I did it because I liked the way it made me feel.
The transaction pleased me even before the idea became a reality.
The see-saw of our friendship now tipped in my favour- I the one swinging her legs loftily, gripping the handles with sweaty palms. Looking down on her smiling face as she crouched uncomfortably, waiting for her turn to rise.
I did it because 23 years of knowing and loving Emma had taught me that she was regarded as the kinder and uncompromising one, she the one who went the extra mile, she the one to outdo me with birthday surprises, gifts, encouragement. And even when I tried to balance the scales it just somehow didn’t land in the way I wanted. Like the time I got her a pricey bottle of wine I could have sworn she'd mentioned, only to remember weeks later that Malbec wasn’t her favourite. She drank it anyway.
Or the time I got us both tickets for the sky garden and completely forgot she wasn't a huge fan of heights. I took my brother instead.
She had sat with me through long evenings, as I moaned about work, my lovely but predictable husband Alasdair, or our two tweens (her godchildren) and their personal dramas. I occasionally managed to return the favour and assumed the same posture for her as she shared her heartache at yet another broken relationship, another hope deferred, another wasted chapter.
She would come round to mine after work, help me clear the kitchen, chat for a bit with whichever child of mine would reciprocate. Then we would sit, drink, and laugh “ always bloody laughing those two” as my Dad used to say of us. But more and more, the laughs turned to tears from Emma. The wretched admission of loneliness, the restless longing for motherhood.
I would find her gazing blankly at our walls studded with family portraits.
Our collective joy recklessly goading her.
I loved her and in between the chaos of my life I longed to be better, do better, for her.
The idea to save Emma would begin as a germ- something I conceived following a radio interview, then after that, a magazine article.
Two grinning faces, a baby in arms. A cameo of sacrificial love. I sent a link to Emma one sunny afternoon- I remember loitering over the send button for a good while. She called back within the hour, her voice swelling with emotion- great sobs flowing through the lines to me. I felt the waves of gratitude, I made jokes about Alasdair's DNA and was she completely sure she wanted it?! I cried with her, made sure she could tell I was crying too, sharing it with her.
Made sure she knew my arms were open and this gift, his gift, was hers for the taking.
And what would be would be. We would take it step by step, approach the altar together, humble ourselves before the gods and wait with baited breath to see if they were pleased with our offering.
Then came the hurdles. Research (I made a file). Speaking with a clinician. Understanding our rights. I even called a lawyer friend.
Alasdair was unsure to begin with but noticeably did not fly off the handle. There was a chink,I could sense it. I started showering him with online testimonials, a book on the basics.
We watched a movie which was strikingly relatable; it made us cry. And he started to get on board. He was always more altruistic than me, and I had to admit that his growing compassion for Emma and his determination to help was actually really attractive to me.
But really the final nail in the coffin was going round for dinner at hers, just the three of us.
She cooked Alasdair’s favourite lamb Tagine, and had really gone to town. Right down to little bowls of pomegranate seeds, flatbread, his favourite lager. Looking back, she had even gone to town on herself, she looked more radiant, more composed- better than I'd seen her for months.
The grief of her singleness had been slowly desiccating her and she’d kind of started looking older (though I never would have said it to her) she had even been favouring more comfortable, dated clothes that hung off her. Shroud like. But that night was different- she had clearly gone out to get new clothes, had her hair and nails done. She looked good , but more than that, her face carried something beautiful and bright and it was hard to not keep staring at her.
We ate, ate more again, crept the conversation around the elephant in the room, and got through more drink than was good for us. Dessert came and went (again, Al’s favourite). By the time the coffee came out, which none of us really needed, we were cackling with laughter about some stupid anecdote- one of Alasdair's colleagues was close to getting fired for his absolute lack of social skills. The evening itself closed in around us and we were left with the inevitable.
I had chosen to sit next to Emma so she wouldn't feel spare, out of habit, but it afforded me the chance to watch Al as she started breaking down, her words rushing out along with the years of longing.
As she spoke I couldn't help but be moved, and was prompted often to rub her back, her hand, her tears provoking my own. It was a familiar scene, one hunched in sorrow unbothered now by appearances and the other in a position of quiet giving, of comfort and empathy and tissues and tea. So it was interesting to me to finally observe Alasdair's reactions. He was clearly moved and his eyes never left her lovely face. The only times he locked eyes with me I could feel him saying “now I understand”.
By the time it was midnight, we had all three of us come to a decision.
Emma waved us off at the door after long goodbyes, eyes still wet, her whole person shimmering with hope and maybe a touch of fear.
Alasdair and I walked home, and through the talk between us I could feel his brimming sense of achievement, his sense of wonder. He had deposited so much faith with his words alone, with a single promise. He was at times,I could see in the lamp light, actually smiling. I knew as only a wife could know, that he was charged- illuminated- by the power of his gift. And more than that, that he'd been touched by her brokenness, had noticed her new beauty.
For myself, I was quiet mostly. Taking it all in. I felt justifiably full in so many ways! I was experiencing that gorgeous elevation- my idea, my faith, my sacrificial gift. I hoped Al might notice my own illumination.
And so it began.
The initial donation was almost as easy as the promise. A clinic visit, more paperwork. A small tube passed from hand to locker to hand. A small tube with the world inside it, though to a passerby just off-white gloop.
I was with Em when his message pinged her.
“ Job done! You're going to be an AMAZING mum x”
She hadn't cried or anything but we had celebrated lunch out. The message kept pinging in my own mind through lunch and that afternoon. He never used Capslock in messages! He must have sweated over what to say. The kiss at the end. That tiny black cross pinched my nerves somewhat.
35 letters, one kiss, a train departed.
I was standing on a platform at the station when I had the first vision, as I came to call them.
A scene of loveliness- Emma crouching, a full skirt billowed at her ankles, an expression of broad contentment on her face. Her eyes locked in love and wonder at the toddler staggering towards her open arms. And behind them both, a sanguine figure, one hand on hip, his own face mirroring hers- a perfect image of lost and found.
I could feel those vibrations coming long before news came to us (and of course we were the first to know).
I had hoped the news would break these mirages that stopped me in my tracks, but in reality, they didn't. The day we heard was the day the match struck the box- the tiny flame eager to swallow something whole.
We had gone round with flowers- the best kind, the massive, overwhelming kind. Even the girls came and there were tears then too. I did well, in retrospect- I still felt good mostly and wanted to feel her gratitude flow over me again. And it was there- but I noticed it flowed mainly to Alasdair. In small touching gestures, and a shared joke about the child growing up to be an accountant like him.
I saw her less from then on. Life was.. Well, life. And she now had so much to do, rest and wellbeing her main priorities. We messaged, she called once, twice maybe but I was too knackered to talk.
Emma on instagram, holding a lightbox sign she’d borrowed from my daughter
“mama to be! Due date 08/10/22”
God, the comments from people though. I couldn't take it! Some close to her knew her secret- most didn't. We'd all decided on that. Something about the growing ladder of over the top messages and united happiness caught me by surprise. I was so maddened by it that I felt a migraine coming on and went to bed.
Emma on facebook, pretty fingers clutching the black and white rectangles of victory.
The hardly discernible images- figures suspended in space, a sloped forehead, a raised knee.
A small sucked thumb.
And she was thankful, so very thankful. She wrote Al a letter telling him how thankful.
I had to make him share it with me. I went into his office at home one day and found the letter, back in its envelope, carefully propped on a shelf. And he wasn't one for keeping detritus.
I worked hard from then on, even rehearsing conversations- interactions I knew were coming up with not only Emma but everyone else. The baby shower, or organising a small rota for food drop offs once the baby made an appearance. Making sure I kept the baby scan photo on the fridge.
I noticed now, the lingering gazes that came from those who knew. Their own faces and questions betraying ‘concerns’ over how I was really (really) finding it all. I felt like a pioneer, the first of all our circle, riding out alone into unknown territory. And I always felt I should be reporting back more somehow. Communicating to them the shock of the new found terrain. Confess to them the discovery that something horrid had shifted and shat all over the sparkling vista I had been dreaming of reaching. But I was good at funny. So I stuck to that and for a while I think it worked.
One morning we woke up to such heavy rain I asked Al for a lift to work, but he hesitated and said he couldn't today. Naturally I sniffed a fib and needled him until he snapped back that Emma had asked for a lift to an appointment. I shocked myself with the heat of my reply and registered the alarm on Al's face. I still don't quite remember what bitter words passed between us then but I had opened the latch inside me and I can't deny it didn't feel good. He even swore at me before leaving which was unthinkable- I was glad the girls were still asleep. Me, standing in the hallway in my dressing gown, the force of the slammed door still in my bones.
“Remember! this was your idea in the first place!” his exit lines, shunting through my veins.
When I came home again much later, I scrolled through photos of my girls as my dinner spun in the microwave. I watched the years roll back, the endless moments. My two creations, getting smaller, smaller, smallest.
Another vision, one day while brushing something off my daughters neck. Catching her green, lovely eyes. A child looked back at me, eyes alike. A child asking questions. It shuddered through me leaving an oil slick of dread in its wake.
Autumn came with a sigh, forcing its way into everything. Damp mornings, mouldy leaves in the hallway, stuck to shoes.
Autumn came and so did the contractions.
Emma messaged me, saying she was excited but scared. The kind of message most mothers send when their entire universe is about to push its way through their helpless, marvellous body. She had her own mother staying with her now. I got the message when I was doing the weekly shop and I stopped a moment to stare at the screen. I put the phone back in my bag, finished my shop. Then I sat in the car and just bawled like an actual baby. I cried so hard I got a cramp in my stomach which forced me to do some deep breathing. I thought of Emma, I thought of my own babies. The pain passed.
I had seen her actually, a couple of months before. I generously offered help when she told me she still needed some bits.
She had slowly lowered herself into the car saying “ thanks so much for this, I'm definitely getting that nesting urge now!”
“You mean nesting fever,” I replied.
“ Oh! Right! Yeah that !.... I’ve actually been thinking I might look at some of those co-sleeping pod crib thingies- do you know the ones?”
“ co- sleeping?! God no- you don't want to do that, unless you want a dead baby!”
It had just come out- I'd said it with an accent so there's a chance she thought I was trying to be funny but it hung in the air like a stink. I don't know what was said after that. I was really shaken up with how I didn't care much if I hurt her. I felt a strange sense of liveliness, a chill tonic in me. I don't know how but we both managed to shop for and find a crib. She went for something old fashioned in the end, said it reminded her of her granny or something like that.
I was at the till with her when I found myself staring at the back of her head, her hair scraped into a dirty bun. Noticed the old eczema patches had returned back at her nape. Stress I said to myself.
She was scrabbling in her bag for the right card, softly cursing. And then suddenly out of nowhere I just felt this tsunami wave of longing for her- for things to not have changed..for our younger uncomplicated selves. “Always bloody laughing these two”.
I leant over, explained to the cashier I would be paying (despite her protests), and tapped my card with a dramatic flourish. A flourish to make the point that I wanted to. To demonstrate something that only two best friends could translate - I messed up, I'm here for you now.
I’ll get this.
We drive past a playground on the way home, I find myself telling her she’s doing so, so well.
I think she hears my apology. I put on the radio and we both start humming along.
As I glance towards the park I notice two children on a see saw, one lifted high with legs akimbo, squealing with delight.
And the other crouched with knees bent low, feet in the sand, ready to launch.