As soon as the door clicks closed behind me, I tug down the zip at my neck and push the moulded rigidity of the mask back over my head. I hadn’t been conscious of having any preconceptions about this place but become vaguely aware that I expected it to be bigger, to be more than just this one room with equipment and terminals and chaotically strewn samples crammed into it.
‘Oo, look at you chookie,’ she calls, snapping off a transparent glove and letting it fall into a dish of bronze-hued cream. ‘You’re all out of breath! Come in, come in! You didn’t walk did you?’
‘I’ve come about the tests,’ I start, scraping down my hair into some semblance of order. ‘The ad said you wanted people with…’ But she’s already behind me and with a rip of Velcro has hoiked up my shirt to inspect my back.
‘Not too many freckles, that’s what we like to see. Oh this one’s a beauty, Imogen, this one’s a real delicate. You should take a look.’
Her colleague looks up and smiles but makes no attempt to come over. She is sat behind a bored looking kid who, shirtless, is sat backwards on a chair, hugging the headrest, while she carefully manoeuvres a battered and multi-jointed piece of machinery around the grid of scribbles and markings sketched out on his back.
‘Are you nearly done with Ryan, Imogen? When you’re done with Ryan we’ll do this one’s PST.’ She turns back to me. ‘We just have to do a quick test, chook, to check you’re suitable: it’s just a formality really for you, but we need to know what to test you at. Pop your shirt off, would you?’
I strip off the sunshirt and hang it on some pegs by the door near three others made of the same, gauzy material: two of them, like mine, carrying the Intelligent Design logo, the other is darker and flimsier. She gets me to take off my T-shirt as well and we whizz through some paperwork: disclaimers, waivers, acknowledgement of risks. The kid takes stock of me with a lazy gaze: I peg him for one of the Boscombe kids, wiry, gaunt, but he nods a greeting when I look him in the eye.
‘He’s a five, Imogen!’ She sings out after the first short doses of UV. ‘Can you believe it, a five! I can’t remember the last time we had a five!’ Her colleague just smiles.
‘Stop wriggling!’ ‘But it tickles!’ ‘How can it tickle? I’m barely touching you!’ ‘That’s why it tickles!’ And then you’d roll over and pretend to sulk. ‘Jeezus, I’ve never met anyone like you: I’m not even allowed to touch you.’ And then I’d roll over and try to talk you round. ‘Of course you can touch me, it just tickles when you do it so softly.’ ‘Other guys like it.’ ’I like it: it just tickles. There’s something about skin against my skin that always does.’ ‘So what am I supposed to do: wear gloves?’
‘Why are you doing this, chookie?’ She asks in a loud hiss which I take to be whisper. ‘I mean, kids like Ryan I can understand, but you seem like a bright lad…’
‘I guess I just need the money,’ I lie and we go back through to the others.
‘Look what that dickhead’s sent now, Imogen!’ She waves the contents of the recently eviscerated parcel at her colleague. ‘Nine subjects each! Nine! How the hell are we gonna fit in nine? Two more years, Imogen: two more years and then I’m due for ERP and there ain’t nothing he can do about it.’ Satisfied with Imogen’s smile in response, she returns her attention to the applications she is making to my back, cooing: ‘Beautiful, beautiful!’
‘So you know what they’re doing here?’ I nod but he tells me anyway. ‘They’re trying to make some kinda paste that filters the UVs rather than blocks them, for rich dudes who wanna get their tans from the sun itself, like it’d make some big difference. Be the deuce though, wouldn’t it? Going out there without the shirts on.’ I realise that he’s too young to remember what it was like. ‘You been under ‘fore?’ I shake my head and he laughs. ‘Oh, you’re gonna love it, you’re gonna really feel it, I reckon, ay, blondie?’
Ryan throttles me with the crook of his arm in a manner I take to be amicable and ruffles my hair. ‘Don’t do that!’ comes the shriek and she scampers over as if shooing pigeons. He settles back onto his chair and apologises with a goofy grin while she inspects my back for signs of interference. ‘We gotta be careful with this one,’ she explains, to nobody in particular, ‘Oh yes. He’s a real delicate.’
‘You took him actually onto the beach?’ And at the tautness in my mother’s voice all the magic and the warmth and delight of the day’s adventures evaporate in an instant. ‘Only very briefly.’ Dad’s tone is conciliatory but I can sense his shoulders sag. ‘I wanted him to see what it’s like, what it was like for us,’ he adds as she bends down to inspect me, stroking my hair, chewing her lip with concern. ‘Oh George he’s pink! You must be more careful!’ But he has sloped off through the hallway and she finds herself addressing the empty air: ‘You know he has sensitive skin.’
By Neil, 4 October, 2006; direct link.