Fiction: Cold Shoulder
By Manda Benson
Every face turned as Hannah entered the crowded bar. Chin held high, she surveyed them, the desire apparent on the faces of the men, the envy on the women’s. This had always been the way of things. Hannah was born to be beautiful. Her parents had pulled out all the stops to make it so.
Yet one man had not looked up. He sat at the bar, his handsome, strong-featured face drawn into a brooding frown directed at the half-empty glass on the beermat before him. Lloyd. Lloyd was the only man in her year Hannah hadn’t had. Every time she’d tried to strike up a conversation with him, something had intervened: a call on his mobile, an appointment with a tutor, a passing friend. Well, tonight, Lloyd’s number was up. Hannah wasn’t prepared to entertain the one that got away any more.
Hannah checked her appearance in the mirror outside the lavatories. She took off her jacket to reveal the low-cut top that clung to her every curve, and measured the room in confident strides.
“Hi, I’m Hannah,” she introduced herself.
Lloyd had still not looked at her, and he gave her a brief glance as she took the stool beside him. “I know.” He didn’t offer to buy Hannah a drink, but picked up his own glass and downed what remained of his beer in one draught.
“Can I get you another?” Hannah offered quickly as he stood up.
“No thanks,” said Lloyd. “I really ought to be getting home now.” He smiled politely.
What was this? Every man Hannah had ever wanted had been unable to resist her. Why shouldn’t she have Lloyd? Perhaps Lloyd was just shy. Hannah stood and moved her face closer to his.
Lloyd drew his head back and looked away. He pushed past Hannah towards the door. People in the room stared at her, and she sensed a subtle change in them. Their faces bore expressions of derision; amusement. Hannah felt blood rushing to her face.
Suddenly she felt like some revolting harridan who stalked men. How dare he do this to her, in front of everyone? She supposed he thought he was playing some sort of ludicrous joke. Possessed by a fierce anger, she ran out onto the dark street.
Lloyd hurried several yards ahead of her, pulling on his jacket as he walked. “What are you? Gay?” The sound of Hannah’s heels rang through the empty street in accompaniment to her voice. Curtains twitched from behind the windows. Hannah didn’t care; it was Lloyd who was at fault, not her. “Asexual? Religious?” She grabbed his sleeve roughly, and he turned to face her. For a horrible moment, Hannah thought he was going to hit her.
“Perhaps you do deserve an explanation,” he said. “What you don’t deserve is an apology.” Beside where they had stopped stood a short wall with a gate, leading to a small park with a children’s playground. Hannah walked ahead of Lloyd towards the swings, a sudden sense of apprehension filling her. What exactly was he going to tell her?
She sat down on one of the swings facing him. “I’m supposed to be a beautiful woman. I was genetically engineered for it. My looks, my mannerisms, my pheromones.”
Lloyd sat down on the swing next to hers. “I’m genetically engineered, too.”
Hannah stared at him in the dim light coming from the street. That wasn’t hard to believe, with that face. “I don’t understand.”
Lloyd swung back and forth idly. “I hate telling people this. Most people who are born genetically engineered, like you, are made from fertilised eggs donated by their parents. I don’t have any parents. The person who commissioned me was a rich and powerful woman, and my genetics were based upon those of three other men whom she’d decided weren’t satisfactory.”
“You were genetically engineered as a toyboy?”
“That’s pretty much it.”
“But you live in the university’s accommodation. Where’s this woman now?”
Lloyd shrugged. He cast an ironic glance at Hannah. “She got bored with me and went off.”
“Well, then, what’s the problem?”
“The woman who had me engineered specified some additional genes. One of them was the fidelity gene. It’s not human in origin; in fact it comes from a bird. It means you can only fall in love with one person. If that person dies or abandons you, that’s just tough.”
Hannah stared at him for a moment. “That’s unethical. You should complain to the human rights board!”
“Hannah,” Lloyd said gently, “you can’t miss what you don’t want.” He stood up and straightened his jacket.
“That’s it?” Hannah exclaimed.
“I will give you one piece of advice,” said Lloyd. “You and I do have one thing in common. We were both created for niche markets. My niche was rather small, and yours is much larger, but the outcome will be the same in the end. Beauty doesn’t last forever. Some day you’re going to wake up and find that your niche has disappeared. And then, unless you’ve spent some time carving out another niche for yourself, there’ll be nothing left.” Lloyd raised one eyebrow before turning away and heading back for the gate. “Don’t let what you were born to be define the person you are.”
Manda Benson is a research scientist living in the Midlands of England with a pink tarantula and two savage guard rabbits.