There’s video of the then-Prime Minister, over 75 years ago, staring down the TV camera and addressing the nation. ‘I have an announcement,’ she’d said, teeth glistening at the corners of her mouth. ‘Britain has made a major scientific breakthrough.’
When we were twenty-five, we didn’t worry about you having so much less time left than me. I stare, again, at our wedding photo on the wall. Me and you, both grinning at the camera, our foreheads branded with the number of days we each had left to live. 20147 on mine. 7302 on yours. Both figures in angular electric blue digits, each ticking down by one as every day passed. We knew that I’d go on until 75, but you’d be six feet under at 45. Still, that didn’t seem to matter. Like I said to my Mum and Dad, we were in love. We’d have twenty years together. It felt like forever, then. What did it matter what came after? I’d worry about that later.
‘Scientists, our scientists, have made a wonderful step forward. An incredible discovery. It is now possible to know, from the moment of birth, the exact natural life expectancy of all newborns. Parents will find out whether their child will live to 70, 80, 90 or even beyond.’
And now those years have gone. We’re only in our mid-forties yet, somehow, your time is almost up. Two more months and some illness or disease will take you from me. We don’t even know what. They don’t diagnose people any more, nor try to treat them. What would be the point? You’ll die anyway. The countdown proves it. No-one’s clock has ever been wrong. Sure, people have killed themselves before their time was up, or been murdered or fallen under a bus or whatever, but there are no cases of anyone carrying on breathing after their timer hit zero.
Today, your birthday, your countdown says 63. I stare at it. I remember when it flipped to show you had just one year to go, one single year left. The injustice punched me in the guts and I sobbed the entire day for you, for me, for our daughter.
‘Happy birthday, Jamie, darling,’ I say, trying to smile as I hand over the last card I’ll ever buy for you. It’s got a cartoon of a cat on it. Suddenly I wonder why I chose it. You don’t even like cats. There’s no present. We’d agreed I wouldn’t get you one. What do you get someone who’ll be dead in sixty-three days? Socks? We kiss, but I can hardly fight back the tears.
‘Just a quick injection into the expectant parent and the baby will be born with the number of days it will live displayed discreetly on its forehead. This number will count down as the child gets older, continuing right through adulthood, until death.’
The bedroom door slams open. ‘Happy birthday, Daddy!’ squeals our ten-year-old, Olivia. ‘I made you a card!’ She shoves a lemon-yellow piece of folded cardboard in your direction. She’s drawn a unicorn on it. It’s a lot better than the cartoon cat. Her sketches are pinned up all over the walls. Dogs, birds, princesses, monsters. She’s an amazing artist.
‘This injection will be compulsory for all pregnant women once they reach the second trimester.’
‘Thank you, Laura,’ you say, opening your arms wide for a cuddle. ‘Thank you, Olivia. I love you both so much.’
Once we’ve fallen out of our family hug, Olivia says, ‘Mummy, let’s get Daddy’s cake!’ and I roll my eyes because it’s supposed to be a surprise. We head off to the kitchen and remove the bog-standard Victoria sponge from its box. ‘Daddy likes really boring cakes, doesn’t he?’ I laugh, despite myself.
‘The benefits for our medical services are incalculable. Being able to see at a glance the life expectancy of a patient will allow our doctors to prioritise efficiently, saving time and, of course, money.’
Not a day goes by when I don’t curse those scientists and the government, never mind the population in general for just going along with this ridiculous megalomaniacal idea. I’ve read the history of all this. There was no real pushback, no protests, just a few sarcastic tweets amid a nationwide shrug of acceptance.
But recently, there’s been something new. I’ve started cursing myself too, for falling in love with you in the first place. I know it’s selfish to think about my own pain so much. I know you’re suffering too – whenever I look into your eyes, I see your heart breaking – but in a way, you’re the lucky one. You won’t have to cope afterwards, to just keep going. I will. For Olivia. But I’m not sure I can do it.
We slide the cake onto a tray and take it back to the other room. I light the candles and we sing ‘Happy Birthday Dear Daddy’, my voice cracking, and as you blow out the flames, Olivia tells you to make a wish. As you take a deep breath, I catch her reflection in the mirror, a miniature version of you. The same set of the jaw, same sharp nose, same steel grey eyes. My number glows next to hers. Today, mine is 11025. Hers is 714.
I know what you’re wishing for, Jamie, my love, your eyes locked onto our beautiful little girl. I’m wishing for it too, but we both know wishes don’t come true.
‘This breakthrough will allow families to truly plan their futures. I am certain that this stability will bring happiness to people all over this great nation. Thank you.’
Then she’d walked away from the camera and closed the door behind her.
David Cook’s stories have been published in Ellipsis Zine, the National Flash Fiction Anthology, XRAY and more. He’s a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. He lives in Bridgend, Wales, with his wife and daughter. Say hi on Twitter @davidcook100.