Sarah had been vegan for so long, the thought of eating animal products was no longer just a principled stance, she was quite sure that they would make her violently ill. She was confident she had passed the point of no return.
She had a vague memory of what beef tasted like - her parents frequented the local Macca’s for burger meals in her childhood - but she wasn’t sure she could trust her sense memory. She’d been exposed to enough fake beef over the intervening years that the tangy, salty, slightly smokey memory must be adulterated by now. Would she recognise the taste again? Would she like it if she did?
Sarah shocked herself by this unexpected train of thought. She hadn’t given beef - or any kind of meat - a second thought for years.
Sarah had likewise shocked her parents at the age of nine when she announced she was going vegan, after an ill-fated school trip to a farm on market day. No actual slaughtering took place in the childrens’ presence but the farmers did feel it their duty to explain in detail why the animals were being gathered up and herded onto vehicles and what would happen to them next.
Her parents were down to earth, meat and two veg kind of people. They barely understood what veganism was. Her mother, accommodating though she tried to be, often forgot what ingredients were off the menu, slathering honey on buttered toast, or confusing veganism with some kind of diet and buying her daughter low-fat cheese slices. Sarah felt for her mother at those times.
Passing a chip shop on her way home, Sarah found herself peering in and deeply inhaling the vinegar-tinted oily fish scent that fell around the shop like a fog. Something long asleep was waking up in Sarah. Confused and ashamed, she hurried on like a recently sober alcoholic fleeing a row of bars.
She raced home and climbed the stairs two at a time to her flat-share room, acknowledging none of her flatmates who all pipped a friendly, “Hi, Sarah.” Gertrude, prone on the couch under a blanket and a mountain of used tissues, also added a throaty, “How was the lab?”
Thoughts of greasy spoon burgers and chips, sizzling sausages, tender lamb shanks and… blood pudding?!… invaded her thoughts. Her stomach growled and a deep, carnivorous hunger overtook her. Sarah closed the door, crawled into her single bed, pulled her legs to her chest under her duvet and wondered, between thoughts of bratwurst and Peking duck, “what have I done?”.
Living the London single life as a fresh-from-Uni entry-level office gopher was fun, but money was tight. Sarah could only afford the so-called ‘box room’ in her flatshare, so called because it was too big for a linen cupboard and too small for a bedroom - useful only for storage. Still, they had wedged in a single bed, narrow wardrobe and chest of drawers, leaving a square metre of floor space which the door swung into when opened, and called it the fourth bedroom.
Sometimes she wondered whether a little side hustle could help make ends meet. But what? She didn’t have any marketable handicraft skills, like Leona who sewed, or Sally who led Ghost tours on weekends. Well, maybe Ghost touring wasn’t a handicraft, but it’s not something that interested Sarah.
Gertrude, however - she made bundles of money by doing hardly anything at all. She farmed herself out to science; a study on colds here, a trial on Hep B there. All these studies needed ‘healthy’ individuals to act as control groups. Gertude was signed up to the lot. She showed up, signed some documents, filled in a few forms over the course of a couple weeks or months, and boom, cash in the bank.
“But isn’t there any risk?” asked Sarah one day, after Gertrude had come home flush with cash after completing a study on the effects of that year’s flu vaccine on pregnant women (she wasn’t pregnant, but because she was a woman of child-bearing age, she qualified for the control group).
“Oh sure. You do have to be careful not to be caught up in a double-blind study. Then you don’t know if you’re in the control group or not. They could give you anything!”
“Oh, do they tell you what kind of study it is?”
“Ah, no, not always. That’s why it can be a bit tricky. They can’t always tell you because if you know you may not be getting the drug, or know that you may not not be getting the drug, it could skew their results because, you know, humans act funny when they're being tested against their reaction to something. They have to guard against the placebo affect. It’s all very psychological.”
“Then how do you avoid them?”
“You have to read between the lines - figure out what the doctors are really testing for. Some studies are really straightforward. Testing a new drug, for example. But when studies are a little vague about what they’re testing, or aren’t very transparent about what your role in the study is, that’s a red flag. Also, if they’re offering a lot of money, that’s another red flag. The more risk to the individual, the more money they tend to offer. Don’t go for the get-rich-quick schemes.”
“But you always get tons of money.”
“Yeah, but that’s because I do lots of straightforward studies - it just adds up to a lot.” Gertrude paused, looking at Sarah who appeared deep in thought.
“Listen, there’s a study I got notified about that’s looking for healthy individuals - men and women of our age. It’s got all the hallmarks of a straightforward study. Last day to sign up is Friday. They’re offering a middling sum of £250 - no red flags there. And you go in for one swab, then they do some follow-ups just to gather data. Super easy. Why don’t you sign up and we can do it together?”
Sarah signed up. Gertrude showed her the ad for the study, but mostly talked her through it. Something about getting a DNA sample to compare against older DNA samples for gene mapping or gene sequencing or something like that. All very confidential; DNA data would be destroyed after a certain period of time, and so on. Sarah skimmed the first page. Gertrude had done dozens, if not more, of these studies and she was sure this one was totally safe. Plus, she was putting her own health on the line by signing up, too.
Then two days before the study began, Gertrude got the flu. She swore up and down it had nothing to do with the flu vaccine study. “A total fluke!” she insisted. But it meant she couldn't do the DNA study. They were very strict that the individuals must be in good health. So Sarah went alone. After all, she had already mentally spent the £250 on a trip to Brighton the following weekend. Next weekend.
Unable to face the kitchen, or her flatmates, Sarah turned over in her bed and fell into a fitful sleep.
She woke up with the sun, dying of thirst, hungry for meat, and itching all over. She began scratching, clawing at her dry, dry skin. But her skin didn’t feel like the baby-soft skin she lovingly moisturised everyday. She sat up so that she was face to the sun in the window against which her bed nestled, and looked at her bare arms.
Horrid, sinewy scaly grey appendages with tapering claws met her eyes, and Sarah screamed so shrilly, she didn’t even make a sound.
She jumped out of bed like it was infectious and grabbed her bag, which still held the copy of signed paperwork from yesterday's study. Looking away from the talons searching her bag, she felt for the packet of paper and ripped it out of the void. She fumbled through opening it, her opposable thumb having shrivelled to useless stumps. Sarah squatted on newly formed lizard-like haunches as she scanned the leaflet of information again.
"Department of palaeontology?" Sarah croaked, almost growled. It was printed in small font under the big UCL hospital logo.
"A study to determine the genetic relationship between modern humans and their palaeontological ancestors." She had assumed they meant early man, like the Neanderthals.
On page two, which she had not bothered to read the first time, she met the words "gene editing". That was not the gene mapping and sequencing Gertrude had sold her on.
Then Sarah's heart stopped. She read the line three times, and again to be sure.
"All original DNA will be destroyed after a short period of time."