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Unexpectedly expecting by Leonie van Mierlo
'A Clearblue test please.'
My voice sounds neutral and probably doesn't betray my panic. It's as if I'm buying a kilo of potatoes, except in that case I wouldn't keep my head bowed to avoid the eyes of the shopkeeper. Just now I have no wish to see meaningful, or worse, questioning, looks. Not right now. As I swipe my debit card, I hope she doesn't notice that I was here half an hour ago to buy the same thing. Why I didn't just buy a double pack in the first place, I have no idea; that would've been much cheaper. But somehow I had the idea that those, like the bumper packs containing five tests, were intended for women who make a day job of becoming pregnant.
And I absolutely do not belong to that category.
In the kitchen of my Amsterdam ground-floor flat I stand and stare in disbelief at two blue pregnancy tests. They lie on the worktop staring back at me in unison.
'I'm pregnant,' I mumble to myself. 'I'm really pregnant.'
I´d put the fact that I was already two weeks overdue down to stress at work. I´d really just done the first pregnancy test to be sure, but the result turned out different. Completely different. The second test didn´t leave any room for doubt.
Pregnant? Shit, that can't be true! My heart begins to thump and my breathing accelerates. I feel dizzy. The news booms through my head like an African drum. Maddeningly. Could two tests theoretically both be wrong?
I hope so.
A sharp voice in my head cuts in. Sorry darling, what did you think was the meaning of those painful breasts, throwing up in the morning and all that uncontrollable burping? Wake up, girl.
In my mind I race through my male contacts of the past weeks. I've been pretty well behaved recently. It could really only be Kay.
Kay is a nice guy and has been a good friend for a couple of months now. I'm always in a good mood after an evening or weekend with him. But we don't have that special bond necessary for playing mum and dad together. And that's something we agree on. We get on well, and in the absence of anything better to do, we seek comfort in each other, often very successfully. A very good deal for a woman who has everything but love.
In panic I scrabble for my handbag and grab my Filofax. I flick through the pages hastily looking for a note to say when Kay and I saw each other last. I see his name in red, diagonally across the Saturday and Sunday. A month and half ago.
Shit. The timing could certainly be about right. But how can it be that all the married people around me have to move heaven and earth to have children and I, a singleton, after one slip-up, at forty, get pregnant at the drop of a hat? It makes me dizzy.
Strangely enough I've always been convinced, contrary to all statistics, that I would be fertile in later life. And today I've had a nice confirmation of that, but just now I don't feel like patting myself on the back.
As I walk back to the kitchen and am again confronted with my newly acquired status, I get the increasingly scary feeling that I've landed in the wrong film, one more realistic than I would have liked. The facts are on the table, in duplicate, and the meaning of the double blue begins only now to sink in: I'm pregnant, and that doesn´t fit in with my plans.
I put my head in my hands and begin to sob uncontrollably. How could I be so stupid? This isn't what I want, damn it. Not like this. Why can't life ever be like I imagine it in my dreams?
These thoughts make me cry all the harder. Standing at the worktop I look for support among the Clearblue boxes, the loose packaging, unread instructions and the two positive tests, to avoid being floored by it all.
My despair is interrupted by the doorbell. Who on earth can that be? Jehovah's Witnesses proclaiming messages of salvation is the last thing I want right now. And today I feel so unstable I don't know if I'm capable of turning them away politely, as I usually do. The high frequency of their visits seems to suggest that my street is in great need of deliverance.
After some hesitation I open the door.
'Hello, love. We were in Amsterdam for the Rembrandt exhibition and then to buy a suit for your father at the Society Shop. We thought we'd pop by and see if you were home,' says my mother cheerfully as she steps over the threshold.
Holy cow, how do they manage to turn up at a time like this!
Attempting to look casual I rub my eye, sweeping away the tears just in time, and rush to the kitchen, with the excuse that there's something cooking, to throw a newspaper over the confirmation of my pregnancy.
'What a surprise. No, of course. Great that you're here, come in,' I call as nonchalantly as possible from behind the kitchen counter.
'I only just got in, so ignore the mess. Would you like some coffee?'
'Lovely,' my mother replies, as she hangs up her coat, more like a modern cape, on the stand. With the combination of that coat and her high round blow-dried hair-do I can see she really does look a bit like Queen Beatrix. It's something people often say to her, but she doesn't see it at all herself. And perhaps that's a conscious choice, because under such a comparison my mother thinks more of the Queen´s wrinkly skin than her friendly and stately air. Quite apart from the fact that she´s a republican to the core.
While I rather nervously fish out a filter from the tin of coffee in the cupboard, I try to pull myself together and cover up the appearance of the drama which just took place here. My parents walk over to me and each kiss me on the cheek. I keep a wary eye on Het Parool, the newspaper which non-judgementally covers my secret. I'm terrified my father will pick it up because it always brings back so many happy memories of his youth and his student days in Amsterdam.
When my parents walk into the garden I let out a sigh of relief. Then I grab the tests and boxes all together and shove them firmly into one of the kitchen cupboards. I'm saved.
'What a gorgeous place,' says my mother brightly as she casts an eye over my garden.
My sixty square metres of green is looking fresh and tidy after I decided last weekend, without any understanding of such matters, to have a go at it with the shears. When my long-term relationship broke up, for me completely unexpectedly, a couple of years ago, and our love nest was subsequently closed down, I went looking for a house to buy where I'd only have to whip round with a couple of pots of paint. I wasn't about to get into a relationship crisis with a contractor on top of my grief. After a long, draining search, I found my niche, and have now lived here eight years. Only the garden needed serious work.
At the time I was very much into feng shui, which resulted in an ingeniously designed garden with wind gongs, different patios, a fountain for financially better days and a garden house which looks a lot like an Austrian ski hut. For which friend and foe alike have repeatedly offered old skis to complete the picture.
'Give me a call if it snows!' It did make me laugh. Little did I know a garden house like that would be delivered prefab on a trailer. It's quite a challenge to push six metre wide bits of wood through a front door.
'Shall we bring a saw next time to take a couple of twigs off your tree?' my mother asks helpfully. 'Otherwise it could start to shut out too much light.'
'Yes please,' I say with resignation. I can't get any more out.
Fortunately in the mean time I've calmed down a bit and am managing to keep up my 'nothing going on' mask reasonably as I serve the coffee inside.
The picture looks good: Hein and Els, a pair of vital seventy-something-year-olds, having a nice cup of coffee with their eldest daughter. My father rummages in the dish of amaretto biscuits. I wonder momentarily if they´re not rather past their best, but it doesn't seem to bother him. It's really my mother who fills the space, as is often the case. Unasked but animated, she goes ahead and tells me about her programme for the coming weeks. India is rather less organised, but the travel organisation for which she works has asked if she will guide eighteen people through Sri Lanka in two weeks time. My mother was originally a nurse, but stopped working when she had children. Fifteen years ago by coincidence she began on a new career as a travel guide. She was always organised our family holidays very expertly in any case.
Since then she's accompanied trips to Asia, with India and China as highlights, and with a good sense of atmosphere. She arranges for her guests to be welcomed with lights and music at the picturesque palace of the maharaja in Jaipur and to dine with him, or for the jeeps to stop and the guests to transfer to camels, to be taken to a camp fire where an exciting desert story is told. I get my eye for detail from her.
In the initial years of her travels my father still worked. At first he had to get used to being alone more. Cooking his own food was the biggest obstacle. He phoned me one day to ask if you were supposed to cook spaghetti in a frying pan, because 'it tasted so strange.' As an alternative he frequently ate a warm meal in the hospital where he worked as a manager, and in the evenings he made himself a sandwich. Since my father retired he's got pretty good at cooking a full meal. He had to, as a man home alone. In the mean time he's also grown to intensely enjoy the freedom to fill his time as he pleases and as a result to fritter away whole days at a time during my mother's absence. And the freedom to go into the village wearing his favourite Bermuda shorts, which my mother can't stand.
As I look at my mother attentively, to make her think I'm listening, I wonder whether I should share the shocking news with them. My parents are so much a part of my life. They so want to be there for me. And what better moment could there be than today to give them that chance? Why wouldn't I tell them?
Instead I decide to transfer the attention to my father by asking him how it's going. He comes out with a few factual statements about the boards on which he's active. The local library has started a new construction project; the nursery is still fighting the local authorities for a subsidy.
'Come on Hein, let's get going,' says my mother resolutely after the last sip. 'Otherwise we're not going to get everything done today.'
Relieved I make ready to say good bye, keeping my news to myself.
'Have you got something nice planned for the weekend?' my father asks as he knots the trendy cashmere scarf round his neck, brought back by my mother from her last trip.
´I´ve been invited to a charity event this evening for one of my clients; I'll have to at least put in an appearance there. I might go for a drink with some friends after that. Otherwise I don´t have any plans,´ I reply nonchalantly.
´But I had a very busy week. And I expect it'll fill up of its own accord.'
'What a wonderfully free life you lead,' says my mother with a hint of jealousy in her voice.
'I can't complain.'
'Let us know if you have time and feel like coming round to eat next weekend.'
'I think I have a couple of things on, but I'll check my agenda tomorrow and call you, ok?'
'Ok we'll be in touch then. Ciao.'
We exchange a quick kiss, I wave them out and pull the door closed behind me with a deep sigh.
A veil of darkness falls over me. I feel bad. Why didn't I tell my parents what I've known for just half an hour? Perhaps that's precisely why.
I hardly understand what's going on myself.
When I walk back to the kitchen to retrieve the pregnancy tests from between the frying pan and the tupperware boxes and put them back on the worktop, it all becomes terribly clear to me once again: I'm pregnant.
I'd love to have children and have always assumed that I would one day become a mother, but not in these circumstances and not by Kay!
All through my youth the wedding coaches drove by our house on their way to the town hall, which was a couple of hundred metres further up. Ever since then I've dreamed of a soul mate. Meeting my hypothetical husband will be appropriately spectacular because we'll recognise each other immediately. Before we start making plans for a grand and moving wedding we'll first spend some time passionately enjoying one another. A couple of years ago the fictional mating season was to last at least two years. Part of that would be a phenomenal round-the-world trip of six months during which we'd have twenty-four hours a day to go through one another's rucksacks. The older I grew, under the influence of my biological clock, the more concessions I made in terms of the duration of the initial phase of our potential life.
In my dreams I try to imagine the face of my hypothetical soul mate. I can imagine how intensely in love he appears as he looks at me. And how he admires my pregnant tummy when it comes to the time. I'll listen, moved, as he lovingly insists on taking care of me during the pregnancy. I feel his enormous pride in our newly born child. He's at least as moving as our little one, who I always imagine will be a girl.
But my dream is in stark contrast with the reality. Nature and I have made a mistake, and that must be corrected as soon as possible.
Does the Rutgers Foundation still exist, I wonder. I remember them coming to give sex education at my secondary school. Giggling, we looked through pictures of genitalia, the high point being the opportunity to fill condoms with impressive amounts of water. Despite the fact that we spent most of the time laughing nervously, it made a big impression.
With a bit of googling I soon find an answer. The Rutgers Foundation is now called the Centre for Sexual Health. The end station of my pregnancy. With complete conviction I phone to make an appointment for a termination. I can come on Monday.
'Make it a quarter past nine,' I say.
Then I can be at the office at twelve for my meeting, I think afterwards.