Looking back it's always easy to wish you'd been more careful.
I felt apprehensive even before we left. We were going to Brixton to
see a friend of a friend's band who my flatmate was managing, and even
in the taxi there I could feel it, like travelling across the threshold
into a darkened room. I felt on edge, looking around the car at some of
my favourite people in the world; my sister; my partner; a close friend
I lost then found again. I don't go to Brixton often, and I have never
spent longer there than I did on that grey January day, cold and hazy
like the days when you were a kid and would rush down to the sales,
Christmas money in hand.
We stopped the taxi on Brixton Hill and got out. It looked familiar in
that south London way, all tall terraces with steps up to the door and
giant bay windows, big grey trees and wide pavements. Not too familiar,
We'd phoned ahead for directions and my flatmate, famously vague, told
us to look out for a 'white van in a blue shop'. Never the most exact
of people, he was just plain over excited, because it was his first gig
as manager, bless him.
I stopped and asked a woman standing at the corner of a street for
directions. It only struck me as I walked away that she was a
prostitute waiting for punters to crawl past. Despite all our
pretensions to civilisation, things still happen on street corners in
the cold, in the dark. It's not right, what happens between two people
should have some privacy, whatever the transaction.
Walking up to the venue I stole glances at my partner. She was smiling
and laughing. If she remembered then she wasn't letting on. There's
nothing unusual in that. I often only know things because she doesn't
I remember, though. I remember far too well.
I suppose it started one November morning. She was working a late and
had been out to the high street to buy books and clothes from charity
shops. I was just having my medication stepped down, was beginning to
thaw out from a long depression. I was still in bed when she got back.
I would often sleep whole days away back during that time of illness,
when I was desperately ill.
I remember the weather really well. Even though it was cold, the sun
was bright and clear, the sky empty. The fan heater whirred and clicked
as we had stupid, joyful sex, which erupted from nowhere. Not like us
at all. We were giggling, sort of surprised at ourselves. It was like
we'd suddenly given in to the silent voices inside, the ones that
command the body without us knowing. Afterward we basked in the
sunshine coming through the dirty bedroom window, humorously astounded
at our own exuberance, feet warmed by the constant flow of hot, dry
Biological exuberance, sex for sex sake, or so we thought. We hugged
and laughed and fannied about as I walked with her to the train
station, enjoying the last bit of sun of the year.
It was only as winter really started to bite that things started to
change. Her first missed period came in weeks of freezing rain, great
sheets of water tipping from the sky and pummelling the windows. We
talked in hushed whispers so the rest of the house wouldn't hear, panic
pushing our voices shriller and shriller. I looked desperately for a
role to play, something to do, something to say, so I reassured her,
told her it would come. What the fuck did I know, it was her body. The
pregnancy test, which we hid guiltily at the bottom of the shopping
trolley, came up with it's dreaded answer as the nights grew longer and
longer and the high street lit up with all the bright colours of the
It had taken so long to feel comfortable with each other, to sleep in
the same bed every night, to wash each others underwear, to learn when
to talk and when to stay quiet. We both had our problems with intimacy,
but we worked hard. It's not easy taking on someone who's been ill for
so long, depressed for so much of the time, and I can never be less
than grateful. Damaged goods are never easy to handle.
Suddenly everything was graver, every action, every word; every glance
took on a great significance. Under the nose of everyone else we were
engaged in a voluminous correspondence, a secret language between two
people. I wouldn't say that we were ashamed, more embarrassed. Suddenly
what had happened between us in the bedroom had to be taken into the
outside world. The bubble was burst, no actions without
I'd always had problems with being a man, taking up that mantle,
admitting that men and women were different. Up until a couple of years
ago all my closest friends had been women, and I suppose I always
wanted to maintain the illusion that we were all more similar than we
were different. Suddenly there I was on the outside again, complicit in
something that was out of my hands.
My partner was amazing. She's a feminist without having to think about
it. As far as I know, because I could never speak for her, it was never
a baby, just a problem to be solved. Morality never entered into it. It
was her body and her problem. I felt like a shit, felt responsible. If
only I hadn't given in, if only I had just remained outside of my body,
outside of her body. I apologised again and again, voice low and deep.
She just looked at me with a bitter smile and said, "It takes two to
Tango." The thing is I'd never been much of a dancer.
We tried to get on with everything as normal, waiting for an
appointment at the GP, knowing that time was ticking away, knowing that
things couldn't be put off. She went to work and came home, I stayed in
and did the housework, washed dishes, prepared food. I did everything I
could to make things as easy as I could, but I still felt
The nights got longer and longer, blacker and blacker. I would lie
there and look at her sleeping, the shape of her shoulder, the hair on
the nape of her neck, as she faced away from me in bed. It was
horrible, a tension in my body as I lay rigid. I wanted to touch her,
to hold her, to kiss and other shameful things, but everything felt
poisoned. All of those impulses had led to this, I, we, had fallen from
grace. We weren't kids anymore, fooling, laughing, playing. I was a man
and she was a woman. Not boy and girl.
The GP's surgery is on the edge of the college campus in a row of
Victorian terraces. As we walked quickly there after she got in from
work, we barely spoke. I watched my partner's bottom lip tremble as she
pulled on her cigarette, the tip a tiny red eye when we passed from one
pool of street lamp light to the next. The cars and lorries sounded
harsh and noisy on the wet roads, the wind occasionally blowing sharp
pricks of rain into our faces. I was shivering. Although there'd been
no snow yet, the cold and the grey skies seemed to have lasted forever.
I remember wanting to hold her hand, to tell her it'd be all right, but
I couldn't. We were both under separate bell jars, both travelling in
the same direction but with completely different journeys. I couldn't
touch her at all. I tried to hug her as we got to the door of the
surgery but she was stiff, as if she was frozen.
"Good luck. It'll be all right, this happens to loads of women."
"Yeah, well. Easy to say that."
I lit a cigarette and sat on the cold pavement, back against the wall.
The street was deserted, the orange street lamps casting light up into
a black sky. Somewhere inside she was sitting, being grilled, being
lectured; being made to feel irresponsible, guilty even. I was outside,
getting away with it, as if it wasn't my responsibility at all. No
matter how hard you try, you can't escape your body. I'd given someone
something she didn't want, something that could change her forever. I
think I probably cried a little, watching my breath float off in little
grey clouds. I felt empty while she was filling up.
I remember jumping to my feet as she came out, the door slamming behind
her. I tried to ask her how it was but she just started walking down
the middle of the empty road, casting multiple shadows under the
streetlamps. I raced behind her and grabbed her arm, tried to tell her
it was all right, seeing everything from outside myself as if it was a
scene on in a play, just two people on an empty stage.
"It's not okay, it was fucking horrible."
"Slow down, hang on, I&;#8230;"
"I just want to go home, okay?"
I wanted to scream, to holler, to kick in windows and over turn cars. I
just wanted to do something, anything. She walked quickly ahead, eyes
damp, footsteps ricocheting between the buildings. I trailed behind,
unable to say or do anything that would make a difference.
The flat was freezing cold when we got back, the light harsh and cold.
I tried to talk to her again but she went straight upstairs, the
bedroom door slamming. I stood there ringing my hands, clenching and
unclenching my fists, desperately trying to find the right thing to do,
the right thing to say, sitting curled up in the living room, smoking
cigarette after cigarette, watching the adverts for families and
nappies on TV. I finally padded up the stairs and opened the bedroom
door slowly. She was lying on the bed in the dark, stiff limbed, as if
the cold had climbed inside of her. She didn't look up. I asked her if
she was okay and she didn't answer, the silence so great that I could
hear my own heart beat in my ears.
"I just need to be alone for a bit." Her voice sounded dull and heavy,
as if it came from deep inside of her. I quietly asked whether I could
get her anything. She still didn't move. "Could you make me a cup of
black tea with lots of sugar?"
Watching the steam rise from the kettle in the kitchen I realised I'd
never made her a cup of tea before. This meant she was really pregnant,
she was really pregnant. I sneaked back in with the cup and put it down
beside the bed.
"I'm here if you need anything."
"I'm sorry," she whispered, and I could see her breathe in the
The Doctor had given her a really hard time, lectured her on her
responsibilities, asked her whether she'd considered all the options,
asked her about her sexual history, patronised her, treated her like a
little girl, not the woman she was. I was livid, so close to phoning
up, to storming in, needing so much to be angry with someone who wasn't
me. We later found out that at least one of the doctors in the practice
refused to authorise abortions or birth control because it conflicted
with her principles. How dare someone dictate what someone else does
with her body? I was ready to scream at them. I remember ranting as my
partner told me, getting myself worked up into more and more swathes of
rhetoric, as if to fill the void, as if to feel involved. She just told
me to calm down, that it didn't matter, that she'd be okay. I just
couldn't believe that anyone would make it even harder for her than it
So things carried on as usual while all the time the tiny thing got
bigger. We were waiting for the day of the appointment at a Marie
Stopes clinic to come round. I could see it, the changes in her body
already. I guiltily peeked out from under the covers at her as she got
dressed for work in the morning, watching her breasts swell day by day,
watching her stomach round. My face burns with shame as I think about
it now. I could feel the silent voices, the older, deeper part of my
brain calling. I would lie there aroused and angry at myself, hating
myself. It was like my body was ramming the point home, taunting me,
like a devil on my shoulder. It was toothache sweet. I wanted to touch
her so much but I couldn't, because that was the last thing she needed,
maybe the last thing she ever wanted.
It was weird, but every night I would read her a fairy story as she
went to sleep, swapping one type of intimacy for another. She would
always fall asleep before the end and I would creep out of the room on
tiptoes. I don't know why it started, but it was like we were hanging
onto something, hanging onto more innocent times.
Christmas came and went. She's nominally Jewish and I don't have a
religion, so the actual festival meant very little. I went out of my
way to make it nice though, spending the tiny bit of money I had on
stuff. Rooting around in the loft above the flat earlier that year I'd
found an artificial Christmas tree, so I dragged it down and set it up
in the living room. My partner had never had a Christmas, never mind a
Christmas tree, so really went to town on it, buying lights and
decorations. She spent ages setting it up, hanging and re-hanging
tinsel, moving baubles around so that it looked just right. We wrapped
presents for each other and put them underneath. It was lovely, I
suppose, one of those afternoons of glassy sunlight that you get in mid
winter. I felt like we even forgot what was happening, if only for a
few minutes at a time. It was always there though, like a tiny noise in
the background rising in pitch and intensity as the date of the initial
consultation got closer and closer. I kept asking her whether she
wanted to talk about it, was she okay, probably more because I wanted
to be included more than actually being worried. One night when she got
in from work she exploded, hissing at me in the kitchen, the rest of
the household sat watching telly in the other room.
"I'm not like you. I don't need to talk about stuff like you do. I
don't need you reminding me every few minutes of what's happening, I
just want to get on with my life."
I whined and whimpered and apologised, doing the wrong thing all over
By a few days before Christmas everyone else had gone home to see their
parents, my partner included. I just ran about getting everything
ready, cleaning the house from top to bottom, rearranging the living
room, buying food. The appointment was the day after Boxing Day so I
wanted everything to be perfect; I wanted it to be a little space of
calm and happiness outside of everything that was happening. I hope
that it was. I had been hoping for a white Christmas, something
romantic for both of us. It wasn't snowing by the time she got back on
Everything during that period feels sharp and poignant. I'd finally
come off medication and was, for the first time in about a year, naked
in front of the world. It was like an old skin had been shed and the
new one was still not hardened. It felt like the world could have
sliced through me. I remember crying at an advert on telly on Christmas
day while my partner was still in bed. Everything seemed loaded with
sadness. On television an endless parade of children and parents made
me wince and her look away. Little baby Jesus and innocent Mary.
The day came round and we got up early. Frost dusted the pavements and
windows and cold mist clung to us as we waited for the bus. We sat in
silence as it rattled down the Old Kent Road, surrounded by excited
kids on the way to spend Christmas money and harassed parents with
shopping bags. Waiting for the bus to Brixton from Elephant and Castle
the wind whipped our words away and made our fingers and faces brittle.
She was so worried that her face was pale, I don't think we even looked
at each other. I remember looking out of the window at the buildings
and the monuments as we travelled, thinking about how far London was
from Newcastle, about how different it was. I kept asking for the map
that we'd been sent with the appointment details, so I could better
guess where we should get off the bus.
When we got there Brixton looked beautiful, it's civic architecture
breathtaking. The pavements were nearly empty, the main roads quite. We
wandered for a bit before we found the street, a big blue sign on the
corner announcing the presence of the Marie Stopes centre. Panic
bubbled between us when we couldn't see it. We both walked stiff
legged, teeth chattering, down between the big, grey leafless trees and
massive houses. On one side there was an abortion advice centre and we
got as far as the door before realising it wasn't the Marie Stopes. I
could have put the windows through then and there. It was a pro-life
Christian centre, expressly placed to lure people in when they were
going for abortions and advice, to trick them, to mislead them. I was
so angry I felt sick.
The actual clinic was in a modern residential/commercial block with big
electronic gates. We had to wait for someone else to go in before we
could get through them. It felt like the place was under siege.
Inside it looked like any modern surgery or vets, pastel seats,
magazines on tables, racks of leaflets on the walls. I held my partners
hand as her name was called, looking around at all the other couples
with the same looks of pain and discomfort on their faces, the men sat
waiting, fidgeting and looking uncomfortable.
Half an hour later we were back out on the street. The day was set. The
second of January. My partner had a friend who still lived with her
parents in Brixton so we decided to go and see her. The streets had
begun to fill up, the roads becoming busier. Deciding to get a cup of
coffee we trailed around trying to find somewhere, anywhere, nerves
fraying more and more. My partner decided that she wanted to go
straight round to her friends but I dug my heels in. I needed to go for
coffee, because I needed to talk to her before we saw anyone else.
Everything in my head was fuzzy and confused, I was upset and angry and
sad and lost. Suddenly all of the conversations we'd not been having
swam into focus. I needed to know what had happened, what they'd said,
what she was feeling. This momentous thing was happening to both of us
and I needed to feel included, somehow. It didn't feel connected to
what was going on, felt like I seemed to be acting as if nothing was
We found a traditional style London caf?, wooden high backed benches,
white tiled floors and walls. I got a tea and my partner got a Kit Kat.
We sat facing each other, both of us sucking at our cigarettes, not
looking at each other. She seemed so distant, so far away that it
frightened me. I tried to tell her what was going on in my head, the
words tumbling out into the empty space around us.
"I just feel like there's no one for me, because I can't talk to you
about what's happening because it's happening to you. And I do need to
talk about it, because that's the only way I can feel close to it. And
if I don't talk about it feels like I'm just being a shit of a man and
ignoring it and being like 'it's got nothing to do with me, it's her
problem' and if I do, then I'm just reminding you."
"Yeah, but I don't need this right now, I just don't need all this,
there's too much as it is."
"But I just want to know that I'm doing everything I can for you,
because I just want to make everything all right but I can't."
So we talked, and hurt, then began the slow process of repairing,
patching. Walking to her friend's house, she took my hand and said, "I
know you're trying your best to do the right thing. You're not a
horrible bloke; I'm just not good at showing it. I know you want to
make things all right. I do love you, you know." Dodging round people
on that busy pavement, I wanted to cry. I loved her too. The contact
had been re-established, two tiny little sparks touched each
New Year came and went too. We went out for a couple of hours to a
local pub and sat in the warmth. I made her a beery promise that this
coming year would be better than the last. We both laughed as she said
it couldn't be any fucking worse. As the clock struck twelve we
exchanged kisses and handshakes with the people sat around us. We came
back arm in arm, actually smiling and laughing and watched 'The Bride
of Frankenstein' of all things, Elsa Lanchester laid out on the
operating table waiting to be resurrected by the powers of science. If
the image made any link to what would happen in the next couple of days
she didn't let on. She'd always had a lifelong fear of hospitals and
doctors, had dodged having a smear test for years, and now, because of
me, she would be exposed and probed in her most intimate places. She
hated the feeling that her body was outside of her control.
Back in Brixton at the Marie Stopes on the long awaited day, I
recognised a few of the couples from our last visit. My partner was
ashen faced, her bag clutched tight to her chest. I wanted to put my
arm around her, to protect her but at the same time wanted to put my
head on her lap and curl up to sleep, to wake up and find that it had
all been a horrible nightmare. Busy nurses rushed past, forms were
filled in, preliminaries taken. Everything looked sharp and cold, the
sky outside dull and heavy. Everything seemed dull and heavy, the
weight of the moment pressing down on us. It was like time had frozen,
her fingernails biting into me as she gripped my hand. How could I have
hurt the person I loved so much? An act resulting from love had brought
what I had always feared, actual eternal hurt to someone that I never
wanted to harm in any way.
We both jumped as her name was called along with a number of others,
around the waiting room final words were said. A brisk nurse lead them
off and out of the front door of the surgery, across to the actual
building across the road where the abortion would take place. I stood
to go too, but the nurse motioned me to sit down.
"No, no, you wait here. She'll be back soon, don't worry."
I remember standing at that door watching the apprehensive group cross
the road and walk up the drive of an old Victorian building. That was
it, it was finally happening. I was scared for her and what she was
going through, but at the same time shamefully elated at the fact we
could get back to normal, that when she came back all of the worry
would be over.
Those of us left behind sat or paced around, letting ourselves in and
out the door to have a cigarette, in some horrible parody of the
stereotype of expectant fathers. It was so cold, stood out there that I
could hardly roll a cigarette. It was like the sun hadn't really
managed to come up, as if there was no light left in the world. I kept
going out to see if she was coming back, looking hopefully at the
driveway, at the building, scared to go any further than the gates in
case something happened and they couldn't find me. She might as well
have been at the other side of the world, so great did the distance
feel. I don't know what I'd expected, but I wanted to be nearer, to be
there. Instead I sat in the waiting room, pulling at my fingernails,
When she came wobbling back through the door I wanted to lift her up
and carry her, to hug her, to be hugged by her, to shout to the sky.
Instead I took her bag and propped her up as we limped out into the
cold, hard air. She was still woozy as we walked back along Brixton
Hill, back to her friend's house again. Sat there sipping cups of tea
in her friend's parent's house, something was different. We were
talking to her, to each other, smiling and laughing even. We were
together again. That night I crept into the bed where the whole thing
had started and cuddled up next to her, my hand resting on her stomach.
She was warm and for the first time in months she cuddled me back.
Finally it was over, from the outside nothing had changed. Most of the
people we knew had no idea what had happened. Nothing had changed, but
everything was different. We were grown ups now.
Watching the television the next night, I stood up and went to the
front door of the flat and opened it. Under the heavy purple sky, thick
clots of snow were falling. We both hugged and laughed. It finally felt
that things had been set right. We've never talked about the abortion
since, not because we're ashamed. Just because there isn't any need. It
happened to her, we got through it.
So it felt weird for both of us to be back in Brixton. We even passed
the Marie Stopes sign in the taxi. It was the first time we'd really
been out together in ages. The gig was good, a lot of people who hadn't
all been together in a long time. My partner got a bit drunk and was
dancing, dancing at me. The music felt good, it felt good to out with
her, unashamedly a couple. She looked amazing, far sexier than she ever
had. I asked her for her phone number. She gave me the finger. Finally
we've learned to play and laugh again. By the time we set off home, she
was pissed, stumbling and woozy down Brixton Hill again, me propping
She was a bit fruity, a bit drunk and soppy, pawing my bum and trying
to drag me in for a kiss. "I've been here before," she said, looking
"You have." I said, then we said nothing more about it. We're doing
fine now, still learning, still working at it, still finding out what
it means to be a man or a woman.
We're just a lot more careful.