The average 20-year-old checks their phone 90 times a day. But Layla was not average. She posted the video as she waited for the toaster to ping and checked the view-count three times in the two minutes it took her to finish breakfast. The internet replied with silence and that stung a little, as it always did. But it was 5am, she rationalised – no one would be online yet.
She shivered as she stepped from her building into the rain. In the distance she could hear thumping music. They’d started having parties in the warehouse at the edge of the estate. She walked the long way around to avoid the people who always smoked and shouted outside, unaware that while their day was ending in a cushiony blur, others were starting with pin-sharp clarity. Carers especially hated working weekends.
Layla’s current client was an 89-year-old lady named Barb – a formidable Scot who’d moved to London aged 15 to work in a rubber factory in Poplar. Barb slept little and often, and she was awake when Layla’s key turned in the lock at 6am.
Layla – or Layly as the old lady called her – stepped into the hallway cautiously for fear of Barb’s ancient Staffie, Sherrie. A pig of a dog, Sherrie rivalled his owner in obstinacy and capriciousness, and used his flatulence and libido as weapons against anyone who threatened to come between them. Despite Sherrie’s indisputable testicles, Barb insisted that he was a ‘bonnie wee lady’. Layla had stopped arguing.
‘Hello my love’, Layla said to Barb as she stepped into the chintz bedroom, ‘how are you feeling?’
‘Where are the birds, Layly?’
‘Did you have a rough night my love?’ Layla said, pressing her palm against Barb’s forehead while wriggling her leg free from the first humping of the day.
‘The birds were so nice, weren’t they pet?’
Barb had once had chaffinches and treecreepers in the garden of her crumbling Peabody, but they hadn’t appeared that year, and every day she fretted about why. During one of her recent better spells, she’d been able to sit up in bed with the paper. In it she’d read an article about an incident on a rabbit farm in Dorset, where one day, all of a sudden, all the rabbits had gone stark raving mad and started attacking each other. The thousands of pregnant mother rabbits had miscarried and prematurely given birth to deformed kits, all stillborn and with no eyes. The scientists had afterwards concluded that the nasty business occurred as a result of the wind turbine nearby, which’d been turned up a notch on the very same morning. Apparently the turbines made some sort of wave that humans can’t see nor hear, and it’d sent the animals’ brains haywire. They’d found rabbits with their ears bitten clean off – Barb could barely stand reading it. Now she wondered if the birds in her garden had gone because of the big steel telephone mast they’d put up down the street. Barb didn’t understand what the mast did, and it frightened her with a subtle, creeping kind of fright, like the noise of strangers not so far away.
‘What’s that noise?’ Barb said, suddenly lucid.
‘Just my phone,’ Layla said, reaching for her pocket, ‘nothing to worry about, my love.’
The comments were rolling in.
Awww is that your nanna?!
FYI I’m stealing her.
This is now officially the best Monday eva!!!!
As the Likes tipped past 100, Layla felt validated like never before, and each time she’d checked her phone since she’d been rewarded with more self-worth. When she breached 200 she did a little squeal. 200 people – friends, family, schoolmates, colleagues, strangers – all affirming her wit and good taste and intelligence. She gulped it down.
Barb took a liquid dose of amlodipine and fell asleep for her mid-morning nap. At least that was how it appeared. She’d learned long ago that pretending to be asleep was a blissfully simple way of avoiding human interaction. Feigning senility worked too, especially in avoiding Layla’s many attempts to cheer her up: the asinine local news, the photos of this or that pop star, and – worse – the backdated copies of Woman’s Own picked up from the surgery, especially for Barb! Unbearable. Madness was more tolerable.
Barb had lovingly arranged Sherrie on her lap, belly-up. He grumbled and shuffled every time his bulky rump started to slide on the crochet blanket.
In the other armchair, over by the mantelpiece, Layla tapped at her phone maniacally, engaged in her own little game of keeping-up-appearances, feigning cool-headedness and nonchalance with pithy comments and tweets, when secretly she was buzzing, flying, sailing through space on her newfound popularity.
Minutes passed. The clock ticked.
‘Layly?’ Barb said, apparently awake now. Layla looked up from her phone.
‘Yes my love?’
One of the things Layla had been taught during her carer training was not to indulge a senile person’s ramblings – it could exhaust you quickly. So she ignored Barb and looked back down at her phone.
Another minute passed.
Don’t indulge it, don’t indulge it, Layla thought, as she tapped the little F of her Facebook app. It’d been 40 seconds since she’d checked it. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Sherrie flop onto the floor like a sack of tatties.
Layla was engrossed. A school friend that she vaguely knew had posted on her wall:
OMG plz can she be my Grandma? She is the cutest!!!
‘LAYLA,’ Barb shouted, ‘SHERRIE’S DONE A WEE SHITE FOR YOU!’
Layla clutched her phone in one hand as she made lunch. Barb’s favourite: Cream of Tomato.
The video had gone crazy. 500 to 25,000 Likes in 24 hours. Someone at Jezebel had tweeted it and it’d gone from there. There was a hashtag. A gif. A Loose Women segment. The MP for Barking and Dagenham had said it was ‘the wake up call the country had been waiting for’. There was a Vine. A mention in the Metro. A cheeky Mumsnet chat. ‘Is This The Most Incredible Thing That Has Ever Existed Ever?’ Buzzfeed had asked.
Smiley with hearts for eyes. Party popper. Ten love hearts. Exclamation mark times one million!!!! ALL CAPS.
Barb sat listening to the ticking clock and the sound of the heating in the pipes. Of all the evils that Heinz had wrought upon her during their 90-year relationship, the current Cream of Tomato recipe was surely the most grievous.
In the kitchen Layla’s heart rate was quick. She was biting her lip. She grinned at herself in the hallway mirror as she brought lunch through, letting herself be carried aloft by exquisite fantasies about post-viral life. Maybe she wouldn't have to be a carer anymore. Maybe she could make more videos and get signed or something. Maybe she could be a director or a model or an actress or—
‘—PISHING HELL, WOMAN!’
The soup was too hot. Barb had burnt her tongue.
‘How do you feel when a hot guy looks at you?’ Layla asked.
‘A) All warm and fuzzy inside…’ Layla said.
‘B) Like a real woman.
C) Like he’s the only one in the room.
Or D) A little bit naughty.’
Barb was in one of her more amenable moods, so Layla had seized the opportunity and flicked to the ‘Who is your ideal 80s movie husband?’ quiz in their latest Woman’s Own, which was only two years out of date.
‘B) Like a real woman. Mary Mother of Jesus,’ said Barb.
Layla laughed a strained laugh and fidgeted in the La-Z-Boy, trying to forget about the phone on the coffee table. She kept glimpsing its black shape from the corner of her eye and flinching involuntarily, as though it triggered an ancient, in-your-genes memory of danger.
Barb’s ideal 80s movie husband turned out to be Richard Gere. But Barb didn’t know who Richard Gere was, prompting Layla to start researching more age appropriate fantasy gentlemen.
‘Hugh Hefner or David Attenborough, Barb. Both your age. Take your pick...’
Barb was asleep.
Had she been willing to indulge Layla, Barb would’ve answered Attenborough. She’d always followed his career (less so now that her eyesight was bad) and in recent years his handling in the press had irked her. Interviewer after interviewer – all kids – had expressed disappointment at Attenborough’s refusal to speak on personal subjects, as though his privacy were ungenerous, even stingy. What these weans didn’t understand was that in her day, modesty was a virtue not a vice. It was rude to be strident. You kept your opinions to yourself, unless it was a matter of importance, in which case you’d take your time and think carefully about what you wanted to say, not blurt it out to some hatchet-man in nappies. No one understood that anymore, and those that did were depleted, thinned out and unconnected, like the last vestiges of an endangered species. Her, Attenborough and Hefner, who, now she came to think of it, had been quite staggeringly anachronistic in his public indiscretions, the old goat. Ach, it ailed her – the state of things.
Yet perhaps there was also a tiny part of her that was sad that she’d never had the opportunity to be reticent in the face of public scrutiny. The public had never known she existed.
Layla picked up her phone gingerly. 400,000 Likes.
There were spoofs now. Someone had dubbed Danny Dyer’s voice over Barb’s and posted it on UniLad. A boy had made a comment about the ‘killer rack behind the cardigan’ and garnered 600 thumbs up. Someone had called Barb a GILF. Layla felt a wave of disgust rise in her stomach. What had she done? She’d given Barb’s image to the world and the world had warped it.
She looked at the old lady who was sleeping deeply, her eyes flickering under papery eyelids. Guilt creaked like stiffness in Layla’s joints. She wanted desperately to unburden herself, to tell Barb everything, but she was sure the shock of exposure would be too much for someone of her age.
As if in retribution, Sherrie lay on the carpet legs akimbo, steadily venting last night’s pasta in Layla’s direction.
‘I’m a stupid girl, Barb,’ she whispered, almost silently, as she fluffed the pillow behind the old lady’s sleeping head. ‘I put a video of you online and it got out of hand. I’m sorry. I’m a stupid, stupid girl.
‘The video reveals a desperately frail old lady brushing her pet dog and rambling with curious old-world eloquence as she gazes at her modest garden. ‘Why have the snowdrops come so early?’ she asks the person who’s holding the camera, somehow articulating the nameless fear in all of us that our world is slowly being turned upside down, our connectedness with nature being eroded.’
Layla sat open-mouthed. She never usually read the Guardian. How could a stranger get so much meaning from something that’d been so meaningless? Trembling, she held her phone with her left hand. With her right she stroked Barb’s forearm under the covers.
‘The old lady, known to the world simply as ‘Snowdrops’ (apt, given her wisps of sugar-white hair) continues to talk about the menace of the neighbour’s children and the absence of winter birds. In doing so she unwittingly ignites in her audience a special kind of narcissistic sentimentality, the kind periodically ignited for department store commercials and pandas at play. This week two million people have sat at their desks and briefly wept, not for Snowdrops, but for themselves, bathing in a sense of their own goodness: ‘I’m a good person because I care’ they think. Did the person who posted the video know they were using a vulnerable person as a prop in mass emotional masturbation? Sentimentality is not the same as care. As a nation we’re good at the former, but we’ve forgotten to do the latter.’
Layla might have broken down right there if Barb hadn’t coughed so violently and the kettle for the hot water bottle hadn’t been whistling and the bird feeder didn’t need filling and the dog hadn’t eaten the beans and toast with a splash of Lea & Perrins which was supposed to be for Barb but which Barb had been too ill to eat.
The article gave the video new legs. Discussions broke out on Twitter over whether or not Barb did indeed look ‘desperately frail’ and whether the observation was ageist. ‘Have you evn SEEN an old person before you dum cunt’, someone tweeted the writer. ‘Jog on, mate, no one gives a fuck’ tweeted another. On Reddit there was a thread about whether writers weren’t ‘the worst privacy-invaders in the history of mankind’, and whether the writer of this particular article had been a ‘sonovobitch hypocrite’ himself by using Snowdrops as a prop in his ‘poxy middle class kale shite story’ and that ‘EVERYONE WHO EVEN LIKED OR COMMENTED TOOK HER PRIVACY AWAY YOU’RE ALL EVEN DOING IT NOW YOU SANCTIMONIOUS PRIKS.’ Then #WeAreAllSnowdrops started trending when a version of Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ with the words changed to ‘We Are All Snowdrops’ was performed by a primary school choir in Stroud and went viral. Then in the YouTube comments section under the video of the performance, a man said it was ‘a fucking travesty’, prompting someone else to say that he should be ‘hanged at Tyburn’. Then on Facebook someone observed that ‘the old lady’s modest garden needed a good seeing to’, which someone screengrabbed and posted on Twitter, saying it demonstrated ‘a disgusting lack of respect for women and the elderly, then that got retweeted by a ‘prominent feminist’ that Layla had never heard of with the hashtag #standupforsnowdrops, so the guy who made the joke about the garden in the first place posted an apology, then a men’s rights group called him a ‘fucking feminazi pussy whipped faggot’ and started a counter hashtag called #standupformen, then there was a Guardian article about the counter hashtag, then no one could remember what they were fighting about, but it was like they were rapt by some invisible fury that had got into their brains and they couldn’t stop biting each other’s ears off.
It was Friday and Layla was on the way to her early evening shift at Barb’s. People were already starting to queue outside the warehouse on the edge of the estate, smoking cigarettes and drinking spirits out of quarter bottles.
How many of them had seen her video, Layla thought as she skirted round them, pulling her coat down to cover her tabard. A few more Likes today. A few more blog posts from nobodies. But that was it, really. The video had died. Two million people had already forgotten.
She wanted to shout at them all: ‘don’t you know who I am? That was ME. I made Snowdrops you stupid sons-of-bitches.’ It’d been a nightmare, no doubt. But at least in that nightmare she’d been someone.
What a terrible thing to think, she thought, as she walked along the path through Barb’s front lawn, causing the bushes to rustle and flutter. How awful it was that she hadn’t told Barb. Had that been the right decision? Would it be cruel or kind to tell her now?
When she went into the bedroom Barb was awake but delirious. Sherrie was lying next to her swaddled in bedclothes, wearing Barb’s frilly night hat. It struck Layla that this really ought to surprise her.
As she checked Barb’s pulse the old lady groaned and became fretful, causing Sherrie to grunt obnoxiously.
‘I’ve got something to tell you, my love’ Layla said, stroking Barb’s hair. The young woman looked out of the window at the trees, which were pink in the sunset. ‘The birds are back in the garden.’
Barb smiled faintly and grew calmer.
Two million strangers would never know what Barb whispered to Layla before she passed away peacefully in the early hours, holding the young woman’s hand tight.
Illustration by Polly Williams