‘He is. Perfect.’
We looked at one another and grinned as a small bundle of white fur crawled steadily towards us. We had both fallen instantly and totally in love.
We were in the large garden of a house in West Sussex and the two of us were peering over the top of an old-fashioned pigsty on stilts. Inside were twelve perfect white puppies, just a couple of weeks old.
We’d asked the breeder, Mrs Bennett, how many boys there were. ‘Just the two,’ she’d said, pulling out one pup after another and turning them upside down. When she’d found the two males, she placed them at the opposite end of the pigsty. One began crawling straight back to his sisters while the other, steady and determined, headed towards us.
We’d found our boy.
We’d agreed on a name before we met him. Remus. And it suited him.
‘Come on Remus,’ I whispered, as he reached my outstretched hand and was rewarded with a gentle scratch behind his tiny ear.
‘By the time you collect him he’ll have his spots,’ Mrs B said.
Yes, our ‘first-born’ was a Dalmatian. Known for being a lively and intelligent breed. Also, as we were soon to discover, hyperactive and ferociously needy.
Tearing ourselves away we arranged to pick Remus up in six weeks’ time and set off on the two-hour drive home. I was beside myself with excitement, already planning my trip to buy a bed, blankets, toys and treats for the new addition to our family. John, at the wheel, was quiet, focussing on the road. But I knew he was as happy as I was. We’d waited a long time to make this commitment but now the time felt right and we both felt good about it.
Both in our mid-thirties, we’d been a couple for eight years. Buying our London flat after three years had been part of our decision to settle down together, although I think we both knew from the moment we met that we’d stay together. Creating a ‘nest’ for the two of us was the next step as we made the inevitable transition from being young men partying about town to a couple who preferred quiet dinners a deux or curling up on the sofa and watching a film.
That had been five years earlier. And not long after we put the finishing touches to our flat, we had begun to hanker for the patter of tiny feet or, in our case, paws. We’d put it off because we were both out all day; I was working in clothing design, with a small workshop of my own while John was an accountant. We both worked long hours and we didn’t want to leave a dog cooped up at home.
But as time passed, we began to feel seriously broody. This was only made worse when a friend gave us a Disney Dalmatian toy one Christmas. She did say it was probably as close to a real dog as we should get. And we did listen to her, for a bit, but in the end our longing for a real canine to cuddle won over all practical considerations. The flat just didn’t feel right without a dog.
Fast forward and here we were, delighted with our boy and counting the days until we could bring him home.
Little did we know that those weeks up to his arrival were the last moments of peace and quiet we would share for quite some time. And that the flat, with its carefully chosen oak floors and antique tables, would soon be a battered shadow of its former self. From the moment we picked him up, Remus, a non-stop whirlwind of high-velocity energy, launched himself into our lives with such face-licking, tail-wagging exuberance that we were both left reeling. He never stopped racing around apart from when he was chewing the furniture, books, CDs, shoes – in fact anything that was chewable and quite a few things that weren’t.
He was constantly hungry and constantly demanding attention, co-opting both the sofa and the bed and insisting on endless cuddles, inserting himself between us whenever he felt he wasn’t getting his fair dues.
He cost us a fortune in damage, food and vet bills but despite all of it we adored him. He was lean, strong, glistening white with inky black spots and a handsome head – a showstopper of a dog who got compliments wherever he went. But most of all he was our boy; he had a way of looking up at us with such innocent cheerfulness that we could never stay angry with him for long.
We hired a dog walker to come and take him out for long walks while we were at work. But after a couple of months she told us she was spending so much on headache tablets because of the stress of managing him that she couldn’t walk him any longer. After that we paid a friend to dog sit him, but she didn’t even last a month. She couldn’t get anything done when he was around, he was all over her, constantly.
Our next dog walkers were a couple. We hoped two people might manage him better than one. But a couple of months on they told us, ‘We’ve just changed our catchment area and you’re no longer in it – sorry.’
The lengths people went to in order to avoid having Remus were quite funny. Except that it left us needing to find a way to manage him ourselves. He couldn’t go to work with John in the corporate accountancy firm where he worked, so we decided he’d have to come with me to my small studio in Southwark. Each morning we set off for the tube, where Remus entertained fellow passengers by tearing up any newspapers left on seats and spinning in dizzying circles on the platform – earning himself regular applause from laughing tourists.
Needless to say, I didn’t get a lot of work done, since I ended up taking him to the park about four times a day to try to tire him out. I met another dog-owner there one day who told me he’d given up on his Dalmatian and given it away. ‘Just too needy and energetic mate,’ he said, shaking his head at Remus, who was trying to badger a sedate old spaniel into playing with him.
‘Tell me about it,’ I thought. We knew by this time just how full-on Dalmatians were. Once used as carriage dogs, they are happy to run literally all day long. Sitting about just isn’t their thing. But we never once thought of giving Remus away. He was ours and we loved him, uncontrollable wretch or not.
Then, when Remus was three, we compounded our foolish choice of dog by taking on a second one.
But in our defence, we thought it might calm him down to have a companion.
At two years old we’d listed him on a dog studding website and when a local couple got in touch, we took him along for his first romantic encounter. Things started off a tad shakily, Remus clearly had no experience in the ways of amour and just wanted to play. But he got there eventually, without the use of the electric prod the couple suggested we insert in his nether regions to prompt ejaculation, which I politely declined. A few weeks later a pregnancy was declared and Remus earned his first wage. ‘We’ll put that towards some of the repairs,’ John muttered to him. ‘Not to mention your food bills’.
His third liaison, with a Dalmatian from Essex, produced a litter of pups. The owner suggested we take the pick of the litter as our fee and, thinking we’d sell her, we agreed and picked a bouncy female puppy. We took her home and called her Gracie.
Big mistake that. Once we’d named her, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to sell her. And once we realised that we were keeping her, it was inevitable that I start working from home. I couldn’t have managed both of them on the commute or in my workshop.
Truth to tell, business wasn’t going well. I’d already downsized from my overpriced premises and small staff team to just me in the workshop. I had trained in the garment industry, learning everything from the conception of a garment to pattern-cutting and I was still designing my own range, but the recession of the late 90s had bitten hard and by this stage I was only just about covering costs. At the same time John’s career was soaring, he’d started his own firm and it was successful from the off. So, I let my workshop go, downsized again to the dining table as my ‘office’ and, while attempting to do a bit of work, became a more or less full-time dog parent.
Clearly our dog-training skills had not improved one iota. Gracie was, if anything, worse than Remus. She chewed absolutely everything and nothing we tried made any difference. Her speciality was phones. She chomped her way through a Blackberry and an iPhone in her first week alone. Not only that, but she was impossible to house-train and our solid oak floors were regularly soaked in dog pee. We were horrified, but being two big softies, we couldn’t get rid of her, Gracie was ours, just as much as Remus was. They got on extremely well and when they did – finally – settle down at the end of each day it was together, curled comfortably side by side on the sofa. Leaving precious little room for us, of course. But we, with paternal indulgence, simply squeezed ourselves into the remaining few inches of space at either end.
Our two hounds did satisfy our longing to be parents, at least for a while but, perhaps inevitably, our thoughts strayed towards babies – the human kind – and we wondered whether children might ever be a possibility for us.
John came from a big, warm Irish family and while my family set-up was a little more complex than his, we both felt that having children was something we would love.
It was also a promise I had made to my father. When I told him, as a teenager, that ‘I might be gay,’ there had been a long pause before he said, ‘Son, what you are and what you are not, you will figure out in the goodness of time. So be gay, as long as you are happy and safe’. There was another pause and then he had added, ‘I don’t mind what you are, as long as you give me a couple of grandchildren at some point or other’.
A few years later, not long after I met John, Dad was killed in a car crash, along with his third wife, who was also my mother’s sister (I said it was complex). They were coming back from a night out and their deaths came as a terrible shock. By that time my mother was living in Australia with my older half-brother, Paul. When Mum and Dad had got together it had been a second marriage for both. He’d had a son, Brandon and a daughter, Shae, and she had Paul and then together they’d had me. I didn’t know that the other three were only my half-siblings until some rather unkind, or perhaps thoughtless grandparents, pointed out that I wasn’t actually their grandchild.
I was heartbroken when Dad died and what he said to me about grandchildren stayed with me through the years. Perhaps because it was something that had clearly meant a lot to him. And perhaps because it was something I wanted too. I loved the idea of having a child. So did John – both of us felt that we would be good fathers. We’d certainly had a dummy run with the dogs, who required more patience and time than most of the children we knew.
As a gay couple we couldn’t become parents without intervention from outside. We thought about adoption, but we both felt that we would like a child that was biologically ours. So, although the idea of parenthood was dusted off from time to time, we never got any further with it. Until one night I saw a documentary about surrogacy in India.
John had an early start for work most mornings, so he would often go to bed before me, taking Remus and Gracie with him. One night, channel surfing for something to watch, I came across ‘Made in India’. It was about a Western couple who were able to have children with the help of an Indian surrogate and it said that India was a hub for international surrogacies. I was fascinated. This was an ordinary couple and if it had worked for them, why not us? For the first time I had discovered something that seemed to hold the real possibility of providing us with our own children. I went to bed, squeezing into the small space left on my side by the dogs, and lay wide awake with excitement.
Of course, we knew about the existence of surrogacy, given high profile cases like Elton John and David Furness, singer Ricky Martin and actress Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick, all of whom had children using surrogates. But until that documentary I had never thought that it might be a route open to us too.
I decided to do some more research before putting the idea to John. I needed to know what would be involved. I knew it would be costly, but by this time John’s business was doing well, he had new offices in the city and, despite the recession, plenty of clients.
One evening, a week or so after I saw the documentary and had my parenthood epiphany, I decided to broach the subject with John. I had looked into it enough by then to know that it was potentially viable for us. We talked for a while, drank some white wine and talked some more. It was all positive, but at that stage very contemplative. He was keen, but more cautious than I was; he had a lot of questions. However, we both realised that, give or take a few reservations and concerns, we wanted the same thing – to become fathers. The logistics might take some time to plan and our concerns might not all be identical, but the idea had the green light from both of us.
It was probably the most significant conversation we’d ever had in our lives together.
Since it was important to both of us to have a child that was biologically ours, we agreed that we would like two children, one John’s one mine. We would hope to have them conceived at around the same time by two surrogates so that they would be born at the same time, perhaps even using the same egg donor. That way the children would be both genetically related and genetically ours.
We set out to discover everything we could about surrogate babies. There were a few countries where the surrogacy business was thriving: Ukraine, India, America and, of course, the UK. There were also different kinds of surrogacy. In the UK there was only what was known as altruistic surrogacy in which the surrogate was not allowed any financial gain, only expenses. The danger with this was that the surrogate mother was more likely to feel she had a claim over the child or children and in several cases the surrogate had refused to hand over the child. The law was on the surrogate’s side for the first six weeks, whether or not she was the egg donor. She was the one who had given birth and she could keep the child if she wished to. Even after that, the surrogate could stay involved if she wanted to. This idea might have been perfect for some couples, but we were both worried about possible problems at a later date. We didn’t want a part time ‘mummy’ calling in every now and then to check on us and we didn’t want any confusion for the children. Our children would have two parents – us. Two daddies who had planned to have them and who would love and support them always. Of course, we would explain how they came into the world, but we would be the ones raising them.
Despite this we did look seriously at the altruistic surrogacy option. John felt that it might work for us, and at one point we had a cleaner who we were pretty sure would gladly have offered to be our surrogate. But before we could ask her, we discovered that she had been stealing from us and we had to fire her. After that the altruistic route seemed just too fraught with danger, which meant that we needed to choose the alternative – compensated surrogacy. More expensive but cleaner and simpler. You paid the surrogate a fee and the child would be legally yours. This was not legal in the UK, so we needed to look abroad.
John told me not to rush into anything, but that was like telling a full-speed express train not to rush, I was already so excited I could barely think about anything else. And I was aware that time was not on our side. We were in our forties and getting on, in new dad terms, so we needed to get going.
We decided that if we went to the Ukraine, we might have language problems, so I started looking into surrogacy in America and in India, where English is widely spoken. After a lot of research, we narrowed things down to the Fertility Clinic of California and the Rotunda Clinic in Mumbai.
I started by calling the Californian clinic. As I dialled, I was rigid with nerves – this was going to be the first time I would tell anyone that we were planning to have a baby. What had, until then, been an idea was about to become very real.
‘Good morning, Fertility Clinic of California, Tammy speaking, how may I help?’
My heart was pounding as I blurted, ‘Hello, I want, no we want a baby, we’re going to have a baby, I need information, we’re in the UK, can you help us?’
‘Please Sir, slow down, you are sounding rather discombobulated.’
Discombobulated! What on earth did that even mean?
I took a few deep breaths and started again. ‘Please, can you send us some information? We are a gay couple in the UK considering having a baby (or two) via IVF and surrogacy.’
At this point, I barely understood the meaning of phrases like IVF Cycle and Gestational Surrogacy, although I would later get to know them and their connotations inside out.
Tammy said she would send us the catalogue and the price list and moments later they pinged into my email inbox.
We knew that whatever route we took would be expensive. But the Californian clinic’s price list shocked us. It was endless; consultation fees, clinical fees, IVF fees, legal fees, donor fees, surrogate fees, hospital fees… the list went on and on. And every section had perhaps 20 additional sub-categories with even more fees listed. On top of which there were insurance premiums for just about everything.
Reading through it all we could see our nest egg evaporating – and then some. We were looking at $150,000 per pregnancy. It was scary.
My next call was to the Rotunda Clinic, where I spoke to Doctor Somya. She sounded very friendly and she reassured me that the cost of the whole procedure would be in the region of $55,000 per pregnancy. A third of the cost in America. She said they were very supportive of same-sex couples and she made it all sound very straightforward. The first step was for us to go over to India to make our sperm deposits which would then be frozen. After that they would inform us when suitable surrogates were found. And in the meantime, we would be sent a choice of egg donors.
By the time I put the phone down I was euphoric – we had lift off!
(Eighteen Moons is available exclusively through Amazon Kindle, just search within Kindle for ‘Eighteen Moons’)