Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Always and Forever’ by Sian O’Gorman.
Always and Forever
Way back in the mists of time…
It was dusk, the strings of fairy lights hung around the cricket pavilion, the band playing ‘Besame Mucho’, the singing, the slightly drunken dancing, the long black dress I wore trailing behind me, my friends and I drinking rosé on the grass. We had reached the dying-days of college, exams dispensed with; all we wanted was to suspend time. And it was such a beautiful night, the perfect summer’s evening. For a moment, it seemed, the world did stop, and it was as though this feeling of balancing between two worlds would last forever. And it was at this moment, I stood up, gathered my bag, found my shoes and was about to slip away.
‘You’re not leaving, are you Joanna?’ John Beckett was standing in front of me and I was surprised he even knew my name. He was wearing jeans, sandals and a loose shirt, unbuttoned, half-untucked. There was something so gloriously young about him; he had an energy, an excitement, a brilliance that burned brighter than in anyone I had ever met.
‘I’m not… well, I might… I don’t know what to do exactly.’ I was hoping to leave, something to do with not wanting the evening to end in disarray, as it always did once the mojitos and gin and tonics took their effect. ‘I was—’
‘Don’t,’ he said.
The name John Beckett was known to me way before I actually met him. Both of us were at Trinity College, me doing English, him, history. In our third year, he was president of the students’ union and always about, megaphone in hand or ripping sellotape with his teeth to put up another poster on another lamppost. He was an organiser of things, protests, events, concerts, and the life and soul of the college. He had to be, I surmised in my arrogant, youthful way, full of himself.
I always had half an eye on John but had dismissed him, rashly, as not my type. We’d nod to each other but he always had some blonde posh-type hanging off him and I was too busy lusting after inappropriate men with long hair and skinny jeans.
John hung out with the poshos of Trinity, so I sort of assumed he was one, too. You know the type, from one of the rugby-playing schools of South Dublin. Little did I realise that he couldn’t have been more different. John went to a normal school and lived with his Dad, Jack, in a tiny house in Sallynoggin.
‘Don’t leave?’ I said. ‘Why?’
‘Because I’ve never talked to you and I don’t want to miss my final chance to get to know the most intriguing girl on campus.’
He grinned. ‘Yes. You just are.’
I’d never thought of myself as intriguing before. It was something to savour, something to think about. Intriguing. I liked it. I smiled back at him.
‘And beautiful,’ he added.
That was it. Our perfect beginning. The night we found each other and held on tight.
John and I were married five years later, in the Trinity Church, the reception in the cricket pavilion, the same Cuban band playing. Honeymoon in a campervan driving around the south of France.
And then, of course, reality slowly seeped its way into our so-called perfect life. Maybe it’s not good to begin with perfection, because then, surely, the only way is down. Was the turning point when I decided I wanted a child? Was it all my fault?
John found a job at the Irish Times, working evening shifts and weekends. Anything to get started. Meanwhile, I was employed at Declan Connolly PR, a small but exclusive company which gave me great experience but also required huge personal commitment and enthusiasm. Both of which ran out when I decided I wanted a baby. Suddenly, I was fixed with a desire stronger than anything I had ever felt for anything or anyone. My job, which I had once loved, was now far less important than my as-yet unfertilised, unrealised, child. The Blackberry and briefcase were never going to compete with my baby.
But getting pregnant didn’t happen the first year, or the second. By the third I had become rather desperate and, by the fourth, more than slightly crazed. And so our IVF years began. John, being John, was as kind and supportive as he possibly could be. I had gone ahead with it without really consulting him and each time he dutifully turned up at the clinic, before racing back to file his copy.
But even I was slightly scared of the person I was rapidly metamorphosing into, someone single-mindedly determined, ruthless even, all softness replaced by steel. But a baby wasn’t just going to magically appear. Someone had to make it happen. And that someone was me.
At work, I managed to hide my IVF struggle from Decco – my manager – and everyone else, fooling them all into thinking that all I cared about was work. I remember one particular meeting with some potential clients, a start-up for a new cycling-taxi service (slower than walking as it turned out, which was not, I realised, the point). They had a large budget and I was to pitch for the ad campaign, the whole branding of the service.
Fuelled by fertility drugs and gingernuts, crammed into my mouth moments before entering the room, I was ready for them. The presentation was like an out-of-body experience. I felt invincible, suddenly imbued with an energy and a conviction that I knew it all, I was the answer to their prayers. Even Decco noticed. ‘Joanna,’ he said, ‘you were amazing in there.’ He grinned at me. ‘What are you on? Because whatever it is, I want some.’
‘Clomid,’ I said, but he didn’t really know what that was and just laughed and slapped me on the back.
‘You’re on fire,’ he said. ‘Come on, I’ll buy you lunch.’ And I went, because a) I like Decco and b) I couldn’t think of an excuse, when really I was feeling so incredibly nauseous that I thought I would throw up. Watching Decco tuck into his rare steak and posh chips, I strained every fibre of my being to ensure I didn’t vomit into his miniature jug of Béarnaise. And we won the contract; another gust for my Clomid-blown sails.
Nicole, my best friend, was the only person who knew I had ovulation and pregnancy tests in my handbag. The only one who knew the whole truth about my increasing hysteria.
Three failed attempts over five years. And then, God, Allah, Daniel O’Donnell (delete as applicable) be praised, because on my fourth round, just when I was emotionally scraping myself off the ground and trying to imagine a child-free life, I took one more test.
Nicole had called round to see me after work. ‘I think,’ she said, peering at the stick, ‘I think…’ She stopped and spread out the leaflet from the box, examining the diagrams.
‘I think,’ she said, laughing now, ‘I think you might be pregnant!’
We danced around and around the room, both of us crying.
‘Is this really happening, Nic?’ I said, not daring to believe it.
‘I think so,’ said Nicole, grinning at me. ‘You better start taking it easy. Crack open the Dairy Milk and take root on the sofa.’
‘It’s too much to take in.’
Nicole shrugged. ‘You’ll be fine. You always cope. You’ll be amazing.’
She always had so much faith in me. I wish I’d been able to live up to it, but now the stuffing had been well and truly knocked out of me. Where is that woman, that other Jo? Nowhere, that’s where. No wonder John eventually had enough of me.
Our marriage had screeched to a halt a long time ago but it was John who finally called time. I’d stopped bothering with him, focussing entirely on our three year old, Harry, but still sometimes – ever so rarely, but sometimes – I’d get a glimpse of the old John. He might say something funny and I’d feel my mouth want to twitch into a smile, or I might spot him through the window as he cycled into the drive, trousers tucked into his socks, wearing the slight frown he had when he was thinking. We used to be happy but not anymore. ‘I’m going to move in with my Dad for a while. Get some space.’ John’s mouth was dry and I could see him trying to swallow. ‘Just for a bit.’
This particular bombshell was dropped on a Friday evening, the time of year when spring has not yet sprung and the cold and dark has become an unrelenting slog. Irish winters tend to take their toll, in all sorts of ways.
Anyway, I’d just put Harry to bed, clutching his grey rabbit, when I heard the rattle of John’s key at the door. We’d been together for fifteen years by then, both of us older and more careworn than when we had met as students. He was now standing there, just inside the door, looking frozen through, his clothes all bunched underneath his luminous cycling jacket.
‘What do you mean you’re moving in with your Dad?’ My voice was this new one I had developed, which sounded strange and unreal to me. Before everything that happened I always sounded so confident, but these days I wasn’t myself at all. Or rather this was the new me and I just had to get used to feeling like this, permanently petrified that life would deal a new blow.
John had tears in his eyes and I thought, why is he crying? John never cried, never in all the years since I met him and now tears were rolling down his face. He stepped forward and tried to take my hand with his damp, cold one but I flung it away. Please, I thought, not now. Staring at him, I searched his face for clues, trying to work out what he was trying to say. Was he leaving for ever? Was this the end of me and John?
‘It’s just…’ he said. He pushed his hands through his hair. ‘I can’t…’ He still held his helmet. Put it down, I thought. Put it down and stay. But he didn’t. ‘I have to,’ he continued. ‘For my own sanity. I’ve tried. I’ve tried everything. I know it makes me sound like a coward and perhaps I am, but I wish you would understand.’ As he spoke his jacket rustled along, accompanying his words. ‘I’m just not coping well,’ rustle-rustle. ‘I’ve got to get my head together, some space… oh, I don’t know… I just can’t breathe sometimes.’ Rustle-rustle. ‘I’m in a shop, or on the train to work and I feel that if I don’t get some fresh air I’m going to stop breathing in front of everyone and… and…’ Rustle-rustle. ‘I need a rest.’
‘Me too. I’d like a rest!’ I found myself shouting. I quietened down, thinking of Harry upstairs and thanking God that my mother, Marietta, was at the golf club’s Friday night drinks.
‘That’s not what I meant. I just need to get away. Sort my head out, that’s all. I think…’ There were more tears in his eyes now. ‘I think I’m going to go mad if I don’t.
We were both exhausted. The past few years had taken their toll. Who knew life and happiness could plummet so rapidly? Now, the thought of putting on a suit and heels and spending my days trying to please clients makes my blood run cold. Before Harry and everything else, my career in PR had been my life and if someone had asked me then if I ever saw myself as a stay-at-home mother, I would have laughed in their faces before taking a sip of my double-shot cappuccino. I was happy to allow John to go out to work, as long as I got to stay at home, where I felt safe and where I could keep Harry safe. Marietta had only just convinced me to let Harry sleep in his own room, something I resisted, until I tried it and he loved it. We all slept better now but I still carried the baby monitor around the house and checked on him several times in the evening.
‘It’s like there’s this cliff,’ he went on, determined to speak, to try to make himself understood, ‘and I’m walking along the edge and earth keeps falling away and it’s dark and my foot is going to slip any moment. It’s terrifying.’
I knew how he felt, all too clearly. But being terrified was just something I had learned to live with. While I retreated into motherhood and dealing with my own grief, John went another way. Far away from me. But he could have come home with a tattoo of Ozzy Osbourne, or announced he was transitioning and I wouldn’t have noticed. Or cared. I was just surviving. And Harry. Harry had to come first. John and I had separated a long time ago, only now he was moving out.
I looked away but really all I wanted to do was to put my arms around him, to hear him whisper into my ear how much he loved me, like he used to do. To remember that feeling of invincibility between us. But we weren’t invincible. We were broken; only he had realised it before me.
At the front door, he hesitated. ‘So, I’m going.’ I refused to meet his eye. ‘Goodbye Jo.’ He swung his bag across his shoulders and I watched him wobble off on his bike and out of our marriage.
- Running out of milk, so no tea
- Watching Mastermind on your own
- The pointlessness of cooking when a) Harry doesn’t eat much and b) biscuits are plentiful and easy to open
- The ensuing weight-gain
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