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Fiction

A pale simulacrum

By the Sea: Part III, Chapter 6

Henry Gee 4 November 2007

www.lablit.com/article/319

She wonders how – when – she should deliver these results to him. She is afraid that he will not like them

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of an original novel by Henry Gee, By The Sea. Set in present-day Norfolk, Gee blends science, murder, sex and Victorian secrets into a dark, gothic thriller.

Chapter Six

Alex is still at her bench as the sun rises, had she but known it. With every passing day she is in the underground lab yet longer after the dawn, as the sun slowly swings round to the southward. For summer has come at last to Deringland, with a force and ferocity to compensate for the long months of winter. The sun is a pitiless white hole in the sky, sucking all moisture from the land, shrivelling once wet grass to splintery husks, annealing all relief as sintered planes. Even the sea is cowed.

But now, after almost four weeks of eighteen-hour days without a break, she can now contemplate her results.

A rack of slides, neatly labelled, testament to her increasing skill, a match for anything that the surgeons and naturalists aboard the Spaniel could have mustered; a row of vials, each containing some refined and subdivided portion of the exquisite corpse that is Pickled Lily; sheaf after sheaf of micrographs, radiographs, gels, expression profiles; a well-ordered stack of printouts. And, atop these, an account of it all, her results.

They are startling.

She sits there, amid the stacks of unread journals and unopened mail on the saggy sofa, as yet ignorant of the furnace blast of the outside world, and wondering how – when – she should deliver these results to Morrison, as she knows she must. She is afraid that he will not like them.

This, in part, is why she has gone out of her way to avoid him, returning once again, full-time, to her eyrie when sleep can no longer be dodged; carefully by-passing his office, and ignoring the ringing in her ears of Janice Squearn at reception as she rushes past, not meeting the older woman’s concerned gaze; trying to shut out the increasingly shrill calls that yes, she knows Dr Beach is busy, but Dr Morrison should like to see her, please. Alex neglects her mobile; does not answer texts; has not accessed her email for nearly a month. She knows Garry is concerned, but he, too, has been spurned. And always at the back of her mind is a reminder, given as a sidelong hint from Sheepwool – that she should stay out of Morrison’s way, if she can. If she has any worries on that score, she should just call.

But that recollection leads to plain guilt, at her betrayal. At her complicity, which has made her into a pallid simulacrum of her former self.

There is yet a third reason for avoiding Morrison – but she is not ready to admit that even to herself – not yet.

These reasons, combined, have eaten away at her. She is sallow, dead-eyed, but with a belly increasingly distended, like an African child in the early stages of malnutrition. It takes an effort of will for her to tear herself away from the all-consuming work, to eat, even to drink. Every part of her aches. Her feet are swollen from hours standing at the bench; her back aches; her guts ache like there are bears crawling up inside her; Christ, even her boobs ache, distended and sore, rubbing on the insides of her clothes. She imagines her nipples as light-bulbs, reddened raw and angrily flashing. At least she’s stopped being sick.

But now she must pause, take stock.

Pickled Lily, she’s learned, is a game of two halves.

The samples from the insides of the tail, from the bones, the scraps of tissue the taxidermist had not removed – but particularly from the preserving fluid in which the mermaid had been suspended – offer a window on the life-history of carnostomids as riotous and grotesque as anything Bosch might have imagined, even at his most extreme.

Wherever she looks, the samples are absolutely crawling with carnostomids, of all sizes, shapes, states of preservation and stages of development, so much so that she can now create a reliable ontogenetic series, from what seem to be fertilized eggs, exploding into a parade of grinning tooth germs, leading to ranks upon ranks of heads and teeth and tiny eyes and jaws, and then – wonder! – a parade of intermediate-stage carnostomids (for so she terms them, retrospectively) degenerating into formless sacs – from which emerge yet more carnostomids, far tinier than those of the previous generation, and the cycle continues again, and again, and again, so that a single carnostomid, through cycles of polyembryonic fission, can give rise to almost ten thousand cloned progeny, each only a few microns in length. But each one with set of thirty-two, perfect, enamel-coated teeth. They all dance before her eyes now, her puffy, gritted-sore eyes, even in this waking hour, mocking.

And what then? Behold! She has found another form, found largely within Pickled Lily’s tissues but almost never in the supernatant. She had ignored it when it rolled into view on a slide: only when it cropped up in numbers, in tissue samples, did it occur to her to investigate it closely. A shared signature of plasma-membrane proteins – but nothing else – betrayed any kinship with carnostomids. Tentatively, she infers that carnostomids found within the mermaid’s body, but not outside (Alex remembers the exact moment when she made that connection, at her dormer window, the rising sun outside raking the mirrored sea as if with boiling scoria) can metamorphose into this new form – but how? And into what?

Description, data – the basics of biology, from the time of Aristotle. It is a tiny, creeping, almost formless blob, like an amoeba. Except, that is, for the presence within it of a pair of sacs, each bulging with tiny, tadpole-shaped cells, lying either side of a massive, syringe-like organ, protruding for many times the body’s diameter. She fretted over these structures for nine humid, stultifying nights – sectioning, staining, imaging at all angles and at many degrees of magnification, and getting deeper into longer spells of worry and doubt – until, at some metaphoric cock crow, the clouds parted: she caught one, frozen in time and tissue, in the act of squirting the mass of cached tadpole-cells through the syringe.

This creature is not another larval stage, but an adult – transformed by its exposure to mermaid tissue, reduced from its carnostomid form to nothing more than a pair of testes and a penis: a sexually mature male, optimized for its primary purpose, ejaculation. She remembers that moment now, how it filled her with a mixture in equal parts of dramatic wonder and consuming nausea; how she staggered from the microscope to the sink, slick with sweat, wracking her guts out until nothing more came but thin strings of gray-green sputum. How like men, she thought, bitterly: plus ça change.

Internal fertilization. But of the females subject to the attentions of these dwarfed males, she could find no sign.

After that discovery, and assailed with wave upon wave of paralytic exhaustion, she threaded her own uncaring carcass up through the building’s duodenal windings and slumped, fully dressed, onto her bed, whereupon she was overwhelmed by that same dream, that same old dream, which she had been having with increasing frequency.

Her own knees, flexed like a gun-sight for the arched window beyond, white sashes sharp, American Gothic, the farmer, the pitchfork, the wife with her teeth (her teeth! Always her bloody teeth!) as Alex strains and strains to get this – this thing – out of her womb. But the farmer’s wife parts her skirts to reveal an enormous, peristaltic, purple-veined phallus that squirts all over her, her face, soaking the sheets – with blood. The farmer’s wife, with his (her?) member now as flaccid as a boned fish, reaches down as the farmer looks benignly on and smiles. The farmer’s wife comes back up, now, with a squalling infant clothed in a towel. The farmer has gone, but the farmer’s wife says, insists:

“Look at your baby, Alex! ” She doesn’t talk: she screams. “Look at it, Alex. It’s all your fault!”

Only, this time, Alex looks.

And now, she knows: as she has known, for a long time, perhaps for her whole life. The missing females? She has been looking at one, scraping its insides, boring into its bones. She feels she knows it as well as she knows that hag-ridden ghost, the one she catches herself in the mirror on her wardrobe.

Internal fertilization.

Alex, slumped on the sofa, contemplating her arrayed results as the merciless sun climbs outside, now remembers waking from that dream; how she put it aside; how she faced down the disorienting, incipient migraine, the metallic taste in her ever-dry mouth; how she forced her protesting form along the corridor of shadows, down the labyrinthine stairs, back to work.

She had turned, then, she recalls, to the torso of the mermaid, but the results are disappointing and few. Carnostomids of any stage are rare, and the male – things – are absent. And there is another puzzle. She’s checked and rechecked herself, and with Valentina. She hardly dares broach it with Garry. But the DNA from Pickled Lily’s torso – when corrected for the usual fungal contaminants – has none of the bizarre rearrangements she’s become accustomed to seeing in carnostomids.

No, it’s all there, in good order. Human. 99.99 per cent.

That was three days ago, since when she has been awake for all but two hours, writing it all up – or, at least, as much as she can. For Morrison. For all her apprehension, for all her fear, she knows she cannot avoid Morrison much longer.

Internal fertilization.

The sofa sags beneath her, and after sitting still for this length of time, her aching knees have locked. A spasm of cramp wrings out the calf muscle in the right leg: she staggers to her feet, tottering, a pile of papers sliding like slick viscera onto the floor. She hops around, loosening the knots in her muscles, and when this is achieved she acknowledges that she is dying to pee. There is a small bathroom just across the hall, and in she bolts, the pain in her right calf leaving no more than a stain of its passing. Seat up, knickers down, the luxury of release, the raw, clean burn of the urine as it passes. It occurs to her only later that she can no longer see down over her protruding belly.

Internal fertilization.

Relieved, she washes, and leaves.

Wham.

The blur outside the door is Morrison. She has had no time to register the pain across her face.

Wham.

There it is again, and again, and another, and another. The world turns sideways – no, she is on the floor. Blood fills her mouth. Arm dislocates – no, he is pulling her upwards, the world rights itself, and then – jolt, bump, smash – she is in the lab again, with him there, a flurry of paperwork, her careful files brushed aside like street refuse before a flood – the thud of her back against the wall, a sickening impact against her abdomen, then pulling, then pushing, and more pulling, and it is over almost before it has begun, and then he pulls away from her –

Wham.

She hits the coffee table on the way down. She is on the floor, splayed amid a sea of paper, broken glass, splintered wood.

“You stupid bitch,” he says. “You stupid, stupid little bitch.” And, as if from an immense distance: “Those are commercial secrets, Alex. Proprietary. Tell any more, and, well…you’re a scientist, Alex. You work it out.” When the sound of his shoes down the corridor has faded into nothingness, she starts to pick herself up.

**********

Fitch pushes the trolley round the supermarket like a ballerina. The children are at school. She has an hour or so of cool, evenly air-conditioned calm, all to herself. Bliss! Love is all around, croons Marty Pellow over the distant tannoy. It’s so wonderful she could pirouette, right there (mop heads, cleaning fluids).

Things are going well at work (fish fingers, frozen cod steaks). Alex’s lead has been fruitful. She’s tracked down seven Solstice Sea Bathers. All men, as Alex had said. Three now dead: symptoms the same as Bland and Franks (tomato soup, canned spaghetti). They hadn’t been local, so she had had no reason to have heard of them before. But three out of seven starts to look suspicious.

Not poor old Bob, though. He wasn’t a Bather, so Pickled Lily still remains in the frame for him. But thank goodness (novelty cakes) he hadn’t got around to spiking the drinks at the Dazed Haddock with the preserving fluid (beers, wines, spirits). Woo-hoo! That was a close one!

But then, she asks herself, why all men (sausages, minced beef)? Do women (milk, eggs, soft cheese) ever get contaminated – poisoned – with these carnostomid things? (Memo to self, pasta, rice, Foreign Food; double check whether any of the Solstice Sea Bathers were women. Follow up.)

Round the corner of the last aisle, it’s fruit and veg on one side, stacks of milk on the other, and a clear run down the middle to the checkout. Dead ahead, two full trolleys, and two women, talking. They are both heavily pregnant. Can’t be more than three weeks to go, between them. And still hauling trollies around, poor loves. Perhaps they’ve just come in to keep cool. She remembers (ginseng, Omega-3 supplements) how she was at that stage. So hot! And so huge! Almost like a whale! The worst thing was not being able to get behind the wheel of a car and flooring it.

And there was all that other stuff. Funny! She’d really only remembered the nice parts before, of blooming like a rose, and how proud she was when Jase stroked her inflated form when she was pregnant with Dean, and saying he thought pregnant women were really, really sexy. But, God, for some reason (why now?) she remembers the discomfort (headache tablets, tampons). Not being able to bend over far enough to hitch up her underwear. How her boobs, now all the wrong shape for her bra, were too sore to even touch (Jase hadn’t liked that part much, but he’d understood, bless him). How they felt like explosions about to go off. And – oh yes! – not being able to cough without peeing herself (loo rolls, bleach). That was the worst part. Credit card, PIN, loading bags back into the trolley, up and out, into the alien heat of the car park.

Her car!

You could fry an egg on it!

Behind the wheel again. The car is an oven. She opens the window. The leatherette of the seat sticks and pulls at the backs of her legs in rhythm as she winds the handle. God, it would be nice to go to the beach, right now – sod the shopping, sod the Station – and just run into those cooling waves. Waves. Surf. Beach. She was the only female Solstice Sea Bather. She said so herself. And Fitch would swear blind she’s pregnant.

Is that what happens to women who get infected with carnostomids? Her purse is on the passenger seat, picked out in a white-hot shaft of sun, as if God’s finger were pointing right at it. She rummages for her mobile.

**********

“I think you’re right, Fitch.”

The sun is above and to the westward; the burnished waves lap consolingly about her ears. Lying on her back in the gentle swell, Sheepwool brings her feet up so they break the surface. Playfully, she makes them into a v-shaped gunsight, aiming at the beach, picking out families. Families with children. Abruptly, she swings her feet down and resumes treading water. Looking down, she sees the slightly puckered flesh on her abdomen.

“Hmm?” Fitch – treading water nearby, in a functional black one-piece, concealing her maternal curves.

“Swim. Lunchtime. Good idea.” Somehow the sun seems more benign when you’re swimming in the sea. As if terrestrial harshness were a goad, a whip to drive you shorewards.

“Oh, yes – but that’s not quite what you meant, was it?”

A laugh. “No, not quite. I meant what you said, about Alex Beach being pregnant. It explains a lot about her behaviour, poor girl. I don’t think she’s enjoying it, though.” She had not enjoyed her own, either. The end product had been worth it, though. The dear, sweet – “and what you said, too, that there’s something about pregnancy and carnostomid infection. Though I can’t really see how…”

Sheepwool stands up sharply, her toes burying themselves in the sand.

“Ma’am?” Fitch comes to rest beside her, hands and sea-glossed arms above her, as she adjusts her bathing cap.

“Bloody hell, Fitch.” Under her feet, the sea surges and rips.

Fitch, concerned. But Sheepwool’s eyes are focussed at infinity, dead ahead.

“They get infected,” she says. “And then they get pregnant. And then…then…” she turns her head to stare straight at Fitch’s worried, pale, freckled young face. The face of a young girl, a young woman, yet one who had been pregnant three times and whose children now bounce happily around Deringland. Three to her one, and that only a memory, fading fast. Too fast. “And then they throw themselves into the sea and drown.”

“That’s…horrible.”

“Yes. It is. But let’s think about it. Remember Garrison Williams, and what happened to his wife?”

“Bev? Didn’t he say how she…of course…” Fitch looks down, brow furrowed, as if she might see tiny things as motes swarming in the water around her. She looks up again – “and there were all those stories about Lady Fred, remember, I told you?”

“Yes, Fitch, you did. When we first went to the Institute together.” A bacon-faced woman on the sidewalk, berating the urchin who had nearly fallen beneath their wheels.

And Sheepwool recalls a third case, but it is too speculative even for this wild line of argument. What’s more, it would have been a serious breach of protocol even to have floated it as an hypothesis with Fitch. Even when the two of them were in civvies, having a lunchtime bathe. They are, as Alex, Bland and Franks were before them, Solstice Sea Bathers.

It is the twenty-first of June.

**********

“I still don’t get the mermaid part. Where Pickled Lily fits in to all this,” says Fitch, towelling her hair.

“Neither do I, not really. Whenever I’ve talked with Alex about it, I just can’t follow her. Either she’s incoherent, or I’m a bit dim, but more likely she hasn’t worked it all out herself. ” Sheepwool looks at her feet again. This time they are playing with each other, making sand angels, as if she has no volition at all in the matter.

“But she must fit in somewhere, mustn’t she?” asks Fitch.

“Who? Alex? Or Pickled Lily?”

“Alex, of course!” Fitch laughs.

“I’m worried about Alex, you know. With Morrison around. Ever since she told me what she thought they were up to.”

“But you said it yourself: she has to be in place else Morrison might twig what we’re doing.”

“Yes, I know, and you’re right, Fitch, as usual. But I do wonder whether it’s right to expose her to such danger, especially if she’s pregnant. The risks. The repercussions if not just she but her baby gets hurt.”

Sheepwool decides not continue this line of argument.

It is then that Fitch realizes that this is the first time she has seen her superior substantially disrobed, her stick-thin form, in a rather unflattering green bikini. The laddered ribs, the slight distension in her lower abdomen, and she has a C-section scar, only partially concealed by the bikini line. And, well, it could just be the sunshine’s glare, or the salt, but she’s almost sure that there are tears in her eyes. Sheepwool notices Fitch’s inquiring gaze, then, and looks away: supposition swells to a certainty. Who’d have thought it?