Going For the One
Going for the one is the original version of 'Sanctuary'. Interested to hear your thoughts ...
Karen was in her customary place, squeezed into a corner of the Mucky Duck. In front of her sat a single, half-consumed candle stuck into an old Jack Daniels bottle, its fresh drips joining the great gouts of once-molten wax that were now frozen to the bottle’s sides, obscuring the label. She was alone. The creamy head of her pint of IPA had barely descended an inch from the glass’s rim, its meniscus caressing the waxy pink crescent moon that adhered to the smeared translucence. It was neither her colour nor her lipstick. Her phone, a slab of inconsiderate animation in this Still Life with Girl (2021), flashed text message after text message:
- Are you ok?
- I love you.
- Call me.
- I love you.
Karen simply stared into space. Pint, glass, lipstick: all forgotten as she mouthed the words 'you're the one,' over and over.
By her distressed bottle of Jack lay a bubble pack of pills. Just a single translucent dome remained intact, the final scene in the third and final act. In it sat the very last pill, and there it remained, untouched in its prophylactic prison, for the whole evening.
She’d been coming to the Mucky Duck for years. First when it was the Rose and Crown and she barely fifteen and it was snakebite and black for lasses and happy hour all night every night because her boyfriend worked behind the bar. She’d grown up here, almost literally: it was in the Rose and Crown that she had exited childhood. Here she had her first drink, lost her virginity: here her father had explained why her mother had died all those years before. And it was here she had opened the letter that contained her own, parallel fate. She’d run away. First to university and then to her great career in London. Intent on forgetting the whole, sorry business, she had decided that the best course of action was not to return. So she missed the Rose’s transformation into the Black Dove, all craft lagers, smug barstaff and inferior cocktails.
When her father’s time in the pit finally caught up with his lungs, it was Karen who had to nurse him. By the time he died, she had been forced to quit her job in the big smoke and had subsequently lost her Docklands flat and her Chelsea Harbour boyfriend. Meanwhile, the Dove had quietly metamorphosed into the Mucky Duck. Now quite hip in a shabby-chic sort of way, the Duck had ideas below its station. It affected the dive it once was, but the prices and carpets gave the lie: the former stuck in the craw while the latter no longer stuck to anything. This den of iniquity had changed, as had Karen. Where once she snuck out of her parents' house to rebel quietly in the corner with her roll-ups and sticky pints, she now left the house she inherited to compete in the monthly pub quiz. And that was where she had been, just twenty-three days earlier, arguing with Midge over the answers. She was, she knew, slowly turning into her mother.
Everything had changed, and yet ...
‘And I’m telling you it was Matt Busby,’ said Terry, pen in hand, grabbing at the answer sheet. His glass hit the table sideways.
‘It’s a good job you were thirsty,’ said Midge, lifting the sheet out and over his right shoulder, safe both from Terry’s hand and the dregs of his drink. ‘And it was Alain de Botton. Busby wasn’t a philosopher. Unless you consider his work with BT.’ He looked around the table. It failed to fall about.
‘Oh, please, it was Sartre,’ said Karen. ‘I thought everyone knew that.’ Karen took the sheet from Midge’s hand, and held it behind her back. ‘Hang on, that was one of those things, you know, the things that can make you laugh but rarely do ...’
‘The plumber’s estimate?’ proffered Terry. ‘The first sight of your latest work colleague? Your ex-girlfriend’s report of you as a shag to her best mate whose best mate is your best mate’s girlfriend’s hairdresser?’
‘No,’ said Karen. ‘It wasn’t a joke, was it, Midge?’
‘Very droll,’ said Midge. ‘Like you’re Comedy Store material.’ He stood up and walked to the toilets.
‘Whatever,’ said Karen and she wrote in the correct answer. She was on a roll tonight. She couldn’t make a bad guess. ‘Hand this in and get another round, with extras.’
‘Sure,’ said Terry, and wandered off, answer sheet in his left hand, three empties in his right.
‘Getting wistful, K?’ said Midge as he sat down, wiping his hands dry on his jeans.
‘Nah,’ said Karen. ‘Just thinking about the old days, you know.’
‘I think that's what getting wistful means, K,’ said Midge, reaching out to help Terry by unloading the drinks from the tray he’d brought them on.
‘IPA for you, Guinness for you, Sauvignon Blanc for me ... and shots,’ said Terry. And took the tray back to the bar.
Midge and Karen had met at university. Following weeks of being the ‘couple most likely to’, they’d dared sleep together. After the fourth or fifth time they realised that sexual chemistry really wasn’t their thing and that they’d make better friends. And so they remained, through both thick and extremely thin.
‘It’s time, then?’ said Midge, licking the freshly applied Guinness moustache from his upper lip with relish.
‘It’s time,’ said Karen. ‘Time to throw the dice.’ With that she took out a strip of tablets from her bag and threw it onto the table. There were thirty numbered domes of which five had already been emptied. ‘Sixth time lucky?’ she said as she pressed the next candidate out of its bubble and grabbed a shot. ‘Bottoms up!’ She said.
‘No,’ said Midge. Karen’s hands stopped halfway between table and mouth.
‘What do you mean, no?’ said Karen.
‘I’m sorry, K,’ said Midge. ‘But I can’t let you do this.’
‘Midge, love,’ said Karen. ‘I don’t need your permission, you know. Anyway. You know the prognosis. You can see the state I’m in. It’s time.’
‘Except it isn’t time,’ said Midge. ‘Not if you have the wherewithall. That bridge isn’t here yet – cross it when you come to it.’
‘But when I come to it I’ll be sitting in a pool of my own piss and you’ll have to choose between watching me choke to death on my own saliva or pushing me over. You fancy that? Will you still hold my hand? Sure, you’ll be the great compassionate one, but where’s my dignity? Where’s my choice? Well, my choice is here, my choice is now. I choose this,’ said Karen.
‘Look,’ said Midge. ‘I love you, and I can’t let you do this.’
‘If you loved me you’d not only understand, but you’d be happy for me.’ She paused. ‘Dammit, if you loved me you’d make sure. If you loved me you’d see that my body doesn’t just disobey me now, it denies me. Denies my even being me. I say I am not this disease, but my body tells another story. All I am is a seething ball of auto-alienation. I am not what I am. And apparently I can’t even rely on you any more.’ She paused. ‘Love.’ Her voice cracked slightly as she spoke the final word, and a single tear ran down her nose.
Midge just stared, drained his Guinness in one long, languid pull, gasped for air and then did his shot, slamming the thick-based glass onto the pub table. He turned and walked out.
‘Fuck,’ said Karen. She shook her head roughly and took a deep draught from her pint. ‘Fuck!’ she repeated, though with more venom.
‘Did I miss something?’ said Terry, as he arrived back at the table.
‘Look,’ said Karen, recovering the dregs of her decorum and twisting to look at him properly. He wasn’t bad-looking. A little slow, perhaps, but did that really matter tonight? ‘Not that I want to spend what might be my last night on earth discussing the possibility of it being my last night on earth, but it is simple. Answer me this, Tel. How would you like to go, given the choice?’
‘Well, given the choice, quietly, unexpectedly and in my sleep,’ said Terry. ‘Isn’t that everyone’s ideal exit?’
‘Exactly,’ said Karen. ‘It’s the unexpectedly that’s tricky.’
Terry laughed. ‘And she planned her unexpected death, leaving behind a cat and an unsullied gym membership.’ He took a sip of his wine and his face puckered. ‘Bloody Pinot. What is it with bar staff these days? Anyway. Go on. Convince me.’
‘Well’ said Karen. ‘The whole point of choice is that you get to choose ... you choose how, and when, you go.’
‘Yes, I get that you want to choose. You take a pill and don’t wake up,’ said Terry, ‘but why this charade?’
‘Because unexpectedly means I don’t have an official last night on earth,’ said Karen. ‘So I get to play this rather esoteric version of Russian roulette.’
‘Let me get this right,’ said Terry. ‘You get a month’s worth of pills that you take before bed. And only one of them is “the pill” that does the deed.’
‘Yup,’ said Karen. ‘The pill’s coating dissolves in six hours. I take one at ten every night, and either wake up or don’t. And “the pill” could be any of numbers one to thirty, so I have up to a month of seeing friends, doing things I want to do, and going to bed happy every night. And so I’m not worried about not waking up.’
‘And what if the first pill is the one?’ asked Terry.
‘Well,’ said Karen. ‘I wouldn’t have known any better, would I? I go to bed happy: I die happy.’
‘I suppose,’ said Terry. ‘But you’re not doing it right. You’re merely swapping probability for certainty.’
‘Whatever,’ said Karen. ‘But there is no right, just us and our choices. And we all lose in the end, so why sweat it?’ She shrugged. ‘Anyway. Fancy coming home with me?’
‘Pardon?’ said Terry.
‘You’ll have to leave before 4, of course,’ said Karen. ‘You don’t want me to do a reverse Cinderella on you. But I feel like a hot night. Very hot. Come home with me.’
‘Er,’ said Terry, shifting in his seat. ‘That’s a bit weird.’
‘Why, because it might be my last ever fuck?’ Karen laughed. ‘I guess there’s a 4% chance. No pressure.’
Terry appeared to have forgotten that he detested Pinot Grigio, as the level of liquid in his glass was dropping alarmingly.
‘But only if you want to,’ said Karen, smiling.
‘I really wouldn’t,’ came Midge’s voice from behind Karen’s wheelchair as he wrapped his arms around her neck and kissed her on the ear. ‘She’s a god-awful shag. By the way, we came fourth.’
‘I thought you’d sulked away?’
‘Piss off, K,’ said Midge. ‘You knew I’d be back.’
‘Yes. For one thing because you know I love you and couldn’t bear for our last conversation to have been that one.’
Karen grabbed his arms and squeezed. ‘I’ll give you god-awful shag, you dick,’ and kissed his forearms.
‘You’ll be lucky,’ said Midge.
‘Is that not the other thing?’ asked Karen.
‘Ha!’ said Midge. ‘As if.’ He handed her a shot glass. ‘The other thing is I came back to make bloody sure you do it.’
Karen smiled, placed the tablet on her tongue, and raised the glass to her lips. ‘Bottoms up!’ she said, and it was done. ‘Right. Pool?’ said Karen, wheeling herself out from behind the table into the saloon bar where the pool table slumped on the floor like a sleeping fruit machine and the jukebox loitered in the corner like a ne’erdowell from a 50s B-movie.
‘Oh jesus,’ said Midge. ‘You know we’ll only end up getting pissed in the park when your awful cueing technique leads to some ball flying off the table and hitting some innocent punter and we get asked to leave.’
‘Like old times,’ said Karen.
‘Like old times.’
‘Goodnight guys.’ Terry was standing at their now-abandoned table. ‘It’s been a pleasure,’ he said, to no-one in particular. And he left.
‘Ok, see ya...’ said Midge but as he turned he realised Terry had gone. ‘Who’s Terry, anyway?’
‘Tinder date,’ said Karen.
‘You are fucking incorrigible,’ said Midge, and racked the balls. ‘Your break.’
In the boardroom of GanterCorp, the pharmaceutical giant behind what was becoming known as the ‘thirty days of sod ‘em’, there were confused faces.
‘Well, statistically, it was bound to happen,’ said the third suit from the right. ‘One in every thirty customers will end up with the, how do I put it? With the pill that includes the active ingredient being the last pill.’
‘Why didn’t you say?’ said the suit at the head of the table. ‘We promise the unexpected. We can’t fail one in thirty clients.’
‘Add another pill,’ said the second from the right. ‘That’ll sort it.’
‘Will it?’ asked the suit at the head of the table.
‘Of course,’ said the other suit.
At GanterCorp, there were unhappy faces.
‘Well, statistically, it was bound to happen,’ said the fourth suit from the right. ‘One in every eight hundred and seventy clients will end up with the two pills being the last two.’
‘So why didn’t you say?’ said the suit at the head of the table. ‘We promise the unexpected. We can’t fail one in eight hundred and seventy clients.’
‘Just add another pill,’ said the fifth from the right. ‘That’ll sort it.’
‘Will it?’ asked the suit at the head of the table.
‘Of course,’ said the suit who sat the third to the right.
At GanterCorp, there were stern faces.
‘Well, statistically, it was bound to happen,’ said the fourth suit from the right. ‘One in every twenty-four thousand, three hundred and sixty will end up with the three pills being the last three.’
‘So why ...’ said the suit at the head of the table. ‘Add another pill.’
At GanterCorp, there were perplexed faces.
‘Well, just because the odds are one in over six hundred and fifty-seven thousand that doesn’t mean it can’t happen to the first client,’ said the only suit left to the right. ‘Probability theory clearly states that the outcome in question should occur once for every six hundred and fifty-seven thousand repetitions of the event. And that the probability of that once being the first, the three hundred thousandth or the six hundred and fifty-seven thousandth time is, at the moment of the first iteration, exactly the same.’
‘Well, it will certainly stop the letters of complaint,’ said the suit at the head of the table. ‘After all, what are the odds against every single pill being “the one”?’ With that, he put the phone down. It appeared that the consultants GanterCorp hired couldn’t count.