What had Clive called it? Oh yes, her ‘liberty of conscience.’ Clive could be an absolute shit when he put his mind to it and Elizabeth couldn’t help but admire that about him. His foot had come down at breakfast, you see. He’d very kindly foisted his opinion on the matter, his ignorance of all things having long since been awarded the same weight as fact.
Every opinion, every accusation they’d volleyed back and forth since breakfast now hung heavy in the air. Elizabeth, arms folded, dutiful mouth shut, watched Clive retrieve his briefcase from beside that godawful umbrella stand he’d paid over the odds for at Bonham’s for their nth wedding anniversary. Without another word, Clive heaved their front door open to the sound of cars passing in the slush and vanished like a man leaving one final time. The matter, as with the large door of their exquisite townhouse, was then closed.
Elizabeth wondered, had he slammed the door? Theirs was a heavy door, large and thick and secure. Slamming such a door was a gesture difficult to carry off, certainly for a man as slight as Clive. Slight in body and soul, Elizabeth caught herself admitting while her heart settled to a more manageable rhythm.
She made her way across the chequerboard hallway like some wayward chess queen, and into the kitchen for her third cup of peppermint tea. A third cup so early in the day was no doubt ostentatious, but their weekend had been one of indulgence, had it not? Bruce and Laurie Carver had come over for dinner on Saturday to help celebrate. After all, the whole thing had been their idea in the first place.
‘You’ll need to cut down on that from now on,’ Laurie Carver had proclaimed when Elizabeth moved from gin to wine, speaking in that louche tone of hers.
‘In vino veritas!’ Bruce quipped, two glasses ahead of everyone.
‘Only until you get on top of things, mind,’ Laurie added, ignoring Bruce. ‘Babies are somewhat unsympathetic when it comes to hangovers.’
‘I know what I’m doing.’
Elizabeth hadn’t meant it to come out that way; laced with bitterness. Christ, the last person she had a gripe with was Laurie Carver.
Of their three referees, Laurie had been the most effusive, so much so that Clive had worried she’d queer the pitch. Then there were those social workers, the police check – not that they’d worried. Then the assessments; most probing. She appreciated they had to be seen to be thorough but, really, who were they to judge? Yet it was the Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis that had been the real cause for concern.
Peppermint steam rose languidly. Elizabeth turned off the kitchen lights and memories of Saturday capitulated to the shadows. At the foot of the staircase the jade haze of the Tiffany table lamp just about kept the morning gloom at bay as Elizabeth made the trek up the stairs, up and up to the top of the house. Both hands clasped the warming mug of tea, careful not to spill any on the Moroccan cream runner.
Before she knew it, she found herself in the doorway of the smallest room in the house. The damned floorboard still creaked. She rocked back and forth upon it while admiring the decor they’d paid through the nose for. The walls’ cornflour blue sky and marshmallow clouds served to emphasise the ashen pallor of the world outside the pitched window. She noticed that the window was open and outside it was beginning to sleet once again. Clive had opened the window the previous Thursday due to the paint fumes and had forgotten all about it, as was his way. Nonetheless, the breeze was pleasant, the room fresh and cold, the restlessness of the street below a muted echo. It would be a fine nursery, Elizabeth thought.
‘Today’s the day!’
Clive’s ebullient words had lingered in her mind all morning. Festered. It wasn’t the big day, that was still an entire month from now, but it was the day her hopes and dreams were to be confirmed in writing. Any minute now, according to the app.
Elizabeth had lost count of the number of times she’d refreshed that damned app, refreshing her future along with it. She’d tracked her order across the entire country since dispatch an entire week ago. The weekend had been intolerable. Her hopes and dreams had languished at that sorting office since Friday afternoon, but would they let her come and collect it? ‘It’s mine!’ she’d screamed down the phone. ‘It belongs to me. How dare you!’ Nothing they could do, apparently. Closed for the weekend and no amount of, ‘I understand your frustration, Madam,’ could put her at ease.
It had been dispatched one final time at 6:04 that morning and, frankly, how much longer could it possibly take? It needed signed for, of course, but even had it not, she still would have taken the day off. Clive hadn’t felt the need, mind. Said she could just call him once it arrived.
Besides, Clive would no doubt be in touch soon anyway. Both knew fine well he owed her an apology and that he would only offer one from a safe distance. Disembodied contrition, Elizabeth called it. Preferably by text.
The silent serenade of sleet upon the window roused Elizabeth. Some found its way inside and she watched as flecks fell upon the small chest of drawers. Clive said sleet was snow that melted to rain while passing through a layer of warm air before re-freezing again in the colder air near the ground. Altered states had always held a curious fascination for Clive.
On the chest of drawers, the sleet melted back to water. With rehearsed nonchalance, Elizabeth placed her mug down on the changing table and pulled the window closed, turning the handle until she heard that satisfying squelch of compressed insulation.
How she looked forward to spending more time in this particular part of the house. It was so peaceful and removed and she would soon no longer need to make excuses for spending time there. She smiled at the prospect and caught herself sighing a heavy sigh. Mother had always told her it was rude to sigh, but she couldn’t help it. Her lungs needed the air.
Thoughts of Mother were interrupted by the glissando trill of the doorbell.
‘This is it,’ Elizabeth sighed, the floorboard creaking as she passed over. ‘This is it.’
She hurried down the three flights of stairs, which seemed steeper than ever before. The chimes sounded a second time as she reached the hallway, the words, ‘I’m coming!’ a silent scream within. She smoothed herself down in the vestibule and corrected her posture before heaving at the door.
‘Morning, Madam,’ came the thickly accented voice.
Elizabeth shivered as the frigid air took a bite out of her and she stared fixedly at the package, struck by how small it was. It reminded her of Aunt Julia’s ashes she’d collected from the undertaker, in that plain grey… well, let’s be honest – shoebox. C’est la vie, Elizabeth had thought then as now. Yet the box before her was wrapped in brown paper and was stamped with the word FRAGILE. Aunt Julia’s hadn’t had that.
The hand that proffered the package was shivering. ‘Congratulations,’ said the voice, muffled and deep behind a thick woollen scarf.
The insolence, thought Elizabeth. What was the world coming to?
She took possession of the box with both hands. It was heavier than expected.
‘If you could just sign here, Madam,’ said the voice, any familiarity of tone having evaporated.
Gingerly, Elizabeth tucked the box between elbow and ribs, before taking the tiny plastic stylus to scribble illegibly on the equally small screen.
‘Thank you, Madam. And may you have a–’
Elizabeth closed the door with her foot and stood rooted in the chill of the vestibule, holding the package in both hands once more. The brown paper rustled beneath her fingertips, her grip tightening. She would open it now, she decided; and only once she had would she inform Clive.
A good ten minutes slipped by as Elizabeth perched on a burnt orange leather stool at the breakfast bar, the package beside Clive’s abandoned coffee. She delicately cut away the brown paper until it made good on its promise: a wooden box. Oak, Elizabeth concluded as she passed her hands over its contours. Carved upon the lid was The Clinic’s triquetra logo, and Elizabeth indulged her fingers, caressing the interlaced arcs. Hinged at the rear, the front side of the box featured a decorative brass buckle latch in the shape of a butterfly. Elizabeth took a breath as she snapped it open and raised the lid.
There was a cream envelope, CONGRATULATIONS embossed in an ornate font across it. She lifted it from its bed of yellow tissue paper and turned it over in her hands. At the back was a red wax seal embossed with the triquetra, which she slid a finger beneath with ease. She extracted the sheets of immaculately folded cream paper. The first was the letter; the congratulations, the confirmation, the necessaries. The other was the Certificate of Care, which she set aside.
Her eyes raced over the letter faster than her brain could register, looking for any word that might jump out at her. Male. ‘Well, Clive,’ she muttered. ‘Looks as if you’re going to get your son.’ Not that there had been any real doubt, she conceded. Not after all the money they’d paid. She returned to the beginning of the letter and took her time, taking in every word, every punctuation mark, every space in between. Her world had indeed changed forever by the time she’d finished reading. She’d known it would have, yet the contents of the letter had gifted her more than promised and paid for.
She plucked out the yellow tissue paper, revealing a commemorative sliver loop spoon of Georgian design. She didn’t wish to remove it in fear that it might become just another spoon for Clive to stir his coffee with, but she checked the hallmark and saw that beneath the spoon, beneath another layer of tissue, was the Life Instruction Manual. Leather bound, of course. They’d paid for the deluxe package.
Elisabeth allowed herself a smile, the muscles of her face almost going into spasm. Yes, there would need to be sacrifices made, as for any child, but sitting alone in her dream kitchen, the baby some months away, Elizabeth felt more than capable.
She snapped her fingers.
‘What time is it?’ she enquired flatly.
‘The time is eight forty-eight a.m.,’ the house replied.
Twelve minutes. She’d give him the twelve minutes to reach the office.
From the drawing room window, she looked through passers-by, at the townhouses opposite. The sleet had become snow and it fell heavy and silent. Theirs was a fine neighbourhood, central yet respectable. Elizabeth’s long-overdue promotion to the board of directors – a box-ticking exercise, she suspected – had elevated them into a neighbourhood no self-respecting socialist could ever afford. It was a neighbourhood where one could step out without being ashamed of their superior standing. The perfect place to raise a child.
The peppermint tea had gone right through her., It was now 9 o’clock and time for her second glass of water. One had to drink at least eight glasses per day to remain adequately hydrated, but right now she just couldn’t face it. Instead, she tipped the water in a steady stream onto the withered philodendron that lived on the sill by the piano, careful not to disrupt the soil. Whenever the water threatened to carry the soil over the side, she relented, watching it dissipate before pouring again. She snapped her fingers.
‘Call Clive Work,’ she said flatly, placing the empty glass down and watching the last of the water soak into the earth.
‘Calling Clive Work,’ the house responded.
The sound of Clive’s phone ringing resonated throughout the house. Elizabeth could just picture him at his desk, only just getting himself comfortable, considering the phone before answering it. She wondered if his steadfast weakness would get the better of him. Would he pretend to be busy? She counted seven rings before the obsolescence that was her husband relented.
‘I was just about to text you.’ That irritated tone of his then gave way to optimism. ‘Has it arrived already?’
Elizabeth gazed through the window. ‘You’re having a son,’ she told him matter-of-factly. ‘Congratulations.’
There was a distinct hesitation.
Then Clive’s said, ‘I knew it! Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I tell you?!’
Bless him, she thought. Clive’s excited. How excited Clive can get when he puts his mind to it.
‘Yes,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Yes, I believe you did tell me.’
‘You alright? You don’t sound alright.’
‘Just taking it all in.’
Clive sighed. It wasn’t a heavy sigh, but Elizabeth noted it all the same. ‘I can apologise if it helps.’
‘Water under the bridge.’
‘Good girl. So what’s what? Tell me everything.’
Elizabeth turned to face the room. ‘Well,’ she said brightly, shaking off her resentments. ‘We have a new spoon.’
‘A silver one,’ she added. ‘Not to mention the coveted Life Instruction Manual.’
Elizabeth shifted on her soles, ‘You’re not coming home?’
‘Of course, but I can’t wait that long. Please, dear.’
Elizabeth approached picked up the letter. ‘Well, let’s see. Ethnicity: White British.’
‘Naturally,’ Clive scoffed, static crackling, an almost tangible intimation of relief in the air.
‘Do bear in mind, dear, some of this is probabilistic. Nothing is certain. DNA–’
‘It’s not Destiny,’ Clive recited. ‘How could I forget that gem. Keep going.’
‘Adult height to be six foot, two inches.’
‘Hair: Black, fading to brown at around three years of age. Thick head of hair from the get-go, apparently. Eyes: Hazel.’
Elizabeth’s finger moved down the letter, ‘Says 111-120.’
‘Is that good?’
‘Of course it is. Remember, they said 80% of intelligence measured by IQ would be inherited anyway.’
‘Then I guess you can take credit for that one, dear. What about orientation?’
Exasperated now, Elizabeth lowered the letter and found herself addressing the ceiling, a habit she’d acquired since the installation of the surround sound. ‘Heterosexual, of course. To make life easier, you said. Remember?’
Clive paused long enough to convey the required condescension. ‘Political orientation, I meant.’
‘Aren’t you more concerned with his health?’ Elizabeth countered.
‘Why, is there a defect?’
Elizabeth drew her gaze back to the letter. ‘Nothing to be concerned about; a negligible iron deficiency – can be countered with supplements and diet. A propensity for acne during adolescence; we’ll make sure he drinks plenty of water.’
‘Character building,’ Clive decreed. ‘Never did me any harm. It’ll expose the shallow people around him. Anyway, orientation.’
Disembodied, thought Elizabeth.
‘Again,’ she said, ‘any political affiliations are probabilistic and must be nurtured. Nevertheless, the prejudicial chemical imbalances we ordered are in place. States here he’ll be radical. In fact, there’s something else included in the package. Something unexpected.’
Elizabeth bowed her head and closed her eyes so that everything could be wonderful for a moment. ‘Of sorts.’
‘The foetus has shown considerable potential.’
‘What sort of potential?’
‘Certain qualities of leadership, should we choose to nurture them. It appears that the genetic sequence they told us about, the rs49… something-or-other genotype, is conspicuous.’
‘You know what this means,’ Clive said low.
‘A cabinet position, at least. Like father, like son.’
‘At least. But this is my son too, Clive. We shouldn’t be so timid. Be ambitious, Clive.’
‘You mean… No. No, I daren’t jinx it.’
Elizabeth opened her eyes and they glistened.
‘It gets better, dear. They also say that the procedure resulted in an unexpected suppression of certain genetic foibles that would otherwise afflict a standard human foetus. A happy accident, they say.’
‘Perhaps DNA is destiny after all.’
‘One mustn’t be complacent, dear.’
‘Of course not.’ Clive sighed. ‘We shall cherish the child. Love it.’
Elizabeth was still smiling, ‘No, Clive. Love is precisely what is not required, not if he is to lead the party. The manual clearly states that genetic traits be complimented by those acquired through learning and a nurturing environment tailored to suit. We must be prepared to nurture through neglect, dear. No compassion, Clive. No empathy. We want him to lead, not follow.’
‘And to think, you were worried parenting would be a purely masochistic enterprise,’ Clive said. ‘Goes without saying this shall entail private education.’
‘Naturally. And, as The Clinic said, we have the added advantage of our mutual enmity to give us a leg up.’
Elizabeth heard what could only be the sound of Clive’s hands clapping together.
‘This calls for a celebration,’ Clive proclaimed. ‘I’ll be home for lunch.’
‘I’ll prepare something special,’ Elizabeth said, clasping her midriff.
‘I hate you too, dear.’
About The Author
As a boy, Ian dreamed of becoming a writer. More specifically, he dreamed of becoming a novelist. Even more specifically, he dreamed of becoming a knovelist with a silent ‘k’. Nevertheless, Ian continues to pursue his dream, writing novels for both adults and children, and has performed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on two occasions so far. He was published alongside Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Shashi Tharoor in the anthology Tales On Tweet, with his flash and short fiction featuring in a variety of print and online publications. Edinburgh is home.
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