Proposals from Euripides on the improvement of humanity
1. If men were to have two voices, one speaking truth and the other falsehood.
This was the trick she mastered. Because she knows, absolutely, that he will be able to tell the moment she lies to him. This is not, she feels, any reflection on his intuition or his detective abilities. In four years of marriage, she has never once seen him predict anything. The weather, the ultimate fate of the victims of the week on Casualty. No. It’s a reflection on her.
She is just too good. She could never lie to him, especially not since his father’s unexpected sickness. She could never effectively lie to him.
The first time it happened, she was a different woman. Youth and Lambrini combined, each with the ironic effect of intensifying both her conviction that he (an earlier he, a different man in the more conventional sense) was the most important thing in her universe and that this was nonetheless a good idea. Despite a conviction the next day that she must reek of pinot grigio, guilt and stale spittle, she made it through. In fact, she made it through for nearly three months, her perfect streak only ruined by a drunken friend’s loose tongue. Tell nobody.
It was not, she found out at some length and at considerable volume, the mechanical action that really hurt, or that it meant that she had to leave his room across the quad for the last time with a damp-bottomed Boots bag full of toiletries she had already replaced. It was the lying. That she lied. The thought of her mother scolding her in front of a broken vase and the memory of a borrowed bed at an Islington party crashed into her mind and lay, immobile and inert.
It was the lying that hurt. Simpler, then, never to lie.
Mainly, this involved nesting. Out after he left, back in plenty of time to shower. Displaying a knowledge of the evening’s television programmes without ever stating categorically that she had watched them. Going for half a drink after work or meeting for five-minute lunches with friends.
One awkward moment, two weeks ago. Asked if she was seeing someone else, she had to think for a moment.
“I wouldn’t want to see anyone but you, darling.”
They were in bed together, at 2am. Seeing anyone else would have been terrifying.
He had a lunch date with an old friend, a comparative linguist or mathematician or something. She hadn’t really listened. She was thinking already of a near-stranger’s hands on her body. And, in one tiny corner, of Eastenders, in case he asked.
At 2:30, she was putting on perfume when he called. Lunch was going well, his friend had just suggested he ask her something, how was she?
“Oh, fine. Quiet day. Just off to Sainsburys.”
“Lovely. Were you planning, before I started to ask this question, to go from Sainsburys and to somebody’s house and to have sex with them, or have sex with somebody else in or around Sainsbury’s itself?”
The phone cut off when she dropped it. When she called back, it went to voicemail. The voicemail told her to get out.
2. If noble men were to have two lives
Peas in a pod, butter in the mouth. Angelic tearaways. From short trousers to graduation gowns, inseparable, joined from either side of the tracks, the terror and the pride of a small village. Rarely at the stately home at the end of that oddly literal track (dirt) or the tiny flat on the new estate (dirty), the villagers joked-not-joked that they spent more time with each other than their families. The lord of the manor was bluff and friendly, went adventuring with them on occasion, tousled hair and paid for games, sports classes, holidays. The other father had no name and no history; the friendship of the rich kept the worst of it from her son, but there was little mercy for the mother.
They were so tall and blond and strong when they went to college (Comparative Linguistics, English Literature). But it was only later, at the very tip of their twenties, that the curves of this one’s mother started to fall away from his face. As it and he grew thinner, the mirror started to tell a story. They didn’t just look alike, any more, in the way that children look alike, teenagers look alike, even young men from the locality sometimes looked alike—the Dunns, the Dawns and the Doones, it was generally supposed, had been a single family until the invention and intervention of social workers. No. This was the nose. This was the chin. This was the starting-point for the line of faces that ran along the wall of the stairwell, dating back to Elizabeth the First (who slept here). He had never been welcome at the Grange—his friend’s father’s jovial face twisting into something unreadable at every invitation.
His mother had never left the estate. Before he could realise the fantasy of taking her away with the money he was only beginning seriously to earn, her own genes murdered her. Staring into a bastard’s face before shaving, he wondered if that pattern would be her bequest to him.
Reacquainting himself was easy—old boys and pedigrees were easy to track. Tragedy greased the wheels; his old friend burdened by family sickness as well, eager to reach out for reminders of happy youth, happy to spend time away from home.
Finding her, engineering a meeting, was all surprisingly easy as well—she had done this before, and admitted as much, declining a cigarette, reapplying lipstick, repairing the afternoon’s damage.
“I’ve never lied to him. No thanks—I promised him I’d give up. He checks. Those things will kill you, you know.”
Barring this one perversion, she was surprisingly banal. He had expected better, but the drinks and dinners that followed were a lesson in the dangers of material comfort. The ringleader at school had become a sheepdog, sleepy and trusting. It was hard to avoid the uxorious invitations to meet the wife, harder still to begin, slowly and carefully, to feed his suspicions, pushing her further and further—late nights, stopped clocks, the odd bruise—and providing a listening ear. His other friends were their friends. He could, of course, be trusted.
At the opening of the third bottle of wine, having barely sampled the first two, he checked his watch. Still time to make it to the Sainsburys car park in time to catch her if he had to. But he didn’t think he’d have to. The phone was in his oldest friend’s hand as he coached him through the question one last time.
3. If, at the moment of death, a family member could agree to die in one’s place.
He had been bracing himself to have this conversation, for months. It seemed ridiculous. Even assuming that the very expensive surgeons manage to keep him alive on the operating table, how many more years would that get him? Would it be worth six months of pain and discomfort, when something else might give out eight months after?
And his son. His son, who looked after his health, who had pestered his poor sweet wife into giving up smoking, who had, at pessimistic guess, four decades left before the children of those overpaid leeches conferring outside his private room could be expected to start sinking their hooks and their knives into him. His son who would be signing up for the same risky procedure, if in reverse, and for those decades to be filled with pain, night sweats, thick underwear, toilet bowls fall of water the colour and consistency of corked burgundy.
How could he even ask? And, if he did, how could his son refuse? He had accepted a home, food on the table, money at university, introductions to useful friends. In exchange for all that, such small part of his body—the body he owed to his father’s heroic perseverance in the face of the Lady of the grange’s excessive chastity—was not too much to ask, was it? And how could he see his own flesh and blood as a storage box for spare parts to keep his tired, frightened flesh and blood running.
He was still caught in the battle of warring cowardices when the other one called. Called out of the blue, and, skimming over exactly how he had found out his paternity and the paternal sickness, offered his own flesh, his own guts, expecting nothing in return but the chance to give life back to the man who gave him life. Through long preliminary telephone conversations, he made it clear that this was all he wanted—to do what was right. The new-found father felt a degree of shame, eventually insisting that if there was anything he might do in the future, short of acknowledging paternity—perhaps a quiet redistribution of funds to help with the inevitable medical expenses in later life. A loan, or a gift, or some sort of unofficial exchange. The boy played it straight back up the wicket.
It was too good to be true. Way too good. But perfect: a replacement part, a relatively functional body, and all for a non-binding private acknowledgement of an accidental filial bond. He felt magnanimous that night, undertaking to redraft his will after surgery. An old friend of the family could be given a small benefice without controversy, especially since bastard and legitimate issue seemed to be restoring their ironic bonds of brotherhood. That night, he slept almost without interruption or pain. It was all just like it was back in the village.
And now, nobody answered. Neither son was answering land or mobile, responding to email. Nothing.
The doctors nodded and tutted, and none of them said anything either.
By Dan, 13 September, 2006; direct link.