Read An Extract: The Greatest Gift by Rachael Johns

The Greatest Gift is the poignant, heartwarming story of two women: one who wants nothing else than to be a mum, and one who never wanted to be a mother, from the bestselling, ABIA award-winning author of The Patterson Girls.


Prologue

Please God, let this not be happening to me.

Although she was not usually a person who prayed, these words had been on repeat in her head since she’d opened her student diary last night and almost had a heart attack. She was late. Not late on her next essay—she’d never been late for school work in her life. But nor had she ever skipped a period since that first one when she was eleven years old.

Thankful the university bathroom appeared empty, she screwed up her nose at the pungent smell that hit her as she entered and took the package she’d bought that morning into a cubicle. With trembling hands she locked the door, then sat on the closed toilet seat and removed the test kit from the brown paper bag. It had been easy to find in the pharmacy—right next to the condoms for some bizarre reason—but taking it up to the counter and handing over her money had been mortifying. Her cheeks had burnt so badly she felt as if they were actually on fire. She’d imagined what the middle-aged woman who served her was thinking.

Another silly girl who’s been careless with contraception.

But that’s just it, she hadn’t been—she took the pill religiously— so there had to be some other explanation. With this thought calming her a little, she opened the box and read the instructions. They seemed relatively straightforward, so after a deep breath, she followed them.

The kit said it could be three minutes before a result appeared, and she just knew they’d be the most agonising minutes of her life.

But in the end she didn’t have to wait a fraction of that time.

Two little blue lines appeared right beneath her eyes as she held the stick tightly in her hand.

‘No!’ She let out a gut-wrenching sob as she stared down at the result. This could not be happening.

But perhaps it was wrong. That happened, right? Maybe she’d bought a faulty kit. She ripped the plastic off the second stick and did it all over again. This result took a fraction longer to appear and for a few wonderful seconds, she thought she was off the hook, but then reality came crashing down in the form of two more lines.

She spun around and dropped to the floor just in time. Clutching the toilet bowl, tears streamed down her face as she heaved up her breakfast. Was this morning sickness already? Or just a violent reaction to the devastating news?

At nineteen years old, two years into her degree, she wasn’t ready to be a mother. She was pretty damn certain she’d never be. If she did this, she’d need support and that was sorely lacking in her life right now. Her older sister had flown off only a week ago to take up a PhD position in Antarctica and her mum was even less reliable than her boyfriend.

This was her worst nightmare come true.

Chapter One

August 2016

Harper Drummond, unarguably one of the best interviewers in the country, pulled off her headphones and stood. Although only thirty-four herself, her radio show—Afternoons with Harper—appealed to young and old alike. When people tuned in they never knew exactly what they were going to get but they were guaranteed entertainment and enrichment. Harper had a knack of getting to the nitty-gritty of people’s lives, an ability that many journalists with years more experience than her just didn’t possess. Leading up to election time, she interviewed potential PMs and politicians. When international celebrities came down under she put them in her hot seat, grilling them about everything from their career highlights to their deepest fears and a whole host of other juicy topics. It was a rare afternoon where Harper didn’t uncover some snippet of information that had never been spilled before.

But political wannabes, film stars and musical hotshots weren’t the only people she invited on air. She also chatted with the less obvious heroes of society. A young obstetrician who cared for abandoned mothers and delivered babies in Niger. Ex-homicide detectives. Bestselling authors. Stand-up comics. Prisoners. Recovering drug users. Teenage inventors. A man who’d grown up in a cult. Famous feminists. Sex workers. The list was endless, and yet everyone who came on Afternoons with Harper was made to feel as if they were the most interesting person she’d ever interviewed. She was meticulous about research, so that by the time she was sitting opposite someone she could hold an hour-long conversation without ever once looking down at her notes. People were her obsession—the intricacies of their lives fascinated her—and that came across to the listeners who, day after day, kept coming back for more.

Guests were selected in a variety of ways. Publicists across the country sent interview requests by the dozen, but Harper and her hotshot producer Lilia only granted a small fraction of these. Mostly they preferred to select potential interviewees themselves—people they’d read or heard about from one source or another. And, until today, Harper had never had an ulterior motive for inviting a specific person—or in this case people—onto the show.

She smiled through the glass at the trio who had just arrived and were speaking with Lilia, then she opened the studio door and went out to greet them.

‘Hi,’ she said brightly. ‘I’m Harper Drummond, lovely to meet you all.’

Lilia glanced at her watch and then went through the introductions. She gestured first to the tall, thin woman by her side that reminded Harper a little of Mary Poppins, all perfect dark hair, glowing cheeks and a smile that looked like it had a life of its own. ‘This is Mel Sharman.’

‘Hello. Nice to meet you.’ Mel’s smile grew even more as she and Harper exchanged handshakes.

Next was the couple. ‘And this is Amy and Shep Bird.’

Joined at the hands and pressed so close together Harper couldn’t see light between them, they had to let go of each other to accept her hand. She shook the man’s first—he had a firm grip, but slightly sweaty palms, which made her want to wipe her hand against her black tailored pants. She resisted and slipped it into his wife’s hand, which shook a little, instead.

‘Thanks so much for coming in to talk to us,’ Harper said, wanting to put them all at ease.

‘Oh, it’s our pleasure,’ gushed Amy. ‘I adore your show. I can’t listen live normally ’cos I’m at work, so I listen to the podcast in the evenings when I walk the dog.’ She rubbed her hand over her bulging bump, drawing Harper’s eyes to it. Did pregnant women realise they did that? Was it a considered action—hey everyone, look I’m pregnant!—or was it a subconscious thing?

She shook the thought from her head. ‘Thank you. I’m glad you like it. Now, shall we head on into the studio?’

Her three guests nodded enthusiastically and as Harper ushered them into the room, Lilia said, ‘I’ll get you each a glass of water.’

‘Thanks,’ Harper called and then shut the door behind them. Mel, Amy and Shep stood like dummies just inside the door, gazing at the multiple computer screens on the studio desk and the microphones lined up on the guests’ side. She could tell immediately that none of them had been on air before, but she preferred it that way. People who’d been on radio, even only once, often thought themselves experts and sometimes tried to take over, as if they knew how to do her job better than she did.

Smiling encouragingly at her guests, Harper walked around behind the desk and nodded towards the mics. ‘They don’t bite, I promise. Take a seat on one of the stools and get comfortable.’ She glanced at the time on the bottom of one of her computer screens as she put her headphones on again. ‘We’re on air in sixty seconds.’

At this news, the trio scooted forward and took their positions at the desk.

‘Do we need to wear headphones as well?’ Shep asked.

‘No. I wear these so Lilia can speak to me. You don’t need to lean forward or shout into the microphones either. Just talk as if we’re all having a normal conversation.’

They nodded as the door opened and Lilia entered carrying three glasses of water. She placed one in front of each of the guests, said ‘Good luck, have fun,’ and then left the studio just as Lucy wrapped up the weather report.

‘Enjoy today’s lovely spring weather because tomorrow you’ll all want your winter coats and scarves again. Now, back to Afternoons with Harper. I’ll be back in an hour with another news update.’

Harper launched straight into the next segment of her show. ‘Today we have three guests on Afternoons. Three guests, but one story. One in six Australian couples struggles with infertility and although the reason varies from case to case, the struggle is real and it’s not something that we as a society spend much time talking about. But perhaps it’s time this changed as the emotional fallout can have a devastating impact on women, men, families and relationships. With me today are Amy and Shep Bird.’

She smiled at them. ‘Thirty-three year old Amy is a primary school teacher and thirty-six year old Shep is a pilot. Shep, can you tell me a little about the day you met your wife?’

A grin sprouted on his face as he reached over and took hold of Amy’s hand. ‘I was working up in the Northern Territory taking tourists on scenic flights over Kakadu—’

‘And I was backpacking around Australia,’ Amy interjected.

‘With her best friend.’ Shep smiled at her. ‘We met at a bar one night and she started flirting with me, hoping I might give her—’

‘A free flight.’ Amy shrugged. ‘I was a student, I needed to watch my pennies.’

‘I told her I would,’ Shep said, ‘if she agreed to go on a date with me.’

‘It was hardly a hardship,’ Amy mused. ‘He was gorgeous and I’d have gone out with him even without the freebie.’

‘So I’m guessing that first date went well,’ Harper said. ‘Was it a whirlwind romance?’

Amy nodded. ‘I didn’t believe in love at first sight until I met Shep, but by the end of our first date I knew he was the one. We were married six weeks later in—’

‘Bali in front of a whole host of our family and friends,’ Shep concluded.

‘Sounds magical,’ Harper said. It was easy to visualise golden-headed Amy as a blushing bride. ‘And what was the plan after that? How did you navigate the long-distance relationship?’

Shep winked. ‘Amy couldn’t bear to be away from me so she moved up to the Territory with me.’

His wife rolled her eyes. ‘The way I recall it you begged me to move, but I guess my arm didn’t take much twisting. I worked in a pub up there and we stayed while Shep got the experience he needed to apply for a job with a bigger airline. Then we came to Sydney, which was where we were both from anyway.’

Harper nodded. The way these two interacted—finishing each other’s sentences and barely able to take their eyes off each other—it was clear they were still as smitten as they day they met, but her research told her they’d had their fair share of disappointments. ‘And did you decide to have a family immediately?’

‘No.’ Amy again caressed her bump, as if to remind herself this story had a happy ending. ‘Although we both wanted kids, we thought it would be sensible to establish ourselves—buy a house, that sort of thing—before we brought a new life into the world. We were married five years before we started trying.’

‘And did you expect to conceive easily? Was there any family history of infertility?’

‘I’m one of five kids,’ Shep told her, ‘and Amy is one of three. It never crossed our minds that it wouldn’t be smooth sailing.’

‘I’d done enough reading to know it might take a few months to get the timing right, but after six months with no success, taking my temperature daily, using ovulation kits, keeping my legs up in the air after … you know—’ Amy blushed a little, but continued, ‘—we went to see our doctor. She told us to come back in six months, but that we’d likely be pregnant by then.’

‘But you weren’t,’ Harper prodded.

‘No,’ they said in unison, sharing a look between them. Amy explained that after numerous tests they discovered she had premature ovarian failure. ‘We immediately started on IVF but after ten failed attempts, we began to lose hope.’

‘And why did you feel such a great need to have a baby? To go to such lengths?’

Amy frowned, then shrugged. ‘All my life I’ve imagined being a mother. It just never occurred to us that it might not be possible.’

‘So what happened next? What alternatives were presented to you?’ Harper asked.

Shep listed the options that they’d contemplated—adoption, surrogacy, fostering, and finally, egg donation—and explained that, in the end, the latter had seemed the best fit for them.

‘And that’s where today’s third guest comes in,’ Harper said, giving Mel an encouraging smile. ‘Also with us in the studio is Mel Sharman, a thirty-one year old mother of three who did something for Amy and Shep that has changed their lives. Mel gave them the greatest gift anyone could possibly offer another—she donated some of her own eggs so that Amy and Shep could become parents. Until a year ago Mel had never met the Birds, but now Amy is eight months pregnant. She will be the mother in all ways that matter, but the baby is biologically Shep and Mel’s. I’m going to dive right in and ask what triggered you to become an egg donor?’

Mel leant forward and spoke into the microphone. ‘Late one night while breastfeeding my youngest child I saw a documentary about egg donation, and the pleas of the childless couples touched my heart. Some women had genetic conditions hindering their hopes of getting pregnant and others simply hadn’t met the right guy until it was too late. My husband and I got pregnant easily and had been blessed with three gorgeous little girls, but I tried to imagine how I’d feel if I couldn’t have them. That was the turning point for me. We felt our family was complete but I knew I had healthy eggs to spare and I wanted to share them.’

‘What was your husband’s reaction when you told him what you wanted to do?’

‘At first he thought lack of sleep had finally got to me—’ Mel chuckled, and the others laughed as well, ‘—but when he realised how serious I was, he actually didn’t take long to convince.’

‘What did the two of you discuss?’

‘He was most worried about the potential effects that donating eggs might have on my body, and he was also concerned about how our daughters might one day feel when they found out that they had technical half-siblings out there. But we spoke to my doctor and we did a lot of research around the issue before we finally made our decision.’

Harper took a breath. ‘Let’s pause a moment there and discuss the legal aspects of your situation. As I understand it—and please correct me if I’m wrong—egg donation in Australia is an entirely altruistic business. It is illegal to buy or sell human tissue, therefore donors cannot be paid for their eggs, but medical costs may be covered by the recipient couple.’

‘That’s right,’ Mel said, twisting her wedding ring on her finger.

‘And once the baby is born, the access the donor has to the baby is not so set in stone. Is that right?’

The three exchanged looks as if deciding who should take the question, and then Mel spoke again. ‘Yes, there are two main options available to recipient couples—an anonymous donor or a known donor. Overseas, in countries where you can buy human eggs legally, anonymous donation happens a lot more, but in Australia, it’s much more common to use a known donor. And it’s up to the donor and the recipients to determine what kind of contact they will have after the embryo transfer.’

‘And by “known donor” you don’t simply mean a friend or relative of the couple, but sometimes as in your case, a stranger who becomes known during the process. I’m curious. Amy and Shep, how did you find Mel?’

‘Mel runs an online group connecting women and couples with potential donors. I signed up to the group and we started chatting.’

The rest of the hour went super fast, talking about the medical process involved in getting pregnant via egg donation, but also emotional ramifications for both parties and their families. Harper found herself surprised at how fascinated she was by their story.

She had many more questions she wanted to ask, but Lilia was on the other side of the glass making wrap-it-up signals with her hands. Her producer ran a tight ship and didn’t like their interviews to go overtime any more than she liked mess on her desk.

‘We’re almost out of time,’ Harper said with a reluctant sigh, ‘but before we conclude our conversation, tell me, Mel, would you do this again? Either for the Birds or another couple.’

‘Actually,’ Mel began, ‘Amy and Shep’s baby will be the second born from my eggs. I also donated to a single mother who delivered a healthy baby boy earlier in the year and I’m currently in discussions with a gorgeous gay couple. But if that match goes ahead, then I think that’ll be it for me. Legally my eggs can be given to up to five families, including my own, but my husband and I feel comfortable with four. Though I’d donate again if any of my current families wanted a sibling for their children.’

‘Wow, what a generous gift you have given,’ Harper concluded, folding her hands together on the desk. ‘I want to thank you all for coming into the studio today and sharing your story. And if any listeners are considering donating or receiving eggs and would like more information about any aspect of the process, there’ll be a number of useful links in our show notes. I’ll be back tomorrow to interview Australia’s newest Guinness World Record Holder and you’ll be surprised to learn what that record is. But for now, over to Lucy for the four o’clock news.’

As the news jingle sounded around them, Harper once again removed her headset. ‘You guys were great. Thanks so much for coming in,’ she said, pushing to her feet. She looked to Amy and Shep. ‘Best wishes for your new arrival. Be sure to send us a photo when he or she comes.’

‘Thank you, we will.’ Shep offered his hand in a goodbye shake as Lilia opened the door and hurried into the studio.

‘Great job,’ she said to the guests, and then ushered them out before they could continue the conversation. Most of the time, Harper appreciated Lilia’s efficiency, but today she wouldn’t have minded asking Mel a few further questions.

Instead, she left the studio and went into the staff kitchen to grab a coffee. She grabbed a pod for the machine but was staring absently at it, thinking about Amy and Shep’s story, when Lilia found her.

The producer paused in the doorway, her eyebrows raised and one hand perched on her hip. ‘Do I need to buy you a new watch?’

Harper stifled a smile. So she’d almost gone over time, so what? ‘Sorry, but you and I both know the bad news would still have been waiting at five past four.’

Lilia came further into the kitchen and stopped a few inches short of Harper. ‘What was all that about anyway?’

Harper’s insides clenched but she frowned at her colleague and feigned ignorance. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Do you think I was born yesterday? There was something personal about that interview. You were different—more invested— when asking the questions.’

‘I thought I always came across that way,’ she exclaimed as she slotted the pod into the machine.

Lilia’s expression softened to one of concern. ‘Are you and Samuel struggling to get pregnant? Is that it?’

‘No! God no.’ She almost laughed. ‘You know we don’t want children.’

‘Then what’s going on?’

Harper sighed. That was the million-dollar question. ‘Do you have time for a drink?’ she asked.


We hope you enjoyed this sample of The Greatest Gift!

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