My name is Kobie Temple and I am the eldest of three clone brothers. My middle brother, Hartland, is a policeman, and then there’s Jul, the baby. He really was the baby of the family, there are over forty years between us, and he was a bit of an afterthought on my parents’ part. Mum said they could only afford to raise us one at a time. People didn’t do that in the old days, children were just born whenever, and people did the best they could. Nowadays with cloning and surrogacy, kids can be spaced decades apart, and as my parents said, you know exactly what you’re getting. Or nearly. The three of us are clones, but we were born at different times, under different starsigns. So, I’m a Taurus, which I guess accounts for my stubborn, plodding personality, Hartland is a Scorpio, and Jul’s a Cancer.
I remember when Hartland came along. I had not long left home to go to University, when Mum voiced me. ‘I guess you won’t be needing your room now?’ the message said. The next thing, I was looking at a 3D videocast of my bedroom full of baby stuff. I wasn’t too impressed, as my Uni room was costing over eight thousand pounds a day, and I was running up student debt at an unprecedented rate. At least I was attending an obscure university a long way from anywhere – Lorna Doone University was in darkest Exmoor and in those days it was surrounded by cheap social housing. Otherwise I’d still be paying them half my salary now, two decades after graduating.
Anyway Hartland arrived, and was duly installed in my refurbed bedroom. He grew up with all my old toys, Mum even dug my old tablet out of the attic and set it up with some baby apps for him. I was unimpressed that Mum and Dad then said they couldn’t help me any more with my Uni fees, as they had to save up for Hartland’s education. As it turned out, though, he was no academic. He looked just like me when I was his age, but he had a more combative character. Scorpio, you see, it was written in the stars. He enjoyed martial arts and various after-school drill type activities, and after a year’s National Service in Afghanistan, the police force was his life’s ambition. So he did OK anyway.
Then when he was 23, he got virtually the same voice message as I did all those years ago. All the wallscreens in his bedroom showing the explosions and air chases of police shows were switched over to cuddlies and kids songs. Luckily he had decided to move into a flat with his girlfriend by then, and Mum and Dad managed to afford the ninety five million pounds they needed for the deposit.
So, Jul was the next baby. Mum was in her late sixties by then, and, although she still looked and acted fairly young, I had my doubts. She seemed to struggle with getting up to see to him at night, some things don’t change, I guess. He was quite a hard baby to look after, as well. By then, I had my own child and I knew what it was like. In fact Jul’s niece, my daughter Vara, was fifteen and capable of baby sitting him.
‘There’s something wrong with Jul, he’s always screaming, ’ Vara said one night, when she came home from Mum and Dad’s. She seemed stressed, which wasn’t like her, she normally enjoyed earning a couple of grand for sitting around, eating snack food, and streaming entertainment on to their gigantic wallscreens. Meriel, my wife, glanced up at her.
‘I’ve thought so too,’ she said. ‘Jul doesn’t seem to respond like other children, does he? He should be saying more words by now.’
Vara shook her head. ‘Gran’s sent a lot of information and clips of him to the on-line paediatric service. He might be autistic.’
‘That’s really weird,’ said Meriel. ‘He’s genetically identical to your Dad and Hartland, and they’re not autistic, as far as I know. I can’t understand how it could have happened.’
‘Mum doesn’t really seem to relate to him though, does she?’ I said, ‘Not like she was with Harty, anyway, she much preferred him to me. He was the favourite.’
Meriel immediately said that it wasn’t true, my mother didn’t have favourites, I probably just didn’t remember being small. ‘Mothers react differently when their babies have become great gangly things, you know,’ she said, glancing briefly at Vara. But I did wonder. Maybe it was Jul’s star sign and a clash of personalities. Mum’s an Aquarius.
So I thought I’d pay Mum and Dad a visit after work the next day. As I approached the house I could hear Jul screaming at the top of his voice, unformed sounds that meant nothing. The volume increased as Dad opened the door. He was sweating.
‘I don’t know what’s got into the lad,’ he said helplessly.
I followed him in. Jul was having a tantrum on the floor, and Mum was nursing her arm.
‘He bit me,’ she said, her eyes filling with tears. She lifted her hand away and there was a circular red mark on the outside of the forearm. I could see where the teeth had sunk in.
‘Oh, Mum,’ I said, and gave her a bit of a hug. Then I asked why Jul was upset. They said they didn’t know.
‘One minute we were preparing supper, and the next minute all hell broke out, and he just launched himself at us, ‘ said Dad. ‘He’s incredibly strong.’
‘Bless him,’ said Mum, and started to cry again.
I went and stood by the two-year-old, hoping he wouldn’t bite me as I stooped. He was, I thought, my own flesh and blood, literally. Blood of my blood. He wouldn’t meet my eyes, and continued to scream.
‘Jul,’ I said, squatting on my heels beside him. ‘Jul.’ I tried to remember, all those years ago, why I used to cry, when I was two. If I could only remember, maybe I could connect with him. I couldn’t think of any time I’d cried when a cuddle from my parents hadn’t soothed me. Jul kept on screaming.
‘He’s been like this for an hour,’ said Dad, raising his voice above the racket. ‘The neighbours will be complaining again.’
‘What did the specialist say?’ I asked, straightening up again, my knees grateful to relax.
‘We’re taking him for a Hi-Res fMRI scan next week, to see how his thought processes work, and he’s having a blood test.’
‘What’s the blood test for?’ I said, though a horrible suspicion was growing. Jul was a lot lighter coloured than me.
‘We want to see if he was a mistake,’ said Dad. ‘Like, if they implanted the wrong clone.’
Mum flicked a remote control at one of the wallscreens.
‘Look at these photos of you when you were two,’ she said, scrolling through a photo series. ‘The eyes, the hair, the expression. Completely different. And look at these photos of Hartland. He looks exactly like you.’
‘Jul’s alright,’ I said, trying to reassure everyone, ‘he was just born under a different star sign. Cancer, isn’t he? Changeable and moody, overemotional and touchy, it’s typical.’
Dad frowned at the pictures, looking from them to Jul. ‘We’ve been in touch with the cloning company,’ he said. ‘We’d heard on the net that there were concerns about the uniqueness of the QR codes, but they denied any problems.’
‘So,’ I said, ‘suppose he isn’t ours. What will you do?’
Mum looked at Jul, and then at her bruised arm, her eyes filling up again. There was a long silence.
It was about ten days later. I was vaguely aware of BBCSkyB news mumbling along in the background as I prepared breakfast, opening and rewarming a packet of toast and marmalade. The Minister for Elderly Care mealymouthed in front of the screen as the presenter told him what the policy should be, showing him the swingometers. The Elderly Care Ministry had the biggest budget in the whole Cabinet, and he really needed to get a grip. I could see that the time would come when the news presenters would completely replace the politicians. With low electoral turnouts, it was crazy for the oligarchs to be paying both.
A call came through then. It was my parents.
‘It’s awful news, son,’ Dad’s voice wavered and on the wallscreen I could see the anguish on his face. ‘Jul’s the son of a couple from Manchester.’
‘Manchester!’ I echoed. Surely, nothing could be worse. ‘So, what happens now?’
‘We had to see if they wanted him back,’ said Dad, ‘but, they can’t afford to have him. So we’re kind of stuck with him. Your mum’s going to see if the authorities will take him off our hands. Can you come over? Your mum’s really upset.’
I stopped by the crematorium to refuel the travelpod with Corpsoil, and queued in traffic the rest of the way to Mum and Dad’s, the air-con recirculating to keep the exhaust fumes out. I don’t mind driving on it, but there’s something about inhaling the fumes. And driving’s not what it used to be, now that the traffic is directly run from the gantries. On the other hand, it’s nice to be able to put your destination in to the sat nav and then just relax and watch your favourite programme, or read an ebook, as you get moved along by the controllers. Insurance premiums were going crazy before the new system came in. But I do miss being able to go for a burn, out in the suburbs.
I thought about Jul as the travelpod grumbled slowly along. He was kind of ours, even though he wasn’t. We’d brought him in to life, and now we didn’t know what to do with him. A bit like the old Frankenstein story, except he wasn’t a monster, he was a little boy.
I sat in my parents’ kitchen as Mum heated up a carton of coffee for me. Jul was lining up virtual travelpods on the floorscreen under the kitchen table, making a traffic jam of his own, burbling away in some random language. ‘And what happened with the Hi-Res fMRI scan?’ I asked.
‘Oh, he’s just got delayed speech development,’ said Mum. ‘He gets frustrated when he can’t express himself. He’s got to be taken for computer aided speech therapy. Don’t -‘ I leant down to the travelpods, clicked one out of the back of the queue and vroomed it along the floor to Jul -‘he’ll bite you,’ she said. But Jul didn’t bite, he smiled up at me and ‘vroomed’ back.
‘I just don’t know what to do for the best,’ Mum said. She looked drained, her hair unstyled, her face much older without make-up. She put the hot coffee carton in front of me and sat down, sagging in the chair. ‘He can’t stay here. Obviously, I care about him, but I just don’t think I’m going to be able to cope, I’m not getting any younger, and he’s just going to get bigger and stronger. I don’t see how I’m going to be able to look after him.’ Jul was vrooming about by my feet. I reached down and stroked his hair. I wondered if Cancers and Tauruses were compatible.
‘I think I could look after him, Mum,’ I said. “I’ll have to talk it over with Meriel, obviously.’
‘I can’t ask you to do that!’ Mum protested. ‘I’ll get the authorities to find a home for him.’
‘Don’t worry Mum,’ I said, ‘It’ll pay you back for all that babysitting you did when Vara was little.’
Dad was sitting at his desk in the study, and I asked him what he was doing. The airlight screen curving down seamlessly into a paper thin keyboard made it difficult to see anything from the side, apart from his profile lit by the glow of the display.
‘I’m going to file a compensation claim against the cloning company,’ he said. ‘It shouldn’t take long, as they don’t use lawyers, so with the automated algorithms it should only take a few hours for the claim to process. Hopefully it’ll cover the costs of Jul’s care, wherever he ends up.’ He sighed and leaned back in his chair, waiting for the screen to refresh.
‘This computer’s so slow,’ he said. ‘I’ve only had it a few weeks, but I’m going to have to replace it, it’s way out of date now. It’s all the updates, you know?’
Not long after that, Jul moved in with us. He’s been a great kid, actually. It took him a long time to learn to communicate, and the breakthrough came in a strange way.
We were in a charity shop and he found an antique toy, one of those plastic things they had a hundred years ago, before virtual toys took over, with magnetic alphabet letters in bright colours that stuck to a board. Meriel and I were looking through the clothes – we can’t often afford to buy new ones nowadays – and she nudged me. Jul, chattering incomprehensibly as usual, had been moving the letters around on the surface, and they read ‘I WANT THIS PLEASE KOBIE’. It was amazing. Of course, we bought it. After that it didn’t take long for him to start text messaging, and now he communicates just like any other teenager, really.
Copyright © 2012 chateauxenespagne.wordpress.com
All characters are fictitious, and any resemblance to any persons living or dead is entirely unintentional.