New Irish Writing: The Number by Sarah Gilmartin is February 2020’s winning story
Kath's fertility journey is a mean, teasing kind of loneliness, shared with another person, and not shared at all
Illustration: Yiming Wei
In the back seat of the taxi, Kath rooted in her purse. Rosary beads on the rear-view mirror swished left and right. The driver took her money, wished her good luck. She thanked him and looked again at the picture of his granddaughter on the dashboard, at the red velour babygrow that he’d bought himself for the child’s first Christmas.
Kath had gotten into the habit of having personal conversations with taxi drivers, especially the cutie, older ones. They seemed to leech the stories out of her. “Take care,” she said, closing the door. She walked up the footpath, its fancy paving covered in pale pink petals. A stone fountain near the entrance spurted water into the air.
Inside the clinic, she chatted for a few minutes to the young receptionist who did a fine job of keeping things cheerful every appointment. Kath was grateful for her bright eyes and multicoloured hairbands.
She went to wait on the creaky leather couch, perched on the end of it, away from the sinkhole. This was the first time Rob hadn’t dropped her off. She wondered if it might make a difference, then chided herself for her silliness. She was 38-years-old and had lost her sense of reason.
Somewhere along the corridor she could hear her doctor’s mellow accent giving instructions about a wheelchair and she wondered why she’d never needed one herself. Maybe she would ask him before he knocked her out. Dr Fernandez was generous with information, unlike other doctors she’d been to, and he listened to her questions, even if she’d asked them before – even if he didn’t have answers.
Why three eggs last time?
Why five eggs this time?
Why can’t people just have what they want?
Of course she hadn’t asked him that, but she imagined his brown eyes widening if she did, the sad, knowing smile he might give her. He would wonder where Rob was today. Kath wouldn’t tell him the truth, which was that her husband had gotten his dates wrong. When he’d realised his mistake, he’d offered to cancel Deco, but the other, murkier truth was that she’d told him she was fine to go on her own, that he could pick up her afterwards. “This bit’s on me,” she’d said, and neither of them had argued with that.
She was still in some cotton soft place from the drugs and couldn’t look him in the eye, not yet
A short while later the receptionist called her name and said she could go and get changed. Kath walked down the corridor to the little room with the lockers and gowns. The whole building was sleek and unfriendly, but it was better than the last place, the windowless clinic in the hospital basement, where only the lucky women got to graduate into the light of the maternity ward two floors up.
After the procedure they gave her water and a slice of dry toast and when she was finished, Dr Fernandez came into the room with a clipboard. She was still in some cotton soft place from the drugs and couldn’t look him in the eye, not yet. Better to focus on isolated details: a piney smell of cologne, the shirt collar loose at his neck, the straight, narrow bone of his nose. Her nails were a show, the remnants of polish like dots of fresh blood.
Eventually she looked straight at him and tried to gauge the number of eggs by the speed of his blinking lids. Rob would think this ridiculous, but it didn’t seem to her all that less scientific than the rest of what went on in the building. And Rob wasn’t here now, anyway.
“Well,” she said. “Hit me.”
“Pardon me?” Dr Fernandez sat back, alarmed.
“Sorry.” Kath laughed. “I mean the number, tell me the number.”
As he laughed with her, she imagined the two of them away from this sterile, beige room, at a comedy gig or abroad somewhere, with hundreds of other people laughing too.
“You Irish.” He was still smiling, his eyes backlit. “You crazy talkers, Kat.” She loved the way he dropped his Hs. “Years – I don’t learn.” The white coat bunched around his shoulders.
“We’re all mad here,” Kath agreed. “But, the number?”
He rested a hand on the side of the bed: immaculate fingernails and the welt of a wedding band. The mattress sagged and he apologised, removed his hand, grew flustered with the clipboard. They had met so many times now it was like watching a friend struggle to give difficult news. A terminal diagnosis, a partner seen. She wanted to tell him it didn’t matter, that it wasn’t his fault.
“You like to wait for Robert perhaps?” he said.
They stared at each other.
“Is one. One egg.”
Kath looked out into the corridor.
“Hopefully mature,” he said. “We check.”
“But it’s unlikely? I mean, four out of five failed last time.”
“No fail,” he said, softly. “Unlucky.”
He had said the same in previous rounds but it felt too intimate a thing to hear now. For a second it seemed like he might reach over and touch her hand but instead he cocked his head at her and went to call the nurse. She watched his white back recede down the featureless corridor. One egg. Without even meaning to, her mind started calculating: the freezing, the thaw, the timing, the odds of her being able to carry it, the cost of the add-ons, and of the hope.
In reception, the clock over the noticeboard hit twenty to seven. Kath checked her phone for a pointless update. An accident on the M4 – Rob wasn’t even at Lucan. She looked out the long glass doors at the carpark. Most of the clinic were gone and the fountain tossed up its water into a lonesome, evening pink sky.
Shifting in the chair, she felt a twinge in the small mound of flesh over her pubic bone. Each round of egg retrieval had been a little sorer, the drugs wearing off a little quicker. Long needles inserted into the vaginal walls were not for getting used to. She crossed her legs and concentrated on the noticeboard. In the early visits, it had seemed such a sweet idea, thank-you cards with pictures of beautiful babies. Blue-eyed babies, fluffy haired babies, identical twin babies in gingham, and Rob’s favourite–the baby that looked as if it had eaten all the other babies.
Fixing the cushion at her back, Kath scanned the pile of women’s magazines on the table, but knew she didn’t have the energy for all that shame and self-improvement. She was still hazy from the drugs, though the glorious, silky feeling was gone. Her third time. Third and final – she pushed the voice away. They had not discussed it. There was no common language. She seemed to have defected somewhere along the way, and it felt so wrong – no, it felt criminal – because in the early days she’d been the one to push relentlessly. Rob couldn’t make a cup of tea without her at him.
Yes, she’d nagged him into submission, though it had not been kind of him to point it out. The treatments had been a fast track to the worst parts of both of them, parts that might otherwise stay hidden for decades. All the useless yearning, the inability to appreciate what they already had (what good are two empty bedrooms?), the fights over money, the waste, and even, what constituted waste, all the eliminating, the counting, the supplementing, the vigilance, the hormonal tempers, the angry, brilliant sex, and then the other, far more frequent kind, the inert, mechanical pounding that barely resulted in release. She did not like the person she had become. And what about Rob? Her husband. It was the turning away that killed her. His loss, his money, his dead baby that one almost time.
There was no badness in him, not even in his golf with Deco, there was just an ineffable blue hurt and two people trying to escape it. They were not a lucky couple and they’d figured it out too early. Perhaps that’s what it came down to in the end.
Behind the counter, the receptionist was putting on lipstick in a pocket mirror, the hairband replaced by a high, rigid bun.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to call someone else?”
“I can just Hailo?” Kath tried again. “It’s not far.” She touched the app on her phone, looked down at the options. Imagine how ridiculous it would be to pre-pay a fare with only a fifteen percent chance of reaching your destination.
It was such a mean, teasing kind of loneliness, shared with another person, not shared at all
The receptionist showed more teeth. “You know we can’t let you leave without a guardian.”
Yes, she knew – it was like creche, or day release.
“But the drugs are wearing off.” Kath walked slowly to the counter. “Actually, I was wondering if you’ve painkillers? I forgot to bring the prescription ones.”
“I’m not licensed to give them out.”
The twinge spread to Kath’s tailbone.
“Look,” the girl said. “Most of the doctors are gone but let me try upstairs.”
“Thanks.” Kath hobbled back to the chair. “My husband shouldn’t be long.”
Her pelvic muscles tensed as she sat down. There was a sharp, plummy smell coming from her underarms. She fixed the hem of her cheap, elasticated skirt from Penneys – her egg skirt, Rob liked to joke.
Rob. Rob. Rob.
Where was he?
Oh, it was such a mean, teasing kind of loneliness, shared with another person, not shared at all. Kath hated crying in public, but the weight of the day and the weeks of hormones she’d been injecting into her stomach suddenly smothered her. What had happened to them, to their marriage that seemed stuck at the beginning and close to ending, all at the same time. Here in the stale-aired reception, she tried to account for the past few years.
She remembered their first appointment in the basement place, where Rob had sat with his arm around her as the doctor listed the add-ons that might speed things along. It had felt like the start of a journey, but looking back, she could see now that they were already lost and weary by then. A year of fun, innocent trying, then another two, at least, of ovulation test kits, optimum conception days and impossible cameras shoved up into her impossible parts. But there was nothing wrong with her-with either of them, which was the hardest answer of all. There was nowhere to put the blame. Tears filled her eyes, the carpark far away, the noticeboard a blur of pink and blue.
Dr Fernandez walked into the foyer with a briefcase and a foam cup.
“Poor Sally,” he said to the receptionist. “Still here?”
The girl shrugged.
When he reached Kath’s chair, he left the briefcase between her feet. “Somebody feeling sore?” He pulled out a strip of tablets. “Two now. Two more at home.” He winked at her. “Safe, no sorry.”
Kath smiled. “I could eat the packet.”
“No packet,” he said.
“I didn’t mean.” She swallowed both tablets at the same time.
She shook her head.
Kath took a sip. It tasted good, actually, and she drank the rest.
The receptionist was on her feet. “Any sign of your fella?”
Kath checked her phone, shook her head.
“Where you live?” Dr Fernandez took the cup.
“Is no far. No problem.”
“But a guardian,” the girl said.
He gave a cartoon shrug and everyone laughed.
“Are you sure?” Kath looked up at his kind, tanned face.
“Thank you, Dr Fernandez.”
“It’s above and –” Her voice started to crack.
“Hey.” He crouched beside her. “Is tough, I know. Is harder on the woman.”
She was done. A strange, withering feeling, but at least she could call it her own.
Holding out a hand, he helped her up from the chair. She kept her eyes on the tarmac as she shuffled towards the doors. A text bleeped from Rob, acknowledging her own message with a single, ugly X.
As she sat into the car, the tears came again, unstoppable now, falling heavy down her face in the blue dash light.
“Is hard,” Javier said, eventually. “Is harder on you.” He passed her a tissue and asked for her address.
She could barely get the words out. It was the end of a long day, a day that had gone on for months and months, for years, really, nearly four years, and thousands of euro, and millions of words and promises. She was done. A strange, withering feeling, but at least she could call it her own.
Kath gave him the street name and listened to his sat nav chirp the location back to her. It sounded like a stranger’s home. She closed her eyes and imagined the miles and minutes on the little screen, ticking down in relentless regularity.
Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist. Her stories have been nominated for the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Award and RTÉ’s Francis MacManus. She recently won Best Playwright in Short + Sweet Dublin 2019. This is her first published story.