"In the future being alone will become easier." Douglas Coupland, 2010
1. The Future
The future arrived on the Larne Caernryan ferry. It was much too big to travel by air.
The future arrived unannounced at 6:37am on a particularly grizzly Tuesday. Most people missed the moment, for they were either fast asleep or fixing the children's packed lunches. Local radio stations did not cover the future but the BBC breakfast service devoted a six minute slot in the space between sports and weather. Hugh Grant, who was in the studio poised to promote his latest romantic comedy, was asked for a comment on the future. Hugh Grant suspected the future would be shiny and preternaturally inclined to see his latest rom. com. on opening weekend. The future had nothing to do with Hugh Grant.
The future was not as shiny as expected. Up close, in the early morning mizzle, it was exactly the colour and consistency of an over-used saucepan.
The future was sliced into one point six million individual packages. There was great debate over the exact number of cuts. In certain sections of the country there was no demand for the future. In the city centre, outside the kingdom of shops, the more cultivated members of society had been queuing for weeks, seething over the rumour that London, Edinburgh, Liverpool and even bloody Cardiff, had all received the future first. "Typical," they said, fuming over their mispronounced lattes, "They always forget about us, stuck over here." Regardless of need or demand, the future was sliced equally into one point six million individual packages. In the provincial port of Larne extra hands were required for the circumcision.
The future did not divide easily.
The future would not fit through an average sized letterbox. Across the province thousands of businessmen and working mums returned home to find the future had not been delivered. The Royal Mail was stormed by lines of angry individuals mounting vigils outside their depots as they demanded their fair share of the future. Dispensing the future required extra hands.
The future, once installed, swelled to encompass an average-sized home. Most families and couples—both married and co-habitating—felt the future had given them a greater freedom in which to live and breathe and have their being. "Before the future," they said, "It felt claustrophobic here, like an island or something." Most people who lived alone wrote public letters in praise of the future. In secret, by themselves, they sipped from the same bottle of Merlot for the third night in a row and observed the future suspiciously from the farthest corner of the sitting room. The future was not as shiny as they had expected. "Gosh," they admitted secretly in the pit of their wine, wet hearts, "Since the future arrived this feels more like an island than ever."
The future was old enough to know better.
2. Old People
In the future there were only two problems: old people and lonely people. Whilst the lonely were all but invisible, occupying office jobs, single-cell apartments and mid-sized motor vehicles, the old people were painfully apparent.
In the future old people were everywhere. Almost one point three million of the one point six were older than they had been before the future arrived. (The remaining point three million—an unholy mish-mash of exiles, aliens and conscripts from the free state—were unsure if they officially existed and, as such, could not be counted).
In the future old people moved en masse, like a flock of arthritic pigeons shuffling their diseases from the shopping malls to the bus shelters and back to the pubs in time for The Weakest Link. They dragged the future behind them in tartan-print shopping carts and Tesco carrier bags. They had not yet taken the trouble to unwrap the future but noted it, smiling, each time they added a fresh pack of Bran Flakes or a library book to their stash. "Isn't it lovely?" they said, fumbling at the corners of the future, "It's much shinier than I'd expected. It's almost too nice to open. Maybe I'll just save it for Christmas in case I don't get much this year." With willful disregard for the future the old people continued to wear ill-fitting, knitted accessories, to buy The People's Friend in hard copy, and to favour cinnamon above all the futuristic flavours now available.
In the future old people were a problem like global warming or lung cancer. The experts—heavily suited gentlemen, and ladies from London with briefcases—felt certain that the old people, like lung cancer and global warming, could be fixed with just the right mixture of restraint and advertising.
In the future old people were expected to be younger. Though the percentage of old people with youthful haircuts had dramatically risen in the future, these haircuts had no substantial influence upon their musical tastes, their politics or their propensity to pick their teeth in full view of the general public. Despite scientific research and the development of a Government task force on age prevention, old people were just as old as they had ever been. Whilst the future was well-established and experiencing marked success amongst the young, the middle-aged and the working classes, in certain parts of certain towns the old people were actually growing older by the day.
In the future old people did not have jobs or important roles in clubs or societies.
In the future old people spoke a different language. Certain accents and intonations were similar to the future but the ordinary people found it hard to understand the old people in crowded bars or on mobile telephones.
In the future old people made everyone feel bad for being young. "I don't want to see old people everywhere," the young people said to each other over after-work pints in corporate pubs. "They make me feel like I should be doing something more important while I still can." "Screw that," they replied, over two-for-one meals in the very same corporate pubs, "in the future, everyone is important just because they're here, in the future; everyone except the old people."
In the future old people were forbidden from congregating in groups of five or more. "There's something vaguely threatening about a group of grown men with sticks, standing in a mall, speaking a different language," explained the Home Secretary, "If they refuse to embrace the future, the future's sure as Hell not going to bend over backwards for them."
In the future old people could be donated to the lonely. The government, fully aware that old people were making the future look bad, offered a small incentive of thirty pounds Stirling for every old person donated. A yellow shipping crate, emblazoned with graffiti-style caricatures of a lonely person, weeping, was positioned in the centre of every major town. Old people could be deposited in these crates between the hours of nine and five, Monday to Saturday. On Sunday the crates were closed for business, allowing the managers a decent lie in. Armchairs were provided for the comfort of the old people. The future was ruthless but not cruel.
In the future old people were part of the solution whether they liked it or not.
3. Lonely People
The future was hard on lonely people.
The future required two hands to open. Many lonely people had lost arms and legs in the war. Some lonely people had both hands busy, juggling careers and cats and dogs and dead parents and bouts of minor depression. Other lonely people were too tired out from being lonely to contemplate the future. "Is it like flat pack furniture?" they asked, examining the future from all four angles, "I can't do flat pack furniture by myself. Once I bought a bookshelf from Ikea and it's still sitting in the garage. I can't do the future if you have to make it for yourself." "Perhaps," suggested the man from the Royal Mail depot, exacerbated by the ever-growing line outside his door, "the future might seem more manageable if you asked your neighbours for help, or joined a religious group of some sort." "Oh, no," said the lonely people, flushing beetroot red, "they might think I was lonely or something."
The future was easy to ignore at first. The lonely people simply chose to pretend it hadn't arrived. During the week they religiously avoided the staffroom at lunchtime when talk of the future was as inevitable as the air conditioning.
The future was worse at weekends.
The future was unbearable on Bank Holidays which, though publicly anticipated, in private felt like a three day death sentence. The lonely people, embarking upon lonely little pilgrimages to the holiday destinations of their childhood, slept between starchy, guest house sheets, read library books in plastic sheaths and consumed joyless ice cream cones from the staunch comfort of their winter coats. The thought of the future hung like a migraine headache over all their meals, prophesying another decade, perhaps two, of similarly lonely holidays.
The future, when finally un-wrapped, sat awkwardly in the average lonely person's living room.
The future did not match the wallpaper. The future left indentations in the laminate flooring. The future openly mocked the Royal Doulton figurines parading up and down the mantelpiece with their Victorian frocks and parasols. The future made every tiny detail of solitary life seem tired and lonely and somewhat frugal.
The future did not work for everyone. The old people seemed quite content to ignore the future whilst the lonely people grew lonelier by the day, frustrated by the fact that they simply could not get their futures started.
The future was slower than expected. Whilst most members of the community noted with forced bravado the head-spinning pace at which the future was progressing, the lonely people examined their users' guides and wondered why the future refused to get going for them. "Does the future require batteries?" they asked, flooding the Government-run help lines with their lonely, little questions, "Does it need a jumpstart? Is there a shop where you can get your future fixed if it has problems getting started?" The Government-run help lines scratched their collective heads and put the lonely people on hold to the tune of various, futuristic Bowie hits. "Hmmm," they said collectively, examining all the statistics available, "it seems as if the future isn't working for everyone."
The future was not as popular as anticipated.
4. Old People and Lonely People in the Future
In the future being alone became easier.
In the future every lonely person was entitled to their very own old person, free of charge, delivery included. Most lonely people over the age of thirty made good on the offer. "It can't do any harm to have another person around the house," they said, clearing a space on the living room sofa, "the future will be much more manageable now I've got someone to talk to."
The future remained a mystery to the old people. The sharpest wondered if the future had commenced without them. The more senile elements talked of the future in wild outlandish terms, quoting Shakespeare and Star Trek and the book of Revelation. These old people were often unpleasant to be around, and prone to outbreaks of physical prayer or violence when cornered. The majority of old people however, shoved the future down the side of the sofa and determined to forget all about it. They grew old in defiance and refused to be drawn into any conversation attaining to or regarding the future. "The future," they said, with fake exacerbation, "sure it's nonsense. If you believed everything they said on Tomorrow's World, we'd be floating up and down the Sandy Row in tinfoil jumpsuits."
The future was only available to those who could imagine it.
The future had not yet begun for the lonely people. They considered asking the old people for some wise words regarding the future but had no idea how to begin such a conversation. Instead they smiled at each other politely like actors on an instant coffee advertisement and cried in the bathroom with the bath taps running, and made endless cups of silent tea.
The future was an awkward topic for outsiders. The future was like religion or modern warfare or open-heart surgery; only the experienced were granted rights to an opinion.
The future proceeded without the lonely people and the old people. The future grew more futuristic by the day. Within six months even the original skeptics had begun to admit the future was just as shiny as anticipated, perhaps more so. The lonely people were the first to agree, publicly and with notable enthusiasm. The old people put the kettle on and watched yet another BBC2 documentary about the times before the future arrived. "Those were the days," they mumbled, between mouthfuls of custard creams and fig rolls, "You knew you were on an island in them days."
In the future being alone became much easier.
In the future many people found they did not even have to leave the comfort of their own living room in order to feel alone.
is a writer and community arts development officer based in Belfast. She is the current recipient of the Arts Council NI Artists' Career Enhancement scholarship. Her first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears
, will be published by Liberties Press in May 2014.