From Hard (x)Times 2
Dark Tales from the Tory Dystopia
By James Hesford
It was one of those modern, driverless contraptions – the type where the carriages are not separated by doors and, even from the back, on a straight run, you can see all the way up to the front of the train. An impression comes to mind of the interior of one long, bendy sleeper car swerving and swaying like a caterpillar ride in a theme park. From the outside, it looked much like any other train on the London Overground. The inside, also, would have looked familiar, had it not been for a few hanging intravenous drip bags, cages containing oxygen bottles, and seats specially modified so they can flip up to make space for wheelchairs, or beds, if need be.
There were only a couple of those – metal-framed monstrosities on wheels with a brown rubber mattress and straps to stop the poor wretches lying on them from falling out during transit. The other passengers, even the small minority capable of walking the short distance from departure lounge C to the train platform, were in wheelchairs of various descriptions. The ones with small wheels designed to be pushed around a hospital were the most common, but there were a few with big wheels for the more able-bodied, and some elaborate electric versions with joysticks and head stabilisers. Christian figured that they must have been the volunteers. These days, the only way you could get a decent mobility aid is if you or your family could pay for it. And if you or your family had enough money to buy one then it’s more than likely that you weren’t considered a burden on public finances and ‘options’ would still be available.
Despite his slightly blurred vision, Christian could see that the train was at full capacity. He had expected to see mainly old people, but interspersed amongst the weak and fragile were a varied collection of differing younger ages: from mid-fifties to as young as late teens. The down syndrome boy sat across from him couldn’t have been more than eighteen at the most. He seemed nervous, constantly rocking his torso and turning his head from left to right, straining his neck to look over his neighbours’ heads at the long row of human tragedy seen as a repeat image of backless hospital gowns and cheap cotton top slippers.
“Where’s Aunty? Where is she?”
His companion, a woman at the front end of forty, well rounded in the face and broad in the midriff, was losing her patience. She had answered this question at least fifteen times since the train’s departure some thirty minutes previously.
“WHERE’S AUNTY JOAN?” He repeated.
The raised volume attracted the attention of two stewards standing by the door. There were two stewards standing by every door. Christian had counted at least twenty of them and it did cross his mind that they weren’t the kind of people you would want to attract the attention of. “Pretty well tooled up for stewards” he thought – Tasers, truncheons and handcuffs hanging from the belt of their black military-style uniforms, trousers tucked into their boots and that ominous armband of luminous stark white, the kind that glows in the dark, with the yellow lightning strike insignia above the initials ISS – Inland State Security.
“Fucking stewards, my arse.”
Christian knew he shouldn’t have said that. Mumbling his thoughts out loud had become a habit in his old age and it wouldn’t have been the first time it had got him into trouble. Now the stewards were looking at him, hands hovering over their truncheons.
“I WANT AUNTY JOAN
He breathed a sigh of relief as the stewards’ focus of attention returned to the young man who was now crying and waving his hands in front of him like a demented crooner.
“Are you all right love? Do you need a medic?” Said one of the burley stewards, pressing lightly on his earpiece while pinching at the tiny microphone concealed beneath the flap of his breast pocket.
“No. Give it a minute.” said the companion rummaging around in her shoulder bag before pulling out a packet of ginger nuts.
“This should settle him.”
“Let’s hope so. Once one of ‘em kicks off ………well, you know.”
With a nod and grimace indicating that she does indeed know, she rips the top of the packet, pulls out three biscuits and offers them to the young man who, momentarily distracted, stops waving his hands around and takes them. Having managed to spray herself with crumbs in the process, she brushes her hand over the breast of her blue matronly uniform – the type designed to reinforce the exaggerated status of health professional – and leans back in her seat with the satisfaction that, once again, her hard-gained expertise has calmed down the situation.
“Health professionals my arse. I shit ‘em.”
Christian was at it again. His age-related Tourettes, as he liked to call it, was a real problem. It’s what got him Tasered when THEY came for him – that and hitting one of the bastards around the head with his walking stick. THEY were already pissed off because THEY had to break down the door of his council maisonette. Apparently, THEY had written to him on several occasions giving him a departure date, but Christian had stopped opening his letters. What was the point? It would just be someone chasing an unpaid bill or rent arrears. What could he do about it? His state pension, reclassified as a benefit, had been stopped long ago. Anyway, having hardly eaten anything for the past month, he was too weak to make it downstairs to answer the door. He had spent the last few days in his bed, laying there staring at the ceiling wondering whether he would die before the inevitable arrival of THEM.
The train slowed down as it took the bend, slow enough to read the bright yellow writing on the posters that were pasted on to the concrete sidings –
“WE SIMPLY CAN’T AFFORD IT”
and, further down, in a dramatic diagonal across the dark brown epauletted shirt of Jacob Reich-Mosely the 4th,
“AND WHY SHOULD WE?”
As if one poster wasn’t enough. There were never less than ten in a row. If you repeat something long enough people will eventually believe it. And THEY were right – people did. The elderly, the sick, the disabled, the ones who could no longer look after themselves and had no support from families were now the enemy of the people.
The funny thing was that before ‘it’ was made compulsory, Christian would have volunteered. After all, two weeks of living in comparative luxury, not having to worry about going hungry, freezing to death in Winter, the unbearable heat of Summer, to not have to bear weeks, sometimes months, of isolation and loneliness, it was a dream. Just the human contact would be enough: someone to talk to, to confide in, to offload the burden that years of fear and uncertainty had laid heavy on his emaciated shoulders.
They looked lovely – the videos on Youtube. The links were emailed regularly – HMgov.dignity in the subject box. The smiling faces of the carers, the walks in the gardens, clean sheets on a big comfy bed, your own bathroom with a sit-down shower, the day trips out on specially adapted busses to beauty spots with castles, willow trees and rivers, what could be better? Oh yes, and the food, the food, and the food: three meals a day, four if you wanted a light snack before bedtime. It had been a good few years since Christian had seen a sausage let alone ate one – sizzling sausages surrounded with bright orange baked beans (Heinz – product placement). He once got a tin of chipolatas from the food bank, but they tasted like shit. There’s nothing like the real thing: the English sizzling sausage. And then there’s the ice cream – as much as you can eat. For Christian, there was only one flavour: Praline and Cream – the contrast between the cool creamy texture of the ice cream pressed against the roof of your mouth and the knobbly praline that sits on your tongue defying you not to crunch it all up – just thinking about it made him salivate.
The videos all end the same way with some contented looking, pain-free, old person lying in bed as a kind care worker holds his hand, stroking it gently. The final shot is an urn sitting on a marble plinth, the centerpiece of a leafy English garden. The camera zooms in to reveal the words carved into the stone –
REST IN PEACE
What was there not to like. Better than dying alone in a beat-up old armchair and sitting there for months decomposing in front of a one-bar electric fire.
But then again, volunteering would be giving in. For Christian, it wasn’t about hope – the ‘where there’s life there’s hope crap’. He had given up on hope a long time ago. It was about making a stand, making a point. Christian had made his mind up – “The Reich-Mosley, Brohnson, Sewerarge coalition could go fuck themselves. They’ll have to drag me out of the house screaming and kicking.” According to legislation, and the few paragraphs left in the Human Rights Bill, he would still get his two weeks of luxury before departure, but this way he would hang on to .0001% of dignity that he had managed to maintain even through the times when he had spent days lying in his own piss.
Christian was trying hard to piece together the order of events of the day since being forcibly ejected from his Islington home of some forty-odd years or more. He remembered the two officers from the Department of Departure Services dragging him downstairs, stuffing him in the back of a van and driving him away. They were bastards, for sure, but they could have been worse, especially as he had managed to crack one of them around the head with his walking stick. They could have finished him off there and then, driven around the corner and dumped him in a quiet street. He would just be another old person lying dead in the gutter. No one would bat an eyelid.
“OK you made your point. So what’s it gonna be – the easy or the hard way?” The officer held out his hands like Morpheus from the Matrix, Taser in one hand and a Happy Pill in the other. “It’s up to you old fella. Makes no difference to me.”
Christian took the Happy Pill. After all, he had stood up to them, kept his self-respect, or at least a bit of it, and that was enough. What would be the point in carrying on? Best just to lay back and look forward to the sausages.
Since then, Christian had no idea where he was. The black DDS van had no windows in the back, so there was no way of telling. The first stop, no more than a ten-minute drive away, was a medical centre of some description. He imagined that it was the one on the Essex Road where there was once a Group General Practice. The interior would have been about the same size, but he didn’t remember it having iron gates. He definitely heard heavy metal gates opening and then closing behind him and great bolts being dragged across. The van backed up close to the entrance and before he knew it, he was in a wheelchair being pushed down a short, narrow corridor that opened out into an empty waiting room greeting him with the rank smell of strong disinfectant with a faint hint of stale urine: the smell of institutions that had haunted him since his first day at nursery school. Yes, it was definitely an old medical center, Christian had decided. There were still a few bleached out posters on the walls: public information about high blood pressure, stage two diabetes, the famous five a day. He was pretty sure that he had been there before when there was a National Health Service and he still had a blood pressure high enough to warrant free prescriptions. Now he didn’t need them. He didn’t have a blood pressure.
After a few seconds, two disgruntled men entered the space from a door opposite.
“You were supposed to be here at 6 am.”
“Sorry nurse. We had a bit a bovver, but it’s OK now. He’s settled.”
The two men dressed in white, with elbow high surgical gloves and rubber aprons, looked more like kitchen staff than nurses and judging by the stains, they’d had a busy night.
“Hope so. We ain’t got no time to fuck about. Twenty minutes that’s all he’s gettin’ then we’re off ready or not. No one’s payin’ overtime.”
“We’ll be by the door having a fag. Give us a shout if you need us.” said the officer turning on his heels and walking back up the corridor leaving an uneasy Christian sat there wondering what the hell they were going to do to him.
“Look at the state of him for fuck’s sake.”
As an elderly man, Christian was used to being referred to in the third person. Normally it would piss him off, but today he thought it wiser to let it go. Even if he had wanted to draw their attention to the fact that he was there, a living entity, a human being, he couldn’t have. The Happy Pill had kicked big in time and he was peaking. His lips were too flaccid to pronounce a consonant let alone string a coherent sentence together.
“What a honk, He fucking stinks man.”
Christian was well aware of the fact that his personal hygiene had deteriorated somewhat. He couldn’t remember the last time he changed his tracksuit bottoms. For months they had functioned as both his best trousers and pajamas. He was always careful not to drop them down too far when he went to the toilet, just in case he couldn’t get them back on again. His white T-shirt, a little too tight for comfort when he first put it on after rescuing it from the recycling bin, was now hanging loose like an old stained dishcloth. As for washing himself, it was difficult. Getting into the bath was impossible. The most he could manage was a quick wipe down with a damp flannel and, not being able to undress, he would have to spend the rest of the day lying in his damp clothes.
Before the ‘Big Final Cut’, there was help. Iqbal from Social Services came twice a week. Christian remembered him as being a pleasant young man who helped him bathe and did his laundry for him. He organised daily food deliveries and a cleaning team from the Council when things got out of hand. He sorted his post and took the time to explain what was junk and what needed a reply. But most importantly he was good company, a contact with the outside world that had mostly reduced to whatever Christian could see out of his window. He missed Iqbal and often thought about him. He reminded him of a time when people were polite and kind to the elderly, when they would offer you their seat on the bus, ask you if you were OK when you had to stop in the street to catch your breath. Now, you were just a burden, the reason why the younger generation would never be able to afford to buy their own home, the reason the NHS had to be replaced by private insurance-based health plans that took 40% of your salary, the reason for having to work until you drop unless you have a private pension plan. No wonder people stared at you in the street with that disdainful look of disgust when they passed by, scanning you up and down like you’re a sub-human monster, a leach on society that emptied the coffers bankrupting the nation for many generations to come.
The room was full of the sound of buzzing. Christian could feel something hard pressing down on his head and he noticed that clumps of grey of hair were falling into his lap and spilling over on to the sheets of newspaper covering the floor around his wheelchair.
“Watch out for the nits Harry. The guy’s fucking crawlin’.”
Nurse Harry was working the bottom half, snipping his way up the right leg of Christian’s tracksuit bottoms with a large pair of scissors. With the bare leg now revealed, he could see that the small patch of eczema that had first appeared on his foot had spread over his entire lower leg. The skin around his shins had broken where he had been scratching with his walking stick and large ulcers had begun to fester. Even Christian, whose awareness of his own body odour had diminished in recent years, could smell it. He felt ashamed, disgusted by his own body. Could he have tried harder not to let himself get into this state? Pushed through the pain barrier to take more exercise when he was first diagnosed with chronic arthritis? Tried harder not to look so old and decrepit so that he could have carried on as a freelance set builder with young production teams and not have to take the crappy minimum wage job in the warehouse? Could he have tried harder not to drop things when his hands were shaking with palsy after three consecutive days of fourteen-hour shifts? If he had tried harder, he could have worked for a few extra years and saved more money for help in his later life. After all, as Chancellor Jacob Reich-Mosley said, “it is the people’s responsibility to take care of themselves and not to rely on others.”
Harry had finished his snipping. Christian’s clothes were now in pieces and being carried out to the trash in a bright yellow plastic bag with the words “Health Hazard” printed on it. Feeling self-conscious of his naked body, Christian’s eyes scanned the room looking for something to distract his attention. With his blurred vision, he could just about make out the headlines on the newsprint lying at his feet.
“POLLS SHOW THE NATION PREFERS STABILITY TO DEMOCRACY.”
“LIVE IN WAREHOUSES FOR UNEMPLOYED DEFINITELY NOT FORCED LABOUR CAMPS says Norris Brohnson.”
“ARREST MADE AS FAKE NEWS BECOMES A CRIMINAL OFFENSE.”
“HOME SECRETARY FIGEL SEWERAGE DENIES SMART WATER METERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MISCARIAGES ON COUNCIL ESTATES.”
“What a bunch of cunts.” Christian’s lips were working again and they weren’t doing him any favours.
“Hey Hey! We’ll have none of that. One word from us and the DDS ‘ll be on you like shit on Velcro. So shut it right.”
Harry was squeezing Christian’s chin so hard he thought his jaw would break.
“Get him up there NOW. That’s all he’s gettin’.”
Relieved that the violence had not escalated, Christian stroked his prickly shaved head and wiped the palm of his hand over the stubble where his beard had been. He felt a sharp jolt as the nurse without a name pushed his wheelchair in the direction of the corridor. Harry was already up there holding open a door. A few yards on, the wheelchair took a sharp left turn and Christian found himself in a windowless cramped room with white tiles on the walls, floor and ceiling. It didn’t feel good. He’d seen a room like this before in a Russian movie where they took a convicted serial killer and shot him in the back of the head and left him there while the blood drained away down the plughole in the centre of the floor. The room had a plughole. It was in the centre of the floor just like the one in the movie. Was this it then? The End? Were the YouTube promos a load of bollocks? The day trips, the comfy beds, the sausages, were they all just lies to entice him into a trap to get a bullet in the back of the head and a short trip up to the nearest landfill? Christian started to panic. The adrenalin was swirling around the back of his neck and his stomach was churning. He needed to wee – badly – but there was no way he was going to make it to a toilet. It was too late. He could already feel the piss spurting out of the end of his cock, splashing down on to his knees and dribbling down his legs onto his feet. He tried to lift himself out of the chair, but his arms couldn’t take the weight so he crashed back down hard on to the seat. There was nothing he could do, nowhere to go, no cavalry to barge in and save him at the last moment. He would just have to sit there and take what was coming to him. With the anticipation of having the cold nuzzle of a Glock semi-automatic pressed into the folds at the back of his neck, he squeezed his head tightly into his shoulders and waited………….and waited……………and waited.
“IF YOU’RE GOING TO DO IT DO IT NOW. JUST FUCKING DO IT FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.”
“Hey, Hey! I’ve told you before. Shut it. Calm down or I’m calling the D’s. You understand me? UN DER STAND ME?” Said Harry annunciating each syllable with a sharp short tap of his index finger into the centre of Christian’s forehead.
“YYYYeh…….sure……..I got you.”
“I fucking hope so.”
A disgruntled Harry exhaled a deep breath through tightly pursed lips in an attempt to regain some composure. His fifth consecutive day of fourteen-hour shifts of scrubbing up incontinent wrinkly old people had taken its toll. He was about to lose his rag and he knew it. Another “accidental death on his watch could mean a week’s suspension with no pay and he couldn’t afford that, certainly not on his minimum wage salary. After another deep breath and a few seconds of self-checking, Harry turned, moved towards the wall and with outstretched hand gripped a chromium-plated dial turning it swiftly forty-five degrees to the right. A gurgling sound filled the room as warm water made its way up the pipes toward a large circular showerhead the size of a dustbin lid.
Christian sat quietly as the water gushed down on to his head and shoulders. It felt good, a little colder than he would have preferred perhaps but good nonetheless. No, it was better than good – the best shower he had ever had in the whole of his life. What had he been worried about? He asked himself. It was just a shower room. Why had he freaked out? After thinking about it for a few moments it suddenly came to him. “Fucking obvious.” He lifted his hands to face level and watched as silver water, as thick as mercury, dripped off his fingers in slow motion. He was tripping off his face: The Happy Pill – three parts Librium to five parts hallucinogenic apparently. The Librium was wearing off unmasking the acid. He had taken lots of LSD in his teens. He should have known. If he’d realised before, he wouldn’t have freaked out. The first rule of tripping: you just have to ride it out, go with it.
A few minutes later, a squeaky clean Christian Banister, adorned with a crisp new hospital gown and cotton top slippers on his feet, was delivered into the capable hands of the DDS.
His new appearance and demur posture must have had an effect on the Officers. Unlike his first encounter with them, they were almost polite – leading him gently to the van, covering the top of his head with a cautious hand as they helped him climb in, letting him sit in a seat rather than making him lie on the floor, much to the relief of Christian who could still feel the bumps on his back from his last ride.
The journey from where ever that was to wherever they were going was taking its time. The traffic was building up, but it didn’t quite sound like rush hour yet. Christian was listening out for something that would give him a clue as to his whereabouts: a tannoy announcement from a train station, a river boat’s honking horn, the chimes of Big Ben, but all he could hear was traffic. A lorry passed by shaking the sides of the van with the increased air pressure, one of those fucking annoying mopeds that sound like a chain saw serial killer delivering pizzas overtook them on the inside, a bus, a car with a cranked-up sound system, a police siren, or was it an ambulance? He could have been anywhere – North, South, East, West, anywhere.
The sound of traffic was becoming quieter – less of it, more distant. If it was approaching the morning rush hour it should have been getting louder but it wasn’t. The van stopped less frequently, which would mean that there were fewer traffic lights. They hadn’t turned right or left for a good thirty minutes, but Christian couldn’t be sure about that. Maybe time was distorting. Everything else was distorting. Even though there wasn’t much to look at in the back of a van with no windows, there was enough to let him know that he was still tripping off his head and couldn’t completely trust his own judgment: the DDS officer’s face, for example, with a pitted bulging nose growing to the size of a tennis ball and about to pop, two eyes merging into one and moving to the middle of his forehead like Cyclops, a drooling mouth hanging so loose it was resting on the officer’s knees. Yes, everything was distorting. Better to look away, just sit back and ride it out, go with it.
After the turn, they slowed down, ten miles per hour at the most. The road surface had changed. It was bumpy. He could hear gravel crunching under the tyres, the occasional scrape of hedgerow against the side of the van, the flapping of a bird’s wing.
A few minutes later, they came to a standstill. Christian could hear voices. The officer in the front cab, their chauffeur, was speaking to someone. The response sounded like it was coming through a screechy speaker of an intercom system. He could hear footsteps coming towards them, working boots on gravel stones, followed by the sound of rattling wire and metal scraping on the ground. Another exchange of words and the van moved on. After fifty yards or so, it took a sharp U-turn and backed up.
Had he arrived at his final destination? Christian hoped not. The ominous rattling of the opening gate, the sound of gravel under the tyres and screeching intercoms didn’t exactly fit with the mental picture he had created. He had imagined a big, old, wisteria and ivy-covered country house with large grounds, fountains and privet bushes shaped like animals, long freshly mown lawns with cobbled paths that led nowhere in particular and a sundial. There just had to be a sundial. He couldn’t bear it if there wasn’t a sundial.
When the driver opened the back of the van, the first thing Christian saw was a high red brick wall. How high he couldn’t say exactly, but he had to strain his neck to see the top of it. He shielded his eyes from the sunlight that was shining brightly through the curling razor wire. “Definitely not a country house that’s for sure”. Whatever this place was, they were taking no chances with security – CCTV cameras everywhere, and all of them were pointing down at Christian. It seemed a little overkill for an almost empty fifty-meter square car park. What were they expecting?
The building, close to where they had parked, was definitely built for functionality. Christian was looking for some redeeming features but found none. It was a loading bay with a concrete ramp leading up to a set of flat, black double doors set flush against a concrete facade. He found reassurance by reminding himself that most of the stage doors in the theatres he had worked in were pretty austere from the outside, but once you got past the functional bit it was Showtime – Disney Land.
The officer was having trouble pushing Christian’s wheelchair up the incline. One of the back wheels was sticking. Christian would be his last job of the shift, and he was keen to hand him over – just his luck that out of a dozen available wheelchairs, he had chosen the one that was knackered. Still, another five minutes and it would all be over, and he could go home. His mate had already started the engine. Maybe he would let him have a short knap while they drove back to the office. Maybe, if there wasn’t too much traffic, they could make up time and he would catch his wife and daughter before they left. He hadn’t seen them for a week except for the odd few minutes before Nan took his daughter to school and his wife went off for her shift at the supermarket. But just another two weeks on the red-eye and he would get his weekend off and they could all spend time together, unless he was called in to cover for some lazy bastard who was swinging the leg, or his wife got sick again and had to fill her time quota at the weekend. She’d been getting sick quite a lot lately. He was worried about her. She needed time off, but they just couldn’t afford it. The rent was going up again at the end of the month and they were barely making ends meet as it was. Thank God for small mercies. It was the end of the shift. He had a hot shower to look forward to and a soft bed still warm from his wife’s body heat. Once he’d got the fucking wheelchair up the ramp and through the doors, he would be on his way.
There was a small recrimination from the man at reception.
“Tell me about it.”
Apart from that, the handover went smoothly. Papers were signed and dockets and nods exchanged. The deed was done.
Christian surprised himself that he felt a little sad about parting company with his officer companion. It seemed like a lifetime ago since they had first met. More had happened to Christian in the last couple of hours than over the past few years, which were spent mostly lying on his back staring at the ceiling. It had been a rocky start for sure. The officer’s bloodshot eye and puffy cheek paid testimony to that, but they had come to an understanding of sorts.
“What?” said the officer, a little taken aback that someone would be thanking him for doing his job.
“No, I mean it. Thank you, and I’m sorry about your eye.”
Touched by his sincerity and sensing that Christian was feeling uneasy about being left alone in a strange place, the officer walked over to him, bent down on one knee and put his hands on his shoulders.
“Listen here old fella, you’re almost there now. There’s nothing to worry about. Just a ride on a train and you’ll be living the life of Riley. So take it easy and behave yourself and you’ll be all right. OK?”
“Sure….I get you. Thanks.”
Christian, having had it confirmed that this was not his final destination, felt a little easier about being handed over to a young man, not yet in his twenties, who competently flicked off the wheel brake with the toe of his shoe, swung him around and pushed him in the direction of DEPARTURE LOUNGE C.
Staring into the great expanse of sky, watching the fields and trees fly by at a hundred miles an hour were the things Christian always liked about train rides. Unfortunately, for the past fifty minutes or so, all he saw was concrete with an occasional line of posters that did nothing to break up the monotony. With the exception of the down syndrome young man throwing up half a packet of gingernuts on to the lap of his companion and some guy up the carriage freaking out and shitting himself, the journey has passed without incident. Having spent most of the trip observing the entire Universe in the pattern on his hospital gown, Christian would have welcomed a distraction.
The distraction was soon forthcoming. It was the end of the line. The train had slowed down to a snail’s pace and was entering the station. There seemed to be a general air of excitement throughout the carriages. Even the weakest and most fragile were straining their necks to turn and look at something. Shaking his head to focus his eyes to see through his own reflection facing him in the window opposite, he saw why.
At first, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Perhaps it was the acid, the LSD. The initial effects had waned considerably and plateaued out on to a level of mellow chill. Maybe it had kicked in again, big time, and he was off his face flying into the Land of La La.
When the sliding doors opened, Christian could confirm that what he was seeing was real. It was as though the train had pulled into the ballroom of a stately home. The platform floor was covered in red carpet. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. The wall, papered with posh wallpaper, creamy-white with a raised blue textured pattern, had oil paintings hanging on it, real ones, maybe not, but the ornate, golden frames certainly made them look pretty convincing. They could have come straight out of the National Gallery: Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Constable, you name it, it was all there. They had certainly spared no expense on the detail. There were even small antique tables covered in objects of interest: thick leather-bound books, brass telescopes, a set of antique scales. It would take an entire day to look at everything. What a welcome.
The porters, dressed like bell boys from the Savoy Hotel, who had been standing to attention when the train arrived, had now entered the front two carriages and were busy wheeling off the passengers twenty or so at one time. When they had delivered their cargo to wherever it was going, they would run back onto the platform in a militarily precise, straight line and collect another twenty. Christian, being at the back of the train, was one of the last to leave. Now on the platform, he could hear the music – a string quartet, Mozart or was Haydn? Whatever it was, it was beautiful, soothing, gorgeous. And the smell, what was that smell? Christian thought that he had confused the days. Was it Sunday? The smell was definitely Sunday dinner, a roast, chicken, beef, or was it lamb? He hoped it was lamb. Christian liked lamb the best, with mint sauce and gravy, creamy mashed potatoes and boiled carrots that steamed up into your face when you bent over them. Somewhere in the background were the sounds of a busy kitchen: tinkling cutlery, the sliding of metal trays, the banter of jolly dinner ladies. Christian was there already, stuffing Yorkshire puddings into his mouth and following through with a fork full of thick gravy covered roast lamb. Or was it chicken, or beef? He didn’t really care. It was definitely roast something. He hoped it was lamb.
Christian was now being pushed down the tunnel at the end of the platform. He would have preferred to go a little slower so that he could spend more time appreciating the Greek statues standing in the alcoves set in the pretty realistic white marble effect walls. Christian could see that the end of the tunnel, where the red carpet ended, led straight into a much larger space. The shiny brass letters above the entrance would give him a clue as to what it was.
“And a movie too.” This was just too much. Maybe they would get ice cream. He could murder a tub of Praline and Cream, just to cleanse the palate before dinner.
The Cinema, the size of a large gymnasium, was full of occupied wheelchairs – many more than were on the train he had arrived in. They had been arranged into neat rows with spaces left for isles to allow access should anyone require attention. Christian was a little worried because the ceiling was quite low for a cinema and, as the floor wasn’t raked, he would have to tilt his head to see the whole picture if the guy in front of him was still fidgeting when the film started. He decided to stop worrying about it and relax and enjoy the ambiance. The music was still beautiful, and although the room was a bit utilitarian, the lighting more than made up for what had been lost to practicality. Christian could see they had made a real effort. Couldn’t he just lose himself in that gorgeous red glow coming from the bottom of the screen?
The lights were dimming slowly. The film was about to start.
As in all cinemas in the United Kingdom of Greater England, there was the obligatory ident: headshots of the bronze statues of Jacob Reich-Mosley the 4th, Norris Brohnson, and Figel Sewerage in profile, chins angled slightly upwards, eyes fixed on a far horizon. The camera tilts just in time to pull focus on nine F16 fighter jets of the RAF display team shooting across the sky above the Houses of Parliament leaving behind them a vapour trail of red, white and blue. The vapour trail morphs into a three-striped silk banner flapping gently in the breeze. As the last two phrases of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ rallentando to the final resolution, words scroll up to the centre of the screen –
THE NEW CONSERVATIVES
Christian was biting his lip trying to suppress the words that were bubbling up from the depths of him. He had come this far and didn’t want to blow it now, but all the expletives he knew, and some he didn’t, were gathering at the back of his throat, vying with each other like snapping vipers to be the first to jump out of his mouth and scream.
“FFFFFF ing ………CCCu Cu Cu Cu……..nnnts……..BasBBBBBas…………tds.”
It wasn’t the film that angered him so much. He had seen the film lots of times on YouTube and he thought it was hilarious. What really riled him was that at least ten people in the audience had applauded.
Christian clasps his hand over his mouth and coughs loudly to try to disguise his outburst. He needn’t have bothered. No one can hear him. The end of the ident has segued straight into the next film. Rousing fast music is pumping away under the stunning opening sequence: a magnificent aerial drone shot over the grounds of a country estate. Acres and acres of beautiful parkland pass by at a thousand miles per hour. The drone slows as it approaches a large house covered in ivy and wisteria. The building is surrounded by gardens with freshly mowed lawns, beds of colourful flowers, and sculptured trees and bushes. There are fountains too, Christian counts at least three of them, and cobbled pathways going nowhere in particular. There’s even a maze with a statue of a unicorn as its centerpiece. The film cuts hard to the next shot of the front of the mansion seen through the haze of a spurting fountain. The camera pulls focus to reveal the magnificent details of a stunning Palladium porch entrance. And then the words appear –
WELCOME TO LINSLAIN HOUSE
From here on the film takes a slower pace. We see the kitchen – jolly dinner ladies pulling out trays of vegetables from steaming racks, competent hands slicing onions – and as a friendly chef talks about managing the many different dietary requirements of ‘the guests’ the film suddenly stops and the room is plunged into darkness. When this happens in a commercial cinema there’s usually outrage, but the most the audience can muster is low-level mumbled groaning. The groans fade into silence.
Christian, feeling disorientated, looks around for a slither of light that might define the room’s perimeter but finds nothing. He waits a while for his eyes to adjust, but they don’t. He’s totally engulfed in the blackness. Now he’s anxious, concerned. Something is happening behind him. There’s a gut-wrenching sound of a great mass of stone and concrete grinding its way across the back wall until it finally finds its position and slots into place with a sickening thud. He can hear the wheelchairs at the front of the room rattling violently. The clatter is moving towards him like a tsunami. He’s now surrounded by a cacophony of hideous coughing fits and the splattering of spewter. There’s a nauseous smell of bitter almonds and human excrement. He’s terrified, panicking, out of control. His instinct is to stand up and run somewhere, anywhere, pile up the other wheelchairs and climb higher for uncontaminated air. He tries but suddenly realises that somewhere between the train and the cinema the porter has strapped him into his seat. The strap won’t release. He tears at the metal clasp so hard his fingernails are wrenched out but he won’t stop until he is free…………….
The noise is subsiding like a wave that has released its energy and is returning to the sea. Christian is drifting. His body is light. He feels no pain. There’s no more anxiety. As he exhales his last breath something stirs within and surges upwards. His body stiffens. His eyes open so wide he can feel them pressing against the rim of his brow.
It had suddenly occurred to him what that smell of the roast was.
Illustration Nick Victor