A Helping Hand
Beryl made her way to her daughter’s house, a casserole dish in her arms. She entered via the rear door, which led into the kitchen, and as she ventured inside, the usual scene confronted her - carnage!
An unscalable mountain of fetid laundry stood in the corner of the kitchen, snow at its peak. Washing-up sat piled high in the sink, so much so that the mixer tap had been turned to the wall to allow breathing space. The cat litter tray was overflowing, too, and reeking of ammonia. Doubtless she’d be attending to that one again later. A unique duty, she thought. More or less the opposite of panning for gold.
She made her way into the living room, carrying two plates of dinner – one for her daughter, Gemma; the other for her son-in-law, Leroy. Gemma was wearing a red onesie that made her look like a jelly; Leroy looked like a sausage that’d gone wrong on a production line. She handed them a plate each, then joined them in front of the TV. She noticed the corner of the room was still damp from where their fish tank had inexplicably keeled over and shattered. She’d made them clear the fragments of glass for their baby’s sake, but the frame had remained in situ. As for the fish, who knew? But their fat tabby, Ed, wasn’t giving anything away. As for baby Liam, he was fending for himself on the living room carpet – naked except for a nappy, which required changing urgently. But his parents were yet to register. Flies buzzed listlessly overhead as if Gemma and Leroy’s apathy had somehow spread zoologically to them. Beryl shook her head and turned her attention to the TV.
An advertisement for Serenity Inc. began. A man in an all-black suit filled the screen. “Is your quality of life less than it used to be? Troubled by ill health or unmanageable medical bills? Looking to escape financial difficulties? Or is this world simply no longer for you, yet you’re too afraid to take the plunge? Well, now there’s no need to worry.”
The scene shifted to an operating theatre, where an elderly lady was lying on a table, nodding in hyperactive agreement with everything the man was saying. Beryl wondered if they’d put her on something.
“At Serenity Inc., we’re here to give you a helping hand. We offer the means to transition from this life safely and at a competitive price.” The man smiled, a little too broadly perhaps, revealing a vampiric flash of incisors.
As the advert drew to a close, they both looked at her. She wondered what was going through their heads. Then, to her dismay, she realised what their expression was ... EXPECTATION.
As the door closed behind her, Beryl fumbled on the step a moment. Where had she put her keys? She then overheard Gemma and Leroy talking in the kitchen.
“Just think, if she popped off, we could make all our dreams come true.” That was Leroy’s robotic drone.
“Yeah; we could pay off all our debts.” And that was Gemma’s insistent whine.
“We could go to Disneyland at last.”
“We could get a new TV!”
“And a new microwave!”
Their imagination was boundless.
“I mean, she’s not been happy for ages, has she?”
“No, not for a long time.”
“What’s the point in her sticking around?”
Shocked, dumbfounded, open-mouthed, she dropped her keys. The conniving little shits she fumed. Wish I’d spat in that casserole now.
She staggered home as if she’d been Tasered and as she made her way, she reflected upon Serenity Inc. and how they’d gotten started. She remembered it all too clearly. It’d started well, in fact, in the very beginning. She’d championed it at the time, the relaxation of the laws against assisted suicide. Her husband of 35 years had been suffering from an incurable illness that’d left him unable to move or speak. But everything she’d needed to know, he’d told her with his eyes. For years he’d begged her to do it, but she’d been powerless to do so. The new laws had finally given her that power. Finally, she’d been able to free her husband from his misery. She’d welcomed the changes to the legislature back then. For families with circumstances similar to hers, it’d been a blessing.
But now the service was too freely available. If anything, it was over-advertised, for there was good money to be made in state-endorsed genocide. It was also helping to get the population down in a time of crippling austerity. Now anyone could take their own life at the drop of a hat, provided they could demonstrate sound mind and judgement. So many of her friends and neighbours had already done so – had felt obliged to do so, considering themselves burdens to their families. They’d embarked upon the programme simply to take the strain off. Madness!
But now it was her turn in the firing line. Gemma and Leroy had their sights on her, it seemed. But she didn’t want to die. Not yet. She was only 68, for Christ’s sake – and in relatively good shape, thank you very much; as opposed to Gemma and Leroy, who were becoming increasingly blancmange-like with each passing day. Was it so much to ask - to be able to enjoy her modest retirement in peace? She didn’t think so. She’d earned it. Why did she have to kick the bucket just to fund their sluggish lifestyle?
Indeed, ‘lazy’ was a four-page definition in Gemma and Leroy’s dictionary. Neither of them had ever had a job. Leroy’s days were spent mostly in front of the TV, watching Sky Sports and scratching his balls; Gemma, meanwhile, would be immersed in her VR headset, getting lost in an infinite cosmos of bright lights, whilst her surroundings in the real world fell into rack and ruin. They never did any repairs as such, nor any basic household maintenance. Not even a smidge of cleaning, such was the extent of their inertia. These days, they considered it an imposition even to flush the lavatory after use.
Beryl had raised the issue with them many times, had reminded them they had a child and needed to take responsibility for his sake. “What about the little things,” she’d say, “like changing this lightbulb or taking the bin out?”
“But those are men’s jobs,” Gemma would warble in protest, before looking accusingly in Leroy’s direction. “Besides, I do all the cleaning,” she’d say, whilst defiantly spraying a filthy pair of curtains with air freshener. “And I do all the cooking,” she’d add, nodding in the direction of the microwave, where something beige would invariably be rotating and spluttering.
In short, Beryl was against the programme – objected to it with every atom of her being. It felt like some initiative on the part of the younger generation. “Take, take, take” was their motto in life, without considering, even for a millisecond, the prospect of ever giving anything back. Today’s generation only saw their parents in terms of how useful they could be to them. Even her own child, whom she’d brought up to the best of her ability and supported with all the loving care she could give, now seemed to see her merely as a pile of loot waiting to be snaffled.
She’d made a pact some time ago with her friend Pat – a pact against this silliness, this fanatical movement that was spreading like an infection. Or so she’d been led to believe, for Pat had also snuck off one day and ended it all at one of their marble-white consultation centres. She’d left her a note telling her she was sorry, but she couldn’t go on without her Jeff, and besides, she’d wanted to leave her children an early inheritance else how on earth were they going to get on the property ladder?
Her circle of allies was rapidly diminishing, and all the while the ranks of syringe-toting adolescents in black were closing in. She was beginning to find herself somewhat besieged in her two-up, two-down in East Hackney.
“Ooh, Mum, look what’s arrived in the post,” Gemma said, coming into Beryl’s kitchen with a leaflet from Serenity Inc.
This was a complete lie, of course, for the postman had already been an hour ago. She’d been intimating along this theme all week, leaving subtle hints about the house – hints that were about as subtle as a toasting fork up the nose. Photos of deceased friends and relatives, crucifixes, and playing Stairway to Heaven repeatedly on her iPhone. It was a wonder she didn’t see her below her bedroom window at night, dressed as the Grim Reaper. Or Post-it notes on her fridge, reading: “You’re next!” She’d been impossible to get rid of this week. Rather like athlete’s foot. She’d never seen so much of her, which told her immediately something was amiss. It was very rare she took the trouble to cross the road and visit her at her own house. At this rate, the buttock grooves in her couch might finally get a chance to smooth out.
“You know you’ve not been happy since Dad passed away,” she was waffling, one thought at a time pinballing inside her otherwise empty brain. “Then there have been all those problems with your back.”
Well, bugger me, bring on the firing squad then! With a case that watertight, it’s a wonder I didn’t chuck myself under a bus years ago!. She cast her eyes over it, skim-read it without taking any of it in. “Yes,” she said wearily. “Seems very comprehensive. I’ll think about it.”
Why was she such a pushover? All her life, she’d been everybody’s doormat. She may as well have had “WELCOME” written across her forehead. Now here she was again, passively allowing her self-entitled, freeloading fatberg of a daughter to escort her to an early grave, and all so she could clear her maxed-out store cards!
On the other hand, what reason did she actually have for going on living, with so many of her friends already having passed on, and with her alleged nearest and dearest doing everything within their power to hasten her demise? To say she no longer felt welcome on this mortal coil was an understatement.
Gemma had taken it upon herself to invite a representative from Serenity Inc. to her mother’s for a free consultation.
A black car drew up silently beside her house. A door opened and a pair of black-stockinged legs swung out. A girl in her early twenties, with black braided hair, and enough foundation to build a fortress on top, made her way up the drive, tottering on ludicrous heels like a coked-up Barbie doll.
“Beryl? Beryl Lloyd?”, the girl asked, tugging at the hem of a very short black skirt.
“Yes, I’m Mrs Lloyd,” Beryl said.
“Oh, fantastic,” the girl beamed. “I’m Arabella.”
Beryl didn’t know what to think. Clearly, Serenity Inc. had reeled this one out for a reason: the friendly face of euthanasia, perhaps. “Won’t you come in?” she asked.
Arabella immediately fell onto Beryl’s couch and made herself at home, half sliding out of her shoes as she did so. “So, I understand you’re interested in purchasing one of our packages?”
“Yes,” Gemma said, answering on her mother’s behalf. “And it’s just a one-off fee?”
“Oh, yes, that’s correct, and we can proceed at a time to suit you. We keep the whole process stress-free for all parties.”
Oh, good, because I’d hate to be a nuisance to anyone!
“Just take a look at our latest promo,” Arabella said, pressing her name badge. The words ‘SERENITY INC.’ lit up momentarily on her chest; then, all of a sudden, Beryl’s TV came to life.
“We make it so easy,”, a young man with platinum-streaked hair and suspiciously white teeth was saying. “We can provide an exit plan tailored to your needs.” He was standing behind an elderly lady at a kitchen table, guiding her through a range of options, with a kindly hand upon her shoulder. It was the same elderly lady from the previous advert, Beryl noticed – thank God! So, they hadn’t shoved a pillow over her face just yet then.
“Our services can be delivered either in the comfort of your own home or at one of our friendly local consultation centres. We are qualified to administer anaesthesia, as well as the exit method of your choice. For home visits, we also provide HRPs for the safe disposal of your remains.”
Great, they even supply body bags!
“We really do take care of everything,” the young man continued. “We’ll even handle the aftercare, such as those difficult funeral arrangements. In short, you don’t need to worry about anything. Rest assured, we’ve got it covered.”
“Just one question,” Beryl ventured. “When the young gentleman said: ‘exit method of your choice’, what did he mean?”
“Oh, yes,” Arabella answered, blinking with doe-eyes – if does wore twenty-tonnes of mascara, that is. “We have a variety of options. This is currently our most popular.” She held up a white capsule.
Beryl flinched. Was this a regular party trick of hers? Casually presenting death pills as if she were handing out after-dinner mints?
“It’s completely painless,” Arabella insisted, edging forward.
“Understood,” Beryl said, shrinking away until the folds of her armchair could permit her no further.
“So, what do you think?” Arabella asked, green eyes like crosshairs, targeting their prey.
“Well, it’s certainly something for me to be thinking about.”
Gemma’s expression shifted instantly, as if she’d been told the last doughnut had been taken.
“Excellent,” Arabella said, undeterred. “Then let me leave you some brochures. And remember,” she added, rising to leave, “we’re always here to give you a helping hand.”
“Thank you,” Beryl said, though frankly she wanted to stuff the brochures down the little brat’s throat and throw her out on her ear.
“So?” Gemma asked once the car had driven off.
She sighed heavily. “Let me see the forms.”
So, today was the big day.
Beryl was seated in her usual armchair, with Gemma and Leroy sitting on the couch opposite. A spare armchair sat empty, waiting to receive the agent from Serenity Inc.
There was a knock at the door. Gemma answered it giddily, a spring in her step. But it wasn’t Arabella; it was a man. An old man with grey hair and wrinkled skin. He frowned as he entered the property.
“Mrs Lloyd,” he said, taking the empty chair. “I understand you were looking to participate in one of Serenity Inc’s assisted suicide programmes today?” He then looked over to Gemma and Leroy, and his frown intensified.
Gemma and Leroy, in turn, were wondering what was going on. Why was he here empty-handed?
He continued - “Unfortunately, Mrs Lloyd, I regret to inform you that you haven’t qualified for the programme today. You didn’t clear Serenity’s screening checks due to factors beyond your control. Serenity then referred your case to us.” He produced an official-looking card from his top pocket and laid it before them on the coffee table. “I am with local law enforcement.” He then returned his gaze to Gemma and Leroy. “Under article five, paragraph four of the assisted suicide act, I have been instructed instead to detain your daughter and son-in-law for mandatory euthanasia.”
“What!” Gemma and Leroy blurted in unison.
“As lifelong benefits claimants, you have been deemed non-productive members of the state. Consequently, your termination will ease the burden on more contributive taxpayers.”
They looked to one another in desperation. “But we can find work,” Gemma croaked.
“Doubtful, judging from your records. Neither of you have at any point actively sought employment. Besides, even if you were able to find work, your debt to the state could never be repaid. As for your mother, she by default will no longer qualify for the Serenity programme as she will now be awarded guardianship of your son.”
Suddenly, Leroy sprang from the couch and made a bolt for the front door, and for the first time in the history of their use, his amorphous grey jogging bottoms finally saw action. But he didn’t get far. Four camouflaged officers broke cover and tackled him to the ground.
Meanwhile, Gemma remained seated and open-mouthed as the agent cuffed her wrists. She looked at her mother, and for the first time in her life felt something new. Regret.