The Spare Room by Safiya Cherfi

cw: infertility

She’d gone to the toilet straight after the procedure, and now, in the car on their way home, this was worrying her. The nurse said it was fine. The official information online said the same. In the leaflets there was no mention of going to the toilet afterwards, that’s how insignificant it was deemed. The forums, however, were another matter.

She was told to attend the frozen embryo transfer with a reasonably full bladder. She had to guess what was reasonably full, too full or not full enough. The bladder had to be full to put pressure on her uterus and enable the consultant to get the clearest view on the ultrasound during the procedure.

Of course, after the half hour drive to the clinic and the fifteen-minute wait, she was bursting for the toilet. But she couldn’t go now and leave her bladder empty with no time to fill it up again before the procedure. So she held it in while her husband held her hand. The pressure was teetering past discomfort into pain, but at least it was distracting her from the nerves.

She was reciting the best supplication she knew, the one from the Qur’an that Prophet Zakaria made, asking for good offspring. She reminded her husband to do the same. She felt that familiar tug of guilt that sidled up to her when she was at her most pious, because that also happened to be when she was most in need – or in want. She had never wanted anything more than this. Her prayers weren’t quite so heartfelt when she didn’t want for anything. But this time, if she got what she wanted, she would spend every second in gratitude. Never would she bemoan a sleepless night or a cranky baby. Even as she made this promise, she knew it was empty. She knew she would forget, she would get complacent and it would take another moment of need for her to be pulled into this level of spirituality again.

Her name was called. When the formalities were over and she was prepped for the procedure, she lay back, knees in the air, feet pressed against her bum. She and her husband both had their eyes fixed on the ultrasound screen. The consultant reassured them that they would see the embryo – a burst of a white dot – as it was catapulted into her womb by the consultant’s device. They gasped in delight and looked at each other dewy eyed when they saw it. Still it for the moment. The embryo. Their perfect little embryo.

All done. She dared not move, but the nurse was motioning for her to get down. Everything she knew about gravity told her she should be lying on her back with her legs in the air. But she had been conditioned to obey healthcare professionals, so she slid down as asked. A little dazed. Something monumental had happened. The weight of the moment had temporarily taken away from the weight on her bladder, but the dull insistence made itself felt again.

‘How long should I wait until I go to the toilet?’ she asked the nurse, because you could never check too many times. You could never be too careful, especially not with this.

‘Oh no, it’s fine, you can go straight away. Don’t worry, it’s a different hole,’ the nurse replied with an amused smile.

Well, she knew that for god’s sake – her concern was gravity! But her bladder had heard the nurse too, so now that it knew she could go, it was impossible to wait. She glanced at her husband and he nodded, reassuring her that she should listen to the nurse. So she went to the toilet, feeling the gradual relief as her bladder emptied.

Now they were driving home and already she was on those capricious forums; sometimes a place of comfort, but at any moment she could read something that would inflame her worst fears, her despair. “Babymamaoffive” said she’d gone to the toilet straight after every single one of her embryo transfers and they were all successful. Okay, good. “Capricorn88” had gone to the toilet straight after hers and it wasn’t successful. One-all. She scrolled on. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason. No correlation. That was good. So when she asked herself if she had blown their chances, before it even had a chance to become a chance, she told herself: No, don’t be ridiculous.

They were mostly silent on their way home, but the air was buzzing with electricity. With hope. They relived the moment they saw their little embryo. Neither of them dared to voice too much hope, though; that would be dangerous. That would be opening the door for too much pain if it didn’t succeed this time.

Normally, after an appointment at the clinic, they would drive into the town centre and get something to eat. The appointments were always in the morning and her husband would take the day off, working an extra day later in the week to make it up. So they’d go into town and have lunch, it became a routine. It was a little distraction for them. She remembered the worst appointment, the time they had been told there were no sperm. It turned out, after her husband had further tests and a surgery, that there were sperm (thank god for that), but no tubes to carry the sperm where they needed to go. But before they knew all that, they were looking over the edge of an abyss. The abyss in which it was impossible for them to have children of their own. Not unlikely, not difficult, not very slim chances, but impossible.

Even after that appointment, they still went into town for something to eat. It was as though if they didn’t, they would be admitting defeat. Or they’d be facing the silence. If they had gone straight home, she would have been able to cry openly, all day. She was glad they went into town. They browsed the shops afterwards too. True, they weren’t really there, either of them, but it was a distraction. Every now and then her husband would ask her, ‘Do you think it will be okay? Do you think it will happen for us?’

And she would have to reply, ‘I do, I really do. Insha’Allah, it will happen for us.’

The next day the roles reversed and whichever one was faltering at the time, the other would be strong for them. It was how they got through that period.

When the embryologist had said ‘no sperm’, it had been one of those surreal moments. It felt bizarre how a few words could shatter everything. She willed the woman to take the words back into her mouth and say something else, even if it wasn’t true. It was one of the only moments in her life that rendered her completely speechless. She was generally quiet, only talkative with those she really liked, but those moments of quiet were out of choice. This had been out of total shock. She didn’t cry and this surprised her. The tears were at the back of her eyes, clutching at her throat, but because she was completely still, utterly silent, she managed to hold them in. She didn’t want to cry in front of the embryologist. If she started crying there and then, she didn’t know how she would stop. And, at that moment, her husband needed her.

They’d gone into town after the no sperm appointment, walking hand in hand in their shared grief. Grief for the loss of something they had never had, but grief nonetheless. They were headed towards their favourite chicken shop and she glanced at the people who passed them, wondering if their pain was obvious to these strangers. She’d caught one man’s eye, and he gave her the look. The look that said so much yet translated into a single word: unwelcome. She was taken aback. Her usual approach was to look back until the person turned away, sometimes in annoyance, sometimes with the decency to look ashamed. She tried not to get bothered by these looks, but that day, after the no sperm appointment, the look was a finger pressing hard on an open wound.

It was painful and it was grounding. No matter what was going on in her life, what tragedy might befall her, she could still walk down the street and be given the look because of her hijab. She wondered, if this man knew what they were going through, would he still look at her like that? A worse thought: Maybe he would be glad. What was one Muslim couple that might not be able to conceive to him? A good thing, probably.

She shook the memory away. If this worked, if she got pregnant, she would rub her belly with glee at people like that. Yep, one more of us coming into the world, what of it?

They arrived home after the embryo transfer and her husband opened the car door for her. She was transporting precious cargo now. It was this delicate state that meant for once, they were breaking the routine and going straight home from the clinic. And even though she’d been to the toilet – so gravity would already have done what it was going to do – she still rested on the sofa with her legs over the back. She’d walked straight past the spare room and resisted the urge to open the door and stand in the doorway, to ponder and hope about what the room could become.

Ever since they’d moved to this flat, they had been trying for a baby. As long as they’d lived here, the spare room was earmarked for the baby. Even after they’d been trying for over a year and after they’d gone to the clinic and found out about their infertility. All those months it sat unused, with odd bits and bobs thrown in. The spare wardrobe that her husband’s friend had given them and they’d happily accepted, thinking it would be great storage for baby paraphernalia. In the meantime, they couldn’t create another purpose for the spare room only to have to change it – they hoped. She usually kept the door shut and only ventured inside the room to hoover and dust. She could barely tolerate that. It was a colossal reminder of all that could be and all that wasn’t. The thing that scared her most was that one day they might actually create another purpose for the room.

Eight days after the embryo transfer, she woke up early in the morning and went to the toilet. After cleaning with water, she wiped to dry and found a speck of blood. Spotting. The word that created a frenzy in the forums. Sometimes it was good, a sign of implantation, but sometimes it was cause for concern. The window for implantation, when the little embryo would attach itself to the lining of the womb, was three to five days after the transfer. It had been eight days.

She didn’t tell her husband. She didn’t want to duplicate the worry. It might be nothing. It might in fact be their little embryo implanting itself. In the meantime, she would wait and see, but most of all she would pray. She knew she wouldn’t go on the forums that day, querying about the “window”, or about the signs of implantation. The forums only sucked her in until she felt desolate. No forums today.

She’d have to wait another week before she could do a pregnancy test and be assured of an accurate result. But she dared to hope. Those days in between the embryo transfer and the pregnancy test were agony. Stuck between imagining their dreams come true and their hopes being destroyed. She would sit down and speak to her belly.

‘Come on, my strong, little embryo,’ she would say. ‘You can do it. Hold on to me. Put your roots down and hold on. I’ll be your home, for nine months and forever. I’ll look after you the best I can, I promise.’

She repeated her speech several times a day, imagining their little embryo burrowing itself into the lining of her womb.

Just over two weeks after the embryo transfer, she was holding in her morning wee. She would do a pregnancy test today. Her husband was waiting for her to go to the toilet with an excited impatience. He boiled the kettle for their tea while she went into the bathroom. When she was done, she came out holding the stick. The result would take a few minutes. They’d bought the fancy, digital one that was even more accurate and showed you the word rather than a line or cross, so there could be no misunderstanding.

She couldn’t look. She stood there shivering with nerves. Her husband was watching in anticipation. She would rather leave it for five, or even ten, minutes because to prolong the uncertainty was to prolong the hope of their dream coming true. If it was negative, then those five or ten minutes of uncertainty, and therefore hope, she would never get back.

‘Pregnant!’ her husband cried out, pulling her into him, crushing her in his arms.

‘What? Let me see!’

It was true. She read the result: pregnant.

‘Careful,’ she said, pulling back so her husband loosened his hold. ‘The baby.’

He laughed and kissed the tear that was rolling down her cheek.

Their little embryo had held on. It had overcome the first obstacle of its life; she felt like a proud parent already. Later that day, she opened the door to the spare room and leant against the door frame with a smile.

About The Author

Safiya is a writer based in Scotland. She is a book reviewer focusing on BIPoC authors and translated literature. She writes short stories, published in Sundial Magazine and forthcoming in Gutter. One of her novel manuscripts was long-listed for the 2021 Laxfield Literary Launch Prize. She is one of the founding editors of Overtly Lit, an online literary magazine where faith meets art.

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1 reply »

  1. this was incredibly written! i was hooked every step of the way eager to find out how things would end and was pleasantly surprised at how things DID end ♥️

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