Long afterwards, when Ruth looked back, searching for an untroubled time – before she lost her footing and the family tilted out of control – she settled on the memory of her birthday lunch, ten days before the miscarriage happened. It hung there, like a sunlit patch of coast in calm weather, just before the storm blew in.
She had nothing to do, which was unusual, so she lay in a plantation chair and gazed at the scene around her. It was a glorious day for late September: the sky above a deep, insistent blue, jasmine running sweetly rampant over the fence next to her, and yellow and purple daisies jostling for space in the borders. Light splashed from the terrace, through the glass- fronted kitchen, and into the tiled hall beyond. Adam was standing by the stove. He was frowning in concentration over a recipe book, shirtsleeves pushed up to the elbows, dark blond hair flecked with silver plastered to his temples. She smiled, it was still a pleasure to look at him.
Ruth stretched and inspected herself: long tanned legs emerged from a pale green linen shift; her tummy, sheathed in controlling Lycra, was hard and flat; only the pouches of skin that lolled sideways towards her armpits gave her away. Every so often she pushed them back into her bra, then watched as they sidled disobediently out again: gravity plus loss of collagen.
Fifty- four: what could you expect?
The phone on the table beside her grunted out another message: this time from Sheila, her best and oldest friend:
Happy bday! How DID we get to be this ancient?? What you up to? love Sx
Adam’s cooking lunch(!) Am banished to garden with newspapers, G&T and instructions to enjoy self. Strangely stressful . . .
Simon has never done that in 25 yrs of marriage. Jealous.
Not esp relaxing tbh, but he’ll be hurt if I offer to help
Enjoy. I have present for you, drink after work soonest?
Yes please! V busy this wk with screenings & publicity, but wk after? Will send dates asap Xxx
The enforced idleness was irksome; she was tempted to run upstairs and fetch some scripts that needed editing, but Adam would be cross. The buzz of the doorbell, echoing through the high- ceilinged house, came as a relief. Minutes later Lauren and Dan made their entrance, striding arm in arm down the brick steps towards her. Lauren was wearing a floating floral- print dress that clung to her slender frame and matched the startling blue of her eyes and she’d tied a scarlet bandanna around her fair curls; Dan towered above her, handsome and solidly built. She gazed at her elder daughter, so lovely today, smiling with a girlish sweetness that belied her thirty years. The sheer physical otherness of Lauren always came as a small shock: her skin was milky and sensitive, quick to blush and burn, blue in the cold; she had the poise of a dancer, but hated sport; and her hands and feet were tiny. She’d always been an unknown quantity, made of different clay – more like Adam’s mother: maybe that explained the distance between them? She loved Lauren, but there was a dislocation in their relationship, none of the easy propinquity she had with Alex.
‘Happy birthday, Mum – no, don’t get up.’ They bent to kiss her.
‘What will you drink?’ she said. ‘Your dad’s being bossy and secretive, but he’s bound to have something special in there.’
Dan looked at Lauren. ‘Water?’ he said, and she nodded. ‘I’ll tell Adam.’ He headed indoors.
Lauren added her present to the pile on the table and pulled up a chair. ‘Dad’s concentrating so hard on the cooking he can barely speak and there are dirty saucepans and bowls everywhere.’ Her voice bubbled with laughter. ‘Lunch may be a while.’
Ruth made a face. ‘I know, I’m dying to go inside and help, but he won’t let me.’
‘He wants to spoil you, so let him,’ said Lauren. She was smiling, but there was a note of irritation in her voice. ‘Maybe stop trying to control everyone and everything, just for one day?’
‘Sorry,’ said Ruth. ‘I’m trying my best and it’s lovely of you to come over. It’s been a while.’ Then she dipped into practised solicitude. ‘How are things?’
‘Life’s good and I’m very happy.’
Ruth was so startled she sat up. Lauren’s emotional gauge was normally stuck somewhere between stoical and sad: five years of fertility treatment and six miscarriages, all of them followed by surgery, had taken a heavy toll. ‘That’s wonderful, I’m so glad you’re in a good place, darling.’ She squeezed Lauren’s hand. ‘Taking a break from the IVF has made all the difference. I knew it would. You’re looking better than you have for ages.’
Lauren blushed. ‘Thanks,’ she said, turning towards the kitchen. ‘Dan’s taking his time, isn’t he? I bet they’ve got on to football.’
‘Yes, and your dad will be so distracted that everything will burn. Maybe I should go in and check?’
Lauren ignored her. ‘Has Alex rung you yet?’
‘Way too early.’ Ruth glanced at her watch. ‘It’s five a.m. in San Francisco – she’ll be fast asleep.’
‘Or falling into bed after a long night, knowing her.’ Alex was a force of nature, clever, energetic and optimistic. She lived a frenetic life in California where she had a job as a software developer. The girls had always been close. ‘Shame she’s not here.’
‘I know,’ said Ruth. ‘I miss her so much.’
Adam emerged from the house carrying a tray, followed by Dan.
‘Everything’s under control,’ he said. ‘So, before you ask, there’s no need to do anything, Ruth.’ He set the tray down with a flourish. ‘Champagne, elderflower cordial, water and some smoked salmon bits.’
The doorbell sounded. No one reacted. Adam was tearing the foil from the bottle, and Lauren and Dan were watching him.
Ruth said, ‘Someone’s at the door. That was the bell. Definitely.’ She went to stand up.
Adam looked unconvinced. ‘Stay there,’ he said, ‘I’ll check.’
He went inside and Ruth wondered aloud whether he was going deaf; Lauren and Dan bit into their blinis.
Seconds later he returned, beaming. ‘Turns out you were right.’ He gestured behind him. ‘Look what I found on the pavement.’ He moved to reveal a tall, angular figure framed in the doorway, a big yellow bag on her shoulder. Cropped dark hair, high cheekbones, large brown eyes, eyebrows raised, smile ironic. Alex.
‘Darling, what a surprise.’ Ruth jumped up and ran towards her, arms outstretched. ‘How wonderful of you to come! How long are you staying? I can’t believe it!’ She was grinning in amazement and there were tears in her eyes.
‘Happy birthday, mother mine.’ Alex dropped her bag and wrapped herself around Ruth. ‘Flying visit – two days. I’m very jet- lagged, but it’s so great to see you.’ She hugged Lauren and Dan, then took Adam’s arm. ‘It’s all Dad’s doing, he choreographed this whole thing.’
Glasses were filled and Adam proposed a toast. ‘To Alex, for travelling through the night to get here.’ Alex bowed extravagantly and everyone clapped. ‘And to Lauren and Dan, who’ve had the decency not to run away to America. And most important of all, to Ruth, with apologies in advance for the quality of the lunch.’ Laughter. He turned to the others. ‘Your mum’s promised me that now her series is finished, she’s going to take it easy for a while.’
‘Good luck with that, Dad,’ said Alex. ‘Habit of a lifetime, and all that.’ She and Lauren rolled their eyes at one another.
‘And it starts today,’ Adam said firmly. ‘Happy birthday, my love.’ They smiled at one another and everyone clapped.
Ruth took a breath in order to thank them all, but just as she began Dan cut across her. A flush was spreading up his neck and into his cheeks. ‘We’ve got some news, haven’t we?’ He put an arm round Lauren’s waist and looked down at her. ‘Go on, you tell them.’
Lauren leant against him. ‘This time we decided not to say anything until we were past the high- risk stage, because we didn’t dare hope. We were told it wasn’t possible – in fact, the clinic says it’s a miracle – but I’m thirteen weeks pregnant.’ She was beaming.
Dan kissed the top of her head. ‘And here’s the proof.’ He handed out three grainy black- and- white prints. ‘We had the twelve- week scan last week and I got you one each. The resolution’s not great, but you can see the face in profile on the right, near the top.’
‘Fantastic,’ said Alex.
‘Wonderful,’ echoed Adam. He peered at the image. ‘And I swear that’s a Furnival forehead.’
Ruth was staring at them in disbelief. ‘But you’d stopped trying, hadn’t you? So did it just happen? Naturally, I mean?’
They explained that after the last miscarriage Lauren had been diagnosed with Asherman Syndrome: her uterus was so damaged by previous surgery that further IVF would be pointless. The clinic advised them to stop, but they were devastated and eventually the specialist agreed to do one last embryo transfer. He’d termed it a ‘closure’ cycle: it might help them come to terms with the diagnosis, but there was no chance of it working, so they decided not to tell anyone. When, against all the odds, Lauren became pregnant, she was told to expect another early miscarriage. Every day they braced themselves for disaster, but the baby held on; now the antenatal clinic said the pregnancy seemed secure.
‘It’s weird,’ said Lauren, ‘I’ve been in such a bad place over the last few years but, suddenly, I feel as if I’ve rejoined the human race.’ She gazed at them. ‘Thank you for putting up with me, especially all those times I was having meltdowns or behaving like a complete bitch. And for all the support you’ve given us.’
The Furnivals toasted the ghostly image of the baby, then hugged one another in a scrum of congratulation and relief.
‘I’m sorry, Mum,’ Lauren whispered into Ruth’s shoulder. ‘I feel so bad for not telling you, but I didn’t want to tempt fate.’
‘Darling, I’m so happy, I couldn’t care less,’ said Ruth, untruthfully; she felt hurt.
Adam was grinning. ‘This is such good news.’ He turned to Lauren. ‘I’m going to open another bottle, and this time I shall insist you have a drop, even if you spit it out afterwards.’
Lauren’s face, tilted triumphantly up at Dan, was luminous; her left hand protected and advertised her abdomen. Ruth was assailed by physical memories of her own pregnancies – the expansion and convolution of flesh within flesh, and the glorious power of it all. She felt a stab of something: envy, almost.
Alex shoved an imaginary microphone towards her mother’s chin and adopted an American accent. ‘Isn’t this the cutest birthday gift ever, Grandmom? How are you feeling?’
Ruth was caught off guard and they were all looking at her, grinning and waiting. It was wonderful news, but she felt wrongfooted somehow. ‘I’m thrilled, Alex. I just said so, didn’t I? It’s great, and a fantastic surprise. Obviously.’
The baby was due on the third of April, Lauren told them.
‘So when I’m back here in December my big sister will be six months pregnant,’ said Alex. ‘Madonna- and- almostchild: how fantastically Christmassy Christmas is going to be this year.’ She put an arm around Lauren. ‘I am so- ooh pleased for you.’
Adam said, ‘And with luck a year from now our first grandchild will be crawling around this garden, celebrating his or her grandmother’s birthday. I shall ensure that the lawn’s in pristine condition.’
‘Please,’ a look of panic flickered across Lauren’s face, ‘can we stop talking like this? If I’ve learnt one thing over the past five years it’s to take nothing for granted. When you do, bad stuff happens.’ Dan put his arm around her, protective.
Adam said, ‘Let’s eat.’ He looked at Ruth and smiled. ‘If you’re ready for your birthday feast?’
She felt a little spasm in her chest: the pleasure–pain of their connectedness. Lunch was generally agreed to be a triumph: tiny rounds of white crab meat topped with avocado, chicken in a lemon sauce with boiled rice and a green salad, and finally meringues with raspberries and whipped cream. Ruth was astonished; Adam didn’t often cook, how had he managed it?
‘I rehearsed,’ he admitted. ‘Someone at work gave me a bit of coaching.’
‘Emily, I imagine?’ said Ruth, her smile complacent.
Alex stared at her mother. ‘Not that blonde trainee you always said was in love with Dad?’ She turned to Adam. ‘Is she still hanging around?’
‘Emily Sullivan has been a fully fledged barrister for several years and is a highly valued member of my chambers,’ said Adam. ‘She’s a colleague, nothing more, and she kindly helped me practise this lunch last week.’
‘Where did the two of you practise?’ asked Alex slyly.
‘At her flat.’
‘And you’re fine with that, Mum?’
‘Don’t be silly. I’ve known Emily for years: she comes over here sometimes and we’ve both been to her place. In any case, she has a long- term boyfriend.’
‘Had,’ said Adam. ‘They split up a month ago, but I doubt she’ll be single for long.’ He put an arm around Ruth. ‘Your mother and I have been married for more than thirty years. Nothing’s going to jeopardise that.’ He looked at Ruth and she knew he wanted affirmation.
‘Absolutely, darling,’ she said.
And she had meant it.
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Would you have a baby for your daughter?
Ruth has the life she always wanted - stellar career, loving family, beautiful home - but now, with an empty nest, and heading towards 55, she feels restless. Then her daughter is told that she will never be able to conceive, and Ruth discovers that, with the right dose of hormones, she could carry a child for her daughter.
At first Ruth is buoyed with a new sense of purpose, but her daughter can't contain her corrosive envy, and then long-buried secrets from the past resurface. What begins a simple gift becomes something darker and more complicated - and something for which Ruth is willing to risk everything...
'Full of drama . . . as much about womanhood as it is about motherhood' GUARDIAN
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'Clever and compelling. I loved it' JANE SHEMILT