Sunday, 25 February 2018

Hour 18: Lose a lover, win an ex

Dear diary,

She wasn’t smiling. Oh no. Not even a tiny bit.

It had taken me quite a few minutes to get my bearings. I mean, you can imagine how disorientating it feels to split yourself into two. There’s the darkness, the unbearable pain, the double personality. And then the fear. So much fear. No matter how much you may want to die, the fear never seems to recede. And then suddenly you are fine again. Split perfectly, pain is gone, you are as good as new. And you are so relieved! Because you are alive, and isn’t life beautiful?

That’s when I heard her whisper: ‘Welcome back’. And I had grinned with all my heart and soul. It hadn’t even occurred to me that what had just happened may have actually been a bad thing. That I had officially contributed to the creation of more cancer cells. That I had just confirmed that I was a cancer cell, after having promised her that I wasn’t. That the cancer cells around me were cheering and welcoming the new addition. That I should be feeling guilty. That she probably thought the decent thing for me to do would have been to let myself die. No. I hadn’t gotten to all that when I turned to look at her, grin on my face, and met her icy, revolted stare.

It hit me like a punch. With her look reality came crashing down. What had I done? What could I say? My grin melted off my face, washing the happiness away in one fell swoop. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. I just hung there, transfixed, staring into the iciness of the one cell that had once been my whole reason to live. And she stared back, coveying more hate in one look that I could’ve ever managed with all the cursing in the world.

Suddenly, I felt something beside me move ever so slightly and Selina shifted her gaze to look behind me. Her face immediately changed, her jaw dropping open in confusion. She stared, and then looked from me to behind my shoulder in quick succession. I felt a new dread overwhelm me as I turned around slowly.

And there it was. There I was? I found myself looking in the face of the brand new cell I had created when I split. Only it was my face. It was my body. It was me. But it couldn’t be. Because I was me. Was I? Were there two of me? Was I me? I wish I hadn’t turned around. This was much, much worse than Selina’s anger. This was like looking in the mirror and losing your identity.

The new me, my alter ego...whatever you want to call it, was grinning, noneplussed. It had shifted slightly to peer curiously at Selena, who was still looking from me, to it, in confusion. And then it spoke, with a clear confident voice, so much like my own. Yet different, as I don’t think I had ever mastered that assertiveness.

‘Hi.’ It said looking straight past me, ‘I’m Cell X’.

Selina’s jaw dropped even further, and a small part of me wondered if a cell's jaw could get dislocated.

‘You must be Selena,’ it continued, ‘I heard a lot about you’.

That did it. You can come into my world, looking like me, sounding like me. But you will NOT come into my world and be more charming than I ever was to Selena.

‘No!’ I shouted before I could stop myself. Both cells turned to stare at me: Selina with her mouth still forming a perfect ‘o’, and the other ‘me’, looking at me with a look so friendly that it made me wonder if I had shouted ‘Welcome’ instead of ‘no’.

‘Of course, I know who you are’ it said. ‘You are X. Thank you so much for bringing me into this world’. And then it proceeded to stare at me with a look of awe and wonder and love, like a lost puppy to its master.

‘I…’ I started. I was thrown. What was happening. ‘I..what...?!’ I fumbled for words, while the other ‘me’ started at me expectantly.

‘No.’ I concluded lamely.

‘No?’ It asked me politely.

‘No.’ I said more confidently. ‘No. I am Cell X.’

‘Of course you are.’ It responded with a warm smile: ‘Me too.’ It chuckled, like this was the most wonderful thing in the world.

‘No.’ I said firmly. ‘I am. Me. This’ I said pointing to myself, ‘is Cell X.’

That’ I continued pointing in its direction ‘is…?’

‘Cell X’ the other cell responded promptly.

Oh boy. This was clearly not going to work. I sighed in frustration looking for another angle to make my point. Meanwhile, Selina just continued to stare. As did most of the other cells around us, of course. Nothing better than an audience to witness you trying to prove you are yourself. And all the while, the newborn cell just looked around nonchalantly, like this was the best day of its life. To be fair, it probably was, as it had just been born. 

A passing immune cell broke our stance by carrying-out a routine antigen check. We all promptly pulled out our I.D.s, and tried to put on our best ‘I am a healthy cell' smile. After the first scare, I had grown accustomed to these checks. I wondered how the new cell was faring, and peered in it's direction. I noticed another tumour cell handing the other ‘me’ a freshly-made fake I.D. The new cell took it and handed it out with a charming smile. Was nothing scary to him? Even Selena appeared less in control, and handed the I.D. out with the look of confusion still on her face. Luckily, she was still too stunned to speak, let alone report us to the immune cell. The cell checked all our I.D.s and, finding nothing out of the order, left us to it with a curt nod.

The newborn cell (the 'other me') like the rest of us, started to put its I.D. away. That gave me an idea.

‘Can I see that?’ I asked quickly, pointing to its I.D.

‘Why?’ Said the newborn cell. Its face finally changed from warm to suspicious. That made me strangely satisfied.

‘I just want to see the picture’ I lied. ‘I’ll show you mine if you want?’

That seemed to do the trick. The cell handed me its I.D. and I promptly exchanged it with mine. I pretended to look at the picture, praising the angle of his filopodia, while I quickly scanned the text until I found what I was looking for.


Oh. Of course. He wasn’t Cell X. He used to be. Hence Cell EX. I was still me! I returned the ID to Cell EX and smiled and nodded politely as it jabbered on about something. But I wasn’t listening. I had turned back to face Selina, who finally seemed to have recovered from the shock and confusion. I knew that because she had started glaring at me again. At least she had figured which one I was.

‘I’m still me’ I whispered to her. I said it with sadness and relief, with a hint of a smile playing on my lips, and a broken heart in my eyes.

‘Do you realise what you’ve done?’ She replied.

There was so much anger and pain in her eyes. How could I have done something like that to her? I met her gaze in silence, lost for words once again.

‘It will be ok’ I whispered eventually, more to myself than to anyone else.

‘No, it won’t.’ She mumbled, desperately.

‘Yes it will.’ I said more firmly, looking up at her. ‘Because I’m still me.’

And even if she didn’t realise it, that made all the difference in the world.

Selina didn’t respond. Her anger seemed to have webbed away to become sorrow. Somehow, that made me feel even worse. She turned away from me and refused to look at me for the remainder of the hour. I let her be. I wasn’t sure I could forgive myself, so didn’t know how she could either.

Here I was, stuck with a cell I had created. Literally. I had destroyed the only cell I had ever cared for. And funnily enough, despite the wonderful charade Cell EX was putting on, I had a strange gut feeling warning me not to trust that bright new little cell. Except I was a cell and didn't have a gut, but it still counts. It felt like a memory from a dream, full of dark thoughts muddled with my own.

When I finally turned to look at Cell EX, I found it staring at me expectantly.

‘Yes.’ I answered automatically. What was the question?

Cell EX looked even more puzzled. I guess ‘yes’ was not the right answer.

‘Sorry, what did you say?’ I asked.

‘I’m hungry’ said Cell EX.

‘Oh. That’s ok.’ I said relieved. ‘Just grab one of the molecules floating by…’ I said gesturing to the nearest blood flow. But the words died on my lips, as there were no molecules.

Our food had disappeared.

Cell X 

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Hour 17: Mitose-me

Dear diary,

I found myself lying there, surrounded by darkness and fog. I couldn’t remember who or where I was. I couldn’t feel my body. And then, as if in a dream, a memory came to greet me. It was an old memory, of when I had just been born. It’s contours felt fuzzy, but the words I had over-heard remained sharp. An older cell had been singing its last truth before giving in to senescence, telling a tale as old as tales go. The words rang in my mind as I remembered. I could see it now.

''Legend says mitosis is not a cellular process, but the story of two lovers. As with every epic love story, there was a great love, unfounded jealous, and an eternity of punishment. But there cannot be a love story without a slither of a happy ending. Even here, the two lovers found a way to be re-united, if only for an instant, during mitosis.

This love story begins in something smaller than the human cell: the cellular nucleus. It’s a story that begins at the beginning of all things, where two sets of chromosomes who had always felt like they were halves of something bigger, finally met. The love that ensued was bigger and stronger than all things. Not bearing the thought of separation, the two lovers decided to let their encasing membranes fuse, and become one. Enclosed in the same nucleous, nothing could keep them apart. For a while all was well, and they continued to live surrounded by each other, their searching appeased, their souls content.

But gradually things began to deteriorate: All the other cellular organelles started to become jealous. Having been forced into a life of solitude, never to find another’s half, they wallowed in their loneliness as they gazed into the happiness of the chromosome pair. Bitter and resentful, they knew the cell needed the double set of chromosomes to survive. Instead,  their vengeance was inflicted disguised as a gift: The chromosomes were to be granted their wish to always be together but forced to fuse to create one full set of genes. The curse caused the chromosomes to be torn to pieces as they merged. When they became one, the power of their love was so strong that it gave life, and the first cell was born. But it came at a cost: The chromosome lovers had been forced into unity, losing their identity. They had been morphed into eternal solitude. Their love became a distant memory.

Eventually, nature took pity on the chromosome lovers, and decided to reward them for their sacrifice of life. And so, mitosis was born: During mitosis, each chromosome is duplicated into an identical copy. Then, and only then, are the chromosome lovers able to see each other again. For a fleeting glimpse of an instant, they are left to be individuals, to gaze in wonder, to speak, to love. To keep all the other organelles at bay, nature distracted them by allowing them to become doubled too. Thus, even if for a short time, mitosis became the time when all solitude was lost, as each part of the cell finally found its other half. 

As is every other cellular process, mitosis was designed to have different phases. Like clockwork, each phase was to progress into the next, eventually ending in two separate cells, each with it's own set of chromosomes, an unavoidable conclusion to a temporary solace. But at first, things didn't flow smoothly: Finally re-united, the doubled chromosomes clung to each other, refusing to lose each other again. They held on, a promise in their cores, creating a bond that is now known as the  kinetochore. To this day, mitosis will reveal the chromosomes connected at their kinetochore as strongly as the interlocked fingers of obstinate, desperate souls. Centrosomes were therefore devised, small centres that could create and control rope-like microtubules.  

During prophase, the first phase of mitosis, the microtubule ropes were unleashed and ordered to go and bind each chromosome at the centre of their souls, the kinetochores, and begin pulling the couple apart from other ends of the cell. The unyielding, unrelenting strength of the microtubules was such that the second mitosis phase, the metaphase, was punctuated by the scene of all the chromosome couples, still together, but aligned in the centre of the nucleous. The love and sorrow ensuing from that one moment was such that it earned its own name, 'the metaphase plate', the platform of halves. All bonds were finally broken in the next phase, called anaphase, during which the lovers were separated and dragged into opposite ends of the cell. Their songs of woe will be enough to pierce your soul, each and every time. When telophase finally rang true, the separated chromosomes found themselves encased in separate sets of membranes, each containing one copy of a full set of genes. Finding no solace in their renewed solitude, the chromosomes melted into undefined chromatin, leaving behind the definition of a shape, of an identity, unable to bear life alone. Mitosis ended with cytokinesis, where a cell splits into two, each side claiming a set of organelles, and a nucleous of implacable sorrow. 

Thus, mitosis became the curse of true lovers, the penalty of jealousy, the loneliness of nature, the sacrifice of life.''

I felt it then. I felt my membrane and my organelles, my double personality. I felt too full, like I was going to explode. And then a tear, right in the middle of my membrane, and I felt release. The tear grew bigger and bigger, and I wondered if I was meant to feel scared. But it was strangely pleasant, satisfactory somehow, like removing dead skin from your body. I felt it rip me in half, and I let it, feeling more and more myself until finally, it was over. There was nothing more to tear, there were now two membranes, two minds. I was me again, just me. Tiny, insignificant, happy to die trying to change, me. 

'Welcome back' whispered a familiar voice. And I smiled.

Cell X