There was a crowd outside the cemetery gates. Tall men and women, warmly dressed against the cold snap. As Michael passed them he caught a glimpse of flattened faces beneath hoods, hats and scarves. They were Neanderthals, part of the community that had grown up in Longsight over the past decade. To social scientists it was a fascinating insight into the formation of communities. To Michael it was one more minority interest complicating his constituency.
“This way, minister.” Cowley, his slender and obsequious assistant, led him through the gates, snow crunching beneath their feet as they strode towards the cemetery manager’s office. Despite the cold and the intimidating presence of the crowd around the gates, relatives had been in to pay their respects, and flowers lay amid the snow on several of the graves.
“Mr Totman.” The woman who met him at the door wore a smart black suit, her hair tied back. “I’m Lydia Boyd, the manager here. I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Michael never knew how to respond. What could you say? No words would ever bring his husband back.
“I’m afraid the heating is broken in my office,” Boyd said. “But the seats are more comfortable in reception anyway.”
She settled down into a padded grey chair, and Michael took the one opposite. Cowley lingered outside the door making phone calls – the business of government didn’t stop for personal tragedy.
“You said we needed to talk,” Michael said. “About Chris’s funeral.”
“Yes.” Boyd’s expression was sad, but her gaze didn’t waver from his. “I’m afraid that the genome tests following Christopher’s autopsy revealed a substantial proportion of Neanderthal ancestry.”
“That’s impossible,” he said. “Both his parents were human, and born long before the first cloned revivals.”
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple.” Boyd handed him a sheet of paper, showing the results from the test. “Nearly all of us have some DNA from Neanderthals and other archaic humans. So while these tests are successful in keeping Neanderthals out of human cemeteries, they also very occasionally exclude others too.”
“That’s absurd!” Michael rose to his feet. This was where Chris’s family was buried, where he’d wanted to be buried. The thought of not doing that stirred up all the pain of the past few weeks, and he found himself choking on his own words. “Can’t you change your rules?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “If I had my way I would open up the gates and let those protesters win. Everybody would be buried here, homo sapiens or Neanderthal. You know that they bring flowers to the graves? We won’t even let them bury their families here, but they still make sure that the graves are tended.”
“Surely you can make an exception.” He felt desperate, nothing but her denial sinking in. “I have money. I can make a donation to the cemetery. Or to you, if you prefer.”
“Minister.” She rose and placed a gentle hand on his arm. “You should be careful. That almost sounded like a bribe. And I’m afraid that the law is clear, a law that you voted for. The Prime Minister said, ‘we do not force people to be buried in the same ground as pets, can we make them accept graves alongside anything other than our own species?’”
“Then there must be something wrong with the test. Chris was a human being!”
“Do you think she isn’t?” Boyd pointed out through the glass doors, past Cowley, to where an aging Neanderthal in a long coat was placing sunflowers on one of the graves.
“But the test is for being a true human.” Uncertainty and grief made Michael wobbly on his feet. He leaned against the door, forehead pressed to the cold glass.
“The test is for Neanderthal DNA,” Boyd said. “What you’re talking about is far harder to pin down.”
The Neanderthal woman looked directly at Michael. She didn’t wave or make that strange little frown others used to tell him how sorry they were. But her eyes communicated her understanding of his hurt more completely than anybody saying “I feel sorry for your loss.”
“Her husband died recently too,” Boyd said. “That’s not his grave, of course.”
A sense of conviction rose in Michael, one he hadn’t felt since his first election campaign. He stood up straight, turned and shook Boyd’s hand.
“Thank you for taking the time to talk,” he said. “I’ll contact the undertaker about Chris.”
He opened the door and strode out into the snow. Cowley, seeing his master spring into action, snapped his phone shut and scurried after him.
“Is the funeral arranged?” Cowley asked. “I have the invitations ready.”
“No.” Michael stopped in the cemetery gates, looking out at the sad, silent faces of the protesters. He felt like he might cry at any moment, like only the drive to act was holding him back. “Contact the media. We have other things to deal with.”
He joined the crowd, making eye contact with each quiet figure in turn, falling into the moment of shared sorrow. Tears ran down his cheeks, yet he felt a lightening of his burden, a sense of release.
“Then call the Prime Minister,” he said, turning to the shocked looking Cowley. “I don’t think he’ll want me in his government anymore.”
He pulled out his own phone, found a picture of Chris and showed it to the Neanderthal next to him.
“My husband,” he said.
The Neanderthal pulled a picture out of his pocket, a smiling Neanderthal woman in a flower print dress.
They stood together in grief.
This story was suggested by my friend Lynda, who thought I could take inspiration from a radio program about evolution and the fact that we now have full DNA sequences for at least two different hominid species besides ourselves.
Challenge accepted, and completed.
I already have a few ideas for future flash Friday stories based on other people’s comments, but if you have a suggestion then please leave a comment and I’ll add it to my ideas list. It’s always good to get more ideas.
If you enjoyed this you might also like my other Flash Friday stories, a growing collection of very short fiction. And for more science fiction stories, check out my ebook Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.