Senescence is a novel I completed since graduating from the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. I was inspired to write about its themes of life extension after interviewing SENS scientist Aubrey de Grey and I got the chance to talk about the subject and the novel with the man himself in a panel discussion on TRT World.
I am currently seeking representation by an agent.
The first person to live to 1,000 has already been born, but with life-extension available only to the very rich, when one man loses everything he holds dear he tries to make a stand against our unjust world before it tears him apart.
Euan D’Onofrio, 84-years old, is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Ordinarily a death sentence, his doctor informs him that a revolutionary new treatment known as AST is being trialled and he is a candidate. The treatment not only cures his cancer, but rejuvenates his body to that of a young man in his prime. ‘Senescence’ follows Euan’s struggle as he regains youth and love to adapt to a world that had long ago forgotten he existed and to one changing faster than anyone could imagine as old age becomes another curable disease, but only for the elite.
“Mr. D’Onofrio, the bad news is it’s cancer. The good news is it’s pancreatic.”
Staring into the bathroom mirror, cataracted only with steam, Euan D’Onofrio replayed the doctor’s diagnosis again and again in his head like a song he didn’t quite know the words to. The face that examined him back didn’t look like a man who had just been told he had the world’s deadliest cancer. Not a wrinkle, not a blemish touched his youthful, boyish features. He grinned and saw dimples. He relaxed his face and cheekbones appeared. He shook his head and a tousled mess of thick, black hair shook with it. A picture of his prime: he still could not believe less than two months ago he’d been told a tumour was eating him from the inside out.
When Dr. Winters had read out his death sentence, all Euan could do was blink twice at the man. He could see the doctor’s lips moving, but they were no longer making any sound. Outside the surgery he could hear birds chirping their little details into the beginning of his end. Sunlight streamed through the blinds and onto the desk in front of him, picking out the framed square of cloth on the wall on which there were embroidered a few words that must have held some meaning for someone. ‘O wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?’ Spring was already well underway. There was a smell of cut grass in the air. A whiff of childhood. He was too young to die. But isn’t everyone?
“How long do I have?” he said.
“How long do you want?” replied the doctor.
Euan frowned. Another curious turn of phrase. “What do you mean good news?”
“You’re a candidate, Mr. D’Onofrio.”
“Candidate for what?”
“You don’t watch much television, do you?”
Dr. Winters smiled patiently. “Thanks to anti-senescence therapy, or AST as my acronym obsessed partners in Cambridge are calling it, pancreatic cancer may no longer be the killer it once was.”
Euan stuck his finger in his ear. “Senewhat now?”
“Senescence. It’s an experimental treatment regime targeting the body’s ailments at the cellular level. Preliminary results have proved extremely promising. The first phase of human trials has shown an increase in five-year survival rates from 3.6% to 100%.”
The doctor’s lips were moving without sound again. When Euan had woken up that morning with a jaundiced face and a pain in his back, he was convinced he had advanced pancreatic cancer. He was not especially prone to hypochondria, but on this day, somehow he just knew. It was his turn. He’d already accepted his own death before he’d got on the bus. He’d got all of his denial and anger and bargaining and depression out of the way hours before Dr. Winters confirmed his worst suspicions. He’d come to terms with the life he’d led or lack thereof. All he wished was for a few more decades to do all the things he’d put off, and the chance to do the few things he hadn’t, differently. The doctor’s second, much less expected, revelation was far harder to comprehend. As it turned out, dying was an easier thing to accept than living. Now he had no excuse.
Euan nodded as if he’d been taking everything in. “I’m not going to die?”
“We’re commencing the second phase of human trials as we speak and you would make the ideal candidate, Mr. D’Onofrio. If you’re willing to volunteer, I believe we can cure your cancer. And a lot of other things besides.”
Euan wiped the steam from the mirror for the third time, watching it mist up again with boring inevitability. Some things you couldn’t stop. He glanced at the post-it note attached to the bathroom cabinet. ‘Take AST at 9am’. Euan opened the cabinet and picked out the syringe. Taking a vial of whatever strange unpronounceable new stem cell cocktail he’d been given, he filled the syringe and ejected the air just like Dr. Winters had shown him. A little squirt of black liquid came out that was worth more than his flat. Euan spent the next half an hour looking for a vein. He never used to have a problem spotting them. When at last he tracked one down after repeated tappings and proddings, he jammed the needle in before it could get away from him and winced. The pain would only be passing. Nothing else in his body hurt anymore.
His hair was almost dry now. Grabbing the magazine from on top of the toilet cistern, he flicked through page after page of semi-naked men with ripped torsos and modern metrosexual hairstyles. He couldn’t help flexing his own muscles in imitation, marvelling at the toned, athletic physique he saw before him, the bronzed skin stretched taut across his pectorals. It was even better than before. Finally finding a picture of a man whose hairstyle he could only assume was in vogue, Euan took a dollop of modelling putty and did his best to replicate it on top of his own head. Throwing his towel aside, he pulled on a pair of y-fronts that looked nothing like the fashionable boxer briefs the men in photographs were wearing to conceal not much modesty. They’d told him he’d have to get a new wardrobe. What were they so worried about? That the world wasn’t ready for what he was? Or that he wasn’t ready for what the world was?
Pulling on a clean shirt and buttoning his trousers, Euan hopped to the door. He’d attached another post-it note to the handle reminding him to check he had his wallet, keys and mobile phone. He patted each pocket and found they were all on his person. Removing the small square of yellow paper, he screwed it up and threw it in the wastepaper basket. Leaving himself memory-joggers around the house was a habit he’d got into when the fog had descended on his mind and he began forgetting little things. He no longer needed them. Things had never seemed so clear.
Smiling to himself, Euan stepped out of his flat. The corridor was deserted. It usually was at this time of the day: after the post, before the families came to do their duty. He could hear the television blaring in Mrs. Patel’s flat next door. Poor old woman, Euan thought. She played her soaps loud enough for her to hear, but not loud enough for her to remember what she’d heard the next day. He’d always had a soft spot for Mrs. Patel as he supposed one often does for those time’s ticking hand had dealt worse. Her husband died three years ago and her children lived on the other side of London. Who else was going to look in on her?
“Mrs. Patel?” Euan called, ringing her door bell. He waited a minute and then rang twice more until he heard the television mute and footsteps shuffling slowly towards him.
The door opened and Mrs. Patel poked her head around the corner. She was a tiny lady hobbled by osteoporosis with folded, creased brown skin and thinning white hair pulled upwards in a bun that was losing its fight with the years to keep her face taut. She looked shorter than ever today. Euan couldn’t help thinking if she continued to shrink she would vanish from sight entirely. But then isn’t that the fate of the old? To end up invisible.
“Good morning Mrs. Patel,” Euan said so loudly that he was almost shouting, all the while attempting to smile as politely as he could.
“Hullo?” she croaked, squinting up at him.
“I’m just popping out. I wondered if you wanted anything from the shops?”
Mrs. Patel frowned. “Who are you?”
“It’s me, Euan,” he said. Mrs. Patel was often confused, but she had never forgotten his name before.
Her frown deepened into a look of bewildered frustration. “You’re not Euan.”
“I promise you, I am.”
“Don’t lie to me, young man!”
“I’m not lying, Mrs. Patel. Listen, there’s some things I need to explain. I…”
“You’re not Euan!” she cried. “You’re not Euan! You’re not Euan!”
Mrs. Patel slammed the door shut in his face. Why should she recognise him? He barely recognised himself anymore. Euan heard her shuffling away and a couple of minutes later the television boomed back into life. Things were always going to be different. How could he expect the people he’d known to treat him the way they used to? It hardly seemed to matter now. He could count on one hand the people left in his life. It was time to be seen.
Bounding down the stairs, along the corridor past the concierge and out of the front door, he was hit by a wall of sound. Lower Clapton Road was loud. Louder than he ever remembered it. Expensive-looking cars cruising by blaring out thumping electronic beats, buses juddering to a halt at the stop by his home, the everyday drunks spilling out from the bar two doors down for breaths of fresh nicotine, a woman berating her children as they attempted to drag her away by the thighs from the florist’s window, two men shouting at each other in Caribbean accents. Euan remembered what the area was like when it was still the murder mile. Drugs, gangs and shootings. Now you could barely move for organic health food shops, overpriced bars with obligatory bicycles hanging from their ceilings and pop up cafes with uncomfortable wooden benches that apparently made a virtue of their food being ‘dirty’. The biggest beards were no longer being sported by the Muslim men coming out of the local mosque every Friday afternoon. They belonged to young white guys with sailor tattoos crammed into improbably skinny jeans. How was he ever supposed to blend in? They said it would make the transition easier. But in the weeks since he’d started his treatment, he hadn’t shaved once and he could barely get more than a shadow to settle on his chin. At least sweater vests were back in fashion.
The 48 bus was pulling up on the other side of the road. He looked left and right, watching the people dashing across the street into the oncoming traffic, playing British Bulldog with their lives, just like he used to, their safety and ongoing existence wholly secondary to the perceived trauma of waiting eight to 12 minutes for the next bus. Why should anyone care? Life was short. He looked left and right again, gingerly stepping a toe onto the tarmac as though it were a hot bath and then retracting it. By the time he’d made it across the road, his bus was gone. It didn’t matter. It was short.
Standing under the bus shelter, Euan marvelled at his reflection in the window of the restaurant opposite. Where had this vanity suddenly appeared from? He averted his eyes from the handsome young man admiring him back, glancing up at the sign above the restaurant’s window. ‘Bab al-Salam’ it was called. Euan didn’t remember seeing it before. It must have been one of those new establishments that were popping up all over London, set up by the Syrian refugees who’d managed to escape with some money as well as their lives. Euan didn’t believe what he read about them in the press whenever he felt brave enough to open a newspaper. All the Syrians he’d met were polite and friendly and the last thing they wanted to be party to was more violence.
When the next bus pulled up, Euan got on and seated himself instinctively downstairs at the front next to an ancient black lady hunched over her cloth shopping bag. It was only as the bus was moving off that he noticed the presence looming over him. An old man with a wispy white beard and a face so blotchy it looked like he’d been burned by time was standing over him clutching his walking stick with both hands and shaking visibly. At first Euan couldn’t work out why the man was staring at him so incredulously through his milky eyes. And then he remembered himself.
“Oh goodness, please forgive me,” Euan cried, leaping from his seat and offering it to the man. Feeling ashamed, he went upstairs and sat at the back where the ‘cool’ young things were lounging with their feet on the seats listening to some repetitive beats on their iPods at such a volume they scarcely needed headphones at all. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d sat on the upper deck. Looking out of the window down at the pedestrians passing by on the pavement below, he couldn’t help feeling slightly superior. He’d never felt superior to anyone in his life. On good days he considered himself at best average as a human being, capable of being moral, polite in most circumstances, no more selfish than most, good enough at what he was good at, never slacking nor excelling. But he watched the people going about their daily lives, pulling screaming children into cafes, lugging bags of bargain tat out of pound shops, loitering on church steps passing suspiciously long cigarettes between each other, ambling zombie-like down the street staring into their mobile phones inexplicably avoiding bumping into one another for fear of making contact with anything real, and he felt somehow more.
By the time the bus arrived at Liverpool Street and he found himself gazing up at the imposing glass office block opposite, Euan felt rather more humble again. A job. Employment. He never imagined he’d have to work again. But then, blinking dumbstruck at Dr. Winters, he never imagined he’d have to live again and living was expensive. What if he’d forgotten it all? How would he ever fit in? Maybe they’d think he was a fraud. They’d never believe his CV. How could one sum up the life he’d had? How would he explain to them that it wasn’t his résumé that was a lie, but his face? Wiping the sweat from his palms, Euan walked through the doors and up to the receptionist’s desk.
“You must be here for the interview,” the woman behind the desk said with a reassuring smile. “May I take your name please.”
“Please take a seat, Mr. D’Onofrio. Mr. Sanderson will be with you shortly.”
Euan sat down on one of the comfy orange chairs lining the back wall. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out his bundle of notes. His hands were shaking. He rifled through the papers, unfolding a creased square of his scribblings. Without thinking he pulled out his pair of Robert Mugabe glasses and put them on and the world went blurry. He squinted at the green splodge of the pot plant a few feet away. It was like before. Dr. Winters hadn’t been lying. Taking his glasses off, he stared at his notes. The biggest little stories of the week. The situations were different, but they were every bit as mundane. He could do this. He could do it.
“Here for the interview as well?”
Euan glanced up to see a young woman with wavy brunette hair standing over him wearing a pencil skirt and blouse and a smile on her face. Her smile made her look pretty. In fact almost everything about her, from the way her little nose ticked upwards ever so slightly to the smattering of freckles across her full cheeks, looked pretty. Euan was not used to being visible, least of all to women and especially not attractive young ones. She couldn’t be talking to him. He looked about. There was no one else sitting nearby and she was still standing there staring intently at him.
“Erm, I…” he mumbled.
“Yes, me too,” she said, sitting beside him and rifling through her handbag. She took out a tube of red lipstick and applied it. It was a new tube and the caution with which she used it suggested she wasn’t the type to wear lipstick all that often. “My name’s Emelia, what’s yours?”
“Er, it’s, um…”
“Um? That’s a funny name.” Emelia laughed. Even her laugh was pretty. Warm. Somehow Euan felt less nervous listening to it.
“Oh, you’re Scottish?”
“Via Italy. And a few other places.”
“How fascinating,” Emelia beamed. Either she was genuinely interested in his family history or she had perfected the art of feigning interest in a subject to such a degree that she would be perfectly suited for a career in local journalism and that meant he didn’t stand a chance at getting the job over her. But in that moment, it was not the job he was interested in. He was watching Emelia’s lips as she continued to talk, noting the flick of her hair, the dimples in her rosy cheeks as she smiled, his eyes darting down her silver necklace to the sliver of cleavage she displayed, and suddenly he felt something stirring down below, something that hadn’t moved in years pressing hard against his thigh. Blushing, he crossed his legs and folded his arms over his first erection in a decade.
“Have you seen that Mars thingy?” Euan said hurriedly, pointing at the enormous widescreen television on the far wall in the hope he could distract Emelia’s attention from the bulge in his all too thin suit trousers. A middle-aged hippy with long hair and a long brown beard who looked a bit like a wizard but judging by the caption beneath him had more letters after his name than Euan had in his was being interviewed by the TV presenter in front of a giant radar dish on a hilltop, his muted lips moving excitedly as he pointed up at the stars.
Emelia glanced up. “Mars 100 you mean?”
“Is that what they call it?”
“They want to send 100 people to colonise Mars. Apparently it’s all for some reality TV show.”
“They’re going to be auditioning candidates soon I hear. But it’s crazy. We don’t even have the technology to send them there safely, let alone sustain life in such an inhospitable environment.”
Euan shrugged. “I’ve heard of crazier things.”
“They want to see the first human colony on Mars by the end of the next decade. Whatever. You and I will be long dead before that happens.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“Mr. D’Onofrio,” the receptionist called over to him. “Mr. Sanderson will see you now. Please take the lift to the sixteenth floor. Second office to your right.”
“Yeah, yeah, ok, just a minute!” Euan called back, getting up slowly with the aid of his carefully positioned bundle of notes. He smiled awkwardly at Emelia. “Well it was lovely to meet you.”
Emelia grinned. “Good luck!”
So they were sending people to Mars. Euan had wanted to be a lot of things growing up. A train driver. A palaeontologist. A playwright. Never an astronaut. Space was cold and black and insistent on killing us in an improbably large number of particularly horrible ways. Here we had the one little rock in all the wide universe that was actually quite nice for all the wars and murders and nasty things we did to each other, and all these people could talk about was leaving it. No, a career in space had never really appealed. But then again, neither had a career in local journalism and yet here he was standing outside the office of Greg Sanderson, editor-in-chief of the East London Echo. He knocked.
The door swung open and Euan was greeted by a tall, heavily built man with a bush of curly, greying hair on his horsily long head. He was dressed as though he knew he was posh and didn’t need to prove it – a creased, double breasted pinstripe suit that looked like it might have been expensive once, worn with an open collared shirt half tucked into his trousers and a pair of slippers on his feet – paying lip service to the greasy corporate world of opportunity he’d clearly walked into through old school connections even though he knew he was born to a better one. Or maybe he just forgot how to get dressed this morning.
“Euan D’Onofrio, hi, I’m Greg Sanderson,” said the man in a voice that confirmed Euan’s first suspicion: the loud purr of a great and noble beast, the soft sound of thunder rolling between his jowls. Greg reached out his hand, took Euan’s before he’d even raised it in offer, and crushed the bones in it till they crunched. “Please, come in. Take a seat. Can I get you anything? Espresso? Water?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Euan replied, seating himself in the armchair opposite Greg’s desk. He stole a glance of the office. The rug on the floor was Turkish, Hereke. The colourful, woven wall hanging could only have been Indian. The elongated, patterned masks staring back at him from the opposite wall were clearly African. There was a didgeridoo propped up in the corner. The entire office gave the impression of a man who’d departed on a gap year 20 years ago and had returned just in time for a mid-life crisis.
“So, Euan,” Greg said, coming to sit at his immaculately untidy desk, “tell me. Why do you want to work at the East London Echo?”
Euan shook off the first thought that came to his head: the letter from the DWP that arrived a week ago. “I’ve always had a keen interest in local journalism. The things that make people, er, tick. Cats, trees, single mothers on benefits. Paedos! Yes, it would be a fascinating experience.”
Casting his eye over Euan’s CV, Greg bit his lip and frowned. “Experience. Yes. Hmmm. How old are you, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“You look about 25. But your CV, it’s phenomenal. You trained at the Financial Times. You covered the oil markets for Bloomberg. You had a column in the Evening Standard for five years. And you were deputy editor of The London Review magazine for, ahem. This can’t be right. Thirty years?”
“Yes, erm, about that-”
“I’ve seen some bullshitters in my time, but you… Is this a joke?”
“I assure you, it’s not a joke.”
Greg screwed up Euan’s CV and threw it in the bin. “Lies. Stop wasting my time. What are you even doing here?”
Euan sighed. “Every word on that CV is true. I’m here because the DWP wrote to me telling me they had suspended my pension. My case has raised some unique concerns at the governmental level. Apparently they think I’m fit enough to go back to work, probably for another 40 years for all I know. I may look 25, but that’s all down to the drugs. It was my birthday yesterday. I turned 84.”