Sick, clammy bodies were writhing and heaving somewhere under the back starless sky, illuminated by neon garden lights of pink and teal. Across the valley of Santa Pablo, a rolling sea of screams and laughter rang out, spoiling the air. The Elders were out in full force tonight at the buffet of life, greedily squeezing what pleasure they could out of their limited time.

From pension funds poured gallons of wine, lubricant, and chlorine-treated water. Bowls of condoms, keys and Murray mints were to be found in every garden, along with the sweaty, wrinkled hands that delved routinely into them.

I was sitting on the fourteenth floor of an apartment building overlooking the valley in a desk chair with my feet propped up against the white wall and the curtains open, a pillow for back support. I always had trouble sleeping, and the sound of the Elders bleeding through my window had rendered sleep an impossibility. I’d tried reading to occupy my mind, but the grunts and screams encroached onto the pages and I resigned to simply stare at the wall until it was over. I checked my alarm clock. 00:43. The Elders would be up for at least another couple of hours, at which point they would collapse into their communal hammocks, wet with sweat and other bodily fluids.

I’d come in this morning by bus with nothing more than a suitcase and a university degree. There was virtually no work back home, but in this retirement community, there was plenty for the young. I was to be a janitor.

I woke the next morning from something like sleep and pulled myself into my blue janitorial one-piece. 6am. I picked up my cleaning equipment from the depot and headed to Belgrave Street to start my rounds.

The garden of number 14, my first stop, was made mostly of slick white tiling. Like most of Santa Pablo, there was little flora besides a row of bushes that fenced it off from the next garden. The Elders who hadn’t found their way to their hammocks had simply lain down on the hot ceramic around the pool, their undulating folds giving them the impression of them melting under the morning sun.

My first duty was to check that they were still alive. I took each of their wrinkled wrists and checked for a pulse. No deaths this morning. I lifted the unconscious Elders into the pool hammocks, one at a time. One old woman was propped unconscious on her mobility walker. Outside, a truck waited to take any limp, pleasureless bodies off to the industrial morgue, where they would be incinerated without ceremony. A deceased Elder would usually leave nothing more in his or her wake than a few specious stains and a half-completed book of crosswords.

The pool was empty, except for bits of food and used prophylactics which floated on the surface. I scooped them out with the pool net and dropped them in the receptacle strapped to my back. It grew surprisingly heavy after a while from the stale gin and tonic, the plastic cups, and the thick vomit. I began to stoop with the weight.

I’d just finished spraying the pool area with disinfectant when an Elder in a hammock, who until now had been asleep, called me over. He asked me if I was new in Santa Pablo. I told him I was.

“What do you do for fun?” he asked after a while.

I thought for a moment. I told him that I liked to draw things, which I did.

He asked me why I didn’t just take photographs instead and I told him that I didn’t know.

He just looked at me.

“I suppose,” I said to break the silence, “that the point is to draw what you might see in a photograph, but don’t. A tree, for example; you could paint it as if it were a young girl.”

“In what way,” he asked, probing me, “could a tree be a young girl?” I told him that I didn’t know.

He eyed me in a kind of condescending way.

“I used to think that way myself,” he told me after a pause. “When you reach my age”—he placed his hand on my shoulder—“when you reach my age, you get tired of that. You realise that you’re sleeping through life, looking for something where there isn’t anything to see.”

I looked at him. He was swaying slightly in his hammock, like an enormous daffodil.

“What is there, if not a girl?” I asked.

“What do you think?” he said. “Just a tree. Don’t you think the girl would have shown herself by now if she were there?”

He took a swig from his bottle. “I don’t think I ever even believed anything was there, to be honest with you, son, even when I was looking for it.”

I wasn’t sure what to say.

The sun retreated behind a cloud, making it seem later in the day than it really was. I looked around the garden. Several of the Elders were up, drinking from the bottles left beside their hammocks from the night before. One lady was snorting something white from the glass garden table and a thin man was masturbating lazily in his hammock.

I parted from the old man as cordially as I could and began wiping the garden floor with a long, thin mop. The Elders sat and watched from their hammocks. One old woman said something about my arse and the others laughed.

“Leave him alone, Brenda,” said another, with some irony. “He’s too young for you.”

I smiled in a way I hoped would look good-natured and went on with my work.

When I was done, I collected my supplies in the grey bag I had with me and made for the front of the house. The Elder I had spoken to earlier got up and put his shoulder, turning me around.

“Here you go, son. For the good work.”

He held out a cold can of beer, popped it open, and extended it to me.

I thanked him and took it. He looked at me expectantly, along with the others. I took a swig.

The clouds broke and the Elders let out a dull cheer.