“Dad – I need you.”
Words I never expected to hear. Not even beyond the first word, really, although of course the rest follow. It’s such pride, such satisfaction, to hear the word “Dad” which is both a name and a title, and yet also on this occasion, with Raf, our eldest, shot through with anxiety, an instant worry. “I need your help” would have meant money. Well, we’ve plenty of that. “I need you to …” would have meant something relatively small and simple. But just plain “I need you” that was, literally, asking for trouble.
It was relayed through Valerie, my administrator. We thought about having a separate line put on when we moved to the farm, but it would just have meant more places to lose messages. So we got an administrator. Valerie loses nothing. “Son Number Two for you”, she said, then after the subtlest pause, “you might want to take it upstairs”. It’s a household joke that Percy, my macaw, is really Son No. 1. Raf never uses the phrase himself. Being little brother to a parrot is beneath his dignity. Valerie has been part of the family since she came here nearly twelve years ago. She’s a mother herself, and she knows anxiety when she hears it. And the need for privacy. She knows all my secrets, nothing need be private for long.
“I’m in trouble. Can you come here soon?”
“What sort of soon?”
“Right now soon”.
“What the hell is it, Raf?”
“A girl. She’s pregnant. I don’t know what to do.”
“Shut up Dad, this isn’t funny. I need you, Dad”.
He said it again. Maybe on purpose – if so, it worked.
“You can solve your own problems, you don’t need me there”.
“I need you. You help me to think”.
Flattery will get you anywhere – the boy’s a Harvard Scholar and I help him to think! I only managed Oxford.
“I could probably get away at the weekend”.
“Just how serious is this, Raf?” Silence for a while.
“I think I need to organise an abortion”.
“Then organise one” (that was cold, I know now).
“I’m under-age” (and that was a lie, all students have fake ID in America). I close my eyes for a moment. Curiously, I seemed to see more than when they were open. Our comfortable house, the farm, our other children, Percy, the dogs and cats, this blustery but lovely Autumn day. For heaven’s sake, he’s not even through his first term! I don’t want to go to America, and I don’t want to go now. For this.
“OK, I’ll look for a flight.”
“And can you not tell Pae?” That’s his other dad.
“What? So I’m going to America at the drop of a hat on business, am I?”
“Yeah, kinda …”
“He expects me to bring back at least a million dollars from business trips – are you paying?” His turn to be silent.
“He’s your father too, there are no secrets”.
“He’s going to be hell about it!”.
“Yes, he is”.
“Please, it’s awful enough already, he’s going to make a scene”.
“You make your bed and ask us to pay for the room – you can square it with him about who slept in it”. That was harsh. I felt harsh. I’m not usually. His other father will indeed make a scene, probably a shouting one, and Raf is the least shouty of our children. If he wasn’t adopted, I’d say he takes after me. Nature or nurture? You, the jury, decide … “OK, I’ll be there tomorrow at the latest. Both of you need to be at the apartment by twelve noon”. “OK, will do”.
Ze shouted. “He’s done what???” Raf was right. I knew he’d be right. “I bet it’s not even his”. “Does it matter? It’s not going to be anybody’s.” “What if someone recognises you?” “I’ll use your name – there are thousands of them in New York. Cleaners, mostly.” “Piss off. I’ll pack your bags”. One great advantage of having a flat in America is that I never need to pack a bag – the computer, the latest book I am trying to read, and that’s about it. But bag-packing is a good way of venting spleen. Thank heavens he didn’t reach for the telephone.
Ze drove me to the airport. “Stupid little boy” he kept saying. I agreed, but that’s the thing about being parent to a supposedly adult child – they choose, you fret. Well, he didn’t actually say “boy”. But what he did say went without saying. We never said that word in front of the children. “Where’s Daddy going?” asked Tommy. “Business in America”. “Can I come too?” “No.” “Please?” “”No”. “Presents?” “Possibly”. “Yay!”
I hate aeroplanes. There’s the waste of the planet, and this time the waste of money - $3,500. I always travel second class, or whatever they are too ashamed to call it. You don’t get to be this rich by wasting money on rubbish. No one enjoys air travel – arriving, yes, departing, often, but the flight? – never. Valerie found this one within a few minutes, with apologies for the expense. She’s worth her weight in gold.
Boy meets girl, boy gets girl pregnant, it’s hardly exciting, is it? “What about the newspapers?” “Sod them”. “You know what you are going to pay to do, in person?” “Even so.” He’s right though. “Gay English peer has adopted family” was never a headline. “Gay Peer Pays For Abortion” might be. I closed my eyes again, but all I can see is the farm. Then I have to open them again – how many times have we used this road and he still can’t find his way along it? At least we two must survive until the morning.
Heathrow was Heathrow, as it tends to be. My hip did appreciate the extra leg-room. JFK was as chaotic and horrible as ever. If anything you’re more an object of suspicion if you have only hand luggage. And the staff are so rude. I ignored them. I first typed that as “gored them”. Wish I had. Then the subway to the apartment. Ze tells me to take a cab, but why waste the money? The subway station is just waiting at either end, and I have no luggage to speak of. The other advantage of the subway is the privacy. The outside world is locked out, there is little or nothing of interest to see out of the window, and the other travellers are just like you, locked in their own private worlds, going about their business, or getting away from it. I always wear a jacket and tie when I travel by plane, as they’re less likely to stop and search you. Less likely at my age in any case, and the sulky hip is another insurance. I learnt the hard way not to wear a dogcollar – it’s no fun being trapped next to someone’s confession for seven hours. So, on the subway I look respectable, but grubby and tired, like all those other respectable New Yorkers who’ve spent the day going about their honest and dishonest toil.
At last, the apartment. We bought it because I hate hotels, just about the most extravagant and wanton thing we’ve ever done. My broker said it was a waste of capital. My sister said it was hypocritical to speak out for the homeless in one breath, and keep an empty third home most of the year. I try to assuage my guilt (do I really feel guilty?) by getting as many friends and relatives to stay in it as possible, and it’s a perfect pad for Raf when he takes a weekend away from Boston. And it’s where I meet my agent – Debra. I said to her once “You could have a proper name you know, it’s in the Bible”. “It would hurt my folks if I changed it”. However you spell it, it’s a fine name, and she lives up to it – a fearless warrior in a cut-throat trade, and a fine judge of both people and moments. My account has made her rich beyond her years, but you get what you pay for, and Debra will be earning her keep this weekend – as well as mine.
“And how is my favourite agent?”
“Struggling to stay alive – can’t you write a blockbuster that I can suck the blood out of, you lazy writer!”
“I have something a little different for you this time.” Debra doesn’t bother too much with niceties – how was your flight – how is England – how’s the family – none of them really questions. I’ve heard her do it with other clients, but she knows I have no time for them, and cuts her social cloth accordingly. “I want you to find me an abortionist”.
“Hey, now that really is different! Have you turned over a new leaf in your middle age? Respectability turned you all heterosexual?”
“So, you’re pregnant and you can’t remember who the father is?”
“Try the next generation down”.
“Ah, the Boy Genius. You’d think he’d be done sowing wild oats growing up in the sticks.” Debra grew up in the countryside, and she’s never going back.
“Alas, no, but at least he’s chosen a foreign country for it”.
“How far gone is the lucky lady?”
“I don’t really know. I only found out this morning. My guess is not very far. I’m meeting them here tomorrow – is there any chance you can do some research for me? Ideally somewhere within a shortish walk of the flat. Money no object if discretion guaranteed. And they need to be able to get things done tomorrow or Saturday. I’m going home on Sunday.”
“Have you asked the girl what she thinks about your diary commitments?”
“I don’t even know her name. I hope to goodness he does.”
“Don’t forget she has rights too, it’s not all about your precious boy”.
“Is that your bra I can smell burning in the background?”
“OK, I can be with you at eight, or is that too early?”
“No, that’s just fine. See if they can take provisional bookings.”
Is it just my life, or are women infinitely more efficient than men?
I wanted to go for a walk, but my hip was having a sulk. That, unfortunately, meant either watching the telly, or thinking. I dislike the telly, which is ironic given how much money it has made me. Whilst talking to Debra real thoughts have started crowding in. I really have just dropped everything and crossed the ocean, it’s been a whirlwind.
He’s only seventeen. I hadn’t expected him to get involved in anything this grown-up yet. Sex, yes, that genie has been out of its bottle for some time, though one might wish it had matured for a little longer. But this is the 21st century, and everything happens fast – if you want it now, you can have it now. There is no forbidden fruit, good and evil are freely available on the internet, with instructions attached. You can make beer, or a bomb, why not a baby? What must it be like to look at your girlfriend – partner – partner-in-crime – and think “inside, there is a life which is half mine which we made together, entirely by accident”? Not a situation I ever knew. Of course, it might not have been an accident. Mother warned me once – quite unnecessarily as it turned out – about those seductresses who get pregnant to get their claws into you. Is that what happened to Raf? He really doesn’t seem to be the type to fall for it. He’s so calculated and rational, the only one of the children to get the hang of the Quartermaster’s Stores. “If we’re running out, put it on the list”, I’ve been saying all their little lives, but only he listened. And he got a lot more of what he wanted by cunning, planning, and patiently biding his time. The same with other treats and favours, holidays away with friends, tennis lessons, driving lessons, always spotting what was on the horizon and making preparations to exploit or avert it. These things all seem rather childish now. Now we must put away childish things.
Technically I’m a non-grandfather already. Ze’s son has three children, but he, and they, have always been in Brasil, so we’ve never got to know them properly. Raf’s child would be my grandchild – ours – but it’s not going to happen. Not yet. I hope. I mean, the hope is for some sensible time in the future. Our friend Lucy says that when your children have children of their own it’s like an affirmation that you did OK. A sort of absolution for all the mistakes you made and the “I hate you”s they said.
Maybe I’m making assumptions here. Perhaps the girl wants the baby. She might not even be a Harvard student, with the urgencies and expectations that come with it. Maybe this will be for life. Americans are always saying how pro-life they are. You can’t really be anti-life, I suppose, unless you top yourself. Or you are an abortionist, tidying up other people’s mistakes. Even that is perhaps pro-life too. A better life for all concerned, without the sheer bloody exhaustion of single-parenthood; or the extra demand of another child needing food and clothes and a chance; or the dilemma of “I do want another baby – but not his”. Child as symbol of hate, which every child has a right not to be, but so many are. Exit baby, exit dilemma, exit reproach. But what if those parents later can’t have another child? What if that was their only chance and it’s lost?
So, it was too much thinking, and too much gin. I opened the window to breathe in the polluted and cold night air of the city that never sleeps. Well, all cities are like that now, but this is the one I find myself in most often. I can usually escape from London and come home to the more honest and homely smells of the countryside, but New York keeps me trapped until I have made my money, sold the book, done the interviews. Maybe that’s what all these city-dwellers are doing – saving up for their idyllic little home in the country. I wonder how many of them get it. And as I looked out over the city, I wondered too how many Rafs there were in front of me, at noisy parties, with the shining eyes and sweat of lust and drink, sneaking off to conceive unwanted children with partners they hardly know. Experience is a cruel tutor.
The morning was bright and crisp, and sunny, once the sun woke up. Four hours’ sleep was enough for Margaret Thatcher, so it had best be enough for me. Sulk or no sulk it was time for a walk – but tea first. Maria always stocks the fridge for us – no matter the short notice. I’m sure she and Valerie and Debra are telepathic witches. I had an hour before my abortion planner turned up. She’s the sort to be early, so my walk was briefer than I might have wished. Still, less thinking that way.
Debra had done her homework – a real Grade A student (although of course they all are over here, there must be Prizes for Everyone). Three choices, all a short walk away. All will take cash and fake ID.
“Woman’s intuition, Debra, which one would you go for?” Debra has no children, and one brief marriage behind her. She thought I was mad to squander my mid-life on the venture of parenthood.
“The one that takes stupid people – oh, wait, they’re all stupid”.
We opted for “Planned Parenthood”. Odd name really. It’s unplanned parenthood, or planned un-parenthood. Planned parenthood is what you do after you’re married and looking at, or in, your thirties. Still, no point picking fights with the names.
Raf lets himself in. He’s alone, which surprises me. After a hug of unusual warmth – I realise I haven’t actually been in the same country as him since he started college – I ask, “All alone then?”
“Shelley’s doing a little shopping”. A suitable post-abortion outfit, perhaps? What does one wear to the dead baby shower? I am disliking this poor girl already, although at least she has a name now. I’m blaming the girl. I have to stop. Debra takes her leave, and now we two are alone.
“Thanks for coming, Dad”.
“Tell me what you have decided.”
“We want to end it.”
“Both of you, freely, no coercion? I know what you can be like”.
I realise now that Shelley has gone “shopping” not to avoid me, nor because she is a brainless bimbo, but to give us time together.
“We can get this done today if you want”.
“That would be best. She’s throwing up every morning now, and people are starting to notice”.
“No regrets, no going back, abortions can’t be undone”.
“I know. I’ve thought it through. We’ve both thought it through”. Blame the girl, but the boy will do what he wants. Or is that too harsh? He hardly knows her.
Shelley arrives, and clearly she knows her way around. I wonder if the child was conceived here? Pointless thought. She’s a beauty. I knew she would be. Stick-thin, though, and already showing – a few spare pounds and she’d conceal it for longer. She is charming, shakes my hand, asks about my flight, and am I really a writer and an English Lord? I sometimes wonder whether I am or not, or quite what I am, but they are innocent enough questions, making conversation until it’s all over.
“Yes, but alas, no castle yet”.
“I guess the old ones are all taken”
“You’d be surprised how many come up for sale”. I’m surprised that I know that.
Of course, she hasn’t read any of my books, or she’d say so. I prefer it when strangers haven’t. Come to think of it, I prefer it when friends and relatives haven’t. It’s a wonder the farm was ever paid for at all.
We transact our sorry business. She clearly isn’t under duress, except that everything must be kept from her parents who will shout and rave at her. No such luxury for Raf. A schoolfriend is coming to take her to her family’s place in the Hamptons. It amuses me the way American women talk about their girlfriends, as if they are all lesbians. Raf isn’t invited. I don’t think he wants to be. In fact, I rather doubt he will see her again after today. I telephone to make the appointment. Debra has warned me that the fake ID names are safer. I took the cash out of the machine earlier on, during my walk, with The Sulk. This time we will take a cab. I’d rather they went on their own, but I have a feeling Raf wants me there, and I’ve come all this way, and squandered all this money, so I might as well be.
A few hours later we are in a second cab, to get the train at Penn Station. I bought the tickets during the wait – might as well let the boy stew on his own for some of the time. As I recall, it’s a slow journey to the Hamptons, but smooth, and the roads would be a nightmare on a Friday with New Yorkers heading out ferociously for their few precious hours at “the beach”. The girlfriend, Amber, is there in good time. Another skinny little number, but with an air of concerned sensibleness. I give her a card for emergencies. The doctors didn’t think there would be any, but of course, they can’t say for sure in this litigious world. I let Raf see the girls off, and meet him again above ground.
He looks forlorn. I wonder what on earth these glamorous young women see in him. I see the scared little boy with the dark eyes and amazing black hair who had nameless nightmares and used to climb into our bed to be cuddled to safety; the boy who got so uptight about forgetting his sports shoes; who so wanted the physics prize, and had no idea that there were really no other contenders. The boy who fretted that he would never be tall enough to win the tennis prize (he was right). The boy who wanted you to hug him, and wouldn’t let you. Maybe that is what his women see – someone to be hugged. Or is it the suave Latin good looks, the charm, the social deftness, the money? Maybe he’s great in bed. Awful thought, don’t go there. They probably can’t even spell “astronomy”, but they know he is highly regarded by those who can. Maybe he is their trophy, as they are his.
I put an arm round his sorry shoulders, and wish, for his sake, that he was taller than me. I am taller than my father, he was taller than his; it’s the natural state of things. But in that sense at least, I am not his father.
The Sulk is back, but I’m not going in another cab.
“You’re limping, Dad”.
“Yes, I know – I need anaesthetics, let’s go and get drunk”. I’m not going to suggest food yet, but I know he will eat later.
We sit at a quiet table. “Recommend me an American cocktail, you must have learnt a few by now”. Why else would $1,500 a month not cover a simple abortion? Raf goes to the bar – the barman looks at me and doesn’t challenge his age. I’m fed up with being mean to him now. What’s done is done. He looks tired, but his eyes soon start to shine and he perks up. I had forgotten what a cheap date a small man is. He assures me that he is in fact doing academic work, when he’s not impregnating women or playing tennis. I believe him. He has goals, and he will achieve them. I have no anxieties for his mind and his stomach, but his heart … that is another matter. If he is to learn love, the defences must come down, but for an equal, not a trophy. But he’s young, he has a long time to work all that out. Today’s problem is solved.
I can’t help becoming pontifical. He sighs. He knows it’s coming. “Raf, two lessons, then I will shut up for ever”. “OK, Dad”. “First – don’t be so bloody stupid again.” “Second, remember that wherever you are, whatever the situation, I will cross heaven and earth to help you. Don’t conceive any more children until for them you can say the same. Now, get us another drink.”
I’m writing on the aeroplane. In an hour we will land, and I shall be back in my own country, and soon heading to my own home, my husband, the children and the other animals.
Ze will say to me in the car “don’t cry”.
So, I won’t.