For the Sake of the Children
by Sarah Salway
There's no notice on the door of the office. This is deliberate. As is its position upstairs in the shopping centre, where not many people go, tucked away between the staff entrances of Next and, like some bad joke, Mothercare.Two security guards walk past, stop and stare at a couple leaving the office, the woman being held up by a man as she weeps openly, making no effort to mop up the tears. Blimey, says the new security guard. It's his first day, and he looks to the more experienced guard for help. 'It's the baby shop,' explains the other, shrugging his shoulders. Then they stroll on, a touch less jauntily, their heads bent together as they talk about how just one trip there means you could have thousands of little you's walking round. 'Father of the Universe,' says the first guard, beating at his chest. 'That's fucking King Kong. That's me.' He can't explain exactly why this excites him so much.
Sitting behind the reception desk, Susan wishes she could change the music. It's on a loop pre-recorded by Dr. Jones himself. He's one for the old-fashioned atmosphere, she'll tell the clients when they comment on the songs. After a day at work, Susan will croon Oh, what a beautiful morning to herself on the bus home as she considers the statistics. Only four of the twenty six couples she's seen today will conceive. Which will it be? She swings her hips to it's not what you do, it's the way that you do it as she walks up her path. Then she stands still for a moment, patting her stomach.
On the other side of town Dawn tells Peter that if he says again how it doesn't really matter if they have a child anyway, she'll leave him. What she hasn't told him is how she hears him crying in the bath, that she's found the pair of tiny blue and red striped baby socks tucked away in the bottom of his drawer. In the place where some men keep perfumed letters.
'There's no need to be so macho,' Dawn says, squeezing his arm because in many ways she feels the same. It is him she loves, with or without. She opens another bottle of wine, red this time because they've run out of white, and they toast. 'To us,' she says. 'To us,' Peter replies, pushing his glass gently into Dawn's stomach.
Dr. Owen Jones always washes his hands four times when he gets back home after the clinic. It's his lucky charm. He likes to do it properly. Wash, then dry. Wash, then dry. Only then does he feel able to touch his own children. 'You are so important to me,' he whispers into his daughter's hair, letting her crawl into his lap, using his body as a gymnasium to pull and tweak as she tells him about a pair of shoes she's seen that change into roller blades at the click of a button. Could she have some, daddy? Could she?
Karen Jones stands at the doorway watching them. 'Your dad's not made of money,' she says and little Michele laughs, tugging at her father's ears. 'Yes he is. These are five pounds each,' she crows. 'I'm going to spend daddy.'
A spasm of fear chills through Owen. What if he only washed three times? He pushes his daughter away sharply and then, seeing her face, reaches out to hold her too tight. 'I only want for you to be happy,' he tells her as she struggles against him.
Dawn and Peter sit on the sofa, not touching, in front of the television. 'Are you watching this?' Dawn asks. 'There's never anything good on any more,' says Peter.
Talk to me Dawn cries silently. Let me tell you how it's as bad for me as it is for you.
It hasn't worked, it hasn't worked. The words drum their way backwards and forwards through Peter's brain. 'We should have got a video out,' he says and Dawn just nods.
Susan turns her front door key as quietly as she can manage. She wants just five minutes peace on her own before Colin finds her. He's too kind these days. It makes her edgy. She wants to be strong, hard working. She wants to give birth in the fields, squatting down in a corner and then back to work with the baby slung warm and damp against her chest. Work. She'll lose her job. Could you have a pregnant receptionist in an infertility clinic?
'You're home,' Colin shouts from upstairs before he bounds down to greet her. 'Now, sit down. Don't move a muscle. I'm here to look after you.'
Peter slides down to sit between Dawn's legs, the better for her to massage his back. He edges a few inches to the right so she can reach the sore spot. The only bit of him that he can actually stop from aching these days. He feels her fingers prod between his muscle and skin and wills for his genes to pass through them like this. As easily as this.
'What if,' he says and Dawn pauses for a fraction of a second too long. So alert is he to her these days that he can feel the tenseness in her fingertips. 'What if we have an early night,' he continues. 'That'll be nice,' Dawn says brightly although she doesn't want to. She hasn't enjoyed sex since all this business started. Peter knows this but hopes she hasn't realised that he doesn't want to either. That the thing that went the first time he picked up one of the magazines left out for him so discreetly hasn't come back yet.
Michele Jones calls for her brother. 'Daddy's full of cash,' she shouts. 'Lovely, lovely money.' His wife laughs and squeezes down next to him on the sofa, thrusting a catalogue in his face. 'I thought this in salmon pink,' she says. 'Nice,' says Owen. He glances at the price, comparing it instinctively to the cheques from the clinic Susan has banked that day.
I'll have one in salmon pink, he imagines each couple asking. Nice, Susan will smile, her short buffed nails tapping on the enveloped cheque.
Susan shouts at Colin to leave her alone. He goes off into the kitchen and she can hear him slamming cups down, crashing plates against each other as he clears the dishwasher so she won't have to do it although it's the one job she enjoys. She likes taking her time, putting things back in their place, playing house. It'll take time to pacify him tonight, she thinks. She'll have to be extra docile, think of things she wants him to do for her. Later, she promises herself.
Michele and Kevin Jones play at spending daddy all evening. It's the kind of non-participatory game Owen normally enjoys because he can doze on the sofa as his legs get chopped off for mountain bikes, skateboards and even, yes, why not, a sports car for mummy, while his fingers are buying a new computer game each. If only, Kevin thinks as he looks at his father and shakes his head. As the spending goes on it hurts Kevin more and more. His wants turn into needs. By the time he goes to bed, he is too angry to sleep. It's not fair. So much he can't have.
Susan stares at herself in the mirror. She's aware her posture has changed even over the last week, her hips thrusting forward, her knees locked as if to bear the weight. Surely it would only be a matter of time before people notice. There must be a job she can do in the background for the next few months. If she sits tight enough into the reception desk would it show? She couldn't bear her life without her job. She sings the way you look tonight as she thinks of Owen Jones weaving miracles on his own. Without her. She'll tell him. He'll sort it out for her.
Owen keeps thinking of things he's forgotten to tell Susan. 'Or maybe lemon sherbet is a better colour,' his wife says. 'But then again it shows the dirt so dreadfully. What do you think, Owen?'
Michele prods him painfully. 'Daddy's gone to sleep again,' she tells her mother who tuts. Owen keeps his eyes shut as he thinks of Susan humming those tunes again and again. He'll make her a different tape soon. Wait and see how long before she can't get those songs out of her mind either. He tries not to smile.
Peter dreams he is shooting at a target of the Virgin Mary. Over and over again, he picks up the rifle, lines up the sights and shoots. Suddenly Dawn appears over the horizon dressed in army combat kit. Stop, she shouts, putting her hand up like a military policeman. Together they look at the target. He's made no mark.
Just then Dawn rubs herself against Peter and he turns to kiss her. 'I love you,' she says and he hides his face in her neck so she won't see his tears. 'Do you think,' she says, 'do you think we could just cuddle up tonight?'
'Oh god, how much I love you,' he says. 'With or without.'
Back at the now deserted shopping centre, the security guard pulls his girlfriend by the hand up the escalator and she protests, giggling. 'Where are we going?' she asks. 'Why are you taking me here?'
He positions her against the unmarked door and with one hand, pulls her pants down. She groans into him, her whisper of careful as automatic as the route his fingers follow. When he opens her eyes briefly, it is only to look out for security cameras. Wouldn't do for him of all people to get caught. He yanks her towards him, thinking of how much they'd pay him on the other side of the door for his babies. He's the big daddy. He ignores the girl's quick gasp of pain as he moves in closer.
Later, much later that night, the whispers of Dr. Owen Jones and Susan scream across the distance between them. 'Is it mine?' he asks into the receiver, feeling its cold plastic against his lips. Susan is silent. 'We have to be sensible,' he pleads. 'It's not too late. There's still a chance we can get away with this. Better for everyone. Think of the children.'
Sarah Salway is a poet, short story writer and author of two novels, THE ABCS OF LOVE and TELL ME EVERYTHING (Ballantine), and a collection of short stories, LEADING THE DANCE (Bluechrome). She lives in Kent, England with her family and teaches at the University of Kent. Her blog is at www.sarahsalway.blogspot.com.