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The fig tree

THREE YEARS AGO, if you'd told me I'd be a mother one day, I probably would have laughed in your face. I knew it was impossible. A life had been lost, another almost extinguished, and my husband had had me committed.

People who say 'What doesn't kill you can only make you stronger' don't know what they're talking about. Trust me. I've been there. It's not true. And it wasn't until I accepted that things wouldn't be getting better that I finally began to move on.

And now, here I am, lying on an examination couch in a white cotton gown and wearing no knickers, just about to have my first trimester scan.

I turn to look at Mark. He's sitting on a chair next to me. His face warm in the room's dim lighting.

'All pi?'

The corners of his eyes crinkle as he smiles.

'All pi.'

'Okay then,' the sonographer says, wheeling a stool over. She's tall and willowy with blonde braided hair and a voice that reminds me of a river. 'Let's have a look-see.' She sits down in front of the ultrasound machine and tears open a condom package and rolls it onto the probe. Glancing at my legs – straight out, clamped together – she raises an eyebrow at me.

'I'm afraid I'm going to need you to help me guide this in,' she says.

I try not to wince as the probe slides up inside of me and presses against my bladder. I focus on the screen, searching for my baby. But nothing seems to make any sense. There's only black patches, vague hazy blots, snowstorms of white and grey shadows. A cone shape of dappled patterns with little green numbers and letters running down the sides.

The probe digs and twists. I start counting.

'Honey, look.'

I open my eyes.

My panic is instantly forgotten.

'My baby,' I whisper.

'Ours.' Mark.

I have to stop myself from reaching out and tracing my finger over the precious white outline on the screen. The slope of the forehead, the bulging belly, the tiny little arms and legs. A perfect profile. Lying on its back. The life that's growing inside of me. Assembled from my breath, my atoms, my blood.

Three years ago, back on the day I was planning to jump, that's when I would have laughed the hardest if you'd told me I was going to be a mum. I knew I wasn't going to be alive in another nine hours let alone in another nine months. But then I ended up promising myself to wait until the next day, and the next day I promised the next week, and the next week the next month, and the next month the next year.

And now this.

Nothing else.

Just this.

And it's never felt so good to be alive.

'Would you like to hear the heartbeat?' the sonographer asks.

'Yes please!' 'Of course.' We both speak at once.

She smiles. Her ring finger glints as she presses a button on the console. A dotted green line appears and moves to centre on my baby's chest.

Badump, badump, badump, badump, badump, badump.

My own heart starts racing like it's trying to keep up.

'It's so fast,' I say, watching Bub's chest flutter like a hummingbird's wings. I could listen to this sound forever.

But I can't. The sonographer moves on.

The probe angles as she brings up a cross-section of the baby's head. She measures the circumference and something called the bi-parietal diameter. Then she checks the abdominal circumference and points out a small crescent and two peas that she says are the baby's liver and kidneys.

She brings up more images. She freezes them, she measures them, chatting to us as she works. She's measuring a thin grey strip of something near the baby's head when I hear a change in her voice. An ebb in the water's flow. I tear my eyes away.

'Is something the matter?'

The probe's suddenly swollen to a telegraph pole and I desperately need to pee.

'Just a moment.' The corners of her lips pucker in. She saves the image and measures the strip again.

Mark leans over me and squints. The sonographer stiffens and angles the monitor away from him.

'You've got to be kidding.' There's a hard edge to his voice.

'I'm sorry,' she says. 'I'm not allowed to say.' She sends me a tight smile but doesn't meet my eyes. 'You'll have to speak to your obstetrician.'

My thighs are aching as she pulls the probe out.

The screen turns a blank blue.

 

I DON'T REALLY remember much about our drive back home. I think I cried a bit. But mostly I just sat there feeling numb.

My fantasy world had collapsed.

This morning I was Dani Jackson. Thirty-six. The strongest I've been for years. I was back to good mental health and still in have-to-work-at-it-but-reasonable physical shape. My marriage to Mark, my dependable hardworking man, was contented, bordering on great. We'd finally finished renovating our stone and timber house in the hills. And I loved my job, running my own small but expanding artisan chocolate-making business. But, far and away most importantly of all, after all the years of pain and chaos, after we'd almost given up – I was finally pregnant. A little miracle was growing inside of me. And we were going to become a family.

I told you it was a fantasy world.

So here I am. Tuesday. Ten pm. I'm standing in the bathroom, staring in the mirror at Dani Jackson. Thirty-six. Plain, bordering on ugly. Creases deepening and cellulite spreading. Feeling the scars from my past threatening to break open again. My eight-year marriage to Mark, a short-tempered workaholic who tends to be obsessive, is difficult at the best of times. The house we live in is cold and dark and expensive to run. And as for my business, no one takes it seriously and I barely break even, and my dreams of becoming an in-demand maker of award-winning chocolates will almost certainly remain just a dream.

I look away from the pallid woman in the mirror who's standing there dressed only in her underwear. Turning on the tap I splash water on my face and neck. A trickle runs down my cleavage, around my belly button and stops at the bulge above the elastic of my knickers.

I look down. I rub my hands over my skin.

At least one dream came true.

I can still see it clearly. Our baby's tiny hands. The little lines of light for fingers. Its legs kicking. Its heart beating. The outline of its face.

So perfect. But something's wrong.

 

MID-MORNING SUN ANGLES in through the office window, casting a warm line across the surface of Dr Barker's desk. It catches the back of his head and shoulders, making the tips of his curly grey hair glow. He's hunched forward, holding the phone receiver to his ear. In his other hand an uncapped pen bounces between two fingers.

He sighs.

'Still holding,' he says, covering the mouthpiece with his hand. His elbow bumps one of the several loose clusters of papers and manila folders on his desk. His computer's switched off. Post-it notes are stuck to the screen.

They blur. I blink.

My eyes feel like fibreglass. I try to focus by looking around the room. Blue carpet. Cream coloured walls. The examination couch on my left. Behind us a large bookshelf crammed with textbooks and journals. In the corner a porcelain sink, a metal bin.

'Yes. This is Dr Geoff Barker.'

I turn back.

'I'm after a first trimester screening result.' He leans back in his chair. There's a pause. 'Dani Jackson.' He gives them my date of birth and address. There's a much longer pause.

I look at Mark for reassurance. His lips are thin. His jaw's clenched at a boxy angle and the collar of his red polo top is bent.

Dr Barker jots down some numbers on a pad of paper. 'Thank you.' He hangs up. 'Sorry about that.'

I attempt a smile.

He leans forward and clasps his hands. 'Unfortunately your baby's nuchal fold translucency was a little thicker than average,' he says.

My left hand starts trembling. I steady it with my right. I sit, looking at Dr Barker, feeling them twitch in my lap.

'Do you understand what I mean by that?'

'It ...' I clear my throat. 'It means the skin at the back of the baby's neck is too thick.'

'That's correct. Often it can occur in babies that turn out to be perfectly healthy and normal. But there is also a known association with foetal chromosomal anomalies.' Dr Barker hesitates. He glances at Mark but addresses me.

'As you may remember me explaining to you at your first antenatal visit, the results of the nuchal fold thickness are combined with the placental hormone levels blood test that you had done last week.'

I nod. My tongue feels like a dried-out stick.

'This enables an odds ratio to be calculated of the chances of your baby having Trisomy 21, more commonly known as Down syndrome, as well as Trisomy 13 and 18.'

He looks back down at the pad. I try and read the numbers but it's too messy a scrawl from here.

'The risk of your baby having Trisomy 13 came back as one in 2400 and Trisomy 18 as one in 1090. That's slightly higher than average for your age, but still very low.'

I don't want to hear what's right. I need to know what's wrong.

'What about Down syndrome?'

He blinks.

'One in forty.' The shoulders of his thin striped blue suit sag slightly, as if somehow it's his fault.

The trembling in my lap gets stronger. Mark reaches over and covers my hands with his.. I sit here as the sun linecreeps closer towards me, feeling a weird combination of relief and fear.

One in forty.

It could have been worse. It could have been worse.

It's still pretty bad.

'So what now?' I say.

Every action has its consequences. Every journey has its end.

I TRY TO imagine Bub floating inside of me. Large translucent head crisscrossed with vessels. Arms and legs curled forward. Eyes fused closed. Fast asleep. Dreaming foetal dreams.

It doesn't help.

 

THE CLOCK SAYS 00:16.

I'm lying in the dark staring at the back of Mark's head. Breathing in the musky oiled scent of his rumpled hair. Listening to the whistle of breath through his partly parted teeth. Feeling the heat radiating from his body.

Since we left Dr Barker's we've spent all day and evening going over and over our options. Not that there's many. I could either do nothing and spend the rest of the pregnancy agonising over that one in forty chance. Or I could have a chromosomal analysis test done.

'Mark.'

His breath catches in his throat.

'Mark!'

'Mmm?'

'I can't sleep.'

The mattress bounces as he rolls over. The bedside light comes on. I shield my eyes against the glare.

'Do you want to talk?' His voice is furry.

'No.'

He sighs and shuffles down and flicks the switch. The room descends into darkness.

 

THE CLOCK SAYS 00:57

He's drifted back off again. The outline of his doona-clad shoulder rising and falling in gentle rhythm with his shallow breathing. When faced with a crisis he can analyse, categorise, come to a decision, then sleep.

I can't.

But then I'm the one who has to live it.

'Mark.'

I hear his eyelashes scratching against his pillow.

'What?'

I roll onto my back and stare up at the ceiling, the beams barely visible in the darkness.

'What if the needle hits the baby?'

When Dr Barker first showed us the information sheet on chorionic villus sampling I was horrified to see the illustration of a long needle being inserted through the abdomen, through the uterus, and into the placenta – a portion of which is then extracted and sent for genetic analysis.

'It won't,' Mark says slowly. 'They're very careful. They look with the ultrasound while they're doing it.'

'Then how come some of them cause miscarriages?'

He goes quiet.

THE CLOCK SAYS 01:28.

It feels like my legs are crawling. Twitchy itches under my skin. I bend and straighten them, trying to force the weird sensation out.

'Dani?'

My eyes spring open. Mark's lying on his side, staring at me.

'What!'

'I really think we should find out.'

I sling my arm over my face. 'I don't know.' My breath feels hot against my skin. 'Maybe it would be best not to.'

'I don't think that's a sensible option.'

'Don't you?' I scrunch up the doona and turn away from him, my foot catching on the elastic of the mattress cover. 'Why don't you have an abortion for a change then?'

He's sitting up when I feel my way back from the toilet. The clock says 02:44. I tuck the mattress cover back down and get in, lying as close to the edge as possible.

He coughs – sharp, forced.

'How about a compromise then,' he says. 'What if we postpone the appointment and move it to Saturday week? It doesn't mean you have to go ahead with it but at least it gives us more time to think.'

I watch the little red standby light on the TV glowing down the hallway. Wait until the hissing of the cistern stops.

'Okay,' I say.

I lie here, hating myself.

 

THE CLOCK SAYS 03:19.

'Mark?'

'Yes Hon.'

My throat stings.

'Do you ever think about the other baby?'

The springs shift as he rearranges himself. 'No.' A second later. 'Rarely.'

His fingers touch my shoulder, burning through the cotton.

'Do you?'

I close my eyes.

'Every day.'

 

THE DAYS PASS slowly. Mark works late. I spend the days taking long aimless drives. At night I search the internet.

'At first you don't realise how lucky you really are,' a blogger on a Down syndrome support group forum had said. 'You can't imagine how much joy and love they'll bring to your life. We thank God for trusting us with His wonderful gift.'

I close my eyes and lean back against the headrest.

If there really is a god and Down syndrome is so wonderful then how come we're not all born with it?

One in forty.

How convenient. How simple. The chance of your life altering forever. The chance of your life getting so much more complicated, getting so much worse. All boiled down to a simple fraction.

Last night, after Mark went to bed, I took the ultrasound photo off the fridge – the one the sonographer seemed so reluctant to print out for us – and went into my home office. I kept holding the photo up to the computer screen, comparing it to internet pictures of first trimester foetuses with Down syndrome. I don't remember falling asleep, but I do remember dreaming. When I woke up my head was on the keyboard, my legs were totally pins and needly, and the computer screen had frozen. I couldn't find the photo. I didn't look for long.

 

I GET VERY little sleep. On Tuesday morning I answer Mark's small talk in monosyllables. After he's left for work I take my car keys and put them in the freezer.

I don't keep down any breakfast but I do manage two Ryvitas with Vegemite for lunch. When I'm done I rinse my plate at the sink, then end up just standing there, staring out at nothing.

Suddenly my iPhone flashes.

I jump. It's Mark.

RU ok? Pls call me

I stand for several minutes with my elbows on the bench and my face in my hands, trying to gather the strength.

In the end I text:

Skid. Can't talk now. I'm out with Jenny.

Then I crawl back into bed.

 

WEDNESDAY, THREE IN the morning.

I'm kneeling on the tiles, clutching the side of the bowl, a strand of my hair loose and stuck to the side of the rim.

Later I sit slumped against the wall, arms dropped, eyes closed, feeling the world roll with nausea. The surges have been getting worse these past few days. It's almost as if Bub's loud 'I'm in here. Don't you dare.'

On Thursday I go into the nursery for the first time since the scan. I stand for a moment in front of the closed door, with my hand on the doorknob and my forehead resting against the pine grain.

Turning the handle I enter.

The room smells of polish and paint. Sunlight splashing bright patches onto the floorboards and walls. The crib in a box, sitting in the corner. Mark's map of the world still tacked above it, the bottom edge ripped.

I walk into the centre of the empty room in my socks. I look around.

When Susan Rogers, the real estate agent, first showed us this room I could see it. We were going to polish the floors and repaint the walls. There was going to be a big yellow rug in the middle of the room and a cherrywood crib and a mobile hanging down. There was going to be a change table and a walnut chest of drawers. There was going to be a little bookcase filled with children's books and a rocking chair next to the window. It was going to be the best room in the house.

And then, as soon as the second line appeared, Mark moved his study out of here and moved it up to the attic. And we started working – scrubbing, mopping, washing the windows. Turning this room into a clean slate.

And now this.

I stand and slowly circle, searching for my nursery.

I don't have a strong view on religion. I don't have a strong view on astrology, or fortune telling or extra sensory perception.

But something. Deep inside. Beyond my heart or my gut or my marrow or my hippocampus. Something deep inside of me tells me this is it.

This is my pregnancy. I've had my second chance.

It won't happen again.

 

FRIDAY. D-DAY MINUS one. Summer hail wakes me, blanketing the roof and ricocheting off the window panes.

I lie, listening to the growl of distant thunder.

The storm passes. The sun rises.

I get up and set about correcting my mistakes.

I call the clinic as soon as it opens. Then I go into my office and turn on the computer and check my business email account for the first time in nearly two weeks.

It's worse than I thought. I print out all the orders and queries from customers – some of which are getting increasingly terse by the end – then get back on the phone and spend the next hour or so apologising. 'Family Medical Emergency.' A get-out-of-jail-free card. People don't push, even though they're curious, and it's an excuse they have to grudgingly accept.

I slip on a hairnet, tie on my apron and start with an order for hazelnut pralines.

Getting out a kilo brick of untempered dark couverture from the supply shelf I use my large butcher's knife to slice it, then dice it, the couverture crumbling away from the blade like thin slices of aged cheddar. I scrape three quarters of the chopped chocolate into a glass bowl then get out a saucepan and fill it with water and put it on the stovetop to boil. When the water starts to bubble I set the bowl into the saucepan and wait for the chocolate to start melting down.

The flakes glisten, then begin to meld. I stir the chocolate, running my spatula along the sides of the bowl. Every few minutes I check the temperature in the centre with a digital thermometer. When it reaches 46°C I turn the flame down to the barest flicker of blue and start seeding. Sprinkling and stirring in the remainder of the finely chopped chocolate until the mix cools to 30°C.

I once tried to memorise the science behind tempering – the heating then cooling then heating again process that turns chocolate from a floury, crumbly texture into that crisp, shiny substance that snaps between your teeth. But the chapter started going blah blah blah at the bit where form four cocoa isomers turn into form five cocoa polymers. All I know is you have to nurture the chocolate. See the colour lighten as it gently heats. Smell the difference as the fat crystals stabilise. Learn the subtle resistance of the mix as it slowly cools and thickens.

I pour a third of the tempered chocolate into moulds – domes, and pyramids, and crescents, and squares – and set the rest aside for later. Then I upend a packet of hazelnuts over a tray and sprinkle them with olive oil and sea salt and put them into the oven to roast. Then I mix water and brown sugar in a copper pot. Then I get out the clotted cream and manuka honey. Then I start making the ganache.

 

I'M ONTO MY last order for the day – milk chocolate truffles coated in coconut – when Mark comes home from work.

'Hi Hon!'

I hear his shuffle of footsteps at the door pause in confusion.

'Hi.' Cautious.

I look up and smile when he comes around the corner. His hair's mussed up and he's not wearing a tie and the front of his white shirt is rumpled.

'How was work?'

'It was okay.' His eyes flick over the kitchen. 'Someone's been busy.'

I turn around, feeling pleased with myself. The slanting sun's sending elongated window shapes of golden light onto the benches, burnishing off the sides of the trays and glistening off the tops of the chocolates. Along with the batch of hazelnut pralines I've also managed to make honey-thyme squares and pecan brittle logs and wasabi ginger pyramids and raspberry ganache domes with slivers of fresh mint on them.

Mark reaches for one. I slap his hand.

'Ouch.'

I point the dipping fork at him. 'You know the rules.'

'Okay, okay. Sorry.' He stands there hovering while I pick up a ball of milk ganache and balance it on the fork and dip it in the bowl of white tempered chocolate. 'So,' his voice has gone back to cautious. 'Are we all set for tomorrow?'

I look up brightly.

'Nope!'

His fixed smile slowly fades. 'What do you mean?'

'I've cancelled the CVS.'

'What!'

'You heard.'

'When?'

'This morning.'

'Why?'

'I don't want to have it.'

He struggles with his face as he tries to gather himself. I take the truffle out and roll it on the plate of shredded coconut.

'Is it because you're scared of the needle?'

'Fuck off.'

'What is it then?'

'I don't want to risk a miscarriage.'

He leans his hands on the counter, his arms taut, like he's trying to push it over.

'I thought we've been over this.'

'That's right. We have. And I don't want to risk a miscarriage.'

His lips thin. 'Be reasonable Dan.'

'I am being reasonable. It's easy for you. You can still keep squirting your sperm everywhere for decades. I'm thirty-six in case you forgot. I haven't got much longer to go.'

He pushes off from the counter with an exasperated grunt.

'Come on. It's not that bad. You're talking like we're infertile or something. We've still got time to start again if we have to.'

'Who says I want to start again?'

'So you want to have a child with Down syndrome do you?'

I look away. 'Of course not.'

'Well there you go,' he says.

Outside, I can see the old birdfeeder swaying gently on rusted chains beneath the branch of the maple tree. Below, on the pavement, a scattering of dried-out seed.

It's so easy for Mark.

The unfairness of it all suddenly grips me. I stab the truffle with the fork and fling it at him.

He ducks. It cannons off his shoulder and rolls away.

'There you go nothing!' I shout. 'It's our baby Mark. It's taken us nearly two years!'

Surprise mingles with bemusement on his face as he straightens. He runs his finger over the stained cotton. He licks it.

His jaw tightens.

'Well I'd rather wait another two years,' he says. 'Than spend another forty of fifty or however the fuck long I have left to live, looking after a retard.'

 

THE KNOCK ON the wardrobe door is soft and hesitant.

I'm sitting with my back against the wall, cocooned in a dark cave of dresses and skirts. Old shoes I never wear scattered on the floor around me.

'Dani?'

The slit of light widens. A shadow of a face peers in. I clutch my knees to my chest and glare at him. The wardrobe door rattles as he squeezes through and tries to sit down. Coathangers jangle in protest.

'Stop messing up my shoes.'

'Sorry.' He stacks them into a mound and wedges himself between the clothes drawers and me.

I shuffle over. He sighs.

'I'm really sorry Bunny. I was way out of line.' He leans back and rests his head against the plaster. 'Look. You're right. It is your call whether or not to have the CVS.'

I stare out at the low-level view of our bedroom. Polished wooden floorboards. Blue-striped doona cover plumped up on top of the mattress. The window rising above it like a rectangular glass sun.

I wait for the but.

'But are you absolutely sure you don't want it?'

'I am.' I pick up a red flat-heeled Fiorelli. 'It's not just the risk of miscarriage...' I run my thumbnail up and down the strap.

'You don't want to do it again.' he says quietly.

I shake my head. 'I don't think I can.'

Outside, in the distance, a flock of cockies squawk. Harsh, jarring screeches. My thumbnail breaks through the red of the Fiorelli into the soft brown of the leather beneath.

'Well,' Mark says eventually. 'Fingers crossed then.'

He crawls out and offers me his hand. He pulls me to my feet.

'I'd better go have my shower,' he says.

'Okay.' I start rearranging my shoes into a semblance of an order. 'And I need to clean up the kitchen.'

When I go downstairs it's a mess.

The bowl of dipping chocolate has hardened to the consistency of dried white paint. Dirty dishes swamp the sink. There are spatters of fat around the stovetop, and coconut flakes spread all over the bench like dandruff.

I'm busy wiping the coconut with a damp dishcloth when I suddenly realise something.

I haven't heard the shower running.

'Mark?'

I rinse my hands and go upstairs.

He's sitting in front of the TV. Hunched in the middle of the couch, straddling the cleft of the cushions, with his chin dipped and his hands clasped between his knees.

I sit on the armrest and look down at him.

'All pi?'

He smiles weakly. He reaches over and touches my knee.

'Of course.'

We sit silently again, out two vague humps reflected in the blackness of the TV screen. I look out through the French windows into our darkening front yard. Tiny insects flicker off the trunk of the big gum tree like a shower of shooting stars. Cicadas grate near the roadside.

I poke his arm. 'Speak.'

He looks up at me. Something unpleasant passes through his eyes.

'I'm worried about you,' he says. 'Do you really think you'd be able to cope?'

The floor suddenly opens and I'm falling. Memories of the time he knocked the Doxepin and Valium out of my hand and screamed at me to 'just fucking snap out of it' bubble to the surface.

I pound down the stairs and stride to the back door and slam it open.

'Dani.'

He catches up to me at the fig tree.

'Dani!'

I turn around.

'For fuck's sake Mark! I don't need this.' I'm so angry I'm trembling. 'Anyway, stop acting like it's a sure thing. It's only a one in forty chance. It's not like it's a one in four chance or something.'

His face sharpens.

'And what if it was?'

I take a step forward.

'I still wouldn't have the CVS,' I say. 'I'm having this baby even if I found out the odds were one in one.'

As soon as the words leave my mouth I feel relieved. It's true. And for the first time I believe it myself.


From Griffith Review Edition 40: WOMEN & POWER © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review