Despite Luka’s wonderful advice, the party had been exactly the awkward ordeal Royston had been expecting, for the one hour and ten minutes he’d experienced it thus far. Everyone except him seemed to know each other intimately, and everywhere he looked there were demonstrations of camaraderie and fondness, much backslapping and embracement, warm faces genuinely delighted to be around each other, and eyes and mouths widened with ‘no way, he didn’t!’ and ‘you’ll never believe what happened’ and ‘that’s such great news’ and much LOLing and noise of merriment. Royston felt like he was wearing a spacesuit, his own breathing loud, a tinted visor between him and the coruscating ebullience he faced on all sides.
Young people everywhere, dressed in what passed for fashion these days, or in diametrically opposed fashions that might as well’ve been the actual fashions themselves, for all the difference it made to Royston; he felt so out of the loop that he was unable to tell which of the young people were in fashion, and which were playing against it. He had tried guessing for a while, purely based on the statistical occurrences of each, but after a while he’d realised that such a method was flawed simply because he was unable to determine whether, amongst this sample group of representative adolescent-to-young adults, it was more popular to be with or against the prevailing trends. So he’d given up, defeated.
He didn’t recognise any of the music either, except the songs that were now considered ‘retro’, and even then he wasn’t sure whether they were being played for actual enjoyment, or for some sort of ironic delight, or as examples of what he’d read were called “guilty pleasures”, ie, music that was lame and bad and old and out of touch but was considered okay to listen to because of nostalgia alone. Similarly, the snippets of conversations he overheard were full of references he didn’t get, and contexts he couldn’t grasp. The air was full of in-jokes, and he felt pretty much as though he was wearing a large flashing sign that read “Obsolete”. Around him, talk bubbled and hissed and cackled in a chaotic tapestry of noises, formless fragments whirling into a broth of mirth he did not share.
All too painfully aware of his singularity in this miasma of togetherness, he headed briskly towards where all the other unaccompanied people seemed to be coalescing: the courtyard outside. This was the place where the people who still smoked cigarettes (and, he realised after a few deep sniffs, various other less technically-legal substances) were gathering. Mostly they came by themselves, outside only to briefly inhale carcinogens before heading back in to join the throng. This collection of singular people, inconspicuously alone together, seemed the perfect place for Royston to wait out the evening, until it was time to go home and rest his old irrelevant head on soft domestic fabric and wink out like a mass-produced candle.
Out in the courtyard, under the brown purple sky – beneath the meaty smoggy haze that his family business had helped, in no small part, to create – Royston tried to relax. As the smell of tobacco and the aforementioned less technically legal substances found its way into Royston’s nostrils, his eyes managed to avoid the gaze of any potentially interesting strangers by staring blankly into the starless darkness above. Of course, the darkness above wasn’t actually starless at all, but, like Luka’s metaphor of the boring party or the hot day, the sky was merely starless for Royston, and anyone else who chose to stare aimlessly into its impenetrable murky depths.
Somewhere, up there, were stars. And he was just as irrelevant to those stars as he was to any of these people here.
Smoke. Chatter. Irrelevancy. Sky.
Royston checked the time. He put his phone back in his pocket (winding the small copper fold-out handle several times before he did so), mildly satisfied. He’d set aside a good few hours to engage in this mystifying social experiment, and now he was nearly halfway through. Another hour and a half or so, and he’d be free of his partying obligations, and could wander home again, tipsy and overwhelmed, to curl up in a silent bed with the love of his life, and, like Luka had promised him, life would return to normal.
(Thinking of his home, and his sweet family, Royston’s mouth made a smiling shape that, for the first time since he’d got there, was not forced or awkward, but propelled straight from his heart.)
Lena. Wonderful Lena. Royston wasn’t exactly sure why, but his wife seemed to love him with a passion he rarely felt he deserved. And little baby River, who was no longer a little baby at all at the explosive age of three and a half, frequently gazed at him with a love that was utterly undeniable. His home-life was a surprisingly wonderful oasis of domestic bliss, and several times a week Royston found himself marvelling at the fact that all this had not only happened to someone like him, but had happened to someone who was in fact really definitely actually him.
(Royston didn’t realise this, but in these moments he always imagined his wondrous little family had “happened to” him, as though he’d been a baffled bystander, rather than an essential agent. Had he ever noticed this peculiar personal attitude to events in his own life, he might have then attributed it to being yet another by-product of being the youngest child of a world-changing family of celebrities, and might’ve drawn several important conclusions about his own psyche that may have stood him in good stead when it came to dealing with difficult situations in the future. But this particular self-analytical nugget was still yet to be discovered by Royston Beowulf Rene Beef, and so he continued to float, rudderless and agency-free, down the stream of life that inevitably finds itself winding its way to the great unifying sea of death.)
Royston sighed. He gazed blurrily at the meaty smog above him, trying to make out a single star. He’d been drinking too much tonight. Definitely. In using a bottle as a prop, he’d forgotten that it had been a prop with real-life consequences, and as that realisation sank in, so too did a feeling that he’d gone beyond tipsy, into maybe just a little bit drunk. And, as those two realisations welled up within him, a third begun to arise: that maybe Luka was totally right.
Maybe he just needed to adjust his core shit. Maybe he was the only reason he wasn’t having a good time. Maybe he just needed to lighten up, adjust his inner core shit, and party down like a motherfucker.
Could be worth a try, surely.
This realisation hit him exactly one hour, fifteen minutes, and fifteen seconds after he’d tentatively pushed open the door and entered this house at 2/23 Acacia Drive, Northcote. And in another two seconds, it happened:
“They’re up there somewhere,” a female voice said, to Royston. “The stars, I mean.”
Royston’s paternal grandfather, Rene Beowulf Rudy Beef, father of the famous Reginald Benjamin Roland Beef, had been the man who had almost single-handedly turned the idea of vat-grown meat into not only a marketable commodity, but a world-changing phenomenon. Rene’s rare combination of chemical know-how, public relations fervour, and fanatical zeal bordering on the messianistic, had been an unlikely but spectacular coincidence, and had not only resulted in the public acceptance of vat-meat as a viable replacement for the previous forms of meat-production, but had actually wiped out virtually all forms of animal slaughter across the entire first world.
Rene had been a pioneer in the field of situational cellular growth technologies, which, by itself, may not have amounted to much. But Rene had also been blessed with an extremely handsome face, a ruggedly attractive physique, and an outspoken and charismatic cheekiness that, combined, had been almost irresistible. These qualities, taken on their own, might still not have been enough to revolutionise the entire food production industry, but Rene possessed also a virtually unstoppable animal-rights militancy that would not let him rest until every single food-animal had been freed, and replaced with vat-flesh grown under his own loving and gracious care. Tireless, driven, skilled, and ravishingly attractive, Rene Beowulf Rudy Beef had been a heart-throb genius superstar man of action.
As his vat-meat company had slowly grown, so had his stardom. As his stardom had slowly grown, so had his access to the hearts and minds of the populace. When the traditional meat-producers had waged war on him, he had waged it right back, but with larger and more powerful ammunition – people’s own consciences. With a firm but loving hand, he had torn back the veils of secrecy from the world of meat-production on a scale that no-one before him had ever been capable – and, once he had forced the populace at large to see what had really been dangling on the end of their forks, they had done the rest themselves.
Because Rene had simply tapped into people’s own empathy, and shown them the stark choice for the simple one it truly had been: to side with captivity and murder and exploitation, or to side with situational cellular growth technologies that could replicate the texture, feel, flavour and consistency of the muscle-fibres of any animal at all, with zero cruelty.
When the choice had been made so very very simple, and had been presented by such a very very handsome and charismatic man, it had been virtually no choice at all. Some sort of a threshold had been reached, a sudden flip in the zeitgeist, a paradigmatic shift in public perception. Suddenly, it had been the people who still ate animal-meat who’d found themselves having to defend their lifestyle choices. Defences which had appeared, through Rene’s ever-more-powerful public relations mechanism, increasingly flimsy and unconvincing.
Within one generation, “corpse-eaters” (as they’d become known) had all but disappeared. With dwindling demand had come dwindling production, until corpse-eating had become an underground activity. No doubt it still existed in Royston’s day, but much in the same way as cock-fighting did; one would have had to have “connections” to ever find it.
Of course, there had been opposition from the people who profited from corpse-eating (the farmers, the wholesalers, the retailers, etc), but with such weak arguments to rely on, and without anyone nearly as good-looking or witty as Rene Beef on their side, they had been doomed to failure. And fail they had.
(Generally, such people had quickly found new jobs. Some had turned to farming plants, others had turned their lands into energy farms, while many others had found jobs in the ever-expanding Beef Corporation’s lab-factories across the country.)
With a monopoly on situational cellular growth technologies, and a public relations scheme second to none, Rene’s empire had expanded exponentially. Franchises had been leased to other companies around the world, and soon country after country had followed suit. Rene had then travelled the globe as a cultural icon, appearing on talk shows and conferences and forums, speaking to everyone from weeping ex-farmers wracked with guilt, to scientists praising his achievements in the field, to masterchefs thanking him for freeing them from ever having to cook another corpse. (His tearful interview with Simone Du Jolais the lobster-chef is widely regarded as one of the most powerful televisual experiences ever recorded, bar none.)
Within one generation, Australia had turned from a nation that had prided itself on its carnivorous ways, to a nation that had been disgusted and ashamed that things had ever been any other way. And within his lifetime, Rene Beowulf Rudy Beef had achieved his two life goals: he had (in his own words) “freed the animals”, and he had become immensely, vastly, rich.
(Of course, “freeing the animals” may have been a grand and noble idea, but it hadn’t been without unforeseen consequences. After all, it had been Rene’s famous “animal-freeing” PR stunts that had been the genesis of the nightcow problem. But, at the time, he had been greeted with cheers, tears, and highly emotive news-coverage.)
The day that the Beef logo had overtaken both McDonalds and the Crucifix as the most recognised symbol on the planet, had been, suitably enough, the day Rene Beowulf Rudy Beef had died, peacefully, in his sleep. Royston had been twelve at the time, and, having grown up in a post-livestock world, had never really understood what all the fuss had been about when the world news had dedicated so much screen time to Grandpa Ren’s death, and had televised so much of the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair that had followed, as thousands and thousands of Rene’s grieving followers had flocked to leave messages of love and respect and commiseration at the small industrial complex where Rene’s original situational cellular growth technologies had first been successfully pioneered.
Of course, in adult life, Royston had known exactly what a remarkable man his grandfather had been. But as a child, Royston had been so surrounded by ubiquitous vat-meat normalcy that there was simply no way he could’ve really comprehended the world of slaughter that his grandfather had so radically altered, any more than a child of the modern medical world could properly imagine doctors asking patients to bite down on rags before sawing their arms off, sans anaesthetic. Indeed, it had only been as a curious adolescent that Royston had discovered his grandfather’s files, including several of his disturbing and graphic video presentations, and had really begun to understand Rene’s incredible legacy. And had realised that it had been one that he could never, ever, adequately live up to.
(Which is why he had rebelled to such an extent in his adolescence, which is how he met Luka, which is why he was here at this party at 2/23 Acacia Drive, Northcote, which is how he first met Gene, which of course is what led to the whole game-changing hullabaloo that was still to come.)
“They’re up there somewhere,” a female voice said, to Royston. “The stars, I mean.”
Royston initially assumed the voice was addressing someone else, but performed a subconscious double-check scan anyway, a primitive action that his ancestors millions of years ago had no doubt performed in a very similar manner. This subconscious double-check scan alerted him to the presence of a dark-haired woman of incredible physical lusciousness whose body language made it clearly apparent that she was in fact addressing him after all. At this new alert, Royston spent a series of confusing nanoseconds wondering how best to respond, finally settling on a casual and noncommittal: “Hmm?”
“The stars are still up there, of course. It’s just that we never see them.”
Incredible physical lusciousness. Royston desperately searched for less objectifying terms to describe this complete person who was currently addressing him, but at this level of confronting inebriation, it was almost impossible to detach himself from the parts of his brain that had now begun desiring to mate. Try as he might, his brain kept throwing him superficial information regarding her skin tone, curvaceousness, and impossibly haunting eyes. To Royston’s chemically-befuddled nervous system, this woman appeared as the epitome of all womanhood, a full-figured fertility goddess dressed in a distractingly-low-cut top, the fabric, colour, and design of which had already been discarded by his brain as utterly irrelevant.
No waif was this woman. No, here was a woman who had love-handles all over, whose physical form almost implied kneading, fondling, full-bodied tactile depth. She was like a three-dimensional woman in a world of cut-outs.
But Royston was determined to remain in control of his own physiology. Rather than immediately dropping to the floor and begging her to accept his DNA, Royston instead calmly and cleverly said:
“Yes, so I hear.”
She extended her hand (the other had been encircling a beer, he now noticed). After another few nanoseconds of synaptic to-ing and fro-ing, Royston had thrust out his own, and pressed his palm against hers.
“Nice to meet you. What are you doing here?”
What kind of a question was that? Was she inquiring into the various activities he’d been performing here? Or was it a suggestion that he was out of place, a veiled recommendation that he wasn’t welcome? Maybe it had been some other kind of secret question, an inquiry into his marital status, or some kind of hidden drug question. What are you doing here, what are you doing here, what are you doing here – however he turned it around in his mind, it remained unclear.
(Added to Royston’s linguistic confusion was an overwhelming physical confusion, the tingling warmness he could still feel in the palm of his hand, her presence, her tangible presence on the skin of his palm and fingertips, where they’d touched. It was a physical memory that continued to draw his consciousness, when he should’ve been concentrating on the relatively simple task of answering this woman’s question. Which he’d eventually done.)
“What do you mean?” was his triumphant reply.
Gene smiled and gestured around her with her bottle-laden hand.
“Well, you totally don’t belong here. At a party like this. You stand out. You’re not like this trendbunny, but you’re not like a tryhard either. You’re like… you don’t look like you’re trying to be anything. But you don’t look like you’re trying to look like that either.” She gestured upwards into the meat-brown sky. “And you’re alone, out here, but you’re not smoking. So. Why are you here? Not for fun, obviously.”
She laughed and hid her eyes momentarily behind her hand. Sheepishly, she rested a hand on Royston’s arm, shaking her head.
“I’m so sorry! Fuck. Sorry. What a biyatch.” She looked at him imploringly. “Seriously, I’m sorry, I’ve had a few drinks! I didn’t mean it to come out like that.”
“No no, that’s fine. I’ve had a few drinks too.”
“I wasn’t trying to interrogate you or anything.”
“It’s fine. Really. Anyway, it’s my fault for acting like a weirdo.”
“Fuck off! Look, can I take it all back? Rewind! Delete! Okay, now, go: Hi there, name’s Gene. So, what‘s a nice guy like you doing at a party like this?”
“Ha, um.” Royston swallowed. “Hi there, my name’s Royston. I’m here to get my freak on. And, ah, party hardy.”
Gene’s grin was a cheeky white supernova.
“Yeah, me too. I just love partying hardy.”
“Go hard or go home, I always say. Although, ah, I guess you’d have to go home at some point, so it kind of makes it a bit, um… Yes, anyway. Um.”
The woman winked. “So, why are you really here then?”
“Came with a friend. He’s um, currently urinating.” Damn, too much information. “Um, I mean, for all I know. Could be defecating, um, plans change sometimes, you know.” Shut up. Please. “Um, nice night for it. A party I mean. Not urination, or um, well, nice weather, is what I’m trying to say.”
Gene was unfazed. Instead, she narrowed her eyes and pointed at him with her beer bottle.
“I’ve got this weird feeling you’re the reason I’m here.”
“Oh.” What can one possibly say when the most incredibly pheromone-laden goddess of womanly delights turns to one and says that? Royston had no idea. “Ha.” After what had seemed like an eternity, but had in fact been less than a second, he added, “I seriously doubt that.”
Gene immobilised him by staring deeply into his eyes, and made some micro-movement with her eyelids that somehow caused his muscles to spasm and his brain to melt.
“No,” she peered into him, “you are. That’s interesting. And very cool.”
Suddenly she broke the spell, and, as though it had never happened, she smiled at him and gestured with her head towards inside.
“Speaking of urination, I gotta visit the ladies,” she said, “Seeya soon, Rory.”
She vanished inside, before Royston had been able to call, weakly:
And, from a place that had seconds ago been invisible, Royston saw Luka, grinning to himself in a cloud of his own smoke, where he’d been observing the whole thing.