Hope Deferred

Hope Deferred by Rob PomeroyI wrote this short story some years ago. Caution: Some readers may find the subject matter traumatic.

The doctor had his back to her and was tapping on the formica top. A nurse hovered at the opposite side of the room, unsure whether her presence was still required. The patient understandably feared the worst.

When the doctor turned round his face was grim. She heard very little of what he said. Indeed she did not need to hear. She looked across to the nurse for support, but the nurse would not meet her gaze.

The hospital sheets felt rough under her fingers, as she grabbed great handfuls of the material, even as her lungs grabbed at the air – as if comfort could be found in either substance. And then, her hands threw off the sheet as her lungs threw out the air in one long, loud, wailing “No!”

Her husband walked silently out of the room, and effectively out of her life.

The nurse tactfully switched off the baby heart monitor.

Another microwave meal. A tolerably edible lasagne made by Mr Sainsbury’s own fair hands. The clock striking six, seven, eight, nine, ten. And so to bed, What could possibly be more rewarding than eating processed food and watching soap opera re-runs on UK Gold?

Two years of the same routine had a welcome numbing effect. At least Gail had stopped looking in the mirror and calling herself a murderess.

She wore her hair long and plaited, the way Ben had liked it. He never called, though.

The third birthday was hard. Gail’s sister-in-law was seven months pregnant. Her brother and sister-in-law kindly took Gail out for a meal that night. They knew her thoughts would dwell on her lost son.

But all Gail could see was Samantha’s distended belly. It was so unjust. Gail had been married for seven years and trying for five before she had conceived. Sam and Charles conceived within the first week of trying. What had Gail done to deserve such unfair treatment?

The meal was torture.

She never understood why she did it. When she got home that night, she found herself in the bathroom before her medicine cabinet, observing her face and loathing her freckles. She saw herself open the cabinet and reach for a razor blade. She watched, distantly, as she took the blade and applied it to her forearms, releasing pain even as she released her lifeblood.

Eighteen months later. October. Children playing outside, kicking up crisp russet leaves as children should. Her friend Clare called. They had tea.

Clare was a member of a squash club. She had been playing in a tournament immediately prior to visiting Gail. Naturally the conversation turned to Clare’s progress through the tournament. And naturally Clare explained how she had experienced a slight setback: her long-term squash partner and sporting motivator Kath had revealed that she was pregnant and would not be able to play for a while.

Another pregnancy. Gail could not escape them. She had learnt to cope as best she could, venting her blood and her pain as needed.

The conversation dwelt on this pregnancy for a moment. Clare was pleased for her friend Kath, who was delighted to be expecting. She and her partner had wanted to start a family. They had been together for three years and felt that the time was right. Ben was firmly established in his career, his salary was more than enough to support them both, and Kath could afford to take time off if she needed to.

What was Ben’s job? Gail asked. Oh, he was in motor finance, Clare thought. More urgently Gail asked, what was Ben’s surname?

With a gasp of horror, the penny dropped too late for Clare. His surname was Turner. Although Gail had reverted to her maiden name, Clare now dimly recalled Gail’s story that four years ago Gail had separated from a man called Turner. Clare cursed herself, but her friend assured her that it was all right, just a bit of a shock.

Of course it was not all right, and Gail’s world fell apart for the second time.

“Miss Huxtable is here,” the receptionist told him.

“Thank you Helen,” Adrian said in the general direction of his speakerphone, “I’ll be out shortly.” He quickly reviewed his notes. Miss Huxtable had been referred to him by one of his other divorce clients. It looked like a straightforward job. Over four years’ separation, no real issues of property or finance, and no children involved. The client did not qualify for government funded legal advice, which was perfect since it meant Adrian would actually get paid for this job. He straightened his tie, quickly tidied his desk and then went to meet his new client.

Although a consummate professional, Adrian allowed himself the luxury of an initial admiring glance at some of his female clients. Miss Huxtable was no exception. As he led her back to his room, he turned over the snapshot he had just taken in his mind, of a well dressed, nicely made-up twenty-something lady. Once through the door of his office however, it was all business.

“Good morning Miss Huxtable,” he shook her hand, “I’m Adrian Redbrook. Pleased to meet you. Do have a seat.” With a broad smile, he gestured to a comfortable chair by his small circular conference table. He took a seat 60° round from her – not opposite so as to be stand-offish, and not too close so as to be over-familiar. He had in fact measured this distance, and considered it, along with the fresh blank legal pad on the table, to be part of the science of being a divorce lawyer.

The box of tissues and the minimalist flowers in the vase in the centre of the table were part of the art of his practice.

Adrian noted immediately that Miss Huxtable sat on the edge of her seat, looking quite apprehensive. Rather than dive straight into some questions, he started some small talk – wasn’t it a lovely day? had she found the office with no trouble?

Her quick glance up at Adrian’s clock indicated that she was already concerned about how much this was going to cost her, so Adrian thought better of any further chat, and moved into the formal part of the interview. At that point he could not predict how rapidly the interview would become informal once again.

Gail sat at home, untouched meal before her, television turned down and disregarded. She had a lot to think about. The interview with her solicitor had not gone the way she expected at all. She had been disarmed by how approachable, how friendly he was. Her work colleague Martin when recommending Mr Redbrook had mentioned that he was very nice. Somehow Gail had expected Mr Redbrook to be nice in a purely professional, detached, clinical way.

Although thoughts of clients would never come between Adrian and his food, his mind was similarly preoccupied. Elgar’s cello concerto played in the background, but for once Adrian was unmoved by its haunting themes.

It was a fundamental principle of professional behaviour that the advice-giver should remain objective. An emotionally involved solicitor could only expect his judgment to become clouded when his client most needed his trained clarity of thought. But this was a simple case, no real points of conflict. Perhaps there was no harm in it after all…

Having coaxed out of Miss Huxtable the basic facts surrounding her “unfortunate matrimonial situation” (as lawyers would insist on calling it), the conversation had progressed towards the background. His client was very engaging, an animated storyteller, and before long both client and solicitor had ceased looking at the clock.

A full fifty minutes into the interview, Miss Huxtable had revealed the real reason, as she saw it, why her marriage had broken down irretrievably. Seven years into their marriage, Gail and Ben had conceived a child. For reasons that Gail inexplicably blamed on herself, that child had died while still in the womb, and Gail had undergone the horror of an induced stillbirth. Worse still, her husband, unable to cope with the loss, was not at her side during the ordeal.

As Gail continued to talk, recalling her reaction when she discovered that her husband’s new partner was now pregnant, Adrian found himself reaching for a tissue at the same time as his client. There had been an awkward pause as Miss Huxtable noticed her professional adviser’s emotional state, and the professional adviser struggled to regain his composure.

At that point Adrian had abruptly brought the interview back to practical issues related to the divorce: the location of the marriage certificate; the identity of Ben’s solicitors; whether there was likely to be any opposition to the proposed divorce.

Professionalism notwithstanding, Adrian pressed Miss Huxtable’s hand more firmly and for longer than normal. Their parting pleasantries were decidedly sincere.

With a great effort of will, Adrian donned the emotionless mantle of legal adviser, and maintained his warm, friendly, but strictly businesslike manner until the divorce proceedings were concluded. The entire process took but six months. Six months of profound confusion and disappointment for Gail. At first she had berated herself for being attracted to her solicitor, and then, in spite of herself she started to hope that he might feel similarly attracted. Each week that passed confirmed to her however that Adrian disliked her. How could he like a woman who had allowed her child to die, after all?

Great was her surprise, and how her heart fluttered like a teenager’s, when he nervously telephoned her to ask her to dinner. He could hardly get the invitation out through all the profuse apologies. Could she forgive him, contacting her for purely personal reasons? Flushed and slightly giddy, Gail freely forgave, and accepted the invitation. And so the relationship started.

It was an uneven path. Both carried their baggage; both had learnt the ingrained habits of the long-term single person. And for Adrian, he always felt that there was a part of Gail to which he was not allowed access. Certain doors were firmly shut. On the face of it, she was as open and engaging as ever – he cried freely with her as she told him more about the sad event that had changed her life so utterly. But still Adrian had the impression that at times he was being kept at arm’s length.

Eight months into the relationship, he found out why.

They had argued. Adrian had begged Gail to forgive herself, as he had many times before, unable to comprehend the feelings of this woman he loved so tenderly. Gail raised her barriers, and the conflict escalated. Eventually, Gail stormed out of the room.

She did not realise that he had followed her. She did not hear his noiseless step on the stair. She did not notice that she had failed to lock the bathroom door. And so he found her, blade already red with her blood. For a long moment neither spoke, but looked at the other in shock. Now Adrian knew why Gail always wore those elegant long sleeved tops.

Dimly Adrian was aware that this was one of those critical moments in life where it would be possible to choose one of two paths: that of hotheaded folly and destruction, or that of measured wisdom and healing. Clutching at straws, he simply reached into the medicine cabinet for bandages.

As Gail alternately screamed, raged and sobbed hysterically, Adrian did his best to apply ointment and bind up the fresh wound. He stroked her hair, spoke soothingly to her, and repeated over and over again, “I love you, and I’m not going to leave you.” Eventually Gail’s protestations that he must leave her, because she was evil and destroyed everything she touched, became less urgent.

When the storm had subsided completely, Adrian poured over her more love than he thought he had within him. With great care, he made her ready for bed, and gently smoothed the covers around her. He took up a watch in a chair by her bedside, always there when she reached out for his hand, always ready to speak a word of comfort, always ready to confirm that he would not leave.

At about 4am, Gail finally seemed to believe him, and slipped into a sleep more peaceful than she had known for years.

Touched by the purity of unconditional love and acceptance, Gail began to understand forgiveness. They visited her son’s grave together and Adrian took the risk of beseeching on behalf of the son that the mother harm herself no more, but rather live in peace.

It has been three years since Gail last took a razor to her arms. Thanks to love, she has now learnt a more excellent way.

Based on a true story and dedicated to the child concerned.

I am willing to consider publication of Hope Deferred. Please contact me for further details. All rights reserved.

Photo based on Cuatro Cienegas image copyright © Magnus von Koeller, licensed under Creative Commons. Used with permission.