Placebo by Andreas Smith

We didn’t expect her to be much fun and we were right – she wasn’t. Not that any of us blamed her: she had been through a lot and was destined to go through a lot more over the following year. All this while she herself was getting … well, getting less and less. It was right, though, that our hosts, Ann and Bradley, invited her to our annual Christmas get-together, along with the usual crew: me, of course, then Dana and Emory, and Ann’s oldest friend, going all the way back to secondary school, George, the homeopath, therefore the only one among us who did anything ‘interesting’, that is, out of the ordinary run of professional occupations that people like us normally follow: an accountant, an advertising art director, a doctor, and a sports and talent agent, that sort of thing.

We all knew on that first occasion, from the news and from Ann and Bradley, that Erica had suffered the worst thing that can happen to a human being: the loss of her whole family in the mid-Atlantic plane collision the previous summer. The official enquiry blamed the unusual atmospheric conditions, a result of the worst Atlantic storm in living memory, and their effect on the instrumentation of the two planes. The two pilots may as well have been flying blind. There was also the sheer bad luck that two dots in a vast sky had crossed paths. There were no survivors. Very few bodies were ever recovered, none of them belonging to Erica’s family: her husband, five-year-old boy, mother (her father had passed away when she was a girl), and both parents-in-law. It soon became clear to us all that the creases etched into her still-young features represented more than just the pain we knew she felt: she blamed herself for urging her husband to go without her on the holiday to Florida, when it would have cost nothing for him to delay flying for a week so that they could all travel together.

Erica, the Human Resources manager at a major clothing retailer, had been forced to postpone her own flight after a new contract required her attendance at a string of hurriedly arranged but important meetings of the full board. Though her husband had persuaded the airline to let them fly a week later without extra charge, young Monroe had already been fired up about Disneyland and Whale World, and anyway her husband’s parents, expatriates who had settled into a cosy retirement in their coastal villa, were keen to return to Florida after their visit to England. Erica’s mother, who had never been to America, was the most excited of them all.

How trivial the big business meetings now seemed, six months on, as she got ready to go back to work in the New Year. In the first few weeks she fantasised that she would rather have boarded that flight than been left on her own to endure its aftermath. But now, as is inevitable with the passage of time, she felt a responsibility to live for something – something higher – that would somehow justify her life and the disaster that had afflicted it. What that higher thing or purpose was, she hadn’t yet worked out, and no one had told her.

Besides, work would be a relief from all that living and brooding alone in the large and now empty house, separated from Ann and Bradley’s equally large house by a high fence her husband had thought would guard their privacy. ‘Some privacy!’ she had told Ann, who had of course tried to comfort her neighbour, the two women becoming friends of sorts. The family dog, Breton, Erica’s only direct attachment to the past she’d lost, was just too much of a symbol of everything: she’d given him to a local dog charity which had found a local family, much like her own, to love and cherish him as their ‘forever’ dog.

In the circumstances our hosts did the right thing in inviting the, to the rest of us, virtual stranger next door to this dinner with some of their oldest friends, usually a lot of fun but … well, everyone had been warned to be extra-sensitive this year. Dirty jokes, death and misery were, if not banned outright, strongly discouraged, along with the usual politics and religion, though of course since everything involves a bit of everything else no one was expected to obey Ann’s diktat in its entirety. It was George, our homeopath friend, a bit of a loner and therefore probably more attuned to another loner’s mood, who broke the ice without any preamble: ‘It’s lovely to meet you, Erica. I’m extremely sorry about your family tragedy. I admire you for your courage and resilience. And I hope in time that you can find your happiness again – or are proved worthy of your unhappiness.’ She cried a little at these words and then, smiling broadly across the table, said, ‘Thank you.’ It was as simple as that and just what she – and we – needed.

Still, even though Dana and Emory brought up religion (an accountant, he opposed his wife’s mildly ‘spiritual’ beliefs, God being someone who will be quite unnecessary, he quipped, when the final ledger is drawn up) and Ann and Bradley, she the doctor, he the talent agent, disagreed about the future of the National Health Service, it was a subdued evening, all in all, with no one raising the temperature higher than Ann’s cool glance would allow. Erica, despite her initial ‘Thank you’, sat sadly quiet, content to listen to the rest of the party.

It was George, once again, who changed the mood, when he swept aside Ann’s paean to the NHS in the face of her husband’s criticism of its inefficiency: ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I think the country’s health would be much improved if the latest “memory of water” experiments were to lead to a general acceptance of homeopathy by the medical powers-that-be.’ Ann snorted at this, as she usually did when George brought up his ‘professional’ opinions. Not that she rejected alternative treatments outright – she herself had been on a couple of Ayurvedic retreats in India with Bradley – but she insisted that it was ethically unsound to experiment with people’s health and emotions, especially when they were seriously ill and in need of the best that ‘conventional medicine’ – a term she disliked – could offer. To our surprise, though, it was Erica who took up the topic, George’s words suddenly energising her, as if she were being aroused from a long period of deep hibernation.

‘What do you mean – “memory of water”?’ she asked.

‘Well,’ said George, ‘in my field – I’m a homeopathic therapist – we treat people with a massively diluted solution of the thing that has harmed them. The theory, which is really a type of practical knowledge that actually works, is that like cures like. Some people, unable to bear the fact that we homeopaths can cure people but can give no precise chemical explanation for our cures, dismiss us as “alternative”, by which of course they mean fraudulent.’

Our doctor friend, Ann, coughed and said, ‘You know quite well, George, that it’s not as simple as that. People have died, for God’s sake, under treatment by homeopaths.’

‘And people have died,’ George shot back, ‘under the care, so-called, of your average GP! But let’s get back to the point: Erica, you ask what “memory of water” means. Well, it means that at last there is scientific proof for what has been evident to homeopaths and their clients for a long time already. We now know that though a substance may have been dissolved in water to such an extent that to all intents and purposes it is no longer there at all, it can still exert a definite, and now scientifically detectable, influence on the water in which it was dissolved. That’s what is meant by the “memory of water”.’

‘Results that have been widely disputed by other scientists,’ said Ann.

‘Yes,’ said George, ‘that’s true, just as there were once scientists who disputed that the earth orbits the sun, the moon causes the tides, and space and time are relative. Every discovery has its opponents – for a while.’

It was obvious that the only reason Ann didn’t disagree more forcefully was out of deference to Erica, whose eyes were wide open and head tipped to one side as she listened to George.

‘So,’ she asked, ‘you’re saying that like cures like, even when the active ingredient, by all ordinary reckoning, may as well have disappeared?’


‘And the most tiny – the most invisible – of substances of a particular nature can cure its equivalent illness, disease or misfortune, no matter how vast and malign it might be?’


‘Almost as if a nothing that has suffered can cure the whole of suffering existence? Is that what you’re saying, then?’

‘Yes,’ replied George, looking straight into Erica’s eyes, as though the two of them had come to some sort of secret understanding beyond the audible words, ‘that is what I’m saying.’

It took a few moments for the tense silence that followed to dissolve into the usual warm, jokey, inconsequential hubbub of a mid December gathering of old friends.


We didn’t see her again for some months, not till the next get-together. She was with her carer, who pushed her in on her wheelchair and tied the bib around her neck. We’d heard about her ‘condition’ from Ann and Bradley, of course, but it was still shocking to see her in such a state of … well, deterioration, shrinkage, or gradual de-materialisation, as one medical expert had dubbed this rare, indeed utterly singular psycho-somatic reaction to extreme emotional stress. Naturally, we were all sad about it, especially George, who had somehow kept in touch with Erica since our last meeting and had followed her case, so to speak.

‘Sometimes, my dear Erica,’ he said, quite portentously and with tears in his eyes, ‘it is those who are losing themselves in this world who go on to travel further in the worlds that transcend ours. Matter dissolves into spirit, as they say.’

We were all stone cold silent, even when Erica herself smiled at George’s remark. After this, Ann and Bradley, not to mention the rest of us, thrashed around for any subject we could – house prices, the economy, politics and religion, the dearth of bees and moths (in comparison with the past), even the discovery of a secret chamber, as yet unopened, in the Great Pyramid of Cheops – rather than have the obvious brought up again. But Erica didn’t seem to mind: though she was quiet, and I personally wouldn’t claim that she was having fun, she did smile several times – mainly at George, who was his usual garrulous self, having something to say about everything, even the bee problem.

‘How unhappy are you?’ he asked Erica, shortly before the party broke up.

‘Very unhappy,’ she replied and smiled at him.

‘Good,’ he said, and smiled back.

It was as if they had come to an agreement about something important, within a circle whose circumference was a barrier against the rest of us.


At the next meeting – oh, how quickly time flies! – the carer (the same strapping young woman) carried Erica in her arms and placed her, with a degree of delicate concern that seemed out of character for her build, on the large but flattish cushion which Ann had bought Erica as a present. The cushion was a nice touch but not really necessary, given that the specially-made chair, which the carer had wheeled in a few minutes earlier, was just like those chairs that are used to stop young children falling and hurting themselves, though in this case the chair was much more high-tech, with buttons, lights, and levers for vertical and horizontal adjustments, according to the user’s own taste and comfort. The carer, jealous of her client, wouldn’t let anyone else cut up the meat and vegetables, or carry the food to the mouth in the head which dominated what was left of Erica. Erica, despite everything, still had an excellent appetite and sucked every morsel from the fork on its numerous visits. No one mentioned Erica’s most recent misfortunes, not even George.

‘You prefer to remain at home?’ asked Ann towards the end of the evening. ‘Of course,’ replied Erica, ‘as long as I always have one of my carers near me, though I would say I live at home rather than just remain. It’s expensive, naturally, but I can afford it, and I would much rather be there than … well, in the place the doctors initially recommended.’

She glanced at George and seemed slightly worried at the neutral unsmiling expression of his half-closed lips, which was much like that on the mouth of a post-box, and quickly added: ‘Not that it brings me any happiness. On the contrary, I’m the most miserable person in the world.’ Everyone, though not I, thought it a sweet gesture when George scooped up a spoonful of crème brûlée and gently slid it into Erica’s mouth, and this without his being asked. I thought it odd – and impertinent – but then who am I to comment?


It was, then, no real surprise, but still rather a shock, when at the next meeting Erica’s condition had worsened significantly. She was brought in this time not by her old carer, but by, well, by her technician (the carer, it turned out, was now of no possible use and had therefore been let go of, notwithstanding Erica’s fondness for her). He was a fussy individual, constantly rearranging the wires and inserting and pulling out (and then reinserting) little plugs here and there, after which he would twist various dials, laugh to himself, and then appear to sulk for a moment. The result of all this activity was that the brain in the tank was intermittently lit up by, first, a blue, then a red, and finally a yellow light, in cyclical order, with thousands of tiny bubbles dancing around the ridges, folds and bumps of the brain, before rising to the surface of the transparent liquid and bursting.

‘I’ll just plug this in’ – this was a grey metallic box with inbuilt speaker and knobs and dials for volume and tone – ‘and we’re ready to go!’ he proclaimed proudly, a typical techie, his ponytail swinging back and forth with all the activity, and the sweat on his head glistening blue, red and yellow through the thinning hair on top as the lights in the tank went about their business. (It goes without saying that we looked on rather dumbfounded at this performance taking place in front of us.)

‘You don’t have to feed me,’ he said when he had finished, ‘but I won’t say no if you offer!’

Before he sat down to dine with us – he’d placed Erica in a corner, alone, on top of a sturdy coffee table – he lifted the lid of the tank and sprinkled in a few flakes of some nutritional compound, reminiscent of fish food, from an old jam jar he’d requisitioned for the purpose.

‘Is she all right over there? Perhaps she –’

‘Here or there – spatial position really doesn’t matter to her anymore,’ he cut Ann short.

As we ate we couldn’t help glancing at the tank now and again, with the flakes incessantly spiralling through the liquid, being jolted by bubbles, and then dissolving.

‘Is she, er, really in there?’ asked Bradley, his eyes wide open and his mouth crammed with chicken, broccoli and mashed potato.

‘Shh,’ said the technician, ‘she’s in there all right – reality doesn’t really come into it – and, yes, she can probably hear every word.’

‘I can hear every word!’ a voice boomed from the speaker at an ear-splitting volume.

‘Sorry,’ said the technician, rushing over to the coffee table and turning the largest knob anti-clockwise, ‘I set it too high!’

‘I sound normal to me,’ said the voice, now much reduced, in a sort of robotic monotone that resembled but was also distinctly different from that of Stephen Hawking, higher in pitch, of course, but also somehow sounding submerged, as if it were a gargling, distant and even whale-like dirge, whereas Hawking’s came from another planet and was therefore, quite simply, the voice of an alien.

‘Is that –?’ I began to ask.

‘We tried,’ interrupted the technician, ‘but there’s a patent on the professor’s, so we came up with this instead. Everyone wants to sound like him! Anyway, her voice sounds different to her, there in the tank, almost as if she were her old self.’

‘My old self,’ said Erica, ‘what a disaster she was! Is it time for the hologram? I’ve finished eating now, I think.’

Indeed, all the flakes had completely dissolved, as far as I could tell through the rotating primary colour light show.

‘Two more minutes,’ said the technician.

‘It’s just that I can’t bear the thoughts running through my head: there’s the plane crash, of course, and then there’s me, dissolving and disappearing, losing my job, perhaps inevitably given my current condition, though with an excellent redundancy package, and then there’s some football team that keeps losing 29-0, every time, all of them own goals, and I’ve never liked football, all of this jumbled up and put on auto-repeat, forever, in endless cycles … so, well, please hurry up!’

The technician, who kept telling us that he was called Dave, though no one had asked his name or could be bothered to use it, briefly left the room and returned with another contraption, somewhat like a cinema projector.

‘Just a minute,’ he said to his ward.

‘Please hurry!’ she screamed. ‘I’m thinking that I’m about to scream again.’

He plugged the contraption into the tank and then shoved it under the coffee table. After this he took a small box with a lens of some sort at the front and placed it on top of a tall triangular corner cabinet. He then pressed a button. Immediately, high up on the wall opposite the lens, a blue dot appeared and began to ripple outwards and then inwards, in a repeating pattern.

‘That’s better,’ said Erica. ‘I feel calm now.’

The rippling blue on the wall suddenly disappeared, and then the room was filled with a strange play of cosmic light, like the Aurora Borealis (Dave had already switched off all the room lamps, and dimmed the red, blue and yellow lights coming from the brain tank). Appearing among us now, as we sat at the table, was the family of Erica, alive and breathing and happy, including Erica, though in a version of herself that was whole and complete. The figures were playing on a beach, and taking up the whole of the room, with us the invisible observers in their midst. Erica was throwing a ball to her young boy as he ran back and forth, the young fellow laughing as he caught and threw the ball back to his mother. The sun was moving towards the horizon at the sea’s edge and a thousand beautiful colours shimmered on the waves. The husband lifted up the child and carried him across the sand to see something strange – yes, a crab, a seahorse and a starfish! – in a tidal pool, while Erica closed her eyes, enjoyed the salty breeze on her face, and felt the sand between her toes. Nearby the elderly parents and parents-in-law (including Erica’s long-dead father) lay dozing on sunbeds, above them the drifting gulls, before them the whispering waves, all around them the hush of the breezes and the sound of the fizzing foam … And then there was George (here Erica sighed and murmured a few words that we could barely make out, apart from ‘cure’ and ‘helper’) emerging from the waves in black-and-white stripy swimming shorts and holding up a sign that read: ‘Memory of Water!’

It was unbearable, all this lost happiness. There’s nothing quite as awful as the vision of a happiness that has gone forever. Thank God, then, and what a relief, that the machine suddenly broke down. The technician turned on the lights, but after some frantic fiddling failed to get Erica’s dream of happiness back, or Erica herself for that matter: she was reduced to total silence. The incident, as far as I was concerned, proved that it is probably impossible to preserve the brain in a functioning state for years on end in a mere tank, no matter how mobile the preserving liquid or rich the infusions of nutritional supplements (as for freezing the brain, well, that’s a different thing altogether, but arguably a state that is akin to death, or at best an eternal cold sleep).

It goes without saying that we were all speechless, and even more shocked than at the start of the evening, except for George, our homeopath. Only he, along with Dave the technician, bothered to eat dessert – rhubarb crumble and whipped cream – and only he seemed to foresee something good coming out of all this. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it has been a wonderful evening – the best we’ve ever had!’


It was with some dread, then, that we gathered for the next dinner party, our big Christmas get-together. Just the day before, Anna and Bradley had had no idea whether Erica would turn up, or even be in a state to do so, though they had been assured – by George – that she still existed. Their letter of invitation to her care home (she had sold her house and been moved to a place that specialised in, well, in difficult cases, some one hundred and twenty miles away) had gone unanswered. Then, out of the blue, that very morning a card had arrived from Erica, though of course not in her own hand, saying that she would love to come along again this year. I have no way of judging whether Ann and Bradley were delighted at the news (I suspect that their invitation had been only a polite formality). Anyway, perfect hosts that they are and always have been, they had laid out a place for Erica, with plate, cutlery and glasses for wine and water, no matter that given her previous condition it would be unlikely these items would be of any use. Who knows, she might bring along that uncouth, greedy technician again, who would, just like last time, gobble up Erica’s dinner while Erica again made do with ‘fish food’ in her tank.

Everything was set, then, and the usual guests – Dana, Emory and myself – arrived at the appointed time, 7.30 p.m. Only George was late – and Erica, though of course she, of all people, was entitled to her excuses. Not that we were in any hurry: the years come and the years go. Be grateful if none is worse than its predecessor or better than its successor.

George was out of breath when he arrived twenty minutes later.

‘Sorry,’ he said to our hosts as he almost dropped a large case, which he had lugged from his car, onto the coffee table in the corner.

‘That’s all right,’ said Ann. ‘Erica isn’t here yet.’

George caught his breath and smiled: ‘She’s here, all right.’ He patted the unopened case.

‘What?’ said Bradley. ‘You’re joking!’

‘It’s no joke,’ said George, his face taking on an expression of letter-box seriousness and solemnity.

He flicked the buttons, released the catches, and opened the case. It was full of bottles and vials, some containing liquids, others capsules and pills. The receptacles were all neatly arranged along the vertical and horizontal partitions of the case, according to size, and their contents came in a multitude of colours.

‘She went much further than I dreamt she would,’ he said.

We could hardly breathe, as we stared at our old friend George, now suddenly become, in our very midst, the strangest of strangers.

‘It was our agreement,’ he added. ‘She knew what she wanted – she wanted to do good, more good than anyone has ever done. It would be her … gift to mankind.’

‘Gift?’ I asked in the face of the others’ speechlessness.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘she left herself to me, after listening to and understanding my ideas, and through me left herself to the world. Her misery was so great that she took consolation in the thought that she would, with my help, become the cure for all that afflicts the world, in short, that like will cure like.’

George unwrapped a clean pipette, opened one of the jars, and drew up a little of the healing liquid, reddish in colour. Without being instructed, the party – one by one – put out their tongues as George went around the table administering our medicine. Apart from me: I was having none of it.

‘I’m not drinking poor Erica!’ I cried out.

George smiled and said, ‘Don’t fret, my friend: there’s no Erica left – she’s been diluted to nothing.’ When he brought the pipette to my trembling lips, I found that my resistance had collapsed: I too stuck out my tongue, and then greedily swallowed the single drop.

Strangely enough, we all felt much better after only a few minutes. Ann and Bradley, who had both shown symptoms of having caught winter colds, stopped sniffing and coughing. Ann, in particular, looked radiant to my eye, after appearing dowdy and slightly depressed at the start of the evening. Dana told us that something that had been bothering her – she was too embarrassed to say what – had disappeared completely. Only Emory cast a little doubt on the efficacy of the treatment: yes, his persistent niggling back pain had gone all of a sudden, but then after months of enduring it he would rather wait and see before passing judgement. As for me, well, I was suffering from an affair of the heart, as they say, and now to my great surprise and relief I discovered that I no longer cared about this affair or felt anything but indifference for the woman who had inspired it. George, the last of us to swallow the balm, claimed that though he had been happy already, he was now even happier, indeed infinitely happy.

‘You see,’ he said, with a trace of self-satisfaction in his voice, ‘Erica is gone, but the memory of water, well, that remains.’

‘Either that,’ said Dr Ann and staring directly into George’s eyes, ‘or Erica makes an excellent placebo.’

We laughed at her remark, though I doubt she intended it to be amusing. But then hardly another word was uttered during the rest of this, our latest get-together, usually so boisterous, so argumentative, and so much fun.

Andreas Smith has published stories in several UK literary magazines, including MONK, Storgy and Shooter Literary Magazine. He has also written several novels and is now represented by the David Grossman Literary Agency in London. He lives in County Durham and works as a freelance editor, though he sometimes travels to India for months at a time to write in cafes while drinking chai and watching cows pass by.