by Martin Westlake
They went away for a short seaside break before she started on the drugs again. It rained all the time. They walked on the beach under an umbrella, with the rain hissing on the sea above the sound of the waves. Neither of them was supposed to touch alcohol.
Their two evenings together dragged on, and they ended up watching films in their hotel room. And when he turned the lights out, she was already asleep or pretending to be. In any case, they’d long since stopped making love for love’s sake.
Right at the beginning, the business with thermometers and counting the days had inevitably taken the spontaneity out of sex and, since then, the regimented cycles and all the machines and treatments had further diminished their mutual desire.
Intimacy, like spontaneity before it, was gone. Sexual intercourse became a time-determined duty, and then it was superseded by Schöpfer’s God-games. The treatment objectified the female body every bit as much as those ghastly mags in the cubicle.
And then poor Ellie was tired all the time; tired and emotional. Which was completely understandable, even without taking the hormones and drugs into account. They had been on a steep emotional downhill race from the beginning, and now only a successful pregnancy could bring them back to a positive balance.
Two days after they returned from the seaside, the hormone treatments began again. As usual, the first cycle was a waste of time. Hard as he tried to reassure her that it didn’t matter, Andrew was powerless to stop Ellie’s paroxysms of guilt and professions of low self-esteem. ‘I love you just the same,’ he protested, but the implicit ‘notwithstanding’ screamed silently over the dinner table, and she wept.
‘It’s not your fault,’ she sobbed, but he felt bad all the same. Why were they going on with this? Why on earth had they continued?
The second cycle was no better. Ellie erupted into spots and, one night, they had a flaming row during which they both screamed insults at one another that they knew would leave weeping scars.
‘Why do we keep on with this?’ he demanded when sheer exhaustion had re-established peace.
‘We have to!’ she sobbed. ‘We’ve come all this way. We’ve got to keep on trying.’
‘But at what price?’ he asked.
‘There you go! On about the money again,’ she said, ‘as if there were any better way of spending it.’
He bit his lip. One blazing row in an evening was enough.
The third cycle produced just four eggs. Four. Andrew went off to the clinic and performed his duty with a heavy sense of futility. When they returned to the igloo, he could see that Dr Schöpfer’s smile was now obviously forced.
‘I don’t think we should envisage any more cycles,’ he told them.
‘So, what have we got?’ asked Andrew.
‘Andie!’ Ellie scolded him.
‘No, no,’ said Schöpfer. ‘Let’s play God again.’
He dimmed the lights and the projected statistics appeared on the white wall. The large white spaces around the four possibilities seemed to emphasise just how slim their chances had become.
‘I think we can exclude the one at the bottom straightaway,’ said Schöpfer.
‘What’s wrong with it?’ Ellie asked.
‘Male. A very high probability of early onset Alzeheimer’s. A higher than average risk of colon cancer and type 2 diabetes. A fairly high probability of autism, though we can’t say where it would be on the spectrum.’
‘Quite a package,’ said Andrew.
‘Indeed,’ said Schöpfer. ‘I’ll put that one aside.’ He went through the three other eggs, in ascending order. They all had unattractive probabilities of one sort or another, but they would, if they resulted in pregnancy and birth, produce reasonably fit human beings. ‘My advice to you is that we should try all three.’
‘All in?’ said Andrew.
‘All in,’ Schöpfer confirmed.
* * *
This was it; the moment of truth. It was now or never. The car slowed suddenly and Andrew realised that it was approaching their house. He was grateful to be alone; no driver chatting away to him like in the old cabs. He clattered through the emptiness and went straight to bed, but it took him a long time to get to sleep.
If only he could be sedated. Indeed, why didn’t they take the psychological conditions of both partners more seriously? He found himself calculating how much they had spent so far. It was a huge amount.
And what if it didn’t work? What if this final throw of the dice failed? The thought kept him awake for a long time, and then he thought about how Ellie would react and about their relationship. Would they survive? She was a nervous wreck already, and he wasn’t much better, though he’d held a lot in, as he supposed men generally did.
They knew days before they saw Dr Schöpfer again. ‘I just know,’ Ellie said. And Andrew believed her. Women knew their bodies.
‘We’d better wait to see what Dr Schöpfer has to say,’ he said, but they both knew that this was simply a way of buying time whilst the bad news sank in.
Two days before their appointment, Ellie called Andrew and asked him to try and get home a little earlier from work. She had something to discuss. His heart sank. He’d been planning to stay later than usual, but not because the work justified it. He was beginning to dread the meals and the evenings at home. What was there to say? They had failed, and the yawning abyss of the rest of their futile lives was gaping ahead of them.
Something was up. Ellie’s red-rimmed eyes were unusually bright and she smiled warmly when he entered the house. He wondered if she’d taken some sort of stimulant. She’d laid the table with a cloth and their best silver and had lit a candle. A delicious smell wafted out from the kitchen and she had put low background music on.
‘What’s up?’ he asked.
‘I’ve had an idea,’ she said. ‘But let’s eat first.’
It was his favourite dish, a meat pie, served with oven-roasted vegetables. She had bought cheese, and he made a mental note that he’d have to get to the gym one of these days to work it off. When the meal was over and the bottle of good wine had been drunk, she got up and turned the music off.
‘I’ve been thinking, Andie.’
‘Me too, my darling.’
‘No, I mean, apart from the sadness and all of that. I’ve been thinking about what Dr Schöpfer will probably tell us.’
‘I imagine he’s going to tell us that that is that.’
‘That’s surely right, but is it?’
‘What do you mean, Ellie? You heard him as clearly as I did.’
‘I mean, is that it?’
‘I don’t understand you.’
‘There’s one egg left, Andie.’
The grief had got to her, he thought.
‘Yes, but you heard what he said about it.’
‘Of course I did. But those are only probabilities that he is talking about.’
‘There were a lot of probabilities, Ellie.’
‘I know, but that’s all they were and are. Neither he nor we can know for certain what the real result might turn out to be. Who can say?’
‘Look, Ellie, even supposing all of that, you heard the good doctor. You can’t take any more of this treatment. Your body can’t take it.’
‘I know what my body can and can’t take and it’s my choice.’
‘Now, don’t go sour on me. I am just talking this idea through, that’s all.’
‘So, what do you think?’
‘I really don’t know. Just imagine if the egg does take and the pregnancy goes to term.’
‘Yes? Isn’t that precisely what we want?’
‘Of course, but we want the baby and the child and the person after that, don’t we?’
‘Why can’t we play God our way, Andie?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Any pregnancy is a lottery. You know that.’
‘Well... most pregnancies are fairly safe bets all the same.’
‘But they are still bets. All I am saying is: let’s place just one more bet.’
‘What if Dr Schöpfer refuses, as I’m sure he will, by the way?’
‘No, he won’t, Andy. I’ve been talking to a friend at work. You know: Jenny.’
‘What about Jenny?’
‘She saw I had been crying and asked me what was up. I told her, and guess what? Dr Schöpfer treated her, and she ended up in a very similar situation.’
‘And now she’s the proud mother of a three-year-old girl.’
‘And was it really her very last chance?’
‘Exactly the same situation.’
‘But why was he quite so insistent about this being our last possible chance?’
‘Because he has to, according to the rules of his profession. But the truth is that he’ll do anything, as long as the money is right. That’s what Jenny says. She even told me how much and how to do it.’
Andrew whistled. ‘Are you sure?’
Ellie smiled. ‘It seems our good doctor’s red lines are drawn on shifting sands.’
‘I’ll have to think about this very carefully, my dear.’
Now Ellie pouted and her eyes teared up. ‘Please don’t deny me this one last chance, Andie. Please.’
That night, after she’d gone to sleep, he turned the light back on and thought about their discussion. They were both going through a grieving process. It was perfectly normal for them to rage and disbelieve at first. Full acceptance could only come later, so there was bound to be a bit of fantasy for a while.
Did Ellie really believe what she was saying? Was she truly prepared to try yet again with such a poor-quality egg? In any case, what was the point when there was virtually zero probability that the egg would take?
And then he realised that was the point. If there was virtually zero probability that the egg would take, then there was virtually zero probability that they would have to deal with the consequences of a pregnancy. If he refused, on the other hand, there was a 100 percent probability that he would have to deal with the consequences for their relationship.
However unfair and irrational it might seem, he knew that she would blame him for not having had the courage to go that last extra mile. They would forever be dogged by the ‘what if?’ question and he sensed that ‘what if?’ would inevitably morph into ‘if only.’
* * *
Dr Schöpfer didn’t seem in the least bit fazed by their reappearance. His face was once again wreathed in reassuring smiles.
‘So, please,’ he said with the greatest solicitousness, ‘sit down.’ He leaned forward across his desk. ‘Now, how may I help you, Mr and Mrs Sweetland?’
Andrew leaned forward, just as Jenny had told Ellie he should, and placed the thick white envelope on Schöpfer’s desk. The doctor never once looked down. Suddenly, Andy realised; Schöpfer was a bloodsucker! He was bleeding them dry!
‘It’s about that fourth egg,’ said Andy.
‘We want to give it one last try,’ Ellie added.
Dr Schöpfer stopped smiling for a moment and nodded his head solemnly. ‘So,’ he said, ‘let’s play God.’
He dimmed the lights, searched briefly on his computer for the appropriate file and pressed a key. The statistics for the fourth egg flashed up on the wall.
‘The eighty percent,’ said Andrew. ‘Is that for the Alzheimer’s?’
‘Yes,’ said the doctor, ‘the early onset variety, you’ll remember.’
‘I cannot say with any degree of certainty. It’s typically a rare condition. Some people have had it as young as in their thirties or forties.’
‘Thirty!’ said Andrew.
‘But don’t you see?’ said Ellie, with that strange brightness in her eyes again. ‘We should stop playing at God. In another world, we might have had a perfectly normal and healthy child that was killed in an accident at ten or even younger.’
‘You have a point,’ said Schöpfer.
‘Why, if we are lucky and have this child, who’s to say how old it will live to be?’
‘And the colon cancer?’ Andrew asked doggedly.
‘These are only probability statistics based on the screening,’ said Doctor Schöpfer, ‘but I’d say this future being would be more likely to die from the Alzheimer’s.’
‘And the autism?’
‘Impossible to say. It could be anywhere on the spectrum or nowhere at all. We are dealing with probabilities, not certainties.’
‘I don’t care about the autism,’ said Ellie. ‘I could have had a perfectly normal pregnancy and nobody would have noticed anything about the autism until it was too late.’
‘Well,’ said Schöpfer, ‘screening for this sort of thing is highly recommended these days, but it’s true that autistic children continue to be born to unsuspecting parents.’
‘What do you think, Andrew?’ said Ellie. It was clear her mind was already made up.
‘All right,’ he said. ‘One very last go...’
As the car drove them back from the clinic, he briefly imagined the two possible scenarios that were being opened up to them, and then he firmly banished the awful thought of pregnancy from his mind. It wasn’t going to happen; it just wasn’t. It hadn’t happened through all the wretched cycles and implantations that they had been through with much better-quality eggs, so why on earth would it happen now?
As to Jenny, she was much younger than Ellie, and the circumstances were different in several other significant respects. No; it wasn’t going to happen, and he was only going through the motions to give Ellie a last few days of hope.
He started to calculate the new global figure for the cost of their disastrous campaign, including the big sum of cash he’d borrowed from his brother and that he’d stuffed in the envelope the good doctor had not once looked at, let alone touched, during the whole consultation. The overall figure was frighteningly large.
* * *
When Doctor Schöpfer called them back for the post-implantation consultation, Ellie insisted that she was unable to tell Andrew how she felt. He didn’t take that seriously. The same denial and optimism that had made her persist in trying with the fourth egg was now clouding her normally reliable judgment about the state of her body.
He couldn’t wait for the consultation to be over. Once the fourth egg had been definitively dispatched, she’d have to accept the finality of their situation and then they could both get on with grieving and, gradually, accepting that there was no hope left and trying to reconstruct their lives on that new basis.
The good doctor seemed to be back to his usual cheery self, solicitously showing them to their seats before sitting down himself and leaning across the desk. He flashed them a huge smile.
‘Congratulations!’ he said. ‘Twins! Identical, of course.’
Andy moaned softly and put his head in his hands.
Copyright © 2017 by Martin Westlake