a short story by Christine Wilks
Prring! Trudy blinks at the screen on the kitchen wall. It’s a text from Simon. She knows what it’s going to say. It’s time. Her body clock could’ve told her that, if she’d been listening to it – but she hasn’t, she’s been ignoring it for days. Dreading it. No use belly-aching, she tells herself (and suddenly there is an ache in her belly). At conception they agreed on a deadline, and this is it.
She looks at their daughter, Fern, doing her homework on the kitchen table. What a good girl she is. A credit to them. So unlike her older brother. At least she’ll turn out to be a success, Trudy’s sure of that. Their first success.
‘Your father’ll be home soon. Finish that upstairs, darling.’
‘Please. I need to get things organised.’
Greatly inconvenienced, Fern picks up her laptop and flounces out.
‘Fern!’ Trudy warns.
The girl turns at the door, grins an apology, and runs upstairs. Trudy slinks into the hall and listens. She can hear Fern in her bedroom. And Anthony? Yes, he’s in his room playing a noisy shoot ‘em up. It would normally irritate her, but today it’s a blessing. It’ll keep him preoccupied. They’ll need to talk, she and Simon – and suddenly it’s as if her insides have been sucked out by a vacuum. She’s been here before, three times now. Why can’t she get used to it?
When Simon gets home she bends her mouth into a smile, assumes the customary brave face. Simon nods and flumps down at the kitchen table. It’s hard for the fathers too, she knows that.
‘It’s for the best, Trudy.’
‘Yes, I know, but I can’t help feeling…’
‘Feelings. No. We must disregard feelings. Apart from the boy’s, of course, apart from Anthony’s. It’s crystal clear what we have to do. Our feelings will only cloud the issue. We know this from experience. Don’t we?’
‘Trudy. Step by step. It’s clearly outlined.’
‘I know. Our child’s failed, but…’
‘Our childrearing’s failed…’
‘Yes, of course. But…’
‘Trudy. We agreed, no delays, no second thoughts. That’s the mistake we made last time. It’s got to be quick and clean. No mess.’
She rubs at an invisible mark on the table top. ‘Will you tell him?’
Simon droops, ‘Yes.’ Then takes a deep breath and straightens. ‘A clear and full explanation, that’s what’s needed. If the boy understands, he’ll surely accept his… his…’
Trudy wonders why he can never find the right word for it, he’s so sure of everything else. ‘Regeneration?’ she offers.
‘Exactly, yes. Regeneration. It’s a joyous thing.’ But his buoyant tone doesn’t sound right.
‘I wish you could make him understand that.’
‘Perhaps coming from his mother…?’
‘No.’ She stands up.
Simon presses his palms flat on the table and nods. ‘It’s the responsible thing to do. It’s not a decision we take lightly.’
‘Not at all! No. Tell him that, won’t you? Tell him, it’s not a whim. Not like some people.’ She finds solace in that. She knows he does too. They haven’t veered one iota from the standards they set at conception.
‘But what if it’s more nature than nurture?’ she says. ‘What if it’s not our fault? What if our P Plan has always been perfect and it’s his genes that are defective?’
‘Still our responsibility.’
‘But what if we can’t improve on him? What if his genetic raw material has… limitations?’
‘Trudy. This kind of talk, it’s not good. Besides, we’ve been thoroughly tested.’
‘They might’ve missed something.’
‘You don’t believe that.’
No, she doesn’t. The tests are foolproof these days. For more than a decade, no genetic aberration has been allowed to pass through.
‘The nature question, that’s been resolved, it’s all down to nurture strategy,’ says Simon. ‘Everyone accepts that.’
‘But what if…?’
‘It’s just cold feet, dear. Decision time is difficult. You always feel this way. But we don’t want to pass the point of no return, do we? It would create far more distress in the long run. You know that.’
She does. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Nor the messy social and financial implications. She shudders. No, she has no desire to join the ranks of the indecisive and irresponsible.
‘We’ve assessed. We’ve analysed. We have our results. Yes?’’
She nods. It’s true the boy clearly falls short of the mark. So why does she feel…? No. Simon’s right. At conception, they laid down valid, measurable criteria. They put a lot of thought into it. Both of them. They ought to keep to the Plan. ‘It’s for the best,’ she says.
Simon summons the boy.
After an irritating delay (always glued to his computer! Why does he never come when he’s called?) their son enters the room – shoulders drooping, trousers sagging as if they’re ill-fitting, expression sulky, the habitual sniffing… A swarm of irritation courses through her, but, for once, she lets it pass.
Simon clears his throat and speaks.
‘Eleven years old. On the brink of adolescence. The first great watershed of life. The question is, do you navigate the turbulent waters of your teenage years in a substandard, leaky vessel, or do we go back to the beginning and build a new one? An unsinkable vessel, this time guided by a wiser captain?’ He glances at Trudy, ‘Not forgetting his first mate.’
What makes him attempt humour at a time like this? But it’s best to nod and smile. Then she sees Anthony looking at her and it’s as if her guts drop through her pelvic floor.
‘Isn’t it better to build a ship that you know you can rely on to sail you through the uncharted waters of life into the open oceans of adulthood?’
The boy looks at him blankly.
‘Come on, son. Which would you choose? Would you prefer to sail the seas of life in a leaky boat, or in a good, sound, waterproof boat?’
The boy shrugs, ‘A waterproof boat?’ Trudy can feel him trying to catch her eye, but she won’t look at him.
‘Good. I’m glad. Because that’s what your mother and I plan to do with you. We plan to go back to source – your source, the source of the River Anthony, if you like – and start the journey afresh in a more secure craft. The craft, of course, being our Parenthood Plan for you. You’ve heard us talk of it, yes?’
‘Good. Think of the present one, the P Plan we’re currently operating, as a prototype. A prototype vessel for your unique and precious life. Well, your mother and I, we think we can make some improvements. With just a few adjustments, a few tweaks here and there, we believe we can construct a better Plan to create a better you.’
Simon pauses. Trudy steals a glance at the boy, but he’s not looking at her now, he’s gawping at his father.
‘What’s wrong with me?’
‘The flaws are in our Parenthood Plan, not in you, son. Well, they manifest in you, but they’re not your fault. You’re not to blame. Your mother and I, we take full responsibility for our parenting mistakes. Don’t we, dear?’
‘Yes, we do.’ Her upper body leans towards her son but her feet stay planted, her hands clenched. ‘We still love you, Anthony. We’ll always love you.’
‘You make it sound as if he’s leaving us,’ says Simon, a note of panic in his voice. Trudy glances a warning. He turns back to the boy, clears his throat, ‘Your inner being – your soul, if you will – that won’t be leaving us, just this particular bodily incarnation, this particular vessel that contains the essence of you. But not you, not your genetic essence. Do you see?’
Anthony looks down at his body, bewildered. He turns his hands slowly, studying them.
‘I’m not just talking about your body, boy. I’m talking about this bodily incarnation of yours. Don’t you see the difference?’
‘I’m not good enough?’ His voice is small, hiding in his throat.
‘But one day you will be,’ says Simon. ‘That’s the beauty of it. We’re all going to have another chance. Isn’t that wonderful? You, son, get to be all over again. Nothing’s ending, it’s a new beginning.’ He looks at Trudy, she smiles too.
‘Whether we’ll ever achieve the ideal you, who can tell? But we must try. We must aim for perfection.’
Simon’s beatific smile wavers for a second, but the flutter of panic passes. ‘Son, our high ideals are what separates us from the animals.’
The boy drops his head, stares at his feet. ‘Does everyone have to be perfect?’
‘If one is blessed with the opportunity to attain perfection, one must take it. And you are, son. You have the chance to be the best you can be.’
‘Are you perfect?’
‘We try to be the best parents we possibly can be. Don’t we, Trudy?’
‘Yes, we do. We do. We want to do the best we can. Everything’s for the best.’
‘You don’t know how lucky you are. This kind of thing wasn’t possible in our day. When your mother and I were growing up, we only had the one go at it, the one stab at being the best we could be. But for our children… Well, with the proper Parenthood Plan we can strive, again and again if necessary, to get it right – to propagate and cultivate, to nurture the ideal you.’
Simon walks towards his son and lays a benevolent hand on his shoulder. The boy pulls away.
‘What’s going to happen to me?’
‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ says Simon.
Trudy, her face split by a smile, steps sideways towards the kitchen sink.
‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ she says.
She turns the tap on. A force of water pours onto steel.
She puts her hands under the running cold.
Fifteen hours later, Trudy’s mouth is tight, Simon’s face is blank. Neither have had any sleep to speak of. He sits at the breakfast table and spreads his old fashioned paper out flat. Flat, it must be, no crinkles. She hands him his morning vitality drink. He takes it, hand shaking. The glass rattles in its saucer, the drink spills. He looks at her, but she glances away. He puts the glass down.
‘I’m absolutely convinced, absolutely convinced, Trudy, that that’s the last time, the very last time, we’ll ever have to go through anything like that. Ever.’ His voice sounds oddly muffled. ‘It was more difficult, much more difficult than… I really thought, I really did think… I thought, if I explained…’
He’s looking up at her, distressed and confused, and in him, she sees the boy again. She bites the inside of her mouth, hard. The pain clears her head.
‘Simon. You have to remember what we were dealing with; the defective end product of a faulty Plan. There were bound to be difficulties.’
He sighs. ‘Yes. Yes, you’re right.’
‘It won’t happen again.’
‘Because this time our P Plan is flawless.’
Fern enters the kitchen, perfectly turned out for school, and takes her place at the breakfast table. Trudy beams at her. Such a well balanced child. How gratifying to see her continue with life as normal, despite the turmoil of the night before. Simon smiles at her tentatively.
‘Sleep well, Fern?’
It wasn’t a lie. She had slept. Once she’d made her vow. Muffled in the darkness, undercover of her duvet, once the screaming had ceased, she had sworn a solemn oath to always strive with all her might to be perfect.