Read A Beautiful Young Wife Online

Authors: Tommy Wieringa

Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC019000

A Beautiful Young Wife (8 page)

• • •

The first days with a newborn child: happiness as delicate as gold wire. The memories can't be held onto; the euphoria comes in quick, successive waves. There is a photo of Edward, lying on the couch with his eyes closed and his mouth open slightly. One arm is tucked behind his head; with the other, he holds Morris, who is sleeping on his chest. A photo from that same series is used for the birth announcement: it shows only the boy, his skull covered with fine, blond hair, and his lips twisted in a cramp that could pass for a smile.

It is as though the atmosphere of benevolent household happiness has been made flesh, Edward thinks, as though he could grab hold of it if he wanted to. There are almost no thoughts of the life outside. He longs for nothing but this. He doesn't want to think about Marjolein. It makes him restless. The ante has been upped. There is everything to lose.

When they ran into each other on the institute parking lot and spoke for a few minutes, she had said she'd already noticed that something had changed. She understood, she said: after all, it
was
truly something, what he was going through now. Little clouds came out of her mouth. She waved to him from the car; he smiled gratefully. This was the end to his faux pas, he thought. It had come easier than he'd expected.

• • •

A few months after Morris is born, Ruth pronounces the term ‘fussy baby', but then in the form of a denial. ‘He's not a fussy baby,' she says. ‘He's just having trouble making a landing on Earth.' The image of his son as a space traveller appeals to Edward. Knocked out of orbit and stranded in the wrong galaxy — but then where
does
he belong?

Morris, it seems, can be lulled to sleep only by means both subtle and prolonged, and just when they think they've found such a routine, it starts all over again.

It began two weeks after he was born, as though he was tormented by pain or by having left behind his life as a space traveller. He rips their nights apart with crying. The cradle is on her side of the bed; she sleeps with one hand on his stomach, and when she tries to withdraw it, he awakes with a start and cries. They spend the nights wandering, the baby on one arm, rocking and hushing him. The serene happiness of the first weeks has made way for irritability and despair. Morris is given Zantac against reflux, and Edward is too exhausted to make a smart remark about its manufacturer: GlaxoSmithKline.

This, therefore, is how noise enters Edward's life — like a cordon of striking truckers leaning on their horns, preceded by a parade by the Association of Muffler-Free Scooters. A hundredfold Semitic widows in disarray bring up the rear. There is no way he can protect himself; it worms its way into his defenceless ears, and crawls under his skin. The passing noises of the world, too, reduce him to a shambles — a magpie perched on the gutter, a scream from the park, anything at all can drag his son up from his hard-won sleep. In the frequencies emitted by cats meowing in the garden, or planes high in the sky, Edward hears the sound of Morris crying; his heart starts pounding, the hair on the back of his neck stands up.
He's awake … Goddamn it, he's awake again …

At the institute, he sometimes looks up in fright from his monitor, hearing his son's cry in the shriek of a dry hinge.

‘He's not crying for the fun of it,' Ruth says, ‘or just to vex you. You seem to forget that something is really bothering him.'

The baby boy's pain has welled up from the depths of his vital organs to his brain, yet the cause itself remains invisible. Neither Zantac nor Motilium seem to help. Ruth packs him off to doctors and herbal therapists; an osteopath slides his practised hands gently up and down the baby's locomotor apparatus. They hang a hairdryer in his cradle, because the sound seems to soothe him.

By the time a baby is six months old, Ruth and Edward tell each other, the worst of it is usually over. Even the most persistent of fussy babies calms down then. Six months, in any case, is a point far beyond their endurance. They will never make it to August; the crying would have torn them to the ground long before that, just as the walls of Jericho crumbled beneath the persistent roar of the rams' horns.

Her patience is greater than his; she never has the urge to silence Morris by force. She is surprised by the flames of impotent rage that flare up in Edward, and takes over when she feels he is rocking the baby ‘unnaturally'. ‘He'll never quiet down that way,' she says.

His son, the organ pipe.

Sometimes, when Morris seems to recognise him, Edward is touched. His little red hands clutch at nothingness. Edward caresses his thin blond hair, his face smoother than smooth. At the fontanel, you can see the beating of the blood.

• • •

The days are long and hot, unseasonably early that year. In the kitchen, flies swarm around the cat box and the cutting board. He swats them with a rolled-up dishtowel. Each time he thinks he's killed them all, new ones appear. They burst open under the dry whacks of the towel, but don't always die right away. In the block of sunlight on the floor, he watches their death throes. They pull wet tracks behind them across the tiles, an alphabet of fly pain.

In 1780, Jeremy Bentham wrote:

The day has been, I grieve it to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated … upon the same footing as … animals are still. The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognised, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the
os sacrum
, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse? … the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

The page was stuck to the bulletin board in the bathroom. It was
ammunition
. Long ago he had made the mistake of telling Ruth about his animal testing lines. The course of viral infections was easiest to see in ferrets. It was precision work; with a few slight mutations, a deadly influenza virus could change into a mild variation, while mild viruses could suddenly become deadly.

Sometimes he looked through Ruth's eyes at the animals in their cages and saw that boredom was the first form of suffering to which they were exposed. They no longer groomed themselves, and they exhibited compulsive behaviour. Endorphins provided some relief from their stimulus-starved existence. The longer and more often he watched, the weaker his denial of their suffering became. It was because of the shattered nights, he thought. His son's crying had debilitated him. The ideas of his wife and of a British utilitarian had broken like parasites through his faltering defences. He had even become more susceptible to certain TV programs. While watching one program in which old sweethearts were reunited, he had to fight back the tears.

Long ago he had been taught that animals knew no pain — an old Cartesian tenet that had been revised only recently. The denial had become more sophisticated these days. Animals could experience pain, but not suffering. Suffering was reserved for humans. People owed their suffering to their consciousness. To be more precise: pain augmented by the memory of pain and the expectation of pain to come was one of the causes of human suffering. Animals possessed no such consciousness, and if they actually felt pain, it disappeared as soon as the pain stimulus was taken away. As his son was still largely non-conscious, Edward assumed that he did not suffer, but that he
did
feel pain.

It was a mechanistic approach that worked well as long as you didn't muddy it up with tricky questions and the notion of interspecific empathy, which — until recently — he had dismissed as sentimental. It was hard enough already to feel for the pain of one's own species, Edward thought, so more or less impossible to understand the pain of other animals.

Ferrets who had experienced the hypodermic shied away, trembling, from the white-gloved hand; they panted in fear. Edward, now that he was perched on a stool before the cages and trying to
enter into
that, was tempted to interpret this as memory. It was reflexive behaviour, prompted by nociceptive neurons in the spinal cord and not by the brain, but it was still the result of negative experiences. If this was a primitive form of
physical memory
, couldn't one also speak of a primitive form of suffering? The physiology of the mammals in the lab did not differ essentially from that of humans — the similarity was precisely why they were used. And, just like people, they were ruled by pain and pleasure. It was less complex, but the same principle.

The consequence of Bentham's reasoning, he thought, would have to be a new categorical system, a taxonomy of suffering. A new Linnaeus would have to arise to classify the pain. There was still no instrument that could objectively measure it. To rate pains in humans, a scale from 1 to 10 was used, whereby the patients themselves could report on the intensity. But there was as yet no instrument like a thermometer to read off the pain in tissues and organs. In order to arrive at a new system like that, Edward thought, one would first have to be able to measure pain. The pain stimulus might be objective (the pulling-out of a fingernail, or the poking-out of an eye), but the experience of that stimulus was personal. And how could you measure these things in creatures who could not express themselves verbally: in a horse, a dog, in Morris?

In his daydream, pain is accorded the same kind of fanaticism they applied to
AIDS
in his day. Laboratories work overtime; instruments gleam in the cold light. The mammalian nociceptive chain is poked at with sophisticated tools, the network of nerve endings, fibres, and ganglia laid bare — somewhere in that chain must lie the secret. The tortures become increasingly refined; needle-thin pointers give scores to the umpteenth decimal point. To what extent do animals experience pain? Do they remember pain, and fear new pain? Can they
suffer
…?

The world waits in anticipation of the new taxonomy from the pain factories. If the suffering of other species corresponds to or is even equal to the measure in which humans suffer, the consequences will be inestimable. The anthropocentric view that places man at the centre of the kingdom of pain will become obsolete, and the torture of billions of test and farm animals will be seen as mankind's greatest disgrace. When animals are given the
right to suffer
, there will be no end to the
mea culpas
, the apologies, the commemorative centres and monuments of remorse.

All sounds from the laboratories are broadcast on a radio frequency allotted specially to that purpose. The pain of vertebrates; the pain of invertebrates. Some animals writhe and shudder, but cannot make themselves understood. (The radio falls silent.) Other animals roar, screech, whistle, peep, hiss, and sigh — all fairly clear graduators of pain, but most of them hard to interpret. Radio Pain is on the air around the clock; we listen to their cries in the darkness.

The
Bhagavad Gita
defines man as a wound with nine openings. The great pain project defines the whole world as a gaping wound, its openings innumerable.

Edward rubbed his eyes. He was so tired.

• • •

In late May, Edward takes part in a four-hour live radio program organised by the VPRO, one of the major Dutch broadcast organisations. It involves the simulation of an outbreak of H5N1; a crisis team has been assembled to take the requisite measures. Jaap Gerson is the team leader; the others include a police chief, a senior official from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and a retired general from Wassenaar. Edward has been invited as director of the Laboratory for Zoonoses and Environmental Microbiology, and as advisor to the WHO. Hundreds of fatalities have already been reported in Asia and Southern Europe. In the Netherlands, the number of infections is spreading rapidly.

During the marathon broadcast, reporters — supposedly on the scene — keep feeding the players new facts and situations. ‘Millions of people may succumb to this invasion,' the moderator says in his introduction, ‘but unlike in
The War of the Worlds
, there is now no bacteria to save us; no, it is precisely a virus that threatens all mankind.'

A flight from Bangkok, headed for Amsterdam, is now somewhere over Turkey. All of the passengers and crew are probably infected. The retired general says that the army will provide assistance at the airport. ‘Everyone on that plane will be placed in quarantine,' he says. ‘An unpleasant but necessary measure.' The general has left his villa in Wassenaar to have a good time at the studio. One of the program's female researchers keeps his glass of white wine filled. Edward watches him so closely — how he signals to the girl, points at his glass, and mimes the word ‘ice!' — that he sometimes loses track of the conversation. He himself is drinking beer; it's hot in the studio.

Gerson explains what is going on in the laboratories. ‘What we're waiting for is the development of a virus inhibitor. Then we'll have to produce a few million doses, so the whole thing could take a while.'

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