by MJ Collins
Read more about the author HERE.
It was eleven o’clock in the morning, February, at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Ethel Burbage (Room 14, Gluten-free) was telling the same story for the third time that day. She spoke with the studied emphasis of a classic vaudeville act, like all her words had quotation marks around them.
It went like this:
Ethel: I was down by the station and there he was. I didn’t see him at first. He was right behind me. Just standing there. Bold as brass. He was a…
Her voice went small like this:
Ethel: CARRIBEAN GENTLEMAN. And he said “could you kindly show me the way to a nice beach” he said. Very polite he was. I thought, “makes sense”. So, what I did was I put him on a train for Brighton. For the coast. For Brighton. Paid his fare and everything is what I did.
All: You didn’t?
Ethel: I did.
The other Residents nodded along. They knew to nod at this bit.
Ethel: I got on with my day. I had a letter to post so I posted the letter at the post office. Bought some things from the greengrocer and cake. It was my friend Rosie’s son’s Christening party. She’d had a baby. A boy. Rosie had. Rosie had a boy.
[Coos and awws followed by coughing]
Ethel: So, I get on with my day and I come home, and I tell the story to the lodger. I say I was down by the station and there he was. Just standing there. He was a…
Her voice went small, again.
Ethel: CARRIBEAN GENTLEMAN. And he said “could you kindly show me the way to a nice beach” he said. Very polite. So, what I did was I put him on a train for Brighton, I did. For the coast, I did. Paid his fare and everything is what I did. And the lodger, nice boy he was such a nice boy, said “was it Knightsbridge he wanted?” and I said “Oh, Heaven’s. It was Knightbridge, wasn’t it?” I said. I’d never heard of a CARRIBEAN GENTLEMAN wanting to go to Knightsbridge. Just imagine.
This man had marched into her mind 60 years ago. Every day he began anew the quixotic search for Harrod’s she had sent him on in the cooling air and sharp light of the South Downs. He had repeated this act with increasing urgency several times a day over the last year. She saw his body all the time, shirt and hat, reaching out the train door to get the latch, stepping onto the platform out onto the hill above Brighton town. Lately, Ethel had begun to forget when she had voiced this experience to others last, so being much the only thing she thought about, it became nearly the only thing she ever spoke of. Knightsbridge Man had quite overtaken her, a regular daemonic possession.
Snowflakes drifted noncommittally on the air outside Alabaster Meadows Care Home—the result of a freak weather system that originated in Siberia and dubbed by the press “The Beast from the East”. Inside, the heating was up so high that all the Resident Experience Technicians were sweating under their collars. Someone crooned on the radio between the buzz of the vaccine refrigerator and the plaintive bleats of the heartrate monitors.
“Is it settling?” asked Raymond the porter. He didn’t look up as he slid the waxer across the floor. He looked like he was trying to detect Anglo-Saxon gold.
“No, not yet. Maybe later they say.”
Our weather man was twenty-two-year-old Resident Experience Technician Arthur “Art” Smout. Such an Angel of a boy. Perfectly parted hair, skin like a marble cupid. As he listened again to Ethel’s shtick he laughed a wide empty laugh with the others, as precisely on cue as they were. He looked like he was trying to swallow down the world. Oh, Ethel. They really are the Greatest Generation. He gazed out of the window of the second floor. Below him all around the landscape was silent, aloof. It felt as if all the world at that moment was a frontierless Lincolnshire; a dull ache of longing suffusing the sodden earth, drainage ditches, barns, the B-roads. He watched a kestrel that had made its perch in a telephone pole, made quick and sharp by hunger, dive entrepreneurially into the hedgerow to skewer some timid thing. A little further out pockmarked statues of eminent imperialists, proud as survivors of a flood, marked the presence of a town. Art could make out the monument to the Pilgrim Fathers whose errand into the wilderness had made them the last denizens of Boston to actually leave. A tourist pamphlet on the temporary stand that had moldered in the lobby for an age with the uncollected mail noted that John Cotton, the “famous” Calvinist fire and brimstone preacher whose sermons had lit the pyres of American Puritanism, had been a minister here. He argued that Christ’s sacrifice redeemed a mathematically calculable number of us. The blessed lived in a state of grace that no earthly thing, no selfish action, could topple or besmirch. The cross of the old church he served, known locally as “The Stump”, punctured the grey narcotic sky in Art’s line of sight. From this distance it looked like a vast hypodermic pointed at the land beneath.
The mood of the scene outside was at contretemps with that in the pubs, hairdressers, and the frontrooms of the larger, hereditary houses. It was a time of great excitement for Boston, Lincolnshire. After many years of being shackled and bound to the tyranny of a foreign power bloc, the people were speaking about the possibility of the coming Spring as the advent of a New World. What was imminent would liberate the people of Boston from all confusion. All would be Right again. An axe would fall and a pure light would shine through the great separation that would set the historical record straight and put the bend back in the bananas. Some were even speaking of the return of proper money (at last an end to the delusion of thinking things could be measured out of 100!); the re-coagulation of our natural Anglo-Saxon blood alliances; a boon to lucrative trade in…what? The people could turn away the foreigners who besieged the shores in their severals and whose natural feebleness showed through most clearly in their willingness to travel a thousand miles for something as worthless as a job. The people of Boston were made of stronger stuff. There weren’t any jobs here and they never reduced themselves to the moral wetness of travelling anywhere else because of it.
Art checked his watch then wiped soup from an old man’s mouth and moved the tray a little further from him. Mr. Wetherall (Room 4, Low Fibre) reached impotently for it, coughed repeatedly, gave up and fell back into his chair with an expression of dejection that Art watched slowly shift into a uniform beige of indifference, like milk in tea. Then he changed a RrResident’s nappy; cleaned down the surfaces; offered a crowd of geriatrics a blow by blow account of the Second Battle of El Alamein; tidied the linen draw; put on a DVD of The Lady Vanishes for Wilhelmina Proust; repeated his blow by blow account of the Second Battle of El Alamein; drilled on the lawn for the Residents with Heidi and Tim from accounts; played The Last Post on the bugle; went looking round the grounds for Wilhemina Proust who had vanished; changed a Resident’s nappy; cleaned down the surfaces; petted a donkey; and smiled, smiled, smiled.
“Such an Angel”, said Mrs. Reynolds (Room 20, UTI) from her sofa across the room.
Art beamed and bowed ceremoniously. Mrs. Reynolds giggled like a schoolgirl. He looked out of the bay window of the Leisure Lounge once more. Someone else coughed. And another. They all coughed together. Ring a ring a rosy…
“Settling?” said someone.
“No. Not yet. They say it will”, he replied absently.
Lately, Art had become aware of something growing in his mind; an idea that he had only ever prodded ineffectually before., He prodded again harder, like a tongue worrying the membrane of an abscess. He did not know where the idea had come from, he could not cite a source, but it had swirled about his head as disturbed as the weather. That day in February, amid the repetitious stories, the grim monuments, and the unsettled snow, it burst miraculously into the full bloom of a Philosophy. The dead did far too little to deserve our respect. Struggle was necessary for growth. Growth was life. In England the dead were just too indulged. They were around him in the very thickness of the air that clogged lungs and made fatbergs in the Victorian sewer systems. Beneath him in the soil their remains were nuts in a fruitcake that swelled endlessly, topped up at intervals by new generations. He was reminded of how in a geography class he had once seen a diagram of a section of earth shot through with undegraded styrofoam. He felt utterly immersed in it. All the hard work he had to put in to keeping The Residents living (or dying more slowly, rather) – five days a week with a double shift on alternate Tuesdays and Thursdays – was a purposeless hamster-wheel. The country was stuck. What it needed was a shot in the arm. Or the head. He made a mental list of some of the things the Resident’s money paid for:
His salary (meager, but supplemented by free lunches and dinners)
“Quiz Night” (starting 3 pm sharp)
The big man-winch
The electricity bill for the life support machines
The Manager’s second home in Spain
Handing over the cash, however much they complained about it in public, was a gesture that offered deep solace to the Resident’s families too. It was religious in nature. Sacramental. A benediction. It permitted them to avoid thinking about the physical bodies of their loved ones, beset by ailment and inadequacy, for long periods of the day, freeing them up to get on with the practice of actually loving them; something that required a certain unmuddied distance lest it curdle to contempt.
Alabaster Meadows was a full-service home: a star in the firmament of private palliative care solutions. For several Residents who were further down their own, individual path and losing the guide rails of the present (Ethel Burbage included) Alabaster Meadows was a licensed practitioner of an experimental method that had been imported from Holland, referred to as Absolute Immersion Nostalgia Therapy (AINT). It involved the Resident Experience Technicians performing a carefully curated set of roles that corresponded with the Resident’s particular vision of an idealized past. It was a perfect exit strategy for someone seeking to slip graciously and quietly from sentient life in the moment of their apotheosis without having to face any material consequences for what they had done in the intervening years. Truly, a Covenant of Grace. When the moment finally occurred Alabaster Meadows’ competitive funeral packages ensured the body was ever seen by the family in a way that would disrupt the smooth flow of the whole business of Heavenly ascension. Just, Pop! Gone. Quiet and clean as a soap bubble. Following the clearance of the Settler Support Fund from the account of the family member who deposited their mother or father into Alabaster Meadows’ tender care, The Resident would be subjected to a period of observation to establish the ideal form of their fantasy world. The home twisted history to make it cute, like a telephone cord around the finger of a nubile teen in a Technicolour movie.
Ethel, his current ward, had been selected for a World War Two theme, presumably because it was the last moment in a litany of 20th century ambient, imminent death situations in which she had felt truly comfortable. Since beginning work at Alabaster Meadows Art had come to realise a fact of British life that many, many people seemed to think WW2 was just super fun. He wondered if Ethel’s experiences of British pluck or the longed-for adulthood of being touched up in an Anderson shelter compensated for the bombing of Dresden. Apparently, it seems, it did. Aren’t we lucky to have had a war that comes to us through history so clean, arriving as guiltless as if it were Paddington Bear. In the game of British cultural life murder has to happen at least three times; first in mind, second in practice, third, again, in mind.
Either way, it worked out well for everyone involved. Her diet – bar the removal of gluten for her gut problems – was 100% authentic to historical rationing, which was wonderfully cheap, and Art (who was playing the part of a Canadian Airman in her repeating fantasy) had only to turn up resplendent in uniform once in a blue moon, play bridge, dance to Glen Miller, and then disappear one moment for an unpredictable and prolonged period of time leaving Ethel to enjoy the historically-authentic experience of confusion, crippling anxiety and unfulfilled longing. From time to time, when the Experience Technicians got wind of the fact that Ethel’s real life friends were themselves about to go MIA, so as to avoid the embarrassment of having to break cover and engage in an elaborate, and frankly very awkward, period of confusion and mourning, the Nostalgia Effects Division would instead set off of a large controlled explosion in the Tudor knot garden fairly close to where she slept. The jolt awake and resulting crater were justification enough for the disruption of the next fews days. Indeed, The Manager noted as he gazed into the pit they had created that it added the patina of authenticity to the environment quite superbly. Staff attrition was high at Alabaster Meadows due to stress, but out-of-work actors were plentiful, so the Manager had prepared a system to handle turnover. When Art finally left Ethel for pastures new, or to complete the Masters’ degree in Economics he was nominally saving for, it was safe to assume she could be informed of his loss over the Bermuda Triangle and another uniformed young man be marshalled in clicking his heels in Art’s place.
Art thought of an email he had once received from the manager of the home on the day he had taken the job.
One real benefit of The Greatest Generation is their stiff upper lip. Their uncomplaining deference. Their extraordinary resilience. These are all very admirable traits. We should be thankful for this generation. They are so grateful for us, but really, they are our teachers. Still, let’s be honest, Houston, we have a problem. When this generation finally complete their own individual journeys, as they are doing with great frequency at this precise moment, we’ll be left with what are called the Boomers, and in my experience, they won’t want us. The world is already exactly what they want it to be. Their perfect time is whatever just happened to them. Or Woodstock, but that would be a logistical nightmare. So, we lose a little of our raison d’etre. We must make the most of this moment. It won’t come again. Please get in contact if you have any ideas. My door is always open. It is the time for young people like all of you, young people with ideas, to step up.
The Manager’s words had resonated for days in the vast chambers of Art’s mind. We have to make the most of this moment. Following a brainstorm Art had started to play the part of a black market spiv; authentic down to his spats. He’d worked out a fine little sideline in flogging the Residents fillets of cod from a Boston fishmonger at inflated cost. He produced these in darkened corridors from inside a trenchcoat like a closeup magic trick. They were then quietly removed from their rooms when the smell became unbearable. He’d even won Employee of the Week for inventiveness, positive feedback, and commitment to his role. He cared greatly about the positive feedback. Since adopting AINT a pall of unshakeable joy had fallen upon Alabaster Meadows.
Unpleasantness was happily rare, but had been known from time to time, such as when the appointment of Rav Sarkar caused Mr Thwaite, whose fantasy turned on the time he was Headmaster at a notorious public school and required his RET to pretend to be a grinning 50s schoolboy in short trousers, to descend into an apoplectic rage and beat the poor young man with a cane calling him an embarrassment to the Empire when he failed to climb The Apparatus, memorise Cicero, or accept the pedagogical logic of the Lancastrian System. But after poor Rav was let go things were peaceable again. It was all easily resolved. Alles in Ordnung. The Residents were happy little pilgrims on their way to Jesus.
On his break Art searched his phone for the old email from The Manager to remind himself of how it began.
To: Smout, Arthur (Art)
I am delighted you have chosen to accept the role and will be joining our happy little Alabaster Meadows family. Happy is the right word. Happiness is what we do here. Happiness and Authenticity. The Residents are happy. Their happiness is everything. That is what care home means. It means that they have no cares here, because we care instead. It should be called a No Care Home really! After all, they’ve earned it. Many of these people lived through The War, the three-day week. Their last years were propelled into confusion by the untenable demands of European bureaucrats, the presence of people in their lives whose languages and values they didn’t understand, Chinese viruses, the panic over so-called “climate change”. It was all so stressful. All those phony, fanciful things made them unhappy. We must make a place where they don’t have to care about all that. So be happy. The more we focus on Authenticity the happier they are. We are giving them back their real lives. Stiff upper lip. Best foot forward. Blitz spirit etc.
Manager, Alabaster Meadows
(Please make sure to check out my personal website TrevforBoston.co.uk. and Leave.eu)
Under the tutelage of Trevor Rince and Alabaster Meadows, Art had undergone a process of “levelling up”. He had worked on himself until he was sharpened into a perfect antique tool; something for which there was probably now a number to call or maybe even an app . He lived frugally and deliberately. He could darn; he could fix a radio; correctly address a letter; he knew a surprising amount about Brylcream, Humphrey Lyttelton and Rolls Royce engines. Every age has its great artists, and finds its ideal form; 2016’s were Art Smout and 1943.
Later that day, in a recently-vacated room under the light of a Chinese lantern left over from a Resident’s AINT experience in a recreated setting of Hong Kong before the handover, Ray and Art were eating lunch. Ray was dressed as a cowboy. He passed him a canteen full of hotsauce he always carried on his person for an ongoing game to see how much they could take, edging a little further each time closer to breakdown.
“I think food is basically something you can put sriracha on”, said Ray.
“I wonder if there are any other flavours? Not of sriracha. I mean, like, in the world,”
“It burns good.”
“Yeah, it burns good.”
“Looks like its settling outside now.”
“I can’t see the outside.”
Art opened his phone and with one, groomed hand composed an email to Mr. Rince.
Art Smout, Resident Experience Technician
To: Rince, Trevor
Dear Mr. Rince,
I have been thinking a lot lately about how we might seek to address the coming shortfall of potential Residents as The Greatest Generation complete their individual journeys, especially with this recent flu moving many along the path a little quicker than we might have liked. It is a great shame.
If I might risk saying something (I hope I am not speaking out of turn, sir), there is a lot of love for this generation among the people of our great nation. We do a lot of work for our Residents, bless them. We really are succeeding admirably with the project of smoothing their transition into the next phase of their life. However, I feel strongly that there may be potential to make them work for us a little more. Ha! Obviously, I do not mean actually! I mean, look at their little hands. Mr. Rendall dropped the tv remote the other day and put a hole in his thigh. However, what a generation! Such suffering. Such resolve. Dunkirk. Victoria Sponge. Cliffs of Dover. The NHS. You said yourself that they’ve earned it. Happiness is important, like you say, so perhaps more can share in the happiness? I think we might go down the social media route here. That could be our “individual path”. Maybe we could get some sponsorship going? The term online is “Influencer”, I believe. Think of what the charming old dears could do as “Influencers”. All this vintage furniture and pyrotechnics and whatnot must be very expensive for you. Perhaps we could outsource some of the requisitions? People are fond of realism. Retro is in. Retro realism. We shoot some videos of our Residents living their best lives, fans share the videos and they become viral. Ha! The good kind, not like what the East Wing have! Then here’s the thing, we get a cut of the proceeds. They work for us without working at all. It’s a win-win, really.
Resident Experience Technician, War Division
He showed Ray the email.
“‘Victoria Sponge’, ‘Cliffs of Dover’ was a coup”
“When posh English people want to be taken seriously their language descends into a casacade of moreorless incomprehensible gaga: Pooh Pooh this, jolly hockeysticks that.”
“Oh yeah, you have to look like you speak their language, but also be a bit vague so you look busy, a little harried. They will read that as “hardworking”.”
“Hardworking is good. Having people working for you who are “hardworking” always gives the boss the feeling that they too are working hard. It sort of breeds in the atmosphere.”
“The culture”, said Art.
“Yes, in the culture,”
The email reply back came instantly. Art got up and walked down the sterile hall. A bright white light was visible under the door of Rince’s office. He knocked and entered, the heat and light before him as intense as if he stood before an oncoming tube train. He closed the door and left the world behind him.
The Residents generally lived their lives like snowglobes in stretches of no more than a minute of action before laying dominant again, as settled as the sands of time. Ray and Art had only to point their phones to capture these moments of hard gemlike life and intensity. These could then play on a loop that gave the impression that all the days of the Residents at Alabaster Meadows were full of such moments; that their joy was permanent and monumental. Tic Toc. Tic Toc. Tic Toc. The videos spread out across the flat county to other places beyond, leaping from person to person like the body electric, loading, autoplaying, replaying, sharing. Art reasoned that he had found for Ethel in technology the ideal platform for her Platonic version of herself. The story of the Caribbean Gentleman repeated online without end. Some saw in it a kindness, some saw cruelty, others saw evidence of deep historical trauma. Ethel was a star and a laughing stock – both at once in that most modern way; either the most backward woman in Britain, or the sweetest. #Imagine became a racist meme, or an antiracist one, or something anyway. Still, they shared and shared irregardless. Difference was obliterated in an accumulation of cute little taps. The debate made all the difference. And none.
The first few days were a great success. It was love that won the day. The feed was an explosion of smiles, hearts, and thumbs of yellow, brown, and white. The videos linked to the Alabaster Care Homes site, which linked to Trevor Rince’s own, which linked to the Boston town council, which linked to leave.eu and other places. The messages that came in, bar a few moody sods that were quickly blocked and reported, were overwhelming in their “positive feedback”. So good to see such resilience and cheerfulness, said one. Our Heroes getting their due respect. #oldlivesmatter, said another.
Art was quick on the draw. He moved fast when approached to use the images in an advert for a popular baking powder. “Get a rise out of life” was the slogan. The video of Mr. Bentley’s physio session when, like Lazarus, he stood up unaided for the first time in a week and scampered over to grab a teacake was too perfect for the ad agency to pass up. A dance lesson that was a particular favourite online began by some unaccountable mathematics to start to raise money for the RSPCA after some wag made a comparison to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? A game started on the dark web placing cryptocurrency bets on the first to expire. The likes and retweets were monumental. Love just flowed in. Each Resident, unbeknownst to them, was given their own profile. As each passed shortly after their profile was sold with a bunch of other data to a company based in Krasnoyarsk whose shell holdings included a data operation that was hard at work on various urgent political campaigns. Their modus operandi was the basic consumer psychology of the 21st century. You do not need to tell people what to think or vote. You do not even need to put in the hard work of convincing them. You need only to give them enough images of what they already think. The aggregate will be read as authenticity. Realism. Truth. Don’t patronise people. That won’t make them happy. Happiness is the goal here people.
Outside the snow began to settle at last, then pile up, blocking exit ways, making roads hazardous, and covering everything in a thick layer of resolute whiteness. No one could travel. They closed down the town to visitors. It lasted for several days and impeded the flows of food and necessary medicines. All that could be seen now when you looked up were the monuments and the church spires. But you will not look up, because they still dance and dance in circles, forever reborn. Tic Toc Tic Toc.
It was like another world one warm day that summer when Art and Ray went to Trevor Rince’s garden party to celebrate great victory and toast the successes of a difficult year.
“You heard about Ethel?” Art made a sad, pouty face.
“Yeah. Poor old dear,” said Ray.
“She could barely move by the end, you know. I was with her. Her family couldn’t come from down South. They couldn’t make it. Some business with lorries on the road in Kent.”
Art reached into his pocket and took out his phone. He tapped it for a bit and then leaned over to show Ray.
“I want to show you something,” he said.
On the screen was Ethel Burbage, nose full of wires, her veiny, blue hand resting on another much younger hand belonging to the filmmaker whose other arm was holding the camera. The whole tone was still. This was palpably the final moments.
Ethel: I went to find him.
[pause. breathes awkwardly]
I went back to the station to find him and he was gone…
I couldn’t live with myself, I couldn’t.
Art [surprised, offscreen]: Oh, right.
The camera shook as if Art was looking around for someone to confirm what was happening. A hand reached for the button to call the nurse, then hesitated.
Ethel: So, I got a ticket. I said to myself, I’m going to buy a ticket. You can’t give up on people, you know. You never should.
Ethel: He was a beautiful man, Arthur. He was so polite and gentle that time.
I got the next train I could down to Brighton. I missed the Christening.
I was all excited. I asked at the station when I got there. “Did you see a Caribbean gentleman come through here?” I said to the guard.
[She coughs. Wheezes. A minute passes]
“Oh yeah,” he said.
He rolled his eyes. The Fucker.
[Art is heard laughing offscreen]
He pointed to a cafe.
I saw his hat first.
I ran to him. He smiled, and you know what, Arthur? He apologised to me for being unclear. I said nonono. He bought me coffee. We laughed in the end. In the end we laughed about it.
And Arthur. I stayed. For forty years I stayed. His heart got him in the end. We made a life. Some didn’t like it, but I loved him and he loved me…
It’s love. Isn’t it Arthur? What it’s all about. It’s love.
Art: Yes. It’s always about love.
“Woah” said Ray. “That’s really something.”
“Yeah. I was sad for her.”
“What are you gonna do with the video? I bet people would really like it.”
“No, Ray. This one I’ll keep.”