Mann's brown ale
Jackie had been working on the idea for some time. She’d done all the research. Technology had worked out that they were shorter and stockier than us, by and large. Their heads were a different shape, less rounded. The bone structure on the right arm was thinner than on the left. This was due, it was currently thought, not to their habit of throwing spears, as had previously been thought, but because they used their right arm for scraping animal skins which they then wore as clothes. A woolly mammoth’s skin would certainly be warm, Jackie thought. But they’d have to kill one first. No mean feat.
Jackie had embraced the idea that European humans and Neanderthals shared up to as much as four percent of their genes, whereas Keith didn’t like it at all. It meant that the two species must have interbred at some stage in their evolution. But he’d agreed to do the genetic test, reluctantly.
‘I don’t like where this is going,’ he said, when the results of the genetic scan finally came out. Jackie suspected that what he didn’t like was the revelation that his Neanderthal gene count, at three and a half percent, was higher than hers at two and a half per cent.
Jackie was not deterred. She had been working towards this final manifestation for years. It was all so amazing. Scientists had finally cracked the Neanderthal genetic code. Why wasn’t Keith interested? They could calculate the age of an individual from its teeth of all things. They could see how much a tooth had grown from one week to the next, from one day to another, even. Neanderthal babies grew at a much faster rate than those of Homo sapiens. That was because they had to survive in harsher conditions while humans could take their time and learn things on the way. It was why our brains had developed more.
Keith had always thought of himself as the cleverer in the relationship. He was a historian, the older of the two and had been the first to get his professorship.
‘Men have come a long way since the days of cave men,’ he had commented when he’d first met Jackie at the Faculty party. She had seemed suitably impressed and one thing had led to another.
That first encounter with Jackie had set off a train of thought. Keith had started including gender roles in his articles. The territory wasn’t exclusive to women. Men had something to say about the development of the human psyche since the days of hunting and gathering.
These days they often weren’t the main breadwinner. He had experienced it himself when Jackie had started earning more than he did. She was guaranteed a job because her subject was more popular, he told himself. He’d written about how human lives weren’t determined by biology any more. It was good to hear a man saying it and his article had gone down well with the public. It had proved that historians weren’t just stuck in the past.
He’d followed it up with an article about the effects of the industrial revolution on women, on how it had liberated them from the drudgery of housework and the slavery of the kitchen. He’d written about how the First World War had helped women get the vote. When they had stepped in to do a man’s job they had proved themselves trustworthy and showed what they were capable of. His articles had showed how much gender roles had changed in the modern world. He’d thought Jackie would be pleased but she’d barely commented on them.
All Keith ever heard about these days was Jackie’s work. Why couldn’t she leave it at the university like everyone else? She was for ever telling him about the latest developments in her field. He’d never said anything for fear of causing an argument but sometimes it felt like she was, well, boasting. It was like she wanted to rub it in how well she was doing. It was enough to know her work was in the forefront of science and technology. He didn’t need to hear about it all the time.
So he’d gone along with the genetic test. She’d never have let him forget it if he hadn’t. But constructing a life-size facsimile of Neanderthal man on their kitchen floor was, in his opinion, a step too far. To add insult to injury Jackie had actually asked him to pose for it.
‘It’s just to get an idea of the proportions,’ she’d said.
‘How can my proportions help, for God’s sake!' he’d protested. ‘Surely they could have come up with something in the computer graphics department.’
But Jackie had insisted.
‘It’ll make it more life-like,’ she’d said. ‘There is only so much we can do on a computer. We can guess the bone structure but we have to put the skeleton together and stick on the clay by hand.
‘Yes, but in our kitchen?’ he’d protested.
So there the thing was in the middle of the kitchen whenever he came down to breakfast. It wasn’t that bad while Jackie was still working on the torso but once she’d put the head on, it had started to feel weird. It was as if the creature was watching his every move: putting his cornflakes in the bowl, pouring on the milk, chewing even. It felt as if he couldn’t do anything without being stared at.
‘You’re just being paranoid,’ Jackie told him. ‘It’s only bone and clay when it comes down to it and a bit of Plaster of Paris.’
When Keith analysed it and finally pinpointed the problem it was the fact that the creature bore an uncanny resemblance to himself that irked him. Surely Neanderthal men were structurally different from humans. He had this over-riding sensation that Jackie was trying to supplant him in some way by creating another version of him, one that she could mould and shape as she wished. She barely even talked to him these days so intent was she on finishing the project. She’d get home from work and start straight away. She’d devote the rest of the evening to her creation. . She never cooked these days. He had to get his own meals.
It was this last episode that finally clinched it. She’d already covered the creature’s body in skin from head to toe. All there remained to be done was to insert the hair. One night when he was just dropping off to sleep, he caught her with a pair of tweezers about to pluck out the hairs from his chest.
‘What the hell do you think you are doing?’ he shouted. ‘This has gone quite far enough. It’s Neanderthal or me.’
And without further ado he marched into the kitchen, grabbed the first thing he could lay his hands on and set about demolishing his likeness.
Jenny Palmer returned to her native Lancashire in 2008. In 2012 she published her childhood memoir called Nowhere better than home about growing up in rural Lancashire in the 1950s and 60s. She continues to write short stories, poems and articles on local history.