Gerald Lytton, young, hip fertility specialist, bounded over to greet Juliet and Philip as soon as they entered the consulting room of his West Acton clinic. Philip was surprised by how young he was, perhaps only five or six years older than himself, and even more trendy, sporting a fine charcoal polo neck sweater, cream slacks and top-of-the-range trainers.
He was affable to a degree that made the introductions seem like they were here to negociate a deal on a Tuscany villa after all, just as Philip would have preferred. Then, when he and Juliet were settled in their seats and he was beginning to relax a little, Gerald vanished behind a screen and came out lugging a full-sized, highly detailed, anatomical model of a woman’s torso. He set it down on his desk with a grunt.
He turned to them with an apologetic air. ‘This thing’s heavy – in every respect, I suppose. But it’s my belief that an essential part of my job is to inform my patients about what I’m doing at every stage. The way I see it, we work best when we work as a team. Now we can’t do that unless you learn at least the basics.’
With that, he yanked off the front section of the torso to expose a mass of crimson internal organs within.
Philip gave an involuntary gasp.
‘Amazing thing, isn’t it?’ Gerald said. ‘A perfect copy – of a normal woman. Still, I can give you a good idea of the malformation. I just have to get this bit out first.’
Gerald tugged at the fallopian tubes. They didn’t budge and he had to pull harder. But then they came away too quickly and the ovaries shot out and skittered across the room like marbles.
Philip and Juliet turned in their chairs and looked to see where they had gone.
‘No, no, leave them,’ Gerald said. ‘Don’t worry about it. These demonstration kits are made of polyurethane – hard as nails. Anyway, I shan’t need the ovaries.’
Philip met Juliet’s eyes met briefly, but he couldn’t read anything in them.
Gerald wrapped one arm around the torso and, using his steel pen as a pointer, began a cursive description of the problem. Philip thought back to his school days, and those frogs they had cut up in biology class. He began to feel depressed.
‘ . . . but of course the worse-case scenario is when they’re absent entirely,’ Gerald said, his glance fell briefly on the filing cabinet behind which the ovaries had rolled. ‘But that, I’m happy to say, is not what we have to worry about here. And by the way, unlike what you may have heard, wild promiscuity in early youth is not always to blame.’ He placed his pen on his desk and he sat in the chair opposite them, so that their feet almost touched. ‘I’m optimistic about your case,’ he said. ‘I really am. And as for the surrogacy procedure, that’s pretty well routine nowadays.’
‘It is the only treatment you’d recommend?’ Juliet asked.
‘Yes, at this juncture. It goes without saying you are still young and alternatives may easily appear over the next few years. You could wait.’ Gerald paused. ‘Do you have any sort of issue about using a surrogate?’
Philip turned questioningly to Juliet to see whether there was an issue.
‘Well,’ she said pensively, ‘how do we find one?’
‘Oh that’s nothing to worry about, Mrs Westhrop. If you don’t know anyone personally, I can give you the details of a charity which keeps a register of women. Then there is the web. Though, in fact, I can provide someone if you like. This will be a woman who will have been fully screened for relevant health problems and who will have the optimum ability to bring a child safely to term. In any event, as you might well know, the arrangement is purely informal, owing to how the law stands at present. A fee, of course, is involved. That would be in the range of five thousand pounds. It’ll be about the same wherever you go, unless you know a friend who’s willing to do it for free.’
Philip turned to Juliet. ‘You have plenty of girlfriends, haven’t you, Juliet?’
Baffled, Philip said, ‘I thought perhaps one of them wouldn’t mind helping us out and carrying the child.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘How do you know, if you haven’t asked them yet?’
‘I’m not sure I should want to ask them,’ Juliet said with a fixed smile for Gerald.
‘How about Tamsin?’
‘What’s wrong? She hasn’t got anything better to do, and she doesn’t drink or smoke.’
‘She goes to Helena’s party every other week.’
‘Come on, Helena’s parties are once a month, at best, and they’re non smoking, in case her paintings catch fire. And then Tamsin doesn’t drink because she has to hand the wine out. She’s been your friend from school, hasn’t she? She’d love to do it.’
‘You’re right Tamsin would love to help . . . except she can’t have children.’
Philip stared at the plastic torso. ‘Oh, right. I didn’t know.’
‘Why would Helena’s paintings catch fire?’ Gerald asked, like he’d given up trying to guess the answer.
Juliet laughed lightly. ‘Oh, that’s just a theory we have as to why Helena won’t have smoking at her parties. You see, she has her latest work on show whenever she has a party and . . . it’s a way of selling them, I suppose. Actually, she’s quite well known – Helena Hursborg?’
Gerald shook his head.
‘How about Helena?’ Philip asked suddenly. ‘Wouldn’t she do it?’ But even as he spoke he knew it was a ridiculous idea. Helena was far too self important to give birth to her own children, let alone somebody else’s.
Juliet turned to him and smiled blandly. ‘It’s mad, but she just might do it.’
‘Oh yes, but only if she could turn her surrogate pregnancy into a piece of performance art.’ She smiled at Gerald. ‘Helena’s career is flagging a little. I could so easily imagine her doing anything for publicity.’
Gerald’s blank expression almost made Philip laugh and he did have to smile as he confessed to the good doctor ‘It seems we don’t know any suitable women after all.’
Two months later, when they heard about it, Juliet and Philip both felt they ought to mark the conception of their child in some special way. After Gerald phoned to confirm that the surrogate was pregnant, Juliet was too thrilled to sit still and at last she suggested they cancel Friday’s meetings and book a weekend in Brighton.
Saturday morning, therefore, found them in the cosy but unfamiliar room of a small bed and breakfast. They lay side by side, staring up at the ceiling while they debated the great shifting and uncertain shape of the future. The almost numberless consequences of having a child defied even a pair of experts in forward planning like Philp and Juliet. Philip in particular couldn’t seem to get a grip on what having a family would do to him. He began to produce some oddly disconnected reminiscences from his childhood. At length, he found himself saying how sorry he felt for his father.
At this point, Juliet, who had already stopped listening, let out a little screech. ‘Phil! I’ve just thought of something! How are we going to explain it?’
‘Explain what?’ Philip felt tiresomely obtuse today.
‘The baby – how are we going to explain where it came from?’
‘Oh. Tell everyone the truth – we got it from a clinic in West Acton.’
Juliet sighed. ‘How about if I pretend to be pregnant by sticking a pillow up my shirt?’
‘Well yes . . . but don’t use a pillow, use a proper prosthetic. They make them you know. I can’t begin to imagine how I know it, but I do.’
‘Yeah. They make them specifically for people who want look pregnant. No kidding. And I should think they’re made in different sizes for greater authenticity – unless it inflates . . . hey, Jules, lets get one! It’ll be a scream.’
‘I’ve just realised something, Phil. We shouldn’t tell anybody about this. It’ll save us a lot of bother.’
‘What, hide it?’
Juliet frowned. ‘Seriously, look at our friends from a baby’s point of view. I mean, if you were a tiny defenceless little baby would you want that lot around you? Especially Harriet. That great big goof. She’s always having accidents. And when she has accidents it’s other people who get hurt, isn’t it? You know, she’s made this amazing hat stand out of metal, in the style of her candelabra.’
‘Christ, we’re not buying that as well, are we?’
Juliet smiled. ‘First thing I said was – we don’t wear hats. Anyway, Kevin was in her studio helping her move a workbench and the hat stand fell over and he had to have five stitches in his arm.’
‘You always have to feel sorry for Kevin, don’t you?’
‘And then there are the fires. Things spontaneously combust around Harriet. Like in that film – what was it called? The one based on that book by Stephen King?’
‘No, not the Shining. Though Harriet could have been in that one too.’
‘It’s not surprising about the fires. She does smoke a lot.’
‘Oh yes, she smokes a lot. And when she’s not smoking she’s welding – so I suppose that explains it . . . Carrie. That’s the one I’m thinking of, Carrie.’
‘Did she start fires as well? I just remember everyone getting drenched in blood.’
‘And that’s another thing.’ Juliet sat up in alarm.
‘The rest of them! They’ve all been on holidays in Third World countries haven’t they? Any one of them might be a carrier for some killer super virus. I’m thinking of Ebola.’
‘Most children die of disease in the Third World,’ Philip observed helpfully. ‘Even more than are killed by war and famine,’
Juliet ignored this. ‘My parents stopped socialising for a year when I was born, just to avoid colds and flu.’
‘Isn’t twelve months a long time not to socialise?’
‘Yes, it’s a long time, but then, we’re not talking about colds and flu anymore, are we? We’re talking about Ebola.’
Philip yawned and scratched his chin. ‘They’re more likely to have TB, or some parasite.’
‘Christ, yes. So what do you think? Shouldn’t we protect the health of the child by fending them off for a while? And then, apart from the health benefits, after twelve months, if anybody still remembers who we are, it’ll be too late for them to ask why I never looked pregnant.’
‘You’re right. We should quarantine the lot of them.’
Juliet laughed. Then she smiled at him curiously. ‘What about Angit and David?’
‘Ah, the trouble there is Angit. She works in a hospital. She’s bound to be humming with MRSA.’
‘No, I mean having to live in that annex.’
‘What’s wrong with that? It’s nicer than the house.’
‘Well, anything would be better than having that fucking wallpaper glowing around you all the time.’
Philip grinned. ‘David’s only humouring his dear old mom.’
‘Oh yeah? The stuff’s practically carpet.’ She screwed up her face in disgust. ‘Carpet on the floor is bad enough, but having it stuck to your walls is worse than . . . than . . . having it yanked up your butt in G-string form.’
Philip laughed out loud. Then he said, ‘Maybe she deserves it.’
Juliet shot him a glance. ‘Why do you say that?’
‘Oh – I find her a bit offish, that’s all.’
‘She was okay with me. And she’s done excellent things with her annex.’
‘How do you know?’
‘We went in, while you and David were out in the garden.’
‘I see. Well, I only wanted to see how it worked from the outside. I put a lot of thought into making it harmonise with the garden.’
‘Did you?’ Juliet said with that brittle tone she always used whenever Philip alluded to his once being an architect.
Philip glanced around the room. ‘Anyway, what’s it like on the inside?’ He asked casually.
‘It’s good. Stripped-pine floors, for a start.’
‘Like our place, then.’
‘Not really . . . it’s not only the stuff, but the way she’s arranged it. She knows Feng Shui. She was explaining it to me.’
‘It isn’t as naff as it sounds then?’ Philip said, only pretending it was a question.
‘Not if it’s done right, no.’
‘But wouldn’t you have to be middle-aged to actually think that much about where you put the furniture?’
‘Angit’s not middle-aged.’
‘Oh, I’m not knocking her.’
‘Yes, you are.’
Philip rolled off the bed and went to the window. He parted the curtains a little and found himself staring at another window four feet away. ‘I think it’s going to be sunny. Lets go for a walk.’ He glanced back to find Juliet giving him a sardonic look.
‘Do you know what Angit told me, while you and David were in the garden?’
‘David left home a couple of times. He just walked out and she didn’t see him for a week or so.’
‘Flipping heck.’ Philip picked up a sock, and balanced on one leg to pull it on.
‘She told me he wouldn’t say where he’d stayed, or anything.’ Juliet shook her head. ‘But she was very cool about it.’ She left off doing up her shirt and turned to him. ‘Didn’t you know about that?’
Philip left off trying to find the other sock. ‘The way it is with us – we don’t talk about his home life. It was an arranged marriage. I feel anything I say might say could cause offence.’
‘Come on, Angit’s living in the granny flat. He can’t not have talked about that.’
Philip picked up his shorts and began to put them on. ‘Well, obviously he’s told me his mom and Angit don’t have a good relationship. Even so, I was as surprised as you were when I found out Angit had moved into the annex.’
Slowly Juliet went back to buttoning her shirt. ‘I think he’s happier about that than she is.’
Philip thought about what David had said about walling Angit in. ‘Forget her, we’re on holiday. Come on, lets get out and see the sea.’
‘God, I don’t want to be middle aged, Phil. We’re not middle aged, are we, like Angit and David?’
‘But we don’t go to parties anymore. I don’t want it to be just one plus one plus one for years to come.’
‘It won’t be. We’ll keep our hand in the social scene. Lets have a party of our own before it comes. Don’t worry, we shan’t let them forget us.’