Inherit the earth
[ fiction - december 04 ]
Five years from now
Fat. Fat. Fat. Fat in rolls. Fat in great rolls wedged together. Fat in great rolls lying on abdomens like piles of coins. Fat. Fat. Fat arms, fat legs, fat necks. Fat, hefty buttocks. Fat hefty buttocks and adipose-rich, bulging chests. Fat surrounded Malcolm; he worked with fat. Away from work, he began to find fat everywhere. Or rather, fat would find him.
Walking around town, he found his eyes drawn to swelling paunches. To tattoos of snakes, revealed coiled eternally ready to strike an unknown target, just above the natal clefts exposed as bulging maidens bent over, bursting out of their tracksuits. Massive children walking down the street, looking alien and sinister to Malcolm, like nightmare creatures in a horror movie or computer game. Tiny heads on vast, bulky bodies. They walked with an indestructible complacency, it seemed to Malcolm. At times the streets crowded with shoppers would strike him as an army of the fat.
Malcolm worked at one of the near Obesity Clinics, which had been the latest response to the oceans of adipose tissue that were swelling on bodies everywhere. Community sports programmes. Regulating fast food. Banning advertising for foods deemed unhealthy. Making TVs and computer games switch off after two hours, flashing exhortations to go out and exercise. Banning advertising for all foods. Banning games consoles. Banning fast food. Governments throughout the world - for obesity was no longer a problem only of the wealthy West - implemented these measures in turn. And the fat kept rising, kept adhering to buttocks and abdomens, kept doubling and tripling and quadrupling chins.
Having tried to demedicalise obesity, the fashion now was to remedicalise it. And thus a new regime of clinics and programmes swung into motion. Billions were spent on new and improved drugs, on esoteric and exotic herbal and homeopathic regimes, on individually tailor exercise programmes. And everyone kept getting fatter and fatter.
Malcolm had been pawing the fat enmeshing the feet of a female patient when Linda walked in. Linda was the other registrar in the Obesity Clinic; she must have been roughly the same age as Malcolm yet gave him the impression of being younger, more vigorous. It came as a shock to Malcolm to see her, trim and fatless. He knew that his glances at her slim waist, elegant bosom and graceful neck were partly sexual, but her figure was striking mostly because of the contrast with the patients.
All the clinic staff - the nurses, the doctors, the receptionists, the dieticians, the phlebotomists, the ECG technicians - were as thin as Linda. They were all female, aside from himself and one of the receptionists. When he had started working, Malcolm had a paunch, the legacy of weekend beers and all too many microwaved lasagnes when he got home at the end of the day. Without ever consciously deciding to lose weight, he found himself playing squash and lifting weights on Friday nights, then Wednesday nights as well, then four nights a weeks, then five, and cutting down the convenience foods, then omitting them completely and eating various pulses and lentils.
Now, three months in, he was thin. He had never felt better, physically. He got out of bed early to go for a five-mile run before a breakfast of muesli and some grapefruit, would cycle to the clinic, have a bran muffin at eleven in between patients, go for a brief, salad-based lunch in the hospital canteen, canter through the afternoon clinic, and then go for a cycle with Linda afterwards.
It was coming into September, but the evenings were still bright well into the evening. They would cycle by minor roads into the mountains, up to the Three Rock Mountain, or Kilgobbin, or as far as Glendalough. Their favourite was the Massey Woods, a thick bank of conifers sloping down to a stream, running past ruined icehouses and game lodges and the other features of the old estate. A few other walkers, briskly leading their dogs, and the occasional band of disaffected-looking teenagers, looking to find a spot for undisturbed drinking, were the only other visitors. They would walk down the slope, zig zagging so they could descend faster, leaving wakes of freshly fallen leaves. Malcolm thought back to yesterdays stroll.
He exchanged a quick, covert glance with Linda, their faces breaking into a mini smile before resuming the serious, intent look of professionals. She was waiting to say something to him. He felt the woman's feet again, a hand on each foot trying to bore in deep enough to feel a pulse. He gave up, and got off his knees.
"Sorry. Mrs..." he looked at her chart "Reilly. I'm afraid I can't get a pulse. We'll have to note that and make sure they see you in the sugars clinic soon. Otherwise, things are the same from my point of view. You'll have to wait a little longer to see our dietician and exercise counsellor, and I think you are due to attend the support group later today as well, is that right?"
"Yes, Doctor, it is."
"Thank you. Thank you."
Sometimes there was this awkward moment when the interview had ended, but the patient didn't seem to realise that. She seemed to expect something more. He stood up, stuck out his hand for her to shake and, as she took it with the same expectant look, began to walk towards the door. Mrs Reilly moved a lot slower than he did, and he removed his hand so as to open the door. It seemed to Malcolm that it took her an eternity to leave, both of them thanking each other. He imagined Linda looking amused and slightly contemptuous behind him.
Finally Mrs Reilly left. Malcolm turned to Linda, feeling embarrassed. He felt he had shown some kind of weakness in front of Linda, he should have been more assertive with her. There was no trace of any contempt or irritation on Linda's face.
"He's here, in with me. The phenomenon."
There was no need to ask who the phenomenon was. John Paul McCabe, sixteen years old and forty stone, would a few months later feature in suitably anonymised form as a case history in the New England Journal of Medicine, but already his fame had spread throughout the world. At medical and even political conferences on the rising tide of fat, his photograph with naught but the poor disguise of a black line over his eyes was the highlight of many a presentation. Genetic and endocrinological syndromes had been ruled out, and he had been placed on a variety of diet and exercise regimens, but still his weight would rise. They had even tried urging him to eat the most fattening foods possible and abstain completely from any exercise at all, in the hope that by some metabolic reversal he would stabilise. He didn't gain weight any faster, but continued to expand at the same steady, ever-increasing rate.
Malcolm went in to Linda's room. He was there, on the floor; despite the ever increasing weight of the populace, the examining couch to bear John Paul McCabe's weight had yet to be built.
"Hey there, Dr Kelly," he said. He was on first name terms with all the staff.
"Hey, John Paul. Call me Malcolm. How's it going?""Not too bad, not too bad." With most of the patients, the staff had a difficult rapport. There was a continual strain, as if they were continually biting their lips and restraining themselves from grabbing their patients by the shoulders and telling them just to stop getting fatter, to just stop doing whatever it was they were doing to make themselves so vast and blubbery.
With John Paul, however, it was different. They all got on well with him. They held a certain proprietorial pride in him. He was their outstanding patient, the vastest, the most impressive. He was the Laughing Buddha of the clinic, their mascot.
"Good stuff. Good stuff. How's the weight?" It was possibly one of the most redundant questions possible, Malcolm though as he said it.
"The same, really."
There was a silence. Despite John Paul's well known bonhomie, Malcolm could think of nothing to say to him.
"Keep it up, anyhow," he said.
"Doin' my best, doc, doin' my best."
"That's all we can do." Malcolm again wondered why he was coming out with these stupid lines.
"It sure is."
"Be seeing you. Be seeing you." The second "be seeing you" was to Linda, Malcolm winking at her as he retreated out the door.
Ten years from now
Malcolm and Linda and the ones with no names, the old folk whom they picked up on the road, went down into the woods. The cold of late September reinforced the constant hunger. They picked their way down the slope, zig zagging to keep their footing. Malcolm and Linda each had a small orbiting system of elderly men or women, each one emaciated into androgyny, clinging to them.
Picking up the old people had had an energising effect on both of them. For the first time in a long time they felt competent, in control. The authority they used to exude unthinkingly, the confidence in their clinical experience - it all came back, and they looked on these aged, sexless, helpless creatures benignly.
They had found them by the side of the road. Staggering along, going blackberrying. They knew that Massey woods was a good place for blackberrying, and even at this stage of the year finding greenery to chew on. There were no walkers there now, and if there were any dogs they would almost certainly be eaten.
Platoons of old, confused pensioners, former residents of nursing homes abandoned overnight by their staff, were a common sight on the roads. The week before, walking along the Dodder to find other blackberries, in the heart of what would have been very respectable and suburban Donnybrook, Malcolm and Linda had come across a pallid corpse, aged and ravaged. They said a quick Our Father over the body. There seemed little point informing anyone, and they felt too cold and hungry to stop long.
Hunger ruled. At times they remembered the years of plenty - remembered them viscerally, with their stomachs. Rarely Malcolm thought how quickly it all had happened - how only two years of wet summers and biting winters had managed to throw the world's food supply system into chaos. It was one of those thoughts - like how strange it now seemed that the phone or the fax or email had existed, had been so common and accepted, how everyone completely took it for granted that press a button and click, fizz, you could talk to or send a piece of paper to or a massive wad of text to the other side of the world - that he would contemplate and feel somewhat remote from the contemplation. For hunger dominated.
Oddly, hunger did not kill the sex drive - if anything the opposite. But sex was joyless, strangely unreal. It seemed reduced to the level of evacuating the bowels, or voiding the bladder. Malcolm and Linda - who had married the spring before everything had fallen to pieces, on a beautiful early April day, though that very evening squally showers presaged the deluge to come - had not had children, just as none of the Thin had. Only the Fat - those from the clinics, people who Malcolm and Linda had treated and prescribed for and phlebotomised and lectured at and given out to and laughed at behind enormously larded backs - had children anymore.
They weren't quite so fat anymore. But they were substantial, the only people of literal substance around. Only they had the energy, from their slow-burning fat stores, to think for any length of time about anything other then the next meal. Thus they had assumed what authority there was left.
They scrambled down the slope to the stream. The last few steps they took paddling the ground, collapsing onto the earth to slurp up water with their faces down in the icy flow. They all fell down onto the earth with no particular pattern, so that Malcolm found himself wedged in by two - or might it be three - elderly bodies. They felt cold, to Malcolm's dim dismay as cold as any corpse. When he had slurped his fill of water, he propped himself up slightly, and noticing that the elderly bodies simply rolled over, tried to rouse them. No response. He checked one neck, the one of the nearest body, for a pulse. None.
"There's no pulse" he said dully.
Linda had propped herself up too. She looked at him, an old intensity coming into the grey face. They raised themselves up gradually, and very slowly the ancient protocol kicked in.
Feeling dull resentment, Malcolm went through the motions of resuscitation. Tilt the head back, look in the mouth, put your
face down low above the mouth, wait for a breath on your cheek for ten seconds as you look down on the chest for the rise and fall. Nothing. Tilting the head back again, he breathed twice into the ancient lips, and then Linda was compressing the chest, rhythmically pressing down on the sternum fifteen times. Then Malcolm breathed into the old woman again, and then Linda began again, but they were flagging.
"Let's give us," said Malcolm, as Linda came to the end of the next cycle of compressions.
They noticed now that none of their old companions was stirring. Checking them all, each one was pulseless. They thumped them all on the sternum, but made no further efforts at resuscitation.
Over the next two hours they slowly dragged the bodies to a slight depression, a little further up the ridge they had descended from the stream. There were five of them. When they had put the corpses in this hollow, Malcolm and Linda listlessly kicked some leaves on top of the pile. They gave up with the bodies barely covered. Then they muttered the Our Father, and out of habit Malcolm went on to recite half of the Hail Mary.
Then there was an odd moment. They looked at each other, and Malcolm knew what Linda was been thinking. For he was thinking the same thing. The thought of meat, the great rarity. They looked at each other again, and this time their mutual look was to reject the possibility. They shuffled off, along the stream towards the blackberry bushes.
There were only a few little buds of berries of the bushes, each still red and hard and unripe. Nevertheless, they ate them all, straight from the bush. Afterwards they staggered back to where they had buried the old people. It seemed like something that had happened long ago. Malcolm could barely remember that it had happened at all, or where they had buried them.
The lean times had brought a great economy to communication. By just looking at each other, they knew that they both wanted to stay here for the evening, being too exhausted for the climb up the slope again. One didn't even just need a few looks or gestures anymore - a simple posture was enough to express even quite complex messages.
They collapsed by the side of the stream again, drank some more water. They both rose slightly, then slumped back slightly, so their heads were just out of the water. Malcolm rolled over onto his back. Then he realised they were not alone.
Bursting out of an old uniform of the Garda Siochana, with the jacket stretched, barely covering the pectorals, John Paul McCabe was standing over them. Linda had rolled over too.
"John Paul. John Paul McCabe." The words barely came out of Malcolm's mouth. He felt like vomiting suddenly. Why do I feel like vomiting? he thought. I'm glad to see him.
John Paul weighed half as much as he had five years before, as they would have discovered if they still had a scales to weigh him on. He was still an enormous man, and in a time when everyone seemed emaciated and wasting away, he seemed mythical, beyond belief. Malcolm suddenly saw that vast chart, with John Paul's name and date of birth in suitably outsize letters on the front, and realised that he was only twenty-one. He seemed older, immemorial, imbued with the authority not just of his uniform but of the very forest itself.
"Dr Kelly. Dr O'Brien." John Paul glanced at each in turn, as he said their names. He spoke softly, with the easy-going friendliness of before a sort of subharmonic under his voice of quiet, slightly sad authority.
"Hello, John Paul," said Linda. "You look very well."
"Thank you." A pause. "I've lost weight."
"So it seems. You're a guard now, then?"
It was silent again. Once again, Malcolm thought how hard it was to find anything to say to the man.
Just after he thought this, he recalled the five corpses in the hollow. As he the memory came into his mind, John Paul spoke again.
"It's good to see you both, Doctors. I thought about you a lot the last few years. I'm sorry we can't talk more. You see, I have to take you with me. I have to talk to you about the five bodies behind me."
"They just died, John Paul. They latched onto us on the road. They came down with us, it must have been too much for them. They just died."
"Thank you, Malcolm. I'm sure it's as you say. But I'd just like to talk to you about it first. Just come with me, please."
"John Paul, we did nothing wrong. We tried to revive them. We did everything."
"Dr Kelly, I'm sure. Just come with me."
Both Malcolm and Linda were on the point of tears. But tears would not come. Finally Linda spoke.
"John Paul, I... we... we... can't... I... can't..."
"I'm so sorry, Dr O'Brien," John Paul spoke quickly and apologetically, "and Dr Kelly. Let me help you. Let me pick you up." With great deliberation, the big man leaned forward and picked up Malcolm and Linda, an arm cradled under each, and began to carry them up the slope.