“Here’s your file, Miss Levi. Doctor Nadir will be with you shortly. Please take a seat.”
The blond receptionist handed Esther a sky blue folder with her surname printed in capital letters and pointed at a glass door separating the hall from the waiting room. The door slid open as soon as Esther moved, and silently closed behind her. Several pairs of eyes turned at once to register the new presence. Esther gave them a quick nod and made her way to an empty armchair, the soft carpet hugging her shoes at every step.
The waiting room was a spacious rectangle with stuccoed high ceilings, cream walls and a curtained bow window offering a discreet view on Harley Street. While picking up a magazine from a crystal table Esther noticed a Chinese couple who had been there on the day of her very first visit. Next to them, two women – a lesbian couple? – cuddled on a white sofa, their eyes closed, smiling. Across the room, a black lady kept giving harsh looks to her white partner who couldn’t stop biting his nails. Her intricate hair, plaited into braids crawling their way snake-like from the woman’s neck to the top of her head, reminded Esther of raised reliefs she had seen in Egypt. Was it Deir El-Bhari? She had spent her 40th birthday there. Alone. No friends, no family, only dunes, ancient ruins and the Nile running majestic at the bottom of the Luxor valley. A beautiful trip, pity her Israeli passport had given her such trouble she had recently decided to apply for British citizenship. Her parents considered it a betrayal but it was just a practical choice, nothing to cry about.
Every ten minutes nurses in green uniforms poked their heads in and invited the next patients to follow them upstairs with broad smiles full of good tidings. When the Chinese woman was called, her husband whispered something soft and incomprehensible and held her hand for a second, staring straight into her eyes. The woman sighed and disappeared with the nurse.
Esther had no one whispering sweet words in a foreign language or biting their nails for her. Never mind, she thought, everything in her existence had been custom tailored for one: her playrooms as the only child of a diplomat moving country every two years, her huge mortgage, her expensive take away meals… This was just another thing she would have to go through alone. Not that she had deliberately chosen a single life; the right man had never arrived. Wait – her friends said – you will meet somebody! Sure, but when? Once her eggs had all dried up like raisins? She could feel it happening right now – like a cramp somewhere deep inside her abdomen. At night she would dream of grey foetuses falling from trees like rotten apples and disappearing into the ground. For a while she had joined sporting clubs, tango lessons and adventurous holidays in the hope to meet a suitable partner. She had gone online and chat with men on dating websites, feeling slightly cheap, slightly fake – she worked in advertising but despised campaigns promoting unappealing products by dressing them in something exciting. Finally, on her return from Egypt, she had reached a decision. With no regrets, just a vague melancholy tickling her throat like curry powder. She had therefore gone back to her computer and searched the web; not for another smiley face by the nickname of “coolinlondon” but for the best fertility clinic in the country.
The waiting room was hot and stuffy. Its unreal silence made Esther’s thoughts spin in her mind like a crazy merry-go-round. She tried to focus on her magazine but even Brad Pitt seemed to be questioning her from its central pages: are sure this is the right thing, Esther? What would your parents say? How are you going to explain it to your child, once he or she has grown up? Too much. She wanted the procedure to be done and over as soon as possible, no time to brood, to be scared, to change her mind.
She threw a glance at the clock: eleven thirty. Her appointment had been scheduled for eleven fifteen.
Five minutes later, a middle aged man in a grey woollen suit appeared at the glass door. He was bald, stocky and short, with a rosy complexion and a thick, dark mole to the left of his nose. From the distance it could have been mistaken for a fly perched on his cheek. The man offered an apologetic smile to the room, like an expected guest, and sat heavily on the sofa, right next to the lesbian couple, who moved even closer together.
Spring was verging on summer and the portion of sky visible through the window near Esther’s seat was sugar sweet blue. The man with the mole had big pearls of sweat shining on his forehead but seemed unwilling to alleviate his uneasiness, glued to the sofa, legs apart and hands firmly placed on his knees. Observing him from the corner of her eye, Esther noticed he had the habit of often wrinkling his nose – which made the mole tremble. His concentration and posture reminded her of an old TV show where contestants, upon hearing a few notes from a popular tune, had to run to a microphone and shout the song’s title out loud. But no song was played in the clinic. Everything was so quiet they could have been in purgatory, waiting to know whether it would be paradise or hell expecting them on the other side of the door.
Esther opened her blue folder. It contained blood tests results, a donor questionnaire and a profile summarizing her forty years of life – as emerged from previous meetings with Doctor Nadir – in a few lines of precise language:“Dear Miss Levi”, it began. “You came to our clinic enquiring about intrauterine insemination. First period at the age of thirteen. You eat an healthy diet and exercise regularly. You are in full employment. You are willing to submit to a treatment cycle in order to…”
And, at the very bottom of the page, under Cause of infertility: “Your being single.”
The first time Esher had read that last sentence, in a letter from the clinic, she had been incredulous. Its language was so improper – was being single a disease? – she had found it hilarious. Although Doctor Nadir had struck her for being particularly informal in his approach, that diagnosis sounded like a joke: “The cause of your infertility is that you haven’t pulled in centuries, love, and we have records of only one immaculate conception in the past 2000 years. Besides, you’re not even immaculate, so why don’t you dress up and go to a bar?”
But now, re-reading that sentence, she detected a hidden reproach in those unexpected words, an accusation: “There are thousands of infertile people deserving of our time and efforts. Why should we waste our time with a perfectly functioning woman who thinks no man is good enough for her?”
Esther sighed and looked up. The man with the mole was staring straight at her. She looked away.
Of course Doctor Nadir, an Asian middle aged man, had never showed her signs of disapproval.
“No worries, Miss Levi,” he had said on their first appointment, pushing his small glasses up his nose, “nowadays people aren’t prepared to be childless just because they’re single or in a unconventional relationship, and I’m happy to put my science at their service.”
“Good.” Esther had tried to smile, making an effort to trust Doctor Nadir. His friendliness had seemed somehow artificial and his enthusiasm more fit to a sale assistant in a kitchen store.
“The procedure is much simpler than IVR because the insemination happens inside your womb.” He had continued. “We’ll start with blood and hormone tests. In the meantime you’ll fill in this questionnaire and let us know what your donor preferences are – ethnicity, hair colour, education – so that we can match you with one of the men in our bank.”
Beech finish or pine, madam? We offer a wide selection!
“Finally, you’ll need to determine when your fertility peak is – a nurse will explain how to do that – and on one of your fertile days you’ll come here, we’ll shoot some sperm into your uterus and voilà.”
Well, unless we discover some fertility problems. Most women got pregnant on the first attempt. Would you like to start your tests now? You can ask your GP to prescribe them if you prefer. I’m not after money, you see, I’m after life.”
“Can I think about it first? I’m bit overwhelmed.”
“Sure! Just remember, despite what magazines say, at your age fertility decreases as fast as melting snow. One evening the peaks are covered in it and two days later, nothing, all gone. I come from a mountain village, so I like using this image.”
“But don’t you worry, we’ll get you pregnant.”
We’ll get you pregnant… On that first visit her future motherhood had sounded like a public enterprise. Or a gang rape.
The man with the mole dried his sweat with a green handkerchief. The mole looked fatter now. The Chinese woman hadn’t returned. Her husband had an open, sweet, reassuring face. A father’s face. How do you say daddy in Chinese? Her own baby would never learn to say that word. No daddy. Only a few drops shot directly into her womb. Voilà.
She unclipped the “ideal match” questionnaire from the back of her folder. Please tick one or more boxes. What an impossible task, it had taken her weeks. Each of those boxes meant a different father for her unborn child; different looks, abilities, tastes. Soft walnut eyes or blue? Olive skin or pale? Like Doctor Frankeinstein she had tried to piece body parts together but always ended up with a monster. What would the man’s skin feel like? That’s what she wanted to know. How would he move, speak, act? How about his smile? Can you describe a smile in a questionnaire? Which films would he like, which books? Which countries had he travelled, would he like Deir El-Bhari or would he find it too hot and be annoyed by the local kids trying to sell you bracelets and beads?
“We all have a Father in heaven”, rabbi Joshua used to say. Soothing concept, pity Esther had lost her faith ages ‘ago. “Jeovah created the man in his own image…” In his own image. Without the help of a mother. Was trying to create a man without the help of a father the worst possible sin? Was she going to be punished, accused, cursed?
Eleven thirty-five. The wait was becoming unbearable and the temperature in the room even higher. Esther picked a leaflet on IVR from the table and used it to fan herself.
“Excuse me?” The man with the mole was talking to her. “Shall I open the window a little bit?” His voice was low, with a thick South London accent.
She hesitated. Then nodded in consent. He lifted the sash and breathed in the city air. Circles of dark sweat stained his jacket.
The glass door slid open. “Ehm… sir?” The receptionist was waving at the man with the mole.
“I spoke to a nurse, she said it’s ok. Of course you realise we were expecting you 2 hours ‘ago…”
“Sorry, I… my car broke down…”
“I understand.” The receptionist smiled. She had lipstick on one of her front teeth. “Miss Levi,” she added in her perfunctory voice, “Dr Nadir is now ready for you. First floor, last door on the right.”
The walls along the staircase were covered with photos of children of all shapes and colours. Among them was the picture of a miniscule girl with red hair and big round eyes who cocked her head to one side, as if to check who was behind the camera. Esther stopped to look at her and her heart jumped: the child had a brown spot on her cheek. The man with the mole was a donor who had been producing dozens of children in his own image. Well, at least he didn’t seem like a bad person. There might have been hundreds of terrible men out there ready to exchange their seed for money. Stupid, dishonest strangers whose genes would spread like germs. Horrified, she moved closer to the photo: the brown spot had disappeared and the child was smiling at her, amused.
“You mischievous little person…”
She reached the top of the stairs and turned into a long corridor. At its end was a door with a black plate and Dr Nadir’s name written in golden letters. She knocked gently.
“Come in, come in.”Dr Nadir was sitting at his desk fiddling with his glasses.
“Good morning doctor.”
“Hello Miss Levi, how are you? So here we are, good good. And what a beautiful day to bring life into the world.”
“Yes… It’s like summer.”
“Good omen. Sit down please my dear. Let’s see… all the final tests are perfect, so we only need to go ahead and do it, don’t we? Final answer?”
“Good good. Now, let me have a look at your donor questionnaire to check we got it right… Tall, healthy diet, good good, religion irrelevant… aren’t you Jewish?”
“Faith isn’t transmitted genetically, is it?”
“Absolutely, but you’ll be surprised how many people require donors with their same believes.”
“It didn’t cross my mind.”
“Fantastic, the donor we’ve identified matches most of your requests.”
“Really? Could you give me his number so that we can conceive in the regular way?”
The doctor laughed.“Unfortunately we’re not allowed to disclose our donors’ identity.”
“I’m joking. I’m slightly nervous. This isn’t exactly what I used to dream of as a little girl.”
“I understand. Let’s start, shall we?”
Esther paused. “I have a question…”
“When a man makes… a donation. How long does it take before it is actually used?”
“Well, it depends. We test our donors for a year to check their sperm is the strongest kind. Once they start donating, we freeze the samples, so they can last quite some time. You look perplexed.”
“This is silly but… there was a bloke on his own in the waiting room…”
The doctor made a theatrical sigh. “Oh, him! I’m terribly embarrassed, this is a total breech of privacy protection, it usually never happens. He shouldn’t have been allowed to come in late, you see – new staff are always a problem. But in case you wonder, no, that man isn’t your donor.”
“Well… Even if he was… You’d never tell me, would you? Privacy protection!”
The doctor chuckled.“Let’s forget about him.”
“Great. Can I please ask you to go to the booth behind that curtain and undress? There’s a green robe on the shelf for you to wear. Then join me in room 3A. Nurse Simons will be with us.”
Esther went to the booth. It was even hotter than the rest of the clinic and smelled of disinfectant. In the morning she had taken a long shower, shaved and massaged her body with lavender cream. She had browsed through her wardrobe and chosen her most expensive underwear and favourite dress – a green frock, simple but elegant, the kind of thing she would have worn to dine in a posh restaurant. She unzipped it slowly, as if being watched, and folded it with care. Her heart was beating fast. Random images flashed in front of her: her grandfather’s place in Tel-Aviv, her first boyfriend, her father reading stories at bedtime, the bazaar in Deir El-Bhari where a small crying child had run into her arms begging her to help him find his parents… The bright light coming in through the window made the booth and its curtain so white she had to squeeze her eyes while reaching for the hospital robe. The garment was made of hard cotton, rough on the skin. She breathed in deeply.
“Is everything ok, Miss Levi?” nurse Simons, a plump woman in her mid fifties, peeped through the curtains.
“We’re ready when you are.”
“Yes. I’m coming.”
Harley Street twinkled in the early afternoon sun as if polished with wax. Esther stepped down the clinic’s front steps with such caution a she could have been carrying an invisible box of glasses. She knew she had no reasons to walk so slowly, she might not be pregnant yet, and even if she was there was no need for extra care at this stage. She folded her arms around her belly, trying to see if it felt any different. Inside her, unknown seed was making its way towards her eggs, knocking at their door to get in. Would one of them be gentle enough to accommodate this total stranger? She reached the end of the road and turned left. Marylebone High Street was swarming with activity: beautiful women going in and out boutiques, clerks sitting at café tables nibbling sandwiches, couriers… Nobody noticed her. On passing a Starbucks Coffee, Esther gave a distracted glance inside and shivered: sitting on a stool near the window was the man with the mole, munching on a muffin, a big coffee in his hand. The mole now looked like a big chunk of chocolate ready to fall into his cup. He had taken off his jacket and rolled up his shirt’s sleeves. He looked happy, serene. Esther stopped, pretending to check herself in the café’s window. Passers by walked across her reflection undisturbed. The man with the mole was sitting directly on the other side of the glass. If she made a tiny little step to the right, her transparent self and his sturdy real body would be juxtaposed. Before their eyes could meet, Esther walked away. She would go back home, and wait.
In a few days she would know.