It took me a while to get pregnant and I remember the feeling that my life was on hold while I waited for my next cycle: counting down until I could drink alcohol, the uncertainty whether to book a holiday because it might interfere with ovulation, whether I could quit my job because I might get pregnant and wouldn’t get maternity benefits if I left. “Cycles” takes that feeling and throws a volatile marriage into the mix, a partner who, though loving lacks understanding, and a woman faced with two unappealing realities, where in life’s messy and confusing way, there is no right choice.
One more thing that she hated about Phil was how he always had to put on a show. They were only at The Compass, but he kept looking behind Cassie’s head to see if anyone was watching. To make sure they did, he was wearing a T-shirt that showed his biceps, his lion tattoo poking out of one sleeve. The overhead heaters burned the top of Cassie’s head, her legs covered by one of the blankets the pub gave out. Cigarette smoke clouded the air as people walked past them on West End Lane, easing through the gaps between the small outside tables and the road. When the waitress brought their drinks over, Cassie saw that she was pregnant. Around five months, from the looks of it. Cassie felt a lurching surprise, as if someone had appeared without her noticing, to prod her hard between her shoulder blades. The waitress stretched across Cassie to put Phil’s beer down next to him and her belly brushed the table, close to Cassie’s face.
This was all Cassie needed. Phil already kept grinning at her meaningfully, trying to kiss her every time she came close enough. He kept bringing up memories of when they’d first got together and asking, his lips twitching at the corners, whether she wanted him to take his gym equipment out of the spare bedroom. Phil asked the waitress when she was due, his gloved hand twitching on Cassie’s jeans. Cassie took out her phone and scrolled through Instagram. The waitress was having a baby at the end of March, which Phil agreed was an excellent time to give birth. She looked very well, he said. The waitress’ eyes flicked to Cassie’s. She must have thought Phil was flirting with her. People often looked at Cassie in this way, as if to ask for an explanation for what Phil said or did. They didn’t realise Phil’s behaviour was usually to make some sort of point.
‘Could we get the bill?’ she asked the waitress, who nodded and moved away through the closely packed tables.
‘We just got our drinks,’ Phil said. To prove it, he raised his beer and took a slow sip. He watched the waitress over the rim. ‘She won’t be here long. In her condition.’
‘Doesn’t look like it.’
‘Would you want to work at five months? It must be heavy.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You need energy for teaching. And you’d have to lug those books around. Sandra Coleman got a doctor’s note when she was six months, didn’t she?’
‘Because she was high risk.’
‘And no one was going to miss an art teacher much, were they?’ She could feel him looking at her. His voice bubbled with excitement. ‘Are you pregnant?’
‘Pregnant?’ It was almost a relief he’d asked. Still, the word sent faint reverberations through her skull. She dug the tips of her fingers into the table. It rocked under the pressure, one leg shorter than the other. Phil looked poised to reach over and pull her into his arms, sweeping their glasses off the table. ‘It’s too soon to tell,’ she said.
He sank back into his seat. ‘You’re four days late.’
She kept her voice even. ‘I told you not to count.’
‘Of course I’ve been counting. How could I not? Four days! That’s an excellent sign, Cassie.’
The waitress came over with the card reader, and Phil pulled out his card—as he always did, though their bank account was shared—and tapped it against the screen. It leaked a faint light onto his hands. She scraped her chair back while he was waiting for their receipt. She heard footsteps behind her and turned to see Phil adjusting the ends of his long wool coat. Even he had to accept that away from the heaters, it was too cold to show off his arms.
‘That was dramatic,’ he said.
‘Dramatic?’ She snorted. ‘You’re one to talk.’ Her legs felt slow and heavy, a painful tugging in her groin. They’d said to expect that, from all the hormones. She couldn’t walk as quickly as she was used to. All her jumpers were tight. Phil fell into step beside her, and hope sputtered in her stomach. She willed it still. Phil reached for her hand and squeezed it. There were his familiar callouses from lifting weights, rough against her palm.
‘We have tests, don’t we? You can take one when we get home.’
‘We’ve run out.’
‘Let’s go to Boots.’ He glanced at his watch. He picked up his pace and she jerked his hand. She opened her mouth to speak and closed it again. Phil twisted to look at her and ran his thumb over her fingers. She tugged at his hand and they continued walking. Her boots clacked on the street. She counted their steps and her heart beat slowed, and she felt able to say, steadily, ‘I’m only four days late. Don’t get your hopes up.’
‘My hopes are up, Cassie, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I told you, it just takes time. Didn’t I tell you that?’
‘How many weeks would it be?’ He counted on his fingers. ‘Four weeks? You would be four weeks pregnant?’
It would be four weeks, three days. Cassie fumbled for her keys. She remembered sitting in the clinic waiting room, sharing the space with the high-risk pregnancy patients, most of them pregnant with twins. The women sprawled against the grey plastic chairs, backs arched, legs spread, bellies to the ceiling, and Phil stared at them so unashamedly it made her wish he hadn’t come. She couldn’t stand the sight of the receptionists clacking on their computers, their sympathetic smiles. She shouldn’t have to be there, needing help that, as it turned out, wasn’t helpful at all. Giving urine samples and doing blood tests and ultrasounds, monitoring her blood pressure. These countless tests where there was nothing she could do to make sure she passed.
Phil opened the front door and flicked on the lights. As they shrugged off their coats, he said, ‘You know, Cassie. Being pregnant suits you.’
He caught her by her waist and though she felt sharp irritation at his optimism, his naivety, she wanted to believe him. She was four days late. They had given her hormones for a reason. Maybe they had worked this time. Her stomach was tender, her breasts hurt when she put on her bra. Those were signs, weren’t they? She felt a rush of excitement. There could soon be a buggy in this hallway. They would curse when they stepped on rattles, barefoot. There would be muslins and milk bottles on the oak-wood coffee table, which Phil would complain about, while cheerfully tidying up.
Cassie laughed. ‘Am I glowing?’
‘Absolutely.’ He held her at arm’s length and squinted. ‘I can see it. You with a huge belly.’
‘You’ll look great.’
‘You’re going to talk to my belly, aren’t you?’
‘Not only that. I’ll play him Mozart.’ He reached under her jumper and trailed his fingers over her stomach. ‘He’ll come out singing.’
‘It’s a her.’
They were both grinning. Their faces were close together. He closed the gap, tilting his chin to kiss her.
She wrapped her arms around his neck. Phil’s fingers slid to her ribcage, to the wire underneath her bra, and she felt a twinge of desire, low in her stomach. Sometimes, Cassie’s mind wandered when they had sex. Phil’s heavy breathing, hot against her ear, irritated her, or a car hooting outside reminded her that she had left the shopping in the car. Scheduling sex killed the mood; the lights too bright outside the curtains, Phil’s tracksuit bottoms discarded on the floor, an Amazon delivery interrupting them part way through and still having to finish what they’d started. This time, though, when they thudded up the stairs to the bedroom, everything seemed to slot together; his tongue in her mouth, the coarse hair on his legs against hers, his belly flat on her own. Cassie pressed her fingers into his back, the other hand gripping the headboard, concentrating only on the building rhythm of their movements.
Afterwards, Phil dropped his head onto the pillow. ‘We could have multiples, now,’ he murmured when the lights were off.
Surely, he knew the timing didn’t work like that? And even then, the chances of IVF producing twins were still less than ten percent. He must be joking. But before she could ask, his breathing slowed. He had already fallen asleep.
Cassie was taller than Phil, and judging by his Instagram profile, not his type. That hadn’t put her off. She had picked him out on the first teacher induction day at school, as she sat in the auditorium with Marie, the other history teacher. It was time for something serious and she liked how he threw his head back when he laughed, how it rang across the staffroom. When she found out he taught geography, she nearly changed her mind. It felt like too much of a cliché; she could imagine the other teachers nodding knowingly when they heard they were together, those jokes about how they completed each other. Still, she did some digging and learned he’d been to Cambridge. When they walked to lessons, he opened every door for her in the long school corridors. The students all raved about his classes. When she was sure, she asked the gossipy teachers whether he was single. Men liked to think these things were their decision. Phil declared he was head over heels and after a while, she’d tumbled with him. It was a year before she realised how exhausting he was, the way he sprang from elation to anger and back again in a matter of seconds.
After they got married, Phil insisted they spent weekends with his friends. Most of them had kids, their wives pregnant with a second, and none of the women worked. At Scott’s barbecue in June, the men stood apart like a separate tribe, reminiscing about their Cambridge days when they had shaved Yannis’ legs or Dominic had been so drunk, he had left the Ferrari with the keys in somewhere on the Newmarket Road, and had never seen it again. Annie sat in the shade, breastfeeding, complaining about milk stains on her dress and showing Cassie her crown, where her hair was falling out. When Cassie looked around for Phil, he caught her eye and shouted across the garden whether she wanted to go away on the 22nd, which was the exact date of their next treatment, if the one they were doing didn’t work. And she realised he’d forgotten and though he came to every appointment, including the blood tests, and helped decide which clinic and what doctor, she felt resentment so strong, it was as if her belly was burning. That he could stand there, falling about with laughter on Scott’s shoulder, that he fell asleep within minutes whilst she lay awake, staring into the dark. That it was her being probed and examined and injecting needles into her stomach, having her eggs extracted and frozen and inserted again as embryos. That when it came down to it, it was her problem.
After the barbecue, when she was home and had showered the smell of meat off her, she decided it must have been the hormones making her emotional. They’d stopped having sex much outside of ovulation by then, but she lay her head against Phil’s shoulder and felt the anger leech away until she felt nothing. Until all she felt was her heart fluttering weakly against her chest.
When she sat down on the toilet the next morning, her knickers were dark with blood. It soaked the toilet paper and stained the bowl. Her legs shuddered, jerking up and down on the toilet seat, goose pimples pricking from the cold. After a while, she flushed the toilet and washed her knickers out in the sink until the blood ran clear, then threw them in the wash and changed her underwear and put in a pad. The washing machine cycled round and she thought about how Calvin had been chosen as deputy head instead of her, though the headmistress had told her months before that an interview was just a formality. By the time she’d applied, she’d missed a lot of days because of her treatments. Phil appeared in the doorway of the lounge, eating an apple.
‘Don’t you have a lesson?’
‘I have Year 10,’ he said. ‘If they were going to fail their GCSEs before, morning P.E. should finish them off. They come in, reeking out the classroom. I can barely teach, even with all the windows open. It’s like the shower is an alien concept.’
Phil crunched his apple. ‘Their heads are full of sediment. If only they knew what that was.’
She had heard that joke before and didn’t smile, though Phil didn’t seem to mind. He checked out his biceps in the window’s reflection, probably hoping people passing would glance up and see him. The girls at school giggled when he folded his arms in his tight shirts. Sometimes, they wolf-whistled when they saw the two of them getting into the car to drive home. ‘Surprise,’ he said, throwing something next to Cassie on the couch. ‘Go do it, now. Then we can really celebrate.’
She glanced down. It was a pregnancy test. Something cold and oily slid in her stomach.
‘I found one in the bathroom cabinet,’ he said. ‘Do it and at least we’ll have it over and done with. This is it, Cassie, I told you.’
She felt a strange sensation, as if the back of the couch was melting away and she was sinking into it. Next year she would be thirty-nine, which was the age she had planned to have two kids, become headmistress, and five years after that, move onto a bigger school. There was no point telling Phil, because he knew all that, and because she knew how he would respond, which would be to tell her to step away from teaching or if she wanted to work, to go part time. Why was she putting all that pressure on herself?
She looked around the living room, at the cream carpet and bay windows. In the kitchen, the integrated dishwasher was pulled open, the glasses gleaming in rows. If she went to the window, she would see two men in grey suits, eating breakfast at Paige’s bakery, gloved hands wrapped around takeaway cups. Next month, she would have to sit in a pale blue gown hitched over her hips, her legs in stirrups, whilst the doctor made jokes to get her to feel comfortable. He would insert the catheter and afterwards, she’d wipe the gel off with rough paper tissues.
Tomorrow, Phil would stand in the lounge eating an apple and they would watch the morning news and teach their lessons and moan about their students. In the evening, they would make pasta Bolognese because they had to use up the mince before it went bad. And they would watch the news again and shake their heads at the inflation rates but neither of them would mention her period or the fact that she wasn’t getting pregnant and maybe never would. The air in the lounge was hot and stale. In the utility room, the washing machine chugged. There was a buzzing in her ears. ‘I’m going out,’ she said.
‘Don’t you have a lesson?’
‘I don’t care.’
‘Shouldn’t you get dressed for school? You won’t be in Maggie’s good books if you skive off.’ Phil aimed his apple at the bin and it bounced in. ‘Still, you might make the rest of us look good for a change.’
She felt him looking at her. ‘What is it? If you don’t want to take the pregnancy test now, don’t. It’s your body.’
She laughed, though it came out as a sort of hoot. ‘It’s my body. You’re right. I’m never taking a pregnancy test again.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means I’m never taking one again.’ Her voice was thin and high, not like hers at all. But saying the words filled her with a strange sort of euphoria. She jolted upright on the sofa, hugging her knees. ‘I’m never taking one again,’ she repeated.
‘Why are you shouting?’
‘I’m just telling you. We get the same result, again and again. It doesn’t matter what I do. Whether you drink or how much progesterone they give me, if we do the transfer on day twelve or thirteen. It’s a waste of time.’
‘Cassie,’ Phil said. He raked a hand through his hair. ‘It’s biology. It has to work. It’s a process. It takes time.’ He sat on the edge of the sofa and put a hand on her leg. ‘If you don’t want to do a test at home, go into the clinic.’
She gave another short laugh. ‘Thank you for the scientific explanation. It’s a good job you’re a geography teacher, I might never have worked that out.’
Phil’s eyes flickered over her uneasily. ‘We’re not having a baby.’ Cassie meant to say it calmly but her voice broke on the words. ‘We’re never going to have one. So, you needn’t worry about missing any more trips with the boys.’
Phil’s hand tensed on her leg. Tears sprang to his eyes, and she felt exhausted by his disappointment, how it reflected hers. Was she going to watch him fight back tears and find new optimism for both of them, for another month, another year? ‘You got your period.’
‘We gave it a good go,’ she said. ‘Two years. Not many people could’ve done it.’
‘I’m so sorry, Cassie,’ he said, his hand stroking her thigh. ‘We’ll call the clinic. Book the next one in. I’m so sorry.’
‘This is the last time. I’m done.’ She pushed his hand off her leg. She walked to the window, gazing down at the street. It was raining, the dull sky streaked with white. The men in grey suits were huddling under the bakery’s overhang. A sudden idea seized her. ‘Maybe I’ll go away,’ she said. ‘I haven’t been away for so long.’
‘We can go at Christmas.’
‘I’m not waiting until then. Maybe there’s a flight tomorrow.’
Phil’s nostrils flared. He was like a horse getting agitated. She could practically see him rearing his hind legs. He had no in-between. He went from calm to sad to angry in the space of a minute. ‘We’re in the middle of the school year. What about the next cycle?’
‘I want somewhere hot.’ She snatched up her phone and began googling. She had succeeded in making Phil speechless, a rare feat. ‘The Seychelles,’ she said. ‘I’ve always wanted to go there.’ She showed him her screen, with pictures of green hills, empty beaches, turquoise skies and seas. ‘Heaven. Imagine. Cocktails on the beach instead of the same old drizzle, day in, day out.’
‘You’re just in shock,’ Phil said. ‘You’ll feel differently tomorrow. Of course we’re doing another treatment.’
‘You do it,’ she said. She zoomed in on beach huts, a wooden plank leading into still water. ‘You take progesterone and inject yourself in the bum.’ A bronzed couple held hands, faces lifted towards each other, the woman’s white dress fluttering in the breeze. ‘I’m going to the Seychelles.’
‘If I were doing it, we would be pregnant by now,’ he muttered. Phil didn’t mutter; he shouted or exclaimed. He must have known he was saying something he shouldn’t. She felt a spike of anger so strong, for a moment she couldn’t see. She’d always known he blamed her. That he thought, somehow, it was her fault.
‘I’m just saying,’ his voice rose the way it did when he started a lesson, ‘these things can be psychological.’
‘Meaning, you know, that if you decide next month isn’t going to work, it most likely won’t. So, it follows, doesn’t it?’ His words blended together in a rush. ‘Scott told me about his friend from work whose wife had issues so she went to this centre for women who had fertility problems where they did breathing and acupuncture. And all different types of massages. She got pregnant the next month and now they have three kids.’
‘If you’d have told me this was all in my head two years ago, it really would’ve helped.’
‘You approach it like an Ofsted inspection— ’
‘Fascinating,’ she said. ‘I thought it was science, not acupuncture. Where’s this magical centre?’
‘—cutting out dairy and taking vitamins, trying to tick all the boxes. God forbid we have a drink! The problem’s up here.’ He tapped his head with two fingers. ‘You can’t handle it when you don’t get what you want.’
‘Don’t hold back, Phil.’
‘I’m just saying.’
‘That it’s my fault. You think it’s my fault.’
She was towering above Phil, who was perched on the arm of the sofa. Her breathing was fast and hard. His nostrils flared again and she felt a burst of satisfaction.
‘We should have started trying years ago,’ he said. Her stomach hurt. She had a headache. ‘All this obsession with being headmistress. There are more important things, Cassie. And now look what’s happened.’
She thought of her baby girl, because of course she would have a girl, kicking inside her stomach, her belly rippling with the force of it. Phil feeling it, laughing. She didn’t want his hands on her stomach, or anywhere near her. These arguments, boomeranging, while she was pregnant. Forever. The same cream walls, the red-wine stain on the carpet, the electric fireplace they never switched on.
‘You’ve never had to work for anything,’ she said. ‘I’ve never had Daddy’s money to fall back on.’
‘I’ve never heard you complaining,’ he said.
They knew their lines by heart. He looked up at her, chest puffed out. His eyes were narrowed so she could barely see his pupils. But before they left for school, Phil would apologise and she would mutter that it was her fault too, even though she didn’t really believe it. The truth of it made her lightheaded.
‘This isn’t working,’ she said.
‘You don’t mean that.’
Phil smelled of coffee and aftershave, his lemony soap from the shower. There was a nick on his chin where he’d cut himself shaving. She felt the need to hold onto the wall.
Phil thumped his fist on the couch. ‘Don’t be fucking absurd.’
She shook her head, staring straight ahead.
‘Cassie,’ he said. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You’ve completely lost it. It could work next round!’ She swallowed tears and his eyes flared, his lips curling from his teeth. He jumped up.
‘You need some time to come to your senses,’ he said. He pushed past her out of the lounge. Cassie heard him jerk his coat from the cupboard so the hangers rattled, and a moment later, the front door slam shut.
Without Phil, the house was quiet. She didn’t give herself time to think. She rushed into their bedroom and pulled down the suitcase on top of the wardrobe onto the bed. She threw in her underwear, dresses and blazers for school. She didn’t need much, and it didn’t take long. Her black roll neck was still in the washing machine, spinning around. That didn’t matter. She would stay at her mother’s in Watford. The house was drafty and there was only one bathroom, but it was close enough that she could manage the commute to school. She would stick out the year at Fairfield, and if she looked now, she could find another school for September. They might even have an opening for deputy head. If she trawled Right Move every night, she could find a flat in a couple of weeks. She had a friend she could ask who was an estate agent. It might not be West Hampstead, but it would do. She would meet someone else. She would. She scrawled Phil a note explaining where she was going, and left it on top of the bed. Her cheeks were wet and she wiped them roughly. She yanked her suitcase upright.
She tried not to look around as the suitcase wheels caught on the stairs. Before she left, she went to the toilet and when she pulled down her knickers, there was no blood on the pad or the toilet paper. She went and found the pregnancy test, wedged between the sofa cushions. In the bathroom, she peed on the stick and waited. She looked up at the ceiling and thought about them having sex on the bathroom tiles when her mum first stayed over, because the spare bedroom was next to theirs and they couldn’t wait until she left. She remembered how Phil brought her coffee to bed if he woke up first, how he told everyone he was the luckiest man alive and held her hand whenever he got the chance. How she couldn’t afford IVF alone, or even a half-decent flat. That Phil’s parents had insisted she sign a prenuptial agreement. Her friend Natalie had told her that her ex-husband’s friends, her close friends too, wouldn’t return her calls.
Maybe all their issues were her fault. She was the one with low quality eggs, whose body couldn’t do what it was supposed to. Phil would find some twenty-five-year-old with perfect ovaries and pop out three kids in five years. She glanced at the stick and saw she was pregnant.
She had six more pregnancy tests in the bathroom cabinet, which she had been supposed to take at one time or another. She had quite a selection, in different brands, sizes and colours. She used them all. It took a while; she had to drink a lot of water. Each one was positive. Smiley faces or double lines appeared on the screen, one test told her pregnant! with an exclamation mark, as if to remind her to get excited. Cassie thought about holding a baby in her arms and wiping the fine hairs from its face, and she felt an ache so strong, she worried she was having a miscarriage. She imagined her and Phil rolling a buggy down West End Lane, taking it in turns to push. The three of them cocooned in bed. A tiny heart beating inside hers, her baby on her chest, her breast, giving it heat, giving it life. She gathered the tests and hurried out of the bathroom. She hauled the suitcase upstairs and unpacked it, putting everything back exactly as it was. She tiptoed on the dressing table chair and pushed the suitcase on top of the cupboard. She tore up the note and threw it in the wastepaper basket. She lined up the pregnancy tests on the bed.
The key turned in the lock. She forced herself to stand still and wait. There were footsteps on the stairs, and the bedroom door opened. Phil stood in the doorway. Her heart hammered in her chest.
‘I think this has all got out of hand,’ he said.
Cassie took a test in each hand and held them up. He carried a paper bag from Feng Sushi, her favourite bottle of wine. He thought she would forget it all with a takeaway. That she was that predictable. Her grin faltered. She felt sudden, vicious contempt.
‘What’s that?’ he asked. His eyes dropped to the tests.
And she waited for him to understand.
Nicole Hazan is a high school teacher and fiction writer from England and Israel. She studied UEA’s MA in prose fiction from 2021- 2022, where she graduated with distinction. Her short fiction is forthcoming or has appeared in The New Orleans Review, New Letters and Jewish Fiction, among others. She lives in Tel Aviv with her husband and twin daughters, and is working on a novel.