The test was negative. Her last shot at IVF and she’d failed again. And yes, failure is exactly what it felt like, even though the consultant had made no bones about her chances of conceiving being next to none. Grimacing wryly, she tossed the used test stick in the wastepaper basket, her sense of inadequacy intensified by the thoughts that every other woman in the world seemed able to accomplish what she couldn’t. Some at the drop of a hat!
How many times had she heard women say exactly that? Usually accompanied by a smug self-satisfied or arch look.
‘Me? Oh, I get pregnant at the drop of a hat. My husband only has to look at me and the next thing I know, I’m in the labour ward.’
But not her! Never her! Sick at heart, Annie could hardly believe it. She’d pinned so much more than she’d realised on that old third-time-lucky adage and on the platitudes trotted out by well-meaning family and friends on such a regular and monotonous basis.
‘Give it time, Annie,’ they’d say, gung-ho and full of bonhomie. ‘When the time’s right, it’ll happen, you’ll see.’ Or, ‘Oh, you’re still young. There’ll be plenty of time for babies. Just enjoy yourself while you can. Go on a cruise or something; take your mind off things.’ And the one that annoyed her most of all. ‘It’ll happen when you least expect it.’
Mind you, she wasn’t young any more, well not in fertility terms – she was thirty-eight and the sands of tine were making their descent at an alarming rate. Even if she had managed to become pregnant she would have been classified as an elderly primagravida, a rather unfortunate medical term which conjured up visions of all things grey, wrinkled and well past their sell-by-date. Most of her friends had escaped the elderly primagravida stage, wisely giving birth on cue in their early and mid-twenties. Former friends, really! As barren month followed barren month, she found it more and more difficult to be around them, found it harder and harder to join in the kissing and cuddling and christening of their newborn children.
After a while, anyway she felt she didn’t really have much worthwhile to contribute to the general conversation, which seemed to centre on the virtue of one brand of nappies over another, the agonies of sleepless nights, colic and the merits of single jabs over the MMR. And what did she know about those things for heaven’s sake? They were as alien to her as the intricacies of the off-side rule in football. After a while, it became rather obvious that the other women too had begun to feel awkward with the situation. Oh, not that they said anything – more, it became apparent in the same way they shifted guiltily whenever she came into the room, their eyes sliding away, unwilling to face head-on the almost tangible desperation oozing from her, their childless sister. And so, inadvertently, they clutched their offspring just that little bit tighter, smiled just that little bit more broadly, as if the one act could cancel out the other, until it seemed kinder to everyone simply to let her visits tail off.
Family weren’t quite so easy to dispense with, however. Especially a family like hers who, proud of its record in the fertility stakes, sought out every opportunity to celebrate that same reproductively with massive Walton-style get-togethers, and this Christmas promised to be the get-together to end them all.
“I can’t do it!” she told her husband later that evening, her eyes peering mutinously over the rim of a large glass of wine, with which she hoped to drown her sorrows. “Not this year.”
With an impatient shuffle of his newspaper, David bent a stern look upon her. “But we always spend Christmas with the family. They’ll expect it.”
“Well they’ll just have to un-expect it, then, because there’s no way I can play at happy families this year.” Annie’s mouth formed a straight obdurate line. “It would be pure torture, all those little kids running round about the place and Carol and Kieran proudly showing off their newborn twins.”
Scowling, she upended her glass of wine, tipped it down her throat and immediately reached for a refill.
“Twins, if you don’t mind! When I can’t even manage to have one, And, I wouldn’t mind so much, but they’ve already got Ciara and Thomas. If you ask me someone ought to stick some bromide in Kieran’s tea. It’s not bloody fair.”
“No one ever said life was fair.” Despite the harshness of his words, David’s voice was soft. “Still, if you really feel that strongly about it . . . “
Content that she had made her point, Annie fell silent for a while, gazing deep into the flames of the open fire, seeing nothing really. “We could go away,” she said, after a while. “I know, we could go to Nigeria.” She sat up straighter as the idea grew in appeal. “Remember how you wanted to research the AIDS epidemic? You said your editor was always banging on at you to do it. Not only would it provide us with a cast-iron excuse to get away, but we might be able to do some good too,. I mean, while you’re off researching, I could maybe help out in the hospitals.”
Pensively folding his paper, David placed it neatly down by the side of his chair.
“True, Mike is very keen for ne to do it, but I don’t imagine it would be your cup of tea at all – not for a minute.”
As Annie’s eyebrows drew together in a thunderous frown, he hurried to make himself clear. “I mean it won’t be all Christmas carols and deck-the-halls-with-boughs-of-holly. It’s not pretty, Annie. People are dying by the score. Dying horribly.” He lowered his voice, deliberately sought her eyes. “Children are dying.”
Defiant, Annie’s chin came up. “I know, David. There’s no need to patronise me. I do watch the news, you know. I do read newspapers and keep abreast of current affairs. My brain is not directly connected to my ovaries, although I know there’s been times recently when it must have seemed like it was.” She sighed, a long ragged sound that seemed to travel all the way up from her toes.
“But, look at it this way, maybe I can do some good out there, more good than I’ll do here, anyway, moping about the place like a wet weekend and spoiling Christmas for everyone else.”
Despite herself, a sudden smile tugged at her lips. “Do you remember last year when Ciara spilled her Coca Cola all over my mother’s best Persian rug and Carol smacked her?”
“Remember?” David’s own mouth curled upwards. “You went at her with the carving knife. I had the devil’s own job to pull you off.”
“Well, she deserved it.” Unrepentant, Annie went to sit at his feet, leaning her back against his knees, contentedly closing her eyes as his hand moved to stroke her hair. “I don’t believe in smacking. Children are a gift from God. What right has anyone to smack them? We don’t encourage adults to slap one another, do we? So why is it perfectly okay to smack something smaller, something more helpless than ourselves, that’s what I’d like to know?”
Winding a long strand of her hair around his finger, David tugged gently, tipped her head backwards, then leaning forward dropped a gentle upside-down kiss on her lips.
“Well, if it’s any consolation to you, I doubt if Carol’s touched her since. I swear you scared the living daylights out of the poor woman. Kieran told me she was a nervous wreck for a month afterwards. As a matter of fact, I think she’s still having nightmares.”
“Well, maybe I did overreact a bit,” Annie admitted. “Still, I can’t promise there wouldn’t be an action replay this Christmas. So, what do you say? Is it all systems go for Nigeria?”
“I don’t see why not. I’ll tell you what, I’ll have a word with Mike tomorrow and if he gives ne the go ahead, I’ll get straight onto the travel agents.” He nudged her gently in the back of the neck. “Now, if there’s any of that wine left . . .”
Nothing had prepared her for Nigeria. Nothing had prepared her for the scorching, unrelenting heat, the all-pervading choking cloud of orange dust that clung to hair, skin and every available surface, and the swarms of flies that bit, sucked and gorged with a ferocity unsurpassed even by Hannibal Lecter. But, above all, nothing but nothing had prepared her for the abject poverty of the Nigerian villagers, whom she presumptuously had come to help. Overwhelmed by the task before her and fearing she’d made a huge mistake, it was all she could do not to beg David to take her straight back home again. But, of course, she couldn’t do that. David was here on a work assignment and she’d never forgive herself if she became a hindrance. Consequently, she hoisted a brave smile on her face and waved him off with a cheery grin as he dropped her outside St Theresa’s Hospice and drove off to meet up with another news journalist.
“It’s all a bit much to take in, isn’t it?” A young nun standing outside the building got the measure of how things stood straight away, hurrying over and giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. “Now, let’s see, you must be Annie? We’ve been expecting you and right now, you’re feeling like you just want to go back home and forget all about us.” She smiled at Annie’s appalled face. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m not a mind reader, not Uri Geller. It’s just that we all feel exactly the same when we come out here first.” Wryly, she quirked an eyebrow. “And believe me, wearing a habit doesn’t make it any less daunting.” She squeezed again. “Still, you get used to it after a while. You can get used to anything, you know. Even places like this. And, do you know what, there are worse places to be.”
Unconvinced, Annie gently withdrew her hand. “Oh, Lord, I’m not at all sure what I’m doing here. To be honest, I don’t think I’m going to be much use to anyone, man or beast. What was I thinking of?” She waved a vague hand. “To tell the truth, I – I feel a bit, well helpless, I suppose. I mean, where do you start?”
Sr. Agnes gave a peel of laughter that was almost a shout, bursting into an impromptu rendition of Mary Poppins.
“Start at the very beginning, that’s a very good place to start.” She grinned at a passing Nigerian, who reciprocated by flashing his white teeth and executing a little dance that brought gales of laughter from all around.
“See!” Sr. Agnes applauded loudly. “Nobody’s going to bite you. They’re all lovely people. So stop worrying, you’ll be absolutely grand and it’ll be great to have an extra pair of hands on deck. We’re hard pressed as it is, let me tell you, so the more the merrier!” Now come on inside and meet some of our patients. They’ll be delighted to see another friendly face, and I’ve got the very job you can help me with.”
Making a shooing notion like a mother hen, she ushered Annie through the doors of the hospice, where her nostrils were immediately assailed by the strong universally recognisable smell of disinfectant. Leading the way down a large open corridor, occupied on either side by hospital beds that contained people of both sexes as well as children, her mood altered, became suddenly a lot more serious.
“I want you to meet little Kaufi, my shining star. He’s only three months old and an orphan, God help him.” She sighed. “The poor little mite’s mother died last week from AIDS needless to say, the scourge of Nigeria! Anyway, do you think you could feed him for me and generally take him off my hands? As you can imagine, like most babies, he can be fierce demanding at times and I’ve more than enough other patients to see to.”
“Y-yes, of course,” Annie agreed at once. “I’d love to. Just point me in the right direction.”
“Good. Well, here he is, the man, himself!” A moment later, the nun stopped and bent over a cot located at one end of the ward. Reaching in, she chucked the small black occupant under his chin, eliciting a windy smile that caused both women to smile broadly in return, and Annie to go weak at the knees.
“Hello, cheeky weeky! And how’s Aggie’s best boy today, eh? Eh? Dud he wanna bockle? Due he? Dud he wanna bockle?” She grinned foolishly. “I know it’s not considered PC these days to goo at babies and talk rubbish, but I can’t help myself.”
Annie grinned foolishly back, immediately smitten by the smiling, though somewhat underweight baby.
“I know exactly what you mean. Still, there’s time enough for them to start reading Plato, filling in crosswords and debating the merits of quantum physics over nuclear.”
“My sentiments exactly! I knew you looked like a sensible woman the first time I clapped eyes on you.”
Beaming approval, the nun pointed over towards a curtained off alcove. That’s the kitchen, or rather what passes for the kitchen. You’ll find all the makings of his feed in there.” She gestured further up along the ward. “And there’s nappies and other bits and pieces in that cupboard. Just help yourself to whatever you need. Don’t go overboard, though, will you. Needless to say most things here are in very short supply.”
“I won’t,” Annie promised, turning her attention back to the cot. “One bockle coming right up,” she promised softly, her hand tentatively reaching down and stroking the small up-turned face. “Watch this space.”
Christmas Eve, and between patients, Sr. Agnes was busying herself putting some last-minute festive touches to the ward. She’d already managed to appropriate a rather large plastic fir tree from somewhere or other and now, decorated to within an inch of its life, it took garish pride of place bang slap in the middle of the ward bringing a touch of gaiety to an otherwise sombre scene.
“You’d make a lovely mother, so you would.”
Holding the bottle to the baby’s lips, Annie smiled tremulously in response, her eyes despite her best efforts immediately welling up.
“Oh, Lord, what did I say?” Appalled, the nun took in the unhappy expression on Annie’s face, the tears that hovered for a moment before spilling over, causing little Kaufi to break off from his feeding and look up at her in bewilderment. “I’m sorry,” she said, immediately divining which way the wind blew. “Truly sorry. It must be very hard for you.”
Annie nodded, grateful that, unlike everyone else, Sr. Agnes left the platitudes alone, made no attempt to apply a band-aid to what was, in effect, a surgical wound.
“It is and yet I feel guilty.” She jerked her chin in a kind of all-encompassing gesture. “I mean, who am I to feel sorry for myself when all these people have so much more to contend with?”
“Well, there’s no getting away from the fact that they’ve got a lot on their plates, all right,” Sr. Agnes nodded, “But, you know, everything is relative and your suffering doesn’t diminish in direct proportion to theirs. It doesn’t work like that. So, go on Annie, have a good cry, if it makes you feel better. You’ve got a right.”
“Thanks,” Annie sniffed, strangely enough almost immediately beginning to feel better than she had for a long time, as though a very great weight had suddenly begun to lift off her shoulders. That’s what came of being understood, she supposed, being told it was all right to feel bad, to have her grief at being childless validated. Too many people shied away from that kind of thing, didn’t understand that often childlessness, in its own way, was like a kind of bereavement and that the only way to deal with bereavement was simply to listen and let the bereaved talk or cry about it, as they wished.
“De nada!” With a slight consolatory pat on her shoulder, Sr. Agnes went off to try out her changing-rooms routine on another part or the ward, a long piece of red tinsel like a feather boa, trailing incongruously in her wake.
Later that evening Annie asked David if his report was going well, then reassured by a nod that it was, couldn’t refrain from bursting out with her own news.
“We’re having midnight Mass on the ward tonight and Sr. Agnes has even managed to get hold of a whole nativity scene, life-size, with a real manger and everything, and guess who’s going to be playing the part of Baby Jesus.” She clapped her hands together with delight. “My little Kaufi, of course!”
“That’s great.” Pausing in the act of typing, David smiled fondly up at her, amazed at how proprietorial she sounded. It was incredible the change Nigeria had wrought in her and in such a short space of time, A different woman, she exuded real happiness, positively glowed, as if someone had switched on a light bulb inside and illuminated all the parts that had been in shadow for so long. “I’ll be sure not to miss it, so.”
Annie wagged a mock-warning finger. “See to it that you don’t. Kaufi and I would never forgive you.”
David frowned, his relief at seeing her look so happy, tempered with anxiety.
“Look, Annie, you don’t think you’re getting too fond of that little baby, do you? Only . . .” Uncertainly, his voice trailed away.
“Only . . . he’s going to die!” Annie said sadly. “I know, David. Sr. Agnes told ne almost from the start. He was born infected with the AIDS virus. Just like you, she didn’t want me getting too involved, especially when she found out that I couldn’t have any of my own.” The light of battle came into her eye. “But, you know what, I am involved and while he’s still with us, I want to lavish as much love on him as possible,. Do you understand that?”
“Of course, I understand.” Pushing away the laptop, David rose and took her in his arms. “But what then, Annie? What then?”
“I don’t know what then,” she told him honestly, leaning her head against the comforting beat of his heart. “But I can’t just turn my back and walk away, can I? Just in case I go to pieces. Just in case I lose it. He needs me now and he’s where I have to be.”
David sighed, dropped a light kiss on her hair. “Do you know how much I love you?” he asked softly.
Winding her arms around his neck, Annie smiled impishly up at him.
“Yes, as much as cricket, but not quite as much as football!”
Sr. Agnes had organised Karaoke Carols, bravely kicking off the proceedings herself with a rendition of ‘Silent Night’, which, at best, could be described as ear-shattering and, at worst, completely toxic.
“Sure I only do it to make the patients laugh,” she told Annie, completely straight-faced. “I’ve a great voice really. My own father, God rest him, once told me I could make an onion cry.” She made a little moue. “I took it as a compliment. Now will you have a go yourself? Go on,” she encouraged, then as Annie balked, slyly getting in a spot of emotional blackmail. “Do it for the patients if you don’t want to do it for me.”
And so, with Kaufi held tight in her arms, Annie bent her head and sang to him ‘The Christmas Child’, her sweet clear voice spiralling into the air and transfixing the whole ward, at the same time eliciting something that sounded suspiciously like a sob from Sr. Agnes.
“Beautiful! Beautiful!” Sr. Agnes clapped loudly as Annie drew softly to a close, giving the patients their cue, though most of them hadn’t understood a word. What they had understood, though, was that they had just witnessed something very special, something that made then forget their own aches and pains, something that just for a few moments had raised them almost to celestial heights. What they had witnessed was love, pure and simple.
Gradually, those who were well enough took a turn at the mike. Most made up the words as they went along, which only served to enliven the proceedings. One, inspired by a passion for Michael Jackson, treated them to a moonwalk to the tune of “Adeste Fidelis”. Another, a young woman, with only days to live, scorned the Karaoke machine altogether and sang a jaunty song in her native tongue that had everyone, regardless of race, colour or creed, clapping along. Sr. Agnes was persuaded to return for an encore and got horribly mixed up between ‘Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’ and “I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus”, which gave rise to much hilarity and all sorts of interesting connotations.
“A few weeks ago,” Annie reminded her, as red-faced and breathless she collapsed into the chair beside her, “you told me there were worse places to be than here. And I didn’t believe you, I didn’t believe you because all I saw was the poverty and the pain and the hopelessness. But tonight . . . “ She spread her hands helplessly, quite unable to put into words just how deeply she’d been moved.
Sr. Agnes chuckled comfortably. “I know,” she said. “I know. Tonight the dark clouds have lifted a little and you’ve seen God move among the dying.”
Suddenly intense, she reached out her hand, placed it on the curve of Annie’s arm, where Kaufi’s head lay cradled. “And remember, it Annie. Remember it well – in the dark days ahead. Always remember that you’ve seen God move among the dying.”
Dipping her head, Annie subconsciously tightened her grip on the baby, causing him to wriggle uncomfortably about.
“I will.” Her reply was fervent. “I will.”
Someone had rigged up a star above the manger, a poor misshapen effort of a thing, crudely fashioned out of cardboard, silver foil and tinsel. Attracted by it, Kaufi cooed and kicked and waved his stick-like arms, blissfully unaware that the nice lady who had looked after him for the past few weeks was down on her knees and praying for a miracle. After a while, he stopped and fell asleep.
Annie grinned to hear the excited pleas coming from the sitting room. “Mum! Mum! Can I put the star on the Christmas tree? Dominic did it last year.”!
Coming through from the kitchen, a tray of buns in her hand, she smiled down on the red agitated face of Danielle, her six-year-old adopted daughter.
“Okay, but you must be very careful not to damage it.”
Dominic, eight, and also adopted, stamped his foot in a display of temper at not getting his own way.
“Why? It’s only a piece of old rubbish anyway. Everybody else has an electric star on top of their tree. Or a fairy! Why must we have a piece of old rubbish?
Annie laid the tray down on a nearby table.
“Come over here and I’ll tell you why.” Gesturing both children over to where the fire was blazing merrily away, Annie sat then down on the rug, the way she always did when she was going to tell them a story.”
“Now, are you sitting comfortably? God, then I’ll begin. Once upon a time in Nigeria, there was a little boy called Kaufi . . . “
At the far side of the room, David paused in the act of blowing up a balloon, his glance lovingly seeking hers above the children’s heads. Tender, she returned the glance, bent her head again towards the children.
“And this – is his star.”