by Peter Byrne
A Short Story
(Swans - December 4, 2006)
MacDonough saw Harry and waved. He went over and worked his big frame in behind the pub table across from his old friend. Harry, a taut little man, took a deep breath and swelled as he always did in the presence of height. They shook hands and looked around.
The pub, off Tottenham Court Road, had been their hangout years before, when students at the London School of Economics. Except for a paint job, the outside of the building hadn't changed at all. The inside had suffered a rustic makeover thanks to industrial paneling.
Mac was going to give with some irony over the change. But Harry spoke first, getting right down to business.
"For the last three weeks there've been six billion of us. By 2050 there will be at least nine billion. Half the people alive now will be alive then, sucking up to the water lords and scrounging for breathing space. Absolute squalor."
It was the way of international university conferences that the participants obsessed and couldn't shut up about the subject night or day while the proceedings lasted. Mac, from Toronto, and Harry, from L.A., although they exchanged e-mails, only saw each other nowadays at conferences.
"We're not going to make it," Harry added.
"Who knows?" said Mac, "In 2050 I'll only be ninety-something."
"Not you -- us -- the human race isn't going to make it," said Harry with satisfaction.
"Slow down," said Mac.
His weak eyes were always watery behind his thick glasses. He'd spent his thinking life trying to defend Vatican policy on birth control. It had given him a tricky stomach and ruined his eyesight.
"Wait till you hear the two Marys tomorrow. I've seen some of their research."
"They'll play some more hide and seek with the problem. There's no time to confuse the issue. This is a matter of life or death."
Mac's eyebrows flicked up.
"Those girls -- women -- have got some significant figures, and don't beat around the bush at all with them. Most of the world wants several children. You can bribe or threaten people, but only coercion will be really effective. How willing can we be to coerce?"
"Enough to send out medical enforcers with loads of mass produced scalpels and policemen with ships full of pills," said Harry, somber-browed.
Mac did a double take. Was old Hare letting his worldview get on top of him? He'd had a breakdown during his graduate work. But Mac was quickly reassured. Harry grinned, nasty but human.
"You Catholics! What's that Bavarian elf in Rome dishing up but coercion? Being Canadian insulates your mind, all that empty space and cold water."
"We've got our problems too, on a Canadian scale, of course."
"Problems? I found two wetbacks reproducing in my garage. My lawn's turned brown like snuff."
Mac changed his expression and looked uneasy.
"By the way," he said, "I met Lyttleton in Foyle's. He was trying to sell a first edition."
"I told him to drop by here."
"Here? Was he sober?"
"Down at the heels?"
"I didn't look. He was going on about poetry."
"So he's lost the last of his marbles."
"He bragged about having four ex-wives. Can that be true?"
"I can't accept that kind of irresponsibility," said Harry.
His breath went out of him and he shrank in his seat.
"You know the two Marys found that the Pokot tribe in Western Kenya give a ritual burial to mothers who've had many children. But they leave the bodies of barren women out for the hyenas and vultures."
Harry said that down his way the politicians called that family values. Between sips from their pints, they kicked the subject around, while they both thought about Lyttleton's wives.
He was usually on time for pub dates and soon appeared at the pub door. No greenhorn, having spotted Harry and Mac, he waved and stopped at the bar to get a double whisky. Arriving with a full glass obviated the need to start by buying a full round.
Harry, although still deflated, hit out straightway.
"You look in bad shape, Little. Don't you work out?"
"Work out? I have trouble walking from one erection to another."
Mac chuckled with discomfort. This was going to be a session of boys' talk. He'd do his bit, in moderation.
"Libido still prancing, Little?"
"In my small but vigorous way, yes, prancing and dancing, despite the lawyers."
Lyttleton was short in stature. He was nail thin and unnaturally straight-backed.
"More divorces?" asked Harry with a knifepoint in his sneer.
"That's the name of the dame, comrades."
Mac shook his head, good-humouredly. They'd all been proud lefties at L.S.E. But Harry tightened up some more.
"How many exactly? No bullshit."
"Four of them, I do believe. I can see their faces when I try hard, each on their lonely pillow, wet with tears. 'Little,' they whisper, 'I have to tell you, I'm preggers'."
Harry made a brief leap in his seat.
"You mean you've got kids?"
"Have I got kids?" It was strange to see a drunk holding himself so straight. "So many their names escape me, like cold war diplomats."
Harry's eyes blazed.
"You mean all four wives gave birth?"
"Multiple births, my boy. No, I mean more than once each."
Harry sat back and got a grip on himself. He strained to summon up professorial authority.
"You know why we're over here, Little? To decide on action. If population growth can't be curbed, the earth will simply be eaten up. Forget ecology. Humanity will crush itself like one wave of locust landing on the backs of another."
Mac chimed in, for balance.
"Can action be other than police state coercion, that's the question. The truth is that people most everywhere desire big families. They love a lot of kids."
"Love the brats!" said Lyttleton, with a theatrical flourish, "Not possible. You guys have been in America too long. Here the social services sweep the little buggers up. No sweat."
Mac mumbled something about Canada having a better than average child care program. He watched Harry fume and hoped he wouldn't blow his top.
Harry looked at Mac with contempt. Canadians just weren't life or death people. A wishy-washy approach would never stave off annihilation, that second wave of locust.
Talk fragmented to grunts and monosyllables as the North Americans both bought two more rounds each. Lyttleton never left his seat. His companions doubted that he could. But suddenly he drained his glass and was on his feet, straight as a stick.
"Gentlemen, duty calls. I've got a bit of yearning pussy waiting for me in the steamy shadows of Camden Lock."
"For crisake," Harry said, "take precautions. You got the necessary?"
Lyttleton shot his right arm up stiff from the elbow and went off with a crooked grin.
Mac would have liked to sit a while and discuss the next day's conference themes. But Harry, feverish, couldn't sit still. They said goodbye in Tottenham Court Road. Harry waited for a number 24 bus going north. Mac said he was going to take the tube as in the old days and walked south to Oxford Street.
The next day the noon edition of the Evening Standard recorded a murder on the canal footpath in Camden Town. The victim was Charles Lyttleton, a sub-editor of the Daily Telegraph. The following morning that newspaper played down the professional connections of the deceased. However, its list of his family members left behind filled a long paragraph. The Mirror, in its report, mentioned the Telegraph twice. Under the title of "Gotcha Goolies," the Sun spoke of genital mutilation. The Mail referred to African tribal customs, and made a too obvious point of not speculating on the killer's skin color.
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