Vol. 2 No. 19 · 2 October 1980

Geoffrey and the Eskimo Child – a Gynaecological History

Fay Weldon

5024 words

Geoffrey​ thought perhaps Tania should see a psychotherapist. She was having nightmares, the substance of which eluded her but the attendant feeling – tone (as she learned to call it) – was clear enough. Terror.

That was in 1968, and their joint income was low. Geoffrey was studying sociology at the London School of Economics, when he wasn’t at the barricades or fomenting revolution, and Tania, who already had her degree, was working for a market research firm in a rather humble capacity. ‘Can we afford it?’ mourned Tania. ‘Isn’t psychotherapy an unimaginable luxury? Isn’t it immoral, anyway, to accept a form of treatment which can never, by virtue of it being on a one-to-one basis, be available to the many, but only to the privileged?’ She was very earnest, in those days.

Geoffrey reasoned that if she needed it, she should have it: that her happiness was important to him; that she was a valuable member of the community and would be able to pass on the benefit of self-awareness to many, many others in the course of her life.

Geoffrey was an excellent, kindly, caring husband, everyone agreed: a little older and slightly more wise than his fellow students; a rather stable Marxist, as opposed to a wild Trotskyite or Maoist, and his tutors assumed even that would fade with age. Even as far back as 1968, when the whole Western world was gasping, heaving and setting off in a different direction, in pursuit of youth, Geoffrey was conscious of the unfairness of woman’s lot in society. In his revolutionary meetings, men were expected to make the coffee too, and women allowed to make policy decisions. And when the Women’s Movement started, Geoffrey helped with the general organisation and setting up of meetings and the printing of pamphlets, and tried to deter his fellow men from standing up first when discussion time came and the platform had finished, and prefixing their remarks with: ‘I’m all for Women’s Liberation. I always help my wife with the washing-up.’

‘I do the washing-up,’ said Geoffrey. ‘We share household chores. We split our lives down the middle. We even dabble in role-reversal. Tania’s seeing me through college!’

‘Foolish women have always seen arrogant men through college,’ murmured Erica, but no one listened. Erica was Tania’s friend. Once she had been Geoffrey’s mistress, but that was long ago. Now she didn’t seem to like Geoffrey much, so Tania didn’t listen to those parts of Erica’s conversation which appertained to her husband.

And here, in 1968, was Tania, who thought she had the world under control, having nightmares. Geoffrey drove her to the psychotherapist, and took her out for a drink afterwards, and was rather nonplussed when Tania didn’t want to tell him what had passed between the psychotherapist and herself. However, being reasonable and kind, he did not press the matter, but allowed his wife her privacy.

‘We can be one flesh,’ he acknowledged, ‘but we have to remain two minds. Otherwise, where’s the mutual benefit and stimulation? The cross-fertilisation?’

‘I’m on the pill,’ Tania had remarked to the therapist, who was a pleasant woman.

‘What pill?’

‘The contraceptive pill,’ Tania had replied, and explained all about it.

The therapist had seemed rather baffled by this new development in the world, of which so far she had apparently been unaware, but was able nevertheless to relate Tania’s nightly terrors to the nightly taking of the pill and the denial of her own femininity, and fear of ensuing punishment. Tania did not, and could not, accept such an absurd explanation, and presently stopped her visits. She went on taking the pill, and the nightmares faded, and were forgotten, absorbed into the past along with everything else.

Geoffrey got a First, and a job as a sociologist at Camden Town Hall, and was presently in charge of a department, which he ran with enthusiasm and energy, cutting away – perhaps a little ruthlessly – the dead wood of old staff and old ideas. He was relentlessly young; he wore jeans to work before anyone else dared, and had already abandoned collar and tie when others were still cautiously wondering if they could possibly abandon their vests.

Tania became a freelance journalist of note, was a leading member of Women in Media, and an expert in Women’s Affairs. She was much envied, because she was married to Geoffrey, who was one of the few genuinely unchauvinist men around, was not impotent but nevertheless apparently monogamous, and wasn’t even boring. His mind worked marvellously, his tongue freely, and he passed lightly over this subject and that, seeming to know everything and everyone, lighting up rooms as he came into them. He could make people laugh, with his mock-macho stances: he could listen quietly and at length if he had to, and his interest in others was genuine, and profound. He kept his fits of melancholy for home, and warned Tania when they were coming, so she could go away for a couple of days if they were bad, or just to the pictures if it was a transitory mood and not likely to outlast the evening. In these states, he was angry and rejecting of her: reproaches and rebukes sparking out of black silence. She learned to discount them: not to include them in her vision of him, beloved Geoffrey, her good husband.

Once a year they considered the matter of children. Once a year they decided to postpone the decision. Of course they wanted children, but there was so much to be done in the world. And was the world, in any case, a fit place to bring children into? This latter was Geoffrey’s worry. Tania’s, freely expressed, was whether the domestic sharing, which worked so well without children, would continue to work when a child arrived. Or, if there was any conflict of interest, say an ill child needing a parent to stay at home, which one of them would in fact do so? Geoffrey had his department to run; Tania could be more fluid in her arrangements, but that would not be the point. Would it?

So the decision was delayed. Life was good as it was. Tania stayed on one form or another of the pill for twelve years, through health-scares and out the other side of them, with regular physical check-ups and the dosage changing for maximum safety. Geoffrey worried for her, and both agreed that when they’d had their eventual family – two, they thought, a boy and a girl – he would have a vasectomy. They would take turns at tribulation, as they did everything else. Earning, cooking, bill-paying, hoovering, cleaning the lavatory.

When Tania was thirty-two it was no longer possible to deny that she was growing older, and that giving birth to a first child was no longer the simple matter it once would have been. And man’s procreative life, of course, goes on longer than woman’s, and male sperm, being recreated daily, do not grow feeble or tired, as do female eggs, which are laid down before birth and have to hang about for release – and the danger of having a baby with something wrong with it presumably increased with every year that passed.

‘Poppycock!’ murmured Erica when Tania announced that time had run out and that she was coming off the pill. ‘If doctors can’t think of one way to frighten women, they’ll think of another.’ But no one listened to Erica. She herself disliked babies and had no intention of having any. She boasted of having had three terminations.

Both Tania and Geoffrey were surprised when Tania did not get pregnant at once. Tania was perhaps, for a month or so, secretly a little relieved. Relief quickly faded, to be replaced by a nagging anxiety. They were disconcerted to be told, by friends, that her fertility might not reassert itself for a year or so, and they saw themselves now in a race against time. Every month that passed seemed to increase the danger to Tania, and to the as yet unconceived baby, which now seemed as real as they were – a gap in the room where a high-chair should be, a space in the hall where there was no pram.

After a year Tania visited the staff doctor at the newspaper where she worked, who explained that one couple in every ten was infertile: a problem masked for many couples who had taken contraceptives since the beginning. He was not suggesting Tania was infertile, simply saying it was a possibility which must be faced.

‘Good God,’ protested Geoffrey, ‘it might be me who’s infertile: he hasn’t even considered that – the man’s a cretin!’

After much discussion as to the rights and wrongs of such a step, Tania agreed to visit a doctor in private practice, who had a more enlightened view of conception.

‘It’s always a conflict between individual right and public good,’ Tania tried to explain to Erica, but Erica had no time for such excuses.

‘It always happens,’ lamented Erica. ‘The drift to the right as people grow older.’ She had no sympathy for Tania’s pale face and haunted eyes, and Geoffrey’s new quietness of demeanour, as month succeeded month, Tania’s blood flowed, and disappointment and a sense of failure ensued, in both of them. Geoffrey had no family himself, having been brought up by a solitary aunt. Tania’s elderly father made up all of her relatives. They perched, being without children, on a dead branch of a family tree, and it crackled with misery.

Geoffrey’s sperm count was normal; there was no apparent reason for Tania’s failure to conceive. She had her fallopian tubes blown up with air – a rather disagreeable and expensive operation; she took pills to increase her fertility, which also increased her chances of multiple birth; but these measures did not work. She and Geoffrey confined intercourse to days of the month when she was most likely to conceive, she took Vitamin E, drank rose-hip tea, and went to a hypnotist and after that an acupuncturist, all to no avail. Her body maintained the relentless, pulsing, bleeding course it had become so accustomed to.

When Tania was thirty-six, and worn out by hope disappointed, she gave up. ‘I shall be an aunt,’ she said, ‘everyone’s favourite aunt, since nature insists I cannot be a mother. And besides, there are certainly more than enough children in the world already, and quite enough work to be getting on with.’ Geoffrey and she agreed that the world was in a perilous state: cadmium in the fish, lead in the water, and radiation in the very air you breathed, and they concentrated their talents and energies into making it a safer place for future generations. It seemed a noble enough task.

Tania was offered the editorship of the newspaper. ‘We must consider this really carefully,’ said Geoffrey. ‘It does mean a total commitment on your part. Is this what you really want from your life? Or perhaps it’s time now for us to have a little rest and relaxation? You are looking rather tired, these days.’ Geoffrey was on a strict and successful diet. His jeans met easily enough. He still had all his hair. He looked ten years younger than his age; Tania looked perhaps a year or two older than hers, and had a tendency to eat cream éclairs and put sugar in her coffee.

‘You must stop this consolation eating,’ said Erica, who was thin and muscly. ‘It is obscene for someone as fortunate as you to need consolation,’ and Tania realised the truth of this, lost a stone, and was herself again.

Tania turned down the editorship, and she and Geoffrey adopted a half-Vietnamese, half-American little girl, aged four when they first saw her and five when they took possession of her. In the interval, the delicate Vietnamese features Geoffrey had so loved seemed to have given way to a certain American jowliness and clumsiness. But Tania loved her. They named her Star. In the interval, too, Tania became pregnant and gave birth to identical girl twins.

‘You should never have taken the fertility pill,’ said Erica. ‘Two! It’s unnatural! Monozygotic – more of a mutation than anything else!’

The doctor – their local GP once more, for care of three children was expensive, and the whole family now had to live on one salary (Geoffrey’s) instead of two – said, ‘Nonsense! A completely random chance. Nothing to do with the fertility drug at all,’ and might have been right, for all anyone knew.

It was out of the question for Geoffrey to share household chores – it took him all his energy to bring in enough money to keep the household going. It was out of the question for Tania to earn – one disturbed five-year-old (little Star lied, fought and stole, and had to have the reassurance of Tania’s constant attention) and twin babies took up all her time and energy.

‘I knew you’d both revert to type,’ said Erica, and Tania wished she’d go away. It was not as if Erica ever washed out a bottle or offered to soothe a crying infant. All she seemed to do was pop round when Tania was feeding Sally and Susan and ask Geoffrey round to the pub for a drink. He’d go, too.

‘Of course Erica has turned lesbian,’ he said, eventually. ‘Well, I can understand that. Why should a woman make do with a man, when she can have another woman?’

And Erica faded out of the picture. Well, is there a marriage in the world in which each partner is forever true, in word, deed and fantasy, to the other?

The world outside continued to deteriorate. Oil prices soared; energy crises ensued; police states threatened, at home and abroad; certifiable madmen headed previously dignified states; even Geoffrey’s job looked not so secure as before. But Tania was happy enough with her family.

‘We must look after the next generation,’ said Geoffrey, when Star was nine and the twins were four. ‘It’s all we can do for the world. We must adopt a child whom no one else wants.’

‘Can we afford it?’

‘Good heavens,’ said Geoffrey. ‘Families of nine manage very well on half what I earn!’

‘But it’s so nice,’ said Tania, ‘to have everyone out of nappies, and just a little time to myself.’

‘Darling,’ said Geoffrey, ‘I know what it’s like for you. Any time you want. I’ll stay home and look after the kids while you go out to work. I’m pretty tired of the rat-race, I can tell you.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tania doubtfully. ‘I seem to have rather got out of the way of things. And where would I find a job that paid as much as yours, or had such nice long holidays? No, things are pretty good as they are. We’ll carry on a little longer.’

Geoffrey quickly took Tania to a Children’s Home to see a child who had passed through his office files, and was being put up for adoption. She was the prettiest, blondest, most delicate little creature ever put in care, said Geoffrey, and Tania was obliged to agree. Her name was Jenny. She was six. She smiled at Geoffrey and looked coldly at Tania.

‘Oh Geoffrey we can’t,’ cried Tania, having woken in the middle of that night from a recurrence of her old trouble – a nightmare. ‘It will upset Star too much, and make the twins jealous. An older or a younger child, but not one in the middle, please. Not a blonde, when the others are so dark, not a girl, when we have three girls already, and not a girl with this particular history, and most of all not now.’

‘Night fears!’ said Geoffrey. ‘Perhaps you should try primal scream therapy?’

But Tania now hardly had the time, let alone the energy, to scream. They took in little Jenny who had remained un-snapped up by adoptors, in spite of her prettiness, because of her psychiatric history. She was mildly autistic, given to sudden shouts and fits of swearing and aggression, and her very presence in the house made Star revert to her earlier state of distress and the twins adopt an irritating private language of their own. Tania, by dedication and with help from Geoffrey, had the household reasonably peaceful within six months, but was always aware of Jenny’s hostility.

The night of the nightmare Tania must have conceived. Certainly the dates were about right, though why she should make a connection between the two events she was not quite sure. She was delighted to be pregnant, to have this second affirmation of her femininity after the dreadful years, and Geoffrey was proud as a peacock. He had not been able to have a vasectomy after all, because new evidence had come to light about possible side-effects and premature senility. Nor did she any longer wish vasectomy upon him. The long years of infertility had changed them both, made them value what they had together, and given an underlying seriousness to the act of sex. They even discussed the possibility of becoming Catholics. They understood the Pope’s stand on contraception, but could not quite accept the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and so did not in the end undergo conversion.

‘Anyway,’ said Tania, ‘your work colleagues would laugh at you. I’m sure they’re all atheists!’

‘Atheists, vedantists, Marxists and idiots,’ said Geoffrey. He was disenchanted with work.

There was quite a scare when it looked as if Tania was having twins again, but it did not happen. She gave birth to a son, Simon. But something rather strange happened to her insides at the same time – perhaps the earlier blowing and scraping and medicating was to blame, although the doctor laughed and said nonsense. At any rate, Tania was told she would not be able to conceive any more, and would do well to have a hysterectomy.

Geoffrey cried, and Tania put it off as long as she could, but in the end the strain of losing blood, and the care of five children, two of them disturbed and one of them a baby, told too much, and she had her hysterectomy. The event seemed to depress Geoffrey very much – his moodiness got worse, and he did not even bother to take it to the pub, out of Tania’s way. He worried more and more about the lead, the strontium, the ozone layer, earthquakes, volcanoes, the government, plots against him at work, the onset of nuclear war, and received an offer of redundancy pay from his employers, which he hotly and bitterly declined. Tania went on looking after the children.

Simon grew to be a lively, clever child, but Geoffrey saw signs of doom written in his eyes, and when Tania was forty-three, and Simon two, he said it was time to adopt another child.

‘Oh no, oh no!’ begged Tania. She was worried about a swollen vein in her leg, and thought it might be the beginning of a varicose vein.

‘Good God,’ said Geoffrey, ‘you’re lucky to have a leg! Lots of people don’t even have legs to have varicose veins in!’ and Tania was obliged to admit it was true. She did a lot of walking and lugging shopping about. They had sold the car because it was polluting the air with lead fumes, and adding to the general distress of the world.

‘I don’t think anyone’s going to let us adopt a child,’ said Tania, firmly. ‘Anyone in their right mind would say we had enough!’

She mourned the loss of that female part of her which seemed to have gone with her womb. She felt strange without it: a person. And though Geoffrey told her that was what everyone must try to be, a person, except in bed when you were allowed to be male or female, she was not altogether comforted. She had hormone therapy now, to counteract the effect of being without a womb, and took oestrogen by mouth again, as once she had before, in her young, carefree days, when she did what she wanted, and not what she had to.

Geoffrey asked around, and, indeed, it looked as if another adoption would be hard to arrange, even if they undertook to take in a deviant fourteen-year-old male half-caste, the most difficult kind of child to place. He felt it was Tania’s fault.

‘You sit there at these interviews looking tired and exhausted on purpose,’ he said. ‘I’m sure you do. It’s unconscious, of course. I’m not accusing you of open negativism, but the results are the same. Poor little Simon has to have a brother. The only boy! He’s going to be so lonely, and have trouble with his role identification.’

‘He can identify with me,’ said Tania. ‘I’m a person, aren’t I?’

She tried not to make remarks like this, but at the time Star was staying out all night and Jenny had reverted to wetting the bed and biting the sheets to ribbons and the twins were playing truant from school and she was tired.

‘Education is the prison of the mind.’ said Geoffrey, who seemed unalarmed by such symptoms. ‘The twins are showing courage and sense in staying away from their school!’ Tania wondered if it were so: she still saw their way ahead as she had her own – through the educational system and the passing of examinations, to the pinnacle of free thought and the free expression of that thought. As for helping the less advantaged members of the community – Geoffrey did that on a large scale, she on an individual one. Well, that was how it went; how it had turned out.

She knew that Geoffrey was right: she saw that while she had life and strength and good-will she must feed it back, in her small way, into the community. How else was the world to be saved? But she knew that to bring another child into the family would do little Simon no good at all. He was the youngest, her perfect son, passionately she wished him a safe and peaceful upbringing.

‘Tania,’ said Geoffrey, ‘if everyone of goodwill doesn’t do their utmost now, there won’t be a world to bring him up in!’

The nuclear threat hung over him like a cloud. Erica made a brief appearance. ‘One would almost think Geoffrey was earmarked for his own personal missile,’ she whispered, in a voice grown impossibly soft and sexy. She seemed less musely and athletic as she grew older: just rather slender and vulnerable. She had time to paint her toenails. She hadn’t veered to the political right with age, just to the soft left of the Women’s Movement. No truck there with the separatists, those who looked ahead to a world without men.

Geoffrey explained to Erica how the war between good and evil was hotting up, and how all those on the side of good must be very, very busy indeed about their business.

‘You really ought to try and cheer him up, Tania,’ said Erica. She was mysterious about her own life, but Tania had the distinct feeling she was heterosexual again. She herself remained, perforce, very much a person. Geoffrey had rather gone off sex, lately. Their nights were usually disturbed by one or other of the five children, and sleep seemed the highest pleasure.

But Geoffrey did not give up the thought of adopting another child. ‘The balance of the household isn’t right,’ he complained. ‘I can feel it isn’t. We must have another boy, and you don’t have the wherewithal any more to provide one yourself. Tania, I’ll help you with everything. You know I will.’

‘You’re very good,’ said Tania. ‘You always help with the washing-up!’

He lay awake wondering how to acquire a baby. She had nightmares, again. What had the psychotherapist said, long, long ago? The daily denial of femininity? It began to make sense. She took another oestrogen pill. If ever she forgot, she had hot flushes and became depressed.

‘Have I ever before asked you to make a sacrifice for me?’ asked Geoffrey. ‘I’m asking you, begging you, now, in the name of our love, and everything we have struggled for together: our common beliefs and aspirations. You in your way, I in mine. We must have another son!’

Tania gave in. One day shortly afterwards Geoffrey came home from work in the middle of the day, carrying an Eskimo baby, two hours old.

‘Eskimo!’ exclaimed Tania, looking at the serene little face framed in its greyish open-mesh social-welfare blanket, as Geoffrey handed the infant to her.

‘It was meant,’ said Geoffrey. ‘It was a sign that I was right! An Eskimo – one of the most oppressed and endangered human species in the world!’

If you have been married for a long, long time, what seems strange to the outside world, seems quite normal to husband and wife. Tania could accept Geoffrey’s reasoning. She could see that it was meant. God’s will, that a pregnant Eskimo girl should stow away in a crate of scientific instruments on an aircraft bound from Alaska to Heathrow. God’s will that by a series of miracles she and the baby should survive, should end up in the vast offices of Camden Social Services, that she should give birth, there and then, in the space of five minutes, to a healthy nine-pound baby boy, hand the baby to Geoffrey, and die.

As Geoffrey had a wife at home ready and willing to look after a newborn baby, and the doctor said of course any home was better than any institution for an orphaned baby and the sooner he was in a woman’s arms the better, Geoffrey left with the baby as the undertaker arrived. The Social Services department was like that, said Geoffrey. Sometimes nothing seemed to happen for weeks – then everything all at once.

Tania reared the Eskimo baby, and thought perhaps Geoffrey had been right. The presence of this particular child seemed to soothe the others. Geoffrey remained moody and full of blame, however. When the baby was a year old, he determined to take them all on holiday in Crete. Tania was at first dubious of the wisdom of such a plan, but Geoffrey persisted and presently she and the children were looking forward to the holiday with happiness and animation. The money spent on the holiday had nearly been spent on a nuclear shelter. It had been a toss-up. Not quite a toss-up: Geoffrey had held out his clenched fists to the Eskimo baby; one hand was marked Shelter and the other Holiday, and the child had chosen Holiday.

It took Tania a week to prepare for the journey. The requisites of six children require a good deal of parental organising, although Geoffrey did what he could to help. They were to drive to the airport, and be there by two. That meant leaving the house at half-past twelve. At twenty past twelve Star discovered she had started her first period, to Sally and Susan’s consternation. The party’s departure was delayed by fifteen minutes, which meant that Geoffrey would have to drive fast to the airport to make up for lost time, but he did not seem particularly disconcerted. When the family was re-settled nicely in the car, and the engine started. Geoffrey seemed to remember something, switched off the engine, said, ‘Just a minute,’ and went inside.

Fifteen minutes later, as he had not returned, Tania disentangled herself from various living limbs and went to look for him. She found him in the back-garden. He had shot himself dead, with a gun he should not have had.

She could give no explanation to the coroner; she could give no explanation to herself. He had drifted into some kind of melancholy, she supposed, so gradually that she had not noticed. Perhaps if she had, she could have saved him? But she had been busy, she tried to excuse herself, and about his business more than her own. No one seemed inclined to blame her, so she blamed herself. There was no insurance; the mortgage company seemed to own the house. She worried in case he could not, as a suicide, be buried in consecrated ground, but there seemed no longer any time or indeed opportunity for such worry, at the great overworked institutions which look after the disposal of the dead. He had once said, in joking casual conversation, he wanted to be buried and burned, so she arranged for his cremation and the burial of his ashes.

It was quite a large gathering around the open grave, as the coffin containing the casket was lowered into the ground. (This particular bureaucracy, too, worked in strange ways: easier to go along with it than arrange for a rational casket-size coffin.) For a child who had started out an orphan, Geoffrey had accumulated a large family of friends, colleagues and relatives. It had been a successful life, so far as it had gone. Erica was there, by the graveside, with a year-old baby in her arms. If the child looked like Geoffrey, and Tania rather thought it might, it seemed not to matter.

She looked at her children – at Star, Susan, Sally, Jenny, Simon and at the stocky little baby who rested placidly enough on her hip – and wondered what was to become of them all. ‘Geoffrey,’ she asked in her heart, into the still, sniffy quiet around the grave, as the first token lumps of soil were thrown. ‘What am I going to do now?’ But Geoffrey did not reply.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences