He had the app – she couldn’t believe it!
They were making Sunday lunch and Joel was in the middle of telling Grace about the bioenhancers. It was the latest thing, the latest surrealism to become accepted as commonplace, and he had just had a presentation about it at work from a pharmaceutical company.
‘So basically Pharmavo has developed moral bioenhancers. They discovered that oxytocin makes you nicer…’
‘Oh, that makes sense, right? Isn’t that the hormone for maternal instinct?’
‘Exactly, so altruistic behaviour, empathy, and so on. But they’ve made it into an injectable drug. If you have the money. They’re marketing it at $2000 per weekly dose.’
‘Pharmavo? Biggest drug company in the world.. do you think they could be behind the hashtag?’
‘It’s possible. But at the moment it’s completely unaffordable. The rich are trying to secure their places in heaven. You should definitely write about it.’
‘Yeah, I think I will. Thanks.’ She continued chopping vegetables while he set the table. She found that their best conversations took place nowadays when they weren’t looking at each other; when they could focus on doing some other task at the same time. A sentence came into her head, perhaps from the Bible, some fragment of memory from school. It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Since the hashtag, wealthy people had been giving their money away all over the place – it was almost a competition. Some charities had even asked people to stop donating as they couldn’t spend all their funds. But here was another option – you could keep enough money to buy yourself a better character. She stopped and frowned.
‘It definitely makes me uncomfortable for some reason. But is it so bad? I mean, if there are more good people in the world, doesn’t that help everyone? But then, are you still you? If you’ve been morally enhanced? Does that still count?’
He laughed grimly. ‘Count for who?’
She laughed too. ‘I’m so confused. I don’t know. God, I feel like I’m going mad.’
Their phones pinged simultaneously. She looked over at hers on the kitchen counter – she always kept it close – it was another one of the interminable updates from Virtue. As she looked it pinged again, and again. Two more messages from Virtue flashed up. ‘You have 23,000 new points! Have you called a friend today?’
And then she looked up, because Joel’s phone, over on the dining table, had also pinged two more times, at exactly the same time as hers. He didn’t look at his phone and she noticed a slight stiffening of his manner. A revelation presented itself on the edge of her thoughts.
‘Joel, why did you even go to that presentation?’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘Well, it isn’t exactly relevant to oncology, is it? You must have had to go out of your way.’
He was checking his phone now, and determinedly not answering her.
‘You have the app, don’t you? I knew it!’ She hadn’t known it, but now she felt almost giddy with superiority. Finally. And disconcertingly satisfied, that she was about to take the moral high ground. Disconcerting, because she was thinking more about her Halo points than about Joel. No points for smugness or I told you so. Be kind, be kind, forgive.
‘Why didn’t you just tell me?’ She started to move towards him, even thought about grabbing the phone, but it didn’t feel natural and she pulled back. ‘You know, you don’t need to be embarrassed. We’re all doing it. We’re all performing our own version of Pascal’s wager.’
‘Pascal’s wager? What’s that?’
‘It’s basically ‘fake it til you make it.’
He laughed, grimly again. ‘Depth from the depthless, right?’
‘It’s what I was trying to do all along. Find some meaning.’
‘And I’m proud of you. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I just… well yes, I was embarrassed.’
Maybe things were going to be ok.
‘We’re sort of going behind our own backs, aren’t we?’ he said. ‘Aspirational faith. Can you have that?’
‘Yes.. I think you can. You need to believe first. If we didn’t believe we could get to the moon, we wouldn’t have done it, right?’
‘Yes but the Moon… we could see it.’ And then he uttered a complete non-sequitur. ‘Do you think we should go to church?’
‘I…. My head is spinning, honestly it’s hard to know what to think any more. Hard to know what’s real.’
They ate lunch in near-silence, both deep in thought, and the silence was acceptable, yet she felt so desperately lonely. They were afraid even to argue with each other. She was half-convinced the app could sense raised voices and quantify that too.
That was the day the sunfish appeared in the Thames. After lunch they both wanted to be alone, and Grace made the first move by saying she would go for a walk. The sky was streaked with cirrhus clouds and there was enough cover that ozone levels might be ok, even mid-afternoon, but she covered up with sunglasses, hat and long sleeves. The city felt bland. Everybody was smiling; crime levels had plummeted. And that had to be good thing, right? But it was impossible to know what was real any more. She remembered the first time she had visited the USA – a trip to Disneyworld in her early teens. Young enough to appreciate the rides, old enough to notice the glorious superficiality of customer service. Everything was wonderful and you were bathed in caring – as long as you stayed on script.
As she walked along the south side of the river towards the Millennium Bridge, she saw a crowd gathered against the promenade railings. There was something in the water. My sixth sense for sniffing out news, she thought, hoping it wasn’t something bad, hoping it was something interesting. She leaned across the barrier at the edge of the crowd and it floated towards her. It was over two metres wide, flat, bloated, like a child’s drawing of a fish, with two straight, useless looking fins, like worn rudders on a boat, and a single, almost comedically huge eye. It lay just under the surface of the water and seemed to be floating with the current. Surely it was an optical illusion, surely some piece of discarded rigging or plastic, and yet it looked familiar, and exuded immense calm. A fish shouldn’t float on its side like that, like a corpse, and yet somehow she knew that it was alive. Most onlookers were holding up their phones, and there would inevitably be a surge on social media later. But Grace was fascinated to notice that she didn’t want to film it, photograph it, document it. She wanted this moment to be ephemeral. It was somehow too special. Why? It seemed to mean everything, and nothing.
She did however have a whimsical urge to share the bizarre sight with someone, and looked around her. She noticed other strangers discussing it, and wanted to join in. It was actually a child who identified it first. ‘Mama, that’s a sunfish. I seen it in my book.’
The waters were warmer, it was another sign of the time. And what a beautiful, tragic sign. She suddenly realised that tears were streaming down her cheeks, and that the person next to her, the child’s mother, had shuffled along the barrier to place a comforting arm around her back. How lost that poor creature was. How lost they all were.
She walked straight home, almost at a run. She needed to be with Joel, to tell him what she had seen, to try and make sense of it, to make sense of them. But when she was in the elevator, catching her breath, feeling exhilarated and on the edge of some revelation, she felt a chill come over the world, just for a brief moment. Her phone was in her back pocket and it didn’t vibrate, but it felt different. When she opened the door of her apartment Joel was standing in the middle of the room holding up his phone. It was purple. The television was on – it was purple. His laptop screen – purple. She took out her own phone – purple. And on all the screens the same message. A new message.