Cutting Down
by Bob Shaw

Herley was awakened by the sounds of his wife getting out of bed. Afraid of seeing her nude body, he kept his eyes closed and listened intently as she padded about the room. There came a silky electrostatic crackling as she removed her nightdress—at which point he squeezed his eyes even more tightly shut—then a rustling of heavier material which told him she had donned a dressing gown. He relaxed and allowed the morning sun to penetrate his lashes with bright oily needles of light.

“What would you like for breakfast?” June Herley said.

He still avoided looking at her. “I’ll have the usual—coffee and a cigarette.” That isn’t enough, he added mentally. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

She paused at the bedroom door. “That isn’t enough. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

“All right then—coffee and two cigarettes.”

“Oh, you!” She went out on to the landing and he heard her wallowing progress all the way down the stairs and into the kitchen. Herley did not get up immediately. He cupped his hands behind his head and once again tried to fathom the mystery of what had happened to the girl he had married. It had taken a mere eight years for her to change from a slim vivacious creature into a hopeless, sagging hulk. In that time the flat cones of her breasts had become vast sloping udders, and the formerly boyish buttocks and thighs had turned into puckered sacks of fat which at the slightest knock developed multi-hued bruises which could persist for weeks. For the most part her face was that of a stranger, but there were times when he could discern the features of that other June, the one he had loved, impassively drowning beneath billows of pale tissue.

It was, he sometimes thought, the mental changes which frightened, sickened, baffled and enraged him the most. The other June would have endured any privation to escape from the tallowy prison of flesh, but the woman with whom he now shared his home blandly accepted her condition, aiding and abetting the tyrant of her stomach. Her latest self-deception—which was why she had begun to fuss about breakfast—was a diet which consisted entirely of protein and fat, to be eaten in any quantity desired as long as not the slightest amount of carbohydrate was consumed. Herley had no idea whether or not the system would work for other people, but he knew it had no chance in June’s case. She used it as a justification for eating large greasy meals three or four times a day in his presence, and in between times—in his absence—filling up on sweetstuffs.

The aroma of frying ham filtering upwards from the kitchen was a reminder to Herley that his wife had yet to admit her new form of dishonesty. He got up and strode swiftly to the landing and down the stairs, moving silently in his bare feet, and opened the kitchen door. June was leaning over the opened pedal-bin and eating chocolate ice cream from a plastic tub. On seeing him she gave a startled whimper and dropped the tub into the bin.

“It was almost empty,” she said. “I was only…”

“It’s all right—you’re not committing any crime,” he said, smiling. “My God, what sort of a life would it be if you couldn’t enjoy your food?”

“I thought you…” June gazed at him, relieved but uncertain. “You must hate me for being like this.”

“Nonsense!” Herley put his arms around his wife and drew her to him, appalled as always by the looseness of her flesh, the feeling that she was wrapped in a grotesque and ill-fitting garment. In his mid-thirties, he was tall and lean, with a bone structure and sparse musculature which could be seen with da Vincian clarity beneath taut dry skin. Watching the gradual invasion of June’s body by adipose tissue had filled him with such a dread of a similar fate that he lived on a strictly fat-free diet and often took only one meal a day. In addition he exercised strenuously at least three times a week, determined to burn off every single oily molecule that might have insinuated itself into his system.

“I’ll have my coffee as soon as it’s ready,” he said when he judged he had endured the bodily contact long enough. “I have to leave in thirty minutes.”

“But this is your day off.”

“Special story. I’ve got an interview lined up with Hamish Corcoran.”

“Why couldn’t it have been on a working day?”

“I was lucky to get him at all—he’s practically a recluse since he quit the hospital.”

“I know, poor man,” June said reflectively. “They say the shock of what happened to his wife drove him out of his mind.”

“They say lots of things that aren’t worth listening to.” Herley had no interest in the biochemist’s personal life, only in a fascinating aspect of his work about which he had heard for the first time a few nights earlier.

“Don’t be so callous,” June scolded. “I suppose if you came home and found that some psycho had butchered me you’d just shrug it off and go out looking for another woman.”

“Not until after the funeral.” Herley laughed aloud at his wife’s expression. “Don’t be silly, dear—you know I’d never put anybody in your place. Marriage is a once and for all thing with me.”

“I should hope so.”

Herley completed his morning toilet, taking pleasure in stropping his open-bladed razor and shaving his flat-planed face to a shiny pinkness. He had a cup of black coffee for breakfast and left June still seated in the kitchen, the slabs of her hips overflowing her chair. She was lingering at the table with obvious intent, in spite of already having consumed enough calories to last the day. There’s no point in getting angry about it, Herley thought. Especially not today

He walked the mile to Aldersley station at a brisk pace, determined not to miss the early train to London. Hamish Corcoran had lived in Aldersley during his term at the hospital, but on retiring he had moved to a village near Reading, some sixty miles away on the far side of London, and reaching him was going to take a substantial part of the day. The journey was likely to be tiresome, but Herley had a feeling it was going to be worth his while. As a sub-editor on the Aldersley Post he liked to supplement his income by turning in an occasional feature article written in his own time. Normally he would not have considered travelling more than a few miles on research—his leisure hours were too precious—but this was not a normal occasion, and the rewards promised to be greater than money.

As he had feared, the train and bus connections were bad, and it was nearly midday by the time he located the avenue of mature beeches and sun-splashed lawns in which Corcoran lived. Corcoran’s was a classical turn-of-the-century, double-fronted house which was all but hidden from the road by banks of shrubbery. Herley felt a twinge of envy as he walked up the gravel drive—it appeared that becoming too eccentric to continue in employment, as Corcoran was reputed to have done, had not seriously affected his standard of living.

He rang the bell and waited, half-expecting the door to be opened by a housekeeper, but the grey-haired man who appeared was undoubtedly the owner. Hamish Corcoran was about sixty, round-shouldered and slight of build, with a narrow face in which gleamed humorous blue eyes and very white dentures. In spite of the summertime warmth he was wearing a heavy cardigan and a small woollen scarf, beneath which could be seen a starched collar and a blue bow tie.

“Hello, Mr Corcoran,” Herley said. “I phoned you yesterday. I’m Brian Herley, from the Post.”

Corcoran gave him a fluorescent smile. “Come in, my boy, come in! It’s very flattering that your editor should want to publish something about my work.”

Herley decided against mentioning that nobody in the editorial office knew of his visit. “Well, the Post has always been interested in the research work at Aldersley, and we think the public should know more about its achievements.”

“Quite right! Now, if you’re anything like all the other gentlemen of the Press I’ve met you’re not averse to a drop of malt. Is that right?”

“It is a rather thirsty sort of a day.” Herley followed the older man into a cool brown room at the rear of the house and was installed in a leather armchair. He examined the room, while Corcoran was pouring drinks at a sideboard, and saw that the shelves which lined the walls were occupied by a jumble of books, official-looking reports and odd items of electronic equipment whose function was not apparent. Corcoran handed him a generous measure of whisky in a heavy crystal tumbler and sat down at the other side of a carved desk.

“And how are things in Aldersley?” Corcoran said, sipping his drink.

“Oh, much the same as ever.”

“In other words, not worth talking about—especially after you’ve come such a long way to interview me.” Corcoran took another sip of whisky and it dawned on Herley that the little man was quite drunk.

“I’ve got lots of time, Mr Corcoran. Perhaps you could give me a general rundown, in layman’s terms, on this whole business of slow muscles and fast muscles. I must confess I’ve never really understood what it was all about.”

Corcoran looked gratified and immediately plunged into a moderately technical discourse on his work on nerve chemistry, speaking with the eager fluency of one who has for a long time been deprived of an audience. Herley pretended to be interested, even making written notes from time to time, waiting for the opportunity to discuss the real reason for his visit. He already knew that the research unit at Aldersley General had been involved in discoveries concerning the basic structure of muscle tissue. Experiments had shown that “fast” muscles such as those of the leg could be changed into “slow” muscles—like those of the abdomen—simply by severing the main nerves and reconnecting them to the wrong set, in a process analagous to reversing the leads from a battery.

The implication had been that the type of muscle was determined, not by a genetic blueprint, but by some factor in the incoming nerve impulses. Hamish Corcoran had come up with a theory that the phenomenon was caused by a trophic chemical which trickled from nerve to muscle. He had already begun work on identifying and isolating the chemical involved when the tragedy of his wife’s death had interrupted his researches. Soon afterwards he had been persuaded to retire. The rumour which had circulated in Aldersley was that he had gone mad, but no details had ever become public, thanks to a vigorous covering-up job by a hospital which had no wish to see its reputation endangered.

“I was quite wrong about the chemical nature of the nerve influence,” Corcoran was saying. “It has since been established that electrical stimulus is the big factor—slow muscles receive a fairly continuous low-frequency signal, fast muscles receive brief bursts at a much higher frequency—but the fascinating thing about the science game is the way in which one’s mistakes can be so valuable. You can set off for China, so to speak, and discover America. In my case, America was a drug which offered complete and effortless control of obesity.”

The final statement alerted Herley like a plunge into cold water.

“That’s rather interesting,” he said. “Control of obesity, eh? I would have thought there was a huge commercial potential there.”

“You would have thought wrong, my boy.”

“Oh? Do you mean it wasn’t possible to manufacture the drug?”

“Nothing of the sort! I was able to produce a pilot batch with very little difficulty.” Corcoran glanced towards a bookshelf on his right, then noticed that his glass was empty. He stood up and went to the sideboard, for the third time during the interview, to pour himself a fresh drink. Herley took the opportunity to scan the shelf which had drawn the older man’s gaze and his attention was caught by a small red box. It was heavily ornamented and cheap-looking, the sort of thing that was turned out in quantity for the foreign souvenir market, and seemed more than a little out of place in its surroundings.

That’s where the pills are, Herley thought, savagely triumphant. Until that moment he had suffered from lingering doubts about the information he had received from a drunken laboratory technician a few nights earlier. He had been talking to the technician in a bar, half-heartedly following up a lead about administrative malpractice in the hospital, when the tip of the story about Corcoran’s secret wonder-drug had surfaced through a sea of irrelevancies. It had cost Herley quite a bit of money to obtain what little information he had, and he also had been forced to acknowledge the possibility that—as sometimes happens to newsmen—he had been skilfully conned. Until the moment when Corcoran had glanced at the red box…

“Why aren’t you drinking, young man?” Corcoran said with mock peevishness, returning to his desk. His voice was still crisp and clear, but triangles of crimson had appeared on his cheeks and his gait was noticeably unsteady.

Herley took a miniature sip of his original drink, barely wetting his lips. “One is enough for me on an empty stomach.”

“Ah, yes.” Corcoran ran his gaze over Herley’s lean frame. “You don’t eat much, do you?”

“Not a lot. I like to control my weight.”

Corcoran nodded. “Very wise. Much better than letting your weight control you.”

“There’s no chance of that.” Herley laughed comfortably.

“It’s no laughing matter, my boy,” Corcoran said. “I’m speaking quite literally—when the adipose tissue in a person’s body achieves a certain threshold mass it can, quite literally, begin to govern that person’s actions. It can take over that person’s entire life.”

For the first time in the interview Herley detected a trace of irrationality in his host’s words, the first confirmation of the old rumours of eccentricity. Corcoran seemed to be talking fancifully, at the very least, and yet something in what he was saying was generating a strange disturbance in Herley’s mind. How many times had he asked himself why it was that June, once so meticulous about her appearance, now allowed herself to be dominated by her appetite?

“Some people are a bit short on will-power,” he said. “They get into the habit of over-eating.”

“Do you really believe that’s all there is to it? Doesn’t that strike you as being very strange?”

“Well, I …”

“Consider the case of a young woman who has become grossly overweight,” Corcoran cut in, speaking very quickly and with an azure intensity in his eyes. “I chose the example of a woman because women traditionally place greater value on physical acceptability. Consider the case of a young woman who is say fifty percent or more above her proper weight. She is ugly, pathetic, Ill. She is either socially ostracised or elects to cut herself off from social contact. Her chances of sexual fulfilment are almost zero, her life expectancy is greatly reduced, and the years she can anticipate promise nothing but sickness and self-disgust and unhappiness. Do you get the picture?”