The Sponsors

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Chapter 1

A gentle drizzle of rain became the monotonous soundtrack of dreary East London, the occasional car separating puddles and splashing the pavement with even more water. The shelter of the tube offered no consolation, as the damp floor was awash with the drips from people’s clothing, sunny waterproofs and colourful umbrellas, which were becoming painfully obvious amidst the continuous, unbroken grey of the city. A collective shiver ran through the station as a train scuttled past, the air pocket trailing behind and simultaneously drying their clothes, creating an even colder atmosphere. The rising heat of people’s breath gathered upwards, towards the electric noticeboard, reminding everyone of how little the tubes ran in order to conserve energy. Charlie’s hair dripped into his eyes, the heaviness of the water dragging each strand below the line of his steamed up glasses. He waited anxiously for ten more minutes for the train, foot hastily tapping on the ground. He looked forward the whole time, standing in front of a small, ginger-haired woman who, like him, tapped her heeled foot to the rhythmic hustle of the station. He was barely able to catch some of the radiating heat off everyone’s bodies as the small platform slowly pressed everyone together. He thought to himself about all the people standing here, and how many had gone through with the sponsorship program already, practically halving the number of people waiting for the tube. Soon, he wouldn’t have to deal with a crowded station, as the rain that crashed around his concrete shelter now would merely be sustenance for the plants in the Eden that supposedly houses the sponsors. The callouses on his hand burned asherode the tube from Cross Harbour to Bow Road and down on the Green Line to Victoria. The tedious route reminded him of his daily commute working as a solicitor before he was fired, which made his steady lip line pour down his face into a scowl. He stepped off at Bow Road and climbed up the stairs to the street, and thought about his parents, how he used to always stop by each morning for breakfast and a catch up. Since they’d moved a few years ago out of London, being a retirement age and willing to help with the agricultural farming, he hadn’t seen them, leaving him with no other family in London. Clinging onto the rail beside him, the callouses rubbed so much it pulled him out of his thoughts.

The woman in front of him paced swiftly along the road, her hips swaying with each step in her dark green pencil skirt, the slit at the back showing off her slender legs and a small hole in the back of her tights, raising up into a ladder. From where Charlie was standing, He could see the slight crook in her elbow, the dark line of skin slowly increasing and decreasing in depth and length as her hand moved up and down over her stomach. With her other hand, she held her phone to her ear, dragging back her untamed, long ginger curls with her thumb and forefinger, simultaneously allowing her palm to caress the phone case. The rain ran down these curls and down to her hand, her fingertips releasing the minuscule droplets onto her hair, dragging it down and finally making its way in a stream to the pavement below. He walked along the same small rivets of water, behind where she trod. The woman spoke fast, a deep welsh valley accent creating a warmth where there was none, and hiding the irritable context of her words. She talked quickly, as if her mouth were running for a leaving bus, the last burst of important words saving her important seconds.

‘No, Cas, I’m not there yet!’ Her hand dropped from where it moved about her stomach, and her fist clenched at her side, a swift march with her pendulum arm carrying her forward. Charlie was so surprised he faltered, and fell a few steps back, startled by her roughness and his intense hatred of confrontation. Despite this, he was still able to eavesdrop from a distance while walking to sign up for the sponsor program. Curiosity had taken over his logical reasoning, and he listened closely to her following words. The anger that had resonated a few moments before had faded fast, a slow, grey exhale of exhaustion taking its place. The silence that ensued from her meant that the other speaker had won over her anger.

‘Cas, please come soon.hedon’t thinkhecan do this without you…’ Her voice cracked slightly and a sob broke from her body, arms unable to pin her emotions in anymore. She took a left on the road that led directly to The Clinic, and it clicked in Charlie’s mind exactly what was happening in this instant. The way she had stroked her stomach was just to protect her manifestation. A non-human without a sponsor.

Consequently he sped up his pace, damp trousers creating friction down the front of his thighs as he tried to catch up to her. His hands were steadfast in his pockets to pull the fabric away from his legs, the comical tenting of this trousers slowing him down. He walked beside her on the pavement, finally slowing to an agreeable pace so she knew everything that he had done thus far had been purposeful. As the lull in her phone conversation approached, she looked over at him with caution. Her head turned to the side and she looked up at Charlie’s face, and he returned the gesture, looking down on her with a smile that he wished to be happy, but only turned out as a solemn leer. His glasses were still damp from the rain, so the woman could not see the soft expression in his eyes. Partially blind from the rain and without an umbrella, Charlie had failed in his non-verbal task to win over the woman’s confidence. She stared straight ahead again, with a more composed look on her face compared to what he imagined it had looked like during her phone conversation. The pause from the phone conversation ended with a final reply from the woman to her husband, an ‘I love you’ that stated that all was okay. She pulled the phone down from her face, putting an end to the conversation in order to start a new one with Charlie, although shaky and perturbed by the stranger. She turned to look at him again, her hand depositing her phone into her sunny yellow coat, bright on the top and fading to a dirty grey where the rain has failed to wash away the grime from the city landscape that far down on her body.

’Canhehelp you?’ she asked, staring quizzically at me. This time, Charlie turned to face ahead, minding the cracks in the cold, grey pavement as they went.

‘I couldn’t help hearing the conversation you were having…’ He tailed off as she glared up at him, her hand going into her pocket to touch her phone in remembrance. ‘I was just on his way to the clinic to sign up as a sponsor.hehave a deal for you,’ Charlie muttered the proposition quickly under his breath, flattening his wet hair back on to the top of his head until it emulated a calm black sea, ripples permeating the surface. With his face clear, he was able to think more about his next few words.

‘I’ll sponsor your child if you pay him above the average fee.’ A terse pause followed his brash statement; he knew he was being greedy, but with the extra money he would be able to sell his house and give his parents a better one, back in the city. It would take away some of the guilt he held for doing this to the few remaining people who cared about him, and they would be happier with his death than before if they knew he was thinking about them, and looking after them. It also meant he was saved the emotional exhaustion of waiting to find a person to sponsor that the government approved, and subsequently his life expectancy could be shortened further if the mother was further along than just a few months. After Charlie has spoken the woman looked down at her shoes; following the points of her toes towards the straight road, they could see the hospital a few kilometres in front of them. The sterile white walls and long glass windows loomed over them, an air of intimidation seeping from the small cracks slowly forming around the edges of the building. A window cleaner carefully made his way down the outside of the building, strong wire holding him in place as he peered in at the patients, at all of the women inside giving birth. Alongside these women was an open plan office which produced the paperwork for the newborn children. Higher up, out of view of the pedestrians, was the old euthanasia office, the windows blacked out so the cleaner could only peer into his own eyes. The hustle and bustle of the hospital wards faded once you reached the top office, and a distinct quiet arose that sucked away life like the black hole the windows appeared to convey. Women dominated all of the wards, beds lined up with couples who have travelled from all over the country to give birth. Seemingly-mechanical doctors and government workers ignored the screams of labour and the anguish from distraught mothers as their babies were taken away to the euthanasia floors, suited faces in place to keep them from running after their newborn children. People shared in this anguish on some floors, while in others, the joy of a new child was faced with the luxury of their privacy, and a nurse in order to check the health and wellbeing of all involved. As they wordlessly travelled on closer to this scene, she took his arm by the crook of his elbow and veered him down a side road, signposted by a small wooden pole in the shadows, barely visible to anyone but those who were willing to seek it out. The cobbled path they walked on looped around the corner of the building, exposing us to more of the same windows, towards a small pastel blue building. The woodwork that imbued the walls reached out like the winding branches of a tree, pulling us in with its twine-like fingers. The place appeared to be attached to the side of the hospital as an afterthought, hardly used and desolate in comparison to the immense infirmary beside us. Metal letters were attached to the top of the door frame, with the woodwork threading its way through each one in order to integrate metal with the natural bark that precedes it. The sign read ‘Sponsorship Building’, and as they approached together they tentatively stepped inside, the cool air conditioning welcoming them in from the rain.

The woman next to Charlie still clung onto his arm, as if afraid he would retract his offer in a cruel joke any second now. Once inside, the automatic doors glided to a close behind them, a soft thunk that imbued a sense of finality, the suction of the furry edges sticking together creating an isolation they could not walk away from. The woman shuddered and shook the rain from her coat and hair, taking the remaining auburn tendrils from her hood and soaking the welcome mat with more water than it could hold. Pacing up to the reception desk, they were greeted by a suited person, a chignon scraping back what little hair they had, and a plastic smile covering her face, the assembly of which reminded him of clingfilm stretched out tightly. The receptionist opened her mouth to speak, plum lipstick separating her white teeth and falling onto the front two in dark splotches. She explained to them what they needed to do to fill in the independent paperwork, as this was not arranged by government officials. Asking how they knew each other, the woman next to him interjected.

‘He’s his cousin.’ She pointedly stared at me, as if asking him to play along with the lie. ‘From out of town.’ The receptionist looked in between us as if wondering why our features were so different, but seemed to accept the story as she swivelled round to receive the appropriate files. The papers glided smoothly over the surface separating them, and they each grabbed one of the stacks of paper. The files sat heavily in Charlie’s hand, imagination turning into reality right in front of his eyes. The amount of paper and questions on each page were unknown to each of them, but the weight of the document suggested that it would take an age to fill in, tiny boxes and worn down pens only solidifying the amount of time they’d have to spend together, getting to know one another in the ragged, comfy chairs beyond them.

As they turned to walk to the seating area behind us, the receptionist interjected as if startled,

‘oops! come back, sorry, come back…’ her mask broke and she hurried around by her desk, standing up and re-clicking something on the screen in front of her. She pulled out another booklet and gave it to the woman Charlie was with.

‘For your husband…or boyfriend…if he arrives at any point.’ Her mouth closed into a grimace and her eyes squinted at the awkward announcement she had to give. Charlie and the woman sat down in adjacent armchairs, Charlie in a sunny yellow and The woman in a dark blue, the colour fading at the edges with casual wear and tear. They opened the booklets and grabbed their pencils, methodically working through the details in silence. Charlie crossed his ankle to rest on his knee, and used the triangle to lean on the clipboard. His worn black sock with the initials of his dead fiancee stared back at him, slightly too short, and the only thing he kept with him after she had gone. While it was too sad to be around, he felt he could not possibly keep going unless she was with him in some shape or form. His shoulders tensed up and his head dropped down. He closed his eyes and exhaled before returning to the form. Soon, he thought, at least soon he would be with her again. After a prolonged silence, Charlie’s need for a distraction from his despair got the better of him.

‘I never found out your name, by the way,’ he started, as he turned to look at her. ‘Moria.’ She replied, and Charlie felt her peek over at his paperwork, slowly leaning toward him and peering down through her eyelashes. ‘And you’re Charlie.’ She continued to peer down at his basic answers sheet, the third page on the list, ‘…and you’re only 28? That’s the same age as Richard…’ She slowly reclined back in her seat, staring off to the door for a few seconds before shaking it off and returning to her old self.

‘Who is Richard? A brother, or..?’

’Oh! he’s his husband, whohewas on the phone with earlier…sorry,hezoned out a little’A few moments later after a brief smile, she turned back to her clipboard muttering away barely even looking at Charlie. Moria, while lovely and successful, has always been unorganised and slightly ditzy. Tripping over her own feet was the normal, and while comical for everyone else, as she grew older her dazed expression and sporadic memory had made her tense and cautious, especially when she caught herself daydreaming. It could turn her lovely mood into a nightmare in just a few seconds, her internal anger forever getting the better of her. ‘I just don’t understand how anyone our age would want to die right now. they have so much to live for.’ It was at this stage that Charlie cut her off.

‘You do maybe, you have a husband, a baby on the way, hopefully a family…I have none of those things any more. There’s nothinghewant to do thathehaven’t done already, and no onehewant to do anything with that isn’t already dead.hemight as well do a good deed for another person and end his life in the sort of luxury a retreat offers me.’

Charlie heard a sharp intake of breath from the corner of her mouth as the many scenarios of what had happened in his past washed over her, mind wandering back to her vivid imagination. Charlie reached over to her above the clipboard she had perched on her knee, arm dangling awkwardly between the two chairs before he decided that his own compassion would forever get the better of him, reaching up to grab one of her hands with his own.

‘Hey, you know, a while back, about a year now, the murders that kept happening to people?’

‘You mean the ones with the babies and their mothers…’

‘Yeah, yeah, that’s the one’ Charlie continued ‘My fiancée, she was the first’ Moria could not speak, gripping onto Charlie’s hand as hard as she might. She let go suddenly, all care taken for the baby flung aside as she leant over and hugged him tightly, arms over the top of his shoulders as he rested his chin on her shoulder. She smelt of the earth, and her hair tickled the side of his cheek as he had his first hug since the funeral. Moria stopped tensing and relaxed, slipping away from him and back over to her side. Now Charlie had better access to her clipboard, and read off her sheet in order to break the silence :

‘Moria Adams…24…Agriculture?’ She looked at him expectantly, waiting for any comment to arise from this new information. Charlie inhaled, ready to speak once more, but instantly a loud bang was heard from the other side of the room, and from what Charlie could only assume, Mr Adams came storming up to them, hair bedraggled and clothes still damp from the rain. He knelt down beside Moria, cupping her face in his hands, eyes flickering between the two of hers, once more establishing an internal connection and seeing if she was okay. His hand reached round the sofa arm to rest on her stomach, fingers interlacing with hers, and he pushed back her hair to talk gently in her ear.

‘Is this really happening? Is she really ours to keep?’ The clichéd moment of tears and embraces had arrived, so Charlie carried on filling out his form, ignoring a scene that he could never have. He turned the page of basic details over and flicked through the ten pages of terms and conditions quickly in order to see the big grey words ‘Financial Situation’ pop up in front of him. Law here requires the sponsors to receive 50% of the couples’ wages for as long as the couple is pregnant for. Then, once all the forms are filled out, the sponsor is moved to a retreat, similar to a hotel or spa, and live out their lives with gourmet food, activities of their choice, and the extra money not given to the government is used for people to live out their last wishes, to support their family members, or just to spend on the one day they receive in the city.

Once Richard and Moria had composed themselves, Charlie lent down and picked the paperwork up from the floor that had been let slip during the reunion of the couple, wordlessly handing the files to Mr. Adams. The embrace he shared with Moria earlier took over him, an affection he had not felt in a while from such a stranger, and as such he now felt entirely comfortable around her and did not wish to ruin it with such a demand for money. Richard took the papers and thanked me, and sat down on the opposite side to his wife. She instantly leant into him and filled out the rest of the forms, answering his quick-fire questions he was subtly trying to ask without Charlie noticing, barely a stage whisper, Richard had never mastered subtly enough, or had the need to use it. Growing up in a house with a partially deaf mother, he was used to the noise and clamour that came with the territory. When Moria turned the page to the one Charlie was on, she put down her pen and stopped. The grey letters headed the form, with three ominous lines carved into the bottom of the page, for each person to sign. Three signatures on three pages. Moria and Charlie looked at each other, a mutual softness between them, and they both put their pens down, and waited in silence for Richard to catch up. Charlie reached forwards to fiddle with his shoelaces, untying and retying them in order to fill the silence without making conversation. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Moria cross and re-cross her legs, similar to the way Charlie was untying and retying his shoes. Once, they both glanced at Richard Adams as he turned the page and with a simultaneous sigh they all looked at each other, smiled in a twisted grimace, and moved forward, voices hoarse with neglect as they broke out of the silence. Charlie got up and retrieved water from the fountain in the corner, a small metal basin draining away the excess, as whispers from the couple behind him slowly got louder and louder until he could almost make out the words they were saying. He balanced three cups in his hands, precariously placing them back on the table, and two hands reached out to take sips, clearing their throats and biding their time before speaking again. Charlie eyed up Mr. Adams’ form again, who sighed and placed his pen on the arm of the chair. Charlie pulled the fourth chair in the circle round to face them, abandoning the one next to Moria in order to talk to both of them properly. He sharpened his pencil and placed the sharpener back on the table, missing the table and scurrying onto the floor to pick it up

‘Sorry guys, sorry,hewon’t be a minute’ He mumbled, red faced as he manouvered himself back onto the seat. It was at this moment that Richard spoke up.

‘So, the minimum they have to give you covers the cost of the retreat…’

‘-But obviously they want to give you more in order for this to be a definite thing,’ interjected Moria, her lips closed as she smiled at Charlie and Richard in turn. Her eyebrows lifted in a silent communication to Richard, and he opened his mouth once more.

‘Our inheritance that they have saved for the baby is the maximum they can give. I’ll write it down here on the condition that any you don’t use you give back to us, donate it to us when you’re gone.’ He trailed off on this last word, as if it was a sensitive subject and a crass suggestion, but Charlie understood. In order to give someone the best start in life, they had to have the best assets available to them. He looked down at the figure slid across the table and onto his clipboard and agreed. It would cover the cost of his parent’s house and the money for the retreat, with enough to give a generous amount back when he was done.

‘They don’t actually have a good income at the moment…’ Richard started again, looking down to his hands folded in his lap, ‘so they would appreciate any penny spare.’ Moria reached over her paperwork and rubbed her thumb over the back of her husband’s hand as he spoke. He jotted down the fee on his own form and signed the bottom, handing the form to him to sign.

‘Of course,’ Charlie said with confidence. ‘100%.’

‘Anything for the life of our baby,’ Moria simpered for the first time as she looked down at her stomach wistfully, emotion filling her face. She lifted herself out of her chair to go to the bathroom, and Charlie managed to talk to Richard a bit more to ensure he was doing the right thing for himself and for them.

‘So, Richard..’ He started, ‘how long have you known Moria?’

‘Oh, every since they were in school together. It was quite weird really, they started off just as friends and it was only five years later that they actually started holding hands…’ It was in that instance that Charlie regretted ever trying to know the guy. While loud and raucous, his will was pliable and his love for Moria very evident. The jokes he cracked her menial and Charlier tried to muster a laugh as he signed the rest of the paperwork off and excused himself to hand it in to the receptionist again. Moria returned from the bathroom and urged Richard to hurry up, and as Charlie turned back to say goodbye to the couple, he shook Richard’s hand and briefly gave Moria a hug, wishing them all the best as they signed the last few pages, and Charlie turned back out into the street, where the clouds in the sky had finally dissipated, and he could walk back to the station with ease, a huge weight lifted from his shoulders.

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