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A Life

A Life

By Jo

A Life


Jo places the bricks together. This is a prison break. There’s the van that’s rammed the wall. ‘Bang’ - she pushes the van into the wall – and now the convicts are escaping.


Her Mum is saying ‘Jo, me and your Dad would like to tell you something.’ She squishes her hand into the pile of lego. ‘Well,’ her Mum and Dad are looking at each other. Her Dad sits down and fiddles with some lego. Mum sits on the edge of the sofa. ‘You know we love you very much, you’re our daughter, but you didn’t grow in my tummy. Another woman gave birth to you but it was best that someone else looked after you, so we chose you to be our daughter, and we love you so much.’

‘Now,’ says Dad ‘which bricks should I search for?’

Her Mum stops fiddling with her apron. Silly really.


Jo always knew she was adopted. Well, almost always. She can vaguely remember her Mum saying, years ago. She has always known she’s loved. So being adopted feels very normal really. It’s weird how other kids look like their parents. It’s much more natural to look different. Maybe she looks like the woman who gave birth to her. Maybe she’ll meet her one day and go ‘oh wow!’ (or ‘oh no!’) That’s a daydream of hers, but her Mum is the only person she thinks of as Mum, and Dad is Dad!

Jo looks at Helen. They’re busy making daisy chains. Quite a lot of daisies grow under these trees at the edge of the school field. It’s breaktime, and kids are running helter-skelter. It’s loud with all the yelling. Quite exhilarating. Someone is mowing their lawn behind the school so there’s that lovely cut grass smell too. She’ll keep this daisy chain, let it dry out, then keep it in her room for ages.

Helen has a little sister who looks like she did a few years ago. It’s so peculiar. Her parents, her Dad, Tom and her Mum, Margaret laugh at her when she says how weird it is.

The big bell rings. It’s art now. That will be fun. They’ll be painting bugs. Not actual bugs—that would be mean – no, they are painting pictures of bugs. Jo and Helen rub the grass off their knees then run over to the line.


Darcy sits just across from Jo in maths. Her hair is catching the light, ringleted and blond. Her feet tuck around the chair legs. White socks. Jo could lean across right now and reach down, if she’d dropped her pen, and she’d brush Darcy. She’d feel electricity. She knows it. She could measure the distance between them by this tingle.

The air conditioning burrs and buzzes.

Mrs Stowe asks a question. Jo puts her hand up – she always answers. Darcy twiddles her hair around her pen. Gorgeous.

Darcy won’t love her. Jo knows that. Darcy thinks it’s wrong – being with a woman, and anyway, she’s straight. Jo prefers it that way actually. Darcy’s family thinks the same so it would be very hard on Darcy to not be straight. Hopefully Darcy will meet a lovely boy, if she’d like that, and they’ll be really happy. If only she could keep an eye on Darcy, to make sure that she’s always got someone there for her. She’d like Darcy to have a good, happy life.

She’d better get going. She puts her hand up. She has her drum lesson now. She loves how the beat moves through her. It drowns out everything else.


What a lot has happened over the last few years.

She’s at uni now, doing engineering. ‘Well I can do maths and it’s a sensible career,’ she’d thought. Not that it’s bad. Just a bit boring. Welcome to sensible choices and the real world. She will not mess up like her birth parents obviously had. She hasn’t met them. The thought isn’t the nicest.

Her drum kit is at home. Too bad it is too noisy for student digs.

She leans back and calls across the room ‘Hey Max, you coming to the party tonight?’ He nods, thumbs up. He hates it when she shouts in the library. Well, maybe she shouldn’t, but the silence is oppressive.

Jo gets ready with a girl from her flat. She spends ages.

‘It’ll be fun’ says Amy, curling Jo’s hair.

‘I know. I fully intend to get wasted,’ says Jo ‘just not too much.’

‘You never get wasted.’

‘I know, less of a hangover that way.’ She taps her head. ‘I’m smart, don’t you know!’

Amy shakes her head ‘You’re head is inflated, don’t you know.’

‘I aim to please.’

Twenty four

‘Hi Grandma.’ Jo goes and lies on her bed. Looks out through the flat window at the ugly pebble-dash buildings. But there’s a river and trees just visible. ‘How are you?...No I haven’t found someone yet. No, it’s just, what if they leave? I know. It just scares me. No just going out, work, walks, I’m trying some rock climbing...And yes the drums of course. I love them. How are you doing?...’ Jo leans back, laughs and listens. ‘Alright, Grandma, I love you, bye.’

The funeral is a few weeks later. Lots of people come. They sing hymns and wear black. Her Grandma didn’t like black and chose the hymns one day with closed eyes. She didn’t know half the people. But some of her friends chatted over the finger sandwiches then the wine rack.

‘Remember when she crashed into the shop trying to reverse out?’

‘And those notes she wrote in the library book: ‘No good,’ ‘Boring,’ ‘Very well written, well done,’ ‘I wondered whether I should bring this one back at all. It’s terrible.’’ The librarian hated that.

‘Oh, I wonder who did that? Dreadful, these youngsters nowadays! No respect.’

‘I almost burst out laughing.’

‘Your Grandma was a terror, Jo.’

‘And she never used a bookmark, she’d just crease the book.’

‘Bend the pages back.’

‘Don’t write in books,’ she’d say ‘but bending, oh that’s fine. Books don’t mind bending – it makes them easier to read.’

‘Well, she’s right there.’

Jo blinks. It’s good though.

There’s been so much paperwork. Who knew dying was so bureaucratic? Her parents have done most of that though, thankfully. Poor Dad. Losing his Mum must be even worse.

Twenty nine

She has another sip of wine, then tips the glass back. She re-touches her lipstick. Does she look alright? Like a hooker or just nice? Who knows? Well there’s no time now. She breathes in. Reads a few words of her book. She’s not here, she’s there.

It’s her first date tonight. Not that anyone would really know. She’s had plenty of drunken fumbles at parties but always stops. She’s scared. It’s too intimate and sure to end in rejection. Well, her parents might know, but her friends certainly don’t.

She’s going to see a lovely man called Liam tonight. And that’s all.

She locks the door. It’s too fast.

Liam waves from the cafe. She breathes. Be cool.

She met Liam through the accountancy firm he works for. He visited her company and asked her for coffee. She’d pencilled in a date – in her work diary – just like that, thinking it was to discuss work. She only realized later. She almost cancelled, but then, well, put the phone down. And now she’s here.

They order tea and cake. Liam keeping smoothing his floppy hair out of his eyes. He’s saying he makes chocolate from scratch and would she like to come and make some? ‘Of course. That would be wonderful!’ Hang on, is that a second date?

Thirty four

Jo leans over in bed and kisses Liam on the top of his head. The sun is bright behind the curtains. She still finds it a bit unbelievable that he’s still here. He never did run as she’d feared. She’d pulled away so much. They’ve been lucky. They’re quite a good fit. It’s still a bit annoying, the living with someone else. He’s too tidy and has disgusting habits. Her disgusting habits really aren’t that disgusting. But she now cleans out the shower more and he, well, he now checks, you can guess. She doesn’t store things on the floor any more (that was a hard one to crack).

Their conversations are different from those she has with her parents. But that’s no bad thing.

Really, she loves him very much. And they both seem able to put up with each other and work things through.

She gets up and walks down their stairs to their living room and kitchen. A blue tit has a peck at the bird feeder on the window then darts off. The pair have a nest in the box on the tree in the garden so whizz back and forth all the time just now.

She missed her last period so maybe...who knows. They have a room ready. Jo finds herself looking at all the baby clothes in shops. But she must not buy any. She mustn’t jinx it.

She saw a girl, is it wrong to think of her as that?, who she remembers giggling and throwing toilet paper in the girl’s toilets, all mummified with a baby strapped to her chest the other day. Crikey, she thought, I didn’t get the memo. How are our lives so different now? We all had a set time frame at school. I must have changed since then, but it doesn’t really feel like it.

Thirty nine

Five years of trying. Five years.

Jo is pregnant again but who knows if this will be any different.

‘Hello Mary. Lovely day. How are you?’

‘Fine. And you?’

‘Good thanks.’

Shoot me now. She nods and walks on towards the shops. Mary trundles on homewards. It will take her quarter of an hour to go up the street.

When she loses yet another baby she wants to smash a hole in the loft and shout that her child has died. She doesn’t want to smile, and go to work, as though nothing has happened. And tell no one because it’s early and it’s private pain or not even supposed to be pain because it’s not a child yet and you can get pregnant again nonsense. It’s like the last massive bastion of female silence. Miscarriage is common.

But actually, fixing on a smile and saying ‘hello’ (what ‘how are you?’ actually means) can be a nice break.

She thinks Liam finds it hard too. And he has even less of a claim on feeling upset when she loses yet another one. She might get him that chocolate, he’d like that.

Is it dreadful that she’s given her lost children names she’d never call a child in real life? She’s keeping the names she’d like her child to have for the child who makes it, if that ever happens. She thinks of them often. A couple would be at school and a few in nursery. One she’d still be on maternity leave with. She never got to know what they’d be like. The shouting children at break and lunchtime can be a bit hard. And when friends have children, especially when ‘they were an accident, shh.’

One friend, she knows, had an abortion. ‘Well, the morning after pill didn’t work...’ Of course not! It just pushes back ovulation, it’s not fail safe. No sex is. She felt like hitting her hard. Her drums got a good go that night.

Forty four

She lays Claire down in the cot again. Liam rolls over in bed. It’s one of those long night hours. The air is bright and cold in the dark. Jo smiles. Liam moans. Yes, she’s coming back to bed.

Jo dreams of the children she lost. They press their hands onto her heart. Then she zips up and no one can see. But that’s no problem. They’ll have their own hidden hearts too. She wakes with a smile.

Liam’s alarm rings. He tiptoes out of the room but soon Jo stumbles after him. Downstairs they yawn over porridge. Liam has some music on and Jo doesn’t turn on the news: refugees and climate disasters can wait.

The day takes its usual shape. Dressing, washing, milk, toilet, a cycle ride with Claire well strapped in and starting to howl, milk, toilet, washing nappies, other washing and milk. Preparing lunch. Milk and toilet.

Then today, Jo’s Mum comes over to look after Claire. Jo was always hurt when her Mum said she missed the baby years when she was little but she understands now. Her Mum’s face softens.

Wonderful free time, but it’s peculiar being without Claire.

Then getting a meal ready, interspersed with the above. The days are remarkably full. And the nights make them longer. But she doesn’t mind.

Maybe now is the time to talk to someone about all those years ago. That afternoon when the sun glinted off the school yard and wind swirling up plumes of leaves. When the future had felt too long and way too painful to bear. She couldn’t stand it. She’d imagined her father howling and her mother turning when they found her. But she just couldn’t stand it. The how, where and when, had all been planned.

She shakes as she puts in the numbers for the GP into the phone.

Forty nine

Jo pushes her chair in and gathers up her equipment. Those foundations. Oh dear.

After picking up Claire they’re going to the station to pick up Sami and Damian. The latest refugees. They’ll be staying a few days. The house is always busy and Claire really likes it, despite her misgivings. Claire has a lock on her door and she and Liam are right next door to her. You worry so much as a parent, anything and everything.

Claire makes them laugh on the way home. She’s turning into a right little comedian. It’s good – Sami was laughing and Damian’s serious mouth twitched, slightly.

Sami is seventeen and Damian’s fifteen. Avalanches buried their village. Nothing is left. They couldn’t get by there and couldn’t get refugee status – who can – so they risked their lives getting to the UK. They’ve probably done things they’ll always regret. Laughing is good.

Liam has a meal all ready for when they get home, well, after they’ve had a little time to settle in in their room.

The next day, Sami comes with her to collect some firewood. Jo doesn’t say much (‘shut up’ she tells herself) so slowly his life comes out. About his Mum and sisters. Teaching the girls to ski. About the avalanches they would hear in the season. About the controlled avalanches around the village to try to keep them safe. How he hardly knew Damian but now Damian is a link to all of that. And how he both likes and hates that. And how he needs to be there for Damian, but doesn’t want to be.

Sami and Damian might very well get to stay given their ages, well, their given ages, and their English.

Fifty four

Jo lets the lads out of the car. She wipes her eyes after they’ve gone. She can never mend things with her mother. Well, not mend, get closer. She wasted those years. Dad will find it hard. Maybe he can get more involved with the charity. Dad didn’t have the strength to pump her chest. How could he get so weak? Mustn’t think like that. Poor man.

But lives being wasted needlessly. It’s beyond belief. She works for the charity full time now. She waited for the hours to pass with her old job. Not that parts of it weren’t interesting. There aren’t enough hours now.

Why should she go?

She’d like to smash something.

Her Mum had become more eccentric. She’d ask you the same thing over and over. She fell out with people. Well, she’d always done that, but more than normal. She accused people of taking her money and things. Her Dad had asked her to drive them him and her Mum to the GP about it, but of course she thought Mum didn’t have dementia, she was just being old and cantankerous. She was too busy. Dad dropped it. She regrets that.

She gets to the house. Dad is sitting in the armchair, sleeping. He’s got some sauce down his jumper. There’s a layer of dust over everything. She does the washing up in the sink. Cleans the splashes off the toilet and the floor around it. How could he? He was always so capable and strong and thoughtful.

He starts as she comes into the lounge again. ‘Hi Dad. Are you feeling off today?’ She doesn’t wait for an answer. ‘You’ll bounce back. I must dash now. I’ll see you next week.’

He needs to pull his socks up and look after himself.

Claire gets on well with him, but Claire never knew him when he was more himself. She doesn’t know how amazing he was.

It feels like she’s caring too much now. You can get sick and tired of caring. Though she thinks she’d laugh at the problems in her old job now. That wouldn’t go down well.

Fifty nine

Tom sits and thinks. The TV is on. He’s not watching. Jo seems to have come round really with this newer job.

He’d been an engineer in training when he met Margaret. She’d liked that. They’d been struggling a bit, and he’d got work as a nursing assistant as he trained. She’d been proud of that too. He’d taken a year out to earn a bit more and they’d ended up getting married. A baby on the way. Margaret really wanted a bigger wedding. She didn’t get that, and they lost the baby. ‘You don’t have the womb do you?’ Margaret had said ‘I lost the baby.’ She hadn’t meant it that way though.

Then he’d enrolled in nursing. She hadn’t liked that.

She did accept it, after a while.

But then he’d turned down a promotion at work. She’d found out from his friend at a party. She said ‘You have no drive or ambition. I loved that in you. You can’t let our child’s death stop you from trying.’ Surely she could see he was trying when he got back from a shift almost giddy with tiredness. And when he’d tell her about the man who had died who was his father’s age. About all the people who overdosed. All the cubby holes filled with paracetamol packets – to show how much they had taken. Every night. The mother who had been brought in by her daughter. She had looked so broken. She sat in the waiting room, just sat, after he’d told her, as kindly as he could, for the umpteenth time that night, that they’d need to do some blood tests to see how the paracetamol levels were in a while, and she’d need to stay or I’m afraid they would section her. So sorry but she had to stay.

Margaret told him to please stop. It was too much. She hadn’t signed up for this.

So he’d rung his mate. Clive was one of the ambulance drivers so had stories of his own. And he’d signed up for the pictures.

Margaret asked him to share, after a year or two. He didn’t keep much back. Margaret knew him a bit too well for that. But he could substitute – if something really awful happened, he would tell her something else.

Margaret hadn’t wanted Jo to follow his footsteps: it was a feminine job, would hurt her, and wasn’t so well paid.

But now here she was, in a similar sort of job. Who said blood is thicker than water?

She’ll be here soon to fix his supper. The hands aren’t as good as they were. Everything’s old.

Sixty four

Claire rings. She’s just got back from the hospital. A lady on the ward died. When they undressed her, she had her bra on. It would have been uncomfortable, lying on the metal clips, when she was so thin and frail.

‘It’s so final,’ she says ‘but she died with her family around her. She didn’t drown. We’re all equal, they say.’

‘I know. Don’t beat yourself up. Death is never perfect, but it sounds like it was still a good death. That’s good enough.’

‘I know. I’ll see you soon. I’m looking forward to the holidays.’

Jo closes her eyes. Maybe she’ll have forty winks. The body is slowing down a bit. Much to her annoyance. The cheek of it.

They could retire – them! - soon, with Liam’s planning.

Sixty nine

‘Hello Ahmed, Claire. Come on in. I’ll get the food out. It might be a bit burnt, sorry. Liam said he’d do it.’

‘Hi guys.’

‘But I wanted to give him a break. I think, sorry anyway.’

Jo pulls the curtains to. It’s getting dark out. Then dumps the dishes in the sink (out of sight).

‘I’ll just get some water Mum.’

‘No you sit down. I’ll get it.’ Claire is always so much tidier. How she does it she does not know.

‘How is the teacher conversion course going Ahmed?’ Jo plonks the food onto the plates. It’s not bad actually: the vegetables are al dente and it’s a bit burnt on top but, not bad.

‘Just a few more months. Then I can move back closer to Claire, hopefully.’

‘Fingers crossed. We’ll see. It might be fun to move away for a bit Mum. I’d like to travel a little.’

‘Well don’t go too far. I’d like to still see you. Please.’

Liam leans forward, ‘You enjoy yourself you two. Do what feels right. We love to see you but we’d be fine, me and your Mum.’ He looks at ‘the kids’ and Jo looks at him.

‘Yes...but we’d miss you. I would miss you if you went far away and stayed away. But yes, he’s right, really. Do go if you want.’

Seventy four

She puts the phone down. What was that man’s name? Ah. It’s written there. Write everything down. That’s the answer. And more sleep.

A man opens the door. ‘Hello love.’

What audacity! ‘What...oh it’s you.’

A blip. Except there have been lots of blips.

There’s a Japanese custom of mending broken pots with gold. Then they’re more precious with the breaks. It always seemed right. But sometimes something is broken, and it’s just broken.

‘How did it go?’


‘What you did today?’

‘Oh yes. Sorry. The cycling was great. James is having trouble with the conservatory.’

‘Are you alright?’

‘What? Yes. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. Or talk over my head.’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘My memory isn’t as good as it was. I feel like a dunce.’

‘Don’t we all. That’s getting older. Don’t stress. Honest.’

Liam kisses her head. ‘Now I’ll get cooking.’

Seventy nine

Jo looks around the classroom. Something’s not quite right. What is it?

Someone’s come over. Good. They’ll know what’s going on. They look like her best friend. Ar. They’ve been to her 21st. She must be drunk. ‘I don’t feel so well,’ she whispers ‘I need to get home to Mum and Dad. They will worry.’

‘It’s okay Jo, you just stay here for now, have a rest.’

Oh that will be good ‘if you’re sure’.

‘Yes it’s all fine.’

It was a fun party. What’s her name. How awful, she must be drunk.

Drink. Drunk. But she thought she’d never get drunk.

‘Hello,’ oh she can’t say she’s forgotten her name ‘hello, have I said anything to you at all, I don’t know what I’ve been saying.’

‘No that’s alright. You were just saying you weren’t feeling so well so you just have a rest.’

‘Okay.’ Thank goodness.

There’s beeping and Jo jerks awake. Is that someone over there? There’s someone in her living room. She gets up. Her legs aren’t working properly. She can’t get up. She can’t get up. No one to help. She can’t think what to do. Pretend to be asleep. Keep an eye on them.

There’s something scratchy round, what’s that, lower, and something wet and uncomfortable. Better get it off. Legs won’t move properly.

Someone’s coming in. Two people. Ouch. Eyes. The light’s on. Bright.


They’re touching. No. Not there. No. She hits out.

‘Jo, we’re going to help you get more comfortable.’

Helping. Comfortable.

She wakes. Oh. There’s something wet, uncomfortable. Get it off.

Eighty four

‘Mum?’ Jo is lying near the floor. There are some people talking. They look a bit familiar. She can’t see them very well. She can’t understand most of what they’re saying, but the odd word makes sense. They seem gentle. She doesn’t know where she is, but it feels safe.

Breathing is quite an effort. She’ll just close her eyes. There’s birdsong. They’re going away.

Claire and Ahmed walk back in. Their two terrors, Max and Jamie bounding in front. Jo’s mouth is open and her skin has even more of a rubbery, yellow hue. Claire hugs Jo ‘Bye Mum, I love you. Max, Jamie, come and say goodbye to your Grandma. It’s okay. She’s gone with Grandad now.’

Two women come in. They put a flower on the door and pack up the things for the family. They’re in another room crying and eating biscuits with those little cups of coffee.

‘We’ll just take these off sweetpea,’ Angie says. She’s been a nursing assistant for years. Mary, a student nurse, rolls Jo towards her. They take her clothes off and run Jo’s flannel over her, pop a pad and net pants on ‘In case any more comes out’. She’s got some PJs in the drawer. ‘Lets put these on. This is your first then, Mary. It gets easier. Really it does. Particularly when someone’s old and has lived their life. Run a comb through her hair. That’s it. They say you always remember your first, but I don’t much. I remember some of my firsts just a bit. I do care. We’ll just roll you back the way now, then we’ll pull these covers up. There we are poppet. All done! Now we’ll go and get the family back. Are you up for that or would you like to have a break? When they’ve gone we’ll get the bag and call the porter, then we’ll clean the room down.’

Twelve Weeks

Jodi sits in her room, swinging her legs under her desk. ‘Hello, it’s Jodi. I’m ringing because I missed my last two periods and I took a pregnancy test, well, three of them, yesterday, and I don’t want to be pregnant. Could I have an abortion, please?’

‘You’re eighteen, I can understand that. I’ll refer you to the local clinic. It’s in Diss. Is that alright?’

‘Yep. Thanks.’ Jodi writes their number at the bottom of her maths book. ‘Great. Bye then.’

Hello. I’m Jodi Chambers. My GP Dr Walton referred me. I’d like to have an abortion.’

‘Well, what are your reasons for considering a termination?’

‘I’m eighteen. I don’t want to be a mother yet and I’d hate to give up a baby for adoption. I’d just hate it. And I don’t want people to know.’

‘Yes. Do you think that talking it through with a councillor would help you to decide if an abortion is the best thing for you?’

‘No, I would like an abortion please.’

‘Right. Well, I could get you booked in for an ultrasound to see how far you are along. The nurse will talk to you about how it would be done and you could be tested for STIs if you’d like. The next slot is, let me see, on Monday at fifteen hundred. Is that any good?’

‘Yep. I’ll come then. Thanks. Bye.’

Jodi comes downstairs. ‘Mum, could you give me a lift to Diss on Monday? I’ve got an appointment at three o’clock.’

‘Yes, I’m not working then. What’s it for?’

‘A scan before I can have an abortion. Yes, I know, but it split and I got the morning after pill, but it doesn’t seem to have done the job. So I’m doing the responsible grown up thing now.’

‘Oh Jodi. Of course. But, did they never teach you at school that the morning after pill, they think, probably, just pushes back ovulation. It doesn’t stop ovulation if it’s already happening. I thought they’d have taught you that.’


Jodi lays in the room with posters of STIs. She’s had to drink loads and she’s bursting! And the nurse pressing doesn’t help.

‘Would you like to see it?’

She looks at the screen. Cells. A could be baby.

‘No. That’s enough thanks.’

‘Are you sure you still want to choose an abortion?’ The nurse twiddles the pen.

‘Well I can’t be a mother.’ The nurse looks at her. ‘Yep.’

‘Right, if you were less than ten weeks, it would be pills, but as you’re about twelve weeks, you’ll need to go to hospital. You can have local anaesthetic at your cervix. The doctor will then put a tube into the womb via the cervix. Do you know what that is?’

‘Not really.’

‘It’s the opening to the womb from the vagina. And the pregnancy is sucked out, so this is called vacuum or suction aspiration. If the pregnancy is not all removed, surgical instruments will be used to clear the tissue. It only takes about five to ten minutes and you can go home a few hours later. It’s nothing to be scared about. And it won’t affect your ability to have children in the future if you wish. Don’t worry. Lots of women have this.’

‘I’m not. It sounds quick and quite routine. And I’m still in school. When can I have it?’

‘There’s a slot on Thursday.’

‘I’ll take that then. Thanks.’

On Thursday, Jodi had the termination. The products of conception were taken in a dish to be incinerated.

This foetus/product of conception/pregnancy would have grown and been born and been adopted by Tom and Margaret. And they would have called her Jo.

There was no Claire.

And no Max and Jamie and their families and lives.

Jodi got on with her life. She had other children. She loved them and was a good mother to them. And she never gave that termination much thought. She never thought of how her action had taken lifetimes.

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25 Nov, 2021
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