The Granddaughter Paradox published in Sci Phi Journal

My story The Granddaughter Paradox has been published in Sci Phi Journal, an online journal of science fiction with a philosophical twist (or philosophical fiction with a science fiction twist?)

Reading the full story requires a subscription, or as the site says:

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So obviously I will encourage anyone reading this to follow the above instructions… but here is a preview:

Brendan McConnell’s morning began at 4.45 a.m. on a spring day in 2010. Between sleep and wakefulness for the whole night, as he realised the appointed time was nearing he willed himself fully awake. Penelope slept on beside him. When planning his actions that day, he had thought of kissing her, but had decided the risk of waking her up was too great. She hadn’t slept much lately. And if all went well he would be back before anything could be noticed by anyone. He slid out of the bed, lifting the polka-dot duvet only very slightly and replacing it so it was as if no one had slept there. Lit only by sodium street lamps, their light edging through the gaps at the edge of the curtains, the room seemed to be bulging with clothes and books and papers in every possible space. Brendan thought of the crash courses in biochemistry and molecular pathology they had put themselves through, scouring textbooks and journal articles for some hint, any hint of some answer, any answer. A paper sea of modern biomedicine in their bedroom; the books with their definitive and authoritative titles: Comprehensive Biochemical Pathology, Advanced Immunology. And the journal articles, forming blobs of stapled paper around the room, discarded part-understood. He went into the bathroom to change, folding his pyjamas and leaving them on top of the laundry basket. He had left out fresh clothes; a purple woolly jumper Rose liked to stroke, a clean white suit, black slacks, underwear, navy socks.

When dressed, he went into his four-year-old daughter Rose’s room. Tubes and monitors were attached to her, keeping her breathing. He spoke to her, knowing that she too was on the borderland of sleeping and waking, but at this point in the disease’s progression, she would not become fully alert:

“Rose, I am just going for a little while. I will be back, I will be back, and when I am you will be better. I promise”

He went downstairs, opened his work briefcase, took out two envelopes—one addressed to Penelope, one to Rose—and left them on the hall table. He put on his brown slip-on shoes. He opened the front door, and stood a little back from the threshold for a minute or so. Perhaps he would need this time when he came back, perhaps he would come across himself waiting at the door with the door open, and this would allow him to slip in, do whatever needed to be done with Rose, and slip in beside Penelope. Then he left. He had parked round the corner when he had come home the evening before, knowing that Penelope would most likely be too preoccupied to notice and if she did, he would just say that he was trying to get a little bit more exercise. There had been far more erratic behaviour than that on both their parts recently. He drove to the university and parked in an asphalt car park near the back of the School of Experimental and Theoretical Physics, rather than near the School of Business where he lectured. He got out of his car, and shook hands with a bearded, burly, short man. They walked, in the gathering dawn, to the back of the Physics building.

Five hours later, in 2090, he was sitting with Rose and the grandson of the man who shook his hand that morning. Suddenly, Brendan heard his own voice cheerily announce “Rosie-Posie, time for your medicine”. He turned, and saw a contraption consisting of the top half of a teddy bear on wheels rolling towards him.

“It has your voice, Daddy.” Rosie said. “We had video files of your voice. All my robot companions had your voice, when I was a child, and then in my teens, and now here I am an old woman, with a companion robot with my daddy’s voice.”

“It looks like you’ve got a friend with you today, Rosie? What is your name?” Brendan heard his own voice, the voice—friendly, jolly in an understated, unforceful way—of the days before Rosie’s diagnosis. “I am daddy,” he blurted out.

“Really? Whose daddy?”

“Rosie’s. Rosie has had me for seventy-four years.”

“Really? Really?” Brendan wondered how the artificial intelligence routines that presumably lay behind the robot companion’s bonhomie were handling this.

It repeated in Brendan’s voice “Really?” in the exact same intonation. Suddenly a little red light flashed on the side of its head, and the thing stopped, frozen.

“You’ve ruined it!” Again she was a four–year-old, with the icy clarity to her voice that was the familiar build up to an explosive tantrum. “You’ve ruined it! I could talk to him, and it was like you never went away. Well, for a short time I could believe it, but I really could believe it for that time. And now you’ve ruined it, and I’ll never believe it again.”

“But I’m here now—is this thing broken?”

“That red light means that something stumped the nets. That hardly ever happens. The nets are as good if not better than a person at knowing what someone is talking about. It sent a file back to the manufacturers. They’ll come and take it away.”

“But how can you be angry. I’m here now, the real thing. You don’t need a robot to have my voice.”

“Don’t you tell me what I should feel. You left, out into nowhere, you left that stupid letter I got after Mum died. It didn’t help. At least the robot didn’t leave.”

“I’m sorry,” he began, with tears forming. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” This last “sorry” was said with a suddenly explosion of rage, and suddenly an angry torrent of words emerged: “I’m sorry for travelling through time and leaving everything behind to save your life, to save your life, and you would rather have a little bloody robot than me.”

She had calmed, and now looked at him with another familiar expression from her childhood, an expression of infinite patience and gravity. “Of course I would rather have you, but you have to remember you have been a dim memory for all these years. The first memory I have… holding your hand on a beach while eating ice cream, on a blindingly sunny day. I asked Mum about it before she died, and she said that we never went on a beach holiday. Yet I remember it, as clear as I remember opening that door and seeing you there an hour ago.”

“I see.” He sat, any anger gone. “At least with the companions you had something definite.”

“Yes. Yes. Daddy, daddy, I’m sorry.”

“No, I should be sorry. I’m the sorry one. You see… they said you were going to die. It wasn’t weeks, but days.”

“I felt such a hole in my soul all those years. As if part of me had been cut out.”

“Do you remember being sick?”

“I was in and out for years. Of course I remember but not really the specifics. I remember vividly enough some of the times they thought I was going to die, but as I got older it was just a sort of irritating backdrop.“

“What happened? How did you get better? They kept telling us not to hope. They kept telling us—”

“Mum always said that it just happened. I didn’t die. They thought I would die for years and years, until I was almost ten. But I didn’t die. I just got better. I think I was kind of famous. Granny used to say it was her novenas.

Inherit the Earth (part 2) Nthposition.com, December 2004

Part 1 is here

Ten years from now

Malcolm and Linda and the ones with no names, the old folk whom they picked up on the road, went down into the woods. The cold of late September reinforced the constant hunger. They picked their way down the slope, zig zagging to keep their footing. Malcolm and Linda each had a small orbiting system of elderly men or women, each one emaciated into androgyny, clinging to them.

Picking up the old people had had an energising effect on both of them. For the first time in a long time they felt competent, in control. The authority they used to exude unthinkingly, the confidence in their clinical experience – it all came back, and they looked on these aged, sexless, helpless creatures benignly.

They had found them by the side of the road. Staggering along, going blackberrying. They knew that Massey woods was a good place for blackberrying, and even at this stage of the year finding greenery to chew on. There were no walkers there now, and if there were any dogs they would almost certainly be eaten.

Platoons of old, confused pensioners, former residents of nursing homes abandoned overnight by their staff, were a common sight on the roads. The week before, walking along the Dodder to find other blackberries, in the heart of what would have been very respectable and suburban Donnybrook, Malcolm and Linda had come across a pallid corpse, aged and ravaged. They said a quick Our Father over the body. There seemed little point informing anyone, and they felt too cold and hungry to stop long.

Hunger ruled. At times they remembered the years of plenty – remembered them viscerally, with their stomachs. Rarely Malcolm thought how quickly it all had happened – how only two years of wet summers and biting winters had managed to throw the world’s food supply system into chaos. It was one of those thoughts – like how strange it now seemed that the phone or the fax or email had existed, had been so common and accepted, how everyone completely took it for granted that press a button and click, fizz, you could talk to or send a piece of paper to or a massive wad of text to the other side of the world – that he would contemplate and feel somewhat remote from the contemplation. For hunger dominated.

Oddly, hunger did not kill the sex drive – if anything the opposite. But sex was joyless, strangely unreal. It seemed reduced to the level of evacuating the bowels, or voiding the bladder. Malcolm and Linda – who had married the spring before everything had fallen to pieces, on a beautiful early April day, though that very evening squally showers presaged the deluge to come – had not had children, just as none of the Thin had. Only the Fat – those from the clinics, people who Malcolm and Linda had treated and prescribed for and phlebotomised and lectured at and given out to and laughed at behind enormously larded backs – had children anymore.

They weren’t quite so fat anymore. But they were substantial, the only people of literal substance around. Only they had the energy, from their slow-burning fat stores, to think for any length of time about anything other then the next meal. Thus they had assumed what authority there was left.

They scrambled down the slope to the stream. The last few steps they took paddling the ground, collapsing onto the earth to slurp up water with their faces down in the icy flow. They all fell down onto the earth with no particular pattern, so that Malcolm found himself wedged in by two – or might it be three – elderly bodies. They felt cold, to Malcolm’s dim dismay as cold as any corpse. When he had slurped his fill of water, he propped himself up slightly, and noticing that the elderly bodies simply rolled over, tried to rouse them. No response. He checked one neck, the one of the nearest body, for a pulse. None.

“There’s no pulse” he said dully.

Linda had propped herself up too. She looked at him, an old intensity coming into the grey face. They raised themselves up gradually, and very slowly the ancient protocol kicked in.

Feeling dull resentment, Malcolm went through the motions of resuscitation. Tilt the head back, look in the mouth, put your

face down low above the mouth, wait for a breath on your cheek for ten seconds as you look down on the chest for the rise and fall. Nothing. Tilting the head back again, he breathed twice into the ancient lips, and then Linda was compressing the chest, rhythmically pressing down on the sternum fifteen times. Then Malcolm breathed into the old woman again, and then Linda began again, but they were flagging.

“Let’s give us,” said Malcolm, as Linda came to the end of the next cycle of compressions.

“Let’s.”

They noticed now that none of their old companions was stirring. Checking them all, each one was pulseless. They thumped them all on the sternum, but made no further efforts at resuscitation.

Over the next two hours they slowly dragged the bodies to a slight depression, a little further up the ridge they had descended from the stream. There were five of them. When they had put the corpses in this hollow, Malcolm and Linda listlessly kicked some leaves on top of the pile. They gave up with the bodies barely covered. Then they muttered the Our Father, and out of habit Malcolm went on to recite half of the Hail Mary.

Then there was an odd moment. They looked at each other, and Malcolm knew what Linda was been thinking. For he was thinking the same thing. The thought of meat, the great rarity. They looked at each other again, and this time their mutual look was to reject the possibility. They shuffled off, along the stream towards the blackberry bushes.

There were only a few little buds of berries of the bushes, each still red and hard and unripe. Nevertheless, they ate them all, straight from the bush. Afterwards they staggered back to where they had buried the old people. It seemed like something that had happened long ago. Malcolm could barely remember that it had happened at all, or where they had buried them.

The lean times had brought a great economy to communication. By just looking at each other, they knew that they both wanted to stay here for the evening, being too exhausted for the climb up the slope again. One didn’t even just need a few looks or gestures anymore – a simple posture was enough to express even quite complex messages.

They collapsed by the side of the stream again, drank some more water. They both rose slightly, then slumped back slightly, so their heads were just out of the water. Malcolm rolled over onto his back. Then he realised they were not alone.

Bursting out of an old uniform of the Garda Siochana, with the jacket stretched, barely covering the pectorals, John Paul McCabe was standing over them. Linda had rolled over too.

“John Paul. John Paul McCabe.” The words barely came out of Malcolm’s mouth. He felt like vomiting suddenly. Why do I feel like vomiting? he thought. I’m glad to see him.

John Paul weighed half as much as he had five years before, as they would have discovered if they still had a scales to weigh him on. He was still an enormous man, and in a time when everyone seemed emaciated and wasting away, he seemed mythical, beyond belief. Malcolm suddenly saw that vast chart, with John Paul’s name and date of birth in suitably outsize letters on the front, and realised that he was only twenty-one. He seemed older, immemorial, imbued with the authority not just of his uniform but of the very forest itself.

“Dr Kelly. Dr O’Brien.” John Paul glanced at each in turn, as he said their names. He spoke softly, with the easy-going friendliness of before a sort of subharmonic under his voice of quiet, slightly sad authority.

“Hello, John Paul,” said Linda. “You look very well.”

“Thank you.” A pause. “I’ve lost weight.”

“So it seems. You’re a guard now, then?”

“Yes.”

It was silent again. Once again, Malcolm thought how hard it was to find anything to say to the man.

Just after he thought this, he recalled the five corpses in the hollow. As he the memory came into his mind, John Paul spoke again.

“It’s good to see you both, Doctors. I thought about you a lot the last few years. I’m sorry we can’t talk more. You see, I have to take you with me. I have to talk to you about the five bodies behind me.”

“They just died, John Paul. They latched onto us on the road. They came down with us, it must have been too much for them. They just died.”

“Thank you, Malcolm. I’m sure it’s as you say. But I’d just like to talk to you about it first. Just come with me, please.”

“John Paul, we did nothing wrong. We tried to revive them. We did everything.”

“Dr Kelly, I’m sure. Just come with me.”

 

Both Malcolm and Linda were on the point of tears. But tears would not come. Finally Linda spoke.

“John Paul, I… we… we… can’t… I… can’t…”

“I’m so sorry, Dr O’Brien,” John Paul spoke quickly and apologetically, “and Dr Kelly. Let me help you. Let me pick you up.” With great deliberation, the big man leaned forward and picked up Malcolm and Linda, an arm cradled under each, and began to carry them up the slope.

Inherit the Earth (part 1) Nthposition December 2004

Originally published in two sections – “five years from now” and “ten years from now”, Inherit the Earth has it roots in Richard Klein’s Eat Fat, a book which the linked NY Times review summarises very well. One of Klein’s passing comments is the possibility that all this obesity – which 20 years ago seemed as “on the rise” as it does today – was serving some kind of counterintuitive survival purpose. Perhaps in a future society the obese will have some kind of advantage? This story, as well as trying to capture something elusive and distant in the doctor-patient relationship, tries to work out that passing fancy.

INHERIT THE EARTH

Five years from now

Fat. Fat. Fat. Fat in rolls. Fat in great rolls wedged together. Fat in great rolls lying on abdomens like piles of coins. Fat. Fat. Fat arms, fat legs, fat necks. Fat, hefty buttocks. Fat hefty buttocks and adipose-rich, bulging chests. Fat surrounded Malcolm; he worked with fat. Away from work, he began to find fat everywhere. Or rather, fat would find him.

Walking around town, he found his eyes drawn to swelling paunches. To tattoos of snakes, revealed coiled eternally ready to strike an unknown target, just above the natal clefts exposed as bulging maidens bent over, bursting out of their tracksuits. Massive children walking down the street, looking alien and sinister to Malcolm, like nightmare creatures in a horror movie or computer game. Tiny heads on vast, bulky bodies. They walked with an indestructible complacency, it seemed to Malcolm. At times the streets crowded with shoppers would strike him as an army of the fat.

Malcolm worked at one of the near Obesity Clinics, which had been the latest response to the oceans of adipose tissue that were swelling on bodies everywhere. Community sports programmes. Regulating fast food. Banning advertising for foods deemed unhealthy. Making TVs and computer games switch off after two hours, flashing exhortations to go out and exercise. Banning advertising for all foods. Banning games consoles. Banning fast food. Governments throughout the world – for obesity was no longer a problem only of the wealthy West – implemented these measures in turn. And the fat kept rising, kept adhering to buttocks and abdomens, kept doubling and tripling and quadrupling chins.

Having tried to demedicalise obesity, the fashion now was to remedicalise it. And thus a new regime of clinics and programmes swung into motion. Billions were spent on new and improved drugs, on esoteric and exotic herbal and homeopathic regimes, on individually tailor exercise programmes. And everyone kept getting fatter and fatter.

Malcolm had been pawing the fat enmeshing the feet of a female patient when Linda walked in. Linda was the other registrar in the Obesity Clinic; she must have been roughly the same age as Malcolm yet gave him the impression of being younger, more vigorous. It came as a shock to Malcolm to see her, trim and fatless. He knew that his glances at her slim waist, elegant bosom and graceful neck were partly sexual, but her figure was striking mostly because of the contrast with the patients.

All the clinic staff – the nurses, the doctors, the receptionists, the dieticians, the phlebotomists, the ECG technicians – were as thin as Linda. They were all female, aside from himself and one of the receptionists. When he had started working, Malcolm had a paunch, the legacy of weekend beers and all too many microwaved lasagnes when he got home at the end of the day. Without ever consciously deciding to lose weight, he found himself playing squash and lifting weights on Friday nights, then Wednesday nights as well, then four nights a weeks, then five, and cutting down the convenience foods, then omitting them completely and eating various pulses and lentils.

Now, three months in, he was thin. He had never felt better, physically. He got out of bed early to go for a five-mile run before a breakfast of muesli and some grapefruit, would cycle to the clinic, have a bran muffin at eleven in between patients, go for a brief, salad-based lunch in the hospital canteen, canter through the afternoon clinic, and then go for a cycle with Linda afterwards.

It was coming into September, but the evenings were still bright well into the evening. They would cycle by minor roads into the mountains, up to the Three Rock Mountain, or Kilgobbin, or as far as Glendalough. Their favourite was the Massey Woods, a thick bank of conifers sloping down to a stream, running past ruined icehouses and game lodges and the other features of the old estate. A few other walkers, briskly leading their dogs, and the occasional band of disaffected-looking teenagers, looking to find a spot for undisturbed drinking, were the only other visitors. They would walk down the slope, zig zagging so they could descend faster, leaving wakes of freshly fallen leaves. Malcolm thought back to yesterdays stroll.

He exchanged a quick, covert glance with Linda, their faces breaking into a mini smile before resuming the serious, intent look of professionals. She was waiting to say something to him. He felt the woman’s feet again, a hand on each foot trying to bore in deep enough to feel a pulse. He gave up, and got off his knees.

“Sorry. Mrs…” he looked at her chart “Reilly. I’m afraid I can’t get a pulse. We’ll have to note that and make sure they see you in the sugars clinic soon. Otherwise, things are the same from my point of view. You’ll have to wait a little longer to see our dietician and exercise counsellor, and I think you are due to attend the support group later today as well, is that right?”

“Yes, Doctor, it is.”

“Thank you. Thank you.”

Sometimes there was this awkward moment when the interview had ended, but the patient didn’t seem to realise that. She seemed to expect something more. He stood up, stuck out his hand for her to shake and, as she took it with the same expectant look, began to walk towards the door. Mrs Reilly moved a lot slower than he did, and he removed his hand so as to open the door. It seemed to Malcolm that it took her an eternity to leave, both of them thanking each other. He imagined Linda looking amused and slightly contemptuous behind him.

Finally Mrs Reilly left. Malcolm turned to Linda, feeling embarrassed. He felt he had shown some kind of weakness in front of Linda, he should have been more assertive with her. There was no trace of any contempt or irritation on Linda’s face.

“He’s here, in with me. The phenomenon.”

There was no need to ask who the phenomenon was. John Paul McCabe, sixteen years old and forty stone, would a few months later feature in suitably anonymised form as a case history in theNew England Journal of Medicine, but already his fame had spread throughout the world. At medical and even political conferences on the rising tide of fat, his photograph with naught but the poor disguise of a black line over his eyes was the highlight of many a presentation. Genetic and endocrinological syndromes had been ruled out, and he had been placed on a variety of diet and exercise regimens, but still his weight would rise. They had even tried urging him to eat the most fattening foods possible and abstain completely from any exercise at all, in the hope that by some metabolic reversal he would stabilise. He didn’t gain weight any faster, but continued to expand at the same steady, ever-increasing rate.

Malcolm went in to Linda’s room. He was there, on the floor; despite the ever increasing weight of the populace, the examining couch to bear John Paul McCabe’s weight had yet to be built.

“Hey there, Dr Kelly,” he said. He was on first name terms with all the staff.

“Hey, John Paul. Call me Malcolm. How’s it going?”

“Not too bad, not too bad.” With most of the patients, the staff had a difficult rapport. There was a continual strain, as if they were continually biting their lips and restraining themselves from grabbing their patients by the shoulders and telling them just to stop getting fatter, to just stop doing whatever it was they were doing to make themselves so vast and blubbery.

With John Paul, however, it was different. They all got on well with him. They held a certain proprietorial pride in him. He was their outstanding patient, the vastest, the most impressive. He was the Laughing Buddha of the clinic, their mascot.

“Good stuff. Good stuff. How’s the weight?” It was possibly one of the most redundant questions possible, Malcolm though as he said it.

“The same, really.”

There was a silence. Despite John Paul’s well known bonhomie, Malcolm could think of nothing to say to him.

“Keep it up, anyhow,” he said.

“Doin’ my best, doc, doin’ my best.”

“That’s all we can do.” Malcolm again wondered why he was coming out with these stupid lines.

“It sure is.”

“Be seeing you. Be seeing you.” The second “be seeing you” was to Linda, Malcolm winking at her as he retreated out the door.

Our Selves, Alone. (extract 1) Nthposition. 2010

Rather than pasting great dobs of text here of my various stories, I have decided to either post previews with the full text elsewhere, or dividing them into parts, as I have with That Damn Family.

This story was originally titled “The Last Agony Aunt” and, not unlike “The fifteenth of August”, owed quite a bit to Graham Greene’s The Last Word in original concept, if not in the final story. It also, like “The fifteenth of August”, has a very specific Donegal location, or at least is my attempt to locate the story in a very specific Donegal location.

The term “agony aunt” has always struck me as rather striking, simultaneously amusing and horrible.

My recollection is that this one of the last stories I directly sent to Val Stevenson at Nthposition without exploring other markets, and as was my wont at the time I had originally conceived this to be a much longer work but when it didn’t quite extend abandoned that.

I have often used academic frameworks in my fictional stories. While somewhat dubious about this, it does have the benefit of coming easily to me. Re-reading this story now, it seems very obviously to me quite concerned with psychiatry and its practice, to an extent I don’t think I fully noticed when I wrote it.

OUR SELVES, ALONE

“What kind of a psychiatrist were you, anyway? Did you follow a school of thought, like that of Sigmund Freudian?”

“No, not at all. It was Sigmund Freud, by the way. No, we really weren’t all that theoretical, or psychotherapeutic. Actually, we thought all that was nonsense, though we came to realize we had little else to offer but our selves. We just prescribed medications, mainly for lack of anything else to offer. We tried some of what used to be called cognitive behavioural therapy…”

“…that’s the primitive ancestor of the Rational Action Training, isn’t it?

“We didn’t see it as the primitive ancestor of anything, my dear.”

“Why do you call me ‘my dear’? I don’t know you.”

“It’s a figure of speech. It’s a bit like all those things that you people are all so afraid to say.”

“Figures of speech are misleading metaphors.”

“Yes, its that simple, isn’t it.”

“I’m not clear what you mean by ‘its’ in this context”

“But you know. You may not be entirely clear, but you know. And the mask is slipping a bit, isn’t it? You said ‘I’m not clear’ and ‘I don’t know you.’ It’s hard to keep it up isn’t it, even now?”

**

Aphorism # 37: When the anthropologists are interested in you, you know you’re on the way out.

**

15 DL 325. Kelly looked the car up and down. It wouldn’t be the first car of that vintage she had driven since coming to Donegal. The internal combustion engine, seen as terribly quaint and entertaining in other parts of the world, was a common sight here. Electric cars were too expensive, and a solitary electric bus made its way north east from Letterkenny through Kilmacrenan along the coast road, stopping at various settlements along the way. There had been airport once, in Carrickfin, she had been told, but she found this unlikely.

Kelly took out the iMe and checked for a signal. There was one at last! And yet no messages. She had hoped Rob would have sent something – a viddy, a quick verbal even – but no he hadn’t. She tried sending him a quick textual, telling herself that sometimes the iMe reception here could be very variable and perhaps one of Rob’s messages was stuck in the ether somewhere, needing the stimulus of a message coming the other way to push it into Kelly’s inbox. As she was telling herself this, she also heard Lynn Marie’s voice, that time she had grabbed Kelly by the shoulders and said look, sister, in the words of an old passivewatch classic He’s Just Not That Into You.

No point delaying further. The car rental in LIfford – a ramshackle structure, implausibly claiming some kind of affiliation with the Hertz International Electric Rental group, except the sign merely said ‘Hertz’ in a chunky, very late twentieth century font – was closing. She would be in Letterkenny in three hours. She had heard that petrol cars could go above twenty kilometers per hour, and even rumours that somewhere in Donegal road races took place with drivers pushing the vehicles to frightening speeds – thirty, forty, even fifty and even higher – but this was hard to believe.

Donegal! It was a gift to anthropology postdocs, preserving as it did so many characteristics of twentieth and early twenty-first century life, while being both satisfyingly remote and reasonably safe. Unlike areas of MidAmerica and the SuperBanlieus of Continental Europe, Ireland had fallen not into violent anarchy but sleepy backwardness. It was rudely said in Dublin that Donegal had had a head start on the rest of the country in this regard. In Harvard, Professor Joseph L Murtlock was beginning to build up his empire, postdoc footsoldiers doing the field work, Prof Murtlock back in Cambridge spinning the results into a web of anthropological data.

The world had changed much in the last forty years. This trip, however, was being undertaken by Kelly with one aim in mind. The Donegal Democrat, at this stage, was not yet the last print newspaper – but nearly the last. Over the coming years it would outlast the others still grimly clinging on to existence. Why would people still like to purchase a bulky item in the age of iME and TotalWeb? This had been the subject of Kelly’s PhD thesis. She had visited Donegal, spent time in the Democrat office witnessing the antediluvian computers being used to produce the thing, visited the printers in Keadue, and (most importantly from the PhD point of view) carried out focus groups among Democrat readers. Why did they bother with the Democrat?

She had expected the participants to be overwhelmingly old and perhaps a little slow. Donegal was known to be populated by the old and the very young, with no one of working age any closer than Belfast or Dublin, and more likely to be in Beijing, Bowash, New Moscow or Tehran working in construction, or in the armies endlessly warring in Africa. Some younger people worked in the hospitals in Letterkenny and public administrative offices scattered here and there, but on the whole they were outsiders, on a hardship posting for a year or less from elsewhere in Ireland.

She had been surprised that, while young people did not exactly predominate, how relatively middle-aged people did. They were perfectly conversant with iMe and TotalWeb, and argued in the groups that there was more inherent satisfaction in buying a physical object in a shop, carrying it around, and manipulating the pages with one’s hands to read it.

 

The Solitary Golfer, nthposition, March 2012

From about 2010 I began to submit my stories to various publications with mixed results. Around the same time I discovered duotrope.com and how accessible the world of literary publications actually was. Up to then, I had generally sent them into nthposition.com.

This is a story which I had trouble “placing” anywhere else, and slightly by default, slightly out of laziness, ended up sending into nthposition where it was thereafter published. 

The themes are some of the recurrent ones of my fiction; a protagonist somewhat at odds with his own professional role, polite silence in the face of irritation, a too-brutal reveal towards the end. It has a medical setting that is somewhat sketchily drawn. I have a certain fondness for it. I suppose the theme of a clever schoolchild ending up one of many swots in medical school is also familiar enough.

 

The Solitary Golfer

 

Simon loved being on a golf course. Happiest playing the course alone, free of having to compete with another player, free of the steady succession of patients, he found the game an unexpected source of solace and freedom. In his surgery there was control, there were books, the internet, even Sandra’s advice on the mobile if need be – but there was still the unknowable, the potential chaos and hassle brought by every new patient.

Thursdays he took a half day. Before Paul Gildea had come back from America, he used this time to read and daydream. After this, he played golf with Prof Gildea each Thursday. They had been in medical school together, and lived with each all the way through college. Simon found that he began to enjoy the experience of being out playing golf, and began to play every Thursday, even if Paul Gildea was at a conference or otherwise engaged.

At ten to one that morning he had seen Mrs Watters. She had been attending the practice for ten years. Always presenting with headaches, or backaches, or general fatigue, nothing was ever discovered to be the matter with her. Simon knew, for Beda the practice nurse knew, that Mr Watters drank – not in a spectacular, destructive way, but in the slow corrosive way of late middle aged disappointment. It seemed obvious to Simon, at this stage, that Mrs Watters’ great disappointment with her life had transmuted itself into aches and pains, but every time he asked how things were at home, or if she felt stressed, or if things were OK between herself and her husband, she smiled and denied anything was wrong. This would usually frustrate Simon, but he found Mrs Watters likeable, always feeling a strong desire to put his arm around her and tell her that it was alright, no one would judge her if she admitted the truth.

Today, Mrs Watters looked a little more drawn than usual.

“I’m very tired, Doctor.”

She had been tired two months ago, when she was last seen, and Simon had ordered routine bloodwork which was – as always – absolutely fine.

“Are you more tired than two months ago?”

Simon was hungry, and was consciously trying not to seem irritated, for anxiety not to offend her.

“Its more intense tiredness. Then I was tired all the time. Now I’m tired right through me, all the way.”

“Has anything happened?”

“No, nothing, everything is fine. It’s only that – well my appetite is totally gone.” This was another frequent symptom of Mrs Watters’, investigated many times.

“Do you get food into you?”

“It’s a struggle. I don’t, really.”

Simon had resolved the last time to limit the investigations on Mrs Watters. This was a recurrent resolution.

“Let’s go back to the tiredness. How are you sleeping?”

“I’m sleeping better than I was, but I just feel exhausted. I go to bed for a nap after a few hours and sleep the afternoon.”

This was a new variation. Simon paused, and then launched fluently into a explanation he had given many times before.

“Now Mrs Watters, you know that isn’t a good idea. If you nap during the day, you’ll have a worse quality sleep at night, even if you sleep. If you just stay up through the tiredness, you’ll feel better in the long run.”

“I’ve tried that, I’ve really tried, but I’m just so tired.”

“I really think if you try for even a week, it’ll make a big difference.”

What he disliked about golf was having to take it seriously. It was a chance to be in the open air, to daydream. It was an escape from the cares of running a clinic, not only the stress of seeing patients but of managing the practice, ensuring everyone got paid and had their ego massaged appropriately. Paul used the game to regale Simon with malicious gossip about medical and academic figures Simon had usually only dimly heard of, if at all.

The day had begun with towering slate grey clouds looming from the Atlantic, usually the harbinger of the inescapable rain. Today, however, the day had turned out sunny. Dr Simon Harris, who took everything he told his patients seriously, shifted a little uneasily in the sun. He had no sunblock or sunglasses, and thought of all the old ladies and gentlemen he had solemnly commanded to always cover themselves in Factor 50 at the very least, and to make sure to wear proper ultraviolet-resistant sunglasses. Prof Gildea, who liked to holiday in Florida ever since working there as a medical resident, strutted confidently in the sun. Simon, feeling fat and red-faced beside him, was crushed at cutting such a ridiculous figure.

Futhermore, he was worried about Mrs Watters. He had managed not to order any investigations, which was a victory. And yet he thought back to his consultation. She did look like she had lost weight. She looked drawn. Why hadn’t he done a quick physical? She was the last patient before lunchtime, or on Thursdays finishing for the day, and he had been impatient. Despite his liking for her, his desire to comfort her and help her, he had been impatient. Thursday afternoons were a time he felt younger, when Paul Gildea was a satisfyingly bitchy companion and, by his gossip, seemed to treat him as an equal.

The night before, after dinner and a few glasses of wine at Paul’s house, Simon had lain awake for two hours, or maybe more, picking over the endless I-me-my-mines of his old friend’s conversation. He felt guilty at resenting Paul, and wondered if it was rooted in resentment at how far his academic and social star had risen. No, he didn’t think so. Paul was still very nice to him, very considerate. He suddenly thought – one could be considerate, kind even, and yet utterly self-absorbed. Indeed, the listener – or rather the one who had the privilege to attend to the egoist’s remarks – with their individual virtues, could become part of the awesome, humbling egotism of Paul Gildea.

For it was an egotism so monumental it humbled, a force of nature; which Simon found it hard to blame Paul for. Paul had always had a fairly healthy opinion of his own worth, but in the last year the self-absorption seemed to have taken nearly entire hold of his person. Simon noticed it in his every utterance – everything he said seemed intended largely to reflect the greatness of Paul Gildea. It was impossible to converse with him any more. He delivered monologues, anecdotes which he seemed to have learnt off by heart. Simon had a mental image of him getting up early each morning and polishing his lines in the mirror each morning. Paul did not so much brook no interruption as carry on unregarding of not only interruption, but the normal conversational give-and-take. It seemed at times as if he was afraid, as if he felt that to allow the other to speak would compromise him in some way. Only on the golf course did he seem to relax – a little. For there, while he needed to dominate the conversation, he seemed to want to entertain.

On the par four 15th, Simon hit the ball sweetly, full on. For once, he knew he had hit a good shot. He experienced the keen pleasure of something done well. The satisfaction of achieving. At instants like this, Simon understood why some became so fixated on golf. If only it could be a succession of these moments and nothing else, free of the false bonhomie hiding so much resentment and disappointment, free of the losing and the failure.

The ball flew high and true. It would get close to the green, Simon thought. No, it would get closer – it would make the green. It flew right towards the hole, and Simon and Paul both were seized by a feeling of certainty of what was about to happen. The ball neatly disappeared into the hole.

“A hole in one!” said Gildea, redundantly, “and on a par four too!” It was the sort of obvious thing the new Paul Gildea would say, except Simon did not mind, for this time it was said simply and unaffectedly. For an instant the achievement transcended things. They were simply two figures on the golf course, enraptured by one of those special moments that made sport worthwhile.

In the silence, Paul addressed the ball. He played (as Simon almost always did) woefully and holed in ten. The quiet continued as he completed the hole.

Walking to the next tee, Paul said “A funny thing happened the other day” and Simon knew that what he was about to hear would certainly not be funny. He tightened his buttocks and curled his toes, and tried to assume an interested expression. Does Paul notice the disappointment, disdain even, on my face? he thought. Simon however was already in anecdotal midstream, and Paul knew from experience it was impossible to steer back to any shore.

That morning, before they had gone to work.

“I need a break. We need a break, I should say.”

“Where would you like to go?”

“Well, I know I don’t want to just go to Connemara and do what we always do.”

“Oh, you know I don’t mind much where we go.”

“But you never want to go anywhere new.”

“Well, I guess I do think that if you own a holiday home, you should get use out of it.”

“I know, I know. But we’ve been done six weekends already this year. We’ve got great use out of it. We get nearly as much out of it as our own house.”

“I have no problem going anywhere.”

“But you always do, Simon, you always worry about the money.”

“Well, that isn’t so unreasonable.”

“Simon, we have nothing to worry about.”

“We still have to finish off the mortgage.”

“Yes, in triple quick time. Everyone else is buying property to invest, to let out. While we are just in hock to your fantasy about living without debt.”

“Is it a fantasy? We are nearly there. In another year it’ll be a reality.”

“Look, why not celebrate by going somewhere really nice?”

“Like where?”

“South Africa.”

“South Africa.” he trailed off. A trip to South Africa would hardly be bad. “Would it be expensive?”

“We could always take out a loan?”

“Why?”

“Not this again. Oh, Simon, this is so bloody irritating.”

“I just don’t see the point in getting into debt.”

Simon was happy enough to stay around and read novels during his holidays or perhaps go to the bungalow in Connemara. Dutifully he went on ski-ing holidays with Sandra and the Maxwells – she a psychiatrist from Sandra’s college class, he engaged in some line of business Simon could never pin down – despite the fact that the activity held no interest for him whatsoever. He would gingerly slide down the basic slopes, while Sandra and the Maxwells went straight to the black ones. These holidays had resumed after a break of some years now the Maxwells children were older. The children too could ski with verve and confidence. All Simon could do was the snow plough, badly.

At moments of loneliness in the early years of college, Simon would think to himself “I was the brightest student in one of the best schools in the country. Therefore, I’m one of the brightest people of my age in Ireland. Therefore, I’m not too far from being among the brightest people of my own age in Europe.”  He drew comfort from this. He imagined himself, after a few years of medical practice, pioneering some new treatment or – better yet – conceiving an entirely new concept in medicine. Then, in retrospect, his early years in medicine, barely passing each exam despite long hours of looking at textbooks and anatomy atlases.

He had always been around pass or at most low second class honours standard. Academic achievement was something that you never talked about, but everyone coveted.

Harris didn’t think he was a bad GP. He was kindly, and sympathetic, and had developed enough clinical confidence to have a pretty good idea what needed to be referred on and what could be kept at his level. He knew many of the patients, particularly the older ladies, had become slightly dependent on him. He had a certain edge of fear, the fear not just of litigation but of the shame of anything that he could possibly accuse himself as malpractice. As an intern, once he noticed an elevated sodium on a patient who had subsequently died, but hadn’t discussed it with anyone superior, until he was asked about the patient an hour or so later. Simon knew – he knew at the time – that it would be stretching the point considerably to blame him for this, but he still felt that if any, even the remotest, possible blame attached to him, he was complicit in a wrongful death.

Is this what I want? he often asked himself. He still indulged in the schoolboy dreaming of making some great discovery – a Harris constant, a Harris’ procedure, a Harris equilibrium.

Life was good. Sandra was extremely congenial company. They had a beautiful house in Galway and a neat bungalow in Connemara. They had had no children.

It was the alphabet that brought Professor Paul Gildea, Professor of Medicine at the University of Galway, and Dr Simon Harris together. Gibson, Sorcha. Gleeson, Sandra. Gleeson, Suzanne. Gildea, Paul. Harris, Simon. That little group, for six years, sat in tutorials together, gave presentations to each other, was ignored in outpatients and ignored on ward rounds, and ultimately filed up one after another for their degrees, their brief moment with the President of the College. Of the six, Simon had married Gleeson, Sandra, had lost touch with Gleeson, Suzanne and Gibson, Sorcha, still played the odd game of golf with Fadden, Eamon and was the best friend and confidant of Gildea, Paul.

Paul had returned to become Professor of Medicine two years previously, the youngest incumbent in living memory and wildly believed to be the youngest Professor of Medicine in Irish medical history. He had come back from Boston, having established an international reputation in his field.

Calm, judicious, politically adept in the widest sense, Professor Paul Gildea was the risen star of Irish medicine whose horizons were still expanding. The only question was, what next? He had already been inducted onto various committees, and was spoken of as the most influential voice in shaping health reform in the country. All sides, even the most seemingly radical, in the often vicious debates about the nature of the reform seemed to feel that Professor Paul Gildea was on their side.

With Simon, Paul could relax. They played appalling golf together, laughing until Simon’s cheeks seemed to hurt at the successive awfulness of each of their games and for once Simon felt it wasn’t such a bad game after all. That was the first year of Paul’s return, the first few months when things seemed as they were. .

Sandra shoved The Connacht Advertiser under Simon’s nose. She wheeled around, obviously gleeful; Simon tried to decide if it was innocent or malicious glee.

“Look who it is.”

She pointed vaguely at the page. Simon looked down, but could only make out a sea of print and photos.

“Who? Where?”

“There.” She pointed at an ad in the left-hand corner.

It was a full page ad in the tabloid section of the paper. “Dr Simon MacSorley, Natural Healer” was printed in large letters on the top of the page. “Simon MacSorley, a Registered Medical Practitioner with a degree from the University of Galway and qualifications in Chinese and Ayurvedic (Indian) Medicine, will be in attendance at the Merlin Park Hotel every Saturday during April”, it read.

“So that’s where he is” commented Paul. Sandra had taken back the paper. She started reading from the advertisement in an archly sarcastic tone. Paul hated it when she read stories from the paper in tones of either righteous indignation or of outright mockery. She would say something like “you should read this”,  and, after he had made some noncommittal noise, begin to read it out aloud. It was annoying, but a habit he objectively saw was so trivial that he could never bring himself to say anything to Sandra.

“Dr MacSorley has travelled Asia and South America studying traditional healing in those countries,” she put a special emphasis on the word “countries”, “as well as immersing – immersing –himself in the faith healing tradition taught by Fr Antonio del Amici in Padua, Italy.”

If Simon Harris was someone who never quite fulfilled his promise, Simon MacSorley did not have any promise to squander in anyone’s imagination. He had been a completely unknown presence to his peers as well as to the faculty when an undergraduate, both as a preclinical and as a clinical student. He had failed into the year Simon Harris’ graduated form after beginning two years previously, and somehow managed to get through despite having to repeat nearly every exam. MacSorley was neither a big drinker nor a great socialiser – indeed no-one knew him well. He graduated with his peers as a sort of afterthought. There was a certain amount of bitterness expressed by some. They had slaved so hard, had turned up at so many lectures and on so many early hospital mornings to be roundly ignored, that it seemed unfair that MacSorley had the same degree as they did. There was even talk of a petition.

By now he was the object not of sorrow but of pity. MacSorley had become an infamously hopeless intern – not lazy, not dangerous as such (enough checks and balances were in place), but hopeless. He was adequate at internship, but his was an adequacy that would go no further. He managed not to land a job after Intern year and spent time wandering around looking for work, and had then got a place on one of the nascent GP schemes. Soon he was dismissed from this for chronic non-attendance at his Obs and Gynae rotation. “By mutual consent” was the phrase used in the inevitable gossipy exchanges in the medical world.

Mrs Reilly was one of Simon’s regulars. At least thrice weekly she attended the clinic, with the elderly constellation of anxiety, arthritis, hypertension and at the back of it all loneliness and a fear of the next world.

Paul was neither particularly anti-alternative medicine not completely for it. He could reconcile an ungrudging appreciation of its possibilities with a cynicism about the scientific basis, or lack thereof, of the enterprise. His attitude could be summarised as: it might make them feel better, but does it actually work?

Mrs Reilly’s major complaint was rheumatoid arthritis, for which she was on a great range of conventional and unconventional treatments. None seemed to make much difference to searing pain of the evenings. She habitually wore a little brass band, purportedly magnetic, on each wrist, as well as various scapulars.

But today things were different. Mrs Reilly walked in – no, she bounced in. Paul, in the five years he had been attached to the practice, had known her to be his most consistently unhappy patient. Always the pain of the arthritis, always the worry of being worried.

“How are you, Mrs Reilly?” he asked.

“How are you, Doctor?”

“I’m fine. I have to say you look marvellous.”

“Doctor Mac Sorley has me cured,” she announced.

Doctor MacSorley’s name was being mentioned more and more by the patients. Most of them felt just as bad, or worse, after whatever exactly MacSorley did to them or for them – nevertheless, their reverence for him held. Simon began to feel a resentment at this unquestioning allegiance.

Simon had his memories of first year physics, and his later reading of popular science magazines, to thank for his big idea.

Every so often, seized by an enthusiasm for science, he bought a copy of the New Scientist. Seduced by the fascinating variety of the world of science depicted therein, he would subscribe to the magazine, and over the next year accumulate a stack of unread copies. For he was much more interested in the publication as an abstract entity than a reality. He would flick through the news at the front, then the letters and the amusing column at the end, start on one of the feature articles which always seemed to promise much more than they delivered, and that would be that.

He would unwrap each from the plastic wrapping, for he would feel guilty if he left the magazines not only unread but unopened (like the medical weeklies) After a while he would put the growing pile into the attic, with the other unread copies.

It was a long summer for him. Sandra’s annual leave had all been taken earlier in the year, and St Elizabeth’s Maternity was much busier than usual. Thus he was spending the earlier part of most evenings alone. The slight disappointment he had began to always feel grew. He began to think on what might have been. He should have studied history, or even better done pure science. Then he would have achieved something, left some kind of mark.

He had always felt an affinity for Simon MacSorley, possibly because of their shared first name, but more fundamentally because they were both, in very different ways, at odds with the mass of the class. MacSorley had done something with his life, he thought. Something ridiculous perhaps, but remembering Sandra’s cut phrases of disdain, Simon felt a great sympathy for him. Sandra at times like that took on the form of the great, impersonal world, crushing the spirits brave and eccentric enough to follow their own paths.

Simon Harris had never really been an enthusiast for travel, but the idea of MacSorley’s travels – not the travels themselves or the places he had gone, but the idea of them, with their search for the healing, the search for the sublime, appealed to his sense of life as a novelistic series of grand gestures. He had come to believe that the rational calculation of advantage was not only impossible, but not a true motivator for any human being, no matter how seemingly rational. People acted as they were emotionally impelled to. The rationalisations followed. This was not a call to indulgence of whims; Simon’s own thrift, for example, was his own emotional need and also in his own interest.

He was not naturally given to ruminating, and after a short while he would get up, pace around the house, and start reading a book. Or watch TV for a while, although he disliked the passivity. It was better than the ruminating, and then Sandra would come back and they would talk over the events of the day.

One evening this ruminating went on longer than usual. What might have been, if only I had used my talents, he thought. A prize he had won in school for science writing – it was on quantum physics, Simon forgot most of the details – had come into his mind. It felt so recent; his self-image was the same as that fifteen-year old. This is what the passing time means, he thought, the realisation that possibility has come to an end. And then, returning suddenly to his usual essential optimism, he thought no, that isn’t necessarily it.

He got up and went to the attic, and began to dig around the stack of old New Scientists. Then he found it.

“The Computing Power of the World in a cup of tea.” The cover showed a cup of tea in plain white mug, against a white background. One could barely tell where the cup ended and the background began. Only the crescent of brown liquid reassured the viewer that this was a cup of tea. It was an article he had never finished, but the idea had stayed with him.

The article itself he skimmed over, reading the enticing opening paragraph with great attention but gradually losing interest as the article became more detailed. The idea of immense computing power in a little liquid stuck with him. Sometimes he wondered if something like the colloid plasma expanders who used to write up for intravenous administration for so many patients when he was a young doctor might do the job.

If only he had devoted his life to something like this! It was not too late. But where to begin? After all, he couldn’t even finish the article.

Then he thought of the savings he had accumulated with Sandra. They had bought a house in Galway when the prices were reasonably, and two doctors had no problem getting a mortgage at at time when this was not to be taken for granted. As the mortgage reduced in scale, their not inconsiderable salaries had gone into high-interest accounts. And all through the years Simon himself had put a thousand pounds here, a few hundred euro there, into various saving certificates and government bonds and forestry shares.

“The Irish Investor’s Bible” – that was the subtitle of Investment Republic, the magazine which Dr Harris subscribed to. Usually he would hop over from the surgery at lunchtime, and would pick up the post. He hid this from Sandra, feeling a vague shame. It would be like being found with a self-help book, of which he had more than a few hidden in drawers and amongst piles of clothes Simon liked to keep in touch with the world of investments, as high yield and low risk as possible. These aspirations are of course mutually contradictory, and up to now he had always leaned towards the low risk.

Therefore, for a long time he had never looked in the section called “Investment Opportunities” Investing in a company as opposed to a savings plan, guaranteed by a reputable financial institution, had never appealed to Simon, but now – mesmerised by the idea of money as a stairway to, if not scientific eminence, than the visionary status of a Craig Venter, he looked eagerly every month, especially for the magic q word. He might not understand quantum computing, but he knew that his greatness, his destiny, lay in the field.

And one day it appeared. Quark Quantum Qumputer Inc. Simon giggled at the name. How could it be so incredibly perfect? Then he read the brief profile. Q3, as they referred to themselves throughout, were a start up company based in Duluth, Minnesota. Their CEO was Allan Archibald Montgomery. They intended “to bring the quantum revolution into every living room.” They were looking for an investor with one million U.S. dollars to kickstart their work. They had a promising prototype quantum computer. For more details send an email to info@q3.com. Simon accepted this invitation.

A week later so some folders came through the post. Simon had got into the habit of coming back home at lunchtime to check the mail. There were pages and pages of diagrams – the prototype computer was a small gel which exploited gammatronic properties of Polybendium. That sounded good. There were many press cuttings – from newspapers such as the Pennsylvania Democrat-Enquirer, the Skokie Constitution-Telegraph, the Alabama Vanguard and the Peoria Post-Palimpsest, from magazines such as Investment Frontiers, Technology and Computing Quarterly and The Monthly Atlantean. Simon had never heard of any of these publications before, but they were all evidently genuine – in the margins of each photocopied piece there were items of unfakeable local colour – Senators and Congressmen and Mayors praising or denouncing this or that, Skokie and Peoria residents achieving notable feats or bemoaning official apathy.

There were pages of financial details, which boiled down to one salient fact – investors who put their money into Quark Quantum Qumputer would have a unique opportunity to get involved in the tomorrow’s biggest technology – today. Not only were riches promised, but a place in history.

Why not? Why not? The thought stayed with him all through the afternoon and evening clinics. He sent another email later that evening, before Sandra came home. This was addressed directly to Allan Archibold Montgomery. In it, Simon proposed that he invest one million dollars in Q3

Two days later, he received a reply.

“Dear Dr Harris,” it began. As he opened it, Simon felt a surge of joy, of anxiety. “We would of course be absolutely delighted to have you on board. In exchange for your generous investment, we can guarantee you a seat on the board of Q3, and 20% of all profits for the next ten years. As the Q3PO prototype is nearing the end of beta testing, we anticipate a launch date in the next eighteen to twenty months.”

It continued in this vein for a while, and ended with a request for wire transfer of funds to an account in Duluth. They would dispatch contracts of agreement immediately, and once returned signed Dr Simon Harris would be on board the Quark Quantum Qumputer bandwagon.

“Separate accounts and separate beds are the secret of a successful marriage.” Sandra had once read before marriage, and sometimes repeated.  Simon was glad she had ignored both parts of the saying, and she entrusted their savings to Simon. Cashing in all their savings plans, Simon knew he could raise two hundred thousand euro. Not enough.

What about the house? His name was the only one on the deed. Sandra had never bothered to make any enquiries about it. She need never know. Their income was pretty much guaranteed, and once Q3 came good there would be no problem in any case. There was the flat above the King’s Head that they had bought as a buy-to-let investment. Every academic year it was let to students, and then in summers it would be let to tourists, or JYAers from the States.

Simon couldn’t face evicting the students now, right before their exams. For he wanted the money quickly; he wanted to have made the investment yesterday. There was a rush of impatience in him that would not be satisfied to wait. As he sat in front of Montgomery’s email, his thoughts turned to Paul Gildea. Arrogant, masterful Paul Gildea, strutting around the golf course, talking about his keynote presentation to the European Society of Renal Medicine or somesuch body of chancers. Paul Gildea. Simon resolved that he would outstrip Paul Gildea, outstrip him easily.

Sandra rang at this point. She had been driving home when a call came from the hospital – a woman in the twenty-third week of pregnancy coming in. She had to rush back to the maternity hospital. It could be late when she got back. She was sorry, Simon told her not to be.

He would do it. Tomorrow, he would go into Connacht Building Society and remortgage the house as soon as possible. He could arrange to cancel the morning clinics for a few days next week, arrange to have a valuer come round, and within a few days the remortgaging would be arranged. A house three doors down with only three bedrooms had gone for six hundred thousand euro the previous month. Theirs should easily realise at least that. At the current rate of exchange, he should easily be able to accumulate a million dollars.

Three weeks after he had went into the Bank of Ireland, and waving his passport at the disbelieving manager, arranged to have the million dollars transferred to the Q3 account, Simon sent another email to Montgomery. Where are the memoranda of agreement that were to be sent, the contracts? He had been anticipating their appearance in every post. He then thought that they would be delivered by registered mail.

There was no reply. And no reply either to the succeeding emails. At first, Simon told himself that something had perhaps gone wrong with the email server. He also wondered if the money had disappeared into the ether. There had been something unbelievable about the series of transactions. He had been a millionaire, and then no longer a millionaire, without ever seeing any money. A check at the bank had confirmed that the money had gone into the Minnesota account. The account had, further enquiries confirmed, since been closed.

Simon would always have been terrified of just this eventuality. Yet now he faced it with utter equanimity. After all, their salaries were equal to the mortgage repayments. And despite the evaporation of Q3 – their website still existed out there in cyberspace, but no-one answered the phones – Simon felt that at least he had staked his all on something. Sandra noticed his detached air, but didn’t say anything. It was just Simon. She felt no guilt when she rang to say she was working late, and then drove to a room in the Radisson Hotel to change for dinner with Paul Gildea.

There was no reason things couldn’t go on as they were, Simon realised with relief and disappointment. There was no reason things couldn’t go on as they were, until one day Sandra came home. She came into the living room, where Simon was reading the Irish Times, evidently holding herself together with great difficulty.

“I had a needlestick today. In theatre.”

A needlestick incident. Of itself, this wouldn’t necessarily be anything to worry about, he thought. There would be a tiresome series of tests. It happened to him every so often. Usually he ignored it. In hospitals, and especially in theatre, it was harder to just carry on – so many people saw it.

Sandra continued with a clipped delivery. “She’s HIV positive. High risk. High viral load. It’s always the way.”

What did that mean,  “it’s always the way”? Simon thought. Then he realised that Sandra had abandoned her mask of self-control and was weeping openly. He went to embrace her, folding his arms around her awkwardly.

She cried and cried, and then composed herself. Then she told him she needed to take some time off work for the series of blood tests that would be required. The initial tests might be negative, but she would need to have them again over the months. Due to the bloody nature of her branch of medicine, she would have to take this time off work.

“Still, she was almost smiling as she wiped away tears, we have all those income protection insurance things, don’t we?”

She was smiling fully now, with a look that said “I always thought you were a dry stick, but now look who’s right.”

Simon felt fear grasp his intestines. There was no way to avoid it now. Perhaps he could tell her half the truth, tell her that he had cashed in some of those policies, but leave out the mortgage and the bulk of their savings.

But he realised that he couldn’t – not anymore. Each lie would only lie buried for a little while, and would then be uncovered. He would have to tell her everything.

“Sandra, I have to tell you something about that.”

She looked alarmed. He wondered what was the best, the most persuasive way to explain what had happened.

“Sandra, you do know that when I was young, I was one of the most brilliant boys in one of the best schools in the country…” he began.

Simon walked out of the house. It would always be empty for him from now on. It was the end of the academic year, and the flat above the King’s Head was becoming free. He got into the waiting taxi, looking back at the door. Sandra wasn’t there.

It had all been smooth, really. Respective solicitors had taken care of everything. One day he had gone back, to get his clothes and a few books. It had been pre-arranged that Sandra would not be there. The practice was finished, after all.

When he got back to the flat, he went straight to the bedroom and lay down. He was wrecked, too tired to move his things from the house into the flat. They could stay in the car another couple of hours, what harm?

What will I do now? He thought, and for the first time he realised that this was more than just what would he do for the rest of the evening. This was what now for the rest of my life. He couldn’t go back to the practice, that was certain. While his medical registration was obviously unaffected by all this, the incident at the conference had ended it all forever. His patients had been taken over by Dr de Morgan, an eager young man with none of Simon’s apprehensions and hang-ups.

He looked through his phone numbers. He still had Simon MacSorley’s number, as he hoped. He went to find a pay phone, for he could no longer pay the mobile phone bill.

Three months later he was walking along the beach at Berehaven. Running up a sand-dune, he felt exhilarated. He had become used to the life as Simon MacSorley’s Personal Assistant, seeing the desperate men and women who came to see him.

The day of the interview with MacSorley, he put on a suit. He went back to his parents’ home to pick it up. It was the suit he had worn for work experience with an estate agents firm when he was in school. He had lost so much weight that it now fitted once again.

The interview hadn’t lasted long.

“Ha, you. Not so up yourself now, are you?”

“I’m sorry.”

“You and that Sandra. Weren’t you great? Well, how the mighty have fallen, eh?”

“Look, I don’t need this…”

“But you do. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. And I can tell you something else too. All of this is bull. Only fools and dopes could believe it. You have got to pretend you do, and you don’t have to pretend very well, because Simon boy you wouldn’t believe how bloody stupid people are. They believe what they want to believe.”

Simon came to hate the work more than he hated Simon. However he slept well, and felt full of energy and enthusiasm. He made the little bit of money that was needed, and most of all he had no limit on his time. He could walk in the wind and rain, and felt connected to the universe then. He had tried. The universe carried on, oblivious to our efforts, our triumphs, our failures.

As he reached the top of the sand dune, he suddenly realised how close he was to the golf course. The realisation came just as the course itself came into view, and all at once he could see Paul Gildea and Sandra on the course. They were laughing, and Gildea was standing astride Sandra, taking her hands through the motions of the swing. She never played golf before, was Simon’s first thought. He then noticed their physical proximity, their ease together.

Simon saw them on the course, and told himself: To hell with them. I feel sorry for them, I feel sorry for their lives. Not half as beautiful as mine is now.

He said this to himself a few times, but he didn’t feel it. He didn’t feel sorry for them. Try hard as he could, he really longed for the warmth of Sandra again. The wind picked up a step, and the gust made Simon shiver. And with that shiver, Simon suddenly felt the beauty of the world, and he felt sorry for the laughing golfers.