Fiona had been hassling Valerie to get us to come for a meal at her and Keith’s for an indecently long period of time. We’d let things slide, the way people do, but eventually we got embarrassed making excuses and it seemed less hassle to actually set a date and go round to their place one evening.
   We found Fiona in high spirits. She’d gained a promotion in her job which was in corporate insurance, selling policies to big businesses. Selling policies at that level was ninety percent public relations, which, in turn, as any candid PR person will tell you, is ninety-five percent hospitality and five percent information. The problem with Fiona was, like many career-minded people, she couldn’t switch off her occupational role and could therefore be a crushing bore.
   — Come in! Wonderful to see you! Gosh! Gorgeous outfit, Val! Where did you get it? Crawford, you’re putting on the beef. It suits you though. Has he been doing weights, Val? Have you been doing weights, Crawford? You’re looking great, both of you! I’m going to get some drinks. Vodka and tonic for you, Val, sit down, sit down, I want to hear all your adventures, everything, gosh, have I got some things to tell you ... I suppose you want a Jack Daniels, Crawford?
— Eh, a can of beer would do fine.
— Oh, beer. Oh. Sorry. Gosh. We’re all out of beer. Oh God. Crawford and his beer!
After making a fuss, she ticked me off for the cardinal sin of asking for a beer. I settled for a Jack Daniels, which Fiona had got in especially for me.
— Oh Val, gosh, I must tell you about this amazing guy I met ... Fiona began, before noticing our surprise and discomfort.
We didn’t really have to say: Where’s Keith? as our eyes must have done the talking for us.
— Gosh, I don’t quite know how to put this. Some rather bad news on the Keithy-weithy-woo’s front, I’m afraid. She crossed the spacious room and lifted the cover from a glass tank which stood against the wall. She clicked on a light at the side of the tank and said, — Wakey, wakey, Valerie and Crawford are here!
At first I thought it was a fish tank, that Keith had just shot the craw, and that Fiona, devastated, had transferred her emotional energy onto pets in the form of some tropical fish. With the benefit of retrospect, it was always an unlikely notion.
Then I noted that the tank had a head inside it. A human head, disembodied, decapitated. Moreover, the head seemed alive. I moved closer. The eyes in the head were moving. The hair was spread around it, Medusa-like, made weightless by the watery, yellow fluid it was immersed in. Various pipes, tubes and wires were going into the head, mainly at the neck, but also at other points. Under the tank was a control console, with various dials, switches and lights.
— Keith ... I stammered.
The head winked at me.
— Don’t expect much in the way of conversation, Fiona said. She looked down at the tank, — Poor darling. He can’t speak. No lungs, you see. She kissed the tank, then fussed at the smudge of lipstick she’d left.
— What happened to him? Valerie took one step forward and two steps back.
— This machine keeps him alive. Wonderful, isn’t it? It cost us four hundred and thirty-two thousand pounds. She mouthed the figure with a slow, conspirital deliberation and feigned shock. — I know, I know, she continued, — you’re wondering how we can afford it.
— Actually, I said icily, — we were wondering what happened to Keith.
— Oh gosh yes, so sorry! It must be a hell of a shock to you. Keith was tearing down the M25 towards Guildford when the Porsche left the road. Tyre blow-out. Apparently, the car bounced across a couple of lanes, over the crush-barrier and straight into the on-coming traffic. So there’s a head-on with this huge artic; the Porsche was a complete write-off, as you’d expect. Keith was almost finished; well in a sense he was. Poor Keithy-weithy-woo’s. She looked down at the tank, appearing slightly strained and sad for the first time.
— The health-care company man said to me: In a sense, your husband is dead. His body has been smashed to pieces. Most of his major organs are useless. However, his head and brain are still intact. We have a new machine which has been developed in Germany and pioneered in the States. We’d like your consent to give Keith treatment. It’s very costly, but we can do a deal on the life insurance because he’s technically dead. It’s a difficult question, the health-care man said, and we’ll leave the ethics of it to the philosophers. After all, that’s why we pay our taxes to have them sit and deliberate in their ivory towers. That was what he said. I rather liked that. Anyway, he told me that their legal people still had a few i’s to dot and t’s to cross, but they were confident of, as he put it, getting a result. Do we have your consent, he asked me. Well, gosh, what could I say?
I looked at Val, then down at Keith. There wasn’t much to say. Perhaps some day, with the advances in medical science, they’d find a body with a useless damaged head and be able to do a transplant. There’s no shortage of them; I was thinking of various politicians. I assumed that finding a healthy body to attach the head to was the reason for this sordid and bizarre exercise. I didn’t really want to know.
We sat down to the meal. Fiona might have said the evening was a success, like a work-based task or a project which had to be completed. There were one or two minor blunders, like when I refused a glass of wine.
— I’m driving, Fiona. I’d better screw the nut... I looked at what was left of Keith in the tank and mouthed an apology. His eyes flickered.
While Fiona was darting around, in and out of the kitchen, Valerie bade her to sit down and relax. She almost told her she was running around like a headless chicken, but managed to change it to blue-arsed fly.
However, the evening was not too excruciating and the meal was edible. We made small talk for the rest of the night. As we got ready to go I meekly and self-consciously gave Keith the thumbs up sign. He winked again.
Valerie whispered to Fiona in the hallway, — One thing you didn’t tell us, who’s this super new man?
— Oh gosh ... it’s so strange how things work out. He’s the chap from the health-care company who suggested the treatment for Keith. Gosh, Val, he’s such a ram. The other day he just grabbed me, threw me down on the couch and had me right there and then ... She put her hand to her mouth and looked at me. — Oh gosh! I’m not embarrassing you, Crawford, am I?
— Yes, I lied, unconvincingly.
— Good! she said cheerfully, then swept us back into the room. — One last thing I need your advice on: do you think that Keithy-kins would look better on the other side of the room, next to the CD unit?
Val gazed nervously at me.
—Yes, I began, noting that the couch was presently positioned directly opposite Keith’s tank, — I think he definitely would.