A saga of everyday life in the Big L and a wry look at contemporary culture
By Tony Carden
Episode Forty Three: A New Year
The mist swirled around. A dim light tried to pierce the gloom. Mary started. Where am I?
It’s me.’ You?
‘You can’t be returning for a third time.’
‘All good things come in threes.’
‘Ethan, that’s trite.’
‘Ah, yes, it is, isn’t it?’ Ethan’s shade emerged from the mist as if rising out of water. Clouds curled around his pale form. As he approached, details became clearer, sharper. He had a grin on his face. What now? ‘This is the best bit, you know.’
‘So, what have you got to show me this time?’
‘It’s the future, Mary, the one I didn’t get to see.’
‘I’m sorry about that.’ I am, Ethan, I hadn’t realised how much I’d lost by behaving like I did.
‘I know you are. But it doesn’t matter now. What was, is; and it’s too late to change things.’
‘Those two little words. “If only I’d not got angry,” or “If only I’d done that.” It’s sure we can be one hundred per cent sure that if only we’d done something else it would have worked out better by saying “What if?”. Take Brexit, for example.’
‘But it would have, wouldn’t it?’
‘I like to think so.’ He turned away from her. ‘Shall we proceed? We haven’t got all night.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘To the future. Actions beget consequences, as you’ll see.’ He reached out. ‘Here, take my hand.’ She extended her hand to his. It felt cold. Is the future cold? Or is it because you’re dead, Ethan?
As they moved forward, the mist began to dissipate in front of them. They were in a room. It was dominated by a hospital bed. An old woman lay in it. Mary gazed at her before jerking back. That’s me! I’m old and look like a prune! Is that what’s going to happen to me? How awful!
‘Is that really me? Is this is what’s to become of me?’
‘In one future, yes.’ His voice held a certain harshness.
A door Mary hadn’t previously noted opened. A bit unsteadily, a man in white entered. Who is he? I recognise him. It’s that bloody robot again. The black and white plastic man shuffled in, his Adonis mask fixed in a smiling rictus. What’s he doing here?
‘YOU CALLED FOR ME, MARY?’
The future Mary in the bed looked up on hearing the voice. ‘Oh, hello A.S.S.A.S.I.N.N. Yes, I did call for you.’
Assassin? Is this what’s they’ve become? Am I about to be done away with by that—that machine?
‘Is this how I’m to be terminated—by a killing machine?’
Ethan laughed. ‘It’s not a killer, it’s a robotic carer. That thing you think is planning to kill you is an Autonomous Support System with Advanced Synergistic Integral Neural Net, or A.S.S.A.S.I.N.N. for short. There’s lots of these robots here in the future helping to care for the elderly.’ Not a human in sight to help. But!
‘He’s already passed away.’ Oh, poor thing!
‘Can you tell me how?’
‘No. I’m only allowed to show you your future.’
‘I suppose it is, really.’
‘You don’t really care much, do you?’
‘You tend to get a bit unemotional about things when you’re dead, you know.’
‘Well, I’m not dead, so I wouldn’t know but I’m pretty wound up about this.’ She gestured at the scene before her.
‘WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU, MARY?’
‘I’d like a glass of water.’ She paused. ‘No, better still, how about a large sherry.’
‘I AM NOT ALLOWED TO GIVE YOU ALCOHOL. YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT.’
‘If you were human, you’d get it for me.’
‘I AM NOT ALLOWED TO DO THIS. THE THREE LAWS PREVENT ME.’
‘Bloody hell, A.S.S.A.S.I.N.N., why don’t you ever do what you should?’
‘BUT I DO, MARY. I FOLLOW THE RULES AS LAID DOWN BY MY MAKER.’
‘But what of my needs?’
‘THEY ARE BEING MET.’
‘Bloody hell! Just, get me my drink.’
‘ONE GLASS OF WATER COMING UP.’
‘No, I meant my sherry. Tipple. An alcoholic beverage. That’s what I want.’
‘MARY, THE DOCBOT PROGRAM HAS DETERMINED YOU SHOULD NOT DRINK ALCOHOL BECAUSE OF ITS EFFECT ON YOU. IT IS BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH.’
‘I just want a stiff drink. Do you think I like lying here like this?’
‘DO YOU WISH TO GO FOR A WALK?’
‘I want a drink, that’s all.’
‘WOULD YOU PREFER A CUP OF TEA, THEN?’
‘How about that gin and tonic you never made for me.’
‘YOU ARE FORBIDDEN TO HAVE ALCOHOL—IT IS BAD FOR YOU.’
‘I’ll decide what’s good for me.’
‘THE DOCTOR HAS DECIDED.’
‘What? What about my wishes, you trumped-up piece of animated plastic?’
‘I AM ONLY 27 PER CENT PLASTIC. THE OTHER MATERIALS USED IN MY CONSTRUCTION ARE STEEL 68 PER CENT, COPPER FOUR PER CENT, OTHER MATERIALS ONE PER CENT.’
‘And you’re 100 per cent obnoxious, you perambulating can of excrement.’
‘Ethan, I don’t speak like this. This can’t be me!’
‘I’m afraid it is. You see, you were entirely broken at the end of your premiership by the events that overtook you.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Mary, Mary, this is how you’ll end up if you don’t repent.’
‘There’s nothing to repent about.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course, I’m bloody sure.’
‘You’re beginning to sound like your later self.’
‘There you go again.’
Mary waved at her elderly self who was being rearranged on the bed by the android. ‘I can’t end up like this; I just can’t.’
‘Then you need to change course.’
‘How can I? We’re locked in to everything. You have no idea how difficult it is to change anything.’
‘But you changed my plans on that summer’s day in Oxford.’
‘I lost my temper.’
‘And look what happened.’ Ethan gestured at himself with both hands as if showing himself off to her.
‘Your dress sense hasn’t improved, if that’s what you’re getting at.’
‘Your trying to ignore what I’m saying.’
‘Why should I listen to you? You’re dead.’
‘And so will you one day.’ Ethan pointed at her later self who had turned away from the robot to face the wall, blocking it out of her sight. ‘Other people when they’re old like you get in the future aren’t as alone as you are.’
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘I’ll show you.’ He raised up a hand and flicked his fingers.
The scene instantly changed. They were in another room, another hospital bed, another A.S.S.A.S.I.N.N. was in attendance. But in addition, several people were seated around the bed.
‘Where are we now?’
‘That’s Ralston in the bed.’
‘Who are the people around him?’
‘They’re family and friends. He has some, you know.’
‘And I don’t.’
Do I? There’s Des and…Who would come and see me if I wasn’t PM? Sir James? No. One of the younger ones, like Quinn. I like her. No, she wouldn’t be bothered. She racked her brain to think of someone she thought was sufficiently close to her to still want to see her once she left office. No one came to mind.
‘No.’ It came out as a croak.
‘Do you now know what you must do?’
‘Great. I can take you back.’ He clicked his fingers again.
She was back in the dark in what she presumed was her bedroom. Her alarm clock said 3:56.
* * *
‘Well, Quinn, what is your resolution for 2019?’
Quinn laughed. ‘To get a job that actually pays me money.’
‘A great wish. I wish for Duane to propose.’
Quinn turned and gazed intently at Camilla. ‘You’re serious!’
‘Of course, I bloody well am.’ She paused and grinned. ‘And you should be too.’
* * *
‘What’s up for the New Year, Ahmed?’
‘I’ll be driving. Best night of the year. All those people out to watch the fireworks. There’s not many drivers out. The fares go right up.’
‘Happy holidays then.’
* * *
‘Andrew, do you think I can wear white for the wedding?’
‘If that’s what you want.’
‘Well, with the baby and all, they say I shouldn’t.’
‘Marriage Magazine says.’
‘I wouldn’t worry what some hack journalist writes, I’m sure anything goes in 2019.’
‘You think so?’
‘I know so.’
* * *
‘You look down in the dumps, Dancy.’
‘This year’s been bloody awful. First losing Quinn, then suspended from SilverRock. It’s been hell.’
‘Here take this.’ He passed over a champagne flute. ‘Let’s drink to a better 2019.’
‘Let’s hope so.’
‘Don’t be such a bloody pessimist.’
* * *
Mel laughed. ‘That’s so funny, Aidan.’
‘I try my best.’ He grinned. ‘But it’s just a poor man’s version of Groucho Marx.’
‘Well, if you ever lose your day job, you can reinvent yourself as a comic.’ She gazed up at the clock on the wall. ‘It’s nearly midnight. Shall we?’
‘A new year. I can’t believe it’s 2019!’
‘Let’s party like it’s the end of the world.’
‘Maybe it is.’ He kissed her.
* * *
‘It’s just you and me.’ Anna stroked her cat. In the distance she could hear the fireworks going off. ‘You stay right here where it’s good and safe.’ She felt the cat’s claws on her legs as they gouged at her flesh. ‘You like this, don’t you?’
* * *
‘Sir James. A glass for the New Year’s toast.’
‘Why, thank you.’
‘If I may say so, you’re a smooth operator. I’m impressed you’ve managed to keep the lady in Number Ten.’
‘From you, Gerald, that is praise indeed.’
‘It takes one to know one.’
James raised his glass. ‘Well, here’s to more in 2019.’ Their glasses clinked together.
To be continued…
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.
Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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