Fiction

Justine & Ava

I wrote this short fictional piece about living with the pain of involuntary childlessness in 2022. It was subsequently featured as a part of BBC Upload on BBC Wiltshire on 07 July

At the exact moment that Ava blew gently on her piping hot chips, a sudden breeze whipped up around her, dispersing the mass of crisp leaves and the long forgotten remnants of past visitors and whipping them around her feet. It was a most bizarre occurrence, almost as if the intentions of the natural world had somehow aligned with her own. As she pursed her lips together and released a jet of cooling air onto her food, at that exact moment, so too did Mother Nature onto the world around her. 

Ava came to this particular park almost every Monday evening, and always treated herself to a bag of chips from the fish and chip shop further up the street. The park was a small oasis in the heart of a busy town centre. A place where she could sit and contemplate her life in peace. Behind the bench where Ava sat were some railings, the green paint that once protected them flaking away. Beyond the railings lay the river which gently flowed its way through the town. It was not uncommon to catch sight of the occasional canoeist or paddle-boarder traversing the calm waters, but mostly it was home to creatures of a more feathered variety. Ducks, swans and the occasional heron that might just chance its luck on catching one of the many fish that lurked beneath the surface. In front of Ava, the park was mostly laid to lawn with low hedges bordering the grey asphalt paths. There were a number of mature, well-kept flower beds that helped to break up the expanse of grass and, pride of place in the very centre of the park, was an enormous tree. Taller than the highest of buildings, and with a trunk so thick that Ava believed that it must have been there long before the park was, and maybe even the town itself. 

Through an old stone archway, Justine emerged into the far side of the park and made her way slowly to another bench that itself too faced the great tree. Once she was sat down, she reached into the pocket of her jacket and produced a small, brown paper bag that contained a hearty selection of nuts and seeds. She usually came to this park on a Monday lunchtime to feed the squirrels that lived in the great tree, finding that such an activity helped to relax her after a stressful morning in the office. On this particular Monday however she had been so extraordinarily busy that there was zero chance of her getting away, so rather than let the pressures and stresses of work beat her, she decided to take an evening stroll instead. 

As she distributed the nuts and seeds to the grateful scurry that had gathered within her vicinity, Justine took a moment to survey her surroundings. The tree of course took centre stage, its thick, leafy branches rustling gently in the evening breeze, while several plump pigeons had flown in and landed on the freshly mowed grass that surrounded it, hoping to steal their share of the spoils. On the far side of the park, a woman sat alone on a bench, eating chips from a white paper bag.

The sudden appearance of another person in the park took Ava somewhat by surprise. It was a particularly busy place during the day, with elderly couples enjoying leisurely strolls to help break up the seemingly endless days of retirement and hard working professionals taking a few fleeting moments of fresh air during their lunch breaks. The park was also ridiculously popular with mothers and their young children, who gathered in their maternal swarms to exchange anecdotes about how useless their partners were and how stressful being a parent could be. It was for this reason that Ava tended to avoid the park during the day. As somebody who was childless by circumstance rather than by choice, Ava found such flagrant disregard for anyone that didn’t match their motherly ideals hard to stomach. These women, with their designer pushchairs, tubs of wet wipes and vocal disdain for the opposite sex, had the one thing that Ava could never have, and yet judging by the way they berated every aspect of their vocation, becoming a mother was the worst thing that could ever have happened to them.

Justine fished the last remaining nuts from the bag and scattered them in front of her. As the squirrels and pigeons fought for supremacy, she took a moment to observe the stranger on the bench. Justine guessed that she was probably of a similar age to herself. Her clothes looked expensive, vibrant colours teamed with intriguing design choices that hinted at their non-mass market status. Her feet were enshrouded in chestnut coloured ankle boots with a subtle heal, while a river of golden hair flowed down to the centre of her back. 

But despite her external appearance, Justine detected a sense of sadness emanating from the stranger. The designer clothes and perfectly styled hair functioning as an expensive camouflage to her tortured internal emotions. Might she be grieving for someone? Justine wondered. She could certainly emphasise with the stranger if that happened to be the case. She had been grieving in silence for the past year or so, ever since her fourth cycle of IVF had ended in familiar disappointment. Yes the preliminary stages had been successful. They had managed to retrieve her eggs without any problems, even the excruciating pain of the procedure had become something that she had developed a tolerance to, but it was when the fertilised embryo had been transferred back to her body that things had begun to go wrong. Everyone at the fertility clinic pushed upon her their firm belief that this time was going to be a success, as did all her friends and colleagues at work. Even the nurse who took her blood during a routine doctors appointment was convinced that Justine was definitely pregnant. She almost started to believe it herself. It was only when her period inevitably appeared that she crashed back to reality, and the cold familiarity of failure, disappointment and despair made yet another unwelcome appearance. 

Ava finished the last of her chips and tossed the empty bag into the overflowing bin that was next to the bench. As she turned back to face the tree, she sensed that she was being watched. Sure enough, the unfamiliar woman sitting on the bench opposite appeared to be staring at her. Strange Ava thought, perhaps she’s just lonely?

Loneliness was something that Ava was more than familiar with, but not in the way that you might traditionally expect. Far from it. In fact she was incredibly popular with all of her colleagues and had a good, wide circle of friends. The trouble was that they all had the one thing that she was incapable of ever having; Children. 

Ava had always wanted to have children of her own. When she was growing up she used to dream about meeting the man of her dreams, living in a beautiful house and starting a family. She craved the satisfaction of nurturing them, watching them grow up and eventually seeing them thrive in whatever profession they eventually chose. But this simply wasn’t to be. An emergency hysterectomy in her early thirties had put paid to that, so now she had to live with that internal pain for the rest of her life. 

But nobody in her life could ever truly relate to the pain that she felt, because they were all too wrapped up in their own perfect lives, where becoming a parent was just a given. Despite all of their bold claims, none of her friends really understood how painful it was for her to be constantly exposed to a world that she could never be a part of. Whenever they all met up and the conversation inevitably turned to the subject of children, Ava naturally felt left out, banished from their ‘mummy club’. Sure, they tried to include her in their discussions, and even attempted to find a solution to her problem in their own cack-handed way:

“You can see my kids whenever you like”.

“Have you thought about adoption”?

“Perhaps you could become a foster carer”?

But, as much as her friends meant well, they were all missing one crucially fundamental point. She didn’t want just any child. She wanted her own child. She wanted to experience each and every aspect of pregnancy. The morning sickness. The weird cravings. The feeling of her own baby growing in her womb. Her friends insisted that she was lucky that she would never have to go through the excruciating pain of childbirth, but to her it was them that were the lucky ones. Their pain was merely a flash in the pan. She had to live with her pain for the rest of her life.

Justine watched as the stranger put her head in her hands. Was she crying? 

She too had shed many a tear throughout her fertility journey. It was understandable really considering how stressful the process had been. All the internal examinations and the painful injections. The half-hearted promises and the false hope. The bitter disappointment and the stark realisation that, no matter how many times she tried, no matter how much money she threw at the fertility clinic, no matter how much she prayed that her treatment would be successful, it was never meant to be.

It wasn’t simply a case of accepting her childless fate and moving on either. How could she? Everywhere she looked offered a reminder of what might have been. Everything in the world was geared towards the stereotypical ‘family’ unit. ‘Family’ days out. ‘Family’ meal deals. ‘Family’ this. ‘Family’ that. Even social media offered little escape, with a steady stream of photos offering a detailed insight into every moment of ‘family’ life. A perfectly constructed Facebook narrative that she could sadly never attain.

Ava buried her face in her hands as the tears slowly seeped from her eyes, her emotions once again getting the better of her. These sudden outpourings of grief had become all too frequent of late, and it didn’t take much to set her off. In this case, it had been an Instagram post from one of her favourite celebrities, announcing the arrival of their latest offspring. Initially, pangs of jealousy had taken hold, but these were quickly replaced with waves of resentment and frustration at her own situation. She felt disconnected from the world. Isolated from the circus of life around her. Nobody could ever really understand how she was feeling unless they lived a month in her shoes. Women were meant to have children. Those that did could hold their heads up high. Those that didn’t were considered inferior, worthless. Her friends had said that you don’t know what real pain is until you’ve experienced childbirth but for Ava, nothing could ever be as painful as being consigned to a life of involuntary childlessness.

A gentle tap on the shoulder caused Ava to raise her head, bringing her face to face with the stranger who had arrived from the other side of the park. Dressed in skinny ripped jeans and a light green hoodie, her almond eyes were framed by both her designer glasses and the lengths of rich black hair that hung either side of her face. 

“Hey” Justine began, “Are you okay? You seem upset”.

Ava used the back of her hand to wipe the tears from her face and quickly composed herself.

“Oh it’s nothing, honestly. Nothing you would understand anyway”, she assumed.

Justine took a seat on the bench next to Ava.

“Oh really?” She replied, “Try me”.

Miles from home

This short story was written in 2020 in response to a creative writing brief given by the University of the West of England. The theme was ‘Imagined Futures/Solutions.

Miles stood upon the summit of the great hill overlooking the spread of the land before him. Formally a green and pleasant location, swarming with butterflies, bristling with the steady buzz of a thousand bees, the hill now stood as a stark reminder of what centuries of environmental neglect had done to the planet. 

The lush green grass that once rippled across each and every curve of the hill was long gone. Every last blade burnt to a cinder by the unbearably hot sun. Now all that remained was the parched, cracked earth that once played home to nature. Grey, dusty and devoid of life. Even the ants had given up and gone off to populate a distant planet as far away from the self-destructive human race as possible.

As far back as the late 20th century they had been dreaming about and aspiring to create what they had believed to be the planet of the future. They spent their time dreaming up solutions for problems that were not really there in the first place. 

Everything had to be smart and connected. They started off simple with their primitive communication devices. These slabs of glass and plastic are now considered by most to be the root of what actually caused the surface of the Earth to become uninhabitable. But back then the humans firmly believed that their lives would be enriched by teaching these devices to talk to every other inanimate man-made object on the planet. By the end of the 21st century these seemingly harmless communicators had the ability to do everything from tying your shoelaces to projecting realistic augmented reality holograms of everybody that was participating in your group chat into your own front room without even breaking a sweat.

The humans were addicted to this seemingly revolutionary technology. To the point that soon it became the only thing that they were investing in. Huge new factories and research facilities sprung up across the globe. All working flat out, night and day, desperately trying to out-do each other and make their product smarter and sleeker than their rivals.

The rest of the population lapped these new developments up. Everyone had to have the latest piece of this technological revolution, and soon these devices were becoming as disposable as an apple core. Only, unlike the apple core, the communicators didn’t decompose. 

The humans began to open enormous disposal sites dedicated to the devices. Great sprawls of land that stretched for miles, piled high with perfectly serviceable but unwanted technology. Yet the factories continued to pump out new products daily, all the while expelling more and more pollution into the already fragile atmosphere.

In fact, the humans became so obsessed with their seemingly never-ending quest for the perfect communications device that by the turn of the 22nd century it was the only thing that they were focused on. The pursuit of perfection. The fact that the temperature of the Earth was rising to critical levels seemed to pass them by. So much so that by the time the great fires of 2135 began to ravage the planet’s surface it was too late for the human race to do anything about it. And so, the flames spread quickly across the land. Destroying everything and everyone in their wake. The mountains of abandoned communicators transforming into a thick ocean of molten materials. Bubbling and flowing across the Earth’s surface. Leaving everything and everyone it met for dead.

Miles however, had seen this coming.

Unlike the masses who had become devoted to the pursuit of false happiness, Miles had been focusing his energies on a solution. Not a solution to the self-inflicted mass destruction of the human race. But rather a solution that would allow him and his group of 1000 or so allies to follow the lead of the ants and escape the imploding Earth once and for all.

The idea was simple. Build some form of interplanetary transportation – rockets or space craft of some kind – and use them to shift the entire group to a new, inhabitable but unspoilt planet far, far away and start again.

Building these crafts had been fairly plain sailing, and everything had come together within a year or so. It helped immensely that the rest of humanity were still being brainwashed by the technology companies and took little interest in what Miles’ group were doing. Allowing them to crack on with production at lightening pace.

The main issue was how to fuel these craft. 

Traditional rocket fuel was out of the question. The last of the Earth’s gas and oil having been exhausted sometime in the late 21st century. And while the rest of humanity had been relying on harnessing the power of the increasingly hot sun to power their selfish lifestyles via enormous solar farms the size of a small country, Miles and his team knew that they couldn’t rely on such methods to propel their vessels the vast distance between the Earth and their new home.

So, they looked to the natural world for a solution.

The importance of bees had been widely recognised throughout the reign of humanity. Their strong work ethic. Their devotion to their Queen. Their unwavering and selfless dedication to improving the world around them. 

It had only been around the turn of the 21st century when the human race began to forget about the important role that the bees played in our lives. Favouring developments to preservation. Building sprawling housing estates and vast factories over their habitats. The bees didn’t matter anymore. Just the selfish pursuit of human happiness.

But Miles had never forgotten their importance. 

In fact, when he and his allies had set up their vast research and development centre upon the scorched surface of the great hill, they had been sure to devote an entire dome to the preservation of the bee species, which was by now in terminal decline. Great chambers filled with hives, others filled with acres and acres of sustainable man-made meadows, generously peppered with wildflowers as far as the eye could see.

This new environment was welcomed by the remaining bees, who set about their work with a newfound vigour. Day in, day out. Pollinating, procreating and producing copious amounts of honey. So much honey in fact that another dome had to be built just to store the phenomenal number of barrels of the stuff that they so furiously produced every week.

If only they could find a way to utilise that honey as fuel. That way, they could use the honey to power their escape craft, transporting both themselves and the bees away from this godforsaken planet. Then once they had settled on their new planet, the bee’s production line could be re-established, providing a natural, sustainable and environmentally friendly source of power for the surviving human race.

Well, it turns out that such a solution was possible. After months of devoted research, expert analysis and painstaking trial runs, Miles’ team had finally developed a method of converting the sweet honey into a liquid fuel that had enough oomph to power their fleet of craft for as long as it took to find their new home.

And Miles was about to witness the results of all that hard work for the first time. 

As he stood upon the desolate hilltop, he focused on the roar of engines, the flaming jets and the clouds of smoke in the distance as the first craft – proudly bearing the name Bumble 1 – took off from the launch site. Carrying with it 250 members of his team and 25% of the remaining bee population in suspending animation hives.

This was the beginning of the end of humanity upon this Earth. Now just 750 or so remained, at least for the next few weeks anyway. The rest of the species had been wiped out by their own ignorance. By their inability to recognise the effects of what their own selfish actions were doing to the planet around them before it was too late. 

As the shape of Bumble 1 disappeared into the fragile atmosphere, Miles – with a heavy heart – headed back down the hill to check on the remaining bees.

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