Art Pact 108 - The Previa Hemsfoot Interview, pt 2


There is a mantelpiece in the living room, although the fireplace inside it either never existed or has been bricked up and plastered over. Pride of place goes to a photo proving the meeting that Previa claimed: Markham Fothergill as an old man, already showing signs of the liver problems that would eventually claim his life. He looks pleased, and Previa looks happy - as though it has met a hero.

Markham Fothergill was not typical hero-fodder. Curmudgeonly, but not in a witty way that could be forgiven as a sign of genius, conservative in his views towards integration, in his early life even a member of a separatist group (Fortego, long since gone, its more liberal members dispersed into the community, the right-wing rolled into DKB and its equally objectionable splinters). Fothergill's degree in psychology led him eventually to work in the Toronto Baines clinic, where he was to meet the first example of a sufferer of the syndrome that would later take his name. Fothergill's notes from the day note nothing particularly unusual about Pol (the name by which he identified his patient in his monograph). But two months later his diary is buzzing with excitement:

It seems that my suspicions have been confirmed (he writes) Pol's condition is not psychological - or rather, his psychological issues stem from a genuine inability to enter metamorphosis. Beecham's analysis is too complicated for me to fully understand, however. I will need to go back to my books if I am to help him!

I quiz Previa about "Pol"'s real identity. It claims to have met Fothergill's patient.

"We weren't introduced properly, though," it tells me. "I could probably find out, but I think it's better to preserve Pol's privacy. We know too much about him, right? That's why Fothergill was so keen on keeping it a secret."

Jack takes his final shot and begins to pack up, but Previa presses him to take another few shots, as a favour. Apparently his disarming manner has completely overcome Previa's earlier suspicions.

"I've got a full suit," it says cryptically.

Full suit turns out to be almost an understatement - after ten minutes of preparation in the other room it emerges made up as a full warrior, complete with mask and heavy padding on its forelegs. It's not particularly convincing, although I can imagine from a distance it might look quite authentic. There is something unusual about it, something that eludes my grasp but which Jack will later put his finger on quite accurately - we are not unaccustomed to seeing Myrmians in "drag" like this, but they are usually lampooning their own forms, in the same way that a Terran festival-goer might wear a comically outsized codpiece. Previa's costume is hardly lifelike, but it is an attempt to simulate the real shape of a Myrmian in warrior form - the real shape that Previa itself might be able to take if it were not for Fothergill's.  We are looking at the person that Previa wants to be, and what makes me uncomfortable (even though I cannot pin it down in the moment) is the sense of a longing, a gap between desire and reality that can never be filled, and that has made another person's life more painful.

Jack takes the pictures, then wires them to Previa and deletes them from his cache. I get the impression that this is something he has done before, which he confirms (not all photographers are so polite, he tells me, having once worked as a lighting expert for a fashion photographer who refused to send a copy of a photo he'd taken without payment - the model in question had died that week, and it was the last image of her alive. Her grieving parents had asked for the copy. "The single biggest act of dickishness I've ever seen," Jack comments).

With "Pol" a secret and Fothergill dead, Previa is the best-known face in the small but visible world of Fothergill's Syndrome. With so few sufferers it is still hardly a major priority for medical science, but there are a small staff of biologists, doctors, and chemists still working on the possibility of a cure. I ask Previa whether it believes that a cure will come during its lifetime.

"I suppose so. But I don't want to just sit back and wait. I have to live my life now, not put it off."

It tells me that its charity work is rewarding, but that it has decided to scale back in the last few years.

"The problem is that if you're campaigning for a charity that directly affects you, there's basically no downtime. A year or so ago everything in my life was the condition, you understand? It was getting on top of me, and I thought it might be useful for someone else to take the lead, or more than someone else. It's not very - well, I also think perhaps I was giving people a sort of fatigue, that they would get so used to seeing my face that they'd start to think of it as a charity that was only about me. But the truth is that I'm pretty lucky: I don't have to stay in social housing, I could afford my own place. There are children suffering from the condition - the most recent person diagnosed on Earth is only six, they got picked up by the genetic test and then the chemical test confirmed it. They're hopefully going to have an easier life than I did when I was six, and that's what the charity is really about."

Still wanting to avoid the issue of genetics, I ask whether Previa thinks there is a wider benefit from the charity, expanding our still patchy knowledge of Myrmian biology.

"Oh, definitely. It was charity money that discovered the role of Myrchitinase A in breeder baldness, did you know that?" (I did not) "Not exactly much use to me - well, maybe one day, with luck! But it's a good outcome. If there hadn't been the charity, perhaps they'd still be looking."

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