Jack’s insides rose as the plane dropped and shook. No matter how he sat, he couldn’t sleep. Yesterday when he had said goodbye to his mother, he told her he was taking the train to Manchester and would be back at work on Monday. He wished he didn’t have to keep secrets from her. He clenched his hands. His father’s words from the night before kept ringing through his head. “Bugger off and I hope you never come back.”
His stomach twisted and his shoulders sank. What if New Zealand didn’t work? What if he was lonely and longed to go back? There was so much that could go wrong. He hated leaving things to chance. The cabin lights dimmed. He downed his plastic cup of pinot and shoved it into the seat pocket. He had to calm down. He scrolled through his iPod to Albinoni’s Adagio, turned up the volume and closed his eyes. A slow beat of the bass and the gentle to and fro of violins. Gripping his thighs, he took deep breaths as the music came in waves, swinging back and forth from violins to cello. What would it be like to see Sophie again? Would she still recognise him?
He let out a sigh. “It’s going to work,” he whispered. “I can do it.”
February 1989Jack’s windowsill was crammed with sprouting beans in yoghurt pots. On the chest of drawers near the window was his microscope and aquarium. Lifting the wire mesh, Jack sprinkled in some fish food. Several tadpoles wriggled past the pondweed to the surface. One had a tiny tail and two bumps for eyes, another had two miniature legs.
He smiled and changed out of his school uniform into jeans and a T-shirt.
A clunk came from the front door. His mum called out. “Sophie’s here.”
A rapid thump of feet up the stairs. The door opened and Sophie leapt onto the bed.
Her black hair swung across her face while she rummaged through her bag and pulled out a torn piece of newspaper. “Here’s that advert I was telling you about.”
There were photos of a man’s head. One was bald, and next to it was the same head with a new growth of hair. Below it said, With the new improved Rogers’ transplant technique you will in no time have a verdant growth of new hair. A head you can be proud of. At the bottom it said, Introductory course £1,990.
“Our treatment will be so much better than theirs,” she said. “Men will kill to look young again. When my dad was alive, Mum was always winding him up about losing his hair.”
Jack ran his hands over his head. “I’d hate to be bald again.”
“Do you remember when I used to look out for new hair that was growing? And I showed you a great big one that had come out?”
“That was mean showing me one of yours.”
She giggled. “I kidded you for a while, didn’t I?”
He nodded and put down the newspaper clipping. “I reckon it’s worth a try.”
“It can’t be that difficult,” she said, holding out her hands.
“Way easier than a bone marrow transplant.” His eyes widened. “If we get this right, it could make us rich. Who’d believe a couple of kids from Lancaster could do it? Have you got everything?”
From her bag she pulled out a Swiss army knife, surgical tape, a bag of cotton wool, and laid them on the bed.
“You are ready, aren’t you?” she asked, rolling up her sweatshirt sleeves.
He jerked back. “I thought it was your turn?”
She shook her head. “Miss Chan said I was brilliant at flower dissection. She said I'd make an excellent surgeon.”
“But I was the guinea pig last time.”
She fluttered her eyelids as she gazed at him. “I’ll be really careful.”
He sighed and held out his bare arm, fist clenched. “Just do it quickly.”
She took his wrist and stroked the smoothness of his forearm. Where her nail ran along the skin, it left a pink streak. She flicked open the blade and grinned. Jack’s eyes widened, then he frowned.
She pinched his cheek and smiled. “Don’t worry,” she said, resting his hand in her lap.
She lit the lighter and stroked the flame over the blade. Amber light flickered across her round cheeks and black hair. He tightened his fist and gritted his teeth. The metal hissed as it touched his skin.
He jerked back his hand. “Ouch!”
“Sorry, I should’ve let it cool down.”
He held out his arm again and she pressed the blade against his skin, but it wouldn’t cut.
“I’ll have to try harder,” she said, peering at the red mark.
He pulled back his arm. “Let me do it.”
“No, I’ll get it right this time.” She eased his arm away from his chest and drew the knife over his skin. “For the sake of science.”
Her tongue slid in and out of her lips. A pool of blood formed around the blade. Her eyes widened as the tip slid under the skin. He swallowed hard and looked past her shoulder at the notebook on his desk. Written at the top of the page was, A cure for baldness - Day one.
“See, I’ve done it,” she said. “It wasn’t that bad, was it?”
He frowned. “You always get your own way.”
She broke off a piece of cotton wool and reached for the surgical tape. “And you let me,” she said, nudging him.
“One day I’ll take over your body and you’ll be mine.” She placed cotton wool against the cut. “Hold that.”
He pressed it against his arm. The wad filled with blood and a drop ran down his elbow.
She leaned over and plucked a hair from his head, then another, and another. She lifted the cotton wool and with the blade of the knife, eased the dark brown hairs under the skin, then added fresh cotton wool and wrapped surgical tape around his arm.
“That should do,” she said, snapping the scissors across the tape. “Still feeling all right?”
His insides turned. A hiss filled his ears. “Wouldn’t mind some orange juice,” he murmured.
Bursts of light drifted across his vision and he started to fall.