The Architecture of Humans
I realise I was never wired to say ‘no’ when my hippy aunt Merle is levelling me with two bottle green eyes asking for an egg donation. I say ‘yes’, retreating to ‘maybe’, and Merle’s face brinks with a joy I have just surrendered the right to tamper with. Merle has turned up in London at the pub where I am working part-time, big and big-featured and looking African after so many years, even though her skin is freckly mauve with broken red lines. She says, Fern, you’re the only one I can count on! Merle only calls when you can hear she’s on an edge, on a beach front, in a teary corner of a bar. She slams over the counter and pulls me into her rapture.
I fly out. She’s a sax player who teaches music in an international school in Ghana. She’s had affairs with politicians and wears head scarves around her flossy red hair. We give each other swamping hugs. In common, we have the steel pin of her sister, my mother, a woman who refracts all light and touch. Merle is my mother Fabienne’s younger, startling sister whose life is a cavalcade of summer returns and resumed kitchen bickering and flip-flops at the airport; a crock of fabled tropicana that makes Fabienne roll her eyes. The egg donation is a colossal secret. Merle already has one child, her mixed-race daughter Victoria, conceived eleven years ago with a francophone guy in her band. Victoria is prim and tubby, which flies in your face every time Merle repeats she can’t understand where Victoria came from and she feels that I am hers.
Ghana is too hot and Merle doesn’t have air conditioning. I sleep on the bed in Victoria’s narrow room; my rotund cousin sleeps on a mattress on the floor. When it is time to get ready for school Victoria sits up sleepily, takes her uniform into the bathroom and locks the door. She comes out with buttons about to burst all the way down her middle. In the kitchen there are shouts, and a slap that cuts off Victoria’s whines. I think about these insoluble markers along my cousin’s childhood, wishing I’d divined that Merle was so unguarded. When Victoria leaves with the driver in Merle’s boxy green Lada, I wait ten minutes then walk out to the kitchen. Merle is putting mugs and half-burnt toast out on the porch and the screen door whacks each time she enters. Noise doesn’t seem to bother her. Today she has taken the morning off and we are headed to the clinic.
‘Sleep okay?’ she says.
‘I’m not used to the heat yet. I’ll get used to it.’
‘Do you want a fan? Sorry, I never thought.’
‘Yeah, maybe. It was hot.’
She pours me some filter coffee and pushes across a can of creamed milk and a stainless steel pot of grey sugar.
‘Here’s a spoon for that,’ Merle says. ‘Do you want eggs?’
‘No thanks. No eggs.’
We both smile.
‘I’m not really sure what you eat anymore, Fern. You just tell me. You just tell me everything.’ She sits back and her broad shoulders glow and she drinks her coffee. She’s wearing a sarong that pushes down her boobs, which were uplifted blossoms once. When I was a kid Merle defined womanhood for me. She went braless and her spine dug deep into her back and her rump kicked out and I understood all aspects of sex just from looking at her. Now she is forty-three and she’s been trying for this baby for over a year. She told me she’s done everything. Local herbal doctors, tests in a big clinic in Abidjan; a check-up with a Swedish gynaecologist friend. I’m not exactly sure what’s going to happen next. I’ve taken eight weeks off university and given up the pub job. Merle paid for my ticket. I don’t ask Merle how her new boyfriend feels about this, but I know that once they take my eggs, they’ll mix them with his sperm. Then Merle told me on the phone they’d implant her with a long needle, and hopefully the embryo would stick. Her uterus was good, she’d said to me, if bloody Victoria could cling to my uterus wall then any baby can –
Merle’s yard is mostly dirt. There is a tan dog. She has house-help, a young girl with dark rings under her eyes. The girl walks behind the house with a long chewing stick at the side of her mouth and a thin towel wrapped around her.
The clinic is a short way out of town along the coast. It is on the lower floor of a refurbished colonial building and there is a backlit sign expressing some doubt.
Doctor Henry Danquah, Questions of Fertility
Inside, an older nurse sitting at a desk observes our entrance. She has glazed black hair and full cheeks. The nurse greets Merle and her smile moves over me. I am the promised one. The bearer of eggs. It is icy cold in here and there are bars on the windows and a terrazzo floor of shattered marble. As we sit waiting for the doctor I think of Victoria as a tiny emblem, swimming along Merle’s lightless fallopian tubes, now probably blocked or stuffed with disuse. Merle puts her hand on my knee and I feel we are unlawful. This is not about fertility, this is about creation. We are here to mix up a being that does not yet exist. I want her hand off me. I smell her breath.
‘Are you okay there?’ she asks.
We hear chairs shifting behind the doctor’s door. Before there were no voices, and now we hear undulations of conversation.
‘We’ll meet up with Jordan when we’re done,’ Merle says. ‘We’ll pass by the building site on the way home. He’s waiting for us there.’
‘Building site?’ I ask.
‘It’s my dream house. You’ll see. It’s our secret. It’s where this new life will begin.’
A stocky pregnant woman ambles out of the doctor’s surgery and we are called inside.
Merle is elated. She’s brought a special cool-box to chill my vials of hormones and organises my syringes into a separate plastic container, which she rolls up in a canvas tote bag I know is dear to her. She tucks both of these on the floor behind our seats as precious cargo, not to be stolen or touched. She drives into the traffic talking, asking me when was the last time I had sex and what drugs I think might be in my system. I tell her René and I had sex the morning I left, and he doesn’t really like what this is all about. She wants to know if René might turn up here on a whim and expect to get laid. I tell her he won’t. I tell her we took stuff at the festival we went to last weekend and she bites her lip.
‘I’m sure it’s okay,’ she says. ‘It’s not as though Jordan isn’t smoking dope.’
Last night on the porch Merle told me about the first time she and Jordan went to bed. Merle said he dropped his jeans and she saw his thighs. His thighs! And she was smitten. It makes me think of René who is French and burly and quite reluctant to undress. I don’t want to meet Jordan. It feels prickly now, being the conduit between these two people. I thought I would feel useful – and Merle did put an unnecessary cheque in my account – but I feel like a piece of plumbing, my ovaries a pair of wet pods. I wonder what Jordan thinks about the baby they couldn’t manufacture now being partially coaxed out of my body, fifteen years younger than Merle’s speckled limbs. I wonder if I will feel attracted to him, and what I would do with this hard fact if I were.
‘You just wait till you see the place,’ she says. ‘We’re right on the water’s edge. It took an age to get the permits and then Paul – the architect – had to go back to London for two months. But we’re up and running now. I mean, it won’t look like that to you, but the basics are all done. Jordan’s always there taking care of things. God Fern, I must have Witless-Woman-in-Love stamped on my forehead.’
‘No you don’t,’ I say. ‘I can’t see it anywhere.’
Merle smiles. ‘We were hoping the first rooms would be ready for you to stay. Then you’d be closer to the clinic to have your ultrasounds and check-ups. But it didn’t happen. There aren’t any pipes out here so we had to build a big septic tank and bring electricity down from the village. Neither of us has built a house before, and Paul does get a bit up Jordan’s nose. Paul spent years abroad, only came back here when his mother died. He tends to treat Jordan like a bush boy.’
We branch off and take a withered road heading to the coast. We pass a couple of villages grafted onto the dust, both with rundown colonial villas whose columns and scrolls are coated in rich orange. I see two barrels of water tied either side of a donkey whose eyes are fixed on the ground, and a jet-black cannon sitting on a white concrete pedestal. These last two have been recently repainted. I wonder what type of thinking makes an ex-colonised people want to parade this trophy. It must be some sort of gravitational pull, an old subservience flickering. I think of my mother Fabienne, who would have stood under the sun reminding the man with the paintbrush that his people had been blasted, chained and trafficked by the owners of the tilted iron cannon with its pyramid of gleaming balls.
But not Merle. Merle’s russet hair whips with delight and I hear the glass vials jostling under my seat and she takes the next potholes carefully. My hand flattens on my belly as though this is the starting point, the furrowed patch of terrain. But there is nothing in there. Just a set of young woman’s organs, possibly a slick of René’s sperm as we didn’t use a condom yesterday. (I’m not telling Merle this.) On the phone, she never said a thing about her dream house.
‘Jordan grew up out here,’ Merle continues. ‘He’s the one who got us the property. There’s a polo club further on where the Lebanese hang out. Our band did a month of Fridays there and Jordan had a job on the grounds.’
‘Instant attraction?’ I ask.
‘Are you joking? I had my eye on a Lebanese guy with digs in Knightsbridge. This is the last thing that was meant to happen.’
A final dusty hill then the seafront is open ahead, its curves crushed by a forest of coconut palms. Out on a rock shelf there is a construction of cast concrete beams like an empty shoebox.
There is only one word left in my mind right now. It is folly.
That evening I have my first hormone injection. I load the syringe, pull down my trousers and shoot it into my buttock. Victoria lies on the bed watching me. Merle was surly at dinner and spooned reheated rice and stew onto our plates. She has just driven out to meet Jordan in a bar. Victoria plugs in the fan and the air frees itself over both of us, but the metal basket makes a tinny noise I know will drive me crazy in the night. Victoria turns over onto her tummy and ignores me. I disinfect the pinprick on my butt and wonder how many pinpricks it will take to produce a viable cluster of eggs. The doctor wants to do an ultrasound in a couple of days. René kept asking me if the setup were legal, or monitored, or even safe for my health. He thinks I am doing this because nothing I have ever done in my life has produced a consequence.
René said he wouldn’t give these people a kitten.
Victoria is not asleep. I’d like to ask her what she thinks about Jordan, who wasn’t at the dramatic building site this afternoon, who called up Merle in the middle of our tight-lipped meal. Victoria is wearing pyjamas I suspect my mother has sent her from home. Her hair spills onto the pillow, the wall above her is blank.
I boil up some citronella stalks and strain the scented water into one of Merle’s mugs.
Merle looks in on me the next morning. She’s parcelled Victoria into the car and sits down on the bed. I feel shitty; my intestines feel like there is water running through them.
‘How did the injection go, darling?’ Merle says.
‘Fine. It was okay.’
‘Jordan’s here. He’s not up yet but he’ll make you breakfast. I have to fly.’ She kisses my forehead. ‘Got to look after you. You’re our little incubator.’
I stay in bed as long as I can, until my bowels are knotted and I am bursting with piss. I can’t hear Jordan in the kitchen. I sit down on the loo, expel everything then quickly shower. Light-headed, I think of digging myself into René’s arms. We have agreed to call once a week, no emails. By the time I call him on Friday I will have had five injections of hormones in my backside, and at least two ultrasounds; perhaps there will be a batch of microscopic eggs trapped in the wavy turbine of my right ovary follicles. René is going back to Paris next weekend. He said he needed to catch up with a few people. I worry that means an old girlfriend called Sabine.
In Victoria’s room I fold my clothes in my suitcase on the floor, make both beds and stand in front of my cousin’s crooked wardrobe with its lustreless brown paint. I hear nothing from Merle’s bedroom. But Merle’s door is ajar and I see the long, rippled extension of Jordan’s spine on the sheets. His shoulders are turned inward and arms collected beneath his chest, the back of his shaven cranium is square. Seeing this faceless body makes me struggle with Jordan already. I wonder if Merle has ever gazed upon him like this. Of course she has. A woman always watches her man cruising through sleep. I want to stretch out on that back and inhale the column of his neck.
He comes out when I am sipping tea on Merle’s porch. He looks embarrassed, I see he doesn’t want to spend time alone with me either. We make small talk about how early they leave for school, about how he tried to get to the site yesterday but was held up in Ada. He apologises for that. The young house-help crosses the yard with a tub of wet clothing, chewing stick in her mouth. She shouts something to Jordan in Twi which makes him frown. I see the smile doesn’t leave her face as she rounds the house. For some reason, I am certain that this young woman can intuit our baby plan. She would have heard Merle and Jordan over and over at night: the lovemaking turned into laceration and fits.
Jordan balls his hands between his knees. He looks about the yard as though there are things to be done. He shovels sugar into his coffee. You can’t tell me Jordan’s carnal aims included producing a baby with her. Not this lean, jostling creature Merle could engulf with her limbs, who could go out there and impregnate a whole nubile village. It’s possible that we could talk about Merle’s dream house, though I’m worried my consternation will come out fast. And I’m even more afraid of seeing through to Jordan’s unsteady feelings. I watch his fingers roving over each other. They have very long joints. I can’t believe this man and I are providing the raw material to create a child. Would it be ours, in anything but the language of souls? Should it be?
Jordan lifts out of his bamboo-framed chair and runs a palm over his head. His eyeballs are slightly poppy; I’m hoping Merle’s new child won’t have these. Jordan says he has an ‘errand’ to run. He sounds like an American kid. He walks off the porch and across the yard, up to the gate which he hooks shut. I hear a dog barking along the road.
Though I said I would, I cannot get used to the heat during the night. I lie awake, listening to Victoria half-snoring, listening to night birds outside. Jordan rarely comes to the house. Merle says he likes to keep an eye on the site. But when he does pass by I hear them talking in the dark and I know her urging him to stay goes unheeded. I listen to them make love and it makes me miss René, who on the phone has a flat, defiant voice. René asks nothing of the procedure. In three weeks I have produced a worthy clutch of eggs according to the doctor’s ultrasound screen, a harvest I cannot decipher within the colourless topography of my abdomen. Merle is enthralled but I see a tiny galaxy of consequences. Dates are fixed for the egg extraction and embryo transfer. Merle takes me out a few nights before, to a windswept bar in the grounds of a luxury hotel. We meet a friend of hers called Tina from Barbados who arrives dressed in parrots and flowers. Tina has a local husband and runs a guesthouse on the coast, but Merle warns me in the car Tina knows nothing of our arrangement. We drink non-alcoholic cocktails.
Tina is an easy buffer until she points out that Merle’s architect Paul was once held in a cell overnight for beating up his wife. I see Merle’s eyes scramble. Merle says she knew about it but it’s obvious she’s been stung. Tina tries to reframe the conversation until her daughter calls from downtown with car problems. She hurries off through the floodlit garden and we are left alone.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t know why I asked her to come,’ Merle says to me. ‘Fucking uptight.’
‘A little. She had a parrot thing going.’
‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘Thanks Fern, love. You must be bored silly out here.’
‘Pretty close to it.’
‘I don’t think it’s going to work.’
‘Oh, fuck it. The transfer. This baby,’ Merle says, staring at Tina’s abandoned glass. ‘You know, Tina’s right about Paul. He took ten thousand pounds and disappeared. I had to pay people – thugs, dammit – to get him back here. He’d gone and set himself up in Hackney with a girlfriend. He’s an overeducated pratt.’
‘I hear you.’
‘He sold off a lot of our building supplies too. Now Jordan keeps an eye on him. He’s back with his wife at MacCarthy Hill. She took him back in.’
That first week we drove along the sandy trail with the car panting, Merle’s incomplete villa revealing its nave and struts between the palms. It is further from the sea than I’d thought, but its static volumes already look like ruins. We walk out onto the platform where the glass window panes should be, above rocks where the sea flails. We imagine sipping tea and watching the sky draw away. It is an elegant dream. We walk upstairs to the empty first floor where four bedrooms and a studio will be installed. My aunt stands on the cement, hair in red strands like a mermaid on a plunging clipper.
The day before my doctor’s appointment Victoria isn’t feeling well and won’t get up to go to school. Merle comes in, tries to shake her moaning daughter, who she concedes has a temperature. I tell Merle to get going, that I’ll look after Victoria today. Merle storms out and the car revs off.
Stay away from her, she says. You don’t want to pick up anything.
Victoria turns away from me on the mattress on the floor. Merle told me her father was an older, agile guitar player from Mali who returned to wherever he had come from. Merle said he had had a big bun of Rastafarian snakes coiled on his head, and the day Victoria was born he’d had them all cut off and he came to her as a dignified man she barely recognised. He had land and wives and he didn’t need the music. He had wanted to bring her and the baby up north, Merle laughed. They parted ways and Victoria was fatherless. When Merle used to come to London in the summer she’d dress Victoria in exquisite pinafores sewn out of wax prints. The little girl would hide under the table in pub gardens; any number of people would try to entice her out. Merle would drink pint after pint and it wouldn’t show for a long time.
I ask Victoria if she wants a cup of tea or some water from the fridge. She doesn’t answer. In the kitchen I boil up some water in a pan and drag a tea bag through it. I pour the tea into two mugs, adding clumps of sugar and the only piece of lime I can find in the fridge. When I come back into the room Victoria is sitting up in bed staring at the dog pawing the ground outside.
‘When are you leaving?’ Victoria says.
‘Not yet. I’m not sure when. You know why I’m here, don’t you?’
‘Merle’s too old to make a baby, so you and Jordan are doing it together.’
‘That’s not exactly true.’
I give her the cup of tea and sit down next to her on the bed.
‘I saw Jordan’s thing,’ she says. ‘He was in the bathroom.’
I try to think of a way to decriminalise this instrument, to make it into something generic, a common tool. But I don’t want to be the one to explain Jordan’s penis or Merle’s frail cosmos. There must be a seam I could mine to tell her that her life is more than this airless room, and the cries she’s heard for a year on the other side of the wall.
I wonder what a grown-up Victoria would say to me about the stash of cells not far from where I am resting my hand. She’ll figure it out one day, when Merle’s new son is running around a different house with fingerprinted walls, when she is doing homework and yelling at him to shut up. She’ll remember the nightly injections in my backside and Jordan’s weirdness around me, and it’ll all make sense.
We drink our tea. Victoria watches the dusty yard. I open my hand over where Merle’s borrowed eggs are stored, waiting to be siphoned out tomorrow. One day, perhaps when Merle’s new baby is a young jobless man and Victoria herself is a slim chain-smoker living in London, I will tell her a story. It is the story I am not brave enough to tell her now. I will tell her that on the day she was born a man sat down in a barbershop in Accra and had his high, adorning hair cut off. Our eyes will connect and hers will be alert. I will tell Victoria that this man watched as these grey woven cords dropped to the floor and he saw his bare scalp for the first time in decades. I will tell her that this man rejoiced for his newborn daughter and he felt jubilant and blessed.