Flames engulfed him. The smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils. He tried to run but his feet wouldn’t move. The floor was a sea of fire. He screamed for help but no sound came. Thick black tar oozed from his mouth. A frenzied barking cut through the roar of the flames. He jerked awake; the bedroom hazy with smoke. Buster, his old Jack Russell, was on the bed, barking and wagging his tail frantically. He staggered through to the kitchen. The chip pan was ablaze, the smoke alarm melted by the column of flame beneath it. He started to cough. The heat was intense. He grabbed a towel and plunged it into the washing up bowl. Covering his face from the flames with his arm, he managed to throw the damp towel over the pan, extinguishing it.
The kitchen was a mess. Soot stains on the walls, a burnt patch on the ceiling and a thin film of grease over everything. The whole house reeked of smoke. His son Charlie, and daughter Sue, sat opposite him at the kitchen table. She’d wiped it down and sprayed air freshener around to try and cut down the smell. They weren’t happy. “You said you were going to change the battery in the smoke alarm months ago.” She looked at him. The despair in her eyes all too obvious.
Arnold Tramper was in his late seventies and things had been slipping for some time. The burnt saucepans, the overflowing baths, the lost keys and misplaced wallets; the mobile phone he never charged and the remote emergency alarm fob he never wore. And now this. He realised that if it hadn’t been for Buster he wouldn’t even be having this conversation. The situation couldn’t go on. They’d driven round to see the various care homes on offer but none had inspired them with any confidence. They sat in the kitchen. A pile of brochures lay on the table in front of them. Arnold sipped from a mug of tea, a despondent expression clouding his face. The cracked mug showed a picture of the Forth Road Bridge, the last surviving one of a set of great bridges of the world presented to him by his colleagues when he retired from the engineering works over a decade ago. He remembered the thrill of working on the bridge as part of the structural maintenance crew.
High above the slate grey river looking out across Queensferry he could see the Burns monument jutting into the sky from Princes Street in Edinburgh many miles away. The sun glittered off the water hundreds of feet below. As a fit young man he’d felt immortal up there amongst the wheeling gulls. But that was many years ago, and these days’ getting to the top of the stairs was the best he could hope for. His knee replacement operation had not been a great success and his pronounced limp and painful stiffness if he stayed seated for too long was getting worse.
His son spread the brochures across the table. In the corner of the room Buster nibbled at one of his claws, broke wind loudly and circled his bed before collapsing with a satisfied grunt onto the frayed blanket he called home. “What do you think?” Arnold surveyed his son through rheumy eyes. “They were all rubbish.” He poked an arthritic finger at one of the brochures. “Except that one. That was nice.” His daughter reached over and took his liver spotted hand gently. “We thought so too…but.” She looked to her brother, eyes pleading, knowing there was no real answer. Arnold nodded. “Too bloody expensive. His son sighed. “Over a thousand pounds a week. Daylight robbery. You have to be poor or rich to get what you need these days, we fall between two stools.” There was a silence. Broken by a sudden frenzied barking from Buster.
Like a cartoon dog his legs spun on the slippery vinyl floor as he hurled himself up and out of the door like a rocket headed for the hall. The letterbox clacked and a deluge of leaflets and junk mail flopped onto the mat. Buster returned triumphantly with a thick envelope clenched in his jaws.
Arnold smiled. One of the few pleasures he had left was watching Busters antics with the morning mail. It was called morning mail, but only people of his age could remember when it actually arrived in the morning. “C’mere Buster.” He waved his hand at the whirling dog as it thrashed the letter around dementedly. After a brief tussle Buster relinquished the letter in exchange for a digestive biscuit. A standard act of barter he’d perfected over the years. Arnold opened it. “Probably just junk.”
He scanned the letter inside before reaching for the brochure that accompanied it. His daughter looked over. “What is it?” Arnold shook his head, confused. “Some sort of free offer.” His son snorted. “Yeah right, no such thing as free…look for the asterisk.” His dad had told him that as a child. Arnold studied the brochure. It showed a picture of a modern building set in beautiful surroundings. Well laid out gardens lined a drive winding through mature trees populating a wood carpeted with a soft layer of bluebells. He recognised it as being near the local wood just outside of the town. It adjoined a golf course. He’d been to a wedding held in the clubs grounds many years ago. His daughter read the letter “They’re offering you a place.” Arnold shook his head sadly. “What’s the catch?” She read down the page. “Doesn’t seem to be one.”
She read aloud. “Oudelands House is a state of the art modern facility created to provide care in the local community for senior citizens who find themselves outside of the normal funding options. We offer you the chance to help us become better by providing us with feedback in lieu of charges. All that we ask is that you give us a weekly report on how your stay could be improved.
She went on. Our research has discovered that you, Arnold Tramper, are a perfect candidate for our program, and we would like to offer you a lifetime place at the home. She looked up, eyes full of hope. His son took the letter from her. “No asterisk. Arnold looked down at Buster. “What about him?” His daughter flicked through the brochure. Pointed to a picture of an old lady with a dog sitting next to her.
“They allow pets as long as they are well behaved.” Arnold smiled for the second time that day. They arrived at Oudelands House on a crisp Saturday morning. The grounds were glorious. The sun lancing through the trees gave the buildings a celestial aura. Early snowbells heralded the end of winter, and gardeners were hard at work preparing the grounds for the coming seasons blooms. The manager of the home was there to greet them.
Miss Davenport, a well preserved lady of unfathomable age showed them around. The rooms were clean, the air sweet with some kind of aromatic spice, and Buster made a special effort not to disgrace himself; though a potted palm caught his eye and he made plans to visit it later. The residents seemed happy. Dotted around in the various rooms that led off the main corridors. Arnold saw a couple playing chess. They seemed to be moving the pieces effortlessly. He looked on with amazement as they went from start to checkmate within few minutes. Other residents worked on large jigsaws, Suduko, and crosswords.
A small group sat watching a documentary suggesting that Aztecs were really Aliens who’d landed on Earth thousands of years ago. Compared to the other residential homes he’d visited this seemed infinitely calmer and more relaxed. A feeling of optimism started to creep over him.
They walked through the large dining room. Whatever was being served looked and smelled delicious. As they were shown around the various treatment rooms and facilities Arnold was amazed at the quality and cleanliness of the home. At the end of the tour they all agreed, Oudelands was out of this world. Arnold was hopeful, but at the back of his mind a nagging thought persisted. “If it seems too good to be true…”
Within a week Arnold and Buster were installed at Oudelands. They had a room overlooking the woods at the back of main building and Buster spent his days lounging on top of a cushioned bench window seat. From his lofty vantage point he could observe the squirrels and other wildlife darting in and out of the woods. He’d settled in well and soon became a favourite with the residents, allowing them to tickle his belly and scratch his ears. Though he was happy with the many elderly guests he still seemed wary of the staff, wrinkling his nose and bearing his teeth when one of them came near. Arnold hoped he’d settle down once he grew used to them.
The days passed uneventfully and Arnold and Buster enjoyed the comfort of their new home. Arnold took his afternoon walks in the wood accompanied by a carer and Buster scampered ahead digging and sniffing in the undergrowth. Arnold tried to learn chess so he could join in with some of the residents, but they seemed so experienced he knew he’d never be able to keep up. Even watching them do a large-scale jigsaw astounded him. No sooner had they started one jigsaw than they were unpacking another. At times he felt like the odd one out.
There were various weekly visitations from the outside world. A lady brought books in for the residents; she worked for the WI and had a side line in tasty jam sponges that Arnold had a craving for. Another women arrived in a smart little van with the slogan “WARPAINT” written on its side. Arnold had watched as she unloaded box after box of make-up and had wondered where it all went. He’d never known old ladies to be that keen on cosmetics. But as his wife had died tragically young, he realised he knew very little about that side of growing old. He never saw a doctor, but Miss Davenport had told him there was one on call when he first arrived.
He made a friend of Becky, a young girl with a warm smile and a cheery nature who came once a fortnight to look after the resident’s nails and feet. Arnold enjoyed talking to her. They chatted about family and pets. Buster warmed to her and enjoyed it when she tickled behind his ears. She finished up filing his nails and started to pack up her things. She dropped her voice. “You seem different to the rest of them.” He looked at her. “Well I’m hopeless at chess if that’s what you mean?” She shook her head. “No, I mean, everyone else is a bit distant. I work in all of the local residential homes and none of them are like this one.” Arnold nodded. They’re all perfectly pleasant, but they tend to keep to their groups.” Becky closed her box of instruments. “How did you get in here anyway?”
Arnold looked around. “I was offered a place as long as I gave them feedback on the home each week.” “You don’t have to pay?” He could see Becky was surprised. “No, I keep waiting for someone to tell me it’s all some sort of mistake, but so far so good.” Becky stood up. “Well I’m glad you got in here, from what you were telling me things were getting difficult.” Arnold nodded. “Yes, we didn’t think we’d find one local that we could afford.”
Becky saw Miss Davenport approaching. “Okay, well, I’d better be off. See you in a few weeks.” And with that she was gone. Miss Davenport came over to him. “Everything alright?” Her unlined face smiled down at him, eyes the palest of blue stared at him unwaveringly. Arnold often thought she’d make a very good street mime, the kind that remained motionless for hours. “Oh yes, she does a very good job.” Miss Davenport looked at Becky’s retreating back as she headed towards the doors that led out to the car park. “Yes, she’s very…” She seemed to search for the word. “Efficient.” Buster rolled back his gums revealing his sharp teeth. Arnold stroked him and held him by the collar. Tried to cover the low growl that came from between his lips. “So how are you settling in?”
Arnold looked into her unblinking eyes. “Very well thank you. Everything’s fine. My room’s perfect and Buster seems to like it here.” Miss Davenport gave a tight smile. “Well that’s good. We should have a talk about helping you with your memory and your knee. We have a lot of specialist treatments at Oudelands that could be beneficial.” Arnold had always wanted to see what they did on the treatment floor at the top of the main building. He’d asked a few of the residents but no one seemed to know. Or if they did, they weren’t telling him.
He rubbed at the nagging pain in his leg. “Well if you think there’s something you could do?” Miss Davenport nodded. “Well I’m sure we can make things a lot better. And then you’d be able to take Buster for longer walks.” She reached out to pat Buster on the head. But Buster squirmed out of his grasp and to Arnold’s horror sank his teeth into Miss Davenport’s ankle.
“Oh my God! What did she do?” Arnold and his daughter sat at the far end of the dining room on a sofa surrounded by chairs that formed a small lounge for the residents. Lunch was over and the staff busied themselves setting up the tables for afternoon tea. She looked at him in dismay. If Buster had to leave she didn’t think her father would be able to cope. But Arnold shook his head. “Nothing. She didn’t seem to notice. Buster just let go. There wasn’t a mark on her.” Sue frowned. “That’s not possible.” She looked around. Oudelands House hummed with efficiency and as always was spotless, yet she’d never seen anyone cleaning.
Arnold told her they must be doing all the cleaning at night. “What with? Surely you’d hear them hoovering.” Arnold shrugged. “I’ve never even seen a hoover. Maybe they just sweep up.” They saw Miss Davenport pass the open doors to the dining room. She nodded and disappeared down the corridor. “I swear that women doesn’t walk she glides.” One of the staff appeared with a tray and dispensed cups of tea. Sue thanked her and then they were left alone.
“She’s suggested some form of treatment for my memory, and my knee.” Sue held his hand. “That would be good, but I didn’t think there was anything they could do.” Arnold looked around. “Well they must be able to do something, just look at these people.” Sue studied the residents in the lounge area. A white haired lady was quietly filling in a Sudoku in the paper, barely pausing to lift the pencil from the page, she was finished in seconds. Across from her two elderly men were playing chess, making decisive moves seemingly without much thought at all. “Maybe they don’t have anyone else with dementia?” Arnold leaned forwards.
“Doesn’t it seem a bit odd that they gave me a free place provided I give them a weekly report of how I see things in the home?” Sue looked at him. “I er, well…” Arnold gave a short laugh. “I mean I’m lucky if I can remember what I had for breakfast.” Sue pushed her hair back over one ear. Chewed on her lip like she’d done since she was a child whenever she was thinking hard. “That is a bit weird, but if they’re happy to foot the bill, and you’re happy I don’t suppose we should worry too much about it.” Arnold patted Buster. “Well, Buster’s happy and it’s time for his walk. “Sue kissed him and stood up. “I’ll pop in tomorrow, let me know how the treatment goes.” He watched her as she went. He couldn’t for the life of him remember what treatment she was talking about.
He wasn’t sure what it was that woke him up. One minute he was sound asleep, the next he was sitting bolt upright in bed. Buster shook himself and padded over to give his hand a reassuring lick. He listened. It was quiet. But there was something. A low vibration, like a piece of distant machinery. Maybe they were hoovering at night after all. He gave Buster a new chew to keep him busy and slipped into his dressing gown. He opened the door leading into the corridor and looked out. Deserted. The low energy lights flickered on as he slipped down towards the stairway that lead upstairs. A dim slit of light leaked beneath a door to one of the rooms on the top floor. The low hum stopped. He crept up the stairs. He came to a door marked “Engineering”. He’d passed it many times before and had assumed it was something to do with the lifts. He never used the lifts if he could help it. He’d had a nasty experience in a hotel once when he got stuck in a lift for hours during a power cut. Besides, the more exercise he took, the better he felt. He grasped the door handle and eased it open. He fumbled for a light switch, but there wasn’t one.
The moon was out and enough light came through the windows for him to make out some vague shapes. As his eyes adjusted he realised what he was looking at. The upright shapes were people. Standing motionless in the dark. They stood in neat rows. It was terrifying, and for a moment he thought it must just be another of his weird dreams. But then he noticed something they all shared in common. A small winking red light on each of their wrists…like they were charging.
He turned to leave, every fibre of his being urging him to run. “Good evening Mr. Tramper.”
Miss Davenport detached herself from amongst the standing shapes and moved towards him. Arnold swallowed. “Er, sorry, I was looking for…” He trailed off. What he was looking for now was a way out from this nightmare. The lights in the room automatically faded up to half power and he realised who the people were. They were the staff of Oudelands…only they weren’t people, they were… Miss Davenport read his mind. “Yes, we’re artificial, but that is a necessity considering who we’re caring for.” Miss Davenport ushered him to a chair. “You’d better take a seat, this must be a bit of a shock for you.”
Arnold swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry, as he sank into an armchair in the corner of the room. “I don’t understand.” He realised how weak that sounded. The level of his not understanding was off the scale. Miss Davenport smiled. In the quiet of the night he was aware for the first time of the faintest of hums as she came up to him. “You must have been wondering why you were chosen to come to Oudelands?” Arnold could only nod, his voice seemed to have deserted him.
She continued. “For thousands of years humankind has existed alongside other life forms on Earth.” Arnold was suddenly jolted by a memory, the documentary that had been playing on the TV when he arrived. Something about Aztecs and ancient alien beings. Miss Davenport looked at him, like she could read his thoughts. “Yes. They’ve taken every precaution not to be seen, though there have been some close calls.”
Arnold nodded. “UFO’s, little green men…” She smiled again. “Yes, though the colour is something we can’t do anything about. It’s just something that happens when they get…” Arnold finished her sentence with a clarity that shocked him. “Old…” Miss Davenport smiled. “Yes.” Arnold thought of the boxes of makeup he’d seen unloaded every week. No wonder they’d needed so much. It wasn’t makeup, it was cover up.
As he listened in stunned silence Miss Davenport brought him up to speed. Oudelands House was very different to other care homes. The main difference was it wasn’t for humans. The sentient beings we’d unwittingly shared our planet with were almost immortal, but after thousands of years the original members of the landing party were starting to get old.
Not as old as humans, but old enough that they couldn’t risk the strange side effects that manifested from them as they began to change. Arnold listened. It was all starting to make sense. The cleanliness, the flashes of light from the treatment room and the level of intelligence within the residents. Even after thousands of years they were light years ahead in I.Q compared to humans. Having robots to look after them made perfect sense, but even though they had lived amongst us for hundreds of years they still needed someone to make sure they didn’t give themselves away at the end of their lives…some kind of early warning system to prevent any suspicious behaviour. After all they still had to interact with the normal population.
What better way than to have their own smoke alarm so to speak. “A token human being.” Arnold smiled. He was their monitor. If he noticed anything odd about the residents they would know to alter their behaviour. It was the perfect arrangement. Miss Davenport looked at Arnold, her head cocked on one side. Probably a mannerism she’d noted and mirrored for effect Arnold thought. “So how are we doing?” Arnold shook his head. “Until I stuck my nose in I guess you were doing fine.”
Miss Davenport gave one of her tight smiles. Arnold swore he could hear the clicking of solenoids. As an engineer he realised he was always listening for the first signs of a mechanical problem. But then his hearing wasn’t great anymore and he could easily have imagined it. “Well then I suppose the next step is up to you.
Sue came bustling in with a shopping bag full of little surprises. A hide chew for Buster. The weekend papers and some snacks for him, as well as a few things he’d asked her to bring in. Buster got straight into his chew. Arnold stood up and walked over to the lady serving teas. He took the cups and some slices of cake and trotted back to place them on the table net to Sue. She looked at him wide-eyed. “What happened to you?” He paused, then realised what she was talking about. “They have some pretty good treatments here.” Sue shook her head in bewilderment. “They must have. You’ve had five operations on that knee, and none of them worked.” He shrugged, picked the Sudoku book out of her bag and thumbed through it. Sue smiled. “You’d better put a good word in for me with that Miss Davenport next time you see her.
None of us is getting any younger and I could do with staying in a care home full of miracle workers. Mrs Riley across from you will be green with envy when she sees you jogging around while she’s still using her Zimmer to get about.” Arnold smiled as he flicked through the Sudoku book. That should keep me going till teatime he thought. He wondered if the slight hum from his knee had been audible as he trotted back from the tea trolley. He’d have to get them to check on that during his next treatment.