The leaves of the poplars flashed like a thousand eyes opening and closing. The wind sizzled in the tree tops. A hand pressed on Austin’s arm.
“Can I help you, Mr Austin?” said the Security Guard.
“I don’t want to be here,” said Austin. His gaze drifted between the Guard and the building behind him.
“Then you won’t mind me escorting you off the facility.”
Austin shook the Guard’s hand off his sleeve and looked at the road beyond the close cropped lawn and the sparkling fountain, oblique in the breeze.
“I don’t want to be here,” said Austin again, stroking the spot where the Guard had touched him. “But I feel I must stay.”
“All right,” said the Guard, holding his hands up. “So why don’t you come inside?”
Austin looked back at the glass frontage of the brutalist building, through which he could see a reception desk and nests of sofas. “Inside there? No. Never.” Squinting against the glare of the glazing, Austin stared at the Guard as if for the first time. Then he reached forward and pushed the man’s peaked cap so that his eyes came out of shadow. They were blue.
“There was no need for that,” said the Guard, breathing in sharply. He removed his cap altogether and wiped the sweat from his forehead and looked at the darkened interior of the crown.
“It was quite bad of me,” said Austin deliberately. He stood back to consider the effect of what he had done.
“Not like you at all.” Leaning away from Austin, the Guard put his cap on, cushioned on his thick hair.
“Maybe I’m changing,” said Austin.
“Come on.” The Guard spoke quietly. “Come on, Mr Austin. It’s your turn. Nobody wants to miss out.”
“I’m not coming in. I’ve already told you.”
“No one’s going to make you.”
“Feeling OK?” The Guard reached out.
“I’m fine.” Austin flinched at the anticipated touch. “Nothing wrong with me.”
“There’s something wrong with all of us,” said the Guard. “They say we’re all dying. What’s the phrase? The only certain thing is death and taxes. They’ll have to change that one, eh Mr Austin?” The Guard stood to one side and made a motion of gently ushering Austin into the building. But Austin shook his head and backed away. He stumbled over the box hedge, then turned and walked away until he disappeared through the rainbow spray of the fountain.
The Guard returned to the building. The receptionist looked up and smiled at him. She was talking into a mouthpiece but held up a finger to indicate the Guard to wait. She put the call through then spoke, “What did Mr Austin want, Tony?”
“The usual. He doesn’t know what he wants. I tell you what I want, I want him to make up his mind one way or the other.”
The headquarters of I-Mortality were in a new enterprise zone on the edge of town. Clients were not supposed to come directly there and were guided to convenient clinics in town centres but staff were instructed that if clients did come they were to be made welcome. Somebody would always see them.
“He turns up more often than some of the staff,” said Liz, the receptionist.
“We should invite him to the Christmas party.”
The lift rang as the door slid open and Elaine came into the lobby. “Where’s the client?” she said.
Liz and Tony looked at each other. “Sorry,” said Liz, “the client had to leave.”
“Was it the same man?”
“Yes,” said Tony after a moment’s hesitation, “Sorry, I thought he was going to stay this time.”
“Well, it’s not your fault,” said Elaine, shortly. “Some people are just ungrateful.”
“Don’t know what’s good for them.”
At the café, from where he could still see the enterprise zone, Austin sat with a cup of tea. Droplets from the fountain soaked into his shirt in perfect little dots.
“If I had the million quid,” said the café owner, “I’d buy the Voucher and be straight round the clinic for the jab. I don’t know what’s stopping you.”
“I’m scared of dying,” said Austin.
“That’s what I’m saying. Get stuck in lad. Get yourself the jab.”
“And live forever.”
“Live forever,” said a man in a hi viz jacket reading a newspaper on the counter. He put his finger on a word and looked up. “Don’t tell me you’ve got the Voucher and haven’t done it.”
“I’m worried,” said Austin. He winced as the urn steamed and saucers clattered on the counter.
“I’m worried too,” said the man in the hi viz jacket. “I’m worried you’re a nutter.”
The cafe owner said, “Give us your voucher and I’ll do your worrying for you.” The people there for breakfast laughed.
The man in the hi viz jacket spluttered. “I’d better get back to my sweeping. It’s going to take me a few roads to make my first million. See you later all.” He banged his mug on the counter, screwed the paper into his pocket and walked to the door.
“I’m not being funny.” A woman leaned over the back of her seat to look at Austin. “But if you’ve got the money you get the jab, if you haven’t you don’t. That’s all there is to it. Worried? Please.”
“No, listen,” said the road sweeper, standing at the door, “I know what it is. You think it’s unfair, am I right? You have to be rich to afford the I-Mortality jab but you feel guilty about us poor buggers who have to die. Well don’t. None of us would stop for a second if we was in your shoes. Get the jab and good luck to you.”
“It’s not that,” said Austin, “I don’t care about you.”
“Charming,” said the woman turning back to her table.
“You’d think everyone would be able to afford the immortality jab,” said a young man at a table by the window. He hadn’t taken off his dark overcoat. His greasy hair hung over his face. The thought had just struck him and he let the ketchup drip from his sandwich as he followed his thought through. “Once you’ve had the jab you live forever, right? So why not offer some finance deal. Pay it back, high interest over one hundred, two hundred years. We’d all be able to afford insane interest rates because we’d live forever. I’d get one for my kid too. Not his mum though.”
“Oh listen to the genius. Immortality for the masses,” said the sweeper. “He’s saved us all. Dear bank manager, please send me one million by return of post. I agree to any interest and will pay you back some time in the next eternity. Yours etc. A Roadsweeper. PS can I have another million to keep me going? Cheers.”
“He’s yanking your wotsit,” said the woman. “The banks won’t allow immortality financing. Apparently it would undermine the economy if we all took out never ending loans. You’ve got to come up with the cash for the Voucher.”
“You got the Voucher on you?” said the young man to Austin.
“Must have if he’s come from I-Mortality,” said the sweeper.
“Stop it.” The woman looked nervously at the young man. The ketchup made a pool of red on his white plate as he gazed at Austin.
“He must have the million quid Voucher on him. Right now.”
“He’d have just made enquiries,” said the woman. “He wouldn’t be carrying the Voucher around.”
“That would be dangerous,” agreed the road sweeper. “Tempting fate. Anyone could bump him on the head and take the Voucher to I-Mortality themselves.”
“I’ve got it here,” said Austin. He took a brown wallet out of his jacket pocket, placed it on the table and slipped a large embossed piece of paper from it.
“That it?” said the young man.
“Exchangeable for one immortality inoculation.” A rush of steam from the kitchen made the Voucher shuffle along the table. Condensation shone on its glossy surface. Austin held it down with the sugar shaker. “I go to the I-Mortality HQ every day, but I haven’t stepped inside. I don’t want to die but I’m frightened.”
The sweeper let the door close and he stayed in the café. “You’re taking the wotsit, mate. We’re all decent people here but…”
“That’s only for one treatment,” said Austin. “After you beat me to death you’ll have to kill each other till there’s only one of you left.” He looked at the young man who stared back. “My money would be on him.” No one spoke. “But I wouldn’t be around to collect the winnings.”
The others all looked at the young man who in turn could not take his eyes off the Voucher; its hologram of a regal head glistened. The strip light reflection on the tea shook as Austin sat back, kicking the leg of table. Across the floor, the young man stood up and put his sandwich down. He walked over. Austin drank his tea and made no motion to stop the young man sliding the Voucher from under the sugar shaker and holding it up to the light.
“I feel calmer than I’ve felt for weeks,” Austin said. “I was given the cash for it last month. I was so excited, filled with joy. Then I was terrified. Now I feel as though I might be happy again. Soon.”
“I’m taking this,” said the young man in a steady voice. “I’m going to put it in my pocket and walk out. Nobody will stop me.”
“I won’t stop you,” said Austin.
The young man put the Voucher into his coat pocket and walked towards the door. The sweeper stood aside, his mouth twitching and his hands clenched. The young man grasped the door handle and then stopped. He leaned against the door and breathed shallowly and quickly. At the sound of rattling everyone in the cafe saw the young man’s shoulders shaking, his head knocking on the door. After a moment’s silence, he released the handle and wiped his hand on his shirt. Avoiding everyone’s eye, he turned back into the café, walked to Austin and replaced the Voucher on the table. Austin had not watched the young man’s movements and did not move to pick up the Voucher which fluttered in the disturbance left by the sweep of the young man’s long coat.
“You said you were given the cash,” said the woman. “Who would give someone a million pounds?”
“I’ve always been a good man,” said Austin.
“A good man doesn’t need to tell anyone,” said the sweeper angrily, “he keeps it to himself and lets everyone else see it for themselves.”
“I’ve always been good and moral. Done the right thing. There’s always been a cost. I didn’t get everything I wanted because I put others first.”
“That’s easy goodness,” said the woman. “It’s doing things that counts; putting yourself out, not putting others first.”
“I’ve never stinted. I never crossed to the other side of the road; gave my money away if I had more than I needed. No, I’ll go further, I’ve gone without to help others.”
“No one here is impressed.”
“Do you know the effort it takes to be good?”
“You arrogant sod.”
“You’ve got to be on your guard all the time. You can’t afford to miss someone in need. No injustice can be ignored. I’ve never indulged myself knowing others to be in want.”
“I see. You’ve got such a high opinion of yourself you think you deserve immortality.”
“Not me. A group of people I’ve helped. Friends, people I’ve worked with. They collected the money between them. They were horrified by who was getting the jab: bankers, kidnappers, oligarchs, jewel thieves, footballers, blackmailers. You know who I mean?”
“Good luck to them, I say.” The sweeper’s voice shook. “They don’t know if it’ll make them any happier.”
“Maybe not,” said Austin, “but they’ll rule the world. They’ll always be there and when our children grow up and their children grow up and their children…”
“We get the point,” shouted the young man, back at his table staring at the ketchup stain on his plate.
“And their children grow up.” Austin paid no attention to the interruption. “These rich immortals will be waiting for them. They’ll pounce on them, use them up; devour them, and then do the same to the next generation. So my friends decided we needed to make sure some good people are there to protect our children, to make sure the rich immortals don’t have it all their own way. You see what I mean?”
“Makes sense, I suppose,” said the woman.
“There are groups clubbing together. Individually they can’t afford immortality but through cooperation they can make sure a core group of moral immortals continue.”
“And you’re one of the moral immortals.”
“Not yet I’m not.”
“So what’s stopping you? Your friends must think a lot of you,” said the woman. “And you know, it’s tempting. To be immortal.”
“To be immortal,” said Austin.
“And good,” said the woman.
“If I got the jab, if I was to live forever, how long could I go on before I stopped being good?”
“Now what’s he on about?” said the woman.
“How long before I did something terrible?”
“You’re just being fanciful.”
“I’m fifty years old and this morning, for the first time in my life I pushed a man’s hat so that it nearly fell of his head.”
The sweeper burst out laughing. “Oh my God, nearly fell off his head. You bad, bad man.”
“I was curious. After I’d thought of the act, I wanted to see if I could actually go through with it. But what happens in another fifty years and I’m curious again? I push to the front of a queue? Fifty more years and I betray a loved one. Two hundred years and I murder a child.”
“You’re just talking about probability.” The young man was standing up again pointing at Austin. “You could just as easily say that if you were immortal at some point you’d write an opera, swim the channel and open an orphanage.”
“Yes, those things too.” Austin shrugged his shoulders. “But if we all lived forever, how long before we each of us committed every sin in the book?”
His hands hovering over the Voucher, Austin stood up. Then leaving the Voucher where it lay anchored by a smear of spilt tea and sugar, he walked to the door. The café owner, the sweeper and the woman all gazed at the Voucher. The young man sat back down and faced the wall.
At the door Austin turned back and, trying not to look directly at anyone, said, “It was two weeks ago they came to me. Exhausted after a long day dealing with budget cuts, requests for help, the usual meetings and a really difficult case visit, it was late by the time I was leaving the office. Five of them representing the union, a charity, trustees and some other contacts I’ve got. That’s when they put it to me. What I’ve told you. I get the immortality jab and be here for the future generations. Can you imagine what I felt? No, you can’t. Anyone of you can grab that piece of paper but I was chosen. Flattered? That’s too weak. I felt huge. I’ll spell it out for you: they wanted me to be the father for all these children who are yet to be born. The protector of the weak for all time. I would always be here for them. Always. Watching them. The guardian. You get it now. But then they walked away from me, leaving me with the money. Leaving me with the world. They went home to sleep, to die. They had done their work and left me to mine. Now I’m walking away.”
The door closed behind him, and the plate glass shimmered. Austin passed in front of the window, quickly. A lorry obliterated the view of the business park, a couple on the pavement stood aside to let Austin by and he disappeared among the pedestrians, the traffic. A cloud darkened the street. Spots of rain smudged the window like an oily screen.
Image: Robbert Van der Steeg