Chances Are - One
The heavy church doors opened. Rustles and creaks filled the air as everyone stood and turned to face her. A few gasps of delight as they spotted her.
Her chest felt tight, her breathing shallow. It was either wedding nerves or the fact that it had taken two bridesmaids and the hotel receptionist to heave the bloody corset of her dress shut. One lively sneeze and those wee ribbons would have no chance. The dress would explode and her boobs would escape like excited labradors to take out half the front row.
It would make the wedding one to remember, at any rate.
She felt their hands slide into hers. Her bridesmaids. Her girls. She hadn’t picked a maid of honour. How could she chose between her two soul sisters, her hide-the-body-with-no-questions-asked ride-or-dies-for-life? So she hadn’t.
The wedding coordinator was waiting to hand her the bouquet. She was to take it, walk up the aisle and get married. That was the plan.
But she couldn’t quite let go of their hands.
The song started. The one they’d picked together for her to walk down the aisle. It was an elegant arrangement of a cheesy Eurotrash summer hit from their youth. A few guests tittered as they recognised it. An elderly relative — one of his great-aunts, she thought — asked loudly if it was Canon in D, which prompted more giggles.
Okay, good. This was good. She could do this.
She nodded to the wedding coordinator who held out the bouquet. Somebody — she wasn’t even sure who — fussed with her dress, arranging the train so it would flow behind her as she walked down the aisle. Her bridesmaids had assured her several times she would definitely not trip, and if she did, they would both immediately fall over too so as to take the attention away from her.
The wedding coordinator’s hand shook a little bit. She had been holding that bouquet out for quite a long time. A little bit of panic fluttered in her eyes, and the bride wanted to give her a reassuring smile but she suddenly found that she couldn’t.
Take the bouquet, she told herself. Let go of their hands, take the bloody flowers, walk down the aisle and get bloody married. Now. Right now. Do it.
In a minute.
The song got to the end. There was an awkward silence, broken by an awkward murmur or two, before it started again from the beginning. She could feel the curious, starting-to-be-nervous looks of the congregation boring into her like lasers, but she couldn’t tear her eyes off the now distinctly trembling bouquet.
‘Shall I take it?’
She shook her head. No. The bridesmaids had their own bouquets. They couldn’t walk down the aisle holding hers as well. That would be ridiculous.
It was ridiculous. It was all ridiculous. It was ridiculous that she was standing at the entrance of a church, her boobs cruelly crushed in a prison of lace. It was ridiculous that she was expected to take the bouquet, walk down the aisle and get married.
She couldn’t do it.
She took a step backwards.
‘No, no — we’re to go forwards, we’re heading that way. To the altar, remember? That’s the plan for today.’
She wasn’t even sure she had spoken out loud until she saw alarm flare in the wedding coordinator’s eyes.
‘If that’s what’s happening, then let’s go.’
‘It’s what’s happening.’ She whispered. ‘I’m so sorry.’ She wasn’t sure if she was apologising to the wedding coordinator, the congregation — or to him. ‘I thought I could do this — but I can’t.’
With that she turned and ran.
‘Wouldn’t Nicole go on a trip with you?’
Ali forced a smile. ‘I guess, if I asked her.’ This wasn’t strictly true. She and Nicole barely spoke any more. A little sliver of hurt at how easily Nicole seemed to have just forgotten Ali existed unfurled itself in Ali’s stomach, and she took a sip of coffee to compose herself. There was no point in going into all of that right now, anyway. ‘I’m going solo travelling, mom. The clue is kind of in the name.’
Ali’s mom pursed her lips and gave a little nod, which was her way of conveying that Ali was about to make a huge mistake but her mom was too big of a person to actually say so out loud. They were sitting at the breakfast bar of her mom’s new house — not so new, actually, she had lived here for more than a decade, now Ali thought about it.
There was a portrait of Ali’s mom, her husband Scott, and their two daughters, Riley and Scout, hanging above the grand fireplace that dominated the huge open-plan kitchen-living room. It was a black and white photograph. The parents stared solemnly into the camera while the little girls giggled adorably. It wasn’t that nobody had invited Ali to be part of it that made her feel invisible, but the fact that the mom she had known for the first seventeen years of her life would never have taken a weirdo artsy family portrait like that. Their home had been filled with messy, crooked snapshots stuffed in the corners of old frames and stuck to the fridge with magnets.
‘I’ve dreamed of travelling my whole life, you know that. I’ve been saving for years and I’ve arranged to do some work remotely on a freelance basis. My boss has been amazing about it. He was kind of confused by the whole idea, but once I explained he got all excited and determined to help make it work.’ Hear me, mom. You could do that too. ‘He’s never been out the country either. He made me bring my passport in to the office when it arrived, and showed it to everybody.
‘He said it inspired him to go to Canada for a weekend,’ Ali added with a grin. ‘He came back full of stories about how somebody actually said eh to him, and he brought maple cookies for everyone.’
The Canadian border was only a couple of hours from Seattle, where Ali grew up. She and her friends regularly took weekend trips to Vancouver as soon as they hit the British Columbia legal drinking age of nineteen. Ali’s friends had mostly been interested in getting wasted in Gastown bars, but Ali had been enthralled by being in a new country. It wasn’t as though it was crazy different. They spoke English and Ali’s friends quickly figured out that most bars and stores accepted American dollars if you argued just a little bit. But it was different.
The toothpaste she bought when she forgot hers had directions printed on it in French. Street signs were a different colour. People, accents, money — it all made Ali feel fizzy and as though she were just a tiny bit more alive. She swore to herself then and there that she was going to travel. That was what she was going to spend her life doing. Seeing the world was why she was alive. It had taken her almost fourteen years, but she was finally on her way.
‘This is Sterling, right? Your boss? You’ve talked about him before, he sounds nice. Is he single?’
Ali forced her smile to stay steady even as her heart fell a little bit. ‘He’s sixty-seven, mom. Has five kids and eight grandkids.’
‘Oh honey. Well, never mind.’
Don’t say anything, just smile, it’s not worth it. ‘Never mind what?’
‘There’s plenty more —‘
‘What — fish in the sea? Sterling is my boss and, like a decade older than you.’ Ali hated the way her voice went instantly tight and defensive. ‘Not every man is —‘
‘I don’t meant to upset you, honey.’
‘I’m not upset, I’m just —'
Ali cut herself off when she saw that her mom’s eyes were glistening. She sighed, feeling like a monster, as icy disappointment pooled through her. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. It was meant to be a fun visit.
She thought her mom would get it. She had pictured them going through her itinerary together, squealing over Scottish castles and Parisian art galleries, imagining nights sipping wine on Italian piazzas, days hiking Alps with the sound of cowbells ringing in the air.
Instead, her mom was sad because Ali couldn’t marry her sixty-seven year old boss, and Ali was acting like a brat.
‘I would just love to see you happy and settled. That’s all a mother wants, to know that her baby is taken care of, and —‘
‘I take care of myself. I do a pretty good job of it, as a matter of fact.’
‘I know. You’re so strong and independent, I admire you. I just — do you never get lonely?’
‘Sure, sometimes,’ Ali’s voice came out sharper than she meant it to. ‘Do you?’
Her mom looked away and Ali took a deep breath. She reached for a cookie and crumbled it between her fingers. Nicole once insisted that toying with a cookie could fool your brain into thinking it was eating it, but without actually consuming the calories. Ali thought that was nonsense on about seventeen levels, yet somehow she’d picked up the habit anyway.
‘I just know that it’s been difficult for you since —‘
Ali flinched like she’d been stung. ‘It’s not, it’s got nothing to do with —‘
‘I understand how getting away might seem like a good idea to —‘
‘This has been my dream my whole life. Mom, you know that. You have met me, right?’
‘I remember when you came home from kindergarten sobbing your heart out because your teacher told you that you couldn’t be a crocodile when you grew up.’
‘Going to Europe is a little different than wanting to be a crocodile,’ Ali snapped, then she cracked a smile and sniggered.
Her mom chuckled too. Ali felt a trickle of relief as the tension broke. ‘I mean, I know that,’ her mom said indignantly, which made Ali laugh harder.
‘Why are you guys laughing?’ demanded Riley.
The back door slammed and both little girls came scampering into the kitchen. Ali’s heart sank. The girls were cute and fun, but she had been hoping to escape before her mom’s husband got home.
Evidently the feeling was mutual. Scott strode into the kitchen, his eyes darkening just a touch when he spotted her. He was a big guy, six foot or so with the broad chest and shoulders of the linebacker he had once been. ‘Well hello, Ali,’ he nodded, his cheer just a touch too forced. ‘Great to see you. Are you joining us for dinner?’
He rubbed her mom’s shoulders briskly and planted a kiss on the top of her head. Ali watched as her mom turned her head up for a kiss on the lips, except that Scott had already wandered away and was rooting around in the fridge. He was a good man, Ali reminded herself. He took care of his family and her mom was happy. That was all that mattered.
‘Thanks for the invitation, Scott,’ she said, getting down from the stool. ‘But I’d better get going. Lots of packing to do.’
‘Stay! Stay! Mom, make our sister stay!’ Riley hopped from one foot to the other, then wrapped her arms around Ali’s waist.
‘Yeah! Stay!’ Scout added from across the kitchen, where she had already spilled a huge bucket of bricks. Scout didn’t care whether or not Ali stayed for dinner, but she’d say anything her big sister did. Ali crouched down and hugged Riley tightly.
‘I’ll stay another time, I promise. I’ll definitely come back before I go,’ she added to her mom.
‘What’s this? Where are you going?’ Scott had cracked open a beer. He hadn’t offered anyone else a drink.
‘Europe,’ Ali replied.
‘That’s gonna cost you.’
‘Yup. That’s pretty much how money works.’
Ali gathered her bag and went to hug Riley again, but she’d already wandered off to what looked like a fairy doll’s house.
‘I am excited for you, honey,’ Ali’s mom said as she walked her to the door. ‘You will make such amazing memories, and I’m so proud of you being brave enough to do this on your own. I guess I just — I always imagined that kind of trip being a romantic one, you know?’
‘So did I, mom,’ Ali muttered as she walked back to her car. ‘So did I.’
‘Yes, you are quite low.’
The nurse stared impassively and Fern felt as though all the air had been sucked out of the room. The nurse was young, in her twenties maybe, with dark brown hair scraped back in a sensible bun. Her name tag looked new, Fern noticed. It was probably her first week.
Fern suddenly wished she had got dressed after the internal examination before getting the results. How was she supposed to handle a conversation like this in a flimsy paper gown with no pants on? She shuffled on the stretcher, hearing the paper covering crackle a bit, and crossed legs more tightly. It didn’t help much.
She tried to take a deep breath, not sure if she wanted to cry or scream or laugh hysterically. Quite low? What did that even mean?
‘You are a bit on the young side,’ the nurse continued, frowning at Fern’s notes on the tablet in front of her. ‘Are your periods still regular?’
Fern nodded. The nurse didn’t say anything. It was clear, thought, that she thought Fern was lying, labouring under the delusional belief that she could stave off early menopause by simply pretending it wasn’t happening.
‘Every twenty-eight days, like clockwork.’ Fern insisted, trying desperately to sound like the sort of sensible, responsible person who would never lie about her periods.
She wasn’t lying, even if her voice sounded all weird and high. She had faithfully recorded a little pink circle in her diary on the first day, ever since she had started getting The Fear. The Over Thirty-Five-and-Haven’t-Met-My-Kids’-Father-Fear.
For the first year or two, she’d employed all manner of complex cryptic codes, before realising that a) zero people ever looked in her diary except her, and b) anyone who did somehow get access to her diary could just bloody well deal with the fact that she was a cis female of reproductive age so yeah, she got periods. Every four bloody weeks, as a matter of fact. She’d gone out and bought herself a hot pink felt tip pen and started drawing great big fuck-off circles with abandon.
‘A lot will depend on the quality of your partner’s sperm. Have we got his results in yet?’
‘Uhh —‘ Fern felt herself go hot, ridiculously flustered for a moment. It was boiling in the wee examination room. Why were hospitals always so roasting? They could probably fund the NHS for years on the energy savings by just turning the heating down a few degrees.
‘Well, that’s more important than most people realise. All the focus is on women’s biological clocks, but while they don’t have the same hard deadline we do, sperm quality does deteriorate, quite significantly. A man in his forties or fifties, never mind older, is going to have a lot more trouble getting his partner pregnant than one in his twenties.’
The nurse looked quite pleased with herself, as though she’d just remembered that bit from an exam. Fern shook her head to dislodge the thought. She wasn’t being fair. The wee lassie was trying to help, and she wasn’t wrong that Fern hadn’t really known about the sperm quality thing. She stored the information away for the next time one of her guy friends got judgy about baby-mad women in their late thirties.
‘How old his he?’
‘Your partner. I don’t seem to have his notes here.’
‘Umm, I don’t — I don’t have a partner.’ Fern forced a smile, annoyed at herself for feeling hot tears prickling behind her eyelids. She’d long ago made peace with her choices, and she loved her life for what it was. But sitting here with her minge free, facing the prospect of getting out her credit card to purchase a stranger’s sperm, she wasn’t feeling quite as fabulous and fancy-free as she normally did.
‘Right, well, okay, that — changes that.’ The nurse blinked, and Fern noticed for the first time the thin gold band glinting on her left hand. ‘The consultant will be able to explain in more detail the options available to you at this point, though it will be IVF —‘
‘No, I thought it would be just, like — you know, a turkey baster. I mean, more, medical than that. But —’
The nurse shook her head, looking again at that horrible tablet that was apparently telling her Fern was dried up and barren. ‘No, with these results — we would always recommend the treatment most likely to get the outcome that we want.’
‘Oh. Well, I’m not sure, I just — I just really, came for, umm, information.’
I came for you to reassure me I’ve got years left and I’m worrying about nothing.
‘It’s not impossible,’ the nurse said slowly, her expression anything but encouraging. ‘I’ve seen women with much lower levels than you go on to achieve successful pregnancies.’
‘Well, good. So, umm the next thing is an appointment with the consultant?’
‘Yes, we normally wait until we have both results —‘
‘There’s no other result, it’s just me,’ Fern snapped.
‘Of course, yes, you said. I am so —‘
‘I am here to buy a stranger’s sperm.’
‘Yes, of course, we can absolutely —‘
‘Because I haven’t seemed to be able to get past a second date in years,’ Fern steamrolled over the lassie’s stricken expression. ‘I don’t know why. I think I’m alright looking. I’m nice to animals and I’m reasonably confident that I don’t have BO. Yet men, as a species, seem to have collectively decided that they’re not keen.
'Which is fine. Men aren’t exactly known for their refined taste and appreciation for the finer things in life, anyway. But I would rather, if it’s all the same to you, not have to correct you for a third time that I do not have a fucking partner.
'So, unless you happen to have a convenient flatmate or cousin who might just turn out to be the man of my dreams, could you please make me an appointment with the bloody consultant?’
Fern only just made it back to her car before she burst into tears.