Sarah-Jane Emerson opened her eyes in despair on a world she’d hoped to be rid of.
“Hello mummy darling,” whispered Bella, holding her mother’s withered old hand in talons untouched by time. Sarah-Jane tried to pull away, but Bella was too strong for her. Behind Bella, she saw her son-in-law Richard smiling wearily. “We won’t let you go that easily.”
“What makes you think it was easy.”
She turned her head away from the over-bright face of her daughter, and licked dry lips. “I don’t want this. You know that, Bella. I asked you. I begged you.”
Bella’s line-less face tightened.
“You don’t have the right to say that!” She glanced at her husband, who shrugged. “I mean, we all love you so much. You want to be here for your grandchildren, don’t you? And what about your great-grandchildren? You can’t give away your future – just like that!”
Sarah-Jane turned her head away, into the freshly-changed pillow.
“I don’t care about the future. It’s your damn future. You do what you want with it.”
She saw it – the future – stretching out like a prison sentence into infinity. When they used to believe in Hell, they said you’d be boiled in oil for eternity. You don’t need any boiling or fiery pits, thought Sarah-Jane – just time is torture enough, eventually.
She closed her lids against the wearisomeness of it all. Her bones ached, her joints creaked, her skin was as thin as filo pastry, and the only upside was her poor eyesight , that rendered Bella’s unfeasibly young face a smug blur against the whiteness of the hospital wall.
Back home, in her room overlooking the long lawns of Richard’s country estate, the new woman made tea.
“How are you today, Mrs Emerson?” she asked, trying not to touch the old lady. Like many from the poorer classes, she had a horror of the undying, and besides, Sarah-Jane was both ugly and ill-tempered.
“Where’d they find you? Selling your ass down under the garbage mountains?”
She put as much venom into the words as she could, but the feeble crackle of her vocal chords let her down. She meant to sound spiteful: it came out as querulous. Still, the woman didn’t know how to reply, and seeing that pleased her.
“You know what your skin reminds me of? Shit. It’s shit brown. What do you think of that then?”
The woman set her tea down carefully on the table beside her.
“There’s no need to be rude, Mrs Emerson. I don’t have to take -“
“Oh but you do,” Sarah-Jane interrupted, almost gleefully. “You have to take anything I dish out, otherwise you’ll go back to that stinking hole you came out of, back with the rest of your rat-like clan. I can get you sacked just as easy as clicking my fingers!”
Clicking her fingers, now that wasn’t easy, come to think of it. Her arthritis put a stop to all that kind of thing. Clicking fingers. Playing the piano. Ha!
“I’m afraid you can’t, ma’am.” The black woman went and sat on the window seat, arranging the cushions comfortably. “Your daughter told me not to pay any attention to the silly things you might say. She told me you might be a bit difficult. I’m supposed to make sure you don’t hurt yourself, like you did before.”
“I’ll hurt you!” fumed Sarah-Jane, noting at the same time that the woman made a good brew, with the milk and the tea balanced just right. “I’ll tell her you abused me, you stuck pins in me – see here?“ She showed the woman her twig-like arm, covered in shallow sores. “I’m very fragile.”
The woman drew herself up. She was a little thing, young, with woolly hair in braids down her back.
“I don’t have to take your shit. You can’t do nothing to me.”
“You can eat my shit for dinner,” spat Sarah-Jane, adding an epithet she hoped would sting the woman into hitting her. It didn’t. She sighed helplessly.
“What’s your name, anyway?”
She added the epithet again, just to feel it on her tongue.
“May,” said the woman, slipping her feet out of flat shoes. “If you want your nappy changed on time, you can call me that from now on and not the other thing, understand?”
“I’ll call you what I bloody well like,” and Sarah-Jane dredged from her redneck memory the filthiest racial slur she could recall. The woman – May – laughed.
“It’s a long time since I heard that one. You should get yourself up to date, Mrs Emerson, if you’re going to keep that shit up.”
“I want more tea!”
May took the teapot, opened the lid to look inside, and deliberately let a large droplet of saliva fall from her mouth. For a moment the silver thread hung from her lower lip, then plopped into the amber water.
“We don’t have to like one another, lady, but it’s better for both of us if we get along nicely. What do you think?”
Sarah-Jane’s hands clenched, her knobbed knuckles standing out red and painful. They could make her live forever, stuck for seventy years at the age of ninety-three, but they couldn’t make her pretty – and they couldn’t take the pain away. She’d explained all that to Bella, who didn’t want to hear about the arthritis and the sores and the constipation. But then, Bella was hardly ever up here. She liked the idea of her mother being alive, being available, she liked that a lot. But she didn’t like to have to look at her.
Over the next few months Sarah-Jane and May grew steadily closer, in hatred and grudging respect. Sarah-Jane’s insults rarely hit pay dirt, and eventually, May got tired of getting her own back. The old woman was tough – she’d shut up for a day or two, but after that she’d be back on the warpath. Anyway, thought May, the woman’s whole existence was an act of spite. If this was the good life, give her the Garbage Mountains any day. Except for Dee Dee.
“So what’s it like out there?” asked Sarah-Jane one day, as she sat freshly-changed in her rocker by the window.
“It’s not like this.” May waved towards the vast green grounds. “Dirty kids running all over the place. Stinks all the time, but you don’t notice really. No one gets old, guess that’s one thing we’ve got in common with you folks up here. We don’t get the chance.”
“You jealous, then? Do you hate us?” Sarah-Jane asked hopefully.
“Mmm – I suppose. It’s kind of funny. Where I come from, everyone wants to live – from the littlest kid scratching in the dirt for something to eat, to the oldest grandma -“ she laughed, “I mean, we get old around twenty-five, you understand, don’t live much beyond thirty. But you – you want to die! And my job’s to stop you doing it. It’s crazy when you think about it.”
Sarah-Jane agreed that it was, on the face of it. She thought of those dirty kids running about. Now that was something you never saw in rich areas – kids. Bella talked about grandkids but she’d been married for more than a century and never had any. Of course, she could – she still had the eggs. But she didn’t. Guess eternal life meant eternal adolescence, mostly.
“You could move on up, if you had money,” she suggested craftily. “No more picking in the dirt, your kids could have a big yard, learn their letters maybe…”
“Your Bella doesn’t pay that well,” snorted May, then glanced at the old woman sharply. “You mean you’d give me money? For what?”
“Fuck no. You know what’d happen if I damaged you – let alone killed you, for crying out loud? I’d be sent to the labs, and not just me, my whole family too – probably my neighbours as well! Your Bella may look like a sweet teenager but she’s a right bitch at heart – and she sure loves her mummy.”
“Ha! Loves?” Sarah-Jane choked on her own spittle, and coughed, grabbing at her own frail ribs. “That cow doesn’t love anyone.”
You can’t love, she thought, not without the weight of death pressing down upon you. But you can sure hate. She looked at the woman, May, in frustration. She’d never been able to persuade any of them to help – last time she’d had to do it herself with a plastic nappy bag someone had left near the easy chair. They were all scared of going to the labs. Nowadays, the authorities didn’t let criminals go to waste – instead, they contributed their lives to the greater good of those above them. Bella, and Richard, and Sarah-Jane too. No escape for the rich or the poor, bound together like cats in a sack.
“What I can’t understand,” said Sarah-Jane, returning to a familiar theme, “is why you don’t do something about it. I mean, here’s us, rich as Rockefeller, swanning around with nothing to think about but how to enjoy ourselves forever…” At this, May looked wry. “You know what I mean. Not me. Them. And then there’s your lot, down in the tenements. You should rise up. But I guess you’re just born dirt-grubbers, aren’t you. Your ancestors were slaves and trash, and so are you. Can’t expect any better from slaves and trash.”
“Time for your nap, Mrs Melrose.” There was one good reason they didn’t rise up, and the old bitch knew it as well as Bella did. A century of grinding poverty and malnutrition had made them weak, fit for nothing but dirt-grubbing, as Sarah-Jane put it. And then there were the labs. All the power was with the undying, damn them to hell.
“But suppose,” pursued Sarah-Jane, as she was bundled into her night-pads, “we could swap. You and me. Would you?”
May thought about it. There was no doubt that Sarah-Jane’s life was a wretched one, in its way. And yet, what did she have to look forward to? Back in the slums, she’d borne seven kids. Four had died in infancy and a fifth was wasting away of cancer right now, while she took care of this old bag, for a pittance. She wiped away a tear. Sarah-Jane missed nothing.
“What are you crying about?” she asked harshly. “You’re one of the lucky ones.”
“While you sit here ordering me around and calling me a fucking nigger,” May said in controlled fury, “my daughter’s dying. You live forever and Dee Dee gets nothing, not even the basic medication she needs. How’s that fair? You tell me, Sarah-Jane?”
Sarah-Jane’s little liverish eyes gleamed in their myriad creases and folds. “We won and you lost, that’s what’s fair. We’re the cream and you’re the…dregs.”
May turned away, bitter, and began folding freshly laundered clothes. “It doesn’t matter what you say, I’m not going to do nothing to you. It’s not worth it.”
Sarah-Jane allowed a small smile to crease her dry lips. “But what if it was worth it, May? Huh, what then?” It was the first time she’d used the woman’s name – she usually called her ‘girl’ or ‘you’, and sometimes something more offensive. May looked around, startled.
“What are you talking about?”
A month later, Sarah-Jane was wheeled by respectful orderlies into the Bush Memorial Transplant Clinic. Bella trotted by her side in her heels, leaning over her mother to reassure her. “You’ll be fine, Mum, you know that, don’t you. You’ll be treated like a VIP, Richard’s donated enough to the Clinic, god knows. A few days and you’ll be back at home, good as new!”
Sarah-Jane gave her daughter the benefit of her five remaining fangs, chipped and jagged. “Don’t you worry about me,” she said, closing her eyes. “Dr Desmond was a great friend of your father’s, you know, before he passed away.” They’d immunised Desmond in time – not like old Bartholomew, Sarah-Jane’s banking magnate husband, who’d passed away of a heart attack before they could get to him. Desmond was forever old – like she was herself – but she felt comfortable with him. She winked at Bella. “Now fuck off and go wait outside, I’m having an operation.”
At the back of the clinic, May was also wheeled in, shoved through double doors and shunted down corridors. Her hands were bound to the sides of the gurney by straps, and her legs were also secured: all she could move was her head. Her braids had been unceremoniously yanked under a hair net.
She raised her head and spoke to the orderlies. “Is this going to hurt?”
“Shut your mouth, 3023,” said one, glancing down at her. “You won’t need it where you’re going.”
She laid her head back on the trolley and tried not to think about what was going to happen. One life for two, it wasn’t too bad when you thought about it. Not when one of those lives was Dee Dee’s. Dee Dee had a job now, up at the big house, and the doctors saw her once a week. Say what you like about that horrible old bag, at least she kept her promises. And soon, May would be able to see her. Although Dee Dee wouldn’t know who she was, because she’d be Sarah-Jane. And Sarah-Jane would be her, and free.
The gurney crashed through the final doors into the ante-room to the operating theatre, and stopped. A white-haired man with an eagle nose, cold grey eyes and a permanent sneer looked down at her. “So you’re the donation. Very noble, for a trash rat. But I guess we both owe something to dear Sarah-Jane, don’t we.”
He made a brisk motion, and May felt the nurses sticking a needle into the back of her hand. Soon she felt drowsy, and slept.
When she woke up, she was back at home – not Sarah-Jane’s home, as she’d expected, but her own home. To be more precise, she was outside it, lying on the broken pavement with light rain gently falling on her cheeks and a couple of the neighbourhood dogs sniffing at her clothes. She tried to push herself up but found that she was too weak.
“Amber!” she called, to her surviving daughter. Hoping she’d be inside the hovel they all called home. “Mickey?”
Heads poked out the glassless windows. “There’s some old white lady out there,” said Amber over her shoulder to someone. Amber’s boyfriend Jordan came to the window.
“None of our business.” May tried to call out again, to explain, but her voice was as weak as her body. It didn’t even sound like her voice – hell, even her voice sounded like Sarah-Jane’s. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. This wasn’t what Sarah-Jane had promised. “It’s May,” she croaked, “It’s your ma, Amber. Mickey? Where’s Mickey?” Maybe her son would recognise her. Her cherished, doomed son.
A rag was pulled over the window and the voices of Amber and Jordan receded. It was then that May noticed the pain. Her legs, lying twisted on the hard concrete, tormented her. Each breath stung and rasped. Her back felt like somebody had racked her, and then done it again. Her mouth tasted vile, her eyes blurred, the eyelids crusted with dried tears. The rain had already soaked what she had on – some kind of hospital gown – and now was forming a puddle around her, freezing her to her thin bones. She had to get into the house somehow, convince them, show them who she really was. And she tried, but she couldn’t. May whimpered: a wheezing, querulous sound that reminded her horribly of the old white lady who now inhabited her strong young body.
In the Melville mansion, Sarah-Jane stroked her braided hair, still a source of endless wonder.
“Why’d you do it?” snapped Bella. She’d been going on about it ever since Sarah-Jane got home from the Clinic. Lord, you’d think she’d be glad to have her mother back, youthful, spritely. But she wasn’t, and Sarah-Jane knew why. Thinking about it in bed at night, she cackled. Serve the bitch right
Because of course, Sarah-Jane was now black. She’d always thought of dark-skinned people as inferior beings – but then, foxes were inferior beings, and you wore them, didn’t you? So why not May? She’d kept her promise, May’s girl was well enough and improving. And May – well, she’d live forever, so what did she have to complain about? The immunisation that had been given to Sarah’s body at 92 still operated in Sarah’s body – even if that body was now owned by the brain of a black slum-dweller.
As for Sarah-Jane, she found she rather liked her new form. It annoyed Bella – a truer racist than Sarah-Jane had ever been – and that was a mighty source of pleasure to her mother. It didn’t hurt to be May, like it had hurt to be Sarah-Jane. Maybe she’d even take a lover…now that would really put Bella’s nose out of joint. Have a kid or two – by external conception obviously. Bella and Richard thought they owned this place – maybe they could think again about that. Sarah-Jane grinned with a full mouth of white, strong teeth. At last, she was able to eat properly!
It wasn’t her fault that May hadn’t really understood the bargain. That’s what education is for, thought Sarah-Jane complacently – that’s why we’re up here, and they’re down there. May had thought that she’d live here, in Sarah-Jane’s body (with all that entailed) and Sarah-Jane would live down in the Rubbish Mountains, where she could die in peace.
But Sarah Jane didn’t want to die. She wanted to live, now – live, live! Forever…