Who Lorraine Was by Bryan Blears

It was Christmas the first time we broke up. There was snow all across the campus and the lake in the park had frozen over completely. They warned us not to walk across it, but a lot of people risked it anyway. In the morning I made my way to the library through the snow to forget about Lorraine. She’d gone to see her parents in Brighton —

Near Hastings, actually.

Near Hastings, is that a place? And I couldn’t concentrate on anything except the fact I would probably never see her again. It was quiet everywhere on campus except the library. Inside there were coats piled up over the seats and it was humid and sweaty from all of the people studying. I tried to concentrate for a couple of hours but I found it impossible, so after that I wrote her a text message. I didn’t send it; I ended up deleting it in the end. And I packed up my things and walked back to the flat early.

You’ve never told me about the text before.

It doesn’t matter, really.

No, go on. What did it say?

I don’t remember! It’s not important to the story.

If you leave out all the little details then the story won’t be as good.

It doesn’t matter, honestly. When I got home I remembered that Paul, my flatmate, had gone to stay over at a friend’s house on the south side of the university. That’s over near the science labs, if you’ve ever been. So I had the place to myself for the night and at some point I’d finished all of the beers in the fridge and that’s when I got this stupid idea in my head that it would be a good idea to try to kill myself. I looked around the room and found some co-codamol I had in a drawer. I’d been taking them for the headaches. And a couple of Xanax which I had for my anxiety. I took those as well and then I opened up the window and looked out across the park. There were some first-years running across the snow and laughing, throwing snowballs at each other, and all I could think about was Lorraine. I opened the window as far as I could and hung a leg out of it and sat on the windowsill and lit a cigarette. Sooner or later someone came along and noticed what I was doing up there.

“Hey, watch out mate!” he shouted up at me. “Careful you don’t fall.”

I shouted back at him—I don’t remember what I said exactly—and eventually he swore and trundled off into the night. After a while a couple more people stopped to warn me to get down from there. I had zoned out by that time. After a while a police van came around the corner and stopped outside of the house. For a second I wondered what the police were doing here. Then one of the officers got out and looked up at me, and I suddenly realised.

“James? Why don’t you go inside and come down for a talk?” one of the police officers shouted up to the window ledge. That was a mistake. I would probably have come down out of boredom after a while anyway, but suddenly the formality of the situation went straight to my head. Suddenly it felt as though I was the main character in a movie, or something. The second policeman stepped out of the van, and I starkly noticed the handcuffs and the baton attached to his belt. It was a cold night, I realised. I was only wearing a T-shirt. I started to shiver, and I remember thinking that what I really needed in that moment was a jumper. One of the police officers must have tried the door downstairs, but it was locked. I don’t remember locking it. That’s when the phone in my pocket started to ring. I reached down to answer it but the phone was jammed tightly in my jeans pocket. As I struggled to pull it out I leaned too far over the edge and nearly fell. I grabbed onto the window frame just in time. Then I looked at the phone and saw Lorraine’s name flashing up on the screen.

I was stuck at home listening to my Mum going on about her latest novel. She was a writer, you know. Anyway, she was telling me all about her latest contract and all, and I was tired and bored and what I really needed was a smoke. So I snuck out to the garden and thought I’d call to see how he was.

For a moment I sat in shock with my legs hanging out of the window, watching the phone ring and hoping she’d hang up after a few seconds. But it kept on ringing. The police were standing around now, speaking into their radios. They’d moved a couple of bystanders back who were watching me with someway half-way between morbid curiosity and plain boredom. I was bored too, so I decided to answer.

“Hey,” I said to him. I didn’t really know what to expect; we hadn’t spoken in over a fortnight. “Just thought I’d see how you are.”

“Oh,” he said, “Well, it’s complicated.” The phone was silent for a minute. I didn’t want to be too forward, you know. “Are you seeing someone else?” I asked him finally.

“What?” he said. It wasn’t nice the way he said it. Actually I thought he was laughing at me because he was seeing somebody else. I swore at him and I was about to hang up the phone when I heard the shouting in the background.

“Are you okay, James?” I asked. It didn’t sound like happy shouting, like he was at a house party or anything. It sounded more like there was a fight going on wherever he was.

You won’t believe me, but at the time I really wasn’t interested in getting back with him. I was concerned I suppose, from one human being to another, you know, and now my curiosity was also getting the better of me. I closed the back door so that no one could hear us and went to a quiet spot in the garden.

“I’ve been better,” he said.

“Well, do you want to tell me what’s going on for you?” I asked.

So I did. I told her I was sitting on a window ledge and that the police were outside the house and everyone was shouting at me to get down from there. While we were speaking another police car had arrived with one of those battering rams which you could break the door down with. For a minute, I thought that the police were going to come and arrest me right there and then, but as they hesitated I realised there was no way for them to come upstairs in time to stop me from jumping.

“James,” I said, “I think you’re being very silly about this. Just go to bed and you’ll feel better in the morning.”

“No I won’t,” he sulked, “I’ve already tried that, it didn’t work.”

You won’t believe me, but I found what James was doing to be pretty romantic. Guys in the past had broken up with me casually by text; either that or I’d found them sleeping with somebody else. I’d never had someone treat me like the centre of the universe before. But I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone getting hurt either.

“Look, do you want to see me when I come back?” I asked him.

“Of course,” I said —

– He said something like, “What’s the point?” You know, he was trying to get me to commit to something there and then over the phone.

I don’t remember that.

Oh, don’t be so embarrassed, James. Finally I promised I’d meet him for a coffee when I got back to university. What happened after that?

We did meet a couple of weeks later. I took her to ice-skating up in town. From there, we seemed to hit it off straight away, didn’t we? One date led to another, and we fell deeply in love.

James said that I saved his life that December. And that would become important to him later on, when his field of work really kicked off. And after I found out about —

Wait, you’re skipping too far ahead. Let me carry on. At New Year we were back together again. We kissed at midnight at a big party for all the biology undergrads. I told Lorraine that I wanted to marry her. It was everything you’d expect it to be. We spent weekends at each other’s parents; long walks down the beach, all of that stuff.

I wish you’d bring me more often, James. I love the seaside.

We spent seven or eight happy years together after that. Lorraine doesn’t remember much of it now, of course. But it was a happy time for both of us. I finished my postgraduate degree and Lorraine was working as an intern for a forensics company. I was focussing heavily on my PhD. It was a niche area, very exciting research, you wouldn’t believe it. The stuff we were doing with DNA! It was ground-breaking.

When James talks about his work you can tell how passionate he is about it.

We were at the forefront of it all. That’s not an exaggeration.

And then, of course, I got pregnant.

We were having a baby together. Both of us were happy about it, although Lorraine was worried about taking a break from her career. At our first scan, we found out that we’d be having a girl. We decided to call her Madeleine. I admit I didn’t spend as much time with Lorraine as I could have done during the pregnancy. A lot of late nights at the lab. But having a child gave all of it a new meaning to me. It wasn’t just about me anymore. I genuinely believed we were making a difference, and that our little girl could be part of that future we were building.

Tell them about your work, James.

A lot of it was about epigenetics. You know, the on-off switches in our DNA? It’s the stuff that goes beyond what we used to think about, like, the nature versus nurture debate. We were studying the way that life experiences are stored in your DNA. If you look at the people born after the Second World War in places like Holland, a lot of their DNA had been altered by the famine they had suffered there. These people were starved by the Nazis and as a result, their kids suffered from obesity. During the first year of my PhD I had intended to set about triggering some of these switches in generations of mice. We made some great discoveries. For example, did you know that if you give a mouse electric shocks while exposing it to, say, the aroma of strawberries, its offspring will elicit fear responses from that smell? That’s a direct result of memories being stored in strands of DNA. Sorry, I get carried away when I start to talk about this stuff. I was telling you about Madeleine, wasn’t I?

You were just getting up to that part.

Oh, yes, the pregnancy. About five months in, Lorraine started having serious migraines throughout the day. At the start, we put it down to a difficult pregnancy, but then it became clearer as the days went by that something was seriously wrong with Lorraine. She’d lost weight and she had night sweats. None of the doctors could figure it out at first.

I don’t remember any of this, because of the nerve damage.

Then they ran some more advanced tests. They told us Lorraine had a neurological degenerative disease. It was an extremely rare mutation in her DNA. The irony was not lost on me, believe me. They said that Lorraine’s brain was breaking down extremely quickly. She was going to lose her memories, and then her bodily functions would start to slow down; motor abilities, eyesight, everything. Her disease would be fatal in the course of a couple of years.

I’m sorry. I get very upset at this part of the story. When James tells me what he had to go through while I was sick, it breaks my heart. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.

There has to be something you can do, I kept pleading. But the truth was that they didn’t have the capacity to deal with something as complex and rare as this. Let me tell you, the world of medicine is all about funding, at the end of the day.

There I was, with a state-of-the-art research facility at my disposal and armed with the most detailed knowledge of the human genome in the whole world at the time, and yet there was nothing I could do about Lorraine’s disease. What was happening to her at a genetic level seemed to be unpreventable. Some nights I didn’t come home at all. I would spend all night running computational models and trying new solutions. Lorraine was already spending most of her time in bed. Finally, I came to terms with the fact that I couldn’t save Lorraine. The body she was in, the brain which was home to the person I loved, was going to die. Lorraine would cease to exist. There was only one option left.

It was illegal at the time. But James was so courageous, weren’t you? He would have done anything for me.

One weekend, I took Lorraine in a wheelchair to the labs where my research project was set up. I had this idea that if I could take some cells from Lorraine’s body, I could preserve some of the memories which were stored within them. It wasn’t possible at the time to retrieve them, but at the speed at which our research was progressing, I estimated we’d be able to transplant them into a living donor within two or three years. By this time, Lorraine was slurring her speech and struggling to put sentences together. She didn’t really understand what I was doing. But I think she knew I was trying to save her.

Can I tell them about the next part?

Of course.

Well, I suppose you don’t get to say this very often. Not long after Maddy was born, I was taken into hospital. My condition was worsening and I couldn’t eat or breathe properly. James visited me in the hospital. He held my hand and told me everything was going to be alright, you see, he had a plan, he was going to make all of this right again. On the night after he left I was put onto life support. There was nothing anyone could do except wait for the end to come.

A couple of weeks later, Lorraine died. She was buried near the university where we had first met. We went to visit the grave once. Now that’s a frightening experience.

I’m sorry, I still get shaky thinking about it.

It’s okay. Do you want me to take over?

If you don’t mind. Sorry.

Just two years down the line I finally made my big breakthrough. I had spent over a million of my own money. That wasn’t the majority of the funding though. I owed debts to people all over the world: Uganda, Brazil, Japan, North Korea. Of course there were a lot of people interested in the potentials of the research I was doing. I knew there was no way we could get it through the courts. So we flew the whole research facility out to a place in the Pacific. I’m afraid I can’t tell you the exact location. At the time I was taking care of Maddy, too.

It was a fifteen hour flight. I spent it drifting in and out of consciousness and thinking about Lorraine while Maddy slept on my lap. Finally, something clicked. You see, I’d spent all this time wondering about where we could find a living donor to transplant Lorraine’s memories into. And then I realised she was lying right next to me.

I know what you’re thinking. The easiest way to think about it is that Maddy and I share the same body. It changes what you think about what a person is. At the end of the day I don’t like to think that Maddy is gone. She’s still here.

It had to be a child, you see. Because you don’t retain memories from before the age of around three. It’s a phenomenon known as childhood amnesia. That’s when the genome is the most pliable.

The most difficult part is how fragmented the memories are. It’s upsetting for me, not to be able to remember our wedding, for example. But this was never going to be easy.

It took a long time for Lorraine to settle down. You can imagine the difficulty of being in a child’s body with a head full of adult memories. But Lorraine has absolute trust in me. That’s hugely important for the rehabilitation process.

What James has done for me is quite a miracle.

You could sit there and tell me that what I did was wrong. But look at how happy Lorraine is now. Is that a crime? We look after buildings and books for thousands of years. Tell me, what’s so wrong about preserving something you love? That’s what people don’t understand when they point fingers and tell me about playing God. That at the bottom of all this is a human story.

It’s a very good story.

At the bottom of it all, it’s a story about two people in love. Isn’t it, Lorraine?

Yes, James. It is.

Bryan Blears is a writer of fiction and non-fiction from Manchester, England. He has written several short stories, newspaper articles and is currently working on his first novel. He works for the National Health Service.

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