Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
The car pulled up outside the entrance and three siblings stepped out into the hot sunshine. Sharp light glared off the glass door and bleached white the surrounding wall.
There was a woman and two men, one of whom paused at the car door.
“I guess I’ll summon it again for an hour?” he said.
The other man replied. “Or just wait till we’re ready?”
Jay, the man at the car, shrugged, put his phone back in a pocket, and watched the silver vehicle indicate and slide smoothly back out into the line of traffic.
Margo was already leading the way inside, pushing in the hot glass door.
“Come in out of this sun. You’ll cook out here.”
The entrance hall was large and the air cool and conditioned. A tall bright screen stood in the centre, in front of a pair of sturdy doors.
Philip, the second man, prodded the interface and it brightened, beeped lightly, and presented options.
“What do I pick? Ah, “Visit”.
Margo looked over his shoulder.
“Just search for the name. See- there- type it in, Argoss, Jane, yeah, now, yeah, that’s her. Now hit ‘Confirm'”
Philip pressed ‘Confirm’. There was a short pause, then one of the two sturdy doors swung open.
A young woman appeared, wearing a tailored dark suit and carrying a large tablet interface. She smiled in greeting.
“Welcome to Hanbury Healthcare! I’m Julie, Mrs Argoss’s care and lifestyle supervisor. I’m sure she’ll be delighted to see you!”
They stood and exchanged platitudes, pointing out the especially hot sun, and then the care supervisor led the three siblings down a series of clean, brightly lit hallways.
Jay sporadically coughed.
“You should get something for that,” said Margo.
They reached a corridor where one side was lined with large windows onto an enclosed leafy courtyard.
“Nice.” said Philip.
At the end of this corridor they stopped at an open room doorway on the right marked by number 274 etched in a metal plate. A sleek robotic care assistant (RCA) was just emerging with a smooth electric whirr. They stood aside to let it pass, and vaguely acknowledged its nodding head and beeps.
“Here we are” said the supervisor.
She turned to face the visitors.
“Now, you know, of course, that Jane is one of our older clients, and though she is very healthy she may not be 100% aware of her surroundings. So it’s important not to expect too much or to cause any undue stress.” She smiled. “I know she will really appreciate the visit.”
“Of course” replied Margo. “We understand.”
They were led into the broad bright room, where a big window opened out onto the same lush green garden courtyard.
“Hi Mrs Argoss, how are you today? You have visitors! Your three grandchildren!”
Mrs Argoss was sitting up in a large sophisticated bed. She was very small, had skin that was translucent, and her eyes seemed to focus on a distant point beyond the visitors. But she soon raised her head and smiled and nodded and they all smiled back and hesitated.
“Hi gran” said Margo. “You look so healthy!”
Mrs Argoss smiled and nodded and said “hello, hello” in a faraway voice.
The care assistant smiled and began to retreat out into the corridor.
“I’ll be back shortly; just press the buzzer if you need anything.”
The siblings gathered closer to the bed.
“How are you feeling gran?”
“It’s great to see you.”
“I hope they are treating you well.”
Mrs Argoss smiled and nodded and they strained to hear her little voice.
“Hello, hello,” she said. “I’m good, very good. It’s such a nice day. A lovely day.”
“Yes” said Margo. “It’s still very hot out, but they say it will begin to improve soon.”
“You have a beautiful view here.” said Philip.
“I do, I do, it’s such a nice view. And a nice day”
They stood and chatted, the three siblings asking questions in large tones with open smiles and giving Mrs Argoss ample time and strained ears to respond.
“Do you get to go outside gran?” asked Philip.
“I do! I do” she replied. “They take me out, and I get to see all the plants.” She was staring out the window. Leaves on dense shrubs bobbed in the light swirl of sheltered breeze and threw shifting shadows onto the grass and flowers.
“They used to let me pick herbs and even cook. But I don’t have the energy.” She looked back at the window again. Through the glass. Beyond the garden to some unfocusable plane.
Margo put her hand on the bed close to Mrs Argoss.
“Maybe you can do it again soon gran. Do you have everything you need here?”
“Yes, yes, everything. I have my music in the mornings and I just have to press a button for food, any time, and there are lots of things to do. There’s a button for everything. But Mrs Hart is gone. Where is Bob?”
She seemed to be trying to focus now on the faces of the grandchildren.
Margo looked at Philip, questioning. Philip shrugged.
“Bob?” asked Jay.
“Is he too busy to come? He’s always so busy.”
Philip leaned in front of Jay, smiling.
“Um, sure gran, he’s very busy.”
“I understand. It’s nice here. Look at this lunch menu.”
She turned the bed’s screen on its flexible arm with her thin tightly veined hand to show them a colourful list of dishes.
“Wow; looks great gran. So much choice.” said Philip.
“That’s much better than what I can get!” joked Margo.
Mrs Argoss’s voice was of a wren in a dense hedge at the end of a windy garden.
“and in the evenings they bring me to the hall and there’s music or video and we can talk.”
“Super. It sounds lovely.” said Margo.
“Do you have any pain now?” asked Philip.
“And sometimes the doctor comes himself and talks to me. And the nurse. No. No pain. No pain at all. Just no energy.”
She sat back in her bed. It made an instinctive whirr and readjusted itself to let her sink lower.
“Maybe your energy will come back soon.” said Margo. “It seems like a really good place here.”
The voice of Mrs Argoss faded further into a wisp of whisper.
“It’s much better, much better. Bob would like it.”
The siblings soon sat on the three comfy bedside chairs and looked out the window. With glances and gestures they let the conversation become wordless. They shouldn’t waste her energy. She needed to rest. Her bed was a very recent model. Everything was clean and up to date and comfortable.
After a while, and without sitting up or speaking, Mrs Argoss used a little control to turn on the main television screen screen opposite the bed. An episode of an old show resumed.
“Ohh, that’s an old one.” said Margo.
It was a brand of family drama that had long grown out of fashion. In one strand a young couple were arguing and the woman knew she was pregnant but hadn’t told her partner, and in another strand a businessman was confronting a sudden gambling problem while his son was making friends with the ‘bad crowd’ in his school.
As it finished the care supervisor returned.
“How is everyone doing? Would you like some coffee? Tea?”
“Maybe coffee” said Philip dozily.
The supervisor went to the bed and tapped a few buttons on a screen at its base. There was a whirr and the bed changed shape again, putting Mrs Argoss in a flatter sleep position, while the low buzz of an AC unit switched on somewhere.
“How is Mrs Argoss getting on? Is everything going well?”
“Yes yes, all fine” said Philip.
Philip stood up and walked to the supervisor. He carried a small briefcase and held it out.
“I brought some more things, some memories, and I was wondering if they could be added.”
“Oh, certainly, certainly. We appreciate any new content. Mrs Argoss has a very keen mind. She loves to go over photos and video.”
“I brought some books too, paper books, and a few magazines. And some printed photographs. Can you use those?”
“Of course, if the books are in the library we can add them. We can access a huge range of audio books too, with almost any accent. Perhaps we can scan some of the magazines and photos. Everything helps. At Hanbury we tune the experience to each individual. We use the latest algorithms.”
By the window, Jay mumbled “At a cost”.
Margo glared at him. The care assistant smiled.
“I’ll go find a home for this new content.” she said. Here comes your tea and coffee now.”
An RCA appeared with a tray balanced easily on its main arm. Coffee, milk, sugar, cake. It nodded and beeped as the supervisor passed on her way out with the briefcase.
The three had coffee. Mrs Argoss stirred her frail body, then leaned forward and punched the screen that rose to meet her hand. The RCA left and came back almost immediately with another drink in a little plastic container, which it opened and left on her bed tray. The tray zoomed it up under her chest as the bed tilted to raise her torso and head. She smiled and sipped.
“Are you having coffee too gran?” asked Philip.
“Just tea for me. Just tea.”
They ate and drank in silence and looked out the window. The tv came on, starting another episode of the drama, then abruptly switched off. The RCA returned and adroitly collected mugs and saucers, then left.
“Is that the same one?” asked Margo.
“The same what? The same robot?”
“Yeah. I was just wondering, if everyone gets their own.”
“I think they’re all connected. They’re all the same. It’s a network” said Philip. He stood and stretched, looked out the window, and sat down again.
The sun was dropping behind the tops of the buildings and walls that surrounded the tightly enclosed garden. Shadows deepened and darkened playfully across its growth. An elderly man was shuffling slowly from one of the far ends to the other, followed at a short distance by an RCA.
“How does so much grow here?” asked Margo.
After a pause, Philip roused.
“Water from pipes. Some kind of roof for when it gets really hot. Probably artificial lights because it is dark so early. Very expensive.”
“It looks so natural.”
“That’s the idea.”
“Such a lovely place.”
Jay looked unimpressed.
“Optimised to the last millimetre of potential, profit willing.” he muttered.
“This is the best place. Look how well she’s looked after.”
“And the most expensive and… protracting”
“Isn’t the doctor supposed to call in?”
As if on cue, the doctor suddenly appeared. Middle aged, with a thoughtful, busy expression, a grey beard, and silver framed glasses, he knocked on the open door and walked in as the siblings stood up.
“Hello. I’m doctor Hazan. I’m Mrs Argoss’s health coordinating consultant. I just wanted to pop in to ask if you had any questions about the care.”
Philip responded first. “Well, she seems fine. How is her general health these days?”
The doctor smiled at Mrs Argoss, who seemed to be asleep.
Well, Mrs Argoss is in excellent health, considering her advanced age and her life experience. One doesn’t get to 119 without bumps and jolts. But she’s still physically strong, and mentally very lucid.”
He looked at Mrs Argoss, then down at a tablet interface he carried, then up again.
“We have her on a very advanced program of activities and diet. Daily exercise, mental stimulation, socialising, and the latest generation of life devices, all based on the best research. Shall I go through the details?”
Philip demurred “No, no, we have a good idea. Is she on a lot of meds?”
“Very little. Almost none in fact; just a general level of mild pain relief and some compounds to help her organs function at their best. I can provide a full list if you’d like?”
“No, no, there’s no need. We just wanted to visit and see how she was getting on.”
“Yes, yes, of course. I’m sure she really appreciates the visit.”
He looked up at Mrs Argoss again, then down at the screen in his hands, then back to the siblings.
“She’s in great form and we’re delighted to have her here at Hanbury. She’s lived a remarkable life, has seen so many changes.”
Margo spoke. “She’s been through so much. She deserves the best of care.”
“Absolutely. Here you can see she has access to full-time assistance, 24 hour. And as you know we take a comprehensive view of health, with a service based on her very own life experiences and history. All tailored to provide enjoyable and active late stage living.”
“Yes, yes. we brought some more content with us today.” said Philip.
“Excellent. It all helps. Our clients really enjoy connecting with their past.”
Mrs Argoss smiled at the doctor.
“Hello doctor.” she said feebly.
The doctor smiled back.
“You have visitors today, isn’t that nice?”
He went to the bed base screen and tapped it. The bed readjusted. The AC turned off. A blind slid down to cover a ray of sunlight that had burst through the window to draw patches of bright in the room.
Then he turned to the siblings again.
“So, would that be it all for now? Of course you can always contact me at any time. Day or night. And Hanbury will immediately let you know if there is any change. And you can all access the full suite of remote services, and schedule a video chat with your grandmother. Or any of her care supervisors.”
“Yes, that’s useful” said Philip.
There was a pause.
“Great, so is there anything else I can help you with?”
“No” said Margo. She smiled. “Unless you can fix the weather.”
The doctor laughed as he straightened up and turned towards the doorway.
“I wish I could! I really do!”
Before he left, Jay spoke up again from the window.
“Just one small thing. She mentioned a Bob. I don’t remember gran knowing a Bob… grandad, her husband, was Frank.”
The doctor stopped, pinching thumb and forefinger to his chin in a thoughtful expression.
Mrs Argoss seemed to be sleeping.
“Bob.” mused the doctor. “I can’t say I know of a connection. Of course, at this later stage, you know, experience of the world can become somewhat fractured, and memory can become, quite entangled with it. In fact some clients connect with memories deep in their past, right back into their childhood, better than the world outside. Mrs Argoss has lived a long and involved life.”
Jay said nothing.
“I don’t think it’s anything” said Margo. “She just got a bit confused when we all came in at once.”
“Well I know she is very happy to have you here.”
The sunlight from outside had all but faded. The entire complex, and beyond it the city, was in the shadow of early dusk. An electric light inside came on, and the window blind rolled itself up.
“Well” sad the doctor. “Excellent. I shall bid you adieu then, and will hopefully see you again very soon. You may need to see the accounts officer on your way out when you leave? Ms Kavish, the care assistant will show you the way. Ah, here she is.”
Ms Kavish, the care supervisor, had appeared at the doorway, smiling, holding the briefcase, emptied.
They nodded to each other as he passed her in the doorway. He almost collided with an RCA that was buzzing down the corridor, then turned and walked in the opposite direction.
“Ok” said Philip. “I guess we should go and review the account.”
Ms Kavish smiled. “Certainly, I can show you the way now, or can come back at any time if you want to wait a while. We will serve supper soon if you would like some.”
“No, no,” said Margo. “we should leave gran in peace now. She seems tired.”
Mrs Argoss seemed to be fully asleep though the TV screen was back on.
They went back over to the bed. The supervisor used the screen to readjust the bed, turn the TV off, and the AC on.
“We’re going to go now gran.”
Mrs Argoss opened her eyes dimly but said nothing.
“You tell us if you need anything ok gran?”
She opened her eyes wider but looked confused.
Then she smiled.
“We’ll see you again soon ok?”
They left with the nurse, back through the halls and veering off into a suite of offices to meet the accounts manager. The policy and contract would need to be reviewed for the upcoming year.
“Will I summon the car now?” asked Jay.
By the time they finished, back in room 274, Mrs Argoss was already having supper. An RCA had brought her chosen fresh dish and the bed had shifted to leave her sitting up to eat it. The TV screen showed a series of seated exercises, and she squeezed her toes in time to the routine.
The door opened and Dr Hazan appeared.
“Hello doc.” she said softly between chews.
“Hello again” said the doctor. “Sorry to bother you so soon already. I just need to check something quick”
He tapped the screen at the bed base. Then he took out his phone, tapped it off the bed base screen, and held it to his ear and looked out the window into the dark patch of garden.
“Hi, could I get the care supervisor for patient 2874.”
“Ok, I’ll wait.”
Music played. He turned to look at Mrs Argoss and smiled.
“The waiting game” he said.
The music stopped.
“Hi, yes, Dr Hazan. Yes, patient 2874.”
“No, room 274.”
“I know. That’s why I’m calling.”
“I don’t know” He held the phone down.
“Mrs Argoss?” he said.
There was no reply. She seemed fast asleep. The bed had adjusted down. The doctor went back to his phone
“She’s asleep. We’ll have to order an ID test.”
“Definitely 274. Yes, I’ll wait”.
Music played.There was a long pause. An RCA came into the room and the doctor glared at it. It turned and left.
The music stopped. Phone to ear.
A long pause.
He looked at the bed.
“I see. Ok. Thanks.”
The doctor put his phone in his pocket and looked at the deeply sleeping woman for a long time before leaving.
Written in long tail of winter, 2018. I've been thinking about OPTIMISATION, and how aspects of human life might be treated in a time of even more pervasive technology, with wealth intact (for some) though perhaps not other things. I imagine wildness in narrow serviced pockets and something lurking below the normalcy, maybe political, or historical, maybe unintentional, maybe technological; something where optimisation and the narratives of life and the consciousness of being clash.