When the chicken landed on the plate it was stiff. The peas, they made a run for it but the chicken just lay there charred and pitiful, part of itself suspended an inch from the plate. Its foot was not present, amputated at the ankle. It did not want to bathe in the gravy and so remained still, the peas still running for cover beneath its breast. The potatoes had not the sense to hide. They stayed where they were put, heavy and now sodden. But was it the pouring of the wine that swam around Murella’s head or the click clack of their jaws, as they chewed, that hit her hypersensitivity right where it hurt, the meeting of their upper and lower teeth in mutilation of the meat? The lickety lick of their tongues as they slapped against the cavernous roofs of their mouths? The otherwise discreet filtering of the teeth as the tongues scooped the gummy crevices?
How in the hell could people eat with all this noise? How could they use their knives and forks and resist the urge for the hands to fly to their ears? A rogue pea had somehow managed to unshell itself whilst a single grain of rice lay clinging to the side of the chicken leg. It made her blood curdle. Why? She did not know. The manners of food could not be puzzled out the same way as a human could. She made up her face in such a fashion as to cause the others to exchange glances. Her nose, her eyes, her mouth, all showed disapproval for the abomination sat upon her plate. She did not know why the antics of a naked pea and a grain of rice should unsettle her so. She did not know why she had allowed her husband, Edris, to persuade her to go on a night out. She barely knew these people. She barely knew herself nowadays. Now here she was, sat here, struggling to eat a meal they could barely afford in a restaurant that could barely tolerate her presence.
“Is everything to your satisfaction?” The waiter was hovering over them waiting for an answer.
“No.” The answer flew out of her before she had an opportunity to fashion her thoughts appropriately. Two sets of eyes were now upon her. What was she saying? How could she explain that she was disturbed by the posture of her dismembered chicken as it sat allowing the peas to bury themselves beneath it? What words existed that could provide adequate comprehension of the ice cool quiver that a single grain of rice was now sending through her body; ice cool water slowly expanding in a maze of glass tubes, blood in vessels waiting to explode. Instead the explosion came from her lips as she realised she could not articulate the nonsense arising from her hypersensitivities.
“Yes!” She meant to round off the sentence with an ‘everything is fine’ but before she realised that she might once again be capable of something more than monosyllabic speech the waiter had fled and so she directed the remainder of her words towards her dining partners. “It’s delicious.”
“But you haven’t tasted it yet.”
“No, but… yes you can tell just by looking at it… it’s delicious. It is very delicious.” The green of the peas was hard on her eyes and the potatoes were clogging her thoughts like big globules of mucus. Her gullet starched in on itself as she hopelessly stabbed at her plate in a crazed effort to feign dining normality. She decided to try scooping instead and after several attempts managed to capture the running peas. She released them into her mouth and made an attempt at chewing, this time trying to ignore the click clack of her own jaw. After two or three mouthfuls she decided it might be better to swallow them whole and so allowed them to ricochet around her throat like pinballs. After a short period of this intolerable scooping and gulping one of the men leaned in on her. His neck snaking off his shoulders, his head extended so far into her space that it hovered over her plate. It seemed he was offering his head up as part of the unsavoury meal but he whispered in a low, sympathetic tone of camaraderie, “Are you a vegetarian?” One of the peas seemed to ricochet its way back up into her mouth. She let it rest on her tongue as her eyes became locked in.
“…because we’ll understand if…”
“I’m not. I’m not a vegetarian.” At this, the pea expelled itself fully from her mouth and bounced back onto her plate, narrowly missing the nose of her fellow diner as it launched itself from her heavy tongue. “I’m not a vegetarian,” she repeated. What was she then, at this moment in time? “I like meat.” And what did she expect them to say to that? “I love meat. I hate vegetarians.” She was going mad. Had to be. The loss of words and manners was causing such a spillage of nonsense. “I do. Love meat. But I don’t…hate vegetarians.” That was better. There was no way to punctuate this to make it sound better but the words were an improvement at least. She was in such haste to declare love for the entire contents of her plate that this came at the expense of logic and reason. She did not hate vegetarians. Some good friends of hers were vegetarians. Where in the world had it ever been said that to love meat you must be a hater of vegetarians? In truth, she implausibly hated the entire contents of her dinner plate right now, for no apparent reason, but somewhere in her confusion declaring all vegetarians loathsome seemed far more socially acceptable than saying that her food was behaving in an intolerable manner.
The whole night was exhausting in the way that listening to a conversation is sometimes exhausting; a conversation between other people which is intellectually above your level of understanding. Such a time is full of striving and longing and frustration. The conversation Murella was each day struggling to understand was within her own body, her entire body not just her mind. Her entire self seemed to linger on ridiculous things then slope off into stupid Never Never Lands.
As a toddler her youngest son, Tadesse, was always pointing to random specks on his plate and presenting them to her, with a look of disgust. Balancing them on his accusatory little index finger, as if a tiny morsel had offended him greatly. Often a rogue flake of lettuce was enough to necessitate total food refusal for the rest of the day. She had never tried to understand it. Didn’t need to understand it. It was what it was. Perhaps, like her, his manners at the table had very little to do with the food on his plate but was instead due to some kind of internal disturbance. It was nothing to do with the digestive processes. Nothing to do with the physiological perhaps, but internal none the less. She felt the need to excuse herself but did so without words. Suddenly she pushed her chair out and stood up, making her way to the bathroom. She didn’t expect Edris to follow her.
“What are you doing?”
“Going to the toilet.”
“No I mean what are you doing?”
“I think I should go Eddie.”
“You can hold it for a few minutes, eh?”
“No. Back to the flat. We should go back to the flat.”
“Why? We haven’t even finished eating yet.”
“We’re not here for the food anyway. We’ve got food in the fridge. We’ve heard all we need to hear haven’t we?”
Eddie had heard about this little sideline from a friend, being an agent for some company she’d never heard of. Everyone they knew seemed to be running sidelines nowadays. One job was never enough. Most people seemed to be getting involved in the supply end of the retail trade; modern day Avon ladies, each with their miracle cures for this that or the other. She was surprised when Eddie started taking an interest. He was usually so sceptical about these schemes which almost always seemed to be dodgy, engineered to extract money from its members and train them in the art of doing the same to their friends.
“A few more minutes babe.” He traced the V of the dipping neckline of her dress with his index finger finishing off by lightly lifting her chin to tilt her head. It was a nice touch.
“We don’t need this. You’ve got a regular job.” She said this knowing full well that this regular job didn’t pay enough to get them out of their situation and into a place they could call home. Their dinner companions had been rattling on for over an hour but they both knew it was too good to be true. “They look like con artists to me these lot. They smile way too much. Every time I look up at that Eva she’s grinning in my direction. They’re like Jehovah’s Witnesses, you can spot them a mile off with their little black briefcases. They’re always sidestepping to catch you.”
“It’s true. You can’t trust them, they’re too pushy and if you give them a way in you’ll never get rid of them.”
“Jehovah’s Witnesses? What has that got to do with it? You’re givin’ me a headache tonight. What kind of foolishness…? Speak sense girl.”
“They’re the same these people. They always find an angle, a way to rope you in. Next thing you know you’re stuck with a load of shit that you don’t want and you can’t sell.”
“David’s making some good money you know.”
“So he says. You don’t even know him good. Besides he makes a commission out of every new person he brings in so he’s bound to say that innit.” David. The bloody man was like a walking infomercial, only every month his passions changed. There was always something new and phenomenal that ‘absolutely changed his life’. Always some new venture. How many life changing experiences did one man really need? Surely one was enough. She’d feel sorry for him if only he wasn’t quite so annoying.
“Look just go toilet, come out for the dessert at least and we’ll have a proper talk later innit?” He was playing with the seam of her dress near the point of the V now, his finger lightly playing against the softness of her breast. “Oh, and when you come back, don’t start going on about Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t know what the hell you were thinking with all that ranting and raving about vegetarians.” She didn’t know what she was thinking either. She pushed the door to the ladies and walked into one of the cubicles. She put the toilet lid down and just sat for a few moments. She tried to clear her mind of any foolish debris. Now all she could think of was how late it was getting and how many times she’d be woken up unnecessarily tonight. At least the rage she’d woken with this morning was steadily subsiding but the conversation she’d had over the intercom last night was still bouncing around her head.
“Who is it?”
“Let me in please.” The ‘please’ wasn’t necessary because the words were spoken in a commanding tone anyway.
“Well who are you?”
“Open the door please.”
“You’ve got the wrong flat.”
“Will you just open the door.”
“It’s three o’clock in the morning.”
“Look…just… I’m here to see someone.”
She put the phone down and walked away from the intercom. Eddie was now up. The kids were stirring. She could hear them shuffling around under their duvets. The buzzer went again.
“Let me in.” Giggling in the background this time. Not one but two fuck ups hitting her buzzer at this ungodly hour. She was tired. Eddie was stood there swaying with his eyes half closed, without his top on, his pyjama bottoms hanging nicely on his hips, though of course Murella was too knackered to appreciate it.
“Look you’ve woken up my kids.”
“Let us in and we’ll go away.”
“Let you in and you’ll go away?” She gave Eddie a look, a look that said ‘what the fuck?’ but he was still too sleepy to decode the puzzlement in her face. She was tired, felt well and truly fucked up tired, but even in this state she knew enough to know that what they said made no sense at all.
“Let you in and you’ll go away? Go away! No let you in.” It wasn’t proper English. What the hell was she saying? Never mind. Surely they’d get the gist of it. She put the handset down, took one step away before the buzzer rung again.
“Look. Do you want me to come down there and smack you round your fucking face?” She put the handset down. The door downstairs banged against its frame and she heard heels on tiled concrete steps. They must have worked out that the main entrance door was buggered to shit. They didn’t need to ring her buzzer again, hadn’t needed to ring it in the first place. No matter. Perhaps she’d just go down there and smack them round their fuckin’ faces anyway. Eddie resettled the kids and then led her back to the bedroom. She was still cursing when she pulled the bed covers over her head. They could hear the birds singing, a deeply depressing sound. They had to be up in less than three hours. Here, many hours later, sat on the toilet of this restaurant, she could hear the birds still singing in her head. The longer she sat there, the more time was wasting and the later her bedtime would be. Let’s finish this and do it quick, she thought, and rose with the steel minded determination of a fighter rising at the sound of the bell for the next round.
Now sat back at the table she pulled her mind back into the moment, looking around at the other people in the restaurant. Most of them seemed to be enjoying their meal or at least behaving in a relatively normal fashion. A family of four, two adults and presumably their two adult children. An elderly couple who shove their food around their plate with their forks apparently in tandem with one another. Two men, one of whom looks slightly uncomfortable in the other’s company. Father and son perhaps. She can’t quite see the elder’s face. He leans back in his chair, relaxed slightly to one side, his index finger and thumb extended to frame the right side of his face while the remaining fingers fold casually to rest on the cheek. He appears to lever himself up slightly with the other hand which rests on the arm of the chair. He must be saying something because the younger one, although avoiding his direct gaze, appears to be listening. Perhaps he is being chastised, Murella thinks. He seems to gain some momentary relief when the waiter approaches their table.
“Ready to order gentlemen?”
“Lobster for me. Monroe?”
Monroe has only just got as far as the appetisers.
“The lobster for my friend too.”
“No… thank you.” He looks up at the waiter just as he is putting pen to paper. He casts a brief look, apologetically, across the table towards his colleague before briefly skimming the menu again.
“The chicken, number 11… if you have it… please.”
The waiter takes the two menus and excuses himself with a polite nod.
“Not a fan of lobster?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Why not? Is there a reason for that?”
“I suppose I just have never liked the taste.”
“You grew up near the sea didn’t you? Childhood incident perhaps?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Look at them, feeling their way along the tank, aimlessly clambering over one another for survival maybe. No, no, there’s a pathetic aimlessness about it all. Pity they don’t have the sense to realise that soon they’ll be tossed alive into a pan of boiling water for our benefit, screaming and floundering.”
Monroe glances fleetingly at the tank then runs the palm of his hands down the thighs of his trousered legs. He feels the sweat grab at the material then release the heavy cotton gathering beneath his touch.
“I’ve always said there’s too much humanity in you.”
Monroe takes this comment exactly as it is intended, as an insult.
“The preliminary results?” He waits. If Monroe fails to interpret the full meaning of his unfinished question he will furnish the empty dinner table with sarcasm.
“Oh yes. They were satisfactory.”
“Satisfactory or pleasing?”
“Pleasing. Very promising.”
“Can’t say I’ll be sorry to move on. You?” He scans the room, slowly, confidently. “Anyway, we must resist stagnation.”
In all his professional life Monroe had never met a scientist with such a distaste for life forms. In the beginning he had not known this about him. He had only heard of his brilliance. Now all he saw was a man fully arrogant in his own truth, infected with the need to pursue his own personal ambition.
Monroe could pinpoint the exact moment when all things changed; the morning when Davenport abandoned an alternative destiny by tossing that rejection letter into his wastepaper basket.
“We have been refused again. Time to consider other avenues.”
“This is not the first time. What other avenues are there?”
“There are certain private sector organisations that can be persuaded to see this as a more commercial venture. And let’s just say there are those within public life who might help.”
“You mean…step outside the regulations? I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. There’s still the matter of licensing.”
“Then what would you have us do? Do you want to spend the rest of your career tinkering around with micro-organisms and mice for the sake of curiosity?”
It was right. Monroe had lead the archetypal life of a scientist; hungry for discovery, wanting to know how things worked purely for the sake of knowledge itself, thirsty to know the nature of things. As a young boy he had spent many hours of many days dismantling household objects so that he might learn the workings of things, anything he could get his hands on, radios, telephones, clocks. And when the challenge had gone out of that sport he had moved onto living breathing things; dead crabs scavenged from the seashore, small murdered frogs which his cruel cousin Jacob had stamped on just for the pure hell of it. He never let Jacob see of course, for fear of being the next thing to get caught under his boot. Even at age eight this cousin of his was as ruthless as a rabid pit-bull. He was a corporate lawyer now, doing very well for himself thank you very much. Monroe would only take a backward glance when his cousin wasn’t looking and then steal back at some appropriate time to surreptitiously scoop the animal into a small plastic bag carrying with him a sense of guilt like a dog owner whose pet had soiled the pavement. He always carried small plastic bags with him wherever he was going but he had a secret fear that his cousin might find his stash and shove his head into one and suffocate him in a fit of rage. Or perhaps it might be he who lost his cool one day, fuelled by the anger of being forced to spend summer days with this satanic imbecile simply because their parents felt that the mere fact that they were relatives should be enough to breed some kind of natural kinship. The truth of the matter was that Monroe hated the sadistic little bastard and prayed each night that he would choke on his own saliva and die. He was a skinny little wretch of a boy with a long thin neck. Each night Monroe would watch his larynx rise and fall as he slept lying on the guest bed. He would light him up with a tiny little reading torch and watch him twitch as he furtively passed it over his face. Then, in the silence of the night he would take a handful of chillies which he had gathered from the kitchen using one of his little plastic bags and rub them into some part of his clothing; his shirt collar, his hat, his underpants. His parents deduced that there must be something about the seaside that didn’t quite agree with his skin but they still brought him every year believing that the good sea breeze would do them all some good. At some point during their childhood Monroe stopped doing this. He feared that the evil which ran through his cousin’s veins might also be running through his. But no-one else saw what he saw. Jacob was a master. He was fully in command of himself, a shape shifter who would allow people to see only exactly what he wanted them to see. Monroe was left with one question, a question which had lingered unformed within his mind since those early days but which Davenport had articulated and asked him to confront some years later. “Do you believe that the balance can be tipped, tipped to allow the emotional life to govern the physical life? There’s a difference between how we believe things to be and how they truly are.” As a boy he’d perceived Jacob in a certain light and his every action sought to protect himself from the boy’s ugly shadow. If only he could command himself to be unaffected he might not physically quake and shrink in the boy’s presence. Was he right in believing that his every movement elicited quiet shame from his own father who at times seemed to secretly harbour an ever so slight disgust for him? Monroe’s mind is pockmarked with memories of his father’s subtle distaste. A certain incident with a dead bird provides one such example perhaps. From a distance, though, a love of precision and a certain way of doing things is what one might see. One may view this particular incident with a wider more impartial lens, as a whole rather than part of a whole.
From where he was reading in the living room Monroe’s father, Mr Douglas Monroe, could see the dead bird on the kitchen floor. He selected the puzzle page and removed it from his morning paper. The rest he neatly folded and placed on the coffee table along with his glasses which he put very precisely on top of the business page he was just about to read. Then he got up and carefully laid the paper on the kitchen table. He took one of his wife’s spatulas from the kitchen drawer, scooped the small bird up in one slow easy motion, and rested it on the grid of the crossword puzzle. He laid the spatula across the top of the page. He then went back to his morning newspaper, positioned his spectacles on his face, unfurrowed his brow and continued to read, waiting for the rest of the house to wake up. Jacob had just had his eleventh birthday, Monroe was eagerly heading towards his tenth. When they finally came downstairs they sat down so hastily, their hungry bellies yearning, that they didn’t even notice the dead breakfast guest.
“Anything to do with either of you?”
Side by side at the kitchen table Jacob and Monroe both looked at the creature. There is something to be said for the fact that they barely blinked. To them, the sight of a dead animal was neither obscene nor unusual (though it has to be said, being met by one in the place where the cereal and milk would normally be was slightly out of the ordinary). Jacob ran the sleeve of his pyjamas across his snotty nose and sniffed. Monroe just stared with interest at the partially open beak and the wings laying flat against the body.
“No, nothing to do with me.”
Douglas Monroe paused, tapping the spatula on the surface.
“Do you think maybe it could have something to do with the cat?”
The cat was called Spag, so named because he liked to snack on spaghetti Bolognese. Monroe and he shared a somewhat symbiotic relationship. Monroe was shamefully ineffective at shovelling spaghetti into his mouth. More food ended up on the floor than in his mouth and Spag gleefully benefited from this clumsiness. Mr Monroe Senior refused to call Spag by his name. He thought it sounded stupid and common. He much rather just to call him ‘the cat’. Spag may well have brought in the dead bird as a present. He certainly was very efficient at catching the odd mouse or two.
“We bought you a pet on the condition that you what...? That you take full responsibility for it and that includes cleaning up after it yes?”
Casually ejecting himself from the discussion Jacob pulled a breakfast bowl towards himself and began to fill it with frosted flakes, gulping down huge quantities in front of the poor slain bird. Monroe watched, thinking of the slingshot he’d seen resting on Jacob’s clothes in his suitcase the day he’d arrived. If this crime was the work of Spag then surely he’d have been caught at some point toying with his prey, batting it this way and that with his gently curved paw. But then again, if it was the work of Jacob why would he have brought it indoors? To prove that he could perhaps, that he could get away with anything? Or maybe to get Monroe in trouble. He’d always hated Spag as well, insisted on calling him Spaggers. He was the worst kind of swine, one who could tone down his bad qualities at will to appear almost… charming. He was a proper psychopath in the true sense of the word. But the most galling thing was that Monroe had a sneaking feeling that his father wished him to be more like his cousin – bolshie, aggressive, bordering on downright rude.
Looking back on that day Monroe is quite sure that he never felt sad or sorry for the bird. All these years later and he still can’t put his finger on the exact emotion that he felt. What he does remember, from this and other similar experiences, is his father being a very even man, controlling his emotions, his rage, his love, his movements. What a contrast to what he’s exposed to today. Now, Monroe walked streets where the people were very animated, even during phone conversations, waving their arms about for emphasis, pushing their heads forward on their necks so that you felt every word with force.
Monroe’s eccentricity of youth had not left him. He had carried his inquisitiveness with him right through to early adulthood where biology and the natural sciences posed so many unanswered questions. But now all the fun was gone out of it. There was always someone or something casting ugly shadows over his cravings. As for Davenport, he couldn’t imagine him ever having been such a child. Even so, it was many years into their relationship, at an academic conference, that Monroe began to see things in a critical light, to view this colleague and mentor through someone else’s eyes.
“That man is no longer a man of science.”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean. He is brilliant.”
“Yes he is brilliant, but his brilliance has been surpassed by other things within him. He no longer questions things because he thinks he already knows everything there is to know.”
“Is it such a sin, to be confident in your own knowledge and abilities?”
“Well no, but we’re not talking about confidence Monroe, not even arrogance. Arrogance and confidence both drive you on towards progress in some small measure. But think, what was it we were always taught by the professors, the good ones at least? Never be afraid of ignorance. Davenport has become so petrified of the very idea of personal ignorance that he indulges fully in his own conceit. He’s like Narcissus himself, so blinded by his own self-regard.”
Monroe had known Sinclair since University, still valued his opinion somewhat, but wasn’t he being a little unfair? After all they both knew it was easy to feel boxed in in research institutes, starved of the room needed for free thought, stifled by four feet of bench space, so bogged down by the minutia of one’s science that you could not find room for manoeuvre.
“I think he’s just lost patience. Progress can be painfully slow.”
“It depends how you define progress doesn’t it? A man can devote twenty years of his life to finding the answer to one particular question, but if at the end he’s successful our entire world pivots on his answer. We’ve seen it many times before. That’s progress, perhaps chased across an entire lifetime, yes. But if by progress you mean bring people round to your own truth without actually taking the time to convince them properly, step by step, then that’s another thing all entirely isn’t it?”
“He’s a maverick, it’s true.”
“He used to be. He’s lost something of that.”
Monroe preferred the romanticised idea of the maverick scientist stepping outside the box, solving some of life’s little questions. The idea of tainted idols was not so easy to bear. And so he followed him, knowing that they had yet to answer the question of ‘what is life’? They moved on, the brilliant mentor confident in his judgement of the quality of life while the student still harboured lingering doubts about the quality of their research.
“I think you misunderstand him.”
“He’s not an adolescent. He leaves no room for misunderstanding. He always says precisely what he means. He knows the way to change science, to change the world, and the rest of us are too stupid to keep pace with him, isn’t that right? He shows no respect for peer review or for open debate. He…”
“He can be a little gruff.”
“Well he has no right to. There are things that have been around a hell of a lot longer than him… including the things that I look at under my microscope every day. Even they have a greater sense of progress and evolution than does he.”
“Hello Sinclair. Still fiddling around with your little bacteria?”
“Ah, Patrick, right on cue. Yes, yes, still fiddling around as you say.”
“Thought you’d be done with all that by now.”
“Well you needn’t be so smug. What is it they say? Our bodies are all bastardised by our little microbial friends? Of course, some of us are more bastardised than others.” At this, Davenport looked away, steadily shifting his gaze onto Monroe.
“We must get back into London by 4.15 this afternoon. I’ll get our coats.”
Right there was the crux of it. Davenport had gone beyond respect for other living things. His irreverence for microorganisms, with their extraordinary capacity for evolution and survival had long since passed. He had no patience to pursue finer details. Oh yes, these two men were very different. As a young man Monroe remembered being very excited to learn that certain cell components, vital organelles within our bodies, had started out as bacteria millions of years ago. Their powers of survival fascinated him. They couldn’t discuss that sort of thing together though. And one thing was for sure, Davenport didn’t like to be challenged. Monroe knew this and never could find the right way to disagree with him. Sinclair and other members of the establishment had the benefit of distance, could go back to their own labs. Monroe, however, was professionally tied to him. His professional career depended on his ability to appease himself with the man and soon, almost against his will, he was to be embroiled in matters beyond his control, matters which could end his career altogether.