In a quaint but generously sized cottage amongst the Yorkshire moors, the warmth of the Aga stroked past each wall. Framed wedding photos and contemporary art hung from the original woodwork. They were secluded from their city jobs.
Last year, Mark had turned down a job stateside much to Stacey’s relief; a physiotherapist at Derby County F.C. did more than pay the bills. Not to mention Stacey’s design agency attracting clientele from as far afield as Japan’s pearl industry. Granted, they were both away from home a few days a week but the husband and wife of six years enjoyed blissful weekend retreats. Their bare feet often walk through the waters of Salcombe, and last month their anniversary was spent on a gondola weaving through Venice. Often they pinch themselves to confirm this reality is theirs, a far cry from the days of budgeted meals. Those are fifteen years gone now, and 150 miles south.
At least once a month their parents enjoyed a trip up from the Midlands to indulge by the log fires of country inns. Chester relished these occasions for the constant hand that would run through his fur. The black Labrador had seen many seasons pass by, his name even made it onto Christmas cards now. Though, the way he flicks his right paw with each step often made him the subject of jovial sexual questioning. Nonetheless, he was the third member in their joyous world.
Approaching the daunting age of forty, by now Stacey had expected to be buying more than just dog food in her weekly shop. When they made their audacious move north nearly nine years ago, they had imagined a climbing frame in one corner of the garden, and a sandpit on the patio. Perhaps even a horse, dark brown, in the stables, by now. Instead the lead hangs on the coat stand ready for a stroll, past the primary school and across the moors. The hills perfect for the rails of a wooden sledge in a winter like this.
Sunday evening, three chocolates left in the advent calendars they insist on buying each year, and the couple sat beneath a blanket as the TV quietly flickered away. Their bodies moulded to the shape of each other, and Stacey’s eyes were fixed on the largely empty space beneath the tree. She rose from her increasingly horizontal decline and lifted her cheek from the pulse of Mark’s torso. Mark noticed the dryness of her eyes, starved of a blink, drained by the heat of the fire. Tomorrow’s appointment at the clinic had finally come around.
The first week of February was often the bleakest on the moors, with no flashing fairy lights bringing life to the streets or fireworks to break the heavy fog. Often daytime slipped by unnoticed, especially amongst a cycle of daily injections and nasal sprays. Stacey had to overcome her fear of needles; this baby was all she needed to prevent another forty years of hunger. But everyday since the dawn of the New Year, Mark had to watch as she pumped herself with hormones. Together they set off to the hospital for embryo transfer day.
A week and a half before Stacey can do a pregnancy test. A week and a half. Clients are still phoning anxious to book meetings and her out of office auto-reply email has been long overruled. She spent her days trawling through the Internet and various NHS leaflets; the do’s and don’ts of successful embryo transfer. Her hair fixed in a messy topknot. A sealed pregnancy test waiting in the bathroom. Multi-vitamins with folic acid next to the tea bags. Chester resting his chin on her knee, telling her it’s time for a stroll. Mark finding undiscovered pubs for luncheons or dinner, minus the wine of course. She couldn’t cough or sneeze. She couldn’t retire to bed. She couldn’t have a hot bath. Still, Mark persisted with his sympathetic tones.
Ten days and nights of waiting in limbo had passed. She sat on the edge of her bed, one hand resting on her thigh, the other rubbing her stomach. She looked across to the open door of their en-suit where the pregnancy test sat as patient as her. Mark was still out with Chester. He would normally be back before she wakes, but today her fidgeting and restlessness woke her before the sun could bare its whole face.
She talked herself into braving the short walk across the room and getting this over with. First urine of the day they told her, for the most accurate test. She sat with the unwrapped test in her hand for minutes as long as days, trying to think of anything that made her bladder relax. Several minutes later, she returned to the edge of the bed, now with a configuring pregnancy test being clenched in both hands with the screen turned away. The sound of leather paws tapping on the tiled hallway floor loosened her grip. Mark came straight upstairs, his cold hands making her shudder. Three minutes of silence was broken by her phone alarm. Mark held her hands in his, and together they looked at the result.
Tears fell into his shoulder and she squeezed the life from him. Mark cradled her body, his fingers intertwined with her hair. Chester had climbed up the stairs to a territory unknown to him. He rested in a warm patch of sunlight on the landing, thawing his cold stomach. His drowsy eyes peered through the ajar bedroom door and watched them remain knotted until his eyes dropped.
The next morning, Mark was back before Stacey woke. Her eyes were open but she hadn’t moved from the bed. He lifted her up like a girl of youth. Test and test again, they told her. She found her second attempt easier; Mark could be forgiven for thinking she had stopped caring, but he’d be wrong. Again they sat and waited for three minutes. Again it was negative.
By the following year she would be forty-one, and nothing saddened her more than the thought of being talked about in the school playground, as the mum who looked tired and old. Stacey couldn’t wait. But for a second cycle she’d have to wait at least six months.
The grass of the moors was becoming a fresher shade of green no quicker than it was being chewed by the baby teeth of the season’s offspring. Mark was down in Derby for a few days and Stacey was back in her studio. Pressing deadlines made days pass like minutes and she felt her skin falling a little further from her cheekbones each day. The glare of her screen was wearing her down. Years of being obsessed with minute details, being annoyed by badly aligned font, and being paranoid with incorrect colours. But now, for the first time, she failed to see the beauty in this. There was nothing, behind the computer screen or down the phone line, which depended on her with every shallow breath.
The answer machine was flashing when she returned home that evening. Much to her bewilderment it was her father’s voice. Redial.
The breath was drawn from her lungs and the phone almost fell from her grip. Chester came panting from the kitchen realising she was home, but was left disappointed with her lack of fuss. Resisting an uncontrolled squall absorbed her strength. She was far away from home. She was alone. She resisted venting her anger down the phone.
It was cereal for dinner that evening. And the following morning for breakfast. And again that evening. Mark was disapproving when he returned home to see her sitting on the sofa hugging the bowl. He knew this would be a detrimental knock for Stacey, she had only just returned to any kind of normality. All he could do was provide comfort for her sore eyes.
The drive south that weekend passed with surprising ease, but as they meandered through the lanes of her childhood she became scared for the mother she would be greeting. Stacey was becoming reluctantly used to having no control. Yet, her instinct took over when confronted with her mother’s open arms, and in that moment she felt the power of giving a warm embrace. She wasn’t a surgeon but she was a devoted daughter, and her mother’s cheeks once again looked powdered from those few clutching seconds.
In their usual fashion they all retired to their unspoken spots on the sofa, and sipped on cups of Earl Grey. Conversation was a little more scarce than usual, but plenty of voices occupied Stacey’s mind. Not a cigarette to those lips in 70 years and she still manages to get this horrible disease. Maybe it is better to face the truth now, as her mother kept saying, at least now she was prepared for when the monster tries to scare her.
As expected, her mother’s roast dinner was second to none, and the smells of sage and garlic lingered in the house. Normally these scents made Stacey’s tummy rumble even after dinner, but on this night they made her feel a little queasy.
The sickness lingered the following morning, so she took herself out for some fresh air. Walking to the end of the garden, she looked out over Clent Hills, remembering the day about thirty-one years ago, when the wind took her kite from her hands and it streamed out of sight without a care for its owner. She and her father drove around for at least forty-five minutes trying to spot the red and blue tails, but no luck. She recalled the heartbreak.
Then, a slight stomach cramp shifted her attention. At least five weeks had past since her last period but the doctors had warned about this following the treatment. The dreamer in her knew a grandchild would be the best present she could offer her mother now, so despite her better judgment she went to find the spare test in her wash bag. Until now, she never knew why she had insisted on keeping it.
Stacey threw the duvet off Mark, and shook him until his eyes peeled open. This was the first time warm tears had ran from her eyes for as long as she could remember, and Mark cried too. At breakfast they broke the news to her parents, and the glow in her mother’s eyes was worth every year of failure.
Returning home, their doctor was amazed by the life in the ultra sound. Their happiness through summer was durable like the daylight that poured through the kitchen window, and her mother’s expectancy grew like the clearer vistas of Yorkshire. She looked forward to seeing Stacey’s handwriting in the post, and pulling the latest scan from a hard backed protective envelope. Weekend retreats were hardly missed by the couple. Instead they learned how to laugh at daytime TV and sometimes the car sat contently on the drive for days at a time. By early July they discovered January 2nd would be the big day.
Stacey’s mum and dad were to be traveling to the cottage in time for New Years and ready for the arrival. The phone rang.
This time, the phone did slip from her hand, and hit her stomach on its descent. Mark latched onto her before she did the same. She held the girl that kicked inside her, a whole new person already missing a part of life. An unborn baby and her grandmother both in a darkness of their own, numb to the throat-grazing howls that scarred each wall of the cottage.
Howls rang in Marks ears and fingernails pierced his palm, three days later. Using muscles unbeknown to her, Stacey brought flesh, bones and a familiar pair of eyes to the world. The screams in the room were replaced with the strangely harmonious, high-pitch cries of Eva Caroline Rose.
‘Beautiful. That would have meant the world to her.’