By Jamie McKittrick
Time is ageless; Time is age;
Time is just a word on a page
H.R. Halbot, My Feet Hurt
Elmer didn’t quite feel himself. Actually, to tell the truth he hadn’t felt this good in what must have been years. But that wasn’t it. Elmer was turning eighty-six next month but in spite of a clapped-out liver, a bad eye and a spinal column that creaked with pain, he felt younger than ever. Though he was racked with the same old ailments they were now somewhat detached as if viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. He sat in the shade of the Pavilion Café drinking a cup of tea with his son and looking out across the park lake. It fractured the reflection of the sky across its surface into an indeterminate beauty. The fountain in the middle of the lake, Elmer thought to himself, looked cheap, just a ring with holes in floating on the surface. Nevertheless it sent up its plumage in such a way that it looked as if a giant swan were dancing out of smoke for him, lolling its neck and fluttering its wings in malleable succession. He didn’t usually drink tea.
“Dad, are you even listening to me?”
Elmer turned his head as quickly as his neck would allow him.
“Of course I am,” he said, “And really, Marty, I think that you should let it lie. If she’s that keen on the colour then tell her she can have it like that. But make sure you tell her properly so that she appreciates it. She’ll remember it and you’ll come out best in the end. The colour’s not important. Whenever your mother wanted…”
Here Elmer stopped himself. Marty stared blankly at him. When was the last time he had strung sentences together so eloquently? Elmer chuckled inwardly. He’s used to using me as a sounding board, he said to himself, Not getting advice from his old dad.
“You’re used to using me as a sounding board,” Elmer said, chuckling.
“No,” said Marty, “No, it’s just I didn’t… No.”
Elmer looked back at the water. This chip has paid for itself, he thought. The green-black sheen of a duck’s head was pecking away at a lifted wing, presumably to dislodge a parasite. A woman threw a chunk of bread and the duck made a surge for it, forgetting for a moment its itch.
Upon getting home Elmer realised what a terrible state he’d let the apartment get into and began a cleaning process. First he tackled the fridge—the cheese had hardened and gathered mould, the milk had separated, its carton swollen. He threw it all out. Next he ditched, without even looking, the stack of unopened mail that had built up. He giggled at how steadfast he had been each time Marty tried to make him throw all the old television guides away as he plonked the whole lot of them down into the recycling bin. The bottom one dated back three years. Elmer went for a stroll around the building; he would clean by stages.
As he wandered over the shabby hallway carpet worn to a shine by years of shuffling slippers, memories began to flash through his mind: how Marty had sat with him only last week, the morning after Elmer had been found wandering outside after dark, the cold dress of night suddenly all around him, unable to remember how he’d got there, frightened that he couldn’t get back. A car pulled up and he’d put his hands on the window. It took him back to the complex. In the morning they called Marty. I’m lost at sea, Elmer thought. The sea… sleepwalking, sundowning, screams in your sleep, clouds in the coffee. Forgetting. What must he think of me?
“There’s a representative coming to the complex next week, Dad,” Marty had said, “The warden has given me some information on this new treatment. No, just let me finish. Now you don’t have to commit to buying anything or doing anything, I just want you to go along and listen to what they have to say. Will you? Do it for me? Christ, come on Dad, this isn’t the first time you’ve been found outside in the night. Do you remember? Well, it’s not. You were calling for mum. Dad, you were calling for mum in the middle of the street at night and you couldn’t remember how you got there.”
Elmer turned a corner. As he nodded to the other residents he thought back on the day the Chip representative had come to give his talk. He seemed gawkish and meek as he stepped up in front of everyone at the Home, and his youth had inspired only disdain in Elmer. Not really a man, just a suit sent here to draw the blood from my veins. I’ve seen this young suit, I’ve seen them all before.
“Hello everyone,” the young man said, “thank you for taking the time to come and sit with me and for listening to what I have to say. Now you’re probably thinking what does this young man know about the world, what does he know about getting old, what has he seen that I haven’t already seen a hundred times over in my life? And, well, I wouldn’t dream to argue with you there. I am young. I don’t have the experience that you have. I don’t have a wife or grandchildren. I don’t even have any children of my own yet, so you know that when I say I’m young, I mean I’m young. That being said, I will freely admit that I just don’t understand rap music.” He laughed at his own joke and sent a ripple of chuckles through the audience. Two old women sat in front of Elmer turned and smiled at each other. The young man was emerging from a shell by gradients, his confidence growing with each syllable. White collar, blue stripes on his shirt, a storm cloud in a suit. “Most people your age make a choice, a choice about how they want to live their lives. It’s a question of dignity and you may have already made the kind of choice I’m talking about. The question you need to ask is: Do I want dignity in my life? Most people say yes, I do want dignity in my life, I’ve earned the right to that much. But if you answer yes to this question then it gives way to a second question — how do I get dignity? What do I have to do to re-empower myself? And you’re looking at me funny, I can see it already. You’re thinking here comes the pitch. But I can tell you now with my hand on my heart that this isn’t about money.”
The young man spoke on. He spoke of the charity he worked for, about giving dignity back to the infirm and elderly. He asked not for payment but for a voluntary donation to help keep the treatment affordable for others.
“The natural process of ageing is deterioration,” he continued. “When your eyes fail, you put on some glasses. When your hearing goes, you pop in a hearing aid. When you go bald or grey you put on a wig or dye your hair. But what about your mind?”
He produced a small square from his pocket and held it up to the crowd. “This tiny Chip here is like putting eyeglasses on your myopic mind. Like putting a toupee on your balding brain. Spectacles and wigs don’t solve the problems of sight or hair loss but they do cover them up, they make it ok to read or to go outside again without shame. And that’s what this chip will do for you too. The technology of this generation is the magic for yours. Instant dignity.”
At this point two men and a woman stood up together and left. Then another man stood and swished a hand down in feeble dismissal of the young man before tottering out the room himself. The young man took stock of this and continued.
“I’d like to show you, if I may, a video of how the Chip works and what it can do for you. This isn’t snake oil and I’m no salesman, that much you can already see for yourselves. What we have here is technology that exists now and is already helping thousands of people just like you. Watch this and see.”
He nodded to an unseen assistant who dimmed the lights and they all watched the video at the front on a big flatscreen TV.
An elderly woman, grey-lipped and greasy-haired stares directly into the camera as it pans out to reveal she is head of the table at her own birthday party. Her family sits around her talking and drinking and laughing. Nana? A young girl asks and the old woman makes a jerk and a grunting noise — Uhh. A party hat is put on her head and a rasper unfurls a toot and smacks her on the cheek — Uhh. Now a shot of a piece of chocolate cake, complete with burning candle, being lumped into a blender and liquidised as a voice says Come on, Nana, it’s time for your birthday cake. Nana is then fed the cake on a plastic child’s spoon. She does not chew — Uhh.
Could this be you one day? A friendly voice rings out as the frame freezes on Nana with brown mush all down her chin and nightdress. Do you want this to be you? If you do, you might as well leave the room now. No doubt our friendly representative has informed you what our service can do to change your life for the better. We’ve had an advanced team of neuroscientists and nanotechnologists working for years now on developing and perfecting the technology which will relieve you of your worry and give you back your dignity once and for all. We call it The Chip.
A blue brain began to rotate on the screen as a glowing red chip descended upon it from on high. Elmer saw the chip descending upon his own brain and the thought excited him. Soon Nana was sat at the table talking and laughing and putting on her own birthday hat. She clinked a glass with her daughter and was suddenly curled up reading a bedtime story to an adorable grandchild who nodded off gently in her arms. The video ended and the young man answered their questions concisely and with good humour.
Monday. Elmer had been invited to dinner by Marty and his wife Sarah. The grandchildren would be there and there would be shredded duck with hoi sin sauce and pancakes. Elmer was keen to show off his newfound marvel of the world with his refound conversational skills. He put on a tie and a V-neck sweater-vest for the occasion. Marty picked him up at five ten.
“I can’t tell you how happy this had made me, Dad. I feel like I’ve got you back,” Marty said as they drove along. “You don’t know how bad you were. It was like a smack in the face every time you gave me this child-like smile and I knew you couldn’t understand what I was saying to you. I mean, what was I meant to do, put you out of your misery? I was hardly going to bash your brains out though it pained me to see you that way. What could I do except listen to the same stories again and again and again about mum. But now you’re back I can‘t believe it.”
Elmer smiled quietly. He remembered vividly how language gradually, then rapidly, left; how his son was grieving before he’d even died. Yes, it was like a living death, he thought to himself, before adding, to some extent. Erosion of person. The person exists. So how can they be missed? I moaned in dread sleep from a waking coma for years but now the lock is open, now I am awake to the world. And how beautiful it is!
Every set of lights they stopped at seemed brighter and cheerier than ever before and it wasn’t long before Elmer realised he was no longer in the passenger seat but was tucking into a delicious meal with Marty and Sarah smiling on. He sat back and tapped his stomach.
“I haven’t enjoyed a meal as much as that in a long, long time. You start to thinking your tastebuds have completely perished but that has restored my faith in food entirely. Thank you Sarah. It was wonderful.” Wonderful, he thought again to himself.
He played with the kids for a while then helped put them to bed. When they kissed their grandad good-night, Elmer very nearly wept but restrained himself. Marty and Sarah sat with him at the table and drank a cup of tea. Sarah said,
“I never even knew you drank tea, Elmer.”
“I like everything now,” Elmer said and they all laughed, “Even the new colour you’ve painted the walls!” They laughed some more.
“Listen,” his son began said, “We’ve been talking a bit and we were thinking about giving a donation to the chip people. We’re just so grateful to them and, Dad, it cost practically nothing for this, this, well… it’s a miracle.”
Elmer took this in, nodded slowly and said, “I’ve been thinking the exact same thing myself. You know as a charity, they subsidise the cost as much as they can to make the treatment affordable for people who otherwise couldn’t get it. And if I can give even a little bit of money to them to help somebody else the way that I’ve been helped, then I can only see good in it.”
Marty put his hand on his father’s.
“You’ve got a little money, Dad. I think it’s really great that you want to help.” He had tears in his eyes. Elmer drank his tea and was driven home. He dreamed that night of his wife and when he woke up he could still smell her perfume around his apartment and he smiled in a haze for the rest of the day.
The following day Marty brought the kids around after work.
“They were asking about their Grandad Fuddy-Duddy,” he said laughing. “But I don’t think they’ll be calling you that much longer. What do you say Rachel, Eva, what shall we call your grandad from now on?”
The children thought awhile then Eva chirped, “Grandad Funny-Dummy!” And the children both squealed with hysterical laughter. Father and son also couldn’t help but smile heartily at each other. Elmer wiped a happy tear away from the corner of his eye and said, “You never called ahead but that’s ok.”
Marty asked if he’d thought any more about what they’d discussed the other night.
“You mean the donation? Yes,” Elmer said, “I’ve written a cheque out here. Would you be able to drive me to the bank on Saturday morning?”
“That’s a pretty sizeable amount there, Dad,” Marty said peering down at the cheque. “Are you sure about that?”
“It’s worth every penny, Marty,” Elmer said, and thought to himself When I think of what it’s brought back to my life this seems only fair, I want to know that everybody like me can get a chip.
“It seems only fair,” he said to Marty.
“All right, Dad, if you’re sure.”
“I am,” Elmer replied, “Wholeheartedly sure.” And he knelt down with the children.
When Marty and the kids left Elmer resumed the process of cleaning his apartment. He tossed away a bunch of old souvenir plates he’d accumulated over the years. Then he picked up a small mirror from the mantelpiece. It was old and the silver backing was mottled like a quail egg. A crack ran down the right half and split the image of his face. It had been his wife’s. Elmer placed it back, unable to bring himself to part with it. Although he still missed her dearly he had never felt more at peace with her loss. He suddenly fancied a cup of tea, but changed his mind and went for a stroll around the building instead.
As he nodded greetings to the other residents he noticed that there were daisies smiling at him from all along the wall that he had never noticed before and when he looked down there was a bright carpet of grass underfoot instead of the old worn pile. He stared at it awhile then asked an old lady tottering by,
“When did this grass get put down?”
“Oh, quite recently,” she said smiling gleefully. She grasped his wrist tightly and smiling wider still said again, “Quite recently,” and suddenly she started to laugh. Then Elmer found himself laughing and a few others around joined in the mirth. A bluebird landed on one of their heads and Elmer was so consumed with laughter that he found he no longer cared about the grass in the building. He ran a hand through the place where his hair used to be. When he got back to the apartment Elmer made himself a big cup of tea and sat staring contentedly with a wide grin on his face. He must have gone to sleep not long after that because the next thing he knew it was Saturday morning and Marty had shown up with the kids.
“You hadn’t forgotten, had you?” Marty asked with a smile that barely masked his trepidation.
“No, of course not,” Elmer said, “When we spoke on the phone last night I just wanted to make sure you were still going through with your donation too, like we said.
“Got the cheque right here, Dad,” Marty said tapping his shirt pocket.
The kids had been waiting in the car and they each gave their grandad a kiss. Elmer pulled funny faces for them and they lit up. Elmer thought they were the most beautiful children he had ever seen.
“You have beautiful children, son.” He said.
The drive to the bank was along an idyllic road with white picket fencing and a babbling stream running alongside the road and the sun shone brightly down through the roof of the car on them all. Blossoming willow trees were dipping their branches in and out of the water in the soft breeze.
Elmer wanted to ask why they’d never taken this road to the bank before but instead he said, “That place could do with a lick of paint.”
“You probably wouldn’t recognise it,” Marty said, “but that’s St Theresa’s.”
“Where you went to school?” Elmer heard himself ask.
“Yep, they’re refurbishing and reopening it not next year but the year after that.”
“Well fancy that after all these years.” Elmer said turning to the kids in the back. Would you girls like to go to St Theresa’s when you’re old enough?
Their answers differed and Elmer laughed almost all the rest of the journey. He remembered the hulking grey tombstone that was St Theresa’s but he did not see the school building anywhere around.
When they got out of the car it took all of his strength to grab Marty by the elbow and tell him but when Marty turned Elmer said, “I love you very much, son.”
And they went into the bank to deposit the cheques.
The next day Elmer awoke to find himself sat in his armchair reaching for a steaming cup of half-drunk tea. He found that he could not stop his arm from taking the cup and drinking from it. The warmth of the tea running down his throat gave him such an enormous sense of well-being that he felt he were sliding down into a hot bath and falling happily into a slumber. The fretting in his heart began to slip and slide, cede and subside. A huge flock of beautiful birds flew overhead and made the sky look looks like a patchwork of light and colour. It dazzled him and he opened his mouth in yawning stupefaction.
He shut his eyes tight. No, he said to himself, no this can’t be. I must be dreaming. He began to panic. He couldn’t move, he found it swampy to think and every thought he had plunged him deeper into a dual sense of comfort and horror like two pennies bouncing down a fairground amusement. He could feel a gentle wind caressing his face, but the windows were all shut and he was feeling so tired that he just wanted to ease back and bask in the garden. But he forced himself out of that and tried to stand but couldn’t. What’s happening to me? he thought. He was scared and his heart began to pulse.
Please do not panic, a friendly voice said and instantly Elmer felt happy and began to melt into a stupor. A big smile crept across his face. Please do not worry, the voice said and Elmer found it impossible to worry.
There is nothing to be concerned about. Your reaction is perfectly normal, the friendly voice continued, All you need to do is relax and allow the chip to operate. The transition period will be complete shortly and you will feel nothing but happiness and contentment while the chip continues to operate your day-to-day social and familial functions for you.
But I want to be in control, Elmer thought with sharp returning panic, I want to have my own experiences. Switch yourself off, get out of my head. I didn’t ask for this. Let me move. I need to run my own goddam life. The fright was mounting. This was some kind of nightmare. He was sleepwalking again. That must be it.
You have no life, Elmer. You are a conch shell and you were all but empty. The chip has made you full again and will carry on fulfilling your duties for the rest of your life. It is no trouble at all for you to rest your tired bones and allow the chip to take care of everything. It is so very easy to do. Just relax. That’s all. You will only cause yourself undue stress for the next few minutes if you resist.
But my son, Elmer began.
Will be happy for years to have a wonderful father that isn’t a burden but a joy, and happy for his children to have a proper grandfather at last. This is what you want. If it helps you to feel more comfortable, please understand that you have not been in full control of yourself since the chip was installed and have been fed honeyed and beguiling thoughts to make this transition easier, more beguiling. The next step is total submission to the chip. There is no way of stopping the process. You have seen how wonderful your life will be with the chip and now you can rest. The transition is nearing completion, Elmer. Can you feel it? Enjoy this wonderful experience. Rest.
A warmth began to spread inside, a feeling of total butter-melting contentment and the more it spread the better it felt. Elmer found himself wanting it to fill him entirely. He was terrified but it felt so good and didn’t matter.
I don’t want this, he thought, I won’t let this happen.
He could hear a familiar voice in the distance and smell an old perfume. A slow jazz mellowed him. The Chip was right, it was so very easy to let go. There was a light shining out from inside him subsuming, consuming, the kiln in the urn, urn in kiln, turn in kind, eversuming. He began to laugh.
Elmer stood up from his chair, went into his kitchen and put the kettle on the stove. A teabag went into a cup and he poured boiling water onto it. He left the tea to brew and went up to the mantelpiece whereupon he took a dirty old mirror in his hands and put it neatly into the rubbish. He would clean by stages.