‘Is there a risk of side effects?’ Ian
Penn was saying.
‘There’s a risk with any kind of
medication. The leaflet quotes everything from drowsiness to hallucinations but
I must stress, Mr Penn, that these side effects are only experienced in very
rare cases –‘
What Donna liked about this office, right
at the top of the surgery, was the great curving skylight on the ceiling. It
gave the room a grace and style that so many contemporary buildings lacked. The
sky up there was a murky white overcast, but nevertheless she found herself
leaning back against the table, bending her neck for the view.
‘And these pills,’ Ian rubbed his nose
with his index finger, ‘they increase the number of eggs that Donna’s
‘That’s exactly right.’
‘How many eggs do we need for a viable
The man showed more interest in her body
during this discourse than he had in the last three years of their marriage.
No, that wasn’t quite right. Her body was still of interest – not as a sexual
plaything, true, but certainly as a means of carrying on the name.
She felt an upsurge at her elbows. She
wondered if there was a draught, and knew there wasn’t.
The consultant was a wide, youngish man
with a blotchy complexion. Rolling a biro between two fingers, he said: ‘Basically
we insert a needle through the vagina into each ovary. The eggs are sucked into
Ian stared at him with an almost unholy
fascination. ‘Simple as that, eh?’
‘Not always. On occasion we have to use
laparoscopy – that’s a small telescope with a light attached. What we’d do
there is make a small cut in the stomach…‘
Now they reminded her of that downplayed
machismo Ian had displayed with the guy at Reliable Repair, when the Vauxhall’s
suspension had gone that time. Donna tried to concentrate and couldn’t. Lately
it seemed her powers of concentration were going, making her wonder if at
twenty-eight she was developing early onset Alzheimer’s. That disease had taken
her favourite lecturer at Edge Hill, where she’d got her architecture BA – Jesus,
that had only been seven years ago.
Soon after graduating she’d got off with
Ian Penn – ‘Een Penn’, the lads called him – in a Slater Street bar. A year later they were
married. She had a vague idea that she wasn’t supposed to work. Her portfolio
got shelved in the box room and the years clocked on. Soon she started sleeping
a great deal – the less you do, the less there is to do, the less you feel like
doing. Ian seemed happier with the situation, would have been completely so if
not for her lazy ovaries. Hence, the visit to the Penns’ family GP, and the
referral to this specialist.
Again she felt the draught circle the
underside of her arms.
‘And that’s where I come in, right?’
‘Yes. You will need to produce a sperm
sample. We store it for a little while and then the healthiest sperm will be
used to fertilise the eggs. We mix the sperm and the egg and leave them in a
laboratory dish for sixteen, twenty hours.’
‘And then two days later, that’s when she
has the progesterone…’ Ian, showing off his internet research: his voice was
getting that tone of pre-emptory one-upmanship that characterised every
argument, every conversation, everything he said and did. Donna felt her
concentration lapse again, but not in that lethargic wool-headed way she’d grown
used to. This was something else. She looked up at the skylight again, and down
at the carpet.
Her feet were not touching the ground.
There was no doubt about this. The light
was bright and stark and she could see the shadows her plain and sturdy shoes
cast on the beige carpet. She was levitating.
Slowly and carefully she pushed down with
her arms. Her body rose three clear feet, as if she’d found purchase on the
This was the first time she’d done such a
thing in public, but neither of the men had noticed. Ian was saying something
about egg collection and the possibilities of mishaps – because once you reach thirty-four your womb’s unviable, you know –
and she pushed again, pushing the air
down as it lifted her up.
She was hovering six feet off the ground,
facing the carpet, almost stationery but for the tiny corrections of inertia on
her floating body. She could see the worn bald patch at her husband’s crown.
She pushed –
And now she had what you’d call a bird’s
eye view of the office – the slabs of desk, PC, chair; the circles of the two
speaking men. Faintly she heard her name called. Then Ian was looking directly
at her – really at her. His face registered what, for him, was an almost
unknown emotion: total astonishment. In that moment she almost loved him again.
Clearly and distinctly she heard the
consultant cry out: ‘What the fuck?’
But by now Donna Penn was thrashing her
way through the air to the skylight. If this reminded her of anything it was
undersea swimming with her dad in Lake Geneva,
where they’d spent every July. Even at seven she was a natural, the old man
said, and this is what it was like, the air was water and it was all about
propulsion, nothing more –
Donna bobbed against the skylight like a
trapped bird. She looked around for some sort of catch – maybe this thing was
too high to open. No, there was a lever there, like the ones on the kitchen
windows at their home back in the Wirral.
Ignoring the shouts from below, she
reached for it.
She took the lever from its metal knots
and pushed, kicking with her legs to
maintain her altitude. The segment of window opened onto the sky: as dull and
overcast as before, but the air tasted phenomenal.
Donna soft-pedalled through the opening,
enjoying the chafe of the window frame on her open waist. And now she was
hovering just above the surgery’s pink-terraced roof. Now a few feet above it.
She could make out the grey battery of their Vauxhall in the car park. Hear the
dim rush of cars and conversation. Donna Penn, nee Williams, had learned how to
No, this wasn’t just sweeping the dust
off the ceiling back at home: this was the big time. Even at this height she
could see people rushing from the surgery’s doors, make out some kind of
traffic altercation on the Wallace
Now the surgery was no more than it would
appear on an Ordnance Survey map or Google Earth: just a nameless dot
surrounding by other anonymous sentinels of human lives laced with silver
ribbons of access and egress.
Donna kicked off her sensible shoes and
watched them disappear.
and thrashed against the air, getting on an even keel so she was moving
forward as well as upward. The landscape broadened into the checkerboard green
of fields and farm, the wide blue-grey of the Mersey,
the hives of cities.
God, I wonder how
this looks at night!
She recognised Liverpool’s Radio Tower,
jutting into the sky – you could make out the RADIO CITY logo at the
apex. There was a harsh and rapid flutter as birds raced past her: she tipped,
regained the balance with a thrash of her arms, and watched the triangle of
flying creatures – swans or geese – as it receded.
Horizontal against the ground, she pushed and wheeled and backstroked
across the land.
The air had a tang up here, a thin quality to it, and she thought of
the way mountain climbers got dizzy and had to take oxygen masks when they went
too far up, and although she did not feel disorientated – indeed, she had never
before experienced this crisp clarity of thought and vision – she kicked
upwards with her legs and dipped a little.
Push and kick and push, it was all about propulsion and
the displacement of the air, the air was water, and the buzz of endorphins in
her head –
And then she saw the ragged foam curve of
She was pretty sure she was above the
west coast. America was
where so many of her coursemates had gone to work and travel.
She wondered how long it would take to
reach the USA.
She thought today she’d find out.
Donna Penn, who was born in Ormskirk, Lancashire, pushed with
her arms and kicked with her legs.
Soon the land was behind her and nothing
below but the shining vastness of sea to all horizons. How long was a
transatlantic flight? Maybe a while, and she hoped she had the energy. She felt
like she did.
After all, as the Morphine song went, it
was a lot like swimming.
BACK TO CONTENTS