by Martin Westlake
‘Ellie, my darling,’ said Andrew.
He watched his wife as her eyes opened and started to focus on her surroundings: the white walls, the white ceiling with its neon strips, the off-white door of the private room. She groaned, and the ritual began.
‘How did it go?’
‘Fine, my love. Everything went well.’
‘It is nice of you to stay.’
‘You know I would never go before you had woken up.’
‘No, I know. But it’s nice all the same.’ She yawned. ‘I’m still very sleepy.’
‘Of course you are, Ellie. You’re under sedation, as usual. You mustn’t move.’
‘No, no’ — she yawned again — ‘I mustn’t. I’m sorry, Andie, but I think I am going to fall back asleep quite soon.’
‘Don’t you worry, my darling. You do that and I’ll see you in the morning.’
‘Yes, see you in the morn—’
Her eyes had closed and he could see that she was already in a deep slumber. Andrew kissed her on the forehead, drew the covers up around her face, picked up his raincoat, and crept out, slowly closing the heavy door.
At the ward reception desk, he said goodbye to the night-duty nurse and made his way out to the taxi stand. There were plenty lined up. He settled back into the taxi and stared aimlessly through the windows as it manoeuvred out onto the main road. Soon it was racing back through the anonymous suburbs, away from Dr Schöpfer’s clinic, and back into the city.
So, he thought, this is it; our very last chance. He gazed out at the old ribbon developments flashing by but saw nothing, his thoughts far away. It was a little strange, the way they had got into this now-or-never situation. They’d jumped through all the usual hoops of older couples with fertility problems, all the humiliating check-ups and tests, all the inhuman situations, the sordid cubicles and plastic bottles. God, how he’d hated it all!
And, after countless appointments and consultations and tests, they had found the problem. They were both still fertile, just not very. And once his feeble sperm had done their business, her eggs wouldn’t implant in the uterus; they wouldn’t ‘take’. It wasn’t quite the end of the world, but they had needed help.
He remembered clearly the first time they’d met Dr Schöpfer. That ruddy, cheery face above his perpetual white coat and his white sandals. His study was all in white, including the desktop and the chairs and the sofa back against the wall behind them. There was even a granular off-white work of art in a white-painted frame on the wall. The colour scheme was curious: didn’t white mean sterility? But Dr Schöpfer himself seemed permanently optimistic and was always smiling.
‘This is nothing we can’t handle,’ he told them, when he had first consulted their file. ‘I’ve seen much worse. Don’t worry.’
Dr Schöpfer wasn’t cheap, but they had put some money aside for a rainy day, and this definitely fell into the rainy day category. The technique seemed relatively simple: Ellie’s cycle was manipulated with various hormone therapies so that she’d started to ovulate abundantly. But, after the first cycle, there had been only one misshapen egg.
‘We can’t use that,’ Schöpfer had said. ‘And it would be too risky anyway.’
It took five cycles — five! — before Ellie’s fallopian tubes delivered the goods.
‘It’s raining eggs, hallelujah!’ Dr Schöpfer had sung as he’d approached what seemed like a bubble with a microscopic pipette, gigantic in the projected image on the screen in the operating theatre.
Poor Ellie had had her legs wide open to the world, and the good doctor in his white scrubs had his hand buried deep. But they were surrounded by nurses and students. That was all right, Andrew supposed.
Next, Andrew himself had had to perform. He hated it. A nurse — always a female nurse, and always the same one — handed him a pot in a brown envelope and the key to a cubicle with a pile of sordid mags on the cistern lid. Ugh.
Afterwards, she came and fetched the envelope and click-clacked back across the tiled floor, holding the damn thing in front of her, so that everybody in the waiting room could have no doubt about what he had been up to in the cubicle.
And then it was back to Dr Schöpfer’s igloo, as Andrew now called it.
‘We’ve been having lots of fun,’ he told them that first time. ‘And the good news is that we have got seven good ones.’
Seven? It didn’t sound like very many.
‘We’d have liked to have more,’ the doctor said, as though he had heard Andrew’s thoughts, ‘but let me assure you that these are mostly top quality.’
Mostly, thought Andrew. A weasel word if ever there was one.
‘How many?’ he asked.
‘Four,’ said Schöpfer.
‘Four!’ they said.
Dr Schöpfer grinned and raised his hands.
‘Please, please,’ he said. ‘Four is a lot by our standards. It’s more than enough for a first attempt.’
First attempt, thought Andrew. More weasel words. Ellie had already been through five cycles and God knew how many drugs to get this far. Besides, ‘first’ implied a second. And nobody had mentioned a second attempt until now.
‘What about the... erm... quality?’ he asked.
He hated these euphemisms. The bloody medical industry was stuffed with them: when he tossed off into a pot he was ‘producing a sample, if you don’t mind, Mr Sweetland’; now he had caught himself talking about ‘quality’ when what he meant was, were the eggs any bloody good.
‘Two are definitely of an appropriate quality,’ said Dr Schöpfer, smiling.
How Andrew would come to hate that smile!
‘Two?’ they both exclaimed.
‘Two are definitely viable,’ said Schöpfer. ‘And now it’s time for you to play God.’
He pressed a switch on his desk and the office lights dimmed. An overhead display shone a statistical table onto a white wall.
‘Now then,’ said the doctor, ‘as you can see, they are both male and they’d both probably be rather handsome.’
‘What does “MPHL” mean?’ asked Ellie.
‘Male pattern hair loss,’ said Schöpfer. He coughed discreetly. ‘It would appear to be something that, um, runs in the family. It would probably come in their thirties; so, a little later, perhaps than....’
Andrew blushed. Ellie squeezed his hand. ‘And what is that 1.60 figure?’ he asked.
‘That’s probable likely height,’ the doctor replied, ‘as best we can predict such things.’
‘That’s rather short, isn’t it?’
‘The good news,’ said the doctor, racing on, ‘is that they would both probably be perfectly proportioned and probably very good-natured. We’ve put up a simulation of what they might look like. Nice, don’t you think? It’s a so-called “artist’s impression,” of course, a simulation.’
‘The figures on the right of the graphic are relative probability, is that it?’
‘That’s right, Mr Sweetland,’ the doctor confirmed.
‘So, there’s a relatively high probability that they’ll go bald prematurely and a relatively low probability that they’ll have well-proportioned faces, is that right?
‘Well, now, Mr Sweetland,’ said the permanent smile, ‘I wouldn’t put it like that.’
‘But is under fifty per cent a reasonable probability?’ Andrew insisted. He’d once read a book about statistics and vocabulary. He wondered if Dr Schöpfer had read the same book.
‘But, Andy, darling,’ said Ellie, ‘what do we care? How can we really know? Supposing I’d just naturally fallen pregnant...’
‘I was about to make the same point,’ said the permanent smile.
‘So, what do you recommend?’ Andrew asked.
‘That we try with both,’ Schöpfer replied. ‘There’s no point, really, in keeping one back in the fridge.’
And so, they had tried both and, despite the administering of vast quantities of some wonder drug to poor Ellie, neither of the eggs had ‘taken’ in her womb. They had had to start all over again with the cycles and the hormones and the pipette and the pot and that bloody nurse, still always the same one. But the second attempt, when they got to it, hadn’t worked, either.
‘You mustn’t give up,’ Dr Schöpfer assured them. ‘These are early days yet.’
Early days! Andrew thought. It had taken them over a year to get this far. Ellie’s ovaries and his own sperm were not getting any younger.
‘So, what happens next?’ he asked.
Schöpfer smiled. ‘We’re going to fiddle around with the doses,’ he said. ‘To stiffen things up a bit.’
Stiffen things up. Ha, ha.
So, they’d gone ahead, once again. It had taken three cycles to produce three eggs, all of which had been fertilised and placed in Ellie’s womb in one go and none of which had ‘taken’.
After the third attempt, Dr Schöpfer could no longer talk about early days. Now, he spoke about how they seemed to be in ‘for the long haul.’ Andrew had avoided these words when he’d spoken to his bank manager, who’d blanched when he’d seen how much each cycle of Ellie’s drugs was costing, not to mention Dr Schöpfer’s fees and the bill for the clinic.
‘We’re getting closer,’ Andrew had said to him. ‘Last time was a very near miss. Next time, touch wood, we’ll hit the jackpot!’
But those were falsely optimistic words designed to convince a sceptical bank manager and not what Andrew really believed. Not really. He’d had a feeling all along that things were not going to work and, sure enough, they didn’t hit the jackpot, despite the doctor’s ever-reassuring smiles.
When they next saw Schöpfer, the long haul was over. He was still smiling — just — but it was a different sort of smile, now; a strained smile, with crows’ feet, like a lottery ticket salesperson, thought Andrew, who is sorry to your face that your luck hasn’t changed but is inwardly thinking ‘how on earth can this man keep throwing good money away?’ Fortunately, the bank manager had granted them a line of credit up to a certain amount, and they hadn’t yet reached their upper ceiling.
‘What do you think, Dr Schöpfer?’ asked Ellie.
The doctor smiled a little less for a fraction of a second. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s becoming difficult.’
‘Well, Mrs Sweetland, all those hormones and chemicals must be taking a toll on your body, you know.’
Schöpfer coughed, then smiled. ‘Some of them might be carcinogenic in the longer term, so some say.’
So some say, thought Andrew. Another euphemistic phrase!
‘You mean she might die because of the drugs you’ve been giving her?’ he asked.
Dr Schöpfer gestured with both hands, pushing his open palms down to the desk top. ‘Now, now. Of course not! I am a serious doctor! My first duty is to my patient. I would never willingly prescribe a drug that would harm my patient.’
‘So, what are you saying?’
‘What I am saying is that to continue with these drugs, and at such concentrations, might begin to have a deleterious effect on your wife’s — Mrs Sweetland’s — body.’
‘Nobody knows precisely, Mr Sweetland,’ the doctor continued. ‘The drugs are very new. There have been tests, of course, but not over long time periods.’
‘Then how on earth did they get licensed?’
Ellie leaned over and nudged him. ‘Andy, my darling,’ she said, ‘that’s not the doctor’s fault, is it?’
‘No,’ said Andrew. ‘No, you’re right. It isn’t Dr Schöpfer’s fault.’
‘So, what do we think?’ she asked, looking him in the eyes and giving him her sweetest smile.
‘We could perhaps continue just one more time,’ said Dr Schöpfer. ‘But we’d have to agree that it really, truly would be the very last time.’
‘What do you think, Andy?’
Andrew counted up the likely cost of several new cycles, plus hospitalisation and in-vitro treatment, and all the rest.
‘I think we might just be able to afford one last go,’ he said.
‘But, darling,’ Ellie moaned, ‘I didn’t mean the money. Who cares about the money?’
‘I am so very sorry,’ said Andrew. ‘Of course we should have just one last go if you’d like it, my darling.’
‘So be it,’ said Dr Schöpfer, a big grin across his face. ‘And this time we’re going to make it! I can sense it.’
Andrew’s heart sank. How many cycles of drugs would that mean, he wondered, before they could even begin to harvest a meaningful quantity of eggs?
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Martin Westlake