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“Always and Forever, Only You” © 2023 by Julia Quandt

 

It started with a bit of music, something no one else was even listening to. Annabel, who lived in the room across from Edie’s and considered herself quite the intellectual, demanded that they all listen to Radio 4 in the half hour before dinner. In practice that nearly always meant The Archers, which Edie knew Annabel found just as boring as everyone else did. The Sunshine Care Home was next to the marina just north of Southport, and all the inhabitants had lived and worked in the town; no one here was particularly interested in crop rotation or auctioning off cows.

But Annabel had the personality of a recently demobbed sergeant major and had, back in the mists of time, brought the radio with her when she moved in to what the Sunshine Care Home called Independent Sheltered Living. So Radio 4 it was, except for this one unremarkable Thursday when instead of the crisp tones of the BBC announcer they were having music instead. Edie tilted her head to listen. It was catchy, full of bouncy rhythms. It made Edie think of sparkly outfits and dancing. It played long enough to fade out into another announcer’s voice, this one young and enthusiastic, giving the track and the artist. A new song was starting when Annabel bellowed a complaint out of her corner armchair. “Raymond, that’s not what we’re here for.”

“Sorry,” Raymond said, not like he was sorry. “I knocked the dial.”

Raymond was the new care worker at Sunshine. The place was mostly staffed with holographic workers, who ambled around picking up things people had dropped, whether or not they wanted them picked up, and otherwise lurked in corners and shimmered. But Raymond was pale, spotty, and human, with a permanent sneer on his thin face. He turned the dial on the radio and Edie stopped listening.

Instead, she thought about the song she’d heard, the few lines of the melody repeating themselves over and over in her head. Da-da-da-DA. It made her feet twitch. She got up, ignoring Annabel’s glare—Annabel thought Radio 4 should be a compulsory Sunshine experience—and went up to her room. In her diary, she scrawled today’s date, followed by: heard music. Name, Lee. Min?

There were a few more question marks after that. The name of the singer had been said so quickly, and besides that, all musicians gave themselves funny names. They’d done that even when Edie was young. But she’d put down her best guess and now she wouldn’t forget it. The diary was safely back in the drawer when Raymond knocked. “Edie, are you At Home?” he called.

Edie hated that, that he always seemed to pronounce that with initial capitals, as though she’d been a Regency debutante or some such thing. In his young man’s head there was no difference between being eighty and being 180. “I’m coming,” she said, as sullenly as when she was sixteen and writing in her diary about Elvis.

“It’s just, it’s curried chicken and undercooked rice,” Raymond said through the door. “You wouldn’t want to miss that.”

Edie’s mouth twitched despite herself. “Coming,” she said.

She went downstairs and was served her share of dinner. The little bit of a song carried on going round and round in her head, still with its panoply of sparkles. Only you, she warbled in her evening bath. All for you. She went to bed still humming.

 


 

That might have been all there was to it, except it was tax season again and Annabel was keeping the place in uproar as a result. Annabel was rich; her late husband had been a pioneer in developing quasi-intelligent three-dimensional holograms, and a notable philanderer besides. Annabel took pleasure in giving his hard-earned money away to good causes, which Edie approved of in principle, but in practice it led to tears every December when the taxman came knocking. Annabel tended to spread all her papers across the common room floor and look tragic until someone helped her, and Edie usually found herself avoiding the common areas until someone else had succumbed. But this year she took her turn. She helped Annabel collect documents and fill in the forms, and suggested that she engage a real accountant. Annabel pretended she hadn’t heard that part and didn’t say thank you for the help. But it seemed natural, once all the paperwork was in neat piles, for Edie to say, “Annabel, could I borrow your phone? I want to look something up.”

Annabel nodded absently, still looking at her papers with an anguished expression. Edie picked up the phone. She didn’t have one of her own because she’d never thought she needed one. She didn’t have children, or grandchildren. She had had Ernest, dapper little Ernest in his grey suit and tie, always ready with a big plan and a smile. He wasn’t carrying off the sharp suits by the end, diminished by hospital gowns and horrible faded bathrobes, but his smile still flashed at the sight of her. Ernest loved Edie; he thought she was the bee’s knees, the cat’s pyjamas, until the day he died and left her all alone.

The hospital chaplain said to Edie that she should feel free to grieve, that every grief was unique. Edie had thought the first part of that was nonsense—why would she need anyone’s permission to grieve—and later decided the chaplain was wrong about the other thing as well. If you loved me, she said to Ernest inside her head, why did you leave, and there was never any answer.

But he had left, and Edie remained. She rattled around the house for a few years, and in due course came the Sunshine Care Home. Ernest hadn’t been a scientific and industrial pioneer, but he hadn’t slept around either. He had provided for Edie as well as he could. It wasn’t that she couldn’t afford a phone; it was that she didn’t have anyone to call on it.

But she knew what to do, with Annabel’s. Edie tapped the little internet app and looked at the search box.

Nice music I heard, she thought, but didn’t type that in. It wouldn’t work. Music on Radio 4—but it hadn’t been Radio 4, had it. She went upstairs to fetch her diary and came back to find Annabel still engrossed. Edie picked up the phone and typed into the search box. Lee music.

Millions of results, mostly guitar shops.

Lee Min.

Did you mean “Lee Minjoon”, asked the search engine.

Did I mean that, Edie wondered. She tapped, and there he was. Lee Minjoon, with his record-smashing global hit, “Only You.” Edie looked up at Annabel and the other two old fogeys in the common room, and thought: fuck it. She tapped the link.

It was a video. Edie squinted at a young man on a big stage, standing in a rainbow-coloured spotlight. The caption said he was from Korea. He looked up the camera and started to sing, and something inside Edie’s heart turned over and grew wings.

“Edie, shut that off and help me with the Christmas receipts,” Annabel said querulously. “Why I can’t ever find anything I don’t know.”

Her receipts were all from United Holography plc, the tiny start-up her husband had founded, that now employed half the people in the town and was on its way to being a giant multinational company. Apparently Annabel still made an annual contribution to their benevolent fund and paid for a Christmas voucher for every employee.

“United Holography is still at the cutting edge, you know,” Annabel said, not approvingly. “They were going to send me a prototype of their latest model as a Christmas present. It’s almost like a real person, they said. I said, I’m seventy-eight years old, I’m not interested in that kind of thing. The very idea!”

“The very idea,” Edie said, not really sure what she was agreeing to. “It’s convenient, having a phone,” she added, as casually as she could. “I might need to get one of my own.”

 


 

That, too, took some effort. In the end Edie succumbed to the inevitable and asked Raymond for help, having first prepared a list of reasons why she suddenly wanted a phone at the age of eighty-one and a half. She might have said “to play music,” but that was too close to the truth. Edie felt gloriously dizzy when she thought about it: the video, the music, the swoop of emotion deep inside her chest. As a teenager, she’d gone to concerts at the Manchester Academy with her friends, swayed with the crowd and felt like she might explode with uncontainable joy. At this distance of more than sixty years she recognised the feeling. It was too rare, too precious, to be sullied by other eyes.

But Raymond didn’t ask questions. Instead, he used his own phone to show her how to buy one, helped her decide what model, what colour, if she wanted a contract or pay-as-you-go. He couldn’t quite keep the patronising sneer off his face, but Edie held her tongue and didn’t snap at him for it. His job was to serve dinner and programme the holographic care workers; he didn’t have to help her with this. She thanked him sincerely, and was surprised by his smile.

The package came two days later, and Edie put it away without opening it, knowing she had to endure the afternoon first. Annabel, The Archers, undercooked rice, all the usual. Edie waited until everyone had gone to bed before retreating to her room. She opened the box, took out her new phone, and smiled at some unknown person’s thoughtfulness in sending it to her fully charged.

And then, finally—finally!—she slipped her new earbuds in and looked up Lee Minjoon’s song.

“Only You” was three minutes and forty-four seconds long. Edie played it twice without stopping, and when she’d finished the skin on the back of her neck was prickling and her chest hurt from holding her breath. She played it a third time, looking more closely at the video this time, watching Lee Minjoon move around the stage with the grace of a ballet dancer, his earrings catching the light. He was beautiful. In her grey room at the Sunshine Care Home with the dull slosh of the marina beyond the window, Edie thought the whole world was beautiful.

She opened another tab and looked Lee Minjoon up on Wikipedia. His family name was Lee, she learned, rather than Minjoon, and his fans who loved him called him Minjoonie. “Only You” was a song off his latest album; there were eleven other songs on it, and he had four other albums. Some of them were in Korean, but not all, and Edie found the videos for the English ones. None of them lit her on fire like “Only You,” but she liked them all a lot anyway. Minjoon didn’t shake his hips or blow kisses like the pop stars she’d adored in her youth, but he made love to the camera anyway, every movement practised and deliciously sexual. Edie was entranced. When she finally put her phone away and snuggled down in bed, it was almost two in the morning. She drifted off and dreamed of stage lights and stars.

 


 

That was how things went, for a while. There were the days, mostly unremarkable, broken up by minor excitements such as a chilly trip out to the shops with one of the holographic minders, and the residents’ Christmas party. And then there were the nights, when Edie could retreat to her sanctum and watch Minjoon. Minjoonie; the fans called him that, and Edie was a fan. Her favourite video was “Only You,” but not the version she’d first seen. The one she loved best had been recorded live, and at the end of it Minjoonie reached down to one of the girls in the front row, lifting her up on the stage. He kissed her cheek and gave her a long-stemmed rose, and the crowd went wild. They screamed and whooped while the girl looked blank and stunned, overwhelmed by emotion. Edie thought she would have felt the same. She played that one a lot and the others nearly as much. The algorithm learned what she liked, and gave her Minjoon’s older songs, his lesser-known recordings, and fan bootlegs of his concerts in places she’d never heard of. Edie ate them all up like candy and hunted for more.

Then came something new. As well as learning about algorithms and bootlegs, Edie had figured out how to ignore and then to skip the ads. But every so often it wouldn’t let her do it, which was how she ended up watching a full advertisement for something called the Personal Holographer. It seemed to be the next step forwards from what Annabel’s husband had developed, taking it from an industrial technology to something people used for fun. The holographic workers were faceless and sometimes frightening, if you caught a glimpse of them out of the corner of your eye, but good for care homes where no human wanted to work. They made Edie feel lonely all the way down to her human bones. But she watched the advert and listened as a breathless narrator explained how it worked. Rather than a whole system of holograms like they had at Sunshine or in the factories in Southport, the Personal Holographer was a small machine that would generate a holographic copy of a single person, which would walk and talk and sing or act or do stand-up comedy, depending on what holographic person you’d chosen. It would be almost as good as the real thing, the narrator said. You should check it out.

Edie thought about it. The hologram in the advert was a copy of David Bowie. Maybe it was just the old ones, she thought: people like Bowie, the Searchers, the Beatles. She’d seen them all in their prime; queued up for tickets with hundreds of other girls and tottered home from Liverpool with her lipstick smudged and her voice hoarse from screaming. Edie remembered those times with sunlit clarity; she didn’t need to live through them again.

But she looked up the website for the Personal Holographer anyway, and there he was, in the drop-down list: Lee Minjoon, under “K-pop and other.” He wanted to take this new opportunity, said the accompanying text, to be closer to his fans.

Almost as good as the real thing, Edie thought. She got out of bed to fetch her credit card and typed in the number. She tapped submit before she could think better of it.

This time the parcel was too big for her to carry up the stairs unaided. “It must be for Annabel,” Raymond said when he saw the sender’s label on the packaging, and then paused, as though he’d suddenly understood something. “Edie, it’s for you.”

“Yes,” Edie said tightly, squirming with embarrassment at the knowing look on his face. He put the Holographer box in her room and asked if she wanted help assembling it, and Edie was barely polite as she chivvied him out. She felt guilty about it—just like before, he’d helped her do something she couldn’t manage alone—but she still couldn’t bear the thought of him knowing the truth, or guessing at it. Minjoonie was still her secret, her beloved, and still not for anyone else’s eyes.

The Holographer wasn’t nearly as easy to put together as the box instructions would have her believe, and you couldn’t plug headphones into it: Edie had to painstakingly assemble it and then wait until a day when most of the Sunshine residents were out on a chilly trip around the marina, leaving her alone save for the faceless care workers. When the time came, Edie made sure her door was tightly shut against them and anyone else wanting to check on her. She pressed the button and closed her eyes.

And when she opened them again, there he was. Minjoon in the holographic flesh, standing in her grey little room with no visible sign that he was being projected. He had on the silver hoop earrings she liked, and the denim jacket he’d worn on his last album cover. Edie stared at him in wonderment.

“Hello, Edie,” Minjoon said, and it was his voice: rich and low, with the accent that two months ago she wouldn’t have been able to place.

“Hi,” Edie squeaked.

“Hi,” Minjoon said, amused. He came up to her and held out a hand. She reached out, not sure if her hand would pass through his, but she could feel him. His skin was cool to the touch, not quite real but almost. “I have dreams like this,” she said, the words just slipping out. “That you’re here, and you sing, and we talk.”

The hologram nodded, looking interested and caring. Edie had to remind herself that that might be a programmed response, to something the AI hadn’t really understood. It was so easy to forget he was artificial, standing there with his lovely face, his sparkling jewellery and intense eyes. “Would you like me to sing now?” he asked.

“Yes,” Edie said, breathlessly. “Yes, please.”

The Holographer provided backing music, and Minjoon launched into “Someday Maybe,” which was his latest single and until now hadn’t been one of Edie’s favourites. Delivered in her own room, purred lusciously by a singer a few feet away, it was perfect. When it was finished, Edie was emboldened. “Would you sing ‘Only You’?” she asked.

The backing music began immediately. Minjoon sang, and Edie felt like she had when she was a teenager: that the joy in her heart was uncontainable, a bird trying to escape. She stood up from her armchair with care and slowly, slowly, began to sway back and forth. It wasn’t quite dancing; certainly it didn’t come anywhere near Minjoonie’s fluid brilliance. But it felt good, it felt right, as it had done sixty years before in the mass of the crowd.

The song ended and Minjoon launched into another. Edie was starry-eyed, overwhelmed by the music and the moment and the beauty of it all. She swayed on, compelled by Minjoon and his magnetic grace. She’d forgotten about the Sunshine Care Home and Annabel’s tax return. She’d forgotten about grey windy Southport and life at the end of life. She was awash with happiness, with love and beauty.

“I love you,” she said to Minjoon, not in the way she’d said it to Ernest, but the way she’d said it to pictures of Paul McCartney when she was sixteen. She’d read the comments on Minjoon’s videos and it turned out girls were still like that, they still said that, to beautiful musicians with lovely eyes. I love you, I love you so much, I love you.

“I love you too, Edie.” Minjoon blew her a kiss and Edie wanted to swoon dramatically. She laughed instead, and swayed back and forth again, her eyes closing from the wonder of it all.

But she wasn’t looking where she was going; she took a step to the side, and her feet caught on something. She reached out to the wall, trying to steady herself, but there was nothing to hold on to. She landed awkwardly on the floor and the music stopped.

The fall hurt, so much that it brought tears to Edie’s eyes. She was immediately worried she’d broken her hip, twitched her foot and for a second she was relieved. When she twisted round she realised it wasn’t her hip that was broken. She’d tripped on the Holographer, knocking it over so it had hit the hard leg of a chair. The impact had split the casing and she could see the chips and wires inside.

It was a gradual shock, as though Edie were waking from a beautiful dream into a rainy morning. Everything was silent, and Minjoonie was gone. In his place was just this familiar, faded room, its worn furniture and dull magnolia walls. Edie looked around at it as though she’d never seen it before, and felt like a hole had opened up inside her chest.

“I heard a thump!” a voice called through the door. “Are you okay in there?”

The holographic care workers didn’t speak; it must be Raymond, just starting his shift. Edie didn’t move.

“All right, I’m coming in!” Raymond said. He opened the door and took in the sight of Edie sitting on the floor with the Holographer in pieces beside her.

“I broke it,” Edie said.

“We’ll fix it,” Raymond said. He’d understood instantly what had happened: he’d known what was in the box when he carried it upstairs, and he’d probably even connected the dots with Edie’s sudden desire to buy a phone. “We’ll fix it, or we’ll get a new one, or something. Are you okay?”

Edie’s hip wasn’t broken and neither were her legs or arms; it had been a scary fall but it hadn’t caused more than a bruise or two. She nodded, hoping he would take it as enough of an answer and go away. But he didn’t. Edie looked up at him and burst into tears.

Raymond sat down on the floor beside her and said, “Edie, love, what’s really wrong?”

The expression on his face wasn’t a sneer, it was just something about the way he looked out at the world from under those thick lashes. He’d been kind to her, and now he was asking what was wrong as though he really cared. Edie couldn’t tell him that it was because Minjoonie had sung, all for you, only you, and on some deep, silly level, she had thought: only me. That he’d sung about the beauty of your smile, and she’d thought he meant her, her smile. She’d lain in bed at night and thought about the video with the rose, imagined what it would be like to feel the brush of his fingers, his lips on her cheek. Always and forever, only you, and she’d believed it, a little bit, that this handsome boy idol in a faraway country had written a song for her, for eighty-one-year-old Edie in Southport. She’d believed it and she’d been happy.

But here she was, sitting stupidly on the floor, and he wasn’t here, had never been here. The whole thing had been a fantasy, a childish daydream. Perhaps it would have been funny if Ernest had been there, if he’d made fun of Edie for her silly crush, if he’d told her that of course it was all much more romantic in the videos but he would kiss her if she liked, he’d take her out and they would dance. But he was dead, and so was the Holographer, a silly broken toy she should never have bought, and everything was sad and grey and awful like it had always been.

“I loved him,” she said to Raymond, “I loved him so much”—and then started to cry again, hopelessly, into a tissue. Raymond gathered up the bits of the Holographer and put them back in the box, got Edie a glass of water, and made her some tea. He sat with her until he had to go, leaving Edie alone on her faded sofa, with misery wrapping her like a shroud.

 


 

It turned out that you could cry yourself dry, and the ordinary things of life would still carry on. In the morning, Edie woke up and felt some distance from the whole thing. She went down to breakfast and avoided catching Raymond’s eye. A few days later she tidied her room and put the Holographer box outside for recycling. Annabel received a follow-up letter from the taxman and Edie helped her with it. She got up and ate her meals and went to bed, and if she thought of Lee Minjoon it was with a faint clench of embarrassment, as though he were some silly fad she’d grown out of years ago, and put him immediately out of her mind.

February came, grey and wet, and Raymond knocked on Edie’s door again. “Edie? Are you At Home to visitors?”

“Yes.” Edie was listless, not sure what to do with herself. “Come in.”

Raymond came in with a tall Black man with sculpted cheekbones and big, limpid eyes. “This is Jonny, my boyfriend,” he said. “You remember, don’t you, from the Christmas party?”

Edie did remember, and heard Ernest’s voice in her head: my Edie, always an eye for the good-looking boys. “Hello, Jonny,” she said, trying not to stare. “How do you do.”

“Very well, thank you,” Jonny said politely, and glanced across at Raymond, waiting for a cue.

“Okay, so,” Raymond said, sounding nervous. He and Jonny were carrying two big duffel bags, bulging at the sides. He unzipped one of the bags and got out something in a brightly coloured box. For a moment Edie was afraid it was a new Holographer and felt an awful combination of sad and embarrassed. But Raymond opened it and it turned out to be a disco ball, a little floor-mounted one. He switched it on and the tiny mirrors scattered pink and green light across the ceiling.

The bags also held microphones, and a blocky karaoke machine. Raymond set it all up, while Jonny sat down beside Edie. “We weren’t sure which ones were your favourites,” he said. “So we practised a few just in case.”

He showed Edie a list of Minjoon videos on his phone. She sat back, afraid. Raymond put a comforting hand on Edie’s arm.

“We thought … well. I can sing.” He smiled at her awkwardly. “And Jonny can dance with you. If you want. If you’d like that.”

Edie looked at the equipment, and then at the disco ball, the soft wash of colour circling the walls. She nodded, and Jonny took her arm and led her to the centre of the room. He pulled her to him in a clinch, and moved her gently around the floor.

Raymond didn’t sing “Only You”. But he sang “Someday Maybe,” and “Believer,” and “This Place,” all ones that Edie had played over and over. He had a nice voice, not one that would fill a stadium but sweet and pure like a chorister. Jonny danced with her, and the disco ball spun. When he’d gone through a few high-energy numbers, Raymond chose a song in Korean from one of Minjoon’s earlier albums. It was slow and lovely. Edie sank into Jonny’s arms, letting him sway her back and forth, back and forth. He was warm and solid, and she felt like she could do this forever.

But of course it ended, and she stood up straight as Raymond’s voice faded on the last note. “What was that one about?” she asked.

“I don’t know, I’m just reading off the screen,” Raymond said. “I’ll look it up for you.”

He found out it was also a love song, but an old traditional one, that grandmothers would know. Edie rebelled inwardly: she didn’t want the grandma ones. She wanted the sexy ones. She didn’t realise she’d said that out loud until Raymond and Jonny laughed.

“Okay,” Raymond said. “All sex all the time at Chez Edie. One last one?”

Edie nodded. It was another pretty, delicate one, in English this time. Edie took a minute to realise it wasn’t being projected on the screen. “My own,” Raymond said, pausing mid-verse and looking embarrassed. “I sometimes … write songs? Like, I don’t usually show them to people.”

Jonny was smiling fondly as he whirled Edie around the room. When it ended Jonny kissed her on the cheek, and Edie felt a tingle from the top of her head down to her toes. She knew the song had been for Jonny, really. But when Raymond sang, for the love of you, she’d believed it, and he and Jonny had lugged all the equipment up the stairs and set this up, so maybe it was a little bit for her, too.

After that they had to go. Raymond had to work and Jonny was DJing at a party. They packed up the karaoke machine and the microphone, but left the disco ball. “You keep that,” Jonny said. “You never know when you might feel a bit disco.”

Edie wanted to say no, they should take it. But when they were gone, she drew the curtains in her little room, turned the disco ball back on and hunted out her phone from the back of a drawer. She found a song by the Beatles, and cued up Elvis and Minjoon after that. When the music started, Edie thought of Ernest. She got up and danced around the room, slowly and carefully, through the scatter of light like stars.


Editor: Hebe Stanton

First Reader: Paula Keane

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Iona Datt Sharma is a writer, lawyer and the product of more than one country. Their first short story collection, Not For Use in Navigation, was published in 2019. Their other work can be found at www.generalist.org.uk/iona and they tweet as @singlecrow.
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22 Apr 2024

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