'But I thought that you and Jo were getting on like a house on fire,' my daughter said in surprise. 'What in the world has he done?' I looked at her and thought back 21 years to hear my friend Maeve (with whom I had been at school) advising me.
'For God's sake, Angela,' Maeve said, 'you must do something.' Maeve was a nurse and she should know. But what was I to do, even if I was to do anything? My nursing friend recommended a bottle of whisky. I would not have considered the idea at all if Simon, my son, had not been just seven months old or if he had been a baby less prone to angry tempers, or if I did not feel quite so inadequate as a mother or if I did not suffer from what must have been post-natal depression. I toyed with the idea for a whole evening and then decided that if I was to have another baby I could and would cope.
Benjamin Lionel were to be the names of this, our second child. To consider girls' names would have been a waste of time because the men in my husband's family seemed to father only boys. Out of 23 babies born to men in his near family, there was only one girl. She was Penelope, his sister, and she greatly resented me for taking from her the brother she adored. I became even less popular in her eyes when the baby I produced was like a beautiful old-fashioned china doll, perfectly shaped, large and chubby, with a head of tight little curls and competition for herself — another girl!
And this baby was now asking me about Jo and why the romance that only last week had been blooming was now over, finished, kaput. She looked bewildered and yet half-amused. What could an almost hopelessly shy widower, an ardent churchgoer with a grown-up family, have done to upset her fairly broadminded and almost trendy mother?
I prefer the term 'the change of life'. The word 'Menopause' sounds rather clinical and to me the whole thing is just change that is happening even as my life is changing — when my children are grown up and I am still working, with a little money in my pocket, and while I still have a zest for life and ambitions and, the Good Lord willing, the time to fulfil them. The 31-day cycle became 40, then 22, then zero. The machine had wound down and stopped. Hooray! Cheers! I could not feel any sensation of regret. Why regret anyway? Life can be more complete without all that inconvenience. There is so much to do in life and the only thing that limits me is time and, if statistics are anything to go by, I still have 20 years more of that before the rot sets in or — if I am not carried away or mown down by the No 7 ghost bus in the meantime. Twenty glorious years in front of me with responsibilities only to myself and the opportunity to travel and carry out any or all of my ambitions if I want. That was what I had been thinking last Friday.
It was hot on Saturday night and sleep eluded me. I got up and made myself tea and, back in bed, as I lay watching the darkness paling into an early dawn and wondering why I, the mistress of sleep, was wakeful, I felt an odd sensation in the stomach region and memories from the past crowded round each other into an awful and terrible second of understanding. I waited and it came again. I pressed my stomach and there was a revolution inside. A baby kicking and resisting the pressure of my hand. At my age, too. So much for the change of life. I would go into the Guinness Book of Records — still collecting Child Benefit at the age of 67. What would my Jo think of that? The problems and complications of the birth of my daughter were for the moment shrouded in the blackness of forgetfulness as I thought of this life within me. Twenty-one years disappeared in a moment, as I became young again and felt the sweet small stirrings throughout the night.
This impending event would have to hasten the plans that Jo had been pleading for, for some months now. He had refused to take seriously my warnings that we had to be careful for at least two years. At our age, he said, it was not the same as when we were young. He could not function properly, he told me, when he was wearing a condom. (And I, of course, at my age, could not take the pill — it would only start again what I believed had stopped.) Finally, he admitted in conversation that the reason he did not want to wear a sheath was because he did not like it. He could see no danger. He would take care. It seemed now, however, that he had not taken quite enough care.
Perhaps I was not madly in love, but he was generosity itself. He was kind and considerate and loving — how loving. It would be risky to let him go; there were too many other women who would like a man like that. Yes, I thought, I could combine helping him to run a pub (which was his dream) and still keep up my evening classes in law and my writing group. He was fairly wealthy — perhaps we would be able to travel together? So much for unreality and my Sunday morning dreams!
After Mass and on our way to lunch, I found out that our dreams did not, after all, coincide. Remarkably unenthusiastic about the pub about which he had before been dreaming he advised me, 'Wait until it is confirmed.' We would talk about it then. But I had to know now — and, above all, know before it was confirmed — what he thought I should do. He thought I should 'get rid of it' and we could start again — to get to know each other better because, after all, I had never even said that I loved him. Still generous, he would even pay for the abortion. So here I was, having been just as gullible and trusting as any teenager and now just as vulnerable, just as pregnant and just as much on my own. 'How could you be pregnant anyway?' he was saying, 'when the only times we had unprotected intercourse were on occasions when you said it would be quite safe?' What he means, of course, is that if I am pregnant (which he is sure I am not) the baby could not be his anyway. Suddenly the large car was suffocating and disgusting to me. Never having been sick in my previous pregnancies, I felt sick now. Not baby-sick, however, but man-sick and utter disgust at the preacher and an awful revulsion at the fear that somewhere there might be similarities in our characters.
Sunday night was my night of tears. The anti-abortionist was laid low. The preacher became the sinner. I would have to learn to live with my final decision. But this tiny mite must not suffer. If I am to take the life of this helpless atom of humanity it must be done gently, even as the vet would put to sleep an unwanted puppy. The doctors would have me believe that it was 'just a lump of jelly', but a lump of jelly does not have tiny limbs to kick me with.
The doctor said that to feel a baby kicking, it would have to be 18 weeks old and I was definitely not carrying a baby of that age. My fears were semi-allayed until I remembered that although a first-time mother felt these movements at 18 weeks, a second- or third-time mother could recognise the sensations at 12/13 weeks — these dates fitted in terrifyingly with my calendar.
My employer, a woman of tremendous understanding, even agreed to let me use her telephone number, so that, in the event of a family emergency, I could be contacted when I was in hospital. I could hardly confide in my daughter, now in front of me, in whose eyes I could do little wrong. Had I not, my employer asked, carried out my own test? I knew there was no need, but felt like Public Fool No. 1 in Boots, when my almost whispered request seemed to echo and re-echo throughout the shop.
The first test, in my panic, fell down the toilet and was lost forever. The second test did not work — or it did not confirm what I knew to be the case. Either I was the 1% for whom the test failed or the one who played near the cliff, fell over, and whose fall was cushioned by safety and Lady Luck.
The Assistant in Boots looked rather strangely at me as I approached her again. This time the test went on quietly and without haste. I shivered with apprehension while I waited for the blue line to appear and then trembled and shook with incredulity and relief, as it became clear that the little blue line was not going to appear. I was not pregnant. I would not, after all, be entered in the Guinness Book of Records and there need be no bond of any kind between me and the man who had failed me in my need.
I said, as I looked at my barely adult and loving daughter, that I would tell her some time, but not just yet. And I may tell her, when she has had more experience of life and when I learn to have faith that she will not despise me for what I had planned to do. And when I come to terms with the knowledge that if she did despise me, which, in her love, I hoped she would not, it would mainly be because of what she had learnt from me.