Kill Your Darlings
We were leaving the pen, then, and starting to use Tabs for everything, but I'd been stubborn and written mine in old ink. The title was, 'Why "Release Age" is a Good Policy'. I want to to cast it straight to the TO GO pile, but can't resist taking a look, nonetheless knowing exactly what it will cost me. I skim read the first page, which is mostly about dwindling food supplies, the rising costs of healthcare, the shrinking of living areas, the lack of carers and workers.
The second page is mostly about the benefits. I read this one.
'The benefits for the person being released are obvious: they will not be allowed the indignity of suffering; they will not be given the soul destroying treatment that is full time care; they will know exactly when they are to say goodbye, and plan it to the best of their ability. Parties will be thrown, tearful goodbyes around a deathbed will be exchanged for a celebration of a life, people will arrive with smiles and leave with renewed vigour to live their own lives. My grandmother will be one foo the first and I have to say she is quite excited about her Releasing Party; she's got balloons and food and music...'
I can't read on. I'm taken straight back to her party, and the thought of it makes me feel sick. She'd insisted she loved it but she had no chocie but to put a brave face on (for the alternative was imprisonment and a death sentence) and she smiled as we left. But when I had to run back inside to pick up my handbag, I'd caught her crying a river. Her bravery in not letting us witness her going had cost her a terrible price. I'd rushed to her and hugged her and insisted on staying with her. She'd been terrified.
I shudder. I'd shared none of this with my mum.
Back then, of course, Release Age was 79. A nice, round, old number. A decent time to have lived and, as the propoganda said, who was healthy into their 80s anwyay? I think Gran would have been. Her mother had lived a decent life until well into her 90s. people mostly accepted it, though. Once there wasn't enough food to go around, once exports started to become too expensive and we had to change dietary habits to feed everyone (less meat, more seasonal stuff, if I recall), people had to accept it. The choice was feed the older generation or feed the children and the workers. It was no choice, really. And it's amazing how quickly it became 'normal'.
The protests did start, however, years later. I was in my 40s by this time, and things had got even more difficult. Releasing people was helping, to an extent, but there still wasn't enough food. there still wasn't enough housing or workers to do the jobs or carers to look after the old. So they brought the Release Age down to 75.
I remember thinking, as I watched the protestors marching across my screen, that it was still such a long way off for me. Things were sure to change.
How wrong I was. My own children were doing well, I was healthy and living a productive life at the Food Centre and my husband was still alive; writing and teaching. We lived good lives. Release Age felt like years away. And then Mum... How young 75 suddenly seemed after she was Released. Except by then, I thought of it as being Taken. Grief was no easier with the luxury of being able to say farewell. I'd missed it with my father and husband, when they had the accident, but with Mum I got to say everything I wanted.
Somehow, it made the goodbye worse. After we all left the party, I thought of hundreds of things I'd not told her and the things I had told her had awoken unexpected feelings in me; I had regrets; I wished we'd treated her better as teenagers. Suddenly Release Age was a cruelty. My siblings felt the same and we began a petition, asking for a change in the law. We cited the development and technological leaps in farming methods, and the fact we lived in smaller housing and could accommodate more. We wrote about how there were more carers, better healthcare and reminded them that people could work for more years because of this.
I found one of our later peitions, printed out, earleir today. It went on the TO GO pile as well. At least my children won't have to deal with all my stuff. Mum left us to do it all, claiming she couldn't face it, but I can't do that. I'll die tidy and organised, and all that will be left is my Will. I scrunch up my Release Age essay and try to get on. Only one more box to go.
My Release Party is this weekend. It should be a happy occasion, if we're to believe the government spinners. They even give tips on how to throw a good going away party. Can you imagine? They suggest things like a 'Jewellery give away game - pass on the family heirlooms with humour!' and a 'Will Reading - explain it all now, and prevent arguments after you're gone!' It's sick.
But the sickest thing of all, is how Release Age wasn't raised, it was dropped.
It's now 69.
And I am 68 and 360 days old.
There aren't enough words to describe how I feel, though Anger and Fear top the list.
My children are with me; although they're children of the modern world and only vaguely recall a world less ordered, they are on my side. "Escape, Mum," they said, when their own chilren were out of earshot. "We'll help you hide," they said, when their children were on a playdate. I've thought about it, but with our cities becoming citadels and the countryside being full of NewFarms, where would I go? I'd be caught. The UK just isn't big enough. Of course, loads of people have tried to run but nobody ash escaped. Instead they get charged with Obstructing Future Proofing, some charge the latest leaders have dreamt up which is meant to make us think of thema s the baddies, the ones who are interrupting the natural order of things.
I can't remember how it felt to support Release Age but I must have done, if my old essay is anything to go by. I look at it, scrunched up in the bin, and shudder again. When I think about dying it's a cold feeling I get. A cold and lonely feeling. I don't welcome it as a release from a life of hard work, I think of it as no more sunrises, no more grandchildren's laughter, no more toes in the sand, no more cups of tea with my daughter. It's terror, waiting for me.
I've got five days to do something and no ideas. Supposedly there are islands around the UK, fortressed islands where people hide and defend themselves. They're left alone, if you believe the underground BlackWeb pages. But do they really exist? It should be a breeze, these days, to find out anything but it's got harder. The BlackWeb is full of lies and government infiltrators, and the normal, old internet can't be trusted either. My children have tried to find out what they can, but as both work outside of the government sphere, they can't know for sure.
I must have fallen asleep in the middle of my sorting because when I woke this morning I realiosed I'd lost another day. I've now got four days left on Earth. And even more to do than yesterday. My eyes are sore; I've been crying in the night. Eltie, my daughter, says she's coming to help me today but I don't want her to. Knowing I have to leave her makes the thought of being with her too much to bear. I shall grab her and never let go and.
By the time she arrives, I've only got one box of paperwork to go. Mine is one fo the last Year Groups to really have paperwork; two years after I filed my last page paper was rationed and everything became electronic. Most of it was but they banned even written letters, so those of us who did cling on to old ways were forced to give up. For a while there was the underground letter movement but paper became too scarce quickly afterwards and that was that. The Digital Age arrived Officially.
Eltie embraces me at the door. Neither of us can speak. She leads me inside and we sit, side by side on the sofa. She turns to face me and whispers, 'Mum, I've found a way.'
I can only gaze at her. To live? Does she mean to live?
She smiles through her tears. 'I've been doing a little digging with Gabs. She has access now to the Digital Library at Hadfield.'
I gasp: Hadfield is where everything 'dangerous' and threatening to society' ends up, filed on thin digipages. We hear about it all the time on the news.
She continues,'I can't get you the digipages, but Gabi says it's a sub, comes once a month, goes to Australia. The journey is treacherous and as you know Australia isn't supposedly safe, but that's the only place this group can get away with it.'
I whisper, 'Get away with what?'
Eltie looks at me with shining eyes, 'Living. Living, once you get past Release Age. There's a whole society there.'
'But... But how? Australia has those crazy weather systems, the drought. How do people survive?'
'I don't know. She didn't have long. There are no other records of this. They let people get on with it, once they get out of Euro waters, figuring they're going to die anyway, so why waste time? But it's a chance, Mum.'
'I'd still be leaving you,' I say, touching her face.
'But you'll be alive. And if it does work there, find a way to tell me. I'll come too. We'll all come. We can live there. Nobody can be Released again!' Her speech is rapid, punctuated by gasps and breaths. She grabs my hand. 'Please! I can't stand the thought of... you know. This weekend.'
'But how do I find it?' Despite everything in me that knows this is a bad idea and that I'll get caught and sentenced, it's grabbed me. I have to try.
'Gabs is going to try and get more intel. She's going to pretend she's trying to stop it. Then she'll tell us where and when and put the government on the wrong scent. It's possible, it's all possible. What have we got to lose? If you don't, Mum, they will kill you.'
And so it is that I find myself standing on a beach, two days later, feeling the wind on my face. There's a boat due to take me out to Hope Island, a place named by sailors who were dumped there by the sea when their ship was wrecked in the 1900s. Once on Hope, I hide, with anyone else we'v ebeen able to contact, and a sub will come. It will come, Gabi told me.
The breeze plays with my hair. I dig my toes into the sand, stare at the sky and hope. I squint at the surface of the sea. Something moves. Slowly, a shape rises up, like a black whale. A hatch opens, somebody disembarks. Standing before me, is an old woman, a face wrinkled and beautiful.
'Welcome to your future,' she says.
Jacob groaned as the crackled command came through the radio, and his colleague slipped his seat belt on and hit the sirens.
"Perfect. Another loony, right before clocking off," Sim said, cheerful as ever despite the torrential rain and threat of a long-winded patient with excessive admin. Jacob glared out of the passenger-side window, and stayed silent. These were the worst sort of calls for any paramedic, and he'd had a long night. He'd lost count of the number of drunks they'd had to mop up outside clubs in the centre of town, and he'd finally been allowing himself to think of getting home, taking a hot shower and slipping in to bed beside the comfortable warm form of his sleeping wife and baby girl to snatch a few hours before morning.
Now, of course, he had to focus on work again. The operator hadn’t given them too much to go on - a middle-aged woman, disorientated, wandering barefoot by the side of a rural road, with apparently no recollection of who she was, or why she was there. The police had suggested there was no evidence of intoxication, which meant either, as Sim had succinctly suggested, she was a nutcase on the run from residential, or she'd been battered to the point of amnesia by some jealous husband.
The two men lapsed in to silence as they approached the road provided by the operator. The rain coursed down beyond the warmth of the van, making them peer forwards in the hope of seeing their target. The roadside was pitch dark, and Jacob rubbed his eyes as he leaned to gaze out on to the verge.
Spotting some headlights at the passenger side, he pointed and motioned for Sim to slow the ambulance down. He grabbed his kit and undid his seatbelt, barely waiting for the vehicle to come to a stop before he opened the door and jumped out on to the verge. Cursing as he felt rainwater surge over the top of his boots, Jacob ran over to the police car parked ahead, waving to the officer standing in the road, waiting for them.
"What've we got?" Jacob asked, even as he was circumnavigating the officer and bending down to the woman huddled by the side of the road, shivering, drenched and pale. She didn’t look up as he moved to kneel beside her, but shrank away from him.
She was dressed in jeans which were drenched from ankle to hip, without socks or shoes. He short cropped hair was sodden, the rain coursing down in thick rivers across her soaked t-shirt. Jacob signalled back to Sim, who jumped from the van with an insulation blanket.
"Bastard. Just wanted to get me wet," he quipped, and Jacob grinned, taking the blanket and turning to the woman again.
"Hi. My name's Jake. What's your name?" he asked gently, moving cautiously and with studied, predictable actions as he wrapped the foil cover around her shoulders, and pushed the ends carefully in to her clasped hands. She studied him for a moment, shivering, her eyes reading his own, and then shook her head.
"You don’t know, or you don’t want to tell me, Pet?"
"I don’t remember," she said. Her voice was surprising; educated and gentle, with no discernible accent. Jacob nodded and squeezed her shoulder a little, and grinned at her.
"Long night, maybe? I get that sometimes. Now, here's the thing Pet. It's chucking it down. And, I'm a bit cold out here, and I bet you are too. I've got a great van right behind us, with blankets, and it's dry. How's about we pop you in, get you dried off a bit, and then see what's what?"
The woman looked up at him again, and a fresh wave of fear seemed to course through her, making her shake even harder. She shook her head, and looked towards the officer stood beside them, who was checking her watch.
"Look, mate, we're going to get off now, OK?" the officer said, already halfway back to the patrol car. Jacob didn’t acknowledge her, watching his new charge. Sim jumped down from the cab again, heading their way.
"All OK? Are we set for off?" he asked, good-naturedly. Jacob held up a hand, and Sim stood back. Jacob looked down at the woman's hands, knotted around something, her fingers working unconsciously, turning it over and over.
"That a cigarette lighter you've got? Do you smoke?" he asked her, and she looked up again, and a flicker of recognition seemed to ignite her expression for the first time.
"I think so."
"Well, snap. Want a cig? Can’t have a puff out here, mind - it's too wet - but we could perch on the edge of the van and light up? You up for that?"
With a faint nod, the woman handed him her lighter, and looked at him, expectantly. Jacob reached out a hand and pulled her from the verge gently. He was surprised that she moved towards him without fear, as if leaning in to him for support.
He placed a firm arm around her shoulder and guided her towards the ambulance, placing her down half in, half out, with the foil blanket over her hair. He grabbed his cigarettes and drew two out, lighting them both and handing one to the woman. She took it and thanked him, and drew on it hard. They sat in companionable silence for a moment, and smoked.
"Right. It's nearly morning, Pet. I'm not allowed to leave you here, so I have to see you somewhere safe. That means you have to come along for a ride with us, so we can check you out and make sure your'e OK, OK?"
The woman started shaking again, but nodded wordlessly and let Jacob guide her in to the ambulance, sit her in to the seat and strap her in. Sim obligingly passed a plastic beaker of tea through, and Jacob pushed it in to her hands as the ambulance started to move towards base.
"So can you really not remember your name? Or how come you wound up wandering about in the middle of nowhere on a night like this, Pet?"
She shook her head, chewing on a nail and grasping the tea as if she couldn’t remember what to do with it.
"There was blood everywhere. All over the walls," she said, and Jacob paused and looked at her sharply.
"Where, Pet? Where was the blood?"
"The walls. In the living room. And in the nursery. In the cot. It was in the cot and on the walls. And my hands. My hands," she said, and her voice cracked in terror. Jacob groaned inside, a sense of despair filling him. Shit. Shit, one of them. Babykiller.
"Pet you need to tell me what you can remember. Are you a Mummy? Have you got babies?"
"I think so. My babies. I hurt them."
"OK, Pet. It's OK now," he said, over and over again, repeating it until the words flowed one in to another and stopped making sense. She stilled, eventually, as they pulled in to the A&E bay and Sim hopped out, pulling the door open and looking in.
"ATL Minors ABH poss." Jacob muttered, and Sim nodded, pulled a sad face, and then stepped away again to notify the police of his suspicions. Jacob carried on rocking the woman close, his mind whirring. She pulled away from him and looked up as three policeman surrounded the ambulance, swamping the side door. She shrank back, tears coursing down her cheeks.
" I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry," she said, clutching Jacob's arm and pushing him in front of her. He frowned at the officers and jerked them backwards, warning them off.
"Look at me, Pet. I need you to help me out, so I can help you, and then we can both help your babies. Anything you can remember? Anything about your name, or their names? Or when your little one was born - was it here? Did you have your baby here?"
The woman stared at him, her eyes moving backwards and forwards raking his face, and Jacob recognised that she was searching her mind desperately, out of the need to help her children. Her chest rose and fell faster and faster, and she cried without seeming to notice the tears.
"Anything, Pet?" Jacob pushed again, willing her to come out with any damn fact at all so he could mobilise the police and get them out looking for her kids.
"Noelle. Noelle. Christmas. She came at Christmas. Noelle. My baby," she said suddenly, and once again it was as if the fact had ignited her, given him a glimpse of who she really was.
"Well done, Pet. You've done great. I'm just popping outside for a sec, but I'm not leaving you, OK?"
She nodded, and Jacob squeezed her shoulder and jumped from the ambulance, running over to the police officers congregated by the entrance to A&E. In moments, they dispersed, and he let himself back in to the ambulance. She squinted at the lights, and turned to hide behind him as a nurse walked over to them.
"Sal, this is Pet. She's had a tough time. We're going to have a cig, now, and then we're all going to pop inside and get cleaned up, and find out about your babies, aren’t we Pet?" he said, and she clutched his hand tightly, like a child herself, and nodded. They stood in companionable silence, Jacob and the woman smoking, and looked at the floor. He swallowed, as one of the A&E doctors ran out to them.
"Alice?" he asked the woman, and she jumped, mouth open, and nodded. "Are you Alice, love?"
She nodded again, the light of recognition, a seized memory slotting in to place. Alice. She looked like an Alice. Alice was his wife's name. He loved that name. He found himself mumbling aloud, Dear God- but didn’t know what to say. He watched the doctor and Sal lead Alice in to the warmth of A&E and disappear from view. He jumped as Sim planted a heavy hand on his shoulder, turning him.
"Bloody Hell, Jakey-Boy. We pick 'em, right mate?" Behind Sim's jovial comment was a mountain of concern, and Jacob suddenly dropped his composure and pulled his partner in to a hug.
"So, I'll finish up the admin. You can pop off and see you little one, if you like?" Sim offered, and Jacob shook his head.
"Nah, mate. I think I'll stick this one out. Don’t want to hear it on the news later, you know?"
Sim left as Jacob walked in to the closest cubicle, where he could hear Sal's cheerful monologue, and sat down next to Alice, clasping her hand.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," she whispered, and Jacob nodded. They sat in silence for minutes which stretched to breaking point, and all three jumped when the curtain was pushed back roughly and the officer returned, gesturing Jacob to follow him. Behind him, he heard a sob of fear.
"It's all good, Jake. Kiddies both safe and sound, tucked up with the in-laws. Hubby working away, looks like our lassie has had some post-natal depression. Hallucinations and whatnot, so she'd asked the in-laws to take over to keep the little ones safe. Missed her GP appointment yesterday, looks like she lost her memory, reckon it's about as happy an end as we could have hoped for, eh?" the policeman grinned, his face lighting up, and Jacob reflected the light in his own smile.
"Thank. Fuck. For. That." he said, and stood for a moment, breathing heavily. He pictured his wife, and his little girl, sound asleep. Pushing a weary hand through his still-damp hair, he walked back in to the cubicle to deliver the news to the broken woman within.
It was hypnotic watching them from behind the thick glass of our kitchen window. We'd settle in with our velvety hot chocolates that coated our tongues as they slipped down our throats and gaze, sometimes for hours, as the proud girls went through their rituals. We loved them all for different reasons. Esmé for her sheer brass, working the floor as if she'd been born to it. Elsa for her grace, when she swept across the yard it was as if she elevated it, shading it's drab greys and browns with her sophisticated style. And Esther was a tap dancer, fast and coordinated, showy but never cheap, she never missed a beat. But perhaps our favourite was Elsa's twin, born from the same egg, the quiet, bashful Elsie. She didn't often leave the safety of the circle for the loneliness of the yard turned stage but occasionally the others would urge her and push her until she did and then, then something magical happened.
Elsie was like the sad lady singing in the bar you fall into late one night when you'd rather forget everything you ought to remember. The one who seems to be singing only for you and she's not just strumming your pain with her fingers, she is you, she is every sad thing that ever happened to you except somehow she's made it all alright because she's made it beautiful. And you watch her turning round the stage her black cape with the white speckles splaying out around her as she dances off balance and out of time and she is so beautifully flawed that for a moment, just for a moment, you cry for her. But the tears are for yourself and they're not tears of sadness, they're tears of joy because life is beautiful pain.
Of course we didn’t know that then. We were young and naive, hopeful even if our innocence was far from intact and we just knew there was something about Elsie that sang out to us, that touched a chord inside and set it reverberating as a bell rings in a church tower long after the rope has stopped swinging. Oh the others were sweet and funny, even hilarious but Elsie was something else altogether.
And they were our 'Darlings'. So beautiful and brazen and yes so human in their absence of perfection. We watched them for two years until their lives turned into a film noir. We killed them on a Saturday my brother Billy and I. It was a beautiful sunny day, the first day of May and mother needed the meat for the May Day Dance. She was making her famous chicken in a red wine sauce. For twenty-five people. We had no choice. So we crept up behind them as they clucked in their coven, taking them unawares before we snapped their necks. Scarlet splattered across their monochrome coats and their hot blood ran in rivulets down the drain. It was quick if that's any comfort and we took Elsie first, she didn’t even see us coming. We delivered them to the kitchen step where mother would pluck them those beautiful feathers scattering through the farm wherever the wind carried them. Then we stood in silence at the outdoor tap and scrubbed our hands mercilessly in its cold stream.
I wish I could say we felt remorse, that we wished we hadn’t done it or something like that. But we were farm boys, used to death and the messier end of the food chain. For us, it was just the way things were, the ugly in the beautiful, the salt in the sweetness, the death in life. We did miss them though, their shiny coats and their humorous ways. Our next batch were boring brown Bantams, small and uninteresting not nearly as glamorous as the Plymouth Rocks girls and definitely not as dramatic. They never danced around the yard, never illuminated our daily monotony with their humour and grace. And we never sat silent, transfixed by the window, to stare at them hungrily through the thick glass.