She rang out of the blue in the week before Christmas and suggested lunch.
When I arrived at the restaurant she was already installed. Punctuality was one of the things I'd liked about her. Along with her decisiveness. The grey hair was new, though.
"I've ordered you a steak, well done," she said as I sat down. "And beer."
"Great memory," I said. "But if I drink beer at lunch these days I spend more time in the urinal than in conversation. And since the conversation's why I'm here, I'll have a wine, a good, thick red one please."
She called the waiter back and I slipped a little parcel from my pocket as she addressed him. "What on earth's this?" she said when she saw it.
"It's nothing much," I said. "Happy Christmas."
"We said no presents."
I shrugged. I knew I couldn't embarrass her but it was nice to put her at a tiny disadvantage.
"You didn't wrap this yourself," she said removing the tissue paper. "And I bet you bought it on the way here."
"Right on both counts," I said, as she opened the box and held up the chain and pendant.
"The shop assistant had good taste," she said. "But thank you anyway," and our lunch arrived. She'd ordered salad. In times gone by she would have had a steak.
She forked a wad of leaves and named a mutual friend. "Dead," she said. "Last month. Cancer."
I said I hadn't heard.
"She always liked to do things unobtrusively," and I laughed because it was true.
"How long's it been," I asked, "since we had lunch?"
"Eight years, perhaps," she said. "Maybe 10. Though where those years have gone and what I've done with them I can't say. They all meld into one these days or so it seems."
"Someone asked me last week what the highlight of my year had been. I thought a bit, then had to say I didn't know. Not only could I not remember much beyond last week, but the few highlights I could recall might just as easily have happened half a dozen years ago. That's growing old, I guess. On which subject, did you see the piece in the paper about mice?"
"I did," I said.
"And?" she sipped her wine and prodded her salad and waited.
"Tell me," I said.
"I'm going to," she said. "It's just astonishing. I know you won't follow the science but they've found a way of boosting the potency of mitochondria that makes cells less likely to decay. And since everything in the human body consists of . . . "
"I thought it was about mice."
"The biggest difference between mice and us is that we imagine there are big differences between mice and us. Biologically there are very few. Did you not see that picture some years ago of a human ear being grown on a mouse's back."
"I found it obscene."
"Quite so," she said, "but indicatively obscene. Anyway, the boffin doing this research said that within a week of rejuvenating the mitochondria, the muscles of old mice became indistinguishable from the muscles of young mice. And if that isn't going to make him rich I don't know what is. Fools already spend billions on anti-ageing stuff. Imagine what they'd be willing to pay for stuff that actually worked."
"But will it work?"
"I see no reason why not. Cells run everything, from mammaries to memory. And if those cells stay young and strong what foes are there to face? It's cellular decay that lets the nasties in. Without it there's no reason why we shouldn't live for centuries."
"I find that rather unappealing."
"Unappealing," she exclaimed and dropped her fork with a clatter.
"It'll be cata-bloody-strophic. Without time's winged chariot at our back the whole shebang will change, the whole productive tension between youth and age, between mortality and beauty, between love and death, between ignorance and wisdom, between action and thought, the tensions that give life its piquancy, its irony, its unique bitter-sweetness will simply disappear.
"And bang, a sapid vital mortal world will give way overnight to something that resembles Palm Springs on Prozac. It'll drive everyone mad."
"But not in our lifetime," I said.
"No, thank God. Here's to being past it." We chinked glasses. "By the way, do you still write newspaper columns?"
"Yes," I said, "except when other people write them for me."
"Think of it as a present," she said. "Happy Christmas."
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