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.
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 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 …