Do you remember 9/11?
Do you remember when some people jumped to their deaths rather than being slowly asphyxiated or roasted by the fire that was now raging beneath them after the planes had been piloted into the towers?
I don’t think they show the news footage anymore, the footage of the falling bodies and the thumps as they landed on some kind of awning. Some people thought that their actions were cowardly, some people see suicide as always a sin, some, especially their families, hoped that their falls had been accidents, not the acts of people in an intolerable situation driven to a terrible choice.
Do you remember when over 900 followers of the Reverend Jim Jones decided to drink poison Kool Aid at Jonestown Guyana?
Remember the photos of those neat rows of people who had lay down together to die? Can you imagine the depth of spirit of community, the feeling of oneness that would bring people together so they could die as one?
Which of these actions scares you the most?
It came by letter, the order that is. They left the mail service for us when they stopped teaching us the new technologies. Snail mail they called it. It was slow but capable of nuance and detail and we knew it well. They left it for us when they stopped interacting with us and put us away in comfort but also in isolation to die. And time, time is relative.
We were segregated around the world into towers or in compounds like 20th century Supermax prisons. Like the last stone-age tribes found on isolated islands or in the middle of impenetrable jungles, we were to be left alone. Of course it was portrayed as the best, indeed the only solution really, no misguided paternalism, no forced engagement and no assimilation. No, none of that. We could eat and sleep and watch vintage TVs and read real books and eventually we would die. Until that day all would be comfort and ease and safety. But we were cut off from the world and from them, isolated from the young world, the world they had built.
We were the Elders now, a race apart. Born too late for the cure, our bodies and our minds were too advanced to accept the stability process and live for hundreds of years. At least that’s what they said. They said and I quote, “Our compassion will shine like the sun. We will look after you till you all pass away. You will be treated with dignity and respect, wanting for nothing and you will be remembered forever.”
And in a way we were but also we were not. We were isolated and ignored. Now that more and more years have gone by the standards of their respect and care and love are slipping. Things aren’t repaired, the food is not as good, our carers care less and less about us and of course nature is taking more of us. Every year there are fewer of us and our envy and despair are growing.
So we started to talk. They were not listening or not interested if they were. We talked inside our villages and towers and someone far away thought that what was felt and wished for was indeed universal amongst us. And it could be shared and welcomed. So a letter was sent and then more letters until over the passing months, hundreds of centres had been contacted and organising committees were formed, action plans drawn up, debates held and then at last votes taken. And now today is the day.
I live on the tenth floor. Plenty high enough, we knew. They did not build the vertical village any higher, fearing how it would look if the firemen could not reach us with their ladders in case of a blaze. So ten floors was as high as they went. Still, plenty high enough though for what we have planned. Down below my balcony there is the driveway and turnaround where the ambulances and hearses periodically arrive and depart. Occasionally a civilian vehicle will arrive and drive through to the small car park and come to a stop. It is never difficult to find an empty bay as visitors are very rare and with the gradual introduction of robot carers there is only ever one or two humans looking after the eighty plus of us at any one time. Let’s just say that a six bay car park was an extravagance.
The most frequent visitor is the gardener who comes on a Tuesday and Friday early around six am and stays till around two in the afternoon. He has done an excellent job. The garden in the front of the building is a treat. A wonderfully composed arrangement of Daisies, Petunias and Pansies backed by larger Rose bushes and centre stage, an enormous Jacaranda tree. We are lucky as the increase in temperature over the last decade or two has suited the Jacaranda tree. It grows quickly and is now a substantial tree at its best in October when it is covered in purple flowers that fall and float languidly down on the spring, humid air to carpet the grass beneath. Breathtakingly beautiful, at least until the gardener arrives to suck the fading blooms up in some noisy device he straps to his back.
Today is a Tuesday and it is the special day. I am not sad. In fact somehow I feel both at rest and empowered. I am more alive, more substantial, and more real than I have been for years.
It is 10.00am now and I am slowly building a small flight of makeshift stairs on my balcony. Made of books and old suitcase, footrests and a couple of stable chairs it will lift the real flowers of the village as we climb to the level of the railing where one more step will allow us to step over and out into the air. The village will be coming soon. All of the residents have agreed to come and take the air.
We have been aware of the concept for nine months and while it was a shocking idea at first I grew to like it and embraced it. Almost all of us were the same. We all seemed to approve the idea at around the same time and then we began to plan how.
Actually how to do it was kind of obvious at its most basic level. The height of the building and the low level of human supervision made that part of the plan easy. A harder question was how to distract the carers, both human and android, enough to allow us all to ride the lifts to my apartment. In the end one man decided to stay behind and act as the distraction. He was still visited by a son, an amazing event in itself and he was not yet ready to take to the air.
I should also say there are around twenty more who are unable to comprehend the concept or physically take part in the plan. For them we are sad.
They begin arriving. I do not know them all as we are sixty-six strong today. There are tears and smiles and even a faint cheer now and then. My good friends Anita and Claude are first and hand in hand they slowly climb my temporary stair and without a word or a gesture step off into the air. The others slowly but surely follow. To speed things up we all go two by two. Those who have needed walkers or wheelchairs discard them at the foot of the steps and we lift or assist them up. Soon a pile of no longer needed mobility frames clutters the balcony and in an extra outburst of rage and sudden energy some of the men haul them up and push them over the balcony’s edge. The metallic crash as they fall counterpoints the regular thump as the bodies land below.
Now there are only a few of us left and fists are pounding on my locked apartment door. I look over to where the gardener is under the Jacaranda Tree, staring up and standing frozen on the purple carpet of fallen blooms. I give a languid wave as I take Desleigh’s hand and together, as the final two, we leave our evil ark.
In the end I couldn’t go to ground. I hid in a linen closet down a corridor away from the dining room.
I squeezed in beside shelves of sheets and towels and waited for discovery or courage. Neither came. My hips so unused to standing for any period of time without aid, began to ache and the arthritis in my hands was throbbing and I realised that because my betrayal of the plan was both late and unexpected I had not taken any of my meds last night or this morning. I was becoming lightheaded and I could feel my blood pressure rising and my pulse pounding in my temples.
Eventually after what seemed like hours but could only have been 40 or so minutes I could stand it no longer and attempted to leave my hiding place. Two steps and as usual my body betrayed me. My legs crumpled. I struck a glancing blow to my brow as I fell. I wet my pants and laughed at this. The very things I hate are the things I could have ended had I chose to go to ground.
After a few minutes I felt better. I wiped blood out of my eyebrow but it was not a lot. I waited until my piss soaked pants cooled from fresh out of the body heat to floor temperature before I dragged myself up and opened the door.
There was little sound. I could hear the TV in the dining room and a phone ringing in the front office but distance and doors muffled both noises. The hallway clock, a cheap grandfather imitation mounted crooked on the wall across the corridor ticked loudly. I could hear an occasional yelling. The voice was angry, the yelling filled with swearing. That would be the supervisor locked in the office. So that part of the plan had succeeded. I knew from the silence though that more than that had worked.
The planning letters had been regular between us all and knowledge had been exchanged. Important information was shared, like what pills to hoard or steal or buy or beg from both inside the village and from outside.
What might be a successful plan to stop interference and prevention from the care drones? How to disable them? How to take out the human supervisors?
Would we hurt or kill them if we had to? Would we punish informants if they popped up? How?
Over months of meetings and inter-room calls we first understood then accepted then planned and then put Operation Bedpan into place. The plan’s title was a nice piece of black humour from Guy, a man whose room was two doors down from mine in B wing. And so the date was decided and the organising committee went out and spoke to all. As leader in B wing I went to the eleven rooms other than my own and sat down with the inhabitants. There were eight women and three men; the usual ratio at our age and the level of support and solidarity from Wing B was exemplary.
Mrs Jenna White in B4 was so eager she got her pills out from their hiding place the minute I sat down beside her on the firm machine made bed. I had to stop her from taking them then and there and because she was very deaf and too vain to wear her hearing aid I had to speak right into her ear so the care drone, fussing around cleaning the shower could not eavesdrop. We know they can listen and transmit. According to letters we had received, plotters had been caught by conversation in Sydney but they had the presence of mind and luck to make it look as if it was just a lover’s suicide pact, not as uncommon in our circumstances as you may think. They were separated and counselled and given the circumstances they were then actually rewarded with more pills.
Suicide amongst the Elders is frowned upon. The young and their consciences apparently can only bear so much guilt or maybe it grates on them if decisions about our lives are taken out of their hands.
I stroked Jenna’s hand and whispered into her ear and did my best to look like an unlikely paramour, a wonderful word so rarely used now days. I feel she may have got more confused as her response was to grip me high and inside on my right leg. I felt a twinge of desire, amazing how matters of life and death can bring back things unfelt for years. Eventually I managed to explain to her that next Tuesday was the day. She asked if I could be beside her at the moment and her hand relaxed its grip and slid further up my inner thigh. I responded with an increased blood flow and a wry smile. I said, “Yes of course” meaning it at the time and I promised to return, as per her request, after I had relayed the news to the rest of the wing.
But now her eyes, bright and alert only seconds ago had dulled and she looked bewildered. However her hand, seemingly independent, continued upwards and her nails, sharp and annoying only minutes before were grazing gently and surprisingly effectively across my penis. I sighed and stood up. The care drone was in the bathroom doorway. It was wiping imaginary finger marks off the doorjamb and observing us.
I then visited the rest of them. “Bolshy” Steven and sharp tonged Sally, Mrs Ferguson and Danielle Drivers, apparently quite famous back in the 2010s as an actor/singer. I could not remember her then but she was pleasant and alert, angry and organised. I slept well that night and had no doubt that we would all go to ground together, me included.
But when I awoke this morning I knew I couldn’t do it. It seemed a useless exercise in self - destruction and I like being alive. I like me. So when the time came I hid. Now I continue down the corridor towards the central dining room located like the hub of a wheel at the centre of the four wings. We had decided to go to ground in the northeast courtyard; it was the one both most pleasant and most exposed to the outside world.
It was there where I found them all. Some of us had decided that we would try to lay ourselves out in the shape of letters spelling FUCK YOU but a test run filled with brittle laughs and black humour showed this was harder to do than it sounded. The courtyard was wedge shaped and it was difficult to work out the exact positioning with no one above to guide us.
Guy, once again showing his dry wit, suggested it would be terrible if all we had managed to spell when the drones and helicopters circled above was BOOK TOO. So we decided to give that part of the plan a miss.
All very amusing at the time but I saw what they never could. There are lines of bodies draped on the lounges, along the paths and around the pool fence.
The pale skinned Jessica Macgregor has stayed inside and was positioned on a lounge chair facing the TV. Only Jenna looked upset or distraught in anyway. She lay on her back slightly apart from the rest just outside the dining room. Her eyes open, she was looking back through the open sliding doors. Was she looking for me, I wondered? Me, the man who helped organise but then could not honour the pact, the pact to go to ground.
On the TV the normal transmission seemed to be interrupted and the station had a talking head reporting on an ongoing situation occurring at a number of aged care facilities on the east coast.
There were helicopter shots of bodies laid out in gardens and courtyards and short, blurry footage of bodies tumbling off a balcony. As she steps off one woman seems to wave elegantly as if flagging down a bus.
There was an edge of hysteria in the TV anchorman’s voice. He sat tall and was of Indian descent, his immaculate white shirt and red tie framed his brown, smooth face and lush swept back hair. His eyes were beautifully clear but his voice was trembling like mine does now and his chest was rising and falling rapidly with shallow breathing just like mine. His smooth delivery cracked and I turned the TV off.
The sudden silence brought more pounding from the locked office and the shouting increased. I stepped over a care drone that had been toppled on its back.
It reached for me and caught my leg but I spoke to it and it let go again. It was 11.55 and the sun was shining brightly in a clear sky. I was alive.
To be honest the place gives me the creeps. They watch me as I garden. Looking through the windows longingly, sometimes I think they want to meet me so badly they drool. Some of them come out waddling or supporting themselves on their walkers to talk to me. I try to be polite but if you pay just the smallest amount of attention they are off rambling on about anything, sharing stuff I don’t know or understand. Usually I ignore them or just nod my head as they prattle on about gardening or their grandchildren who never see them.
My mother is in another one like this somewhere on the other side of town but I haven’t been to see her in years. Well you don’t do you. They sort of live their lives and we live ours. I mean we look after them, well the government does and there are always announcements and surveys on just how much money is being spent on food and medical care and keeping alive the old technologies which they love and know like post and TV. But we are different to them. They deserve to be looked after and all but we are now like two different species. We are related like Chimpanzees and Gorillas are related but obviously the Elder are different. It’s not their fault, it just is.
I remember one came out to watch me work a few weeks ago and I looked at him. He seemed to be far brighter and mobile than the rest of them. Standing a little apart as if to give me space he smiled at me and said, “Oh I am surprised! I thought you would be a man. In my time gardeners were always men.”
I almost said, “Well its not your bloody time is it,” but I bit my tongue and followed the guidelines for Elder contact.
I just replied dutifully, “Well in these times men and women can and do everything and I am delighted to be a female gardener.”
“Yes, you’re right of course,” he replied quietly, looking me in the eyes in that unnerving way that they all have. Always trying to make eye contact to see what you’re thinking and how you are feeling. Well of course they don’t have Sensephone with hard-wired emojis so I guess they have to. But I wish they wouldn’t do it. It makes a person feel part of something bigger, a way they might not want to feel. He seemed like he was going to say more but he turned on his heel and walked away, back to the building.
I thought, well-handled girl. If you manage these events badly, your career and life points suffer. And of course not everyone can or wants to risk having contact with the Elders.
Today the man walked out from the building and came towards me again. As he came towards me I thought sarcastically, great now you’ve made a friend.
He strode easily with no stoop. In fact he almost walked with a swagger.
“Hello again,” he said. “ I just wanted to tell you that you, you forever young, think we Elders are a lot like your flowers. All tended and well looked after. But we don’t think that of ourselves.”
I mumbled something and turned away as any closer contact would need to be reported. Like when coming upon wild animals that exist in whatever real wilderness still remained, we were to keep our distance and interact only when approached.
Which is why when he took my hand I froze, not just out of shock but protocol. His grip was strong and dry and he looked again into my eyes and I could not look away.
“Do you have a parent here? Or maybe at another one like this,” he said pointing at the building.
“You do don’t you? I can see it in your face. Is it your mother?”
For some reason I nodded.
“Go and see her. We are not memories. We are real. Go and see her!”
He threw my hand away from him as if it burnt.
“Go and see her before she is gone. We are not just keepsakes that have been put away from damage. We brought you into this world that you have now taken. Go and see her and at least say thanks. “
His voice was angry but controlled, soft but strong. He turned and began to walk away but after a few paces he stopped.
“By the way,” he added with his strong voice, the words reaching me over his shoulder, as he did not turn his head when he spoke,
“Your gardening is wonderful and I want you to know we have all really appreciated it. But why do you vacuum up the Jacaranda flowers when they fall? Do you know the purple carpet is just as beautiful as when the flowers are in bloom on the tree. But I guess you have never seen it from up high.”
“Anyway, see you on Tuesday,” he paused.
You know it is going to be a very special day,” he added and then he continued walking back towards the large courtyard bordering what looked to be the central administration area.
The next day I went across town to see my mother.
So out of the blue with just a few days before we go to ground she comes to see me. I had not seen her for some years and I did not expect to see her again. After all there are dozens and dozens of us here and I think that I have seen maybe two visits by relatives in the last seven years. We are supposed to be valuable old artifacts to be looked after but we are also locked away like guilty secrets. Although to be fair there is not really any guilt. They have been brainwashed to believe that this is best. The fact they want to believe just makes the brainwashing easier.
Like the wars that used to be, there are rules of engagement to any meetings that occur. We of course had no say in the rules and the long years of loneliness and resentment have filled most of us with such bad feeling that now we have no more desire to change the rules than the young do.
When I was called from my room to the central dining and lounge area I thought that all our plans had been discovered. Maybe one of the young had decided to take note of what we had been doing around the country. How we had been corresponding more frequently. There would have been abundant clues if they had been looking but we thought they just never would. But maybe letters were read and the simple code broken. Or perhaps more likely someone talked or went senile in the last few months and just prattled on unknowingly and one of the admin people actually was bored or suspicious or vindictive or conscientious enough to do some further investigation.
But it wasn’t any of those things. There, on the other side of the Perspex wall between we Elders and the outside was my daughter. She was sitting on one of those space age lounges, all low and sleek and difficult to get up and out of. She looked completely unchanged. It is unnerving for those of us living with the passing of time. Years had passed and she looked exactly the same. The extension of life span technology just freezes them at the age they were when they first took the cure. Twenty-nine years and a few months in April’s case.
She had on the frameless wrap around goggles they all wear all the time. The device continually feeding them information and experiences, keeping them together whilst keeping them apart and clearly segmenting the world’s people in a new way. Not by skin colour or gender or religion or country but simply by technology and whether you have the ability to use it and your body can accept it.
She sees me and stands and comes to the pass-through. I continue to walk towards her using the cane the taxpayers have so thoughtfully provided me.
The pass-through is like a tunnel or a cold war DMZ from one hundred years ago. Meeting rooms open off either side of it and the air is treated but stale. It is the same air that has always been there. Before either of us return to our worlds it will be sloughed off us by fans and treated by UV light.
Truly you do have to want to see each other these days.
And clearly she does, as there is no hesitation when the care droid waves her through where as I hesitate. But in the end I too obey the gestures of the droid and we are suddenly together, only feet apart, nothing between us for the first time in many years. Except of course everything that has happened or not happened in the world.
I can’t say it’s not awkward.
“Hello April,” I say, resisting an urge to be sarcastic by adding, “Long time, no see”.
“Hello Mother,” she says. And there is excitement in her voice and I am surprised and moved in the old fashioned way. I feel an increase in my heart rate and I hope the heart pump can handle the sudden strain.
“Shall we sit?” and I indicate one of the rooms, more an alcove really with two chairs and a table. Some of the alcoves are bigger but all are empty. They are empty on most days.
So we both sit, cautious like neighbourhood cats on a fence, fascinated and perhaps looking forward to the company but also deeply suspicious.
April says, “Something happened to me yesterday and I need to talk to you about it. You know I am a gardener don’t you?” she asks.
I am not sure whether she doubts my knowledge because of my memory or maybe because she thinks she has never told me. In this case my memory is fine and I tell her, “ Yes April, of course. How is the gardening?”
“Well while I was gardening at the vertical village at Northshore yesterday a man spoke to me.” She pauses.
“You mean a resident, an Elder, “I prompt.
“Yes,” she replies and I notice that the poor love is feeling the strain. She is breathing a little quickly and she is wringing her work callused hands.
“Did he know me?” I ask maliciously, as if this connection could be even faintly possible.
And April pauses and then replies, “No. But he said something that made me think of you. He told me what a good gardener I was and he said that he was just like a pretty flower or something like that. And he asked me why I vacuumed up the fallen Jacaranda flowers and then I thought of you and how once when I was little you told me how much you loved a carpet of Jacaranda flowers.
Do you remember?”
“You said the carpet was beautiful with the freshly fallen flowers all purple and mauve. But one day the carpet would fade to brown when there were no flowers left to fall. And I have never thought about that again till he said it to me yesterday but the minute he said it I could hear you in my head saying those words as plain as any Sensephone broadcast. And I can’t get it out of my mind,” she finishes in a rush.
There is a few seconds silence. April is puffing slightly from her flow of words.
“Did he saying anything else, this mysterious gentleman caller of yours?” I ask.
But April is in no mood for sarcasm.
“Yes. He said I should go and see you and thank you for bringing me into this world and he said that Tuesday would be a special day.” She paused.
“But fuck knows, what that means!” she added explosively.
We talk a bit more and she asks me about the food and the care. I am stunned. Never before has she been interested and I resist any gardening metaphors but instead I mumble the soothing platitudes she wants to hear and ask her if she would like to come again next weekend. Nothing like testing her new found commitment. Surprisingly she agrees and I suddenly realise that this is want she wants. Surprisingly I am pleased too but of course by then it won’t matter anyway. She takes my hand for the first time in years and holds it firmly. I can feel the rough calluses and the confusion running around her system. Her own behaviour is messing with her head as much as mine. Eventually I feign tiredness to make her leave and her facial expressions unconsciously show her relief to be leaving and then she is gone. I go back to my room a little scratched from the whole experience but whole and largely unchanged.
I have my back to the building. I am bending down planting seedlings, feeling the dirt between my fingers. Soon there will be pretty flowers in rows at the foot of the Rose bushes. I hear a sound behind me. It is a whomp, the sound of someone punching a bag in a gym. Then I hear another and then another. It may have been happening for a while. Between the digging of the small holes for the Pansies and Petunias with my fingers and the constant feed of music from the implants in my ears I may have missed the first few thumps. If something had happened closer, like a branch falling, a proximity alert would have automatically sounded. But there has been no alert and now that I am listening I can hear the sounds coming in a regular rhythm - whomp whomp pause, whomp whomp pause.
I turn around still on my haunches. There are shadows, hard shadows; no they are shapes falling from the highest floor of the tower. I realise that they are people, the residents, the Elders stepping into space two by two, most holding hands as they plummet the ten stories down to the entry drive below. The whomps are the sound of them landing on the concrete and dying. As I watch another three pairs appear as if on an escalator at the balcony rail and then they follow each other, just stepping over it into space together.
There is no other sound. Then there is a whomp paired with a softer sound and I realise one of the jumpers must have landed on the body of a previous leaper. Then there is a pause of a minute of two and I think that the ghastly procession has stopped. But someone, the organiser or whoever was in charge is adjusting for the pile of bodies forming below the balcony. They simply move the ladder or whatever they are using to get over the safety rail further along the balcony and now they start again. I rise to my feet and temporally link to the authorities and sent footage. I ask for all emergency services available to be sent immediately. The emergency signal is not immediately answered. I get a busy tone for a while before a terse voice, male and richly accented from a Mediterranean heritage asks me,
“Is this happening now?”
Stunned I take a second to protest, “Yes of course, why would I be making this up? I am a good citizen doing my duty to protect our past, honour our elders. When is the help coming?”
By now his image is in my Glasses. His face looks tense and is slightly sweaty. Dimitri is captioned underneath his stressed face, so Greek ancestry then.
He looks no more than 17 and he is in my viewer in time for him to say that what is happening seems to be happening everywhere with the Elder. And it is then that I realise that the sound of sirens is on the morning air and helicopters are in the sky.
And still the bodies rain down to the courtyard and the last dozen or so pairs are all women, the oldest and the frailest I think. They are dressed in house coats and dressing gowns of mauve and purple and their short practical hair, whether straight or blow waved or gently permed is coloured the same. When these final pairs step off the balcony they look like Jacaranda flowers spinning to the ground. And I have a strange, ridiculous thought that not only would my mother approve but that somehow she has orchestrated the whole thing.