An essay by Professor Matthew Bibby, as provided by Maureen Bowden
Art by Errow Collins
Wavertree Parke was a perfect woman, and I intended to clone her. My position as head of the Biology faculty at Riverside University enabled me to hone my technique to a standard far above that of my rivals in the field. I’d cloned chickens and chimps, beagles and bulls, hamsters and horses, all under a cloak of secrecy. I was staying ahead of the game, and the next specimen would be human.
My life-long friend and confidant, Dr Erin Rafferty, who was a consultant at the major city hospital, disapproved of my choice. We discussed the matter one Sunday afternoon in our favourite café, The Crumbling Cookie. “You’re an idiot, Matt. Why the hell do you want to clone a B-list celebrity with the IQ of a radish, and with nothing to recommend her but large breasts and a talent for advertising shampoo?”
Erin was an intelligent, well-educated woman, but she had an annoying tendency to refuse to think outside the box. “You underestimate Miss Parke,” I said. “Her superb bodily proportions endow her with outstanding physical beauty.”
“Oh, whoopee-do. What about her brain?”
“It’s clear that her schoolteachers, whoever they were, failed to do their job, but she possesses a charming naïve wit.”
“Why don’t you admit you’re obsessed with the woman?” She paused, while the waitress scowled at me, placed our coffee and cakes on the table and flounced back to the kitchen.
“She heard you,” I said. “That’s my reputation down the toilet.”
“Don’t blame me for telling the truth. I’ve seen the box set of I’m A Celebrity. Get Me Off This Snake Infested Desert Island that you hid under your sofa. You wouldn’t touch that ooze of pus with heavy-duty surgical gloves if wittering Wavertree wasn’t in it. Right?”
“I merely undertook thorough observation to ensure that she’s a suitable host. Now, will you help me to get her somatic cells, or not?”
She chewed a mouthful of Danish pastry and sighed. “I suppose so. She’s due for her regular blood test next week. I’ll tell her some rubbish about needing skin cells to check her resistance to viral warts. Where do you plan to get an ovum?”
I took a deep breath. “I was hoping you’d oblige. It will involve merely a simple procedure to harvest it next time you ovulate.”
She gulped and choked on her flaky cake. “What? You’re pushing your luck, laddie.”
“Try to see the bigger picture,” I said. “This research could have far-reaching benefits for humanity, but I need a reliable supply of high quality ova, and there are none I’d rather use than yours.”
“What are you going to do when my egg basket’s empty?”
“You know very well, Erin, that your ovaries will release far more than you could possibly require.”
“I was being facetious.”
“Really? I fail to see why.”
“I know you do. You’re a clever man, Matt, but some things are beyond your area of expertise.”
I wasn’t sure if she was still being facetious, but I saw only sadness in her face. It occurred to me for the first time that she was a well-proportioned woman, not as beautiful as Wavertree, of course, but I experienced an urge to continue looking at her. I shook myself. This was not the time for a midlife crisis. I had work to do.
In spite of her irrational reluctance, Erin provided me with an ovum and a supply of Wavertree’s somatic cells. I invited her to my laboratory to watch, as I transferred the DNA of one of the cells into the ovum, from which I had removed the DNA-containing nucleus. I placed the ovum into the container that I had designed myself, and which Erin called the glass womb. I was now able to infuse the growing embryo with the nutrients that a natural womb should provide.
All was going to plan, and then the clones began to die. It started with the chickens, followed by the hamsters, and within a few weeks, the only one left was a melancholy mare with failing internal organs. Erin insisted that I euthanize her. “It’s the kindest thing to do, Matt,” she said. I didn’t argue.
“The problem is the somatic cells,” I said. “I took them from mature adults. To put it bluntly, they were too old.”
We looked at the tiny foetus in the glass womb. She asked, “Will the same thing happen to her?”
“Yes. She may live for a few years, but I doubt if she’ll reach adulthood.”
“You have to stop it. You’re condemning her to a short, and possibly painful, life. It’s not fair.”
She was right. I deactivated the machine.
Over the next few months, I became increasingly depressed, and I observed the anxiety in Erin’s eyes. When winter turned to spring, it was she who brought me the solution. She called me. “I want to talk to you. Meet me at lunchtime. I’ll be in the hospital garden.”
I found her sitting on the lakeside bench throwing peas from a degradable plastic bag to the ducks. “They prefer them to stale bread.” She said.
“Did you get me here to tell me that?”
“No. Do you still want to clone Wavertree Parke?”
“Yes, but I can’t. She’s an adult. Her somatic cells won’t have enough life left in them.”
“Would it interest you to know that when she was born, her parents had her placenta placed in a hospital storage unit in case she needed stem cell treatment during her lifetime?”
The dark cloud lifted. I laughed, pulled her to her feet and hugged her, bursting the plastic bag and sending an explosion of peas cascading down the mossy bank into the water. “Can you get it for me?”
“Yes, and I’ll donate another ovum, but this is the last time, so you’d better make it work.”
She brought me the placenta. Part of the umbilical cord was attached to it. I had the perfect supply of Wavertree’s somatic cells.
When we had the ovum, I repeated the cloning procedure, and as the weeks passed, we watched the embryo grow. Erin took a more active interest than she had previously. One day she said, “This will be my child, Matt. Keep her safe.”
I tried to picture the clone in my mind, but I found it difficult to accurately recall Wavertree’s features. That night I pulled the box set of the ridiculous TV programme from under the sofa, and I watched it for the first time in many months. Studying her face, I noticed the telltale signs of cosmetic surgery. The eyebrows were a fraction higher than should have been possible and they gave her a look of permanent surprise, her turned up nose looked pert in profile but from a certain angle it resembled a miniature pig’s snout, and her top lip appeared to have been turned inside out. I looked at her magnificent breasts. Their rigidity suggested the presence of silicone implants. What a fool I’d been. She wasn’t real. Erin was, and she was perfect.
We met for coffee next day at the Crumbling Cookie. “You once called me an idiot,” I said, “and you were right. Wavertree’s an illusion.”
She threw her arms wide and yelled, “Halleluiah.” The other customers pointedly ignored her outburst, but the waitress looked across and grinned.
“What are we going to do about the embryo?” I said. “It will be a replica of her, but I can’t destroy it because it’s part of you, too.”
“Does that matter to you?”
My mouth dried, and I felt uncomfortably warm. “It’s the only thing that matters.”
I had a feeling that she was enjoying this. “I know. I’m embarrassed.”
“How interesting. We’ll discuss that further, but you can stop worrying about the embryo.” She dropped a sugar cube into my cup. “Drink your coffee before it gets cold. The placenta isn’t Wavertree’s, it’s mine.”
My throat spasmed in mid-swallow, resulting in a coughing fit. The waitress rushed to our table, pounded my back, and asked if I wanted a glass of water. I shook my head. “No, not necessary–” I glanced at her name badge. “–Jasmine. I’m fine now.”
“Went down the wrong way, did it?”
“I expect so, yes. Thank you.”
She retreated and I turned to Erin. “Why did you tell me it was Wavertree’s?”
She shrugged. “I wanted to cheer you up.”
“Did you believe I wouldn’t notice when it didn’t look anything like her?”
“I didn’t really think that far ahead, but I suppose I hoped you’d be seeing things clearer by then.”
On an impulse, I squeezed her hand. “I am.”
Sleep evaded me that night. The prospect of raising a child with Erin was appealing, and the clone would be hers. But it wouldn’t be mine. She might never forgive me, but I knew what I had to do.
Next morning, I deactivated the glass womb. I called Erin. “Can I see you at lunchtime? We need to talk.”
“I’ll be in the garden.”
I found her sitting on the bench, with a bag of apples on her lap. She was sinking her teeth into a Cox’s Pippin.
I sat beside her. “It didn’t work. The embryo wasn’t viable.”
“Don’t lie. You turned it off. I knew you would.”
“I’m sorry, Erin. It just seemed the right thing to do.”
She nodded. “There could have been a lot wrong with her, and if we want to give life to a child, there’s a better way.”
“You up for it?” She delved into her degradable plastic bag for another apple, and handed it to me.
“Why not?” I took a bite.
Professor Matthew Bibby is a genetics specialist. After abandoning his research into cloning techniques, he designed an incubator for premature babies. Its innovations saved many infants’ lives and led to him being awarded an MBE, after which, he and his partner, Doctor Erin Rafferty, formed a close friendship with Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Professor Bibby was recently invited onto the television reality show, I’m a Celebrity. Get Me Off this Snake Infested Island. He declined the invitation. He and Doctor Rafferty have two children: Erina, and Matthew Junior.
Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had eighty-nine stories and poems accepted for publication by paying markets. Silver Pen publishers nominated one of her stories for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize. She also writes song lyrics, mostly comic political satire, set to traditional melodies. Her husband has performed these in Folk clubs throughout England and Wales. She loves her family and friends, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Shakespeare, and cats.
Errow is a comic artist and illustrator with a predilection towards the surreal and the familiar. She pays her time to developing worlds not quite like our own with her artist fiancee and pushing the queer agenda. She probably left a candle burning somewhere. More of her work can be found at errowcollins.wix.com/portfolio.
“A Question of Somatics” is © 2017 Maureen Bowden
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Errow Collins