I’d like to thank Sharon Kretschmer of South Australia for her story submission ‘A New Promise’. A touching work of fiction, based on true events.
Sharon Kretschmer is a born and bred South Australian, recently embracing both a tree change and becoming an empty nester in the beautiful wine region of the Barossa Valley. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and Post-Graduate Museum Studies, reflecting her love for both writing and tangible and intangible heritage. You can often find her exploring pioneer cemeteries in search of inspiration.
Her stories have been featured in the anthologies ‘A Flash of Brilliance’ and ‘Tales from the Upper Room’, and have also been published by Haunted Waters Press, Two Sisters Publishing, 101 Words and Beyond Words Literary Magazine. The NSW Department for Education has also published several of her works for children in quarterly statewide publications.
When not writing, Sharon enjoys spending time with her two daughters, two sons, and one son-in-law, as well as a spoilt Border Terrier named Bee.
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A New Promise
It takes two hours to travel by bus between Kiev and my hometown of Hlevakha. In those two hours, images flash past the window like a film reel. The weathered Beech and Oak trees roll past the window, forming a continual stream of browns and greys. The farmers in the distance, toiling in the black soil, shirt sleeves rolled up in summer, their heads covered with knitted caps in winter. One can see the rural history of Ukraine in the ancient farmhouses and sheds which appear, nestled in a valley or high on a hill. There were not many tourists that travelled this path. And yet my village was becoming filled with strangers from other countries. They just hadn’t been born yet.
Hlevakha is a small village, populated by generations of the same families. I was born here, and no doubt I will die here. My life has been the same as my mother’s, and her mother’s before. That was until the summer just past, when my husband Yakiv sat across from me after a dinner of borscht and unfolded a grimy flyer from the pocket of his chequered shirt. I was trying to keep my son Marko still, as he squirmed in his highchair. I had been trying unsuccessfully to wipe purple stains from his lips. Yakiv cleared his throat and pushed the paper across the knotted wood of the table.
“Read this Sofiy.”
I unfolded the piece of paper to reveal an advert for surrogate mothers. It was from a business called ‘New Promises’ in Kiev. I’d looked up sharply at Yakiv, confused by what he meant in showing it to me. His chair scraped against the concrete floor as he pushed it back hurriedly and came around behind me.
My eyes skimmed over the words. Help couples from around the world; set yourself up for life; every expense paid;15,000 euros compensation. 15,000 euros! I pulled my eyes away from the words and stared at Yakiv.
“Tak Sofiy, tak! 15,000! That’s 395,000 hryvnia! Just think what we can do with the money. Put some aside for Marko’s education, build an extension on the khata! What do you think Sofiy? Would you do it?”
It was the easiest decision I ever made.
The first visit to the clinic had been more gruelling than I expected. I’d caught the early morning bus, waving goodbye to Yakiv and Marko. My stomach churned as the bus rumbled over the country roads towards Kiev. Yakiv was anxious, now the decision had been made, to start the process. I was surprised when I entered the small waiting room to find several other young women already there. I guess I wasn’t the only girl wanting to make money from rich Americans, or Europeans, or wherever they came from. I sat in a small room with five other women. I wondered what would happen, not fully understanding the reason for this visit. A girl from Kiev with bright red hair, has a cousin who had been through the process. There will be a questionnaire, discussions with a psychologist, and a physical examination. My hands are shaking, so to keep them busy I take out the form, signed by Yakiv, giving his consent for the process. I wonder if the other husbands have been as quick to sign as he has been, but I am too shy to ask.
Two hours later I am back on the bus, heading home. I had passed the test with flying colours, they explained. They were certain I would be called back very soon to meet with prospective parents. They gave me a bottle of vitamin tablets to start taking, to prepare my body for the pregnancy. The doctor said make sure I take one twice a day. I feel elated, but also scared. but know Yakiv will be very happy.
It is a little over two weeks later that I journey back to the clinic, passing by the Motherland Monument. I think how apt that Ukrainian women are becoming birth mothers to children around the world. This time I am taken straight away to a bright and sunny interview room with windows looking onto a courtyard. In the center of the courtyard stood an old pear tree, it’s leaves glossy and green. A large clock ticked on whitewashed walls. Two other girls were waiting, one in jeans and a white shirt, her face carefully made up, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. The other looked older and was dressed as if for a business meeting. Her stockinged feet were crossed at the ankle, sensible black pumps on her feet. She smoothed her woolen black skirt across her knees, a striped blue shirt and black jacket finished the ensemble. I tucked my limp brown hair behind my ears, and looked down at my green serge dress, and wondered what chance I had of being the chosen one.
All three of us jumped when the door opened. The head of the clinic, Sergie Anatov, entered and ushered in a man and two women. He introduced the couple as Mark and Jody, the second woman was named Svetlana, and she would be our interpreter. I studied the couple. The woman, Jody, appeared more nervous than I. I guessed she was maybe late thirties. She had short blond hair cut into a bob, and thick glasses framed her large blue eyes. She wore a lavender shirt with white trousers, a heavy gold necklace and matching earrings. She smelled delicious when she walked past me, a whiff of citrus and rose. Mark was stocky, with dark wavy hair. I would say he was older than Jody, probably in his forties. He had cream trousers and a navy-blue shirt. He too smelled delicious; his scent reminding me of the fresh pine needles which lay on the forest floor just beyond my village.
The interview went in a blur. There were many questions directed to the three of us, as well as individual questions. I couldn’t place the accents of Mark and Jody. It wasn’t one I was familiar with. One question they asked was how I spent my days. They seemed pleased when Svetlana interpreted my answer. I work in the fields, helping my husband with our small farm, or I am looking after my two-year-old son. I watched as Jody smiled and nodded at Mark. Perhaps they thought the fresh air would be good for their baby. The interview ended, and I was about to follow the other two women out the door when Jody gently reached out and touched my arm. She said something to me, and I looked to Svetlana to explain what had been said. Svetlana smiled at me.
“Jody said she can’t thank you enough for the gift you are giving them. They choose you.”
The process was quickly completed. Jody and Mark had already been to the IVF clinic attached to New Promises clinic, the embryos ready for implantation. I discovered they were from Sydney, in Australia. I found a map and looked to see where it was. Such a long, long, way from Kiev. Jody had suffered many miscarriages, her specialist in Sydney convincing them their only hope for a child of their own would be surrogacy. It made me both nervous and excited to be the one to help them realize their dream. Of course, the money that I would earn was also cause for excitement. I knew that my body would embrace their child, after all, Marko had come along so quickly and with no problems. The small embryo nestled into the warmth of my body and began to grow.
Jody begins sending me emails as soon as the pregnancy is confirmed. She organizes Skype sessions with me, anxious to see her growing child, to know it is safe in its Ukrainian home. At first it is easy to detach from this child. But as I began to feel the weight of her, for I feel sure it is a girl, to feel her squirm in my body, I begin to try and imagine what she will look like, what sort of life she will lead. Will she have Jody’s big blue eyes? Mark’s wavy dark hair, or the straight fairness of Jody? I sing lullabies to Marko, traditional Ukrainian songs like Brother Ivan and The Dream Passes By The Window, and the baby will roll and stretch. Sometimes I wonder, will she miss me? Will she wonder, where is the woman who sang me songs? Whose heartbeat lulled me to sleep? I wonder if when she is older, she will smell a Vareniki dumpling, and wonder why her mouth waters? I wonder how much of me, of my life, is imprinting itself on this little one. Although we share no DNA, I am nurturing her, providing sustenance and warmth. I remember how Marko reacted to my voice when he was a newborn. How he turned his head, and watched me with sombre brown eyes. This little one will have none of that. She will be given to people whose voices will sound as foreign to her as they were to me.
As the date nears, I see a fear in Jody’s eyes when we Skype. Mark often joins in, asking about my health, my life, how I am finding the appointments in Kiev. I tell them that at thirty-six weeks I will be moving to Kiev. New Promises has an apartment where I will live until the baby is born. Jody nods her head, but her unease is palpable. I realize the enormity of her fears. How does she even know that I carry their baby? Mistakes can be made. What if I decide I want the baby? If I run away, and she never sees me again. Of course, I know that I would never do such a thing, but Jody, Jody doesn’t know me at all. And now the end game is closing in, I can only imagine what doubts creep into her head, when she is over 14,000 kilometers away from her child.
I hug Marko tightly, his small legs wrapped around my swollen belly.
“Promise you will bring him to see me at least once?” I say to Yakiv. He promises me, and whispers in my ear, It will soon be over.
The apartment is small, and there are already two other women living in the room. There is a wooden bed, a sofa bed, and a mattress on the floor. A kitchenette with gas cooktop and a chipped enamel sink, sit below the small window which looks out onto a busy thoroughfare. A place my case down on the worn floral carpet.
“Dobryj den,” I say, “I’m Sophiy.”
“Dobryj den,” they reply. “I’m Anna and this is Katya. Sorry, but the mattress is for you. I have a week to go, and Katya is due in two weeks. Once I’m gone you two can shift up one.”
The days are long and slow waiting for the baby to arrive. I take walks in Shevchenko Park, following the trails between the fig and birch trees. I watch the families, thinking of my little Marko. I watch the young couples, their lives unimpeded by the worries of life. I wonder if they too will go down a similar path as Yakiv and me. Jody and Mark flew in from Sydney at thirty-seven weeks. We met a couple of times in a small cafe around the corner from their hotel. They have employed an interpreter for their time in Kiev. Jody tells me about Sydney, about their home and that they live only five minutes from the ocean. She says the little one will be a ‘beach baby’ as they will teach the baby to swim from an early age. I don’t know how to swim. I’ve never seen the beach. I subconsciously rub my belly as she talks to me. Jody reaches over and places her hand over mine.
“May I?” she asks.
I take my hand away and she gently strokes the skin surrounding her child. She whispers words I don’t understand, but I know that they are words of love. I see Mark reach into his upper pocket, pulling out a handkerchief and placing it on Jody’s lap. It is only then I realize Jody is crying silent tears.
In the end she decides to come early, at thirty-eight weeks and two days. Jody and Mark are in the labour room, dressed in the same blue scrubs as the nursing staff. They wait nervously to one side of the room, looking anxiously at me as I moan and push and scream their child out of my body. I saw Jody make to come to me, perhaps to hold my hand or speak words of encouragement. But one of the nurses lies a hand across her arm and shakes a silent no.
And then she is there. The doctor holds her up, squirming in his hands, her hair slicked down with blood and fluid. She opens her mouth and yells a protest, like the mew of a kitten. My heart is full. Full of love for this little girl. I watch Jody and Mark stand over the baby, watch as they wipe away the remnants of what remained from her attachment to me. Jody surprises me by remaining dry-eyed, although the joy which emanates from her is catching. Mark is sobbing great tears which he cannot contain. The nurse wraps her in a blanket and passes her to Jody, who cradles her as if she is the most precious thing in the world. And she is. To them. Jody comes over to me.
“Would you like to hold her?” she asks.
I shake my head no. But I am happy that she offers. I have heard stories of new parents simply walking out and ignoring the birth mother after delivery. I look into the baby’s big blue eyes and smile. They are definitely mother and daughter.
“Her name is Isabella Sophia. And she will know about you, Sophiy. She will know what a gift you have given to us.”
I nod my head, too tired and too emotional to speak.
Jody promises to send me photos of Isabella, and she has kept her promise. She sends me a message every few months, which is more than enough for me. I am busy with Marko and organizing furniture for the extension we’ve completed on our khata. Other young mothers in Hlevakha have followed my lead. There are several who are already pregnant, and more who are in the process of becoming so. I know for some, my story will fill them with hope, for others disgust. I am not sure, even now, how I feel.
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