For most of my adult life, thanks to my sister, I've been terrified of getting pregnant. I've taken a belt-and-braces approach to contraception: condoms and the Pill, patch and an IUD, safe period plus a diaphragm (after I hit my thirties and began to worry about blood clots and heart attacks).
The joke is on me, it seems.
"No chance?" I ask, to be quite clear. "Absolutely none at all?"
"I'm so sorry, Grace. Perhaps if you'd come to me ten years ago, we might have been able to do something, although I doubt it even then. If you or Tom have any questions--"
I stand, terminating the conversation before Dr. Janus' professional pity embarrasses us both.
"I think you've explained it all very clearly, Doctor. Thank you," I add.
His secretary presents me with a sealed cream envelope on the way out. I drop it into my Birkin without opening it.
Fourteen months of tests and thousands of pounds to find out that relaxing and giving it time were never going to work. No amount of zinc-rich foods and leafy vegetables, chasteberry tincture, red clover, acupuncture, hypnotherapy, B6, B12, noting my temperature, propping my pelvis up on a pillow for twenty minutes, no amount of enjoying the practice or letting nature take its course--none of it, nothing, will ever give me a baby.
I stop a moment on the surgery steps to pull myself together, holding my Birkin against my chest like a scarlet shield. I'm rather more shaken than I thought I'd be. I shouldn't be: unlike Tom, I had a feeling all along something was wrong. Susannah's life is a car-crash in motion, but Tom and I are perfectly placed to have a child: strong marriage, secure jobs, a beautiful home in the Oxfordshire countryside with plenty of trees to climb. Naturally I'm the sister who can't get pregnant.
Already I'm mentally searching for a loophole: a way out, a solution. My mother says I think like a man, and she doesn't mean it as a compliment.
I can't believe this is the end of the line. For more than a year, I've formulated Plan Bs for every eventuality: If I don't get pregnant in six months, I'll see a specialist. If they can't fix what's wrong, we'll try IVF. If Tom's firing blanks, we'll use a donor.
After our first consultation with Dr. Janus--the one where he referred to my thirty-seven-year-old eggs as "geriatric"--I quietly researched clinics without telling my husband, evaluating those with the highest IVF success rates, and efficiently setting money aside so we wouldn't have to wait on the caprices of the free, but lengthy, National Health Service lines. Whatever the problem was, we'd find a way around it. We'd keep trying, however long it took.
It never occurred to me the problem might not be fixable.
Dr. Janus briefly mentioned surrogacy at our first meeting, but I'm not prepared to take the risk that the surrogate mother would refuse to hand over the baby at the end. You read such tragic tug-of-love stories in the papers. Adoption is a nonstarter, too; I checked into that months ago. Tom has a heart defect. He was born with it, and the doctors say he'll probably live to a ripe old age; but as far as Social Services is concerned, he could die at any moment. They won't let us adopt in this country, and we're not rich or famous enough to go off to Africa and start a rainbow family.
There must be a way. This can't be over. Think laterally, Grace. Work the angles. I'm a forensic accountant, I'm trained to find loopholes. There must be a way.
I back up against the Harley Street railings as people bustle past me, their heads bent against the biting February wind. I'm always calm in a crisis, I'm known for keeping my cool, but suddenly I can't think straight. I don't know which way to turn. Literally: I'm standing in the street and I can't even decide whether to go left or right. I don't know what to do next. My mind is blank.
No, not blank. So densely overwritten it just seems that way.
A tangle of thoughts ticker-tapes through my head. Congenital uterine malformation . . . exposure to diethylstilbestrol . . . no one could have known . . . incompetent cervix . . . impossible to carry a fetus to full term . . . additional factors . . . thirty-seven years old, polycystic ovarian syndrome, severe endometriosis . . . harvesting eggs not an option . . . very sorry, extremely unfortunate . . .
Tom. My poor Tom.
That huge house; four bedrooms. I've kept my LEGO set all these years. And my wedding dress. What will I do with my wedding dress now?
Mum. She'll be devastated. She's already lost two grandchildren, thanks to Susannah. She's pinned everything on me making it right again. Now, for the first time in my life, I have to let her down.
The words echo on the wind. A bus vibrates with them. Stiletto heels tattoo them on the pavement. No chance no chance no chance.
A freezing sleet starts to fall. I'm blocking the street; shoppers bang their bags against my legs, to make the point. A bundle of foreign students sweep noisily along the pavement, and as they pass, I blindly allow myself to be carried along in their wake, my afternoon meeting forgotten.
I'm aware I'm in shock, but I'm powerless to do anything about it. My future has just been eviscerated. It plays in my mind's eye, a montage of failure. There'll be no Christmas stockings to put up, or paintings in primary colors on the fridge. No bucket-and-spade holidays. No Mother's Day cards, no first day at kindergarten. No homework to help with, or rows about messy bedrooms and exorbitant phone bills. No first kisses, first dates, breakups, weddings, grandchildren. No one to come after me, no one to listen to all I've learned.
Just Tom. And me.
I'm an amputee, staring at the place where a limb used to be. Knowing that soon it will hurt beyond imagining, and that its loss will ache forever, but unable to feel anything yet.
The tide of pedestrians surges to an abrupt halt at the edge of the pavement. I look up and realize I'm at Oxford Circus, the opposite end of town from where I need to be for my meeting. I should turn around, retrace my steps, hail a cab. I do none of these things.
Impatient shoppers jostle me from behind as we wait for the light to change, and I stumble into a woman laden with plastic shopping bags, nearly knocking her into the road. I apologize and stand back, allowing the crowd to shove past me. A stroller wheel grazes my ankle, laddering my tights. A small child bats a stuffed toy against my knees; a girl, I assume, from the bubblegum-pink anorak and purple jeans. I have no idea how old she is. Is that something that comes naturally, once you're a mother, the ability to judge another child's age?
I can't tear my eyes from her. She isn't pretty. The wind has whipped her plump cheeks red; two train tracks of mucus dribble from her nose, and her hair has been flattened against her head by the rain. Her eyes are too close together and she has scabbed patches of eczema around her mouth.
I never thought I'd want a child. Growing up, Susannah was the one who brought home stray kittens and pleaded to adopt a puppy. I was the clever one, the one who'd go to university and have a career. Susannah was the earth-mother type. My mother often said so. She'd be the one with four children and an Aga and dogs asleep in the kitchen. Not Grace. Grace couldn't boil an egg!
It never occurred to me then that my mother was trying to give Susannah something to be good at. Something I hadn't already claimed.
For years, I bought into the accepted family version of history. I wasn't domestic. I couldn't cook. I wasn't good with children. I was good at passing exams and earning money and achieving professional success. Even when I met Tom, and discovered that I could, after all, whip up an omelet and manage a vacuum cleaner, the thought of children still terrified me. Until, all of a sudden, two years ago, it didn't.
The little girl drops her stuffed animal onto the ground, and reaches impotently for it, fat starfish fingers opening and closing in frustration. Her mother ignores her, drifting towards a shop window a couple of feet away. She presses her palm against the glass like a Victorian street urchin at a bakery and gazes at the display of studded urban jeans. She's little more than a child herself, scarcely out of her teens. Her hair is scraped back from her face by a white plastic hair-band, and she's wearing a short, tight cotton skirt and a pink denim jacket, both far too thin for this weather. A large blue-and-green tattoo of a dragon snakes around her bare calf. She reminds me of my sister.
I don't often think about Susannah. To do so is to give in to the regret and guilt that have stalked me every day for the last five years; to admit that despite everything my sister has done, all the hurt and pain and damage she's caused, I still miss her.
The signal beeps, announcing it's safe to cross. I glance around for the little girl's mother, but she's chatting to a boy sweeping the shop doorway and hasn't noticed the light has changed. The crowd behind us plunges across the road, swirling around the stroller and kicking the child's toy out of sight. The baby's face crumples as her mother is blocked from her view, and she strains against her safety harness, her body arched in a rigid, distressed bow.
I reach beneath the stroller wheels and pull out the flannel rabbit, dusting it quickly. "Here you go, sweetheart. Is this what you wanted?"
She flings it away, screaming red-faced for her mother, who's still too busy flirting to pay any attention to her child.
Anger whips through me. Some women don't deserve to have babies.
The toddler's heels drum frantically against the footwell of her stroller. No one even gives her a second glance as they hurry past. How can her mother leave her like this? Her stroller is just inches from a four-lane road. It could roll forward into the path of the traffic. No one's watching her. Anything could happen.
I tuck the soft toy into the basket beneath the cheap stroller, and jiggle the handle, murmuring soothing noises. The little girl's face is shiny with tears. What kind of woman would abandon her child to the mercies of a stranger? Doesn't she know how precious her baby is? Doesn't she realize there are women who'd give anything to have what she has?
No doubt she sees her child as an inconvenience, an obstacle to her social life. I doubt the baby was planned. Her mother's palmed her off on anyone who'll keep an eye out for half an hour ever since she was born. It's only a matter of time before she abandons her child altogether.
I'll never forgive Susannah. Never.
I stroke the poor mite's frozen cheek, wiping away her tears, and then tuck a threadbare fleece blanket around her, trying to protect her from the freezing rain. She deserves so much better than this. What chance does she have in life? A different roll of the dice, and she could have had access to private schools and 4-H clubs, ski trips to Italy, a mother and a father who put her at the center of their world. Instead, she'll be lucky if she isn't pregnant herself by the time she turns sixteen.
The child sucks in a ragged breath, hiccupping, and her sobs slowly begin to taper off. The traffic starts to flow again, and a new crowd of impatient shoppers build up around us as we wait once more for the green man.
Her mother glances briefly in our direction, carelessly catching my eye, then turns back to the handsome boy making her laugh. I'm sure she loves her daughter, in her own way; but don't babies need to be loved their way, not just on your terms? They can't come second to nights out and strangers in shop doorways. If this precious little girl were mine, I wouldn't leave her side for a second. I'd put my business on hold, hire a temp, spend every second with my daughter, teaching her what it means to be loved.
I don't suppose this mother would even really miss her baby, as long as she knew she was safe. Susannah never did. She's only a teenager, she'd probably be glad of the break. She could spend as much time as she wanted flirting and having fun. Poor kid. It's not really her fault any more than it was Susannah's. She's just not ready for the responsibility.
If someone were to . . . take . . . the child, they'd almost be doing her a favor.
I don't stop to think. This time, when the green man beeps, I seize the handle, reach down, and gently release the brake on the stroller.
It's lucky Dex's prick isn't half an inch shorter, or we'd both be shit out of luck. Having sex standing up isn't as easy as it looks. Frankly, it's one occasion where size matters.
He's still inside me when my mobile rings. Instantly, he flings me against the alley wall, practically breaking my ribs. "Babe! Turn that fuckin' thing off before someone hears it!" he yelps. "D'you want everyone knowin' our business?"
He says it bidnizz, like he's 50 Cent or Ja Rule. Seriously, who does he think he's kidding? He's a preppy white kid from Boston who drinks Diet Coke and worries about his pension. Talking like Ali G and wearing his pants so low he looks like he's crapped himself when he walks doesn't make him black. The other ink-slingers at the shop call him Wigga, and trust me, they're not laughing with him.
I push at his chest for air as sweat trickles between my breasts. Even in February, the Florida humidity drives me nuts. "Call me crazy, dude, but I think they may have guessed about us."
"Who've you told? If my wife--"
"Gimme a break, Dex. This place isn't exactly private. There are five people working here. When two of them sneak out the back door for a quickie, it's kind of noticeable."
"Do you have to be so crude?"
"Do you have to be so anal?"
He pulls out of me, and wipes his dick on his satiny red shell suit. Nice.
I check my phone to see who called, but it just says private number. I chew my lip. I skipped the last couple of car payments, and it's been four months since I even paid the minimum on my credit cards. But I reckon I've still got a bit of time before they get break-your-legs serious.
Excerpted from What's Yours Is Mine by Tess Stimson. Copyright © 2011 by Tess Stimson. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.