It was December 31st 1999 and something was supposed to happen. It had been in the news for weeks. All the computers in the world were going to crash when midnight came because for one second it would be 00.00 hours on 01.01.00. For some reason they weren’t going to be able to cope with that, and when they couldn’t, we would be ‘hurled back into the Dark Ages’.
That night I was working. I was a carer at Southbank, a residential home in Kettering at the top of Northampton Road there. Looking out of the window in the big rear lounge, we had a tremendous view of half the town. I used to sit and look out of that window quite often when I was supposed to be working. I always imagined that I was somewhere else, or wrote poems in my head that I would transcribe in the toilet later on. But while I sat there I was sure to keep a pile of papers in my lap and a pen poised over them so anybody passing would think that I was busy. I was, after all, in charge while the manager was elsewhere; and I cared about team morale.
Joanie, who I worked with that night, was married to the guy who ran one of the hotels in town. She was off at ten o’clock to a big party/ fireworks display. “It’s such a shame you’re on the sleep-in,” she said at least three times during the evening. “You could have come with us. You could always have a bed at my house.” I didn’t want to tell her I’d volunteered to do the sleep-in because New Year’s Eve always made me morbidly depressed. I preferred to reflect on everything I’d lost, and every opportunity I’d missed, and everyone I’d accidentally hurt, by going to bed alone with a cup of tea and a sandwich than do all those things while watching a group of people getting drunk and whooping and hollering like lunatics. And anyway, in two hours we were going to be living in a state of primordial chaos, which made hot dogs and wine in paper cups seem rather inappropriate. Shouldn’t we be fletching arrows or something?
All of the residents, as we called them then, had gone to bed by the time Joanie left, all of them except Janet, a tiny, incredibly genteel woman with dementia, and Mylene, a profoundly deaf, and profoundly annoying, woman who always wore Manchester United football shirts and controlled every aspect of Janet’s life as if she were a simpleton. Mylene said she wanted to “see the New Year in”. My mother had always used that phrase and I’d never really understood it. Her dogged determination to stay up until midnight reminded me a little of Mum’s pathetic vigils on previous New Year’s Eves. I used to look at Mum watching the festivities on tv and think how much she deserved to be sharing that time with a man who loved her. But she’d hitched her horse to the wrong post too many years ago.
The night worker that night was Hugo. People have called me eccentric but Hugo was something else. A middle-aged man, reserved, even shy, but full of rectitude, stiff with arrogance; he seemed to think all of us were incapable of being right about anything, whether we were above him in the hierarchy or on an equal footing; and he hid this belief behind the most peculiar, twisted smile I’ve ever seen. He was a Scoutmaster, of all things, in his spare time. Most people who worked at Southbank, or at Elm Bank, the Respite place next door, liked him in spite of his personality; but everybody took the piss.
When the night worker came on duty in those days the sleep-in person gave him a handover and usually went to bed.The night worker then made a tour of the building, making sure everything was locked, emptying bins, looking for any work left undone that they could complain about in the morning. But I’d had too much coffee to go straight to bed, so when Hugo went on his rounds I made a sandwich and went to sit in the lounge with Janet and Mylene. They were planted in front of the tv. There was a film on.
‘They say the world is going to end at midnight, but I don’t think it will,’ said Mylene.
I moved in front of her so that she would be able to read my lips. Stopped chewing for a moment.’No, they don’t say the world’s going to end, just that the computer system’s going to collapse.’
‘Oh, is it?’ said Janet.
‘What would that mean? The world’s run by computers these days,’ said Mylene.
‘Yes it is. I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Pardon?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know what it would mean,’ I said, enunciating precisely.
I moved out of her line of sight so that she would stop talking to me. For a while we sat in silence watching the film. It wasn’t a bad one. One of those films you don’t think you'll like and then you see by accident and realise it’s all right. The light in the room was dim and I could feel the effects of the caffeine wearing off. For a while I dozed.
Mylene’s voice woke me. The BBC had started its inevitable broadcast from London. Serious people were talking sceptically about the global computer meltdown. But nobody seemed entirely sure of their assurances.
‘Oh look, they’re having so much fun! I wish I was there!’ Mylene said. ‘Can we go there next year?’
If we’re not hiding in cellars and at war with our neighbours, I thought.
If the NCC bastards haven’t closed Southbank by then, I thought. (There were plans in the offing.)
Then Hugo walked in with an ironing board and positioned it facing the tv. He plugged the house iron in and asked me to watch it for a moment as he went to get the residents' clothes. (The night worker had to iron the clothes of all the residents in the home each night. On the few night shifts I had done that job drove me crazy.)
‘The end of the world is coming then,’ Hugo said to me, attempting humour, breathing down his nose as he always did at the end of his sentence. It was like an aural full stop.
‘It’s not,’ Janet chided him.
I wish it was, I thought.
‘It might be a good thing if the computer system crashed,’ I said, trying to provoke Hugo. ‘That would really be a test of your mettle.’
‘I don’t think throwing all of the vulnerable people out into the streets and making them fend for themselves is a good idea,’ he said. (Nostril outbreath.)
‘I’m joking, Hugo. I’m joking.’
‘Some things aren’t funny.’
Minutes ticked by. Hugo ironed.The occasional hiss of his iron was all we could hear in the silence. Mylene made noises in appreciation of what was on the tv. It was almost midnight.
‘Here comes the countdown,’ Hugo said, as the tv broadcast went back live to Trafalgar Square. ‘Are you ready?’
In our lounge and on the tv they chanted in unison. The only voice missing was mine.
‘Five … four … three … two … one … HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!’
I looked out over the town and saw fireworks exploding in two different places, throwing showers of brilliant light up into the sky. Mylene and Janet hugged each other. Hugo smiled, snorted, and continued ironing.
‘Well, we’re still here,’ he said after a moment, as more fireworks went off in the town. The tv was reporting that computers appeared to have adjusted to the new date without difficulty. So it was all a big fuss over nothing, they said, with sophisticated smirks on their faces. Something to tell the grandchildren, they said.
I wondered if I’d tell the grandchildren where I had spent the most epochal moment of my generation. In a care home? Watching tv? While a Scoutmaster did the ironing? Small wonder I hadn’t written anything worth a shit despite having the potential to outwrite all but the best of the living poets and novelists. My life was so boring and inconsequential even Alan Bennett would not have been able to cull something from it.
That night as I got undressed, with a sense of utter failure clawing at me, I decided to save what was left of my soul by quitting and getting into something else. Something brave. Something exciting. Something that befitted the piratical spirit of all great art. And eleven years later I did it.