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Archive for June 2009

the black aeroplane

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It was very summery in the earlier part of last week, although as it happens it wasn’t going to last. On Monday Tallulah was in the office. I was standing in the kitchen at the photocopier wondering if I should ask Eric to brush up all the sand when I heard a soprano voice in the corridor singing ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.’

I come home in the morning light
My mother says when you gonna live your life right
Oh mother dear we’re not the fortunate ones
And girls they wanna have fun
Oh girls just wanna have fun

It was Tallulah. As she passed the kitchen door she glanced in. When she saw me she came in to say hello. Or rather she slinked in. There is something strangely lithe and feline about Tallulah sometimes. Her red hair was tied back in a thin turquoise scarf. She was wearing long silver earrings, a tiny crescent moon at the end of each one.

Tallulah told me that Jack and Owen had almost come to blows at a meeting of the Keats appreciation group a few days earlier. It seems they’d been arguing about Lauren Laverne’s rendition of “the golden pen poem”, as Tallulah called it.

‘Owen felt that Laverne’s reading was disrespectful and impertinent,’ Tallulah said. ‘Jack sniggered at him and accused him of being elitist. Of course Jack didn’t quite put it like that. He suggested to Owen that only a stuck up little twerp who had his head up his own backside could think like that. Owen retaliated by calling Jack “slack and totally without scruples” and said Jack was “lacking a robust sense of the true meaning and value of poetry”. Jack guffawed and suggested the real problem was that Owen had the hots for Laverne but was in denial about it, denial that he was converting into denial about the quality of her rendering of the poem. Jack said Owen would never admit the beauty of Laverne’s reading of the poem until he admitted the beauty of Laverne herself. You should have been there. It was bloody hilarious.’

‘It sounds like it,’ I said. ‘And so Jack nearly hit Owen, did he?’

‘Yes, it’s worrying. Jack’s needs to watch himself. When Owen retaliated by called him degenerate and disrespectful to women, Jack got up, swaggered over to him, poked him on the brow with his index finger and asked him what he was going to do about it.’

I laughed. ‘What did Owen do?’ I said.

‘He trembled!’ Tallulah laughed. ‘What do you think he did? He trembled, picked up his carrier bag of seasonal vegetables and went off to catch the next bus back home to Heidi.’

‘Sounds like Lauren’s really put the cat among the pigeons among the Keats aficionados, eh?’

‘Yeah,’ Tallulah said. ‘But it’s Jack I worry about. I’d hate to see him do something he’d regret.’

‘Bloody hell, Tallulah, since when did you ever care about what happens to Jack? Last time you spoke to me about him you didn’t give him the lickings of a dog.’

‘Didn’t I? Really? How odd. I’m really very fond of Jack.’

Tallulah looked at me with a wide-eyed, innocent expression. It was an expression Laverne herself sometimes wears. I laughed. She laughed too.

‘Hey, do you know he’s taken to wearing a cowboy hat now?’ she said. ‘Well, a sort of Fedora, I guess.’

‘Is it black?’ I asked.

‘Yep,’ Tallulah said. ‘Black as your hat. Black as a spider. Black as night.’

The Good Doctor Sticks also came over last week. We had a session about the Electronic Assessment Module, which he continues to see as the future of social work, and then moved on the other matters.  He had an idea he wanted to pitch.

‘In The Observer this week it said that there were eight hundred Brits on waiting lists for Swiss euthanasia clinics,’ he said. ‘This is a clear case of demand without supply. Where’s there’s need, there’s opportunity. This is the fundamental principle of the market economy. And the government’s not about to make euthanasia legal over here any time soon – except in Gordon’s case as a one off, of course – and even if they did the money’s not there to fund the service from the public purse, so the market will need to fill the gap. I’m looking to pull together some interested people from various disciplines to begin to put together a package and come up with a business plan. Needless to say you, my friend, were one of the first people that came to mind.’

‘Thanks, Sticks,’ I said, rolling my eyes. ‘I’m flattered. So how do you see this working, exactly?’

‘Okay, our company will essentially operate in a specialised area which combines the expertise of social care professionals, counsellors and medical practitioners of various kinds with other areas of expertise, such as those of the travel and package short-break holiday providers, the leisure industry, the undertaking profession and funeral services.  The basic idea is that we will put together complete packages in Switzerland for those who wish to end their lives by euthanasia.  We will provide a complete service – transport, accommodation, nursing and medical care, return of the body, funeral services and so on.  But within that service we will offer a bespoke end of life experience for every client and their family.  We will set up a centre in Switzerland where a dying person and their loved ones can spend the client’s final days together. We will offer privacy and five star care. But more than that, we will tailor the whole package around the dying person’s wishes and desires. They will eat the foods  they love, listen to the music they love, see DVD’s of their favourite films or those they’d always wanted to see but missed, have their favourite books and poems read to them, and so on. The family would have a suite with all the amenities they desired and a top notch twenty four hour global care and hospitality package. We’d ensure that we met their every demand. For example if they loved Bartok, they could listen to him all they wished. We might even be able to get a string quartet to play for them.  If they liked Chas and Dave or ragtime, we’d ensure that it was available for them. Rap music, hip-hop, madrigals or Welsh male voice choirs. Whatever they wanted to hear before they left this world, we would ensure they heard it. Similarly with films. If they wanted Close Encounters of the Third Kind they would have it. Plasma screen, wraparound sound, Dolby stereo – the works. Similarly if they wanted The Swimmer or The Masque of the Red Death or The Snowman. And the same with food. If they wanted caviar they would get it. If they wanted cheese and onion pasty and mushy peas they’d get them. Top quality ingredients, cordon bleu chefs. On their final day, which I see as usually being a Sunday, the dying person would have a final evening meal – a Last Supper , if you will – after which they’d retire to their bed to begin their final journey.  At this point the music of their choice would begin to play, and again it could be anything they wanted, from Gorecki’s Third to something like K. C. and The Sunshine Band’s sublime and immortal “That’s the Way I Like It”, uh huh, uh huh. The latter would be my personal choice, of course. We’d want to make dying an unforgettable experience, if you’ll excuse the paradox.’

I nodded slowly. ’You don’t see this as at all cynical, do you?’ I said. ‘The exploitation of desperate and vulnerable people?’

‘I don’t’ Sticks replied. ‘Not at all. Don’t forget, my friend, better the good guys provide these services than let them fall into the hands of the bad guys.’

‘So if good guys do bad things does it make those things good?’ I asked. ‘Or does it not just make the good guys bad?’

‘You think too much, my friend,’ Sticks said, his affable smile rising like a brand new day across his face. ‘The key issue here is need and ensuring that need is met. That’s the business we’re in. We need to see that the market is the future for all areas of social care. There’s no shame in it my friend, no disgrace.  So, are you interested?   Do you want to hear more?’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Go ahead, shoot.’

‘Okay, here’s how I see it. In addition to the Your Final Days centre in Switzerland, we’d need a support, preparation and after-care service in the UK. That’s where you’d come in.  But more importantly we’d need our own aeroplane specially equipped to transport the dying person and their family to Geneva, or wherever. It would be a unique aeroplane for a unique journey, the Final Journey, a journey the dying person will only take once.’

‘So what will you call your aeroplane?’ I said, ‘EuthanAire?’

‘That’s good,’ Sticks chuckled. ‘I like its phonic ambiguities. It sounds like “you thin air”, where the status of “thin” is uncertain. Is it a verb or is it an adjective?  But either way it speaks of the ephemeral, transitory nature of our corporeal selves, does it not?  And the word also evokes the phrase “youth in air”, which is also helpful in reminding us that we all grow old and that death is inevitable, that being young is as fragile as a perfume on the wind. It isn’t the name I have in mind but it’s an interesting suggestion.’

‘No, Sticks, it wasn’t a suggestion: it was a joke.’

‘Of course it was’ he said. ‘But an interesting joke, yes?  However, the aeroplane I have in mind will be completely black, black wings, black from nose to tail fin. But inside it will be lined with white satin and all the furnishings – the seats, the couches and beds, the curtains, the carpets and the drinks trolley – will be gleaming, clean and white and lovely white lights will light every corner of the cabin space.  And the cabin staff will be dressed all in white too. It’s like a metaphor for death itself, you see. From the outside it looks dark and forbidding and inscrutable. The dying person wonders what it’s like inside.  But his or her final flight shows them that inside the black aeroplane it is peaceful and serene and that everything shines like snow.  This is how the Final Flight of life will be for our clients. They will ascend above the Earth and make the passage to Switzerland in the black aeroplane. That will be the name of our company, Black Aeroplane Enterprises.  I like to think that in time the phrase “it’s time to take the black aeroplane” will become an everyday figure of speech for dying, in much the same way as shuffling off the mortal coil and popping one’s clogs are now. And the advertising material is there already: take the black aeroplane and make dying an unforgettable experience. What do you think? Do you like what you’re hearing, my friend?’

‘Yeah, I guess,’ I said. ‘But do you think it’ll ever get off the ground?’

‘A black aeroplane is no heavier than a silver one,’ Sticks quipped. ‘I am anticipating no special difficulties with gravity.’

‘But what about if it’s made illegal to offer such packages. Or what if they liked their last weekend so much they decided they didn’t want to die after all?  Or what if euthanasia’s made legal in the UK and service providers are popping up everywhere?’

‘If the dying person were to decide they wished to remain with us they could return to the UK alive with their loved ones on the same flight that would have taken their body home.  Furthermore they will be offered a fifteen percent discount on a future booking if they make this within twelve months of that date.  If euthanasia is made legal in the UK I already have a plan to capture the market with a chain of high street branches aimed at providing a sensitive high quality service for the volume market. I’ll call these Last Stop Shops, which is rather clever, don’t you think?’

I shrugged. I sometimes think Sticks is on something – like another planet, for example. However, he’s regarded in the Directorate as our key ‘blue sky thinker’ and as a man whose views you should never dismiss.  Some say he sees the order of future where others can see only chaos.

‘You should be on The Apprentice, Sticks,’ I said. ‘Alan Sugar would be bowled over by someone like you.’

‘You think so? ‘ Sticks smiled, a slow, deeply self-satisfied smile, almost the smile of a cat. ‘Well, I’ll take that in the spirit I think it’s intended, my friend. Thank you. Yes, I can see it too: “Sticks: you’re hired!” Ha ha. And so what’s your answer, then? Do you want to be in my project group? Yes or no?’

I rubbed my jaw. ’Let me think about it,’ I said.

‘Fair enough. I’ll give you a bell next week. But remember, if the good guys don’t do it, the bad guys will.’

I love the way there’s so much greenery and light at this time of the year and how it all seems so irrepressible and profligate. I drove along Renwick Road that evening in slightly luminous marbled-pebble light. I passed Ronnie Campbell’s office at the corner of Claremont Terrace. It’s funny how meretricious and unfashionable the yellow and red of Labour looks now (no doubt a rebranding now awaits us in the not too distant future). Less than half a mile by Jag from his big house on Marine Terrace, Ronnie’s shabby office, an old brown corner shop – inscrutable and uninviting and which never looks likes it’s open – seems a metonym for his shoddy worn-out party, a metaphor for the way our representatives weigh the needs of the people against their own needs. I slid around Broadway Circle past the bow-windowed pre-war semis – solid, secure, desirable – and noticed in gardens the yellow tongues of the laburnum lolling in vague, soft shadows. I remembered that when I was a kid I thought these houses were really posh and that they belonged to rich people, people from a different world to me.

When I got home Margaret was sitting at the kitchen table doing a new jigsaw. It was a picture of a steamroller, a green Aveling and Porter. There was also a large jagged crystal on the bench beside the kettle.

‘Have you seen Brenda?’ I said.

‘I have,’ Margaret replied.

‘And how was Bowness?’

‘Bowness was good, I think. Tristan perhaps a little less good.’

‘Oh?’

‘Oh, indeed. The man doesn’t know how close he is to being given his marching orders. I mean, he’s so insensitive he even asked Brenda to marry him one night! Marry him, you know! Marry him! What is it about hanging from a thread that the man doesn’t understand?’

‘Tristan asked Brenda to marry him?!’ I said, genuinely surprised. ‘Nah, surely not. Are you sure Brenda’s not just pulling your leg?’

‘Brenda does not pull anyone’s leg,’ Margaret replied, very earnestly. ‘What she told me was the truth, I’m sure of that. They were sitting at a window seat in an Italian restaurant called Rumours, which is apparently at the bottom of the hill opposite St Martin’s church. Do you know it?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I do. They do a good garlic bread.’

‘They’d just come back from a cruise on Windermere. It was a lovely evening and the sun was shining on her face. Out of the blue Tristan asked her to marry him, but, and here’s the cherry on the cake, he wouldn’t be able to buy her an engagement ring until business picked up! Brenda says she was absolutely gobsmacked. She felt it was as if he wanted her on the cheap.’

‘So did she say no?’

‘No, she didn’t know what to say. She said she just leaned over, kissed his cheek once and asked if she could have another glass of wine.’

‘Wasn’t she flattered?’ I asked. ‘I mean, it isn’t every day a woman gets a proposal of marriage, is it?’

‘No, she wasn’t flattered. She felt she was being manipulated. She felt she’d been defiled.’

‘Defiled?’

‘Yes, defiled. That’s the word she used. She felt she’d been defiled.’

At that point De Kooning, who until then had been sitting benignly on the kitchen table, took it into his head to steal a piece of Margaret’s new jigsaw. He knocked it on to the floor with his paw, jumped down, picked it up in his mouth and ran away with it, out through the conservatory into the garden.

‘Which piece has he got?’ Margaret asked.

I looked at her and shrugged. ‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘The one that fits the hole that’s still there when you’re finished, I guess.’

Margaret shook her head in dismay. I turned on the oven and got a pizza out of the freezer. I made myself a cappuccino and sat in the conservatory waiting for De Kooning’s return. It crossed my mind that the piece of music I’d want to play while I lay dying in Switzerland would be Dvorak’s cello concerto.

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