Happiness is in Your Genes

‘There’s nothing wrong with my genes. Or Steve’s.’

‘I’m not suggesting there is, Mrs Cobb,’ said Eva. ‘May I call you Sarah?’

Eva was keen to recruit the Cobbs into her research project; cases like theirs didn’t come along often. But, instead of obediently signing the consent form, Sarah was wasting time asking questions.

‘Your daughter reacted badly to her medicine because she can’t metabolise it properly,’ Eva explained. ‘Amy’s what we call a non-converter. We believe she may have inherited an inactive gene from you and Steve. Even if each of you is a normal converter, you can still be a carrier for a recessive inactive gene and then it’s down to chance if your children inherit it. But, don’t worry, Amy will be absolutely fine now we’ve switched her to a different drug.’

‘Is that true?’ said Steve.

He had been silent until now despite Eva’s efforts to engage him.

‘Absolutely. She’ll be discharged…’

‘No. I mean that.’ He pointed at the mug on Eva’s desk. It bore the cheery message, “Happiness Is…In Your Genes!”

‘Oh – this. My colleagues gave it me as a joke after I argued on TV with someone who claimed there was a “happiness gene”, of all things.’

‘And there isn’t?’

Eva suspected that a comprehensive answer would be wasted on Steve.

‘It’s complicated. But it’s highly unlikely that a complex emotion like happiness is controlled by a single gene.’

‘Have I got this right?’ interjected Sarah, keen to get the discussion back on track. ‘You want to do a test on all three of us and see if Amy has inherited a dodgy gene from Steve and me, right?’

‘That’s exactly it,’ said Eva, hiding her amusement at the term “dodgy gene”.

‘Sounds okay to me,’ said Steve.

Eva pushed the consent forms and pen across the desk but Sarah checked her watch.

‘Hadn’t you better move the car, Steve?’

‘Already? We’ve still got…’

‘We don’t want another parking fine, do we, sweetheart?’

With Steve out of the room, Sarah asked, ‘Do we get to know the results?’

‘Certainly. You have the right to know the results. Or not, if you prefer – but it’s not like the information is sensitive in this case. It’s all explained in the consent form…’

‘So Steve will know if he is a carrier for the faulty gene or not?’

‘Frankly, if our theory is right – and I’m pretty sure it is – then the only explanation is that, as Amy’s mother and father, you both carry an inactive gene.’

As she spoke, Eva understood. Sarah figured that Steve would very likely learn he was not a carrier for the defective gene. Even he could work out what that meant. Eva replaced the forms and pocketed her pen.

Sarah stood up, buttoning her coat. ‘Steve’s a good husband. And father. No point hurting him unnecessarily.’

With a wry smile, she nodded at Eva’s mug and its dubious slogan.

‘Like you said – it’s complicated.’

 

(First published on MashStories.com, April 2016)

Narrated version on Mash Stories podcast:  Soundcloud

 

Trust

 

‘Give this to Finn. He’ll know what to do with it.’

Leo tore the page out of his notebook and handed it to me. He saw Finn as often as I did, so I don’t know why he asked me to deliver it. Maybe it suited him to use a go- between. He liked to play games with people. I folded the paper and tucked it into my wallet.

‘That’s it? No message?’

‘No.’

#

‘That’s it? No message?’

‘No. He said you’d know what to do with it.’

Finn looked again at the creased paper with the scrawled lines on it.
‘He doesn’t want it for himself?’
‘I guess not.’
‘What is this? Scraps from the king’s table?’
I was taken aback by Finn’s reaction. He and Leo were friends and their professional relationship benefited both of them. Leo was revered as one of the most important songwriters of his generation, while Finn’s band made chart-friendly versions of his songs. It was win-win.

I’d read the note myself when I stopped for gas and coffee on the road down to LA. Just a few lines, a couple of dozen words. Although I knew it was original, it seemed familiar, like a fragment of a poem I’d always known. Something about a river. About wanting to follow it, wherever it flowed.

Finn took a drag on his joint and frowned. He made smoking dope look about as much fun as clearing a blocked toilet. He stood up and looked down the valley to where the city lay in a yellow haze. I sat on his sofa and marvelled at how uncluttered his living room was. In my experience, most musicians lived in disorder, but Finn was obsessively tidy. He turned back to me.

‘Well, if you see him, tell him thanks. I guess.’
‘So – do you know what to do with it?’
‘Sure. I mean – maybe. There’s not much there, to be frank.’
He picked up a notebook from the table and flicked through pages covered in small, precise handwriting until he found an empty place, and slipped the note carefully inside. ‘Do you want a coffee or do you need to be some place? You’re a busy guy, I guess.’ I got the message. He was right, I said, people were expecting me. As I walked back to my car I heard him strumming his twelve-string guitar. A songwriter can’t put things off. He has to write as soon as inspiration strikes. Even if his muse is a dope dealer with a page torn from a notebook.

#

A couple of weeks later, I was in The Manic Minstrel where Finn was playing a solo set to an excited crowd. Finn was nobody’s fool. He would deny rumours of the band falling apart, but still promote his solo work as a fallback strategy, just in case. Finn’s show consisted of acoustic versions of the band’s hits mixed with some fresh material he was trying out.

About halfway through, he announced a new number and I immediately recognised the opening words. Something about following a river to the sea. I was astonished at what he had crafted from those few lines of Leo’s. The plaintive melody, the evocative lyrics – they were moving and instantly memorable. The audience loved it and during Finn’s encore someone shouted out for him to ‘play that river song again’. It got even more applause the second time around.

After the show, I made my way backstage. Finn was holding court in his dressing room, still high on the adrenaline of a successful performance. I grabbed a beer and hung back until everyone else had left.

‘Hey Finn, great show.’

‘Oh hi. Did you catch it? Great crowd tonight. They appreciate good material here.’

‘I love what you’ve done with Leo’s lyrics, man. That river song blew me away.’

‘What do you mean, “Leo’s lyrics”? That’s my fucking song, man. What did Leo contribute? Twenty-nine words? Twenty-nine fucking words? Does that make it Leo’s song?’

I was stuttering some words of apology when I saw Finn looking over my shoulder. Leo was standing in the doorway, wearing dark glasses and a cap pulled low over his head. He stepped into the room, acknowledged me with a smile, and gave Finn a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He must have missed his outburst.

‘Amazing show, Finn. I only snuck in for the second half, but you sounded incredible.’

For a moment, Finn looked embarrassed by this praise but he quickly regained his cool.

‘I wish I’d known you were here, man. We could have done something together.’ ‘It’s your show, Finn. You don’t need me up there, cramping your style.’
Leo’s minder knocked on the door. ‘Time to go, Leo. The paparazzi found out you’re here.’
‘I’m coming. Next time, Finn.’
A friendly punch in the chest served as a farewell to me and then he was gone.

#

Driving down Highway One the next summer, I heard Leo being interviewed on the radio. The host loved his new album but she was puzzled by something.

‘I have to ask you about the closing track. It’s titled, rather curiously, “And Loyalty in 29 Words”. It’s a beautiful song – about friendship, I suppose. I find it incredible that you can convey so much with so few words, but – maybe I’m being obtuse here – no matter how many times I count, it just keeps coming out at twenty-eight.’

Leo laughed. He was in one of his teasing moods.
‘Did you really count the words? I can’t believe anyone would do that!’

‘I just needed to check, I suppose.’
‘Well, I guess a word got lost someplace.’

 

Copyright © 2016 Kevin Cheeseman

Awarded Second Prize in the March 2016 ‘1000 Word Challenge’, on the theme “29”. 

1000 Word Challenge

Toussaint’s Day

As I trudged home from work past shops still flaunting Halloween displays, I thought of how I’d sat alone the evening before ignoring the trick-or-treaters at my door.

Maybe it was feeling so downcast that made me unusually suggestible. A discreet notice in a town house window caught my eye and, impetuously, I rang the bell. I hoped that nobody who knew me would see me standing there.

The dark haired woman who opened the door was younger than I’d anticipated.

‘Sorry – I haven’t made an appointment.’

‘That’s okay,’ she said and beckoned me in. ‘Can I take your coat, Mr…?’

‘Toussaint,’ I said.

She beamed. ‘I love that name. And today’s your day, right?’

She could see I didn’t understand.

‘All Saints’ Day. That’s what Toussaint means, isn’t it?’

‘Right. Yes.’ I hadn’t expected small talk. ‘Sorry – do I pay first or afterwards?’

‘Upfront, please,’ she said. ‘It gets…awkward, otherwise.’

I counted out the notes.

‘Do you use a….’

‘Crystal ball? No.’

We sat at a small table and she took my hands in hers. ‘What were you hoping to discover?’ she asked.

To my surprise, the words flooded out. I’d moved here two years earlier for a new job. It was great, I loved it, but I was so tired of being alone. I was a good man, I thought – why couldn’t I find Ms Right?

It was easy talking to her and I gabbled on. But then I started to suspect this was a trick of hers to elicit information. I clammed up. She just smiled, closed her eyes, and was silent too for a long minute. Then she spoke.

‘The one you’ve been looking for – she’s been waiting too. She’s right there, if you’d only see it. But you will. And soon. Then – marriage, children. Fast. Very fast.’

Wow. She’d shaken me out of my self-pity but this seemed crazy. And yet, for some reason, I felt sure it was true.

‘Is it someone I work with?’

‘Is there someone at your office who you think could be the one?’

My mind raced. There were several I would gratefully have accepted. Did one of them secretly yearn for me? I thanked her hurriedly and practically skipped out. I couldn’t wait to get to the office the next morning.

 

With every woman I met during the following days and weeks, I found myself thinking, ‘Is it you?’ It never was.

Increasingly desperate, I went through the gears from amiable to obnoxious, provoking reactions of corresponding intensity. Charm evoked puzzlement. Flirtation caused annoyance. Finally, my remark, “Come on, I know you fancy me really”, earned me a painful slap. I deserved it. I wanted to slap me too.

What the hell had I been thinking? I’d been duped by a phoney clairvoyant. I left work early, determined to confront her.

 

I rang the doorbell long and hard. She let me in and led me to the back room.

‘What’s on your mind?’

Good question. The angry accusatory speech I had prepared had disappeared. Looking into her eyes, I saw for the first time how perfectly green they were and the penny dropped.

‘I’ve been slow on the uptake, haven’t I?’

She smiled. ‘I knew you’d get there eventually.’

‘Was it love at first sight for you?’

‘Love at second sight, actually. I foresaw you coming.’

 

I still don’t know if she was teasing me. Mrs Toussaint seldom tells fortunes these days – the children keep her so busy. But every November 1st we celebrate our version of Valentine’s Day: Toussaint’s Day.

 

First published as Winner of the Writers’ Forum Flash Fiction competition, Feb 2016.

Note: The great songwriter Allen Toussaint died shortly after All Saints’ Day 2015 and I made the connection with his name. I binge-listened to his songs and one of his most well known, Fortune Teller inspired this story. I couldn’t use that as the title, as it would have acted as a spoiler for the start of the story.

Cuckold’s Revenge

‘Jealousy makes you do bad things,’ said Dave. ‘That’s what makes it one of the seven deadly sins.’

They were drinking coffee in Nigel’s kitchen, sitting awkwardly either side of the space where the table used to be.

‘Envy,’ said Nigel, quietly.

‘Sorry?’

‘Envy,’ repeated Nigel. ‘The deadly sin. Not jealousy.’

Dave shrugged. ‘Same difference. The point is – are you sure you want to do this?’

‘That so-called artist stole my wife,’ said Nigel, ‘Am I supposed to do nothing? I walked in on them …’ He faltered, struggling to say the words. ‘Having… sexual congress. On our kitchen table. Hepworth humping away. Brenda with her legs in the air. Lying right on the place where I eat my lunch.’

He gazed through the window to the garden. Two charred table legs stuck up from the smouldering remains of the bonfire, mocking him.

‘Like Jack Nicholson in The Postman Always Knocks Twice,’ said Dave, brightly. ‘Oh man,’ he yearned, ‘that Jessica Lange…’

‘Rings Twice.’

‘Sorry?’

‘The postman. You said “knocks”.’

‘Right. Is there even a postman in that movie?’ wondered Dave.

Nigel ignored him. ‘They didn’t even stop when I came in. Brenda just glared and waved at me to go away. I went and watched the TV news until they’d finished. Then I heard the door go and found that she’d left with him. Gone to be his sodding muse, I suppose.’

‘Was it the full news programme’ asked Dave, ‘or the two minute headlines?’

‘Thirty fucking minutes. They didn’t rush.’

Dave appeared impressed, albeit not with Nigel. ‘Why didn’t you just hit Hepworth there and then?’

‘I’m neither impulsive nor inclined to fistfights. But, having considered the matter, I’ve now resolved to act.’

‘You’ve also armed yourself in the meantime. A laser, you said?’

Nigel sighed. ‘A Taser, Dave.’ He stood up. ‘It should be fully charged by now. Are you coming?’

The gallery was just opening as they arrived. They walked purposefully through the rooms, ignoring various strange installations, and headed straight to the far chamber, where visitors were promised an opportunity to observe the artist at work. It was empty of people save for Hepworth himself, dressed in yellow overalls. He was contemplating an apparently random collection of household appliances, some freshly daubed with blue paint, evidently from the pot he was holding.

Nigel strode up to Hepworth, pressed the Taser to his neck and triggered it. Hepworth fell to the floor and convulsed violently. His arms jerked back and forth smearing paint across the tiles. Nigel and Dave studied him impassively.

‘He does slightly resemble Jack Nicholson, actually,’ said Dave. ‘In Cuckoo’s Nest, that is.’

An elegantly dressed woman entered and approached them, looking puzzled. She held a list of exhibits in her hand.

‘Which one is this?’ she enquired.

‘Cuckold’s Revenge,’ said Nigel, ‘It’s not on the list’.

She contemplated the twitching yellow form and the smeared blue paint for a few moments. ‘It’s clever,’ she said. ‘But is it art?’

(First published on MashStories.com May 2015)

Community Service

The apple hit Jack’s head with such force that he fell backwards on the grass verge, dropping his litter-picker and plastic sack. Jeers came from the car’s open windows as it sped away. Jack threw his gloves down and wiped juice from his face with the sleeve of his shirt. He was picking bits of apple from his hair when Frank caught up with him.

‘What happened to you?’ Frank was peering at him through his dirty spectacles. Like Jack, he was wearing a high-visibility vest and held a litter-picker in one hand and a bulging sack in the other.

‘As if this wasn’t a shit enough job already, some monkey thought it would be amusing to throw an apple at me. Hit me right on the head…’ Jack felt his head gingerly with his fingers and winced.

A smile flickered around Frank’s mouth. ‘Did you get a flash of inspiration? Like when that apple fell on Galileo’s head and he came up with the theory of relativity?’

Jack stopped rubbing his head and stared incredulously at Frank. So this was what community service entailed, he thought. Not just the physical punishment of a backbreaking job, but also the mental torture of having uneducated half-wits spout nonsense at you. ‘I think you mean Newton, not Galileo. And it was gravity, not relativity. So now we’ve established that you don’t know what you’re talking about, give me a break and shut up.’ Frank grinned and returned to his work.

Back at the depot, Jack had hoped to eat his lunch alone but his supervisor sought him out. ‘How’s your first day going Jack? Getting on alright with Frank?’

‘The guy’s a moron. Making me work with him should be classed as cruel and unusual punishment.’

His supervisor laughed and glanced across the yard at Frank, who was reading a newspaper. ‘Odd sense of humour maybe, but he’s hardly a moron. College boy, like you. He was studying physics before he got into dealing drugs.’ He smiled encouragingly. ‘Try and get along – the time will pass more quickly.’

Jack looked across at Frank, reappraising him. He realised that in his anger at the incident he had temporarily mislaid his own sense of humour. He walked over and stood with his shadow falling across Frank’s newspaper. Frank looked up, quizzical.

‘That Galileo guy – wasn’t he the one who had a brilliant idea when he saw a chandelier swinging in Pisa cathedral?’ Jack paused a beat. ‘Then he ran out shouting “Eureka”, right?’

Frank smiled, folded his newspaper and stood up. ‘Now we’ve established that you don’t know what you’re talking about, let me try to enlighten you. It will pass the time while we serve this ungrateful community.’ He patted Jack’s shoulder and they moved off to the waiting van. ‘It was actually Archimedes who shouted “Eureka” when he got the idea for the steam engine…”

(First published on the MashStories.com June 2014)