“You have to hold it down.”
“The button, you have to hold it down.” He was only trying to be helpful but Murella looked at him as if she’d long been offended by something or other. “It won’t work otherwise.”
This fight with the beverage machine was beginning to feel like a long running battle. She had been bent over in front of it for the best part of five minutes trying to work out why it refused to serve her a simple cup of black coffee. She looked at Monroe, held the button firmly down as he suggested. The machine coughed up the goods but not without making hard work of it, making decidedly unhealthy spluttering noises. They were the sound of something on its last legs, a consumptive old man on his death bed.
“Thanks,” she said, without a hint of gratitude. She straightened up, moving to the side to allow Monroe to post his coins through the slot.
“Where do I know you from?”
“I don’t think we’ve met.” He turned his attention to his pathetic little cup of coffee, avoiding her gaze like a newly reformed dealer shunning his ex-customers.
“Somewhere, somewhere here.”
“Well I am here a lot. You’ll have to excuse me. I have to get back to work.”
“Perhaps it was here.”
He could remember the occasion now. Slowly it came back to him. Something about her face, the look of puzzlement upon it as she too struggled to recollect.
“That day…,” she started.
“Yes, yes, that day. I remember now. It was here. You were lost. I showed you the way.”
“You showed me the way.” Yes, that day; the pony, the man with the broken leg, the bloodied face. “You were in that room, the one with the screen, the pictures, the woman with the wires coming out of her head.”
“Yes.” If that was the only crime he was guilty of everything really could be OK. After all those were legitimate experiments he was conducting that day but he didn’t want to discuss it further. “Yes. Yes that was me.” He started to walk away.
“What were you doing, in that room?” In answer to that he half turned, but only to say, “Sorry I was rude.”
Yes Murella did remember him from that day but there was more. Surely there was more. She was certain of it, so certain that she followed him, at a distance, without him seeing, back along the yellow line which led her once again to the unfinished section of the hospital. By admitting that it was he who had been there that day he had hoped to lead her to a destination of his choosing, one which was a dead end with no hidden secrets. But Murella, now Murella was sure that she had seen him before, prior to that day. Now, she did not follow him all the way but stopped half way down, to where it was very poorly lit and where all she could hear was the sound of her own breathing. She rested her back against the cold wall bent her knees slowly and inched her way towards the floor with the cup of coffee still in her hand. There she waited. And there she made space for her thoughts. At first she wasn’t sure what she was waiting for but then cool clarity flooded down upon her as the curtains of her mind pulled back to reveal the truth.
When Monroe re-emerged from the room and made his way back down the corridor he did not see her, so hidden was she in the shadows, but then he deciphered the shifting of a mass a few metres ahead. He was almost relieved to see it was her and not some lunatic escaped from the neighbouring psychiatric unit.
“I remember you.”
“Yes. As we said, we met that day.”
“Before that day.”
He quickened his step. There was something in her voice that worried him. It was sharp, a little too sharp.
“No. No. I don’t think so.”
“You. You don’t even remember me.”
And then it hit him, the weight of a blow that he was not ready for. No he didn’t recollect her face. There was nothing about her that he should know and that made it all the worse, to admit that he had been party to her genetic restructuring but that he could not even recall a single thing about her outward appearance. She and so many others, faceless, nameless. He kept walking. Could he bluff his way out? Talk her into believing that hers was an insanity that he had unwittingly become entangled in.
“I don’t understand. Do you mistake me for some lover who you fell out of favour with? What is it you want?”
“You were there. And now you’re pretending you don’t even know me. I heard you talking. How could I have forgotten? You thought I was sleeping. You were planning. How could I have forgotten?” Murella was in the daze of realisation talking partly to Monroe and partly to herself in gentler tones, willing herself to remember. He carried on walking. He could escape her yet. Out into the reception area. But no, she pursued him.
“You have mistaken me for someone else.”
And then she said something that could not be mistaken.
“Monroe.” And when he did not respond but stopped and half turned to look at her she accused him more directly shouting, “You are Monroe.” It was so slow and clear. It was his name. She was his accuser. He was guilty. It was time.
“You changed me. Did something. To me.”
“Keep your voice down. I’ll take you somewhere, somewhere where we can talk more calmly. I can explain.”
Monroe is panicked. His name. His face. Not Davenport. Did she remember nothing of his protests? Was it he alone, he alone who had done this? Was it so bad? Even without consent, was it so bad? He had doubted the correctness of their actions all along but now in the name of self-preservation all he could think of was excuses, justifications, ways to legitimise himself, ways to make it seem not so bad after all. He dared to take her arm… and she let him, took her to a place where the lights were brighter and the motives clearer. He left her there, sitting, fearing that she may yet go somewhere else, flee somewhere where she could reveal him for the weak fool he was.
But Murella had no intention of leaving she had come too far now. Instead she sits and takes in the sights around her. A twenty something young man, slightly built, mousy hair, five foot eight or thereabouts, casually dressed, right ankle balancing on left knee. He’s looking at his fingers, trying to decide which one to mercilessly attack with his teeth. As a priming procedure he uses one hand to pick at the other, shaving and peeling skin away from the periphery of the nail bed. All the while he’s holding a conversation, periodically nibbling away studiously, ferociously as a squirrel with a nut. He nibbles then looks, nibbles then looks; assessing the damage to the finger before moving on to the next. He starts on his jeans. Ripping a stray tendril from the fraying right lower leg, he twiddles it between his fingers, rolls it as if trying to create a new thing from this old denim. Dirt and grease from the fabric melt and mingle, expelling themselves from the material. Sweat and grime from his fingers come out to meet them until the denim is spun thin to hang limp like a lazy worm. He is waiting. For what? Murella doesn’t quite know but she is watching, taking note. Perhaps she has seen him somewhere before. Perhaps she has not. Perhaps she only hopes that he is familiar, that she is not the only one.
On the other side, a young girl, also twenty something, long straight fair hair, skinny. Balances rigidly on her seat with the soft fabric of her bag cushioned on her lap beneath her nervous hands. She grips at the dowdy flower print. She discreetly reaches in every now and again to pull a neatly wrapped chewing gum out. Peeling the paper away she holds her neck bolt straight, staring dead ahead, looking neither left nor right, up nor down. She brings the gum to her lips and slips it in like a secret agent surreptitiously using gadgets. After one slips by her lips yet another one makes its way; bashfulness dictates the manner of their passing. She had trout for lunch but the hunger came to her belly afterwards with the quickness of a shiver, the gaping fishy mouth waiting in anticipation for her gluttony to take hold. She looks up in Murella’s direction.
“Who are they?” Murella asked Monroe.
“Subjects.” To that she could say nothing, only look at him but he could sense her disgust.
“They’re not like me then?”
“They’re taking part in a study. It’s all legal.”
“And what you did to me?”
“It can be explained, really it can.”
Murella. Here she sits, calm voyeur, looking through a glass window, the lens now widened. And him. Here he is. Does he know she is here? He is flicking his tie again. Just like on that first day on the maternity unit, the day she pushed Tadesse out into the world. That day she caught glimpses of this man only between a series of long blinks. Unbeknownst to her, that day had spelled the genetic extinction of her anxiety, at least until her own body began an unpredicted devolution to challenge the science of man. She lived a significant proportion of her life in a hyper-reactive state, misreading signals and at times overreacting to them. But from then on, like every woman, she learned to accessorize. With a tingling sensation in her skull and a sniff sniff of her nose she emotionally relearned how to read her world and survive whilst elsewhere, simultaneously, other geneticists were attempting to read individuals for scientific gain. Trying to recode natural selection for comfort rather than survival was always going to be a tricky business.
What of these two men? Did they view themselves as Samaritans or in some kind of do-gooder light, glowing with the halo of altruism above their heads? For whose benefit were they doing all this? Total strangers misshapen by society remoulded into better things by the power of their mind. It surely wasn’t for the good of their own genes which had the potential to live on forever, immortal. Could men be excused for all they had done, for all they were doing, they, being mere organism driven by their own software, DNA? There were some like-minded not far from themselves who would endorse this as truth. Others still near who might dismiss it as myth. Genes could be kind to themselves, only. Sought to ensure their own survival, only; even if that came at some moral expense. So DNA was written so it shall be. Man is not selfish, say some, it is the fault of his genes. As for Davenport, well, at first glance it would seem that altruism, was against his nature, against all nature. Man must serve himself, do the bidding of his own genes, help only close genetic relations but smoothing out weakness in strangers, what was all that about and what would it cost the human species?
“Come through.” It was him. Davenport. No quiver in his voice. No hint of regret. Here he was standing still wrong and strong. For the first time in years she doesn’t feel scared. Now, sat in this office with these two scientific intruders, as if all the wrong in the world had already happened and was long beyond any correction. Something in her face now hurt Monroe, made him feel the sharp edge of guilt. That emotion evaded Davenport still. He sat, looking at them both.
“So you know. That is our mistake, a glitch.”
“I am a glitch?”