He doesn’t hate Penny. He remembers never thinking much about her at all, back in the school days when she was forever following after his sister.
In fact, Neil doesn’t hate any of the people sitting around this table. He came from the same place as them, had the same aspirational parents, was encouraged to succeed, whatever that word means. To be the best he could be. And he is paid well, too; he would have left long ago if he wasn’t getting a very decent salary, with the promise of one of the best pensions in the working world. He can see his life as a kind of story. It runs across a page, left to right, in an orderly fashion, and it begins:
Once upon a time there was a good brother and a kind sister. They had very careful and loving parents, and when the brother and sister grew up, they wanted to give the love they had learned to the world. So they both became the best kind of public servants. She went into teaching and he trained hard to be the very best Army Officer he could be.
Since that auspicious beginning the story has derailed, for the truth is that they work for private companies that have been contracted by the government, and they work only for people who can afford their services. The rich kids, and the large companies. The people in Brazil, the starving, the homeless, the poor – these people weren’t his concern. The Army is there to help clear the wreckage of Brazilia’s inner slums, so that rebuilding contracts can begin. He protects the heavy machinery so that the locals won’t steal the parts to sell for food.
He gave half his lunch every day to a small girl who came to the edges of the camp. She was a brave one, to edge up to the razorwire, and hold out a hand. At the time he felt he was doing a good thing for her; now, as hot and sour soup is served into the bowl in front of him, he wonders why he didn’t give her the whole plate of food while he had the chance. He asked one of the Sergeants to make sure she was getting fed over Christmas, and bore a look of pity for trying to help one child among many.
He remembers this is a party, and picks up his spoon.
The soup is good: spicy, with red flecks of chilli and long fat strands of soba noodles. Beside him, Penny slurps, and he feels her embarrassment radiating outwards. She can talk about a million dead, but she slurps her soup and the world is over.
‘I hear Sonia Fassbinder has her own Pigger,’ says the woman sitting opposite him. Lily, maybe? She must be a new friend of his sisters; he can’t remember ever meeting her before. The table murmurs at this news.
‘Really?’ says his sister, Natalie. ‘They’re only for the military, aren’t they?’
‘Military and incredibly rich film Goddesses,’ says David. ‘It was only ever going to be a matter of time, right? Just like Hummers. At first its high-grade tech, and the next thing you know one in three people in Beverly Hills has one.’
‘What does she do with it?’ says Penny, which provokes titters of amusement. She flaps her hands. ‘You know what I mean. They’re bomb disposal, aren’t they? Dangerous jobs. There aren’t exactly many bombs in Hollywood.’
‘Unless you count Sonia’s latest film,’ says David. ‘Have you seen it? About the aid worker in space who falls for a future version of her husband after bashing her helmet on some space junk?’
‘Alice in Time,’ says Natalie. ‘I liked it.’
Natalie likes anything fantastically romantic, Neil knows. She is all for love before it becomes an everyday banality. She fell for one of his friends when they were teenagers. Sam Surtees, a good-looking guy who knew it, who liked to make promises he wouldn’t keep. She was too young for him though, and she followed him around, getting no encouragement, concocting a fantasy in her head no doubt. Then, one day, Steve told him he’d made a move on her after a school disco, and she had turned him down flat. It seemed she preferred the thoughts in her own head rather than the reality.
‘I heard there’s a Pigger porn film,’ says Lily, in a hushed voice.
‘They can be taught to do domestic work,’ says Neil, feeling the urge to set the record straight. ‘They do a lot of the cooking and cleaning on military bases now. It’s safer than employing locals. Piggers started out as cannon fodder, but they’re pretty clever now.’
‘Really?’ says Penny. ‘Amazing. So they’re getting more intelligent.’
‘Pigs are pretty intelligent to start with,’ says David. ‘As clever as dogs.’
‘If I could train a dog to load a dishwasher I’d get one,’ says Natalie.
‘So you’ve seen a Pigger, then?’ says Penny. She seems determined to make the room focus on him. Maybe this is her version of flirtation. ‘What’s it like?’
‘You get used to it pretty quickly.’ The first time he saw one, cleaning the washblock, he made eye contact with it, as he would with a human. He felt the blunt blue stare to be that of an animal’s, without interest or purpose beyond the basic tasks of life. Even in clothes, with hands instead of hooves, nobody ever mistook a Pigger for a person for more than a second or two. Something fundamental was missing. Neil believed that, no matter how intelligent they made the Piggers, he would never look at one and have its gaze returned with meaning.
‘If we’re accepting them into our homes and getting them to do menial tasks, then they must be really clever by now, right?’ says David. ‘Sounds dangerous to me. And aren’t they doing ordinary people out of jobs? Organ donors or bomb disposal, fair enough, I mean, nobody but the suicidal are going to want those positions, and maybe letting them would solve the anti-depressant boom in this country.’ He smiles as the soup bowls are cleared away. ‘But cooking and cleaning, I mean, that supports a whole class of people.’
Penny clears her throat. Neil gets the sense that she is preparing to say something that she considers to be really important. ‘Well, I think that if they’re in our homes, working for us, then they should have rights.’
‘What kind of rights do you mean?’ says Neil. He pictures his sister as a little girl, playing dress up, and then the little girl outside the camp, waiting for her lunch, and it seems to him the memories of them are both relying on him to say something. ‘Do you mean the right to have food, shelter? To be free? To live without pain? Have a vote? What rights do you think a genetically engineered pig should be given over and above half the human beings on this planet right now?’
There is silence. He realises that nobody in this room is on his side, not even Natalie. It is never okay to speak that honestly. He wants to stand up, depart for the nearest pub, but instead he sits there as Penny searches for words, and abandons the effort.
‘They’re not human,’ he says, trying to sound kind. ‘Maybe we should remember that.’
‘So you don’t think animal rights is a very real issue?’ says Lily.
‘I think once you’ve seen what I’ve seen, you’d learn to prioritise too,’ he says, and now he knows that he sounds like a wanker. This is a conversation he can’t win. Penny scrapes back her chair and flees to the kitchen, and Natalie follows after her.
He has nothing in common with these people and he is glad, so glad. But still he feels a wave of gratitude to David when he says, ‘I know this is Thai fusion, but I’m still hoping for a proper Christmas pudding at the end. It’s got to be the best dessert in the world, right?’ and the table starts a conversation about the pros and cons of treacle tart over Key Lime Pie.
Penny cries and cries. She has backed herself up against the fridge while the kitchen staff attempt to keep a respectful distance, looking anywhere but at her.
‘Sorry,’ Natalie says, to the staff, then, ‘I’m so sorry,’ to Penny. She’s apologising to the whole room – how did it come to this? She grabs a sheet of kitchen towel from the wall dispenser and hands it to Penny. Around them, duck in cherry sauce is being portioned on to blue plates. It smells wonderful. ‘He didn’t mean anything by it.’
‘I’m such a-a-an idiot,’ says Penny.
‘No, you’re not, you’re entitled to your opinion and so is he.’
‘It’s my fault, I mean -‘
‘No, it’s not, Penny, I swear,’ says Natalie. This is a familiar conversation. Since school they’ve gone through Penny’s versions of self-blame: not good enough, not beautiful enough, not emotionally strong enough to get over the first two problems. And these issues mean that she always ends up saying the wrong thing at parties. She comes across as brash when she’s making a valiant effort to be vivacious, and so, yes, she says the strangest things, and regrets them bitterly afterwards.
She reassures Penny and feels annoyance, not at Penny’s faults, so much as at the fact that Neil has not been able to overlook them. Shouldn’t he be the bigger person, here? He knows more about the situation than any of them, and yet he’s only choosing to denigrate those who venture an opinion.
And at the back of her mind is the thought that this is her party, a very expensive one, and she should be the one crying if she wants to.
Penny’s sobs have dried up. ‘He doesn’t even remember me,’ she says, her mouth quivering.
‘Of course he does.’
‘I thought he was so amazing at school.’
‘We all did. Of course he remembers you. Come on, come back to your seat and have a normal chat with him. He’d really appreciate that, after where he’s been.’
‘No, no, I couldn’t face it, I couldn’t, everyone hates me.’
‘They don’t, they really don’t.’
‘I think I’d rather just go home.’
Natalie nods. Here comes the guilt again. Her Penny guilt is copious, has been for years, since they first sat next to each other in the classroom and Natalie knew all the answers and got that first gold star. Why is it so difficult to be the person who has more?
‘Let me call you a taxi,’ she says. ‘I’ll pay for it.’
‘No, no, it’s not far, I’ll walk…’
The staff are taking out the duck in cherry sauce. Natalie says, ‘No, not alone, I’ve got an idea, hold on…’ and she follows the main course back to the lounge. A conversation is taking place about food, the most exotic meals ever eaten; David is orchestrating, keeping it light and fun. She skirts the table until she reaches Neil, and leans over him so she can whisper in his ear.
‘Can you walk Penny home?’
‘Seriously,’ she says, trying not to feel pleasure in this small act of retribution. ‘She’s really upset, and this way you can apologise.’
She gives him a hard stare, the one she learned from Mum. All the time they’ve spent apart is gone; it’s like being children again, needling each other, trying to win the argument. She wants to feel something else – that they are equals, not siblings.
‘Please,’ she says. ‘She’s my oldest friend.’
‘I didn’t think you liked her that much. You always used to complain about her hanging around.’
‘No I didn’t.’
He sighs. ‘Save my dinner, then.’
‘It won’t take long.’
‘Is that right?’
He gets up, and heads to the kitchen. Natalie retakes her own seat and David meets her eyes. She sees a question in his expression, deciphers is as is everything all right?, and gives a small nod. Maybe she’ll kiss him later tonight. He’s so supportive, so good in a crisis, and never asks her for anything.
An open pub doorway catches Neil’s eye. A familiar Christmas tune, The Pretenders, pours forth, and inside they are singing along. He can see the corner of the bar. Two men are propping their elbows on it, leaning forward, towards the row of optics from which orange fairy lights are suspended. For a moment he thinks he recognises one of the men, from his time in Korea maybe, but then they are past the doorway, and the feeling of recognition for any part of this life fades. This is just another town, chosen by his sister; her home, not his. Nothing about its neat high street, the old market, the church and the butchers, the estate agent displays, the iron benches lined up outside the walls of the park, are familiar.
Penny has been so silent. She is more recognisable to him in this mood. Didn’t she hardly say a word to him at school? He wonders if it’s chance that she and Natalie ended up in the same town. Perhaps Penny followed her. Perhaps she has only had one friend in her entire life, and by extension, a shadow of a big brother. She must feel a connection to him, via Natalie, that has never existed in his world.
He notices she is shivering, her silver raincoat pulled tight over her body, and he takes off his parka and places it over her shoulders. The air is cold. He delights in it, feeling the muscles of his arms and chest contract. Maybe tonight will bring the first frost of the year. The gift of a truly cold night – that makes for a proper Christmas. His breath is a soft cloud, and he listens to the snap of their feet on the pavement.
‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘I live just down here.’ She takes a sharp turn through a small alley, and he follows after. She looks so vulnerable as they walk through the dark, and emerge in front of a row of small, adjoined houses, jammed together, speaking of single lives. He gets a sudden taste of her loneliness, of the marks that are left by all the places that she doesn’t fit, and all the parties that go wrong.
‘This is me,’ she says, stopping at the middle house, the smoked glass, and brass letterbox of the snow-white door. She turns around and meets his eyes. ‘I’m so sorry about earlier.’
‘No, it’s me.’
‘No, of course you know more about it, I’ve never even seen one, I mean…’
‘It’s fine,’ he says.
She hands back his coat, and says, ‘I’d like to understand it all better. Not just Piggers. Everything. I get the feeling you understand it. I’ve always felt that.’
He shrugs. ‘I’m not sure anybody really understands it, do they?’
‘Maybe you’re right.’ She looks up at her little house, then says, just loud enough to be heard, ‘Do you want to come in?’
He remembers how that first Pigger had nothing behind its gaze: no need, no want, no pain. In the wake of her quiet words, words that mask and reveal so much, he feels closer to knowing what it means to be human.
‘Okay,’ he says, and he follows her inside, not knowing if he is being human or not.