At a university I once worked in, all the staff were told to go to a day's workshop given by a personnel officer called Lynne Turner. Her job was to teach us how to communicate clearly.
Lynne Turner wore a blue suit and told us how important eye contact is. She said: "When you walk up to someone, you look them straight in the eye, shake their hand, tell them your name and announce it's a pleasure to meet you." While she was saying this I thought about the film Blade Runner. I imagined Lynne Turner as a replicant who had learned how to be human in a workshop. I saw her sitting on a pink bedspread in her room, opening an envelope. She is four days old and she knows she only has a four-year life span. In Blade Runner replicants are programmed with memories to make them more like humans – so in the envelope are some photographs to give Lynne Turner a forged history. The first photo is of her mother smiling in a yellow summer dress. The second is of a little girl called Lynne clasped in her mother's arms, their cheeks pressed against each other, and in the background a garden with a child's swing. The third photo is of 18-year-old Lynne sitting next to a young man on the big wheel in a fairground. Lynne Turner sits in her bedroom practising over and over how to say: "The man on the big wheel was my first boyfriend, Michael. He broke my heart."
Lynne Turner told us to get into pairs and work on what she called the Meet and Greet exercise. So I asked a professor in his late fifties, a gentle person much loved by his students, if he'd be my partner. His wife had died three months ago and his office was full of flowers. I looked into his sad blue eyes, shook his hand and said, "My name is Deborah Levy. It's a pleasure to meet you." I thought he'd laugh. We knew each other well, but he looked genuinely pleased to meet me and I was confused because I was acting and felt like I had tricked him. Then it was his turn. He walked slowly towards me, held out his hand, looked at my hair and said in a low voice, "My name is... my name is... um... my name is Roger Wilson. It's a pleasure to meet you."
Lynne Turner asked us all to report back to her. I said Roger communicated very well. He's definitely someone I'd like to meet and get to know. "Excellent," said Lynne Turner in the voice she had learned in the first four days of her life. "Could Professor Wilson please show us how he made eye contact with his partner." So Roger Wilson, watched by everyone in the group, stood
up and walked towards me. He was shaking and his hands were sweaty. This time he closed his blue eyes and just held on to my hand. After a while he whispered, "My name is Roger Wilson. It's a pleasure to meet you." The replicant Lynne Turner, whose eyes were made in a laboratory in Asia, frowned and wrote something down on her clipboard. And I thought about Lynne Turner standing in the middle of a road alone in the rain. She takes out the creased photograph of a six-year-old girl in her mother's arms and she stares at it for a long time. As the rain falls on her DNA she practises saying, "This is my mother. Her name is Elsa. She is a war correspondent in Iraq at the moment. When I see her on Newsnight I cry."
"So Deborah," said Lynne Turner, reading the name label pinned on my T-shirt, "do you feel happy with the eye contact Professor Wilson made with you?" I explained to her that eyes are like that. They open and close. And I imagined a stage with twelve Lynne Turners standing awkwardly in identical blue suits. They walk towards each other, hold out their hand, look into each other's eyes and say, "My name is Lynne Turner. It's a pleasure to meet you." The show would be called Charisma and some of the questions we'd ask in rehearsal would go something like this:
Is it true that we become who we are by imitating others? Practise laughing just like your best friend laughs.
How does a replicant shut its eyes? What does it see?
How does a human shut its eyes? What does it see?
What false memories would you like to be programmed with? Write them.
What recurring nightmares would you like to give to someone else? Write them.
What are the ways in which you feel you have faked your way through life? Act them.
Is it true that most things become more interesting to us when we have lost them?