In the months afterward, in suburban dining rooms, the bohemian bourgeoisie debated the ethics of the machine. The first had been installed unobtrusively in leading doctors’ surgeries, and as they spread across the country, schoolteachers and bank managers and creative consultants and publishers met for cocktail parties, suppers, restaurant lunches, and the conversation turned to the machine, the machine, again and again, the machine. Like the weather, or, in time of war, the latest battle, it provided a constant conversational reference point, came to be something akin to a worldwide obsession, in the West, at any rate.
“I saw one,” said Kate Boothroyd, sucking on a cigarette, “on Kensington High Street. There was a line a bloody mile long—madness.”
A temporary silence settled over the Broad’s dining table, brokenby the hostess.
“And would you?”
Kate pondered the question a moment.
“No—I don’t think so. I mean, human beings, ultimately, don’t want to know—do they? Or do they? I mean, didn’t somebody write
about that?—in trying to avoid the inevitable, you actually bring it about. Who was it, Rory?”
“I don’t bloody know, do I?” Kierkegaard. Nietzsche. Dostoevsky.
The argument continued around the dining table long into the cheese and coffee. This was the debate, amongst the upper middle classes. Did one really want to know what life held in store? When there was nothing one could do about it at all, when there was no happy ending. A blank slip was an impossibility. At best, “old age.” At worst, something unspeakably awful, the self-fulfilling prophecy one couldn’t do anything about. But people were doing it. Sure enough, in the days after department stores and pharmacies installed “the machine,” lines of hundreds formed, eager to know that which could not be avoided. The evening news carried scattered reports of suicides, occasionally en masse. Support groups sprang up, devoted to those whose slips had read “suicide,” those for whom the specter of whatever horror could drive them to such desperate measures proved too much.
Support groups that turned to cults. One weekend, two hundred teenagers, neatly arranged in two rows along an underground railway station platform on the Victoria Line, stepped neatly to their deaths, drugged smiles on their pimply faces. The whole event engineered by means of the Internet—“Facebook Event Invitations” with a difference. Marion Broad was out shopping in the West End the day of the Victoria Line suicides, the day public transport was crippled and she had to take a cab to Kate’s for lunch. Stringy hair, no makeup, Kate answered her door with a drawn look to her face, lit cigarette between her fingers.
“Jesus,” breathed Marion. “You’ve done it, haven’t you?”
She followed her into the house, through a bluish haze of tobacco smoke.
“Emphysema!” barked Kate. “Bloody emphysema!”
The words hung between them, over the John Lewis coffee table.
“Not exactly a surprise, but still… At least I won’t be needing to quit anytime soon.”
A dry laugh crinkled her darkened eyes, and Marion’s heart grew cold. And so it went on, for months and months. Parliament rejected bids to outlaw the machine, and rejected them again, despite the frenzied speeches of religious groups, political organisations, mothers, fathers, societies for the old, societies for the young, all futile in the face of humanity’s child-like curiosity.
Supermarkets quietly erected them, in the entranceways, by the photo booths. Leaving Selfridge’s, Marion saw a well-dressed mother leading her infant daughter out of the curtained booth, tears trickling down, melting away the makeup. James Broad, good-natured and stoical, steadfastly refused to do it. Late at night, taunted by the faces of her friends, Marion envied her husband’s easy sleep, as she tossed and turned. Dinner parties were a grim fandango of fraught nerves, now. Those who had “done it”—euphemisms all round, like it was something dirty—seemed half-dead and half-alive, eyes dull, filling in time until what was predetermined by the fates rolled around. Emphysema. Cancer. Cancer. Suicide. Cancer. Cancer. Cancer. For the rest, eggshells everywhere.
Mentioning the mode of death marked out for anyone at your dinner table was taboo, and the Broads desperately strained to keep the conversation away from illness, disease, and demise. Almost buckling under the strain, like tired horses, never a pleasure, only a chore, they gave up entertaining. Bars emptied in the suburbs, where stoical stockbrokers bunkered down in semi-detached splendor to await their various tumors and cancers and sleep apneas. In the cities, they filled by night, as cosmopolitan sophisticates drowned their morbid sorrows.
On Saturday and Sunday mornings, the lithe young bodies that washed up on the banks of the Thames posed a serious danger to public health. And then, one afternoon, coming out of the Food Hall at M&S, she stopped, bags over both wrists, and stared solemnly at the new machine in the vestibule. Rebuking herself, she passed by.
That night, in the darkness of the witching hour, across the bedsheets: “Are you ever tempted?” From the husband, only gentle breathing. The next morning, unspeakably early, pale and baggy-eyed after a sleepless night, nursing bitterness in the kitchen: Enough! Enough! On with the jeans and cardigan, and out into the car, down the deserted, cold, early morning city streets, to the nicest place she could find. She slipped inconspicuously into the booth, inserted the credit card, tapped in the passkey. Pale and wincing, placed her finger under the needle, poised like the sword of Damocles. Down and up, in and out, she barely felt a thing. The machine churned out its slip, and she turned it over, in fearful, trembling hands. “Cancer,” there, and nothing more. Marion Broad walked slowly through the empty foyer, towards the car in the empty lot, maneuvered herself into the driver’s seat, and drove carefully home.
Letting herself into the grey and silent house, she tiptoed upstairs and into the bedroom, where the light of dawn seeped around the edges of the curtains. Slipping off her trousers and sweater, she drew back the covers and let herself into the bed, and into the small of her husband’s back, smiled a secret smile.
Story by Camron Miller