Saturday 19 June 2021

The Short Straw

 by Avery Mathers

layered latte

The petite brunette sitting next to me at the presentation shreds paper tissues, one after another. Now and then, she gathers the fragments from her lap and drops them into her bag. I reach across and briefly touch her hand. She doesn’t look at me, but she stops shredding; a flush of embarrassment rises up my face and I turn away.

As the lights go down and the presenter approaches the lectern, we fifty-or-so women in the audience shuffle in expectation but forego the usual polite applause. The projection screen behind her reads: Embryo Implantation – a User’s Guide. If that’s supposed to be funny, no one’s laughing.

The technicalities are gory, but what alarms me is that there’s less than half a chance the procedure will work, assuming that I’m lucky enough to get embryos in the first place. As a thirty-something a string of short-stay partners, I’ve been putting off thinking about children, but ever since I was told I can’t have any, they’re almost all I think about.

An hour later, the presenter closes her notes and the audience squeezes out a smattering of applause. My head’s spinning and my heart’s thumping and there’s a pressure building up inside me to do something, but I don’t know what. I wait until my frustration fizzles out before I stand. People are putting on their coats and beginning to file towards the doors, but the tissue-shredder hasn’t moved. Her eyes are unfocused and I think she may be about to cry. My coat’s trapped under a leg of her chair. I tug at it vainly.

I say, ‘Excuse me. Could I just rescue my coat?’

She replies, ‘There’s a wine bar across the street.’


Over our second Merlot, Jane confesses she has ‘gay ears’. She hadn’t heard what I said in the presentation hall, because of all the scraping of chairs as people prepared to leave, but she’d assumed I was trying to pick her up. That would have been fine by her; for an hour or two, sex would have filled the child-shaped hole in her life. Although I’m not gay, by the time we leave the bar, hours later, we’re sisters-in-arms and we’ve sworn some sort of drunken blood-oath that we’ll get through this treatment together. I haven’t felt this close to anyone since my real sister died.




The nurse is asking if I ‘want to see the baby’. I’m still groggy from the anaesthetic and I’ve had more scans over the past few weeks than I can bear, so I say no. ‘I can bring him to you,’ she says. Oh shit. She doesn't mean a scan of Finlay, who’s still safely tucked in my belly, she means actually see Alastair, the dead twin they’ve just ripped out of me. Is this woman insane? Why would I want to see that? She looks up, nods me a weak smile and pats my hand before she walks away. I begin to wail.

I’m all cried out by the time they let Jane in to see me. She rushes over to my bed and we hold each other tight. From somewhere, I find more tears. Jane rubs my back and shushes me like a baby. When I’ve stopped snivelling, she says, ‘How’s Finlay?’ Typical Jane: focus on the positive.

The question brings me back to some kind of normal. ‘Fine,’ I say. ‘No problems. It was all about Alastair. How are Thomas and Emma?’ It’s the knee-jerk polite question. Is it weird we both decided to name our embryos as soon as they were implanted?

She laughs. ‘They’re fine too. No problems.’

Jane drives me home, puts me to bed and sleeps on my tatty sofa. When I get up to pee in the night, I hear her crying, quietly. I suppose she’s crying for my distress. The next day, she’s her cheery self and she helps me paint my nursery in sunshine yellow, though it’ll be another six weeks before Finlay’s safely in the cot. Life goes on.




The doctor tries again. ‘Yes, we would have asked for your consent. However, you were unconscious and the hysterectomy was essential to save your life. There and then. Do you understand?’ I pretend not to hear him; I’m pretending this isn’t happening at all. Jane was supposed to be my birthing partner but she didn’t come. I know it wasn’t her fault, and I know my anger is unfair, yet I’ve also convinced myself that if Jane had been there I would be holding Finlay now. I picture him lying on a naked steel table and I feel nauseous. Do they do post mortems on babies? Surely not. I’m about to ask, but what comes out of my mouth is, ‘Where’s Jane?’

‘Your friend’s still in the delivery room. Don’t worry, she’s fine and so are her babies.’ Unbelievably, he chuckles. ‘I believe you were meant to be each other’s birthing partners. Funny how things work out, isn’t it?’

Funny? I fucking hate him.

‘Anyway,’ he says, ‘we need to be sure that you understand about the hysterectomy.’

I want him to go away, so I give him what he wants. ‘Alastair’s dead, Finlay’s dead, and I won’t be having any more babies – ever.’

‘Precisely,’ he says, and at last he goes.

When Jane comes to see me, I turn to the wall and don’t say a word. After she’s gone, I discharge myself against medical advice.




I’m all stretched out somehow. My head spirals up until I can’t follow my own thoughts, and my life spirals down as I leave my job, stop paying my rent, and renew my acquaintance with merlot. Kind people tap at my door, plead at my door, and finally hammer on it and don’t come back. Not Jane; she only stops when I pin up a notice saying: Fuck Off Jane. I drop my phone into the toilet pan, but it won’t flush away.

I take to speaking to the flat wooden animals which hang on the mobile above Finlay’s empty cot. I’m glad Finlay can’t join us; I’m angrier with him than with anyone, even Jane. Elephant, Giraffe, Turtle, Sheep and Fox mock me as pathetic, weak and ineffectual. Bear and I get along great; Bear doesn’t take any crap, but he doesn’t dish it out either. I hang him from the light-fitting above my sofa and lock Finlay’s room for good.

For a couple of months, I read books, watch TV, fume about the drug dealers downstairs, and vent at Bear. He keeps pushing me for something more. More what? I ask myself. Myself doesn’t answer. Bear makes all my decisions now.




I find a fat envelope that’s been pushed through my letterbox. Inside is a thousand pounds in crisp fifties. It doesn’t take a genius to realise it’s been delivered to the wrong flat. I give Bear a spin. He’s only painted on one side: bear-side is yes, blank-side is no. He says he doesn’t give a shit about the pussies downstairs. Pay off your rent and tell McCormack where to stick his eviction notice. Buy wine – lots of it. And you need milk.

Then I find a note in the envelope: I thought this might help with your rent. Sorry – Jane. Sorry for what? What needs a thousand pounds’ worth of sorry? Bad embryos, that’s what. Good ones for the rich girls, and bad ones for the rest of us.

I use the money to buy an ancient camper van and I park it where I can watch Jane’s house. It calms me to see her come and go with our babies. Watching turns out to be a full-time job, so I abandon my flat, and Bear and I live in the van. I take some timber from a skip and think about how I could make a crib for Thomas.

Jane’s maternity leave must be finished. Early on workdays, an older woman comes to her house. She looks like an older Jane, and I assume she’s Jane’s mother. After Jane leaves in her business suit and Jaguar, her mother takes the babies to the park in their push-chair, and sits on a bench by the play area. I imagine she’s looking forward to watching them on the slides and swings when they’re old enough.

After a few weeks, I buy a push-chair of my own, with a rain cover. When I arrive at the park, no one will see that there isn’t a baby in it. When I leave, no one will see that there is.

I park my push-chair and sit on the bench beside Jane’s mother. And there are the twins; right in front of me. Like Jane, her mother is friendly and chatty. Her name is Beatrice and I’m surprised Jane never introduced us. Beatrice obviously doesn’t know who I am. I tell her my baby is asleep. She doesn’t sense the deceit in me, nor does she mind when I fuss over Thomas and Emma and stroke their hair. They’re both smilers. I think Emma has my cheekbones. The following week, Beatrice lets me pick them up for a cuddle, and my resolve crumbles; I can’t do it to Beatrice. But can I stomach the alternative?

The following day, I watch as Jane comes out of her house and goes to the Jag. She’s as trim and fresh as ever. She touches the handle and the lights flash as the car unlocks. But then, as she begins to open the door, she turns, looks straight at me, and smiles. I duck below the window, cowering on the bed. What the hell was that? I clutch the blanket under my chin, and erupt in a sudden sweat.




Today’s the day. Bear agrees that it’s time to get on with it.

When I ring the bell, Jane opens her door and flings herself at me. We’re in each other’s arms and I’m crying with relief and her legs are wrapped around my waist and her arms are around my neck and I’m holding her up and she’s laughing and crying at the same time. By some weird freak of automation, I say the words I’ve been rehearsing for hours, even though I don’t need them now.

‘I wondered if I could have one of our babies.’

Jane grins and says, ‘And live in a van? Don’t be silly. This is a huge house.’

About the author

Avery Mathers keeps bees and monitors moths in the Scottish Highlands, but mostly he writes. His flash fiction and short stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, Friday Flash Fiction, 101-Words, 50 Give or Take, Triclops, and others.



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