Photo by Veniel Jean
The meeting takes place in the hospital boardroom. We sit around a long mahogany table, fewer than 20 men now, away from the bloodstained walls, the skittering vermin, the stench of death. While we're here, us men, in this boardroom, it's as if the last 18 months never happened.
As usual, I say nothing. The rest decide the scientists still stay out of the draw, which leaves fourteen. We each take a piece of paper from a plastic bag. It's either blank or marked with an "X," and there's only one with an "X." I don't even look at mine.
A few seconds after Patel opens his paper, he starts to sob. He pushes his chair back, grabs the rucksack, looks about to say something but instead shakes his head and rushes out. Silence. We stare at the door, the table, the modern art cluttering the walls, anywhere but at each other. Necessary sacrifice. Collateral damage. Even now the world stinks of the same bullshit. So maybe it's guilt, or shame, or one of the other excuses we like to make, but I go after him.
Patel still has a kid, a six-year-old with wide, tea-coloured eyes and a missing left hand.
He's with his son in the hospital reception, sitting on a pink plastic chair with his boy on his lap, sorting through the fingers of the boy's good hand, kissing them one by one. I tell Patel I'm going instead.
"Thank you," he says. "You're a good man."
I take the rucksack. I tell him he's lucky to have his son.
Patel mumbles some words I don't understand. His reflection lingers behind me in the glass of the door, head bowed, eyes closed, hands supplicated. I ask what he's doing. The boy tugs at the sleeve of Patel's dirty white shirt. He ignores us both.
Finished, he looks up. "You will be with your wife and child in heaven."
I want to say the last place I'm going is heaven, or he can stick his heaven, something cruel, derisive, but what would be the point?
I leave Patel to his son.
Darkness presses the world outside of the hospital grounds. The wind whips metallic drizzle into my face. I keep low, hard to the walls, another superfluous emotion, duty, forcing me to be careful. The truth is, I couldn't care less if they make the new vaccine or not.
Things we took for granted: streetlights and umbrellas. The smile of a passing stranger. Holding a loved one's hand. Summer walks in the park. Generosity and kindness. Love. Perhaps these things, the beautiful but redundant skin of humanity, will in time be edited out of our DNA, leaving the residue of a different existence in the same way as some animals have tail stubs. When there are no more tails, we'll look at those stubs and wonder what they hell they were for.
Even in the dark I know the way to the church where Sandro and his gang live. Alison and I moved to this area, Highgate, after we married, drawn by its cobblestone maze of Victorian buildings and urban-chic, child-friendly pubs. A good place to raise a family. We dreamed of a happy life, a healthy baby, pushing a pram through Hampstead Heath, our lives unfolding in a series of smiling snapshots. We wanted to wait for a year after the wedding, using that time to settle into our new home, and then to go on a three-month African savannah adventure for our honeymoon. But something went wrong with the contraception, and Alison got pregnant.
"What's in a year?" Alison said. "Africa will still be there when we're older."
"It will," I said. "But my sense of adventure might not."
"Old man Brooke." She leant on an imaginary cane. "You want me to pass some crackers for your soup?"
"We've seen everything's in working order. Can't this one just be a trial run?"
"This isn't like the kitchen shelves. You can't just take them down and put up new ones. You're talking about killing our baby."
"It depends how you define alive," I said.
"We're keeping it," she said, and looked away.
I turn onto Fortnam Avenue. The concrete wall changes to a metal railing that flakes fragments of paint under my fingers. A faint halo of light glows by the church. I use it to locate the gap in the railing leading onto the grounds. The grass deadens my footsteps, so all I can hear is the sound of my beating heart, its racing thuds an annoying bassline I can't quite shake from my head.
Two men are loitering by the door.
My foot catches a pebble. It clicks off a headstone.
"Who goes there?" says one of the men.
I nearly laugh—civilization living on though television clichés.
"I've come to trade," I say. "I'm expected."
"Let's see you," says the tall one. They are dressed in black dinner jackets like bouncers outside a nightclub. "What's in the bag?"
I hand him the rucksack. While he looks inside, the other doorman, his face disfigured by burns, his mouth pulled to the side by the scar tissue, reaches in the bag and takes out one of the bottles of champagne. It took weeks to track down what Sandro wanted. Weeks of trawling through the Aladdin caves of civilization: high class supermarkets, continental delis, the cellars of decadent houses, anywhere luxury once existed, all to find two bottles of champagne and two tins of foie gras.
A good price for a human foetus, extracted fresh, which can be used to try to make a new vaccine.
A look passes between the doormen... No one would ever know.
"I'm expected," I repeat.
The tall one says, "It's dangerous out there. Anything could happen."
I clench my fist. The flick-knife presses against my wrist. I've practiced the move so many times I can whip it out and open in less than an eye-blink.
The tall doorman zips up the bag and pushes it in my chest. Not worth the risk, I guess. He tells me to wait. Scarface goes inside. When we're alone, the doorman glances at me and nods before continuing to stare ahead. I'm gripped suddenly by the normality of the moment. Here we are, two men, standing around. I want to ask what football team he used to support. If he had a wife. Kids. I want to ask him his story, what he did when the plague first hit, how he escaped the riots, the fires, society falling apart.
After the outbreak, it became clear the only people not affected were pregnant women. A special protein called volurealan, produced in the placenta, spread from the foetus to the liver and spleen, keeping the plague at bay. The government developed vaccines, but they only lasted a short while. The virus mutated too quickly. Alison and I hid in my parent's cellar as gangs searching for pregnant women raided every house. We heard each of Dad's fingers snapping, but he didn't give us away. They left him on the kitchen floor with his throat slit.
When Scarface comes back out, says for me to follow. We pass through a dark corridor lined with closed doors. From behind them I hear low talking, a girl pleading, another whimpering. The corridor opens into a large sanctuary. Paraffin lamps cast circles of light in the gloom. Men hunker around a small fire, cooking meat, the smell covering the dank locker-room stench.
Three men come through the door at the back. The middle one, I guess, is Sandro, the leader of this gang of birthers. He is wearing colorful swatches of silk fashioned into an outfit of which a drag queen would be proud. His fingers are chunky with gold rings. It's a look at odds with his puffy face and burgeoning gut. He was probably an accountant before, sneaking into his wife's clothes when she went to the shops, dreaming of revenge against the cruel world that made him such a fuck up.
"Welcome," he says, pleasantly, affecting his voice into a falsetto. He opens his arms as if for us to embrace.
I hold out the rucksack. "Let's make this quick."
He nods. The man to his left, dressed in tight red silk, steps forward and snatches the bag. Sandro takes it from him and removes a champagne bottle. He runs a fingernail around the cork foil and sighs. "A remnant of softer times," he says.
I tell him I just want the foetus.
"Patience, my dear friend."
"I'm not your friend."
His smile drops, and he nods to the man on his right, who walks past me and back through the way I came in.
Alison and I left my parent's cellar because of me. Either we moved, or I curled up on the floor and died.
The city was a wasteland. Black smoke filled the skies—power plants burning, probably, with nobody there to put them out. Dead bodies lay where they fell. A rat gnawed on the entrails of a young girl's disembowelled stomach. We ended up at the hospital. Where else would we go? The residue of society lingered in our blood. Uniformed men stood guard. They had some government vaccine left, and we could come in on one condition—they wanted to take the foetus from Alison's stomach and use it to try and make more.
Alison was seven months pregnant.
"No way," she said. "There's no way."
"Of course," I replied. "I'll never let them do that."
But she knew.
Right on cue I coughed violently, spraying the ground with blood.
Alison held her hands over her belly and shook her head. "This is our baby. Our baby. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
"I'm not thinking about me. I'm thinking of all the other lives—"
"You never wanted us to have this baby."
"That was a different life, Ally."
I coughed again, doubled over with pain. Maybe the pain made me say what I did. The words just seemed to bypass my brain, come straight from my mouth. Though I think I tell myself that to make it easier, somehow. I knew what I was saying.
But her eyes. Her cold, hating eyes.
"If we don't go in there, Ally," I said, "Then I'll die."
They let us in, and they took our baby from Alison's womb, and two weeks later she slashed her wrists with broken glass.
Sandro's man returns, pushing a young, heavily-pregnant girl on a screeching trolley. Her arms are strapped to the side, her legs in stirrups. She's pretty, even with her back arched and eyes rolled back. Sandro smiles like a benevolent father. "A good one," he says. "Healthy."
"Let's get this done," I say, and stare at the floor, around the room, anywhere but at the girl. I tell myself I'm already dead. Her pain can't touch me.
Another man goes to the girl. A parody of a doctor, he has a stethoscope slung around the neck, a clean white mask tight over his mouth, and is holding a set of tongs you might use to tackle a particularly violent barbeque.
"Be careful," says Sandro. "We can get many more out of her."
Women could burn their bras for a millennium, and what would it matter? I look around the sanctuary at the men chewing dull-eyed on their meat.
I can't help it. I glance at her. Her eyes lock onto mine. The hate. I see Alison's eyes again, and sick rises in my throat.
The girl mumbles no as the doctor moves between her legs. He uses forceps to hold her open. She thrashes and screams like a banshee.
Sandro slides an arm around my shoulder. "This is her first time," he says. "But she will be okay. Don't mind the noise." He wafts his free hand over the room. "You get used to it."
The tongs are inserted into the girl. Her screams threaten to blow down the walls.
Could you imagine if the cure existed in men, how different it would be? The need for dignity. Honor. With women, we know we don't have to bother. We just strap them down and rip out what we need.
One of Sandro's cronies stops to watch, a faint smile coming to his otherwise blank expression. I want to rip off his face.
The girl shrieks at Sandro, begs him to stop.
Before I can think, the flick-knife is in my hand. I spin behind Sandro, hold the blade to his neck, snatch his hair and yank it. Everything stops. Sandro's men look at us. The girl's scream fades to a whimper.
Slowly, Sandro says, "Have I done something to offend you? You came to me."
I'm suddenly aware of what I'm doing, but I'm not scared. I feel alive. I pull his hair harder, expose his neck, press the blade.
"Untie her," I say.
The doctor looks at Sandro. Sandro nods. He unties her. She climbs warily off the trolley. I back to a wall and tell the men to throw all their weapons on the floor by my feet. "And the men from outside. Get them." I press the knife so hard it cuts his skin. Sandro squeaks an order for his men to do as I say. They lumber up to throw a hammer or a machete into the pile. I shout to the girl to get the others. Soon they are all here, eight of them, shocked and desperate and pregnant. I tell them to take the weapons, then ask if any of them know the area. One of them nods and I call her over. I whisper to her to head to the hospital.
When they are gone, Sandro says, "You will die so painfully. I promise you that."
The men look about, confused, restless, unsure whether to stay and protect their leader, or go after the women. I need some time, even five minutes, so tell them about Alison and me, about how we met as students, the day I proposed on the steps of the Trevi Fountain, all the plans we made for our married life. Every time they look to the door, to where the women fled, I press the blade harder until Sandro screams at them to stay. My voice breaks. I blink through tears. The men advance. I pull Sandro's hair hard, dragging him to the floor, saying, I'm sorry Alison, I'm so sorry. Inside I'm praying Patel is right and there is a heaven, even though I've never believed in heaven before. And as I slice the knife across Sandro's throat, I hope she's there to forgive me.