Sarah Turnbull. Photo: Andrew Goldie
Inside the church, which stood on a cobbled square in Paris, there were prayer candles for €1 each and slightly bigger ones for €2. But perhaps when it comes to getting God's ear, you get what you pay for. The €10 candles towered over the tea lights and, when lit, their ruby-coloured glass jars glowed rich rose-gold in the dark interior. A sign promised they burned for nine days straight. They weren't cheap yet I didn't think twice before slipping my pink banknote into the collection box. It wasn't as if my countless €1 prayers had done us any good.
In the beginning I'd puzzled over the protocol of prayer. Should I close my eyes? It was one thing to opt for the tall €10 candles, but whom exactly was I seeking to impress? Saying the words, "Dear God", even silently, felt awkward, too forward. An introduction might be in order, given we weren't exactly well acquainted. Perhaps it was more seemly to begin with an unselfish wish: a cure for cancer or malaria, an end to homelessness? Though God, if He did exist, must be busy and might well appreciate me getting straight to the point.
On its own, my offering might have looked lonely. In this place of pilgrimage, though, it was part of a chorus of candlelight that filled my eyelids with brilliance as I said my prayer.
A new poignancy had begun to colour old rituals in our seemingly carefree Paris life. It wasn't just my increasingly costly candle habit. There were the medical appointments, tests and injections, along with whatever else I was giving a whirl: acupuncture, Chinese herbs, the naturopath in London, with her gentle, upper-crust accent, crystals and hanging plants strung up in macramé.
Strolling about our neighbourhood, I tried to avoid Bonpoint, the baby and children's wear boutique. The clothes were very beautiful, very bourgeois, very French – not the sort of kit I'd dress a child in. Yet the mere sight of its windows triggered visions of a little girl buttoned up in the red woollen coat or twirling in a spotted skirt.
My pace quickened as I walked past the old-fashioned toyshop, too. It sold wooden puzzles, puppets and dolls and magical paper lamps that projected jewel-like colours from cut-out clowns and animals. So enchanting were they that we very nearly bought one. Then Frédéric hesitated. "How about we wait," he said, sounding wistful. "Let's buy one to celebrate the birth of our first child."
One evening Frédéric arrived home from work and flopped into an armchair, gazing distractedly into the sparkling dust motes that streamed from our west-facing window. "They've asked me to set up a new office," he announced. "Overseas."
As far as I knew, his law firm was not in the habit of sending people abroad, so this was unexpected, though the biggest surprise was the destination. My mouth fell open. "Ta-HEEdee?"
Quel rêve! What a dream. It wasn't the only reaction from friends but it was the most common one when we announced our move. The mere sound of those three light-as-air syllables, Ta-hi-ti, was like pushing play on a favourite old movie, one whose familiar scenes continued to delight. People joked and smiled as though we'd announced a sabbatical or an extended holiday. All that swimming, all that fresh fish and tropical fruit.
"Belles femmes, très, très belles," sighed a Senegalese taxi driver, winking at Frédéric through the rear-vision mirror. The small island seemed to tap into a huge human longing, though whether the longing was very deep or very shallow was hard to say. Like Paris, it makes people dream. Though instead of glorious civilisation, history, art and architecture, Tahiti evokes beauty and romance of a wholesome, natural kind.
People's reactions fanned our enthusiasm. Stepping outside each morning, I became more aware of the manic tooting and shouted arguments on the busy thoroughfare that swept past our apartment building. Wouldn't it be nice to get away from the noise and pollution for a while? Wouldn't it be lovely to swim laps in a turquoise lagoon rather than in an indoor public pool wriggling with other people's hair and snot? Wasn't Tahiti famously fertile? Picturing the lushness and the water I was reminded of something I'd read about colours and their symbolism. Blue: the colour of calm and healing; green: the colour of new beginnings.
It's just like in the photos, Frédéric had said of our new home when we'd spoken over the telephone. And when I joined him on the island one week later, I saw that it was. Our house stood on short stilts, bright white and covered in cheerful splashes of pink, crimson and orange bougainvillea.
Stepping through the front door I got a shock. Not because of the interior, rather from what I could see through the glass sliding doors: an aqueous shimmer so bright you might need sunglasses in the house.
"It's right there!" I exclaimed, amazed. In the photos the lagoon hadn't looked nearly so close. It seemed unfathomable that a real estate agent would undersell a water view – in Sydney a distant glimpse of blue was enough to prompt superlatives about a not-to-be-missed harbourside property. Not wanting to spoil the surprise, Frédéric had continued to downplay the proximity, but in reality the beach was at the bottom of our garden. I stood on the back porch, taking it all in. Why, it couldn't be more than ...
I kicked off my sandals then, and ran down the three porch steps and over a stretch of buffalo grass no more than five metres wide, through a gap in the back fence onto soft sand and straight into water that made me shriek in delight.
"It's so WARM!"
"Twenty-eight degrees," Frédéric said, catching up. "All year round. In a really hot spell it can get even warmer."
Having never been a cold-water person, this was all the enticement I needed. We hurried inside, found our swimmers and waded in. It was the same ocean I'd swum in countless times, yet the lagoon couldn't have been more different from the Pacific that pounded the east coast of Australia. It wasn't just the warm temperature or the absence of barrelling waves but its taste and texture. There was no salty bite, no zing on your skin. Instead the water was light and soft, as if monoi coconut oil had been added to it, I'd think later.
Yet while our new life was different in almost every way from the one we led in Paris, a pattern emerged that was unexpectedly familiar. Each month began with fresh hope and ended in failure.
Eventually, I started going to Papeete once a week to talk through my stew of thoughts and emotions with a psychotherapist. For the first appointments I had blathered on nervously about how wonderful everything was but as the weeks passed, my guard dropped. I told him about the prayer candles I used to light. I spoke about the little girl who had skipped into my imagination years ago, as I walked past the smart children's boutique in Paris. Together we splashed through puddles and read The Magic Faraway Tree and Charlotte's Web. "She's just an illusion," I thought aloud in one session. "Maybe I have to let her go."
I prepared myself for the usual silence, vowing this time to sit it out. Maybe I'd come to the end of the road; there was nothing more to be said. But to my surprise the psychotherapist spoke up straight away.
His reply bounced to my side of the table, not a statement but a question. For a moment all I could do was blink. The meaning of "one more try" was perfectly clear to me but perhaps because I looked so astonished he felt the need to spell it out.
"Have you ever thought of giving IVF another go?"
We brooded on the issue of who would take the phone call. I felt sick with dread. Now that the moment of truth was imminent, our grand self-deception was exposed: we were not reconciled to another failure at all. No one goes through IVF without dreaming and hoping it will work. "I can't do it," I said flatly. "You take the call."
"Yes, it's Frédéric," I heard him confirm. I suppose the nurses had to make sure to have the right person. There was a pause as he listened. A look of confusion blew across his face. "Sorry? What's that?" Slowly, his expression seemed to clear. "Really? Do you mean ... " And that's all he had time to say before I wrenched the phone from his hand.
"Hello, this is Sarah," I said breathlessly, though I'd only sprinted a few metres.
"Hello Sarah, it's Kate. I was just telling Frédéric the wonderful news. The blood test is positive."
There was an urgent need for confirmation, to know I hadn't misheard. "What? Sorry?"
Kate repeated her words. "Are you sure?"
I checked again. I recall feeling charged – so electrically alert it made the rest of my life look like one long slumber.
It was then that Kate uttered the phrase I'd waited six years to hear, the words I'd heard so clearly in my imaginings: "You're pregnant." Though my reaction in real life was very different from the scene in my head. There was no gushing gratitude, no shrieks of joy, no disbelieving "omigods". I didn't rush to embrace Frédéric, I didn't even look at him. Gravely - fiercely, he later said - I stared unseeingly into the cinematic sunbeams, every cell in my body wrapped up in the effort of absorbing the news. An onlooker might have thought I was digesting news of the death of a loved one.
"Hello? Are you there, Sarah?"
It was an intensely private moment and there was only one other person with whom it could be shared. Interestingly, the person in question was looking calm and pleased, the way he did after a productive day's work or a satisfying run.
Only after I'd got hold of myself did Frédéric start to process the full enormity of the news. From the kitchen, as I fetched some water, I watched him abruptly sit down at the faded teak table, as if his legs had folded beneath him. The force of gravity suddenly seemed too much for him: his spine sagged and his head dropped into his hands. It was hard to say, watching through the kitchen window, whether he was sad or happy, laughing or crying. Having played the role of supportive partner for so long, his well of suppressed emotion ran deeper than mine.
I stroked, I held, but mostly I let him grieve.
Edited extract from All Good Things by Sarah Turnbull (HarperCollins, $30), published April 23.
All Good Things by Sarah Turnbull, is published by Harper Collins and available in bookshops or online
Sarah Turnbull is appearing at the Sydney Writers Festival on May 26. Bookings: www.swf.org.au.