The van is parked away from the road, on a track which twists among trees. As a rendezvous it is well-chosen – on the messy fringes of town, discreet, but with a bus stop nearby. I and those who will travel with me can use our free bus passes one last time.
The night sky is filled with pallid cloud tinged orange by the streetlamps’ glow. An autumnal wind whips through the trees, swiping off the weaker leaves, tossing them in careless eddies.
I set off down the track. It is a mountain range in miniature, a tangle of ruts and churned-up mud. I advance at a snail’s pace, leaning heavily on my walking stick, heaving myself in and out of sticky chasms, wincing as I land awkwardly on arthritic knees. My rucksack bashes my lower back and its straps drag painfully on my shoulder muscles. Above me, dark branches cut jagged shapes from the night cloud; the restless air is sharp with the smell of fresh decay.
The back of the van is open like a stretched black mouth. Two figures stand beside it. One of them, a stocky man in a leather jacket, I have seen before. The other is a tiny bird-like woman with a crest of white hair, clutching the handle of a suitcase on wheels. She hands a fat envelope to the stocky man, who stows it inside his jacket, then scoops her and her case up into the van as if they had no weight at all.
I stop to check my own envelope – it is still in the pocket of my anorak. Then I resume my ungainly progress towards the van’s black maw.
My letter came two weeks after my eighty-fourth birthday. I was expecting it, but to hold the actual piece of paper in my hand was still profoundly shocking. My instinct was to lose it, behind the bills on the mantelpiece or among old letters in my desk. But I forced myself to behave rationally. I located my reading glasses. I poured myself a large whisky. I made myself comfortable in my armchair with the whisky on the small table at my elbow. Then I read:
Dear George Herbert,
According to our records you were born on 6th May 1945 and will therefore reach the Maximum Permitted Age (MPA) on 6th May 2030. This letter is to invite you to attend free fortnightly End-of-Life Counselling sessions from 10.30am to 12.00pm starting on Wednesday 10th July at Cherryton Medical Practice, Reading Road, Cherryton.
Many people approaching their MPA find EoL counselling helpful in dealing with EoL issues. I very much hope you will attend.
EoL Liaison Officer
North West Hampshire Primary Care Trust
Late twenties, I thought, big backside, blond highlights, minimal brain. Or perhaps she does not exist at all but is merely a convenient fiction for giving EoL letters to the public a pseudo-personal touch.
I shook myself. I was being sidetracked by irrelevancies and failing to face the unpleasant central truth: if I complied, like a good citizen, with the laws of my country, in less than a year I would be dead.
They manage it quite well, I’m told. You have a ‘window’ of several weeks rather than a definite date (too much like an execution). Dates were tried in the early days, but they led to disturbances. One old lady got hold of a semi-automatic machine pistol and blasted merrily out of her upstairs window at the white-coated orderlies cowering behind their discreet white van.
Nowadays, the approach is more subtle. There is a semblance of mystery, within carefully controlled limits. The logistics are planned out on a central computer. Once, people believed their fate was in the mind of God – now we know it is on a Government database. The counselling has been instituted, to try to reconcile us. GPs are open--handed with prescriptions for calming,- mood-enhancing medication. On citizens over eighty, surveillance is stepped up.
Of course, the whole thing started with the Carbon Cards. They look like credit cards – but red, to make you think of heat. Everyone has one now. You present it when you buy petrol, or pay your gas bill, or buy clothes, or shop for food. Everything has two prices, one in money, one in carbon credits. If you want more than your personal Carbon Allowance, there is a handy website where you can purchase extras from anyone willing to sell.
For a while, the system worked. Overall carbon emissions stabilised, then fell. But after a few years, the trend reversed itself. The reason was the massive rise in life expectancy. Every European citizen received an allowance for each year of their life. More carbon was emitted, because more years were being lived.
It was a conundrum for the policy-making elite. Either the annual allowance for every citizen must be cut to hair-shirt austerity levels or...
Or as well as the means of life you start to ration life itself.
‘Now let’s all introduce ourselves, shall we?’ said the pink-suited counsellor brightly. ‘I’m Eileen Powers and I work in EoL liaison for the North West Hampshire Primary Care Trust.’ She showed her teeth encouragingly to the lady on her left.
In our group there were five women and two men. We sat around a pale rectangular table in a low-ceilinged fluorescent-lit room. We had each been given a set of handouts and a free biro pen. On my left a great whale of a man bulged in his wheelchair, arms and legs inflated like balloons, pale head sunk on his chest. Beyond him a wiry woman with thick spectacles and wild thinning hair darted glances around the room. The woman on my right was tall and gaunt, with the residual beauty that comes from bone structure, and shrewd eyes.
What a disparate bunch, I thought, looking about me – united in death by nothing more than accident of birth. I surmised that no one here had completely lost their marbles, or they would not have been let out. Rates of dementia had started rising exponentially at about the same time that carbon emissions had began to creep up again. With the minds of half a generation disintegrating, governments built care homes as they had once built prisons, warehousing the misery as best they could.
Old certainties, re-examined in new circumstances, felt less certain; around the unthinkable, edges were being blurred. Somewhere in the steely heart of a shiny Brussels tower, the germ of an idea put out its first pale shoots.
In July 2021, the Personal Life Allowance Directive was adopted by all member states, killing two birds with one elegant stone.
The counsellor was giving a Powerpoint presentation. ‘An overview,’ she explained, ‘of the topics we’ll be exploring together over the next few months.’ They included: Have you made your Will? Planning the right funeral. Involving friends and family. The End of Life treatment – what really happens? Positive approaches to End of Life – what works for you? Relaxation Techniques. The Faith Angle. Dealing with Fear and Anxiety.
Inconspicuously, I switched off my hearing aid. I sat back in my chair, and watched the counsellor bob and gesticulate in front of the screen like a half-crazed pink puppet. I thought: what faith they have, these modern people. They believe there is no enterprise which cannot be trained for, no issue which cannot be worked through, no horror which cannot be counselled away. For them, reality is easily cut into bite-sized chunks, skewered to the page with bullet points, served up in handy modules to the eager citizen-consumer.
Perhaps this is why the Life Allowance does not outrage them. What is it but the removal of one more mystery, the draining of another swamp where strange notions of destiny once bred? Once, we relished the freedom to live our own lives to the end, to cleave to our own unique fate. Now that desire itself is dying out.
Suddenly I became aware that all the faces in the room had turned expectantly towards me, like fish in a tank. Oh Christ, I thought, audience participation, and I haven’t a clue what’s going on.
My right-hand neighbour moved her handouts fractionally towards me and placed her pen on a box printed with the words ‘Relatives present – the pros and cons’. I muttered something about my wife being dead and my step-daughter living in Australia. It seemed to do well enough, and the attention of the group moved on.
After a time I looked back at my neighbour. She had turned her handouts over and was completing a sketch on the blank back page. It was Death on a Pale Horse, expertly realised in black biro. Death had the face of a skeleton, and swung a fearsome-looking sword amid the swirls of his black cloak. His horse had the face of Eileen Powers. It pawed the ground and showed a fine set of teeth.
She was at the bus stop afterwards, sitting on a low wall in her well-cut grey coat, watching me as I made my way across twenty metres of pavement as if it was the Himalayas.
‘I don’t think you were listening back there,’ she said demurely. By now I had switched my hearing aid back on.
‘Neither were you,’ I retorted. ‘I saw your- picture.’
‘Well...’ She shrugged, as if to say ‘what can one do?’
‘Will you be back?’
She shook her head. ‘If I have to die, I have to die, but I’ll do it without this state-sponsored sanctimony.’
The electronic signboard at the bus stop informed us that the next bus was twelve minutes away. I lowered myself on to the wall and rested my walking stick beside me.
‘I’m George Herbert.’ I held out my hand. ‘I’m sorry, I should have read your name badge back there but I didn’t.’
‘Virginia Harrington,’ she smiled. ‘Ginny for short.’ We shook hands.
‘That sketch was extremely good,’ I said. ‘Are you an artist?’
‘A sculptor,’ she replied. ‘I work mainly in stone and clay.’
‘That sounds heavy.’
She laughed. ‘You get used to it. I make smaller pieces than I used to, the tools are getting harder to hold. What is your line of business?’
‘I’m a retired engineer. I specialised in big solar energy projects.’
‘Like those huge mirrors in the desert?’
‘Those are the ones.’
‘I always thought they were beautiful. They’re sculptures in their own right.’
I was touched.
‘You must have travelled a lot,’ she went on.
‘I went all over the place – although deserts did feature rather heavily.’
We went on talking, and after a while I looked up at the electronic sign. The next bus was still twelve minutes away. Ginny followed my gaze and we laughed.
‘We’ve entered a parallel universe,’ she said, and I could well have believed it, as we recounted our lives on that wall in the July sunshine. It was one of those curiously intimate encounters between strangers, heady as champagne.
Ginny was assessing me with her shrewd eyes. She had extracted something from her capacious bag. Then, seeming to make up her mind, she spoke quickly.
‘George, there are ways out. I’ve been looking into them. It’s risky, it costs money, but it’s possible. Are you interested?’
My heart gave a surge so violent that I nearly fell off the wall. Of course one heard rumours, but this was suddenly the real thing. I gripped the top of the wall with both hands and tried to breathe slowly and deeply. I whispered, ‘Yes.’
She held out her business card. It carried a photograph of one of her sculptures, an intriguing white twist of stone. In biro she had written a second mobile number underneath her own.
‘This is the man. I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but I trust you. We need one more, and you have been there before.’
‘Been where? Where would we go?’
Ginny put a warning hand on my arm. A mother was approaching, pushing a pram and dragging a toddler. Ginny and I conversed brightly about OAP discount day at Underwood’s, the local department store. To our relief, the mother lurched bad-temperedly past.
‘North Africa,’ Ginny said softly. ‘Think about it carefully, George. If you make it, it will be to a life of uncertainty, poverty and possibly a slow painful death.’
‘And if you don’t make it – if they catch you?’
‘There’s a penalty.’
I glanced at her enquiringly. She looked straight back at me.
‘Your date is brought forward.’
I shuddered. Of course.
‘This man,’ I said, ‘Is he... reliable?’
‘He’s a criminal,’ she said baldly. ‘What do you expect? It’s a racket, they do it for the money. They might get to the middle of France and cut our throats. Or they might be decent and decide not to. I have a friend who did make it. I get occasional emails from an internet cafe in Tangiers.’
I was suddenly transported. The smell of spice was in my nostrils. I saw the fiery colours of the carpets, the mysterious courtyards glimpsed through iron gates, the tiny windows set like wary eyes in high blank walls. It was thirty years since I had been there, but the memories had formed a rich seam.
‘How much?’ I asked her.
‘Thirty thousand. Ten in advance, ten on the day of departure, ten when you get there. Have you got that sort of money?’
‘I could get it.’ I could sell some shares, a painting. Then it dawned on me. ‘I should sell everything, shouldn’t I?’
‘As much as possible,’ Ginny agreed. ‘Convert it to cash or jewellery. But for God’s sake do it discreetly. They keep an eye out for unusual transactions. Luckily quite a few people start cashing in their assets in their final years, for a farewell spending spree or for gifts to avoid probate. It helps to muddy the waters. You could act as if you were going to give money to that step-daughter of yours in Australia.’
‘We don’t get on, sadly.’
‘Well start getting on damn quick. Or acquire a mistress with an expensive jewellery habit.’ She continued virtuously, her eyes alive with mischief, ‘I am in the process of establishing a fund to
support deserving young artists in the early part of their careers.’
‘Most laudable,’ I snorted, and nearly fell off the wall for the second time.
‘Seriously, George, you need to think about whether you really want to do this. There’s still some time.’
I looked at the business card in my hand.
‘May I phone you?’
‘Don’t do that. I’m sorry. It’s safer for everyone if we don’t have contact beforehand.’
A bus arrived. It was Ginny’s, not mine. My bus was still twelve minutes away. She got up from the wall, erect and elegant in her grey coat, and held out her hand to me.
‘It’s very nice to have met you,’ she said. ‘Perhaps we will meet again.’
‘... thank you,’ was all I managed.
The trees on one side of the track thin out briefly. Over a gate and across a ploughed field I see the lights of a litter of executive homes. The wind is tearing holes in the cloud and through one the moon gazes down, a cold dispassionate eye.
I told myself I was clinging to a view of life that had emerged centuries ago in a totally different world; I was claiming a selfish privilege, which could not be granted to everyone. I was a dinosaur, a recidivist, a bad citizen, imperfectly socialised to the new European norms.
Then the soft smell of dawn would creep through my bedroom window, or I would catch an unexpected snatch of Bach on the radio, or watch the apples ripening on the trees in the communal garden, and I would be overcome with the sweetness of life. These morsels are worth having, I said to myself, even though my hearing is decaying and my joints ache, my bladder is dysfunctional and my eyes are dim. In those moments I knew, I just knew, that in the new order something vital had been lost, that whether or not my escape succeeded, the attempt itself was necessary, a protest against the darkness which had settled in high places in this enlightened age.
Finally I took Ginny’s card from the mantelpiece. I booked my ticket to a possible future.
The track enters the trees again. Their dark branches enclose me. A few metres from the van, I hear footsteps behind me. I turn my head and see her. She also has a rucksack, and a hi-tech walking pole, and is striding easily over the ruts.
‘Hello George,’ she smiles. ‘I thought I hadn’t seen the last of you.’
We hand our envelopes to the stocky man, who gestures us into the van with a mock-courtly bow. I get stuck scrambling up; Ginny grabs my hand and hauls on my arms from above, the stocky man shoves from below. Once inside, we sit on crates in the darkness; we are still holding hands.
The stocky man reaches up with a pole and drags down the metal shutter. I watch England disappear – the orange glow of the sky, then the trees, the track, a rut, a puddle, footprints, a crisp packet. Then there is nothing.
This story was first published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 2 (Bristol Review of Books Ltd, 2009).