The staff at the Lakeside remembered us and were very welcoming, but they told me that they didn’t take in-person bookings, I could only book an apartment online. I had to go and sit at a computer in the lounge, book an apartment and then go back to reception. After which I was given a key and we moved into a one-bed apartment overlooking the lake.
I called John and told him we’d moved. ‘I know it costs more, and I know we can’t stay here long,’ I said. ‘But I need this, just for a while, to try to get my sanity back.’
John was understanding. ‘Just take a bit of time and relax,’ he said. ‘I’m going back to the Indian High Commission with a very big colour photo of the girls and I’m going to demand to know why they are keeping me from my children.’
‘Good luck. Give ‘em hell,’ I said. Not that he hadn’t already, I knew that. But another attempt to shame them into giving him what he should have had eight months earlier was worth a try. And what else did we have?
Being back at the Lakeside Apartments was a breath of fresh air – literally. Amazingly, six months after I had last been there, many of the people I had met were still there. My good friends Desi and Sandra were both still there; when they spotted us both of them came rushing up to give me a hug and to marvel over the girls and how they’d grown. I had been so alone in the apartments, where the only other adults were the nannies. Being able to sit in the restaurant and tell them the story of our months in India over a glass of wine felt good.
Manju and Nikki continued to look after the girls, so our routines remained unchanged. The difference was that in the evenings I could go and meet friends downstairs for a couple of hours, and during the daytime, when I had the girls, I could take them out to the garden area, knowing that here we would be safe.
Within a couple of days Rehanna had tracked us down, with more tales of woe and demands for money. I gave in to the inevitable and paid her. I wasn’t going to be able to shake her off until we left India.
While our environment was much better at the Lakeside, I still felt distraught about what had happened to us. It was only a few weeks until Christmas and we were still stranded.
I felt broken by all that had happened, and one evening things came to a head. I was in a state of acute mental distress that was terrifying. I felt strangely dissociated from everything around me and I suddenly knew that I couldn’t cope any longer. Terrified that I was having a nervous breakdown all I could think of was to get myself to hospital. I told Manju I had to go out I said I would be back late and then I got in a rickshaw outside the hotel and asked the driver to take me to Hiranandani Hospital.
On the way there I felt as though a dam inside me was about to burst. I knew I had to get to somewhere safe before I let it all out. I paid the driver, walked into Accident and Emergency and went up to the desk. The receptionist smiled at me, but I couldn’t get any words out. Instead I began crying; sobbing and shaking and screaming.
I tried to tell them the story and it came out in gulps and sobs and I just couldn’t stop, the dam had bust. ‘It’s all been too much,’ I choked, ‘Everyone has taken from us but no-one will help. Father Ghandi would be disgusted at how his children have treated us. Everywhere there is greed. I can’t get home, I can’t get my children home, I don’t know what else to do.’
Two nurses led me, still sobbing and barely able to stand, into a side room where a doctor came and hooked me up to a heart monitor and stuck an oxygen mask over my face, which had the (probably desired) effect of stopping me in mid-flow.
Later the doctor came back and, after looking at all my test results, sat down on the side of the bed.
‘You are having a panic attack,’ he said. ‘I can hear that you have been having a very difficult time and I am sorry for this. I can give you something to calm you and you need rest. Would you like to stay in the hospital overnight?’
I would have loved to just sink into oblivion, at least for a few hours. But I did not dare take that option. I was afraid that if I stayed I might be put into a psychiatric hospital and sectioned.
‘I’d better not,’ I said. ‘I have children, I must go back to them. Thank you for your help.’
And so, feeling sick and dazed and clutching a prescription, which I later threw away, I paid my bill and left the hospital, breakdown over. The whole episode had been frightening and traumatic, worse than anything else I’d experienced since I arrived in India. But I knew that somehow I would have to cope. The girls were my priority, and no matter how terrible I felt, I wasn’t going to let them down. I had needed an outlet, and I’d found one.
I went home and called John. I told him what had happened.
‘I’m worried about you,’ he said. ‘I’d do anything to be there. You’re an incredibly strong person, you can get through this, I know you can.’
‘I will,’ I said. ‘I know I will.’
It was very late by the time I sank into bed, exhausted and wrung out. I could not even think about what the next steps would be.
And then, the following day, John called again.
‘Andi, they said my visa is going to be granted. I’m getting it. I will be with you in a few days.’
I needed him to repeat the news, so that I could take it in. All I could think was, ‘Our nightmare is over. Thank-you, whatever gods or forces or powers are out there, thank-you’.
A few days later Ram drove us to the airport to meet John.
‘This is very cheerful news Mr Andi,’ he said, his head wobbling so hard I worried about how he was managing to drive. ‘You are finding fortune again, after a most difficult time, and I am very happy for you.’
‘Thank-you Ram, I will miss you when I leave. You have helped me a great deal.’
Ram grinned broadly. ‘It is not every day that I find such a nice customer as you Mr Andi. One who likes conversation and appreciates a samosa to break the journey from time to time. This is a very special customer.’
I felt honoured. And it was good to feel that there were some things, and some people, that I would miss when I left India. Ram was one of the good guys.
The arrivals area in Mumbai airport is outside. After immigration you go down a long corridor before exiting onto an open square flanked by railings and seating. This was where we waited, in the hot midday sun. We stood to one side, close to a small hut that housed a taxi company, trying to find a bit of shade. I stood with Manju and Nikki on either side, each holding one of the girls. John and I had never imagined that we would be apart for eight long months. Now I longed to see him with an intensity that felt overwhelming. Would he have changed? Had I?
Would we be able to go home and pick up the pieces of our life together after all that we’d been through?
I turned to see him coming out of the entrance to the terminal, waving at me. I waved back, furiously, and moment later we were in each other’s arms. A hug so warm and heartfelt that it spoke a thousand words.
Laughing and tearful, I held a hand out either side of me. ‘Here are your daughters.’
John stood looking from Amritsar to Tara and back again, speechless. Nikki and Manju smiled, while the girls stared at John with big eyes.
‘This is your Daddy, Tara, Amritsar. Daddy is here at last.’
John looked from one small face to the other. He was careful not to startle them. They had to get to know him, we both knew that. It would take time.
‘Manju, Nikki, this is John.’
‘Welcome Mr John,’ Manju said. ‘We are happy that you are here. Mr Andi is very, very happy.’
She was right, I was. I kept my eyes on him as if he might disappear in a puff of smoke if I looked away. I had dreamed of this day for eight long months.
Ram was hovering behind us, grinning broadly. I introduced him and he held out his hand. ‘Mr John we are honoured to have you here in India. Please come this way to my car. Let me help you with your bag.’
We made our way to the car, where we all squeezed in. It wasn’t until we were seated in the taxi that a few tears slid down John’s cheeks as he sat between Tara to Amritsar, holding one small hand in each of his.
Ram drove us across the hot, bustling city to the Lakeside Apartments. It reminded me of the first time John and I had arrived, full of hope and dreams, just over two years earlier. Then we had been almost overwhelmed by the scent of India, that heady mix of spice, bodies, animals and traffic fumes. Now I was so used to it I barely noticed any more.
Once John had dropped his things off in our room we left the nannies settling the girls for their nap and went down to the restaurant to get something to eat. Over lunch we made plans to go to the FRRO the following day and then to get home, as soon as possible.
‘You look skinny,’ John told me.
‘That’s not the only way in which I’ve changed,’ I said. ‘This has all taken such a toll. I feel angry, hurt and disillusioned.’
‘I’m not surprised,’ John said. ‘It’s been harder than we ever imagined and I’ve been worried about you. I’m so sorry that you’ve had to go through such a tough time.’
‘You have too,’ I said. ‘I know I sometimes envied you, being the one at home, but I know it was awful for you, unable to be with us.’ For John it had been a long, lonely vigil. He had kept himself busy with work, the dogs and the house, but he had missed out on his children’s first eight months, and he had lived with the constant stress and worry, just as I had. And, not wanting to worry others, he had not talked to anyone about what was happening.
‘I have nightmares about Mr Rodriguez,’ I said. I was only half-joking. ‘You’ll meet him yourself tomorrow.’
I can’t wait,’ John replied dryly.
Ram drove us – me, John, the nannies and the girls – to the FRRO for what I hoped, with every fibre of my being, was the last time.
‘It’s like something out of a Hemingway novel,’ John remarked, as he took in the slow-turning ceiling fans and the flies, the lino floors and the elderly desks.
After we had queued for an hour Mr Rodriguez appeared. Carrying an armful of heavy files he sat at a desk and, ignoring John completely, spoke to me.
‘Well Mr Webb, here you are again,’ he said with what I could have sworn was a smirk.
‘Yes, Mr Rodriguez, and this is John, my partner and the girls’ biological father.’
He appeared to notice John for the first time.
‘Ah, so you are the baby father,’ he said. ‘Here at last.’
‘We are both the fathers,’ John said firmly. ‘The paperwork makes that clear.’
Faced with the prospect of finally having to grant Tara and Amritsar’s exit visas, Mr Rodriguez did his best to wring every last ounce of misery from the situation. He turned back to me.
‘I’m afraid that you must pay a fine, Mr Webb, as you have overstayed your visa,’ he said, looking at me like a head teacher with a disobedient schoolboy. There is a daily fine for this. ‘
‘That is, as you know Mr Rodriguez, because I could not leave, since my daughters were unable to leave.’
‘Nonetheless, you must pay before your own exit visa can be granted. The babies also have a fine, they have British passports but no visa so they must pay a fine for every day they have stayed here since their passports were issued.’
‘But…they had no visa because you wouldn’t give them one. And they were born here!’
‘These are the rules,’ Mr Rodriguez said, his face set like stone.
We paid. After which he told us to go away for half an hour and come back to collect the passports. We did, and to our huge relief, all three passports had been stamped with the exit visas.
As we turned to go, Mr Rodriguez beckoned me over to him. Smiling paternally, he said, ‘I hope you know Mr Webb, this was not personal.’ He laughed loudly. ‘I am happy to see you smiling now. Last week you were in tears, you have had a very bad time of things here. I doubt you will return to India again, will you.’
‘I don’t know, Mr Rodriguez. We might come back to India, it is a beautiful country. But I hope very much that we will never, ever need to come back to this office.’
For a second he looked taken aback. Then he laughed again. ‘Good luck with your children and your life in the UK,’ he said. ‘Yours are the last British surrogate babies born to a same sex couple to leave India, by the way.’ He turned and disappeared through his office door. It was the first time, in all the weeks I had been going to his office that he had referred to the girls as my children.
‘Let’s go,’ I hissed to John, and we headed out to Ram’s taxi and back to Lakeside, where we celebrated by booking our tickets home for three days’ time and then taking the girls out to the pool for a play. They were already at ease with John, it was as if they knew he was theirs, just as I was, and as we each bobbed one of the girls around in the shallow end they squealed with joy.
‘I hadn’t realised we were the last gay couple to leave India with surrogate babies,’ John said.
‘Me neither,’ I replied. ‘It feels like a close shave. Chillingly scary, actually. No wonder it’s been so hard getting our visa.’
The law had changed and from then on only heterosexual couples married for a minimum of two years would be allowed to use surrogacy.
We were both silent for a moment, aware of just how close we had been to disaster and just how far we had come.
I hoped we had left Rehanna behind when we moved to Lakeside, so her appearance at our door the next day startled me. She had brought her brother and her two children. In they all came, Rehanna declaring how happy she was to meet John and how lovely the girls were. Then she announced that she had a bank account and would like John to make regular payments to her.’
‘I am twins mother,’ she declared. ‘My children,’ she nudged them forward, ‘twins brother and sister.’
She handed John a piece of paper with her bank details on it. He took it and put it on the table.
‘You are not our children’s mother,’ he said. ‘You were our surrogate. That is not the same thing.’
‘I am mama,’ she said, raising her voice. ‘You pay me. Money for Mama’
Her ’money for Mama’ which had initially been about her own mother, now clearly referred to herself. She was the ‘Mama’ as far as she was concerned, and we owed her.
John turned away and I could see he was struggling to contain his anger. I stepped forward.
‘Rehanna it is time to go now. John is tired from his flight.’
I ushered her towards the door and her brother and children followed. She was still muttering, ‘I am mama’. I handed her 10,000 rupees, just over £100, pushed her gently out of the door and then shut it. I turned and leaned against it, looking over at John. He picked up the piece of paper with her bank details, screwed it up and threw it in the bin.
‘I never want to hear another word about that dratted woman again, he said. ‘Her behaviour is insulting.’
‘We did need to keep her onside,’ I reminded him.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘But not anymore. We paid her for her nine months service, and we’ve paid her all over again. Now it stops.’
I breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps I should have told her to go away the first time she showed up. But I was concerned that she could make trouble for us in getting the girls out of India and that we might need her help.
What the story did illustrate, all too painfully, is why it’s rarely a good idea to have contact with a surrogate. It was the British Embassy that insisted we meet in the first place, and they, inadvertently, had put me in a difficult situation.
Saying goodbye to my friends at Lakeside, to the nannies, to Ram and to India itself over the following couple of days seemed almost unreal. I had dreamed of this moment for so long, but there was sadness too. India, with all its beauty, poverty, generosity and corruption, had been my home for eight months. It had given us our children and it would forever be a part of them, and of us.
At the airport Ram pumped my hand up and down. ‘I am missing you Mr Andi. Do not think badly of India. Come back again.’
‘I will miss you too Ram,’ I said. ‘India is full of good people, and you are one of them. I hope I will see you again one day.’
He grinned. ‘Of course. We will go for a samosa. Yes?’
‘Yes.’ I laughed.
As I walked into the terminal, holding Amritsar in one arm and my bag in the other, I turned for one last look at India. Ram stood beside his car, waving to us. Behind him the heat of another Mumbai day shimmered over the city. I waved, and turned back to follow John and Tara to check in.
Queuing to go through passport control, I began to feel anxious. It was entirely possible that something could go wrong at this late stage and they could stop us. We got to the front of the queue and the official looked at our passports.
‘Where is the paperwork relating to the surrogacy?’ he asked.
My heart sank. I had packed it and our cases had been checked in. I groaned. ‘I don’t have it,’ I explained. ‘It is in my suitcase. I thought the passports and the visas would be enough.’
He tipped his head back and looked at me, as if appraising me. Beside me I could feel John’s tension.
The official appeared to come to a decision. He smiled. ‘The passports are enough. You can go through’.
I could have wept.
Half an hour later we were on board our British Airways flight. But it was only once we had taken off that we were able to relax. John and I looked at one another.
‘We made it,’ I said.
The cabin staff made a fuss of the girls and offered to hold them for us while we ate. The flight was over nine hours, and when Tara and Amritsar were sleeping between feeds I tried to doze and thought about what it would like to be home. Would I find it easy to adjust? I wasn’t sure. Would I have the equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome, in which those who have been kidnapped fall in love with their kidnappers? Would I find that India, for all the heartache she had put me through, meant more to me now than England? Well, I would find out.
And then there was Manuela, who was still living in our London flat, waiting to take over as nanny to the girls. I wasn’t sure how I felt about her, after all that had happened in India. She had left me high and dry. But John had employed her and I had agreed that it was simpler to keep her on than to find someone new at short notice.
As we touched down I began to feel excited. But the cold and dark of a grey November day was a shock. It was just four weeks to Christmas, so lights and decorations were everywhere, their garish colours bright in the gloom.
A taxi journey later and we were back at the flat. By the time we got in the girls and I were shivering – none of us had enough clothes on, although we’d wrapped the girls in blankets. Their small faces peered around them, no doubt wondering what this strange, cold place was. ‘We’re here girls,’ I told them. ‘This is home.’