There’s a song Jackie and I used to sing; we found it on some ancient disc in a box-full in the dayroom – ages ago, turn of the century time I think, no, later, ten years or so in. We didn’t even know what they were. We smashed a couple up, chucked a few around like crappy Frisbees – just messing about – when Ian came in. He seemed pretty pissed off, told us to stop it, that they were his and even though they were out of date they had some great stuff on them and we should treat them with a bit of respect. Jackie started to cry, and I put my arms around her feeling a pain in my chest like I used to feel when I watched nature programmes on TV or saw Mr Judd’s old dog hobbling along behind him as he did the garden.
Anyway, he wasn’t a bad guy, Ian, and he didn’t like seeing us upset, so he told us to wait and hurried off. We sat on the sofa and I remember Jackie balancing a CD on her head and pretending she was the angel in the Christmas card from Doctor Riley. We were still giggling when he got back with one of those old fashioned ghetto blaster thingies, and he plugged it in and told us we could listen to some music if we wanted. I wasn’t interested, but we felt a bit sorry for him really so we said we would. We put on one of the CDs that he said an old friend had made for him, there was no label or anything on it, just some faded black writing that said ‘For Ian, Birthday Groove Yeah!’ which really made us laugh, I think it was the thought of Ian being young that got us.
I can’t remember the first track, but the second one was some woman singing a fast song with some mad piano in it. It was so happy it made us jump up and down and we played it to death. We loved the bit that went, ‘We’ve been friends for a very long time…’ which we’d shout at each other at the tops of our voices. The woman was singing about something being over, ‘It’s over!’ She sang like it was the best news in the world. Then she’d sing, ‘I’m ageless, I’m timeless…’ And Jackie would sing the ‘I’m ageless!’ and I’d do the ‘I’m timeless!’ bit and that’s how we got our nicknames, she was Ageless, and I was Timeless. I can still hear her voice, ‘Timeless, what’s happening to me?’ she was too thin, so weak. Dr Riley said, ‘What did she call you?’ They told me she died in the hospital. They probably thought we knew too much, but we didn’t. It was just a coincidence. We didn’t know anything. We knew we were special, that’s all.
Things speak to you. Life is a puzzle. Clues are scattered about, and if you’ve got your wits about you, you get them. If you haven’t, you just blunder along blindly. I believe that now. Ghosts are trapped spirits that can’t get to the next phase because something terrible happened – something really unlikely. I’m a living ghost. My spirit is trapped too, in my timelessness. The clue was in the song. There were others along the way, too many to mention, a smiling man in a white coat who took me on his knee and stroked my hair saying, ‘A thing of beauty really is a joy forever!’ and giving me a huge bar of chocolate.
I wasn’t complaining. I used to play with the monkeys and the white mice and wonder about the shaved patches and scars and when I had a bath, and how I'd sometimes wake up really sore and find marks on my body that I hadn’t noticed before. All clues. The scary women who'd come and peer at me, the students, the endless stream of men poking and prodding, a round of applause for Dr Riley. Even later, after they’d put me in a house and given me a good job, at the lab ‘so I’d feel at home’ I still didn’t get it. I believed them. They said my parents were dead, that my mum died in childbirth and dad killed himself, heartbroken, and that just like Ageless, I'd got a very rare genetic disease which meant I would have to be cared for and monitored for the rest of my life. That I was very lucky. Somehow I was going to help humanity. I was important. Little old Timeless!
The potential lifespan of a human is probably finite and around 115 years. Deterioration in body function and death, is ultimately inevitable. Or as someone said, ‘Ageing seems to be the only available way to live a long time.’
It was the ‘probably’ that was so irresistible. ‘Probably’ is just asking for it. After all, when did probably ever stop anything happening? It’s just a numbers game. For some people probably’s best left alone. For others, it’s an opportunity. I am here to prove probably wrong. Oh, there was a huge demand for the therapy. If you look at the pictures of some of the sad sacks scrabbling for their immortality back in the day, it’s grotesque – a freak show. Puffy distended lips, eyebrows pulled up as if perpetually surprised, bizarre globular silicone breasts, buttock implants, pectoral implants, nipples re-positioned, waxwork smooth foreheads immobilised by the botulism virus, teeth whitened with hydrogen peroxide, hair re-pigmented with noxious stuff out of tubes, you name it, they tried to fake it. And it showed. Nothing new in the search for the elixir of youth.
Consciousness has a price after all – the knowledge of mortality is just too much. And there was always someone happy to exploit that. The first emperor of China ate mercury pills, Marlene Dietrich hoicked up her forehead up with an arrangement of fishhooks before she went on stage. Pitiful really. All seems so primitive now. ‘You gotta fight fire with fire!’ That’s our slogan. And we’ve learnt that over the years after all. We’ve learnt to use nature’s own mechanisms – ‘Physician heal thyself!’ Oh yes, and we so did! A sort of modern day hair of the dog, techno-homeopathy, curing like with like. Stem cells for the mechanical damage; gene therapy for the rest. The ultimate non-surgical facelift. Cut out the middle man. Let those surgeons keep their skills for bone structure. ‘DNA what I mean?’ Our rival’s hilarious strapline.
No, you don’t have to be doomed by your genetic inheritance these days. They didn’t mean to, and now they don’t have to: fuck you up that is, your Mum and Dad, physically, at least. Great isn’t it? Remember that day, 200 years after Darwin’s birth an ickle-wickle baba born without some cancer gene? Well, big fat hairy deal! Is that all? They’d long since taken the egg that made me from some unsuspecting brood mare by then! All those old folks homes quite happy for a backhander for some tissue samples. A piddling cancer gene? I haven’t got, now let me think, greying hair, skin deterioration, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, menopause, osteoporosis … you get picture.
Animals, unless they happen to be pets, or in zoos, or just improbably lucky, don’t get old. You don’t see old birds, or old rabbits because they die, they get picked off. Fauna’s face is forever young. There are exceptions, the tortoises, the elephants, the whales. Back when they still had their natural habitats, of course.
Ageing is a genetic malfunction, far more so than they used to believe. Late acting wonky genes get a chance to have their wicked way. How did they get there though, those late-acting havoc-causers? From Methuselah maybe? Methuselah who begat Lemuch who begat Noah, and all that lot who lived for centuries. There’s nothing new under the sun after all. Ageing is a genetic malfunction and not ageing is simply genes doing their repair and maintenance job as programmed. Otherwise the effects of the sun, the wind, gravity, bumps, bruises, all that would kill us, shrivel us, burn us, wither us like leaves blown off by a spring storm by the time we were, well, the age I look now – fully grown, adult, ripe and ever ready. Weird isn’t it, when you think about it? It’s youth that’s odd really, not age. Darwin was clever, but for us at least, natural selection was just a phase, darling, just a phase.
So there I am, in a disco, for people who want to explore the way things were done in the past. It’s quaint, but fun, a bit like people in the last century getting off on battle re-enactment. That’s all there is to do really, bask in the gauzy glow of the past, in the eternal quest for authenticity, nostalgia, whatever you like to call it. The grass was greener, but we know it wasn’t, really. I mean who wants to leave dying to chance? You wouldn’t dream of leaving birth to chance after all – once upon a time they did and look what happened! All out of control till the planet stepped in, gearing up to kill off the virus, doing her great, ruthless balancing act. Famine, flood, arable land just washed away. The poor got it in the neck. So what’s new?
Procreation was controlled. Had to be. The end of cheap oil meant the end of cheap everything. Now it really was survival of the fittest – the financially fittest. And so it was death’s turn. Of course it’s been exploited by the doctors – pay a bit more for another twenty years, optional cryonics like an insurance policy on a loan. No thanks, can’t afford it, it’s a dodgy old futures market after all. No, we book death like an elective caesarean these days. Any time before you’re 115. Up to you. There are escapees, rebels, but what’s the point? The tracking’s too efficient, the chip too deep to dig out, our whereabouts bouncing back from space 24/7. There are problems of course. I mean, who chooses to go first? Get a block booking, have a party! Sometimes you just have to go. It’s that probably thing again. Sometimes things go wrong. Rome wasn’t built in a day, we’re still novices in this game. Glitches – that’s what Everspring Co calls their cock-ups – our modern day eyes down taboos. But they can get it right, and they do, mostly. Look at me.
Anyway, there I was, in a disco getting hit upon by a guy called Joe. He’s taut; he’s symmetrical, what can I say? Who isn’t? You can only play guess the age for so long in your head, and then you have to start talking. We couldn’t hear each other, so we left and walked along the river. It was cold; I didn’t care. I liked the feeling of it. I like watching the boats. Seeing where the old town used to be before the water came. I liked the dirty colour of the water. I stopped hearing what he was saying. He wanted to go to another club then go somewhere warm to have sex. He said he was starting his therapy next week; he wondered if I’d started mine yet. Idiot! I wondered if the water was like me. Whether it felt old or young, whether it wished that its cycle could cease, whether it longed to stay vaporised in a cloud. We can’t imagine the infinite because it’s unthinkable. I want to see THE END at the end of a story. A musical resolution. I miss the yellowing teeth of Dr Riley; Mr Judd’s old dog, Ian’s wrinkly eyes. Ageless. I am trapped, a prisoner in my boundless life.
I tell Joe I must go home now. I am old, and he bores me. I should have said sorry, but then he should have checked my profile, I am the avant-garde. The prototype. The on-going experiment. They won’t terminate me. I tried it myself, of course I did, but they caught me, of course. I’m scared too. I’m only human after all. So I collude, and they exploit my fear. Wasn’t that how this whole thing started? Isn’t that how it works so well? I’m 117 going on immortal and showing no signs of deterioration because I’m special, Joe. You couldn’t understand it if you tried. I like Beethoven string quartets. I can remember Charles III. Television. The combustion engine. Factory farms. Clockwork. Summer’s days. I’ve got no one to talk to about old times. Time is so last century. I’m Timeless, orbiting in an eternal present, round and around and around.
Photo: Christopher Campbell