by Chris Ward
The news often fills air time with talk of cloning. It is possible, they say, to replicate a human body, a human mind. To make two of one, four of one, fifty million of one.
In the schoolyard I was nothing. Pushed into a corner, backed up against a wall, shoved down against the ground. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Bombarded by a battering ram of words.
I didn’t know it then, but I wished I was a clone. I liked me. No one else did. I wanted to be me, but somewhere else. Somewhere kinder.
I remember that summer, in that field along the coast a little ways from Fowey. The caravan, the endless games of UNO in the rain, the swimming pool on the warm August days. The little “play” area where the kids hung out, with the jukebox and the pinball machines, the table tennis table. The beach, across the road from the summer camp, where I saw her for the first time.
This is all about a girl, you see.
I had stupid hair. Pulled through one of those hair nets and bleached, we left the peroxide on too long, my buddy and me. His hair, darker, could take it. Mine, fairer, went as bright as the summer sun. Straw-bright, the kids at school said. Wursel Gummage, they called me, after the John Pertwee character. I’m sure none of them had ever seen the old TV show, but kids have a way of knowing. Ways of hurting seem to float through the air like balloons, drifting from one generation to the next, waiting to be plucked and popped.
They put gum in it. Gave me dead arms, just because. Laughed. Joked. And I wished I could be someone else, still me but not me. A clone.
Amy was a year younger than me, she said. Fifteen. Scrawny but cute, her hair pulled back into a neat ponytail, held tight with a little green scrunchie.
‘I like your hair,’ she told me. She actually used those words. It’s been years, and many of the details have faded, but I remember those words exactly. She may or may not have said, ‘You’re cool’, but that first line was enough.
I met her in that room at the holiday park, the play room. Next to the pinball table. She saw me standing there, as they say. We talked awhile about nothing, about the songs on the jukebox neither of us liked. The sun went down, and we took a walk down to the beach.
I was cloned.
Nothing much happened, just a bit of fooling around. We were young, she was cute, I was a deadbeat in another world a million miles away. But we kissed, we held hands, we lay down on the warm sand for a while.
Behind us, on the road, local chav kids revved their souped-up cars and tore along the seafront, but in our little bubble we were safe.
‘Next year?’ she begged me. ‘Ask them.’ Meaning my parents. ‘The same week of August. We’ll see each other again.’ And she placed a hand over mine.
Cloned, I returned to school. Got a basketball thrown in my face which flattened my nose. Shaved my head, watched it grow back, light brown, like before. The seasons turned, and the holiday park - and Amy - rode back around.
We were a week late. Dad’s work, Mum’s appointments. Our holidays overlapped by a day. That day, our first, Amy’s last, I dashed down to the beach. There I found sirens, an ambulance, someone sewn up inside a bag. A souped-up car on its side, a dark stain I couldn’t look at a couple of feet out from the pavement, as if someone had dropped a bag of copper-coloured ink on the road.
A woman was screaming, over by the ambulance. I guess they could have been related, Amy and her. I didn’t see, I couldn’t ask.
Perhaps she had hoped to find me down there on the beach beyond that hazardous road, in amongst the sand dunes. Perhaps her parents had stopped the car for her to take one last look.
Maybe it wasn’t her, but I’ll never know.
I didn’t read about it in the newspapers or see it on the television. I didn’t want to look. I returned to school a week later, cloned.
The years drove slowly past like a commuter train overtaking a car, stretching me up towards the sky and stacking meat on my bones. I grew bigger, stronger, the line of my jaw grew tighter and no one any longer bothered this clone. I sailed through university with a gentle following breeze, tore down the rapids of my twenties and drifted out into the lake of my thirties, peaceful and placid.
I married, divorced, had a kid, lost a kid, got a kid back. I cloned myself through so many jobs I lost count of them.
Around my fortieth birthday I wanted Amy back. I joined that social networking site – you know the one, I’m sure – and I trawled through Amys for hours. Blonde hair, black hair, brown hair, red hair, blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes, snake eyes (!), and there she was filled out, thicker round the neck but still the Amy I remembered, cloned.
I emailed her: I’d like to see you again.
She had never heard of me before. Never set foot in Cornwall, let alone that holiday camp in Fowey. She was seven years older than me.
I searched, and there she was again. A little thinner than I remembered, her hair prematurely grey, but those same eyes.
She agreed to meet me.
Over coffee we talked. She agreed with everything I said. ‘Oh, we had great times, didn’t we? On that quiet little beach? Listen, are you free this weekend? How about we go away?’
‘Do you remember how many times you beat me at pool in that play room?’ I asked her. ‘Dozens,’ she said, and I told her goodbye. She had won at pinball, I remember, but never on a pool table that didn’t exist. Amy’s clone, so lonely, so lost, so desperate for a companion, cried off into the night.
I continued to meet Amy’s clones. Some of them were pleasant, friendly, and as attractive in their mid-forties as she had been at a tender fifteen. I dated a few, even, one for as much as six months. The spectre of Amy waited at the shoulder of every one of her clones though, and that always drew me away.
Eventually I had to shed my clones and return, have them bend before me to form a tunnel back to my youth and that day on the treacherous stretch of road that separated the beach from the holiday camp.
I found the holiday camp gone, replaced by a shopping mall. The beach, now developed with a wooden promenade where the dunes had rolled, was emptier than ever. I walked there for a while, calling her name softly under my breath, humming it like the forgotten lyrics to a song.
I wondered where I was going. I walked down to the shoreline, let my toes make trails in the wet sand. Then, back to the edge of the promenade, to that place where our clones had once sat, kissed, held hands and talked about stupid things. I sat down, wondering if I was still a clone or whether this was the real me.
I lay back, looking up at the sky. For a moment part of the fluffy cloud above me seemed to shift, and briefly it formed Amy’s face.
Another clone. Nature made them too.
I closed my eyes, and again I was back there on the beach as the sun went down, the hands of a girl I would never see again held gently in mine. Silently I wept, for what had been, what was, what might have been, and what would never be.
I was sure I could hear clones everywhere crying.
Clones is available along with several other similarly themed short stories in my collection, Five Tales of Loss.