he is surrounded by people. ‘I really thought this might be it.’
I nod. Tears slide down my face and neck.
My mother and sister send texts of commiseration and positivity. You’ll get there! Nine embryos left! Then my dad calls from his cushion shop in London. Dad never calls me; he leaves it up to Mum. He’s had a fall outside a customer’s factory and broken his glasses. He has cuts on his face. I ask him to repeat the name of the customer: Dad has unwittingly been making cushions for an up-market Knightsbridge sex shop. I spend an hour on the phone with my sister, describing to her the types of products available on the sex shop’s web site. The bestsellers are jade cock rings, brass anal plugs and long, tasseled whips.
I laugh hard.
How far we have all come from candle-lit procreation.
April. May. June. Cysts bloom on my ovaries like flowers, a side product of the hormonal hyper-stimulation. Dr. Chan prescribes rest cycles. The embryologist’s office sends a bill for our embryos’ space in their deep freeze. I lurk on the Internet, glued to the infertility chat rooms, but not contributing, a cyber ghost. In that rain-lashed July, we try for a second time a frozen embryo transplant. That night, instead of the bed rest prescribed by Dr. Chan, I try to trick my body. This is business as usual, I tell it, and go to my life-writing class. I write a tentative first line: ‘I have never knowingly been pregnant.’
The fizz of tears in my nose. I get up and go to the bathroom, run cold water across over my wrists. All this God-playing, all this science. They noodle around with a woman’s ovaries, pumping ink into tubes as thin as a human hair, or fill the tummy with gas and send a telescope in through a cut in the belly button to look at the uterus, the ovaries, the curled fallopians. In IVF they put women into a chemical menopause to ‘silence’ the body in preparation for a baby, the way a farmer leaves a field fallow. They make you barren to get a baby. Nobody knows the risks of any of this, not really. Am I making myself sick? Sicker?
None of it—the body-trickery, the faux-indifference, the embryo transplants, the life-writing—works.
There are six embryos left.
August, 2008. The third embryo transfer. Due to some linguistic confusion as to the timing of Dr. Chan’s arrival at the Hospital, I don’t drink enough water. My bladder is not full enough for him to perform the procedure. I lie back in the stirrups as the doctor and nurses rattle away at each other in urgent, angry-sounding Cantonese.
Dr. Chan puts a hand on one of my splayed knees. ‘Listen, let’s not waste these embryos, I’ll put a catheter into your urethra and we’ll fill the bladder with saline water. It might hurt.’
It really hurts. ‘Can you relax, Saffron?’ calls out Dr. Chan. My legs are shaking, tears slide across my cheeks into the whorls of my ears.
I try to unclench.
I will myself to let go.
Afterwards, I call my mother. ‘That’s terrible, darling, but it’s a good sign you had it done today. It’s your uncle Gerard’s birthday. Your grandmother had a terrible time of it, giving birth to Gerard, her worst labor, she always said. So she named him after St Gerard of Majella. He’s the patron saint of childbirth.’
Three frozen embryos remain. The embryologist’s clinic sends us another bill for the freezer space.
London, September, 2008. With three embryos inside me, I’m in the state of pregnant-until-proven-otherwise. Tim’s here in London on a business trip; I’m a trailing wife. I stand in the windowless, white-tiled bathroom of a serviced apartment close to the River Thames and my old law firm. Whir of an extractor fan. Strong smell of pizza from the Dominos downstairs. A lone coil of long, black hair in the sink. Not mine. Not Tim’s. Pregnancy test stick, with its sodden absorbent tip and portentous, plastic ‘result’ window, balanced on the side of the bath.
The mirror above the sink is smudged with the circular smear of a cleaning cloth. In the reflection is the kitchen counter upon which sits a slice of oozing blue cheese, a bottle of wine, a box of tampons. I look at myself, through the smear: my big-featured, barren face with its soft, malleable chin. My edges have blurred.
I am the goose that cannot lay a golden egg.
I am a voodoo doll, punctured by needles.
I am a Virgin Mary, awaiting her miracle of conception.
I am so not going to be pregnant.
I pad out of the bathroom back to the news on the television, lodged within its Armageddon loop. The BBC has a new fright logo: ‘Financial Crisis,’ with the first ‘I’ in crisis expressed as a down-arrow. Lehman Brothers is in ‘crunch-talks’ with Bank of America, like Woolworths buying Harrods. Depression. Recession. Global apocalypse. Decimation. Devastation. Annihilation. Images of bankers leaving Lehman’s New York office toting pot plants and cardboard boxes. The same images of bank-workers at Lehman’s London office. The news anchors talk of ‘cutting edge’ and ‘innovative’ and ‘unraveling’ and ‘high risk.’ They talk of the same structured finance transactions that I left behind at my law firm when I got sick.
I switch off the television. If the banks collapse, what will become of all of us? Riots and traffic jams? I pad into the bathroom. If I hadn’t quit my job, I would be in the thick of this, trying to explain to my bosses how to unravel a mess I could not describe—
In the window of the pregnancy test, is a thin blue horizontal line, crossing the vertical.
The trigger shot they give to women to induce ovulation prior to egg retrieval is the same as a pregnancy hormone. But I didn’t have a trigger shot; I had a blood test to confirm ovulation.
My hands shake as I open another test, the metallic packet sharp against my teeth. The line on this one is thinner, vaguer, as if the possibility of a pregnancy is already fading.
By the time Tim walks into the serviced apartment, the lines are like ghosts in the plastic windows. He frowns at the crosses as though suspecting a hysterical positive pregnancy result.
‘The lines were stronger when I first did the tests,’ I tell him.
He stares at me skeptically. ‘Let’s not get excited here. Didn’t Dr. Chan say not to do the urine pregnancy tests? Let’s go for a walk and then Wagamamas.’
Tim is almost as obsessed with the Japanese-lite food at Wagamamas as I am with getting pregnant. We walk along the South Bank. The tide is out and the riverbanks are muddy. Chucked into a mud-bank is a lever arch file with ‘Lehman’s Graduate Scheme 2008,’ written on the cover.
‘Everyone at work is panicking,’ says Tim, who is in banking IT. ‘It feels like it could all go tits up.’
‘Do you think I’m pregnant?’ I say.
Tim puts an arm across my shoulder. ‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.’
Strings of tiny lights come on along the River, ropes of yellow twinkle in the dusk. I allow myself a spasm of hope. I count the months on my fingers and grin at Tim: ‘April’s child is full of grace.’
‘That’s Sunday’s child, you idiot.’
The next morning, I am up early and buy several brands of pregnancy tests and four liters of water. Each test is positive. I keep going, chugging down the water and squeezing it out. Six, seven, eight, nine.
Eventually I stop and lie on the bed surrounded by positive pregnancy tests. For the first time in my life, I am knowingly pregnant. Even though this could be a false reading, the false-hormones have magicked this result into being, the fact of the positive result is the objective to all of this needling. I allow myself to story-tell. A late May baby, born into a barefoot birthday, celebrated in the garden with friends and family who are tipsy on white wine and wear sunglasses in all of the photos.
Then I get off the bed, thrust all the pregnancy tests into my handbag and get on a train to see my mum and dad, on the wintry outskirts of London.
Lunch, a restaurant packed, elbow to elbow, with grey-helmeted old-age pensioners and the occasional carrot-brandishing toddler tottering in and out. At least fifty per cent of the room is unsteady on its feet. My parents, though, are sprightly. Mum orders a Chablis; Dad a pint of Stella Artois and they both peer at all my pregnancy tests, popped on the table beside the salt and pepper grinders.
‘Is that hygienic?’ says my father, catching the curled lips at the neighboring table. The elderly couple beside us don’t even pretend not to listen in.
‘You couldn’t be pregnant with all three embryos, could you?’ says Mum. ‘The veins I got with you singleton babies. If you have triplets your legs are going to explode with varicose veins. It will be trousers for you for the rest of your life, young lady.’
‘What will you call it?’ says Dad, slicing himself a slab of butter and laying it on his bread roll like cheese. ‘Any names in mind?’
‘Jesus, Johnny, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves,’ says Mum, who has unleashed her frank-talking, inner midwife. ‘This is probably a false positive after all the hormones she took.’
The woman at the table beside us puts down her soup-spoon.
My father, famed for Getting Things Wrong, takes a swig of lager and points his finger at me. ‘If you’d been born a girl, we’d have called you Harvey.’
‘I was born a girl, Dad,’ I say, to the couple at the next table.
My London fertility clinic is closed over the weekend. I can’t wait until Monday to know for sure, so I call a clinic on Harley Street who tell me to come along within the hour. An Australian nurse takes my blood. She asks me to make the familiar fist and we chat about my life in Hong Kong. Then we meet Tim’s brother at a pub. He doesn’t know we are mid-IVF; he doesn’t even know we are trying for a baby. He thinks Tim and I ‘Prefer It, Just Us.’ The secrets we keep, the lies we tell. If I am pregnant, I think, spearing a fork with oily rocket and cucumber, I will speak loud my secrets.
But only if I am pregnant, of course.
Throughout lunch I keep checking my watch, waiting until 2:00 p.m. when I can call for the results. I have never felt so neutral in my life; I am in such a low gear I can feel my hair growing. At two p.m., I cite the bathroom, squeeze Tim’s shoulder and push through the lunchtime throng to the street. Over the phone I hear the sound of rustled papers. I’m-not-pregnant-I’m-not-pregnant-I’m-not-pregnant—
The nurse comes back on the line. ‘Hello, Miss Hong Kong? Let me be the first to congratulate you!’
Seven weeks pregnant. I have shooting pains down my upper thighs. I foolishly consult Doctor Google on my lap-top, read ‘miscarriage imminent’ and prepare for the worst. My Dad calls. He never calls. ‘Bad news, love’ he says. My mum’s sister, Chrissy, the eldest of the six sisters, has died in her sleep.
Tim comes back from the office to check on me. ‘I’m so sorry, sweetheart.’
‘I’m pregnant and she died.’
‘This is the weirdest day ever,’ says Tim. ‘Merrills is gone. Lehmans.
If AIG goes the world will go tits up.’
It’s a surge, a force, a demand for attention. So what, that the world is unraveling. Forget the fire sale of Merrill Lynch and the narrowly avoided billion-dollar bankruptcy of AIG. Ignore the pale faces of Paulson and Bernanke, begging Congress for funds, predicting a collapse of the global financial systems.
The bile surfaces in my throat. I race to the bathroom and spew.
‘Just throw up darling, get it all out, vomit, vomit, vomit,’ says my mother, beside me on the back seat of Dad’s Honda. ‘Look, I’ve brought you some grapes. It always helps if you have something sweet to throw up.’ She’s also bought a large framed photograph of my aunt Chrissy, whose funeral is tomorrow.
Mum grabs a wad of tissues from the box on her lap and begins to cry again. ‘I just can’t believe she’s gone.’
I pitch my head forward and retch. My mother leans across her seat. ‘Look at that gorgeous pregnant bile,’ she says peering still closer into my bowl. ‘Yellow, frothy, a touch of grease. You don’t need to have an ultrasound, you’re definitely pregnant!’
‘I know I’m pregnant, Mum. I’ve done thirteen pregnancy tests.’
‘How does anyone have enough urine for so many tests?’ says Mum. ‘You know, I’ll put calla lilies on Chrissy’s coffin, she’d like that.’
I vomit again.
Mum says, ‘Isn’t it strange. Chrissy dies and you get pregnant after all this time.’
Dad erupts from the driver’s seat. ‘To our left, Saffron, is the Loughton Reservoir. It got bombed in the War—’
‘Jesus Christ, Johnny, shut up!’ says Mum. ‘She’s back here puking her lungs up.’
In the car park outside the clinic my mother prizes the plastic bowl from my hands. ‘You can’t walk around with a bucket of vomit,’ she says and throws the bile into a tall shrub, where it hangs in glossy yellow strings.
‘We can’t just leave it there, Mum.’
‘This is an infertility clinic they have seen everything here.’ She wipes her hands on her skirt. ‘And the sight of some pregnancy vomit might give another woman hope.’
Dr. William sits behind his desk at the Essex Fertility Clinic and beams at my sick bowl. ‘Are they miracle workers over there in Hong Kong? You look terrible!’ He throws back his head and laughs. ‘What a good sign!’
‘Wonderful isn’t, Dr. William?’ says Mother, who sits beside me, representing Tim who’s stuck at the office. ‘But too early to count our chickens,’ she says with authority.
Dr. William looks up from my notes, his smile fading. ‘Your HGC results are very high.’
‘They put three embryos in,’ blurts Mum. ‘Such a risk,’ she adds, which she hasn’t said to me before.
My doctor and my mother-the-midwife stare at each other across the glossy desk. Dr. William says, ‘Let’s see what’s going on in there.’
I get into the stirrups. The blank ultrasound screen cackles into life.
‘Oh my goodness, there! There!’ cries Mum grabbing my hand.
On the screen, for a moment, a flicker, a rapidly blinking eye. ‘Where?’ I say. ‘Where?’
Dr. William looks at my mother. ‘One heartbeat. But there was a second baby,’ says Dr. William. ‘Look, there’s the sac. That’s why the bloods are so high, why she’s so sick too.’
‘Where,’ I say again. ‘Where?’
The screen goes blank, the scan is over. The experts have spoken: one empty sac, one heart beat.
‘Such great news!’ repeats my mother, brushing at her eyes. ‘What happens to the second one, Doctor?’
‘The cervix is sealed shut now. Her body will just absorb it.’ Dr. William turns and pats my knee. ‘Multiples are tricky, Saffron. Nature took the right course.’
I close my eyes against a fresh wave of nausea. I don’t like this, the swiftness of the fact of the second baby. I want the lost twin to be noted, I want it witnessed. The empty sac in the corner of the screen looked like a broken star or a tiny, cloud-edged shadow. As I scramble back into my knickers, I think about my aunt Chrissy, who never woke up, and me, storing vials of baby-inducing hormones in my fridge and sliding needles into the fat of my belly. All those times when the science didn’t work and I couldn’t get out of bed.
In the waiting room, Dad is reading a home furnishing magazine.
‘One baby, Johnny,’ says my mother, pushing her rosary beads back into her coat pocket. ‘What a relief. Triplets! Imagine! She’d have been like the old woman who lived in her shoe.’
‘Due in May,’ I say, which is three seasons away, an impossible, unquantifiable period of time to feel this sick for, longer than real time, like dog years. I re-position my head over my sick bowl and try to see through the nausea and cheer myself up. A heartbeat, for fuck’s sake. A heartbeat! Whatever happens next, whatever nature has in mind, right now, the science worked.
‘We saw it on the scan, Dad,’ I say. ‘It looks just like you.’
Dad, smiles. He gets bigger and taller, broader around the shoulders. ‘Does it?’ he grins. ‘Does it really?’
My mother rolls her eyes. ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Johnny! She’s seven weeks pregnant. There’s nothing to see.’
Here is a story that I tell.
In April, 2010 Saffron and Tim host a first birthday party for their little boy in a plush Hong Kong hotel. She makes the guests sing Happy Birthday twice. There are no embryos left: Saffron-Mummy already has a secret in her belly, the flickering heart of a girl-baby. They have been lucky again.
When Hong Kong succumbs to its leaf-withering summer heat, they announce this second pregnancy at a leaving party (expatriates are always attending leaving parties).
‘What the fuck’, says one of their friends, gesturing to the boy-child, busy with a fistful full of cars. ‘The first one’s only just started walking.’
A woman with a tough, fake smile adhered to her face and a very familiar set to her jaw, says: ‘You two must be extremely fertile.’
‘We had to have some help,’ Saffron says to the woman who cannot look at her son. ‘Our fertility doctor, Dr. Chan, is a magician.’
I do not forget. I yield my secrets.
by Saffron Marchant
Honorable Mention, Creative Nonfiction Prize