Sally Martin had not negotiated a contract for quite a while, but it soon came back to her. After all, having worked for five years in a mergers and acquisitions department of a large multi-national it had become instinctual, even though she had stopped working some seven years ago. Her contract sat across the table from her, the babble of conversation from the other diners reduced to a subliminal chatter.
'So we can expect completion within a fortnight?' asked Sally, attentively, the first payment already having been made.
'I can't see a problem,' replied the ruddy-faced, well-built man opposite, 'providing the research has been properly carried out.'
Sally smiled. 'Oh, believe me, it has,' she said.
At that, formalities kept to a minimum, the man stood up and left, leaving Sally to enjoy the rest of her meal in peace.
She had enjoyed the negotiation. Reminiscences of the buzz of commerce came back to her, leaving her aware of the void in her life. Oh, Bob, her husband, was a good man, but good men tend to be steady men, not prone to excitement. Bob would always be dependable - and Sally appreciated the importance of that in her life - but dependable men could easily become a bore. And Sally Martin was the sort who liked a challenge now and again. And this new contract would offer her the greatest challenge of her life.
She popped a piece of plaice into her mouth - chewed it lethargically, a sudden pang of regret entering her mind; a regret she had felt over and over again during the past few months. Regret at her decision. Her stupid, ridiculous, decision.
'Now you're sure you want to go ahead with this?' Jackie, her sister, had said almost a year ago to the day.
Sally smiled. 'I've told you, sis, I've made up my mind. You want a child but you can't conceive. I can. It makes absolute sense.'
'But to go through a pregnancy for me. Oh, Sally, I'll always be grateful.'
'There's nothing to be grateful for,' said Sally. 'If it was reversed, you'd do the same for me.' Jackie smiled, and said: 'And you don't mind the thought of - well - of Jimmy's child inside you?' 'I've thought of all the problems,' said Sally, 'and I'm sure I'll cope.'
Sally grimaced at the memory, the plaice suddenly no longer appetising. She thought of the impregnation, courtesy of a throw-away syringe. She thought of the anti-natal visits, her sister forever at her side, making the decisions that would affect the new born. And she thought of the birth; a hard birth; painful; long.
At the time, none of it had seemed traumatic. She remembered that, in a way, it had all appeared beautiful, right and proper. Sally was on a mission; a mission to finally bring happiness for her sister. But that was before the one thing she hadn't anticipated happened. For when she first held baby Jessica in her arms, she realised that biologically, baby Jessica was hers. And it was a short emotional route from that to deciding that Jessica WOULD be hers.
'You can't do that,' said Bob when Sally spoke about her feelings; spoke about her intentions to claim Jessica for her own.
'Why can't I?' Sally had said, determinedly.
Bob - dependable Bob who, like all dependable men just happened to be a stickler for fairness - said: 'Because you agreed.' He sighed. 'We talked this all through before agreeing to go ahead. You assured me there would be no problem.'
'But women are allowed to change their minds, aren't they?' Bob changed tack. 'What about Jackie? Just think what you'll do to her.'
A tear welled in Sally's eye. 'Don't you think I've realised what it will do to her?' She sniffed back the tear; adopted an air of determination. 'But Bob, how can you love a sister more than your own child? How would that make me a good mother?'
Bob said: 'But Sally, you're not Jessica's mother. You gave birth to her, yes, but she's Jackie's child, not yours.'
And that, roughly, was how it went, night after night, leaving a huge void in Sally's life. But more than that, a hatred began to develop. A deep, pathological hatred for her sister and that stupid husband of hers.
Soon her relationship with Bob began to suffer. Argument became the usual course of conversation. As for Jackie, she could not even bring herself to see her, which left her missing Jessica even more. Until, that is, Sally Martin decided something had to be done to fill the void in her life.
And now, the contract was sealed. No going back. Of course, she would put on a good show at grieving following so tragic an accident. And as baby Jessica's closest relation, it would be a mere formality before she was hers once more.
(c) Anthony North, 1994
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