Authors: Maeve Binchy
For dear Gordon,
with love and thanks
eople looked very weary, May thought, and shabbier than she had remembered Londoners to be. They reminded her a little of those news-reel pictures of crowds during the war or just after it, old raincoats, brave smiles, endless patience. But then this wasn’t Regent Street, where she had wandered up and down looking at shops on other visits to London, it wasn’t the West End, with lights all glittering and people getting out of taxis full of excitement and wafts of perfume. This was Shepherd’s Bush, where people lived. They had probably set out from here early this morning and fought similar crowds on the way to work. The women must have done their shopping in their lunch hour because most of them were carrying plastic bags of food. It was a London different to the one you see as a tourist.
And she was here for a different reason, although she had once read a cynical article in a magazine which said that girls coming to London for abortions provided a significant part of the city’s tourist revenue. It wasn’t something you could classify under any terms as a holiday. When she filled in the card at the airport she had written “Business” in the section where it said “Purpose of journey.”
The pub where she was to meet Celia was near the tube station. She found it easily and settled herself in. A lot of the accents were Irish, workmen having a pint before they went home to their English wives and their television programmes. Not drunk tonight, it was only Monday, but obviously regulars. Maybe not so welcome as regulars on Friday or Saturday nights, when they would remember they were Irish and sing anti-British songs.
Celia wouldn’t agree with her about that. Celia had rosetinted views about the Irish in London, she thought they were all here from choice, not because there was no work for them at home. She hated stories about the restless Irish, or Irishmen on the lump in the building trade. She said people shouldn’t make such a big thing about it all. People who came from much farther away settled in London, it was big enough to absorb everyone. Oh well, she wouldn’t bring up the subject, there were enough things to disagree with Celia about…without searching for more.
Oh why of all people, of all the bloody people in the world, did she have to come to Celia? Why was there nobody else whom she could ask for advice? Celia would give it, she would give a lecture with every piece of information she imparted. She would deliver a speech with every cup of tea, she would be cool, practical, and exactly the right person, if she weren’t so much the wrong person. It was handing Celia a whole box of ammunition about Andy. From now on Celia could say that Andy was a rat, and May could no longer say she had no facts to go on.
Celia arrived. She was thinner, and looked a little tired. She smiled. Obviously the lectures weren’t going to come in the pub. Celia always knew the right place for things. Pubs were for meaningless chats and bright, nonintense conversation. Home was for lectures.
“You’re looking marvellous,” Celia said.
It couldn’t be true. May looked at her reflection in a glass panel. You couldn’t see the dark lines under her eyes there, but you could see the droop of her shoulders, she wasn’t a person that could be described as looking marvellous. No, not even in a pub.
“I’m okay,” she said. “But you’ve got very slim, how did you do it?”
“No bread, no cakes, no potatoes, no sweets,” said Celia in a businesslike way. “It’s the old rule but it’s the only rule. You deny yourself everything you want and you lose weight.”
“I know,” said May, absently rubbing her waist-line.
“Oh I didn’t mean
,” cried Celia, horrified. “I didn’t mean that at all.”
May felt weary, she hadn’t meant that either, she was patting her stomach because she had been putting on weight. The child that she was going to get rid of was still only a speck, it would cause no bulge. She had put on weight because she cooked for Andy three or four times a week in his flat. He was long and lean. He could eat forever and he wouldn’t put on weight. He didn’t like eating alone so she ate with him. She reassured Celia that there was no offence and when Celia had gone, twittering with rage at herself, to the counter, May wondered whether she had explored every avenue before coming to Celia and Shepherd’s Bush for help.
She had. There were no legal abortions in Dublin, and she did not know of anyone who had ever had an illegal one there. England and the ease of the system were less than an hour away by plane. She didn’t want to try and get it on the National Health, she had the money, all she wanted was someone who would introduce her to a doctor, so that she could get it all over with quickly. She needed somebody who knew her, somebody who wouldn’t abandon her if things went wrong, somebody who would lie for her, because a few lies would have to be told. May didn’t have any other friends in London. There was a girl she had once met on a skiing holiday, but you couldn’t impose on a holiday friendship in that way. She knew a man, a very nice, kind man who had stayed in the hotel where she worked and had often begged her to come and stay with him and his wife. But she couldn’t go to stay with them for the first time in this predicament, it would be ridiculous. It had to be Celia.
It might be easier if Celia had loved somebody so much that everything else was unimportant. But stop, that wasn’t fair. Celia loved that dreary, boring, selfish Martin. She loved him so much that she believed one day he was going to get things organized and make a home for them. Everyone else knew that Martin was the worst possible bet for any punter, a Mamma’s boy who had everything he wanted now, including a visit every two months from Celia, home from London, smartly dressed, undemanding, saving away for a day that would never come. So Celia did understand something about the nature of love. She never talked about it. People as brisk as Celia don’t talk about things like unbrisk attitudes in men, or hurt feelings or broken hearts. Not when it refers to themselves, but they are very good at pointing out the foolish attitudes of others.
Celia was back with the drinks.
“We’ll finish them up quickly,” she said.
Why could she never, never take her ease over anything? Things always had to be finished up quickly. It was warm and anonymous in the pub. They could go back to Celia’s flat, which May felt sure wouldn’t have even a comfortable chair in it, and talk in a businesslike way about the rights and wrongs of abortion, the procedure, the money, and how it shouldn’t be spent on something so hopeless and destructive. And about Andy. Why wouldn’t May tell him? He had a right to know. The child was half his, and even if he didn’t want it he should pay for the abortion. He had plenty of money, he was a hotel manager. May had hardly any, she was a hotel receptionist. May could see it all coming, she dreaded it. She wanted to stay in this warm place until closing time, and to fall asleep, and wake up there two days later.
Celia made walking-along-the-road conversation on the way to her flat. This road used to be very quiet and full of retired people, now it was all flats and bed-sitters. That road was nice, but noisy, too much through traffic. The houses in the road over there were going for thirty-five thousand, which was ridiculous, but then you had to remember it was fairly central and they did have little gardens. Finally they were there. A big Victorian house, a clean, polished hall, and three flights of stairs. The flat was much bigger than May expected, and it had a sort of divan on which she sat down immediately and put up her legs while Celia fussed about a bit, opening a bottle of wine and putting a dish of four small lamb chops into the oven. May braced herself for the lecture.
It wasn’t a lecture, it was an information sheet. She was so relieved that she could feel herself relaxing, and filled up her wineglass again.
“I’ve arranged with Dr. Harris that you can call to see him tomorrow morning at eleven. I told him no lies, just a little less than the truth. I said you were staying with me. If he thinks that means you are staying permanently, that’s his mistake not mine. I mentioned that your problem was…what it is. I asked him when he thought it would be…em…done. He said Wednesday or Thursday, but it would all depend. He didn’t seem shocked or anything; it’s like tonsillitis to him, I suppose. Anyway he was very calm about it. I think you’ll find he’s a kind person and it won’t be upsetting…that part of it.”
May was dumbfounded. Where were the accusations, the I-told-you-so sighs, the hope that now, finally, she would finish with Andy? Where was the slight moralistic bit, the heavy wondering whether or not it might be murder? For the first time in the eleven days since she had confirmed she was pregnant, May began to hope that there would be some normality in the world again.
“Will it embarrass you, all this?” she asked. “I mean, do you feel it will change your relationship with him?”
“In London a doctor isn’t an old family friend like at home, May. He’s someone you go to, or I’ve gone to anyway, when I’ve had to have my ears syringed, needed antibiotics for flu last year, and a medical certificate for the time I sprained my ankle and couldn’t go to work. He hardly knows me except as a name on his register. He’s nice though, and he doesn’t rush you in and out. He’s Jewish and small and worried-looking.”
Celia moved around the flat, changing into comfortable sitting-about clothes, looking up what was on television, explaining to May that she must sleep in her room and that she, Celia, would use the divan.
No, honestly, it would be easier that way, she wasn’t being nice, it would be much easier. A girl friend rang and they arranged to play squash together at the week-end. A wrong number rang; a West Indian from the flat downstairs knocked on the door to say he would be having a party on Saturday night and to apologize in advance for any noise. If they liked to bring a bottle of something, they could call in themselves. Celia served dinner. They looked at television for an hour, then went to bed.
May thought what a strange empty life Celia led here far from home, miles from Martin, no real friends, no life at all. Then she thought that Celia might possibly regard her life too as sad, working in a second-rate hotel for five years, having an affair with its manager for three years. A hopeless affair because the manager’s wife and four children were a bigger stumbling block than Martin’s mother could ever be. She felt tired and comfortable, and in Celia’s funny, characterless bedroom she drifted off and dreamed that Andy had discovered where she was and what she was about to do, and had flown over during the night to tell her that they would get married next morning, and live in England and forget the hotel, the family, and what anyone would say.
Tuesday morning, Celia was gone. Dr. Harris’s address was neatly written on the pad by the phone with instructions how to get there. Also Celia’s phone number at work, and a message that May never believed she would hear from Celia. “Good luck.”
He was small, and Jewish, and worried, and kind. His examination was painless and unembarrassing. He confirmed what she knew already. He wrote down dates, and asked general questions about her health. May wondered whether he had a family, there were no pictures of wife or children in the surgery. But then there were none in Andy’s office, either. Perhaps his wife was called Rebecca and she, too, worried because her husband worked so hard, they might have two children, a boy who was a gifted musician, and a girl who wanted to get married to a Christian. Maybe they all walked along these leafy roads on Saturdays to synagogue and Rebecca cooked all those things like gefilte fish and bagels.
With a start, May told herself to stop dreaming about him. It was a habit she had gotten into recently, fancying lives for everyone she met, however briefly. She usually gave them happy lives with a bit of problem-to-be-solved thrown in. She wondered what a psychiatrist would make of that. As she was coming back to real life, Dr. Harris was saying that if he was going to refer her for a termination he must know why she could not have the baby. He pointed out that she was healthy, and strong, and young. She should have no difficulty with pregnancy or birth. Were there emotional reasons? Yes, it would kill her parents, she wouldn’t be able to look after the baby, she didn’t want to look after one on her own either, it wouldn’t be fair on her or the baby.
“And the father?” Dr. Harris asked.
“Is my boss, is heavily married, already has four babies of his own. It would break up his marriage, which he doesn’t want to do…yet. No, the father wouldn’t want me to have it either.”
“Has he said that?” asked Dr. Harris as if he already knew the answer.
“I haven’t told him, I can’t tell him, I won’t tell him,” said May.
Dr. Harris sighed. He asked a few more questions; he made a telephone call; he wrote out an address. It was a posh address near Harley Street.
“This is Mr. White. A well-known surgeon. These are his consulting rooms, I have made an appointment for you at two-thirty this afternoon. I understand from your friend Miss…” He searched his mind and his desk for Celia’s name and then gave up. “I understand anyway that you are not living here, and don’t want to try and pretend that you are, so that you want the termination done privately. That’s just as well, because it would be difficult to get it done on the National Health. There are many cases that would have to come before you.”
“Oh I have the money,” said May, patting her handbag. She felt nervous but relieved at the same time. Almost exhilarated. It was working, the whole thing was actually moving. God bless Celia.
“It will be around £180 to £200, and in cash, you know that?”
“Yes, it’s all here, but why should a well-known surgeon have to be paid in cash, Dr. Harris? You know it makes it look a bit illegal and sort of under-hand, doesn’t it?”
Dr. Harris smiled a tired smile. “You ask me why he has to be paid in cash. Because he says so. Why he says so, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because some of his clients don’t feel too like paying him after the event. It’s not like plastic surgery or a broken leg, where they can see the results. In a termination you see no results. Maybe people don’t pay so easily then. Maybe also Mr. White doesn’t have a warm relationship with his income tax people. I don’t know.”