Sometimes, when Dave is at the lab and I’m alone in our apartment in the afternoon, I’ll lie on the bed and stare out of the window, with my hand on my bump. I’ll lie very still, waiting to feel the baby move or kick, while I watch cotton-candy clouds stretch and dissipate in an ice-blue sky.
But then I’ll remember the bet that Dave and the other physicists have going at the lab, and I’ll imagine it all blowing up, a silent explosion scattering all kinds of invisible debris and chaos.
And that’s when I start to panic: What if the bedroom has untethered itself from the rest of the apartment and the baby and I are in fact in a detached box floating away to disappear with the clouds?
I don’t mention any of this to Dave as we sit on the sofa, holding our mocktails. This evening he’s added a red glacé cherry to the mix because, really, we have so much to celebrate: a much longed-for baby finally on the way, this spacious apartment in countryside outside of Geneva, and of course Dave’s new research position. We’re very lucky, as he keeps reminding me.
‘Santé,’ he says and we clink glasses.
This has become our evening ritual ever since I crossed the twelve-week mark, a way for Dave to unwind after a long day at the lab. His work there involves collecting data from the machinery that fires beams through the massive, kilometres-long ringed tunnel that runs under the ground, underneath the countryside where we live. The point is to re-create conditions that existed at the beginning of time. If it all goes to plan, the data will reveal the Higgs boson, that sub-atomic particle that’ll explain everything about the nature of the universe. Hence the bet at his lab; either the Higgs boson will show we’re all shuffling off this mortal coil as part of a finely-tuned, grand design, or we’re here by accident, dice rolled by an indifferent universe.
‘And santé to the little fella too,’ Dave says, lowering his glass to my bump.
‘Fella?’ I say.
He pulls me close. ‘Just a hunch.’
It’s Dave’s cue to discuss names but given our history, to me that feels a little like tempting fate so I poke him in the ribs instead. ‘How about your other hunch?’
‘You know. The bet.’
‘Oh that.’ Dave rolls his eyes. It’s just a game to him, a silly office sweepstake, a matter of crunching the data and guessing the odds. But he looks serious now as he swills the juice in his glass and says, ‘Actually, I’m leaning towards the roll of the dice.’
I feel again the spin of the bedroom tumbling through nothingness and loosen his arm from around my shoulder.
Dave looks confused. ‘Hey, what’s the big deal?’
It’s been months since we last spoke about our two early miscarriages, back when we still lived in London. Our two failed rolls of the dice. Surely it would jinx us if I mention them now? So I shrug and say, ‘It’s just the dice thing. It makes everything seem…weird and empty. Like there’s nothing to hold on to.’ We sit in silence for a while as Dave scratches his beard and I stroke my bump.
‘Babe,’ he says, eventually. ‘We have each other. Isn’t that enough to hold on to?’ But all I can think of is the other babies we lost. They didn’t even make it beyond the twelve-week mark. Foetuses, Dave called them. Products of conception, the medics said. My lost babies.
Dave sees the tremble in my hand and places his glass on the coffee table. He rolls up the end of my t-shirt and his breath is warm on the stretched skin of my belly as he whispers, ‘You’re meant to be, fella, you are very much meant to be.’ This is our other evening ritual, our version of a prayer if you like, given neither of us is particularly religious. But as I kiss the back of Dave’s head, I think that perhaps he’s never really meant it. Perhaps this pregnancy is yet another throw of the dice for him.
Two weeks later we’re at the medical centre, with its whitewashed walls, pale linoleum floors and potted plants under fluorescent lighting. It’s a routine check-up and the obstetrician matches his surroundings with his shock of white-grey hair. As he rolls cold gel across my stomach, ghostly shadows flicker on a nearby black screen and suddenly it’s there; the furious galloping of a heart.
Dave presses my hand in his. ‘And?’ he says, smiling. ‘Boy or girl?’
‘One moment, please,’ the obstetrician replies. Minutes pass and we keep squeezing each others’ hands. The doctor’s eyes stay fixed on the screen. ‘How many weeks did you say?’
‘Eighteen,’ Dave and I blurt out in unison. All the while, the little heart goes thump-a-thump-a-thump and the doctor continues to take measurements. When he’s finished, he hands me a large roll of tissue. ‘Please,’ he says, before disappearing behind the curtain. We hear him shuffle about at his desk and when we come through, he’s sitting grim-faced, studying a print-out of the scan.
Back at the apartment, Dave and I echo the words the doctor used: ventricles, choroid plexus, cerebrospinal fluid. We whisper them into the darkness of our bedroom and shiver at their obscene intimacy. Hydrocephalus. We’ve heard of it. We’ve seen documentaries about babies born with water on their brain. And all the time the baby kicks inside me as if she’s saying, ‘I’m here, I’m here, I’m here’ and when I put Dave’s hand on my bump, he recoils as if it’s a burning orb, and buries his face in the pillow.
Hours later, when Dave is finally asleep, I get up to open the curtains. Only a smattering of stars is visible in the night sky. The baby kicks inside me but softly, as if she’s no longer sure, and I want to rage at the cold blackness out there but when I open my mouth no sound comes out. So I stand, gaping, blinking stupidly at the stars instead, and they blink back, as they will do tomorrow and the day after that and for aeons and aeons to come. I think of how they will keep blinking, blind and undisturbed, because we are nothing but cogs in a driverless machine that rolls relentlessly forward and there is only this cosmic void, and us spinning in its infinite emptiness, and Dave and the lab and all the data in the universe will only prove that. Dave will win his bet.
I turn round from the window and watch him sleeping. He’s wearing the T-shirt with the lab’s logo, that damned motif. He stirs, blinks. ‘Babe,’ he says, beckoning me back under the duvet. I shut the curtains and crawl back into bed, hugging my bump. The baby is still and unmoving inside me now. Dave spoons me, his skin pressing into my back, but his hand avoids the curve of my stomach.
In the morning, my cheek is wet against the tear-stained pillow and Dave is sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands.
Our evening rituals are gone. Now when Dave comes home in the evening, he takes a bottle of beer from the fridge, and holes up in the study. This evening he has the laptop open in front of him and when I lean close, I see the screen is filled with data: how many foetuses are affected each year, the likelihood of an impaired life and how impaired it will be, the probability of the baby surviving after birth, of reaching a milestone, any milestone. He prints it all out and hands me the papers, looking glum.
I hand them straight back. ‘The centre called today,’ I say. ‘We need to make a decision.’
‘Don’t you want to see what the data says first?’
‘But babe, we’ve got to weigh all the probabilities.’
‘I don’t want to weigh the probabilities.’
‘But we’ve got to make an informed decision.’
I grab the papers out of his hand and throw them up into the air. ‘The answer isn’t in this data,’ I shout as the papers scatter at our feet. ‘It’s just a decision we have to make and that comes from here.’ I thump my chest.
Dave pinches the bridge of his nose. ‘I can’t’ he says. ‘I can’t decide.’
‘Well, go and roll some dice then.’
He looks at me in disbelief. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘Please,’ I say, crying now. ‘Just say what you used to say; that our baby is meant to be.’
The contractions come unbidden that same night. Alexandra is born in hospital, the tyres of our car still screeching in my head and Dave sobbing in the corner of the operating room. Oh but she is perfect; her head a compact dome, no obvious signs of any deformity, miniature hands and feet. They are butterfly wings in my hand, an intricate lattice of veins beneath translucent skin. Alexandra lives for thirty-four minutes and eight seconds, our baby who was once meant to be. And as they wheel her tiny body away, I rest my hand on my hollow bump and I cannot bear to look at Dave.
It’s been two years now and I’ve flown in from London to visit Alexandra’s grave several times since. We buried her on the banks of Lake Geneva in the shadow of an old chapel. This morning, the air crisp with December frost, I went and planted snowdrops, that flower that blooms mid-winter, seemingly against all odds. Afterwards, I made my way back to the hotel and as I was about to push through its revolving doors, I caught sight of Dave, striding past on the pavement. He’d shaved off his beard but he still had the same old computer bag slung over his shoulder.
‘Dave,’ I called after him. He slowed and turned his head but didn’t smile as he caught sight of me. I walked up to him and we hovered in front of each other before settling into an awkward embrace.
‘You’ve been?’ he said, pointing at my muddy boots.
He hesitated. ‘No.’
‘But…you live so close.’
He shifted on his feet and clenched his jaw. ‘Like I always said Jeanie, everyone grieves in their own way.’
I nodded. I hadn’t meant it as an accusation. ‘Of course. I’m sorry for the things I said. For blaming you.’
He pulled the zip of his jacket up to his chin. ‘It wasn’t anyone’s fault. We were…we were unlucky, that’s all.’
‘Maybe. Or maybe we didn’t really believe in our baby.’ There it was again, that same old disappointment in my voice.
Dave shook his head and looked away. ‘It was never about belief, Jeanie. Not for me. You know that.’ We hovered some more, unsure how to part and unwilling to rake up old arguments. Then he adjusted the strap of the laptop bag on his shoulder, exposing the lab’s distinctive logo and that’s when I remembered. ‘Congratulations, by the way,’ I said.
He frowned. ‘For what?’
‘The Higgs boson. I read you found it.’
‘Not me, Jeanie. The lab.’
‘Of course, the lab. And?’ I said, expectantly.
‘There was that bet. The one about a grand design or the roll of the dice. Who won?’
‘No-one,’ he said, his eyes darting over my face. ‘The data was inconclusive.’
He turned to go, shaking his head and I watched him walk away. His gait was different, a new weight in his step, and I felt a familiar ache in my chest, the same ache I’d felt over a year ago when I’d closed the door of our Geneva apartment behind me for the last time. Then I thought about the lab’s inconclusive bet, the re-assuring mystery of it, and I noticed people near me stopping to look up.
A huge flock of birds was swooping and diving in unison above us, seamlessly morphing from one shape into another – a twisting scarf, a funnel, an undulating, giant ‘O’ – as if an invisible hand was sketching in the sky. I held my breath in wonder and wished, my first real wish since Alexandra. I wished the flock would spell out her initial, spell out something, anything, a sign of all the babies Dave and I lost, and that it would be there for Dave to see too, just as he turned the corner at the end of the street. But seconds later, as quickly as the flock had appeared, it dispersed and was gone.
Manuela Saragosa is as a BBC journalist and former correspondent for the Financial Times. She lives in London. In 2016, she was shortlisted in a short story competition run by The Guardian/Hodder & Stoughton and later published in an anthology prefaced by the best-selling author Stephen King. Follow her on Twitter here.