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A State of Welfare

The Vagabond

By Esther Dyson

I

IN ENGLAND old-age pensioners--OAPs-- get all kinds of benefits in addition to their rather meager pensions. During non-rush hours they can ride public transport at half-fare, every day of the week they can take free baths (with soap and one towel provided) at public bathhouses, and before four o'clock they get reduced prices at cinemas. Each pensioner gets a little card to use when he buys fuel in the winter, paying a special cut price to the government which owns all utilities.

II

At the Biograph, one of London's oldest movie houses, I used to see the OAPs in the afternoons. The usual price there is about 60 cents: for OAPs it's only 12. I suppose the Biograph was once luxurious, but now it has gone to seed, Besides amusing the OAPs it is, my roommate told me, a favorite haunt of homosexuals. He refused ever to go there even thought was only a block from where we lived in the center of London, and it showed films you couldn't see anywhere else. Mostly they were just bad--dubbed Italian epics about the rape of the Sabine women, horror creepies, or American B comedies, but sometimes there'd be a forgotten classic worth seeing.

There's a law in England--to do with fire safety I think--that required the light to be sufficient to read a newspaper by, soever though it was dark when I entered after a few minutes I could see the people around me. They'd come in the early afternoon for a good snooze after a meal in the pub around the corner, or sometimes for a bad dream. One day an old man started morning in his sleep, and a woman next to him shoved him to wake him up. Soon they were hard at it, first whispering then shouting, until a man from about ten rows back called, "Oh, shut up!"

"Shut up year self!" someone retorted,

"Who d'ye bloody think ye re?"

"Come off it, let's 'ave a bit o'peace 'ere!"

"Just you mind yer own business!"

An usher--a tired old lady who'd be and OAP herself in a few years--came over only to be shouted at, too,

"It was I'm wot started it!"

"Get off it: it was you!"

...Until finally the manager came from the box office and peace was restored. A dingy old man a few seats along form me picked up his sandwich and resumed his lunch. He had spread everything out on the seat beside him: a ham sandwich on a bit of waxed paper, a Cadbury's Crunchie, and even a napkin. But he didn't finish his sandwich before he left, and I passed it lying there on my way out.

III

Other OAPs were much more careful about wasting things, and in the mornings and in the evenings I would see old people, dressed in that tattered grey coal that is almost a uniform, scrabbling around in the small litter baskets that line the streets. Who knows what they discover there" I sometimes look a clean-looking evening paper that stuck out invitingly, but there was more to be found than that.

I had a friend, Kitty a girl in and office, who told me that her mother had filed her flat with old newspapers and other treasures she had scavenged and couldn't bear to throw away. I met her once--a plump, stooped-over little woman: It was hard to believe she had ever borne anything so young and vital as Kitty. The mother told me how she had once found and entire box of Lyons tea-cakes--"and not touched, not even opened, mind you"--on her way to visit Kitty. She called Kitty over to attest to how good the tea-cakes had been, and Kitty bounded over smiling good-naturedly. "They were just a bit stale, but awfully good." she said. But an even greater find, the mother said, had been a lovely pair of men's leather gloves. She had no use for them: they didn't fit, but she was saving them in a smaller pile next to all the newspapers.

She lives in a council flat--a tiny apartment rented cheaply from the government-a few miles outside of London, and she loved to come in to visit Kitty, traveling on cheap rates and going to the pictures in the afternoon.

IV

Every few years I spend a bit of time seeing my grandmother and my aunt, who live in a big house in Winchester about 50 miles from London. My grandmother is no rich, but my grandfather was a knight, and so she has a certain position to maintain. For years Mrs. Aslett (or perhaps it was Haslett: no one know) has come in every day except Sunday to cock and clean, My grandmother is fond of her in an irritated sort of way: "She's a good soul, but she does creep about the house to."

Mrs Aslett is the ultimate in Victorian self-effacement. She never speaks above a whisper, and to call us to dinner--at one O'clock promptly--she rings a tiny bell. She spends much of the morning in the kitchen, making roly-poly puddings and custard, toads-in-the-hole, and blancmange. If I go through the kitchen about lunchtime the greed walls are sweating fiercely, little runnels of steam trickling down near the stove, and Mrs. Aslett shuffles around in her pink apron, flushed and almost cheerful in her work.

When I say "That smells good." she is immensely pleased, and mumbles, "Thankyer."

Last year my grandmother had written to us that Mrs. Aslett was leaving: "She'll be sixty-five in December and she wants to retire on her State pension. What we shall do then I've not decided. Funny old thing. I expect she'll find life quite dull! She's already told me she'd still like to come in once or twice a week anyway, but no more, because then she should have to forfeit part of the pension."

Last October while I was in London I talked to my aunt on the telephone. A week or so earlier my grandmother had rung for Mrs. Aslett to ask when exactly she was planning to quit working full-time. Mrs. Aslett seemed to shrink even smaller, and replied, "Well, Lady Dyson, I can't go."

"What?" asked my grandmother, who's a little deaf.

"It's not time yet."

"I don't see what you mean. Come now, tell me what you mean."

Alice, my aunt, was called in, and finally Mrs. Aslett mumbled her explanation. The week before she had gathered up all the proper papers and gone into the local government office to see about getting herself registered for a pension come December. "The man there," she said, "he looked at my papers an' all..."

"Yes?"

"'e looked at 'em an' 'e said I weren't goin'ter be but sixty-four...so I can't go, Lady Dyson," she said.

But she'll be an OAP next year for sure, and she'll probably miss my grandmother more than my grandmother will miss her.

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