‘I remember the day I heard that the last polar bear in the wild had died’ says Lisa sadly.
‘That was just scare-mongering’ says Ruth. ‘There were others about.’
‘There were’ says Wen with authority. ‘There were actually quite a few wandering about at the end but they were too far apart to find each other to mate.’
‘That seems so sad’ says Lisa, clearly very moved.
We sit and think about how sad it was.
‘You’re far too sensitive’ says Ruth. ‘They could have put them together if they’d tried, surely. You know, tranquillise them and move them?’
‘And put them where exactly?’ says Wen. ‘The reason there were so few in the first place was because their habitat was gone. It was only a matter of time.’
‘Well how should I know? You’re the big expert. What about Antarctica?’
We all know this is a ridiculous idea and have nothing to add. We’re in the sauna again. Ruth is with us today and although she has the most technically 'good' body of any of us (albeit rather too ‘athletic’ for me) she won’t take her towel off so we all feel we have to keep covered up too. Lisa resisted for a while but even she’s fallen into line. This tells us something profoundly sad about the world I feel but can’t be bothered to work out what. Wen is particularly angry about it.
‘It was worse than with the rhinos I thought’ continues Raz. ‘With the rhinos you could imagine that one day there’d be somewhere for them to be released if they could stop the poaching, but with the polar bears that was it. It didn’t matter how many there were in zoos. That was the only place they’d ever be. There’s nowhere to release them to. It’s terribly sad.’
‘Well you’re all cheerful company today’ says Ruth and she goes out to get showered and dressed.
After we’re all thoroughly steamed and showered we head to the bar for lunch. They’re doing grilled bass with ginger and lime so we all order that except Lisa who has the halloumi. Ruth picks up from where we left off earlier, debating with Wen. I want to join in but really, I had enough of that in life. We’re dead now. Time to let it all go.
‘All I’m saying is there was no point in them making all that fuss about emissions when the whole climate’s gone tits up anyway’ says Ruth. ‘I for one would not have given up my SUV for anyone. Oh do stop looking at me like that. It was mostly a safety thing.’
‘Aw. Did the nasty cars fwighten you?’ says Wen in a silly voice.
‘And I certainly wasn’t going to give up on flying’ she adds for good measure.
‘Does anybody actually travel that much these days anyway?’ says Raz ‘I thought “travelling” was all a bit twentieth century.’
‘I used to use my villa in Bulgaria quite a bit’ says Ruth, ‘you know, for weekends and so forth...’
‘Personally I would have been very loathe to give up flying’ says Raz. ‘I was brought up in the f..ties (mumbling the actual decade through her hand) and I did not go through all that post-war austerity to have a bunch of left wing do-gooders telling me what I could and couldn’t do.’
‘So as far as you’re concerned the world can go to hell in a dust cart because you don’t like being told off’ says Wen, bluntly.
‘Whereas you lot just revel in it don’t you?’ says Ruth, sharply. We all turn to look at her glaring at Wen. Wen observes her coolly.
‘You environmentalists just love the old hair shirt routine don’t you’ she continues. ‘So f’cking holier than thou... It’s like the f’cking cultural revolution, pardon my French.’
A moment passes, then Wen, at first calmly but with increasing volume and velocity says ‘You don’t know a thing about it Ruth. Do you really imagine I enjoyed having to think about climate change and exploitation and all the rest of it? Don’t you think I’d rather have just got on and enjoyed life and not worried about all that green crap? I loved to fly as much as anyone. When I was a kid, travelling was all I ever wanted to do. But then I had to grow up Ruth. I had to accept that I couldn’t just do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I didn’t like it any more than you did but I felt I had to take some responsibility. I loved my old V70.’
We sit silently for a while, tacitly agreeing it would be a good time to change the subject but Ruth has to come back with something.
‘Well bully for you’ she says. ‘I hope it made you very happy.’
‘Happy?’ spits Wen. ‘Why would I be happy? Do you have any idea, of the damage done, by...’
‘Not my problem’ she replies turning to look at something across the room and take a sip on her wine. ‘Not my problem at all.’
Wen glares at her. ‘I wonder what our children would have to say about that’ she says.
‘Well it’s hardly going to affect my children is it?’ snaps Ruth.
She glances pointedly in my direction, as if this is somehow my fault, that she died childless. I meet her stare defiantly, but can’t ignore the feeling that I am in some way, somehow to blame – me and my kind, and this is her revenge – to see the world destroyed.
‘Oh I’m sure they’ll manage’ says Raz, jovially moving things along. ‘My Kenneth – I’d put money on him being the last one standing when the whole bloody thing boils up.’
‘Oh I don’t doubt the human race will be there after everything else is gone’ says Wen, ‘along with all the other vermin.’
‘Now look here Wen, I worked hard all my life for what I had and I refuse to take sole responsibility for the state of the world.’
‘But we’re not saying you should’ says Lisa. She wants us all to be friends again. ‘What we’re saying is that everybody should have done their bit. I just felt so sorry for all those people in Africa having to keep moving about because there’s no water. You think we had it bad...’
‘But that’s always been the way it was in Africa sweetie, for as long as I can remember. What about Biafra back in the sixties?’
‘And Band Aid’ says Ruth, suddenly very animated and cheerful again. ‘We stayed up all night. Do you remember? I pledged fifteen pounds. I don’t think I ever actually sent it but there you are. Good intentions and all that.’
Wen can barely conceal her contempt but Ruth, as usual, is oblivious and begins to hum Feed The World, swaying slightly from side to side. Lisa looks like she might join in any moment.
‘Were you aware that other parts of Ethiopia were still exporting food through all that?’ says Wen.
‘Oh don’t be such a killjoy’ says Ruth, still swaying.
‘Is that true?’ says Lisa, somewhat shocked.
‘Apparently’ says Wen, picking up her glass and draining it. ‘The point is Ruth, the upheaval in recent years has been on an unprecedented scale...’
‘Unprecedented upheaval you say’ says Ruth in a silly nasal voice.
‘Everything that was happening in the horn of Africa, Sudan, Chad...’
‘Chad?’ says Ruth incredulous. ‘Is that a real place or a made-up name?’
‘You haven’t heard of Chad?’ says Wen, even more incredulous.
We all look at her.
‘Well...’ she says, hurriedly ‘but I mean, really...’
‘Well. I’m sorry about all the famine and everything’ interjects Raz, possibly to save Ruth further embarrassment. ‘We’ve all just got the one life... Ok, point taken. But you know what I mean. You’ve got to make the most of it. And look, they’ve solved the energy problem with the solar panel thing.’
‘Raz, don’t you get it?’ says Wen. ‘The climate’s going to take centuries to stabilise, and in the mean time it just lets us off the hook to deforest and pollute and concrete over the rest of the world willy-nilly.’
‘What it does’ says Ruth, keen to show she does after all know some geography ‘is lets places like Nigeria and Mexico off the hook so that their populations can aspire to the standard of living we enjoy in the west and...’
‘I think you’re being somewhat naive there Ruth.’
‘I’m being naive?’
‘All this “technology will solve everything” tripe... Does anybody still believe that? It’s pure utopian fundamentalist clap-trap.’
‘Hold on. You’re saying I’m being naive?’ she repeats, clearly deeply offended.
‘And it’s just a wild coincidence that it happens to make pots of money for people like you’ adds Wen. ‘Who’d have thought it?’
‘Well doesn’t it seem a little unjust to you, to deny them the opportunities we have?’
‘Terribly unjust’ says Wen, going back to her book.
‘Or maybe they could learn from our mistakes?’ I say quietly to no one in particular. They all turn to me. ‘We’re not really trying to say that the way we live in the West is all that enviable are we?’
Raz looks surprised at the question, and a little amused. Lisa frowns. I can’t see Wen’s reaction but Ruth sits up and says ‘God yes, and I don’t believe it’s for us to stand and preach and tell them what they can and can’t have, or maybe you think we should all live like a third world country.’
‘No, obviously not, but I mean, do we all have to have all the latest gadgets and designer clothes and several foreign holidays a year and a bespoke kitchen and a garden makeover and gourmet food, and then, because you spend so much time at work paying for all this, you have to buy a lot of ready meals and pay a cleaner to look after the house and you’ve got no time for the kids so you have to employ a nanny and you have to employ someone to do the garden and I don’t know, walk the dog and pleasure the missus, and that all costs more so you spend even more time at work and you spend so much time sitting at your desk or driving around you get obese or diabetes so you have to pay to go to a gym and then that doesn’t work so you have to go and get your bum sucked or your tummy tucked, so that’s more money, so you have to spend yet more time at work...’
Raz puts her hand on top of mine. ‘I think we get the idea sweetie’ she says.
Everybody looks at me, a little taken aback I suppose. I’m completely out of breath.
‘But it’s neurotic isn’t it’ I continue, ‘all this “busy lifestyles” crap, just constantly craving the next thing, not enjoying what you’ve got...’
‘Oh hang on darling. I hope you’re not implying we’re all insane’ chuckles Raz happily. She’s enjoying herself now.
‘It’s called “growth” Gabriel’ says Ruth, without amusement. ‘The economy can’t continue without growth. Do some economics.’
‘Your economics works that way but it doesn’t have to’ says Wen, putting her book down and leaning in again. ‘A sustainable economy is perfectly...’
‘Oh God if I hear the S word once more I shall puke. You’re talking about S for stagnation Wen. Do you want to go back to living in a mud hut and dressing in cast-offs? Really, if you want to go and live in Chad or wherever, go right ahead. Excuse me if I don’t join you.’
‘That’s just nonsense Ruth and you know it.’
‘It’s progress. You can’t turn the clock back’
‘Why not? Who made that rule?’
‘Oh now you’re talking nonsense.’
‘You like this so called progress because you stand to make money out of it but lets not pretend there’s anything inevitable or unstoppable about it.’
‘Oh for God’s sake Wen. I thought this brand of utopian hippy nonsense died out with the sixties. All this is old hat.’
‘Oh my God’ says Wen, covering her mouth. ‘You mean... my opinions are unfashionable? Oh my God that’s so embarrassing. Oh well, I give in. You win.’
Raz and I snigger quietly. I glance at Lisa. She’s watching them intently.
‘Oh grow up the lot of you’ says Ruth. ‘You know what I mean.’
‘You think I believe we should all to go back to being peasants’ says Wen, ‘or hunter-gatherers perhaps – some pre-industrial, anti-technological fantasy world...’
‘You have no idea what I think Ruth.’
‘But I can imagine.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘Well go on then. Enlighten us. I don’t hear any very constructive suggestions coming from your side of the table. Come on, what’s your alternative?’
‘Well...’ and Wen seems suddenly at a loss. ‘It’s a big question’ she begins. ‘I don’t think I can explain, not just like that. But if you really want to know, you could come to the library and...’
‘Boring!’ says Ruth, rather loudly.
Wen stares at her, amused or astonished – I’m not sure which.
‘Boring boring boring’ says Ruth, ‘and useless. I knew everything I needed to know to get where I wanted to be. Anyway how do you imagine we’d have modern medicine without progress, and what about transport? What about all the cheap food you all take for granted, and clothes and all the rest of it? How’s all that supposed to happen? Huh?’
‘I’m not saying we should all live in poverty’ says Wen, rather tersely. Ruth’s not listening.
‘What about, I don’t know, telecommunications? You at least had a phone I take it.’
‘Yes, I used the internet all the time.’
‘Oh so progress is fine when it suits you.’
‘Yes, that’s what I’m saying. If we could all simply...’
‘What? Ok, so are you going to decide what the rest of us can have now?’
‘Of course not. We all have to take some responsibility, make choices...’
‘Well I think, if it’s my money, I’ve earned it, I can spend it on whatever I like...’
‘Whatever the consequences? You think that anything you can afford, you should be able to buy?’
‘Anything? What about, say, child pornography?’
‘Oh well obviously not... Although, come to think of it, if the rest of the world was at it we’d be fools not to look at the possibilities – with the proper safe-guards in place of course.’
We all stop to look at her, not quite believing we’ve heard what we just heard.
‘Oh for God’s sake, I’m joking’ she says, once she’s registered our reactions. ‘God, you know, the worst thing about you lefties is your total lack of a sense of humour.’
(Later on, after Ruth’s gone, Lisa turns to us and says ‘You don’t think she meant it do you?’ and we all say ‘Nah, ‘course not’ but we’re none of us sure. I still suspect she’d consider it a serious proposition as long as it didn’t involve anyone she knew personally. Maybe some of those feral kids off the estates – they’d probably be glad of an extra bob or two...)
‘So, no...’ she resumes ‘Not child pornography.’
‘Ok. Why not?’
‘Well if you don’t know why not...’
‘I know why not. I want to know why you think not.’
‘Oh look. This is getting ridiculous.’
‘Because it would be immoral, yes?’
‘Yes of course but...’
‘So you concede that you should not necessarily be permitted to buy anything you want, simply because you can afford it.’
‘But you don’t think people’s lives matter enough, in Africa for example’
‘I do but...’
‘Destroying the environment – that’s not immoral?’
‘But I don’t think my gym membership or an M&S ready meal is in quite the same league Wen. And now if you’ll excuse me I have to meet my friend. I’ll see you all later.’ And with that she collects her belongings and heads out.
Everybody is very quiet. Wen picks over the bones of her bass in a cogitating way. Lisa looks about.
‘Well that was bracing’ says Raz.
‘Sorry guys’ says Wen. ‘She just pisses me off.’
‘Don’t apologise’ says Raz, lost in her thoughts.
We sit silently for a while longer.
‘Dessert?’ says Raz, cheerfully. She and Lisa peruse the menu.