I had been sure for a while now that the clock hands weren’t moving. It’s quiet in the room now apart from gentle breathing of its inhabitants or the brush of cloth as one or another re-crosses their legs, seemingly absorbed in their own thoughts. Occasionally a cleared throat or a cough punctuates the heavy silence.
Other than the clock and a glass vase of tired lilies whose scent tickles my nose, the room’s roughly-painted white walls and oak panelling below the dado give it the air of a 1950’s railway waiting room in an old black-and-white movie. The only concession to modernity being a narrow electronic display above. Every so often the box emits a soft electronic ‘ping’, and a name scrolls across its glass panel in slow, red pixels. Each silent attendant looks up, and each time one stands and leaves by the door while the rest of us look down again. Sometimes they look around the room, although without giving much thought to it I don’t much feel like meeting the gaze of any one of them.
Instead I take a deep breath and let my eyes take in the posters hanging from the wall above the heads opposite. Several posters are on display in thin wooden frames, and of everything else about the place it was these which attract my attention the most. Old posters mostly, advertising some long-since sea cruise on the SS Oriana from the time before we all Skyped, Guinness as an aid to health before governments reluctantly yielded alcohol and tobacco tax revenues in favour of a healthier workforce, or rental televisions from the days before easy credit meant we all could enjoy hi-def 3D monsters on our living room walls.
I’m not sure if I can really say that I sailed on the Oriana. I was conceived in Australia you see, and born in, well, born in Wales to the house that David Lloyd George had lived in. She steamed the Orient Line back and forth between Australia and Southampton across the open Pacific, around the Cape of Good Hope and up the Atlantic coast of Africa, and on one occasion known only to a few with tiny embryonic me in the belly of my mother, in the belly of the ship, as it were, while officers in starched whites made sure my mother had a daily ration of stout. For the baby’s health. So Guinness probably saved my life as an infant when there was an outbreak of Smallpox in South Wales and the vaccination offered by Lloyd George’s NHS left me feverish and weak for many months to the despair I’m told of my parents, who feared losing me almost before I had arrived when they had tried for so long to have a child.
‘Ping!’ the letters scroll again. This time for a moment my eyes meet those of a woman as she smooths down the lap of her print dress before standing and opening the door. I look away immediately. As she steps through I look slightly beyond and can make out wooden steps. A few feet beyond the pool of light cast from the doorway it is dark, and then the door closes once more. Someone new has already taken the place of the woman in the seat opposite.
Where was I? Ah, Guinness may have saved my life as a babe-in-arms, but alcohol for sure became my mistress once I tasted her charms as a teenager. Such truth in such a cheesy phrase! Everybody I knew back then used alcohol, cigarettes, weed, and even a few more. None of them touched me except for the booze. Some say it’s your upbringing, others that you’re always an alcoholic and you either drink or don’t drink. So for decades I was a full-on don’t-stop wake-up to a short alky. Marriage, kids, career: back then I’d rather do what I wanted, when I wanted and hang the consequence. Friendships lasted as long as it took to get thrown out of a bar, and then it was drinking at home. Staggering in each day to a crummy job fixing up dodgy TVs and tablets to be rented to people who could never afford to buy outright but could afford endless on-tick payments even if the kids’ feet were squished into too-small shoes for another school term. After a while I hated it, and hated the dead-end life I’d bequeathed myself until that one revelatory 3am online advertorial I stumbled upon: an instant cure for alcoholism for a very reasonable-sounding exchange. Reasonable to my pickled and bitter thought processes, and at rock-bottom far too enticing to inspect any more closely, so I downed my last-ever shot and hit the eSIgn button on my tablet.
I’m not sure how long it is since I was last in the company of others: I mean real people. It was one of those serendipitous moments for humanity they say, you know – when things come together and create a whole new set of opportunities – first Skyping with telematics, what they used to call ‘Virtual Reality’, became available for free as long as you didn’t mind the ads. And this at the same time the oil ran out, well ran out to the point that it became so expensive that only the very rich could afford it, and the big Tech Corporations lobbied the governments so that any absolutely unnecessary energy was used to power the server farms that ran the web so we could keep on watching TV and enjoying our social media lives and what-have-you, but most importantly jobbing from home on digital piecework to keep the economy running. A few people still believed in striking it rich and spent as much of their time as possible mining to find the last few bitcoins, or ransacking unpatched game servers for anything worth trading in Second Life. I mean, I still knew my way around out there, and for a while after I’d sobered up I earned decent renminbi as a tourist guide for those rich enough to travel around IRL and not have to use the monitored AI by-numbers guides. Real guides always knew where to find the best live-food restaurants, outlaw boxing matches, or replacement organs.
Anyway, gradually I saw fewer and fewer real folks. I guess it was easier that way for most of us. Even when I had to retire to the facility I didn’t go into the shared areas much: Bingo and gossip had never appealed, and what with the new automated prosthetics in my apartment providing whatever medical attention I needed and of course my contractual obligation to keep my organs in good condition I just never really saw the need.
Another ‘ping’, and this time the slowly –spinning name on the blocky display is mine. Unfolding my stiff legs and feeling into the slight ache in my knees I steel myself not to seek acknowledgement. I stand, walk directly to the oak door, press down on the handle, and step through.