Lockdown eases, and I book an appointment with my fertility consultant; we still have one more perfect embryo, Vita’s twin-still-in-storage, a little frozen emblem of hope and potential. The clinic is not far from my workplace, so on appointment days I plan to work from the office and everything seems quite perfect.
On the way home from the clinic one day I pass two women who look exactly the same, but I am so used to twins looking quite different that it takes me a moment to realise that these two women must be identical twins rather than the same person, twice. I think of it as a sign, and am further convinced when a scan shows that I am ovulating twice over naturally. It doesn’t occur to me that the transfer will not work; my transfers have always worked. As the nurses take my blood I think about our perfect little embryo, about the person or people it will become, about a summer maternity leave and nursing a little baby on the beach. As I perch on the bed before transfer, in my hospital gown, the embryologist hands me a photo of our tiniest family member. “Hello, kid,” I say, studying the round ball of cells intently. I hold it in my mind as the speculum holds me open, and a catheter passes the embryo back into my womb.
I have always felt my babies implant, have always known before the pregnancy test’s confirmation that something is taking root, but this time I don’t feel anything except a rising sense of panic, a sense that nobody is there. I stand in my stirrups to canter through the woods, closing my eyes to feel within myself again, and all that I can feel is the echo of my past certainty, a dawning shame at my hubris. By the time that I have steadied the pony beneath me, I think that I know and yet I am desperate to take the test, to prove myself wrong.
I’m not wrong. The test is negative, and so is its sibling and the two that we take the next night. On the internet, I read about late bloomers, about tests that do not show a second line until nine or ten days after transfer; I have given it five. When I wake in the night, I stare up at the moon and try to will this baby into being, but I feel as though I am speaking to ghosts.
We are not devastated. Not for ourselves – we have five perfect children, we lack for nothing. But there is a strange sense of sadness and loss for the embryo, the person-that-isn’t, the sibling-that-won’t-be, and a sense of failure; it makes me feel old, it makes me feel that my body is worn out and withered at thirty-one.
“I’m not pregnant,” I announce, at my next riding lesson (my instructor looks startled). “You can work me hard. I need to feel something.”
I make more time for horses. I hug my children tighter. I begin to see Vita as ‘the last baby’ again and her toddler fluff, nuzzled up beneath my chin as she feeds, is silky perfection.
We put the house on the market and spend hours every day, trawling RightMove. It sells easily, and for more than we paid for it, enough that we can afford a beautiful semi-detached in a quiet road. The garden is filled with flowers and birdsong; when we forget to fill the feeders, a little blackbird comes to our kitchen window to remind us. The children befriend all of the garden wildlife, even the slowworm who lives in the rockery and who looks like a snake. When the snails emerge after periods of rain, they gather them up protectively and poke them back in the flower beds, and they are never without a frog or two in the pocket. My mother, at last able to visit, sits out on the lawn and tells me that she feels an immediate sense of peace when she walks in to this house. We smile and nod, we all do.
In between work and children, when the pandemic allows, there are horses and riding. There are lessons where everything melts away aside from the conversation between equine and equestrian, glorious golden hacks where we climb to the top of the valley to watch the sun rise. Illicit canters through the trees make my heart race and push everything else away: thought, memories, nothing remains except the jubilance of speed and connection, the mirroring of hoof and heartbeats forces surprise laughter from my throat. It makes me think joy. It brings me peace. It makes me feel a sense of purpose in my body. The friends with whom I ride are as giddy as I am, we hold pony debrief meetings at local coffee shops that eventually I capitulate and buy the yard a coffee machine, and then we have yet another excuse to linger there and chat. One day, one of the instructors let it slip that we are informally known as ‘the three mad ones’. We pretend to be indignant but are secretly delighted; nicknames mean recognition, belonging. We are desperate to belong.
It was inevitable that, sooner or later, I would buy a horse. And I know, as soon as I pause beside his stable in my just-fled-the-boardroom dress, and his inquisitive face peers out to sniff my hair, that Merry is meant to be mine. I love how he feels to ride: all bounce and good cheer, like an animated sofa. I love how I feel when my hands are buried in his mane, when we steady into a trot and circle, and then to a walk and a halt. When I say goodbye to him, I know that I am saying goodbye to my horse, and following a nail-biting pre-purchase veterinary examination, the trailer is pulling up at my yard and at the end of the lead rope, my pony is wide-eyed at the new sights and smells.
The children ask to join in, and I am ecstatic. They are older than I was when I learned to ride, but they respond to their ponies just as instinctively. I want to give them the world, but I will settle for ponies and the sea.