When I told the counsellor from the university, a tall thin man, who went by the name of Bryan Brown, that I was living with a gambler and that as a consequence my life was uncertain and I was not sure I could finish my studies, he raised his eyebrows. We sat in his small office in the Old Arts Building on the second floor of the university, an office tucked away in what felt to me like a broom cupboard. It was part of the student counselling service. The service was free to all students. I went because Delys Sargeant, who took us for Social Biology, had rung the week before to tell me I had failed my Social Biology exam.
Her voice was serious over the telephone. ‘You failed because you didn’t answer the question.’
It came as a shock. It was one of those open book exams where you get the question a week before the exam with time enough to prepare and then on the day you go into the exam room and you have an hour in which to answer the question. The question was about pollution and the effect it had on a community’s health. I thought I’d answered it well. I had laid out my complete answer before the exam, then rote learned it in readiness for the time I sat in the exam room, when all I needed to do was reproduce it. I was finished in half the time necessary, but stayed till the end rereading and perfecting each word into what I thought was a fine essay. But I had failed because whatever words I had written down did not address the question.
‘You’ll be okay if you do well enough in your final exam,’ Delys Seargeant said. It freaked me out. It was cruel I thought to ring a student with such news in the middle of swat vac, with exams just around the corner. Besides, I was fearful I might be pregnant. I had not bothered with contraception while living with my gambler boyfriend, Paul, because I figured I didn’t need it. I never ate much food in those days and it had somehow stopped my periods.
I liked to be thin and lean, although Paul complained I didn’t have enough flesh on me for him to enjoy. I told the counsellor I might be pregnant.
‘You’re not using any contraception?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said.
‘Not even condoms?’
‘No.’ I did not tell him about my eating habits.
‘You’re the gambler,’ he said and recommended I start in group therapy as soon as possible. ‘I’ll arrange an appointment for you with our group therapist, Dr Turkle.’
I went home to Paul. I decided against telling him I might be pregnant. I decided against telling him I’d failed my exam, but in the back of my mind I decided all would be well. I’d sit the end of year exams, but if I failed I’d be pregnant. I could have a baby and all would be well.
We sat together in the poky kitchen of our brown-bricked apartment in Ormond and I thought once more about his eyes. They were the part of Paul that drew me to him, his childlike eyes and the roundness of his face, as open as a dinner plate. I would not tell him of my plans or fears, not until I was certain. Paul had decided to live the life of a professional gambler. Given I was studying and not earning any money at all except during the Christmas holidays when I could take up casual work, we relied entirely on his peripatetic income of wins and losses. It was not good enough for a horse to lose by a half a whisker, Paul once told me. The horse had to win, otherwise our electricity might get cut off or we’d live off yogurt and bread for a week.
As part of my social work training that year, I was assigned to Melanie Pope from the Catholic Family Welfare Bureau in charge of young women who became pregnant outside of marriage and needed to give up their babies for adoption.
The week after my exams when I did not know my results, whether pregnant or whether I had failed, not only social biology, but psychology, sociology and my social work exams, I went with her one day to visit a group of pregnant women who were spending their pregnancies in a house in Carlton, in a type of secret location, though no one said as much. The house was a double storey terrace in Grattan Street not far from the university. The Sisters of Charity, who looked after the fallen women in their sinful state, ran it.
Melanie Pope knocked at the front door and a young woman answered. She had a sad face, and a big belly though not as big as the other women who sat around in the living room next door to the office where we met the head nun who supervised them.
It was Melanie Pope’s job to interview these women close to the time when their babies would be born and offer advice on the pros and cons of adoption.
‘We’re a Catholic agency,’ Melanie Pope had told me when I first began my placement, and so we only deal with women who go through to the end with their pregnancies. ‘We can’t advise abortion. It’s against the Church’s rules and we find it best to encourage the girls to give up their babies. There are plenty of good Catholic married women who can’t have babies of their own and would be far better placed to care for these unwanted ones.’
My mind flicked inside to the middle of my body wherein I imagined I carried a tiny baby of my own.
‘Of course they’re free to keep their babies, too, ‘Melanie Pope said. She flicked back a wisp of her otherwise perfectly held blond hair. Melanie Pope was not much older than me, and not much older than the young women who filed through this house, but she seemed older by a decade, as if her role as arbitrator on the fate of these unwanted babies and mothers gave her an authority that aged her overnight.
That evening at home with Paul, while I cooked him a plate of battered fish, and kept my own grilled and batter-less, I was relieved to have a boyfriend who would care for my baby and me, even though we were unmarried, and our lives insecure. I would not need to go into such a home with all those women, full of babies that they would soon need to give up to someone else. And those young women, once their babies were born would then need to go back into the world and try to pick up the pieces of where they had left off and pretend that none of it had happened.
Over the next week I swotted over my books. I rote-learned the theories of operant conditioning, Skinner’s theory of learning and Pavlov’s dogs, the way they would do anything on cue when given the right reward. I learned the rituals of case work as decreed by Florence Hollis, a pioneer in the field, on how to greet people at the door, how to conduct open ended questions during interviews, how to be empathic, and what to say to a client who gets angry with you. I read up again and again on anomie and Durkheim’s theories of gemeinshaft and gesselshaft, and tried to remember the translations of these foreign words. So much to learn and so uncertain about my future but I was determined to take it all in.
After the exams were over, I went to meet Dr Turkle, the group’s therapist, as instructed. He sat behind his desk and wore a thick red moustache and beard that covered almost all of his face, except for his eyes, which were beady like a bird’s and left me with a feeling of fear. The certainty of his movements, and authority in his voice added to my clumsiness. I felt small at the desk of this towering man.
‘We’ll put you into the mixed group that runs Wednesdays each week for two hours.’
‘Can I think about it first?’ I asked.
Dr Turkle’s eyes widened. ‘You want to think about it?’ he said, as if it was a given I’d go into a group.
I burst into tears, not knowing what those tears were about. Something to do with the certainty of this man who seemed to know what was good for me when I was filled with doubt.
Still no period, but by then I feared I might not be pregnant. Nothing in my body felt any different and I had read that pregnant women’s breasts swell and pregnant women around six weeks begin to feel nauseous. I felt none of these things. But I continued to hope for a pregnancy as one way forward.
‘You may think about it,’ Dr Turkle said and stroked his beard. ‘We’ll be taking a month off over Christmas. You could start beginning of January.’
I wiped my eyes, aware of how stupid I might have seemed to go into floods of tears without an explanation, but Dr Turkle was not interested in my tears in any case. He seemed only to want to slot me into a group.
‘You can make another appointment with my secretary on your way out.’
When the exam results were pinned onto the notice board outside the Law buildings two weeks before Christmas, I held my breath. I had rote-learned my student number, 98354201, but could not find it anywhere on the list. I was too scared to look too closely, too sure it would not be there, that I could not find it and went off home ready to tell Paul about our possible new future as parents.
Before Paul came home that night from another day at the races, the phone rang.
‘Congratulations,’ the voice said. ‘You got a second class honours with me.’ It was Damian, the man I sat next to in psychology lectures. He knew my number because he’d asked me to tell him so he could know how we both went and I had not thought to keep it secret from him.
How fast my plans changed. I took myself off to the local doctor who did a pregnancy test and gave me the news I’d failed.
‘Now’s your chance,’ he said. ‘You can start afresh and protect yourself from the worry of an unwanted pregnancy.’
My gamble was over.