Chapter 6 


Foxglove headquarters is a white building three storeys high, with long dividers in its white painted metal window frames, Art Deco style, and peculiar circular towers at each corner. Directly to its left is a distribution centre with concrete ramps and loading bays, which I'm sure would charm John Frum, but is ugly to my eyes. The overall set-up looks very appropriate for a genetics company, a hybrid combining the worst of a variety of styles, a ship's bridge, a medieval castle and a concrete railway station. 

We're in Bedfordshire, so the driver tells me, with Bedford away to our right and Milton Keynes somewhere to our left. A tall perimeter fence heads off towards both towns, fading into invisibility in the distance and sunken into a shallow trench to disguise its height. There are no houses nearby and it's a long time since we passed one. I would guess the isolation isn't accidental.  

I climb out of my hired limousine. The driver believes I'm Paul Ratcliffe, and happily the Ratcliffe empire will be paying his bill. Our ruse was taken up so eagerly that Buddha and I ought to have been suspicious, but weren't. That's the nature of glee. Less than 24 hours after I posted off my application for an investor's tour, I got my invite for a tour the following day, and here I am.  

Within seconds of announcing myself grandly at the reception desk I've been given my lapel badge, or at least Paul Ratcliffe's lapel badge, and ushered through into a corridor where I'm able to catch up with the rest of the delegates, who've already started their tour. Buddha is to blame for this slight mistiming. According to Buddha, Paul Ratcliffe is always late, and my impersonation would have been unconvincing if I'd arrived on time. Being late is a habit of rich and important people, but I fear we didn't take into account the sum of Paul Ratcliffe's wealth compared to the sum of Foxglove's, the second being a few thousand times greater than the first. We should have been dancing to the tune of the fattest wallet, and in that respect we've failed. 

There are fourteen other delegates in the pack. It definitely has a pack feel. We're all male and we're all dressed in dark suits and white shirts and elaborate silk ties. For a moment I get the feeling we're a group of schoolboys from a single sex school, grown up forty years but still in uniform. This feeling must be something I'm picking up from my companions because I've never been to school and rarely wear clothes.

Our leader is female. She's shorter than any of us and wears her own version of our uniform, with a white blouse and a skirt instead of trousers. This is her territory and she walks with confidence. Her sex is an advantage with this all-male group and she waggles her backside as she walks to make the most of it, which I'm not slow to notice. 

After a few corridors we walk half-outside into a conservatory area where the plants are very tall, almost reaching the glass above them. Our leader steps on to a small platform. "For late-comers," she begins, "my name is Sherry Terrence, I'm Head of Public Relations here at Foxglove. So glad you could join us."  

Sherry has an accent similar to John Frum. Her tone doesn't sound especially glad, but I've been warned by Buddha that my tour is likely to be the live equivalent of a TV advert. What I hear and what is meant are unlikely to be the same. 

"This room is basic science," she says. "Pest-resistance maize over to this side. We add a gene from a bacterium, and the gene produces a protein that kills pests like the corn-borer. This is great news for the environment. It means far less chemicals are needed and yields are higher…" Sherry stops and shuffles through her notes. "Excuse me…" 

My companions are patient. While I inspect them they have no eyes for anybody but Sherry. They look perfectly comfortable in their ultra-smart clothes, but I'm less happy inside Buddha's. 

Buddha's best suit is a passable fit. He's a lot larger around the waist than I am, but happily the looseness disguises my legs. We even managed to split a pair of black patent shoes and force them around my hoofs, though anybody who looks in detail will notice they're excessively wide. They're strange to walk in, but add an essential finishing touch.  

I'm less keen on the tie, which has all the characteristics of a noose. It strikes me that the resemblance is intentional. To wear one is to display a physical weakness, a vulnerability, and so show an extra level of civilization and departure from the primitive ways of violence. 

But it's the cuffs I find strangest of all. They're very elaborate and fold back on themselves to be held together with an ornament called a cufflink. This all seems very contrived and artificial, yet Buddha tells me it's an essential part of my disguise. Apparently folded back cuffs with cufflinks are a symbol of my estate agent profession, a warning sign telling ordinary punters that I'm fond of sending out excessive bills, way beyond the value of my services. I find it touching that lawyers, estate agents and traders in financial services are all kind enough to wear these cuffs that send out warning signals to their fellow citizens. What a considerate world this is!

"Apologies," says Sherry. "Those were my notes for the corporate social responsibility seminar. I thought they didn't sound right. Here we are… kills pests like the corn-borer. This is great news for profits. We have the patent on the seed and we have the patent on the fully-grown plant. If seed from a GM crop blows over into a neighbouring farm we can prosecute for abuse of patent, even if it's accidental. Once a few farmers plant our crops, everybody in the same district has to follow suit or risk court action." 

My fellow delegates applaud. I have no clue why, but I do the same so I don't look out of place.  

"And over there we have non-softening tomatoes, sometimes inaccurately called hard tomatoes. They've had their softening gene removed, which means they stay on the vine and mature forever. They're used for tomato paste in the US and Canada." 

"Why not here?" asks a delegate in the front row. 

"In Europe we have to write on the packaging if food contains genetically modified ingredients, which means nobody buys it. North America is a lot more company-friendly." 

There's a murmur of agreement amongst the delegates and a nodding of heads, then we're on the move again, back into the building and into a regular laboratory, where scores of lab assistants are doing the lab assistant thing, wearing white coats and looking into microscopes while squeezing pipettes and twiddling knobs that might adjust the position of the continents or the speed that sound travels, for all I know. 

"Here we inject the human gene for producing insulin into E Coli bacteria," says Sherry. "And that way we can manufacturer insulin for diabetics without removing the pancreas from thousands of pigs… oops, wrong script. And that means we can squeeze large amounts of money out of diabetics who will die if they don't pay. That's the most secure kind of business you're ever going to find." 

Again there's a slight ripple of applause. I get the feeling my companions intend to invest.

We make our way through the laboratory and at the far end we enter a second garden, again beneath glass, but this time with the glass reaching up to the top of the building and sloping down, like we are inside half a giant teardrop. I'm expecting agricultural crops, so I'm unprepared for the beautiful orchids. 


Orchids are my favourites, even beyond fritillaries and aspidistra and daffodils. And these are amazing orchids in electric blues and reds and colours I'm not sure I've ever seen before. Not mere moth orchids and lady's-slippers, but parishii and rothschilds, Truly delicious! 

"This is one side of genetic engineering that few people are against," says Sherry. "Pretty flowers. Some of the specimens in this room are worth thousands of dollars. Commercially we grow them in countries with the lowest labour costs, through holding companies registered in countries with the lowest taxation, ensuring that you, the shareholder, gains maximum financial advantage."  

A murmur of approval all round. But I'm barely listening, I'm attempting to casually move sideways towards the biggest, bluest paphiopedilum I've ever seen. 

"Do you hold the patent on the flowers too?" asks a delegate. 

"Indeed we do. And if anybody cross-breeds with one of our plants, we'll also own the result of the breeding program." 

I feign a slight coughing fit and it works perfectly, allowing me to turn and bring my hand to my mouth. Oh, my…is that paph wonderful. It's all I can do not to groan in delight. 

"While we're in such pleasant surroundings," says Sherry, "Let's also consider our most profitable product, the Lifespan Extension program. I believe most of you are already on the program. The few who aren't, please note the 15% shareholder discount. This is very worthwhile as the program is ridiculously expensive. Extension of life is something that customers will pay through the nose for, and we really abuse that lack of price insensitivity as much as we can."  

I'm moving sideways around the greenery again, with my hands behind my back, where they make contact with a bright red dendrobium. I'm drooling with anticipation.  

 "The program requires customers to take one injection per year," explains Sherry. "This contains a benign virus, a vector, that carries the enzyme telomerase into their body cells. The enzyme allows cells to replicate beyond the usual fifty or so divisions. End result, your body doesn't get old. But here's the best news. We estimate the cost of collecting and distributing the enzyme is only around one percent of the price we charge. How would you like a piece of that action?"  

The response is the strongest applause yet. I'm sure some of the delegates are already reaching for their chequebooks. Personally, I'm more interested in the red dendrobium, which is going down even better than the paphiopedilum. Truly yummy! 

Momentarily, Sherry looks unsure of herself. Following her gaze I watch a new arrival step into the tall conservatory. He's in his late thirties and wears a pale linen suit and tan jersey. His hair is fair and shoulder-length. He ought to look out of place, but is so sure of himself and has such presence that it's the rest of us who seem false-footed. 

"We are very privileged today," announces Sherry, "to be in the company of Elliot Harmon, founder of Foxglove Laboratories and CEO." 

I'm beginning to be bugged by this applause thing. Did I miss something? Did Elliot perform a trick on his way in? Does he have a special walk? I watched yet noticed nothing. Elliot raises his hand in appreciation. He makes his way through the small crowd until he's closer to me than to any other investment tourist. It's my hat that attracted him. I saw him glance around the room and make straight for my hat. And now he's checking out my feet. 

Should I be nervous? It's not every day I pretend to be a millionaire estate agent with a string of properties across north London. It is not every day the CEO of the company I'm trying to fool enters the same physical space and stands next to me. 

I suspect the plant behind me is still quivering from the pick, though fortunately I've stopped chewing. I open my hands to show my empty palms, which is probably a foolish gesture but I feel mild relief doing it. 

"I'll come back to the Lifespan Extension program in a moment," says Sherry. "But now Elliot's here, let's have some fun." She looks up towards the top of the conservatory, at a high window in the one solid wall, close to the top of the teardrop, where a man looks down.  

"Are you ready?"  

"Yes," he shouts. 

"Then let's go."

I imagine nobody is expecting what happens next, except for Sherry and possibly Elliot. What happens next is that the man throws a live pig into the conservatory. I know the pig is alive because it's squealing like somebody's just thrown it from of a third storey window. At the bottom, we're all ducking and covering our heads with our hands, as if they might protect us from the impact of a two hundred kilogram pig. 

But the pig doesn't land, at least not yet, and when we get the courage to look up we can see why. It has fifteen foot wings, the size of a condor's, and though it's not very skilled at using them it manages to circle around inside the conservatory without much in the way of downward speed. It even flaps the wings once or twice, though without enthusiasm. 

Unlike everybody else, I have a good idea what will happen next, and I move out of the way. Sure enough, the pig doesn't have much in the way of landing skills and its return to terra-firma is more of a crash than a landing. It takes out a row of orchids and finishes up on its back, squealing and looking thoroughly pissed off but physically unharmed. 

When the inevitable applause has died down, Sherry says, "Early days yet, but we're in the process of developing self-harvesting plants and animals. We have pomegranates that can walk, pigs that can fly…" 

I can't help myself. "But can it talk?" 

This brings the house down. The investment candidates slap their thighs and crease their cheeks and point in my direction. 

"Oh me oh my," says one, between convulsions. "If pigs could talk…"  

Yet when I said it, I noticed the pig's eyes turned in my direction. 

Elliot leans towards me. "Certainly we should talk," he suggests, quietly, so nobody else can hear. He's smiling, but it's not an especially inviting smile.

He's rather imposing, Elliot. I can't say exactly why I find him imposing, but I do. He's thin, almost scrawny, a little taller than me and has wild blue eyes. Inside those eyes are crackling lava flows, songbirds in flight, leopard-seals patrolling beneath ice crusts. They're definitely not empty eyes. He has a voice, too, of the kind that could charm wolves.  

"In my office," he says, indicating with his hand that we should make a move. 

Perhaps the others believe I'm getting privileged treatment and are jealous, for they grow quiet as the pair of us make our way to the doorway.

"Ahem," begins Sherry, now behind me. "Can I interest anybody in a few more details about the Lifespan Extension program?" 

There's a murmur of consent.  

"I'm going to miss hearing the details," I say to Elliot as we exit through the conservatory door.  

His hair flaps as he walks down the corridor on the other side, with his hands in his pockets. I've never seen him in heaven, yet I feel he'd belong there. He has an almost spiritual presence, like Buddha or Vishnu, and it's spirituality without effort. 

"Well, we can't have that," he says. "Can I borrow one of your shoelaces?" 

"I'd prefer you didn't." I say, too quickly.  

Elliot gives me his unnerving smile again. He says nothing but bends down and unlaces one of his shoes. He walks slower afterwards, but the shoe stays on. As he walks he picks with his fingernail at the end of the shoelace, which is brown. "When the cells in our body divide, the DNA strings get slightly ragged at the end. Eventually they get so ragged they can't divide any more and we're left with crappy old cells that can't regenerate. It's called growing old. A shoelace has the same problem. If these little plastic bits at the end wear away, the shoelace falls apart." 

 Here he sticks the end of the shoelace in front of my nose, in case I've never seen one before. And in a way he's right, because I've never really looked at one in detail, or thought about the plastic bits at the ends.

"Our DNA has plastic ends too," he tells me, "called telomeres, and there's an enzyme that looks after them, called telomerase. Unfortunately, it's not very active, so the ends of our DNA strings become too frayed after about 50 replications, which is why our bodies wear out and eventually fail. Under the Life Extension program, we collect the active enzyme and transfer it to a virus. We inject you with the virus, which then transfers the enzyme to your cells. Hey presto, your body stays young and virile." 

"Fascinating," I say, because I feel I ought to say something. 

"There's every chance you could live for 200 years." 


"Or at least that Paul Ratcliffe might. He's on the program." 

I don't know what to say to that, so I say nothing. 

"Can I take your hat?" he asks, as we enter what I assume is his office. I make this assumption because even though the room is the size of a gymnasium it contains a desk.

"No, thank you."  

Of course he can't take my hat. Beneath it are my horns. Buddha advised me that my wonderful stovepipe hat wouldn't go with the suit, so today I'm wearing a black fedora. 

"Are you sure?" 

"Yes, I'm quite sure, thank you." 

"I hear the government is contemplating raising stamp duty," says Elliot "Tell me, Paul, how do you feel that will affect the housing market?" 

Fortunately, Buddha has primed me for this kind of question. "Property will always be a good investment, whatever the policy of government." 

Elliot sniggers. "Sorry, I couldn't resist." He motions for me to take a seat. 

He sits at his desk, with his foot on the broad leather top while he re-threads the shoelace. "And we have the patent on the gene that produces telomerase, which we never use or license, it just sits in a filing cabinet somewhere, otherwise we'd only be able to overcharge our customers once, rather than every year. We have the market cornered. Life is good. You'll enjoy it here." 

I'm not sure what this means, but I'm bothered by it. I try to remember that I'm a very rich person and I have my own company, I shouldn't be intimidated by my peers. This is much harder than I imagined, trying to be somebody else, trying to have their reactions, their emotions - that's the tricky part. 

"And what are the social consequences of the Life Extension program?" I ask, which might be a question that the real Paul would ask, though I can't be sure, as I've never met him. 

"The social consequences?" It seems to be a good question, as it makes Elliot think. "The social consequences?" he repeats, quizzically. "We're a commercial organisation, we're not concerned with social consequences." 

"Oh, ok." Maybe it was a bad question after all, one that the real Paul Ratcliffe would never dream of asking. 

"No, no, it's a good question. I've never thought about it before, that's all. Telomerase doesn't work so well on brain cells, unfortunately, so I suppose we'll finish up with a lot more stupid old people knocking about - driving, collecting commemorative pottery, getting in the way, drinking flasks of tea in cars parked with a view. All the viewpoint car parks will be full. There you are – there's a social consequence."

"You're not very polite, are you?" 

"I don't have to be. I'm selling longer life. I could punch my customers on the nose and they'd still buy." 

He's finished lacing his shoes and is now fiddling with an empty envelope, a used envelope, tapping its edge on the desk and rotating it through his fingers while looking at me with those full eyes. "It's yours," he tells me. "This is the envelope that held your request to go on the investors' tour." 

"I'm flattered." 

"There's enough saliva on a licked envelope for us to test the DNA. And out of interest, we always do. At first we thought somebody was taking the piss. A goat in the mail room? Then we looked closer and found the same DNA contained both goat and human characteristics, also an abundance of telomerase, and a possible cellular history of more than 2000 years. We couldn't wait to invite you. Where the hell do you come from?"  

"The other place." 


"No, no, no. The other place to hell." 

He thinks about this for a moment and casts the thought aside. "Only, we're way ahead of everybody on the animal front. We even looked through our records to see if you'd escaped from one of our own labs, but we don't have any records of you. We can fix that, of course, but it's a puzzle." 

I say nothing. I don't like the direction this conversation is heading. I haven't liked it for some time. 

"You see," says Elliot, with his forced smile. "Foxglove has the patent on human genes mixed with goat. We have the patent on your DNA." 

"I think it's time I left. If you'll excuse me." 

He doesn't try to stop me, and I don't try to leave. This is what happens when you say you're leaving when really you mean something else, like, you're not enjoying what you're hearing, and you resent the fact that perverse curiosity will oblige you to hear it through.  

"I don't know where you come from," he says, "but I know exactly where you're going, and that's here."

"I don't intend to stay." 

I still haven't moved, but I will soon. 

"Well, I thought there was a chance you'd feel that way, so I took the precaution…" He touches me on the shoulder with a brown envelope, which I reluctantly take from him.  

"What is it? Your DNA?" 

"An invitation to a court appearance. A writ." 

"For what?" 

"Claim of title" 

"What does that mean? " 

"We're claiming ownership." 

"Of what?" 

"Of you." 

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