I decided to try my hand at fiction for a change. So here’s a short story.
‘The important thing is to set yourself goals and succeed,’ said Pat. ‘It is of no importance what those goals are; all that matters is that you have them and you achieve them — whether it’s growing the biggest marrow for the village fete or winning a Nobel Peace Prize — success is all that matters.’ The four people at the table were enthralled. They were very young and this was their first week away from home. ‘Imagine,’ Pat continued, ‘that you had spent ten years working twelve hours a day to achieve your professional dream and then you met the love of your life — and had to choose between them. Which would you sacrifice?’
‘Why do we have to choose?’ asked Rachel, perhaps a little petulantly — she was accustomed to having her cake, eating it, and then being given a second one to replace it.
‘Because I’m asking you to. The one you choose, and your reasons for doing so, are what interest me,’ said Pat. ‘Answer me that, and I will predict where you will be in ten years’ time.’
‘Got any tea leaves?’ asked Ian, who believed himself to be a cynic and a wit.
‘Plenty,’ said Pat. ‘Oolong, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, PG Tips… but they’re all at home, and we are here in this remarkably empty country pub, under the beady eye of that lovely barmaid who may well decide to call time if we don’t buy some more drinks. I got the last ones; so Thomas, it’s your round, I do believe.’
‘Can you affor— ?’ began Lucy, before being silenced by Tom’s scowl. He was beginning to wish he hadn’t been so forthcoming about himself.
‘Same again?’ he asked. All assented. Lucy very pointedly stressed that she wanted a tonic water as she was driving.
‘Not because you’ve taken up gardening?’ asked Ian, somewhat cryptically. Lucy stuck her tongue out at him.
‘So,’ said Pat, ‘take your pick and give your reasons — but to make it more interesting (and to stop you changing your minds), write your choice on the beer-mat in front of you and then turn it over so the rest of us can’t see.’
Rachel, Ian, and Lucy duly complied, each in turn, as there was but one pen among the group. Tom was still at the bar. It seemed he’d just asked for ‘the same again’ and hadn’t counted on this including one for the barmaid as well.
‘Ready?’ asked Pat.
‘Yes,’ said Rachel; ‘I suppose so,’ said Ian; ‘What about Tom?’ said Lucy.
‘Tom can catch up,’ said Pat. ‘Lucy, you go first?’
‘Me?’ said Lucy, somewhat superfluously, give that she was the only person of that name present. ‘OK, I’d choose love. I’d try and continue with my career, but I’d ultimately choose love.’
‘Why so?’ asked Pat.
‘Because love is what makes the world go round; without it, no amount of professional success is meaningful.’
‘A charming answer, Lucy. What say you, Rachel?’
‘I don’t believe in “the love of your life”. Not just one. The concept is silly. What if you never meet that person? The odds are surely against it given that there are — what is it? — seven billion people in the world.’
‘So you’d choose your career?’ asked Lucy.
‘Oh no,’ said Rachel. ‘I can’t imagine working so hard for so long. That’s the sort of thing the dull and uninspiring do. I’d choose love. But someone who loved me and could afford to give me a half-way decent standard of living.’
‘Only half-way?’ queried Ian. ‘You do surprise me!’
‘What? What’s Rache done to surprise you?’ asked Tom, back from the bar with a tray of drinks and some of those strange English pub snacks that taste delicious when consumed on licensed premises and disgusting anywhere else.
‘Chosen love over career,’ said Ian.
‘Really!?’ exclaimed Tom, with such enthusiasm that Lucy’s dismay was plain for all to see.
‘No, not really,’ said Pat. ‘Anyway, tell us your choice, Thomas, now you’re back.’
‘Oh, um… job, probably… I mean, if I’d spent ten years trying to build up a business or get promoted to a responsible position, I’d probably want to stick with that.’
‘And you, Ian?’ asked Pat.
‘Oh, easy… I’d choose weed. Whether that counts as the love of my life or as the thing I’d worked at for ten years, I couldn’t tell you — both probably — but that’s the one I’d choose.’
‘How about you, Pat?’ asked Lucy.
‘Me? Well, I’m considerably older than you so for me it’s less hypothetical… Last time I chose love; next time, if there is one, I’ll choose career. Just for the variety. Nothing more. Both are overrated, I suspect.’
‘You chose love?’ queried Lucy.
‘Is that so hard to believe?’ asked Pat.
‘No. No! I didn’t mean that!’ said Lucy. ‘It’s just that there’s no mention of a partner on your uni profile page, so —‘
‘So you assumed I had no interest in matters of the heart? Perhaps I don’t now.’
‘Anyway,’ interrupted Rachel, who didn’t really care for conversations in which she wasn’t the centre of attention. ‘What’s going to happen to us, Dr Wilson? You said you’d tell our fortunes.’
‘That’s not quite how I worded it,’ said Pat, ‘but it amounts to much the same thing.’
‘You can really tell where we’ll be in ten years’ time from so little information?’ asked Tom.
‘Well, I do know a little more about you than that. I’ve seen your academic records, and you’ve had a tutorial with me…’
‘So you’re basing your predictions on our A Level results and the stuff we said in your class? Not on our love/career choices?’ asked Ian.
‘No,’ said Pat. ‘Not at all.’
‘Just on our answers to your question, then?’ asked Lucy.
‘Oh no, not on them,’ said Pat.
‘Just tell us!’ exclaimed Rachel.
‘Very well. Rachel, you are beautiful, spoilt, and envisage a parasitical lifestyle, possibly as what I believe is called a WAG. Your parents are stupid enough to be amazed at your intellect and rich enough to reward you materially for it. Thomas, you are academically brilliant. Your parents are working class, and your father is probably unemployed. You fantasize about Rachel, even though you know she’d never give you a second glance, and you ignore Lucy who clearly adores you. Your—’ Pat’s speech was interrupted by the beep of a text message arriving on someone’s phone. Lucy blushed. ‘Do you want to answer that?’ asked Pat. Lucy shook her head. ‘Very well, as I was saying, Thomas, your impecunious state, however, leads you to choose career over love and family. Ian, you’re nowhere near as street smart as you want us to think. I doubt you’ve smoked more than three roll ups in your life, let alone a spliff, and even if you have, you probably whitied on the first toke… and I can see you have no idea what I’m talking about, which rather proves my point. And Lucy, you are sweet and a little naive. Academically mediocre. You’re carrying a candle for Tom, even though you know there’s no reciprocation there. You’d choose love, but I doubt that Tom’s the love of your life. I suspect you’re just in love with being in love.’
‘Screw you,’ said Ian. ‘You get off on insulting your students or something, Dr Wilson?’
‘Yeah,’ added Tom, ‘that’s a bit below the belt.’
‘It is kinda true, though,’ said Lucy. ‘Or the part about me is, at any rate. I do like being in love and I had to come through Clearing to get to uni.’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sakes, just cut to the chase!’ exclaimed Rachel. ‘What’s going to become of us?’
‘Oh,’ said Pat. ‘You’re all going to die.’
‘Yeah, right,’ said Ian. ‘Tell us something we don’t know. Everybody dies, dude.’
‘You are, of course, correct; but — hmm… don’t you find this round of drinks a little sweeter than the last?’
The students vaguely murmured their assent, but they were clearly more interested in that ‘but’ than in the taste of their drinks, though Rachel did say ‘I don’t see how you can say that given that we’re all drinking different things.’
‘So where was I?’ asked Pat.
‘Predicting our deaths,’ said Ian.
‘Why yes, so I was. How precisely do you want to know?’
‘I don’t want to know,’ said Tom. ‘You initially said you’d tell us where we’d be in ten years time. That’s what interests me. Will I get a first? Will I have a PhD?’
‘Oh, no. No, I’m afraid not, nothing like that. Oh, please don’t look so dismayed. It won’t matter.’
‘And me? Will I marry my multimillionaire?’
‘Uh huh,’ said Pat.
‘But my — my looks — will I still be beautiful?’
‘Oh, Rachel, Rachel,’ said Pat. ‘Excuse me one moment — I have to make a phone call. I’ll answer any questions you might have straight afterwards.’
Ian and Rachel began to say something, but were shushed by Tom. Lucy took the opportunity to read her text message.
‘Hello? Yes, yes, ambulance please. And maybe police. Oh, thank goodness. Look, I’m having a drink with four of my students — I’m a lecturer at the university — and they’ve just told me they’ve all ingested a new type of drug, looking for “the ultimate high” apparently. No, I don’t know what it was. Well, I’m no expert, but they seem very unwell. The two boys are doubled up in agony, and one of the girls seems to be having difficulty breathing. The other seems relatively unaffected at the moment — oh, no, no, now she’s clutching her stomach as well. Yes, yes, we’re in the Last Man Standing. Thank you.’
Pat ended the call and looked at the suffering students. By now, all appeared to be in extremis. The barmaid, too, could be heard making rather desperate-sounding noises.
‘Oh dear,’ Pat resumed. ‘I suppose I’d better speak quickly as you don’t appear to have long left — I had expected us to have a little more time. In ten years’ time, you will all be but a memory. I slipped a little something into the last round of drinks I bought. I did wonder if you might detect a slight bitterness, but apparently not. You may be experiencing stomach cramps, but, whilst unpleasant, they won’t kill you. No, the cause of your demise will be coronary or respiratory failure. If you try to speak now, I imagine that you’ll have difficulty uttering any coherent sound. Please try… oh good, I thought as much. Wouldn’t want you saying too much in the ambulance. You won’t make it to hospital, of course, but you might survive until the ambulance gets here. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d better go and check on that poor barmaid — I bought her a drink, too, you see.’
The groaning grew fainter; the breathing all but subsided; the volume of the ambulance and police sirens grew louder as those vehicles approached. Pat went out to meet them, and returned a few moments later with various representatives of the emergency services.
But something was wrong. Something had changed. Rachel and Ian still lay slumped together on the bench seat; Tom had fallen from the stool he had occupied and lay, twitching slightly, on the floor. The nameless barmaid hadn’t moved. But Lucy — Lucy wasn’t there! And suddenly the Pat’s rather clipped and smug voice was heard intoning a second time the words ‘…I slipped a little something into the last round of drinks I bought. I did wonder if you might detect a slight bitterness, but apparently not. You may experience stomach cramps, but, whilst unpleasant, they won’t kill you. No, the cause of your demise…’
‘I recorded you,’ said Lucy, who equally suddenly emerged from the ladies’ toilets. ‘On my phone. When I realized what you were saying about us to the emergency operator. I didn’t drink the drugged drink. I’d asked for a tonic water as I was driving. It tasted a bit odd. I thought maybe you’d got me a vodka and tonic by mistake — I like gin and tonic, but I’ve never tasted vodka and tonic. I didn’t want to risk being over the limit. And I didn’t like to tell you you’d made a mistake, so when you weren’t looking, I poured it into that plant. The others saw what I was doing. Ian nearly gave the game away. I didn’t — I didn’t think for one moment that it was poisoned…’
Lucy’s eyes filled with tears as the enormity of what had happened dawned upon her. One of the ambulance crew put an arm around her. A police officer was putting Pat in handcuffs.
‘Let’s get you checked out at the hospital,’ said the paramedic to Lucy.
‘There’s just one thing I want to know first,’ said that survivor. ‘Why did you do it, Dr Wilson? What could you possibly hope to gain by murdering five people? Was it to test out the drug, or—? Why?’
‘Why?’ said Pat. ‘Don’t you know? Because I could, Lucy, because I could.’
‘But you couldn’t, could you? I’m still here. You failed.’