BEWARE WHAT YOU WISH FOR
Samantha had fallen in love with Jimmy, a man much younger than herself. The emotional discomfort was a surprise. She was not a person who liked to be dependant or undignified, and so went to great lengths to conceal her feelings. And yet she found herself musing about the most absurd things - his cheekbones, for God’s sake! - and wondering what his hidden skills were. Could he untie knots in string? Could he whistle?
One thing which he could not do was to love her in return. It was her age that was the problem. She was well-preserved, with everything more or less in the right place. But to Jim, she was old. Once she thoughtlessly slipped her arm through his after an evening in a restaurant, and he stiffened as though he had turned to stone, or as though she was covered in vinegar. It was a mistake she did not repeat, and so she continued as before: elegant, witty, sympathetic, with lots to teach and nothing to feel.
And then, one summer evening, she was walking in a friend’s garden when she found herself speaking aloud (it was probably the effect of wine): “I’d give anything - anything - if we could be the same age, even if just for a little while!” She had not noticed the figure which now stepped out from the bushes. Just for a minute, she thought it was KD Lang, but then realised it was just a rather androgynous figure swathed in a cloak and regarding her in an oblique way. “How much would you give, Sam? Would you give your soul?” it said huskily. Samantha did not believe in the existence of the soul, and she had a fatal disregard for detail. The figure gave promises which Sam was sure it could not keep - that she and Jimmy could be the same age - and after Sam had laughed and said “O, alright then!”. The personage smiled and said “Faustina, lente!”
There was a loud click and a sort of whirring sound, as if the alarm of a giant clock was being re-set. Putting it down to tinnitus, Samantha went home. But when she woke up next day, there were infinitesimal changes. Some of the wrinkles round her eyes had softened, and her breasts seemed to have lifted an inch. When she saw Jimmy, his face was somehow more angular; that youthful plumpness and sheen were slipping away, and were replaced by a cragginess. Over the next six months, the process intensified day by day, so that he looked older and she looked younger.
She noticed that he looked at her in a different way: “why did I never see you like this before?” Their intellectual intimacy gradually changed key. Now he slipped his arm through hers, laced his fingers through hers, kissed her when she made a joke. When they became lovers, it was all that she had wanted: they were eagles dallying on the wind.
So far so good. This happiness lasted a year, and then Sam noticed that the interlocking cogs of their two lives were unequally aligned. It was as though her wheel was larger and moving more slowly, whereas Jim’s wheel was smaller and moving progressively faster. To be sure, she continued to rejuvenate (starting menstruation again was a shock) but her pace was stately. Jim, however, aged apace, and in a peculiar way. He could still make love, and quite well too, but he was worried that each act would somehow deplete him of a finite stock. More annoyingly, he began to talk about his health a lot, and became something of a valetudinarian. Good God, thought Sam, he is like Mr Woodhouse in Emma: “the sooner every party is over, the better!”
It was a shock to Sam to find that her love was not unconditional. Jimmy became querulous, and started correcting her grammar. Before, he had been generous and impulsive: now, a certain timidity and meanness infused all he did. And Sam had her own problems to contend with too. She had developed spots, and hated her parents, but since they had been dead for many years, her irritation had no focus except poor Jim. One day, in a shop window, she glimpsed their reflections. She had become twelve years old: and Jim was ninety. Something had to be done.
Sam took Jimmy back to the garden where she had met the mysterious figure and carelessly struck that bargain so many years ago. She called out, and the figure emerged from the bushes as before: but he or she was implacable, and insisted that the process, once begun, had to be played through to the end. The only thing that could be offered was a hastening of the time-scale. If Sam and Jim stayed in the garden, the whole process could be completed by dawn.
They sat down side by side, and there was another loud click and the same whirring sound as before. Both of them began to shrink in size, limbs contracting, blood condensing, eyes closing. By the time the sun came up, all that was left of Samantha and Jimmy was two corpses: a tiny baby, and a wizened old man. The people who found them were puzzled: who had they been, who had belonged to whom? And what should they do with them?