A hard decision is easy to make when the consequence is far enough away. Going on a diet. Doing a 10K. Doing a Ph.D., or a marriage. Even the night before – when the full reality starts to edge in – it can still not quite seem real. Or it’s down to my personality type; I have a talent for taking on projects that I like the idea of and then not being very good at the day-to-day work it takes to see them out. This is what I am thinking about as the bell tells me that someone has entered the bar, and I know from the corner of my eye that it’s him.
It’s more difficult to pretend you haven’t noticed someone arriving when you are sat alone, when there’s no conversation to appear caught up in. I had come here hoping to see him and had imagined a moment of recognition, knowing smiles, a tousled reunion in a shadowy corridor. I look down and study the slick my wine leaves when I tip it up and down the curve of my glass; I try to look happy and content – young-at-heart, but wise.
I am sat in the same place that I was the night we started making eye contact across the room, and he is stood at almost the same place at the bar. He stares too-intently ahead. I think I see a twitch of tension in his jaw and he orders his drink quietly, moves to join someone that I can’t see in a booth around the corner.
“Whenever you’re wondering if someone is aware that you are there,” Gevi used to say, “just remember that when it’s you pretending that you don’t know – that you definitely… always… do.” She used to drag out the last few words in a breathy, dramatic whisper and make her eyes wide. It used to make me laugh. I know that it is funny because it’s true. That doesn’t stop part of me here in this moment believing there could be a different explanation for the man not seeing me.
It’s slightly earlier than it was that night. It is still what you would class as daylight. We aren’t yet in the groove of the buzz of an evening, of company and alcohol. I concentrate on the feeling of wine hitting the walls of my empty stomach. Maybe he didn’t see me. Or, this early in the evening, he could be feeling shy. I don’t know how old he is. We deliberately hadn’t talked about it. I try and meditate on how I felt that night, try to will it into being again.
For a time, the idea of last nights became darkly fascinating. This was, of course, during the limbo period when it had all seemed borderline acceptable – after the initial horror of realising what we had done. But even that horror waned and waxed – what we were so terrified of was many years ahead and that emotion couldn’t be sustained. This is how we all live with the knowledge that we will die one day. Then, I could spend a few days not remembering and then whilst I was in the middle of some menial task it would grab me. What you would do on your last night was discussed with the same dark intrigue as last meals were when death row was still a thing.
I went to see an exhibit on last meals, God knows how many years ago now (it could be anything between three and twenty). It had been a way to look at how food used to be – the crap they put in it and sugar in everything maintaining constant addiction. They had more of an emotional connection to food then. You only ever remember a couple of things that struck you at the time. Many of the death-row inmates had ordered elaborate meals but then had not been able to eat much at all. I thought then it was nerves or adrenalin that ruined their appetite. These last few days, I’ve started to realise it could have been the disappointment – that it just didn’t quite taste the same as they’d remembered. One of the death row inmates left his pecan pie (full of sugar, of course) and when the guard asked why he said he “was saving it for later.” There’s no one I can joke with on the gallows. No one to leave behind and report my one last bit of bravery in the face of adversity, not even a prison guard. I miss Gevi.
Often when I heard someone speculating what they would do on their last night, they seemed to think you could have any night from your younger life back. They talked as if time travel or temporary possession of your past self was possible. There was this one night in Ireland in my twenties… Here in this familiar bar with a glass of red wine everyone tied up, unable to meet me, it’s shit. For days now, everything has started to taste watered down and with a hint of bleach. I’ve eaten very little. I order a shot of tequila and another red wine. At the bar, I strain to hear the conversation coming from the booth but I can only tell that there are multiple voices. I can’t tell for sure if one of them is a woman.
I hadn’t meant to grow away from Gevi. It crept up. Partly, this happened because the way that I experienced time had changed. It was a bit like the first year at university when you meant to get drunk for the initial few months, but then next thing you knew it had been a year and you were begging for extensions to deadlines. We spent time like lottery winners spend money, and with some of the same sense of disbelief about it. The weeks and months were full of debauchery and a carousel of people. We sought out the same places. Shots at sunset. Backpacker trails made glamorous. There was a spike in clubs running retro music nights. Gevi would come along on some of these nights out at first but grew visibly tired of them, weary with the effort of holding conversations with strangers, more so each time there was a new group. My new friends didn’t like her there either, with her crows feet and grey streaks. Pristine themselves, they had grown intolerant of such signs of aging. Our private twosome meetings grew more difficult to plan the wider our schedules grew apart, and when they did happen she grew increasingly tight-lipped and withdrawn. I started to prefer the company of those with time to waste, who didn’t chastise. We often reverted to our teenage or early-twenties selves, squandering time, sitting around watching hours of mindless dramas, stoned. Twice I missed meetups I’d arranged with Gevi during one of these hazy lost weeks. I think I only met up with her one more time following that. You think yourself very original when you make these choices but after a while of meeting the others who have made the same, you start to realise that you are one of a type. Which were we? Oblivion chasers. Put-it-off-ers. Experience box tickers. Non-committers. Slackers. Inheritance Brats. Childless Wasters.
The man is on the other side of the bar now. It’s impossible that he hasn’t seen me. I am directly in his line of sight yet he never meets my eyes nor do his eyes go anywhere near my face, and this takes effort. He is beautiful. He has curly hair that I remember the feel of in my hands. It is as though he is on the other side of glass. He moves away. The bar is filling up with people who seem to sense it on me and stay away. The yellow light streams in sideways and is darkening at the edges like burning butter. The light is perfect for photos – I am fairly confident I look beautiful in this light, it’s the kind that would make almost anyone. My shadow creeps across the floor like a dark, thick liquid. I get another shot and another wine.
At one point, they called us the T-geners. I don’t remember the exact scientific name, but it begins with a ‘T’. It’s something – a chemical? – at the end of your DNA that holds the strands together, keeps them in place. It was explained to me as being like the plastic on the ends of shoelaces, to protect them. I just about remembered shoelaces from childhood and the crackly feel of the plastic at their ends that stopped them from fraying. I liked to chew it. I understood as much as I felt that I needed to – I’m not a scientific person. I understood that the drug and hormone cocktail kept the plastic end of your DNA shoelaces in place and that this was the secret to staying young.
Of course, no one had known for about fifteen years what they were heading for, because it wasn’t until then that the first genetic backlash occurred.
Patient zero was a man – even though so many of the first to sign up were rich women. Jeremy Booth. He became a household name overnight, but not in the way he had hoped. He was one of the first human test subjects; an out-of-work actor who had taken part in many drug trials in between extras work and shifts in various cafes. A strange aspect of the contract signed by those taking part in the first trial (removed quickly once it began to look like a success) was that they had a right to continue treatment. He had. He had struck gold because he never would have been able to afford it until it was too late otherwise. (Perhaps the only men who really understand some women’s desire to stay young are actors and sportsmen.) He was nearing fifty, but he looked twenty. As the years passed and he and the group of early test subjects continued to look ‘that good’ and didn’t seem to be facing any consequences, those that could afford it bid high to be one of the next to beat the clock. The test subjects faded into the background somewhat as the topic of conversation shifted to who could afford to start the treatment, and who dare. So, we were vaguely aware of him as part of that early group; whilst he wasn’t exactly ‘the poster boy’ for the drug company, he’d been on some of the posters and the odd breakfast chat show. They tried to keep it hushed up, what happened. At first, it was just rumour and speculation, but when they couldn’t wheel him out to quash the scandal we started to believe that our worst fears were true.
Imagine the first time it happened to someone when they didn’t know what was happening. He’d ignored the brown spots that had appeared on his arm that morning – he’d call the doctors tomorrow. After twenty years, he’d grown re-accustomed to his youth and borderline flippant about his health. He’d gone to bed a young man in his prime; he’d woken up decrepit, rapidly aged overnight. Backlash. Several would wake up blind, but he still had his sight. After the initial confusion about why his body hurt and why he felt so awful (hangover?), why his hands were not his own and seemed to be feeling the face of a stranger, he’d managed to totter over to a mirror and see his worst nightmare looking back.
The beautiful man is leaving the bar. It is dark now and he is leaving a good few hours before the bar closes with his arm around the waist of a very pretty and petite woman. Well, there we go, then. It’s early enough that they are going for a civilised meal together. Not like the hastened shots we did at the bar and the frantic unwrapping of each other later. When they are gone I get more drinks, add them to the graveyard of empty glasses on my table.
The drugs company kept Jeremy Booth hidden away trying to reverse the damage but when it became clear it was impossible they hurried to remind everyone that all those who had chosen this path had signed contracts, waivers, and that they had been very clear they weren’t yet sure of the long-term effects. Unable to stand his overnight state, the press attention and God only knows what kind of attention from the drugs company, Jeremy Booth had committed suicide.
After this, we were referred to as ‘turners’.
Once he turned, it was as though he had broken the seal. T-geners started changing overnight like popcorn in a pan. After the initial panic and fear of the unknown, the details became general knowledge. It tended to start with liver spots appearing then spreading rapidly across the skin. Once this had occurred, it was a matter of hours before rapid aging and deterioration of the body took place. For reasons still not understood, this mostly took place when asleep. There were reports of one-night stands where someone had gone to bed with a young, beautiful woman and woken up with a sickly hag. Dark jokes abounded. Students catching a friend doing a hurried walk of shame home would joke that they must have ‘woken up with a turner’. E-scandals reported headlines such as: I was married to a turner and didn’t even know it. We were the topic of several new horror films.
There were those who chose this path not knowing what the consequences were entirely, who were filthy rich and wilfully ignorant. But there were also those who knew what path they were choosing – twenty more years of youth then instant decrepitude – and chose it anyway. Fewer years to live, but spend all the years you have young. Then it became illegal.
To me it had seemed the obvious choice; it had been a slow, dawning realisation that not everybody (that could afford it) was making the same one. Gevi hadn’t, obviously – although I had offered her the money. I wish I could say that I had already taken the cocktail for too long before learning what had happened to Jeremy Booth, but I can’t. In one of our last meetings, Gevi begged me to stop and I told her it was too late anyway. I could tell from the look on her face that she could smell the lie.
Most had not been able to bear the thought of the next day, had killed themselves. “Live short, die young, leave a pretty corpse.” If it wasn’t gradual it was too much to lose at once. People died of heart attacks plunging into too-cold water, rather than walking in from the shallows slowly. The T-geners watched each other like hawks for signs, commiserated for a while, spent less and less time together. We weren’t exactly sure how many of us there were. We’d heard rumours of communities where T-geners had all moved in together to care for each other, and of centres set up in some cities. Most of what we heard was nightmarish. Some went to volunteer to take care of them but came back quickly – most didn’t want to see their fate.
The glass of the bar window is a black rectangle now and has the sense of a weight of heavy water on the other side, of the possibility of a white shark’s belly streaking up out of the darkness. I stagger to the bar, argue with the barman about whether or not I am allowed another shot. Settle for just a wine. Add it to the empties with a clatter.
I was part of the last wave to take it. We were a joke, a horror story stuck between generations. We were like the tales of early plastic surgery you would hear about from the past, bat-faced people walking around with strange enormous lips and frozen expressions of surprise. Walking early experiments.
We hadn’t realised we were going to be a stand-alone generation; we thought we were the first wave of the future. We were a cul-de-sac in human progress.
The signs started sixteen hours ago. One gloating liver spot just below my elbow joint that rapidly became a rash of them down to my wrist in a single morning. Like all such horrific ideas, it had seemed completely impossible that it was going to happen until it actually had.
Honestly, at the point that I made the decision, it seemed worth it.
Once, I drove to one of the centres for T-geners and sat outside in the car for a while. I didn’t quite go in. I should have – they had support groups apparently, to help you prepare for the sudden transition. I got as far as to trigger the automatic doors and the wall of smell that hit me was enough to make me turn heel and get back into my car. I didn’t even hear what the young support worker standing in the lobby had shouted; I thought about the earnest look on her face all the way back to town. It made me feel furious, that practised, caring look.
My preparations have been atrocious. I’ve charged the car, tossed in some maps with half-hearted markings showing where the turner communities are rumoured to be. Some snacks as an afterthought. The practical logistics are lacking.
I am drunk. The look on the barman’s face tells me I cannot stay in the bar any longer.
I push my still good arm and body weight against the cold heft of the door, hear the bell ring above my head, and topple outside into the darkness.