I met a man called Patrick on a train recently. He was a very nice guy and easy to talk to. His story both surprised and fascinated me, and I thought I’d share it with you:
“For heaven’s sake!” my wife Marjorie shouted at me. “Why do you always do it?”
We were at London’s Waterloo Station, going to the cinema, and as usual, she was berating me for giving money to the beggars who always congregated on the street. I’d just given some cash to Charlie, a dear old boy who had no teeth, whom I’d run into many times on my travels, and whom I always felt sorry for. Charlie couldn’t talk very clearly, and of course eating was a problem for him, so in addition to parting with cash, I often brought him soups and chicken broth from the local cafe.
“If you didn’t fritter away money on these rubbish people, we could afford more holidays, we could go out and enjoy ourselves occasionally!” she snarled. “Instead of struggling to make ends meet on your lousy salary! You’re a useless bloody, witless failure with about as much drive and ambition as a slug. I wish I’d never married you.”
Not long afterwards Charlie seemed to disappear, and sadly I never saw him again at his haunts in Waterloo.
On the day Marjorie caught me giving some money to a street artist, she blew her top again. Shortly after that we divorced, after twenty of the most miserable years of my life. She did well out of the divorce settlement, and would even get a chunk of my pension, the cow.
I had a pretty lonely life after that, and then I had to retire from my job, and, sadly, knew that my reduced circumstances meant I couldn’t even give a few quid to the odd beggar, or help the charities that I usually liked to give to. On the plus side, at least it gave me more time to help out as a volunteer at the local hospital and with the meals on wheels. Marjorie had always jeered at my volunteering work, describing it as ‘arsing about do-gooding, instead of buckling down and earning money’.
My idea came to me one day as a sort of ‘dare’ to shake me out of my lonely rut.
I decided to go to a mainline London station, buy a ticket for as far as you can go in Britain, and get on the first train at random and go wherever it took me.
To have an adventure. To allow fate to take a hand in my life.
Fate had decided to make it a rainy horrible cold morning, and the signs were anything but propitious, and I almost decided to turn round and go home.
But on impulse, I went through the barrier to platform ten and boarded the train that had just pulled in.
And oddly enough, the guard’s warm friendly smile, plus seeing that first shaft of bright sunlight penetrating the station’s glass roof, lifted my despondent mood.
And off we went, rumbling and chugging along. After several stops I nodded off, calmed by the pleasant jogging sensation of the moving carriage and thinking about my miserable, empty, lonely existence.
I don’t know how much longer it was, but when the train pulled in at the next station I just ‘knew’ it was my stop. The name on the platform said ESIDARAP, which seemed quite the weirdest name I could ever have imagined.
But once out of the station I found myself in the high street of a delightful little village, with pleasant green fields and trees in the distance. The entrance to the Barley Mow pub seemed very inviting and I went in and walked up to the bar.
It’s hard to describe my feelings right then, but as I joined the men and women sitting there, everyone turned and spoke to me kindly, introducing themselves and asking my name. Absurd as it sounds, I felt as if I was an old friend they were welcoming back. Everyone was so nice, and they mostly seemed to be around my own age, mid-sixties, some a bit older, some a bit younger.
David, the man with the white moustache who was sitting next to me, had insisted on buying me a drink.
“Oh yes, this is a wonderful place to live,” he assured me. “That’s why we all decided to settle down here.”
“And none of us have regretted it for a minute,” agreed Pamela, a friendly lady with long dark hair who had one of the liveliest, most attractive faces I’ve ever seen.
The others all agreed, nodding enthusiastically.
“Come on, Patrick,” said David cheerfully. “How about if I show you around the village?”
So I went with him outside to the main road. Still chatting away amicably about his former life as a stockbroker, David took me into a large building.
“Do you like gambling?” he asked me.
We were standing in a casino, with tables surrounded by people playing card games, roulette and all manner of other high stakes gambling activities.
The peculiar thing was, there was no sense of tension or self-absorption, as there is in most gambling emporiums. Just like in the pub, everyone seemed contented and cheerful and well intentioned towards one another.
“When you first come in to our casino, you show our cashier all the money you’ve brought in with you, and he makes a note of it,” explained David. “And the rule is, no credit cards – indeed no credit, just cash. So if you have a lucky day and win, you can keep whatever you make. But if your luck’s out, say you lose money – even if you lose all of your money – we make a point of giving you back all your brought with you at the door on your way home.”
“Good gracious,” I said in disbelief.
“Now, Patrick,” David looked rather shamefaced as we came back out onto the street. He spoke reticently and a blush appeared on his cheeks. “Are you partial to a bit of – how can I describe it? Nookie? How’s your father? Slap and tickle?” He coughed, clearly rather embarrassed.
“Well, err, since I’ve been divorced I haven’t had much luck in that area,” I muttered, equally embarrassed at discussing such personal things with a stranger.
“Right then.” He led me out of the gambling house into another big building. All of those around us were well dressed, eager looking, men and women, several of the latter who eyed us with interest.
“Those of us who are happily married never actually come here,” David went on, avoiding the predatory stare of a buxom blonde lady, “but anyone who does come to our ‘friendship’ house – whether it’s a man or woman – well, you know that they’re coming here with a view to having a romantic liaison with whoever they might meet. So there’s a bar for people to meet up and chat, and if they want to go further, there are bedrooms in the back. Often people form permanent relationships after meeting someone here.”
“Astonishing,” I said in amazement, catching the eye of an attractive red-haired lady who might have been a few years younger than me. She smiled back, and I don’t think I imagined the ‘come on’ look in her eyes.
“Do you like sport?” David asked, relieved to be outside the ‘friendship’ building and into another big arena, that was in the open air.
All around there were games of football, rugby and cricket in progress, and it was evident the the elderly players were thoroughly enjoying themselves. In the distance I could also see a golf course and an open air swimming pool, even a few riders on horses.
“Not keen on football or golf myself,” David went on enthusiastically, “but I’ve always wanted to drive racing cars, and I can do it here,” he said as we walked along the road and into another large arena. Here there was a huge racing track, with Lamborghinis and Ferraris cars zooming around.
“What’s more, I’ve always wanted to fly, so I learnt that here too,” David went on as he led me along the road, and through a doorway into a private airfield, where a row of small passenger planes were on the tarmac. We watched as a plane swopped down to land.
“Of course I’ve only been able to show you the tip of the iceberg of what you can do at Esidarap.” David continued. “Just imagine all the things you might have wanted to do in your life but never had the time or the money to do them, and they’re all laid on here for free. But of course, the main worry lots of us have when we first come here is our health. So here’s our medical facility.”
The big hospital he led me into was bright and white, with cheerful looking doctors and nurses walking around.
“When you first come here,” he explained, “your whole body gets cloned. In a couple of weeks they’ll have made a complete facsimile of your body, with all the organs functioning perfectly. So if you need a new heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, anything at all, they simply take you in and swap your old organ for a new one that matches your body perfectly, so you don’t need anti-rejection drugs. So we can all live on pretty much indefinitely. Plus we’re more fit and active, we can play sports again, as you saw just now.”
Then he introduced me to Caroline, who was Esidarap’s estate agent. She showed me a range of lovely properties, including some high-rise penthouse suites, and some huge rambling old Victorian houses and lots of others in between. Incredibly, they were all within my price range, if I was to sell up my own tiny house.
“Did David show you our university?” Caroline asked. “We’ve got the best lecturers in the world, so if there’s some subject you’ve always wanted to study, all you have to do is sign up. Practical subjects as well as academic ones – lots of people have discovered they have a talent for portrait painting, or sculpture, or jewellery making or gardening or DIY. Or how about learning to play a musical instrument? Plus you make friends with like-minded people you meet on the courses.”
She went on to show me the ‘Travel bank’ where residents of Esidarap could board one of a number of private passenger planes to go to the far corners of the globe for holidays. Caroline enthusiastically told me about her trip to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon the previous week and how she was planning to go to China in a month.
“Forgive me, but I don’t understand this place,” I said to the gang of people I re-met up with in the Barley Mow, when David and Caroline fetched me back there. “The property you’ve shown me isn’t very expensive, all the facilities here are free. Why aren’t people flocking to live here?”
“If they knew about it, they would be,” answered Bernard, a tall, languid serious-looking fellow. “But they don’t. It’s our secret. Not just anyone can come here you see.”
“Oh no. We’re very choosy. You have to be invited.”
“You have to be sponsored by someone first,” elaborated a lady in the corner. “Someone you’ve known in your former existence has to nominate you, then we have a committee who takes a look at what you’ve done over the course of your working life, and if we think you’d fit in here, you get invited to come and see if you like us as much as we think we’ll like you.”
“But we certainly like you, Patrick,” Caroline chipped in brightly. “So go on, please. Come and live here! We’d really like you to stay.”
All the others agreed, and I felt a wonderful glow of happiness.
That’s when I caught sight of my former friend, the beggar, Charlie, in the corner, raising his glass towards me. He looked much smarter now, he was smiling, and was wearing a decent suit.
He even had all his teeth.