The hair of man turns grey with age, his soul, the vibrant colours of forest leaves before they fall ... the souls of most men do.
Trevor was lonely, desolate, and the dread of an empty life after retirement caused him palpitations. The palpitations were worst, shortly after waking, on cold, grey mornings in bleak winter.
Comforting cup of warming, sweet tea in hand, he stared through his kitchen window at the darkness of an early December morning. Already his navy-blue gabardine raincoat was pulled over his grey work-suit in readiness to leave. Morosely illuminated by the dull glow from street lamps, and revealed by their refracted light, flecks of snow driven by a wind from the north western Arctic gusted across the road. A car drove slowly by, its probing headlights picking out the tracks of a previous vehicle in the film of slurry formed by melting snowflakes. Lifting his foot, Trevor examined the sole of his scuffed, creased Oxford lace-ups. No holes. His feet may get cold, but at least they would not get wet.
His life, he reflected, was like his shoes, secure against the worst, but worn, cold and joyless. As he contemplated the unpleasant journey to his office, the thought that his soul had turned an unnatural grey tortured him. A dank walk through chilly blasts to the tube station would be followed by an hour-long journey in underground tunnels, on a stuffy train, being careful to avoid eye contact with fellow commuters, before emerging once more above ground for the short walk through a dark, cold, grey, concrete and glass canyon, to Westminster Town Hall Annexe. A local government employee earned too little to buy a house in a central London borough, which is why he lived so far from his place of work. But his employment was secure, his pension generous and inflation-proofed.
In his air-conditioned office Trevor would be neither too hot nor too cold; his work-surface would be appropriately lit, and his ergonomically adjustable chair would support him in comfort for the next eight hours. But he would not see the dawn.
At some point he would walk to the coffee machine to refresh his cup and from there see, above the roofs of adjacent buildings, the dull, grey, morning sky. He might even stroll to the window to look down on the figures hurrying back and forth in the cold, damp gloom, and feel gratitude that he was ensconced in the warmth. That would be the highpoint of his day. Worse yet, as he contemplated his future, that would be the highpoint of his remaining life. With no exceptional fortune of which to boast to his colleagues, he would shamefully confess to himself that his only consolation came from comparing his comfort to the relative discomfort of others.
For eight hours he would receive paper, sort, collate, complete, then file, or, with appropriate recommendations forward it. His position with a local authority was responsible and indispensable, though it was not his own local authority. Of course he needed the income, but it was the opportunity for human contact, the excuse to talk, the occasional smile, the odd joke, even sometimes a shared intimacy, that drew him to the office on time, every day. That was what sustained his life, and soon this prop would be removed; what would follow was too horrible for him to contemplate.
At this time of year he would not know that dusk had fallen before, at five-pm, he put on his raincoat and walked into the gaudily illuminated darkness of a city centre for the reverse journey home.
Unpleasantness as he travelled to work.
Boredom spiced faintly with human warmth, when he arrived.
Unpleasantness as he travelled home.
Lonely comfort, home alone.
This five-layer sandwich described the routine of his life.
Today was no different.
By quarter-to-seven Trevor was at home in his kitchen, sitting at the table nursing his first glass of wine, his dinner spinning slowly, right then left, in his microwave oven.
On arriving home he had switched on the central-heating and it would be another hour before the living room warmed through, so he lingered in the kitchen which quickly heated from the gas burners of the hotplate. For many years he ate his main meal by himself, a tasty and filling meal seasoned with loneliness, then sat before his large, state-of-the-art television and watched fantasy lives filled with drama, hope, despair, danger and love.
He remembered drama; he remembered hope; he even remembered fondly his times of danger, and those memories evoked echoes of the accompanying emotion. But he could not evoke the sensations of loving and being loved.
He knew there had been love. He had married, he had had children, but his relationships turned sour, then painful, and when he remembered, he could not pick out the love above the pain. However, if he did not try to remember he felt no pain.
Later, as he sat watching television sipping from a comforting glass of red wine, he gloomily ruminated on his prematurely grey life.
At fifty-nine the turbulence of love, marriage, and raising children was behind him but, unforeseeably, he was denied the cosy afterglow he had earlier in life expected to sustain him through old age, up to death.
Why his relationship with his wife, Sarah, had turned poisonous he never completely understood. Was it only money? He could never earn as much as his brother-in-law, or the husbands of Sarah's friends. Their home was never in the right area, the car not new enough, the holidays not in a sufficiently plush hotel.
Trevor's salary was never extravagant, but his employment was secure, in the public sector, and he had never expected Sarah to work, an expectation she shared. His plan had been to live comfortably but modestly within his adequate and predictable income, which he felt fairly rewarded his talent and worth. Sarah wanted him to strive harder, take risks, seek better-paid employment, and expand his means to finance the more expensive lifestyle to which she believed she was entitled. Her envy of her siblings and friends corroded and destroyed their relationship. Separation and divorce followed.
Trevor financed Sarah's reduced circumstances until she remarried, and he continued to finance his children, Dan and Timmy, until they reached adulthood. Despite his assiduous endeavours to maintain contact with his children, their stepfather became "Dad", and Trevor was relegated to the status of a dull and distant benefactor to whom courtesy visits were dutifully made.
Looking forward, he could see his life clearly marked out. In eight weeks or so, on 5th February 2001, he would reach sixty and begin to subside into the death embrace of the Welfare State. His Freedom Pass would be issued, enabling him to travel free on public transport, a saving to him of £3000 a year. And next autumn a Winter Fuel Allowance would appear in his bank account to defray the cost of keeping himself warm through dismal winter. For five more years he would travel to work and process paper then, on 5th February 2006, he would retire - not just from work, but from social intercourse, also.
His pension would be two thirds of his final salary; however his endowment insurance would pay off his mortgage which would almost offset the drop in salary. There would be a large cash gratuity, possibly used to buy a new car to last into old age, then finance a dream holiday and, in addition still leave a nice little nest-egg to sit in a bank account, as security against a rainy day.
He would have hobbies and activities to fill his life until his decline, when his primary relationship would be with the National Health Service. His days then would consist in a routine of retrieving pills from his Dosette Box at the right time, and keeping appointments with his GP, various consultants, physiotherapist, phlebotomist, and so on.
Social Services would support him at home until he became incapable of looking after himself, when he would be transferred to a Care Home, there to sit in a rank with the other frail, old-folk, silently staring into the middle distance. As his organs began to fail he would be transferred to hospital while his condition was stabilised, and from there to a Nursing Home where he would be maintained somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness by sedative drugs. The deep pocket of the taxpayer would be tapped to preserve him in this condition until the inevitable could be staved of no longer and some bacterial infection, beyond the power of his immune system to resist, would carry him off.
In this his life and death would be more secure than most of the World's people could hope to enjoy, more secure, more pampered and better managed than the lives and deaths of almost all the kings in history. This knowledge did not bring him the contentment or reassurance for which the founders of the Welfare State may have hoped. Staving off the worst hardly secures the best; it doesn't even secure the half-decent he thought, nor had it secured the half-decent for him. He had been the recipient of the State's benevolence all his life and it had brought him great security, but the State provided neither happiness nor pleasure in any measure; even a Welfare State left a man to find these for himself.
When Trevor contemplated the idea of dying after such a life, he was appalled. In that moment of painful self-appraisal he concluded that there was nothing to be done now. His life had been squandered, and he asked himself what would have made him content to accept his accelerating decline into death? What now could inject such happiness into his life that he would die feeling un-cheated? What would fill his cup?
The prosaic answer came easily:
But he knew that the quest for love, sex, and excitement, was the prerogative of the young, and he was six weeks from receiving his first badge of senility, his Freedom Pass.
If I had my life over again ...
He strangled the thought, which could only bring anguish. One man gets one life. He had lived his and was now on the conveyor belt to death. In all the circumstances, the absence of insecurity and pain was as much as he though he deserved.
Later, when his living room had warmed and the wine had charmed up an artificial glow of well being, as he flicked through the channels seeking something to match his squiffily fatuous mood, he came across a re-run of an old TV movie starring Charlie Drake and Bill Maynard.
"Filipina Dreamgirls" was a tragicomic story of five "assorted English arseholes" - two silly old men included - off to the other side of the world to seek young brides ordered from a catalogue. He felt their foolishness would amuse him for ninety minutes, and in the back of his mind he felt he would also find consolation in comparing their unbecoming behaviour to his own respectable dignity. Lights out, he recharged his glass and relaxed back into the sofa, ready to float alone like an amused superior over the "Son et Lumière" of farce warmly radiating the comical aspect of human folly from the corner of his living room.
At its climax, Trout - Bill Maynard's character - drunkenly ridiculed the 'arseholes.' Charlie and Bill were masters of the undignified, and Trevor could, at his age, with gratitude say to himself ...There but for the Grace of God go I. However, Trevor noted that though the fictional arseholes lived, some with fear of failure, some with the consequences, all, despite the tawdriness of their lives, had loved and been loved; more than a small victory. He retired to bed, his spirits uplifted by the good wine and the triumph of human aspiration over the banality of real life. His ninety minutes of escapism were followed by seven hours of oblivion.
The alarm sounded at 5.30 am, and on waking his first thought was that he must, before he was granted further respite, again endure the banality of reality for the next sixteen hours. A slight mugginess in his head was the price banality exacted for his elevated mood the previous evening; a little salt on his greyness to bring out the fullness of the colour. Then out of the shower, into his grey suit, into the cold, dark morning, into the stuffy tunnels, into his climate controlled and ergonomically engineered office and back to his indispensable paperwork. Indispensable; but neither interesting nor challenging.
Trevor was a veteran of thirty-five years shuffling, an acknowledged expert. His whole department shuffled paper, and the dramas of his life centred on errors in paperwork, revisions to forms, and use of the photocopier. Emotions could run high, alliances be brokered, betrayals hatched, hatreds formed, careers built and destroyed, a microcosm of artificial life fed and sustained by the torrent of paper. Through long-service and the ability to remember where records had been archived, Trevor had risen to the lowest level of middle management.
At work, he had made good friends when young, but they rose more rapidly than he, or moved to exploit better opportunities, and now he had only colleagues, most much younger than himself, who saw him as an obstruction to promotion, a pettifogging schoolmaster pointing out pettifogging errors in their homework, never as a person to be invited to the pub after work. In truth, he did not see himself as such, either.
Twenty years had passed since any of the office girls flirted with him. They looked younger and more appealing than ever, but his position meant that the fear of his rebuke, no matter how gently phrased, cast a shadow over every transaction. Deference was no substitute for flirtation. Anyway, he had long ago conceded that their inviting bodies were for enjoyment by younger men, and he had ceased to yearn.