He was quite hot on the idea of repopulation. I told him more than once that I was sexless as a Brillo pad (which was largely true, and 100% true when it came to him), but he wasn’t to be put off.
“Look,” he said, with his hands on my shoulders to show that he meant it. “Making a child has nothing at all to do with sex.”
“It’s quite a big part of it.”
“That’s like saying if you sharpen a pencil you’ve sketched a portrait, or written a masterpiece, or created some theorem, some monumental breakthrough, that can explain the very fabric of the universe.”
I considered “sharpening a pencil” as a euphemism. It was almost as horrible as “beef curtains”, but there was no-one around to laugh at it with.
“It doesn’t matter if you fancy me,” he went on, taking my momentary silence as momentary potential. “Who’s to say if I fancy you? The question hadn’t even occurred to me, I’ve not considered whether or not your attractive, because it doesn’t even matter. What I’m talking about goes beyond that. We have a duty.”
“To do what?” I asked, like I didn’t know.
“‘To be fruitful and multiply’, of course, the first duty, the origina/ duty you could say. It’s all there in Genesis, you can read it yourself. God wants us to people his earth.”
“God had his chance.”
He didn’t speak to me for the rest of my day, which I thought was a bit much. We were just chatting, after all, you can hardly conduct a theological debate if you’re just going to go off into a strop. I was worried I’d start to think too much, with all that silence, but there were ways to fill the time. I went to the big Sainsbury’s and grabbed boxes of cereal off the shelf. I tried five different types of muesli, and the expensive granola that was too fancy to buy back when capitalism was a thing. I did a compare and contrast and didn’t think about my mum once, which was impressive. Then again, she only ever has porridge for breakfast.
I was bored, but he was desperate, so he cracked first and went on the hunt for all my blasphemy. Found me sitting on the floor of a Waterstones next to a table of staff-recommended fiction, the kind that’s covered in “cult classics” like Confederacy of Dunces. If you thought about it, pretty much all the non-fiction–the feminist and socialist and whatever-ist theory–was now just history. Marx didn’t see this one coming. Freud neither, or Freidan come to mention it. Pretty soon the cookbooks would be history too–the last avocados in Britain had gone off and there was no-one in Mexico to make any more.
“I thought I’d bump into you here,” he said, holding some Kierkegaard. “You seem like the type.”
“You know, the type of person. The kind of woman who likes stories and books,” his voice trailed a little towards the end, and his eyes fell to the copy of Fear and Trembling in his hands. “I’ve been reading a lot myself these past few days, after our talk about people and parenthood and responsibility. I was sat on my own, in their armchair in the flat–you should come by to the flat, there’s so much space, you could move in with me–I was there, just devouring chapter after chapter of philosophy, trying to get to the crux of things, trying to find answers to the questions–you love to ask questions, I really admire that about you, and I want to answer them, you know, give you some peace of mind–and then, out of nowhere, this thought came to me. I didn’t invite it in, but it was there all the same. Do you know what I thought?”
“‘Who is all this reading for?’ And I couldn’t shake it. I tried to swat it away and turn my back on the thought, turn back to my pages, and learn, but I couldn’t read the words. Every sentence just seemed to say: ‘who is this learning for?’”
“I thought you said it was for me.”
“Of course, it is, in part, but you are just one person, and you will die. Then there would be no-one. And at the time, when I was alone–and you were nowhere to be found, you had disappeared, I wasn’t sure you’d ever be back–I reasoned yes, I could teach myself, I could know everything there is to know, I could become wise. But what would I do with all that wisdom? Without people, what is the point? We need others, Andrea.”
Andrea is not my name. I never told him what I was called, so he had to guess. Settled on Andrea because I wouldn’t correct him.
“Is learning a good thing to do?”
He looked like he wanted to grab me, to have a moment, and I hitched up my shoulders so they couldn’t be touched. “What I mean is,” I told his outstretched hand, “if it’s good for your soul it’s good for your soul.”
“What?” He said. His hand stilled, mid-air, fingers still reaching out like they hadn’t got the message.
“If a tree falls in the middle of the woods and there’s no-one there to see it, a tree’s fallen in the woods.”
“Are you making fun of me?”
I smiled really wide, pulling the corners of my mouth right out so my gap between my two front teeth showed. They used to think gap teeth were a sign of lust, that girls like me were real horn dogs, but I don’t reckon that was ever really the case. He had very straight, very close teeth, and they were bared right at me when he said:
“You’re a difficult woman.”
How old was he, I wondered? I was never much good at ageing faces, and he could have been 29 or 35 or 47 for all I knew. I guess it doesn’t matter so much with boys, when it comes down to the basic principle of impregnation. They just start coming and they don’t stop coming, like the song by Smash Mouth. You know the one. I reckoned he’d already spent a few hours trying to count my eggs, trying to see how many there were left to hatch.
There wasn’t really anything to say to someone who was grinning like that, so he slunk back to his aisle. I stayed in mine, but I just couldn’t get back into My Sister the Serial Killer. I had a sister, and I didn’t want to go there just then. If my man was going to be in a sulk, I thought, maybe I should take a trip somewhere. A little holiday. Who doesn’t like a holiday?
I thought about making the trek across town to spend the night in Harrod’s. I could treat the place like my personal hotel, use all the leftover lotions and that, sleep in one of their beds. Fulfil my adolescent dream of having a sleepover at the department store. They used to have a Krispy Kreme concession right in the middle of their food hall–this was before every other Tesco stocked them–and each time a fresh batch was made they’d hand out their original glazed donuts, for free, to sticky people like my pubescent friends and I who had no real business in Harrod’s. We were there at the bougification of the donut. I used to think about things like that a lot, how I was witnessing cultural moments. Like they meant something. But then, my mind snapping back to reality and its associated desolation, I realized there wouldn’t be any pastries there (no fresh ones at any rate) and certainly no-one to discuss the perils of overpriced dough with. There were the jewelry cases, of course, the option to smash open glass boxes and line my arms with Rolexes like a little girl kitting herself with Clare’s Accessories bangles. Jenny always wanted a Rolex (“for the craic”), but she wasn’t there, and I wasn’t remembering Jenny, I was passing time, and maybe it would be easier to do that if I didn’t know what the time was.
I decided to go to Fortnum and Mason instead, because posh people love preserving things (lemons, rabbits, status) and I reckoned a lot of their food would still be good. I descended the spiral staircase into their basement, lifted a little tin of fois gras from a great big pile of them, peeled back the lid and started picking at the flesh inside with my fingers. I wondered if there were still ducks in France, dragging around their swollen livers. If they were around, did they have a sense of vengeance, and were they happy the farmers were now all gone? And if they did have a sense of vengeance, what would they think of me, and my fate? Then I remembered that ducks were kind of pricks, because the males gang-raped the females, so I probably shouldn’t feel too bad about their bloated organs. Unless I was eating a girl’s liver.
There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, Jenny used to say. I wasn’t sure how that applied now. And I couldn’t ask her. So there wasn’t any point dwelling on it.
I picked up a couple of bottles of champagne–I know nothing about wine, just chose the ones that used to cost the most–and was putting them in my bag when I heard footsteps upstairs. Slinging the Herschel onto my pack, I started my ascent up the stairs, one slow, quiet step after the other, and tried to hear what he was thinking.
When I finally reached the ground floor, I saw him bending down by a shelf with one hand in his pocket, casual as anything. Like he didn’t realize I’d be there, he was just popping by to pick up some oolong. I watched him as he watched some ornate, inanimate, souvenir tin. Then, just like before, he cracked.
“I don’t want to fight with you, Andrea. We’re all each other has left now. I don’t want to waste another seven days in silence –I think we could be something, you know. I think we could make each other happy.”
“Who’s fighting?” I crossed over to another shelf, squinted at some chamomile. I never used to drink tea and didn’t think I would start now. He joined me.
“We could fall in love, you know.”
“I don’t think it works that way.” When I was a teenager I was never sure if I liked boys or just liked the show ‘Friends’, or if I even liked ‘Friends’ or liked the idea of liking it. I was in my head a lot as a kid.
“Why not?” He asked. “We’ve got time. We don’t need to have it all straight away, you know, it can grow. Things can grow with time.”
“I’m not growing you a child.”
Men’s eyes used to drift to my chest, but his went straight to my belly. To where he thought the womb was, I supposed, that wonderful thing that I was keeping to myself. Hoarding all its power and for what, to what end? All those thousands of years of endeavour, and all the foes conquered and all the blooshed and all the science and here we were, at the end of it, at the end of time, right back at the beginning.
“I can’t do this without you,” he said. “I need you.”
And I could have explained a few things to him. Could have said there were no hospitals, which I would quite like in case things went wrong. That though they used to give birth in newspapers, or wrap their babies in newspapers, or whatever, there weren’t newspapers any more. That if we made it through, and there was this kid, what then. Who could they pair up with. God cheated in the Bible-there was Adam and Eve, and then Cain and Abel, and then some other chick appears to pair up with Cain. But we can’t write in some second family, some fresh blood. I could explain that I wasn’t up for incest, and point out how a limited genetic pool could lead to biological as well as ethical issues-look at Dalmatians, I could add, they’re all deaf because of the inbreeding-and that neither of us knew how to cultivate the land. As far as I was aware. He didn’t seem the agrarian type.
And I could have told him he was barking up the wrong tree, that I knew what he was doing and what I was doing and that sooner or later we’d both have to get a grip, for Christ’s sake. I could have said a lot of things and logicked my point across.
But I didn’t want to fight either.
“I don’t want a baby.”
He slid to the floor then, resting his back against the display unit’s wares. I did the same, so we were sitting side by side.
“Then what do we do?” It felt like the first real question he had asked me, so I tried to give him a real answer.
I reached into my bag and pulled out one of the bottles. They were warm, but there was no refrigeration any more, so it would have to make do. I ripped off the paper cap that my cousin Ellie used to call a champagne condom, and handed the fizz over to him so he could twist out the cork. He took a sip, then I took a sip, and we passed the bottle back and forth taking gulp after gulp to absent friends.