Alice Through the Bathroom Mirror
Two men were having an impact on Alice’s life: the one who had left her infertile and the one who wanted her to bear his children. She ought to resent the one who’d infected her with the virus which had attacked her fallopian tubes, blocking the causeway whereby sperm reached eggs. What was the medical term again? ‘Banjaxed.’ Alice tested the word on her lips. ‘They told me my fallopian tubes were well and truly banjaxed.’
This was frustrating considering she’d housed them in comfort for thirty-two years somewhere south of her stomach. Finally invited to earn their keep, they revealed their mutation into a malfunctioning body part. ‘A cul-de-sac for sperm,’ she complained.
By rights, Alice should feel animosity towards Sam, the unwitting cause of her barren state. Except she didn’t. Sam was exempt because she needed every iota of her rancour and hostility for Leo. Demanding, adamant, infuriatingly reasonable Leo. ‘My husband. Who’s so in touch with his inner woman, he’s developed a biological clock. A clamouring one.’ It was an image which always reminded her of the ticking crocodile in Peter Pan.
Leo was the problem, not Sam, the boyfriend who had preceded him. Leo was the ideal partner, except in this single instance. He was profoundly unwilling to accept Alice’s inability to give birth. ‘Other men can adopt - no, not children - a healthy self-absorption,’ said Alice. ‘They channel their spare cash into three holidays a year and state-of-the art sound systems. Not Leo, he insists we spend our disposable income on fertility treatment. In-vitro fertilisation. Leo’s besotted with IVF – I’m starting to suspect it’s partly because it replaces foreplay with a general anaesthetic.’
To some extent Sam was responsible for Leo’s dogged drive to father children, although they’d never met. Alice had puzzled over it, concluding her husband was under attack from a virus of his own. ‘It’s a combination of testosterone and territorialism,’ she theorised to her reflection in the bathroom looking glass. Alice conducted numerous conversations with her image these days - not just in the bathroom but in the hall mirror and the dressing table triptych too. It was becoming a necessary outlet for communication as contact with Leo dwindled.
Leo held Sam personally responsible for his wife’s tubular deficiencies. Sam’s cavalier attitude to condom-use had sent the Chlamydia bug tunnelling into Alice’s system in the first place. In Leo’s mind, the only way to erase Sam’s influence on their lives was to reverse the infertility caused by him. Alice’s husband, being of the male persuasion, believed everything was fixable. Particularly if modern medicine waded in. Technically Sam was to blame for Alice’s childless situation. A charming but sporadically unfaithful partner, he had been the source of the infection. It could have been no-one else because there had been no other boyfriends. Alice, however, didn’t hold anyone accountable - she pointed the finger at natural selection. Which had deselected her. It was painful, if she allowed herself to dwell on it; the great geneticist in the sky judging her DNA unsuitable for replication. But she was a realist: what can’t be cured must be endured, as her Granny used to say. Folk wisdom was inherently pragmatic. ‘Also inherently irritating,’ noted Alice.
Being able to afford three holidays a year was some compensation, and she liked having a spare room. Infants colonised spare rooms, re-designating them nurseries. There were advantages to the motherless condition, if you searched long enough.
Alice didn’t share Leo’s overwhelming compulsion to reproduce. She wasn’t averse to the idea, far from it - but she would have preferred it to be accomplished in the aftermath of a bottle of Sancerre and crab cakes in her favourite restaurant, in the more traditional fashion. She liked babies, with their scrunched-up monkey faces and starfish hands, and sometimes she felt a twinge that she didn’t have one of her own. Alice was adept at distracting herself when those urges intruded, before the ruffle of loss consumed her. The survival instinct had taught her to do it.
Leo, on the contrary, was gripped by an evangelical determination to swim against the tide - the trouble was he dragged her along in his slipstream. ‘He needs my womb, you see,’ Alice explained to the other Alice.
She’d tried IVF once, for his sake - her own too, in truth - surrendering to the treatment because it had been crucial to him that she did.
Submission was precisely how it appeared to Alice. Once the medics laid their hands on her, scanned her with their instruments, plumbed the depths of her inadequacy with their microscopic cameras, she felt dehumanised. She had the sensation of being caught in a pincer movement. Trapped between the biological imperative of their baby hunger and the bells and whistles of science, which regarded her as matter. Not as a woman. ‘Women have emotions, they interfere with the smooth running of medical procedures,’ Alice had explained, borderline tearful, to a doctor. His eyes had skittered off hers.
‘I’m never doing it again.’ Alice tested her defiance before the bathroom Alice. ‘It’s not my fault I have substandard fallopian tubes.’ Her reflection was impartial.
Unlike Leo. Leo’s desire for a baby was an affliction which rendered him callous. He was obdurate about trying again.
‘Easy for him,’ whined Alice. Leo hadn’t been the one to undergo an IVF cycle. Ingesting drugs, ovaries in overdrive and swollen to the size of oranges, eggs harvested and stored in a laboratory where they were - ‘Graded,’ protested Alice, outrage blooming afresh. ‘My eggs were judged and given a ranking.’ That’s when Leo’s sperm had been introduced to the eggs deemed contenders, a laboratory-conditions merger. ‘So much for glasses of Sancerre and crab cakes.’ Alice was wistful. Leo thought it defeatist to call a halt after one IVF attempt. Then again, all he’d been required to do was hand over a small but vital donation. He’d moaned about that, aghast at being dispatched to the Gents to oblige. ‘There were no facilities,’ he’d fretted. ‘I had to do it in a cubicle.’ ‘Next time we’ll ask the clinic to supply a geisha girl and some mood music,’ Alice had spluttered, but he’d been preoccupied, nursing his sense of humiliation.
He didn’t know the meaning of humiliation. ‘Nobody expected him to expose his privates to a pair of strangers directing insemination. They chatted about the weather as they did it. As though the more banal their conversation, the less bizarre the circumstances.’ Alice caught her lower lip between teeth and savaged it.
It hadn’t even been successful. Insult and injury topped off with a dollop of ridicule. Fate smirking at Alice. Puny human, what makes you imagine you can override your destiny with a syringe and a hopeful heart?
She’d done it once for him, she felt she owed him that much – but there would be no repeat performance. IVF exacted too steep a price. It had borrowed her soul and had forgotten to repay it.
‘We must try again, Alice,’ Leo remonstrated now. He was wearing his pinstriped suit, the one that made him resemble the actuary he was. ‘The clinic recommended three sessions. You can’t back off so soon, it’s cowardly.’
‘No, it’s not, it’s a mental health essential.’
‘You take a turn then.’ She was provoked and correspondingly irrational. ‘Let’s see how your body enjoys being poked and prodded and made to feel like damaged goods.’
He changed tack and moved behind to knead her shoulders. ‘Be reasonable, love, it will all be worth it when we have our baby.’
‘Science can have my kidneys when I’m dead, until then I want to be left alone.’
He turned her around to make eye-contact, his voice gentle. ‘Your selfishness is depriving me of the chance of parenthood, Alice.’ His hand stroked her pale hair, as though a caress could nullify the sting.
‘Please don’t make me do it again, Leo. Why don’t we register with an adoption agency? The world is full of abandoned babies in all shapes and sizes and colours - we could give one of them a home.’
‘Alice, I want a child of my own.’
‘But it would be ours if we adopted it. If you rear a child, you’re its parent.’
‘I don’t plan on raising another man’s offspring, I could never feel the same way about it.’ The rural accent of Leo’s childhood, long since smothered, edged through. ‘I’m entitled to be a father.’
‘Entitled?’ She stepped back, ducking from the ambit of his arms.
‘Why not? It’s hardly a lot to expect in life. Any half-wit who can’t keep his trousers zipped can manage it. I don’t see why I should be excluded. It’s unfair.’
‘Life is unfair, Leo. Accept it and consider adoption.’
‘If you love me you’ll try again.’
Alice listened to her blood pounding a tattoo in each eardrum. ‘And if I won’t?’
‘I’ll have to reassess whether our relationship is viable.’
Alice waited for a week, challenging whether her response to his ultimatum was a knee-jerk one. Then she phoned Sam. This was their first contact since parting four years previously. It had been a wrench at the time, for they had spent a decade together; but she’d never felt secure with him, the way she did with Leo.
‘The end justifies the means,’ she told the bathroom Alice, brushing her shoulder-length blonde hair before leaving to meet Sam. Leo’s hair was the same wheaten colour - sometimes they were mistaken for brother and sister.
Sam, who had worn his hair in a tumbling mass of black curls when they’d courted, was now scalped. ‘My girlfriend prefers it this way.’ He ran a palm over his skull, self-conscious beneath her appraisal. ‘Is her name Delilah?’ Alice was tart, for it was crucial that the Sam of her memory tally with the version sitting opposite. That Sam was sweet-natured, disposed to oblige anyone. She’d prefer it if he helped her as a favour – although, if necessary, she’d spell out exactly why he owed her. Sam smiled, impossible to rile. ‘Has life been kind to you, Alice?’ She dipped her gaze. ‘I can’t have children.’ ‘Bad luck,’ he sympathised, tracing his fingertips along her inner wrist. Alice felt her residual affection for Sam swell. He’d been a drifter, not marriage and family material the way Leo was, but Sam would recite poetry to her and could name the constellations in the night sky. She reached out and rested her palm against his. ‘I loved your black curls.’ ‘They’re still here, buried inside the crew-cut. Any idea why you can’t have children?’ ‘It’s down to Leo,’ she lied. ‘But there is a way to bypass it - you can help me, if you’re willing.’
* * *
Alice didn’t concede to Leo’s pestering immediately. She allowed him to believe he was grinding down her resistance, chipping at her reservations until territorialism and testosterone fused to conquer. ‘The law of averages means it has to work sooner or later,’ he encouraged her.
‘The law of averages means it only works for some people,’ she parried. ‘One in four, that’s what the specialist said.’
‘It could be us.’
‘Repeated IVF treatment is a high price to pay for a baby, Leo. It’s not exorbitant if success is assured. But there are no guarantees, are there? Except the implicit threat that you’ll walk out if I don’t try again.’ The distance between them yawned. ‘Silly girl,’ he chided, ‘your imagination’s overheating. Now, I’ll cook dinner while you flick through the book of baby names. I fancy Kelly for a girl.’
She yielded to a second IVF attempt a couple of months later. It produced a baby boy. ‘I wonder why it worked this time and not before?’ pondered Leo, strapping the placid infant into the back of his company car. ‘Perhaps we struck gold because there was less stress,’ suggested Alice, bending to inhale the powdered warmth of her son’s scent. She felt blessed: she had the perfect child and the perfect father to watch over him as he grew. ‘You were more relaxed,’ agreed Leo. ‘You wore a Mona Lisa smile throughout the pregnancy.’
That night they tucked the baby into his crib, pulling the string on his lullaby toy and lingering to watch him burrow into sleep. Leo rested his arm on Alice’s shoulder, fulfilled. ‘Why were you more at ease during the second IVF treatment? Was it because you knew the drill?’ Beguiled by domesticity, she became unguarded. Just a fraction. Her eyes glinted with suppressed triumph. ‘I think it was because you didn’t have to go into the clinic to supply your contribution to the proceedings. I was allowed to bring it into the laboratory for you, in a container they supplied. Sperm can live for a little while outside the body, after all. It was more… convenient my way.’ ‘I’d forgotten about that,’ he frowned. ‘You’re right, it was infinitely more convenient than having to do your business in a toilet. So demeaning. I’m glad you thought of it, love.’
A smile tweaked at Alice’s lips as she tangled her fingers in the murmur-soft tendrils of her baby’s black curls. Through the window, where the curtains lay open, she glimpsed the constellations of the night sky. Her reflection wavered against the darkened glass. ‘Not as glad as me,’ she mouthed at the other Alice.
Author’s Note: this story was commissioned for the 2003 Belfast Festival by BBC Radio 4.