Clifford opened one eye. The digital radio clock on his bedside table flicked to 0213 as, somewhere in the mid-distance, the ‘bee-bah’ siren of either a police car or ambulance passed by. It took him a while to work out whether he’d been woken by the noise, the need for a trip to his bathroom or simply his body-clock. Eventually, swearing to himself, he acknowledged that further sleep was unlikely and that he might as well rise and do something.
Fumbling in the dark, not without deliberation because of his bad back, he pulled on some clothes and paddled downstairs to make himself a cup of tea and fire up his study laptop. There were seven emails waiting in his in-box, four of which – shop discount offers – he deleted without ceremony. One, from his daughter, gave little updating details of her life and two young children and then asked if there was anything in particular that he would like for his birthday the following week, a milestone of which hitherto he had been both aware and yet disinterested. Sixty-six. It didn’t seem possible. Whenever he looked at the media ‘birthdays’ columns, he gained satisfaction from noting the mounting ages of celebrity names he recognised, without ever relating them to himself, even when he was older than many of them.
Soon bored with computer business, he moved through to the drawing room, switched to the BBC 24 hour news channel, settled in an armchair and picked up a newspaper. There was little purpose to any of these actions. He was just filling in time, waiting until he felt tired enough to return to bed. Twenty minutes later he had finished The Times (again) and began staring at the wall behind the television. It was just another night, a typical one.
A new item came up on the screen. It was the weekly half-hour programme We Salute You, which Clifford had not set eyes upon for nearly two months. As ever, he was impressed – normally he was as critical of the state broadcaster as anyone, but he had to admit they did this project justice. To be fair, there was no obligation to do anything. Once anyone reached B-70, they simply bid farewell to family and friends and reported to their local Departure centre. Given the nature of things in 2034 Britain, for years Clifford had expected nothing of the BBC and simply accepted its offerings for what they were, not least because of the lack of alternatives. In this context, he acknowledged, We Salute You was not only a worthwhile public service but a rewarding one. To see footage of the B-70s arriving and settling into their Departure centres, to listen to reviews of their life achievements – indeed, to be able to celebrate them in this fashion – seemed somehow appropriate and fitting.
Having watched the programme, still not sufficiently weary to retire, Clifford made another cup of tea and pottered about in the drawing room. He flicked through a couple of magazines, unable to muster the focus and concentration to open The Resolve, the latest Geraint Pockson novel that he had bought the previous weekend. His mind switched briefly to his appointment with his accountant, just off The Strand in central London, at 11.00am – please God, or somebody, that he could get back to some slumber before the time came to rise again for breakfast.
Eventually tiredness made its welcome return. Clifford went upstairs one more and sank beneath the duvet, still wearing his undershorts, a T-shirt and socks – one of which, he noted, had developed a visible hole just above the ankle. With the radio clock burbling beside him, he snuggled into his pillow justifiably confident that temporary oblivion was not far away. As he relaxed and breathed deeply, a passing thought came to him.
Sixty-six next week. That meant just four more years.