Extract from ‘The Labyrinth Year’ read at Hawkesbury Literature Festival

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This is narrated from Max’s viewpoint. Jenny and Max are now married and she has a plan …

‘Listen? I’ve been thinking—about that work we couldn’t complete on the Persephone cultures.’

‘It’s in the past. Why are you really digging it up?’

‘Feel responsible. I so resented Daze when Mum and Des got together … Think what we have, and Daze has nothing. She won’t get over Persephone till she has a healthy baby.’

‘Who wakes her at five thirty wanting to play. Her life is simply different. To yours.’

‘No, listen. We’ve got our two, and I’m young and fit—’

‘You are. Leave it: you’ve enough to think about. You said. Postgrad supervision, conference paper?’

‘This wouldn’t involve me long-term.’

My heart misses a beat. ‘Don’t even think of surrogacy.’

‘Absolutely not. This’d be far less intrusive.’

‘Good.’ Can breathe again.

‘I—after the conference of course—I wondered, why not investigate egg donation?’ she says in a rush.

‘What?’ Horrified, I sit up, the bizarre words ringing in my head. The bedroom furniture looms at me from the gloom.

Jenny inexplicably reacts by tenting the duvet to cover us both. This only creates a draught, adding to my discomfort. ‘It’s no big deal, a few hormones, a bit of a clinical procedure, no pregnancy. Max, listen. Daze’s life was ruined by her mother abandoning her. She was Alice’s age. She deserves a break.’

A break? I can’t speak. An alien extends an arm around me, as if I’m the one who’s lost all sense of perspective. ‘Max? It’s all okay. I sounded out Simon. Preliminary chat, nothing more.’

Heart almost stopped. ‘Simon’s a partner, and our GP: how could you do this?’ Mouth is dry as a desert. ‘You’ve not started tests?’

‘No. I should’ve told you I talked to him, yes. But, if it was no go—you’d never have needed to hear it’d crossed my mind. And it’s my—’

‘Your body and your choice?’

‘Well, it isn’t yours, is it?’

Jenny’s challenge hits something so ingrained, I realise I’ve never thought it through. At home, at Dad’s church, we were taught from Scripture, and by example, the wife’s body belongs to the husband. Do I really believe that?

Thankfully John Humphrys suddenly blasts from the radio, reading the News. I rise, flip the volume dial down, and head for the shower. Can’t say ‘I’m wrong, aren’t I’ right away. Instead, ‘Spare me the feminism. If it must be done, what about Harriet? She’s the stepsister Daze was close to.’

‘Harriet’s in Australia. And if you’re worried about religious scruples, your father won’t know.’

‘Dad isn’t God.’

‘God’s supposed to approve of generosity,’ she calls through the door. ‘I’m loving my neighbour. You should be glad I’ve learned that from your incredible Mam—’

‘Leave Mam out of it. Your idea has nothing to do with God.’

‘Don’t junk donation. It’d be something beautiful for Daze, to misquote Mother Theresa.’

‘You’re twisting everything. I can’t believe it of you.’ I exit the shower making an effort to be equable, ‘It’s the shock. I’m not angry. I’m concerned from a clinical viewpoint, for your welfare. I’ve nothing against Daze.’

‘I want to help.’

‘That’s very generous. It’s actually rather sweet. It’s maybe a bit unwise.’

I don’t want her pumped full of hormones, then having her ova sucked out with invasive instruments by the fertility team. Irrational, maybe. To me, she’s not merely a body, or one that’s not my concern.

Downstairs, I try a last approach, as she makes the girls breakfast. ‘You know the clinical procedure’s painful? Never mind any side effects. How much do you really know?’

She shakes her head, not in front of the kids, ‘Drop it. May never happen.’

‘I’m relieved to hear that. Because, whatever science says, and I do believe in science, it’s not nothing to have your ovaries stimulated beyond the norm.’ I can’t discuss it further, or calmly eat breakfast here. It’s too horrible. Makes me feel ill. ‘We’ve an early meeting. Before surgery.’

I grab my bag and keys: she grabs at me. ‘Max, don’t!’

I shake her off. She stumbles against the table. ‘Don’t you ever hurt me!’ she spits.

‘That wasn’t—’

‘Planned?’

Zoë starts to cry.

Read the authors’ views on the First Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival.