Creative Writing

The Baby Shoes Project

‘FOR SALE – BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.”

Six words, powerfully evocative and believed to have been written by Ernest Hemingway to win a bet.

The words were the inspiration for The Baby Shoes project  – a collection of flash fiction, compiled and edited by the author Hache L. Jones. Her challenge went out: write a story of no more than 500 words explaining why a pair of unworn baby shoes were up for sale.

I decided to take up her challenge and submitted a piece entitled Ashleigh, inspired by the sad but true story of my brother and sister in law, whose premature daughter survived for just four days before losing her fight for life. It was an indescribably bleak time for the entire family, but somehow, the words flowed with ease and on the first anniversary of her passing, I shared the story with Ashleigh’s parents, who both felt that it was the perfect tribute to her.  

I was delighted when Ashleigh was chosen for inclusion in the anthology, which is now available on Amazon, with all profits going to the Make A Wish Foundation, which helps make wishes come true for seriously ill children. It contains 191 stories in total and is well worth a look. In the meantime, here’s a taster …

ASHLEIGH

She came into the world on a crisp December day, tugged from inside you through incised flesh and torn muscles. Your body had ached to house her until the New Year, to keep her safe and incubated. Yet here she was, twelve weeks early, rushed away to a manger, before you could even hold her.

Tubes became her lifeblood, your precious bundle wrapped in ribbons of wires. You yearned to feed her instead of that drip, longed to swaddle her in her own crib, but all you could do was watch and wait, your helplessness ricocheting around the ward.

When, at last, you scooped her up, her heart beating against your own, it felt as though she’d been with you forever. She was as light as a loaf of bread, her doughy limbs not yet fully risen. Still, her tiny fingernails were perfectly formed and her hands gripped yours with urgency, grasping at life. Awash with love, you prayed that she would hold on, that she would grow – like her premature brother – to be a gale force of resilience and curiosity.

Three days passed before you breathed her name to the world – the name you’d spoken softly as you watched her chest rise and fall, the name you’d murmured during snatched hours of half-sleep. Your joy spread, her name shining bright, shimmering with hope.

But then, fresh news crushed that hope – the night had snatched her from you, claiming your star as its own. A fist pumped inside your ribcage, flooding your veins with disbelief. Every fibre of you coiled with anguish as you relived the shock of her form ripped from yours, over and over again.

Back home, your three-year-old son was giddy with Christmas spirit, unable to comprehend why mummy and daddy were so sad. You wondered how life could continue in her absence, when the echoes of your loss followed you from room to room.

Flowers arrived, each condolence a reminder, a new thorn. Yet simultaneously, those words of comfort chided you, made you realise you were not alone. You thought of the presents at your baby shower, the anticipation of pitter-pattering feet. You pictured the shoes, wrapped delicately in tissue paper, their velvet as soft as your daughter’s cheek. You’d never get to see her first steps, to hear her first words, but she remained with you, her memory chattering and dancing by your side.

Others doubted your judgment, selling those shoes, but as you handed them to your radiant, pregnant buyer, you felt a reclaimed purpose in their soles. You donated the money to the hospital – Ashleigh’s parting gift.

Now, on her first birthday, you light a candle and speak her name once more. You reach out to your husband and son, your bastions of strength. The scars of your loss will never fade, but as you trace the scar across your stomach, you know she is waiting for you – that one day you will hear her call your name.

Trying to conceive

My Big Fat Positive Wedding

On the last Saturday in May, I was rushing around getting ready to go to a wedding. My husband, Burrows – who was suffering with an especially unpleasant bout of gastroenteritis – had spent most of the night doubled over the toilet bowl and was still psyching himself up to get out of bed.

All week, the dreaded PMT symptoms had jibed me, writing deadlines whizzing past unmet, cabin fever setting in as I hunched over the desk in my home office, eking out words. By Friday evening, I was relieved to get out of the house to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I hadn’t drank in what felt like forever, so I decided to treat myself to a large glass of red wine. I took the first sip, waiting for it to sate me, but the fuzzy reprieve never came, even as I drained the last of the drop. Perhaps I’d abstained for so long that its appeal was thoroughly out of my system?

Now my period was a day late and despite my PMT raging louder than ever, I thought it best to do a pregnancy test. I peed on the stick, slotted it into my Clearblue Fertility Monitor and left the room, a zillion things to sort before the wedding. When the five-minutes it took to interpret the test was up, I couldn’t have heard the monitor beeping, because it was another hour before I remembered to check it.

When I did, I thought I was seeing things. A big, fat plus sign filled the screen – my big fat positive.

“Look!” I yelped, dashing into the bedroom to show Burrows, who still lay prostrate, half-asleep.

He leapt up, stared briefly at the test, then made a dash for it himself, stumbling into the bathroom, unspeakable noises erupting from his bowels.

“How do you feel?” I said.

“Like Mount Vesuvius,” he groaned, clutching his belly.

I cradled my own stomach. “No, about the pregnancy!”

He washed his hands in silence, then ventured, “Well, that’s what we were aiming for, wasn’t it?”

Clearly, he was in shock – after trying to conceive unsuccessfully for five months, we’d braced ourselves for an arduous road ahead. What shocked me even more was my reaction – instead of feeling awash with joy,  a seed of panic had sown itself in my womb – my life was going to change forever, beyond recognition – was I ready for the responsibility? Would I be a good mum? I was grateful, worried, scared and impatient to meet our child, all at once.

And then I realised – I’d been so focused on getting pregnant that I’d seldom paused to consider how I might feel if it actually did happen.

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We set off for the wedding, itching to tell people, but knowing it wasn’t wise for at least another eight weeks.

During the wedding breakfast, Burrows and I were seated with the bride’s brother and his wife – I’ll call them Seth and Catherine. I’d been good friends with Seth since my teens and all four of us were members of the same creative writing group. Over the course of three years, Seth and Catherine had workshopped every single chapter of my first novel, Angel Hair and Baby’s Breath, which follows a couple whose marriage almost falls apart when their IVF treatment fails.

Unbeknown to me during those workshops, the pair had been TTC the entire time. Extensive testing had failed to pinpoint the problem, leaving a flimsy pronouncement of “undiagnosed fertility issues”, identical to that given to my characters. It was 2016 before Seth and Catherine found the right moment to share their predicament with me, just as they were about to embark on their only NHS funded round of IVF.

“If you want first-hand experience to help shape Angel Hair, we’re happy to share ours,” Catherine said.

After Angel Hair had been put forward for a scout read by Cornerstones Literary Agency and I’d received some invaluable critique in response, I’d temporarily shelved the novel while I gathered my thoughts, focusing in the meantime on a new project. But this didn’t mean I was any less invested in the outcome of Seth and Catherine’s treatment. I willed their IVF to work, for them not to suffer the despair felt by Eva and Alex in my story.

But life cruelly imitated fiction – their treatment failed. I clung to the sole positive – Seth and Catherine were one of the strongest couples I knew. If anyone could heal from such a punch to the gut, it was them, united.

As the wedding speeches began and toasts were raised, Burrows snuck away to toilet to replace my glass of fizz with a non-alcoholic version. In fact, he’d disappeared numerous times throughout the meal, turning wine into watery substitutes on my behalf. It was just as well that he had had another watery substitute – gastroenteritis – to explain his vanishing acts.

By the final toast, Seth had clearly sunk more wine than he was accustomed to, and I could tell his mind was dwelling on what might have been.

He and Catherine were weighing up the pros and cons of paying for private IVF, which cost an eye-watering £8,000 per cycle. Their families had offered to help, and while they were humbled by this generosity, they were unsure whether to accept it – gambling with their own money was one thing, but the thought their loved ones sacrificing so much ramped up the pressure even further.

My heart ached for them. Five months had felt like aeons to wait for my BFP, but compared to the four-year ordeal Seth and Catherine had endured so far, it was nothing. This made me realise, far from the first time in my life, how immeasurably fortunate I was and how capricious fate could be – Catherine was six years younger than I was and in far better physical shape. Surely she should be the pregnant one, not me?

By chance, an unrelated group of friends had gathered in the pub below the function room where the celebrations were taking place. Burrows and I went down to see them, and it wasn’t long before one of my closest friends, who I’ll call Liv, was pulling me to one side and asking whether everything was okay. I’ve never been one for successfully masking my true emotions and I must have depleted my last reserves of subterfuge hiding my news from Seth and Catherine. Despite my resolve to keep schtum until my twelve-week scan, I was unable to contain my secret any longer. I pulled out my phone and showed Liv a photograph of my test result.

“Don’t tell anyone!” I hissed. “Well, apart from Si.”

Si was Liv’s husband and they were also trying for a baby – in their case since the previous summer. Liv was in her mid-thirties, fit, healthy, and still in an optimistic frame of mind about her chances of conceiving naturally. Given that I was two years older than her, I’d always anticipated that it would happen for her first, and it did briefly cross my mind that my announcement might sting a little, but Liv is as genuine as they come and when she said she was thrilled for me I could tell she truly meant it.

I slept soundly that night for the first time in months, tendrils of first trimester exhaustion beckoning me into slumber. I’d like to say I slept like a baby, but of course, that phrase is the biggest oxymoron or all time. I had all that to look forward to …

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trying to conceive

Peaky Reminders

As so it came to pass that on the 14th day of my second cycle trying to conceive, my Clearblue Fertility Monitor confounded my pessimistic expectations and smiled at me. The little white face on the purple screen announced “Peak” – seemingly I was ovulating after all. It didn’t take long before I was mirroring that smile, sharing the news with my husband Burrows, who couldn’t resist throwing a few “I-told-you-so’s” my way.

I didn’t get pregnant during that cycle either, but at least my fears were allayed that my ovaries hadn’t gone into retirement just yet.

March arrived and with it another smiley face … then the crushing symptoms of PMT, my hormones pinging back and forth throughout my body, playing an incessant game of table tennis. For the third month in a row, I had tested “high oestrogen” on every single day leading up to my LH surge. The glands in my neck were like lumps of graphite and I felt like tearing my hair out, but then it began shedding of its own accord, in matted handfuls, every time I washed it.

By May, the smiley face felt more at odds with my mood than ever. I’d barely touched alcohol for the past five months, I was eating the right foods and hitting my 10,000 steps target every day. Spontaneity had gone out the window – as luck would have it, I always got my peak midweek (unintentional rhyme alert) when my teacher spouse was fighting against a landslide of marking and planning. Approaching midnight, I’d gently suggest that he came to bed.

“But I haven’t done my differentiation yet and the lower abilities need a scaffold for their learning,” he responded with such dismay you’d think I’d asked him to unblock the outside drain.

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Still, we never missed a day. We were doing everything right … weren’t we? If so, then why weren’t we getting our BFP? (another abbreviation I’d gleaned from Mumsnet, meaning Big Fat Positive).

“If it doesn’t work this month, perhaps we should make a doctor’s appointment?” I said.

Burrows contemplated this, then nodded.

Given that I was 38, we’d been advised to wait no longer than six months if we suspected there might be a problem. If I needed IVF, time was of the essence, the age limit for NHS treatment being 39. Under Nottinghamshire’s Primary Care Trust we would only be eligible for one free cycle, and there was no way we could afford to go private.

I was garbling the above to Burrows, when he postured, “You’ve been tirelessly monitoring your fertility – what if I’m the problem? I could be firing blanks for all we know.”

And while his tone was effervescent, he had a point – there I was, beating myself up about waiting so long to try and conceive when in fact there could be any number of reasons why it hadn’t worked so far.

“Whatever the problem is, we’ll face it together,” I said, resolutely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trying to conceive

(Un)Clearblue Fertility Monitor

My novel, Angel Hair and Baby’s Breath features a childless woman who assumes a fictional identity on Mumsnet, spinning a deluded yarn about her triplets, conceived through IVF. When undertaking research, I spent a lot of time lurking on the conception threads. The first thing I learned was that pretty much everything on Mumsnet is abbreviated and the second was how many posters had become pregnant after using the Clearblue Advanced Fertility Monitor to track their ovulation.

According to Clearblue, the monitor is proven to increase your chances of conceiving naturally by 89%, and so, in January 2017 at the very beginning of our journey to try and conceive (TTC), my husband Burrows and I decided to invest in one. Retailing at around £80 in the UK, they aren’t cheap, but I managed to track down a brand new one for £35 on eBay, discounted because of its damaged packaging. The device wasn’t blue, the instructions weren’t especially clear and it was impossible to monitor anything without shelling out even more money for the fertility test sticks, which cost yet another £35 for a pack of 20.

After I’d juggled our budget and reluctantly swapped our monthly red wine indulgence for pee sticks, I figured out that the monitor analyses two key fertility hormones in your urine on a daily basis, then gives a result of “low”, “high” or “peak” fertility. I understood that a woman with a 28-day menstrual cycle like mine might expect a rise in oestrogen around day 8, prompting a “high” result, followed by a “peak” around day 13 when a surge of the luteinising hormone is detected, directly prior to ovulation. That indicates the optimum time to try and conceive before the hormones drop and the reading returns to “low” again.

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But my body wasn’t going to do anything by the book, was it? When my monitor first prompted me to test on day 6, I got a “high – oestrogen rise detected” result immediately. Great, I thought – it’s only a matter of time before I get my peak. Perhaps I simply ovulated earlier in my cycle than average? But day 13 passed, then day 14 and day 15 … by day 25 I had used the entire pack of test sticks and my reading still hadn’t budged from “high”. I was beginning to wonder whether the monitor was broken, or, far worse, that my fertility was.

If the monitor was working correctly, my body was effectively on non-stop high alert, thrumming with excess oestrogen. I checked the symptoms with Dr. Google –  mood swings, bloating, depleted energy, disrupted sleep patterns. It was like ticking off a check list of exactly how I’d felt since coming off the contraceptive pill.

On day 26, cramps spread across my abdomen, PMT playing havoc with my emotions. Never usually the sentimental type, I burst into tears while watching a documentary on the late George Michael and my anxiety soared to stratospheric levels – something I hadn’t experienced since my twenties, when I’d first gone on the pill to alleviate that very problem.

Right on cue, my period arrived. Our first attempt at TTC hadn’t worked, which given the odds wasn’t surprising. In fact, it was a relief to feel the tension dissipating, my jangling nerves temporarily dying down. Of greater concern was the fact that, according to the monitor, I hadn’t even ovulated.

“I’ve spent thirty-five quid peeing on sticks like a dog for nothing,” I grumbled to Burrows. “What if I’m going through an early menopause? What if we’ve left it too late?”

“Give it time,” he urged. “Isn’t it meant to take a while for the monitor to get used to your cycle?”

“And in the meantime, I have a seesaw of hormones to look forward to each month,” I muttered, immediately despising myself for sounding so pathetic.

If I wasn’t ovulating, surely it was better that the monitor had alerted me to this now, rather than later?

 

Is motherhood for me?

To Be or Not to Be a Mum?

I’d be hard pressed to describe my childhood as anything less than perfect. I can’t recall a single occasion when there was any open conflict between my parents and I was always fully secure and confident in their love. Dad worked in a demanding role as a Head Teacher, but come the weekend we were always off on adventures to the park or the seaside, his energy boundless. Mum was a talented artist who put her career on the back-burner to raise me – she poured everything into making my life as magical as possible, while somehow making this appear effortless.

I was a joyful, assertive, if somewhat precocious child who played the violin and dreamed of being an “authoress”. Home was a spacious, welcoming house with a beautiful garden in an affluent village near Nottingham. Holidays were spent touring around Europe, which Dad documented extensively with his SLR camera. He was an avid photographer, and I have treasured digital copies of all 30,000 pictures he took during my formative years. You might imagine that I look back on them through nostalgia-tinted spectacles, but the truth is that no filter is needed.

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So, considering that I grew up as happiness personified, I was keen to embrace motherhood as soon as possible, replicate that contentment and raise a family of my own, right?

Wrong.

When I hit my twenties, my hormones went haywire, and not because I was broody. The week before my period was due, I would feel incorrigibly restless to the point where my body felt like it was riddled with ants scurrying about beneath my skin. My doctor prescribed the contraceptive pill and the prospect of coming off it and reboarding that hormonal rollercoaster was too much to contemplate.

Back then, the thought of becoming a mum was akin to dressing up in my elder sister’s clothes – a bad fit and preposterous. Not that I have an elder sister, nor any siblings for that matter – I am an old child. Growing up, I was frequently alone, but never lonely, relishing uninterrupted hours basking in creativity, building worlds inside my head. As I got older, I fiercely guarded that headspace, as essential to my wellbeing as caffeine.

There was no room in my life for a small human – I was still learning how to become a fully-functioning individual myself. Instead of feeling a wrench of jealousy each time I heard of yet another school friend becoming a mum, I felt sorry for them – their freedom curtailed, burdens of responsibility clinging to their waists.

And so the third decade of my life saw me graduate with an English degree, qualify as a journalist and take my first forays into carving out a career besides Hedonist. I spent my weekends playing violin in numerous bands and fortuitously became a homeowner just as the housing market was on the brink of skyrocketing.

I had a few stabs at long term relationships but for the most part they were tumultuous. My first love became brainwashed by a bunch of fundamentalist Christians, another battled with psychosis which led him to take his own life and a third had an “artistic temperament” and neglected to tell me that he preferred men. With hindsight, my thirst for drama over stability put motherhood on the back-burner – raising a child with any those partners would have been like trying to build foundations in quicksand. I told myself that having children was something I’d do one day, perhaps when I was thirty – the age my own mother was when she gave birth to me.

But thirty came and went and I realised I felt no closer to assuming the identity of my imaginary elder sister. It just seemed too … well, restricting. Unable to withstand 9 to 5 monotony any longer, I walked away from the security of traditional employment and began freelancing as a journalist, copywriter and editor. Financially I took a hit, but the sanity I clawed back proved just about enough to sustain me.

I embarked on a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, transporting myself into my stories, weaving plots and shaping my characters’ destinies. I decided to major in The Novel and the brilliant Professor Jane Rogers mentored me through the process of writing my first polished full-length work. Angel Hair and Baby’s Breath chartered an infertile woman’s journey to become a mother, but the yearning voiced by my protagonist Eva did not mirror my own – it was pure fiction.

When I was thirty-two I met a man who broke the mould. Not only was he witty, enormous fun and wildly eccentric, he was also grounded, emotionally intelligent and incredibly kind. In essence, he was my equilibrium. From our first meeting, I found it impossible to imagine anyone else by my side and by some colossal stroke of luck, he felt the same way. This in itself might sound like a fantastical narrative, but this time it was for real and I considered myself ridiculously fortunate.

We spoke about kids early on, those words “one day” cropping up again. There was so much we wanted to share first and step by step we passed those milestones – setting up home together, getting engaged, planning our woodland wedding. By the time we married I was thirty-six and still there wasn’t even the faintest sound of my biological clock winding into action.

And then it struck me – what if I wasn’t meant to be a mother? Perhaps I was never destined to grow into my elder sister’s clothes, to don the mum uniform which would swathe my identity? After all, I loved sleep with a ferociously guarded passion, abhorred routine, partied with my friends at a moment’s notice and regularly put the world on pause to absorb myself in twelve-hour writing sessions, sustained only by Marmite on toast. How could I ever be a mum without spreading myself too thinly or cutting out the ingredients that made me feel like me? Maybe I was just too damn selfish to sacrifice enough of myself to make someone else feel whole?

I knew there was no “one size fits all” and I felt no societal or familial pressure to become a mother. My parents weren’t the interfering type, pining for grandchildren, and my husband maintained that he was relaxed either way – while he loved kids, primarily he wanted the two of us to be together, whatever our future held.

The pressure came from within, tied to a perception of what I believed my more mature, grown-up self would want. I was thirty-seven before I finally figured out that I’d never stop growing – outwardly, inwardly, every which way. There was no line in time which I’d cross like a sprinter, fists pumping above her head, triumphantly crying, “I’m ready!”

But there was a line, a cut-off point, biologically at least. In January 2017, I realised that in two years’ time, I would be forty. If I didn’t make a choice about motherhood soon, it would be taken away from me. I thought how harmonious my marriage was and how I feared anything which might unsettle it, but then I considered how wonderful it would be to create a life that was half him and half me. I envisaged looking back on my time on earth and weighed up the exhaustion of child-rearing years with the satisfaction of knowing that it had all somehow been worth it. I was certain that my husband would make a brilliant father – a teacher in a primary school and the eldest of five siblings, he was a natural with kids. I felt, instinctively, that if we didn’t at least try for a baby, I would deeply regret it in the years to come.

It was time to face another hurdle – coming off the pill. I had no idea how badly this would affect me or long it would take us to conceive, especially given my age. For some reason, however, I was feeling cautiously optimistic about the prospect of becoming a mum before I turned forty.

If only I knew then what was to come.