A Twentieth-century Malady by Foreman Peter
He looked a sad young man and we wanted to be kind to him. When he moved into the house next to ours, my wife Janet said, ‘I think he’s sad because he lives alone. I feel sorry for him.’
We live in a semi-detached house outside a village. The house next to ours was empty for a long time, and then the young man came. He arrived in a van with a few pieces of furniture. Then we didn’t see him very much. Sometimes he went for a walk in the country. And every day he walked to the village to do some shopping. He always walked; he didn’t have a car.
‘Perhaps he’s too poor to buy a car,’ said Janet. ‘Let’s take him into the village tomorrow.’
So next day when he out of the house to go shopping, I offered him a lift.
‘No, thank you,’ he replied. ‘I prefer to walk.’
We looked surprised. ‘But it’s over a mile to the village,’ I said.
He smiled. ‘I like walking.’ And he walked on.
‘He’s just shy, poor boy,’ Janet said.
So we tried again. Next time he came out, we were waiting in the car. We said that we were going to the village and offered him a lift. He looked away quickly. Was he angry or shy?
‘Thank you very much but I prefer to walk,’ he said. And he walked on.
Janet was surprised. But she continued to think about how to help the young man.
‘He’s very thin,’ she said one evening. ‘I’m sure he doesn’t eat good food. We must invite him to dinner.’
Janet and I like good food. We eat a lot of butter and puddings and cream and sweet things like cakes. We know this rich food is fattening but we like it. So we’re a bit overweight.
The young man opened the door. Janet was right: he was thin. He looked at me in silence a moment and smiled.
‘Thank you. You’re very kind but I can only eat certain food. I have a special diet.’
‘What sort of diet?’
‘Oh fruit, vegetables, bread…’
‘Are you a vegetarian?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘My wife is a very good cook,’ I said. ‘She can cook a delicious vegetarian dinner. Please come.’
He looked away and said nothing.
‘You must come,’ I insisted. ‘My wife will be very disappointed.’
He thought a moment. ‘Okay, I’ll come,’ he said. He didn’t look very happy about it.
But Janet was very happy. She cooked a wonderful vegetarian meal. But she put butter in the vegetables. And she also made a big fruit pudding with lots of sugar and cream.
‘He must eat some real food,’ she said.
That evening we learnt the young man’s name: Richard. He didn’t talk much but we also learnt that he was twenty-eight. He couldn’t find a job and he didn’t have much money. His parents were dead and he didn’t have any brothers or sisters. We felt sorry for him.
He didn’t eat much that evening. He said he wasn’t hungry. Janet was a little offended.
‘I cooked all that horrible vegetarian food for him and he left it on his plate. And he didn’t drink any wine, either!’
Yes, Janet was a bit angry. But she quickly forgot about it. Then she began to think about Richard again.
‘Poor boy! He’s all alone in that house,’ she said. ‘He hasn’t got any friends and he hasn’t got a girlfriend. It’s terrible! What does he do all evening?’ She looked at me sadly.
‘He watches telly, like us.’
Suddenly she had an idea. ‘We must invite him to come and watch telly with us! That will cheer him up!’
‘I think he likes to be alone, Janet,’ I said. ‘He’s a quiet person.’
‘But he isn’t happy. I can see it.’
‘How? He doesn’t speak or laugh much, but I think he’s happy.’
‘Well, I say he isn’t happy, Reg. You must go and bring him here this evening. I want him to be happy!’
So I went out into the cold, wet night and knocked on Richard’s door.
‘Would you like to come round to us?’ I asked.
He smiled. ‘Why?’
‘Oh – we can watch telly and have a bit of food.’
He suddenly looked frightened. ‘No! Not telly! I never watch it.’ His face was very white.
Now I was really surprised. ‘Well – perhaps you want some company…’
‘I like my own company,’ he said. And he shut the door quickly.
When I told Janet, she was furious. ‘Who does he think he is? We only want to be kind to him.’
At three o’clock the next morning she woke me up.
‘Hey, Reg! Wake up! I’ve got a great idea!’ she cried, a big, happy smile on her face. ‘We’ll have a big party with all our friends and relatives. We’ll tell Richard that there will be a lot of noise and invite him to come.’
I didn’t like the idea. ‘I’m not going to invite him this time. Goodnight, dear!’
So Janet invited Richard to the party. He couldn’t say no, poor boy! But Janet told him he had to come and he came. But I could see he wasn’t happy. There was loud music and dancing, lots of delicious fattening food, cigarette smoke, and bottles and bottles of alcoholic drink. Our friends and relatives are all very kind and they pushed plates of food and glasses of drink in front of Richard’s nose. And he couldn’t say no!
When I saw him about midnight, he looked terrible. His face was white with panic.
People were shouting, singing, and dancing all around him.
He couldn’t escape. Then about fifteen minutes later he wasn’t there.
‘Where’s Richard?’ I asked Janet.
‘Oh, he had to go,’ she replied. ‘He said he wasn’t feeling well. What a pity! He was enjoying the party so much!’
A few nights later there was a knock at the door. When I opened it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Richard. He was standing in the wind and rain. He was as white as a sheet; his eyes were dark and strange.
‘Could you phone a doctor?’ he said in a quiet voice. ‘I’m not feeling well.’
I told him to come in and sit down. While I phoned, Janet made a cup of tea. Then she sat on the sofa with Richard. She was happy again.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked.
‘I feel hot, I’ve got a headache, and my heart is beating fast.’
‘Oh, you poor thing!’ Janet said tenderly.
Dr Rockall arrived soon and examined Richard.
He said, ‘You’ve got a fever and your heartbeat is not regular. You must rest. Stay in bed for a few days. Relax and eat plenty of good food. Here’s some medicine for the fever.’ At the door he said to me, ‘It may be a virus or perhaps an allergy. If he isn’t better in a few days, call me.’
Of course Janet was really happy. She wanted Richard to sleep in our house but he said no. He wanted to go back to his house. So we took him next door and put him to bed. Now we could see inside the house for the first time – and we were amazed! He had tables, chairs, a sofa and armchair, carpets, bookcases, pictures, cupboards, etc. But there was no television set, no video recorder, no phone, no home computer, no hi-fi. There was nothing modern, not even electric lights. He had big candles in all the rooms.
He took the medicine and quickly fell asleep.
‘I’m going to stay here and look after him,’ said Janet.
‘Oh, look at this place! The poor boy hasn’t got enough money to buy a telly. Let’s get our old TV set. He can watch it in bed.’
‘But Janet! He doesn’t like TV.’
But she wasn’t listening to me. I knew why she was doing these strange things. We haven’t got any children and she wanted to give Richard all the kindness of a mother.
When he woke up and saw the TV at the end of the bed, he looked frightened. He tried to move and speak but he was weak.
‘The doctor said you must rest,’ smiled Janet. ‘So be a good boy! Relax and watch TV. There’s a quiz show, and then cartoons; then a comedy show, a soap opera, and an old film – a thriller I think.’
She made his pillow comfortable and pulled the bedclothes tight. He couldn’t move. He stared at the TV with great frightened eyes, like a rabbit in front of a snake.
‘Are you hungry, Richard?’ said Janet.
He tried to move his head but it was difficult.
‘Good! You look so white and thin. You need some real food.’
Richard tried to shake his head. There was terror in his eyes.
‘No, I won’t listen to you, Richard! You’re going to eat and eat and eat. Then you’ll get big and strong.’
Janet cooked some cream of chicken soup, and eggs and toast with lots of butter.
‘Come on, don’t be naughty, Richard! Open your mouth. That’s right! Eat up!’ And Janet began to push the food into his mouth.
She stayed with Richard for six days and nights. She slept in the next room. She got a mobile phone for emergencies; but she called lots of friends and relatives and asked them to come and visit Richard. The phone was always ringing, people came and went, and it was very noisy. Then she got an old radio-cassette player from our house and Richard had to listen to music or radio programmes. She even decided to hire a video recorder.
Richard was Janet’s prisoner. He did everything she wanted. For six days he stayed in bed and watched TV and video films, or listened to loud music and the talk of visitors. His eyes were like glass, his face had no expression.
He was like a zombie. Janet cooked him three big meals a day and he began to get fat. But he didn’t get better. After ten days he was very weak. He didn’t move and he didn’t speak. He only stared in front of him.
‘Why doesn’t he get better?’ Janet asked Dr Rockall.
‘It’s strange. He looks better. He isn’t thin and white now. Has he eaten well?’
‘Oh yes! Lots and lots of good food.’
‘Hm. The fever has gone down but his heart is still bad. I can’t understand it. Look at his eyes. They look strange. Perhaps he’s asleep.’
‘Oh, what shall we do, doctor?’ Janet cried.
‘Well, we can’t take him to hospital. There aren’t any free beds. We have to wait a few days. Perhaps I’ll contact one of my colleagues in Germany. Call me if there’s any change.’
There was a change. Two days later a man arrived at our house. He was tall and strong, with a great black beard and a red face.
‘My name is Doctor Hans von Rupprecht,’ he said in a loud voice. He had a German accent. ‘I am a good friend and colleague of Dr Rockall. He phoned me yesterday about the mysterious malady of his patient Richard Jeffries. I had a patient in Germany with a similar malady. Is Mr Jeffries getting better?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘He’s becoming a vegetable.’
‘Yes. Vegetables aren’t very lively, are they?’ I replied.
‘Do you know what’s the matter with Richard?’
‘Not precisely. But if my analysis is correct, it may be a new illness that has appeared only in the twentieth century. We don’t know much about it but we have found that emissions from electronic objects like televisions, computers, videos, hi-fis, etc., probably cause it. It seems that the waves from these machines are not good for the brain and nerves. They change or disturb the electrical functions, but we don’t know precisely how or why. There is fever and rapid heartbeats. The patient gradually passes into a coma.’
‘Like a vegetable?’
‘Yes! One strange symptom is the patient wants to eat and drink a lot – usually fattening foods. You know, all the things that we eat today. So the patient becomes fat. We don’t know why people need to eat a lot. Perhaps there are psychological causes. Nobody has done any experiments and nobody has written a scientific study. But we know the final result of the malady: the patient will die.’
At that moment there was a long, terrible scream from next door. Dr von Rupprecht and I ran out of the house.
Janet was coming out of Richard’s house. She was crying. When I asked her what was wrong, she couldn’t answer. I put my arms round her and the doctor went into Richard’s house. A few minutes later, he came out.
‘He’s dead,’ he announced quietly. ‘I found this under the pillow.’
It was an envelope. I opened it. There was a letter in it. I read it out to the others.
I’m going to die soon and I know that it’s the twentieth century that is killing me.
Ten years ago, when I was eighteen, I was a very different person. I had a teenager’s life-style. I went to discos with my friends every evening. I listened to loud music. I watched a lot of TV and videos. I liked computer games. I was always talking on the phone. Then something happened. I began to feel ill. I had bad headaches. My heartbeat was rapid. Sometimes I felt dizzy. I often had a temperature. I couldn’t do my schoolwork. I didn’t know why I was ill. I went to a doctor but he didn’t know either.
He said perhaps it was my life-style. I thought a lot about this. It was true that I never walked;
I went everywhere by car. It was true that I drank a lot of alcohol and ate bad food. It was true that I watched a lot of stupid TV programmes – game shows, talk shows and hundreds of bad films. It was true that my ears weren’t good because the music in the discos was very loud. It was true that I sat for hours in front of my computer. And it was true that I had started doing all these things when I was very young – about fourteen.
I took a lot of pills and medicine but I didn’t get better. I became fat and very lazy. I never went out – except in the car. At weekends I sat in front of the TV all day or listened to music, and I ate and drank, drank and ate. I lived like a zombie. I never used my brain.
It was full of the rubbish from TV programmes, silly songs and terrible films. I became very weak and very ill with a temperature and heart problems.
Then suddenly I understood. One day I had a little accident in the car and hit my head. It wasn’t serious. But my mind became clear and I saw everything. I saw that the twentieth century was slowly killing me.
So I changed my life-style. I stopped living like a zombie. It was very difficult. My life-style was a habit – a very dangerous habit like taking drugs. Life at the end of the twentieth century was killing my mind and my body. So I began to walk everywhere. I didn’t watch TV or listen to stupid music. I sold my computer and my video recorder. I didn’t go to discos. I stopped eating bad food and drinking too much alcohol. And I lost all my friends too!
But the twentieth century was everywhere; it was too strong and I had to escape from it. So I came here to the country. But I couldn’t escape. The twentieth century is too strong. I can’t fight it. I know I’m going to die soon.
When I finished, Dr von Rupprecht said sadly, ‘So now we know that this is an illness of the mind caused by living in the twentieth century. Can I take this letter with me, please? I want to write a report about Richard’s case and publish it. Then all the world will know.’
But before the doctor could finish, poor Janet fell to the ground with a strange cry. Von Rupprecht examined her, then looked at me.
‘She has got a temperature… her heartbeat is very fast!’
He shook his head sadly.