by Barbara Latham
hen Verity wrote planning to visit, there was claim in her tone as she mentioned sharing an important past.
But the humiliation was mine not hers.
She was the one who, in a hushed voice, told others at University that I’d had “something of a breakdown” at the end of our first year.
Over that summer, thirty years ago, I’d been with three strangers calling them “new friends”. It is possible that what I came to see as lacking in them – comprehension of difference – was simply beyond us all back then.
It is not that they intended unkindness, although that was the consequence.
When they decided to get me “help” I did not want, essentially they handed me over to one who took on deciding what was in my best interest.
Even my parents, who thought I was at Verity’s earning much-needed money, didn’t do that. Power struggles with them were only over certain rules, which were to be followed in our home. At times they seemed strict, though never bossy; when farm and church kept them busy, their children were gathered in for good behaviour and general conversation at meals, but thankfully our minds were not their business. There might be a strong sense of family and its formal obligations yet we didn’t hang around sharing. Two older brothers, who would later take on the farm, came back at Christmas, the younger ones kicked a ball together.
Whatever went on with me was not up to anyone else, provided it was handled without undue fuss. I might howl into the hay, leaving passing anguish in the barn, but not take it in to lunch. I could shout at God for no longer seeming credible, though not during the service. Knowing what others had no wish to see was of the essence, while running off alone, was usual. So it never occurred to me this might prove unacceptable. Old classmates also rural, presumably had plenty of solitude to digest their own confusions of adolescence, since the school bus dropped each of us solo.
Then I stepped into city territory. It is still hard to believe how abruptly and unnervingly I found myself the object of such concern that it warranted the intervention of an expert. Previous judgement of me had appeared restricted to my skill at passing exams, it was never an assessment of my way of being. This new scrutiny left ugly residue.
We were two couples travelling for a week of camping. Sex was new, Pete only my second partner, and when contraception failed the spiral began.
It didn’t scare me, it felt right to go with intensity. If my body was doing the sensational, who was I to resist?
The old “me” seemed dissolved by hormones, for my altered body was demonstrating an awesome capability so far beyond the daily self which had no clue how to make a human life.
First, there was increased sexual excitement, along with urgent dreams of being taken places I didn’t belong by odd people, one with very straggly, purple hair. Some images stayed vivid but, without further attention, didn’t go anywhere.
Knowing no one well at University, I had slid into easy intimacies, with insufficient curiosity about the otherness of friends or lover, all of us feeling more comfortable with what it was we shared. In the car we all sang the same set of popular songs.
It was possible to slip into sex with a boy who determinedly wanted me, though he had as little notion of who I might be as I had of him.
Pete was a city boy, physically fit if not emotionally, strong but not brave, and unused to troubling girls. His limited experience left him convinced that he, being reliable and rational, was capable of keeping order.
His semen might have over-reached itself but if we were sensible there was some remedy.
That was his only interest – this modern way he had so recently found was obviously the best.
Maybe it was. How could I know?
All of us were on the cusp of sexual change, thanks to more effective contraception…obviously not entirely efficient, though Pete in a petulant moment accused me of deception. Yet he also claimed, hopefully, I was likely to be making up a drama.
I could not be so sure, he said, we needed proof, and then he’d borrow money to send me to Australia, if that was the only option.
Would I be able to care for an illegitimate child?
Probably not well and there would be stigma.
Even so, Pete’s sole focus on a solution set me walking in the night and what relief to walk and walk alone. Outside the torchlight delicate mist floated between the trees. The seeming solid became dissolved.
For company the tiniest segment of moon and stars, sometimes hidden then back with a greeting.
When the others finally found me, they tried to sound more worried than cross. I was not upset, as they assumed, only totally absorbed in what had hold of me and not expecting them to be disconcerted on finding I’d gone from the tent.
It should have been a warning but old patterns ran deep and it seemed reasonable to be back for breakfast as, after walking my way through many dilemmas, I had always turned up for meals with hands washed, hair brushed, ready to say the family grace.
In my absence the other three had made a plan to detour back to the student doctor who gave out the pill. We had two small tents but only one car, borrowed from Pete’s brother, so would all go.
We stopped at the nearest phone box and, with a few nods to Pete, Verity went off to ring. She, being the eldest in her family, was comfortable when taking charge.
The doctor also seemed convinced it must be my fault. If the pills had been taken as instructed, the problem might only be imagined. The effort to get them and the risk he took, since he knew we were not married, should have made me more careful.
Perhaps one had been missed, despite my better intentions, but I didn’t think so.
And when Pete, with Verity in unison, said I’d behaved rather strangely the doctor wrote a script.
Pete, having been unable to reduce the situation or himself to calm, was visibly relieved as he took a prescription for me. Perhaps I was too stunned to speak – it just seemed absurd and those pills were never going to be taken!
The doctor failed to ask my plans, ask if I wished a quick end to pregnancy, as I went in for the examination. During it there was sudden, extreme sharp pain. Verity squeezed my hand.
He confirmed the new life was not made up but abortion being illegal he could only suggest an address in Sydney.
Verity took that on a slip of paper before we re-joined the boys.
I didn’t shout at the doctor that he presumed too much.
And, anyway, probably then it was too late.
We drove away with Pete passing every car he could.
“So it’s true, a baby grows inside me.”
“Don’t talk like that, it’s still only cells,” Pete shot back.
I didn’t argue and kept the smile to myself.
Amazement had been seeping in and held me gently as we drove, hour after hour, back to our camp.
The medical appointment separated the quartet differently, for I had climbed in the back and Verity sat with me. From time to time she put on a solemn face to ask if I was okay.
My answer was a simple “fine” but was I?
“If I feel pain, might the tiny creature be hurting?” I thought and offered it a silent lullaby. But I did not settle into making a decision, or acknowledge that without one there would be a child for life and not just “cells”.
I sat as if immersed in fragrance, as I used to sink into that smell of roses covering our trellis.
A life of six weeks, according to the doctor, swam in me, with me, both of us as one. Had I been this close to any person since my own conception?
In something of a trance, I pondered the wonder of beginnings which I’d done as a little girl, but not one of the others saw anything to celebrate.
Verity now seemed more in harmony with Pete than her own embarrassed but silent boyfriend, Dan.
He sat in front of me. His head, without its fashionably long hair, had once made its way out of a mother. That seemed reason to stroke it, yet as it was unlikely he’d wish to hear my explanation, I refrained.
Verity continued keen to share emotional unhappiness and leaned forward with comfort for Pete, or turned to me to briefly touch my arm. Each enquiring, melancholy look jolted me out of my unshared astonishment at the body making life.
That night as we ate, I took as much as the males but managed not to say “eating for two.” Probably they felt starving it would be better.
In our small tent, Pete patted my shoulder without much conviction and showed no sexual interest, as if that was now out of the question, although my urge was strong as it had been for weeks. He soon slept and I crept from the tent, grateful no one else was around.
The torch was getting weak, the land unfamiliar, so I didn’t go far, not wanting to risk a trip that might upset the, as yet, unsexed “it”. I sensed its need for protection and having made a bracken nest huddled in, arms tight around my knees, encircling this new being. Any inclination to masturbate had already passed, “it” didn’t need excitement.
We were tucked away from dusty, rustling night wind and caught in the rhythm of perpetual wave over stone down below the scarlet pohutukawa, extending out from the nearby cliff. There was stillness if not sleep, as I rocked myself and it with the old, old songs my mother sang. But there was no sign of the comforting and growing moon.
Just before dawn the pain became intense, starting with the same stab felt during the examination.
Slowly life began leaking out of me.
I knew as much well before there was blood.
After keening through the lightening hours, I heard Pete’s morning shout and went silent.
Then overheard an exchange: “Damn fool, why didn’t we insist she take those tablets! She wouldn’t do anything drastic would she?”
“She’s been so unlike herself we can’t be sure,” Verity replied.
Unlike myself? How?
True, my usual self had never been pregnant and possibly it had been rather concealed as I attempted to fit in. There had been no incentive to stand out till now.
Verity had shown little interest in what felt changed because her gaze, like Pete’s, was on the “necessary treatment” – two pairs of fixed eyes I didn’t want near. There seemed no mediating our separate visions.
It was Dan who found me.
“Please, please leave me with it,” apparently I whispered.
Surprised for a moment into inaction, Dan sat beside me.
The only moment of tenderness.
“You mean you want to keep it? But you can’t expect Pete to marry you and he’ll be blamed anyway if you don’t have the…the, you know.”
As Dan looked away from my face, he noticed thick blood, sticky now over thighs. There was a lot of it and he yelled. Unlike the other two he knew farming and must have seen far worse mess.
Wanting me washed and in the car on the way to the nearest A&E briefly eradicated Pete’s anger at my having bothered him with this even longer retreat into solitude.
Urgency to resist brought ferocious strength.
Impossible to say where the dead creature might be in all that blood but it was not going to be simply wiped out of existence so soon! It was mine to mourn and there was no danger, now, to it or me.
I fought to be left just another hour – that isn’t much to give a life.
While there felt strong need for this, nothing else was of interest, so I failed to smell danger as they convinced themselves I was at risk.
Risk of what?
Pete shouted again about sedation as if those pills were the main issue.
Verity took him aside and then he vanished. I think he went ahead to sort out “help” but the sequence is confused.
Years later it became almost possible to accept that not one of them could tolerate the turmoil of the pregnancy and its end, yet longing continued on and on, that there might have been a friend capable of a patient response.
And why did it not occur to me to immediately call my parents, who would have been outraged at the idea of my being handed me over to some unknown outsider?
My instinctive dislike and distrust of the second doctor failed to dent his confidence that he was the one to know what was good for me. He had authority to sort distress.
For that he had no need to attempt understanding what I made of my friends’ agitation over my behaviour.
Apparently pills were sufficient for my “reactive episode which has a good prognosis.”
Now, it’s obvious that there was a way out, even though my parents were on another island and busy.
But I had to be ready to face them with a truth I could not quite square up to myself.
Had I given tacit permission for the student doctor to try and scrape away the baby?
Had I let Pete’s solution stand uncontested by not making my indecision clear?
To ring home and admit I got pregnant, was with a lover rather than Verity’s mother, had maybe colluded with a successful abortion attempt and, after the miscarriage, was considered unhinged by friends, was more than I could manage.
They would have rescued me; you kept trouble inside the family and never turned to doctors for the moral or emotional. But in our life of farm and church, with father a warden and mother a stalwart of the choir, sex before marriage was not on and abortion unthinkable, as well as illegal. In my year away I believed I had already put myself too far outside the life I’d known.
The doctor, easily convinced of my being “disturbed” rather than just disturbing, put down his ultimatum. Either I stay as his patient, till he announced me recovered, or he would have me sectioned and ring my parents.
I saw no choice and recognised my angry arguing only convinced him I was overwrought.
For two days medication was kept in the cheek and spat out soon after, until that was discovered.
Then defeat was total.
The others went off to return the car.
My trajectory became working out how to please and demonstrate rapid “recovery” so the doctor felt satisfied with his treatment and accurate prognosis.
Then, how to explain my lack of fruit picking earnings at home?
But was able to make up the shortfall during term, tutoring some hapless, miserable child, failing at school. I rarely got a grin from him, even with some effort, but my own smile had grown weak.
During that second year of university Pete didn’t feel he should simply “run away” although sex was over, and Verity hovered as if I was some invalid requiring her attention, so only in my final year did I manage to edge away from those three.
In later years Dan and I met abroad but didn’t speak of that interlude. However, when he came to us for supper and mentioned still being mates with Pete, that crystallised a nugget of rage – his presence near my children and husband infuriated me. Unfairly, I could see, yet it felt he’d brought in contamination with Pete’s name.
Perhaps I’d failed to move far enough from fear of being overridden. Or was it that my inability to obliterate their view of me had left particles of doubt, slipping into the blood, circulating shame, streaming through the heart to small veins?
After all they were three and the doctor had agreed. What if something of me was faulty?
I might have moved far from back then, back there, but took something seared into me. My reaction made sense to me then and continued to do so but…
And later, in my marriage, I again got pregnant whilst on the pill. That conception, a decade after her brothers, is now twelve.
It hardly seemed a good start to meeting if Verity’s letter stirred much agitation.
Unlike Dan she was a talker and bound to discuss that time, though would she mention her love affair with Pete in our second year?
From her regular Christmas cards it was obvious she remained confident she was “an understanding person”, so might it just be a threat she could not hear if I attempted to tell her how, as a friend to me, she failed?
She wrote that, with her twin daughters who seemed to excel at everything now off to University, we could enjoy catching up.
Had she any idea what her request set off? Not that she deserved all my anger, even so did I want those once critical eyes staying in my home?
And then there was a dream.
On going into a public toilet a girl came at me, her small hand groping for my sex.
Instantly and surprisingly a retort was at hand: “don’t think you can blackmail claiming I initiated this, I caught you on camera!”
She vanished and soon I was explaining to others that I’d recently heard of someone who had been trapped by such a scam: as a trainee barrister she felt certain that, even if it came to trial and she won, her reputation would be as hopelessly tarnished as if it became known she’d paid off blackmail.
Such an account was cover for my instinctive move – a story which hid the fact that the threat I fought might have come only from myself – after all the girl had no chance to speak her intentions.