IT IS USUAL for The Disappointed to come in pairs, but Bonnie always comes alone. In the small, overheated waiting room, she sits not with a partner but with her carefully chosen tools of disappearance, one of which is a novel. In the early days, with a certain amount of levity, she selected a book called Ripeness Is All, thinking that by the time she had finished it she would no longer need to attend these meetings of The Disappointed. But that was half a bookshelf ago, and today Bonnie is likely to finish The Hours before it is her turn to proceed into the room with the stirrups.
If she does finish her book, though, it won't matter. Because she also has her iPod, loaded with eight albums of ambient European melancholia. She likes to press the earphones deep into her ears and turn up the volume until music fills her skull, precisely, leaving no room for thought. It is her habit, behind closed eyelids, to allow her eyeballs to roll skywards with soaring saxophones or dart about with funky, minor-key arpeggios, and on a few occasions the summoning nurses have had to shout. It's high-grade disappearance, this. But it has come at a cost: she can no longer listen to the original CDs in any other context, each track now an aural short cut to the humiliation and sadness of this tiny, crowded room.
Bonnie admires how completely The Disappointed avoid eye contact with each other, even when sitting three metres apart, knees crushed up against the same coffee table. Because, although their glimpses never latch, she knows that they are all looking at each other, wondering. Among The Disappointed, today, is a woman in her forties (too late! too late!) wearing a windcheater in the same sterile blue as the polyester overshoes she is required to wear into the implantation room. The woman's buttocks are perched on the edge of her chair and her partner is rocking her, his hand between her shoulder blades. Backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards – her right foot treadling an invisible sewing machine's pedal. There is also a young couple of surpassing physical awkwardness, each with a too-small head wobbling above a cetaceous body, each with an undershot jaw and a neckful of acne. They sit, hand in hand, staring obediently up at the tiny television suspended in the corner of the waiting-room ceiling, where a breakfast-show hostess laughs on mute. On the coffee table is a stack of magazines. The one on top has a bold orange headline that reads PREGNANCY! IT'S THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE!
THE DOCTOR TO The Disappointed is not, but should be, called Dr Allcock. In a moment, or perhaps ten minutes, or maybe in an hour if he's really busy, which he often is, Bonnie will undress for him and lie down under a sheet. He'll fling back a curtain, lift the sheet, deftly separate her labia and penetrate her with a probe. The picture beamed from probe to screen will be black and white, grainy. It could be a radar picture, tuned to outer space or the ocean floor, but instead it is her interior. Gradually, she will discern the capsule shape of her womb, and the pale jellybean within. And while Bonnie searches the grey for a flicker of life, Dr Allcock will mutter about what a manic morning he's having. As if he ever has any other kind; as if she ever appears to him as anything other than the next specimen on his conveyor belt of desperate, gaping holes.
It is not getting pregnant that is the problem for Bonnie, but staying that way. Within her, little lives are lit. But, as if held under a bundle of wet leaves and twigs, they do nothing more than smoulder for a while, then extinguish. Sometimes her pregnancies jettison themselves, dark red and clotty. Other times, Dr Allcock has to surgically prise her little ones from their shells. Sometimes, Bonnie fancies that it is the same child she is losing over and over again, the same stubborn little soul trying and failing to take root. Other times, she imagines an alternate reality where her numerous lost children have gone to play, a parentless Neverland that she could scarcely blame them for choosing over her tame and orderly home.
Once, Bonnie would have written 9.00 am: Doctor's appointment in her diary, but at the top of today's page she has put 9.00 am: Doctor's disappointment.
IT IS 9.45 when a sunshiney ‘Bonnie!' is sung through the door by a nurse who is almost, but not quite, young enough to wear the spiky, inch-long pigtails that stick out beneath her ears.
‘Well, where's Daddy then?' the nurse chirps, trotting ahead of Bonnie into the surgery and rattling closed a set of curtains around Bonnie and a paper-covered chair. ‘I suppose you're going to get him to change all the nappies as punishment for not being here!'
Bonnie would like to reply that Tom would come with her, if she asked him to, but that there seemed little point in wasting his time as well as her own. She is afraid, however – and not without cause – that the nurse might come back with some irritatingly English word like ‘tosh' or ‘poppycock'. Bonnie might quite truthfully reply that her husband is really very busy at work and there's just no need for him to come in. His presence would alter nothing. If Bonnie were to reply with scrupulous truthfulness, though, she would admit that she doesn't actually want him here with her. Tom is older than Bonnie, with two daughters from a previous marriage, so this is not his fight, or his failure. Out on the boundaries of Bonnie's honest recognition is the knowledge that Tom's absence is useful – an added justification, however small, for her occasional lapses into self-pity. But since the nurse is only talking, not actually conversing, there is no need for Bonnie to reply, truthfully, scrupulously truthfully or otherwise.
Naked from the waist, green sheet over splayed knees, Bonnie receives Dr Allcock and his manic morning apologies, her muscles clenching against the hard plastic intrusion of the probe. He fiddles expertly with the controls on his ultrasound's console.
‘Let's see how this little beggar's coming along,' he says.
‘This is going to be the one, I just know it. I have a special lucky feeling today,' says the nurse.
And Bonnie wonders why it is that she just smiles and nods in reply, when there are so many other responses available. What would be wrong with a bit of plain, old-fashioned rudeness? Something along the lines of Fuck off, you patronising bitch. Or a little sarcasm: Do you write your own material? I mean, do you come up with these sparkling platitudes all by yourself, or do you buy them from the Hallmark slush pile? But no, it's just the usual. Smile and nod – the kind of tiresome good-private-school-girl behaviour that still fits her like a pair of pilled fawn gloves.
BONNIE HAS COME to Dr Allcock this day prepared to be disappointed. In the same diligent way as she used to take folate and other vitamin supplements, this time she began preparing for disappointment even before she conceived. Long before sperm met egg, she had determined that this would be her final pregnancy and that she would embark on it without any hope at all. She laid the groundwork by upending various jars of capsules into the bin, replacing health-giving potions and juices with gin. One day, when she caught herself lingering with a cup of herbal tea in the doorway of the room that would be the nursery, she tipped her drink – still scalding – into the earth of a pot plant, and then punished herself with a furiously strong espresso.
THE CONCEPTION WAS fittingly disappointing. In part this was Bonnie's own doing, although she had help from her body, which conspired to reach its peak fertility on the anniversary of her first miscarriage. This was not a date she had intended to commemorate, but as it was also her birthday it was hard to forget. Although Tom said nothing, Bonnie could tell by the coddling way he moved around her in the kitchen as they cooked her birthday dinner that he, too, had remembered that it was three years to the day.
Bonnie stood at the sink, scrubbing at the mottled skins of the baby potatoes, amusing herself with the thought that even the humblest of vegetables could achieve something that she could not, and wondering why Tom didn't just come out and say something direct, rather than pussyfooting about, touching her lightly on her hip or shoulder as he passed and trying to look all downcast around the mouth and eyes. He set the table with good napkins, picked out exactly the right heartbroken jazz, lit candles. He landed the plates on the table with a soft ceramic click click. But to be cushioned was not what she wanted. She wanted to feel something between her teeth.
‘I think we should only try one more time,' she said, taking up her cutlery purposefully.
Tom made a noise which was neither assent nor dissent.
‘I'm wasting my life with all this wanting and all this grief. I should just accept it. I can't have children. I think it's about time that I just got over it.'
Tom looked at her intently, as if practising his listening skills.
‘Don't you think?'
He chewed, thoroughly.
‘Will you please say something?'
He dabbed at his mouth with the good napkin and, finally, said: ‘I don't think we have to make any big decisions right now.'
‘We do. We do have to. I need something definite. I need to know that we're only going to try one more time, and after that it's over. Behind me.'
She waited, holding her knife so hard that its handle pressed a mark into the palm of her hand.
‘First, let's wait and see how we go this time, hey?'
‘It's all the waiting that's killing me. Wait, wait, wait. Wait to try to get pregnant. Wait to find out if I'm pregnant. Count the days until the next miscarriage. I'm waiting my life away. I only have it in me to do this once more. And I want you to agree.'
‘We'll only try one more time,' he said, and she watched the words slip out of his mouth, easy as custard, edgeless. ‘If you're sure that's what you want.'
Bonnie snatched up her plate and frisbeed it past her husband's ear. Off spun its cargo of meat and baby potatoes and vegetables julienne. It crashed into the centre of the dresser, collecting two of its matching bowls and a gravy boat.
‘Stop fucking placating me!' she screamed.
The floor was an expensive mosaic, and the sex that night – although successful – was brief and resentful.
ON THE FIRST day that it would have been possible for Bonnie to discover whether she was pregnant, she didn't. It was not until the following day that she took a walk into town to buy a testing kit from the pharmacy. In a shopping-centre toilet cubicle, two blue lines darkened into certainty.
For each of her previous positive tests, Bonnie had treated herself to a little reward. Lunch, perfume, cushions, that sort of thing. The first time, foolishly, she had bought the maternity lingerie that was still attached to its tags at the bottom of her underwear drawer. But this time there would be no celebration, no congratulation. No hoping. So she did nothing more than go to a café, and not even a nice one. A waitress brought a chocolate milkshake and then returned to the kitchen, taking her as yet untried but most likely perfectly functional uterus with her. Bonnie brooded over the frothy head of her drink, watching the little clusters of milk bubbles – as fragile and insubstantial as dividing cells – as they began to burst. Then she evaporated most of the rest of them with vicious little stabs of her straw.
DR ALLCOCK TWISTS the probe inside her, jamming it hard against her cervix.
‘Just trying to locate the, ah, heartbeat,' he mutters.
Her own pulse speeds, as if it might offer a jumpstart to that minuscule organ.
‘He'll find it in a minute. You'll see,' the nurse says, patting Bonnie's hand.
Do not hope.
Do NOT hope.
Dr Allcock squints at the screen, pushing inside of her and twiddling his dials.
ONCE UPON A time, Bonnie believed that something could be done, that her brokenness could be repaired. She thought it was just a matter of a thing that did not work which could be made to work, and this was a notion that Dr Allcock did little to dispel. Now she knows that life cannot be commanded, not even by Dr Allcock.
It wasn't as if she had left it too late. Heeding the warnings, she gave up her career, moved back to Australia and got married – all in plenty of time. But instead of trading the tours and rehearsals and roses and European-kissed cheeks for a child, she traded them for afternoons in her front room giving viola lessons to schoolgirls.
Her lessons are expensive because the mothers of private-school girls are prepared to pay for the classy femininity implied by Bonnie's uncluttered music room. They are impressed by the pale varnished floorboards and white-sashed windows and asymmetrical sprays of fresh flowers that Bonnie herself arranges. They are prepared to pay for Bonnie's prodigal years as the violist in a fashionable string quartet in a fashionable European capital, although they can never quite remember which one: city or quartet. And they are prepared to pay for Bonnie herself, who is something of a star turn when she fills in with the local symphony orchestra, shaking back a slender, waist-length ponytail before positioning her instrument under her chin with truly expensive grace.
‘Shoulders loose,' she gently reminded twelve-year-old Hannah one afternoon in the early, seasick days of this pregnancy.
Bonnie had been there before: poised on the low seat of her armless chair with Hannah before her and an embryonic child in her belly. On such occasions, Bonnie had smiled in her listening way and imagined that the girl standing in front of her was not poor, thickset, talentless Hannah, but a slender little girl with a long ponytail that she too shook back elegantly before playing a sweet and simple and pitch-perfect minuet. She imagined all the details, right down to her ruby-coloured patent-leather shoes set in perfect playing formation. This time, though, Bonnie pushed the little red-shoed girl back to Neverland and suffered attentively through Hannah's every ugly note.
OVER THE PAST few weeks, Bonnie has wondered whether it was just her imagination or whether in fact the queasiness and the hunger were worse this time. She thought that perhaps they were. And, if she had allowed herself, she might have imagined that this could signify something. But of course, she did not.
At a family party, with her secret passenger aboard, Bonnie stood by the special low table that had been set for the children and longed for the bright sprinkled foodstuffs. It was less the sticky-faced children, with their tears and squeals and fairy wings and ringlets, than the cupcakes thickly spread with hot-pink icing and the triangles of rainbowed bread that kindled a little hurtful hope in her. Stop it, stop it, stop it. With a sparse plate of grown-up food on her lap, she sat by a favourite cousin of hers, now a father. He appeared tired, fat and happy.
‘What about you, Bon-Bon? When can we expect your sproglets to spring forth?'
She was well practised, by now, at answering the variants of this question.
‘Oh, I'm not sure I'm much of a one for kids,' she said, smoothly forking a meagre morsel into her mouth.
Bonnie remembers that in the first weeks of her early pregnancies, she would lie in bed with Tom and press her stomach to his back and think messages to their children. We are your mother and your father. We will love you, I promise. But this time, she slept with her back to Tom and kept her thoughts to herself.
If she did have to think at all, on her way down into sleep, she thought of her last visit to the hospital and how the anaesthetist, a burly gent with a soporific baritone voice, turned out to be someone she knew. She'd been in the same year at school as the eldest of his fleet of clever children, and clearly it had brightened his day to have someone to tell about his offspring's latest overseas postings and university prizes. Although she had noticed that he stopped himself from talking at length about how his empire was expanding into a new generation. She wondered what he thought about while her feet were in stirrups and a vacuum cleaner was making its meticulous way over the floor of her uterus. She wondered, too, what words he and Dr Allcock had shared as her crimson contents dolloped into a hospital bucket; whether they had discussed opera, or golf. She wanted to know who'd had the job of ushering her embryo into the incinerator with the rest of the day's harvest of tumours, tonsils and appendices.
Last night she fell asleep remembering all of this, and dreamed of Dr Allcock and the anaesthetist standing above her rent body, stitching together her new womb from gores of chestnut-coloured leather. The leather was cured, as hard and creaking as that of a new softball glove. Each segment swelled slightly between the seams, so that the whole object came to resemble a compact pumpkin. She watched as it was slotted, uncollapsible, in among the soft pulp of her other organs. She knew that it was designed to hold forever, within its hard, smooth walls, a certain measure of emptiness.
BONNIE IS SO immaculately prepared for disappointment that she is not at all surprised when Dr Allcock begins to shake his head.
‘I'm just starting to feel a little concerned now that I can't seem to...'
She turns her face from the screen.
‘Now I'm really quite worried that I can't exactly...find...' he says.
Bonnie's hands, motionless on the paper, feel cool and disconnected.
‘No. Nup. I'm sorry,' Dr Allcock says. ‘There's nothing. We've lost this one.'
Under the green sheet, the probe slips out in a hot gush of lubricant. Bonnie half-hears Dr Allcock explain that she will need to present herself at the hospital in the morning. Dilation and curettage, he says. To remove the products of conception.
‘The next one will be the one. I just know it,' the nurse says brightly.
BONNIE DOE NOT cancel her afternoon's lessons. What would be the point?
‘Soft wrist,' she tells Hannah, taking hold of the girl's solid forearm and shaking it to loosen its stranglehold on the neck of the viola.
After Hannah blows her curly fringe off her forehead with a blast of bubblegum breath from her bottom lip and begins sawing away at a sonata, Bonnie lets her gaze stray out through her window into the street, where Hannah's mother waits in a car full of Hannah's siblings. The children resemble their mother and each other – the same strawberry-blonde hair; the same hot, pink, sweat-prone skin; the same thick, inflexible limbs. They share a dense, animal fleshliness. That Bonnie lacks. She knows herself to be described in terms such as willowy. In other words, she is wooden. As hollow as her viola. Her body a casket.
Now here it comes. An end to the numbness she has felt during the hours since she left Dr Allcock's surgery. As Hannah scrapes soulless Bach over the helpless strings of her instrument, Bonnie feels its approach. All the effort she has put into the manufacture of ersatz disappointment, and all for nothing, because here comes the real thing, thundering silently towards her, within her. She braces herself. When it hits her, it is a muddy, bloody avalanche of pain that punches the air from her lungs and fills her mouth with its rust-tasting thickness. It is in her throat, choking her. It is on top of her, holding her down. It is inside her, exploding outwards, detonating her organs in flabby shards of purple and red. Yet, when this first pass is over, she is somehow not dead.
Bonnie looks up to find Hannah, having finished her piece, standing with her bow by her side. The girl is pleased with herself, her face flushed, expectant.
Although still winded, Bonnie finds a remnant of voice. ‘Again,' she says. ‘One more time.'