Once upon a grey parkland with maroon siege towers, there was a perverted King in a pink shirt. Like all perverts, he wore a mole on his face and reeked of aftershave. As the city’s inhabitants tumbled out of goose eiderdowns to crunch on high-fibre cereals lathered in pus juice from unhealthy cows, the King sped towards ElixirPharm in an Aston Martin, blaring Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. ‘Yes!’ he roared at the onward day. ‘Yes! We’re winning!’ The employees, hearing the zip rip of tyres, darted about spraying Monterey vanilla, polishing desks, Dysoning cobwebs. They feared the King’s temper but respected his sales technique; a knack for high-end narrative. Who of them this day would get to carve the biggest deals with the biggest cheese? What numpty was destined to whimper blue murder in the grimy attic over cluttered Excel sheets? Which mickey-do would crawl around on all fours in the boardroom, licking up muffin crumbs like an obese Labrador? The King did like to amuse himself. Most of all he enjoyed docile girls who didn’t really know what was going on or why.
It was Rosamund’s first office assignment since University and nothing about it seemed right. Some of the women warned her to be extra cautious. When she was semi-promoted down to Reception after three weeks, they cautioned her again. Yet they also seemed excited, tickled. They giggled and grabbed at one another’s linen elbows. The King had a relish for young secretaries, they told her, licking their lips, slapping their knees. He also gambled, slurped oysters for lunch, got high smoking snake venom, and drove his car at thrice the speed limit. ‘If he offers you swallowables, don’t take them’. This, she didn’t understand. Surely a perk of working for one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies was availing of the not-yet-ready-for-market meds? Pills to kickstart lazy thyroids. Powders that flushed T2 cancers down the jacks. Sturdier concoctions were off limits to permanent, pensionable employees, the agency explained. Temporary staff on zero-hour contracts, and immigrants, could chomp away at their own risk. Antimicrobials, choose-sex fertility pills, an immortality linctus developed from the tissues of a Greenland shark tugged from the North Atlantic at four hundred and eighty-three years old. How odd, she thought, that the womenfolk would show any interest at all, while blocking her from using the staff canteen, ‘on hygiene grounds’, they said.
The King sauntered through security beepers at the customary time of 08:19, trying his hardest not to gaze directly at her. Strange looking yoke, she imagined him murmuring to himself. In her unspecified town of origin, now scrubbed from the garrets of her mind, labourers and woodcutters vomited when she strolled by on the hunt for bellflowers and butterworts. The Bisto-stream of glandular secretions from Rosamund’s armpits proved too much. ‘Wildflowers are older than the oldest antiques,’ she told them, smiling sweetly. They didn’t listen, bending forward instead to expel broccoli and pork chops from the top tresses of intestines. She blamed after-work pints that were butchering their entrails slowly.
‘Beautiful Morning!’ she said to the King, making sure to also appear immensely busy. She fiddled with stationary, rebooted the laser printer, clicked on his e-calendar to confirm afternoon arrangements. She wore a starched cotton top with high-buttoned neckline; red pencil skirt; a charcoal suit jacket her mother gifted her before the banishment; legs painted in hexagonal sheer. The King’s eyes bore a woozy glaze when he wasn’t yapping to his trusty kinsmen. He smelled of pine needles and odorous cones, cough drops for soothing prickly throats, rotting tree trunks. The timbered walls of his reverie carved from virgin forest, primeval forest, late seral forest, gnarled with minuscule creatures Attenborough hadn’t got around to discovering. She liked how creepy he was; spine bent slightly to the left. Crotch of his trousers auspiciously tight, as if ready for rupture. She felt a coyness from him too; glum face under a Formica kitchen table, small boy sulking about toys he couldn’t have. ‘Bring me coffee in twenty,’ he instructed. ‘Use the Jamaica Mountain Blue, double-shot, not that decaff piss I was served up yesterday’. She did a little curtsy, to please him.
Fergal, one of the King’s righthand men, was her only friend. He visited Rosamund every day at noon, while the mob nibbled on pumpkin-seed wraps and nattered. A swarm of cantaloupe-coloured freckles fairy-dusting after him in mid-air, landing on his face when he skidded to a halt at her desk. ‘What’s that old codger up to?’ he asked, ‘Any word on the German contract being signed?’ He knew she wasn’t permitted to share any of the King’s going-ons and wondered if Fergal was prone to testing her on purpose. Her father would’ve considered him a princely catch. Six-Figure wage with a gambling chance of a four-bed in Ranelagh on a leafy road with metre parking. ‘I know as much as you do,’ she told him. The King had messed up a few vital deals. She had learnt that already. Giant mouth as well as vast temper. Clinched most of his contracts on the golf course and in the dusky hours when he took whatever ambassador out on the town to do God knows what. ‘Any point asking you out to dinner later?’ It had become a routine. Fergal asked. Rosamund declined. He feigned disappointment. She smiled and whispered, ‘Somebody wonderful out there for you someday’.
It was this very thing that had got her exiled from home. Arguments about suitors. First in her extended family to come forward and say, ‘I’ll never marry; it doesn’t interest me to be possessed, patronised, not when you’ve given me the tools to find my own way.’
According to her father it was her mother’s fault for mollycoddling the idea of University. Arts he could’ve tolerated, but a double science degree and all kinds of foolish talk of not contributing to the overabundance of 7.6 billion people, making it worse for whoever else was to come. ‘Two hundred thousand years for the world’s population to reach one billion; but only two hundred years more to reach the doomed figure of now.’ She was contributing to the end of the Mac Néill line, proving a pointless point. ‘You only borrow children by plopping them out,’ she informed her father. He took great offence not only at the ramshackle sentiment, but the discourteous way she addressed him. Why should she bear only-child responsibility? ‘Well then our loan agreement is up!’ Sent her packing with a lifelong ban on financial aid. Her mother’s tears flooding the waterways. It may have even contributed to her mother’s own leap-into-disgrace, when she eventually took off with a motorbike mechanic with an oily head and chaffed hands. Rosamund’s birth cert was swiftly rescinded, first occurrence of its kind. Seven months flittering from AIRBNB to AIRBNB, leaving top-notch reviews in the hope one fake landlord would allow her to stay on at a cut-price. Harsh blows the contemporary world with its tempest of empty buildings and hollow promises. Eventually Rosamund found a pre-IKEA bedsit in the dilapidated back streets of Portobello. Bunkbed over a fridge that rattled like a railway bridge. Power-shower apparatus nailed to the ceiling above the sink for use when devoid of dirty dishes.
The King sat on his throne with its superior padding and adjustable synchro mechanism. A huge display of lab bottles and pillboxes on the bombé -shaped Victorian bureau, which was the colour of Daxo shoe polish, and cost a fortune. Rosamund wasn’t sure if she should suggest opening a window or turning on the scented vent. The musk- whiff of female body bits (not her own) was truly overwhelming. Krautface was due in on a BlendedWingTM flying taxi in less than three hours’ time for the meeting. ‘Are the peasants bitching about me downstairs?’ the King asked. Rosamund flung him a reverential ‘no’. They were worried about the Germans arriving, what would unfold. ‘Fools worry, the wise prepare,’ he said. She tried not to snicker. The wall bed on the other side of his office wasn’t folded away properly. She wondered which of the gigglers was last in. ‘Do you think they’re anxious about future commissions?’ He was chimp-grinning. She glared back. ‘I have no idea about any of that’. Fergal had explained the Germans were demanding exclusive rights to this new-fangled alchemic drug. So expensive, so tremendously expensive, the entire sales team could retire to the Seychelles from the sales of one batch alone. ‘What have they told you about Sleeping BeautyTM?’ the King asked. ‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘Does it not interest you as a science graduate?’ What was she supposed to impart, that she preferred art galleries and independent cinema to the fine art of portly profit by non-legitimate means? That a fallen-Princess like her would be considered a total arsehole to a high-end Sovereign like him. ‘I’m happy enough playing a modest role, to latch off, do other things when I get home. I keep up by reading The Lancet and the likes.’
He was puzzled. She had no clear ambition. Zero inquisitiveness. ‘In a nutshell, they discovered a gene-hopper when they caught Old Stinker – resulting in something far superior than the ability to live for hundreds of years – our own immune system as curative cheerleader, free of disease’. Now she was the one laughing outrageously. As if stock markets would allow that to happen! ‘It’s a gamechanger,’ the King explained. Piecing together DNA sequences from shark fin spines to bring an extinct transposon back to life after fourteen million years. The Sleeping BeautyTM drug can jump from one location in DNA to another. Reprogramming the human immune system to find and attack cancer cells. ‘Combined with the discovery of the longevity gene…’. She was petrifyingly bored. All she could think about was the majestic nature of the Greenland shark, now callously nicknamed ‘Old Stinker’. How ancient he’d been. True phenomenon, a miracle. Circling the caerulean seas as far back as 1536, the year that five men were accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn and executed. Sashaying through five centuries of despicable human history, sucking it all in. Even with his colossal mass and bulk, he must’ve felt so revoltingly scared. A militia of horned-up neo-modern scientists plunging to the bottom of the ocean with their assassin’s blades. ‘He might’ve even been older than Christopher Columbus,’ she said. The King coughed so hard at this he farted.
‘What’s this silken pill here, the one with the orange nib?’ She wasn’t supposed to manhandle anything in these environs, but the King had momentarily forgotten himself. He’d even overlooked downing his coffee at the favoured 165oF. What faux-gallantry, he thought, talking to him like that, the lady-balls on her, the utter stupidity of it. ‘Don’t maul it! That’s GulliverTM‘,’ he said. ‘A bastard legionnaire we’re prohibited from testing on humans or any species destined for the food chain.’ She picked it up, squidged it as she would a warm snot between her Dingers after a steamy bubble bath, pretending to paper-plane it to her mouth. ‘What does the little bugger claim to do?’ she asked. The King sprung to his feet. ‘Put the fecker down! It’s crushed with elements of Sleeping BeautyTM to see if one will thwart the other…. It’s killed three dormice and six Wistar rats so far in pre-trials, give it here!’ Poor animals, she thought. Fifty to one hundred million vertebrates a year punctured and abused for the progress of humankind.
Goading the King was like a game she once played with her father, when picking mushrooms in the Slieve Aughty Mountains, around ten years old. His long-winded finger-pointing lectures about the secondary metabolites produced by poisoned fungi. If she was lucky she’d incur Montezuma’s Revenge for weeks. If she was another tragic case it was kidney failure before supper. She spooled around the grass, rolling her eyes to the cave bones of eye-sockets. Her father, the speed of an Olympic athlete, hunting down blessed milk thistle, which wasn’t always a guaranteed remedy either. Twice she managed to properly fool him that she’d been poisoned. But she’d never got the chance to tell him those precious Sunday afternoon pranks were how she developed a scorching interest in science.
When the King grabbed at her with the velocity of a bowling ball, she smashed the pill straight into his front teeth, breaking open the plastic casing. It stank worse than devil-dung Asafoetida, which she’d used once in a hipster curry recipe. What had they put in there? The King was caught unawares for the first time in his entitled life. Rosamund kept shoving the pill in with due force until he fell back, shrieking. Enormously gratifying. Only a few seconds for him to shrink to about the height of a frankfurter. Jumping, wiggling, throwing hands in the air. The sight of it! Swimming in an ocean of his ginormous clothes. Combover in miniature! Too much! He looked like those vile shrunken heads in the Natural History Museum. Heads prudently reduced through lengthy boiling and heating. Locking the enemy’s spirit and protecting killers from unearthly revenge. Or some morphological bullshit like that. She honestly was wetting herself so much it was a job crouching on the ground to hear his bitty little helium voice. ‘No-one knows about it, there isn’t even protocol maps!’ She’d be back. Stop panicking. He was behaving like a dreadful goon.
Downstairs in Reception she informed Fergal that the King wanted him and the entire sales team, all auxiliary staff in fact, to down the orange-nib pill. A sleep-inhibitor soaked with energy-building vitamins, she told him. Better than speed. Less nose-runny than arrogant-inducing cocaine. It’d get them through twelve tough hours of intense negotiations with Krautface & Crew, deprived of the crankiness factor. Or the pull for a withered ham sandwich. She was staggered she didn’t want to stick around to witness Fergal go down. He had been good to her in these initial weeks, gracious, kind. She was ‘taken aback’, as her mother used to say, at odd junctures. Or, another favourite phrase of hers: she ‘got a bit of a land’ by the swift feeling of sadness engulfing her. It’d help Fergal though in the long run, she was sure. All the lowly talk and lack of self-esteem. The trite fixation with dating, finding a girlfriend, the hunt for pussy, a life companion, reciprocating bill payer. Whinge wibbly whinge. A dreadful turn-off. He deserved better in and of himself if he’d any hope of Google Mapping a soulmate.
No such feelings in her bosom for the womenkind in the office. They’d given her an unhurried horrible time of it. Special plans for them so. A high-speed chase with the hoover. Sucking them out from skirting boards like baby rats. Why were women not more supportive of one another with the peculiar way the world was? Her mother taught her to love all genders in a sincere and splendid manner but to especially look out for one’s own. At the same time, she counselled Rosamund that for many little girls, flooded with fanciful dreams and delicious desires, they got outlandish pleasure from fighting other little girls for the attention of selfish boys. This was the norm handed down by imprudent mothers for as long as she knew. If true, how ill-fated these subliminal teachings were. Rosamund would love to shove a handful of her female work colleagues into her moist armpit hair when they were drug-shrivelled on GulliverTM and vulnerable. Then she’d be able to get through to them properly: ‘Hello! Hello! Aluminium-based compounds in antiperspirants? Clogged sweat ducts! Bloody lymph nodes! Etc. That’s why I don’t use hazardous chemicals on my body!’ There were easier ways to express negative or hateful opinions despite the dull homogeneousness in forming them. What they considered to be unacceptably whiffy, she believed was keeping her safe from disease. Maybe she’d lob a select few into her for a madcap night on the town to see if there was any hope of proper bonding. She’d liked hand- knitter Catriona with orange eyebrows from Cork initially.
Upstairs in his office it was a whole other shenanigan. The King’s face was a horrid incandescent red. Against the pink of his shirt he looked like the perfect embodiment of an infected hair follicle caused by Staphylococcus aureus. Reefed off his clothes he was so boilingly hot. Track marks from belting up the leg of the desk. Blood on the radiator where he’d attempted a sprint and broken six nails on the slide back down. He was banging hard on his chest as a signal for Rosamund to grab the beta blockers from his laptop case. Under no such circumstances was she going to be responsible for contraindications that could put his life in further danger. Bronchoconstriction or a sudden change in the electrical signals from chambers of the heart. She crawled into the corner under the desk at drawer level where the carpet was frayed and stained with spilled fountain pen ink to be closer to him. ‘I’m here, you need to stop freaking out,’ she told him. Gripped her bended knees with both hands to make herself comfortable. ‘I’m not going to do anything without your consent, as you are so fond of saying to others yourself,’ she assured him. ‘But I’d love to lasso your Little Man with a paperclip if you’d let me. Please. Just once, then I’ll figure out a way to put all this right before Krautface arrives’.
Her mother had dubbed her private parts ‘Little Lady’ and her breasts were called ‘Dilly’ and ‘Dora’ to differentiate between left and right when patting them dry. She was sure his ‘Little Man’ would be cute and mollifying, at one twentieth of its normal size. But there he was, the mighty King, squealing and jumping, thrashing and crying. He asked for paper to scribble on, begged for leniency, autonomy, and such like. She told him all manner of normal-sized pens were unmanageable now in hands so pitiful and insignificant. ‘No antidote,’ was the last gobbledygook Rosamund was able to decipher out of his gob. His voice was totally shot from shouting like a town crier. She refused to believe it. Nothing is developed without an inverse, that’s how R&D worked, how science worked. She was filled with a desire to squish him on the carpet and open his incy legs from behind. She could play with his sequestered parts with the cotton head of an ear bud or tickle with the stem of a strawberry from her lunch box now that he was in pure miniature. What would her father tell her to do at a moment like this? He’d say, apologise, come clean. ‘I’m horribly sorry,’ she told the King. ‘I am. It’s the whole thing, low-level stress, I can’t explain.’ But irresistible spluttering laughter devastated her all over again.
A hundred years pass, and some crud-like CEO from God knows what make of space-age corporation, spies the castle, now semi-derelict and cheap to rent, next to the largest shopping hub in EuropeRussia. An old man from the debtor’s reformatory recounts a yarn about a beautiful princess-type doomed to sleep for one hundred years until a King’s lackie comes to shake her up. There in reception, where Rosamund is supposed to be out for the count until someone rapes her awake, is a Perspex cake box filled with her screaming miniature work-colleagues who’ve managed to survive without any sustenance, and without getting sick or killing each other. The enchantment comes to an end following a booster of some sort. There’s a return to normal size. Everyone runs around making a huge fuss. Lessons are learnt. Testimonies written. Prime Time documentary screened. The King goes into hiding.
‘What was she thinking?’ Fergal never stops asking, analysing, ruminating over it. Years later, decades far along. He was the only soul who knew her, made time for her. Treasured her! Even after he marries and has three offspring; he doesn’t stop wondering about malodourous Rosamund. They argue about it all the time, a sticking point. Why her? Class A Lunatic, his wife Deirdre maintains. Even after he formally recovers with the aid of dynamic role-play and psychosynthesis, wins a hefty lawsuit, becomes a grandfather. She sweeps forwards and backwards over his injured mind like antique windscreen wipers they once had on grounded cars. Rosamund had thought of him too, he discovered, in his research into her life’s work after. He is cited in footnotes in an MSc in Marine Biology. In several academic papers. In a PhD thesis on Glitches of Pharmaceutical Science, which took her longer than normal to complete in prison; twelve years. There were further insights in her memoir, penned at the age of eighty-seven: ‘There is no guilt on my porch about what happened all those years ago, not even when I consider what I did to some of my more affable colleagues. The pharmaceutical industry was obnoxious, and in my foolhardiness, I wanted to make a lasting statement when it mattered most but ended up paying the ultimate price. My desire was to bring about real transformation. To this day I feel a sense of pride that at this strategic point in my career, I joined a long line of women in the sciences whose fate was as unfathomable as it was enlightening. At a slip road in history we achieved radical and lasting change. A cure for cancer, certainly. But more significantly we recalibrated core aspects of patriarchal thinking that were preventing the next phase of anthropological progress. We also put in place important safeguards for the manufacture of medicines and cures. Developed strict guidelines for the use of clinical trials. At the end of my life I’ve never felt so awake; a senseless irony.’
Rosamund never married. To her mind that safeguarded a happy ending. She died on an off earth #BlueMoon colony at ninety-four with her father dutifully by her podside. He’d taken a tried-and-tested immortality drug years before, against her wishes. Her remains, washed extra clean and a naturally activated charcoal deodorant applied liberally, were bequeathed to Hereafter Reefs & Co. On instruction they mixed her into concrete, shaped an artificial reef and placed it out on the ocean floor off the coast of far-off Greenland. She’d found such inner delight and warmth obsessing about Old Stinker’s descendants reeling these tempestuous seas. Swim with me and the lumpy lumpfish, the rosefish, wolfish, and the cod. The interactive brochure made her snigger on chilly nights in the decades after her first paid job and especially during the long stiff winters of accelerated climate change that followed. ‘Larger personal reefs can hold up to four people and include several pets,’ it said. ‘If that option proves too expensive, you can have your remains mixed together with others as part of a more complete reef system.’ What a canny idea, she thought, for anyone with a decent bunch of dependable friends. When she was finally drifting off, sinking further and elsewhere into motion picture nothingness, that familiar thrill of pale noise, she roared out for her blubbery prince. ‘I’m here baby! Nuts about you!’ he rippled up the waves back at her, ‘Drop by and see me sometime, if you can tolerate the Arctic conditions…and bring some crunchy peanut butter if you can.’
June Caldwell is the author of Room Little Darker (New Island Books/Head of Zeus) and the novel Little Town Moone (John Murray). She curated ‘Somebody’, an exhibition on Nuala O’Faolain at the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLi) 2020-2021. She is a prizewinner of the Moth International Short Story Prize and has been shortlisted for many more.
Photo credit: Peter Chiykowski, Unsplash