by Francesca Raine
The waiting room is big and bright and busy. I give my name at the desk and sit down on a green plastic chair, in the middle of a row of identical green plastic chairs bolted into the floor. In the far corner of the room a man pushes a pram back and forth, soothing a sleeping toddler and smiling at the woman walking towards him from the bathroom. She sits down next to him and reaches forward, smoothing the child’s hair with one hand as she rests the other lightly on her stomach. Opposite me, on the far side of an empty row of chairs, a woman laughs quietly at something her partner has said, her fingers stroking distracted circles around her swollen stomach. Another woman, about my age, sitting a few chairs along from me, sighs heavily, glancing at her watch. Our eyes meet and we exchange small smiles. She turns her head sharply as the door squeaks open, raising her hand in greeting so that her coat slips back, revealing the curve of her belly. I play with my phone. I can’t help feeling a little betrayed.
One by one – or, rather, two by two – they are called through the doors on the left, crossing paths with smiling couples who bid a grateful farewell to staff in smart blue uniforms and head for the double doors that lead to the main foyer and the world beyond, proudly clutching paper folders filled with pictures to show their families and friends. The clock on my phone shows the hour, then ten minutes past. There’s no signal in here. The woman opposite has the same bag as me, and the same colour hair. She has quite a big bump, maybe six or seven months along. She looks very happy. There is a sign tacked up on the wall behind her. Please be sensitive to others when in this area, it says, in childish, rounded font. Sadly, not everybody receives good news.
Fifteen minutes late, I hear my name called. I stand up and gather my things, smiling at the petite woman who stands behind me, holding a clipboard. She has a warm face and a brisk step. I follow her through the doors on the right.
‘The toilets are just here if you need to empty your bladder.’
I don’t, but I go anyway, in an effort to ensure I am properly prepared. She waits for me in a long, dark room on the other side of the corridor. When I enter, she locks the door behind me.
‘This might feel a bit cold.’ She moves a long probe between my legs. ‘Just a little pressure . . .’ It’s not that cold. She moves it from side to side, angling the screen beside her to show me my insides. The images are patchy, flickering, like they’ve been transmitted from far out in space. They could be of anything. I nod as she tells me things I already know. When she has finished talking, she stands up and removes her gloves, pulling the curtain closed around me. I dress quickly and follow her back out of the door, through that same waiting room. I don’t get a folder.
“I think a lot about what is and isn’t natural, at the moment. I can’t seem to work it out.”
Forty minutes later, in another corridor, my name is called again. Another smiling face in another blue uniform. Another curtain drawn around me. She writes down my age, my height, my weight. Draws a syringe of blood from my arm. She lists the things they will look for in it. For no reason at all, I start to cry. She puts her arms around my shoulders and pulls me to her. It makes me feel worse. ‘You’re doing so well,’ she says, passing me some tissues. ‘Thank you,’ I say, thickly, blowing my nose. I feel very stupid. I’m not doing anything at all.
Three weeks pass and then we return to that corridor, together this time. This waiting area isn’t bright and open like the first one. The chairs are a purple-ish shade of grey, and cluster at random along the corridor in rows of four. There’s no laughter, and no signs imploring us to be sensitive. Those of us who wait here don’t need the reminder. We whisper to each other about the time. Always running late. A few feet away, another couple are doing the same. The woman is worrying aloud about getting into work. They both look very tired.
The appointment lasts about ten minutes. Another wait at the pharmacy, and we go home with a paper bag filled with boxes of pills.
My body becomes unruly, that month. It’s never been much good at doing as I tell it to, but the tablets embolden in. My boobs swell, become tender; something twinges sharply near my pelvis. Another scan shows we’re not quite there; a third, a few days later, that we might be. Another vial of blood taken the following week confirms that I have ovulated. They leave me a voicemail to let me know. Meanwhile, my body continues its tricks. I feel sick at random times during the day. My temperature is higher than usual. My lower belly cramps, just slightly. I am alert to it all in a way that I have never been before. It is new, and exciting, and I think of nothing else for two weeks. It is meaningless. The blood comes, dark red and heavy, late one afternoon. We have visitors. I head back downstairs and finish making dinner. I drink two large glasses of wine. Hours later, in bed, we let ourselves be sad. ‘It feels physical,’ I say. ‘My arms feel empty. Like when you carry something big and heavy then put it down. It’s the nothing where something should be. That’s what makes them ache.’
The following month is the same, and the one after that. Winter drags on, through January’s hopeful start to February’s floods and storms. We decorate rooms and tidy the garden. We don’t touch the smallest bedroom. It is used only for drying laundry.
Another wait in the corridor. Another consultation room. A new plan. A longer wait.
There are babies everywhere. Everybody is having one, or knows someone who is. This is wonderful and terrible. ‘It’s only natural to feel that way,’ a friend says, kindly, adjusting her daughter’s collar. I change the subject, make plans for the summer. I think a lot about what is and isn’t natural, at the moment. I can’t seem to work it out.
The flowers on the dining room table have been blooming for three weeks, and show no sign of wilting. I wonder if the cold is preserving them. They can keep life suspended in freezers for a long time, now. The wind is moaning in the chimney, and next door’s baby is crying. At the bottom of the garden, an empty plastic swing sways violently in the breeze. Down the road they are piling up sandbags, and on the telly they’re talking about snow. It seems to have been raining for months, but the crocuses are pushing up, now, and it can’t stay cold forever.
I’m very much looking forward to spring.
Francesca Raine lives near Manchester, writes mostly fiction and poetry, and is currently working on a novel. She likes to write about the complexities of friendship and family relationships, particularly between women. She dreams of having a pet labrador and has not yet managed to get to grips with social media.