The Writers Voice
Youth in a Bottle
Dr.Marion Cope signed a cheque. He tore it out of the book and pushed it across the desk.
'Have I spelt your name correctly?'
Margaret Thorbein took the cheque. Her eyes lingered on the amount of ten thousand dollars made out in her name. Opening a drawer, she carefully placed the cheque inside, locking it away.
'Yes, that's fine
'I hope you don't imagine that the money is for my personal use. It's just that it's easier for accounting purposes to accept donations this way.'
'Whatever you say,' Cope smiled, not believing a word.
Margaret Thorbein picked up his business card and frowned.
'What exactly is The Cope Centre for Scientific Research?'
'We're a privately funded drug development organisation,' Cope answered evasively.
'And why do you want to contact Angelo Caprini?'
'I'm sorry, Mrs.Thorbein, but that's confidential information. After all, I'm paying for your discretion.'
'I have a duty of care to Mr. Caprini,' Mrs. Thorbein bristled.
Marion Cope shook his head.
'A duty that ceases as soon as he leaves your care. If he voluntarily chooses to leave the Sunnybrook Retirement Home, you are no longer legally or morally responsible for his welfare.'
'I wouldn't like to think he was going somewhere that wasn't how can I put it - ethically responsible. After all, we're talking about a very elderly man.'
Cope flicked a tiny speck of dust from the sleeve of his expensive suit.
'Cope Research is a highly respected organisation. Mr.Caprini would have to sign an agreement to assist us.'
'He's an old man.'
'An elderly man,' Cope conceded. 'But from what you've told me, one in complete control of all his faculties.
'He has no relatives or friends that must be consulted as to his wishes. He's a responsible adult and a voluntary resident in your home. Frankly, what he decides about my proposal is none of your business.'
'What do you want from me?'
'Nothing much. The money that I paid is for an introduction to Mr.Caprini,' His voice roughened. 'It's also to ensure you keep your lips zipped.'
Cope looked at the woman with open contempt. Pressure time, he decided.
'Let me be very clear about our arrangement, Mrs.Thorbein,' he said deliberately. 'The cheque I've given you is dated three days ahead. If Mr.Caprini decides not to assist me, I'll block payment. If having banked my cheque, you tell anyone where he has gone and with whom, I'll ensure each director on your Board receives a dossier exposing your gambling and drug addiction.'
The woman flushed, her mouth opening and closing soundlessly.
'Come now,' he laughed cruelly. 'Did you seriously think I would come here unprepared?'
There was a soft tap on the office door.
'Ah,' Cope went on. 'That will be Mr. Caprini. Come in, sir.'
It was a short walk from Mrs. Thorbein's office into the gardens that surrounded the converted 19th Century convent.
'Could we find somewhere in the shade?' Cope pleaded.
Caprini looked with pity at the plump, 40-year old man puffing beside him.
'Of course, there's a seat near the lake.'
Cope gratefully sank onto the wooden seat. He fumbled through his pockets and produced a small bottle. Uncapping the bottle, he shook out two small pills that he swallowed.
'Would you like me to fetch some water?' Angelo Caprini offered.
'No, don't bother. That's better. They'll kick in soon. I have a weak heart. It runs in my family.'
He took several deep breaths and mopped his brow.
'Thanks for agreeing to see me,' he began.
'It's alright. I found a vacant slot between watching ''Days of Our Lives" and the pottery class.'
Although Caprini shrugged wryly, Cope sensed an underlying bitterness.
'Would you say you're a contented man?' Cope asked.
Caprini glanced sharply at the doctor.
'What an extraordinary question to ask a stranger!'
He turned his gaze to where a duck was proudly leading her cygnets across the tea brown waters of the lake.
'I've many reasons to feel grateful,' he answered carefully.
'I enjoy excellent health. Doctors tell me I have the body of an 80 year old and the constitution of an ox. I don't need medicine. I exercise regularly and even use weights to prevent muscle wastage. I eat little, but well. I remain mentally alert. I read, paint and write some very bad poetry. In many ways, I'm the youngest person here.'
'That wasn't what I asked,' Cope quietly reminded him.
A group of elderly women had appeared on the path across the lake. Two were leaning heavily on walking frames while a third was in a wheelchair. Seeing Caprini, they waved cheerfully.
'Nice ladies,' Angelo said, waving back.
'You seem popular.'
'I am. I tell them naughty jokes. Sing songs of the old country. Play - at least I call it play - a mandolin. I flirt when I'm in a good mood, which is most of the time. I remind them of their youth and for a time, they're girls again.
'It takes very little to keep most old people happy,' he concluded wistfully.
'But you want more,' Cope probed.
'Oh really! Is any of that your business?'
The two men sat without speaking. After several minutes, Angelo Caprini shrugged. 'I guess it isn't a secret. Yes, I seek more.
'It's odd. Up to a year ago, I felt content. I've done a great deal in my life and I could look back on my achievements with a sense of accomplishment. The hunter was home from the hill.
'Then one day, I woke with an overpowering conviction that I was soon to face a major challenge. That some great destiny awaited me.
'I reasoned that the emotion was absurd. I mean, what is expected of a 100-year-old man, other than he appeared gracious when everyone admires his longevity. But the feeling persisted. It was an emotion of both expectancy and panic - fear that time was slipping away.
'I hoped that the unsettling feeling would finally pass, but it hasn't. Frankly, it's destroyed my peace of mind. At a time when I should be quietly preparing myself for death, some demon - I can only think of it as that - whispers to me that I must remain watchful for my time will come.'
'Have you spoken to anyone about this?'
'Who could I tell? What could I say? It sounds fanciful, even to me.
'Look Dr.Cope, you'll be doing me a favor if you forget what I said. I don't know why I confided in you and I feel embarrassed that I did.'
'I'm glad you did. It's strange that you began thinking like that a year ago. That was about the time when I made a major breakthrough in my project, without which I wouldn't be seeing you today.
'Sometimes I wonder if there is something in that old theory that ideas are like radio waves and can be transmitted across time and space. It would explain how two inventors who have never heard of each other could within weeks come up with essentially the same radical solution that has puzzled scientists for hundreds of years.
'Perhaps your mind picked up something of the excitement I felt when I finally unlocked the door to 'The Elixir Project'.
'Dramatic title,' Caprini commented dryly. 'What is it?'
'A moment ago, you asked me to keep your secret. I will. In turn, I ask that you never divulge what I'm about to tell you.'
'Sure,' Angelo agreed easily. 'And you won't have to bribe or blackmail me.'
Seeing Cope's surprise, he went on. 'I may be old, but I'm not blind or senile. I saw the dollar signs in Margaret Thorbein's eyes the moment I entered her office. I certainly hope you've put pressure on her, because any money she gets will go straight up her nose or onto the back of a horse.
'Now, tell me your secret.'
My research company develops drugs. One of the areas I've been investigating is how drugs can be used to assist, block or modify the genetic code.
'We now know a great deal about the human genome - the building block of life.
'An area of intense interest is why and how we age. In theory, humans should be capable of living for hundreds of years. Few people however, irrespective of race, general health, environment or any other factor live for more than a few years after their hundredth birthday.
'It seems clear that our genes contain a set of instructions linked to a biological clock. The clock tells a child's body when it is time to move to puberty. It also tells us when the body should begin the long process of shutting down.
'The question is, can we somehow slow down the clock so that our genes are fooled into thinking that we're younger than we are.'
'And you've done that?'
'No, something far more exciting. I've turned back time. I believe I've discovered a way that humans can grow younger, instead of older.'
'Of course, I'm still at a very early stage of research. It works for rats and mice. More importantly, I've conducted successful trials on monkeys with whom we share almost all of our genetic composition. Now, I'm ready to try out the technique on humans.'
'But there have been problems?' Angelo suggested.
'Marion Cope shifted uncomfortably on the garden seat.
'There is an unusual - some might call it undesirable - aspect to the process,' he admitted.
'I said that you grow younger as time passes. The fact is that the drug makes you grow younger at a much faster rate than you would normally grow older.'
'How much faster?'
'Well, when I first began experimenting on adult rats they were transformed within weeks. In the case of monkeys, they grew younger but died within three months. Their hearts, lungs, liver and kidneys couldn't deal with such a dramatic change.
'However,' he brightened. 'I've slowed the process down. One day, I hope to add at least 100 additional years to the average lifespan.'
'But you're not there yet.'
'No. At present, the rate of ''youthing'' is about double that of normal aging.
'That's not bad,' he hurried on defensively. 'In your case, I would hope to achieve 50 more years of life. And I mean life, not some miserable hiatus where you're old and long for a death that never seems to come.'
'And what about all the awful things that happened to your laboratory animals. Is there a danger a human might go into meltdown?'
'I can guarantee that won't happen now.
'Look, I must be honest. The rate at which you grow younger is currently unstable. So much relies on each person's metabolism. At different ages, the rate may increase. But 50 years - even 30 years of growing younger must be better than say seven years of old age.'
'How many people have agreed to take part in your experiment?'
'You're the first I've asked.'
'I wanted someone who was very old so that I would have plenty of time to observe the process working. I also wanted someone in good health so the effects of ''youthing'' were clear.'
'And you saw in me someone without relatives to complain if things went wrong,' Caprini shrewdly observed. 'Also a man who was so desperate for life that he'd agree to take part in a risky experiment in the hope of some extra years of life.'
'Those were also factors,' Cope admitted. 'We've only been thinking of the negative factors,' he continued, a growing note of enthusiasm creeping into his voice.
'Think of the advantages. Each day, when you look in a mirror, you'll see your hair growing thicker and darker. Your skin will tighten. Your muscles will harden. Your eyesight will grow sharper. The feeling of weariness will drop from your shoulders like a cloak. You'll find your mind clearing like a landscape after mist. All the spirit and vigor of youth will return.
'You've told me you were looking for a great role. This is it. The first man to conquer time. The first human to drink the elixir of youth: to bathe in the fountain of youth.'
Angelo Caprini turned to Cope, the eagerness in his eyes making him look far younger than he was.
'You don't have to sell the idea to me, Dr.Cope. It's exactly what I've been looking for. When can we start?'
If you drive beyond the small alpine town of Bright, you enter a wild and mountainous area known as the Bogong High Plains. This lightly populated area known as the 'Rooftop of Victoria' is home to mountain cattlemen and outside the cluster of popular resorts, is generally visited only by adventurous hikers or skiers.
It was here on remote Mt.Arunken that Marion Cope converted a failed ski village into a small, gated community. And it was here that he bought Angelo Caprini.
Angelo had been born in Cortina, Northern Italy where he learned to ski from an early age. When he immigrated to Australia in the 1950's, he found the ski fields too far and expensive, but had missed the sport. Now as heavy snow covered Mt. Arunken, he regained his skill.
At first, Cope was concerned that the old man's bones might snap, but each day, tests showed Angelo's bone density improved, while his long disused leg and arm muscles began to lose their stiffness.
Most days, Angelo would pack a light lunch and leave the converted chalet as dawn broke, spending all day skiing down the slopes or trekking across the deserted valleys until dusk forced him to return.
A year passed. Then a second. After the snow melted and grass interspersed with tiny, vivid wildflowers covered the valleys and slopes, he took to hiking for hours after breakfast. He was rapidly growing younger and rejoiced in both his increasing vigor and the beautiful countryside. It was a time of renewal.
At the end of the second year, his peaceful life was shattered. It began with the arrival of a helicopter that landed on what was once the chalet carpark.
Angelo put down his paintbrush and strolled over, thinking that the visitor must be Marion Cope returning after an absence of several weeks. Instead of the doctor, he was surprised to see a blocky, sandy-haired man aged in his early forties leave the chopper. Seeing Angelo, he smiled and advanced, extending a large, freckled hand.
'Mr.Caprini, my name's James Gaudron.'
Gaudron carried the air of a man long used to issuing orders and seeing them instantly obeyed. He had a slight Irish brogue and Angelo vaguely recalled reading about the billionaire entrepreneur who had made his fortune from the drug industry.
Gaudron looked expectantly at Angelo. Gaining no reaction, he growled impatiently, 'Surely Cope mentioned my name?'
'No, he didn't.'
Gaudron shook his head irritably. 'Typical. Just another loose end he left others to tie.'
'Where is he?'
'Oh, you haven't heard?' Gaudron asked carelessly. 'Marion Cope died a week ago.'
'Yes, heart attack. The man was in terrible shape. I suppose he never mentioned that he had sold his clinic to me?'
'Not a word, but it wouldn't have been my business.' Angelo felt sad that Cope had died. While not close, he had respected and liked the doctor.
'Oh it's your business alright. You're the principal asset in this company.'
'I don't see how.'
'Of course you do. You're the only living proof that Cope's remarkable treatment works.' Gaudron smiled, showing a large set of gleaming, capped teeth. 'I look at you and see gold on legs.'
He turned abruptly from the astonished Caprini and bellowed at the helicopter pilot who had turned off the rotor and was checking his instrument panel. 'Bring my briefcase and laptop up to the house. And when you do that, find Reynolds. He was supposed to meet me. This place is like Sleepy Hollow. Shake some decision-makers out of the trees!'
He glanced at Angelo. 'I'll see you at dinner,' he nodded curtly.
'I generally have a plate sent to my room,' Angelo demurred.
'Seven. Sharp,' Gaudron said, stalking off toward the house.
It was curious, Angelo reflected as he came down to dinner. This reminds me of being called to the school headmaster's office 90 years ago. Will I be caned or warned to do better in third term?
Gaudron was seated at the dining room table, surrounded by ledgers. He didn't look up when Angelo took his place, continuing to type figures into his laptop. The meal was served and as Gaudron seemed disinterested in either food or his guest, Angelo quietly poured himself a glass of red wine and began eating.
Finally, Gaudron pushed aside his ledgers with a disgusted snort. He drew his plate to him and began wolfing down the food. Midway through his meal, he paused and glared at Angelo.
'Not good enough,' he pronounced, waving his laden fork for emphasis.
'Oh, the accounts are as hopeless as I thought. No, it's you. Not good enough.'
The billionaire's mouth was crammed with food. Angelo, repulsed at the sight, looked away.
'What do you mean?' he addressed the chandelier.
Gaudron swallowed his food with a mighty gulp.
'You think you can come and go as you please,' he said accusingly. 'Disappear into the mountains all day. Anything could happen to you. It's going to change.'
'I'm a free agent,' Angelo protested.
'No, you're not,' Gaudron flatly contradicted him. 'You're my investment. Cope Research has to date spent $123 million on The Elixir Project and so far, you're all we have to show for it. From now on Mr.Caprini, you're going to follow my rules. Everything is going to go by the book.'
Gaudron crashed his fist down onto a ledger and Angelo started.
'And speaking of books,' Gaudron seized a sheaf of papers. 'These scientific reports on your progress are trash.' He screwed up several sheets and flung them into the fireplace.
'I'm not a scientist, but this wouldn't convince a simpleton. We need proof. Demonstrable fact. We need a battery of tests on you. Cognition. Resistance to physical pain and emotional stress. Every breath. Every pulse. Every heart beat. Everything checked and double-checked. From now on, you'll be as closely supervised as a laboratory rat. And we need more volunteers. Men and women. Different ages. Different races. All bound by ironclad contracts.
Gaudron piled food onto his fork and for the first time that evening, smiled.
'There's a fortune to be made from this and I'm the man who'll see it happen.'
The next morning, Angelo watched Gaudron bustle to the helicopter. As soon as the chopper had disappeared into the dawn sky, he packed his few belongings into a rucksack and quietly let himself out of the house.
In time, he reached Melbourne and hid himself in that great city. Gaudron employed an army of investigators to track him down, but they never succeeded. A man who once traveled unchallenged as a spy through Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany has nothing to fear in a loosely regulated democracy.
The years passed. Angelo moved around, careful not to stay too long in any place.
When he was in what appeared to be his thirties, he fell in love. She was blonde, tanned and in her late twenties. When he explained he was growing younger, Crystal Templar laughed.
One day, almost ten years after they had married, he arrived home from work to find her crying.
'What's wrong, darling?' he asked, putting his arm around her shoulders.
She flung off his arm.
'What could possibly be wrong?' she demanded bitterly. 'I hate this life. No sooner are we settled, no sooner do I make friends and start a job, but we have to leave in case someone notices you're growing younger. And I can never have children because their father is turning into a child.'
'But you always knew this,' Angelo pointed out. 'Has anything changed?'
Crystal nodded. 'Yesterday, I saw Mrs. Featherstone that old snoop from Apartment 10. She saw us at the shopping center recently. She complimented me on my fine son and said she hoped to meet my husband soon. She asked what you're going to be when you grow up.
'I can't bear it any more! I want a man to love me. It's creepy making love to a boy.
'I'm sorry,' she reached out, tentatively stroking his cheek. 'I know you can't help what's happening and I love you, but I'm going to leave you. Whatever you are now can only get worse.'
Despite Angelo's desperate pleading, Crystal packed and left that night. He never saw her again.
Five years later, what appeared to be a 13-year old boy entered the lobby of a city hotel. He waited patiently for a lift. When it came, he entered it and pressed the button for the 56th. floor. Noone else entered the lift and it rose swiftly and silently toward the top floor.
Angelo felt his future was hopeless. Soon, he would become a child, then a helpless baby and finally a foetus. Beyond that, he could not imagine, as his existence would then divide in two.
Reaching the top floor, he opened the door to the fire escape stairs and climbed one final flight to reach the roof.
Here, the roar of city traffic was dulled and the air was bracingly cool.
He climbed a safety fence and walked several more steps to reach the edge of the roof.
Then he stepped beyond.
As he fell, he closed his eyes and threw open his arms.
For several long moments, it felt as though he was flying.
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