Saturday, 18 August 2012


She walked down the steps from the hospital, feeling faintly embarrassed by the uniformed doorman holding the huge umbrella over her head, even though she was entitled to it. The others, who got no such service, who either provided their own waterproofing or got wet, looked at her with a mix of scorn and envy. She had never quite learned to stare them in the eye with the stare that came naturally with privilege.

But then, she told herself, she had earned this privilege. She had earned it many times over, and continued earning it every moment of every day.

She bent to enter the chauffeur-driven stretch limousine waiting at the foot of the stairs. This, too, was earned, not a gift or a donation or a freebie. She had to keep reminding herself that she was earning all of this each time the chauffeur opened the door for her and saluted, his white uniform getting soaked in the rain.

She drove – or, to be more accurate, had herself driven – straight home. She no longer had a job to go to – every moment of her life was her job, in a sense all too real. She was free to do whatever she wanted, go wherever she wanted – but accompanied, supervised and escorted, to ensure that not the slightest bit of harm came to her. It was as though she were a queen or president, which was not true. She was far more important in many ways than any mere queen or president.

She went back into the building, to her own private elevator, and was shown up to her discreetly opulent flat.  She never had got used to the flat, with its wall-to-wall carpet and the rubber plants in the corner and the air-conditioning. Sometimes she wished she were still working as a secretary and living in a three-room flat she shared with two other girls, but of course those days were past. One of those girls worked now for the hospital she had to visit twice a week as part of the conditions of her current...employment. The girl and she looked away from each other in mutual embarrassment when their paths crossed.

Often, as now, she stood behind her sealed windows and looked out at the night. Far below, the traffic crawled, beads of light on a string. From this high up, she was higher than all the buildings around, and could see beyond the great flat dark strip of the river to where the buildings across on the other side spread their multi-coloured glow. Once upon a time, not really very long ago, she would have been out now, on this Friday evening, unwinding after a hard week of work. But now there was nothing to unwind from and no way to unwind, nowhere she could go.

She kicked off her shoes and sat down with a glass of fruit juice, looking down on the city. Sometimes she wished she had never volunteered, never chosen the honour, never taken on herself the burden of protection. But now it was too late and she no longer had a choice.

She had justified it to her family, her friends, and to herself often enough, so often that she was beginning to sound trite even to her own ears, so she had stopped justifying herself. In any case, it didn’t need justification. History was its own witness here – a history of death, destruction and extermination, a history which had brought creatures numbering in the billions to extinction, the passenger pigeon, the dodo, the great auk, moa, Stellar’s Sea Cow, the Yangtze dolphin; no end to the parade of names, all gone forever; victims of greed and stupidity and apathy, until an appalled world had rightly cried, never again.

She remembered the ads asking for volunteers, the substantial rewards on offer. She had thought about it all night, lain awake in that tiny little bed in that tiny little room, with the wind whistling through the cracks around the window that didn’t quite fit in its frame. The next day she’d gone and signed up and gone through the necessary checks, physical and psychological, that they’d put her through. Why not? It was Sunday and she in any case had had nothing better to do.

Yes, she had those rewards now, just looking around her showed her that they had kept their promise, just as she had kept hers. Oh yes, she had kept hers, and would keep it for as long as it took; and then, when at last time ensured she could keep it no more, she would go on her way with a substantial pension, and someone else would take over the task. She knew that and did not resent it.

When she had made her decision, when she had told her family and friends about her ‘condition’, they had been shocked. She had seen it in their eyes, heard it in their voices, but not one of them – not one – had ever said a word asking her not to do it. She had the arguments ready, all about how she was in a dead-end situation with no prospects and no way out that she could see, and when a chance like this came her way, she couldn’t afford to let it go by.

She pictured it often in her mind these days, the tapeworm that lay somnolent in her intestine now, its six or seven metres of white ribbon-body bathed in her digested food, safe and secure and warm in the darkness. The world’s last pork tapeworm, kept alive inside her, where it had been implanted; she thought of its eggs, harvested along with the mature “segments” from her body and preserved in pig muscle, ready to be implanted once more when the time came. She thought of how she was no longer a woman but a living museum, home to the last of a kind. She thought about how she had said goodbye to all relationships forever. Who would want to be with someone like her? 

She sipped at her fruit juice and wondered if what she was carrying under her heart knew of her, could know of her, could understand anything. She wondered if it would have cared.

Tomorrow, she thought, she would apply for a couple of weeks’ vacation. They would vet it, of course, to ensure that it was risk-free, but she was sure they’d grant it in the end.

They owed it to her.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12

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