Tuesday, 8 June 2010

One Hundred and Counting

Devon walked quickly and purposefully along the street and through the automatic doors into the building. A buzzer sounded, alarms rang, banners descended down the walls of the ante-room he had entered and he flinched in response.

‘Congratulations!’ boomed the receptionist, clapping silently. Other people emerged from doors and corridors, all of them clapping and shouting and beaming wide joyful smiles.

Devon turned, almost as if wanting to flee back out of the main door and into the anonymity of the street, but his road out was blocked by celebratory workers. He looked around in panic and disorientation. The banners all read differently but with a common numerical theme. One hundred – a goal is reached or Congratulations to you, one hundred today. Other banners, static in the marketing of the room, delivered upbeat messages such as Living beyond death or even Infinity awaits you.

The receptionist meanwhile had left his desk and walked over to Devon, grasping his hand and pumping it enthusiastically in celebration. ‘Well done. Congratulations.’

And then, as quickly as it had erupted, the cacophony died away and people disappeared back to wherever they had been before. Only Devon and the receptionist remained, awkwardly clasped together.

Devon finally found his voice. ‘What is this?’ he asked uncertainly, his voice cracking, his mouth dry.

The receptionist grinned, over-bright teeth glinting in the gleam of the artificial lights. ‘You are very lucky today, sir.’ He said, a faint whine of condescension in his voice. ‘You are our one hundredth customer.’

Devon wasn’t sure how to respond to this. ‘One hundredth? That doesn’t seem so many.’

‘Ah, but we have only been open a short time so it is very exciting for us. Very exciting.’

‘Oh. Do I win something?’

‘No. I’m afraid not. But we are very excited for you.’ The receptionist finally ran out of welcoming steam, letting go of Devon’s sweating hand and returning to his post behind the reception desk. ‘So, sir, what can I do for you?’

‘I’d like a… a… what do you call it? A consultation. Please.’

The receptionist didn’t answer, just picked up his phone and poked digits in quick succession, then hung up without saying a word and nodded Devon over to a chair by the far wall.

Devon shuffled over and sat down, his certainty dented by this odd and unexpected reception. He’d expected something a lot more low-key, maybe even a little solemn. This was not how he had pictured it at all.

A door opened to his right and a woman came out, smiling broadly of course, and already her arms were spread wide with welcome. ‘Welcome to Life Centre.’ She said, her voice oddly deep. She was middle aged but well preserved - good makeup, good surgery, expensive clothes. ‘Please, won’t you come through to my office.’ And, without touching Devon at all, she swept him into a small, white walled room.

There were no windows but the walls were covered with bright posters of scenes of blue skies, clear seas and pure white-sanded beaches with verdant mountains in the background. Devon sat in one of the chairs, the woman sat in the only other chair. There was no other furniture in the room. Devon had expected at least a desk, he didn’t know why, he didn’t know why it made a difference to him that there was no desk.

‘So,’ the woman started, dragging out the word slowly and softly, ‘you have decided to take an alternative path.’

It wasn’t a question but Devon nodded slowly in agreement. ‘Yes. I don’t want to live anymore. I’m ready to die.’

The woman frowned. ‘We don’t like to think of it that way, sir. Our service does not offer death but everlasting life, immortality; the security of never growing old, becoming a burden or facing life alone.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Devon hung his head. He knew what he wanted. He also knew that, to get what he wanted, he would have to explain himself to their satisfaction. He had to watch what he said.

‘We have some questions we have to ask. Just to make sure you are at the right place at the right time in your life. We hope that is okay with you and that you understand that we do not mean to cause any offense or upset.’ The woman talked like an automaton, like she was pre-programmed with these lines. There was emotion in her voice but it was fake and unsatisfying.

Devon nodded. He’d learnt his lines too.

‘So, to start with, maybe you could explain to me in your own words why it is that you are here today.’

He paused and took a deep breath. This was it. ‘My life sucks. There is nothing in it that makes life worth living. That’s about it really.’

‘Okay. That’s great. Now, if we could go through that in a bit more detail. Have you any family?’

‘Yes. A wife and two children, two boys, both teenagers.’

‘And they do not bring you comfort?’

Devon nearly laughed. ‘No. No in fact they make my life as painful as they can. I spend all day working in a boring job being humiliated by my boss and by everyone else on my team. Then I go home and my wife treats me with disdain and my boys, if they bother to acknowledge me at all, just want money.’ He paused and waited for her next assault.

‘So, that’s work and family. Any friends?’

‘No. Not anymore. I did have friends once. I don’t really know what happened but they all just drifted off.’

‘Okay, no friends. How about hobbies?’

‘No. I have no time between working seven days a week and housework and DIY. When I have the chance to sit down I just fall asleep. I have no time for myself. And even if I did I don’t know that I’d want to do anything. I have no idea what it would be.’


Devon did laugh this time. ‘No.’

‘Parents? Siblings?’

‘Parents both dead. I have a brother but we fell out ten years ago or more. There’s no reconciliation there.’

‘And how is your health?’

‘Well, bad frankly. I have sore joints, arthritis that is getting quickly worse. It’s agony for me to move and it even hurts when I don’t move. I’m on the strongest painkillers you can get and they barely touch the pain. I also have arrhythmia and reduced lung function so it is hard for me to sleep properly. I’m overweight but can’t do anything about it because my health is so bad. My wife won’t let me eat anything healthy as she says it’s bad for the boys, she won’t cook two meals and she won’t let me make my own food.’ Devon ran out of steam, forgetting whether he’d got his whole litany of complaints in but feeling like he’d said enough. The woman was looking at him with undisguised scorn but then she caught herself and transformed her expression into one of feigned sympathy.

‘Oh dear. You do have it rough.’

‘I do.’

‘So you have thought about what this means?’

‘I have, I really have.’

‘Shall I explain the process a little?’

He nodded, feeling worn out by his own description of his life.

‘We go from here to the back office where you sign the paperwork for the procedure. Then you are taken into the clinic and given your own room where you can prepare yourself. We supply legal representation so you can arrange your affairs. After a suitable period of time you will meet the doctor and they will give you an injection. And then,’ she paused for dramatic effect, ‘then it will be all over. You won’t be in pain anymore.’ She smiled, the warmth almost genuine for the first time. ‘So, do you feel ready to move on?’ She stood up and walked over to the door, opening it to a brand new world of opportunities.

Devon remained seated, his mind whirling. Everything he had said was true. Everything in his life was awful, there was barely a second of each day where he felt even the slightest vestige of anything that could be called happiness. Everyone around him seemed determined to drag him down, make him miserable, make him wallow in his misery. There really was no reason to carry on. And yet…

‘Um. No. Actually I’d just like to leave now.’ Devon stood. ‘I’m sorry to have wasted your time, I really am.’ And he squirmed his way past the woman and out into the reception hall and was gone out into the street.

The woman returned to the room and faced one of the posters. ‘I don’t understand,’ she complained to the poster, ‘what did I do wrong?’

A light came on behind the poster and revealed it to be an opaque window, a shadowy viewing area was dimly visible behind it. ‘Nothing.’ A voice came from the room, detached due to the speaker distortion. ‘You didn’t do anything wrong.’

‘Then why did he leave?’

‘Sometimes, you will learn this if you pass the course, sometimes people just need to know that the option is there.’

The woman frowned, she didn’t understand. As she exited the room she noticed that the banners with One hundred on them were furling themselves back into the ceiling of the reception hall. The celebration would have to wait.


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