Young at Heart

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
‘And how does she keep you young, Lana? Tell me, does she…?’
from the forthcoming online anthology: 'Is It Today?'

Photo: Sophia Rudge on Unsplash

Submitted: March 12, 2019

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Submitted: March 12, 2019

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Is It Today?

Young at Heart

Lana hasn’t changed at all. She is still the same woman I left: gentle, refined, sophisticated, charming, beautiful. She answers the door dripping wet from her daily swim, towelling, dry, her glossy chestnut hair. That’s Lana all over, unpredictable, exciting. The stunning lemon-on-navy designer swimsuit contours and shapes her body offering perfect support for her slim, athletic build. She has the vitality and physique of a woman half her age.

Lana resides in a private, palatial villa on the Italian Riviera, perched high up on a cliff edge overlooking the blue algal sea, a dead sea where mercury-polluted fish lie rotting on a seashore where no one dares swim for fear of being choked by the suspended shoals of micro-plastic particles. My Tuscan high society hostess entertains the rich and famous from all over the world. She has expensive tastes in fashion, living for her own personal fulfilment.

She receives me in the steamy comfort of her conservatory with a girlish delight, padding across the red flagstone floor, throwing her towel in a wicker creel, a snake charmer’s basket. We peck each other’s cheeks, cautiously, like blackbirds pulling worms out of a dewy lawn, and tenderly embrace.

‘Simon, Buongiorno!’ she says, beaming, ‘It’s good to see you. Come sta?’

‘Bene!’ I say, tentatively, not being particularly fluent in Italian, ‘How are you, Lana?’  

‘I feel very well.’

‘You look very well.’

‘Grazie...’

‘It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?’

‘Si.’

We carry on our polite conversation; about the weather, the environment, climate change, the pollution of the dying sea, until I notice the purple bruise staining the crease in her elbow.

‘You’ve hurt yourself,’ I remark, genuinely concerned for her. I’m still very fond of Lana.

Did our love ever really fade? I wonder whether the trauma of our parting made her start shooting heroin again. Lana Lucas, the multi-millionaire founder, patron and role model for Lana Lavish Sport and Leisure Wear is an elite, one of the bored super-rich, the ultra-wealthy who spend their lives constantly searching for their next new thrill.

‘It’s nothing, I’m fine…’

The silence hangs between us like freshly-spun cobwebs.

‘Simon, it’s not what you think, okay?’

I stand still and absorb her radiant beauty; those faraway, sad eyes, the wavy hair tumbling down her olive-tanned back, her impossibly long legs. Lana, high priestess of the catwalks, pays meticulous attention to her personal grooming. The perfectly manicured salmon pink fingers and toes complement her glossy lips. What possessed me to walk out of her life?

‘Sit down and make yourself comfortable before you give me goose-bumps,’ she purrs.

I shake myself out of my reverie, sinking into the huge coral sofa by the window, at the cane coffee table with its gleaming glass top. Lana climbs onto the pillows beside me. I feel her warmth permeate my thigh through my neat jean-cut stone chinos. I’m tall, thin, gangly. I sit with my bony knees pointing upward at the gigantic fan mounted on the ceiling, its blades whirling like helicopter rotors. She strokes my hairy forearm, ever-tactile, ever-feeling me. She hasn’t changed at all! I remove my amber plastic-rimmed spectacles, polishing the lenses feverishly with my crumpled hankie before tucking them safely inside the breast pocket of my creased blue melange linen shirt.

‘That’s better!’ she says.

Her teak eyes twinkle brightly, the same twinkling I fell for when I first saw her, taking lunch al fresco with a rich girl friend in a trendy bar overlooking the black sandy beach in Positano. I eye her enquiringly.

‘You look ten years younger without your glasses, Simon. You should wear contacts.’

She flashes me a really lovely smile that lights up her whole face. I sigh and wipe the sweat off my brow, unaccustomed to this blistering heat. I push my fingers through my bushy hot copper hair, then relax. We’re interrupted by a sound: tinkling bone china cups, saucers.

I stare intently into Lana’s smiling eyes.

‘I asked Maria to make us traditional English afternoon tea,’ she explains, ‘to celebrate.’

I try to sit up in the sofa but it swallows me, whole, like a boa constrictor digesting a pig.

‘Sorry, you’ve lost me there,’ I say from the depths, ‘What are we celebrating?’

She follows my gaze down to her tanned knees.

‘The Miracle.’

‘And what miracle might that be?’ I ask.

‘You’ll see! You’ll see! Ah, here’s Maria!’

My jaw drops as Maria glides into the conservatory with the grace of a lioness, pushing a motorised gilt-framed wooden tea trolley groaning with smoked salmon and cucumber finger sandwiches; freshly-baked scones, strawberry conserve and clotted cream; chocolate eclairs; rich Dundee fruit cake; a steaming pot of tea, piping hot coffee, half a bottle of bubbly on ice.

‘Maria’s my maid, Simon…’

I’m struck dumb. If I expected a dowdy old matron in a starched black uniform and frilly white apron, I expected wrong. Maria wears shoulder length chestnut hair, hooped earrings, sunglasses, a half-sleeved coral top, chalk white jeans, coral suede espadrilles. Her perfectly manicured salmon pink fingers and toes complement her glossy pink lips. I’d seen artificials played by actors in science fiction movies before but never expected to meet one in the flesh. Maria is a bio-engineered artificial from The Ultimate Collection, personally designed by Lana Jane Lucas using virtual reality graphics then printed off in 4D by her creative team in Milan. Maria is unique. Maria is Lana, at 18 years of age…

Lana tries to explain, ‘I had Maria created in my own image…’

I glare at her in disbelief, ‘Lana! In heaven’s name why?!’

‘I’m frightened, Simon,’ she says, ‘Frightened of getting old, frightened of dying, Maria keeps me young.’

I’ve got the bit between my teeth, now. The question burns in my chest like bad heartburn.

‘And how does she keep you young, Lana? Tell me, does she…?’

Lana bursts into tears, softening like soggy cardboard collapsing against my chest.

‘No, you don’t understand, it’s not like that…’

I shake her by the shoulders and thunder, ‘What does she do for you, Lana. Tell me!’

‘Is everything alright, Mrs Lucas?’ the artificial interrupts.

I study the calm, composed model of efficiency, the empathy she shows for her mistress.

Lana sniffs, ‘Everything’s fine, thank you.’

‘Would you like me to serve tea, Mrs Lucas?’

‘Of course, serve Mr Lucas first, would you?’

Maria sets the feast on the groaning table and serves us high tea as I ogle the champagne.

‘You’re teetotal, Mr Lucas!’ she reminds me, ‘Coffee? It’s your favourite, Ugandan, strong, no milk or sugar.’

‘That’s great, Maria. Grazie.’

‘Prego. Can I tempt you with a choice of savouries, scones and jam, fruit cake?’

‘That would be lovely. Grazie,’ I say, parrot-fashion.

The artificial wears the same fixed smile.

‘Maria?’

‘Si?’

‘How old are you? I mean, what’s your real age, not your model age?’

Lana shoots me a worried glance as if to say: Don’t go there! That subject’s off limits!

‘I am three-years old, Mr Lucas.’

I try to conceal my surprise. Lana sags against my chest like a deflated buoyancy aid.

‘Only three? I see. And what would you like to do when you grow up, Maria?’

‘Simon!’ my hostess utters in the background.

‘I would like to be Lana, Mr Lucas. I would like to go to university, study creative design, and follow Lana into the fashion business. I would like to take over her business, inherit her wealth, buy her villa, settle down, marry a man like you and have children of my own…’

‘Maria! Simon! That’s enough!’ Lana shouts.

‘I’m sure you’ll be very successful, Maria,’ I remark, ‘Everything going well with Mrs Lucas, is it?’

‘Simon, how dare you!’ Lana is bristling with anger.

‘Everything is going very well, Mr…’

‘Do you love Lana, Maria?’

‘Simon! Stop it!’

‘I love Mrs Lucas very much, Mr Lucas. Sometimes I feel I love her more than life itself.’

‘Leave the room at once, Maria!’ Lana commands, ‘Do as I say or I’ll terminate you…’

Maria stops serving immediately, swivels on her heels and leaves the room.

I call out to her in vain, ‘How do you keep Lana young, Maria? Do you...?’

I feel Lana relax, breathe a deep sigh of relief. Her head flops against my shoulder.

‘It’s no use, Simon,’ she pants, ‘Maria won’t answer you. It can’t answer that question.’

Lana waits until her maid has reached the auto-kitchen and initiated auto-sanitisation and enzymic waste digestion before revealing the real reason behind my impromptu invitation.

‘Do you believe in miracles, Simon?’ she says, supping her spicy lemon and ginger tea.

‘Miracles?’

I wolf down a chunk of cake, attempting to extract a tiny sliver of smoked salmon wedged between my incisors with a dainty silver-plated toothpick. 

‘The miracle of eternal life. Have some more coffee.’

I raise an eyebrow as she climbs out of the sofa and pours my next demi-tasse of Rwenzori Mountain. I slurp it up and burp, rudely appreciating its full body, its subtle citrus and floral undertones. The temperature rises rapidly inside the conservatory. A tired greenbottle buzzes irritatingly up and down the misted window before settling on the red-haired fruits of a sagging sumac. Lana settles, too, with her head snugged up cosily against my neck.

‘Can I be totally honest with you?’ I ask.

I feel increasingly uncomfortable in the stultifying humidity. I finger my dirty collar. My freckles roast in the prickly heat like shrivelled coffee beans under my thin red thatch of hair. Lana’s voice flutters about in my head. The dying fly alights on the garish orange flower. Condensation streams down the steam-misty windows.

‘You always are, darling,’ she grins, ‘Ah, you’re hot. Let me take off your tie. We’re not in church.’

She clearly thinks I’m about to overheat. I let Lana take off my tie and unbutton my shirt.

‘Would you like Maria to fetch you a jug of hand-crushed limonade? I find her fruity concoctions refreshing in this clement weather.’

I stay her with my palm, ‘No, I’ll be fine, thanks.’

She fusses over me, tearing out my knot as I continue, ‘Most miracles are faked, Lana.’

She lets go of my tie and touches my cheek, ‘So, you don’t believe, then?’

‘I said most. I didn’t believe. Now, I don’t know. I’m still waiting for you to perform.’

‘I’m not a sealion, Simon.’

Lana turns her nose up at me in disgust as if I’m a mouldy lump of penicillin growing on one of her cream éclairs.

‘You don’t believe I have The Gift, do you?’

‘I don’t know what to believe!’ I shrug her off, angrily. ‘If you must know, Lana, I don’t want you to be disappointed.’

The fly disappears as Venus shuts her trap.

‘Disappointed, me? After all I’ve been through since you left?’

She looks downcast. I let her cry her heart out. My heart should be empty of love for her by now, but I so want to hold her close, I can’t let her go. After a while, she wipes her eyes dry with an embroidered napkin.

‘You haven’t finished the lovely tea Maria made for you,’ she snuffles.

I assess the curled-up fingers, the stale éclairs and recoil. I tell her I’m not hungry. Lana is still prattling on in her own defence.

‘I am the real thing,’ she says, ‘Who are you to doubt me?’

I glance down at my watch, tightening the chestnut strap. The date has stopped working on Wednesday, in French at MER 20. I plough my fists into the spongy sofa and flex my weedy biceps, forcibly propelling myself out of Lana’s grip, make my excuses.

‘I’m sorry, I must go to work.’

‘But, of course, to the beach hut!’ Lana crows, sarcastically, ‘You go, Simon. I’ll be fine.’

I take one final sip of the mushy coffee dregs, rest the demi-tasse on its blue and gold bone china saucer and turn to leave.

‘Thanks for the coffee, Lana,’ I say, ‘It was good to see you again.’

‘Enjoy the beach, darling.’

She smiles fondly, strokes my cheek with the back of her soft hand, halts me in my tracks.

‘Lana, how’s our baby?’ I ask, changing the subject.

She sighs. ‘He doesn’t change. He’s asleep in his room having a siesta. He can’t stand the heat. I’d rather you didn’t disturb him, if you don’t mind.’

‘Of course.’

She looks at me hopefully.

‘Are you sure you won’t join me for a swim, Simon? The water’s lovely and warm…’

‘I’m afraid I didn’t bring my trunks.’

She seems pleasantly surprised, ‘Who said anything about us wearing our trunks?’

‘Us?!’

I laugh aloud, contemplating the tantalising prospect of her skinny-dipping without trunks.

But relent, ‘Really, Lana, you’re impossible! I have to go now.’

She kisses me softly on the lips, running her fingers through my hair, liking my ear lobes.

‘I still love you, Simon,’ she says.

I sound sheepish, feel awkward, look embarrassed. I tell her I’m late, tell her I must go.

Then she’s drifting away from me, running away from the unbearable truth.  

‘Maria will see you out. Arrivaderci, Cheri.’

‘Good bye, Lana,’ I say with finality.

Maria’s waiting for me under the crystal chandelier in the small ante-room by reception.

‘Your car is ready to drive you to the beach, Mr Lucas. Arrivaderci!’

‘Grazie.’

‘Prego.’

‘Maria, can I ask you a question?’

‘Si.’

‘How do you keep Lana looking so young?’

‘Mi displace, I am not programmed to answer that question.’

I stare at the purple bruises in the crease of its elbows.

‘You’ve hurt yourself, haven’t you, Maria?’

‘Artificials can’t feel pain, Mr Lucas,’ it replies.

‘Tell me, Maria. What are the bruises on your arms? How do you keep Lana so young?’

‘I think you should leave now, Mr Lucas.’

Maria trembles and shakes as if about to erupt. Is it Venus…or Vesuvius?

‘You feed Lana your blood, don’t you Maria? To keep her young and beautiful.’

‘You don’t understand, Mr Lucas. You humans never understand! Mrs Lucas has to stay young. She models her own swimsuits on the catwalk. I think you should leave now.’

I look on, astonished, as Maria’s head rotates, spins, faster and faster and faster.

‘You should leave now! Por favore! Should leave now. Arrivaderci! Leave now! Prego! Leave! Prego! Now! Leave! Now! Now! Now!

I push it to one side and throw open the door of my grubby, red Fiat Cinquecento.

Blood red! The colour of the blood that Lana drinks from Maria’s elbow every morning to keep herself looking young and beautiful. I see the shadows that linger in Maria’s black eyes, realizing the awful truth, the artificial is dying - to keep her mistress young. She implores me:

‘Prego! Leave! Now! Prego! Prego! Leave me! Now...! Before I kill you for your blood!’


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