Charlie eyed the waiting room children's toys with uneasy judgement. He was picturing the countless children over the years who had played with blocks on rails, the picture book with flaps for doors, windows, and gates, and a winding, pull-along caterpillar with wheels, imagining what it would be like if he had a child with Natasha, sitting beside him in Dr. Manning's practice, to bring and let play with them.
Charlie's attention was pulled away from the box of toys, focusing on Natasha, scrolling videos on her phone at full volume, switching back to rapidly reply to a group chat, answering with racing thumbs across the screen. How could he have ever found himself involved with Natasha, who was to him unseemly and crass, Charlie thought to himself. But this was the middle-class denial talking. There were more than a few reasons.
The first was Natasha. In fact, it was exactly her low-brow mannerism and lack of tact that Charlie wilfully read as exciting and assertive, coupled with the fact Natasha was particularly blessed physically and wasn't shy about showing off. At twenty-years-old, Natasha was at a fortunate threshold, for Charlie, to have found his interest in her, as an older man, as a “Daddy”, as she put it, flattering. She was young enough to still need fatherly re-affirmations, but old enough where Charlie didn't feel too awkward filling the position.
Charlie, as you may have guessed, is not a good man. He is, like most married men in their late-thirties, unfaithful. Where some opt for emotional or mental infidelity, Charlie instead had a physical affair. That is another reason Charlie is here with Natasha, at half-six in the evening, long after Dr. Manning's practice had closed for the day; unrequited appetites.
Charlie and his oblivious wife, Mary, have been married for six, going on seven, years now. They were happily married for the first two, tolerantly married the next two, and distant for the last two or so. Civil, oh yes! And pleasant, most definitely. They did and do care for each other, but in the way one may care for a paralysed limb; perhaps it would be better if you let it go, but what if you miss your chance to breathe life back into it again by some miracle? Perhaps it was late nights at work, or age, or the steady march of the mundane, or undiagnosed depression, but the passion in the bedroom faded unannounced some four years ago. There's no way to know for certain which time was the last possible time they could have been together. Maybe it was the “I have a headache” or the “not tonight, I'm knackered”, or maybe it was the pleading hand sleepily draped on a shoulder so rudely shrugged off. Maybe it was Mary. Maybe it was Charlie. We can't ever truly know for certain. All that we do know is a secret Tinder account, a match, and a few drinks and moderately priced hotel rooms later and here they were, waiting to hear the results of a paternity test. Charlie had gotten Natasha pregnant.
A door could be heard opening around the corner from the waiting room. Charlie and Natasha both had to remind themselves Dr. Manning had assured them they were alone, letting his receptionist, Beth, go home to her cats, Snap, Crackle, and, after the untimely passing of her beloved Pop, Mr. Mittens, giving the excuse that he was staying behind to make out-of-hours phone consultations. Dr. Manning, a dower man of forty-tiresome-years, came around the corner, propping himself up against the frame of the opening, his hands on either side, his frame blocked any possible escape. His tall thick stature, haggard, melting face, and his sighing, forced smile gave the impression they were students sent to a drained principal for detention.
“Well,” Dr. Manning began, shifting his eyes from the nervous Charlie to the cool Natasha, “you must be the mother to be”.
Dr. Manning tutted an escape of air, almost impressed by her stoic disinterest. He returned to Charlie.
“I have the results. Come in.”
Charlie was half-way through standing, pausing his hands on his bent knees, when Natasha suddenly decided to take an interest, even putting her phone aside in the process. She must mean business.
“I want these results too! Only reason I'm here is because he got me up the duff!”
Dr. Manning blinked rapidly, smiling placatingly, turning to Charlie, who haplessly failed to hide his embarrassment.
“I see we go for brains as well as beauty,” Dr. Manning dryly quipped.
“Point is,” Natasha continued, “how can I trust what he says if I don't check myself?”
“I can appreciate your concern, but there is a matter I do need to discuss with my patient privately.”
“What about you! You're probably his mate or something. You could be doing him a favour by just saying he didn't get me pregnant!”
“What do you go by?”
“I want to address you properly. What should I call you? Miss...?”
Dr. Manning nodded, feigning a simpering demeanor with the mocking flourish of a bow.
“Well, Miss Natasha, I am a doctor. And like most doctors, I made a terrible mistake becoming one. I thought I would be helping people, but instead I'm prolonging helplessness. I deal with chain-smoking asthmatics, long-Covid patients who still think I'm trying to inject 5G into them or whatever they believe, and just the other day a patient came in and said everywhere on their body they touch hurts, only to discover they had broken their finger. My life has become a literal joke. So please understand that Mr. Dunne here is not a 'mate'. He is one of the many people I, against my better judgement, take pity on.”
“Yeah, well, I'm still having a look.”
Natasha wasted no time in getting up and slipping under Dr. Manning's thick, branch-like arms with her, for now, small build. Dr. Manning smirked at Charlie.
“Perhaps next time you should consider someone a little less boisterous.”
Charlie's eyes furrowed and his lips snarled in insult. There's only so guilty a man can feel before he starts defending his mistakes.
“There isn't going to be a next time”, Charlie snapped, though it did little to wipe away the condescending smile on Dr. Manning's face.
“I'm pretty sure, in essence, the last time you said that was on your wedding day, yet here we are.”
And with that scathing remark, out performing Charlie's feeble attempt, the doctor stepped back and allowed Charlie through, following him into the office, finding Natasha pillaging through documents. She looked up at them, fanning and sifting through a patient's folder, holding it out accusatorially.
“There's nothing in here about a paternity test!”
Dr. Manning stepped forward, closing in on Natasha standing behind his desk.
“That's because these are the results for a patient with a urinary tract infection.”
With a jolting yelp, Natasha dropped the pages onto the desk, spilling out from the folder. Dr. Manning gestured, like a stern teacher to a misbehaving pupil, to the two seats opposite. Charlie takes in the office he's been in several times previous, finding it slightly amusing that when last he sat down here it was for a generic chest infection in the winter gone, and more than likely the next time would be for the same. For now, interrupting his daily slog through the uneventfully average life of an Irishman of his generation, he was sitting beside a woman nearly half his age, about to be told news that'll change his life forever.
Dr. Manning sat down, leaned to one side, pulled open a drawer, and produced a thin sheet folder, holding it up to Natasha with a grimace as if to appease her mistrust. Charlie gave a rare smile during this whole ordeal, comforted that thought the situation was agonising, at least someone was capable of being professional, albeit apathetically so.
“Before I read the results,” Dr. Manning began, opening the folder and adjusting the single page before him, “I do need to stress I must speak with you after present company is gone.”
Charlie nodded, ignoring Natasha's glare, returning to texting on her phone.
“Right, without further ado, drum roll, please!”
Dr. Manning mockingly slapped the desk in rapid succession.
“Based on the two samples given, the results determine the likelihood of Charlie being the father is negative.”
Charlie's fleeting sense of selfish relief was throttled by Natasha's eruption, standing up to her fullest height, an intimidating five-foot-nothing, snatching the folder from the doctor, who remained seated, though scowls in annoyance.
“If you'd like, Miss Natasha, I can refer you to a specialist to discuss your options.”
“I'm not going anywhere! How do I know this is right?”
“You may request another test, but, considering the wait, you may miss your termination window by that point, and the tests are ninety-nine per cent accurate.”
“So there's still a one per cent chance!”
Dr. Manning, flummoxed, turned to Charlie, stuttering for a brief moment before managing to say, “What the Hell did you have to talk about afterwards?”
“Here, what's this!”
Natasha's call reverted all eyes back onto her; she was pointing at a section on the page, squinting and holding it closer to her.
“Results based in part on confirmation of... what's this... necrozoospermia? What's that?”
Dr. Manning, for his lank and gangly size, snatched the documents back with such impressive swiftness that air brushed over both Charlie and Natasha. For the first time that evening, the sardonic doctor seemed truly engrossed and concerned.
“That,” he began, “is a private matter with my patient. You've got what you needed; go into the waiting room.”
“It's as much my results as his! I gave my sample too! This affects me! For all I know, this necro-whatever is contagious, and he gave it to me, so I deserve to know I'm not being messed around!”
Dr. Manning, growing irate, leaned over the table, about to admonish, until a simple whisper from Charlie stopped him.
“What is it?”
Charlie didn't need to say any more. The worried, neurotic pain in his eyes did all the talking for him, as far as the doctor was concerned. Even Natasha, slowly sitting back down, following the exchange, felt, as she so often did, like the child in the room, missing some important adult nuance she had yet to hone in on. Dr. Manning wet his lips, stealing himself before nodding, accepting that he'd have to give the bad news.
“It is one of the most common forms of male infertility. It means without assistance, you are unable to ever conceive a child naturally.”
Charlie heard the words, but they didn't make any sense. They did, but I believe Charlie was allowing himself to savour ignorance just a little longer. Slowly, he formed the sentences that would be his undoing.
“I don't understand. I can't be infertile. My wife and I have a child. He's four. So how can...”
Revelation drowned Charlie, catching in his throat. Likewise, the full magnitude of the results crushed Natasha so absolutely she was oblivious to the chime of rings and buzzes from her phone. And all Dr. Manning could do was wait in his own office for them to return to reality.